I remember how bad I felt when I assigned my first F. The night before I turned in my grades, I could barely sleep; I kept tossing and turning, worrying about the student who was about to fail. I thought this failure was going to ruin this kid’s future; he was doomed, I was certain, to a life of meaningless jobs for sub-minimum wage because his first-year writing teacher failed him. I equated his failing with my failure: He failed by not doing the work, and I failed him on an existential level because I was not able to keep him from failing.
As my mentors at the time explained to me, it did indeed get easier to give Fs. One of the reasons was linguistic; I stopped saying I was "giving" grades and instead switched to the language of "recording what the student earned." In this case, semantics did make a difference, but, truthfully, in the 15 years since I "recorded" that first F, I have never felt good about it. Contrary to what many students believe, giving — ahem, recording — failures is not fun. Teachers do not celebrate when students fail; and many, myself included, often bend over backward to find ways to allow students to pass. We listen to their stories, their excuses, their reasons, and we give an extension or some extra credit. We work hard — sometimes harder than the students themselves — to help them pass.
I never really questioned this practice until I stepped into the dean’s role in academic services. At my institution, the dean of academic services oversees the granting of incompletes, leaves of absence and withdrawals (both voluntary and required), and any and all academic issues students may be having. In practical terms, this means that almost every student who is struggling academically sooner or later comes to my attention. While my role is to counsel students about academic issues, inevitably their personal lives — mental, social, physical, emotional -- are wrapped up in their academic issues, so I hear stories that range from the tragic to the sad to the more mundane.
As dean, I spend much of my day listening to tales about dying grandparents, sick siblings, financial struggles, drug and alcohol addiction, family troubles, roommate troubles, classroom troubles — the list is endless. In many ways, I am still the softie I was 15 years ago; I often believe students' stories — even the most fantastical ones — until they give me a reason to doubt them. I have learned, though, how to balance my (perhaps) naïve sense of trust with the realities of needing documentation. It does take some skill to express sympathy in one breath and in the very next breath ask for a copy of an obituary. Where I have noticed the biggest shift in my thinking, however, has been with the issue of giving Fs.
Perhaps because the students I talk to every day are not “my” students (i.e., I am not their teacher, and I don’t actually have to assign a grade), I now have a broadened perspective on the importance of — and even the educational value of — failing. At the end of the semester, for instance, I often get e-mails from professors saying something like, "Sally hasn’t been to class since spring break, has missed her midterm and her final and hasn’t responded to my e-mails. What should I do?” I have to restrain myself from simply writing back: “FAIL HER.” As the dean and not Sally’s teacher, I am able to see Sally’s situation as cut-and-dried: she has disappeared and stopped doing the work. She has chosen, for whatever reason, not to complete the course and the consequence of her decision is an F.
I’m sure at this point some of my readers are thinking that I am being too quick to judge Sally, that there must be extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration. About 50 percent of the time, those readers are correct: something has happened in Sally’s life that has caused her to disappear from the classroom. Sometimes that situation is the common one of a first-year student not sure how to handle the sudden freedom of college and deciding to spend too much time on the social. But there are other scenarios, too: Sally has been very ill; Sally has lost a parent; Sally has a learning disability but thought she could handle college without accommodations; Sally is anxious, depressed, addicted, or a combination of all three.
I always reach out to students when I hear they are in trouble. Some respond but most don’t. If Sally does come to see me, I patiently listen as she tells her story. Sometimes, I might cry right along with her. There are indeed days when I have to close my door to grieve over what I have just heard, weeping for the complicated and overwhelming lives some of our students lead. But even in these worst cases, when Sally’s story breaks me, I still think Sally should fail.
If Sally’s circumstances have indeed been difficult — and they often are — I will look for ways to get her back on track. I might help her get an appointment with the counseling center or walk her down to register with our disability coordinator. I will explain the academic support services we have on campus and show her how to register for those. I will help her think about ways summer courses or interim courses might allow her to catch up on her requirements so she can still graduate in four years. In other words, I will do whatever I can to help Sally except advocate for her to get a passing grade she did not earn
Sally should fail because she did not complete the work; she did not learn what the course proposed to teach; she was not educated. If the university allows Sally to pass, we will be failing her in a much more serious way: we will be failing her as an institution that is deeply committed to learning, failing her as mentors, failing her as human beings. If we do not let Sally fail, she will not learn that adults need to take responsibility for their actions, even when the chips are down, even when the world seems like it is coming to an end. She will not learn that sometimes, for reasons beyond our control, even the best of us fail. If we do not allow her to fail, she will not have the chance to learn resilience. She will not learn to ask for help or recognize the importance of communication. If we don’t allow Sally to fail, she will not learn that adult life is hard and often unfair and that success is defined in that critical moment between giving up or staying the course.
I do not enjoy watching students fail any more than I did 15 years ago, but now I see failures as part and parcel of the total experience of a college education. Like so much in life, failure and success are just different ends of the same spectrum. Learning to navigate that spectrum with integrity, grace, humility, and a little grit, is one of the most important skills colleges can teach.
Melissa Nicolas is interim associate dean of academic services at Drew University.
Established orthodoxy indicates that the ideal pedagogical method centers on small, discussion-based classes. Such a model enables "active learning" that, coupled with on-the-spot guidance from a skilled faculty member, is much more likely to change deep thought patterns than traditional lecture-based approaches. The emphasis shifts from the assimilation of content (and its regurgitation) to learning how to learn — how to be a better reader, how to think more critically and creatively, how to collaborate with others in the task of learning.
Few would doubt that this model sounds very appealing. Yet the experience of many educators inclines them to believe that it is unrealistic. Students, it seems, are generally too unmotivated to make it work. As a result, discussion falls into the all-too-familiar patterns: a mostly silent classroom tunes out as the same students dominate the conversation, more intent on getting “participation points” than advancing anyone’s understanding. Even worse, students apparently don’t regard the discussion model as an ideal and often actively prefer lectures. After all, why should they have to listen to the free associations of their peers when they’re paying a lot of money to have access to an expert? Thus, teaching evaluations often push us away from current thinking on “best practices.”
My early experience in teaching also led me to believe that the discussion model was overhyped. Yes, it could work in grad school or even in upper-level courses — but first-year students just didn’t know enough. Everything changed, though, when I started teaching at Shimer College, a small liberal arts institution in Chicago with a distinctive discussion-centered pedagogy based on a Great Books curriculum. Within the first few weeks of teaching there, I realized that the central problem with the pedagogical ideal of small, discussion-based classes is that hardly anyone is really doing it. Many pay lip service to it, but administrative pressure to increase class sizes and a lack of buy-in from faculty ensures that the ideal model always remains a supplement to more traditional methods.
What Shimer’s approach showed me is that if you’re going to do a discussion-centric model, it has to be the main event. I think of the skills required to succeed in such a pedagogical model as a foreign language—you can’t learn them in a handful of supplementary discussion sections per week. The very best way to learn them, of course, is through immersion. The way this works at Shimer is that every single class, from day one, is a small, discussion-centric class, where class participation accounts for roughly half of a student’s final grade. There is no way to “opt out” of the hard work of discussion: students have to figure out how to learn in this style if they are going to succeed at all.
First-year courses can certainly be difficult, though the amount of progress from the first to the second semester is often remarkable. All the familiar pitfalls of class discussion make an appearance: the vague free-association, the off-topic remarks, the sense of competing monologues that don’t quite come together into a real conversation. The faculty’s primary job in these class sessions isn’t so much to supply content as to help students get over these problems and become productive participants.
The key to cultivating a productive discussion, in my view, is Shimer’s Great Books curriculum. Many associate such curricula with cultural conservatism and a narrow focus on “dead white males,” but that is misleading. For me, the importance of the model stems from three crucial pedagogical advantages. First, it provides a center of reference and authority for the classroom other than the professor — or the students’ own personal opinions. The standard for whether students are on-topic is whether they can support their views from the text, and the standard for whether a remark is helpful is whether it advances our understanding of the text. Second, the emphasis on reading primary source texts means that the texts reward and require discussion. In contrast to a textbook or an introductory secondary source, primary sources don’t come “pre-digested” and must be worked on.
Third, it allows us to get past the dreaded “why are we reading this” syndrome: the model guarantees that the texts under discussion are always widely agreed to be worthy of attention. The exact configuration of core texts of course varies from school to school. St. John’s College, for example, one of the leading Great Books institutions in the country and an indispensable point of reference for all such programs, takes a basically chronological approach in its core reading list, with a strong emphasis on classical antiquity and without much concern for disciplinary boundaries — but still with considerable diversity, particularly in the modern period. Shimer’s core curriculum follows what’s known as the Hutchins model, which is divided into the three primary disciplinary areas of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and includes a greater emphasis on more contemporary works. Other colleges use other models, but the shared feature is a concern to choose texts that students will agree that one “should” read — with no requirement than any text be written by someone who is dead, white, male, or any of the above.
The combination of the discussion model with the use of primary texts creates a situation where students are forced to take responsibility for their own education. Instead of getting the material pre-digested in the form of lectures and introductory textbooks, they have to grapple with it themselves. Class sessions then become a chance to actively work on the text with an experienced faculty member and a group of similarly-motivated peers. To me, the real turning point in a Shimer education comes when students come to fully understand this and hold themselves and each other accountable for their contributions. Things don’t automatically go smoothly after that point — people are people, after all, and personalities are bound to clash in unpredictable ways — but the older students generally take an active role in working to solve the problems that do arise, rather than tuning out when things don’t go to their liking.
All this leads me to believe that when the ideal model is used in a thorough-going, uncompromising way, it really is ideal. Yet I can already anticipate an objection: this all sounds great, but it would cost too much. In an era when colleges and universities are constantly trying to cut costs through large classes and online education, Shimer’s approach admittedly may seem unrealistic. I believe, however, that it’s not a matter of “cost” in an abstract sense, but rather a matter of priorities. At Shimer, the priority is classroom instruction, and everything else takes a back seat to that. We have no athletic programs, a relatively low number of administrators (with academic administrative responsibilities rotating among current faculty members), and no buildings to maintain (we lease space from the Illinois Institute of Technology). Faculty salaries are lower than average, but aside from a handful of courses (taught by semi-retired faculty members or administrators with academic expertise), all teaching is done by full-time faculty. Overall, Shimer manages to remain faithful to its model while keeping tuition levels comparable to other small liberal arts schools — without having the luxury of a large endowment.
Another possible objection is that the outcome is ideal because Shimer students are ideal — this would never work at a less selective institution. It is true that Shimer students, like the students at basically all small liberal arts colleges, tend to be more privileged by most measures. Even more crucial, in my view, is the fact that Shimer’s student body tends to be very self-selecting: students are very clear about what the college is offering, and they aren’t going to attend if they aren’t interested in our pedagogical model.
I’ve spoken of the lack of faculty buy-in at other institutions, but I think this points to an even more important factor: student buy-in. If students don’t care, if they’re enrolled for utilitarian reasons and have no intrinsic love of learning, they will most likely wind up failing — and dragging the class down with them. Hence it seems to me that less-selective institutions could offer an optional program for interested students, much like those at two of the City Colleges of Chicago (Harold Washington and Wilbur Wright Colleges). Shimer has worked with Harold Washington in particular for many years, and several of their Great Books students have ultimately finished their four-year degrees at Shimer as a result. Many other community colleges around the country have found success with Great Books programs as well.
The more difficult problem, though, is what to do with students who have the motivation, but are less academically prepared. Shimer deals with this in part through an innovative scholarship program where students come to campus for a day to simulate the kinds of discussion and writing we require — and they can earn a full-tuition scholarship on the strength of their performance alone, regardless of their official credentials. However, one could argue that that merely allows us to reach students who really do already have the skills, but haven’t signaled those skills in the accepted ways. One might suspect that something similar is going on in community college programs, which often tend to attract the more precocious students.
One potential solution might be to organize the core curriculum, at least in the early stages, explicitly around difficulty or accessibility. This might mean starting with more contemporary works (Toni Morrison rather than Shakespeare, for example) or works with more immediate contemporary relevance (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish rather than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason). It might also mean focusing on works that appeal with particular urgency to one’s target population. For instance, a Great Books program serving students on the South Side of Chicago might do well to lead off with great works in the African-American tradition, then branch into other intellectual traditions with which those works are in dialogue.
More broadly, a new Great Books program that aims to serve underprepared students should be bold and experimental, ruthlessly cutting works that fail to reach students and reaching in unexpected directions for those that do. If one needs to start with films and graphic novels in order to get the discussion started, even that shouldn’t be out of bounds if one embraces the view that the point of the Great Books curriculum isn’t solely to represent a particular vision of our cultural heritage, but to cultivate a collaborative learning environment that allows and requires students to take an active role in their own education.
Developing ways to make this type of curriculum more widely available is hugely important as a matter of justice — why shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to try their hand at the “ideal” pedagogical model? On my more cynical days, I do agree with the view that there are some students who are simply never going to be motivated enough to do this kind of work, who are in college just because their parents are making them, or because they feel like they vaguely “should” be, or because they want to get a good job. Yet I don’t think its idealistic or unrealistic to assume that there are students who really do love learning and who are coming to college to pursue that love, at least in part.
In fact, I think we should ask ourselves whether our supposed “realism” about students’ abilities and motivations is foreclosing the possibility for students to really blossom. We should consider the possibility that it is precisely the more passive instructional methods that we “realistically” embrace that in part produce the “reality” (boredom, instrumentalization of learning) that those methods are supposedly responding to. Under different circumstances, perhaps even some of my best Shimer students could have wound up resigning themselves to tuning out and resentfully waiting for the professor to just tell them what’s on the test — and by the same token, I suspect that some of those bored students could be successful in a model like Shimer’s if given the chance.
As James Baldwin draws to a close his 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” — eventually pitting Richard Wright’s Native Son against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — one reads: “But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being…” What I once heard in these words was a call to the humanities: Our humanities are our burden.
Rather than leave the humanities by the side of the road what is more difficult is to accept the stacks and stacks of them at our disposal and find or make a use for them in the curriculum of liberal arts education. More to the point, Baldwin’s essay seemed a dare to me, personally. He dared me, while hewing syllabi on the south side of Chicago, to make use of the protest novel (be it by Stowe or Wright), regardless of its alleged shortcomings. So, I assigned both Stowe and Wright in my next ethics class, which resulted in months of lively, original, and unplanned discussions comparing and contrasting both of them with various motifs in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.
Most of the students were excited to read what they considered to be classics. What was more impressive and joyful to watch unfold was the way by the Wright’s and Stowe’s characters and narratives — regardless of what Baldwin sees as their shortcomings — gave the students a working and almost personalized vocabulary with which to interpret, analyze, and comprehend many of Nietzsche’s themes and insights. This allowed Nietzsche’s lofty rhetoric to seem a little less distant and, at least by way of Bigger Thomas, the transvalution of values became applicable on 95th Street. The very idea that Stowe, Wright, and Nietzsche were not made to be read alongside one another or that our doing so, in this class, was in some way strange was never voiced.
I do not teach in a Great Books curriculum, but I am a believer. I am not ashamed of the Great Books. If teaching at St. John’s or Shimer College represents a certain institutionalized kind of Great Books orthodoxy, then I am at least a layman of the Great Books, if not an iconoclast, and maybe even a heretical reformer. Whether from my own personal hubris, naïveté or arrogance, I believe that it is part of my job to choose the Great Books or, at the very least, to choose what great texts could be used this semester to illuminate or drive home the key points or high notes of this particular class. If this means that I am destined to vulgarity by allowing myself to teach and read texts that may never grace the annals of official Greatness, it is only because the owl of Minerva begins its flight only at the fall of dusk.
Chicago State University is the oldest public university in the Chicago metropolitan area. Its student body is comprised overwhelmingly of minority students; most of whom are black or African-American and, judging from the enrollments in my class, the majority of whom are women rather than men. Many are products of the Chicago Public School system. In my philosophy classes at Chicago State I advocate a discussion-based classroom that some might call Socratic. The classes rely heavily on weekly intertextual adventures with primary sources. I do not assign textbooks and rarely indulge in the use of anthologies. Class discussion and participation account for almost half of the overall grade. Although the students do take a sizable and challenging exam and must write a term paper of moderate length, they learn quickly that their true homework is to read multiple primary texts and find connections between them in order to illuminate, criticize, or supplement those very texts.
This does — credo! — contribute to an overall improvement in the caliber of their writing. I don’t teach my students how to write, but rather try to teach them how to read and, as such, to succor a love and appreciation of lifelong reading. This approach appears to inculcate in the student a vocation of scholastic responsibility. They consider it their job as college students to read, learn and master — as much as such a thing is possible — as many "classics" as they can be exposed to during the precious reading time allowed to them during their college years (which I constantly remind them is a luxury that they will all-too-soon come to miss) and, further (perhaps I should add Baldwin’s phrase, “infinitely more difficult”) not just use that information to spit out book reports and answer trivia questions, but rather craft an intelligence from that information by finding or creating a way by which this canonical intelligence sheds insight and comprehension on other fields of study and other non-canonical approaches.
If reaching an understanding is what they want to get out of a class (a teleological or practical ambition, which I leave up to them to decide), they are obliquely invited to consider that if they cannot use this understanding to understand something different or something more, then perhaps they (or we) have not understood it that well, at all. Students feel proud and confident when one of their own customized and idiomatic intertextual connections or tropes help another student in the discussion reach an understanding on a particular point that the latter may have missed without the help of the former. It is almost an epiphenomenal bonus that this cooperative understanding which emerges through class discussion comes about only by way of an applied cultural awareness and knowledge of classic or canonical texts.
This often requires a thematic approach to reading texts. It is important to get across to the students that this is not the only, nor the best, nor the most desirable way to read a text. But even this is a crucial opportunity to impress upon them that a text — specifically, the great texts — can and must be read in multiple ways and one is never, truly, done reading any of them regardless of their approach.
Rather than merely memorize the names and definitions from a list of informal logical mistakes, my classes will prepare for a discussion about such informal fallacies by reading from the speeches of Malcolm X, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I find that students are apt — more so than rehearsing such errors from textbooks — to grasp, remember, and even enjoy the intricacies of enallage and homonymy or the fallacies of amphiboly and accent after struggling with Slothrop’s various uses of “You never did the Kenosha kid” or the tragicomic dangers of equivocation after reading Uncle Toby tell Lady Wadman that she shall see the very place or put her finger on the very spot where he received his war wound.
Even the best and brightest students can fall into momentary disinterest if discussion seems to collapse into an exercise in bookishness or erudition for erudition’s sake. Glazed eyes, drooping heads, and the checking of text messages can accompany any litany of Latin names. But rather than let a species of anti-intellectualism take root and win the day, those very eyes and heads tend to brighten and perk up when such thoughts are addressed (or, better: applied) through the words of Malcolm X.
Argumentum ad populum feels a little closer to home when reading: “One of them will never come after one of you. They all come together.” Argumentum ad misericordiam has a little more gravity after reading: “With the skillful manipulation of the press, they’re able to make … the criminal look like the victim.” If the difference between ad hominem (circumstantial) and ad hominem (abusive) just isn’t clicking, it only helps to consider how: “in Asia or the Arab world or in Africa, where the Muslims are, if you find one who says he’s white, all he’s doing is using an adjective to describe something that’s incidental about him, one of his incidental characteristics; so there’s nothing else to it, he’s just white.” After that connection is made, it is easier to identify argumentum ad veracundiam when Malcolm compares that Muslim world to: “over here in America … when he says he’s white, he means the boss.” The fallacy of suppressed evidence or the Straw Man version of ignoratio elenchi seems less abstract while reading: “They take one little word out of what you say, ignore all the rest, and then begin to magnify it all over the world to make you look like what you actually aren’t.” The fallacy of composition (and, by contrast, division) is just waiting to be explained with Malcolm’s dinner table analogy: “Because all of us are sitting at the same table, are all of us diners? I’m not a diner until you let me dine. Then I become a diner. Just being at the table with others who are dining doesn’t make me a diner.”
These are just a few examples from only one of Malcolm’s speeches; the one delivered at Ford Auditorium in Detroit on February 14, 1965. (By the way, the students are more likely to remember the Latin names of the fallacies after experiencing them in action by Malcolm, even though he does not call them by their Latin names.) With the proper patience and an eye for detail, almost any of his speeches suffices as a dangerous supplemental text to both formal and informal logic. I’ve had similar success with Noam Chomsky’s Failed States. The same could be said for reading Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” from Sister Outsider alongside René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or Zora Neal Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain in tandem with Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (or, simply, the Bible).
It does not always work, of course. There are collateral failures. It does not go by unnoticed when a business major drops my business ethics course because reading a scant 20 lines from the Iliad about the problem of greed is not what the student wished to sign up for. And it is the case that some students simply aren’t prepared to jump into a whirlwind of primary readings. A student who misses one week of class can feel overwhelmed that he or she is already 300+ pages behind.
But being the vulgarian Great Bookist that I am, I can indulge in merely decent books (which is to say, more readily available and readable books) in order to get to the Great Books; to achieve, like Milo and his calf, a progressive resistance that can build up the reading muscles over a matter of weeks. Once a student, who has not yet given her or himself over to a consistent practice of reading or, perhaps, was simply never encouraged to do so, knocks out Kurt Vonnegut’s Galàpagos in a week — and is a bit surprised to have done so, quite easily — he or she is likely to make it through Aristotle’s Parts of Animals in the following weeks, and within a month is working through Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man with a working set of intertextual concepts that feel quite close to home.
There is, of course, a very real danger of such a curriculum coming off as a one-sided hermeneutic by which certain texts resistant to the status quo or stereotypical power codes of the established canon are only appreciated through the Eurocentric lens of that very canon. I can anticipate such criticism from thinkers and critics, whom I take very seriously and whose concerns I share, such as Amiri Baraka, Gayatri Spivak, or Edward Said. I do not think that an intertextual approach necessarily condemns one to making sense of resistant texts only by the yardstick or measure of accepted ones. James Baldwin did not need Dostoevsky to understand Richard Wright any more than Cornel West needs Chekhov to understand John Coltrane.
As cautious and concerned as I am of being complicit in various forms of Orientalism, Eurocentrism, or logocentrism I am even more concerned at allowing that caution to squelch the priceless and productive intertextual adventures that may result from refusing the separatism that forever quarantines the likes of Baldwin, Wright, Malcolm X, and Lorde to what Bertrand Russell calls “the evils of specialization” in The History of Western Philosophy as if they have nothing to teach — as dangerous supplements — to students also interested in Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, or Freud. But, once again, even this danger and problematic is a teachable moment in such classes by which to discuss and address the appropriateness or inappropriateness of such a curriculum. And you are likely able to end such a discussion in such a class — if such discussions or classes have ends — as I have, with Audre Lorde: “while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
Virgil W. Brower is full-time lecturer in Philosophy at Chicago State University, where he has taught for nine years while completing a dual-Ph.D. program with the Chicago Theological Seminary and Northwestern University in theology and comparative literature, respectively, with a home department in philosophy. He is author, most recently of, “Ethics is a Gustics" and “Speech and Oral Phenomena.”
In my Effective Reading Strategies class, we focus on managing the heavy and varied assigned reading loads college students often face. We consider the purpose for reading (discussion, papers, exams), the type of reading, and the best ways to approach each text. By the end of the semester, we’re ready for a change of pace.
All along, I’ve been stressing the importance of recreational reading that will increase students’ background knowledge. For example, our Science Library’s “Speaking of Science” blog contains links to The New York Times and Washington Post science sections, as well as local science-related news. Beyond that, I’ve been encouraging students to consider all types of pleasure reading, anything that might improve their reading fluency and stamina: books, magazines, websites, graphic novels, movie and book connections, and audio books. The Oberlin College Library has some great resources, including a recreational reading collection, and I’ve made students aware of this.
At the end of the semester, I’m mindful of the fact that students are heading off for a break, and I like to think they will make some extra time for pleasure reading. But they write reading autobiographies for me, so I know that some of them have never really enjoyed recreational reading and others have gotten out of the habit, often because of heavy assigned reading loads.
I’m not giving up, though. On the last day of class, I ask students to share the titles of their favorite books, in the hope that they’ll all leave with a list that contains at least a few titles of potential interest. The first time I did this, the list was replete with Great Books and modern classics. Few students seemed very enthusiastic about their choices.
After that, I made it clear that I wanted students to be honest. I encouraged them to think about a book they’d reread, or a recent favorite, rather than worrying about the import of the label “favorite.” To prove my point, I brought in my well-worn copies of Miss Rumphius and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and talked about why I like them so much. The lists became more eclectic. Standards like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby now mix with Harry Potter and the Twilight series. In addition, we get a sampling of some current fiction and nonfiction titles that represent a wide range of interests.
While it seems laughably obvious, I tell students that pleasure reading should be pleasant. Not that they should never challenge themselves, but that the books they choose should be ones they’ll embrace, not avoid. To set the right tone, we discuss The Reader’s Bill of Rights. Now we’re ready to share titles, authors and thumbnail sketches of our choices.
Sometimes students are diffident: “It’s just a young adult book,” they’ll begin, only to have their choices spontaneously affirmed with “oohs” and “aahs” or “I loved that book, too.” Invariably, when we’ve gone around the room once, someone asks if it’s O.K. to mention another title, and other students jump in. Usually we run out of time before we run out of titles. One of the students, by prior arrangement, has typed the list into her laptop. She e-mails it to me and I send it to the entire class.
I have been pleasantly surprised that nearly everyone enters into these discussions enthusiastically. Even students who admit that they seldom, or never, read for pleasure, seem excited to have a list of approachable books to consider. I remind them that individual tastes vary widely and these are only suggestions.
It always feels like a successful way to end the class, and the semester. Recently, I received an e-mail from a student who took my class nine years ago. As always, his message included these two lines: “I’ve been reading ____ " and “What are you reading?”
Melissa Ballard is a study and reading strategies instructor at Oberlin College.
America faces a crisis in higher learning. Too many college graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently and clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers. In a metaphorical sense, we are losing our minds. How can this be if American higher education is supposed to be the best in the world?
The core explanation is this: the academy lacks a serious culture of teaching and learning. When students do not learn enough, we must question whether institutions of higher education deliver enough value to justify their costs. Resolving the learning crisis will therefore require fundamental, thoroughgoing changes in our colleges and universities. There must be real change -- change beyond simplistic answers such as reducing costs and improving efficiency -- to improve value.
What is needed is non-incremental change; to make higher learning a reality, we as a nation must undertake a comprehensive review of undergraduate higher education and introduce dramatic reforms in colleges and universities of all types.
Culture -- in higher education, and in our society -- is at the heart of the matter. We have reduced K-12 schooling to basic skill acquisition that effectively leaves most students underprepared for college-level learning. We have bastardized the bachelor’s degree by allowing it to morph into a ticket to a job (though, today, that ticket often doesn’t get you very far). The academy has adopted an increasingly consumer-based ethic that has produced costly and dangerous effects: the expectations and standards of a rigorous liberal education have been displaced by thinly disguised professional or job training curriculums; teaching and learning have been devalued, deprioritized, and replaced by an emphasis on magazine rankings; and increased enrollment, winning teams, bigger and better facilities, more revenue from sideline businesses, and more research grants have replaced learning as the primary touchstone for decision-making.
Teaching is increasingly left to contingent faculty; tenure-track professors have few incentives to spend time with undergraduates, improve their teaching, or measure what their students are learning. Expectations for hard work in college have fallen victim to smorgasbord-style curriculums, large lecture classes, and institutional needs to retain students in order to make the budget. Minimal student effort is rewarded with inflated grades. None of this makes for higher learning, nor does it adequately prepare students for employment or citizenship. We need to rethink the ends and means of higher education.
Reconstituting the Culture of Higher Education
The current culture -- the shared norms, values, standards, expectations and priorities -- of teaching and learning in the academy is not powerful enough to support true higher learning. As a result, students do not experience the kind of integrated, holistic, developmental, rigorous undergraduate education that must exist as an absolute condition for truly transformative higher learning to occur. We do not demand enough (doing that would conflict with consumer friendliness, perhaps); our standards are not high enough (setting them higher creates retention worries); we accept half-hearted work from students who do not insist on enough from themselves and do not know how to ask for more from their teachers (doing otherwise would make college more serious; how could it still be “fun”?). Degrees have become deliverables because we are no longer willing to make students work hard against high standards to earn them.
A weak educational culture creates all the wrong opportunities. Without academic expectations to bring structure to students’ time, too much time is wasted. In the absence of high academic and behavioral expectations, less demanding peer norms become dominant. In the peer culture, time spent on class work, reading, and reflection must be limited; too much of it becomes a stain on a student’s social value. It has become possible -- even likely -- to survive academically, be retained in school, get passing grades and graduate with a baccalaureate despite long-term patterns of alcohol and other substance abuse that are known to damage the formation of new memories and reduce both the capacity and the readiness to learn. The atmosphere of too many residence halls drives serious students out of their own rooms (functionally, their on-campus homes) to study, write, reflect, and think.
Rethinking higher education means reconstituting institutional culture by rigorously identifying, evaluating and challenging the many damaging accommodations that colleges and universities, individually and collectively, have made (and continue to make) to consumer and competitive pressures over the last several decades. What do we mean by “damaging accommodations?”
We mean the allocation of increasing proportions of institutional resources to facilities, personnel, programs and activities that do not directly and significantly contribute to the kind of holistic, developmental and transformative learning that defines higher learning.
We mean the enormous expenditures devoted purely to securing a “better ranking” in the magazine surveys. We mean the progressive reduction in academic, intellectual, and behavioral expectations that has undermined the culture, learning conditions, and civility of so many campus communities.
We mean the kind of thinking that elevates “branding” and “marketing” in importance and priority above educational programs and academic quality as ways to attract students and secure robust enrollments.
We mean the deplorable practice of building attractive new buildings while offering lackluster first- and second-year courses taught primarily by poorly paid and dispirited contingent faculty.
We mean the assumption that retention is just keeping students in school longer, without serious regard for the quality of their learning or their cumulative learning outcomes at graduation.
We mean giving priority to intercollegiate sports programs while support for the success of the great majority of students who are not athletes suffers.
As a society we allow -- in fact, condone -- institutional policies, practices, and systems in higher education that, taken together, make good teaching a heroic act performed by truly dedicated faculty members, rather than the universal expectation and norm across campuses. Similarly, we allow the most regressive features of undergraduate culture to undermine the motivation and desire for intellectual growth of many good students; in many ways, being a serious student is also a heroic act. We allow passivity to dominate students’ already slight engagement with courses and faculty.
Collectively Putting Learning First
The common lament that higher education has become a business, or that it has emerged from its recent struggles having too much “corporate” character, is not the primary issue. The primary problem is that the current culture of colleges and universities no longer puts learning first -- and in most institutions, that culture perpetuates a fear of doing so. Isolated examples to the contrary exist, but are only the exceptions that prove the rule. The leaders of many, if not most, colleges and universities might agree with this assessment of the problem, but would likely argue, with some justice, that no single institution can risk being the only one to change; that restoring attention to the fundamentals, rather than the frills, would put that one institution at serious risk. Indeed, it is true that this is a collective problem, and that action by many schools, supported by a strong national impetus for change, is a necessary condition for success.
In calling for the kind of serious, systemic rethinking that directly and unflinchingly accepts the challenge of improving undergraduate higher education, we are asking for four things; taken together, they demand, and would catalyze, a profound, needed, and overdue cultural change in our colleges and universities.
1. The widespread acceptance and application of a new and better touchstone for decision-making in higher education, linked to a strong framework of essential, core principles. A touchstone is a standard, or criterion, that serves as the basis for judging something; in higher education, that touchstone must be the quality and quantity of learning. A touchstone and a clear conceptual framework link our advocacy for change to a powerful set of ideas, commitments, and principles against which to test current policies, practices, and proposals for reform.
2. A comprehensive re-evaluation of undergraduate education and experience guided by those core principles. This must occur both nationally, as an essential public conversation, and within the walls of institutions of all types, missions, and sizes.
3. The leadership and actual implementation and renewal of undergraduate higher education needs to be led by the academy itself, supported by boards of trustees, higher education professional organizations, and regional accrediting bodies alike. Such rethinking ought to be transparent, informed by public conversation, and enacted through decisions based on the new touchstone, improving the quality and quantity of learning.
4. Learning assessment must become inextricably linked to institutional efficacy. The formative assessment of learning should become an integral part of instruction in courses and other learning experiences of all types, and the summative assessment of learning, at the individual student, course, program, and institution levels should be benchmarked against high, clear, public standards.
Both the process and the results of a serious rethinking of higher education will be more likely to succeed and less likely to cause unwanted harm if that rethinking is generated by an authentic public discussion linked to and supporting cultural change in colleges and universities than if it is imposed by a disappointed, frustrated nation through its legislative and regulatory authority. Levels of dissatisfaction with the priorities and outcomes of higher education among parents, alumni, employers, and elected officials are unlikely to decline absent significant reform.
Cultural problems require cultural solutions, starting with a national conversation about what is wrong, and what is needed, in higher education. The country should reasonably expect higher education to lead this conversation. For real change to occur, discussions about the quality and quantity of learning in higher education and the need for reform must occur at multiple levels, in many places, and over a significant period of time -- most importantly on campuses themselves.
The national conversation provides context, direction, and motive -- but only many intimate and passionate conversations among colleagues in every institution of higher education can ground the discussion enough to give it sufficient power to bring change. Progress will not be made in improving the quality and quantity of learning -- in restoring higher learning to higher education -- unless both the public discussion and the multilayered, multistep processes of change on our campuses occur.
If enough change occurs in enough places, and if our public expectations remain high and consistent, learning may become the touchstone for decision-making; the quality and quantity of learning -- documented by rigorous assessment -- may become both each institution’s greatest concern and the basis for comparisons between various colleges and universities; degrees may once again be earned, not delivered as entitlements; faculties may again focus on learning, rather than instruction, and on learning assessments, rather than credit hours; and every college and university might have the data and information it needs to determine and communicate the value of what it does to prospective students, parents, accrediting organizations, donors, and the public. With these changes, students will be more prepared for the world of work, armed with the most important skills and knowledge, and having graduated with something of real value.
Cultural change from within, across the entire spectrum and expanse of higher education, will be disruptive, and it needs to be. But such change has the unique promise of restoring higher learning in higher education while preserving its extraordinary diversity. Without it, external interventions and demands that will be far more disruptive and far less tolerant of institutional diversity become increasingly likely.
Richard P. Keeling is principal, and Richard H. Hersh is senior consultant, for Keeling & Associates, a higher education consulting practice. They are authors of the recent book, We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), from which this essay is partly excerpted.
Higher education policy experts, philanthropists and private foundations have lately rallied around a public agenda for postsecondary institutions to do a better job of educating students. Even our fractious political parties can agree on this, at least, but they rarely agree on how to do it.
Still, it seems that important people are finally realizing that the laurels of America’s postsecondary past are withering on the vine and that second-order change will be necessary if we are to keep up with our industrialized peers. Between the drumbeat from Measuring Up and the chord struck by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, a theme of what ails higher education is emerging. Joining the chorus are those -- among others with the power or resources to do make a difference -- from Barack Obama to Rick Perry, from the Lumina and Gates Foundations to the governors bringing you Western Governors University.
Their plan goes something like this: We need to produce more college graduates. To do this, we must find more efficient, effective ways of teaching a larger, poorer, more diverse population of students. Then, we need to measure whether what we are doing is actually preparing students for the world and the new economy. Given their capacity and broad access, community and state colleges (and, perhaps, some open and online correlates) will be the locus of reform.
Absent from this equation — and from much of the prescriptive dialogue, in fact — are two of the most important influences on the behavior of the academy: research and the faculty. Since World War II, the academy’s tools of reward and recognition have been pushing faculty individually and universities collectively toward ever more research-intensive activities.
And there lies the incongruity: foundations, policymakers, and executive officers are pushing down a reform agenda that requires faculty at the bottom to be more committed to better teaching, advising, counseling, and assessment. Yet all of the impulses in the academy’s DNA are driving faculty and the institutions they serve away from teaching and into ever more grant-seeking and research activities. Clayton Christensen describes this "up-market drive" as "intoxicating" to those behind the wheel.
Mission creep, as it has come to be known, presents problems for the public agenda. Most advocates agree that the nation’s degree productivity goals must include investment focused on student success, not research aims, with resources directed toward lower-division instruction and student services. After all, per-capita costs are substantially higher at research-active institutions than at their broad-access counterparts “down-market” who are the linchpin of meaningful improvements to degree attainment rates. Furthermore, when research enters the budgetary ring, objective, merit-driven formulae for state and federal appropriations get sucker-punched by campaigning legislators, influential boosters, and college lobbyists.
Attempts to decouple the teaching and research functions of the university — most recently and contentiously at the University of Texas System — are perceived by faculty and administrators as threats to academic freedom, autonomy, and institutions’ best efforts to find new sources of revenue in a period of divestment from public higher education. Some higher education coordinating boards have the teeth to prevent public colleges from drifting into research territory, but with these few (and arguable) exceptions, most top-down policy prescriptions compete with the foxhole realities facing broad access colleges. The rule of this fiscal jungle trumps white paper finger-wagging at these institutions over their pursuit of prestige and treasure.
Though some would blame (and tear down) tenure for the academy’s resistance to change, I see the lever, as Ernest Boyer did 20 years ago, not in tenure per se but in the body of evidence expected in the departmental tenure portfolio. Boyer’s alternative model, which rewards efforts to study and improve teaching models and practices toward better learning outcomes, has not changed the status quo much in the face of the massive funds promised by traditional research structures such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Another factor to consider is that so many of the people who teach in the comprehensive and regional colleges were trained in research universities, whose culture pervades all types of institutions. Without a plan that acknowledges the outsized influence of NIH and NSF and the research-driven culture of the academy, colleges and faculty who see such grant-stuffed carrots within their reach will simply ignore their masters' sticks.
What we need, in fact, are more carrots. By joining this research apparatus, a new organization dedicated to initiating and supporting scholarship in teaching and learning would act not against but on the familiar, basic instincts of colleges and, more importantly, the faculty. Trading on the coin of the realm, this analog to NIH and NSF could put the scientific research of pedagogy into favorable consideration in tenure dossiers. On the basis of a merit-based peer review process, a single “R01” grant from this public foundation — and the recognition that follows the faculty who wins it — will do more to encourage faculty behavior in support of the public agenda than all the exhortations, goals, and policies that those outside of the academy have mustered.
It would take an act of this contentious Congress to create such a "National Pedagogy Foundation," but its mission is politically sustainable. The now-defunct Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the NSF’s education directorate offer lawmakers some cover of precedent. Both science research and education have historically enjoyed bipartisan support and have largely weathered federal budget cuts during the recent economic downturn. Congress would empower this new agency to encourage and develop a national policy for the promotion of research in the pedagogical sciences and to evaluate the teaching programs undertaken by other agencies of the federal government. In a constitutional convention attended by experts in education, cognition, human development, technology, philanthropy and change, stakeholders would draft a plan for the organizational structure and activities necessary to take on higher education’s 21st -entury challenges.
Among these activities would be, naturally, a merit-based peer review grant program to fund "basic science" research in education and evidence-based teaching and learning innovations with significant potential for extendable impact. One division might provide seed support for the design, construction, and study of new facilities that use active learning environments, integrate innovative teaching technologies, and accommodate individual differences among students. Perhaps a separate division would develop capacity and expertise in the assessment of student outcomes and the systemic adoption of pedagogical innovations and effective intervention strategies. Another branch would be useful for assisting institutions in the implementation process, lest good research on teaching and learning go ignored. The work of this foundation would be organized with due sensitivity to differences among disciplines, modes of learning, and instructional levels (e.g., remediation, introductory courses, advanced courses).
The benefits of a federal research agency to improve teaching and learning extend beyond incentives for faculty to teach and for colleges to reward teaching:
This public foundation would put research (and all of its prestige) within the mission of teaching colleges, minus the astronomical capital and maintenance costs associated with science facilities.
A deep and sustained commitment of federal financing would burnish the reputation not only of pedagogy as a science and a craft (and not just an all-access playground for dilettantes), but also of schools of education, the perennial second-class citizens of the academy.
In its capacity not just to catalyze but to organize the scholarship of teaching, learning, and assessment, this body will become the national clearinghouse of the best instruments, analyses, and dissemination methods, all toward serving evidence-based policy development at the federal, state, and institutional levels.
A National Pedagogy Foundation will spur the development of groundbreaking discoveries in educational technologies and cost-efficient processes along with opportunities to foster strategic collaborations with industry through licensing and new venture agreements.
Importantly, a new public foundation for teaching and learning will reclaim the higher education policy territory that state and local governments have ceded to private foundations and philanthropists. As recently described in The New York Times, America’s education policy is heavily influenced by the resources of "policy billionaires" like Bill Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and even Mark Zuckerberg. Their interests in transforming education, though well-meaning, are viewed as either "extraordinarily benevolent or extraordinarily undemocratic" in their co-opting of federal, state, or local agendas. In any event, the direction that teaching and learning will take in this country is increasingly set not by our elected officials, but by wealthy citizens and organizations.
Rather than leave these benefactors to their own aims, this agency can engage potential donors through private-public partnerships. After all, where might a gift of $40 million for teaching and learning make the most difference: dropped in Harvard’s bucket (as was recently done by the Hauser family), or matched by federal appropriations and distributed to merit-worthy experiments at 10, 40 or perhaps 400 institutions where students are in greater need of better teaching?
Finally, for inspiration on how to assemble the human and financial resources to begin this endeavor, we should look to the past. On November 17, 1944, Franklin Roosevelt framed what would be the challenge of the postwar era:
"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life."
These words introduce Vannevar Bush’s Science The Endless Frontier, which set the stage for what would soon become (with some changes to the original) the National Science Foundation, and over six decades of ballooning federal investment in research.
Roosevelt’s words and Bush’s vision provide a blueprint for an apparatus to explore learning, this century’s frontier of the mind. Drafting a new plan is the easy part, but it requires what John Kingdon describes as a "policy entrepreneur," a champion as savvy as Bush was in his time: someone with the ear of the president; with the authority, the influence, or the charisma to convene the right people for a sustained commitment; and with the skill to build support in Congress for a multibillion-dollar program ($7 billion, if we are to match NSF) whose returns might not be realized for years.
Who, then, will get teaching on America’s research agenda? It might be an elder statesman (or stateswoman), a "policy billionaire," or a college president with star power. Whoever it is will have harnessed the intellect and the energy of the people who, ultimately, must do the yeoman’s work of better educating America. By recognizing what really motivates these rational actors, he or she will have the faculty.
Kiernan Mathews is director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.