One of the interesting results of nearing retirement from Carey is that I find myself becoming more aware of “elephants in the room”. Somehow while I was still counting my remaining teaching at Carey in multiple years they remained, by and large, unnoticed.
In this post I’d like to address the “elephant” of struggling students. Like many, perhaps most, theological institutions in Western traditionally English-speaking countries Carey has an increasing number of students whose origin or previous education have been in non-Western contexts. Some of these students, picked for intelligence and ability, perform excellently. Others, despite their intelligence, diligence and other qualities frankly do not perform well.
Their difficulties are varied, but often some or all of these elements are present:
- poor command of English, or at least of that strange dialect of English used in the academic world:
- this sometimes leads to complex sentences with strange (to a native anglophone teacher) word-choices or uses
- on other occasions it results in a student who fails to understand something, but who the teacher assumes does understand because they can echo the “right” words and phrases (often it is only in more complex situations like a final essay where the misunderstanding becomes clear)
- some students, believing that education is about the ability to know and repeat certain key information and ideas, will “plagiarise” copying the words or ideas of a perceived authority (which may be a textbook, academic article or item found through googling – for such students are often not well-equipped to judge the quality of material they access)
- poor quality work produced with good intentions after a hard struggle by the student leads teachers (and not only the erroneously soft-hearted teachers ;) to award a passing grade (just) to work which ought to fail.
Our standard procedures and mechanisms would lead to either a poor pass for a student who should be getting good or excellent results, a mention on the institution’s plaigiarism register, or a fail. Because teachers workloads (in terms of numbers of student-classes and assignments) have roughly doubled in the last twenty years1 we do not have enough time to provide sufficient help to assist the student to overcome their difficulty (or, e.g. in the case of language knowledge, we do not have the skills needed to help).
This situation is not new, but I think it is getting worse. The result is students who receive diplomas but who do not really exhibit the qualities and understanding that the institution’s graduate profile would suggest.
A quarter of a century ago in another place we used to sometimes refer scathingly to certain European and American institution’s habit of granting “African Doctorates”. Such awards, given with the best of motives, do not help the “developing world” or minority cultures. They are dangerous lies!
- This is a very rough figure, and is based only on my experience and observations, but I believe is at least approximately representative at least of the situation in NZ. [↩]