During my time as a professor at Miami University, lunch with my colleagues was often spent sharing stories about students’ less than admirable exploits both inside and outside the classroom. The student’s name was never revealed and was always referred to as the newest “Harvey.” (I think we picked that moniker because none of us could recall having an actual student with that name.) You might call it an example of reverse-whistleblower protection, shielding the perpetrator instead of the informant. At the end of each saga, one or more of those present would remind the group, “Don’t forget. They are still adults in training.” And our role as mentors and advisors was to turn the event into a teaching moment. Or as one of my mentors used to remind me, “The best teaching moments are often outside the classroom.”
Those lunches remain among my fondest memories of academic life as this December marks the eighth anniversary since my departure from Oxford, Ohio for Amelia Island. They were also a reminder that colleges and universities are not only venues to learn about science, the humanities or business (in my case). They are a student’s last stop on the road to life as an independent member of society. It is as much about testing, sometimes by trial and error, the principles of personal responsibility and the consequences when one’s performance or behavior falls outside the norms of academic or personal conduct. Besides preparing attendees for careers based on technical skills, higher education is akin to military training. It deserves more credit than it is given for preparing young men and women for the battlefield of adulthood, by letting them practice before they face “live ammunition.”
The American system of higher education has its flaws, but having just spent four weeks as an adjunct professor at an Italian university, I have a new appreciation for the standards imposed upon students in most colleges and universities in the United States. In contrast, the Italian system, based on both nationally mandated rules and policies of each institution, can only only be described as overly student-centric where the inmates run the asylum.
I will share just a few of the most obvious examples. Upon arriving in Milan, I learned 53 students had registered for my graduate business course titled, “Design Thinking and Startup Launch.” My immediate concern was how to effectively engage so many students in a class that involved case discussions and team projects. Such classes at Miami University were often limited to 25 to 30 registrants. However, I soon learned that 14 of the students had elected the “non-attending” option. This meant they would never attend classes and their grade would be 100 percent dependent on one exam based on readings assigned by the professor.
Maybe you are asking the same question I posed to the coordinator of the graduate business program. “Are you telling me a student can get credit for a class based on experiential learning without ever having the experience?” Without hesitation, she nodded and explained this was based on national policies. Just so you understand how absurd this is. Some students would have to prepare analyses of business cases, then write and present a business plan while others would receive the same credit for a three and a half hour written exam. I’ll come back to this later.
Well, at least I would have a more familiar experience with the “attending” students and prepared the syllabus and lesson plans accordingly. On the first day of class, I received the second major surprise. University policy allowed students to schedule their internships at the same time they were taking classes. Even students who opted for the class-based alternative assumed it was an excused absence from class if their intern host asked them to work during the scheduled class period. For the record, most graduate business programs in the USA set aside a semester for internships during which students are not required to take classes.
My third example involves deference to students who are not pleased with their grades. A “non-attending” student can take their exam up to five times (I am not making this up). To give you a sense of how ludicrous this is, I will share my experience with my first Italian “Harvey.” But first I need to tell you Italian students, by national policy, are graded on a scale of zero to 30. Again, maybe you might ask the same question I did. “Why would a nation which measures everything on the base-10 metric system, even the temperature, use a non-metric scale for scoring student performance?” Chalk it up to one of the sweet mysteries of life as no one I queried had an answer.
Harvey #1, with whom I had no contact or correspondence over the four weeks I was in Milan, took the open-book exam on November 20. The instructions clearly stated “answers must be supported by specific references or examples from the readings, cases and other material available on BlackBoard.” For the same credit as an attending student, Harvey #1 submitted a two-page document with just two references to course material, one of which was entirely mis-interpreted. Giving Harvey #1 the benefit of the doubt, I scored the exam as a 6/30. Eighteen is a passing grade. To Harvey #1’s credit, the student did not challenge my assessment and asked for guidance how to better prepare to retake the exam during the next testing cycle.
Which brings me to the last example. One of the attending students (Harvey #2) missed three of the eight sessions, did not participate in class discussions when he did attend, and a peer review by his project team members indicated he had not made a significant contribution to the team effort. As is often the case, he was the first student to challenge his grade when they were posted last night. Which brings me to the final reason why I titled this post “Academic Malpractice.” The student informed me he would refuse to accept the grade and would take the “non-attending” exam to get credit for the class. In other words, his performance to date vanished into the ether with no consequences. Not a great life lesson for an adult in training.
In addition to class participation on the team project, each attending student had a final assignment which included three essay questions. The last question was, “What do you consider to be the most important traits of a successful entrepreneur? Based on your answer, how would you assess your own potential to start and run your own business?” In every article and case covered during the class, a recurring theme was the paradox of freedom versus responsibility. Entrepreneurs are the masters of their own fate which also means they are accountable for their own actions. Harvey #2 did not include this in his response to the question yet concluded his essay by saying, “I have all the typical characteristics of an entrepreneur.”
Based on this experience, I believe, Italian educators should be asking themselves the following critical question which addresses the impact of a culture which treats students like children as opposed to responsible adults. Is Harvey #2 an anomaly or is he a product of a system where students who under-perform or do not commit to their studies are told, in the words of Gilda Radner’s Emily Latella, “Never mind!”
For what it’s worth.