No more failures

I want you to think for a minute. Out of all the people you know, have any flunked out of university? Think hard and long, but you probably won’t be able to think of anyone. In April’s edition of The Walrus, Jay Teitel addresses this issue in an article called “Failure to Fail: The search for the elusive LPFOCU – the Last Person to Flunk Out of a Canadian University.”

The idea for the article began after a discussion with his son who was attending McGill, the “Harvard of the North” (I had no idea that McGill was called that. Methinks only people from McGill give it that moniker). Teitel’s son was educating his dad on just how easy it was to get by at McGill. In a fit of creativity, they both came up with an idea for a reality show called the The Bum’s B.A.

The Bum’s B.A. worked like this: four students (preferably male) share an apartment on campus and compete to see who can do the least work possible and still pass his year. Independent observers would tabulate relative idleness: hidden cameras would make sure no secret cramming was going on. Other subtleties: any efforts in pursuit of academic success would count against you, but not labour in pursuit of idleness – e.g. if you borrowed “a girl’s notes,” the reading of those notes would count as actual work, but the borrowing wouldn’t. Plus you could recoup the studying penalty by going to a movie, say, or getting drunk the night before an exam. The more we talked, the more enthusiastic we got.

What amazed Teitel was when he discovered that his son couldn’t name one person who flunked out of McGill. Not one. Sure, students drop out or transfer, but no one flunked out. This led Teitel on a quest to find a student who had flunked out of an undergraduate program in Canada.

He couldn’t find one.

There were explanations for this, but not all were convincing. William Barker, president of King’s College, believes the reason for this new phenomenon have to do with admissions. Thirty years ago universities would accept almost everyone who applied and then drop a third of them throughout the year. Good universities will now only taken in students with very high averages. If a student is failing, the question then becomes, what went wrong? Did the university fail the student? Or did the university make a wrong choice in accepting said student? Institutional pride then prevents students from flunking.

Teitel is not convinced. His talks with students have led him to believe that part of the problem is money. Schools need both tuition fees and government funding to stay afloat. The economic incentives all point towards keeping students in school, even if it means they go on probation a couple times and take eight years to finish their B.A.

Another key factor is the rising prominence of student evaluations, both the formal ones conducted by the university and the informal ones conducted by ratemyprofessor.com. At Western, yearly evaluations give a 40% weighting to teaching performance. The evidence for this performance? Student evaluations. Some research disputes the correlation between inflated grades and student evaluations. After all, student evaluations are given before final marks are given and professor’s don’t see the evaluations until the final marks are submitted. These researchers think that what students are evaluating is whether they learned things from their professor.

Sure.

Teitel points out the case of a tenured Western professor whose entire coursework consists of a single paper which can be resubmitted as many times as students like. He has a very high rating … I’m sure his students learned lots. One professor went so far as buying cheese danishes for his students.

What’s the problem? Students today arrive at university with a sense of entitlement. “I’m here because I deserve to be … I’ve always passed in the past because I deserved it, and I deserve to pass now because I’m here.” Teitel humorously points out that “I think, therefore I am” has been twisted into “I am, therefore I must be able to think.”

The final example Teitel uses is glaring. Teitel knows a student that jerked around in high school and left his application to the last minute. The only school that had an opening for him was York University, Glendon campus. The student, Dave, got into the French language side of the program. The problem? He didn’t speak a word of French.

He graduated.