Friday, May 26, 2006

Bravo, UMBC!

Why American College Students Hate Science - New York Times

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, opened for business in a former cow pasture not far from downtown just 40 years ago. Still in its infancy as universities go, U.M.B.C. is less well known than Maryland's venerable flagship campus at College Park or the blue-blooded giant Johns Hopkins. But the upstart campus in the pasture is rocking the house when it comes to the increasingly critical mission of turning American college students into scientists...

Initiated in 1989, U.M.B.C.'s Meyerhoff Scholars Program is so well known that the university no longer needs to recruit for it. High school counselors and teachers nominate about 1,900 students annually, mostly from Maryland, for merit-based scholarships. About 100 scholarships are offered, and of these about 50 are accepted. The new students are welcomed into a well-established community of scientists and scientists-to-be through a summer program that sets the stage for the next four years...

Critics have sometimes accused the Meyerhoff program of cherry-picking bright students who would perform spectacularly well wherever they went to school. But the numbers suggest that the school's instructional strategy makes a real difference. Meyerhoff students are twice as likely to earn undergraduate degrees in science or engineering as similar students who declined the scholarships and went to school elsewhere. Most significantly, students who completed the Meyerhoff program are 5.3 times as likely to enroll in graduate study as the students who said no and went elsewhere.

I'm a quasi-alumna. My degree is from Hopkins and I'm proud of it, but I took a linguistics course at UMBC and that was one of the best things that happened to me in grad school.

I've just finished my semester--triumphantly submitted my grades to the registrar's office a week before the due date, posted them at my class site, and ducked--set an auto-reply to email saying that I would be away and unable to check until the end of June. I will answer the phone in a thick generic accent: "Dr. ____? Yo no se, no comprendo. Ich spreche keine English. Je ne se quoi. You wanna Tony Soprano?"

The hardest thing about this business isn't teaching but complying with the rules and standards that stymie one in teaching, in particular the obligation to get a spread of grades and keep them low. Academia operates on the Signal Theory rather than the Human Capital Theory. Our aim is not to pump up that Human Capital but to rank students to that they can be assessed for the allocation of scarce goods. It's all like some parody of an undergraduate's worst nightmare:

Tee-hee-hee, Professor X--I only gave 3 A's this semester.

Chickenfeed, Professor Y--I didn't give any A's at all AND I flunked half the class.

[Professors X and Y in unison, beating their breasts and scratching their armpits] We're tough!!!

I don't doubt that we could do better if our aim was simply to teach, if college were on the model of Microsoft certification or music lessons, where the aim was simply to achieve a result. Years ago academics probably had that luxury. When I was growing up a college degree, regardless of major or grades, guaranteed a you perch in the middle class: a white-collar job if make and marriage to a white collar worker if female or at worst a teaching job. Now we're got to sort out the 10% or so that will get decent jobs and decent lives from the 15% who will go the death of a salesman and the rest who will wash out and subside into the working class.

You'd think it would be better in the sciences where the jobs are there and where the aim is to teach specific job-related skills. And this piece on UMBC suggests that it can be better. But it can't do better in my field where nothing I teach is of any direct relevance to what students will eventually do on the job. All I can do is certify that students are clever enough to do tricks--to do natural deduction derivations--and sufficiently literate, organized and intellectually acute to write decent philosophy papers. I'm stuck with this.

Of course I love what I do, and believe that it's worthwhile. Philosophy though is a luxury that few people can afford, least of all undergraduates working to get their credentials so that they can avoid grunt work and drudgery.


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