Friday, January 13, 2006

When It's Good to be Number Two

Here's an interesting little news item: Ohio University ranks Number Two in the Princeton Review among schools where students claim that they "almost never study", coming in behind the University of Mississippi at Oxford. No, not that Oxford, the one in Mississippi; you obviously never studied either, at least not geography. You probably think that Ohio University is in Athens, Georgia, too.

In defense of my own students I have to say that most of them study their @$$es (<---Dr.D.S.Carson, PhD) off--they have to if they want to pass my classes. But philosophy is one of those self-selecting disciplines where, because it is not absolutely required for anybody the only ones who wind up taking it are the folks who actually want to be there and who are willing to do the work. That's not to say, however, that I haven't had my share of students who don't really want to study, but that's nothing peculiar about Ohio University. I've taught at academically rigorous institutions like Duke University and Rutgers University, and there were plenty of students at both places who didn't want to study and it showed. Here at Ohio University I've had some students who were every bit as good as the best students I had at either Duke or Rutgers, and my worst students were no worse than the worst ones at those other places. In general, good students know how to succeed in just about any academic environment, and bad ones don't. It's not a mysterious phenomenon.

The Princeton Review is something of an institutional joke, of course, but because it gets a lot of press people wind up talking about it far more than it deserves, lending a certain cachet to its alleged "findings". But institutions like Ohio University are not really very well served by students who take a kind of perverse pleasure in advertising to the world what lazy morons they are. For every student who comes here to party on the weekend there are several others who came here because they believed that they could get a good education here; but we tend to hear from the former more often because they are buffoons, and news sells better when it's funny than when it's serious.

Here at Ohio University we aren't helped much by the unfortunate perversion of priorities to be found among some administrators and the Board of Trustees. Academics take a de facto backseat to athletics here, and enrollments are seen as a revenue-generating device. Just when Ohio's reputation was sinking to its worst, falling in the academic and rising in the party rankings, the Board of Trustees gave president Roderick McDavis a bonus amounting to over $40,000--the price of a new faculty position--for increasing enrollments. How did he manage to increase enrollments enough to merit that kind of a bonus? By lowering the academic admission standards. How much did he lower them? Well, it's not a good sample, of course, but I teach a freshman introduction to philosophy course for 200 students each fall. I've taught it much the same way every year for 10 years. The average grade in that class, until this year, was about what it should be: 75, with a "normal" distribution of grades around that average. This year, with the lower entrance requirements and many more students reading below grade than ever before, the average grade in that class--with no change in content or methodology--was 62, and the distribution was not the least bit "normal"--almost everyone in the class did very poorly.

It should come as no surprise that students like this "almost never study". What is a little surprising is the sense of entitlement that some of them appear to have. I had some students complain to me about that introductory philosophy course precisely because the class average was so low. Some students took that to be evidence that the material was too difficult for freshman, even though plenty of freshman before them--and some freshmen in their own class--performed perfectly well with the same material. In short, they seemed to think that I ought to lower my academic standards too, so as to be more in line with the lower academic standards university-wide. Nein, danke. You don't have to take my class, so if you want worthless grades go to some other department.

Needless to say, I suffered a little in the rankings this year, too. Students don't like it when you make them work for their grades, and they like it even less when the work that they do doesn't measure up. At I went from getting ratings like
This was truly one of the most enjoyable classes I've taken at OU. He gives great notes and his lectures are very interesting. He cracks a lot of jokes and makes the class fun. The discussions were very thought provoking. Definitely reccommend taking this class even if it doesn't fulfill anything for you.
just a year or two ago to
Carson is by far my least favorite teacher I've had down at OU. He lied to our class directly about the content of the midterm, and there are quizes every week that are fairly hard. He doesnt return emails, and left out of town, the day of the final, so no students could even talk to him.
for last fall's class. Imagine having fairly hard quizzes every week in a college class. The lie that I told about the midterm was when I mentioned that the quizzes could be used to study for the midterm but then the questions on the midterm were not verbatim identical to the ones on the quizzes. You can see what a sleazeball I am. The final was on 18 November. I left town for New York on 27 December--there's no way any reasonably diligent student could have contacted me during that time.

As I said above, though, I really can't complain about my students, because spoiled morons like the one quoted above are quite few and far between, in my experience. Mostly I work with bright, motivated, and sincere individuals who understand that a college education is a wonderful privilege, not something to be squandered or taken lightly. Some of them actually ask me to give them more work to do. I had a student a couple of years ago who enrolled in my survey of ancient Greek philosophy class. Although it is an introductory survey, it is still very difficult material, especially for folks who are not familiar with antiquity or who are relatively new to philosophy. This student was a sophomore, so he did know a little bit about philosophy, but he wanted to know more about antiquity, and he came to me after class to ask about other resources he could look into. It was a difficult question, because most of the more detailed literature is intended for advanced readers. I recommended that he have a look at William Guthrie's History of Greek Philosophy. It is a multi-volume work, and it is very scholarly, but I think it is accessible to a serious reader. I thought perhaps he could go to the library and just browse through it. Imagine my surprise when he showed up in my office about two weeks later carrying two volumes of the thing in his backpack that he had purchased with his own money and that he had been studying quite carefully. He had many intelligent and philosophically acute questions about things he had read in those volumes.

He went on to graduate with honors, and is presently a graduate student in philosophy at Notre Dame. I may not have been his favorite profesor, but I don't think he ever held it against me that I made him take "fairly hard quizzes" from time to time. I don't think he partied much. As long as Ohio University continues to attract young men and women with his drive and intellectual curiousity, we'll do all right.


Apollodorus said...

You have a higher estimation of the average OU student than I do, but you actually teach them, so I'll defer to your opinion. To be fair, though, that student of yours who went and devoured Guthrie was one of the brightest students I've ever met, and certainly the hardest working. So he's perhaps not a good illustration of your point. In my experience, most students do their work, but they don't actually care about it. Even among students who did their work well, most of them treated it as something purely instrumental; they cared very much about making good grades, but not about learning for its own sake. I imagine, though, that OU isn't really unique in that regard; most kids just don't seem to think of learning as the primary component of their 'college experience.'

Scott Carson said...

It may be that even for some of the better students college courses have only an instrumental value--that's an attitude that is not restricted to college students, however! Few people in the population at large value learning for its own sake. But I think that, by and large, the better students are the ones who (a) aren't bored by things that have only an instrumental value and (b) don't have a sense of entitlement to the effect that anything that stands in their way can--and should--be scorned.

Your argument rings a little hollow, however, since it seems to me that you are/were every bit as bright as that other student we're talking about--and I don't know how hard you worked but I suspect you were not the biggest partier on campus. So that's already two students at OU who easily fall into the category I'm talking about, and I hope you won't be surprised to learn that we have two or three more in the same category this year. Granted, that's a small sample (0.1% of the student body), but philosophy is a small department: I'm sure there are even more students that good in the other departments. If we can pull together just 20 such students, we're talking about the 99th percentile, and of course you don't expect everybody to be there. How far down do we have to go to get 200 students? Probably not far, I'd wager, and now we have a bright 10%. Nobody expects the whole student body to be full of Einsteins!

Maybe you were just hanging out with the wrong crowd. You know what slackers classics majors are!

Apolonio said...

Darn, I missed you when you were in Rutgers. I have to say, I am a philosophy major and I don't study a lot. You can get an A here at Rutgers without reading the actual material.

Scott Carson said...


In that case you didn't miss anything!

Besides, I was in classics then, not philosophy. I have to say I'm a little surprised by what you say, since the Rutgers philosophy department is very highly ranked.

But then, they mostly do philosophy of mind and science. Probably anybody can get straight As in that kind of stuff just by pretending to be interested in it.

Apolonio said...

I actually like the philosophy here at Rutgers. It pretty much depends on who the professor is. My theory of knowledge class was easy. I slept and didn't read any of the readings except the notes and I got an A (but I also wrote an essay for extra credit). But my paradox class was harder. I didn't read the material but I did listen in class. I still did well, I got a B, but that's because there was too much math in it! I still yet to have a class with Hawthorne and Zimmerman though.

dilexitprior said...

I didn't realize that profs actually check out ...

Interesting post though, and I think you're right. Any school will have its full range of students.

Scott Carson said...


Perhaps not all professors snoop around at Ratemyprofessor, but when you're talking about a guy with an ego the size of Manhattan, well....

Besides, I have to see whether anybody is giving me chili peppers! (So far none!)