Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Decline of Integrity

Family legend has it that when as an undergraduate my brother was applying for MD-PhD programs he sought to get a letter of recommendation from his Organic Chemistry professor.  My brother had gotten an A+ in the class, so this seemed an obvious step.  Nonetheless, the professor refused him, saying something to the effect - you got the lowest A+ in the class.

The truth behind the story, as I understand it, is that natural science faculty have a negative disposition to writing letters in support of pre-med students.  These faculty would much prefer the students abandon pursuit of the MD entirely and solely pursue the PhD instead.  The former conveys a far too mercenary tendency in the individual, one that might ultimately subvert the science.  The latter is the purer path.

My brother somehow surmounted this particular obstacle.  He got into the program at Yale, got both degrees in the requisite six-year time frame, did his internship, then a stint as an Assistant Professor at Harvard, another stint at Albert Einstein, and he is now at Michigan where he is the Chair of the Endocrinology Department.  As I've written elsewhere, I'm the under achiever in the family.

But this story is not about my brother.  I began with that bit so I could focus on the role of the professor who wouldn't write the letter of recommendation.  In hindsight, it may be that he wasn't such a jerk but rather was simply showing some spine.  I'm now in a similar situation, except that in this case it is a letter for law school, and I agreed to write it.  The student did get an A in my class, but it was borderline.  In the grade inflation world in which I live, the letter grade doesn't convey much information.  For the last day or so I've been procrastinating about writing the letter, wondering how much gloss I should put into it. 

Part of this is that my inner core doesn't know what doing the right thing looks like.  How are such letters read?  Is a certain amount of gloss to be expected, in which case not giving it is disadvantaging the student?  What of my promise to write the letter?   What is the implicit commitment there?  The truth of the matter is that I didn't remember the student well at all. I agreed to write the letter because I always agree to write the letter, though there haven't been too many of these as of late.  I also agreed to meet with her to discuss the application.  Then it came back to me.  She was much more forthcoming in this meeting than she had been in the class last year, where she hardly said a word.  She showed enthusiasm at that one-on-one meeting and she was proud of the blogging she had done in the class.

I looked back at the posts she had written and the comments I gave on them.  I also looked at my grade book from last year.  My practice is to give grades on the posts once at mid semester and then again at the end of the semester.  Along with the grades I provide some comments.  My second half comments on her posts said, in effect, that she pulled her punches.  This is the basis on which to write the letter.  Who is kidding whom?

There should be a Dear Abby like column for professors - to give us some wisdom on how to negotiate such situations, though I probably wouldn't read it if there was.  Perhaps the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed actually has such a column.  I don't know.  See?

If this were the only ethically ambiguous situation I was involved with my teaching I could push through it with little fanfare.  But it seems now that many of my interactions with students have an ethical dimension and mostly none of us is getting over that bar.

I've got a student now who hasn't done any of the blogging, or if she has I haven't seen it. I've emailed her about it - no response.  I posted something about it in the grade book when I posted the first midterm scores.  I just verified that she hasn't been into Moodle in well over a month, so she hasn't seen that message.  Nor has she picked up her exam.  She missed the class session where I returned them.  I knew something was awry much earlier in the semester.  But I didn't initiate contact with her in class at the time.  That was my obligation but I didn't live up to it.  I finally got around to it last Thursday.  She reported problems in setting up the blog.  I told her I'd help her and asked if we could meet after class.  She said she was busy then but she'd contact me with some times when she could make it.  So far, I haven't heard anything.

Here I was very surprised that she hadn't dropped the class earlier and instead sat for the Midterm.  I asked myself: what can explain this behavior?  It seems as likely that this is a deer-in-the-headlights issue as anything else.  I really don't know how to determine that.  It gnaws at me that this is not resolved.  This student added the course at the end of the 10-day period where students can add without the instructor's permission.  She never seemed to get into sync afterward.  The other students who added late do catch up, or least give it a try. 

A different student missed some classes before the midterm, including our review session.  He said he had been sick and asked if we could meed one-on-one to discuss some things he was having trouble understanding.  We ended up meeting at 9:30 on the morning when the exam was given.  (The test started at 11:00 AM.)  We talked for about twenty minutes.  He seemed happy with that conversation.

He has again missed classes this past week.  He emailed me asking for a similar meeting to the last one, so he could get caught up.  He said he was sick again and in bed.  I asked him if he had been to McKinley (the student health center).  He told me that, no, he hadn't.  I suggested he get checked out to ensure what he has isn't contagious.  I didn't get a response to that. If he really was sick again, he's probably got mono, or something like that, in which case I don't want to get near him as I really can't afford to get sick now. If being sick is just an excuse for blowing off class - it is real chutzbah to miss class and then ask for one-on-one tutoring on the side.

In the class we have discussed at length the concept of reciprocation of favors as a way to raise organizational productivity (this is a class on the Economics of Organizations), and I explicitly discussed Akerlof's paper Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange, to get at that idea. We also discuss Coase and transactions costs, and the core issue with transactions costs, opportunism.  The students implicitly know about opportunism.  Many of them don't yet get reciprocation of favors, as it pertains to their own behavior.

In fact, a good number of students don't attend regularly.  Total enrollment is now 23, so this is a little hard to understand as it is an upper level course in the major, presumably the type of course for which students come to college. On the other hand, I may be boring them to tears and I may be assigning them content that is nearly impossible for them to penetrate.  There was a lot of yawning in class on Thursday and even the student who scored highest on the midterm showed he didn't understand what the assignment on bargaining was really about. 

There is something wrong with a teacher who has made a serious study of pedagogy over a number of years and nonetheless insists on covering the content instead of teaching the student, especially when there is ample evidence that the approach is not working well.  The grade inflation masks the failure here.  But that mask only works for outsiders to the class.  The teacher and the students know what is really going on.  It's an apple with a rotten core.

Even with the better students, the ones who come to class for every session and who do all the assignments well ahead of the deadlines, there is something not right.  They feel an obligation to do the assigned work.  They don't necessarily feel an obligation to produce a solid understanding in themselves of the subject matter being studied.  It may be that they don't know the difference.  Or it may be that they don't feel competent to produce such an understanding.  In this I think things are really quite different from when I was an undergraduate.  There was little point to surface learning then and there was no reason to feign a deeper learning.  There was only doing the work till you really understood the subject as best as you could or not doing the work at all if it was something your felt you couldn't penetrate or you didn't care about much.  Keeping up appearances matters more now.

Last year I had the impression that between the first midterm and the second, several of the better students took up the challenge that I implicitly had laid down by giving a tough first exam.  This time around the message I'm getting is different.  The students seem to be demanding that I make the course more intellectually accessible or I will lose them for the rest of the semester.

I may have had an arrow in my quiver last year that I don't have now.  My poor health was evident to the students in an obvious manner.  In spite of that I persevered in teaching the class.  That may have inspired them.  My health is better now.  Yet my ability to motivate the students is worse. 

The paper chase is a game of false idol worship.  I know that, yet I'm inclined to capitulate to it.  What other tact might one pursue?

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