Sunday, December 28, 2008

smoking up the joint - in Kentucky

One day during this past fall term, I stepped into the elevator at work, and was nearly overcome by the stench of cigarette smoke. Since smoking is prohibited in all state buildings, including college buildings, I wondered if someone had been smoking in the parking garage (also not allowed, but not enforced on our campus), next to the elevator access door.

I mentioned the smell to one of our staff. He explained the source of the problem. The majority of the students in our respiratory care program smoke, and when they get their short breaks, they rush, en mass, from their third floor classroom, to the elevator and step outside the building, where they fire up their smokes for 10 minutes, and then at the last minute cram themselves back in the elevator carrying the putrid smell with them.

I have always found it disturbing that such a high percentage of our students smoke, and that every break between classes is a cigarette break. But as an asthma sufferer, I find it obscene that the majority of our respiratory care students are smokers. These are the people who hope to be entrusted with the care of people who suffer from breathing disorders.

Kentucky ranks number 1 in the percentage of adults who are smokers. More than 28 percent of Kentuckians smoke (2007 CDC report) . A study done in 1999-2000 found that 23 percent of pregnant women in Kentucky smoked. Though I have no hard data, I'm certain that both figures are higher in eastern Kentucky than in the urban portions of the state.

The political power of tobacco interests and smokers in Kentucky shows in the low cigarette taxes; only 30 cents per twenty-pack in 2008, lower by at least half compared to all but one of the state surrounding Kentucky. Other evidence of political power: the state of Kentucky has declared smokers a "protected class," and it is illegal to discriminate against smokers in employment and education (Cincinnati Enquirer October 22,2008), despite the well documented fact that smokers are more expensive employees than non-smokers. They are more likely to be absent, their medical costs are higher on average, and they always seem to be out taking a smoking break when you need them.

It seems more than reasonable to me that being a non-smoker should be a requirement for entry into certain fields of employment -- respiratory therapy being one of those. If nothing else, allied health programs (nursing, respiratory care, radiography, physical therapy assistant, and so forth) ought to put a high priority on developing "quit smoking" programs for their students. Many medical facilities, even in Kentucky, are creating smoke free campuses; that is they are eliminating smoking not only in all their buildings, but in all the outside areas between the buildings. Imagine being some one who smokes a pack or more a day, and discovering that in your job at a hospital or medical complex that you have to walk a block or more, and then stand on a busy public street in order to smoke. The Appalachian Regional Hospital (ARH) chain that serves eastern Kentucky has not yet moved in the direction of smokeless campuses, but not all graduates of allied health programs in eastern Kentucky will remain in the region.

Kentucky needs to consider raising cigarette taxes as well. It makes good health policy and would provided needed revenue.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Without all that troublesome knowledge

It is the end of the semester, the final day, final deadline for all written work. One of my students, handed me an entire semesters worth of work -- six essays on topics from as long ago as August -- today. Unlike some faculty, I do accept late work, but I do penalize it, on the earliest essays she will lose at least 50 percent of the points as a late penalty. This isn't particularly unusual. Every semester I have a few students who do this, wait until the last few days of the semester and turn in a pile of essays.

This student's essays were well written, no problems with grammar, sentence structure, spelling or punctuation. They were neat (although hand written which is unusual in this day and age). They were original, no plagiarism -- for which I was deeply grateful. All too often the student who waits until the last day to turn in the semesters work, hopes to slide past you with egregiously plagiarized work, copied in large part (or in whole) from some Internet site. [Somehow they never seem to realize that if they could find the information, so can I]. What disturbed me about these essays, was something, unfortunately, not unique to this student -- there was no evidence in the essays that she had even opened, much less read, any of the assigned readings, or learned anything at all from the course materials. Instead she held forth on her personal opinions about American society, opinions that she'd held before she entered my classroom, and which were no more informed today, after 16 weeks by the facts and research, than they had been when she started the class.

One of the problems with our college students (and one that is fairly wide spread today) is that a larger and larger percentage of the students attending community and lower level state colleges do not actually want a college education (and are not prepared for it in any case). What they want is a good job that will pay a living wage. They have no interest in learning, no thirst for knowledge. In fact, many of them actively resist learning anything new, especially things that might challenge their most precious prejudices and preconceptions. But they have been told (over and over from many sources) that if they want to decent job they have to get a college degree.

So they do want credit for classes and they'd prefer A's over B's and B's over C's -- although they don't want to have to learn anything to get those grades, they want me to give them a grade for spouting back what they already knew when they walked into the classroom. [Note math teachers and sciences teachers do not have this particular problem, because students realize they don't know anything about math and science when they walk into the class -- the problem math and science teachers face is students who want good grades for "trying" regardless of whether or not they actually learn anything.

The source of the problem lies in our economic system which bit by bit has stripped away most of the jobs (manufacturing, basic materials fabrication) that used to exist that would provide a decent, living wage for someone with a high school diploma (or less). We've sent those jobs to other countries (where a living wage is a lot less, and therefore profits are higher), or we've replaced live workers altogether with robots and computerized, programmable technology.

My students are right; to get a decent job that will pay a living wage today, generally does require at least a two year degree, if not a bachelor's degree or more. They just want to get the degrees, as my husband likes to say "without all that troublesome knowledge."