Reader Question: To Pseud or Not to Pseud?

Dear fellow readers,

I am a STEM professor who decided to pour my frustrations into an essay. It’s written in a personal style, shaking my fist at the heavens about students who have never developed good skills in high school math and yet refuse to switch from a highly quantitative field to something else. I have tenure and I am a member of the union, but I am also at a university that is loudly trumpeting messages about Student Success. Also, while I never relate any specific incidents with identifying details, I do note that a lot of colleagues dismiss the notion of steering students elsewhere, and often say “What about diversity?” when I say that some students just don’t have the mathematical skills. (Note that many of these floundering students are white males from suburbia. The students whom I wish to steer elsewhere are less diverse and more privileged than my colleagues need to claim in order to fashion their stance into some semblance of morality.)

Would it be insanity to publish this under my real name?

— Blog Reader


  1. I vote Pseud if you’re shaking your fist and airing frustrations.

    Maybe you could write it Non-Pseud like a factual case study of student A and B. Student A didn’t have the skills and left graduate school for a high paying job in industry. Student B overcame and persevered and earned a Ph.D. Both A and B are happy now, but are success stories.

  2. Or maybe a third option is to interrogate why it enrages you that students want to pursue a course of study that you unilaterally have deemed them unqualified for?

  3. What is the purpose of writing such an essay under your own name?

    What are the potential consequences both positive and negative?

    What are you hoping to achieve? Is this the best way to achieve it? What are other ways to achieve the same goal? Are they better or worse?

    Mathematical skills can be learned. I teach them to mathphobes every single year. Perhaps your energy would be better directed towards a math boot camp (we added one of those to orientation) and additional support their first year (we added TAs to the math-heavy intro classes). Then you could direct students towards those resources. Or perhaps argue to your colleagues that they should be made mandatory for students who are floundering.

  4. In the current political climate in academia, you’d probably have use a pseudonym (and not your current one, which could quickly result in exposure).

    While nicoleandmaggie’s response sounds reasonable, it does not address the problem, which is not students who are a little behind and can be rescued with a little remedial help. Students who fail an intro course, retake it, and do ok are not the problem.

    The problem (at least at my institution) are students who refuse to use the extensive tutoring and study help available, but repeatedly fail essential upper-division courses and won’t consider changing majors. Like xykademiqz, I find that these students are often male, and white or Asian—the students who are over-represented in engineering already. The courses that students fail repeatedly are mostly programming courses and statistics courses.

    At our institution, students cannot be kicked out of a major once they have declared it, even if they are making no progress in the major. In many cases, the only option if they don’t change major is to fail out of the university entirely. There has recently been a change so that students need their college adviser’s approval to a take a course a third time (but not the major adviser’s approval, though the college advisers do check with the major advisers).

    There is occasionally pressure on a major program to find a “workaround” to allow students to graduate even though they have repeatedly failed major courses. Why the administration wants to make degrees worthless by handing them out to people who have shown no ability or willingness to learn the material still mystifies me.

  5. I’m sorry, I misread the prompt as referring to *graduate* students, but it seems the pool is undergraduate students. The comparison could still work if Blog Reader thinks it’s a useful approach.

  6. First, thanks for posting my query.

    Second, why would I want to use my name? Honestly, I think I wrote it really, really well. I’ve published essays on academic issues before, and I’ve published them under my real name. I put a lot of effort into this one, tried varying my approach to write in a more interesting voice, and I think it worked. Maybe I’m wrong, but I honestly think it worked, so I’d like to put it out there and see how editors and readers respond. I find satisfaction in progressing as a writer (though I recognize that it will never replace my day job).

    Third, why do I care so much? I think that it’s cruel to retain floundering students when we could channel them into majors where they might flourish. Indeed, one of our best recent graduates (a woman, FWIW) started off in a very different major, did terribly, switched to our major, and excelled. I’d like to see more students enjoy that kind of trajectory, whether that trajectory starts elsewhere and comes to my department, or starts in my department and goes elsewhere. And I don’t think it will be a disaster for diversity.

    And I do have to bring up diversity because it’s the first thing that certain colleagues will bring up. I can say “Whiteboy McWhiterson is doing terribly and would be better off in another major” and certain colleagues will immediately say “Oh, you want to send women and minorities to other majors.”

    And I can say “Whiteboy McWhiterson went to a suburban high school where some of his classmates were the children of professors. He sunburns on cloudy days. He is more of a bro than half the football team. And he’s doing terribly. We should counsel him to do something else.”

    And they say “That’s just your opinion. Maybe he’ll do great in the next class.” And I say “He isn’t just failing my class. He failed your class. And the class taught by Dr. McSoftGrader.”

    “But he passed one of his classes!”

    “Yes, he got a C- from Dr. Bleedy McBleedingHeart.” And they’ll say “Well, maybe he’s not as theory-oriented as you, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have practical skills…”

    And I say “In lab he burned himself with a soldering iron.”

    And then they say “Look, somebody once told a woman she can’t do this, so we have no choice but to keep Whiteboy McWhiterson. For great justice.”

    Finally, as gasstationwithoutpumps said, this isn’t about a quick catch-up. We’re talking years of deficits. We’re talking about third year college students who think a^2 + b^2 = (a+b)^2 and 1/x + 1/y = 1/(x+y).

  7. There is one other reason why I want to put this under my real name: I’m not the only person with these frustrations. Many of the frustrated have even less job security than me. If a tenured professor and union member cannot freely discuss this issue, what message does that send to junior colleagues and others in less secure positions? It’s an acknowledgement that the ratchet can only turn in the direction of keeping people in majors where they flounder, not in the direction of finding something else.

  8. So… I’m still not getting an idea about what the purpose of this essay is? (Which is not the same question as why use your name.) It sounds like it’s to vent and to let other like-minded people agree with you quietly? For the purpose of making other frustrated people feel less frustrated?

    If the purpose is to have your students have better math skills for your majors, then how does this essay help? You could write a report that uses hard data to show that it’s mostly white dudes. But that’s not the same thing as what you’re describing. Do you have proposed solutions?

    And I’m sorry, but if you give me half a semester I can fix: a^2 + b^2 = (a+b)^2 and 1/x + 1/y = 1/(x+y) problems in addition to teaching them how to do simple derivatives. I do it for my public finance economics class *all the time* with a recitation section on Fridays that is just for people who need help on remedial math skills. Usually they just don’t know fractions and once I teach them basic fractions (first with numbers, then with variables) everything else clicks into place and by the midterm they’re fine. Exponents is even easier to teach. They’re not dumb, they just had a terrible elementary school teacher at some point and then got lost in Algebra. Yes, people who can’t do that should switch to another major (usually it turns out to be an undiagnosed learning disability) and some do, but that’s their choice.

    I think it’s really sad that you think that people can’t learn math in college if they put in the effort.

    But math skills doesn’t seem to be what you’re talking about either– it sounds like you want to push people faster along their path to political science (or whatever your gut major is) and it’s not about math at all. Which, sure. My husband used to teach in a department where everyone was a dropout from a harder engineering major. Some of them did well in his major, but many of them failed his 101 class so many times that they did end up making over in political science, which he found demoralizing and that’s why he’s in industry making 2x the money than he had as a professor. Through the grapevine, the reasons for repeated failure tended not to be math but trying to work a 40 hour week job to avoid loans or having drug problems. I don’t see how writing an essay in which you complain about the students is helpful there either.

    It sounds like you want to vent, not actually fix a problem.

    Think about the problem that you want to fix. Then think about ways to fix it. You say it’s math skills, but it doesn’t sound like math skills. It sounds like you have some students who are not great students and you want to push them to another major, which… if your major is popular enough you can have GPA cutoffs or force them to earn a B in some specific class (like the common requirement of having to get at least a B in Calc 2 from the math department to stay in a social science major). If not then you can’t.

    Putting your name on an essay that complains about students is just going to increase their math phobia and they are going to do even more poorly than they would otherwise in any required courses they have to take from you. If you’re lucky then they will be allowed to avoid you which will have a negative impact on all the untenured folks you want to protect. (But hey, maybe they’ll find out that industry jobs do pay 2x as much.)

  9. I actually do work on remedying math gaps. The colleagues who push back on me generally avoid the crucial junctures in the curriculum where these things are most apparent and possibly still fixable. They would rather scold me for noticing what they are trying to ignore. Frankly, my efforts would go better if I got support from people teaching the other classes.

    And it is possible to work on fixing problems by day while writing essays after hours. One doesn’t preclude the other. In fact, cathartic venting and commiserating can even release tension that would otherwise inhibit performance in the day job.

  10. Anyway, I will teach fractions to upper division STEM majors and then scratch my head and wonder why the head of state thinks we should inject Lysol. I’m sure these two things are completely unconnected.

  11. So what is the purpose of publishing this essay under your own name? Does it serve any other purpose than to vent?

    Especially given it’s likely to make students feel bad who you may not even be meaning to address. (Since you know those white dudes who skate through life with Cs from minimal effort won’t think it’s about them.)

    Maybe you should volunteer to teach the 101 class when it’s easier for students to change majors!

  12. I voluntarily teach a lot of foundational classes. The people who scold me the most rarely do so. Can you feel any empathy for the frustration of trying to solve a problem that others exempt themselves from seeing?

    And can you understand the insanity of saying “Dear students, welcome to the first day of Advanced STEM 3100. The prerequisites are multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations. Let’s start with 1/2 + 1/3…”?

    But I think I will definitely use a pseudonym. I wrote above about how we get good students who failed in other majors and thrive with us, and I’d like to see some of our floundering students follow a similar path and thrive in a better subject, and you summed it up as me wanting to dump kids on poli sci. There is zero chance that my arguments will be read in good faith. So no way am I using my name.

  13. I agree with nicoleandmaggie that most people can be taught most math that is taught in middle and high school. But it’s not true that anyone can be taught arbitrarily high levels of math. If that were true, anyone could be a professional mathematican. (This is akin to how anyone can learn a foreign language enough to be able conduct their daily life, but most people will never be able to write great works of literature, in any language.)

    There are some majors where a higher-than-average aptitude for and facility with math are necessary, otherwise a person is up for a very miserable experience and is probably better off doing something else.

    The example of a third-year college student who thinks a^2 + b^2 = (a+b)^2 or 1/x + 1/y = 1/(x+y) is a good one because is corresponds with a very low level of preparation. This is roughly 8th or 9th grade level, intro algebra that most kids take in late middle school or early high school, even earlier if they’re accelerated in math. Yes, you can teach anyone this, but some majors require not only excellent (not passable; excellent) facility manipulating fractions and polynomials, but also years of singe-variable and multivariable calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, complex calculus, statistics, programming, etc. after that. If someone is remediating Algebra I from middle/high school when they’re in a math-heavy major in college, this is simply too little, too late.

    I completely agree there are people who have great aptitude for math but have faced sucky, sucky teaching. I really do hope we can identify these people and help them, and their high aptitude should enable them to progress quickly through remediation if they put in the work. But most often, and I believe that might be what the letter writer is referring to, it’s some combination of aptitude that’s not very high + insufficient work + substandard teaching in the early years. While I agree that with great teaching and lots of work these students can be brought up to maximize their potential, and there are definitely benefits to that as lots of opportunities open up for students thereafter, the skills still won’t be where they would need to be for most of these students to be really successful in majors that are really math-heavy.

    I think the letter writer wishes it weren’t such an anathema to tell students that a certain course of study just isn’t for them. For example, I had a student a while ago who would routinely score below 20% on exams where the average was 75-80%, and his under 20% came from scattered bits and pieces of partial credit. He was not afraid to ask questions in class, which were so wildly off base (like, in a different star system) that it was really hard to answer them with a straight face, and do it succinctly so as not to derail the class for too long. He was completely oblivious to it all. Yet, I am not supposed to tell him that maybe this is not a major for him. Whom/what does this serve?

  14. @xyk, in my experience either they figure it out, or they don’t pass a specific required course with a high enough grade. If the problem is that Engineering Math 201 can be passed with a C or D, or that the math department’s adjunct who teaches that service course is terrible, then that’s something that could actually be addressed and can be addressed before it’s too late for a student to change majors easily. The big problem is when people who DO have potential are told they don’t by well-meaning but implicitly biased professors, which is generally not the white dude students (who likely aren’t going to listen anyway). I’d rather a few privileged white guys have to take a fifth year than a single woman or underrepresented student becoming demoralized and end up in major that’s a worse match just because it’s a more welcoming major.

    @OP– I could quote back to you the things you said that made me respond the way I did, but I’m not sure what the purpose of that would be and it would take a lot of my time, so I’m not going to. I’ve spent the afternoon editing the undergraduate thesis of an engineer who is working for me this summer and wishing that engineers had more technical writing classes because this writing is not even high school level. Could you add that to your rant as well? kthnxbye

  15. First, I also share your frustrations about writing. I wasn’t planning to put that in my essay, largely in the interests of length and focus, but also because language skills carry a bunch of extra baggage involving culture and background. (Though we might know a certain blogger who writes superbly despite hailing from a non-Anglophone land.)

    Second, if you quote back to me the worst things that I said, I would actually consider that feedback in my essay. No joke.

  16. @nicoleandmaggie: “The big problem is when people who DO have potential are told they don’t by well-meaning but implicitly biased professors, which is generally not the white dude students (who likely aren’t going to listen anyway). I’d rather a few privileged white guys have to take a fifth year than a single woman or underrepresented student becoming demoralized and end up in major that’s a worse match just because it’s a more welcoming major.”

    This is a big, BIG problem and I think the source of much frustration of the letter writer re the feedback from their colleagues. Honestly, I think the remedy to this is better and more diverse teachers in lower-level classes (which then puts more strain on minority teachers and detracts from their research, and is a whole other can of worms). But I know there is a big difference from having someone like me in a low-level class versus an old white dude, certainly for women, but I hope for other minorities, as well. I know I go out of my way to tell promising students that they are doing great and that they have what it takes to succeed in this field. Most are surprised and delighted to hear it. Many super bright students are first generation in college, and while they probably suspected they were doing well, being told so unequivocally by someone in a position of authority means a great deal and has resulted in them feeling emboldened to pursue research, advanced degrees, etc.

    Maybe this is the way. Effusive praise to those who are promising; not necessarily discouraging those who aren’t. But even this can probably be biased? I don’t really know how to remove bias other than by diversifying teachers.

    I have never initiated a conversation about changing majors, but have had a bunch of conversations with unhappy students who volunteered that they’re majoring in this because their family wants them to, and they’d rather do something else (they usually knew what), but families wouldn’t or couldn’t pay for something with lesser job prospects right out of college. So there’s that, too.

    I will note that the average woman we get (and we get 10-15% of women in our classes) performs far better than the average man. I cannot remember the last time I had a woman in the class who was below class average. The minority students we get tend to be very good, too. This means the women and minorities have self-selected out of our major way before we see them in college, likely because of the bias in earlier stages.

    Again, I don’t really know how to remove bias other than by diversifying the teachers at all levels and offering varied role models and plenty of encouragement for girls and minorities much before college.

  17. The women in my department who teach intro and key majors classes are most likely to agree that some kids, with whatever skin color or sex chromosomes, shouldn’t do this. They see certain realities every day, and they see those realities in both men and women, and both the pasty and the pigmented. Because here’s a little secret about women and minorities: They’re as human as anyone else.

    The women in my department who do everything in their power to avoid these key classes are most likely to proclaim self-righteously that nobody should ever be counseled away. They avoid the classes where certain things would be hard to avoid. They have cushy gigs, and can’t believe you’d ever want to make things less cushy for someone.

    Come to think of it, the dudes in my department are similarly bifurcated. It’s almost as though avoidance of inconvenient truths transcends background.

    There’s a pretty obvious downside to dragging diversity into the discussion whenever someone laments under-prepared students. Spend enough time saying “If you want minorities you need to review fractions in classes that have differential equations as a prereq” and people will draw certain conclusions.

    Never mind that WhiteBoy McWhiterson also thinks 1/x + 1/y = 1/(x+y)

  18. “In fact, cathartic venting and commiserating can even release tension that would otherwise inhibit performance in the day job.” Typically this is done with friends, behind closed doors – not in a published document. What’s the point of publishing other than having other people say – “Yeah, I can’t stand the stupidity of my students too!” Agree w/ N&M that I’m not sure what the point is? I’m looking forward to seeing this blow up on Twitter in the coming weeks.

  19. The problem is that it’s deemed perfectly acceptable to publish essays on the importance of believing everyone can should get through a STEM program, but it’s not acceptable to publish first-hand accounts of the downsides when an institution insists that we actually try that. The first notion is duly progressive, the second is deemed counter-revolutionary. So we all sit here and pretend that the Party has achieved great strides in implementing the Five Year Plan. And threaten with cancellation anyone who points out inconvenient facts.

  20. I completely share the frustrations of the letter writer.

    The comments on this thread, including those by academicians such as N&M, are part of the problem. The narrative which is constantly asserted is that ALL human beings (here students) being equal implies all of them to have universal experiences and talents — modulo some external factors and people (here bad instructors) which hamper from realizing identical, or at least comparable, levels of success — and to suggest otherwise is discriminatory or racist or both.

  21. I am concerned about students who fail courses repeatedly, but are not then steered to a major that they can complete in 5–6 years, whose tuition is taken, but who never finish a degree. These are the students who end up with massive student debt that they can’t pay off.

    I’m also concerned about pressure from administrators to graduate students in 4 years, even if they have manifestly failed to meet the requirements of the degree.

  22. I also think it’s frustrating when college students don’t have even basic junior high level math skills, but it’s even more frustrating when professors and other highly educated persons reading blog posts don’t seem to have basic reading comprehension skills, or when they refuse to use those skills. I think some here are deliberately interpreting the letter-writer’s query in the least charitable way possible. The writer’s “point” is that maybe we should consider that it is not in every student’s interest to stay in a particular major and that some faculty members seem to be trying to retain students in a particular major to advance their own agendas. Pushing students out sounds bad, but we should also be aware of other forces that seem to be pushing students into particular majors that they may not even like and that may not be a good fit for them. When it’s done carefully, I don’t see anything wrong in principle with helping students question those pressures.

  23. Non-math & science person here, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but as someone potentially reading this essay in IHE or the Chronicle, I would want to know if there are some solutions that the writer would propose. What xykademiqz says above may be a start: “Honestly, I think the remedy to this is better and more diverse teachers in lower-level classes (which then puts more strain on minority teachers and detracts from their research, and is a whole other can of worms).”

  24. What makes you so sure that all problems have solutions, let alone solutions that fit into a 2500 word (or less) essay?

  25. Besides, if you put a person of whatever background in front of 30 kids, some of whom got an A in calculus and some of whom struggle with fractions, and ask her/him/etc. to remedy gaps AND teach the material needed to succeed in a subsequent more advanced class, what makes you think that being a woman or minority will actually help all that much? It’s an impossible task for anyone, unless we do away with all constraints of time and class size, mandate student attendance at tons of extra tutoring sessions etc.

    And even then it might not work. The military spends two years training recruits for nuclear reactor technician and cryptography jobs, they have full authority over how recruits spend their time, and the recruits are getting paychecks and living expenses taken care of. They STILL don’t get everyone to pass, and that is after some pretty extreme filtering by ASVAB scores.

    Yet you think a professor with fewer resources and less control over how students spend their time outside of class can work miracles with students who have complicated personal lives and weaker math preparation than someone with a top ASVAB score?

    Melanin and mammary glands do not make a miracle worker.

  26. Melanin and/or mammary glands on instructors might help well-qualified minority students feel less out of place, and these instructors are (hopefully) less implicitly biased than the majority demographic. All of this should (might?) increase the chances of retention of capable minority students, which I believe is the main point of most diversity efforts.

    But I’m not sure what can help those who are supposed to teach advanced material in a class where some students are well prepared and ready for the challenge, while some are literally years behind. We do what we can: recommend tutoring, put bandaids where we can, and discuss their career plans with them as compassionately as we can.

    There’s a big culprit gasstationwithoutpumps noticed. It is cruel to set up students to fail with a ton of debt and no degree. I am not sure it’s the professors’ fault or their job to fix this, but somebody should be thinking about it. This doesn’t mean we should graduate whomever in whatever major; people have different skills and abilities, and universities should try hard to find a path that works for a student, especially if the student is willing to put in the work. That sometimes means telling them they need to find a new major.

  27. If the problem is that Engineering Math 201 can be passed with a C or D, or that the math department’s adjunct who teaches that service course is terrible, then that’s something that could actually be addressed and can be addressed before it’s too late for a student to change majors easily. You could even limit the number of times it can be taken. We get plenty of wanna-be pre-meds whose freshman chemistry class helped them convince their parents they should switch to social science. OR you could not allow people to pick a major until their sophomore or junior year, and they have to apply for it (at my undergrad, the most popular/selective major could not be declared until junior year).

    No need to tell anybody that they’re not suited for a major (which is SO biased– I do not have a single female or minority friend who stayed in engineering at the flagship university in my state, even though we ALL got the same elite high school math and science educations and they did well; this is why my sister went a specific elite private university instead because they actually kept their women majors)– just have a weed-out course and make the weed-out courses early enough that people can change majors without taking a fifth year.

    Which you can only do without losing faculty positions if your major is popular enough. We’d all love small elite majors with small classes of extremely bright hard-working students, but alas, that’s not how finances or politics work at most unis.

    And it’s not enough to have female and minority faculty– female faculty don’t stay if the environment is toxic. Though if that’s your aim, NSF provides ADVANCE funding to study the problem, and there’s a big literature stemming from their program.

    Some people say, and I agree, that we will only have true equality when mediocre women and minorities are treated the same way as mediocre white men. We are so far from there.

  28. Completely agreed on the adage that equality means mediocre women and minorities are treated as well as mediocre majority men.

    However, faculty and curricula cannot control all variables that lead to attrition. If you have only 10-15% women in classes, the women may have a hard time finding study partners or are treated badly by peers during small-group work or mandatory projects, and some will leave. This holds even for women who might excel in all the required coursework. Actually, the best ones will likely leave first because they are capable and have lots of options. For example, I often think that, if I had to take my undergrad major here, I would probably switch, because the aggressive brand of sexism typical of young male nerds (rooted largely in insecurity and cluelessness, but scary nonetheless) would likely result in me saying “Fuck this. I’m outta here.” (Where I went to school, socialization is very different; no nerd culture as it exists in the US.) People who are capable and prepared but feel unwelcome might actually need someone of authority to convince them they are meant for the course of study they chose (although one could argue that we shouldn’t do this either; why convince someone to keep doing something they find oppressive?) and/or need ways to feel supported, hence all the women-in-STEM workshops, residential programs, clubs, whatnot. Basically, competent female and minority students need different things and different remedies than what the letter writer discusses, which are (largely majority) people who are not well prepared (as evidenced by poor class performance) yet persevere in what is clearly a wrong major because the programs are structured without weed-out courses (most majors don’t have strict admission/progress cutoffs because most majors aren’t as coveted as medicine nor do they have a guild that tightly regulates professional-school enrollments). I think we are discussing ways to get students to not waste time in an unsuitable major (defined as continuous poor class performance, often due to years of preparation deficits) and not get further into debt for a degree that might never come. I don’t understand why it is a terrible idea to tell someone who keeps failing or getting only Cs and Ds that maybe there’s a better major for them out there somewhere. People want to feel successful; it must feel terrible to spend years on something at which the student is clearly below average. Let’s say they graduate, and then what? Spend the rest of their lives using a degree in something they were never good at? Whom does that serve?

  29. Why say it and provide discretion that is likely to be biased and lead to more attrition from people without Dunning-Kruger problems when you can have a requirement that treats everybody the same and is expected and predictable? (Like saying they have to pass Engineering math with a B average, maximum of two tries, which is a pre-req to 300-level courses). If you don’t have that requirement, then maybe it’s because you need more people in your major than you would have if you were allowed to have a cut.

    I’m not saying that you can’t kick people out of your major. I am saying that:

    1. advising people out tends to end up with predictably biased results. And that

    2. depending on how popular your major is, you may not have enough students who both want to be in the major and can do well in the major, so you might not have that luxury unless you are willing to lose faculty slots. (Obviously there are moving parts, adjuncts, grant money, etc. but most places enrollment still counts for something in terms of TT lines.) Most of us graduate the C students (our major, thankfully popular enough the D students have to switch majors if they don’t recover after a semester of academic probation), not just the A and B students… and since they’re often white dudes, they tend to do pretty well in life anyway, probably better with an econ/engineering degree than with a political science/communications/English degree, at least at first.

  30. I’m not disagreeing with this, but this is not something a single faculty member can do much about. The requirements for majors take years to implement even if all faculty are on board and there is no opposition from college/university. “If you don’t have that requirement, then maybe it’s because you need more people in your major than you would have if you were allowed to have a cut.” That may be true, but again not something a single faculty member can do much about. Also, many schools are small, and all their programs, even when full and doing well, are small when compared to big research universities. The question is what one faculty member could and should do now, without an idealized scenario that requires a structural change that’s beyond the faculty member’s ability to effect, when working with underperforming (largely majority) students who keep hanging on despite evidence that they might do better elsewhere.

  31. N&M, my institution is very different from how you imagine it. “Four years” is a concept that we know only from fictional stories. Five or more is utterly normal at this inexpensive, non-elite state school. The fact that everyone takes forever means that “behind” is an amorphous concept. That contributes to students’ misappraisals of their situations and prospects.

    We require at least a C- in all prereq classes. I’m opening to requiring something better, but I guarantee that a bunch of colleagues will object. “But what if somebody only got a C-/C/C+/[whatever unacceptable grade] once and then did great after that? I remember when This One Person had one bad semester but otherwise did great. Would you hold them back?” Also, if requiring something better actually meant that repeat rates went up in crucial math classes, I guarantee you that the adjuncts teaching differential equations or Calc I or whatever would soon face pressure to improve pass rates in the name of “Student Success.”

    And, yes, I referred to adjuncts. Plural. Get rid of the idea that “the” adjunct teaching whatever math class is terrible. We’re a massive factory. Quality control is whatever it can be when you have more than a dozen sections of differential equations and two dozen sections of calculus, taught by whoever could be rounded up in that time slot for the wage on offer. This army of lecturers is evaluated by an under-staffed TT faculty cohort with way too many people to evaluate, and the whole process is scrutinized by an aggressive union. Yes, yes, in an ideal world you can still have excellent quality control. In this world, well…

    Weed-out courses? We’ve tried that. We keep getting sent to workshops on the need to improve Student Success. We get to sit through speeches on why “weeding out” is an unfair concept. They exhort to jump on whatever the progressive educational notion of the day is. They want those calculus pass rates to go up, not down, and by whatever means necessary. Nobody will utter the words “Lower your standards”, but what isn’t said often matters more than what is said. And what’s never said is anything that could be construed as a call for a harder “tough love” standard that humanely triages people earlier rather than later. The result is that a C or C+ or even (sometimes) B in calculus means little. Ditto for chem. Ditto for physics. Sit in my office hours and watch someone with a B in calculus try to do a very simple integral. It’s…revealing. Sit in my office hours and watch someone with a B in freshman physics try to do a basic Newtonian mechanics problem. Sit in my office hours and watch someone with a B in chemistry ask me why an atomic mass of 200 grams/mole does NOT mean a mass of 200 grams per atom. (Yes. Really.)

    Also, it’s hard to put a weed-out math course in the first year when some people are placing into calculus I and others are placing into trigonometry or even “college” algebra. The notion of a “first year” math course doesn’t apply when everybody places at a different level. Nobody takes the hint when they place into “college” algebra instead of calculus. And, yes, I’m aware that those placement tests are not perfect. No statistical method gives perfect predictions. But let me tell you, spend some time listening to students talk through problem-solving in office hours, and you’ll quickly spot the difference between a person who needed a high school math refresher and subsequently did great, versus the person who never truly grasped high school math, didn’t catch up in “college” algebra, got their C, went to calculus, got another generous C, and still has no clue. This person will continue skating by on partial credit for a long time, rather than ever actually getting anything.

    Our enrollments are good enough that we can afford to send a few away, but not so good that we can tell the Dean to go stuff it somewhere when they start harping on Student Success. Some of the ultra-high-enrollment STEM departments can afford to set a harsher standard earlier in their curriculum. So they have 200-level courses that review everything that was allegedly taught in 100-level physics and math and then go much deeper, and they set ruthless cutoffs.

    And you know what? The one person who refused to do that, who instead jumped on a bunch of pedagogical fads and made a big splash about his magically improved pass rates in these classes? The administration showered him with rewards. And the department chair who wanted to scrutinize certain budget irregularities with his grants soon had a bunch of trouble from the administration.

    In my department, we do try to put good people in our intro classes. We only have so many to go around. Some of our good people (yes, including women and minorities who make good role models, but also including a few white dudes who are quite decent once you get to know them) are happy to teach intro. Great. Others who could do a good job (yes, including women and minorities who would make good role models if we could drag them into a classroom, but also including plenty of asshole white dudes) have done everything in their power to get release time, often by joining committees and special programs that advise on Best Practices For Student Success. Much better to advise on Best Practices than to go and actually use them in the classroom.

    So the remaining intro classes get staffed with whoever is available in that time slot and willing to take the pay on offer. Some are great. But some, well, reality is what it is.

    It would be easier to address these problems if people could allow themselves to draw a clear distinction between two very different issues:
    1) Providing role models and encouragement for female and minority students who are reasonably well prepared and could be anywhere from decent to great students with reasonable support.
    2) Humanely identifying hopeless floundering cases and encouraging them to try something else.

    But too many people resist 2 because they see it as being at odds with 1. And, honestly, it is to some extent at odds with 1, since there are always false positives and false negatives. There’s always a tension. But if your response to that tension is to never, ever, EVER steer somebody away, you’re committing yourself to a model where floundering kids just keep writing those tuition checks.

    This would be easier if every single floundering student were male and pale. We’d have greater moral clarity. But while the floundering kids who can’t do math are paler and maler than the wider student body at my school, they aren’t 100% pale and male. So it becomes a moral crisis if ANY of the kids whom you’re trying to steer away are female and/or of color. Of course we should be reflective as we do this, and ask ourselves some question before trying to counsel a woman of color to reconsider. But if we never, ever have that hard discussion, if we always just cash her tuition checks, well, that has its own moral hazards.

  32. But the OP isn’t asking any of that… the OP is asking if he should write a rant under his own name or a pseudonym. I asked what his purpose was. He didn’t seem to have one other than to vent (and I guess to get kudos from other people?).

    You’re saying you should be allowed to counsel people out, but I’m countering that if that is encouraged, that is going to hurt vulnerable groups because of bias more than it helps the white dudes who are going to either graduate with Cs or are going to add a year to their degree in another major. I am not denying that there will be white dudes who take a fifth year after changing majors or who drop out of school but land on their feet later. But the harm to my female and minority friends from high school (who ended up mainly in psychology after being counseled out of engineering) has been far worse than the harm to the white dudes who maybe should have switched but ended up dropping out on their own but still got tech careers (often in sales or customer service) despite not being B students or in some cases even finishing college.

    This is an empirical question– you should have information on the jobs and salaries your cruddy students got. If not, it’s a good time to start collecting it or to do an alumni survey. Our cruddy students tend to do just fine (in regular years <5% are still unemployed after 6 months, which is good for our uni). And probably better than they would have with a major that required less math.

  33. On the intersection of encouraging students to change major and gender/diversity issues:

    There’s a very nice recent paper showing that a large fraction of the gender gap is that, at least in Physics, Engineering + Computer Science, men with low qualifications stick around and take these majors, while only the best-qualified women enroll:
    (Men at the first percentile of STEM achievement are enrolling in these majors at about the same rate as women at the 80th percentile!!?? – An extreme variant of the “men with 50% of the qualifications apply, women with 50% don’t”).

    This suggests that some well-targeted major-switching would help both students and the overall culture. I do think that nicoleandmaggie’s worry that if advisers do this at will, they’ll recapitulate existing social biases is a fair one. But I think there’s a surplus of mediocre men we can get into majors they might be happier with.

  34. Thanks, Rheophile! The paper is quite eye-opening. This excerpt made me lolsob, and is quite relevant for our discussion:

    “This pattern of men’s persistence being less sensitive to feedback on their actual performance is consistent with a general pattern found in other recent work (see SM, section 3).”

    The referenced section 3 in Supplementary Materials says:
    “Research in STEM broadly as well as specific fields such as mathematics, calculus, and
    economics reinforce our hypothesis that men’s persistence being less sensitive to feedback on their actual performance (36-39)”

    36. H. M. G. Watt et al., Sex Roles 77, 254 (2017). doi:10.1007/s11199-016-0711-1
    37. T. Buser, H. Yuan, Am. Econ. J. Appl. Econ. 11, 225 (2019). doi:10.1257/app.20170160
    38. T. Avilova, C. Goldin, “What Can UWE Do for Economics?” (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2018).
    39. T. Sanabria, A. Penner, Soc. Sci. 6, 47 (2017). doi:10.3390/socsci6020047 Medline

  35. It’s interesting hearing this from a math-y perspective. I’m a Biology prof at an undergrad college, and we have a very high advising load as it is a popular major. A goodly chunk of my advising includes talking to students who are failing all or nearly all of their major requirement classes in the first and second year about what they are hoping to get out of their college experience.

    In some cases there are clearly solvable issues, like a student being put into calculus instead of precalc because precalc was full, or a student who is just “figuring out college” and needs a “softer” entry than 3 math+science courses plus labs and 2 gen eds besides. These can be remedied usually by withdrawing from some classes and repeating them later, while also pursuing various study resources. Often these students go on to do fine in the major, other times they end up still switching majors because something else sparks their interest.

    Certainly n&m has a good point that having gateway courses/requirements and course repeat limits can be useful safety gauges to catch students who are otherwise determined to repeatedly bang their heads against a cement wall. These are good in that they are objective – and can in theory be anticipated. However, if too early and too harsh (e.g. you need a B in calculus or the major course to continue) it can intensify inequities if there are differences in college preparedness, and if it is late in the course of study, this may put off a decision until as late as the Junior year and force students to stay in college for 6 years unnecessarily.

    So, I think advising can have a role here too. This conversation can and should be had in a sensitive way. Instead of saying to the student outright “this is hopeless, you need to change majors”, ask the failing student to think about what has excited them so far about college, what they have learned that they found fascinating. What specifically about the courses they have taken they have liked and disliked? How about gen-eds they’ve taken? Sometimes you find out students are only in a major because their parents insisted. You have to be empathetic to these students – sometimes parents will refuse to pay tuition if a student switches majors. But I also do advise them that this is their life/education and not their parents (I also advise them to talk to campus advisement and financial aid about their case). It’s also the case that there are a few students who have literally never considered any other possibility than this major or dropping out of college, and it is OK in my view to suggest to these students that maybe they should broaden their interests, and at least try out some other field of study.

    I guess for me it comes down to, if you never have these conversations with a student (presenting the idea that other courses of study are at least possible), how will you ever catch these readily solvable cases?

  36. OP, you seem really angry at your colleagues. Not sure how an essay is going to help with that.

  37. Total insanity to publish under your real name.

    No one is interested in your rational, thought-out opinions.

    They will look for sentences to twist out of context, and shame you everywhere as a racist bigot.

  38. To answer the original question, I don’t think it’s wise to publish under your real name. It doesn’t seem like your identity is an important piece of the argument that you’re making, and it increases the chance of ad hominem attacks.

    I also think that if I read such an article, I personally would shrug and move on. At least where I am, it’s far from our most urgent issue, and as others have pointed out, the obvious solution (advise mediocre students out of the major), when applied without the greatest possible care for nuance and selectivity, is highly likely to work against what I *do* consider a bigger and more pressing issue, namely that of retention of underrepresented students. It’s a really fine line to walk, and subtlety is not the greatest strength of people commenting on articles on the internet.

    Yes, I’ve seen this issue with (mostly) white, affluent, male students (I actually had my first female student in this category recently — turns out that despite not being able to recognize that the average of eight numbers should not be less than any of the individual numbers, she’s actually a pretty decent research student. As long as I am careful to triple-check every line of code she writes, she’s extremely persistent and can turn the crank on the code for the project as much as I need her to to get out results — fortunately I had the foresight to put her on a project that mainly required a lot of tedious drudgery). But honestly, it’s not that big a problem for me, and I don’t think it’s necessarily my place to address it. I’ll give them the C, send them some straightforwardly critical feedback at the end of the semester about their lack of foundational skills, but as their professor for SCIENCE201 that’s just about as far as I feel that my responsibility for the issue extends. If I get them back in my class for SCIENCE301 and there’s been no progress on the foundational skills, well… at least we both know what to expect.

  39. Focusing on the question of how to publish, I think your own name would become a lightning rod that would allow people to avoid the uncomfortable issues. I really think anon is the way to go here.

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