29 November 2011

They're getting dumber

When I started working at the bookstore, we would get customers who would come in around exam time looking to buy their books, so they could study for their exams.  Every now and then we would have a customer who did not know what book they were looking for.  The conversation would go like this:

Customer:  I'm looking for a book.

Me:  You're in the right place.  What book?

Customer:  I'm not sure about the title.

Me:  Who wrote it?

Customer:  Ummmmm...

Me:  What's your course?

Customer:  Humanities.....  Humanities one thousand and.... one thousand and... one thousand and something.

Me:  Who's your professor?

Customer:  I don't know.  I don't go to the lectures.  But the book does have a red cover.  I know that.

Me:  Follow me.  (I lead him to a stretch of shelves six feet high and forty feet long.)  This is the Humanities one thousand and something section.  Knock yourself out.


Customer:  I couldn't find it.

Me:  I'm not surprised.

Customer:  I really need that book.  I'm writing an exam on it tomorrow.

Me:  (inside):  You think you're going to read a book tonight and be prepared to answer questions on it tomorrow, even though you skipped all the lectures?  Plus, given the fact that you don't know your course number, are you certain that your exam is tomorrow?  (outwardly):  I'm terribly sorry, but I can't help you.

Customer:  You guys suck.

That was the exception ten years ago.  Today, it is the rule.  One customer after another comes to the desk asking for help to find a book they don't know written by an author they don't know for a course they don't know taught by a professor they don't know. Then there is their sense of entitlement.  The other day I had this exchange with a "customer":

Customer:  I need this book for an exam on Monday, but I don't have any money.  Is there any way I can borrow it for the weekend?

Me.  No.  If you want to borrow a book, you need to go to the library.

Customer:  Where's the library?

Me:  (This question does not shock me any more.)  It's the really big building in the centre of campus.

Customer:  What if they don't have it?

Me:  Inside  Then you need to change your major.  Outside:  I'm terribly sorry, but I can't help you.

Customer:  You guys suck.

 Where did they come from?

They came from our high schools.  Once, we would have turned the students away, but not now.  That changed a few years back when we had the double cohort.  The double cohort, for those outside of Ontario, was the result of a cost cutting measure by the Ontario government.  High school in Ontario used to go up to grade thirteen, whereas most provinces only went up to twelve.  The government decided to bring Ontario into line with the rest of Canada, and save a lot of money, by cutting off grade thirteen.  That meant that for a few years, universities took on students from twelve and thirteen all at once, hence the double cohort.

To prepare for the double cohort, the university built extra buildings and parking lots to hold and teach all the new students.  Then, after three or four years, the cohort was gone.  The university was stuck deciding what to do with the extra space and how to fill it, and they came up with the obvious solution:  they would lower their standards, and let in more students.  No, seriously.  That's what they did.

We are also stuck in a paradigm shift, or perhaps between two paradigms: that of the professors, and that of the students.  Or perhaps the official rules of the university, and the actual application.  Let me give you an example.

About two years ago, a guy I know became a teaching assistant for the first time, teaching first year history.  he sat down one fine day to mark his first batch of essays, always a real eye opener, and discovered to his dismay that eight of his twenty four students, or one third, had simply downloaded papers off the Internet.  He marched into the program office and demanded these students be expelled as per university rules regarding academic dishonesty.  He was told, flatly:  "No." 

No reason was given, but it isn't hard to figure out.  The university currently has around fifty thousand students who pay roughly five thousand dollars a year tuition.  Assuming his class was normal and average, enforcing the rules would mean expelling one third of the current student body, or approximately seventeen thousand.  That would mean the loss of    $85,000,000. If we were to tack on future lost revenues, the money lost over three years, assuming we caught them in their first year, would be $255,000,000.  So the losers stay, and the university education is downgraded.

Or is it?  As I said, we are in a paradigm shift, although I think that term may be inaccurate.  The shifts are occurring so fast and so often, that no new paradigm is ever established- or rather, the shift itself is the new paradigm.  At this point in the curve, originality is not valued.  Collation, quotation and parody are the products of the Internet and the skills valued now.  I spoke to a friend who runs a tech department of a major corporation recently, and told him the story of the cheating students.  I mentioned that it wouldn't take long for employers to notice that a university degree is worthless, and he said: "Not necessarily.  When I ask my people to write up a report about a new technology, I am not looking for an original piece or writing.  I need them to look up sources of information, and evaluate them, and then report on their findings."

So perhaps downloading and copying is the wave of the future, at least for the time being.  On the other hand, the down loaders will still need someone original to quote, and those are getting rarer.

1 comment:

Patience said...

I care. And I think the post was both funny and sad. My kids will not be among the downloaders; they will be writing the stuff. At first it may be drivel; but it will be original drivel. LOL! We're the sort who think a successful country drive culminates in finding a dusty used bookstore. (kids included)