Graphic depicting students preparing for final exams (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez). (Lexie Perez)
Graphic depicting students preparing for final exams (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez).

Lexie Perez

GUEST EDITORIAL: Prioritizing comfort and happiness compromises rigor and excellence in higher education

To actively foster learning and promote scholarly advance, a tenured biological sciences professor at Vanderbilt posits that there is a fundamental requirement for academic discomfort and the limitation of infantilization in higher education.

December 10, 2022

I have been a Vanderbilt faculty member for over 20 years. In that capacity, I have acted as a principal investigator in scientific research and have mentored/trained undergraduate and graduate students. During this time, I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with many outstanding students who have brought together their passion for scholarship with a commitment to excellence that exemplifies all the very best about academic life. I have also been an instructor in both large, medium and small venue courses in the Department of Biological Sciences, which notably include the gateway Introduction to Biology course. This course is often, and in my view erroneously, characterized as a “weed-out” course for pre-med undergraduates and STEM majors.

Along with many of my colleagues, I have become increasingly concerned by a growing trend among students across education levels and disciplines—including those at Vanderbilt—to see higher education as an entitlement to grades and degrees. This belief pushes back against long-held principles of academic rigor, excellence and free expression. I consider many of these efforts to chillingly co-opt and otherwise exploit invaluable advances toward greater diversity and inclusion. In my opinion, this pattern has effectively led to the suppression of constructive criticism and debate, as well as—more egregiously—the abdication of honest, objective assessments that I believe are at the heart of a rigorous quest for learning and excellence. 

Many scholars have begun to study this problem, characterizing it as the “infantilization” of higher education. In his 2016 article titled “What’s Happened to the University? A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation,” Frank Furedi, who studies “precautionary culture and risk aversion in western societies,” posits that students are being continually maintained within an “eternal dependency.” This phenomenon leads to a higher education philosophy that primarily values self-esteem and continuous emotional validation at the expense of excellence, professionalism and rigor. This standard does not consider students as fully emancipated and empowered adults but rather as existing in a continually extended period of childhood. This subject is highly contentious and encompasses debates about academic freedom of expression at universities related to microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings and intellectual intolerance that have increasingly been in the news. 

I have become increasingly concerned by a growing trend among students across education levels and disciplines—including those at Vanderbilt—to see higher education as an entitlement to grades and degrees. This belief pushes back against long-held principles of academic rigor, excellence and free expression.”

To appreciate that this problem is not unique to Vanderbilt, one only needs to look at the controversy earlier this year surrounding the termination of Dr. Maitland Jones Jr. as an untenured organic chemistry instructor at New York University. Jones had previously retired as a tenured and highly esteemed organic chemistry professor at Princeton University. In an elegant response to his termination, Jones suggests that deans and other university administrators have been slowly but continually eroding previously held standards of conduct, rigor and excellence to court favor among student and parental “clients.” The growing paucity of student engagement that Jones and others detail at public and private universities fully aligns with my experiences teaching introductory biology here at Vanderbilt.

Indeed, at Vanderbilt and other universities, more and more students with whom I and many of my colleagues interact have largely set aside the idea that university life is a privilege that must be affirmed continually. Instead, they favor a system in which grades and degrees prioritize their (self-perceived) effort rather than their actual work. Furthermore, they demand intellectual “safe spaces” in which they may not be meaningfully challenged. Until very recently, Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science has nearly unilaterally relied on student evaluations—that often amount to little more than popularity contests—to assess teaching competence within its promotion and tenure process. As at other universities, this system contributes to a perfect storm of grade inflation and syllabus deflation and has fostered the erosion of academic standards while increasing educational deficits. To me, at times there seems to be a desire to relocate our universities to Lake Wobegon, the fictional town created by author and public radio host Garrison Keillor, where “all the children are above average.” 

Vanderbilt’s administration prioritizes student comfort and happiness over honest efforts to academically challenge students. While no one would argue against happiness in general nor the mandate that Vanderbilt and all universities must, as a matter of paramount importance, maintain safe environments for everyone, I would respectfully suggest that safety has been confused with comfort in higher education. In short, I do not see universities as places of academic comfort. Indeed, to actively foster learning and promote scholarly advances, I maintain that there is a fundamental requirement for academic discomfort. If university communities truly seek rigor and excellence, we must forcefully—but considerately—challenge each other and continually criticize the concepts, hypotheses and ideas of others and ourselves. 

This is not a novel concept. In his landmark treatise “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn writes that the recognition and acknowledgment of anomalies result in crises that are a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories and paradigmatic change. To Kuhn, a crisis like conflict, criticism or competition is the essential tension that acts as an implicit driving force behind scientific research. In contrast to earlier educational stages such as in elementary and middle school where crises may be counterproductive or worse, at the university level—and especially at “elite” institutions among which Vanderbilt envisions itself—I would extend Kuhn’s essential tension principles to pedagogy in practically all academic disciplines. 

As is the case for many faculty and other members of our community, I remain fully committed to Vanderbilt’s goal to “pursue excellence in education by offering experiences that merge the advantages of a liberal arts college with those of a world-class research university.” I am nevertheless concerned about how we embrace this near-paradoxical aspiration. Specifically, how do we manage student interactions and set expectations while being mindful of the need to resist the path toward the “dumbing-down” of content and rigor that seems to be the collateral impact of the administrative and, consequently, instructional responses to student unease? I believe that, at its core, inclusion should represent promoting open and free access to all opportunities here at Vanderbilt while maintaining an unwavering commitment to rigor and excellence. 

If university communities truly seek rigor and excellence, we must forcefully—but considerately—challenge each other and continually criticize the concepts, hypotheses and ideas of others and ourselves. ”

I am heartened that earnest freedom of expression discussions have taken place at Vanderbilt and many other universities. In that light, I embrace the Statement of Principles detailed in Vanderbilt’s Faculty Manual as well as recent comments by Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and leaders at other universities that emphasize the importance of freedom of expression. Faculty and students must authentically stick to these well-stated ideals and continue to resist any ill-considered and broad use of microaggressions, triggers, comfort zones and intellectual safe spaces as a way to avoid discussing difficult topics. For these standards to be practiced, the unwavering and publicly-voiced support of university leadership is continually required. 

Tension and objective assessments are discomforting, especially as they often involve criticism and confrontation. How do we find common spaces to motivate each other, maintain civility and promote diversity and inclusion while striving for academic and scientific excellence—a goal that requires rigor, criticism and confrontation? To further explore this question, I will be leading a new seminar course this spring entitled “How Ignorance, Failure and Critique Drive Science” (BSCI 3890/5890). Open to undergraduate and graduate students, the course will feature guest speakers (including Jones) to explore the aforementioned and other topics in relation to science education and research. 

I will continue to look for additional ways to maintain dialogue on this subject as well as to embrace new approaches and technologies that help improve our ability to teach and communicate. I remain committed to this effort, provided that universities do not sacrifice the quality of education and scholarship for politically expedient trends in the media. That tradeoff would represent a Faustian bargain that would diminish and ultimately derail the academic and scientific enterprise to which many of my colleagues and I have dedicated our professional lives.

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S
Student R
1 month ago

I can’t understand how this man has spent a combined nearly 40 years in classrooms, ~15 as a student, and ~25 as a professor, and yet is still so incredibly out of touch with the student experience. Not only this, but he also makes an argument that contradicts itself multiple times.

Zwiebel argues that Vanderbilt administration “prioritizes student comfort and happiness over honest efforts to academically challenge students.” However, he gives no examples of how this is the case. Students, on the other hand, have spoken out many times about how they feel unsupported by the university, how they feel the exact opposite, that the university prioritizes efforts to academically challenge them over their happiness. Post-COVID, I found 13 articles written by students that echo these concerns (included below).

If the author is so worried about the so-called “infantilization” of higher education, then maybe he should consider that he is contributing to this issue. To devalue the arguments of students as if they can not speak out and fight for themselves furthers the issue that he seeks to bring to light.

This idea of devaluing student input is continued in how Zwiebel speaks about the termination of Dr. Jones, and consequently, about course evaluations. He argues that “student evaluations… often amount to little more than popularity contests.” This essentially reads as him stating that students evaluate their professors based on how much they like them, which is quite frankly an insult to the maturity and character of the students. The evaluations are called “Course and Teaching Evaluations” for a reason. They assess both the course being taught, and the professor teaching it. This allows students to separate the course from the professor. Obviously, the process after these evaluations are received are not public, so one can only speculate, but I can’t imagine the process is much different from this: professors tenure/promotion processes are determined based on the section of the evaluation that is specific to the professor, and then the course is assessed based on its respective section.

I will not argue that general infantilization is becoming a trend, as I am a current student and I can’t deny what I have seen in front of me. I doubt you will find many of my peers that will deny this either, as it becomes a sort of running joke about “participation trophies” and similar trends. That being said, I will maintain that I do not believe that this trend has extended to academics to the extent that Dr. Zwiebel argues that it has. I think that ensuring that students are challenged by their courses is a VITAL part of attending a top institution like Vanderbilt. There are many students who come to Vanderbilt as high-performing students in high school. The unfortunate side-effect of this is that many come to Vanderbilt not having ever failed a test, and therefore not knowing how to fail gracefully, collect themselves, and move forwards. The so-called weed-out classes could do an effective job at teaching this skill, but since students do not find their professors to be approachable, many never manage to dig themselves out of the pit they fall into. There is a difference between academic support, and infantilization, but this does not seem to be a difference that Zwiebel and others understand.

One thing worth noting is that this professor has been receiving poor reviews of his performance for almost the entirety of his teaching career. He began teaching at Vanderbilt in 1998, and has been receiving poor reviews since 2004, meaning that for 19 years, students have been mostly on the same page about their opinion of how he manages his classroom, and many even note that his co-instructor does a much better job. There are many professors that teach the same class as him, and there are many that are rated more highly. This shows that his rating is unlikely to have any correlation to the specific course he is teaching, and more to his personal approach to the classroom.

Other comments have done a great job of highlighting the problems with the authors arguments about academic comfort/rigor, their own experiences in the class, and other ideas. I’d recommend reading all the comments, as many of them offer very good perspective that as someone who has not taken this class, I can not contribute. It’s also notable that as someone who is not pre-med, a biology major, or even in the College of Arts and Sciences at all, I knew who this professor was and knew his reputation.

https://vanderbilthustler.com/2020/11/23/qiu-education-should-be-about-intellectual-freedom/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2020/12/28/nguyen-why-has-vanderbilt-sacrificed-student-wellbeing-for-traditional-learning/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2021/03/07/abbott-the-solution-to-sickness-stay-home/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2021/03/03/perrotta-im-tired-of-using-my-hotspot/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2021/04/18/fellas-kumar-we-arent-getting-the-liberal-arts-education-we-expected/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2021/10/24/white-what-peabody-does-different/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2021/12/26/perrotta-we-were-on-a-break/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2022/01/12/rehders-fired-up-and-burnt-out/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2022/08/30/feuer-vanderbilt-must-overhaul-its-transfer-orientation/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2022/09/12/connell-give-first-year-students-their-summer-breaks-back/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2020/11/05/abel-give-us-a-break/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2021/04/04/abel-anchor-down-burn-out/
https://vanderbilthustler.com/2021/11/06/abel-i-cant-take-a-sick-day-and-neither-can-you/

F
From the Outside
1 month ago

The issue here is Vanderbilt does not have grade inflation in the STEM classes. Other universities do. This causes a dividing issue. Vandy students who aspire to post graduate education will be compared to students from other schools where the grad schools prioritize the GPA as a defining factor.

What this causes is students with B to B- in core classes to transfer to other schools, where they easily get As. In transferring to other schools, they achieve their live goals of entering med school and the like.

Vandy, by utilizing a bell curve, produces something extremely important – it separates the students whereby graduate schools can differentiate the best students from Vandy. Vandy won’t have 90% of the class with As. The best are at the top for grad schools to select.

You see students who couldn’t get into Vandy with 4.0s getting into med school but the Vandy student with a 3.3 can’t get into med school. This is extremely important for the faculty to understand at Vandy. Students are transferring solely based on their GPA. Vandy is losing really smart kids. Is this what the faculty wants? In addition, Vandy kids who stay don’t get into med school and the kids Vandy didn’t want to enroll are easily getting into med school.

Vandy faculty need to realize this is happening and be proactive to remedy this situation. Possibly it is in the referral letters to med schools. Possibly it is proving Vandy works in the bell curve world and showcasing their higher caliber student body. But this issue must be addressed.

It simply isn’t fair a student who had no choice to enter
Vandy takes the place of a Vandy student at med school based on a GPA, grade inflation, and no grade inflation. This is not a hypothetical analogy. It is happening all the time.

V
VU2025
1 month ago

I think that all core classes at Vanderbilt should be pass/fail. Vanderbilt does not prioritize grade equity enough.

J
J ham
1 month ago
Reply to  VU2025

Define grade equity

S
Senior
1 month ago

Y’all just gotta look at this man’s ratemyprofessor ratings. I pasted quotes from students on the website here. These reviews are not from one class or one semester. They are spread between 2004 and 2022.

Additionally, the most used words to review Zwiebel were “arrogant”, “rude:, “unapproachable”, “intimidating”, “paternalistic”, “unorganized/disorganized”, “unreasonably difficult”, “hard to follow/understand”. I even found several reviews were students said that he told them that he wrote their exams drunk. Overall, students found his teaching style inaccessible because he used words that no one could understand and many times he said things that were incorrect or went against what they learned from the material outside of class.

“Professor Zwiebel is extremely intelligent and undoubtedly very accomplished. With that in mind, he wasn’t the greatest teacher. He used recycled lectures from (I’m guessing) fall 2020 and there didn’t seem to be much effort to ensure that the class was actually learning. Overall, he just didn’t seem enthusiastic to be teaching us bio”

Even with in-person class, Zwiebel did a mostly virtual teaching format with classes being just Q&A sessions. We had to read the new textbook and listen to his pre-recorded ppt lectures. Overall it was just really difficult to learn anything for the class unless you did everything by yourself at home”

“The worst lecturer and often conveys material in a confusing manner. He does not provide background information, and often brings up terms without explaining. He listens to someplace for student learning rather than the actual students. He does not actually teach in class. I basically taught myself for his course”

“Genuinely one of the worst educators I’ve ever had. Unclear about what he wants us to know for the test and just awful at presenting information in a way that’s interesting or easy to understand. It doesn’t help that his lectures are so disorganized and that he often makes mistakes while talking or on the slides.”

“Zwiebel does not care for his students and his lectures are very disorganized. Avoid Zwiebel at all costs”

Just not a good professor. His lectures are poorly organized and overall bad. He doesn’t care about the success of his students at all. It’s rather sad because the first half with Dr. Bordenstein was good, but avoid Zwiebel at all costs.”

The worst professor I have ever had. Unclear in recorded lectures that are far too long but refuses to fix them or even edit out the parts where he coughs for 10 seconds straight. Makes students uncomfortable asking questions. Unclear exams, harsh grading policies with literally no partial credit. Sank my grade 8 points from the first prof. AVOID!!”

“Avoid taking his class. He has absolutely no regard for his students . His lectures are terribly unorganized. He is also cold during class and outside of it. Going to his office hours is just not worth the disrespect from him. You have to read the textbook to succeed and success on his exams is hard because of how poorly written they are.”

“Zwiebel is rude to students both in class and during office hours, and as such came across as very unapproachable throughout the semester. I would avoid taking him if possible.”

“Zwiebel is not at all accessible, and is often very intimidating. Asking a question takes a lot of courage because of his mannerisms. His tests are horribly structured, and draws from a small portion of the textbook. He also barely knows what he is talking about-don’t expect him to be able to answer any questions. Boring lectures, horrible slides.”

“Rude. Disrespectful. No sense of organization. Horrible lectures. Makes lots of key mistakes and says wrong and contradictory things often. I personally thought Broadie’s tests were easier because the frqs were directly from the lectures. His half of the final was so poorly written it was sad how little effort he puts into this class”

“In my opinion, Zwiebel’s lectures weren’t as bad as I expected. However, he is an awfully rude person. He treats students like caged animals during exams. Moreover, his exams were unnecessarily difficult and filled with awfully worded questions and mistakes. The curve for this class is harsh. He made me hate biology. Avoid him.”

“He can be blunt with you in office hours.”

“None of his short answer or MC questions make grammatical sense but he refuses to provide useful answers about what his questions are even asking”

“this guy does not care at all about teaching and it shows. he is very paternalistic”

“He can be rude in class and in office hours.”

“This professor ruined my first semester at college. He is extremely unclear, and his lectures are incredibly dull. He overcomplicates every subject. His tests are outrageous. You get marked wrong for writing the right answer using different words. Take another professor if at all possible! Save your sanity!!!!!”

“He was pretty unorganized but a decent lecturer with the concepts. Pretty intimidating and can be condescending. Tests were completely random, easy MC but hard essays that were graded poorly. His half of the final was extremely difficult and a little ridiculous. Alright professor”

“Extremely unorganized; his slides rarely match up with what is posted online. Tests are extremely unfair and poorly written; he’s usually **** when he writes them (he told us this). He goes over stuff in nauseating detail but then tests over the small parts he only spent a couple seconds on.”

“Awful. If I am going to spend days and days studying for your tests, I would appreciate a well written test that tests by understanding versus one while written when we was ****. If students put in the time to study so much, they expect to be properly evaluated. I didn’t even take one of his tests the material was so unorganized.”

“Downright awful professor. Take either of the two other sections (Graham/Patton is supposedly the best) b/c Zwiebel is not a good lecturer and gives poorly written tests that he wrote while **** (no joke…he told us this). And this is coming from someone who got an A in his class!”

“Very unorganized.”

“Zwiebel is an arrogant SOB who has unclear lectures, disorganized powerpoints, and tests with very easy multiple choice questions but free response questions that have nothing to do with the class. Don’t hand in anything for a regrade either, b/c he will just take off points: The average on our test dropped from 81 to 78 after the regrade. Avoid!”

“An arrogant man, who acts like his students should automatically understand the material. Difficult tests that have nothing to do with his notes, and although he says less is more for the short answers, you’ll get counted off.”

“loves using elevated language when it doesn’t make him more articulate.”

“He is not a very good teacher. His lectures are rambling and he often does not know what he is talking about and makes mistakes during the lecture. His exams are not well worded but not to hard.”

K
K C
1 month ago

We’re not asking you to make things easy and give us easy grades. We’re asking for office hours, TAs/LAs, and to not be kept from resources that every other major has access to. If you had bad course evaluations, maybe its time to consider what you could do to better your teaching rather than accusing students of making it a popularity contest. We’re all adults and we understand course evals can have major repercussions on professors so personally I make sure to answer the questions truthfully based on the class and teaching I experienced. There are a lot of bold assumptions within this piece that I feel come from a place of misunderstanding of the argument at hand. You can have rigor and excellence without sacrificing the mental health of your students. In fact, Vanderbilt prides itself on having happy students who enjoy learning here. Why should we not try to preserve those ideals as we move forward? Also, you’re defending a biochem professor who got fired and had averages of 20-40/100 people passing the class… is that really the bar that we are setting here? Just because we are post-covid students doesn’t mean we aren’t strong-willed or unwelcoming of challenge. It just means that we’ve learned first-hand that there is a serious balance between academic excellence and mental health. Once you’ve learned that you can have one without sacrificing the other, you don’t want to go backwards into the way things were pre-covid. Maybe take time to put yourselves in the shoes of students who didn’t even get a full high school experience and are struggling due to lack of background information. Times change and so will education.

"
"Star Student"
1 month ago

I would like to start off by saying I am what most would consider a “star student.” I have a very high GPA, will likely graduate with multiple honors, have leadership positions in multiple campus organizations, have done extensive research at Vanderbilt, and plan to have multiple publications from research done during my time here. I am not saying this to brag; I am saying this to point out the fact that students who criticize the points made by Dr. Zwiebel are not just from those who struggle to make good grades.

I have interacted with Dr. Zwiebel on multiple occasions. As a whole, he seemed very ignorant and naive of the student experience. He gave the impression that he thought students should achieve as much as possible, regardless of the cost to the students’ well-being. He also gave the impression that he thought some students (namely, those who can achieve more) are inherently better than others. I disagree with this fact, as I think each student has something valuable they can contribute, regardless of their accolades on paper.

Dr. Zwiebel’s apathy for the student experience is reflected perfectly in this article from the very first paragraph. Introduction to Biology is one of the hardest classes I have taken here at Vanderbilt, and is taught in a way that promotes brute force memorization of material over anything else. Many people who are “weeded out” of pre-med do so as a result of taking this course. To consider this fact “erroneous” simply reflects an inability or refusal to accept the truth.

Dr. Zwiebel goes on to defend the professor Dr. Maitland Jones Jr., who was terminated earlier this year as a result of many years of scathing student reviews. Dr. Jones was achieving exam averages of 20 and 40 out of 100. One of the primary responsibilities for being a professor is to be able to teach the concepts of the course in a way students can learn and retain them. To put it simply, Dr. Jones failed in this aspect, and it reflects an inability to consider imperfections in one’s own teaching style to blame the failure on students instead.

I do agree with Dr. Zwiebel in his point that universities should not be “places of academic comfort.” Some of my favorite professors here have challenged me greatly and pushed me far beyond my comfort zone. However, there are right and wrong ways to do this. Professors should be able to inspire students to push themselves out of their own comfort zone, and should be able to help them enjoy the concepts discussed in courses enough to inspire the students to do so. Shoving inordinate amounts of uninteresting facts down students’ throats and giving needlessly difficult exams to measure their memorization of these facts is not the right way to do this. In my opinion, it should not matter if this has worked in the past. Times change, learning styles change, and professors should be able to adapt to this. To be stuck in a method of teaching which a professor has had for years on end reflects a professor’s refusal to learn how to adapt to these changes. This seems quite hypocritical to me, as professors expect students to be able to adapt to the different teaching styles of every single professor who teaches them. Why should a student be expected to accommodate such a wide range of teaching styles when some professors refuse to expand beyond one teaching style?

I will end this by providing a potential solution to this seeming disconnect between student and professor. Ask the students how you can improve as a professor. Give surveys asking what worked and what did not. Work with these students to find a way to teach the course to your standards while also accommodating their experiences as students. Most importantly, be open to criticism. One will never improve if they refuse to listen to what they can improve upon in the first place.

S
STEM student
1 month ago

Your op ed reeks of elitism that excludes the narrative of any diverse perspective, and I was not surprised upon googling your name to find that you are a (presumably) cisgender white man. Vanderbilt was my dream school, and not a day goes by that I do not feel privileged to be here. Vanderbilt PRIDES itself in the inclusion of diverse perspectives, and it is you that does not deserve to be here if you cannot recognize that what looks like effort to a straight white man is not reflected across all backgrounds.
You speak as if the prioritization of comfort and happiness are exclusive of academic rigor; they are not. As a STEM student here, I have taken multipe classes that pushed me beyond belief, and in many of these weed out classes, I have made good grades. Why did I make good grades? Because even in these “weed out” classes, I had professors that were deeply empathetic and understanding. I had comfort and happiness in knowing I was supported. You speak as if you know exactly how much effort your students put in or what they are going through- you do not. I have a life threatening disability, and not one person would realize this by looking at me. The courses I have excelled in had professors that were human enough to make a difference in my education and did everything they could to make my situation better. The suggestion that students are exploiting inclusivity to oppose academic rigor has strong undertones of ableism, racism, elitism, and just about every other -ism I can think of. Where you see students “failing,” you should realize that many of them are first gen, impoverished, disabled, come from a bad home life, etc. The list goes on, and many of us are doing everything we can to simply stay afloat while also succeeding at a T15 university.
Course evaluations are also not a popularity contest. I have had classes that do not push me at all and nearly everyone got a good grade as well as classes where the exam averages were all C-. I have never rated a professor based on how much I like them, and the idea that course evaluations are a popularity contest is outlandish. There is a reason that the evaluation asks for a professor rating as well as a course rating. I have rated personable professors poor if they do not teach effectively-even if I made an A in the class- and I have rated some professors and courses highly even though I did not get the grade I desired.

S
Steve
1 month ago

I’m not on campus, so my thinking is based on what I see and hear from friends’ college-age children, as well as what I read in The Hustler digest. All in all, I agree with the article. It seems that the “snow-plowing” effect has infiltrated the nation’s best universities. That is, many parents attempt to push all obstacles aside for their kids, starting well before high school, and by the time of college matriculation kids’ expect that as de rigeur. Challenges, failure and adversity are looked upon as always terrible rather than as building blocks of human success. Every kid must get A’s, must win games, must make the orchestra. This all leads to dumbing down the academic (and life) experience. And having heard from many friends who hire recently-graduated college students, it also leads to unnecessary professional challenges and even failure. Having hired many young adults over the years, I want someone who has overcome problems successfully, dealt with challenges without help from mommy and daddy, understands that life can be tough, and appreciates that the world doesn’t exist to make you happy.

V
Vandy student
1 month ago

I agree with some of the critique in the commentary here. Firstly, I think that PS’ differentiation between course rigor and class difficulty is accurate and important to establish. Harder courses aren’t necessarily more rigorous, as far as depth of content covered—they could be difficult just because they are poorly planned, have a genuinely incompetent lecturer, etc. Also, as also outlined by PS, a good deal of these harder courses are more technical in nature, especially the STEM weed out ones (an ugly term, sure, but accurate). Therefore, they are likely unable to deliver a real change in academic or worldwide perception to students, largely due to practical limitation in the nature of the content covered.

I think that as someone suggested, meeting students where they are at and providing opportunities to build them up from there (by establishing supporting classes below the tough intros, which to my knowledge already exist in some subjects) would be a good approach in pursuing academic challenge while providing options for preparation. A potential counter argument for that could be that Vanderbilt students, attending a “top tier” university, should be able to manage—or expect to be challenged to manage—such intro classes. I’m unsure of what exactly I think about that, and acknowledge that there’s also a fair bit of uncertainty and adjustment that goes with a first semester at college. Also, I think that the idea, as someone here mentioned, that the University’s willingness to dumb down classes reflects a financial agenda and loss of quality control is an interesting perspective to consider and might have some deeper implications. I personally though don’t know enough to leave a meaningful comment.

However, all that withstanding, I think that it is true, at least in my experience, that as outlined by the professor, the more insightful and meaningful courses are usually also the more challenging ones. These courses are more creative in how they explore topics, are willing to discuss topics that are controversial, complex—which, surprisingly, are the also interesting ones! This because the controversial topics are the ones that have actual value to most people and don’t have clear cut answers, which is why they are worth talking about, engaging in real discussion in, and working hard to solve. I agree that there is value in encouraging this type of civil discourse and meaningful cognitive challenge on campus, and would also agree that happiness and comfort is not the highest value that we as students should be aiming at, or anyone for that matter.

I agree, as argued by Viktor Frankl, that happiness, success, and comfort are lower aims, and that one should strive to find meaning above all. Surely not all classes here are able to provide that meaning, which varies from individual to individual, but I see that the way to maximising meaning through academics is by encouraging discussion on these challenging topics, as they are the ones that really matter and will bring out the best in us. Im all for this, as long as trying to raise students to a higher standard is equally reflected amongst faculty through increases in investment, course resources, effort, engaging lectures, etc.

Ultimately, I am happy to see that there is some dialogue about this, although I was particularly disappointed with the juvenile and hypocritically oppressive behavior of one individual on this thread. It is only by talking about these issues and encouraging discussion that we can address them and reach a higher understanding. Playing stupid games like that will only increase resentment, polarisation, and division, while perhaps satisfying some narcissistic desire for attention or power. At any rate, I fundamentally agree that open discussion and challenge on important topics should be encouraged amongst students, but I also see this as equally important amongst faculty and ultimately not an excuse for poor performance or negative student review, if that was indeed a potential motivation behind this article as I and others are assuming.

E
Engineer
1 month ago

preach, these kids are so entitled

O
O F
1 month ago

I don’t think the content was as hard as people made it out to be. The class was a lot of work, but I think we are also scared of the class before we even take it. This leads to part of the problem I think.

M
M B
1 month ago

This only addresses one part of your argument, but I would like to say: if students are giving you low / poor teacher evaluations, that is because you are not teaching them well. Students are not so immature as to give low ratings just because they don’t like you as a person or you’re not fun enough. You speak of not infantilizing students, and then you claim that they would act childishly in making the evaluations a “popularity contest”. The evaluation asks for how much they learned from the class, how intense the workload was, the quality of the feedback you gave them, etc.

If students aren’t learning and being successful in your class, they are not failing you– you are failing them.

P
P S
1 month ago

There are two issues with the argument herein.
First is the conflation of class difficulty with academic rigor. The two aren’t equivalent or even correlated in many cases, as any current student could tell you. Assignment weights, densely-stacked deadlines, incoherent feedback, and general disregard for the busy lives of students all too frequently have more to do with the grades we receive than our understanding of and engagement with course material.
The second problem with the approach taken here is the conflation of class difficulty with intellectual challenge. You suggest students wish for their opinions and beliefs to be protected from examination as if an introductory Biology class is going to seriously alter someone’s world view. This perspective on academics treats every class like a philosophy class and ignores the reality that most classes (especially the courses labeled “weed-outs”) are technical in nature.
All in all, I think this perspective comes across as defensive and misguided, and carries undertones of cultural assumptions about people of specific ages or backgrounds. Students are adults that attend Vanderbilt University primarily to receive a degree which will help them apply for long-term employment. The relationship between students and professors should reflect this in a way that is respectful to both parties.
And for the record, complaining about course evaluations convinces your audience of nothing except that you are chafed by the ones you’ve received in the past.

T
Teddy Stern
1 month ago

This article is facile and absurd. It attempts to cover three completely distinct topics (rigor vs happiness, the value of controversial discussions, the risk of safe spaces). The latter two are worthwhile discussions to have – but perhaps for another day. The idea that a university needs to sacrifice happiness to promote excellence in education is simply ridiculous. A course with high failure rates is not a positive reflection of the university. Consistently low test averages are not either. To truly promote rigor and excellence, Vanderbilt should commit to meeting students where they are by both offering entry level courses below infamous “weed out” classes and by promoting resources to make sure students don’t fall behind. The goal is to graduate well-rounded and well-informed students, not miserable students who tried to drink from the fire house and weren’t helped up when they fell. – T. Stern

J
Jack
1 month ago

At this point in time, the university, in its relationship to undergraduate students, primarily functions as a professional credential service in which students are customers. We can lament that all we want, but it is the material reality. And decades of administrative decisions by figures such as Diermeier and his peers have produced that reality. It’s interesting that you don’t criticize those conditions and profiteering by elite universities. Students are customers and if the university fails to deliver on producing the promised credentials it markets, it has failed its customers. There is much to be said about the commodification of education yet you look past it and blame students! Additionally, the most substantial issue with Maitland Jones’ firing is at-will employment and precarity, not coddling “entitled, lazy” students as you seem to think. The students did not even request that Jones be fired! It is very telling that you, as tenured faculty, do not engage with the labor rights aspect of that firing. Furthermore, the job of professor at this university, is half research and half teaching. Teaching evaluations are not about “popularity” they are about how effective a professor is at one half of the job. If you cannot effectively transfer knowledge to students and this is brought up, perhaps look inwards before blaming the group you were tasked with teaching. This reads as though you have deep disdain for your students, rather than showing any initiative to actually work with them. The great irony of your article is that it is you, the “great and venerated and intelligent” tenured professor, that is out of touch, arrogant, entitled, self-important, infantile, coddled, and complacent, not students.

A
A B
1 month ago

Some people really just need to take a deep look inside and consider, “Do I need to shut up?” And, in this particular case, I think the answer should have been, “Yes.”

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