Southern Man

Friday, March 30, 2012


Disclaimer: Southern Man' s entire professional career has been professor at various private church-affiliated liberal-arts colleges. That's right - the "real world" to him is the ivory tower of academe. His passion is good teaching, and by most accounts he is a good teacher. His desire is that every student be exposed to the liberal arts as he was and grow and learn beyond the narrow confines of a particular discipline as he did, in the context of both a scientific and a Christian world view, and with respect and appreciation for the many arts and sciences beyond his own.

That said, Southern Man's profession - teaching at a Christian private liberal-arts college - is dead. Or, at the very least, it's dead in it's current form. His university operates on inertia and nothing more. The Titanic is sinking and neither the crew nor the passengers have a clue; only a handful have the wit to head for the lifeboats before it's too late.

Why is this, you ask? Southern Man will give you three or four reasons.

The first is interest. Students simply don't care about the liberal arts anymore. They want to get their diploma (and hopefully some knowledge or skills along with it) and get a job. Anything unrelated to that goal is unimportant.

The schools agree. Southern Man is even now involved in curriculum review and the consensus is jack up the hours in the major and leave nothing for liberal-arts electives. Indeed, the consensus is leave nothing for in-major electives, either; rather than ten required courses and three electives (chosen from a large pool) they want thirteen required courses with no leeway. And there goes seminar and selected topics and directed research and practicum and any last wisp of creativity in the department. But Southern Man isn't complaining - it's actually easier that way. Why work at being creative when you can just teach the same classes every year?

The next reason is economic. For reasons having to do both with debt from past relationships and his own financial errors (you can't buy your children's love but newly-single dads always try) Southern Man must moonlight at a local community college. This sideline earns him about a sixth of his total income, but produces two-thirds of his student-credit hour teaching load. That alone tells him that the private-college model is unsustainable. For how much longer can his home university continue to pay him six times what the community college does for half the product?

But even the community-college model is ultimately unsustainable. The model of professor and students worked well for two thousand years, ever since Socrates started us down this road, and still works well today, but why would twelve students (or forty) pay Southern Man for a series of lectures in logic (or astronomy) when they could join ten thousand in a subscription to a series of professionally-produced videos led by a master in the subject for a tenth the cost? Southern Man has long held that the role of "professor" would soon become that of "content provider" and he's frankly surprised that it hasn't happened more quickly and in more fields. It's already happening - for example, most first-semester foreign-language courses are no longer taught in the classroom but are implemented using language labs running Rosetta Stone or some other tool. Only the lack of college-level credit for such mass-enrollment video-series courses (although some new certificate programs show promise), the unrelenting awfulness of instructor-led online courses (in both teaching them and taking them) and the endless government subsidies for traditional education (student-loan debt has now eclipsed home-mortgage debt) has prevented the Internet from a complete takeover of traditional universities. But it will happen. Later, apparently, than Southern Man once thought, but it will happen.

The third: students either cannot or will not write. Southern Man has long been a champion of "writing across the curriculum." He used to require a little writing (weekly essays on some topic related to the course) in all of his classes, for no other reason than to encourage students to do a little reading outside of class and to improve their writing skills. And for a long time it worked well. But today? Plagiarism is so rampant that he finally gave it up. It doesn't help that today's students are no good at it, with mixed fonts and imbedded hyperlinks and "Copyright 2011" right there in their papers. And that's a little odd, considering that in today's world of email and Facebook and unlimited texting students actually write more words in the normal course of their day than we did. Perhaps Southern Man should have his students tweet their essays instead.

The fourth is, specifically, plagiarism, which is entirely out of control. In his advanced programming classes Southern Man always assigns projects based on well-known number problems, from Numbrix to Sudoku to Magic Squares. And he always gets one or two project submissions per semester that are copied right off the 'net, and plenty more that are obvious derivatives of the work of the few productive students in the class. Students don't care about learning. They just want to get their ticket punched and graduate and get a job. The last one said (in tears) "I copied that program to impress you." Do they just not comprehend it when Southern Man says over and over and over that he wants to see their ideas, from their heads? And not their neighbor's ideas on their paper with their name on it? Apparently not. It's all about the "marks," not about learning. And don't hold the free market blameless; forbidden by law to administer intelligence tests to applicants (because that would be racist, you know) they long ago elected to use college as a means of qualifying applicants. No diploma? No interview, and thus no job. But now everyone needs a diploma, and their value has plummeted.

Yep, that Bachelor of Arts in Feminist Studies isn't worth the toilet paper it's written on but surely a STEM degree still has some value. Right? Well, this post was (in part) inspired by an article in which it was revealed that a doctoral student had his dissertation more or less written for him by the professor. Now in Southern Man's view this is nothing new; education and the humanities and social sciences have allowed such corruption for decades. But this was a mathematics degree. Yes, STEM, the last bastion of academic integrity. But no more. We have fallen so far that we are writing dissertations for our STEM students. But who's surprised, when the physics gods at CERN publish on faster-than-light neutrinos based on data from a faulty cable and climate scientists routinely resort to distortion or even outright fabrication of data to further their agendas?

Just so you know: Southern Man earned the MS and PhD degrees in nuclear physics and an MS in computer science. And he wrote every word of his two masters theses and his doctoral dissertation himself. They may not be all that good, but they are his and he is damn proud of them. Ask him anything - anything at all - about the properties of tungsten or odd-A nuclei near mass 100 or ring-mesh topologies. Unlike many of today's students, he is intimately familiar with the content of papers that have his name on them. As opposed to the student he questioned the other day about the nature of the program that he had copied off the 'net and submitted as his own for a mid-semester project.

But students always look for the easy way out. Southern Man has long had a policy for research: when a grad student approaches him with a request to do research under his direction, Southern Man hands him a form that instructs that student on how to write a proper research proposal. This requires driving half an hour south to the Enormous State University library and actually browsing a citation index and pulling some journals to write a proper proposal with the required references. He gets three or four or five such requests per semester but in ten years no student has returned with the required work. Not one. However, the professors down the hall have an endless stream of research students. One wonders why. No, Southern Man knows why; it's easier to go with the flow (and avoid student complaints and the subsequent tense afternoons with the Dean) than fight for integrity. In today's economy, "keeping your job" trumps "doing the right thing" every time.

Southern Man still enjoys what he does, and he'd be happy teaching until retirement. But it's not going to happen. The higher-ed bubble will burst, sooner or later, and Southern Man often wonders what he will be doing for a living next year, or in two years, or five. But he's willing to bet it won't be teaching - at least, not teaching as it's typically done today.

And now you know why this blog doesn't name any names!


At Saturday, March 31, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how many students plagiarize in your physics classes? thought that area would have good kids.

At Saturday, March 31, 2012, Blogger Southern Man said...

The beauty of teaching math and physics is that to earn a good grade you HAVE to master the material to pass the exams. I don't see much copying in those courses on the homework; there's not any point. It's lab work where it's really a problem.

At Saturday, March 31, 2012, Anonymous Girl Programmer said...

Did you ever see the movie Watership Down? About the rabbits?
You remind me of the group of rabbits in the movie who were always singing about death.
There are no women to date, all students are horrible, cheat all the time, don't want to learn, education is coming to an end, not to mention politics, the national debt, etc., etc.
'Gloom, despair and misery on me. Deep dark depression, excessive misery.' (Roy Clark)
In all seriousness, though, I've been where you are, and it is only by the grace of God that I got out.

I wish you could teach here where I am for a few weeks. Yes, we have had our scandals, but the stuff that goes on in the classroom is far and away better than what I experienced when I worked with you.
I have had a few bad apples, but for the most part, the kids are great. It would cheer you up a lot.

At Monday, April 02, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think it's students in general or is it because you live in Oklahoma?

At Tuesday, April 03, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OKLAHOMA! You live in OKLAHOMA? I loved visiting there! The people were the most friendly I have EVER met.

By the way...I think your last poster just dissed your people. Must be a liberal from one of the east/west coasts. They are jealous of real people being real.


At Tuesday, April 03, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of you make really terrible internet detectives. ;) Look at the posted pictures, use Google, profit!

@Riley, Yup :) Liberal, East Coast, super jealous of all the pickup trucks, Jesus, and Santorum fans Oklahoma has.

I kid! All in good humor! (mostly)

At Wednesday, April 04, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI pick-up trucks are sexy (he-men drive them), Jesus is a breath away for any and all, Santorum is okay but I like Gov. Perry


and yes...I am not an internet detective or even tech savvy. I like Southern Man and what he has to post (mostly)


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