You Won’t Get Wise With the Sleep Still in your Eyes [Guest post]

[The following is a guest post from my sister, an ME student at the University of Alabama and itinerant intern/co-op/resident smart person.]

November 9th, 2015. 23:15

I’m sitting at my desk tonight with a hot cup of cocoa (courtesy of my awesome grandmother who sends me delicious care packages) ostensibly studying for a test tomorrow. Instead, I’ve decided to take a break to document an interesting happening from a few weeks back that sparked some pondering.

As any good story needs a setting, we’ll start with a little background. It was a run-of-the-mill Monday morning in my mechanics of materials class. The professor for this class, we will call him Dr. A, has a Ph.D. and is, once you get used to his thick Indian accent, generally a good communicator. Overall, I have been satisfied with his course. He sets clear expectations and has a no-nonsense way of approaching assignments and grading. He even has some fairly positive reviews on the infamous “rate my professor” site. This particular Monday, however, he did not live up to my expectations.

We started off the lecture normally, beginning with a brief overview of the day’s topic of beam deflection. I’ll spare you the super technical details, but in layman’s terms, we were discussing what happens to solid structures when specific loading and constraint conditions are applied. Usually, Dr. A will work through an example problem before sending us off to, ideally, complete the three assigned homework problems on our own before the next class period. The example for this topic was a man on a diving board. We were basically trying to find how far the board would bend, given the shape of the supports and the weight of the man. We got about halfway into the problem before Dr. A wrote an equation that did not seem to be true. I stopped writing in my notebook and elbowed my neighbor. I pointed to the equation I had written down and asked if she thought that was right. She shrugged nonchalantly and went back to finishing up the homework that was due at the end of class. I turned to the girl on my other side and she looked at it, then looked at his notes and frowned saying uncertainly that it seemed off to her, but then continued copying down his notes.

I continued to stare at it, still fairly convinced that it was not correct. I finally came to the conclusion that I was going to have to be that kid that everyone hates: I raised my hand in the middle of lecture.   Dr. A stopped writing and asked what my question was. I directed him back to the offending equation and tried to articulate what I thought it should be.   He listened briefly, then jumped into an explanation of why he had written what he had. I listened, frowning, still unconvinced. He finished his explanation and started to move on. Two guys in the row behind me, however, had started muttering to each other as soon as I asked the question, and they had apparently come to the same conclusion that I had. They jumped in when he began to move on, and asked the same question that I had, this time phrased in a slightly more accusing manner. He once again began to explain his equation using much the same explanation he had just finished moments before, this time with interjected arguments from the two guys behind me. They finally acquiesced after a few minutes of back and forth, and he once again moved on.

At this point, about ten minutes had passed and class was nearing the end. I was still not satisfied, and the guys behind me were now angrily muttering to each other about him being wrong, but we had all given up after hearing him explain it the same way 3 or 4 times.   I heard the guy in front of me complain to his neighbor that we wouldn’t even be able to finish the example in class today. The professor hurried through the rest of the problem and we were dismissed. I left with a large X through the equation in question and a big “?” next to all the work after it which was based on that conclusion.

Not two hours after the class ended, we all received an email with the following:

Please find attached correction in Boundary condition (B) of Problem 7-3-7 solved in the class today. Slope of deflection for v1 and v2 at a X = L are equal but not zero for roller support in this particular problem(Check Table 72 page 469).  On that basis corrections are made in page 3. Sorry for inconvenience.

Ah, the mass apology.   This sort of email must truly be the bane of any professor’s existence. He carefully avoided directly saying that he had been wrong, but still at least did correct himself and in a relatively timely manner.

The following lecture, he went back and worked through the offending problem again with the corrected equations and I was much more satisfied with the result.

This incident left me with much to consider. You’re probably expecting this to turn into a rant about terrible professors who only teach because they cannot do. Although my immediate reaction was to be frustrated at Dr. A and his refusal to admit his mistake, in the end I cannot really fault him for getting a little flustered at the accusatory remarks and sticking to his guns, annoying as it may have been. I do appreciate how he eventually handled it and redid the problem instead of trying to cover up the fact that he did it wrong.

It was not only a test of Dr. A’s teaching, however. This was also a test of the students in the class, and I have to say, many of them failed. From the guy sitting in the front row copying homework solutions from the internet in the middle of class, to the guy sitting near me complaining that other students’ questions made us unable to finish the example, I am left with an unsatisfactory view of my classmates.

How many of them were blindly copying without bothering to try to follow along or understand why? How many of them were even listening at all and not just playing on their phones or copying homework solutions? What does it say that finishing the example is more important than doing it right? Is this the kind of mindset that our future engineers will have once they start designing our bridges and airplanes and elevators?

It is a common complaint that “grades are more important than learning” but the problem is bigger than that. It is easy to blame the universities and the professors themselves for creating classes where good grades are the most important things. It is even true that some professors would rather have all of their students pass than have all of their students understand the material. And yes, there is a problem with a system that acts like all students deserve to get an A.

But we also must find fault with the students themselves who are so easily trapped by this mindset. They are led astray by methods that promise instant gratification without any sort of effort, and they see no issue with that. They truly believe that they deserve the A and the fancy job offer and whatever else they set their heart on for no other reason than the fact that they want it. They have no sense of pride in their work, no desire to earn the things they want. As long as they get what they want in the end, it doesn’t matter to them how they got there. They take no responsibility for their own success, but expect that it will simply come to them because they desire it. In their minds, the world is a place where everyone simply deserves the best just because. After all, if someone else can get an A or a nice job offer, then obviously I deserve it too!

This is what really bothers me about my classmates at school. Obviously, not all students are like this, and I am happy to have found many students who think like me. But there are more than a few who refuse to see reality. They act entitled to the world simply because they desire it. The worst part about it is that no one will call them on that behavior. I used to think that there would be a point where they’d all have to face the music and realize that the real world is not such a fantasy land where you never have to work to get what you want.

But I’m starting to think that maybe they won’t. The way the world is going, it seems like these fantasy dwellers will be able to get all the way through life without ever landing in reality. And that is what really scares me.

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