The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I will study and get ready, and perhaps my chance will come."... ...Abraham Lincoln.

Commentary of the Day - April 2, 2003: In Praise of Students.  Guest commentary by Beth Clarkson.

One hears so many complaints about the quality of college students these days.  They can't read or write or do basic math. They are rude. They don't pay attention in class.  They demand a passing grade despite a lack of competence in the material they are supposed to have mastered.  All of these complaints are true in far too many cases.  I do not wish to denigrate those problems.  They are real and they are serious.

But it's easy to forget that these problem students aren't the whole story.  The good students can be, and often are, ignored.  They don't present us with problems that need to be solved; they do not demand our attention in the same way.  I want to spend a few words giving some recognition to the good students.  They deserve it.  They provide me with inspiration and hope for the future of our society.

I teach undergraduate math courses at Wichita State University: algebra, statistics, and sometime calculus.  I love math and I love teaching math.  Some courses are more likely to draw out the type of students who generate the complaints than others, but even in those I see many students deserving of praise not condemnation.

Like the two young women who were in my office yesterday before class, struggling with a difficult assignment in my statistics class.  They are student athletes, on the women's volleyball team. I know this because I am regularly queried about their grades, if they are attending class, if  they need a tutor, etc.  Our school has an excellent program in place to keep tabs on our athletes and to make sure that they stay eligible to play

At any rate, I was quite impressed with these young women.  Sure, they had some difficulties, but they arranged to see me and to get their questions answered despite difficulty in finding a time when both they and I were free to get together.  They obviously had studied the material and had attempted to solve the problems.  They are hard-working, intelligent, and physically fit.  I am delighted to have the opportunity to help them gain knowledge that can provide them with solutions to future problems and help them to think critically about new information as they mature.

Student athletes, by the way, are often among my best students.  Not always of course, but they are usually serious about attendance, and they keep up with the homework in order to stay eligible to play.  They do this despite missing class frequently in order to play in out-of-town games.

I must confess to originally having some prejudice against such students and possessing a stereotype of the 'dumb jock'.  I am not a sports fan nor am I, myself, at all athletic.  But my students have taught me that such a prejudice was ill-conceived and wrong.  The athletes I have taught are remarkable and admirable young people.  Not all of them are "A" students to be sure, but typically they have been serious and hard-working.  They have earned my respect.

Then there's the young woman who's in my intermediate algebra class this semester.  She's the stay at home mother of six (a blended family) soon to be seven.  In addition, she's a primary resource and aide for her stepfather, recently diagnosed with cancer, as he progresses through chemotherapy.  She's having some difficulty keeping up with the class, but its clear she's working hard to do so while balancing all her other responsibilities.  She calls to get assignments when she misses class and lets me know what's going on.  Whether she passes or not at the end of the semester, she's won my respect for her efforts.

There's the deaf young lady in my pre-calculus course.  She has an interpreter who sits in front of her, signing what I say as I lecture.  I can't imagine what additional level of difficulty that must add to what is a challenging and fast-paced course for even the brightest of students.  She must constantly divide her attention between what I am writing on the board and what the interpreter is signing so she can "hear" my explanations of what the formulas and equations mean.  She's working hard and if she keeps it up for the rest of the semester, I predict she will make it through the course and will be taking calculus next fall.

Now, not everyone in my classes is as dedicated and hard-working as these young people.  I have plenty of students enrolled who don't show up for class, don't do their homework, and don't learn the material.  I have no pity for them when they flunk, nor do I understand why they waste the tuition money on classes they don't bother to attend.  But this essay isn't about them.  It's about the terrific students who are there every day, working hard, learning well, and teaching me about how capable, responsible, and admirable our young people can be.

©2003, Beth Clarkson
Beth Clarkson teaches mathematics at Wichita State University, and is in the mathematics Ph.D. program there.

The IP comments: Beth Clarkson reminds us of an important fact.  In spite of all the shortcomings we find with our educational institutions today, there remain many students who are both eager and diligent.  They provide us with the inspiration not only to keep going, but also to demand better from those in charge of these institutions.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.