Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Do You Want To Be Bode Miller?

Yesterday I really wanted to ask some of my students, "Do you want to be the Bode Miller of calculus?" or, "Are you pursuing your education like Bode Miller did Olympic medals?" I didn't for several reasons. Possibly they weren't following the story of Bode Miller; probably they weren't thinking about it as carefully as I was; almost certainly they would have taken the question the wrong way and would have gotten offended.

As much as I complain about my students, they really are the best and the brightest around here. Fewer than 15% of freshmen take the calculus course that I'm teaching (the rest take lower-level courses). My state is well below the national average when it comes to high school graduation rates, proportion of high school graduates attending college, and proportion of adults with a bachelor's degree. The flagship campus of our state university has a four-year graduation rate just over 25%; the six-year graduation rate is under 60%. How much does my community value education? Every year I pay $430 in school taxes.

It would be easy to draw parallels between underachieving college students and Bode Miller by isolating the comment he made to Jim Litke: "I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level." Other commentators, critical of him, complain that he has let us down by going out partying and slacking on his training.

When I piece together the quotes from Bode Miller, it seems that he is saying that he has done this on purpose. One way I read his statements is that it requires a lot of time, dedication, and single-minded hard work for him just to maintain his steady-state of excellence in skiing, and he has decided that what he got out of the effort wasn't worth what he put in. Another way is that he just isn't as good (or as dedicated) as he used to be (or as people thought he was), and he is now making a big show of being a screw-up so that he can explain that he did poorly on purpose -- not because he's not good enough.

In my own academic experience, I used to be promising, and I used to have potential. It's possible (although not assured) that if I put more time, effort, and dedication into my academic work that I could be pretty good. I've chosen to work at a lower-expectation job, and I've made a conscious choice to limit my work hours. I, too, have been criticized for my decision.

What I really want to say to my students is, "You have potential. But it's so very clear to me that you are not doing the hard work necessary to live up to it. Are you doing this on purpose? Have you made a choice?"