Friday, August 14, 2020

Former Physics Prof Calls Out Pre-Med & Pre-Engineering Students As Biggest "Whiners", Grade Grifters and Bullies

 College physics teaching staff brainstorm ideas  on how to improve teacher a meeting in Boulder, Colorado in October last year.
As I noted in a January post, for the relatively brief time of my exposure to American higher education, I found most of the students  (e.g. at the freshman level), didn't belong in a college setting. They came into university unprepared from top to bottom, lacking basic skills in numeracy as well as literacy.   Not mentioned in that post - but in earlier ones from 2013- 14 - is that I found pre-med and pre -engineering students the most dedicated grade grifters and whiners.

This was interestingly the same finding of one former Physics prof (William J. Veigele) writing in the recent issue of Physics Today (August, p. 12, 'Teacher Harassment and Loss of Respect').  Therein he wrote:

"On reading the commentary in the March 2020 issue of PHYSICS TODAY (page 10) I was appalled but not surprised to learn that one aspect of teaching has not changed: the harassment of teachers."


"During my 20-year career, I found the most virulent whiners and complainers were the premed and pre-engineering students. They tried to intimidate professors to get the high grades needed to be admitted to their respective professional schools. They implied that professors, not they, would be responsible for their careers."

In other words, if the student flunked - or god forbid got a 'D' - it was all on the prof for not bending over backward to give the highest grade the kid imagined he earned.  Well, I had come across this student entitlement too when I first began teaching physics at college level in the U.S.  Thus the usual form of grifting I encountered was the demand to give the kid an 'A' just for turning in a lab or homework - never mind the quality (or accuracy) of the work.  

When the imaginary inflated marks were not forthcoming, the usual rejoinder was that I needed to "give" the (stated) mark or else there'd be "hell to pay".   Usually the threat of a bad student evaluation.  Veigele in his PT letter noted the same and also pointing out to the aggrieved student "I do not 'give' grades, I simply record the grades the student earns."  Adding:  "Nevertheless at grade time a few students begged for higher grades."

Well, ditto for me when I had to broach reality to the grade grifters. 

The closest thing I experienced to a threat was when a  Maryland pre-engineering student buttonholed me after my Calculus Physics class and notified while pointing to his homework: "This is full of red ink corrections. I need to tell you I see red when I see red ink marked all over my papers!"

I laughed and told the kid if that was the case maybe he needed to drop Calculus Physics and take a course more likely to yield fewer corrections.  Say like speech.  He dropped the course a few days later.

The premed students were pretty well like this student but at least they didn't make veiled threats.  They did have no end of difficulties, say like solving the problem below:

Examine the force diagram  for the resting cylinder above, then answer these questions:

a) Find the distance d for which the counterclockwise motion is initiated by P.

b) Find the vertical reaction force at point A.

c) Find the vertical reaction force at point B.

d) Find the horizontal reaction force at point B.

What gives? Why so much difficulty?  In a 2014 post I proposed one possible reason:

"Physics stresses reasoning from a few fundamental principles, and generally expresses those principles in terms of mathematical laws, i.e. Newton's Second law of motion, F = ma.  Biologists, meanwhile, focus on structure- function relationships and rarely stress quantitative reasoning. There is also an enormous amount of memorization which students also think they can bring to physics - but are sadly mistaken."

In a Physics Today letters section from the April, 2014 issue, others weighed in as well, e.g.

"The  premed (biology)  majors I have taught are comfortable with memorizing and reproducing. They have never learned to solve problems. They have a fantastic memory power and there is no way to make use of it in a physics course."

"The second problem is an aggressive and obsessive quest for an A. I think the pathological anxiety about grades stands in the way of learning a difficult subject like physicsThough pre-med students regularly perceive anything less than a 4.0 spells doom, mediocre students with less than average GPA routinely get into med schools."

And the choicest one:

"Physics professors have to constantly remind themselves that mathematics is a foreign language to most biology students. They are language oriented and can learn the names of countless chemicals and medicines that most physicists would never attempt to master."

  All of which elicits the question of why students are allowed to harass and bedvil their profs.  Veigele guesses that "administrators are overly concerned with political correctness as applied to their sources of income - the students."

Veigele is also wise enough to ascertain the hostage of profs to grades was incepted with the notorious student evaluations, which are now used for grade extortion- and continued grade inflation. As he writes (ibid.):

"One protocol I've always disliked was the written student evaluations of professors."

And he cites the January 2020 issue of Physics Today that I referenced in a previous post, e.g.

Noting that:

"For decades student evaluations have been the mainstay of attempts to measure the quality of teaching at colleges and universities across the US and beyond. Now, as part of a growing focus on teaching in higher education, and because of mounting evidence of student biases, those evaluations are increasingly in the crosshairs.   The ratings inform promotion and tenure decisions and are often the deciding factor in renewing teaching contracts for instructors who are not on the tenure track (see Physics Today, November 2018, page 22)."

Veigele himself admits that "some students gave me low marks and wrote insulting remarks."    But, what tempered the bite was the fact that he observed "a strong correlation between students earning low marks in physics and the ones submitting unfavorable remarks."

I noticed a similar strong correlation.  It always appeared the losers had to pull the prof down as they were going down, into their respective sinkholes.   Veigele merits kudos for specifying a near foolproof method from "having grades and evaluations influence each other."

That is, distribute the evaluations and have them filled  out "before students receive their final grades."     Of course, that decision is usually not in the hands of the staff but the administrators.  In any case, it won't work for all students evals, since the loser students will still feel in their bones they've done lousy work and deliver their reports accordingly.  

Fortunately,  I left full time teaching at the cusp of the grade inflation-teacher evaluation infection, and before all the social media devices invaded the classroom,  as well as the noxious site,  'Rate My Professor'.   All of these in tandem, I believe, have contributed to an atmosphere of disrespect and casual inattention in the classroom and outside it. Professors, once held in some esteem, are now belittled on sites like 'Rate My Professor'as well as on Facebook and via Twitter.

Truthfully, the only profs remaining who have any fun are those whose work is based 90 percent or more on research, not teaching. So they needn't worry about having to seize a cellphone (as one angry prof did at Caltech), and hurling it against the chalkboard in frustration.  Did the Caltech prof get a miserable evaluation from the imp whose device he treated as an illustration in ballistics? Probably.  

Unmentioned directly by Veigele  (but in the cited PT article) is that students   "aren't the right people to ask about the effectiveness of a course".   For example, whether "an instructor fosters an atmosphere  consistent with campus goals for inclusion."  I.e. in the opinion of Prof. Noah Finkelstein of CU:

They can’t judge that. I’ve seen questions on whether the instructor has mastery of the material. How on Earth would a student know that?  We are asking students the wrong questions and using the data badly.”
As I noted in my own earlier post (see link above) Physics departments may finally be on the cusp of doing away with the standard student evaluation as "garbage in, garbage out".  This change has come none too soon and may finally usher in an era in which professors - at least in one discipline- aren't relentlessly harassed or bullied for grades.  Or subjected to extortion if they don't deliver.

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