Friday, April 16, 2010

Capitulation at LSU

From USA Today:

Dominique G. Homberger won't apologize for setting high expectations for her students. The biology professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge gives brief quizzes at the beginning of every class, to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading. On her tests, she doesn't use a curve, as she believes that students must achieve mastery of the subject matter, not just achieve more mastery than the worst students in the course. For multiple choice questions, she gives 10 possible answers, not the expected 4, as she doesn't want students to get very far with guessing.

Students in introductory biology don't need to worry about meeting her standards anymore. LSU removed her from teaching, mid-semester, and raised the grades of students in the class.
Kevin Carman, dean of the College of Basic Sciences, did not respond to requests for a phone interview Wednesday. But he issued a statement through the university's public relations office that said: "LSU takes academic freedom very seriously, but it takes the needs of its students seriously as well. There was an issue with this particular class that we felt needed to be addressed.

"The class in question is an entry-level biology class for non-science majors, and, at mid-term, more than 90% of the students in Dr. Homberger's class were failing or had dropped the class. The extreme nature of the grading raised a concern, and we felt it was important to take some action to ensure that our students receive a rigorous, but fair, education. Professor Homberger is not being penalized in any way; her salary has not been decreased nor has any aspect of her appointment been changed."

In an interview, Homberger said that there were numerous flaws with Carman's statement. She said that it was true that most students failed the first of four exams in the course. But she also said that she told the students that — despite her tough grading policies — she believes in giving credit to those who improve over the course of the semester.

At the point that she was removed, she said, some students in the course might not have been able to do much better than a D, but every student could have earned a passing grade. Further, she said that her tough policy was already having an impact, and that the grades on her second test were much higher (she was removed from teaching right after she gave that exam), and that quiz scores were up sharply. Students got the message from her first test, and were working harder, she said.

"I believe in these students. They are capable," she said. And given that LSU boasts of being the state flagship, she said, she should hold students to high standards. Many of these students are in their first year, and are taking their first college-level science course, so there is an adjustment for them to make, Homberger said. But that doesn't mean professors should lower standards.

Homberger said she was told that some students had complained about her grades on the first test. "We are listening to the students who make excuses, and this is unfair to the other students," she said. "I think it's unfair to the students" to send a message that the way to deal with a difficult learning situation is "to complain" rather than to study harder.

When I first read this story, my initial thought was that there must have been a lot of LSU football players in Homberger's class, but now that I've had more of a chance to think about it, I suspect the reality is much more prosaic--and much more depressing.

Call me an old fart, but times have really changed. I had my share of jackass profs who thought they were too good to be teaching undergrads, but when I did get bad grades, my folks sure as hell didn't direct their ire towards the professor or the deans. I think I'm very safe in saying that the guy in the engineering dean's office who dealt with undergraduates would have laughed us out of his office if we'd ever gone to complain about a class being too hard. That guy (I've forgotten his name; the dean proper was the late William Walker) was never shy about telling you you should consider changing to another major if you couldn't cut it.

I was certainly unprepared for college-level math and science when I got to Auburn. I rarely had to study in high school, and it took the shock of my sophomore year before I figured out that I couldn't just slide by on instinct any more. That more than anything else was the most valuable thing I learned in college.

From reading the full story, it looks to me like the kids at LSU had a similar attitude going in, but more importantly they were on their way to learning they had to change to the "John Houseman way" for their own good. Unfortunately, griping to the dean apparently carries a lot more weight today than it did 20 years ago. That's a shame. Those kids would be a lot better off if they'd persevered. Now all they've learned is the value of whining.

For further reading, have a look at Stuart Rojstaczer's fascinating site.


  1. I'm with you on the 'old fart' aspect of this. For me at AU it was the combination of freshman year, 8 am Chemistry 4 days a week, and football season that eventually sent me from engineering to accounting. For my parents, their attitude about the bad grades was to take my car away for a quarter. They (nor I) would have even dreamed of complaining about it being 'too hard'. I'm only 40 but I'm starting to feel old...

    War Eagle

  2. I've got mixed feelings on this without hearing a bit more of the behind the scenes bits. While grade inflation is definitely a problem, I also remember a chemistry prof winter term my freshman year who strongly resented being forced to teach undergrad engineering students. The guy brought in large funding in nuclear chemistry research grants, but OSU had a policy at the time (early '90s) that all professors must teach something. His retaliation was to spend a third of the (chem 202) quarter on his specialty, nuclear chemistry. He covered everything the book had to say about the subject in the first one hour lecture. After that he went much deeper. Interesting stuff, but we were into far more advaced topics than a 202 level class was supposed to cover. The end result was a 60% failure rate in his class. His comments at the time were very similar to Prof Homberger's above.

    Never been so happy about a C in my life.

  3. Colleges are getting a lot like the public schools. Everyone must feel good about themselves. Learning something would be nice but is not essential. See my post:

  4. One of my best professors was the PhD physics adviser who taught a rough equivalent of Physics 101 every summer. By contrast the normal professor, who also taught Physics 102, was a bitter jerk who nobody trusted to teach anything else--the latter weighted the class down with all sorts of nonsense that had nothing to do with learning physics. I learned nothing in his class.

  5. So now Louisiana has two places called The Big Easy.
    Of course American students are capable.

    But they're being ruined.

    And, if you catch them in an attitude-free unguarded moment after they've entered the workplace, you learn that the smart ones know full well that they've been ruined.

  6. Yeah, I think I have to reserve judgement without more information. I mean, my lower-division coursework back in the late 80's was designed to weed out 40-60% of the students, so I'm not against the proverbial boot camp. But 90% fail/drop is suggestive that the problem is with the teacher.

  7. A Biology Course is not Nuclear Physics or Calculus. It simply requires reading and studying the material. Sounds to me like the students thought they could get by dozing in class and guessing at the answers.

    It's a shame that Prof Homberger wasn't allowed to finish teaching the class. Students who wished to learn Biology would have been fine and perhaps their study habits might have carried over to other classes.

  8. Best teacher I ever had was Dr. Rajan Natarajaan at Auburn. Everybody - everybody - failed his first test, but he really motivated everyone to improve. I ended up with a 'B' in the class and I've never been prouder of a grade. Had to work my butt off for that 'B'.

  9. As an LSU grad myself, I have very mixed feelings about this. While I agree with all of Dr. Hamberger's statements in theory, the reality is that a 90% failure rate is ridiculous, especially at a school like LSU.

  10. The assistant dean you mentioned... wasn't his last name Conrad? For some reason, that's the name that comes to mind.

    And yes, he would have laughed his butt off if anyone had whined about a course being too hard. And I'm sure that he heard at least a few complaints about Dr. Knight... never seemed to change anything, though.

  11. There is something wrong with a ninety-percent failure rate for an intro course for non-majors. Ninety percent of the freshmen at a flagship school are either skaters or dumb as a box of rocks? I don't believe it. Thirty percent, maybe. After all, flunking freshmen is easy -- lecture on subjects not in the book, then test on subjects not in either the book or the lecture. Or hit the 100-level non-majors with 300-level concepts and deride them as stupid. It's easy -- but it's not fair and it's not funny.

  12. I went back to school for a second degree (Drexel) at 33. For the first semester I took a light 2 class load. But one of the courses was EEI. It was taught by an Indian PhD holder. His English was terrible, but he knew his topic.

    Well I got the first test back with a '21'. The class was prepared to drop the course. Talking to the instructor at a break I asked how bad '21' was. He informed me I was the second highest scorer on the test. I suggested he might want to explain his grade system before he loses all the students.

    Teaching at a technical school I see the 'I deserve X' all the time. I tell students all the time, that yes showing up is a big part of the battle, but you still have to perform once you are there.

  13. Back in my day, Calculus and Differential Equations were the make or break classes. People who couldn't hack it left the College of Science and College of Engineering and went over to the Business School.

    Of course, they got the last laugh. The rest of us ended up working for them.

  14. It seems like many of those commenting are viewing the subject in the context of having attended college/university prior to the "gold star" generation.

    I've had the displeasure of working with '90s and later high school graduates who were documented as being AP students, and those whose cum-laude graduation I witnessed personally, only to find out that they were borderline illiterate, as in unable to balance a checkbook, or write a coherent classified ad.

    I'm surprised that only 90% failed Homberger's first test.

  15. I know that we all would like to talk about how lazy and ill-prepared students today are, but come on: 90% of her students were either failing or had dropped the course? The professor can talk all she likes about high standards, but if that is the best that she can do with an introductory level course then I weep not just for the pitiful students, but the poor level of instruction as well.
    Daily quizzes sound wonderful, but I'll bet that they eat up valuable instruction time that it would seem her students could have sorely used.

  16. LSU would rather sell than excel.

  17. In as much as I hate to ruin everyone's delightful shredding of the spoiled indulgence of American students - I've had professors teach 100 level classes as though they were 394 classes, spend 20 minutes lecturing what was supposed to be a 90 minute class, mumble, ramble, fail to answer questions and in short, fail on every possible metric.

    A 90% failure rate is a failure of the teacher, not of the students. Period.

  18. I'm a college prof and I hate to tell you all this but any prof that flunks 90% on even a single test is a failure. I have seen many such profs come along (I know one right now) who think they're going to fix our society by grading tough. They are fools and they all will either change or be gone.

    Yes, there is serious grade inflation. But this professor is not helping cure it one bit.

  19. I went to LSU for Mechanical engineering and I saw this same professor type in the early engineering classes where the purpose was to convince most people to switch to business, but there is really no point to do that in a class that's not in their major.

    The administration should have supported the professor in public, then put on their bullet proof vests and denied tenure.

  20. As others have said I would reserve judgment until knowing more of the behind the scenes details.

    I graduated from the Colorado School of Mines in 2006. The coursework was very rigorous, but hey that was expected. That's the reputation of Mines.

    But there were a couple of times where it seemed to be excessive. For example, my first Chem II professor had simply photocopied pages from the text book onto overhead transparencies. He would put them up on the projector. He would basically read off of them without offering a clue of what was important or giving enough time to take notes along with him.

    The class average on the first exam was in the mid-40s. Message received, need to buckle down and work harder. The second exam? Mid-30s. And that was with a cheating scandal where more than a third of the class had a copy of the exam days in advance.

    Was this a case of weeding out the weak or poor professorship?

  21. Conspicuously absent from the article is any analysis of the testing content. It's all outcome-based: Many students fail. Bad. Must correct by firing teacher and raising grades. Now students happy. Administration happy. Teacher received liberal re-education camp lesson in graphic manner. Campus life in 2010 returns to quiet lassitude on the bayou.

  22. I find it ironic that there are commenters claiming that Prof. Homberger must be at fault because a 90% failure/dropout rate must be the fault of the teacher.

    Apparently, these commenters are badly in need of a Remedial Reading class, or they would have noticed that the quoted article states that the teacher was removed _before_ the end of the semester, having given only two of the four planned tests -- and before grading the second one. She also stated that those who failed the first test had improved to at least a passing grade.

    Speaking for myself, I'll thank you, my fellow commenters, to not make up excuses for lazy students unless you show the capability to read and understand a short passage of simple prose.


  23. I agree with Felix. 90% failed the first test. That could be because of the culture of the school. The class performance improved greatly on the second test so that shows the professor was adjusting the culture. Some things that we don't know are how the professor did in other classes and whether or not the content of the tests were reasonable. Without that information I find it hard to know what to make of the article. I do know that taking a professor out of a class in the middle of the semester sends a terrible message to the students and other faculty members. I would never want to work for that administrator.

  24. I had it both ways when I was an undergraduate. In one class, second-semester Calculus, the grad student teaching the class clearly hated the idea of teaching, presented the material badly, and gave very difficult exams which nobody passed. I dropped the section and went to the same class taught by a different grad student, who enjoyed teaching, taught clearly, and gave very difficult exams which many people did well on.

    I didn't change from being a lazy student to being a good student merely by changing sections. I was a good student in both (and graduated with a 3.98 out of 4.0 grade average), but had a very bad teacher in the first.

    In the second class, intermediate Japanese, I had a very good but very odd teacher who arrived in the United States from Hong Kong very recently. He failed almost all of his students on almost all of his exams. Being pre-med, I became frantic after getting D's and F's on the first few quizzes. He told me "Don't worry. Of course you are not doing well. If you were getting A's and B's on all your tests, then clearly I would not be pushing you as hard as you should be pushed. Don't worry about your final grade, you will do fine. Worry about doing better at Japanese."

    I took him at his word, and sure enough, in the final grading everyone did pretty well.

  25. Several comments mention the 90% failure rate but don't note that this was after the first test, the wake-up call, and Hombertger says the results were noticeably better on the second test.

    imho curves are BS, anyway. The assignments and quizzes and tests should fairly identify mastery of the required material, and the grades should rteflect the degree of mastery---how well or poorly others do is irrelevant, what matters i8s mastering teh material. The only rationale for a curve is if one suspects the assignment or test is too hard, but normalizing against teh rest of tehs tudents is a very poor substitute for a validated assignment or test instrument.

    But all the above notwithstanding, the administration yanking the prof in the middle of the semester on the basis of a few childish complaints is wrong on every level.

  26. The bottom line is that if 90% of the students are failing, it's not the students. The idea that the teacher would change grades based on "improvement" or whatever is specious. Students *do* have a reasonable expectation of knowing their position in a class, and some statement of "well, I'm failing you now, but who knows, if the mood strikes me I might pass you" is not a solution.

    If 90% of the students were failing, then the teacher is a failure. If 90% of the students were *not* failing but were being subjected to some sort of mind game, then there is even less excuse.

  27. Professor Dominique Homberger's page at LSU is here, and Dean Kevin Carman's academic page is here. Each page has links that lead to additional information.

    Prof. Homberger is a scholar of repute. Otoh, I'm surprised that Mr. Carman got tenure, let alone becoming a full dean, at a supposedly good school like LSU.

    I see no reason to modify my previous comment that capable American students are being ruined by the educational establishment. I suspect that the USA's educational establishments are as faithful to their fiduciary responsibilities to future generations as our federal, state, and local governments are.

  28. One more thing: since Homberger was presumably involved in Carman's tenure process, I wonder if Carman is settling an old score. Pure supposition on my part.

    But it's not pure supposition that academic politics can be petty, nasty, and vindictive.
    Like other commenters, I too have suffered under a professor who acted out his neuroses on helpless students. If there's a way to preclude such abuse of power without collateral consequences that bring more harm than good, I'm ready to listen. However...

  29. Would it surprise anyone if I said that about 40%of the kids attending most colleges are wasting everybodies time including their own? These approximately 40% should first take a job,, any job available, and see what work is like in the real world. Then they might decide whether or not to take further education seriously. If not, at any age, they can enroll in college classes.