The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.
That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.
I am an Edu-Traitor. I am a college professor. What I am about to say may well be perceived as supporting attitudes thought to be against the interests and well-being of college professors. Here goes: I do not think going to university should be the be-all and end-all of K-12 education. The importance of going to college should be intrinsically the rationale by which we justify public support of higher education. Higher education is incredibly valuable, even precious, for many. But it is bad for individuals and society to be retrofitting learning all the way back to preschool, as if the only skills valuable, vital, necessary in the world are the ones that earn you a B.S., BA, or a graduate and professional degree.
Do I think it is criminal that we are de-funding higher education now? Yes. Do I think it is appalling to think we are charging larger and larger tuitions at state institutions (and private ones, but that is a different issue)? Of course. Is it shocking that such a rich country is not supporting free education? Absolutely. Do I believe there are benefits that accrue from a highly educated workforce, with an appreciation of an array of subjects (liberal arts to computer science) that are not strictly pre-professional training? Definitely. But here’s the Edu-Traitor part: Do I believe we need to justify the investment in higher education in terms of it being a necessity for the 21st century for everyone? Absolutely not.
We justify higher ed so often because many of the careers of the 21st century need (reformed, definitely it needs to be reformed) higher ed. But many occupations do not. That is not my main concern, however. I argue that, right now, we are deforming the entire enterprise of education, from preschool onward, by insisting it be measured implicitly by the standard of, "Will this help you get into college?" The result is the devaluation of myriad important ways of learning that are not, strictly speaking, "college material."
The world of work -- the world we live in -- is so much more complex than the quite narrow scope of learning measured and tested by college entrance exams and in college courses. There are so many viable and important and skilled professions that cannot be outsourced to either an exploitative Third World sweatshop or a computer, that require face-to-face presence, and a bucketload of skills – but that do not require a college education: the full range of IT workers, web designers, body workers (such as deep tissue massage), yoga and Pilates instructors, fitness educators, hairdressers, retail workers, food industry professionals, entertainers and entertainment industry professionals, construction workers, dancers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, landscapers, nanny’s, elder-care professionals, nurse's aids, dog trainers, cosmetologists, athletes, sales people, fashion designers, novelists, poets, furniture makers, auto mechanics, and on and on.
All those jobs require specialized knowledge and intelligence, but most people who end up in those jobs have had to fight for the special form their intelligence takes because, throughout their lives, they have seen never seen their particular ability and skill set represented as a discipline, rewarded with grades, put into a textbook, or tested on an end-of-grade exam. They have had to fight for their identity and dignity, their self-worth and the importance of their particular genius in the world, against a highly structured system that makes knowledge into a hierarchy with creativity, imagination, and the array of so-called "manual skills" not just at the bottom but absent.
Everyone benefits from more education. No one benefits from an educational system that defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.
I have been teaching in higher ed since I was 25. I am a passionate and dedicated college teacher, a researcher, and I’ve been privileged to teach at many kinds and types of institutions. And I think we have education all wrong. Since the end of the 19th century, with the birth of the modern research university and the beginning of professional schools of education and graduate schools for training teachers, the grail of all education, from preschool to the present, is implicitly higher education. All of the multiple ways that we learn in the world, all the multiple forms of knowing we require in order to succeed in a life of work, is boiled down to an essential hierarchical subject matter tested in a way to get one past the entrance requirements and into a college. Actually, I agree with Ken Robinson that, if we are going to be really candid, we have to admit that it’s actually more narrow even than that: we’re really, implicitly training students to be college professors. That is our tacit criterion for "brilliance." For, once you obtain the grail of admission to higher ed, you are then disciplined (put into majors and minors) and graded as if the only end of your college work were to go on to graduate school where the end is to prepare you for a profession, with university teaching of the field at the pinnacle of that profession.
The abolishing of art, music, physical education, and shop from schools means that the requirement for excellence has shrunk more and more right at the time when creativity, imagination, dexterity, adaptability to change, and all the rest require more, not less, diversity. The shrinking of "what counts" would be counterproductive and dehumanizing in any era, but in this world of constant, global change it is simply destructive. (For an excellent and inspiring and witty discussion of this topic, I highly recommend Ken Robinson’s TED talk.)
By funneling all the different ways we learn the world into a very few subjects that count and are tested – what I’ll call "pre-professorial training" – we make education hell for so many kids, we undermine their skills and their knowledge, we underscore their resentment, we emphasize class division and hierarchy, and we shortchange their future and ours, underestimating talents that should be nourished and thereby forcing them to fight for themselves against odds, giving them obstacles to their own integrity and self-worth and value to fight when we should be giving them inspiration to flourish.
I’m appalled that we judge learning in such narrow collegiate terms as that which is taught in college and "gets you into" college. Decoupling the goal of "going to college" from the goal of “learning” is not actually detrimental to the importance of higher ed for society; it’s not even detrimental to college professors, those putatively in a position to be most privileged by the current system. The opposite is the case. For now, many kids who have the means are going to college because they are supposed to. That’s not good for anyone. Conversely, many brilliant kids who passionately want to go to college cannot afford to. Another travesty. And, finally, many brilliant, talented young people are dropping out of high school because they see high school as implicitly “college prep” and they cannot imagine anything more dreary than spending four more years bored in a classroom when they could be out actually experiencing and perfecting their skills in the trades, the skills, and the careers that inspire them.
Right now, they feel like failures. They are not. They are only "failures" if judged by the narrow hierarchy of values by which we currently construct educational success. As an educator, I want to change that hierarchy of values in order to support a more abundant form of education that honors the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone, regardless of whether they are college material or not.
Many of the students in today's college writing classroom are career-oriented and have little interest in literature; they also may not be native speakers of English. A traditional approach to teaching writing -- through reading and writing about classic literature -- may not reach these students.
The American Association of University Professors is today issuing a report that finds Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge violated the rights of two faculty members who, in separate cases, took stands that were unpopular with administrators.
Is it a given that technology enhances the acts of writing, as it does the arts and sciences of film-making, design, engineering, data collection and analyses, and so forth? What about the teaching and learning of writing?
In a flurry of recent exchanges (subject “Writing horse-shoe-of-horse-heading-east Technology”) on the Writing Program Administration (WPA) listserv, scholars in writing studies have argued these points in some theoretical and practical depth. Maja Wilson, from the University of Maine, sums up the argument nicely: "Steve [Krause, of Eastern Michigan University], and others were arguing that to teach writing, you need to teach the tools available now and not teach or allow the tools on their way out (pen, pencil), because if you aren't teaching the tools, you aren't teaching writing. Rich [Haswell, professor emeritus from Texas A&M University], and others argued that, while teaching the use of all those tools can be a good thing, it isn't necessary to teach writing: writing itself transcends the particular tools, so while teaching the tools can be involved in teaching writing, it isn't necessarily the same thing."
I was recently named Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven’s 2011 Outstanding Technological Teacher. While it is a great honor to receive this recognition of my work in teaching with technology, I must admit I was a late bloomer when it comes to utilizing technology in my teaching. Like many of my colleagues who teach writing, I ignored and resisted technology because I simply did not see it as substantially adding any extra learning value for students or for myself. I thought much more like the scholars in the Haswell camp.
But around 2003, colleagues at my former institution, the University of Washington, and I began to ask some serious questions about the value of teaching with technology for student learning. Since then I have been an ardent student — questioning, researching, and experimenting with the value of teaching with technology in my courses and sharing what I’ve learned with colleagues along the way. While the PR discourse surrounding the award has understandably presented the somewhat uncomplicated portrait of a finished exemplary techie teacher product, I’d like to share just a few insights I’ve gathered over the years with fellow Inside Higher Ed readers. I’ll offer some of the shining — as well as not-so-polished — snapshots of a teacher learning tech, in process.
While I had used some technology in my writing courses for years, in 2005 I found myself in a position to take advantage of a great opportunity to research, teach and learn with innovative technology. I worked closely with a team of research scientists from the UW Center for Learning and Scholarly Technologies on two studies investigating the effects of transitioning from print to electronic portfolios (ePortfolios) in multiple sections of our first-year composition courses. This project is part of the larger Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research (I/NCEPR). You can peruse the impressions — from myself, and from the director of the UW Expository Writing Program, Anis Bawarshi — of our involvement in ePortfolio research here.
In short, our findings suggest: most students take to writing with technology quite well, and those who do not usually benefit from the practice and explicit instruction; instructors and administrators sometimes need just as much help learning about technological choices and options (let alone teaching them) as students; and online writing environments do not magically produce better student writing — or better teaching practices — but can allow for practice with different composing and teaching skills, which can lead to better writing, teaching, and administering depending on the form (for example awareness of audio, visual, and design considerations).
Importantly, this research quickly began to influence and enhance my teaching. I started using ePortfolios in all my writing courses. In every course I use ePortfolios in tandem with specific learning goals/ objectives. Portfolios allow students time to present their best work for the course and opportunities to revisit works in progress in order to critically and rhetorically analyze and revise their own written products and writing process performances. This also allows me, as the instructor, the ability to see each critical and creative move students are making in their attempts to meet the goals of the particular course. I also use the same ePortfolio online platform for my own simple website, including course webpages. That way, I can help students learn the system much more easily via modeling and my own trial and error experiences.
At about this time, I also started teaching in wired computer classrooms. Within about a year I proclaimed myself teaching in the "paperless" writing classroom. I started having students do all their work online: constructing ePortfolios to house and showcase all their work for the course, using online file-sharing spaces to conduct peer review and response on each other’s written work, and collaborating with each other in and out of the classroom with the aid of their computers.
One of the biggest pedagogical effects this approach has had on my teaching is to allow my classroom to become, more than ever, a real artistic writing studio — a place much like an art studio where students work on their writing in small groups and individually, while I circulate the room facilitating and joining in on student discussions of their written works in progress. This creative classroom fluidity is enhanced even further by the laptop-equipped classrooms designed and maintained at Southern Connecticut State University by William Hochman.
Further, I have taught these paperless writing courses with hundreds of students of all preparation levels and cultural backgrounds. For example, in the basic writing courses I have taught both at UW and here at Southern Connecticut, I have encountered many students who are unfamiliar, and sometimes quite uncomfortable, with negotiating any sort of technology. My technology-infused writing curriculum, I believe, offers students a warm welcome and patient learning process for several important writing-technology skills, including formatting texts, saving and sharing files, and designing simple webpages via their ePortfolios. I have watched students with great tech anxiety become much stronger in their ability to work with technology, witnessing the sense of agency and confidence that all students can gain if they experience an atmosphere conducive to collaboration and sharing, and just the right amount of challenging tasks. One such student, Fallon, started off with all the signs of this anxiety, but she ended up taking enthusiastically to writing with technology. We welcome you to visit her exemplary (though not perfect) ePortfolio with her full permission.
The enthusiastic embracing of technology, including the idea of the paperless classroom, may strike some readers as quite a lot to consider. The main piece of advice I would give to fellow teachers interested in implementing tech into their teaching is be patient. Murphy’s Law applies to learning and teaching with technology like nothing else. So take it slow and easy. Rather than diving full-tilt into every tech application available, decide on one or two things at a time that you can work into your pedagogy. Always think about what any given piece of technology might add to the quality of your teaching (for example accommodating diverse student learning styles via audio/ visual elements). And always try to develop backup plans in case a given technology does not work.
Talk for just a while with experienced techie-teachers and you will quickly hear all sorts of admonishing stories involving difficulties with slow or inconsistent routing systems, students with varying levels of technological proficiency and savvy, or with students being distracted by Facebook or other online social networks.
Although above I describe how my laptop-equipped classrooms allow for a studio-like artistic environment, students and I have frequently experienced frustrating moments where our online connections get cut right in the middle of some creative activity like trying to post a document online. This has caused me to coach students on ways to back up their work. Flash drives, for example, become invaluable allies because they provide a good way to move documents back and forth from hard drives to online spaces — just in case we lose a connection.
The issue of different levels of student proficiency with tech is another common problem. I’ve often had students — like Fallon above — who had little practical experience with the intricacies of writing and sharing writing online. But this is where the ubiquitous collaborative pedagogy espoused and practiced by writing teachers everywhere helps. Since so much of what we do in my writing classes involves students helping students — as well as themselves — take more responsibility for each other’s writing processes, this same collaborative frame of mind applies to learning to write and share writing in online environments (see my article in Inside Higher Ed on how my peer review process works).
And the issue of students being distracted by social networks like Facebook is a valid concern for any techie teacher. A recent Inside Higher Edarticle suggests just how distracting the thrall and temptation to visit online social networking environments in classrooms can be for students. But the article also suggests (and I would agree) that a vigilant teacher can stay on top of the problem of the compulsive web-surfer often simply by watching students' eye movements and gestures. By circulating the room frequently, and training ourselves to be aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle eye and hand movements that can belie a Facebook frequenter, we can take steady steps toward keeping students attentive and on task.
Yet one of the more difficult downs to work against involves faculty attitudes toward teaching with technology. One of the things I’ve noticed, at both a huge R1 like UW and a midsize teaching school like Southern Connecticut, is faculty resistance to teaching with technology. I remember, for instance, trying to sell the idea of ePortfolios to a group of writing program administrators and instructors at the UW. I heard every excuse imaginable, including the potential “downs” we discussed above, and others like "I would prefer not to do online commenting because I have always written my comments out by hand. It is much more convenient for me to bring hard copies with me wherever I might go." (Yep, even in the land of Microsoft and Bill Gates.)
For me, it has often been more difficult to persuade colleagues to buy into experimenting with techie teaching and learning than students. And given the fact that I think of myself as coming late to tech-teaching, I really do understand where these sorts of skeptical attitudes come from. But I have also witnessed just how much tech has to offer our students in terms of tools for enhanced learning. The bottom line is that tech is not going away any time soon. For teachers of college writing — at least in first-year composition — the fairly recent edition of a fifth category to the WPA [learning] Outcomes Statement "Composing in Electronic Environments" makes the links between writing, learning, and technology a crucial pedagogical priority.
Still, I believe we should do what we can as teachers of writing to keep the ups and downs of teaching and learning with tech in critical tension. Let’s try to be careful not to get too high or too low on tech, and with luck our colleagues and students will appreciate our sober points of view.
Idling in rush hour traffic, on my way home after finishing my last class of the day, I have lots of time to wonder who exactly comes up with all those brilliant ideas that are ruthlessly yet passively absorbed into our lives without discussion, fanfare, or debate, and simply become accepted as, "That's just the way things are done." Oh, you know what I mean. Who constructed the miniature containers of half & half such that when you finally pull back the tab that’s been welded closed, you will certainly spew milk everywhere but into your coffee cup? Or even better, who came up with those tasty tofu burgers? Ooooh, yummy! And let’s not forget the doughnut-sized spare tire conveniently lodged in the trunk of your car in the event of that occasional flat. How far do are you expected to roll on that thing? But the cleverest idea of them all is the " 'You’ve got to be kidding me' 8 o’clock class."
What diabolical mind conceived this outlandish ploy to fill up the course schedule and offer a last-ditch option to those students who were too late to enroll in the popular classes that are now closed but who needed English composition? No one really knows or admits ownership. On the other hand, the poor simpleton who teaches those 8 o’clock classes is well known. We all know her -- Professor Honesteria Dimwitty. She’s the teacher who religiously attends every faculty meeting (even takes notes), turns in final grades well before the due date, volunteers for every committee, gives up part of her summer vacation to attend those heinous professional development workshops, and actually holds office hours, Monday through Friday.
Now, to be fair, Dimwitty was not a fan of the early-riser sessions to begin with. If forced to confess, she would probably say that she had been bamboozled! In what way, you ask? Simple. The lure of getting her teaching load over by noon, thereby leaving the remaining hours for constructive academic doings, was too hard to resist.
According to secret journal accounts, on that first day, Dimwitty described leaping out of bed at 6 a.m., stopping by Starbucks for the wake-up cup of coffee, driving to work before the real rush hour, taking a few minutes to review her lesson plans, scanning the roster of students, practicing pronouncing a few names, and finally inhaling the scents and sounds of students on their way to that first class. What a rush!
She revealed that she entered the classroom, placed her notes on the lectern, wrote her name on the board, then turned expectantly to get that first glimpse of the faces of her eager students only to find a smattering of bodies randomly draped over desks and slumped in chairs -- the count as of 8:10 a.m. is 6 out 22 officially enrolled. There, in the front row, sat that one student, pen perched over pad and ready to take notes. Like Dimwitty, she actually thought there would be a class that day.
Dimwitty paused to reflect and decided that all was not lost. After all, it was just the first day of class. Students would still be finding their way. The next class had to be better. Unfortunately, the next class and the remaining sessions were just as poorly attended and just as disappointing. Those students who attended one day were not likely to be the same students who attended the next class day.
By the fourth class session, the few faithful attendees would have given up all pretense of following the lesson and resorted to arranging their faces into frozen masks of unnatural attention while actually catching up on lost sleep. Some of the very bold would ask for a review of any missed lessons. At the end of each class period, some would even offer Dimwitty an awkward expression of sympathy and support. Looking anywhere but at their instructor, they would pose, "Why did they sign up for this class if they didn’t plan to come?" "You are really patient!" "I'm taking your class next term." "Will you be teaching an 8 o’clock again?" "Do you have an extra syllabus?"
Dimwitty finally realized that the 8 o’clock class offered formidable challenges to an instructor. Regardless of how creative the lesson plans or how well-aimed an eraser at the head of the nodding student, teaching a body of students at that hour was probably the worst experience she had ever had, barring having her teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist wearing 3-inch press-on nails.
You had to have been there. I was.
Juanita M. Eagleson
Juanita M. Eagleson is visiting assistant professor of liberal studies at the Community College of the District of Columbia.