Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fixing it (part 4)

This is the hardest one for me to suggest solutions to, because it's not generally a problem I've had, personally.

The issue here is motivation. And work ethic.

One of the things a lot of my colleagues and I complain about is the lack of a work ethic in some of the students: that there are a lot of smart people who seem to want to slack their way through life. Who will happily accept a C on a paper, because trying for an A means too much work.

I don't know. I can sympathize with being busy. I can understand occasionally having to do some small thing half-assed because you don't have time to give it a full effort. But on a research paper that is the major point-earner in a class, that is the major push of the entire semester, and that was assigned on Day 1 of the class?

I can't quite see that.

In one class I taught, the students had a project to work on like that. Three or four of the class periods were time for them to work on this project, with my co-teacher and me on hand to answer questions or provide technical support. It was kind of surprising the number of people who showed up for those sessions, stayed five minutes, then left. At the time, we figured, "Well, maybe they're working on it at a different time, on their own time." But there was one person who didn't finish on time and several who turned in poor efforts - that certainly didn't suggest they spent extensive time working on it on their own.

And it kind of baffles me. This was a major project. We emphasized its importance, pointed out how it was analogous to the types of projects many of the students would do once they got out on the job, and yet, a lot of people seemed not to take it very seriously.

I suppose in some cases it was that maybe the students were unfamiliar with projects of this scope and got a little overwhelmed. But between us, my co-teacher and I had 20 hours of office hours per week, in addition to the in-class time, and you'd think people would come in and ask for help - especially when we pointed out that was what we were there for.

But then again - a couple of the guys that I had had in class before - I KNEW they could do this thing, and they just didn't step up to the plate.

I think in some cases it DOES come down to motivation or work ethic. As I said before, this is one of the more-frustrating things about teaching for me, because of how I was raised (and how I may just be, intrinsically): I always cared about what kind of a job I was doing. I know in some cases I got so involved in what I was working on that I went beyond the requirements of the assignment, and in some cases had to scramble a bit to catch up on other things. (And as I said - like everyone, I had to occasionally half-ass stuff, but I was good at discerning the "little things" versus the "big things." And even at that, my half-assed was usually B work, at least).

I don't know if you can teach motivation. If someone doesn't care about what they're doing, how can you get them to care? I know one of my colleagues talks about how he's tempted to call some of his students into his office and tell them, "I get the impression from you that you don't like or care about biology, based on the work you do and your attitude in class. If you don't like this subject, why are you majoring in it?" but I don't think he ever has.

But I do see some people like that - not just students - who don't seem excited by anything. Who don't seem to care enough to want to work hard on something. And I don't quite get it, and that frustrates me.

Work ethic is a huge thing. If everyone (or even, a majority) of people in an organization has a good work ethic, if they care about doing things right for the sake of doing them right, things work wonderfully. Everything is smooth. On the other hand, in cases where people don't care, and don't make an effort - and sometimes don't complete things - stuff can fall apart pretty quick.

I've had friends who are employers complain about the quality of some employees that they have had - that they don't show up on time (or in some cases, at all), that they don't finish stuff and don't tell anyone, that they seem not to care about the job.

And yeah, I know, there's sort of a tradition of 'sticking it to the man' among workers, but...the thing is, in a lot of cases, it's not just 'the man' who's getting stuck. It's your co-workers, who have to pick up the slack for you. Or the customers, who wind up with crappy customer service or poorly-made products. Or in the case of schools, students who don't learn what they need to know*

(*I once had a student, a major in another department, who took one of my classes, come to me and say "Don't listen to the other students from my department who bitch about your class being too hard. We don't do sh*t in the majors classes in my department because a couple of the profs don't care as long as they get paid. I like that I'm actually LEARNING something useful in your class.")

And everything falls apart. People doing what they're supposed to do, giving a damn about it, is kind of part of the social contract, in my mind.

So it distresses me when I see people who shrug and say "'D' is for diploma" when they earn a D (technically passing, but a miserable grade) in a class, or the people who hand in a piece-of-crap paper, when it's a paper they've had over a month to do - and they don't care that it's a piece of crap, because they're just checking off a box on their way to Being Done.

(And you know, that may be part of it - the idea that life is a journey and not a destination. If you're just biding your time in college until you can get out into the "real world" and have a job...well, that's kind of sad. Because for one thing, you really don't need to be here, there are careers you can found without a college degree, and for another reason, being an employed adult has enough things that suck about it that you look back somewhat nostalgically to college days).

I don't know how to instill motivation and work ethic if they don't already exist. Maybe that's more of a job for the parents? I think I learned the value of work from a pretty young age from mine, and maybe by the time a person is 18 or 20 it's kind of late to develop those attitudes, I don't know.

But the fact that there is a critical mass of students who seem content to just slide through doing the minimum possible is frustrating. When you try to start a discussion and find that three people in a class of 30 have actually read the material, or when you offer some over-and-above thing for extra credit, and no one shows up, it's annoying. It's hard for a professor to do their best when students aren't willing to meet them half way.

Perhaps part of the issue is that so many of these students have been taught to be passive - to sit there and be spoon-fed - rather than to be curious and pursue things on their own. (And I don't see it getting any better, in the culture of high-stakes testing, where a lot of things in the school have been scaled back to make room for test prep.) I am probably not a good enough teacher to 'turn around' a class of students who are determined to be passive. Perhaps some people are, but I suspect most of us are not.

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