Paul’s Perambulations

January 1, 2010

As Honor Students Multiply, Who Really Is One? (NYTimes 1/1/10)

Filed under: General — admin @ 6:20 pm

The following is my comment (#75) on the NYTimes article in the title above. Click my comment button for my second comment (#177) on this same article.

Honor societies often mean essentially nothing nowadays. I agree with the many comments that have already made this point. I disagree with #8 who says today’s students work harder. Number 8 and I are each expressing our own experience, but I expected much more work out of my students 40 years ago than I can expect today (and still keep my job). When I graduated from high school, there were four “recognitions” in the entire class of more than 100. My daughter regularly ignored various honor offers she received during her college years. I had to persuade her that $35 for a lifetime membership in Phi Beta Kappa was probably a worthwhile deal — she had dumped the letter.


  1. Honor societies are grade societies, and grade inflation makes the honor dubious. What has been my response to the pressure for grade inflation? Any question that I ask on a test must have an identifiable answer from within the course material, and that answer should be understandable to the student when pointed out to them (the latter hasn’t always been successful). I can either point to the answer in the text or I can point to my personal notes (where I have checked “test question” beside certain items after I cover them in class). I mark this on my notes for students who claim that because it’s not in their notes, it wasn’t covered in class. And I follow my syllabus (which students frequently ask me to modify for them). I inform students that “answers” from Wikipedia or comparable sources are not the definitive answers for this course. All exams are untimed. This done, and feeling legally secure, I can do whatever I feel is best for learning. However, this does limit me somewhat, and there are pros and cons to this approach. And it does not eliminate general complaints regarding work load, too much detail, or “tricky” questions. My courses are content based, and so there are recognizable answers. In many arts courses, it ends up being any idea is equally good because it is your idea, and all grades are equally high.

    The world today is an uncertain place, and students and parents are anxious about the future. What can they do to prepare themselves? All they know is to get high grades and learn skills that might get them jobs. My students are generally quite intelligent, and I see them get panicky during their senior year job search. Their world changes when there are more applicants than positions.

    I am not a “competitor” and don’t go for the “we’ve got to work to beat them” that I have read in some comments. It is nice when I get the opportunity to read a book or have an intelligent discussion with someone (one of my wife’s many qualities). There is lots of work to be done, but not that many well paying jobs. So get a job that doesn’t pay much, use public transportation or rent a car, and live life and read a book. Forget the McMansion. It’s not worth the stress. Live modestly; have time to live.

    Comment by admin — January 1, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  2. The following is my comment (#365) on “Making College Relevant” 1/3/10
    Unlike a few decades ago, the brightest and most motivated students are more often taking business courses and not liberal arts courses. The brightest students are not going into academic careers. Although I find this regrettable, it is not unreasonable that individuals make this choice, considering the present state of the nation and society. But I believe it will hurt us badly in the future, in many ways.

    Comment by admin — January 3, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

  3. I am posting this quite unusual recommendation that I recently did for a student. The forms also have a check-off section, but what you see here is for the written comment. Most recommedations are dull reading –typically all about the grade performance of students that I don’t know that well (I have many students). This one is different. How does it strike you?

    Recommendation for Ex Libris

    I like Ex. Ex is different (although that alone is not the reason that I like him). I currently teach General Psychology to sections of 35 students and see hundreds of students a year. At the end of our first class, Ex came up to me and shook my hand and said “Hello, I’m Ex.” For many classes, while all the other students streamed out, Ex waited around and walked back with me toward my office. It took some of my time, or perhaps it was that I was willing to give him some time. He falls into one of that small group that is memorable. It’s not that he appears a genius (it’s hard to tell what his intelligence really is, although he did very well in my class). He seemed to have an interest to talk about things, not only the course material, but about all things in life. I happen to believe that this is an important part of a college education and commend his interest in doing this. I now know a fair bit about his family and their experiences; he has read and commented on my websites (google peacefulways if curious). He earned a good A in the course and knows the material. I also answered a lot of his questions about the material during our discussions.

    From a different perspective, this semester Ex is taking a course with a colleague, and I asked that colleague right after the start of classes if he had met someone named Ex. He looked a bit perturbed and said “Yes, the first class.” Ex had asked the instructor if he had a copy of the text that he (Ex) could borrow so that he could get started on studying the text. The colleague felt that this was out of order …he was NOT in the book business. Some of Ex’s comments are so very open, spontaneous, and apparently naïve that folks may not know what to make of him. If you want the traditional student who avoids speaking with faculty, you may not be so happy with Ex. But if you think that it’s nice that a student will talk after class about how he enjoyed truffles in Hong Kong and almost froze on an Outward Bound trip in Florida (topics where we happen to have some things in common), you will like Ex. I believe he is the only psychology undergraduate student to have ever commented about my websites, and even said how he discussed them with his father. I believe he will grow to be a good and capable adult making some sort of contribution in society.

    I am not commenting on his general academic record. You already have those materials, and I could not add anything in that regard.

    Paul Sheldon, Ph.D.
    Adjunct (Retired Department of Psychology 2009)

    Comment by admin — January 25, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

  4. I wrote the following in reponse to a NYTimes article about the recent tragic murders at the University of Alabama. I decided not to post this comment elsewhere, thinking it might be misuderstood as callous. But I believe there is a point that I am making here.

    “Dr. Bishop, who appeared to have had a promising future in the biotechnology business, had recently been told she would not be granted tenure, university officials said.” (NYTimes 2/14/10).

    It strikes me that 21st century academe may have some serious issues (besides the obvious tragedy of these murders) when you are age 45 by the time you reach the tenure juncture and are described as having a “promising future.” Academic careers (particuarlarly in the sciences) tradtionally have been established fairly early and enter a period of senior status by the time you enter your 50′s. Being at the top of your game and dealing with a lot of bright young people requires youthful energy and speed. Because there are almost no jobs in academe today, the training and apprenticeship process is being drawn out further and further. I believe this is a crime in itself.

    p.s. I do not know all the details of this particular case; most of her biographical material has been removed from her websites in response to this tragedy.

    Comment by admin — February 14, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

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