Commiserating with an economics professor


I have been a teacher for 30 years and by most accounts a good one. In teaching economics and labor-oriented subjects I have developed hundreds of concrete analyses, stories, etc. to make the material clear. Now I know we have discussed on these lists the state of education, the nature of today's students, etc. But I have to say that the level of illiteracy and general stupidity seems to be rising among students. the most basic words are unknown to them, and they never bother to look them up. I have to continually check myself when I am about to use a word I know that they should understand but do not.

On a recent quiz someone said that the name of Adam Smith's famous book was "Rivethead."!! this after at least a dozen mentions of "The Wealth of Nations." They hear a word or remember a snippet of something I said and put this down as an answer, no matter how preposterous. Last year I had a simple fill-in on a quiz:_____!,_______!,_______!, That is Moses and the Prophets. I had said the correct answer at least 20 times in the preceding two weeks and explained why Marx said it and how neat of a statement it is. However, because I have arthritic hands, it is hard for me to write on the board. So to save effort, after I had written out the word "accumulation" several times, I started just writing A_____,A____,A____ and saying the word "accumulation." Sure enough on the quiz at least a half dozen persons put "A,A,A" as the answer. One student said that that is what she had in her notes!!! Today a friend told me that a student in an anthropology class had written the following on an exam,"The Africans used Native American slaves to build their railraod system." Another, after reading the book about Guatemala by the Rigoberto Menchu wrote in a paper about the "Finca" tribe of Indians.

I really can't take too much more of this. I mean I still take this stuff seriously. Any advice? My advice to myself is to retire, and soon. If it were not for the working people I teach, I do believe that I would have an emotional collapse more serious than the ones I have already had. To make matters worse, students without a clue or any desire to learn whatever will be bitching about their grades.

I have always tried not to an elitist academic. I seldom lose my temper and I always treat students with respect. I am not telling you these things as a joke or to make fun of students. But it seems to me that capitalism has succeeded rather well in preparing young people to believe just about anything and not to know how to analyze anything.

Michael Yates

But I have to say that the level of illiteracy and general stupidity seems to be rising among students. the most basic words are unknown to them, and they never bother to look them up. I have to continually check myself when I am about to use a word I know that they should understand but do not.

With regard to the use of new critical terms, you might assign some homework, so students themselves would have to look up the meanings and usage of the terms. Raymond Williams' _Keywords_ should work as a model for this homework. Students tend to forget less quickly the words whose histories they had to investigate on their own. (You'd have to tell them where to look, though.) I know this homework is labor-intensive for both the teacher and students, but doing this once a semester/quarter can produce a good result (at least for many if not all students).

If you are not inclined to grade the above assignment (which is actually difficult to grade), you might give students a list of critical terms (with meanings, usage, examples, histories, etc.) for students to memorize (which should be at least easier on your hands because you can make templates and simply xerox them, so you don't have to write on the blackboard), which would eliminate the kind of note-taking gaffe you mentioned.

I haven't done this yet, but you might also create a website with lots of fun links that lead your students from the critical terms you want them to remember to the texts in which they are actually used. Most students enjoy using the internet.

If none of the above appeals to you, you might employ a mandatory revision per paper. When you correct & grade each paper, you don't cross out a misused term and write down the correct word next to it. You give it a LOW, LOW grade (maybe even a failing grade, to shake up the student) with an instruction as to how to look up the correct terms and their usage. This is a bit manipulative, but it tends to work. And you'll have a sadistic pleasure of failing truly lazy assholes (who refused to revise) later.

We just have to remember that learning to adopt a disciplined study habit, not to mention learning an academic language, is just like learning a new language. This may or may not be unfortunate, but we have to assume that _nearly everything_ is literally foreign to students.

Also, it helps us to keep in mind that _reading_ is definitely more important than writing, if our objective is to foster critical consciousness (or something like that). So if your students still don't write well at the end of the semester/quarter, no sweat. In fact, if you can get away with it, I recommend that you refuse to make them write anything in order to give them more time to read and think, unless your students are taking a higher-level seminar-like course. (In Japan, few professors make undergrads write 'papers.')

To make matters worse, students without a clue or any desire to learn whatever will be bitching about their grades.

To maintain your sanity, you might just have to ignore those unmotivated ones sometimes. I don't think there is any sin in doing so. We are human as well. The most we can hope is that some of our students will make use of something we offer not during the semester of love & hate but later, much later in their everyday life.

I am not telling you these things as a joke or to make fun of students.

I make fun of students in the classroom sometimes. They love it.


P.S. I think that too many students (have to) work (for pay, in retail, fast food, etc.) too many hours. This _overwork_, I believe, is the root evil, but I as an individual can't remedy it in class.

I got fired from a teaching job at an elite school with terrific, smart, dedicated grad and undergrad students (Clark U) because of my anti-war activities, including a draft board sit-in, lots of speeches, and subversive teaching. I was fired, not for political reasons, naturally, but because my academic publications, though abundant, were judged to be shallow. I ended up in a school (U of I at Chicago) in which almost all of the students who take geography are pragmatic, credential-seeking, uninterested in things of the mind, and conservative -- with very, very few exceptions. And the department offers only a Masters, so you don't get students who study with you with an academic career in mind. (If few revolutionaries are lucky enough to get tenure, almost none get tenure in schools which prepare the next generation of professors: that seems to be a law of capitalism.) I got tenure at the time of appointment to UIC, though I almost got fired a couple of times during Latino struggles. For more than two decades my teaching has been alienated labor and not much more, even though I love teaching, and I am a fairly good teacher. (The Clark students literally went on a two-day strike to protest my getting fired. That was the high point of my academic life.)

The way I have coped with this has been to concentrate on radical writing and struggles away from the school. The salary from the school also pays for my wife being a full-time unpaid organizer. If I had many students whom I could reach, academically or politically, I'd enjoy teaching. As it is, I've basically lost interest in teaching, do what teaching I have to do, and try to get fulfillment mainly in writing and also in community and political struggles.

The moral of the story, Mike, is this. Like most of us, when I chose an academic career I started out thinking that professors are somehow something other than ordimnary workers, and that we should love our work instead of accepting it as alienated labor like everyone else. In my experience, the un-burned out, unbent, and unbowed revolutionary academics, with a few exceptions (people who are both very good at their work and also are very, very lucky -- people like Dick Levins, Angela Davis, and Noam Chomsky, for instance) tend to have experiences somewhat comparable to mine -- and, I take it, to yours.

That's why I say: stick in there, even if the teaching doesn't seem to have much of an effect. What you're doing is revolutionary struggle on one of the many fronts of struggle. If you're not making visible progress, don't be discouraged: you are doing work that has to be don e for the revolution. I suppose none of us, in any line of work, see very much progress toward socialism in our work. Hang in there. The times they are a-changing, as the song rightly says.

Is it possible that those students are no more dumb than we were at their age? We had a loftier goal. They mostly just want to get ahead, grabbing a credential and learning the minimum you need to know to get ahead.

En lucha

Jim Blaut

I found Michael Yates' comments on his students very interesting. I think the same things can be said in a lot of other first world countries. It is partly that students have to work more and are more economically insecure, but I think it is also part of a broader social trend. Capitalist seems to have reached an impasse and yet the forces to get rid of it are weaker than ever. So we seem to be living in that time which Gramsci described - an interregnum full of morbid symptoms. One of the symptoms is the lowered horizons that exist right across society and the whole dumbing down that leads to. Additionally the increased commodification of tertiary education leads to dumbing down courses, especially in countries like NZ where universities are all public (we don't have private universities) and the links to business here have always been marginal. But in the last 15 years there has been a substantial commodification of the tertiary sector. Lecturers are now under massive pressure to get large numbers of students in their courses by dumbing down the course content. So there are less in-depth courses and more pop soundbite courses. I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, worked in factories and as a labourer and then a political organiser in the 1980s and early 1990s, and returned to do postgrad work in 1994. Fees in the late 1970s were $NZ40 for a full-time course at a NZ university, like Canterbury University - they are now $NZ3,500: ie a nine thousand percent rise in 20 years. With students paying these kind of fees now, they expect to be in effect buying a degree, at least a bachelor's degree. They pay their money - $10-11,000 over three years, they want a damn degree, they don't necessarily want to work hard for it as well.

Which of course, is very frustrating for Michael and others, like me, who actually still believe that standards are important and that equality means raising people up to the highest standard possible, not lowering everything to the lowest common denominator.

Phil Ferguson

I think Phil makes an important point here but in terms of my experience, at least in Britain, you can trace it back even further. I went to university in 1987 as a mature student in my late 20's doing a combined Honours degree in Philosophy and Politics, with, in my case, a background of 8 years as an active Marxist. Having spent years at night school trying to get the qualifications to go to university, I was expecting, somewhat naively, an atmosphere of debate and discussion.

What I got in my Politics courses, at least, was a group of students who had no interest in anything other than gaining a degree. Every lecture, no matter how bad, the bulk of students would copy it out verbatim, whatever the lecturer said. After my first few lectures, I stopped going as I figured I could do better reading on my own. Once I'd been there a while, a pattern set in with tutorials where students are supposed to argue their own views. A student would introduce a subject, then the tutor would make some points about it. He or she would then open the discussion up to contributions. After a few minutes of silence, the tutor would ask me what I thought. For the rest of the tutorial, myself and the tutor would have a discussion on the issue, while all the time, the other students would take notes. Even the relatively good students behaved in the same way.

The strangest thing I found about this process was that the other students regarded me as weird because I had an interest in the subject. At the end of the course, I already had plans about what I was going to do, so I never even attempted to try to do an M.A. But three of the other students, who had appeared to show little interest on the course ended up being accepted for further degrees there. Looking back I would probably disagree with a lot I said then but at least I tried to engage with arguments on the course while no-one else did.

I don't post this to blow my own trumpet but just to show that the process Phil talks about, was discernible in Britain, at least, a long time ago.

Colin Clarke


I want to thank the many people who responded to my post about teaching. I printed most of them for further study. And I got some ideas too. The funny thing is that, while my comments stirred some analytical thinking about the matter among us, I still had the mundane task of going back and teaching the next day. I decided to talk about the class in light of the email discussion. We had a good "rap" about the classes, what they found lacking in the quizzes and in the course and what I hoped for them. I can never sustain any sort of anger or disdain for my students. They are too much like my daughter and three sons. I look at them with a feeling of great sadness and some hope too. I want to hug them and say, "It's going to be alright." Even if it is not! Of course, sometimes I agree with Lenin and think we have to hit them on the head!!

Michael Yates