I’ve recently completed a stint on the English department hiring committee of my home institution, the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ve read hundreds of written applications for positions in our undergraduate institution, and over the 29 years I’ve taught there I’ve seen dozens of those invited to campus to present themselves and what they do.
What we do at Annapolis is a little different than at many undergraduate schools -- a combination of community college with more esoteric studies. We do offer an English major and honors major, but we still primarily exist to teach the required two-semester English writing-and-literature introduction to freshmen, who by and large are bad writers. (Our average verbal SAT scores, for those who still think in these terms, are about 630, with many in the 500s and even 400s.) What we do at that level is basic. Many freshmen (called “plebes” at Annapolis) assure me that “you can say anything you want about a poem” and have never heard of iambic pentameter. They write papers with no clear thesis and full of mistakes ranging from sentence fragments to utterly misused words to verbs that don’t agree with subjects and modifiers so misplaced the reader gets the opposite information of what was intended.
It sounds depressing, but welcome to reality. Still, we are hiring for tenure-track jobs, and all but a very few hires do subsequently get tenure. So our situation is attractive in today’s beyond-abysmal job market -- not to mention the fact that our campus is pretty and our students at least overtly respectful and snappily, if uniformly (get it? -- it’s military!), dressed.
All our candidates write letters and send CVs and writing samples, and a tiny fraction of these arrive to give us presentations that always highlight and explain their “research” in graduate school (or beyond for those out for a few years). This is almost always on the pattern of “Concept X borrowed from theory Y is applied to works A, B and C that have something in common: time, author, country/group of origin, leading to this result: Z.”
Some are more clever than others; the most aha-inducing of them pull an unexpected rabbit out of a hat. These works show that certain a widely held view is in fact untenable, with the clear subtext of: come to my class and read these works the way I teach them to be led inexorably to this conclusion, too. Well, I always think, that kind of limits the people who will see the world that way, doesn’t it?
These applications and presentations are the more predictable in that the concept X that is applied to A, B and C is chosen from the same short list of thinkers who have dominated English graduate programs for the last 70 years (in case you need to ask: anti-imperialistic, anti-realistic and anti-phallocratic). It’s astonishing to me that the thinkers who were riding high when I first entered this business in the ’70s still hold a death grip on young minds. In all that time, we haven’t gotten beyond the magical pairing of Derrida, who taught us that the world was really a written text taught in a classroom (no prize for saying why this is so attractive to literature professors) and Foucault, who gave marginalized groups a vocabulary for showing how texts had wrought their marginalization (and so how attacks on these texts could, apparently, reverse that situation). It’s all about texts. You are freed by my class: read my dissertation, hire me!
Perhaps it’s my Fulbright time at the Free University of what was then West Berlin that taught me to be suspicious -- from my journeys over the wall to East Berlin and by following its literary life -- of the necessity of giving a sheen of legitimation to everything by quoting from the short list of what the Party viewed as approved thinkers. There in East Germany, it was Marx, Engels and Lenin. Now it’s the cargo cult of Derrida and Foucault, the bringers of the gospel having long since departed.
The big question in hiring somebody right out of graduate school is thus always: Can this person come out of the graduate school bubble enough to deal with teenagers who have never read serious literature and don’t particularly want to? Can she deal with the fact that nobody she’s talking to (except the three people who come to listen to her paper at the Modern Language Association conference) has ever even heard of the people who seemed so important to her for so long?
Some Ph.D.s can, some can’t. Since, to balance the books, research universities rely on graduate assistants teaching undergraduates (as well as on the gypsy scholars post-Ph.D. that most of these graduate students will become), many are, in fact, aware that there is a world of the uninitiated out there and they have to be able to talk to them, too. But to a person, they let loose in their letters and presentations for jobs, talking -- they seem to believe -- to the one set of people who will understand the importance of their “research.” Advice from the MLA often suggests they should, after all.
The word is borrowed from science, as indeed is the pretense of adding to a store of knowledge; this is the basis of their conviction that we should hire someone who has wandered in realms of gold. Their dissertation wasn’t just an intellectual exercise to see if they could stand the slog, it was research adding to knowledge. Of course this is nonsense. What we do in literature graduate programs isn’t research and the result isn’t knowledge.
The nature of real (scientific) research is that it’s reproducible. Other people can run the same combinations and get the same results. And the idea of research assumes that they would want to, because doing so answers a generally shared question. What we’ve found is a fact about the objective world that all are, or should be, interested in.
The point of writing a literature Ph.D. dissertation, however, is to combine idea with example so as to reach a conclusion nobody has ever gotten before and that nobody will ever get again. That’s because followers’ “research” will be on new examples or with other ideas chosen from the short list of party-approved thinkers. (And when they’re out of favor, they’re out! Remember William Empson? The craze for Wallace Stevens?) Nobody tries to apply the same thinkers to the same texts to see if we get the same results. That’s because you showed your originality by achieving surprising results. Now it’s the turn of the new gal to show her originality. Fireworks: one after the other. Pretty, sure.
The notion of research in literary studies is an untenable combination of faith in Romantic genius with a scientific vocabulary. Besides, one of the clever tenets of the party line in almost all English graduate schools is that there is in fact no such thing as objectivity. Nietzsche and then Derrida are supposed to have slain that dragon for all time, and Foucault is held to have shown that facts are a whip the dominant power uses to keep the marginalized in their place. So how is what English Ph.D. students do anything other than simply keeping themselves amused and their universities in low-cost undergraduate teachers?
It’s no wonder then that English graduate programs, lacking any other basis, hold their own meta paraphernalia to be the basis of objectivity. If you write an article that appears in the MLA listings, you are real and have added to the store of knowledge. The paradigm of the humanities is the ultimate imperialism. Esse est percipi (by us), as Bishop Berkeley would have said.We think of ourselves as creators: we have caused things to exist by writing about them for a journal that is indexed. What if nobody reads it? Students are going to work for McKinsey and so by definition don’t care? We rarely ask this question. If those who do merely pat us on the back for our “brilliant insight” or “trenchant analysis”? What is this but a thumbs-up like on Facebook?
Showing what happens when I alone apply arbitrarily chosen X to arbitrarily chosen A, B and C is not research. I grant it’s facts, as a journal of my moods would be facts. But who cares? It doesn’t prove anything. My lawn has many blades of grass; I have only the most cursory knowledge of it. I could study it all; I could devote a lifetime to it. Why not? Just don’t ask others to care.
Let’s say that one day your Ph.D. adviser makes the revolting discovery that poetry in Borneo before 1850 is an “undertheorized” neglected field. Go for it, she says to the hungry graduate student. To me the lawn looks like a lawn, spotty here, lush there. I have no knowledge of which blades go in what direction, if there are patterns, if square inch 22B differs from 22A, or anything. My ignorance, indeed our ignorance, of the specifics of my lawn is abysmal. This is clearly begging for research. And poetry in Borneo before 1850 is also the subject of a dissertation. But only from a specific theoretical viewpoint! Which the candidate then presents to us in Annapolis.
Nobody will ever reproduce this: first, they don’t care about my lawn, and the point of focusing on poetry in Borneo in 1850 from this one point of view was that others weren’t doing so. Second, the larger issue applicable to others isn’t clear, and third, because the lawn changes and the viewer is a particular one, the research can’t be reproduced. Nobody will ever check the results of either my studies on my lawn or Bornean poetry because they were my personal views of a manifold that nobody else cares about -- one with no connection to the world except the fact that this grass too exists, or that we can place Borneo on an objective time/space grid.
We in the humanities have an erroneous view of science if we believe that what we do is scientific. Most fundamentally of all, nobody cares. Not true in science. Science may be objective, but it too has the subjective basis that others have to care. Certain projects get funded for specific reasons because they seem useful, now or later. There is just too much knowledge in the world to go after it all.
There has to be a reason for scientific investigation -- and for research in the humanities too. It’s high time we started looking for the reasons. And they have to go beyond getting us a Ph.D., a job or tenure. Nobody but us cares about that, just as nobody but me cares about my lawn or what I say about the blades of grass that constitute it.
Remember that when you apply for a job: nobody but you (OK, never say nobody) cares about your research. The question is, can you deal with sleepy students? Do you know what the point is of dragging them through Shakespeare or Toni Morrison? The skill set required for enlivening a classroom is something else entirely. You have to know why you bother. And they don’t teach that in graduate schools.
Bruce Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. His numerous books and shorter pieces are listed at www.brucefleming.net.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have legalized firearms at all public colleges and universities in the state, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “If the intent of [the bill] is to increase safety of students on college campuses, it is highly questionable that such would be the result,” Deal said in a veto notice published along with an executive order asking the state higher education system to submit a report on campus security measures by the end of the summer.
The vetoed campus-carry bill would have prohibited guns in dormitories, athletic events and fraternity and sorority houses but allowed them everywhere else, including classrooms. The National Rifle Association immediately said it disagreed with the governor’s decision, according to the Journal-Constitution.
Inside Higher Ed is pleased to release today “Innovation in Teaching,” our latest print-on-demand compilation of articles. This compilation is free, and you may download a copy here. And you may sign up here for a free webinar on Tuesday, May 24, at 2 p.m. Eastern about the themes of the booklet.
Andrew Hacker’s The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions simply continues to promote the misguided path he got on several years ago, and it’s difficult to see how it could lead us anywhere productive. Hacker started the business of attacking school mathematics in a New York Times op-ed where he argued, in sync with gimmicky T-shirts claiming the same, that algebra was unnecessary, or perhaps even detrimental to our future. In a national scene where mathphobia is rampant and most people’s memories of school mathematics remain unpleasant at best, he struck a chord. Then, of course, come book contracts and even more adulation.
Thoughtful people have already responded authoritatively to the various errors in Hacker’s argument -- see here for another scathing review. A short and quick reply is here. For this audience of college and university educators, some of whom might be tempted by Hacker’s bravado and wonder about implications for higher education, I’d like to also point out that Hacker seems to forget why we educate our young. Even if as students years ago we may have had difficulty in certain subjects, as parents we want to ensure that our children go beyond what we ourselves have achieved. We expect that what they learn will be beneficial to their growth and future opportunities. We also hope that they will gain certain personal characteristics that, together with their knowledge and skills, will help them build a better future for our society and the world.
The Western tradition starts this conversation in ancient Greece with Socrates arguing that virtue is central to the education of the young. Aristotle teaches us that the ultimate goal of education should be happiness -- the durable contentment of a creative and intellectual life. St. Augustine shows us that we should not depend on teachers to teach us everything, that there is much to be learned from the internal wisdom of the heart, which itself is cultivated by our moral compass. Rousseau argues that children need to be exposed to the world as they grow to learn to live within the society to which they belong. Locke and Mill teach us that education should be well-rounded, cultivating an intellectually capable mind aware of the complexities of the world.
Mathematics educators agree. We know that in mathematics, as in any other knowledge system that builds on itself, the procedures that work so well are only part of the package. That in the center is the student, but always situated in the midst of a society that is constantly evolving. That students learn best when encouraged and supported by knowledgeable teachers who help them explore and understand underlying concepts. That intellectual stimulation and growth are possible and enjoyable for all children. That in our classrooms, we can help students sharpen their ability to persist in the face of apparent failure. That today’s students need to learn to tackle complex and ill-defined problems requiring both individual and collaborative effort.
And to these ends, we have been working to improve what we do. Mathematics teachers, mathematics education researchers and mathematicians are working together in classrooms, in math circles, in conferences and workshops, in curricular reform efforts and in policy discussions. We are working to create meaningful mathematical experiences for students to encourage critical thinking, foster creative reasoning and enhance problem-solving abilities. (See here and here for two collections of mathematics lesson plans and modules that were developed by or in collaboration with researchers. See here for a college-level initiative for revamping the mathematics curriculum.)
We are working to engender the sense of wonder and accomplishment that mathematics -- when done right -- naturally inspires. We are working to develop and support a coherent set of curricular standards that will help tomorrow’s adults live up to the expectations of this nation from its children. We are working to discover and share with parents, teachers and educators what works well in the classroom even if it is not typical, and what doesn’t work even if it “just makes sense” and “it’s the way I learned things.” (How many people believe that the point of multiplication tables is to torture students till they can recite them at the speed of light? Linda Gojak, past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, is one among many educators speaking out about fluency in mathematics and how it is no longer acceptable to equate it with “fast and accurate.”)
Admittedly, we mathematics instructors don’t always help our own cause. People remember how their middle school math teacher made them feel, and I don’t need to tell you that it’s generally not a good memory. (I was lucky -- mine made me feel like there wasn’t a problem I couldn’t solve if I put in the time and effort.) But dropping mathematics from the required K-12 curriculum would be a perfect example of the cliché of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (While I myself have argued elsewhere that we might just do that, my tongue was decidedly set in my cheek, and my concern was the essence of what is lost in most mainstream experiences of school mathematics. Now, can I get a book contract, too?)
The current state of mathematics education in the United States is certainly not ideal. Yet the fact is that teachers, parents, mathematicians, mathematics education researchers and policy makers are working on it. Furthermore, this is definitely a problem worth working on. It is tough, it is messy and there are many nuances to the issue and many implications to any avenue of resolution.
Hacker writes of high school graduates unable to perform simple numeracy tasks. I’d venture to guess that more than a handful of high school grads are also incapable of understanding IRS publications, may occasionally be unable to interpret correctly the user manuals of their DVD players and can’t foresee all repercussions of a ballot measure they are willing to vote for or against. But we do not blame all of these insufficiencies on K-12 English teachers. Nor do we suggest replacing English courses with courses on reading ballot measures or user manuals. What do we do? We demand that English Language Arts curricula be developed that are more sensitive to the range of literacy demands of our daily lives.
Hacker gets it right at least in one instance; quantitative literacy is crucial in today’s society. And it should be one of the essential outcomes we expect from our education system, as I argueelsewhere. However, the role of mathematics in our education system goes beyond quantitative literacy. (And conversely, quantitative literacy as a goal itself should not be limited to the mathematics classroom. Most science and social studies classrooms offer excellent contexts for quantitative literacy.)
During this election year, I offer you another analogy. Today there are many, including some reading this, who worry that the American democratic machine is not producing the results they would like. So shall we give up on democracy? I’d like to believe that the overwhelming majority would agree with me when I say no. Instead, we continue working to improve our system; we continue to fight for broader access; we continue to work to further political and social justice.
Mathematics education is perhaps not on the same level of importance and urgency, but the solutions are the same. We must work to improve the system. We must fight for broader access. And we must work to further political and social justice.
Today mathematics acts as a gateway (or a gatekeeper, depending on your perspective) in terms of who has access to the lucrative STEM jobs that many aspire to. Students who learn mathematics as far as their school contexts allow have many more opportunities open to them when they graduate from high school. Knowing the fundamental building blocks of mathematics today leads well-prepared high school graduates to a range of rigorous paths of college-level study in many disciplines. And those are also the students who will become the adults who will create the new mathematical, statistical and computational tools we will need in the future.
What would happen if we dropped mathematics? Which schools and school districts would not be offering those “now optional” advanced mathematics courses? Which students would be deprived of the opportunity to learn, and, can I suggest, find meaning, confidence and opportunity through advanced mathematics? And which students would be able to move forward with those STEM careers that many parents dream of?
People can succeed without mathematics in their lives. You can also choose to never try sushi, to vacation only within the continental United States despite being able to afford international travel, to never wear flip-flops or learn to ride a bike, and still lead a happy and productive life. But nobody’s job prospects are affected by their decision to avoid sushi (unless you want to be a sushi chef, which would be odd if you didn’t like sushi to start with). And having the choice to decline comes out of privilege. Can this nation afford to make such a decision for all its children? When people choose to drop mathematics later in their academic paths, we can say they made a decision knowing their options and the opportunities they are letting go. But do we want to make these decisions ahead of time for all students?
The American education system differs from many of the nations that are touted as high performers. In most of those countries, students are channeled into various tracks early on. This nation does not regiment its schoolchildren, because we believe that all children have potential and that they can make choices once they are old enough to know what is out there.
And the American education system is still one of the best in the world. I know the international test scores and rankings, but I also know to read the fine print. Therein you learn that once you restrict to schools where less than 50 percent of the class is in the free lunch program, the performance of students is in par with those high-performing nations. The schools that are “failing” are the ones that have 75 percent or more of their students in free lunch programs. So our schools are not failing our students; it is our society that is failing them. As most education researchers (and teachers in classrooms across the nation) will agree, the problem of public education in the United States is one of poverty. And that problem is not going to get solved by dropping the mathematics requirement in the K-12 curriculum.
In fact mathematics can help. Here is where Plato’s virtue and St. Augustine’s moral compass come back into school mathematics. Brazilian mathematician Ubiratan D’Ambrosio has been telling us for years that it is mathematics that will help our children solve the varied problems of today and tomorrow -- if we can teach them to see the inherent mathematics involved. Mathematics, historian Judith Grabiner points out, has evolved precisely to describe social, environmental and political, as well as industrial and scientific, problems that a society happens to confront. And it remains, to this day, our most successful method to seek out creative and productive solutions for them. (Readers perplexed by my inclusion of social, environmental and political problems above might like to google “mathematics for social justice” or “mathematics of sustainability.”)
I write this with the hope that some good may come out of Hacker’s simplistic recommendations. Students reciting their multiplication tables as fast as a bullet train are not the desired outcome of mathematics education. We want students to understand the power and limitations of the mathematics they are learning. We want students to move flexibly from one specific model of a situation to another. We want students to be able to find unexpected and novel solutions to problems that are ever-growing in their complexity.
Mathematics is where we can train young minds to do all these things. Mathematics is where we can teach that critical ability to reason analytically. Mathematics is also where we can encourage creative exploration of the multitude of options a problem solver invariably has. As college and university educators, these are points we must not forget when the next cycle of general education debates begins to shake things up on our campuses.
Gizem Karaali is an associate professor of mathematics at Pomona College, editor of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, associate editor of Mathematical Intelligencer and associate editor of Numeracy. Follow her on Twitter @GizemKaraali_.
Online master's program in computer science -- a much-watched attempt to apply the MOOC model to for-credit programs -- may not be the big revenue generator the institute projected it would be, but administrators deem it a success and plan to expand it.
A friend who teaches classics at a fine liberal arts college told me that she had met the president of the institution walking across campus. He greeted her, and they chatted for a few seconds. Then the president asked, “How can we justify putting resources into Ancient Greek 101 where the enrollment is eight, while the enrollment in Economics 101 is 189?” My friend reported she had become flustered because she was unprepared for that question. She told me she believed that we needed to be doing a better job of making the case for the classics, the humanities and liberal education in general.
Wait a minute, I thought. That’s his job, or ought to be. Her job is to advance and transmit knowledge in a core humanistic discipline. What’s his game? Intimidation? Making himself look good because, in fact, he was not about to let the teaching of ancient Greek end on his watch after more than two centuries on that campus? Or was he genuinely asking for help?
Still, I thought, she is right: we do need to improve the understanding of why studying the humanities is important for today’s students (and administrators). Maybe, I thought, I should pitch in by writing an op-ed piece for Inside Higher Ed making the case for these fields.
But the phrase “making the case” stuck in my craw. It sounded so courtroom, so defense attorney, or rather so much like the message behind a now-terminated presidential candidacy: “Trust me, we know best.” It is surely self-serving.
After all, like most people who write such pieces, I have made my living on the humanities. Of course, I want them to flourish, but who will pay attention to an obviously self-interested spokesperson? Preaching to the choir may win praise from like-minded colleagues but will never be seen by the people who most need to rethink the assumptions that shape contemporary higher education: that college is a commodity sold to student-consumers, it’s all about “workforce readiness,” its goal is “return on investment” and only the STEM disciplines can guarantee success after graduation. These unexamined premises pose the most insidious threat, not just to humanists, but to all students over their lifetimes.
So it’s worth brainstorming about alternative strategies. Here are a half dozen possibilities. A brief brainstorming session with friends and colleagues can, I am sure, produce other, perhaps better ones. However, these are, as we say nowadays, cost-efficient -- that is, they do not take a lot of time away from teaching and scholarship. The effort is focused on helping people outside academe do the heavy lifting. Alumni, civic and business leaders, parents, and undergraduates themselves have more credibility than professional humanists, and they can surprise you by their articulate enthusiasm. And, yes, they can have more impact than another op-ed piece “making the case.”
That’s even more likely to be the case with shorter pieces. Here’s one example: Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, published a powerful op-ed piece, “College Is Not a Commodity,” in The Washington Post not long ago, attacking one of the clichés that are so prevalent these days. The essay is an evergreen that merits a second wave of circulation on social media. In fact, it should be handed to any college administrator who seems to talk commodity talk when they should be thinking hard about how best to educate today’s students.
Second: Check the departmental website. Does it really address the questions that parents and students are likely to have about majoring in the field? Ask some students to grade the content. They’ll probably want to see if claims about the desirability of such a major are backed up by strong evidence and clear argumentation.
Douglas MacLean, a professor in the philosophy department at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got thinking about that after Marco Rubio made his famous pronouncement, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers.” Answering that claim led to collecting data, as MacLean explained in a Time magazine article, some of which was posted on the department’s webpage. MacLean notes, “Studies have shown philosophy majors have outperformed nearly every other major on the law school aptitude test, the GREs and the GMAT, the admission test for business schools. (They also outearn welders.)”
Third: Ask former students to reflect on their educational experience in the humanities and then disseminate their observations. One way to get the discussion started is to provide the link to comments by students on other campuses, such as the remarks in Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece “College, Poetry and Purpose.” Ask if the experiences cited there match their own. Then put students’ own stories on the departmental website and out on social media. Ask, don’t tell. It doesn’t all have to be glory hallelujah! Find out what graduates working outside the academic humanities have found valuable in their education, then help their message be heard. And keep the email addresses for the following strategy.
Fourth: Put the alumni office to work. Vanessa Ryan, associate dean of the graduate school at Brown University, describes a plan that worked well there: “In 2012, I organized a TEDx [talk] on life, learning and liberal education, bringing back eight alumni from different career paths, including a doctor, an engineer, a film producer and a person in finance. It also features two current Brown faculty members and a current Brown undergraduate, selected through a student challenge event. Each speaker reflected in short talks on the value of liberal education. You can find the videos here and our website here.” Alumni Relations officers love events of this sort and can help organize (and pay for) them.
Fifth: Set clear responsibilities in institutional leaders’ jobs. When selecting a senior administrator -- a dean, provost, chancellor or president -- ask if the job description includes the ability to articulate the value of a broad liberal education. If not, why not? The same questions apply to incentive packages that are increasingly part of senior-level compensation. Making this criterion explicit early on gives leverage once the person is in place -- and especially when performance reviews are conducted.
Finally: Hijack Parents’ Day. Parents are understandably worried about the hollowing out of the economy and the horror stories they hear of students with huge debt loads who can’t find a decent job. Again, both data and descriptions of the actual lives of recent graduates can help allay their fears.
Most important, however, is a carefully structured dialogue among parents themselves. Make sure they have before them the 2014 Purdue-Gallup Index report, a study of more than 30,000 college graduates, showing what aspects of education make a positive difference in the workplace and the community. That report should move the conversation from nervous chatter about debt loads and return on investment to an exploration of what parents really want for their kids and what can best build satisfaction over the long run.
Once you introduce the idea of satisfaction in life, it should be possible to problematize (as we humanists like to say) assumptions about success and rewards. Such discussions play out on the humanities’ home turf: many humanists have thought long and hard about discourses and how they change over time. Here’s a chance to move from theory to practice. That’s what is most needed right now: not making the case but developing richer and more meaningful ways of thinking about what a college education should be.
W. Robert Connor has served as director of the National Humanities Center and president of the Teagle Foundation. He blogs at www.wrbertconnor.com.