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If students complain that a class is too hard, maybe it actually is

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To her credit, Tressie McMillan Cottom at least hints at this possibility when discussing the now-viral story of the N.Y.U. adjunct professor who was fired because he Made the Snowflakes Cry:

Not all contingent faculty members are created equal. They are more likely to be women, people of color and first-generation academics than they are to be established white male academics. Jones, previously tenured and retired, was unusual in this way. His contingent faculty status is more like the accomplished musician who teaches a weekend course in an art school. Or like the successful business executive who picks up a course at a local college to stay intellectually engaged. Jones, the students who petitioned against him and the administrators who terminated his contract agree on at least one thing: He did not like his students’ performance. That he could ignore his student evaluations to that effect for as long as he did says that he had a lot of privilege to do so.

I can sympathize. My own student evaluations have called my assigned reading “brutal” and “dense” and “hard.” I try to strike a balance between challenging students and accommodating their discomfort with learning. It is tough. Students still fail sometimes. And even students who succeed in the course often do not appreciate what they learned until long after the class has ended.

Jones’s teaching struggles are common when generations collide in the classroom. But it isn’t just about generational differences. It is about a course like organic chemistry, which is, in part, designed to filter out students unsuited to rigorous pre-med curriculums. At an expensive private university, however, students do not expect to fail out. The estimated total cost of attendance for an on- or off-campus student attending N.Y.U. over the 2022-23 school year is $83,250. Administrators at such tuition-dependent universities have a lot of incentives to make sure that their students do not fail out. That isn’t about snowflakes but about the economics of modern higher education. Any battle in the culture war is always about the culture of economics.

In the final analysis, this is not a great example of academic standards adrift. Organic chemistry has always been challenging. Many majors have similar courses, courses that have to be taught at scale, which means bringing in a lot of contingent labor to meet demand. Anxieties around such funnel classes — in which failing means starting over or changing majors — are as old as these kinds of courses themselves. This is not an invention of the student consumer model. The tell is that the students who petitioned against Jones were surprised that he was fired; that’s not what the petition asked for. This does not exactly smack of the inmates running the asylum. It’s more likely a case of the administration treating Jones the way it has undoubtedly treated other contingent faculty members over the years. This episode is a bureaucratic resolution to a worker widget that created one too many bureaucratic problems. The labor issue is by far the bigger social problem.

And of course she’s right that the real scandal here is that N.Y.U. is using super-cheap adjunct labor to teach a 350-person foundational course, so that it can buy up some more Manhattan real estate.

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