When I entered graduate school, my goal was to become an English professor. I had loved literature from an early age, and teaching as a graduate student only deepened my resolve to be a professor. But the job market for humanities professors was wretched, and the gallows humor of my professors and other graduate students was enough to send me scurrying on my way. I finished my master’s degree and went to work for the Department of Pensions and Security, a part of the welfare program in the State of Alabama.
It was only later when I took on work as an adjunct that I cobbled together the courage to finish what I had started by getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor. And the wherewithal came from an unexpected place: my students.
I signed on to teach general education classes as an adjunct at Troy University’s campus at Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of my students were soldiers. I brought to the class all of the assumptions that often afflict young, smartass humanities graduates. I was opening the eyes of the nearly blind. I certainly never expected my students to open my eyes. I didn’t even know how blind I was or how little I knew about literature or about teaching — about life itself.
Wilfred Owen’s "Dulce Et Decorum Est" taught me to see my students in a new way. I had taught it many times as a teaching assistant, finding the anti-war theme of the poem one that resonated with me and the traditional undergraduates I taught. The narrator discovers what I supposed all of us in a post-Vietnam War America had learned: that Horace’s famous phrase "it is sweet and becoming to die for your country" (in Latin Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori) is a lie. Since Owen was a soldier who died in World War I, I thought the poem would be particularly interesting to my soldier students. But the single phrase “fitting the clumsy helmets [gas masks] on just in time” opened the poem in an unexpected way.
The narrator describes mustard gas canisters falling on his platoon as he and his comrades are marching. They struggle to get the "clumsy helmets on just in time." One in the group is not fast enough with the gas mask. Helplessly, the others watch him die. A private in the room stopped me on the word "clumsy."
"All soldiers complain about the gas masks," he said. "There’s not an easy way to put ‘em on, Sir." He then demonstrated the process of putting the mask on. Looking around at the fatigues, I realized that I was the only one in the class who didn't personally know what it felt like to put on a gas mask. I had never even seen one except in movies.
When we got to the passage in the poem where Owen describes the soldier who dies — "guttering, choking, drowning" — because he doesn’t get the gas mask on in time, a sergeant raised his hand. "Mustard gas causes the lungs to produce fluid, Sir. This man is drowning on dry land." I then read aloud the narrator’s description of the body of his fallen comrade, thrown into the wagon as the platoon continues to march: "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs." We were all suddenly inside the poem, living together the horror that Owen described. It was 9:15 p.m. on an average Wednesday night.
I had gotten up at 6:00 a.m. to prepare for class. I had worked all day at my state job. Most of the soldiers had reported for drills at 5:00 a.m. Some of them had come from the field so late that they had not had time to put their weapons away. They lay on the floor near their desks. And yet at that moment, every eye in the room was focused hard and tight on the page. Through the power of Owen's words, brought to life by my students, we were living the poem together, caught in its deadly magic.
When we got to the end of the poem, I stumbled upon the most important surprise of the evening. Most of the soldiers in the room agreed with Owen: Horace did lie -- it is not "sweet and becoming" to die for one's country. Still, like Owen, they had taken that risk for the array of reasons that people do what they do. Some were there because their fathers and their father’s fathers had served and it was in their blood; some because they felt called to defend their country. But all of them had taken the oath to sacrifice themselves if the occasion arose. And yet as far as I could tell, nobody in the room disagreed with Owen. In fact, they had earned the right to agree with Owen in a way I never would: by taking the risk that their time of service would coincide with a war, that they too would be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.
I taught as an adjunct professor at Troy State at Fort Benning for three years. Some of my students were distracted and uninterested, just the way most college students sometimes are. But others were the smartest, most well-informed, most disciplined students I have ever taught. More important, they brought to the literature classroom an array of experiences that I had never had. For that reason, they taught me to teach literature. They also taught me about real-life choices, real-life risks, real-life consequences: the reality that stands behind works of great literature.
When it works the way it should, a beginning literature classroom is a place where teacher and student sit at the knee of the storyteller. And through the vehicle of the story, they help each other piece together the mystery of human existence. The teacher brings to the classroom a knowledge of literary form and history that the students most likely do not have. But the students will often have an array of experiences or reactions that the teacher can never guess or predict. This is particularly true in a class of nontraditional students. Again and again at the end of long, weary days, with the help of my soldier students, we summoned long-dead poets to life, brought fictional characters into flesh and blood, and pondered words that had rung in the ears of generations of men and women. And when I left the classroom, there was inside me a kind of awe. In part, it was for literature, which despite my years in school, I had never really understood before. But another part of it was simply for the students. They gave so much of themselves to be there, and while there, they brought my classes to life.
The final gift I got from my students was the willingness to tread uncertainly into a profession that was at best a dare, given the bleak job prospects for English Ph.D.s in the 1980s. I did not take half the risk that my students did — the risk of dying in the midst of enemy fire. I did not take the risk that Wilfred Owen took. After writing some of the best war poetry we have and discovering just how much a wretched lie Horace had told, he was killed one week before World War I was over. He died on November 4, 1918, and his parents got the news of his death on November 11th as the armistice bells were tolling. But I did in those years find the courage to risk failure. I went back to school, earned a Ph. D. in English, and became a professor.
So what if there were no jobs? So what if I finished a Ph. D. and had to go to work as a hack writer or a sales associate? It was worth the risk because of those classes and those students. And I knew then what I still know: that every day of my life, they and those like them took a much larger risk than I ever have.
I have never regretted my decision, nor have I ever forgotten the students who taught me how to make it. I will forever be in their debt.
H. William Rice is chair of English at Kennesaw State University.
Today's college graduates are entering a world where much of the most dynamic and important work will not be performed in a solitary office or around a physical conference table, but in virtual teams of individuals scattered around the globe. This mode of work, once confined to high-level scientific research, is already the norm in many fields, and it is accelerating quickly in almost every area of human endeavor.
Yet we do very little in our undergraduate curriculums to prepare students for this essential aspect of their future professional lives. Yes, we are incorporating technology into the classroom, and there are also an increasing number of higher education projects that encourage online cross-cultural dialogue. It is beyond obvious that our students live comfortably in the casual give-and-take of the online social media environment.
These interactions, however, lack an important element: the conception, the development and the completion of tangible intellectual products. Our students don’t need to learn how to communicate online -- they need to learn how to work together to get something done. It's producing good work together that is the key, ideally in a way where students each contribute both according to their individual talents and interests and also according to their physical and cultural situations.
The most straightforward way to encourage virtual collaboration is for students to conduct comparative primary research on topics of international importance. Under the guidance of a virtual team of faculty members, students can gather data, share it online, and work together to analyze their findings.
There are countless opportunities for faculty and students from many disciplines to put this into practice. Environmental studies students in Boston, Amsterdam, and Mumbai can gather and combine local data on sea levels and coastal erosion to understand better the effects of global climate change. Business students in San Francisco, Haifa, and Sao Paolo can create comparative case studies of successful entrepreneurship. Theater students in Colombo, Belgrade and New Orleans can compare the use of drama in addressing issues of racial or religious conflict.
In some cases, undergraduate virtual collaborations may produce surprising contributions to scholarly knowledge. In many cases, they may not. In some cases, of course, they will make different interpretations and come to different conclusions. Confronting intellectual disagreement is an important part of the process. And what is most important is that students develop tools that they will be using for many years to come.
Beyond undertaking parallel research projects, students in virtual teams have the opportunity, under the guidance of faculty members, to undertake more complex analyses of major global issues and problems. Our students will be working in environments where they will have to confront and integrate strikingly different perspectives into their ideas and plans for action. Virtual teamwork at the undergraduate level can deepen understanding and encourage them to begin this process early.
Online virtual collaboration involves at least four crucial skills. First, there is simply the skill of working well with others in a collaborative environment. Second, making efficient and effective use of technology to increase and disseminate knowledge. Third, working respectfully and productively across borders and cultural boundaries. Fourth, students who work in virtual teams will be pushed to develop new categories of thought and analysis, made possible through the direct interchange with peers. It is true that we address each of these skills to some extent in other ways, through online coursework and efforts to internationalize our campuses. But we seldom challenge our students to put these skills to use in the service of the heart of their work.
Creating opportunities for product-driven virtual teamwork may sound simpler in theory than it is in practice. The technological tools are readily available, but the development process requires considerable faculty time.
For colleges that send significant numbers of students abroad each year, one model might be to engage those students, scattered in sites around the world, on projects that draw on the very different curricula they are studying and environments in which they are living. The advantage of this model is that faculty members have the opportunity to work face-to-face with the groups both before and after their virtual team experience.
Another model involves establishing strong relationships between faculty members in similar fields at overseas institutions. In this model, students in virtual teams may never have met one another in person, but work together via technology under the direction of the participating faculty. It is likely, however, that this model will work best when faculty members themselves have had substantial opportunities to talk and compare notes in person. After all, faculty members must must work together to develop a framework for student research so that these online interactions are genuinely productive, and not merely a gimmick.
For this reason, virtual teamwork will only become widespread at the undergraduate level if it is strongly supported, giving faculty members the time and the incentive to develop these modules, and in some cases travel resources to establish face-to-face connections that can then be built on in the online environment.
Virtual teamwork cannot and should not simply replace individual intellectual endeavor. But it is a vital component of the production and dissemination of knowledge in the professional world – including the world of faculty research. If we don’t give our students the chance to practice, our curriculums will be needlessly divorced from one of the most dynamic trends of our time.
There has been much talk of the “online revolution” in higher education. While there is a place for online education, some of its boosters anticipate displacing the traditional campus altogether. A close reading of their arguments, however, makes clear that many share what might be called the “individualist fallacy,” both in their understanding of how students learn and how professors teach.
Of course, individualism has a long, noble heritage in American history. From the “age of the self-made man” onward, we have valued those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, as Warren Buffett has made clear, even the most successful individuals depend heavily on the cultural, economic, legal, political, and social contexts in which they act. This is as true for Buffett as it is for other so-called self-made men as Bill Gates. And it is certainly true for students.
But many advocates of online learning ignore this simple point. The economist Richard Vedder, for example, believes that being on campus is only useful for “making friends, partying, drinking, and having sex.” Anya Kamenetz, in her book DIY U, celebrates the day when individuals are liberated from the constraints of physical campuses, while Gates anticipates that “five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”
For an alternative view
on online education, read this essay appearing
elsewhere on the site today.
These advocates of online higher education forget the importance of institutional culture in shaping how people learn. College is about more than accessing information; it’s about developing an attitude toward knowledge.
There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters. No matter how much we might learn about God and our obligations from the Web, it is by going to church and being surrounded by other congregants engaged in similar questions, under the guidance of a thoughtful, caring pastor, that we really change. Conversion is social, and so is learning.
Like all adults, students will pursue many activities during their time on campus, but what distinguishes a college is that it embodies ideals distinct from the rest of students’ lives. If we take college seriously, we need people to spend time in such places so that they will leave different than when they entered.
Some argue that large lecture courses make a mockery of the above claims. Admittedly, in a better world, there would be no large lecture courses. Still, this argument misleads for several reasons. First, it generalizes from one kind of course, ignoring the smaller class sizes at community colleges and the upper-division courses in which students interact closely with each other and their professors. Second, it dismisses the energy of being in a classroom, even a large one, with real people when compared to being on our own. Even in large classes, good teachers push their students to think by asking probing questions, modeling curiosity, and adapting to the class’s needs. Finally, it disregards the importance of the broader campus context in which all classes, large and small, take place.
The goal of bringing students to campus for several years is to immerse them in an environment in which learning is the highest value, something online environments, no matter how interactive, cannot simulate. Real learning is hard; it requires students to trust each other and their teachers. In other words, it depends on relationships. This is particularly important for the liberal arts.
Of course, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s recent study Academically Adrift makes clear, there are great variations in what college students are learning. All too often, higher education does not fulfill our aspirations. But none of the problems Arum and Roksa identify are ones that online higher education would solve. As Arum and Roksa make clear, students learn more on campuses where learning is valued and expectations are high. If anything, we need to pay more attention to institutional culture because it matters so much.
This does not mean that we should reject technology when it can further learning, as in new computer programs that help diagnose students’ specific stumbling blocks. But computers will never replace the inspiring, often unexpected, conversations that happen among students and between students and teachers on campuses. Because computers are not interpretive moral beings, they cannot evaluate assignments in which students are asked to reflect on complicated ideas or come up with new ones, especially concerning moral questions. Fundamentally, computers cannot cultivate curiosity because machines are not curious.
Technology is a tool, not an end in itself. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier has written in his book You Are Not A Gadget, computers exist to support human endeavors, not the other way around. Many techno-utopists proclaim that computers are becoming smarter, more human, but Lanier wonders whether that is because we tend to reduce our human horizons to interact with our machines. This certainly is one of the dangers of online higher education.
The individualist fallacy applies not just to online advocates’ understandings of students, but also their conception of what makes great teachers and scholars. Vedder, for example, echoes Gates in his hope that someday there will be a Wikipedia University, or that the Gates Foundation will start a university in which a few “star professors” are paid to teach thousands of students across the nation and world. Of course, this has been happening since the invention of cassette tapes that offer “the great courses.” This is hardly innovative, nor does it a college education make.
Vedder ignores how star professors become great. How do they know what to teach and to write? Their success, like Buffett’s, is social: they converse with and read and rely on the work of hundreds, even thousands, of other scholars. Read their articles and books, listen to their lectures, and you can discern how deeply influenced and how dependent they are on the work of their peers. In short, there would be no star professors absent an academy of scholars committed to research.
Schools like the online, Gates Foundation-funded Western Governors University free-ride off the expensive, quality research completed by traditional professors when they rely on open course ware and curricula. Take away the professors, and many online schools will teach material that is out of date or inaccurate or, worse, hand control over to other entities who are not interested in promoting the truth -- from textbook companies seeking to maximize sales to coal and pharmaceutical companies offering their own curriculums for “free.”
The Web and new technologies are great tools; they have made more information more accessible to more people. This is to be celebrated. Citizens in a democracy should be able to access as much information as freely as possible. A democratic society cannot allow scholars, or anyone else, to be the gatekeepers to knowledge.
Certainly, we will expand online higher education, if for no other reason than because wealthy foundations like Gates and ambitious for-profit entities are putting their money and power behind it. For certain students, especially working adults pursuing clearly defined vocational programs rather than a liberal arts education, online programs may allow opportunities that they would have otherwise foregone. But online higher education will never replace, much less replicate, what happens on college campuses.
Even as we expand online, therefore, we must deepen our commitment to those institutions that cultivate a love of learning in their students, focus on the liberal arts, and produce the knowledge that online and offline teaching requires.