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Professors question academic engagment

Joe Trombello | Monday, November 3, 2003

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series of three on academic engagement at Notre Dame.

Sunny Boyd, associate professor of biological sciences, waits for the one student out of 300 in her physiology class who may come to the three-hour long office hours period. If a student shows up, she is certain it will be to ask a question directly related to the upcoming exam. More students will come right before the exam, hoping to have their last-minute questions answered; few will come merely just to chat.

She estimates that 100 students may skip class on any given day. Those who do attend will only read the assigned parts of the textbook, refusing to spend time reading material in the text that will not be on the exam but may prove useful or even interesting to them. The MCAT will not test these concepts.

Boyd, like some other faculty members from different colleges throughout Notre Dame, vent these and other concerns about the lack of intellectual engagement that Notre Dame students generally display outside of the classroom. They talk about the lack of passion that many students have for an academic subject and their decision to do little more than what is required of them academically. They talk about the lack of political activism on-campus. They talk about the emphasis on athletics and the lack of student interest in academia. They talk about how students at Notre Dame could do better.

Politics and passion

In contrast with other faculty members who comment about the lack of contact with students during office hours, Robert Sedlack, an assistant professor of graphic design, said that he has many daily conversations with students. Because faculty offices are so close to classrooms in the Riley Hall of Art, Sedlack said that students frequently engage in causal conversations to ask questions or to request a brief critique of their work.

“These kinds of conversations take place all the time. There are all kinds of opportunities for me to have impromptu discussions of student’s work,” Sedlack said.

Boyd said that she was astonished to discover how little Notre Dame students seem to care about politics, a measure of what she would consider to be true passion for learning and a personal involvement in current issues.

“I was shocked and surprised at how un-politically involved Notre Dame students are,” she said. “I get the impression here that students don’t care [about politics].”

Like Boyd, Robert Norton, chair of the Department of German Languages and Literature, said that despite his students’ hard work ethic, they seem to be lacking in passion and a genuine, personal interest in the material that they study. This pervasive attitude contradicts with that of some students whom he taught at Vassar College, students who seemed to him to be engaged in a rich intellectual life.

“[Students here don’t] convey the impression that a work of literature has meant a great deal personally to them, that he [or she] has grappled with it … that it has challenged certain convictions or that [they have] been excited by it,” he said. “That has never happened to me here [at Notre Dame.]”

Anre Venter, director of undergraduate studies in psychology, agreed with Norton, saying that students generally seem to learn only for the sake of earning a good grade, rather than for pure enjoyment in the discipline.

“Kids here are grade-driven and performance-driven. That’s where it begins and ends for most people,” he said. “Notre Dame should be an end in itself, and students should learn for the sake of learning.”

Academia and careerism

Other professors, such as Layna Mosley, assistant professor of political science, said that they feel that Notre Dame students may not be as inclined to consider academia as a career path in comparison with peers from other institutions. Mosley said that this may be explained in part because students who attend Notre Dame may not have been exposed to academia in their family backgrounds.

“Notre Dame students may be more likely to come from backgrounds where they are the first or second generation [to attend college]. They may be less likely to come from academic backgrounds,” she said.

Ten percent of incoming freshmen in 2002 were first-generation college students, according to the Office for Institutional Research. Because of this lack of exposure, Mosley believes that students do not always think of academia as a viable career and do not always understand what professors do.

“I don’t think that students have a good sense of what [professors] do – they don’t quite get it,” she said.

Students from the top 20 American universities sent nearly twice as many graduates to Ph.D. programs from 1991-2000 as Notre Dame, and only Notre Dame’s department of engineering sent a greater percentage of their students to doctoral programs than engineering programs from these peer institutions.

William Nichols, associate dean of the Mendoza College of Business, said that he believes Notre Dame students to be more career-oriented than students at other peer universities might be. Thus, Notre Dame students with aspirations in business, law or medicine may be less likely to seek graduate work in Ph.D. programs than their peers.

“I’ve got to believe that a fair percentage of students who come to Notre Dame have a professional career in mind – that may be different at other schools. I think our students are career-oriented from day one.”

A culture change

Some faculty said that getting students to develop a richer intellectual life outside of the classroom would necessitate a fundamental shift in the pervasive attitudes that exist among Notre Dame students.

Norton said that improving the academic environment among Notre Dame undergraduates would mean allowing students to believe that intelligence and academic engagement are valued.

“It would entail a change in attitude, where in college, being a brilliant person is the thing,” he said. “Here [at Notre Dame], that’s not the case – it’s how you look and what your athletic ability is. The idea that being smart is cool would have to take hold.”