söndag 28 mars 2010

A few thoughts on the recent Cornell suicides.

Last month, three Cornellian died. Three guys, all of them engineering students and all of them jumped from a bridge into Ithaca's gorges. When I came back home from my Spring Break, I saw the newly built fences around the bridges. They looked so ugly. What they tell you is the indisputable fact that with the 6 deaths this year, Cornell has been branded as a suicide school for years to come.

I don't know what you think about it, I myself have a few opinions regarding Cornell's suicides. I'm from Sweden. For that reason, my suggestions may sound radical to some of you. Then again if they don't appease you, please take them as jokes.

In Swedish universities, the students decide. The relation between the officials of an university and the students are like salesmen and customers. Everything can be purchased for a price, even education. This is especially true since private schools like Cornell demand a high tuition fee. However, in Sweden, if your sellers are doing bad, you have the right to complain, sue them and put them out of their business. The latter part is more or less unheard of in US. If a Swedish professor mistreats the students (e.g. by making the exams impossible), he/she better start looking for a new job, cause it won't take long before the "customers" rebel and put the "salesperson" out of business. Ultimately, since the professors are the ones giving out the grades, the Swedish system has devised strategies to prevent the professors from abusing their power. There are rules limiting the number of exams you can take per week. If students fail an exam, the professors are obliged to write make-up exams, at least in one year since the first exam taken. In each major program the student body help deciding the outline of the major curriculum, suggesting which classes should be taught first, which extracurricular classes are good to take, etc. What you get is a liberal and democratic academic environment. In Cornell, I've only heard Student Assembly struggling to place more trash cans and vending machines on campus. In my opinion, this is not what they should be doing.

Since I'm from Sweden, I have never been "imprinted" to worship the professors like the kids in US and Asia. A few weeks ago I posted a comment on facebook, implying that Cornell president and the professors are partially responsible for the incidents. Moments later, a few of my good friends challenged my opinion. Most of them used hypothetical arguments, e.g. it's wrong to blame a person's suicide on another person, or accusing the college officials is out of line. One of them even said the weather was to blame. When I asked them to come up with suggestions of how you can prevent the suicides, their vivid defense arguments fall short and all of them said "oh god I don't know/oh god I never thought about it". The guy who blamed the weather was smart enough to not say that we should build a weather control in Ithaca.

To me and my fellow European exchange students, the answer is simple: when president David Skorton is urging people to seek help at counseling, he's solving the problem from the wrong end. Making people seek help is never as good as removing the necessity of seeking help. In Sweden we have universities located in desolate places like Ithaca. In Sweden the weather is even worse than in upstate New York. The Swedish universities are no Ivy League. But at least our students never kill themselves. There is a correlation between workload-related stress level and suicides. MIT has long had a higher suicide rate than the national average. Cornell's suicides come from the Engineering School. Do you notice something there?

What surprised me was that so many of my friends see the high workload and stress level at Cornell as justified, despite the deaths. This paradigm is more like "unless Cornell has a lethal amount of workload, or it will never keep up its reputation". It's true that other factors do play a role. Relationship issues and family issues all come into the picture somehow. I have to argue that. Cornell is known as the Ivy League school that is easiest to get in, but hardest to get out. The freshmen kids who left their home for the first time are hardly prepared to live with both isolation and academic stress. I once tried to help a friend in civil engineering with his MATLAB project. To my surprise, the difficulty of that homework is comparable to my final project in Java-programming. This guy had no prior experience in programming, so he was toast. The only thing that could help him was making him understand the overall concepts of programming. He needed to take a break, let his brain process the overwhelming amount of information, and finally "click", like how it worked for me. But in this situation, my friend was too stressed to let it happen. I thought, even if I get such a program as homework, I probably can't finish it on time. The compiling and debugging is just too time-consuming. At one point, I look into his eyes. God, I could read angst, stress and anxiety in his eyes. He looked like a rabbit chased by wolves. If you have to deal with this kind of stress everyday, how can it not make you crazy?

This chart is how I see it happening:

high tuition + too many difficult classes
--> low grades + bad career prospect + little time for other things
--> life issues (relationship, lack of social competence, payback of loans, finding good job)
--> more issues
--> nervous breakdown

Practically, there are many things you can do. Most of them involve more professor participation in student consideration.

Make the final week into two or more weeks, opening up alternative time slots for final exams to increase the time gap between each exam, thus spreading out the high stress level at the end of each semester.

Systematically remove the hardest problem on any exam, extend the exam hours. Make sure that at least half of the students can actually finish answering all the questions. It happened to me in BEE 3500 that nobody finished the second prelim despite some extra 30 minutes.

Put up at least a sample prelim, final and/or midterm online for every course, so the students are more confident in what they study and more confident in their ability of dealing with the exams. Ideally, if you've studied enough you should handle any exam. In reality, it's hardly the case.

Make sure the professors actually try to solve the problems before giving them out on an exam. If the professor has to correct errors in an exam paper during the exam, then he/she obviously didn't do the job.

It's true that Ithaca is desolate and the weather crappy. What the college official should be doing is compensate for that by making everybody happier. If there is anybody capable of saving the lives of innocent students, it's the president and the professors. They should use and not abuse their power.

1 kommentar:

  1. also employ relative grades in many places where people get roasted from hard exams where absolute scores make up for the grade and averages are in the 70s and 80s. if the mean is 40, it doesnt matter because your performance according to the difficulty of the exam is what matters and not the absolute performance. have one week of break during fall semester (instead of the two-day long fall break) in addition to the two-day long thanksgiving break. do the same for spring break, two days off and the regular one week off spring break.

    also, practice prelims actually increases performance. professors complain that they want to reuse the questions. how hard could it be to write an exam? in some classes, especially psychology, i feel that i would be more competent in coming up with MC questions (in some cases).