The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Article by a Former SIUC Grad Student

with 7 comments

In my meanderings around the web, I found an article called The True Confessions of a Former Graduate Teaching Assistant, written by Kathleen Hale, a former SIUC grad student.

She’s no fan of our students:

Did I mention we are totally unprepared?  But then, so are our students—that is, if one considers basic writing skills or being up-to-date on current events to be a prerequisite for college.  Last month I showed my students a documentary outlining 9/11 conspiracy theories, and one of the response papers began as follows:  “The movie tries to say that 911 got fishy! Be-cuz we knew the Hispanic hijackers and then how their wasn’t no wingspan imprints when that plane hit the octagon” (my italics). [Hale’s italics, not mine. CO]

On the curve I established for the class (a necessity for most GTA’s because otherwise half our students would fail) this paper received a B-.  (Note: said student later attempted to give me a high-five in response to news of Bin Laden being murdered.)

In the fall, this kind of writing would have thrown me into a tailspin.   Back then I was fully equipped with a naïve snobbery that compelled me to wave my hands frantically in front of the chalkboard and ask, “WHAT EXACTLY DID YOU EVEN LEARN IN HIGH SCHOOL?” Back then I spent four hours on every class, cried a lot between lesson plans, and didn’t say anything when my students brought their babies to class.

The author also isn’t too fond of our faculty:

At first, these notions stressed me out—I wanted to be a good teacher and was pretty won-over by the school’s apparent mission (“Admissions requirements?  Who needs them!  Everyone deserves a college education.”).  But eventually I picked up on the dismissive attitude of those around me and learned to follow suit.

“They’re sweet, dumb kids.  Emphasis on the dumb,” said one professor, describing the undergraduate population.  “Do what you can, but don’t overdo it.  If you try too hard, you’ll go nuts.”

“Once I brought up Dante and they said ‘What’s a Dante?’” lamented another.

“Try and remember what you came here to do,” a more experienced colleague instructed.  “Focus on your own work and don’t get caught up in the teaching.”

Or, as was pointed out at the recent MFA gala, “Congratulations to our third year graduates!  You’ve all dealt with some of the worst students in the world, and survived.”

If this is really how the faculty at SIUC see the students, the university’s problems are worse than I realized. If the students really are this bad, then SIUC is finished.

When I read the article, I knew instantly that the university she calls SFCI (state funded college in Illinois) was in fact SIUC. A quick search of SIUC’s people finder confirmed my suspicions. Since she’s left the university, I captured a screenshot, included below for any doubters (click the image for a larger version):

The author acknowledges her own privilege – she went to Harvard for undergrad. I’m sure that experience colors her view of the students who attend SIUC. I don’t know if there is anything that can excuse the behavior of the professors, assuming the author describes them honestly.

I’ll also note that she uses two student’s real names in the article, which seemed unwise. I would have left the student’s names out. I checked the people finder, though, and they are real students.

I realize this post is a little light on commentary, but I’m a little demoralized. I think that was the author’s point.

It’s worth reading the whole article, which you can find here.

Comments are welcome.


Written by The Carbondale Observer

June 23, 2011 at 7:45 am

7 Responses

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  1. Thanks for posting this, worth a read.

    I have felt for years that SIU’s primary problem was the total lack of standards and rigor. If you hand an incoming freshman a coloring book and crayon, give them an A when they draw inside the lines, is that a college education? Once you set a low, low, low standard, who’s fault is it? We all know what happens when the kids hit that real 300 (technical area) or 400 (there is one in every major right?) level course, they stall. Can’t handle it. There is no way that giving an essay that deserves an F, a B- is good for the student. it just isn’t.

    Back in the day, SIU had open enrollment and standards. People graduated with a good education or they didn’t graduate.


    June 23, 2011 at 11:31 am

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m starting to think you’re right about SIUC. One reader, commenting under the name Nemo, made a pretty good argument about the tension between high enrollment and quality students. It’s worth a read; here’s a link:

      It seems to me that non-faculty SIUC employees, the local business community (which mostly exists to serve students), the SIUC administration, and most non-affiliated residents want higher enrollment at any cost. On the other side, faculty want higher quality students – ideally lots of them – but quality is more important to faculty than quantity.

      To make matters worse, Illinois has decided that investments in higher education are no longer worthwhile. That leaves tuition hikes as the easiest way to get new revenue. (Patents, as you’ve mentioned on your blog, are another way, but riskier.) The higher tuition scares away students who might have come to SIUC for the value but now see it as an over-priced, under-performing university.

      I don’t know how to solve the problem and, as the author of the article I linked says, it seems like no one at SIUC does either.

      The Carbondale Observer

      June 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      • There is a book that has a business idea that might apply – “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” SIU has a business model that they are holding onto for dear life, it worked for years and years. Now it doesn’t work, so they need to change. But, they still hold on to the last model.

        There is a cool split in America. Half think that working harder makes you smarter and half think that you are born as smart as you are ever going to be. It would be better for SIU to start thinking that working harder makes you smarter. 🙂

        The modern example is Microsoft being first to the smart phone/devices market, but doing such a bad job that Apple/Linux/Android have won. Microsoft still makes great profit selling their old monopoly, but there is a future that is visible, where it might/will not work anymore.

        The 50’s and 60’s open enrollment, make work in rural areas, give everyone a chance, has been mixed with entitlement and grade inflation. Things have gone wrong and SIU needs to change. Sooner or latter, things are going to go completely sideways. It would be better to work on fixing it now.


        June 26, 2011 at 7:15 pm

  2. Good catch–I wondered if this was about SIUC.

    I disagree somewhat with what she says about our students. While many of them are woefully unprepared, or even entirely unsuited to college, they aren’t necessarily dumb. But even though most of them are indeed nice, students like this waste their own time and money and that of their better-prepared classmates, not to mention taxpayer dollars.

    On the other hand, as far as trying not to give out any D’s is concerned, she’s spot on. A couple of years ago, the then Provost urged that no more than 20% of students should receive D’s, F’s, W’s, or Inc’s.


    June 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm

  3. Thanks for the comment and the compliment!

    My experience with SIUC students has been mixed. I’ve met some and wondered how they ever got into college. I’ve met others and wondered what they’re doing here and why they aren’t at UIUC, Michigan, or another “public ivy.”

    I think it’s great that everyone gets a chance at college. But a chance is enough. As GtP pointed out in the comment above, it doesn’t help the student or the university to pass students who earned failing grades. They’d be better off working on the fundamentals in a community college before returning for another try at a university education.

    If the former provost was urging professors to pass students who should fail, that’s really, really bad news. Here’s hoping the new provost doesn’t make that mistake.

    The Carbondale Observer

    June 23, 2011 at 6:19 pm

  4. Kathleen Hale here. Just wanted to point out that I got Elizabeth’s and Brett’s permission to use their names. Nice job with the detective work (though I’m sorry that you felt demoralized). And thanks for reading!

    Kathleen Hale

    July 20, 2011 at 7:40 pm

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