Sunday, June 21, 2009

Of Teachers and Idiosyncracies

For the last two and a half years, I've been tutoring a student who is studying criminal justice at a college on one of the American military bases. This is one of the reasons that I have insight into both the American and Japanese justice systems and wrote the "This is not America" posts. I'm not speaking from anecdotal experiences. I'm speaking as someone who has taken courses side-by-side with my student as she's mainly taken distance courses and my job has been to read her texts and provide a lecture for her to base her papers on. I'm just as much a student as she is, but I have the added benefit of her research into the Japanese justice system (in Japanese) as a part of my learning process. It's how I learned things like there are no rights provided in line with habeas corpus in Japan (or that they are ignored).

At any rate, one of the things about helping someone get through college is that you are taken back to the time when you were going through the process yourself. All of the issues that I experienced with some of my teachers back then are in play for my student as well, and I find myself frustrated on her behalf.

One of the biggest problems that students complain about is the amount of work that teachers give them. Each teacher tends to expect not only attendance at lectures and reading the textbook, but regular personal research into related topics and articles. Some teachers assign work as if their class were the only one the students are taking, or at least as if their class is the most important and therefore worthy of a disproportionate amount of the students' study time.

My student is currently studying with one of these types of teachers. She has a gigantic text chock full of more information than anyone could possibly retain on the first pass, but he also expects her to research for articles and information on discussion topics. This is on top of writing essays every week for homework. It appears to be a daunting task for even the students who speak English as a native language as my student has forwarded messages from the teacher where he complains that they are just writing their opinions too much and not doing enough volitional work to augment their essays content. Never mind that at least some of the questions that the teacher is telling them to answer are opinion-based questions...

The other point that I recognize as being akin to my college experiences is that some teachers don't actually teach. I considered myself fortunate that the vast majority of my teachers at university lectured on the content they wanted you to learn. A few of them, however, mainly told stories or anecdotes and did not actually teach so much as fill the time in a way which was easy and entertaining for them. My feeling is that teachers are supposed to aid the digestion of the material they want you to learn. They're supposed to take some of the hairier elements of the topic and make things much clearer than a book could. Teachers who just have chat sessions or tell stories tend to expect the students to regurgitate the book on tests and in papers while not actually helping you succeed at either of these tasks with their lectures. I will note that I only got a "B" in one of my psychology classes after choosing my major (the rest were all A's) and it was in a class with a teacher who did this sort of story telling and time-wasting class while testing us on the textbook material.

Another point I recognize through my student's work is that every teacher has different idiosyncrasies about how written work is done. Some of them take off points for sentences that are too long. Some of them take off points for paragraphs with too few sentences in them. Others have strict style guidelines which differ from those of other professors. Some of the really lazy ones insist that the students type out or copy and paste every question they are answering as part of a test or essay so that the teacher does not have to reference the questions while reading the answers. Others get miffed if you waste their time and word counts on putting the questions in your work.

The bottom line with the idiosyncratic choices for each teacher is that I have to help my student work out what they want each time and help her tailor her work to fit in with what a particular teacher's wishes are. Usually, it takes a few assignments and analysis of comments and corrections to work out what they want to get it right. This illustrates how subjective the academic evaluation process is as each teacher applies a different standard.

Finally, the one constant is that teachers grade you higher if you concur with their viewpoints on topics which require an opinion or conclusion. The teacher of my student's current class is a former police officer who identifies more strongly with victims. If my student expresses less punitive views of the perpetrator of a crime (such as mental illness factoring into punishment and charges), he's less likely to see what she writes or says favorably.

This is one of the stickier idiosyncrasies because there's a choice to be made in terms of either pandering to the teacher's bias to get a better grade or to simply be honest. Some teachers are open-minded enough to grade objectively if an opinion is backed up with research or evidence. Some are not. I haven't sussed this one out yet in that regard, but I'll know soon enough based on how she is graded on particular assignments.

One thing this has reminded me of is that we grow up seeing teachers as being authorities and being scholarly. In many cases, we see them as knowing much more than us and being in control in a manner which we are not. From a certain viewpoint, that is true. They are in control of the class and speak with confidence and authority. Of course, this is easier to do when you've presented the same material over and over and over again. The idiosyncrasies I've noted illustrate, however, that (at least some) teachers are just as human as anyone else and as likely as your boss at your office to apply arbitrary standards or unrealistic expectations as anyone else.


Kelly said...

When I first got accepted into one of the major universities here I was over the moon. That awe soon turned to disappointment when I realised that most of the professors didn't want us to think about and argue the point, they wanted us to have the same opinion and basically regurgitate what was written in the text books.

The reason I went to university was to broaden my horizons and to expand my knowledge but I also wanted to be able to argue the point on the topic of my choice. Sadly that didn't happen for me as most of the time the topics we had to write about were already chosen, and we had to just copy and paste but in our own words, the text of a sample author.

I really hated that experience, especially as I was studying anthropology, social science, and culture as well as languages. I was really disillusioned.

I dropped anthropology and started studying philosphy instead and found that the professors were much more open to freedom of thought and experience, and arguments based on my own ideas.

I hate having to regurgitate someone else's ideas, to me that is not learning, that is just copying. I want to learn, I want to be inspired, and I felt that I wasn't either of those things most of the time at university.

I hate having to learn each professors likes and dislikes, I would prefer to have one set rule of how to write the essays up.

I found especially in the anthropology and culture units the professors expected us to do our weekly homework, plus extra study, and study for a discussion at least once per week, and they never took into account work for other units.

Thankfully I left after my required 4 years. When I was at high school we were encouraged by staff to enter university and told we couldn't get good jobs or a good life without a degree, but coming out the other end I feel that a university degree, and university itself, is overrated.

I think everything I have learnt is from my own hard work, and not so much from university, besides the language skills that is.

I feel for your student. To have to do that in your native language is hard enough but in a second language almost seems like a nightmare.

Orchid64 said...

To be fair, the teacher doesn't want her to spit out what is in the book on cue. However, when she offers opinions, her views are seen as less concretely supported if they don't mirror the professor's political or social views.

In the U.S., teachers really do want you to show you understand the material at a deeper level. They want you to express your ideas to prove you understand the content and context of what you're learning. I never had occasion to simply offer up rote information in any class which wasn't based on that notion. Most of my experiences were extremely positive and my professors open-minded.

My student's situation is a little unusual in that she is attending school on a military base where political views are a bit more uniform and the teachers don't have PhDs (Master's only). She won't be graded poorly for disagreeing, just perhaps not as well as if she agreed.

I don't think university or the degree is over-rated, but I think that most people get out of it what they put into it. That is, you can really expand your knowledge, or you can do the time. It's easy to do either depending on which path you choose. I knew people who walked away little better than how they started because they chose the path of least resistance or didn't choose a major that suited their character strengths or interests, but was meant to take them down a lucrative career path. I can say that I can always tell if someone has gone to university or not by how they conduct themselves. It's not about intellect so much as the forced discipline, and 4 more years to mature.

I have not for a moment regretted my university experience and feel enriched by the teachers I knew and the classes I took (on the whole - some weren't great, but they can't all be gems) and it has allowed me to work in Japan. You can't work here without a degree. But, as always, YMMV. Not all schools are as good as mine was to me.

Kelly said...

Well, just for the record, I did put alot into my study, even when I was disillusioned. I was really into my Japanese language and culture study despite the problems I faced. I didn't sit back and take it easy.

I got into uni without any help from family (came from a pretty poor family) and I am the first person in my family to ever go to university.

I have a degree, but really no use for it at the moment, though I'm sure maybe one day I will use it, the experience has been worth it, but that said, I don't say to people, well you can't have a great life without a degree, because it's just not true, life is what you make it.

Your student attends school on a military base because she is in the military or her family are I assume?

Orchid64 said...

Like you, I also went to school without support from my family other than living at home because we were also poor. I was also the only one in my family to graduate from college, though my sister came up one class short for two different degrees due to people changing the terms of the degree on her, so it's not quite right to say I was the only one who went to college. She went first and put in 99.9% of the work, but didn't get the actual degrees.

I also would not tell people they had to have a college degree to get by. However, it does open some doors that would otherwise remain closed. The truth is that I think it can be far more lucrative to go to trade school or to learn a trade than to go to college. It really depends on why you go. Personally, and I've written about this before, I don't think people should go to college for the purpose of getting a job. I think that's not what it's about. If someone just wants a job, they should do vocational training or apprentice with someone, not go to college.

My student is Japanese and has no connection with the military. She goes there because she wanted the challenge and the experience of going to school with foreigners and in a foreign situation, but she is over 40 and married and doesn't have the freedom to go actually live abroad. Japanese people can attend schools on U.S. bases with special permission and by passing various qualifying tests.