Books abound about student disengagement. We read about their apathy and indifference to the world around them. Data, sadly, support these claims. Youth voting rates are low, especially when President Obama isn’t on the ballot, and while there is some partaking in community activities, critics have noted that some of this engagement is the product of high schools "mandating" volunteerism as a graduation requirement.
My experiences – both as a political scientist and as a dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design – suggest that we administrators and professors doth protest too much. Give our students a compelling text and topic, and they will engage.
I recently visited a philosophy class in which Plato’s Republic was assigned. The students were tackling Book Six, where questions spill off the pages about who should rule, and what qualities make for a viable ruler. Can a "rational" person, removed from impulses and passions, command and lead? How can, or should one remove oneself from temptation and emotion? Can the rational and emotive be separated? Do citizens trust those who are like them? How much of leading and governing is about the rational, and how much is about appearances and images?
As the professor and I raised these questions, I noticed immediately that the students had done the reading. We administrators read about how today’s students do not read. But these students – all of whom were non-liberal arts majors – had immersed themselves in the text. They were quoting passages and displaying keen interest, both in the text itself and the questions that were being raised. It is not surprising that Plato enlivened the classroom. But these future artists and designers recognized the power of the text. They appreciated how the words had meaning, and the questions were worth exploring.
Second, this experience, and others like it, gave me pause. We administrators may need to tweak our conceptions of our students. Sure, Academically Adrift is an important book, and yes, the data show that the degree of reading comprehension has declined. But we should not misconstrue that data as tantamount to disengagement, nor should we assign fewer readings, simply imply because there are data that show many students do not complete reading assignments. This recommendation – of assigning less reading and teaching it in greater depth – was one of the suggestions made by José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked, in his dynamic and imaginative keynote address at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
The point here is not to debate Bowen’s recommendation – that is for another time and place. Similarly, I am well aware that this experience in Philosophy 101 may be unique, and is dubiously generalizable. (I should add that encountering students who are excited about discussing big ideas also occurs in other classrooms -- photography and art history, for example, that I have visited as well.)
This enthusiasm is not a recipe for assigning Plato in every class, although that is an idea that most definitely would generate discussion. That written, I believe that we should reconsider how we administrators and educators think about student engagement. It is more than knowledge about civics and current events. It is bigger and deeper than service learning, or a passion to work in one’s community.
Provide students with a compelling text and a professor who knows how to raise thought-provoking questions, and students will ponder, debate and imagine the world in new and different ways. They will learn how to think critically and creatively. Cultivating that form of student engagement is no easy task, but it begins by exposing students to great texts and great ideas. Engagement is more than a form of political participation. It is the core of the liberal arts.
Robert M. Eisinger is dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Last week, faculty members in Emory University's College of Arts and Sciences rejected a vote of no confidence in President James W. Wagner. Over the last year, Emory's decision to end some academic programs frustrated many professors, particularly in the humanities. Opposition grew in February, when Wagner's column in the alumni magazine offered as a model for compromise the three-fifths compromise, in which Northern and Southern politicians creating the U.S. Constitution agreed to count each slave in the South as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and Congressional representation. While Wagner apologized for using the example, many people at Emory were stunned that he could be unaware that the compromise is widely viewed as a particularly ugly and racist moment in U.S. history.
On Tuesday, the Faculty Council (an elected faculty body representing all of the university's units) issued a statement of support for Wagner. "We acknowledge the hurt to our community caused by President James Wagner’s use of the three-fifths compromise clause in his column in the Winter, 2013, issue of the Emory Magazine. He has sincerely apologized for this mistake in multiple venues, and he has held many listening sessions to hear concerns from the community. We as the University Faculty Council accept his apology. While his words were insensitive, they were not malicious in intent, and discussion of them has revealed failures throughout our community to live up to the diverse and inclusive ideal to which we aspire," said the statement.
It went on to describe Wagner's use of the three-fifths example as "particularly unfortunate because it detracts from many endeavors Emory University has initiated under his leadership. Emory has apologized for the role of slavery in building the institution, hosted the 'Slavery and the University' conference, which drew attendees from across the U.S., and created the Transforming Community Project in which people from across the university engaged with our history and current experiences of race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of human difference."
The Faculty Council's statement concluded: "We state our firm support for his continued leadership in the years ahead to continue the work yet to be done."
Education Sector and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni announced Wednesday that they are withdrawing a report issued in March claiming that faculty teaching loads had gone down substantially, contributing to the rising cost of higher education. That report, "Selling Students Short," said that "from 1987-1988 to 2003-2004, the average number of courses tenured and tenure-track faculty taught per term ... declined 25 percent. It is hard to overstate how dramatic this decline has been." The report argued that colleges would have kept their spending lower had they not made it possible for faculty members to spend less time in the classroom. At the time it was released, several faculty groups questioned the data, and pointed to problems with the report, such as its failure to reflect on the much increased use of non-tenure-track faculty members, who typically teach many more courses than do other professors.
The announcement Wednesday said that the two groups no longer felt that the data from 1987-88 were comparable to those from 2003-4. For example, professors who were not teaching any classes were excluded from the earlier data, but not the latter data. "[W]e cannot determine whether teaching loads for the typical professor declined, stayed the same, or increased," said a blog post from Andrew Gillen, the research director at Education Sector.
A new survey from ACT shows the continued gap between those who teach in high school and those who teach in college when it comes to their perceptions of the college preparation of today's students. Nearly 90 percent of high school teachers told ACT that their students are either “well” or “very well” prepared for college-level work in their subject area after leaving their courses. But only 26 percent of college instructors reported that their incoming students are either "well" or "very well" prepared for first-year credit-bearing courses in their subject area. The percentages are virtually unchanged from a similar survey in 2009.
A bill is dead to create a fourth college system in California to award credit and degrees to students but offer no courses, according to the head of the state Assembly's higher education committee.
The bill would have created the "New University of California," which would have issued credit and degrees to anyone capable of passing certain exams. The bill received criticism and news media attention even though it had an uphill battle to become law: its sponsor is Assemblyman Scott Wilk, a rookie Republican lawmaker in a Democratic-majority legislature.
“Of course we need to look at creating different paths for students to achieve college completion,” Das Williams, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly's higher education committee, said in a statement. “At the present time the author of the AB 1306 has decided to pull the bill. This bill, and others like it, must be closely reviewed and solution-oriented to ensure that they meet our state’s higher education goals and prepare our students for a robust career in the workforce.” A spokesman for Wilk did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the bill's fate.
The bill is just one of several across the country this year to suggest new models for graduating students. Another, which is sponsored by the leader of the California Senate, is still believed to be very much alive. It would require California's 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for certain low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies.
In Florida, a measure is advancing that would allow Florida officials to accredit individual courses on their own -- including classes offered by unaccredited for-profit providers.
Preliminary results of the vote at Montana State University to decertify its union shows the final margin will be even smaller than the decision to unionize in 2009, which won by a meager 12 votes. After the 375 ballots were counted at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry in Helena, the effort to decertify the Associated Faculty of MSU leads by five votes, 190 to 185. The union, which is affiliated with the statewide MEA-MFT, has challenged four ballots, while its opponents have challenged two.
While in Iceland a few weeks ago, I tried to work up the nerve to try hàkarl, one of the local delicacies. It is prepared by burying chunks of Greenland shark meat in the ground for a few weeks so that it can “ferment” (the nicest word possible here), after which it is unearthed and kept in a smokehouse until extra tasty. The smell goes on for miles. One tourist compared it to “a tramp’s socks soaked in urine.” The flavor, everyone says, is not nearly as bad as the aroma, although the description alone is sufficient to tickle the gag reflex.
My suspicion was that the hàkarl tradition began with one drunken Viking daring another to eat putrid seafood. On first arriving in Reykjavik, I felt up to the challenge, if only because clogged sinuses had deprived me of smell and taste for a week. But Iceland has the world’s cleanest air, and after breathing it for a couple of days, my senses were functional, even keen … and I flinched. My wife was unable to contribute to the YouTube subgenre of “tourist eats hàkarl” videos. Clearly no Viking blood flows in these veins.
Be that as it may, I could tell, by the time we left, that the city itself had a smell -- distinctive and unpleasant, like rotting eggs perhaps. It came from the sulfurous fumes emitted by Iceland’s geothermal springs. The island sits atop (or rather, was created by) the ridge or boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As they move apart from each other, heat surges up from beneath the earth’s crust – hence the volcanoes, and frequent minor earthquakes, as well as water so hot you can boil an egg in it.
Returning to my desk a few days later, I found, atop the clutter, a book showing the glowing mouth of a volcano on its cover, with the title Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld by Salomon Kroonenberg (Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic had sounded intriguing before our trip. Now the title itself promised to keep the vacation mood alive just a little while longer.
Kroonenberg is emeritus professor of geology at the University of Delft, in the Netherlands – and Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur seems very much a professor emeritus’s book. It blurs the line between memoir (or travelogue) and a pedagogically compelling exposition of the author’s field. And the author wanders across that field guided by his own sui generis map. As far as I know, “the underworld” is not a contemporary geological concept. It leads him across an enormous and various range of ancient and modern literature concerning the world beneath our feet. The earth sciences become part of the humanities, and vice versa. The treatment is essayistic (comparisons to Stephen Jay Gould come to mind occasionally) yet the volume coheres as a whole. It is the work of someone who knows not only his subject but the history and sources of his own mind. This might be called full intellectual maturity, a ripening; the quality is rare.
Kroonenberg’s point of departure is the contrast between the crystalline transparency of the heavens above -- where we can see objects billions of miles away, weather permitting – and the opaque universe beneath our feet: “the most unknown part of our planet, despite the fact that the center of the Earth is no further away than London is from Chicago.” The deepest location most of us will occupy for very long is six feet under, and not out of curiosity. The association of the underworld with darkness and death comes naturally, and the heroes who travel in its realms (Orpheus, Anaes, Dante, etc.) usually go there because they’ve lost someone. In the case of Jesus – according to the pseudepigraphal Gospel of Nicodemus – the trip is a mission to subdue Satan and lead “Adam and all the saints out of hell.”
Following the geographical references and descriptions in these and other accounts of subterranean visits, Kroonenberg goes in search of the real-world sources of how the underworld has been depicted – the original river that becomes mythologized as Styx, for example. Kroonenberg is often pursuing suggestions left by explorers and scholars over the centuries. Their lives and writings become part of the narrative, along with the author’s own travels and his explanations of geological phenomena.
The author moves through history in a crablike fashion -- from ancient and medieval stories to recent knowledge of the earth’s structure, but never through the shortest possible route of compare-and-contrast exposition. Alongside the fictional or legendary figures, more and more historical figures appear as the chapters proceed, bringing their speculations on stage. (Leonardo da Vinci drew a reasonably good cross-section of the Earth, showing the layers beneath its crust. René Descartes “was the first to assume that the core of the Earth was hot.”)
All the while, Kroonenberg’s personal recollections weave in and out of the text, from his childhood scientific interests to aspects his career, such a collaborating with specialists in pedology, the study of dirt, while working at an agricultural school:
“Experienced soil surveyors roll a small clump of soil into a sausage and stick it into their mouths, chew it, ponder it for a while, and then pronounce their verdict: light loam, 15 percent clay. And then it starts, as there is always more than one pedologist around the pit at any one time. They take turns to jump in, pick at the wall, and taste the soil: ‘I think it’s heavy loam, 20 percent clay.’ … There are endless discussions on the basis of qualitative, subjective observations, where the lack of statistical evidence is compensated for by years of experience in hundreds of pits. Bullshit around the pit, that’s what we call it.”
Not surprisingly, one of the author’s favorite books as a child was Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne, in which the narrator and his uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, gain access to the subterranean world through a volcano in Iceland. Kroonenberg recalls that the uncle was “an irritable and conceited scholar who gave a not particularly popular course on mineralogy” and gathered knowledge “for himself and not for others.”
In the Scholastic Books edition of Verne’s novel that I read constantly as a kid, that little bit of characterization was left out. Perhaps the editors worried that it was too unflattering a picture of a teacher. In any case, Kroonenberg himself is nothing like the uncle, if his book is anything to go by. It makes me want to go back to Iceland to have a look at that volcano. Next time, I might also sample a bit of hàkarl, or, failing that, chew some dirt.