# blueollie

## My take on a professor’s lament

Salon is running a particularly poorly thought-out piece, even by Salon standards, about the inability of college students to use the English language to express themselves in writing. I’ll let the author off the hook for the stupid title (“Death to High School English”) and the tagline, as an editor probably chose those. But the argument overlooks such an obvious explanation in favor of a more complicated one that it’s difficult to take whoever she is seriously. When the tagline asks, “My college students don’t understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?” We could do that, I guess. Or we could rethink how we grade them in high school.

There is a tendency, even among educators, when outcomes are not as they should be to assume that teachers as individuals or the educational system writ large must be to blame. In this case we’re hypothetically dismantling all K-12 English education and starting over from scratch with some sort of newer, better method. What this overlooks is the reality that most students in college – the same ones the author rightly points out are terrible at writing – have no idea that they’re terrible at writing. They think they are quite good at it, in fact. They do not believe this because of simple arrogance or Those Darn Millennials or any other popular explanation. They believe they are good writers because they have been getting good grades on written assignments and in English throughout their educational careers.

The rest of the piece at Gin and Tacos is worth reading.

Now I have never tried to teach anyone how to write, aside from supervising a senior project and reading student’s mathematical proofs. I have had some conversations with English faculty and I remember one saying: “I can get most students to an A…..” at which case I wondered if was the STUDENT who was supposed to get THEMSELVES to the grade.

Here is what was going on, I think: many professors let students rewrite and rewrite their papers prior to turning in the final copy. This makes me wonder: at what point is the professor actually grading their own work rather than the work of the student? I can easily see a student learning how to game the system by, in effect, getting the professor to write their work for them. Hence, they get a good grade by producing a polished paper, and move on to the next class not having learned a thing, other than how to get someone else to fix up their writing.

At some point, someone has to kick up the training wheels!

Now, on a related note, I am not without guilt. Yes, I think that I assign grades fairly; I let the spread sheet do the calculations, and then I move the student names off of the screen and just look at the numbers. Yes, at times, I’ve used cut offs that were slightly more generous than those stated on the syllabus, though, again, I am looking at the numbers and NOT at the names.

But, that aside, even strange things can happen.

In one case, a student with a 98 average made an 86 on the final exam, which still gave the student an A. But on ONE other problems (the rest of the exam was good), I was told: $\int^{\infty}_0 e^{-3x} dx = lim_{b \rightarrow \infty} \frac{e^{-3x+1}}{-3x+1}|^b_0$. Yes, the student aced the other integral problems, including the trig substitution problem as well as the substitution problem $\int e^{sec(x)}sec(x)tan(x) dx$. The error that the student made on that problem was just plain inexplicable.

In another case, a linear algebra student missed problem one, which was to determine the determinant of a two by two matrix of integers! But the student got enough of the other problems right to end up with a (low) C for the course, including one that involved finding eigenvalues and eigenvectors of a 2 by 2 matrix.

Anyway, I shudder to think of these students making such errors in a subsequent class the their instructors finding out that they had their previous class from me. 🙂

Go figure.