Bob Mann's recent column in The New York Times recalling his former student, Karen Hughes, prompts me to think of my own former students. But not all of them. It's impossible to remember them all.
Many years ago, I was shocked to hear my dissertation adviser remark that he could remember students he had 15 years ago better than he could those of last semester. Now it's true of me -- and I can go back farther than 15 years. The other day I was telling a friend a story about a student I had in one of my first classes. It surprised me that I still remembered his name.
Why? Barry wasn't the brightest student. Indeed, he appeared the very definition of a western Pennsylvania redneck: rough, reactionary, racist. And yet, there seemed a poetry about him that either belied the crudity or transformed it. Could this be the reason I still remember Barry, and not just the shockingly violent fraternity (disbanded a few years later) about which I learned because I got to know him?
Is there for each of us a personal category of "former students"? The first thing to say is that it is not literal or numerical. Some years after I began teaching, I stopped in a convenience store in the area. The clerk who rang up my purchases was delighted to identify himself as my former student. "You know," he offered. "I was the one who sat way in the back and made all those jokes." Alas, I just couldn't remember him, although I lied and said. "Oh, yes, sure." Now I did. How could I forget?
Afterwards I wondered, how could I? Was this student imaginatively canceled out by another? Or by his whole unmemorable class? How does the sheer accumulation of all the students you have ever had become the special category of "former students" you remember and cherish? In so many cases, can the reason be pure accident? There are students whom I wish I could have gotten to know better, based on their incisive responses in class or their spirited demeanor. Alas, nothing apart from scheduled class meetings ever chanced to pass between us.
Just so, most of my students who eventually entered the special category of former students have at some time stopped by my office "just to ask about something." Several eventually became friends. To me, a "former student" not only describes a category. It ultimately defines a relation.
Of course that relation can take a fixed form. It is especially common today to characterize the former student, especially if he or she continues in academic life, as a "mentee" to the mentor professor. Well and good; I have had students to whom I functioned as a mentor, including one for whom I was eventually only that -- and not, as I thought, a friend.
But relations between students and teachers are most commonly not fixed. (To the despair of sexual conduct codes.) They are all sorts of things. Sometimes they are barely relations at all.
So I might be either wrong or sentimental to feel pleased to have my own former students range from one long ago who tried for the better part of two semesters to get me to smoke pot with him to one last year who spoke so openly about her plight as a single mother. I really never got to know either of these students very well. Yet each was vivid for a time in my experience, as so many students have been -- more than I can summon to memory, and certainly more than I can easily construct into public discourse. All former students are not equal.
The nice thing about Karen Hughes is that she is already part of public discourse, albeit not in her role as anyone's former student. However, we do seem to be hearing a lot more these days from their former professors about public figures, politicians in particular. I wish I could contribute, but, alas, no Karen Hughes has ever been my former student. I did have one once who went to high school with Joe Namath. But this is not the same thing as having had Joe Namath himself, and, besides, it was too long ago.
Today, in our all-access, 24-7 connected culture, where everybody seems to be no more than six degrees or keystrokes away from everybody else, it might not even appear so interesting if (or when) The Times runs an op-ed piece by the professor who once had George W. Bush himself in a section of Intro to Poli Sci.
Would the President be presented as being a not-so-bad student? Perhaps it doesn't matter. If all former students are not, like the children of Lake Woebegon, at least above average, they are somehow exceptional -- or become exceptional. Otherwise, why would a professor choose to remember them? Although there is no available public discourse about former students by their professors in any way comparable to the discourse about former professors by their students, the one partakes of the other.
Thus, the former figures are always singular individuals. They are brought to mind in order to be celebrated because their personality, conviction, or influence was utterly unique. Yet, no matter how exceptional a few, there are finally just too many former students in each teacher's experience, and, perhaps, too many ways in which they have made an impression.
Myself, I would even include the ones who wrote to thank me for the course once the semester is over (the ones who would curse you never write), and I especially recall the one who once wrote to a newspaper on my behalf years ago amid what the British term a "spot of bother" over something controversial I had written.
This man had seemed an unremarkable member of an remarkably bright class. And yet he was proud to name me as his former professor. How not to feel proud now to have had such students? It's easy to cherish the brightest ones or the most famous ones. (As is Hughes, in each case, to her former professor).
These are the ones, if at all, who get written about. It's harder to claim -- harder still even to know -- the dimmer ones, who never said a word in class, who didn't do particularly well, who nonetheless found the class to be of inestimable value, and who are grateful to have had the experience. Such students do exist, in every classroom, every semester. But do they still exist, so to speak, to themselves? Teachers have one advantage over students in this respect: they are already former students, and have already paid their debt -- if only in memory -- to former teachers. Today's students, on the other hand, are widely educated according to a corporate model that disdains personal relations.
Half their teachers are adjuncts, who lack so much as offices where students can stop by. And everybody is subject to a consumerist logic, whereby the class becomes a mere "product," to be respectively sold and purchased under conditions in which the customer is always right.
What is a student? In one respect, he or she is always already a former student. Not in the future, but right now, in the present, with each class. At one time, I used to tell my students on the first day of class to try to act so as to keep its promise week after week, all semester long. If on the last day the promise was never realized, then at least each of them had continually tried to be responsible to the class in some ideal form. This still might serve as good advice for the student as former student, although I suspect that the best of my own former students, bless them all, never needed it and still don't.
Terry Caesar's last column was about male academics and ties.
It has been more than 40 years since Marshall McLuhan wrote that the "medium is the message," a lesson that Duke University has had to relearn the hard way concerning its iPod giveaway this academic year to some 1,650 first-year students. Almost immediately, the “iPod First-Year Experience” was dubbed a trendy gimmick, and the university went on the defensive, emphasizing that the Apple music player was the device of choice for a variety of educational tasks meant to keep pace with a mobile generation of learners.
After an internal review, the university recently decided to scale back its iPod program, giving the device to freshmen, juniors and seniors enrolled in classes that incorporate it into their pedagogies. Sophomores will use the iPods they received in the 2004-05 academic year.
Perhaps the most stinging criticism came from Duke’s independent student newspaper, The Chronicle. An editorial Feb. 28 editorial titled “iPod Program Did Not Deliver” proclaimed: "The much-hyped iPod program -- for which the University spent $500,000 on iPods for the entire freshman class -- was far from the overwhelming academic success the university hoped for, and the experiment should not continue next year."
The editorial criticized “the product itself,” noting that iPods are great portable digital music players that “do not seem to translate well into academic use and benefit few students.”
That was my initial opinion, too, along with that of a former university president for whom I used to work at Ohio University and a virtual reality guru with whom I work now at Iowa State University of Science and Technology.
Robert Glidden, who retired last year as president at Ohio, is uniquely qualified to comment on the Duke iPod giveaway. He was among the first administrators in the late 1990s to foresee the importance of technology at a residential campus and installed free Gateway computers in dormitories. In 1999, when Glidden announced the computer initiative, I was his special assistant and helped field complaints about our catering to popular culture.
In response to an e-mail asking him to comment on the Duke program, Glidden wrote, “You will recall that we had a bit of this reaction to our computers-in-the-dorms project,” that students would use the PCs more for personal e-mail and gaming than for studies. “I’m sure they still use them for that purpose,” Glidden added, “but gradually and rather quickly, actually, the computers were used more and more for serious study purposes.”
However, Glidden adds, a key difference between Ohio’s computer experience and Duke’s iPod one “is that we KNEW there would be plenty of practical, exciting possibilities for the use of computers” -- from the digital library to the Internet. Now he wonders whether someone at Duke thought the same would be true for iPods, “or were they just trying to attract students with the glitz of iPods?”
Glidden wants to know more about Duke’s rationale before weighing in on that question. He notes that we are living in a vastly different technological world. In 1999, Gateway stock was selling at $80 per share as the company rode the fast-approaching tech wave, showcasing educational clients in slick full-page advertisements and touting the PCs’ educational uses. Now Gateway sells for less than $4 per share and mobile computers fit in a shirt pocket.
James Oliver, graduate chair of the Human Computer Interaction program at Iowa State University, observes, “If Duke had distributed pocket PCs no one would have noticed. Lots of universities have given away laptops and handhelds so that kind of experiment is sort of old news. And there have been assessments of that sort of thing, too. But iPods for freshman makes news.
“Look at the hype of the iPod,” he continues. “I saw that Duke iPod giveaway story everywhere. So it really was about successful marketing.”
The question is, who is doing that marketing? Duke or Apple?
Nancy B. Allen, head of Duke’s Academic Council, writes in an e-mail, “We at Duke -- faculty, leadership in the provost’s office, IT department professionals, even our own news office -- did not anticipate the extraordinary amount of publicity about the distribution of iPods at the beginning of the 04/05 academic year.” Looking back, the “iPod First-Year Experience” may have been undermined the week it was announced when Apple’s CEO appeared on the cover of Newsweek with this blurb line: “Steve Jobs and The Must-Have Music Player Everyone Is Talking About. iPod, Therefore i Am.” As Allen observes, making reference to that cover, “Luck or some other providence?”
Bad timing for Duke, good timing for Apple.
Oliver notes that the iPod giveaway was eerily in synch with Apple’s new improved product line. “Apple got it right with a simple user interface, and it went quickly from the ‘Walkman of the 80s’” to a tool that even reporters and photojournalists can use.” But the device was being billed as a music player. “So I can sympathize with Duke’s rationale,” Oliver adds. “The iPod can become that general purpose tool, but content other than music takes a coordinated effort to develop.”
The iPod is more than a music player. It’s a storage disk, allowing downloads and uploads of data. It’s an electronic scheduler and interactive tape recorder. A 60 GB hard drive model functions as a slide projector. It’s also affordable. The closest priced pocket PC comes in at $400-500 with an additional $90 for a 1 GB storage card. That can barely handle a semester’s worth of my PowerPoint presentations with audio and animations. Technologically, Apple is on to something greater than music downloads. If the company upgrades the iPod to contain a video function with wireless card, students would have immense mobile computing power in their pockets.
A video iPod with wireless capability “would be an incredible resource,” says Scott Fiddelke, project leader of iLecture, an online tool developed by the Information Commons Production Services Team at the University of Iowa. However, he observes, “With that kind of storage capacity, Apple would have to develop more security to ensure that people with iPods aren’t running around trading music online.”
Technology aside, music downloads may make more sense (and profit) with the younger set. After all, the medium is the message, and the moral here is music: iPod downloads sell now without substantial security risk. Why upgrade at all?
That reality is undermining the Duke iPod initiative. The university has been touting the iPod’s astounding potential as an academic tool from a technological standpoint rather than a pop cultural one.
David Menzies at Duke’s Office of Information Technology explains that the university was looking for a device that featured “an audio digital capacity with a very short learning curve” for students and faculty. “The primary area that the iPods shined brightest was with audio components,” Menzies notes, despite a technical glitch concerning the clarity of the audio in large classes or events. That is in the process of being fixed, he adds.
Menzies addressed every concern that I had about the iPod program, with one exception. I prefaced my question with a reference to McLuhan, noting that the medium is still the message. With the iPod being billed as an MP3 player, I asked, “Isn’t it a challenge to change the perception of a generation reared on entertainment to use the iPod for content?”
“That’s your opinion,” Menzies replied. “I’m not interested in commenting on opinions.”
When I explained that the question was based on 40 years of communication scholarship, he still had no comment. After a few follow-up e-mail exchanges, he was more circumspect, explaining that the McLuhan reference was “more of a conceptual ‘what does Duke think about this?’ question” than a news-based, factual one. Nonetheless, the overlooked McLuhan maxim turned the “iPod First Year Experience” into an ‘iPod Public Relations Experience” at Duke.
As Jim Oliver puts it, “Properly used, a technology like the iPod can be a medium that is its own message. But in Duke’s case, the only stream of content readily available for this medium was music. Without a plan for a steady stream of academic related content, the iPod as an academic medium was destined to fail.”
The moral here is the power of marketing and how that put Duke in the media spotlight, beginning with the Newsweek cover of Steve Jobs and continuing with this column. In actuality, Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology should have faced only one challenge -- how to integrate the device with a short learning curve into the classroom -- and instead faced two additional challenges: How to deal with the perception that one of the country's finest institutions -- with selective admissions, a robust enrollment, and a plush endowment -- would stoop to a publicity ploy? How to overcome the iPod’s perceived singular use as a popular MP3 player for personal entertainment?
Having worked in a president’s office, I vouch there is little time to plot publicity ploys. That said, the iPod experiment should continue at Duke in a more selective manner aligned with lesson plans that provide a steady stream of innovative, educational content. Nothing on the market at present is as mobile or versatile as the iPod. However, even the power of this compact device -- its incredible storage and future academic potential -- may not be enough to overcome the message of music downloads at $1 per pop.
Michael Bugeja is director of Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, at Iowa State University. He is the author, most recently, of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005). This article is the debut of "Inside Tech Ethics," a monthly column on technology and ethics in higher education.
I used to have a professor who liked to "privilege" what he termed "the scene of reading." Special consideration was due for any portion of a novel that depicted a character reading. Just so, I would like to privilege the scene of teaching. Any material place we teach is worth considering, even the most mundane generic classroom, featuring, at minimum, vaguely green concrete walls, unemphatically beige metal chairs, and a hopelessly colorless table. An old wooden lectern and a tiny wall clock are both optional. Windows of any sort become a bonus.
How to begin to consider this scene? It is difficult to imagine a call for papers consisting of a book-length collection of essays to be entitled "Rooms In Which I Have Taught." Intellectually, we may be rich in our professorial occasions. Materially, though, we are poor. The first thing to say about the rooms in which most of us teach, most of the time, could well be the last thing: they are all stupefyingly uninteresting, boring and even ugly.
But there remains at least one question: is this somehow intentional?
Granted, only the richest colleges and universities can afford to customize classrooms, although even so, some exciting, innovative plan for a teaching space could not compare with the status of a new cultural center or the wonder of the latest in recreational edifice. Nevertheless, why couldn't classroom walls at least be, say, red? Has such a color traditionally been construed to tempt us away from the realm of ideas?
Has our very ability to know been deemed to be at risk if we sat in comfortable armchairs?
I once read an essay about the 60s where the author wound up regretting his decision to hold graduate classes in his home. Students were distracted by casual surroundings, drank too much, and talked about everything but the subject at hand. The consequences were enough to revalue the commonplace material circumstances of the classroom. Its austerity seemed to make such things as intellectual content or sustained focus possible in the first place. There was, it seemed, no study worth the name not based on denial, beginning with hard seats.
Reading this essay, I thought about how hapless were those times in my own experience when I decided to bid my freshman composition students outside, so that sun-kissed sights and sounds might "stimulate" their writing. Alas, many just fell asleep on the grass. And what about, say, the semester I met at a selection of area restaurants with a grad student for a special independent study course? We did talk about the week's reading. But we also got catsup on our books as well as impatient looks from the waitress.
At a more interiorized extreme, what about lecture halls? The only experience I've had with them has been in foreign countries. In Egypt, I gave a short series of lectures in an auditorium to an audience upwards of 500. I felt like a character in a play, striding back and forth on stage, here with a suddenly jabbing finger, there with a dramatic stop and lowered voice. It felt too much like performing to be teaching and certainly too much like entertainment to be education. That is, it felt like fun. Could the main lesson of the narrow, dim, generic classroom be that higher education -- whatever else -- is not designed to be fun?
Certainly the bigger, not to say, vaster, the room, the more interiority is transformed into exteriority, thereby establishing the class as (in part anyway) a visual spectacle. Of course, who among us has not been enthralled simply by the sight of a lone speaker -- way up front under a ceiling of lights or on the floor down below tiered rows of seats -- who proceeds to mesmerize an audience of hundreds? Trouble is, how many such times can this happen, especially if scheduled three times a week?
Usually, it seems to me, a lecture hall just swallows us up. A few years ago in Japan, I had at my disposal for 91 students one of the most beautiful, brand-new, cream-colored classrooms I've ever seen, including a console featuring the latest technology. In theory, the touch of a button would command, say, the movie screen to unfold at the same time the window blinds would fall. But each time I pressed that button it was the wrong one. The students were deliciously amused as the blinds fell . . . but the screen rose -- or else the video was out-of-focus, or the sound intermittent, or worse.
How I hoped to orchestrate the class! Instead, the room orchestrated me, and the technology orchestrated the room. Are lecture halls more vulnerable to the lure of technology, the better (we hope) to try to reclaim some of the intellectual focus inevitably lost when there is too much space? It does appear so. I remember meeting a man when I began teaching who told me that you can stay in intimate touch with a surprisingly large number of students in a single course, up to 50; after 50, he said, it's all theater. My own subsequent experience has acted to confirm this. Nothing necessarily wrong with theater. (And of course the smallest classroom can become a stage.) But to me, the happiest times are when the room just ceases to matter; the larger the room, the more it matters -- and is matter.
Seminar rooms, although they vary in size, constitute just about the most constricted teaching space of all. In the smallest ones, you have to keep twisting a chair just to secure enough space to move your elbows or open your own text; everybody is crowded around a long table, and there's little else in the room, except perhaps a coffee pot brewing off to one side. More is the miracle, then, when this space falls away like a veil at some moment after class begins, and the scene of teaching is revealed to be a pure idea. The color of the walls? Who notices?
At its most intense -- no intensity like that of a seminar room -- the room basks in the radiance of its idea. And what exactly is this idea? It seems to me the following: that learning can utterly transfigure the material circumstances of the classroom. Grant only that this is easier to accomplish in some rooms than in others.
In theory, though, any room can become a classroom, from one as intimate as a don's book-lined study to one as expansive as a public lecture hall with people falling off the window sills. In turn, any scene of teaching can become finally immaterial. Circumstances fall away. Could this be why what I have been terming the generic classroom is in fact so unstimulating and dreary? It is as if its construction is designed to give the moment of immateriality a strong start. Too bad, however, that learning, unlike buildings, cannot be constructed.
Once an ESL teacher in Japan told me the following story. It was late afternoon in an average-size classroom of an Osaka university. The walls were dirty, the chairs were scattered, the students were half asleep. The teacher told them to get up, took them to a window, and bid them consider the dun-colored concrete vastness of the Kansai area.
"Look at that," she declaimed. "Hundreds of thousands of people and every one speaking Japanese. It's an ocean. And here we are in our little boat of English." She paused, and cupped her hand for dramatic effect. "Don't let it sink."
Fortunately this particular room did have a window. Learning always acts in some conjunction with its material circumstances. How can it not? But the view the teacher demonstrated this day was finally only available to her students as an imaginative one, where the classroom was transformed into an idea. Not only did the particular subject -- English-- become at once something frail and precious. Even more, I believe, the scene of teaching itself partook of the same qualities. Thus, all that transpired to defeat this scene -- including even the window of the classroom. with its disclosure of vast energies outside -- could be converted, even if just for a moment, into a greater vision of learning.
A collection of essays entitled "Rooms In Which I Have Taught"? Maybe not such a bad idea after all, provided that each room is seen with the addition of some sort of view. Of what? Of how the room opened out and even lifted away.
I only saw her out of the corner of my eye as I rushed into the book exhibit at the conference, but I was sure I knew her. Her face registered as out of context, somehow, but familiar. A second later, I realized it was one of my students, a recent English-major graduate of the liberal arts college at which I teach. I stopped, turned around and called to her.
She was pleased to see me. She’s a marketing assistant for a major academic publishing house, it turns out. I could tell she was proud of her job, pushing English composition and literature texts to English professors like me. We arranged to meet for dinner the next day, two professionals on a business trip.
I stopped by the marketing assistant’s exhibit while she was out at lunch, and her colleagues were anxious to find out how she had been in my classes. "She must have been a great student, huh?" one of her colleagues prompted me. Hmm. She had been solid, reliable, a good writer, and she always had something interesting to say in class, but the marketing assistant had not been one of our stars. Still, none of our stars of recent years had jobs like hers, working with literature.
Clearly her co-workers loved her. They spoke very fondly of her, and, indeed, she seemed to be very good at her job. What I hadn’t noticed in the classroom was the key quality that was working for the marketing assistant in the world after college: not her knowledge of literature but her skills with people. This I discovered very quickly the next evening at dinner.
I had already had a date for dinner that night with a friend of mine, a fiction writer, so I asked the marketing assistant if I could bring him along. "Sure," she said. "I can expense it. I’m just taking two English professors out." A new verb for me: to expense. I liked it.
She quickly took charge of the expedition, finding good restaurants and putting her name on the waiting list of one while we searched for another (Why had I never thought of that? I guess it’s not really cheating).
The marketing assistant had always been ready with an answer in class, but we’d never actually talked much about anything other than Victorian literature. Turns out she’s pretty funny, and very professional. She told great stories, often at the expense of some poor academic schmuck who stopped by her booth, intent on pitching his or her latest project. I felt sorry for the folks she described, but not because she mocked them -- she didn’t; she described them quite affectionately, as if she knew they couldn’t help themselves. The fiction writer and I shook our heads with her when she described the guy whose project was so impossibly narrow that no academic press would ever publish it. We chuckled along, though less heartily, when she wondered aloud at the fashion sense of the professoriate.
"When you look around the gate at the airport, you can always tell who’s going to the same conference you are," the marketing assistant said. Of course, we could, too, and the fiction writer and I had already had that obligatory conversation, this being his first professional conference. But it was different hearing it from the perspective of the marketing assistant. After all, as a friend of mine said ruefully, gazing around the lobby of one of the convention hotels a few years ago, “These are my people.”
When the marketing assistant got to the social skills of professors, we felt ourselves on relatively safe ground. Fiction writer has a fabulous, wry sense of humor and is good to have at parties, and I have always prided myself on being able to talk to anybody. We are not nerdy bookworms -- we both went to our proms. I snickered at her description of awkward social interactions she’d observed between academics. “It’s amazing you guys found people to get hooked up with,” she declared good-naturedly -- in her eyes we were no different from the guy we had just seen mumbling to himself as he wandered through the book exhibit. Maybe we weren’t. Maybe these really were our people.
They weren’t her people; that’s for sure. The marketing assistant had perspective on our folk that we clearly didn’t have. And that made it really fun to talk to her. I enjoyed seeing her in her professional persona. I was proud of her, glad one of our grads seemed to be heading for a successful career in publishing. But seeing her made me realize that I may not be the best assessor of my students’ skills.
Although the marketing assistant is great at her job, I would not have been able to predict that. When I look at my students, I realize, I have always concentrated on particular skills that are not necessarily the ones that will serve them best after college. Who writes the best? Whose research is most thorough? Whose reading of the novel is the most subtle? Not the most marketable skills, though they will get you into graduate school.
The marketing assistant is the same young woman she was when she was in my classroom. But much of her incisive observation, her wit, her distanced assessment and clever summing-up had passed me by when she was in college. What a letter of recommendation I could write for her now. Of course, she doesn’t need it now. She’s already moved on.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
"They're just darlings," my co-worker said. "Absolute darlings."
"Uh-huh," I agreed, staring at my grading sheet. She is discussing five athletes at the private, four-year university where we teach. As another part-time foreign-language instructor comes in, I overhear their conversation.
"Well, they'll never get through nine chapters," said the "darling" woman.
"Oh," responded my friend, a woman who teaches Spanish.
"I'm going back to Chapter Five," said the first instructor, "I just love teaching these darling, darling boys."
I sat there, stunned. Was I hearing correctly? Was she simply dropping half of the curriculum to cater to a few students who couldn't do the work? Later, when we were alone in the office, I commented, "It's so hard to get them to work, but I keep pushing. I've got to get them through the whole book or they're sunk next semester."
"Oh, well, that's how it is with English comp, I'm sure," said the "darling" woman. "I mean you've got to cover the material."
"How is that different with Spanish?" I finally asked.
"Oh, well, I've got to make sure that they really get it." She responded. Frustrated, I couldn't think of anything else to say. This adjunct had developed a curriculum based on department-approved course objectives. She had turned in copies of her syllabus to the academic dean for approval. Then, frustrated by her students' inability or unwillingness to learn, she had simply chopped off the back end of her course.
Later she had confided that there were a few students who were "getting it," but that they would simply have to review the same materials over and over until the end of the semester because she was catering to the athletes. That morning, as my colleague left for her class, I jotted the note, "curriculum rip-off" in my notebook. Something would come of this, I thought. Something.
At lunch that day, with the provost at the head of the table, I commented that a fellow instructor wasn't teaching the curriculum. "What do you mean," the provost asked, voice surprisingly kind for a man in power.
"She said the athletes in her class weren't learning," I paused, unsure if I should go on, "so she cut out the last four chapters of the book."
"You're kidding!" said a physics instructor to my right.
"She'll review them later, right?" the provost asked.
Trembling, I kept my hands in my lap, "I got the impression that she wasn't going to teach the last four chapters at all."
"Really," said the provost. "What's her name?"
"Oh, I really couldn't say," I mumbled, gathering up my half-finished tray.
Face reddening, I made my way to drop off my tray. What had made me speak up? Me, an adjunct? A part-timer with no tenure, no security, no voice. I didn't bring it up again. In the next days, I asked co-workers innocuous questions about their classes. I found it hard to make eye contact with the provost.
What had made me speak up? Anger. A feeling that not only would the next instructors to teach these students be frustrated, their jobs only made that much more difficult, but the students were being ripped off in a wholesale fashion.
According to the students, the less they were taught, the better. But I knew better. And I had been on the receiving end of some of these half-taught students. One of my colleagues at a large community college in California had confessed that he passed any student who would sit through his course. With no work to grade them, he simply gave them all C's. He was not the only one, I realized.
When I had struggled with a student whose grammar was shockingly poor and who could not form a decent paragraph or essay, I sometimes wondered if they had simply tested well on the eligibility exam or if an unwitting colleague had passed them on to me.
And what did the students get out of this? Yes, their semester was easier. Yes, they had less homework. Yes, they could spend more time on sports. But at what cost? Their education was being whittled away by instructors who could not or would not insist on the curriculum. It was a simple matter of trading the short-term for the long-term goal. Given the choice, I knew that a smaller percentage of the students would vote for learning all that they were promised. Yes, some would complain and wheedle, but I must believe that instructors know better.
We are in a position of power and we must not misuse that power by stealing. And when we lop off a part of the curriculum that is too bothersome or too difficult for some students, we are stealing from all of the students. One colleague confessed that she often had to switch lesson plans around to teach what she needed to -- but she always covered the chapters that she had promised.
I'm not sure if she had been burned by a colleague or if she simply knew what the right thing to do was, but I admire her stance. I, too, frequently find that I need to "borrow from Peter to pay Paul" in lesson making, but I always cover the curriculum. Even in the classroom, when I am tempted to cut out a section that once seemed important, I review the materials later in my office and talk to senior instructors who can guide me.
It is dangerous to make impromptu decisions at the chalkboard. More often than not, I am dreaming of new ways to teach something that seems tedious -- a new essay, a new exercise, or examples taken from my own classes. Anything to get them to see the lesson in a new way. My struggle sometimes reminds me of my effort to clip my terrier's nails. After an hour my struggling and his howling, I finally brought my dog to the local veterinarian and paid the $15. His nails did get clipped. In the same way, I struggle with curriculum, but in the end, it gets taught.
My last concern was a big one -- what about our accreditation? This four-year university already had a poor reputation. Once known as a feeder campus for Stanford University, its price tag now seemed to have no correlation to its rigor or value. What if our accreditors found that we were not teaching the curriculum? What if they somehow found out that we were not achieving the course objectives that they had originally approved. What then?
After working on committees at the large community college in California, I had learned a healthy respect for the powers that be. Whether one was a tenured full-time instructor or an adjunct, we simply did not have the right to make such decisions on our own.
Suddenly I was thankful for those who had mentored me -- even those kind souls who sat at lunch with me. Their opinions, ideas and suggestions were helping to shape me. Every day, every semester. So many teachers, struggling, wrangling, working to be sure that curriculum gets taught. What a blessing to be one of those who hold the line. And those who benefit? We do. Instructors, administrators, and, most importantly, the students.
Shari Wilson is the pseudonym of an adjunct who has taught at many colleges in California. In a column last month, she wrote about the unintended consquences of the "six year rule" on faculty members who are off the tenure track.
Whatever happened to cheating? The question occurred to me the other day, when I turned on the television and found myself watching School Ties, a 1992 movie about a posh New England boarding school starring Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon. Damon cheats on an exam. Fraser sees him. When the teacher finds Damon's cheat sheet on the floor, he challenges the cheater to come forward, or else the class to bring him forward, according to the dictates of the school honor code.
Eventually, Damon is named and expelled. But he is identified by the head prefect, not Fraser. Both should have themselves come forward sooner. "The honor code is a living thing," declares the dean. "It cannot exist in a vacuum." Precisely, the trick of the movie is to provide a vacuum -- the time is 1955 -- and then let just enough of real-world air bubbles leak in so that, alas, we secretly wish that the vacuum -- leaving aside the anti-Semitism that contaminates the world portrayed in this particular movie -- could somehow have remained sealed.
What clarity back then! Damon does cheat. He knows what he did is cheating. There is no nonsense on his part about having made an "error of judgment," and no cant on anybody else's part about "extenuating circumstances." Everybody else recognizes what cheating is. Nobody has to ask. "Someone has robbed you of your honor," the teacher tells the class. "If I ignore it, you will rob me of mine as well."
Today, however, the very word, "cheating," sounds, well, crude, perhaps a bit antique, even irrelevant. I asked a friend of mine to tell me a cheating story. He immediately recalled a student of his who was getting an A. Come the last paper. It was plagiarized. My friend decided to give the student a final grade of B. "You plagiarized your final paper," he told the student when he came round to inquire about his grade next semester. The student just shrugged and walked away.
In the world of School Ties, the student who cheats has dishonored himself. In the world of grade inflation and Enron, though, the student has merely been caught. How to account for the difference? One might just as well try to explain the loss of the idea of "honor." Can it only function in highly circumscribed (perhaps ultimately military) contexts? As an operative value in normal academic circumstances, has "honor" now been as utterly undone by a student culture of excuses, just as this culture has been thoroughly saturated by a larger American culture of victimization?
Hard questions. Let me try to concentrate instead on one feature: how the occasion for cheating has changed. In School Ties, this occasion is a test. In my friend's instance it is a text. At least some of the reason that cheating leads such a baffled existence in the academy at the present time is that a text is not a test. In each case, the standards by which to judge whether cheating has occurred in any one specific instance seem to be the same. They are not.
The circumstances in which a test takes place are, virtually by definition, controlled, while those through which a paper gets written are not. It is possible to monitor the space where a test is being given; it is not possible to monitor where a paper is written. In addition, time is different in each case: a test is designed to be completed at a designated place during a certain period of time, whereas a paper is merely subject to a deadline; it can actually be written over any amount of time, anywhere.
What this means in evaluative practice is not only that the opportunities to cheat (just to continue to use this word) are enormously expanded. The nature of cheating itself changes accordingly -- to the despair of every teacher, beginning with those who teach freshman composition. The very fact that "plagiarism" must be carefully defined there defers to the absence of what the dean in School Ties refers to as a vacuum. (Could cheating even be punished -- in his terms -- if one has to begin by defining it?) It also testifies to the near-impossibility of judging a paper on SUV's or gay marriage or God-knows-what that has been cobbled together out of Internet sources whose fugitive presence, sentence by sentence, is almost undetectable.
Furthermore, to the student these sources may well be almost unremarkable, with respect to his or her own words. What is this business of one's "own words" anyway? What if the very notion has been formed by CNN? How not to visit its site (say) when time comes to write? Most students will be unfamiliar with a theoretical orientation that questions the whole idea of originality. But they will not be unaffected with some consequences, no less than they are unaffected by, say, the phenomenon of sampling and remixing as it takes place in popular culture, especially fashion or music.
"Plagiarism" has to contend with all sorts of notions of imitation, none of which possess any moral valence. Therefore, plagiarism becomes -- first, if not foremost -- a matter of interpretive judgment.
Cheating, on the other hand, is not interpretive in the same way (and, in the world of School Ties, not "interpretive" at all). No wonder, in a sense, that test gradually has had to yield to text. It is almost as if the vacuum could not hold. By the present time, the importance of determining grades (in part if not whole) by means of papers acquires the character of a sort of revenge of popular culture -- ranging from cable television to rap music -- upon academic culture.
I do not mean to slight the hundreds or thousands of occasions where tests (beginning with the SAT) remain the evaluative instrument of choice. I do mean to explore why cheating is something enacted today by students who just shrug when told of it. Or becomes something confronting teachers who are perplexed when deciding what to do about it. Are the stakes now simply too low, at least at the undergraduate level? You try (say) to get students to learn some minimal rules about citation. You try to stay away from some more searching consideration about why citation is necessary in the first place. You give as few tests as possible.
Of course, you have to provide grades. So you inflate them. Or rather, the whole academic culture, which breathes inflation, virtually heaves onto the grade sheet a grade that, well, you could justify (you reason), although in an ideal world it would simply be too high. You're not cheating to choose the higher grade. In a decisive sense, it's simply being chosen through you.
The phenomenon known as "grade inflation" is not the same as cheating. Grade inflation simply possesses the immense advantage of grinding up all sorts of edgy moments from both sides of the equation and spewing them out in discursive mush.
Finally, you also read the newspapers. The other day there was a story about a student from Serbia, a basketball player, whose failing grade was allegedly changed by her Ohio State instructor in "Rural Sociology" after she was asked to do so by an OSU booster. Why? The student was having "personal problems." What exactly were they? Her life might be endangered if she had to return home. Talk about "extenuating circumstances"! How to speak of "honor" -- or whatever would be the value preventing a grade change-- once life itself is at stake? But there was more.
It turns out that the booster says he was asked to speak to the instructor by the basketball coach. It further seems that the booster was also acting as the student's sponsor and host family, a role that involved payment by the university. Suddenly, circumstances shift, and do not seem quite so extenuating (or even the same circumstances).
Meanwhile, it seems grades cannot be changed without the approval of the department chair. So was he or she in on the extenuation? By the end, we are almost in the realm of fiction, and it would make happier sense if the chair were actually Serbian. However, the journalistic report remains unhappily literal, or as much as a wider public will ever learn, anyway.
So what to conclude? That cheating has expanded so much that it now includes or comprehends many routine academic practices (including grade changing, or even a subject such as Rural Sociology)? It's hard to know what to think about cheating anymore, which is one reason why it's easy to relax before movies such as School Ties.
I missed the fatal exam subject in the movie. Symbolically, it should be Latin. Those were the days! Not the least of the reasons Latin is such an excellent subject was that it appeared to make the determination of whether or not cheating had occurred as clear as the dative case. In contrast, part of the problem with a subject such as Rural Sociology is that all a poor dishonest student can do with it, if pressed, is to plagiarize. Meanwhile, while the rest of us continue to struggle with all manner of extenuating circumstances, "cheating" steals away in quotation marks.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the physical spaces in which professors teach.
I’m not much one for reunions at my alma mater. But I did have a 25th reunion last month at one of my journalistic alma maters, so to speak, College of the Atlantic, the small, environmentally oriented, alternative liberal arts college located off the coast of Maine. It was one of the colleges I covered during my first tour of duty as a freelance education writer during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Like most of the stories I did during my early, gallivanting days, the one I did about COA began with a hunch. The little information I had about this remote, decade-old, solar-powered cousin of Bennington, Goddard, et al., was that COA offered a bachelor of arts degree in something called human ecology, and that staff and students spent a lot of time observing and tracking whales. I was intrigued.
And so, armed with an assignment, off I flew to Bar Harbor, Maine, for what turned out to be one of my most memorable assignments covering academe. I was immediately taken with the college’s Noah-like president, Ed Kaelber, and his vice president, Sam Eliot, whose environmentalist passion was leavened by a self-deprecatory sense of humor.
What moved COA’s founders to establish their college-cum-environmentalist colony back in 69?, I asked Eliot one blustery evening, as we huddled over coffee in his office in the college’s Ark-like wooden administration building. "Basically, we came out here to save the world," Eliot said. “Now,” he said with a grin, “we’re concentrating on Maine.”
And saving Maine the earnest eco-missionaries of COA were, via such inspired stratagems as a dead minke whale that had washed up near the college and had been converted into a mobile mammalian biology diorama for the benefit of the local populace. Whale on Wheels, it was called. COA students were largely responsible for preserving Maine’s Great Heath, an ecologically unique bog. The college’s Harbor Seal Project had helped rescue many abandoned or stranded seals. And the Department of Interior thought highly enough of the biologist Steve Katona’s course, Whales of the North Atlantic, to award his class a contract for the Mount Desert Island Whale Watch. With 180 students and 15 faculty members, classes at the spare, island-based campus were small, education an intense, hands-on affair. I never saw a faculty as inspired and committed as COA’s.
For the most part, classes at COA were as intellectually rigorous as anywhere, if not more so. Some people might have difficulty defining exactly what human ecology meant -- "it's … a seagull" said one misty-eyed student -- and yet COA students were making real connections between man and nature. Here, in December 1980, as the new materialistic morning of Ronald Reagan was dawning, was a college really dedicated to changing and, yes, saving the world.
To a sixties survivor that was bracing to behold. "If the deterioration of the environment keeps going the way it is now," in the prescient words of Glen Berkowitz, one of the many dynamic, clear-eyed students I met during my fascinating sojourn in Bar Harbor, "people will have to use COA graduates." He was right. (In fact, Berkowitz, who graduated in 1982, went on to become a senior consultant with Boston’s massive Big Dig project, where he advised the builders on the human impact of the dig, and is now involved with a wind power project for the city’s harbor.) He's but one of the many COA graduates who have used their unique education to do social and environmental good. Others include Chellie Pingree, head of Common Cause and Bill McLellan, a University of North Carolina research scientist who National Public Radio recently described as the federal government’s “go-to guy on marine mammal research.”
I had planned on a visit of several days. Instead I wound up staying for several weeks. My subsequent dispatch about “Earth College,” as I good naturedly dubbed the place, reflected my affection for the spunky laboratory school. "To be sure, the college needs a gymnasium and a student center," I reported. "But the College of the Atlantic is alive and well. That in itself is something to celebrate."
Privately, I wasn’t so optimistic. The future for alternative or experimental colleges, I well knew, was increasingly grim, having recently reported the demise of one of COA’s experimental siblings, Eisenhower College, whose lofty minded World Studies program and holistic educational philosophy was not unlike COA’s.
Hence my delight and surprise, upon recently visiting the college on the Web, to encounter an institution that, at least on the evidence of its kaleidoscopic site, was thriving. But Web sites can be deceiving. It was time to check out College of the Atlantic again.
And so, last month, just as I had a quarter of a century before, I set off for the college’s rustic, coastal Maine campus, next to Acadia National Park. Once again I found myself auditing classes, hanging out with COA students and faculty in the main dining room, listening to the swooning sea gulls, just as I did long ago.
My green reunion. Best reunion I ever had.
To be sure, I learned from some of the veteran COA faculty I met up with again, COA did wind up having its own Sturm und Drang period in the early 80s, including a civil war pitting faculty and staff who wished to keep the college as a college against another faction that wanted COA to become more of a think tank. The former won. However, enrollment at the beleaguered campus dropped to a mere hundred. "We almost lost the college," one teacher said.
Nevertheless, under the leadership of Steve Katona, the college’s savvy whale-watcher-turned president, who has been at the college’s helm for since 1992, COA has survived. Now, with an enrollment of 270 students -- over 20 percent of them from abroad -- and 26 faculty, COA is, indeed, thriving. Shedding the "experimental" label that once put off parents of prospective students, the pioneering institution is competitive with some of the best mainstream liberal arts colleges in the country, while the human ecology concept and educational philosophy that COA pioneered has gained respect.
On the surface, COA is no longer as "crazy" as it once was. The college has an eye-catching logo now, and an expensive viewbook. The food is no longer strictly vegetarian. COA’s ponytail is gone.
And yet, I could see, in the small, intensely participatory classes and laboratories I audited, and the interactions I had with students and faculty, that the college’s essence and mission is unchanged. Here, still, on this remote island, off the coast of Maine, is a community unabashedly committed to saving the world.
One professor, Davis Taylor, is an economist and former Army captain who attended West Point. He said that while at first blush one could hardly think of two institutions more different than West Point and COA, he saw similarities between the two. "Both have a sense of mission," Taylor said, and “both emphasize systems thinking.”
As one student after another, including ones from as far away as Serbia and Seattle, told me, “I came here to make a difference.”
In the best sense, I could see, during the rainy but otherwise mind-and-spirit expanding week I spent in Bar Harbor. It was clear in a horizon-busting class in environmental history, or an impromptu world music session in the college greenhouse. College of the Atlantic is still alive and crazy after all these years. And, for one of its early champions, and as one who believes that the greatness of the American higher education system lies in its multiplicity, that was reassuring to see.
I could also see that original spirit in a hands-on, feet-in conference in riverine planning that I (literally) waded into, where COA faculty, staff and local planners contributed to show journalists how it’s possible to affect a community planning system on an environmental and inter-county level.
So there I was one stormy afternoon hanging out with Bill Carpenter, the novelist and poet who has taught at COA since its founding 36 years ago, sifting the college's saga over strong coffee in his cozy, book-lined office. We had returned from an exciting, syncopated session of “Turn of the Century,” an interdisciplinary class in cultural history that Carpenter teaches along with the artist JoAnne Carpenter and the biologist John Anderson, in which the three professors enthusiastically riff off each other, in between questions from the packed, palpably delighted class of 25 (which for COA is huge).
“So, what was your original vision?” I asked Carpenter, as we reminisced about the college’s wild and woolly early days.
“This was our vision,” he said, with finality.
Here’s to survivors.
Gordon F. Sander
Gordon F. Sander, an Ithaca-based journalist and historian has written about higher education for The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and many other publications.Â He was recently artist-in-residence at Cornell University's Risley College for the Creative and Performing Arts. His most recent book is The Frank Family That Survived: a 20th Century Odyssey (Random House UK).
Grade inflation continues to occupy the attention of the media, the academy and the public at large. As a few Ivy League universities have adjusted grading policies, and a few of their professors have captured headlines with their statements on the issue, people have taken note. Absent from this discussion, however, are the voices of the silent majority: those who teach at non-elite institutions, as well as those at elite institutions who are not publicly participating in the debate.
Public discussion over grade inflation, then, may reflect the viewpoints of the very few. During the past few years, we have sought to correct for this imbalance by using several approaches. First, we have conducted in-depth interviews on teaching, grading and grade inflation with professors from a range of academic disciplines at Indiana University -- a large, public institution. Second, we have completed informal interviews with professors from several campuses, including Ivy League universities, liberal arts colleges, and public flagship and regional campuses. Finally, we have led discussions in workshops and presentations about assessment and grade inflation with professors from diverse campus environments and with graduate students who have only begun to teach.
From these varied discussions with instructors, commonalities emerge that provide insights to help us decide how to address grade inflation, whether we view it as an "intractable national problem" or a fiction. We find four seeming contradictions that may offer lessons for better understanding the rhetoric surrounding grade inflation.
First, most professors believe grade inflation occurs at their university, but few believe it occurs in their department, and even fewer in their own classes. Not only did most instructors (both professors and graduate students) whom we spoke with perceive grade inflation at their university, they were more emphatic in their responses ("No Doubt" and "Absolutely!”) than were those who believed that accounts of grade inflation were overstated ("No, I don’t think so.” and "No, not really"). Yet, the professors made a clear distinction between the grading practices in the university and in their own department: grade inflation is seen as a problem that occurs mostly in other departments and units.
Even more striking is the disjuncture between professors’ assessments of their own grading practices and that of others. Although a clear majority of professors believed that grade inflation was prevalent on their campus, almost no professors admitted that grade inflation occurred in their classroom. As one professor replied, "In my classes? No, because I control it." Most professors saw their grading practices as more stringent and fair. In the words of one professor, "I have high standards. I know people who don’t have high standards." In other words, professors characterized grade inflation as a phenomenon that did not occur in their neighborhood, and especially not in their own household.
Not surprisingly, then, professors described themselves as "tough" graders. What did surprise us, however, were professors’ inaccurate assessments of their grade distributions. In our in-depth interviews, we asked professors to indicate a "typical" grade distribution for their undergraduate classes and -- because this is public information at the university -- we compared their estimates to their actual distributions. Nearly all professors believed that their own grades were lower than they really were: They underestimated the number of A’s and overestimated the number of lower grades. This pattern was ubiquitous. It occurred regardless of the professor’s rank, gender or department and regardless of whether the professor had a relatively high or low grade distribution. To put this pattern in perspective, the average difference between reported and actual grade distributions far exceeded the reported rise in grade point average that occurred at this university during the past 30 years.
Second, most professors view student pressure as a key factor fueling other professors’ grading practices and grade inflation, but few admit they experience this pressure, and fewer acknowledge they are influenced by it. When asked to offer explanations for grade inflation, professors mentioned factors parallel to those identified in the scholarly literature, including lingering effects of the Vietnam War and student movement, changing curricular requirements and student demographics, and the demands of the current job market and economy. Still, the most common explanation was student pressure, described by one professor as a "'Let’s Make a Deal’ sort of atmosphere." Professors typically reported that in contrast to others who "succumb to that [grade inflation]," they saw themselves as mostly immune to this pressure.
Third, most professors assert a link between grades and student evaluations, but they also express faith in their students and their evaluations’ ability to distinguish between the best and worst teachers. Many professors saw an inextricable link between student evaluations and grade inflation, or, as one professor suggested, "those two come hand in hand." Indeed, professors typically believed that "a lot of good grades results in great teaching evaluations, which drives some people to grade inflation, without consciously doing it.... There’s no question that the quality of your evaluations follows the grades."
While their peers purportedly "unjustifiably give high grades to students because they want higher evaluations," the interviewed professors did not implicate themselves in this practice. Instead, they claimed that their evaluations -- although "better than average," or, as described by one professor, "I’m the man!" -- would be even more positive if they "just lightened up on students."
Still, the longer the interviewed professors discussed the seeming linkage between grading practices and evaluations, the more equivocal they became. In fact, very few professors believed that their colleagues who regularly earned the best evaluations also gave the highest grades or that those who earned the worst evaluations gave the lowest grades. Some professors acknowledged the inconsistency in their responses, as in the case of one professor who noted, "This may sound like a contradiction, but I think students can tell when their instructor doesn’t know what they’re doing ... and they pick on them for that in the evaluations, even if they got A’s." In other words, most professors, even those who initially complained in their interviews about student evaluations, believed that "students are more savvy than you think" and that grades ultimately were less influential than other professor and course qualities (e.g., intellectual excitement) in determining student evaluations.
Fourth, most professors believe average grades should be lower on campus, but would like to see a higher grade distribution in their own classes. In our interviews, we asked professors to indicate what grade distributions should occur in their class and their university. Most professors indicated that they would like to see higher grades in their classes, but lower grades campus-wide. Typical was the response of a professor who described the preferred grade distribution for his class as 50% A’s, 25% B’s, and 25% C’s but for the university as 15% A’s, 15% B’s, 40% C’s, 15% D’s, and 15% F’s. This same pattern emerged in our informal interviews and teaching workshops, as in the case of a workshop with faculty from regional branches of a public university, in which professors indicated that the grade distribution in their classes should be higher than at the flagship, main campus, which in turn should be higher than at Ivy League institutions such as Princeton University.
How do professors explain this discrepancy? Most professors saw their classes or their students as qualitatively different from others. In the words of an instructor at an Ivy League university, "I like to think my students are more brilliant than students in other classes." Other professors explained that they would like to see an increase in the grade point average in their courses because that would indicate that students are learning more. Overall, professors did not see their courses as contributing to grade inflation (and, if anything, they would like to see higher grades in their classes), and they viewed their own classes as unique, so different that they warranted a higher grade distribution.
These four seeming contradictions provide another illustration of what social psychologists refer to as self-enhancing tendencies: that individuals believe they are better than average and that their situation is distinct from others. This is the social psychological equivalent of the Lake Wobegon Effect, "where all the children are above average." The Lake Wobegon Effect is referred to repeatedly in the public discourse over grade inflation, although in that discourse, students, not professors, are being rated as above average.
The self-enhancing tendency helps explain why professors believe that grade inflation exists but their grades do not contribute to it, why student pressure and student evaluations influence others’ grading but not their own, and why grades in their classes should be higher but grades at the university level (and other universities) should be lower. These tendencies may well be intensified in environments in which there is limited information on or discussion about grades and grading. Because teaching and grading are seen as individualistic and solitary activities, professors often may rely primarily on student accounts of other professors’ grades: in the words of one professor, "the only lens I have to see this is through the students."
Social psychologists often note that self-enhancing tendencies are functional for one’s own well-being. Our research shows how this concept -- in conjunction with the infrequency of departmental and university-wide open discussions on grading -- may help us better understand grade inflation, regardless of whether we see it as a crisis or an illusion. If one believes grade inflation is a serious problem, the cost of these tendencies is that professors will deny personal responsibility and instead attribute this problem to the practices of others. If, on the other hand, grade inflation is indeed a myth, then these self-enhancing tendencies explain why professors are so willing to believe that it occurs, even if they are convinced it does not occur in their own classrooms.
Janice McCabe and Brian Powell
Janice McCabe is a doctoral student in sociology at Indiana University. She is completing her dissertation on race/ethnicity and the academic and social divide experienced by undergraduates.Â Brian Powell is the Allen D. and Polly S. Grimshaw Professor and co-director of the Preparing Future Faculty Program in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University.
For a more detailed discussion of aspects of this research, see the authors' "'In My Class? No':Â Â Professors’ Accounts of Grade Inflation," in The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: The Contribution of Research Universities, edited by William Becker and Moya Andrews (Indiana University Press).
Most students love them. Some instructors swear by them. A number of administrators see them as a way to get through the curriculum with less fuss. But there's a problem with once-a-week courses: They almost always fail.
The problem is that unless the subject is one that does well in a traditional lecture-type format, the content cannot be delivered properly in one shot.
My mentor, a composition instructor, confessed that although he’d been teaching night classes for a decade, very few succeed. Only higher-level composition courses had been successful. He insisted that core courses that were process-heavy, such as composition, math and laboratory-based science, simply don’t work when class meets once a week.
There were not enough practice-and-feedback loops to help students absorb, retain and apply information. Hence most students failed the course. But, to his dismay, his institution kept booking classrooms and instructors to teach courses once a week. After a number of painful years trying to teach developmental and transfer-level English composition at night, I believe courses that meet once a week are not delivering. One instructor friend confessed that his developmental English composition students simply could not pass in a course that only met once a week. As he wryly put it, "their core literacy skills are piss poor."
A former dean confessed that even though the administrators pushed for more and more night classes -- most of which meet just once a week -- these were especially bad for under-prepared students. Teachers found it difficult to engage the students for three-hour straight; students frequently dropped the courses or failed. But the administration has continued to offer more and more three-hour night courses in every subject. A tremendous number of college students, on the other hand, love the once a week format. While teaching at three different community colleges and two universities (one public, one private), I managed to convince students to give me the low-down on such courses:
"I’m an adult and I'm not going to commute to one class on two separate days. It’s a really inefficient use of my time," one student piped up. Another student proclaimed, "I go, I sit, I absorb, I do all my homework. I don't need to take a few days break from it after every hour -- I'm there for it -- give me more!"
"In 50 minutes, we get shortchanged," another student complained, "after students settle in, we lose 10 minutes. At the end of class, they start getting ready to go and we lose another 5 or 10. It’s a rip-off."
"When I do math, I need more than 50 minutes to get it. The three-hour course helps me figure out what I’m supposed to do," she told me, "The rest of the week I apply what I’ve learned to the homework."
Other students were less than positive about the once a week experience. One male student said, "I don’t know if it’s because it’s at night or because it’s a once a week class, but by the end of the semester only half of the class is left."
"It sure does weed out the losers," a young female student told me.
Another student, who has five children, confided, "If I wasn’t so busy, I could take this and get an A, I know. As it is, I’ll be lucky if I even pass. It’s just not enough time to really do the work."
"I do the homework while the teacher is talking," one athlete told me. "I mean that’s wasted time anyway. Or sometimes I get lucky and some student will let me copy hers. It’s all the same to me."
"I hate the three-hour classes at night. They just drag on and on. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a film."
To me, the problem seems complex. First, students simply cannot absorb and retain information that is given in one-shot. The beauty of classes that meet three times a week is that students have a chance to replay the information in their heads and practice. With the guiding hand of the instructor, they can get even more direction and be assured that they are "getting it." An exception to this observation seem to be courses that have more than one part -- a lecture and lab, for instance. In some cases, higher level literature courses work, too. There, students get enough time to "get into" the topic. Even in these courses, I still have concerns about the ability to actually learn material when a student is only given one contact period with the instructor.
Second, with courses that meet once a week, students often forget most of the material by the next week. Only the most disciplined students who practice outside of class will be assured that they will succeed. Marginal students often fail. Students who have the minimum background and little time to study or practice are guaranteed to fail. As a colleague once told me, students with stamina, developed study skills and learning styles will succeed -- yet this population makes up a much smaller percentage of the student population that chooses once a week courses.
Unfortunately, once a week courses are often advertised to working students as a way to avoid many trips to the campus. "Convenient" is a word often seen on Web sites and college brochures. Although some of these students are disciplined enough to do work on their own, many are simply too busy working or supporting family at home to work well outside of class. Their homework slips lower and lower in priority until it is impossible for them to remember just what the instructor wanted. Many times the result is that they come to class unprepared. Because of the nature of the student population and the subjects offered, administrators are selling something that often cannot be delivered.
Instructors are often not nearly as effective teaching a three-hour course than they are with three shorter classes. The result is that they often let students go early or end up scheduling assignments students see as "time-wasting" rather than integral.
When directed to teach a three-hour session, many instructors make an effort to teach three shorter lessons in one session. Although this may be successful, it can also seem like a disjointed set of exercises. With a class that meets several times a week, lessons build on one another -- with time for students to retain information. With once a week courses, learning is jammed into one long session.
Many writing instructors I know end up having students do in-class writing to fill time and to give the instructors something to assess. They simply don’t have the time to allow the student to go home, outline, do research, write drafts and produce good work. For the instructor, being "on" for three hours can be exhausting. When I taught several of these courses a week, I often came home so tired that it took me hours to "come down" from the experience and go to sleep.
Many instructors simply let students go early every evening. In confidence, one colleague told me that she felt sorry for her students -- many worked and had families. Keeping them on campus until 10 p.m. seemed cruel. After she scheduled some "take home" work at the end of her first session and let her students go at 9:30 p.m., they expected it every night. She caved because she "felt their pain" and knew that they simply could not work effectively late at night. One senior professor friend shared that when she taught two transfer-level composition courses at our community college, the campus was completely deserted when she excused her class on time.
Office hours are often a problem, too. When I taught once a week courses, I found that I often tried to make time to see students before or after class -- not an optimum time for them to review their work or produce another draft of an essay. Even though I was available at other times, these once a week students simply could not make time to come and see me.
Many of my colleagues, loaded down teaching courses at two or three different campuses, could not make time to meet with students on other days or nights. There the students were forced to wait until the day or night of class to get help. Here, too, it was too late to then produce more work or revise work before the class deadline. One dean I know told me that "some adjuncts, especially those with long commute times or those who travel to different colleges, may be helped by having to come to the campus only once a week."
True, the one-shot teach is more viable than frequent visits to the campus, but the ones who really lost out on that deal were the students -- and ultimately the college. This is part of the reason that "freeway fliers" have received a bad reputation. Running from campus to campus is not the most effective way to deliver curriculum. After six years of this lifestyle, not only did I feel as though I was going to collapse, I also recognized that only one of the two or three campuses got the real benefit of my experience as an instructor. The others were just "paycheck fillers."
Although I did my best not to simply park outside the campus 10 minutes before class started and run back to my car when class ended -- I couldn’t say with any certainty that this didn’t sometimes happen. Asking a student to stay for 20 minutes after class was excruciating for both of us. The ones who suffered? The students. Once a week courses simply put too much pressure on students and instructors alike.
Last, many instructors end up trimming curriculum in a once-a-week course. In many topics, trying to cover the same amount of work in 16 sessions rather than 48 is impossible. Not only do students retain less, but the nature of the three-hour course does not lend itself to reading a full-length book (or some other large task) every week. Students don’t keep up with work and end up dropping or failing. I’ll be the first to admit that when faced with reality of my class schedule and the daunting amount of work that I needed to cover, I simply eliminated one full-length novel from the list of recommended textbooks.
My dean never said a word. Many colleagues of mine have admitted they have done worse. Four papers instead of six. No midterm. Eliminating full chapters of reading. No quizzes, but directed in-class exercises instead. The result is that students are not getting what they paid for. They are not receiving the same materials and assessment they would have received in a course that meets twice, three times or five times a week. As one professor friend told me, "The administrators don’t care. They just want to see numbers -- students retained, a good curve on grades, a large number going to the next level in the sequence."
He shook his head, "it’s discouraging." What matters are results, not process. Trimming the reading and writing requirements in a composition course is especially upsetting to me. These students are going on to the next course as if they were prepared. But they are not.
Why the push to once a week courses? Administrators love the flexibility. In a desperate attempt to "do it all," adjunct instructors find these courses doable. Students say that they love not having to come to school more than once a week. There’s less parking trouble, less commute, less time in the classroom, less class work.
Unfortunately, for some courses, there’s also less learning, less work and poor results. One dean I interviewed told me that she had been pushing for twice a week scheduling for night classes in her liberal arts department for a decade. The result? Not one course has been changed to what she considered a much more effective format. Discouraged, she keeps asking the chancellor for consideration. To date he has shown no interest.
As students are positioned more and more as consumer, I suspect the use of once-a-week courses will not only continue, but also get stronger. In my mind, it’s very much like scheduling breakfast, lunch and dinner back to back to save time. True, you theoretically save time during your day -- but you simply cannot choke down three full meals. After scaling back on each meal to get all three down, you still find yourself hungry six hours later. And then, of course, you visit the cupboard and find it empty.
The sorry news about the once-a-week course is that even students who can do well on their own will find themselves without direction during the week. For others who are not so disciplined, the cupboard is not even in mind. These students simply find themselves at the table again a week later confused at the meal (or lesson) presented.
I find it discomforting that very little research has been done on the effectiveness of once-a-week courses when compared to classes that meet twice or three times a week. I wonder if college systems are interested in exploring how students retain material when given only one contact session with students every week. My experience is that in most cases, once-a-week courses do not deliver.
Students who do pass usually are able to earn a full grade less than they would in a course that meets more often. And many will not pass. To me that suggests that higher education is not delivering. Even in a society where the student is consumer, this is bad business.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. Her last column was about the mystique of out-of-state job applicants.
Scene: a foreign language classroom. Subject of the lesson: the Spanish verb, gustar, meaning, "to like," whose declension is most irregular. Teacher has students practice with each other by making up formulaic questions, such as, "What do Americans like?" Reply: "Hamburgers."
Two students give the following: "What don't the French like? They don't like to take showers."
Wait a minute! Suddenly an African-American student jumps up and protests -- in English -- at the student who gave this last answer. How dare he! The comment is "racist." Her great-grandfather was from Martinique. French was spoken in his household. Is her colleague now implying either her grandfather or she herself smells? The African-American student demands an apology on the spot.
The teacher who told me this incident said that the whole class was dumbfounded. Literally speechless. Nobody laughed. And yet it's hard to hear of it without imagining somebody wanted to laugh. An African-American student who makes the accusation of racism not because she's African-American but because she's French! Not to mention a student who confuses a language lesson with a truth claim.
Or with a joke. Among a number or comments that could be made about this incident, the one that strikes me is that at the center is a hoary old joke about the French. It's stupid. The national or racial stereotypes upon which so much humor is based are all stupid. However, this hasn't stopped people continuing to purvey such stereotypes in the form of jokes. Of course much depends on the context in which these jokes are told. The classroom is no longer one of these contexts.
The above incident illustrates why: somebody is bound to be offended, and you can't predict who. Worse, someone is likely to protest -- either immediately or afterwards, perhaps to the dean. Fiction may deal with the consequences better than journalism. In one of my favorite academic novels, Mustang Sally, by Bruce Allen, the hero is foolish enough to tell a joke about a woman who asks a man to give her a seat on the bus because she's pregnant. When the man asks how long, she looks at her watch and says, "About 45 minutes." Some students file a written complaint, charging sexual harassment.
To relate an official response to some example of a joke, or even an unintended joke, on American campuses today is itself to appear to be telling a joke. Yet everybody knows speech codes that ban "inappropriately directed laughter" (say) are no joke. It's not clear to me if a professor can be held accountable for a student who spontaneously tells a joke in class. But a professor in 2005 who tells a joke or his or her own would be a fool.
No matter if a careful framework had been laid out prior to the telling or if the joke was told to "illustrate a point." Better to keep the framework humorless or the point abstract. Of course there are times in the classroom when the humor is there, suddenly, inescapably. Odd words are spoken or a stray thing happens; a professorial wink, nod, or comment is scarcely necessary to mark the comedy. Everybody laughs. And then discussion continues. (Part of the pathos of the above incident with which I began is that this did not happen.) In such contrast, a joke is a deliberate act, emanating from the person of the teller. The joke doesn't emerge from the context. It's imposed upon it.
Or is it? "Context" is a tricky affair. If there are actually teachers who still tell jokes to their students on a regular basis, presumably they do so either to solidify a context, or else to develop one. But the "context" of a classroom is different than that of, say, a commencement speech. I read the other day that Chris Matthews, host of an MSNBC talk show, told at this past year's commencement a joke he once heard from Nelson Mandela, about Joseph begging the innkeeper for a room: "My wife is pregnant." "It's not my fault," protests the innkeeper. "It's not my fault either," answers Joseph.
We are not told where Matthews spoke. Presumably it wasn't at a religious college. Or is the point that the authority of Mandela enables Matthews to elude a charge of mild irreverence? Or is it that commencement speakers, unlike professors, are culturally authorized to tell jokes? Of course we could extend these questions no end, including how a joke is different than a quip, a squib, or a witticism, or how laughter is not the same thing as a smile.
My point begs to be a simple one: Jokes no longer play a significant role in American higher education because they have been effectively banished from the classroom. Why? Paradoxically, because the bonds of campus "community" are so frail. No jokes at least insures that none will be offended. Alas, it also insures that few will feel affirmed.
"Community" of course forms one of our core values, invoked everywhere from an instructor's class syllabus to the president's last public speech. But this community at the present time is, as we say, no joke.
In a brilliant discussion of jokes in her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas gives the following logic: "The joke merely affords the opportunity for realizing that an accepted pattern has no necessity. Its excitement lies in the suggestion that any particular ordering of experience may be arbitrary and subjective." Just so, what is a community but its necessary and accepted patterns? A joke tests these, each time. A strong community survives the test. A weak one fails it. Whatever the word means, and perhaps especially if it really doesn't mean anything, academic "community" appears too fragile for the deliberate act of humor to be committed in the form of a joke.
Never mind if a hundred or a thousand exceptions come to mind. Each of them proves the rule. And, as so often in academic life, enforcement of the rule begins in the classroom with the figure of the professor. Personifying the community, he or she is empowered with authority but not the authority to tell jokes. Having begun with an incident that is founded upon a joke but was not manifest in that form, let me conclude with a similar incident from my own experience.
It took place in a composition classroom, many years ago. I had decided to experiment, and let students write anything they wanted to. No grades. The only thing they had to do, besides come in and write, was to show the results to me three times during the semester. In order to make it possible for all students to be seen regularly, I had to employ a student assistant.
Fortunately, I had at my disposal Pat, one of my best students. I told Pat to disallow nothing out of hand; just subject it to formal criteria of some sort, no matter how long or how short the writing. Above all, never laugh at anything. Toward the end of class one day, I was shocked to hear Pat suddenly begin howling! He couldn't stop laughing. The class started laughing.
Next to Pat was one of our poorest students, who seemed to be, Pat had told me, improving. How? Through frequent visits with Pat, who praised his "narrative organization." Trouble is, it was getting harder to judge the writing because the student was in effect telling jokes. Were jokes acceptable?
This particular day, I concluded that one of the jokes had anyway been irresistible. I was angry with Pat for laughing. But when I asked the student for his notebook the next class, I couldn't help but laugh pretty hard myself.
He began by telling about his father, a long-distance trucker. Often when the father was home, he would take his son out to the local truck stop, just to hang out together with him, usually at the counter. Late one recent night, two women came in. They looked rough. One had on a skimpy dress. She spread out her legs after sitting down in a booth. Father and son could see she wore no panties. They tried to stop looking. Finally, the woman sneered at them: "What's the matter? You came out of one of these, you know." The student blushed. His father replied: "Yeah, but I never saw one I could climb back into."
Did somebody say, "context"? I can't imagine one today that would justify me telling this joke (just to call it that) in the classroom. Did somebody say, "community"? I can't imagine any that at the present time would authorize me, as a professor, to tell this joke. (And few communities in which my freedom to do so, however misplaced, would be affirmed.) And yet the joke -- just to continue to call it that -- was told, in a manner of speaking, er, writing. Moreover, it was told at the heart of the practice of earnest classroom instruction.
By today's standards, should I have marched the student down to the dean's office, where he would be duly censured for sexism? Perhaps by these same standards I should have marched myself down, and written up a self-censure on the spot. If we no longer have to be confronted with jokes, what do we do with the ones that suddenly arise? Make a nervous quip about the return of the repressed? One thing for sure: the humor -- such as it is -- that we still enjoy in the classroom is a function of this same repression. It's no joke.
Terry Caesar's last column was about academic integrity (and lack thereof).