I’ve talked about the John Merrow
podcasts before—they’re great listening, extremely well done, and I recommend them to anyone who is nerdy about education the way I am. Recently they did two podcasts where they interviewed professors at the University of Arizona
to find out what they thought of university teaching today.
The one that I listened to first was Paulette Kurzer
from the Political Science department, and it was one of those that made me sad and angry at the same time. I’ll give her some credit for her honesty, but at the same time I question why anyone with some of her beliefs would stay in the profession. Here’s some quotes that jumped out at me:I know I am very dynamic and energetic, but then I read those exams and I think, yet another group of students who couldn’t care less. It’s just a performance-lecturing. I feel there are 220 students in this course and I probably perform for 20 of them.
I’ll happily grant that my experience in teaching adults is limited to some staff presentations at my school and leading a book study this year. That said, anyone who is only reaching 10% of their students IS doing something wrong, and one subset of teacher that annoys the hell out of me is the one that pats themselves on the back for doing a great job while at the same time letting that many kids go wanting.John Merrow: Are you well paid?
Paulette Kurzer: No. No! No! My pay is a source of great discontent.
Merrow: How much do you make?
Kurzer: I’m making $65,000.
Insert primal scream here from a teacher making $35,000 a year.
Perhaps I shouldn’t judge. Maybe the cost of living in Tuscon is high. It could be that Dr. Kurzer is trying to put 5 kids through college. I don’t know the woman. What I do know is that she makes more than most, and later on you’ll see how she uses the money issue to excuse some horribly lax practices.Merrow: Okay. Let’s argue about this. I think, for the sake of argument, students are not demanding because you professors are so boring that don’t bring it to life, and they don’t know enough to be angry that they’re just being droned at.
Kurzer: Wow! You are just the devil’s advocate, so I’ll continue to talk to you (laughs). But I don’t think I’m boring, and the students know that I invest a lot of my lectures, and that’s very clear because of my visuals.
Insert a second primal scream here, because I get the sense that she’s more interested in her visuals looking pretty than she is in them actually being effective.
It reminds me of a session I sat through last year at the OSPI Summer Institute, which is our state’s main way of sharing ideas with teachers. I had picked this particular session because it had “fluency” in the title, and that was something that I really wanted to work on this past year. The duo that presented seemed nice enough, and they had THE BEST POWERPOINT SLIDES I’VE EVER SEEN.
Drop dead gorgeous backgrounds, preset animations that worked, color changes, and some of the best bullets you’ll see outside of Dick Cheney’s lawyer friend. The trouble is that it was a Tyra Banks presentation—great looks, zero content. Less than zero. It was one of those Billy Madison moments where you feel dumber for having listened to it.
My point is that it doesn’t matter if your presentation looks good if the kids aren’t learning. If she’s pouring tons of effort into the technology but still only self-reporting that 10% of her students are engaged, she’s making a mistake.
Merrow: How many do the work? How many of the 225?
Kurzer: Well you know, I don’t know exactly. Maybe ten percent. Maybe 15 percent.
Merrow: So you are teaching to that ten or 15 percent?
Kurzer: Well, I definitely address those but there is obviously a tacit understanding that they do minimal amount and in return I can get away doing minimal amount.
All I can say is wow. Incredible. Sad. I don’t care if that is the tacit agreement, if that is part and parcel of the experience, if that is the reality. I don’t think you should be putting voice to a sentiment like that if you work at any level of education.
I teach first grade, and I work awfully hard to try to get them all up to the standards that we’ve set, but then I work even harder to get them beyond. I could have ignored my upper reading group all year long and they still would have been just fine, but I’ve been able to push them into books like The Big Wave that first graders typically don’t get to. For her to have the eager ones and hope that they don’t try to stretch themselves so she can do the “minimal amount” is a damnable shame.Merrow: Is it discouraging to be there and thinking that only ten percent are…
Kurzer: No. No, no. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. No. It’s not discouraging. The only thing that discourages me is my pay (laughs). Not this (laughs). Only my pay.
Merrow: Is there something you could do different that would change this?
Kurzer: Uh, well, I could create course requirements where they have to do more writing, or they have to come and see an instructor. I could make them work harder. But why should I? Why should I? I’m not getting paid in order to have a bigger load unto myself.
I’m so liberal I voted for Nader twice, but here’s where my inner conservative runs riot. You should make them work harder because THAT’S WHAT THE TAXPAYERS ARE PAYING YOU TO DO! IF YOU WANT TO MAKE MORE THAN $65 GRAND A YEAR, SHOW YOU DESERVE IT! RIGHT NOW YOU’RE PUTTING OUT ABOUT AS MUCH EFFORT AS A STUMP, AND YOU WANT MORE FOR THAT? IN REAGAN’S NAME, I CURSE THEE!
Huh. That was actually kind of refreshing. I think I’ll vote for Jeb.Merrow: How many “A’s” do you give?
Kurzer: Well, I grade on a curve. We all do, I think. So, usually ten, 15 percent.
Merrow: Is it really “A” work?
Kurzer: No. No. But I grade on a curve.
I can understand the temptation. Using a curve, at least you’ll have some kids get an A, a 4.0, whatever the scale may be. I’d love to know just how prevalent a practice this is in the college ranks.Merrow: Are the students not engaged because they’re too busy doing something else?
Kurzer: I think so.
Merrow: What are they doing?
Kurzer: Well, many of them work. I think all of them work. And I don’t know what else they do.
This is another reality of college life today. When I was working my way through my Master’s program it was terribly diffiult sometimes to balance the class work, the teaching work, and the family commitments, especially with what we go through to renew our certificate any more. Plus, I was on the pay-as-I-went plan with no student loans, so the beginning of the quarter was always extra tight.Merrow: How much work outside of class does your course require?
Kurzer: I personally think very little. I think very little.
Kurzer: I don’t know. An hour? Maybe an hour a week.
An hour a week, for college level work. This is probably part of the “You do less so I can do less!” bargain she has with her students, but it’s obviously not the way it should be.
The next quote is the unforgivable one that really sends me over the edge.
Merrow: Do you ever say to yourself, “Okay, so these kids can’t write very well. I’m going to do whatever it takes. I’m going to go the extra mile. I’m going to make them rewrite their papers. I’ll stay up nights…”
Kurzer: No. No. No. No.
Merrow: Why not?Kurzer: Why should I? I’m making $65,000.
Why should you? Because it’s an ethical responsibility. Because you owe it to your students. Because you owe it to the people of the state of Arizona who are paying your salary. Because there’s an army of adjuncts out there scraping by and accomplishing great things while you sit on your dead, tenured butt and complain about how much money you make. Because it’s how you earn the title teacher. Because it’s the right thing to do.
And as a union member, I know that there are limits. You can’t let yourself get taken advantage of, and you can’t let yourself be used up. What Dr. Kurzer describes, though, is only doing the bare minimum because she doesn’t feel like she makes enough to do any more, and that’s not acceptable.
The other Merrow podcast, which I’ll write about later, is of a professor who is a diametric opposite to Dr. Kurzer. It'll make for a great comparison.
Read more here, if any.