An insidious hierarchy

One of the harshest criticism that a professor can give to a graduate student is that s/he writes “like an undergrad.” PhD students bemoan that MA students do not participate in class discussion. Graduate students and professors alike rend their clothing and tear at their rapidly thinning hair to lament that undergraduates don’t go to class, don’t do the reading, they don’t edit, cannot spin out mellifluous prose, and (to hear some people talk) haven’t a solid thought in their airy little heads.

These are stereotypes and stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. In the case of the last example, it probably comes from the fact that most undergrads are not old enough to drink (legally). People need time to grow up, to learn, to mature. Writing like an undergrad–or acting like an undergrad more generally–is probably influenced in some ways by the college culture and college experience in the sense that the environment one lives in is going to affect behavior, but it is going to be even more influenced by the student’s age and educational experience. So, too, upper level undergrads are going to be different than freshmen. And there is no immediate change in newly-minted graduate students from “undergrad” to “grad.” Learning is a process, intellectual development is a process. One hopes that there will be an evolution from the first year through graduation and then continued development through a graduate school career.

Using “undergrad” as a term to imply intellectual retardation, even retardation through youth, is a problem on several levels. First, it implies a sharp division in ability, when there is really only a division in expectations. Second, such comments reinforce an elitist, ivory-tower perception of graduate schol. Third, and most problematic for me, it is not a constructive critique. It carries with it a number of implications, but doesn’t actually convey in what ways (analysis, source use, insightfulness) the graduate student needs to differentiate him or herself. One would hope that there would be further comments that would be more constructive, but the comparison to an undergrad doesn’t seem to serve any positive purpose.

The hierarchy implies an unnaturally sharp distinction between the categories. I mostly note this because one of the things I see most frequently on social media w/r/t student exams or papers is that undergrads claim radical historical change happens at unnaturally specific dates. And yet, the act of donning a robe and walking across a stage is a ritual that transforms a high schooler into a college student and a college student into a graduate student? Changed expectations are one thing, but the change in performance is not going to happen when the students walk across that stage.

A few weeks ago there was a John Hodgman quote floating around social media that highlighted how scary learning can be. Admitting ignorance is conflated with admitting inadequacy too often. Ignorance is correctable, but the admission, the struggle, is difficult. The mistake I feel that I am watching on the part of educators is sloppily,haughtily, fogetting how difficult this process actually is. None of us sprang from Zeus’ forehead fully formed. Yes, learning and school come easier to some than to others, but to forget that learning is a process only serves to discourage students. When students are discouraged from learning we have failed.

Writing this piece reminds me of an incident in high school where one of my friends was called out for hypocrisy over an essay for which she won a prize. I am not trying to excuse myself of wrongdoing, though. I am guilty of contributing to this hierarchy, too. I lament the state of undergrads and their inability to read a short assignment or participate in class, or how they can’t seem to answer all the questions on an exam. I generally make these comments while in the throes of grading. This is a form of venting and, in my experience, doing so makes it easier to continue grading. I do my best to avoid broadcasting these laments on social media or even to too many people. I need to vent, but the jokes and the complaints are not something that most people should hear–or should care about.Instead, I want to be more conscious of making these statements and caution against, in all our exhaustion, frustration, and stress, using this sort of hierarchical, exclusionary, and unconstructive language.

Here is my main issue with this hierarchy. Whether to cover up their own insecurities or out of a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, academics seem to go over the top with these complaints about “undergrads” (and usually seem to mean “underclassmen” for “undergrad”) and forget that they, too, were once undergrads and were once MA students. I suppose that it is possible that all of these other instructors were perfect students back in their day–always going to class, doing the readings, talking in class, editing their papers, having fully-formed and developed thoughts in their work–but I know that I was not. At one point in my college career I regularly skipped class, fell asleep in class, did not edit papers, did not do the reading, and sometimes even turned in assignments that I am now ashamed to have attached my name to. Even when I did turn in work that I was proud of at the time, it was not always great work. That is because I was young. There were some subjects I wasn’t good at, there were some that I didn’t care that much about. I fully admit that I was not a particularly good student in college nor am I a great student even today and I wonder at the irony inherent in that I am now teaching college students and have to give advice on how to study on a regular basis. When I feel myself becoming too myopic about students, I remind myself of this past, that I was once there too.


The corollary to what I just wrote is that there will always be a wall of sorts between what the teacher says and what the students hear, there will always be students who give less than their full attention to the instructor, and there will always be an impatience on the part of students to find out their grade–something exacerbated, not created, by the Pavlovian nature of a grade and standardized test based educational system. On the former points, it is frustrating dedicate hours to preparing for class and to see apathy on the faces of the crowd, but even the best lecturers are going to have to deal with that. On the last point, grading papers is one of those things that it is impossible to understand how long it takes unless you have had that experience yourself. Are these things frustrating? Yes, absolutely, yes. But undue venting about these issues is also counter-productive. The type of understanding I have suggested throughout this piece the understanding David Foster Wallace was talking about in This is Water. “Understanding” and “patience” are not simple solutions to a long-trending institutional problem in education, higher education, and society, but it seems that to do otherwise is contributing to the problem.

Assorted Links

  1. Temple and Sacred Vessels from Biblical Times Discovered at Tel Motza– A temple complex from the kingdom of Judah was found outside of Jerusalem, including walls and sacred vessels and pottery figurines have been discovered. This is one of the few sites from the period of the first temple now known to have possessed an independent temple complex, and is even more remarkable for its proximity to Jerusalem. The archaeologists have suggested that this site corresponds to the biblical Mozah, a town in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin bordering on Judea and perhaps supplying grain for Jerusalem (silos were found). The article includes further discussion of assemblages found at the site.
  2. A real look at being a professor in the US-CNBC published a list of least stressful jobs in the US, placing “university professor” at number one. Actual tenured faculty members (let alone adjuncts and graduate students) have not been taking the “honor” well. This is an evaluation of the life of one university professor seeking to debunk the notion that being a university professor is low-stress. I am sure that the other careers on the list have similar objections, but midway through graduate school (i.e. several more years to go without the guarantee of a real job at the end) I am sympathetic to the author of this reaction.
  3. A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins– From the New Yorker, the life and career developments of a professional (and legal) pickpocket. The article mostly follows his career, but talks about the technique and recent interest in the neurological science behind pick pocketing and the where people focus their attention.
  4. A Two Year Travelogue From Hell– An article in Spiegel about life and situations in the Syrian countryside during the civil war.

Multiple Choice

Here is a multiple choice question for you:

What is it that multiple choice questions (in humanities and social sciences) actually test?
A) Rote memorization of facts and trivia.
B) Deductive reasoning.
c) Comprehension of key themes from the lecture.
D) Ability to reason and draw connections between events.
E) How closely you read the textbook for facts and trivia.

I would accept A or E, with B being debatable. The problem is that I firmly believe that those are not really the purpose of the humanities, at least not at a college level.1 Although I have had multiple students come to me panicked about short answer, identification, and essay questions, claiming that they would be comforted by multiple choice tests, the comfort has more to do with familiarity and surety of having a “correct” answer than actual performance on the exams. Moreover, the perception that the lectures are utterly incomprehensible because there is a distinct lack of facts and key information plagues those same students. In much the same way that a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the struggles of students to formulate their own paper topics, students seem at a loss as to how to navigate the spaces between assigned reading, powerpoint presentations, and lecture. To my mind, power point presentations present the biggest problems, since the discussion section and TAs should be able to find the balance between the lecture and the readings, but in the lecture hall the students are presented with two distinct sources of information and with professors who vary as widely as not to use presentations to largely testing the students on the material on the presentations while reading the slides out during lecture.2

The sage wisdom once given to me by my father is that the key to getting a good grade is to discover what the instructor wants and then give it to them. Too often this is the key to getting a good grade, and in navigating the technological obstacle course of higher education, this truism certainly applies.

But I digress.

I do understand the appeal of multiple choice tests from the point of view of the instructors. So long as you don’t have to continually update (or have some means of automatically updating) the answers, the exams are easy to grade and are rather clear-cut in terms of right and wrong so complaints about grading are relatively limited. Of course, the students who come to complain about grades are generally asking the wrong questions–and so are the professors using multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions have a limited range of types of information that can be addressed, but a very broad base of information to pick from. The answers are very precise, easy to mistake, and, most importantly, of little actual value. The professor is emphasizing memorization trivia and eclectica, not skills, logic, or actual learning. Better is to test the learning, logic, and writing, while allowing the trivia to supplement the answers. One of those things prepares people for pub trivia; the other prepares people to take in information and then to be able to produce actual thought, which should serve them well beyond the classroom while (if the students applies themselves) also preparing people for pub trivia. One provides an easy criterion on which to evaluate student performance on relatively trivial things; the other provides a more nebulous means of evaluating student performance on much more significant things and should provide a more meaningful way to gauge student learning and improvement.

In this sense, multiple choice exams, particularly multiple choice-only exams, are practically criminal in higher education.

Like I said, I have had students come to me begging to have multiple-choice exams, the type of which they are familiar with from standardized tests in high school. There is a clear-cut “right” answer and, if nothing else, there is a sense that they can just guess. But, at least in this instance, I don’t care what the students want. Nonetheless, this insistence on direct and absolute answers is an outgrowth of the societal insistence that the important part of the education are the facts learned (note: No Child Left Behind and the expansion of standardized tests).3 Learning the facts is the surest way to make the grade, which, in turn, is the surest way to achieving the degree, which, in turn, is the surest way to getting a job that will make more money, which, as my students usually assure me, is the measuring stick by which society determines your worth.

This calculation is simple, rational, sterile. School is to enable the career, not to learn anything. Classes are merely the obstacles in the way. Most instructors should disagree with the statement, either because they care about educating students, or they are defensive about their field of study being worthwhile, or both, but the too frequent use of multiple choice exams (when even giving prompts in advance and giving writing prompts for class papers seems to be too much direction) undercuts the actual value of the education while reinforcing the misconceptions of what is actually important.

Anyone who gives multiple choice exams on a wide scale is failing the students. The educational industry for high schools as it currently exists is setting the students up for failure, and professors incapable or uninterested in correcting these issues in college are complicit. Fighting against the corporatization of colleges, for-profit colleges, and the societal movement to value the degree over the education is hard enough without professors buying in to the misconceptions and letting the students down. Multiple choice tests are just one example of this phenomenon, one which is threatening to radically alter the shape of college and undercut the ideal of an educated society.

1 I think it is a travesty at lower levels of schooling, too, though high school cirricula and evaluation methods are a lot harder to change than those at college. Here multiple choice should also apply to similar evaluation methods.
2 Powerpoint and the use of the technology in the classroom might be the feature of another post, but I have noticed that students tend to focus on what is on the powerpoint at the expense of what the lecturer is saying, or worse, only writing down the spare outline presented on the powerpoint and setting down their pen. And the really repugnant part as far as I am concerned is that this behavior is condoned or even required by some professors (and of those, not all make the presentations available after the lecture). I can recall one humanities professor using powerpoint in college (yes, this is a “back in my day” moment from a young man, deal with it), and his usual process was to open powerpoint, but rather than actually using the presentation feature, he would scroll down the creation screen. And his slides were maps. Students who did not know initially learned quickly that they had to write down what he was saying. Now it is required for professors to have at least a passing ability to use technology such as powerpoint in classes, but the technology seems to be an inhibitor to learning, particularly if it is done done with a great deal of care (badly done or overly intensive presentations become the focal point of the class rather than a tool).
3 Curiously, this has recently been matched by the idea of providing students with “job-training” at the expense of the traditional disciplines. These two developments are oxymoronic.