Students Re-THINK PSU, Part 2

Last week I introduced the first five of 10 recommended improvements to make Portland State a great university for students through better amenities, good practices and a new structure. This is in response to the university’s $3 million Provost’s Challenge, part of the ReTHINK PSU initiative, which involved faculty and departments but very few students as advisers. What if the university asked the roughly 30,000 of us to “re-think” psu? Read on for the concluding top five suggestions.

5. Fee So Happy, Fee So Happy

“The most legitimately annoying problem is the excessive, minor and incessant fees for everything,” said one PSU post-baccalaureate student. “Students should not be charged a matriculation fee, graduation fee AND a cap and gown fee.”

Don’t forget the application fee, classroom materials fees, proctoring fees, key card fees, the Academic and Student Rec Center fee and the $160 fee for a  four credit online course. You are also charged the student building fee and the student incidental fee. Your Associated Students of Portland State University Student Fee Committee does, indeed, have authority over the money generated by these last two fees.

If you are a business, engineering, or fine and performing arts student, a “program differential” of $100-$400 more (at 12 credit hours) is added to your tuition. If you are admitted to the Honors College as well, you pay the $100 program differential too!

PSU is discussing the possibility of rolling some fees into tuition, according to one administrator. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. More fees must also come under the purview of the SFC. Students now pay for 70 percent of their education at this school. They should be in charge of their own money.

4. My apa Is Bigger Than Your mla

Take a class in one department, and the instructor asks for the APA academic writing format to cite your research. Then, the next department insists on the very similar mla style. You take a newswriting class, and you’re exposed to ap style or Chicago style.

“Oh, God, use anything but Chicago style!” says the next instructor.

“Use any style you want, as long as you are consistent throughout your paper,” say the next two instructors.

Other instructors say mla style is the only acceptable one.

Do the faculty and the Office of Academic Affairs realize that psu students are getting this almost comical mixed message? Which is what, exactly? A requirement of a good degree is to learn four citation styles?

I’m sure PSU would like to send a more consistent message to both faculty and students on learning academic style formats. The new Office of Academic Innovation should work on giving a clear standard on citation systems to its instructors to relay to students. That consistent message could regularly show up on syllabi, just like the counseling or Disability Resource Center messages.

3. A Student Bill of Rights

A student bill of rights would speak to academic issues such as knowing where you stand in a class, an instructor’s willingness to meet with you or safeguards against a syllabus being radically changed during a term. The document could also include student rights in any number of student-life areas.

Most importantly, such a document could set a grievance procedure for students, where they would enlist a qualified student representative to advocate for them in an appeal process. Students would find they are not alone in many situations where they are frustrated by the university or their instructors.

During the 2011–2012 school year, aspsu worked on a student bill of rights. I would like to see them take up the idea again.

2. Class Group Projects

You’ve all been in class group projects. They invariably have the same characters and the same dynamic. There’s the cocky student promoting poorly thought out ideas, the quiet ones with smart insights who let the talkative ones dominate, the slacker and the overachiever shouldering too much of everyone else’s work to insure her grade.

It is awkward and uncomfortable, and everyone is unhappy.

Adding to the awkwardness, most faculty provide no guidance on the groups’ composition, leaving it to their students to randomly self-select the groups. What a waste, since proactive instructors could easily balance the groups by class standing, majors and non-majors, life experience, gender and ethnicity, if they cared to.

We are put through this, psu tells us, because in the real world of work we will be expected to collaborate well and get along with coworkers. True enough, but psu provides no training on how adults actually learn to get along in diverse groups that hold diverse ideas on how to work.
That’s an even bigger waste, since these concepts are taught here, in the communication department’s Communication in Groups class (COMM 313U) for example.

If psu is going to require group work, it should teach these useful skills by requiring COMM 313U, or a new class created for just this purpose, for all undergraduates.

1. End the Sprint: Convert from Quarters to Semesters.

Close your eyes. Picture yourself in a semester system at psu. Your courses are 16 weeks long, not 10 weeks. In the eighth week, you are preparing for midterms, not already thinking about finals.
It is not some fairyland dream; 89 percent of all four-year universities in America are on the semester system, including most private universities in Oregon.

Some professors have expressed to me the difficulty of programming a subject properly in the 10 weeks of a quarter system. However, Dr. Lee Shaker of the communications studies department can see both sides of the issue. He pointed out that he has almost as much lecture time in a quarter system as in a semester system.

“I feel that I can conceptualize a course that delves deeply into a topic in 10 weeks,” Shaker said. He believes the quarter system has a certain momentum; there’s little down time, so the class doesn’t sag from teachers or students getting into a rut. “It’s intense to pack so much lecture time into 10 weeks, but it can be compelling and exciting too,” Shaker said.

On the other hand, Shaker noted that PSU rarely offers discussion sections with each class, as would be more typical in a semester system, which can be an obstacle for some subjects.

“It can be harder for students to absorb the information for at least two reasons: Quarters are unforgiving; you don’t really have time to ease into things. Second, there is simply less time to spread content out, and sometimes it takes a while for ideas to be understood. There are fewer opportunities to ask questions. This can be a pedagogical problem.”

Emily Kunkel, senior political science major and former aspsu Judicial Board chief justice, participated in a semester-style program in Senegal as part of a psu overseas program. She believes semesters would be “fantastic.”

“Here, we’re cramming so much info in a short amount of time. Work in one class suffers for another class. You have to hit the ground running in the first week, and stay running. And here, we have so many students who are older, single moms or working. In the quarter system, there’s no room for getting sick,” Kunkel said.

Those of us who have matriculated from semester schools know what a sprint it is here. The quarter system is archaic, and learning only sinks in at the wading pool level. It is time for psu to stop making students run for 10 weeks by instituting the deeper, more meaningful stroll of the semester system.

Theo Burke hosts The Raging Moderate, a news and talk show, Thursdays at noon at