The latest book to suggest that American higher education needs to face up to a period of radical change is Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press). Abelard represents the medieval ideal of scholar/teacher/philosopher while Apple is the world of iTunes U. The author is Richard A. DeMillo, Distinguished Professor of Computing, professor of management and director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology.
An erstwhile associate kinesiology professor at California State University at San Bernardino remains on the lam after police raided his home last week and found a pound of methamphetamine and a cache of guns. Police are charging that Stephen Kinzey, who had been on the San Bernardino faculty for a decade, was leading a double life: teaching and researching by day; directing the local chapter of an outlaw biker gang, and its drug business, by night.
Has public higher education outlived its usefulness -- like cassette tapes and typewriters? Are our students "academically adrift," our institutions shams? Who benefits from this tale? Policy-makers and government officials are regarding public higher education as an industry that needs to operate on cheap labor in order to manufacture products. William Deresiewicz, Peter Brooks and Martha Nussbaum make clear the consequences: the dismantling of public higher education eviscerates the creation and perpetuation of knowledge, access to education, and the principle that an educated citizenry is the keystone of democracy.
The crisis in higher education must be redefined by those of us in public institutions who are living it daily. For us, there are two crises: the bowdlerizing of what learning means, and the critical need for a counter-discourse that will lead to material change in public attitudes and allocation of resources.
Numbers reveal a certain kind of information and conceal other kinds, such as what it means to be a human being. How do we quantify students’ experiencing the wonder of intellectual discovery, those moments when, as Rita Dove conveys so beautifully in her poem "Geometry," the ordinary is transformed into transcendent possibility? How is this learning accounted for when it occurs outside a public college course or institution, but is a direct result of both?
I prove a theorem and the house expands: the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling, the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything but transparency, the scent of carnations leaves with them. I am out in the open
And above the windows have hinged into butterflies, sunlight glinting where they've intersected. They are going to some point true and unproven.
To those of us who teach working-class students that using their minds expands and transforms their lives, the data on spreadsheets is akin to thinking of students as if they were part numbers. In our classes, we propel students to grapple with the paradoxes of the "true and unproven" gleaned from different disciplinary perspectives. At semester’s end, we judge how well they’ve achieved this and other objectives and assign a grade. We can never assess, however, if, when, or how students integrate what they’ve learned into their psyches and experiences. Counting, quantifying, and measuring are not the only ways to make sense of what and how students learn. These methods do not illuminate the value of a college education to working-class students for whom privilege is not a birthright.
Stories and story-telling are other options, potent sources of information. Stories provide entrée to the inner life, "ourself behind ourself concealed," access to knowledge about what it means to experience learning. Stories humanize numbers on spreadsheets. They are a different kind of currency in an economy in which the exchange of ideas is the basis of community. Stories perform a multiplicity of functions as Robert Coles reminds us: they "point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers — offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings." Stories, the ones we and our students tell, make possible an alternate way of thinking about learning, success, and achievement in publicly funded academic institutions.
Here is such a story. I was on a New York City subway deeply absorbed in reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried when a young man sitting across from me noticed the book’s title and started talking to me: “I remember that story. That’s the story that begins with the description of what the soldiers are carrying. Oh, I remember that story. We read it in my freshman English class.”
O’Brien’s book is indeed memorable. A searing account of soldiering in Vietnam, the collection of interwoven stories probes the anguish of war while meditating on the porous boundaries among reality, truth, and fiction. Most spectacularly, O’Brien employs the metaphor of carrying to convey the gravity of heartbreak, senseless loss, and war’s breach of moral ethics. "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey," the first story begins. "They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack." Within the first two pages, O’Brien develops the metaphor further by listing the literal objects the soldiers wore on their bodies, hauled on their backs, and stashed in their pockets.
The subway encounter between the young man and me is as symbolic as the literal weight of the items the soldiers carried: the interaction encapsulates the very best a liberal arts general education can achieve. Something in the O’Brien text, the reading, the discussion, and the college classroom experience entered into the student, changed the way he constructed meaning, and became part of his world. Like the soldiers who carry the material and psychological weight of war, the student carries the book and the experience of reading it with him, and that is what inspired him to initiate connection with a stranger on a New York City subway.
The experience in the general education classroom provided the model for the interaction. The young man wanted to create connection about being moved emotionally, his discovery of the meaning of metaphor, and his memory of that experience. The interaction between the young man and me sparked by the O’Brien text suggests that the general education classroom fosters community building. Unknown to each other, the young man and I are part of a community premised on the idea that learning, and communing about learning, are fundamental, unifying values. Not limited by class or status, the community is the Jeffersonian ideal of an enlightened democratic citizenry. All involved, including the English professor who taught the class, the public institution in which the student took the class, and the faculty who designed the curriculum and deemed it a requirement, are academically on course, guided by a compass that keeps the true meaning of learning in view. Best explained by Ken Bain, true learning occurs when students embrace “new mental models of reality” spurred by teaching that cultivates their abilities to question, judge, evaluate, and construct meaning out of facts and information. True learning is personal and intellectual transformation.
In the story I just told, what proves the student’s learning? The student may not have done well in his freshman English class. He might have failed the class, transferred to another college, or dropped out for a year or two. He could be a statistic on a retention or graduation rate chart. Outcomes, measures, deliverables: inadequate. What this student learned is ineffable, as difficult to wrap our minds around as Emily Dickinson’s claim that the Brain is wider than the sky.
The Brain -- is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside
Dickinson’s dictum about the sanctity of the human imagination must guide us as we create a counter-discourse about the crisis in public higher education. Colleges and universities are not factories in which we produce widgets on an assembly line. Academics work with people, human beings whose height and weight can be measured, yes, but whose brains are wider than the sky, “For — put them side by side — /The one the other will contain/ with ease — and You — beside--.”
We need to create a competing conversation that honors the idea that brains are wider than the sky and deeper than the sea, “For — hold them — Blue to Blue — /The one the other will absorb — / As sponges — Buckets — do.” And we need to tell a collective story about what is right and on course about public higher education: the ways in which it defies an intellectual caste system and is currently one of the few places that comes close to realizing the American value of equality — in the diversity of faculty and students, and the pursuit of unregulated intellectual freedom.
Linda M. Grasso
Linda M. Grasso is professor and chair of English at York College of the City University of New York.
Complaints about student writing have always been with us. In 1893 James Jay Greenough wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, "A great outcry has been made lately, on every side, about the inability of the students admitted to Harvard College to write English clearly and correctly... The [preparatory] schools are to-day paying more attention to composition than they did 20 or 30 years ago; and yet, notwithstanding this increased study and practice, the writing of schoolboys has been growing steadily worse... With all this practice in writing and time devoted to English, why do we not obtain better results?"
When Greenough wrote this in the late 19th century, many colleges were growing more concerned about student writing and, following Harvard's lead, moving to require expository writing courses. With first-year composition and writing across the curriculum now long-established, complaints today are more likely to be aimed at removing or reforming rather than adding writing requirements.
Every year or two you can pretty much count on someone standing up in a faculty senate meeting and posing a variation on Greenough's question: With all the course requirements devoted to writing, why do we not obtain better results? Complaints about other competencies -- public speaking, critical thinking, quantitative proficiency, scientific literacy, historical knowledge -- also circulate, but complaints about writing are more universal, more persistent, and more likely to be delivered in a tone bordering on disgust. What is it about writing that triggers so much anxiety?
When a faculty member at the University of Connecticut questioned our policy of requiring two advanced writing-intensive (W) courses in 2008, the senate formed a W Course Task Force to consider the future of our writing requirement. The task force included faculty from a variety of disciplines, directors of selected campus writing programs, and staff from several departments (advising, library, public relations).
The task force met for two years to consider whether to revise, reduce, or retain our upper-level writing requirement. We devoted the first year to planning how best to carry out our charge, consulting research on writing across the curriculum, and reviewing both institutional data and assessment projects from our university, which revealed areas for improvement but also affirmed much that was going well.
In both years we discussed current national controversies about writing, including the findings in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's controversial Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,which finds that students taking courses requiring more than 20 pages of writing per semester and more than 40 pages of reading per week scored higher on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and previous studies revealing that the frequency of sentence-level errors in student writing (grammar errors per 100 words) has remained remarkably consistent since 1917, even if the kinds of mistakes that students make have changed over time.
Because we needed more local knowledge, in our second year we conducted two surveys (one of faculty members, one of students who had taken W courses) and a dozen focus groups (half with faculty members, half with students).
The student and faculty focus groups were perhaps the most useful thing we did. Indeed, we found that questions about the W requirement regularly led to deeper conversations about teaching and learning, ones that traditional workshops haven't got us to but that professors were eager to discuss.
Five key findings emerged. A healthy majority of faculty members and students support our W requirement despite a vocal minority against it (72 percent of faculty members preferred either the current two-course requirement or three or more courses; 61 percent of students were similarly inclined). Students value faculty feedback above all else in helping them improve their writing. Professors also see feedback as the key to teaching writing, but they worry that what they're doing isn't working well. The efficacy of using peer review in teaching is a point of real debate, and even some of those who believe in it struggle to make it succeed in their classrooms. (Peer review is not required, although making revision a central part of the course is.) And many faculty and students believe that several shorter writing assignments are more effective than a single large end-of-semester writing project. (At least 15 pages of formal writing must be assigned, but instructors can apportion assignments in whatever way they think best.)
Ultimately we didn't recommend a change of policy, nor did the senate propose any changes, which might seem like a non-outcome, or as if the committee's work was an empty exercise (which some colleagues predicted it would be -- just another series of committee meetings and a report for the files).
The real outcome, as we discovered only midway through, was the quality of the dialogue in the focus groups. While we organized them with a utilitarian aim to gather opinion and supplement the survey data, many of the sessions grew into opportunities for sharing teaching ideas, comparing assignments, debating the merits of pedagogical strategies such as peer review, and speculating on how students grow as writers from one course to another. Focus groups gave faculty that rare peek into each other's teaching practices and became venues not just for opinion gathering but also for faculty development.
Our university sponsors its fair share of teaching workshops, and the usual suspects show up time after time. Compared to those, the task force focus groups brought a wider range of people into the room, and the talk was more animated, perhaps because university policies were at stake. This pleasantly unintended consequence has given us a cue about faculty development that focuses on improving teaching. Not all faculty development sessions should to start with teaching strategies. Some might also start by considering high-stakes policy questions -- even cranky complaints. Good talk about teaching is likely to follow.
Pamela Bedore, Tom Deans and Thomas Lawrence Long
Pamela Bedore, Tom Deans, and Thomas Lawrence Long are on the faculty at the University of Connecticut. Bedore is assistant professor of English and writing coordinator for the Avery Point campus; Deans is associate professor of English and director of the University Writing Center; and Long is associate professor-in-residence with joint appointments in the School of Nursing and the department of English.