Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Macalester At Midterm

So, it is midterm break at Macalester and I thought I'd sum up my experience so far as a visiting adjunct at this highly-selective liveral arts college.

I should say that I've been quite curious for some time about such a school. When applying to colleges myself, I had no idea that such schools existed. I had no idea what the tradeoffs were for kids choosing colleges at the time. For me it was a question of money. What does the school cost and what will the school pay me to attend. (I ended up at a small military technical institute where, after two-and-a-half years of study I was asked to leave due to my sexuality... But that is a different story). When applying to jobs after finishing up my dissertation, I got an interview at Middlebury for a similar short-term position that I am holding now and was lucky enough to be offered a tenure-track position that strictly dominated the insecure, short-term position. So, here I am with six years of a small, public midwestern institution under my belt, comparing it to 7 weeks at this little college in St. Paul.

So the question is, is it worth FORTY-THREE-GRAND (in 2007 dollars) to send your kid to such a place (assuming they can even get in the door).

My short answer is: yeah. It probably is. (They have great financial aid packages).

My long answer gets at the "why" of it all.

From a teaching perspective, it is a sweet gig. Why?

a) Right now I am only teaching two courses (their regular load is two courses in one semester and three in the other, which is less than my current load of three/three).
b) In total, I have 37 students. This is compared to the 110-130 students I normally have. So, when they say that they want you to learn their name, it is nearly no effort. You just do. And I am terrible with names. AND about fifty-percent of the students are international, which makes the names that much harder (for me), yet, I know about 85% of them. As a comparison, I usually get about 10-15% of the names at my normal place by the end of the semester!
c) About a week into teaching, the administrative assistant asked me: "Do you have a precept?" I'm all: "What is a precept?" A precept is a really smart kid who does all the grading for your problem sets, etc. Not only that, but you get a little email sent to you from the kid with an Excel attachment containing the results. In comparison, this would save me 10-15 hours of work at my normal job. At least. And, after reviewing his work, I trust it.
d) When I do grade, I spend MUCH less time on basic knowledge stuff. For example, I graded some essays for one class and I never even once wrote in the margin a little blurb about "how to write an essay/paragraph/paper/topic sentence." Secondly, in my intermediate microeconomic class, I could avoid a calculus review (although, as it turns out, they probably needed it).

What this translates into is that as a teacher, you can spend more time teaching. If I were to teach these same courses again, I could put much more effort into the style and content of my teaching than I normally can, given the constraints I face. I used to think that the elite liberal arts colleges were perhaps better because they hired Ph.D.'s from the ivy leagues, but now, (while I acknowledge that some of that is undoubtedly true) I think that that is the least of the benefits. They have teachers that have energy to teach.

In terms of the student atmosphere, I think that that, too, is probably worth the cash. I'm not sure they're THAT much smarter on average than the students I teach. There is probably a small shift in the distribution of ACT/SAT scores (to the right). And, I'm sure they drink and do drugs as much as the next college kids -- maybe even more because they don't work (i.e. have more time) and probably have more money.

The difference is in the culture of the institution. The students, generally, study more. A great deal more from my initial impressions. More students read chapters and do homework prior to coming to class whereas at my regular institution, I am lucky if they get to reading/homework the night before the exam. As an example, I was going over what I perceive to be the pinnacle topic in terms of difficulty in the Intermediate Microeconomics course: The Slutsky Equation.

I was using the treatment from the Varian book because I think it is more intuitive while they had purchased the Perloff text which has a little different presentation.

One student, after class, pointed out this difference to me and asked if he was misinterpreting something.

I can honestly say that I would never have been that on-the-ball as a student. And this and similar events happened enough times over the course of the last seven weeks to tell me that some significant percentage of the students are studying.

In addition to studying, they study more together as students of a particular major. This lends itself to a high degree of collegiality among cohorts.

In addition, as mentioned before, a large portion of the students are international. This contributes to an incredible atmosphere to the campus and enhances everyone's experience.

Maybe I'll drop it all and go back for another undergraduate major!

Or, maybe I'll just save for Seven and Big. One can only guess how much tuition will be in 2017.

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