Can’t… Don’t… or Won’t

My wife just received an email from a student seeking to be a music major at the university. The student wanted to accept the scholarship that the department had offered, but wanted to know how to do so. My wife doesn’t know whether to be frustrated, amused, appalled, or enraged, if not all four. Why?

Because the letter offering the scholarship and setting forth the terms is sent in duplicate. All the student has to do is sign one copy, accepting the scholarship and its terms, and return it. Or, if the terms aren’t acceptable or the student decides to go elsewhere, rejecting the scholarship. The letter states all that precisely. This is not exactly complicated. Neither are the simple written scholarship requirements.

One of the terms that is spelled out in the scholarship letter is that to receive a Music Department scholarship, a student has to major in music. And every year there are several students who fail to follow the written requirements for their scholarship, even after being explicitly told both verbally and in writing what music department courses to take and in what order… and they lose their scholarships because they didn’t read the requirements or bother to follow directions. And there are those who register to major in other disciplines and then are shocked to learn that they don’t get a scholarship unless they major in music.

The department offers several levels of scholarships. The ones that cover all tuition for four years essentially have two major conditions: major in music, taking the requisite courses, and maintain a 3.5 grade average. Despite having high ACT/SAT scores, and good high school grades, there are always a few students who don’t seem to have read or understood those two requirements… and lose their scholarships.

Then there are the ones who try to register for courses that have pre-requisites, without having taken the earlier courses, or the ones who wait until their senior year for a course that’s only given every other year, despite the fact that this is noted in print in more than a few places. And then, of course, some administrators pressure the professors to make special accommodations. My wife doesn’t, but a few do.

All this conveys a strong impression that a great number of high school graduates don’t read, or don’t comprehend what they read… or don’t bother to. Pretty much every member of the Music Department, and any other department, has noticed this trend. Students will ask questions, such as, “What’s required for my jury [or gateway or recital]?” Seemingly not a bad question, except the requirements are listed in the syllabus and in the Voice Handbook. Students are also told the requirements verbally, and repeatedly. Did I mention that a great number of them don’t listen, either?

All of which brings up some questions: Just what aren’t these students being taught by their parents and/or their high schools about responsibility and consequences? How do so many of them get to the point of nearly legal majority without being held accountable? And why do so many colleges and universities make it even harder for professors to hold students accountable?

7 thoughts on “Can’t… Don’t… or Won’t”

  1. JM says:

    From my own experience I can state that we (college students) are so accustomed to having the information presented to us when we need that we don’t bother looking for it. I myself recently tried to apply for a class without checking if it had a pre-requisit. Now I have my college’s course catalogue saved to my hard drive and an excel timeline for the remainder of my major’s required courses. Some of us do learn.

    I cannot excuse those who are unable or choose to not comprehend information given to them. I’ve delt with classmates whom seemingly don’t understand what the purpose of a syllabus is all the way back to my early high school days. It’s less of an issue now that I’m in college, but then I’m a senior now so most of the offenders have long since dropped out.

    And please, encourage your wife to not coddle her students. A family friend teaches a course for Registered Nurses and the story is the same: classes are too hard, make them easier.

    What’s the value of higher education if we teach to the lowest common denominator? College students are adults and we should be treated as such. Don’t lower the bar, just fail the students. They complain? Well life is not fair, or just, or a happy dream. Not everyone is able to do or be anything. A lot of people forget that. I try not to.

  2. John Prigent says:

    I expect the administrators and managers would complain if students are kicked out for such minor things as being unable to understand simple instructions. Otherwise a few horrible examples could be made – and well-publicised.

    1. JM says:

      How minor it is depends on the situation. But I’m sure your well aware of this argument.

      Funny story: my calculus I professor used to hand out McDonalds applications to students who failed his tests. Unfortunately some people are unable to deal with the mental and emotional pressure that results from being told that your performance only rates the level of a McDonalds employee and thus the proverst formally requested that he stop.

      It puts a lot of pressure on you for sure (I failed his class) but if you can’t find the resolve to try again, properly, then you shouldn’t be at college. But of course this is my own opinion.

      As for administrators and managers objecting… well someone has to oppose or else things will become too difficult. It’s just that the “easy” side currently has more of the rope.

      Personally I will be eternally grateful to my parents for raising me the way they did. If I wanted a PS2, I had to work to buy it. And so I did.

  3. John Prigent says:

    And it depends on what you get used to doing. I was pretty hopeless at maths while at school. But a few years later I found myself involved in calculating complex conversions of foreign currencies to old-style British L.S.D, changing the result into decimal currency, and expressing that result as a percentage. After a few weeks of doing it on paper (this was before electronic calculators of any kind entered business use so it was a matter of setting the sums up on a lever-operated machine and pulling the handle) I found myself working the figures out in my head – and yes, getting the correct answers. I can still do that. It became something of a party trick, in fact, me against the calculator, and I was giving answers correct to five decimal places before the electronic machine had been fully set up. So there’s some hope even for a dummy once some experience has been gained.

  4. Matthew Runyon says:

    It’s the disconnect between formal and actual procedures. At my high school, college, and my office, the divergence between the formal “by-the-book” procedures and the actual procedures one needed to follow to actually get anything done was high enough that my first instinct is always to find someone who has actually done something in practice and talk to them. I usually like being prepared for that conversation so I try to at least skim the formal instructions, but in some situations it’s really not worth it because the divergence is so huge. As an example: I’m a licensed US Customs Broker. I’m aware of all the formal procedures for clearing an entry for import into the United States (you have to be in order to pass the licensing exam), but never once have I or anyone else I’ve ever talked to actually performed all of those steps to clear an entry in practice, because most of that work is done via means not spelled out in the formal procedures (customer-specific instructions, automated systems, etc.), and even our own internal SOP’s usually are insufficient to properly handle an entry. A five minute conversation with the person who normally handles them, though, and I can generally get the basics. That’s all pretty typical for my experience. I get flooded by ridiculous amounts of paperwork, legalese, and instructions for essentially every facet of my life, and if I tried to read all of them carefully I would not be able to get anything else done.

    1. James says:

      This has been my experience also. In university, there were a few lecturers who we came to expect to either not have a unit outline, or to not follow it if they did actually provide one.

  5. CEC says:

    The lack of standards of accountability applies to professors as well.

    When I was in graduate school, one of the instructors for a required course was notorious for not pushing the class through all of the material in the syllabus. For the time I took his class, we covered less than half of the material during the semester. Since the course material was on the qualifying exam, several of us got together to study the remainder on our own. Two of us complained to the chair about the instructor. The one who complained before the qualifying exam didn’t pass (and within our study group he was generally considered both the brightest and the best prepared for the exam). The person who complained after the qualifying exam results were released found that his advisor was suddenly too busy and no other professors would take him on. Neither was a difficult student, both were bright, hard-working, and reliable. The experience soured me enough that I switched programs and refuse to hire anyone from that school.

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