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Did You Do The Reading?

Shoulder to the Wheel.jpgAt the May 19 faculty meeting, Dean Mike Mastanduno made a provocative comment:

More than I’d like to, I hear this: “It’s really hard to teach on Thursday morning because of what the students do on Wednesday night.” I hear that from faculty. What I never hear, and what I’d love to start hearing from students is, “It’s really hard to do what we we want to do on Wednesday night because of what’s expected of us on Thursday morning.”

One of the College’s little secrets is how infrequently many people complete the assigned reading for class. In recent years I’ve been in many classrooms where, during the first weeks of the term, the professor asks questions about the reading, and then gives up on the effort when nobody answers, or only the same couple of students do. However, more than a few professors are aware of this lack of diligence and react accordingly, as in this paragraph from a current course syllabus:

There will be short homework assignments due at the start of most class periods. These assignments will consist of a few questions drawn from the assigned reading and relevant to the In-Class Discussions or Exercises. They ensure that you are keeping up with the assigned reading, come to class prepared to contribute to discussions…

In this class, these daily assignments constitute 25% of the course’s grade. Students don’t miss the point.

I wonder if Dean Mastanduno’s gentle admonition might be the start of a general initiative on the part of the administration to toughen up standards. Of course, professors are masters of their classroom, but the Dean can ask nicely. And there is some narrow precedent for such a change. As we have reported, on two occasions Economics faculty members have decided as a group to make their courses more demanding. Their goal was to try to reduce enrollments in the department, whose courses are invariably oversubscribed. Funny enough, especially for supposed experts in incentives, the result of their effort was the opposite of what they expected: each time Econ courses became tougher, enrollments went up. Could it be that students are actually attracted by hard work and learning?

A separate sign that serious thinking about the classroom is occurring in Hanover comes in the form of an essay in the New Yorker by Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Dan Rockmore. He has banned the use of laptops in his own classes, and he notes in his piece that the subject of a general ban has been discussed by the CS faculty.

Rockmore couches his argument in research showing that students learn better when taking notes on paper than when using a computer, and he also observes that students inappropriately spend time in lectures engaging in “online shopping or social-media obligations.” To students’ credit, I can report that they also read the New York Times.

Imagine adding Dean Mastanduno’s and Professor Rockmore’s ideas together: the end result might be students who do all the reading and pay attention in class. They’d learn so much and have so many things to think about that they’d hardly have the time or the inclination to drink.

Addendum: A blog post by Robert Talbert in the Chroncle of Higher Education takes issue with some of Rockmore’s arguments concerning the use of laptops in the classroom.

Addendum: Professor Rockmore seems to be carving out some time from his schedule to be a pundit. In a piece in the Huffington Post about the reasons for grade inflation, he notes a possible relationship between diminished student work and increased, um, leisure:

Indeed, one study shows that studying time has declined from an average of 24 hours/week to 14 hours/week since 1961. Over that same time, average grades have risen steadily. For some, the ability to achieve high grades with less effort means more opportunities for leisure. Is the current real crisis of alcoholism on college campuses related to this? It is something that we have debated seriously here at Dartmouth.

Addendum: A young alum writes in:

Dartmouth’s academic calendar - by the week, though the current iteration of the quarters system has its own flaws - has always raised vexing questions in my mind, as friends from other colleges and universities seemed to have had a drastically different experience, i.e., classes 4-5 days a week, usually in the actual morning (pre-10 AM). Thus, they partied, as college students are known to do, on more usual days (Friday and Saturday). These were schools not known for “academic rigor” of the sort Dartmouth claims to espouse.

I notice that your post is missing salient and necessary commentary in response to what the good Dean Mike is actually saying - about why students are difficult to teach, and sometimes downright catatonic, on Thursday (and Tuesday) mornings.

It’s no secret that both Mondays and Wednesdays are “going out” nights that often, if not usually, and especially in the frats, involve heavy drinking. Secret Societies hold their meetings on Mondays, while Wednesday night frat “meetings” are simply about binge drinking and its attendant excesses…booting, staying out late, taking drugs, etc - some roots of Hanlon’s noted “extreme behaviors”.

For this reason, for those heavily involved in Greek life, 10A courses were avoided unless absolutely necessary to one’s academic plan. Dean Mike is obviously saying that Thursday mornings are unnecessarily challenging for the faculty because of Greek life’s dominant role in shaping a typical Dartmouth’s student weekly schedule. Students and professors alike will confirm this.

My question has always been this: if the college wants to tackle extreme behavior, why don’t they adjust their class schedule to be rigorous (aka, real world normal) across the board, wherein students must be prepared, alert, and ready to learn (work) in the morning each day of the week? As you’ve pointed out, Dartmouth students are brilliant and quick to adapt; if so many undergrads didn’t have the option of a mostly M-W-F schedule for 4 years, would binge drinking and Greek life antics, which run contrary here to the basic premise of learning, be so prominent, especially on weeknights? And why has no one interrogated the notion that maybe this drinking schedule has sprung up in conjunction with the class schedule?

Greek life, and the recovery from last night’s Greek life, fill the vacuum in a D student’s weekly schedule. That’s what the good Dean was saying.


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