Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Education is not about learning

So I'm going to go on an uncharacteristic rant here. Mainly I've just got to get something off my chest and I'm too ashamed to say this out loud as I realize I may simply be a sore loser.

I've just finished a difficult math course and received a dismal grade. This has been quite a setback as I've put monumental effort into this course. But what's angering me is that from all I could see over the course of two quarters with this professor, she showed no signs of caring that I learned anything about the material. The professor seemed only interested in engaging in a contest to see who is the smartest and weed out the weak links. Now of course I should have expected this but angered I still am.

This is the stereotypical example of a brilliant professor at a prestigious school being an obliviously incompetent teacher (although I can't overlook the more sinister possibility that this was an overt strategy). The professor came with high credentials and unequivocal mastery of her trade. However, she seemed completely unaware of the structure of the social environment she was creating. She was more likely to mock a student than to engage in search of the underlying confusion. Her primary tools were fear and an extremely demanding course load.

Now a challenge is exactly what any interested student needs to progress. However, discretion is required in setting the bar. Lacking that discretion, her office hours and discussion sessions became mandatory attendance. Although this fact was never made explicit so for many homework sessions I didn't go to office hours (falsely assuming that we were prepared well enough in class), and proceeded to flutter my wings in the library for entire weekends, only blaming myself for my incompetence. Only later did I notice that upon attendance to office hours students would receive invaluable hints that would only then allow them to properly solve the homework. But not only must you attend office hours, you must attend both sessions and be prepared to discuss the problems almost a week before they are due to make headway.

Her discussion sessions broke another implicit student-teacher agreement. A discussion session serves to sharpen understanding of previous material. Not to mention the fact that she effectively discouraged all questions of the material, she went further to teach new material in the discussion session; showing utter disregard for academic rules. Discussion sessions are scheduled with the full understanding that not everyone will be able to make them. If the intent was mandatory attendance they would be scheduled by the registrar similarly to any normal class session. Effectively she is using office hours and discussion sessions to teach new material when the students have clearly demonstrated they have yet to master the given material.

But I can't be to angry I suppose. I knew I was in for this. I knew that taking this math classes was 80% a signalling effort to show that I am smart enough to go to economics grad school. And whether she realizes it or not she may be utilizing her strategy to weed out the lesser students in an effort to elevate the status of her profession. But of course teachers won't admit this, and schools won't admit this. I assume administrators, faculty, and donors of a prestigious university would state that they intend to be an institution of learning. And I bet they believe it wholeheartedly. The question is whether this is a reasonable goal or not.

I won't be a complete pessimist though. It should be a school's job to recognize that a natural incentive of a university will always be to promote pure difficultly over education in an effort to produce the smartest graduating class. And once they recognize this they should takes steps to more properly align their incentives back towards education. (I guess "should" is too strong here. On what basis? I guess because I'd like them to.)

The unfortunate part of this whole inquiry is my self doubt in my own motives. A highly plausible scenario occurs to me that I only engage in higher learning in an effort to signal my abilities. I act in self deception when I claim I go to school to "learn." Furthermore, I was perfectly complaint with the system until it punished me with a low grade. Only now I am I willing to protest my anger towards its unwholesome activities. And as I am the worst arbiter of my own motives I have no reply to this criticism.