Cannibals in the Classroom
I always enjoyed slicing open a student’s torso, exposing the tense and writhing stomach inside. If you crush a student’s heart by telling him that his work isn’t wonderful, it’s much easier to puree the heart and stuff it into his bleeding stomach. (An intact heart does not puree as easily.) You then have a nice plate of haggis, which still needs to be be prepared in a pressure cooker. If you’re doing your job correctly, your classroom may just do the trick. I find that this dish tastes especially good with mustard.
Students love to complain that some of their teachers are cruel, and the ones who earn this label can often count on not keeping their jobs for very long. There’s a point where a teacher’s behavior crosses a line, but”cruelty” to students is not the most significant problem we face. So I’d like to discuss a different kind of cruelty and a different kind of cannibalism.
Contrary to popular belief, most college educators do not enjoy a guaranteed “job for life.” There are certain conditions that must be met. Most importantly, you have to maintain a high number of students in your courses. Students pay tuition and the college loses money if the student fails out of school. Similarly, your department can lose funding from the school it it has low enrollment numbers. At some schools, tenured professors (the ones who are guaranteed to have jobs for life) have been losing their jobs because of this. What happens to teaching when you are forced to choose between keeping your job and telling students what they need to hear? Simple: The student is the customer and the customer is always right unless he asks for vodka. (If the student asks for pizza, it is okay to bribe him.)
It sounds like a great deal for the student, unless the student is studying something like nursing. Just imagine the student’s future:
Doctor: “Nurse Schmidt, could you please take the patient’s blood pressure, shave his pubic hair, and give him this shot of local anesthetic?”
Nurse: “Sure, doctor.” (And two seconds later, she administers the anesthetic to the area she’s shaving because she does not remember that the anesthetic is supposed to protect against pain from the operation, not from the shaving. Of course, since the patient’s blood pressure was taken incorrectly, surgery never took place because he was rushed to the emergency room for circulatory problems.)
I exaggerate somewhat, but it should go without saying that reduced standards can have a dramatic effect on the student and the people that student will eventually work for. Students receive diplomas but often lack the knowledge one would expect from someone with the diploma, a situation that can have dire career consequences. Colleges also judge teachers on how well they contribute to this end result. Student evaluations are practically the only way colleges measure teaching “effectiveness.” If you give good grades, research has shown that you get better student evaluations. It also helps if you don’t assign homework. Teachers who are not appreciated until years later do not survive in this environment; they have to be loved today to keep their jobs. But if students love them today and all night long, they can lose their jobs.
It is cannibalism to devour students’ futures to preserve your own career. While students occasionally thought I was cruel, I regret that I was never fired from a teaching job.
For further information, check out the recent book Academically Adrift.