The fall semester was beginning to unwind and grades are expected to be finalized shortly. However, after spending several years working on a masters and doctorate degree, I now found myself sitting on the opposite side of the table, playing the role of adjunct professor for the very first time teaching a graduate level research course.
My mentor professor who I took the class over for – due to receiving an internal promotion – was blunt and straightforward as he shared the high standards of the University. I was also surprised to learn that many students drop the course early on and that those who hang on to the end expect their grades to be higher.
Perplexed, I asked the daunting question, “Why?”
The explanation seemed too simplistic; some graduate programs were lacking rigor with standards that left them with the reputation of being nothing more than glorified undergraduate programs. I was eager to find out if this was true.
Preparing for the class it became obvious that in order to meet the standards and outcomes of the course students writing needed to be top shelf. Earlier classes helped build student skills in broadening background knowledge and learning to read scholarly texts across multiple disciplines. Students moved onto writing positionality papers on certain research topics and learned to evaluate them as well. By the time they got to this course they should have been well prepared.
However, as the semester began it became clear that something was drastically wrong.
We were only a few classes into the semester and individuals were already missing classes – the class was a hybrid with limited sessions already. Excuses came from every direction, often after the absence had occurred. The requirements in the syllabus initiated a penalty system for students who did not meet attendance requirements without prior approval.
In amazement, individuals stated they did not read the policy and were upset of the consequences. Understandably, most students were working full-time already. However, each person was encouraged to speak with me individually, but many rather leave their struggles out on the table during our initial class syllabus conversation. Instead, individuals turned in assignments late and maneuvered through the course with a chip on their shoulder as the syllabus expectations were enforced.
Admittedly, writing research may arguably be the most challenging level a student may incur, but one’s attitude makes a great difference in one’s success too. In my experience, I was adamant about offering feedback on student work and giving them ways to improve their paper. However, to my astonishment, I started finding many of the drafts –scaffolded assignments – with the same grammatical errors that my middle school students make.
To make matters worse, those same errors continued to come back on the final copies submitted, even after they were pointed out. Common examples of mistakes along with APA style errors they were making were provided during class. Some would nod in agreement to their careless mistakes, but many of the younger students in early and mid 20s were perplexed. I even offered one-on-one sessions during our online weeks, but a very minimal number of students took me up on the offer.
Consequently, because their quality of work was not at graduate level, I afforded a handful of students the opportunity to resubmit their papers during a rigid timeline (48 or 72 hours, depending the assignment). Many were in disbelief because their professor would ask them to resubmit a paper. The quality was no better then a struggling undergraduate, and I was unwavering towards upholding high standards.
However, the news is not all bad as illustrated by a group of older students, in mid-career, aged 35 or older. Better known as Generation X, these were not secondary students during the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era and were noticeably different in their scholastic approach. They did not second-guess the syllabus and were more careful not to make the careless grammatical errors made by students noted earlier.
As the material became more challenging, Generation X students asked questions and sought answers to the material. This age group was the only one to take advantage of one-on-one sessions and was gracious when additional learning opportunities came to improve themselves professionally.
I am looking forward to more opportunities to teach in higher education, but my limited involvement so far has left me with a few things to ponder. It is clear that many graduate programs are on a slippery slope on whether their program is becoming a glorified fifth-year undergraduate program. Plus, as outlined in one Higher Ed Chronicle article publication and elsewhere the effects of NCLB are evident in higher education with students not being able to perform at the needed level. Standards at higher-learning institutions are diminishing as NCLB students are not as prepared to enroll and successfully complete graduate level courses as before NCLB
As a result, standards decline and less than prepared students are earning masters degrees, and those individuals are seemingly qualified for leadership positions. Hence, the millennial generation teachers are are poorly prepared.
It is time to stay strong in upholding the ideals of higher education. We can no longer allow students to slide by without putting in the kind of quality of work graduate level programs have historically required.