Let’s face it: no one likes grading student essays, because student essays, in general, aren’t very good. When you’re halfway through a pile of essays that seem rote and devoid of thought, it’s easy to feel your soul shriveling. Students don’t usually enjoy the experience, either -- for them it’s hard, time-consuming and anxiety producing. And, as several writers have recently pointed out, academic essays don’t play much of a role outside academe.
But does that mean we should stop seeing essays as the baseline work college students do? A rash of articles in recent years have suggested exactly that.
Canadian teacher Jon David Groff, for instance, writes that essays don’t prepare students for the real-world work. They are, he says, “a highly inauthentic form of writing.” Rebecca Schuman, in an article that got a fair bit of attention in Slate, also claims that writing essays isn’t worth the time and trouble. Schuman focuses on three issues: “bad” essays, the careless students who produce them and the labor involved in teaching and grading essays. Schuman concludes by saying that essays should be reserved for advanced humanities majors and that everyone else should just take exams. After all, she says, “you cannot bullshit a line-ID.”
It’s true that the prevalent essay form -- the five-paragraph essay -- is usually awful to read and boring to write. Karen Harris’s recent piece for TimesHigher Education focuses, quite reasonably, on how formulaic that kind of essay is. (A typical five-paragraph essay starts with a big, overarching thesis statement, backs it up with three interchangeable examples, then restates the thesis). Harris blames fusty academics wed to an out-of-date and restrictive form for the essay’s failures. She would prefer that students have more options: perhaps, she suggests, a student might create “a dialogue, a series of letters, an animation or a documentary.”
Options aren’t a bad thing, of course, but while animations and documentaries may feel more contemporary, they don’t actually offer students the learning opportunities inherent in essay writing. If our goal is to teach students to think hard, then the essay remains a crucial feature of a college education and trashing it is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Teaching writing may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. And though it’s tempting to imagine a world without lousy papers to grade, the let’s-get-rid-of-the-essay movement has many problems.
First, it’s mistaken in its understanding of what we’re setting out to teach students. If our goal is to instruct them in who Renoir or Freud was and what they did or said, then a line-ID or animation works fine. But if our goal is to teach students to read critically, ask questions, perform meaningful analysis, marshal arguments, draw conclusions and communicate complex ideas -- the most “real-world” skills of all -- then there’s no replacing the essay. You may not be able to “bullshit a line-ID,” but you also can’t fake the skills essay writing requires. Those habits of mind are hard to learn and hard to teach -- but they’re the most important approaches that students acquire in college.
A second, related problem is the old story of academic labor and the question of what academe values. When student papers are terrible, we tend, in our frustration, to blame the students. But students who are “bad writers” are actually the victims of a system rigged against them. As anyone who has taught a composition course knows, the profession tends to view the teaching of writing as a “service” or “skills” activity. It’s scut work, and it’s usually foisted on the least powerful and most overworked people in the system: adjuncts, contract instructors and pretenure instructors. Some unfortunates have to teach writing -- and spend countless hours grading papers, at very low pay -- while others can focus on teaching the exciting big ideas they went to grad school to study. Unsurprisingly, given this system, writing pedagogy receives short shrift in graduate programs and professional development -- so most professors never learn how to teach writing. We’ve met plenty of eager, dedicated teachers doing their best with virtually no training in the work they’ve been asked to do.
As a result of this lack of preparation and downplaying of writing pedagogy as a meaningful activity, professors tend to see writing as a more or less “natural” activity, one that some people are born to do and others are not. But that is a confusion of student preparation and student ability. When we assume that some students just “can’t” write, we overlook inequities in resources and preparation. It’s easy to laud those who “can” write while overlooking the fact that they tend to be privileged graduates of elite public and private schools, clustered in colleges and universities that value the liberal arts. And when professors suggest that some students aren’t served by the essay, they’re signing off on a tiered class system where some students get the good stuff while others are spared the task of having to think hard.
The third, related issue that affects students’ writing and learning is affinity. Students who resemble their professors -- who think in narrative, have read widely, understand writing as a persuasive act -- are rewarded and valued. Those who don’t think like their instructors are not. But often students who “can’t write” can write quite well if they’re taught in ways that make sense to them. At the Cooper Union, where we’ve done most of our teaching, our students are art, engineering and architecture students. And they often tell us that they don’t think in narrative but in numbers and equations, or in 3-D, or in images. They don’t necessarily learn by listening to a lecture on writing. They learn by doing, and they learn better -- and produce better work -- when they understand the point of essay writing. That means understanding essay writing as an analytical act that involves starting with something in a text that they don’t already understand or know, taking apart the text to try to figure out what’s going on, coming to some conclusions, and then sharing their discoveries with readers.
Teaching students who aren’t “instinctive” (or privileged or well-prepared) writers isn’t easy, because it requires us as teachers to approach writing in new ways. But as we’ve learned over the years, the payoff is considerable: when writing makes sense to students, they produce work they care about and find interesting and challenging -- as well as work that is much more engaging for their instructors.
If we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for all of us -- not just the small world of composition and rhetoric studies, but academe as a whole -- to put time and resources into the project of better writing instruction. “Bad” writers aren’t the problem; bad assignments and ill-trained and underpaid teachers are. And this means that the essay isn’t the problem and that throwing it out won’t fix anything. Instead, what’s needed is a reassessment of how the essay is defined and taught. And that isn’t our students’ responsibility: it’s ours.
Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman are the co-authors of Thinking on the Page: A College Student's Guide to Effective Writing (Writers' Digest, 2015). Hyman is past director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union and founder of Workshop Teaching. Schulman is director of the Cooper Union Summer Writing Program and adjunct instructor of humanities at Cooper Union.
Submitted by Anonymous on February 18, 2016 - 3:00am
Every week, it seems we read a report or article about the need for the United States to increase the number of students who have degrees or certificates to meet the country’s workforce needs. We in community colleges are doing our part to meet this challenge.
But too often promising practices for helping more students get to graduation fail to reach those who need them most -- the millions who enter college with literacy and numeracy challenges that put them years behind their peers. That has to change. And to do so will require strong collaboration with state policy makers.
Colleges have shown that they can successfully fast-track students who are close to college ready into college-level courses. But what about the many students who are farther behind, who continue to spin their wheels, taking the same developmental course four or five times without advancing to gatekeeper courses in math and English?
Who are these students? Why aren’t they succeeding in developmental education? What do we know about their prior learning and high school experiences? What happens to them after they leave our colleges?
We need robust data disaggregated by student groups to answer these and related questions. Once we have that information, we should focus on how best to engage and empower faculty members to find appropriate solutions. They are best equipped to lead efforts to design interventions that will benefit students with deep developmental needs and to bring those interventions to scale. It is essential to put faculty and staff members at the center of this process and to ensure that they have enhanced professional development opportunities so they can have the greatest impact.
There are numerous examples of programs proven to be effective for students who are close to college ready, including the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, the Charles A. Dana Center’s New Mathways Project and the Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program. As emerging research from Redesigning America’s Community Colleges is beginning to demonstrate, accelerated learning programs are also showing promise in helping students who are less prepared for college. But the fact remains that there are few well-researched examples for students who are farthest behind, creating a crucial need for new models and more evidence about what works for these students across multiple academic areas.
Whenever we discuss what works to accelerate developmental education for students with deeper remedial needs, we round up a few usual suspects, such as Washington State’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST), which relies on contextualization and team teaching to deliver intensive supports to students whose test scores place them into adult basic education, and the City University of New York’s Start program, where students delay college-level courses to first participate in 15 to 18 weeks of intensive instruction in reading, writing and math.
I-BEST is particularly well researched. Quasi-experimental evaluations of I-BEST students found that they performed better than students not in the program on a range of measures, from number of college credits earned to persistence and earning a credential.
We need to create a more significant R&D effort in this area -- which will have significant payoff for community colleges and their students.
In addition, to ensure that we can scale up innovative efforts and help them take hold, we will have to reimagine how we fund our community colleges, to make it possible to 1) generate additional resources for effective interventions and professional development and 2) direct the most money to the students with the greatest needs, both academically and nonacademically.
State agencies and legislative bodies are understandably reluctant to provide new resources, given the limited results that developmental education has produced. Colleges must demonstrate that they can improve results with increasingly sophisticated developmental education practices, such as those identified in the recently released “Core Principles for Transforming Remediation Within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy.” This document offers community colleges promising practices to draw upon, from managing intake of students to providing academic support in gatekeeper courses aligned with career interests.
Showing results will energize the conversation about how we, as a nation, invest in our human capital. At the moment, the bulk of public dollars flows to institutions that enroll students who have always enjoyed educational advantages. However, it's lending a strong hand to students without those advantages that will broaden the path to upward mobility. Increasing investment in institutions dedicated to opening their doors to those who have long been denied opportunity isn't optional. It's the only route to a skilled and prosperous workforce and a vibrant democracy.
Equally important, as states mull more investment, they should consider creative options for rewarding colleges for helping the most at-risk students persist. Performance-based funding models can provide colleges incentives for graduation, and institutions can develop strategies to reallocate resources to build the next level of intensive interventions needed for students who are not succeeding under existing models.
As co-chairs of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future, home to the Taskforce on Developmental Education, we're fully committed to furthering solutions that change outcomes for students.
We know that the best way for colleges to increase the number of United States citizens holding degrees and credentials is to retain and advance our current students. That starts with creating a robust, multidimensional developmental education system that is student centered -- and persuading state governments to do everything in their power to make it happen.
Reynaldo Garcia is president emeritus of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Scott Ralls is president of Northern Virginia Community College and previously was president of the North Carolina Community College System. Garcia and Ralls serve as co-chairs of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success at Jobs for the Future, which seeks solutions to high-priority policy barriers that block community college students from graduating and earning credentials.
A few years ago I received a call from a concerned father of one of our first-year engineering students. His daughter was failing chemistry and, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t able to work her way out of the problem. He said, “My daughter can’t see a path that leads to success. As a father, if I can’t help her find a path, her only opportunity is to fail.”
Unfortunately, at places like engineering schools, where new students tend to be extremely bright and analytical, this problem is all too familiar. As adults, we know that surviving failure can be a valuable lesson in resilience and that the path to success isn’t always clear or straightforward. We also know that in such moments of intense uncertainty, we have an opportunity to discover previously untapped reservoirs of performance.
Many college freshmen, however, have not been inoculated to the experience of failure. They are often the brightest and the best in their high schools. Through talent or hard work, they have never failed at anything. Frequently, we see that a factor in their success -- and their fear of failure -- is that they have “snowplow” parents who have been diligent about clearing every obstacle from their path.
The snowplow strategy, as well-meaning as it is, takes a toll on the very children these parents are trying to help. Instead of learning resilience and to trust in their capacity to respond in the face of uncertainty, students are trained to fixate on outcomes like grades. They often confuse quality with quantity and maximize the volume of their activities. They are conditioned to avoid situations where the outcome is unpredictable. Add to that the ever-growing demands for their attention and the newly acquired independence of college life, and it isn’t difficult to see why a significant number of students who are used to mastering their lives feel overwhelmed -- even though they have the capacity to succeed in college.
How do we help today’s college students learn that uncertainty is just another word for opportunity? How can we teach resilience and show our students how to choose the best path for themselves when failure is a possible outcome? The answer certainly doesn’t lie in simply doing more of what worked in high school. If we do a good job of supporting these very intelligent young people at this critical juncture, we will not only help them past their immediate crises. We will also help them unlock capacity that they didn’t know existed and ways of tapping into it.
At Northwestern University, we have developed a curriculum that includes a special emphasis on teaching engineering students how to deal with stress and cope with their fear of failure through mindfulness and emotional intelligence. We do this in a number of different ways. For example, we work with colleagues across the campus to offer courses in areas like improvisation and swing dancing to teach students how to connect with themselves and others as they engage in and negotiate the challenges of collaborative problem solving.
We provide special counseling for undergraduates, like the distraught chemistry student I previously mentioned, designed to teach them how to be intentional with the questions they ask about their situation and how to live in the present moment nonjudgmentally instead of falling into self-criticism. One of the most troubling things I see revealed through students’ uncertain moments, is the self-brutalizing nature of the stories they tell themselves. When I ask students who their most critical voice is, their answer is almost always “myself.” Helping students understand there is no one correct path and that other people share their uncertainty enables them to let go of the judgment that fuels their fear of taking action.
These are just a few examples of how we teach emotional intelligence and the practice of mindfulness to help students develop a richer awareness of what they are experiencing in the present moment. Leveraging the channels of sensations, emotions and thoughts allows them to see more clearly just how judgment, in the form of unproductive stories and self-criticism, interferes with their ability to show up fully and strategically. We want to help our students master these channels of connection to enable them to be mindful engineers with accurate self-awareness and trained attention.
One particularly successful approach that we use to help our students develop a mindfulness-based way of responding to uncertainty is called PATH Advising. PATH (Personal Academic Tactical Help) is a structured way of encouraging students to tune in to their fictions, feelings and facts to allow them to see more clearly the reality of their situation. They can then begin crafting a strategy to reach their desired outcomes by managing constraints, leveraging resources and prioritizing other competing interests. Understanding that focusing their attention can enable them to use both their considerable intelligence and their intuition when it matters most gives them the confidence to redefine success for themselves.
The other day a young woman came to my office worried about her performance in a class. As we spoke it became clear that much of her anxiety centered on the impact that dropping or failing this class would have on her family. She told herself that not completing this class would add a year to her studies, which was an impossible outcome. We were able to reality test her assumptions, allowing her to realize she was much closer to graduating than she thought. Redirecting her attention from her fiction of failure to her desired outcome within the legitimate constraints she was facing allowed her to see multiple paths leading to success.
We teach them how to transform their fear of failure into opportunities. The metaphor I use is that of driving a stick shift. In high school, students drove around town just fine using first, second and third gear. But once they got to college, they needed to go faster. When they did this, they either redlined their engine or found a higher gear. Just as a clutch is needed to shift from one gear to the next, students transitioning from high school to college need to disengage from obsolete strategies in order to make room for new, more powerful ones.
Only through responding to a stressful situation can they find that next gear and a new level of performance and understanding. Once that new level is found, it’s a tool that’s always available to them going forward.
The first-year chemistry student who was overwhelmed by her fear of failure found a way to reach out and accept help in her new environment, transforming a sense of hopelessness into a C plus. Like so many students, she wasn’t afraid of hard work; she was afraid that her efforts were futile. Needing help was a foreign experience for her, because she was always the one her peers sought out for help. Acknowledging her fear and learning that seeking and accepting help is not weakness but rather a sign of strength and a skill to be developed allowed us to connect her with a tutor. It wasn’t the A she wanted, but more important, she found the right move at the right time. Proving to herself that she had the capacity to respond in the face of uncertainty allowed her to find a path for lasting success.
Joseph Holtgreive is the assistant dean for personal development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.
Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minn., last week announced cuts that would eliminate a number of programs, many of them in languages. The cuts eliminate programs in Latin, Latin education, French, French education and German -- along with classical studies, classics, health, humanities and Scandinavian studies. College officials cited low enrollments and the need for budget savings.
But now the college is facing a strong backlash from students and alumni, The Star Tribune reported. Many note that Concordia may be best known for Concordia Language Villages, summer immersion programs. Concordia says that program will not change, but many question how a college can promote its summer programs in languages while eliminating them from the academic program. Latin teachers are lobbying against those cuts. And many are backing a petition with the name We Want Our Majors Back.
Policy makers, politicians and the general public have been doing a lot of hand-wringing over the idea that liberal arts programs are fatally out of touch with the job market. But, in fact, liberal arts majors are not as badly prepared as people fear -- and graduates with other majors may be less prepared than they believe.
It is true that recent liberal arts graduates have consistently had a higher unemployment rate than other bachelor's degree holders: 8.4 percent compared to 7.5 percent for college graduates overall, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Yet the core skills that liberal arts students acquire have never been more relevant to the job market. And those students can, in fact, virtually double their current employability with relatively little additional effort.
Job postings provide a view of the skills employers value most -- and of those that have been hardest for businesses to find. Across the full spectrum of jobs, what employers seem to call for, above all else, are foundational skills like writing, research, analysis, critical thinking and creativity. An analysis of job ads by my company, Burning Glass Technologies, which studies the job market, shows that fully one-third of all skill requirements listed are foundational -- even in technical fields like IT. And the data indicate that employers are coming up short when it comes to identifying people with these skills. The most consistent, cross-cutting skill shortage in the job market today is for one of the most basic abilities: writing.
Or consider this: across the labor market, many of the jobs that are both fastest growing and in highest demand are those that bring together different skill sets, like marketing and data analysis, or graphic design and programming. Such positions, which have grown by 53 percent over the last four years alone, are often hard to fill because technically oriented training programs tend to be tightly focused. By contrast, these “hybrid jobs” require people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.
Liberal arts graduates may not have direct training in those domains, but the liberal arts live within the core framework of interdisciplinary synthesis and critical evaluation. That’s a world apart from more technically oriented programs that dispatch their graduates into the workforce with a fixed portfolio of skills that, while marketable, may be of fleeting currency. In fact, even within a given occupation, the core work activities can evolve quickly, rendering a “practical” program obsolete. In the fast-growing field of data analysis, the entire skill set has shifted over just a three-year span away from pure statistical computation to place much more emphasis on visualization and business analysis.
Doubling the Open Positions
So why aren’t employers fighting over liberal arts graduates the way they compete for STEM majors? The problem is that, while employers need the capabilities students accrue in the humanities, they also expect their hires to have the specific technical skills to be productive from day one. That may seem like an unresolvable conflict, but arming students with both foundational and practical skills may be more feasible than one might think.
As things stand now, Burning Glass research shows that only one-quarter of all entry level jobs requesting a B.A., or roughly one million positions, are likely to be open to liberal arts graduates. They include positions like recruiters, administrative assistants, store managers, account representatives and others that may not measure up to the ambitions students or their families may have had for their college investment.
Now compare that with the options for a liberal arts graduate who has also acquired some specific technical skills, such as marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis or IT networking -- skills that can be picked up without a full degree. They can be learned in nondepartmental classes, a minor, an internship or a noncredit program outside of college.
With these skills, the number of jobs open to liberal arts majors nearly doubles, from 25 percent to 48 percent of entry-level bachelor’s positions. On top of that, the incremental jobs pay on average $6,000 more. Not only are more jobs available but also our research shows employers actually prefer the combination of broad knowledge and specific technical skills -- when they can get it. Even IT departments need people who can write.
Taken as a whole, this paints a picture of the liberal arts that doesn’t look at all like a discipline in crisis. Rather, it looks like a discipline that hasn’t acted on an easy solution.
The reason higher education hasn’t focused on that easy solution is because it’s been consumed by a lazy debate about whether students should pursue liberal arts or whether they should be channeled into more vocational majors. We end up arguing about the value of truth and beauty pitted against technology and commerce or about how closely educators and employers should work together. The subject is so prickly that some academics dismiss the argument that liberal arts graduates possess skills of value to the market as demeaning to the discipline.
Doubling the number of jobs open to liberal arts graduates would go a long way toward ending this lazy debate. They certainly do have value, and employers know it. It’s just that liberal arts have twice as much value when combined with some specific technical skills.
Seizing this opportunity, however, does mean that colleges have to relate to students in a different way. Fortunately, several practical strategies have emerged for making this transformation:
Give students a road map to a career. Most academic advising is focused on getting students the courses they need to graduate in their major. In some cases, such as pre-med, advising is built around getting into a graduate school. But rarely is it built around what students need to make successful transition from college to career.
For example, one of the most bankable skills in the workforce is also one of the most mundane: using spreadsheets, particularly Microsoft Excel. Even among high-skill jobs, a whopping 83 percent require knowledge of Excel. But how often do students majoring in programs like anthropology, English literature or political science hear this from their advisers?
The fact is most advisers are themselves academics, so expecting them to be able to dispense detailed career advice may be unrealistic. This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.
Far from threatening the liberal arts, such an approach empowers students to take intellectual risks. Studying anthropology or the classics may not seem so impractical when there’s a road map showing students what other courses will ensure their employability.
Package courses around skill sets. Higher education already thinks in these terms: concentrations, specializations, certificates and other ways of bundling course work together in a meaningful way. Such packaging can provide useful signposts for liberal arts students thinking about the future -- and for employers looking for relevant talent. And it’s a way for students to try out different fields to see if they fit. In many cases, the necessary courses already exist. It is only a question of pulling the threads together.
That requires a certain amount of interdepartmental cooperation, traditionally not the strong suit at many institutions. Want to go into human resources? The sociology department’s organizational theory course, plus the political science department’s survey research course, plus the history department’s industrial relations course, plus the economics department’s introductory stats course would be a compelling cluster. Here, too, starting with an awareness of demand -- which jobs represent compelling targets and which technical skill bundles do they require -- can be useful in ensuring that there is a governing logic to the catalog of certificates that the institution curates.
That also requires being open to new ways of packaging skills. To go back to our earlier example of a career signpost, everything from full-semester courses to one-day training sessions on spreadsheets is available. The right approach for a particular student is going to depend on the career she is likely to pursue and how the course offering is structured.
Remember that when students reach the job market, skills are everything. Departments that are technically or professionally oriented already know this. Just as college faculty members expect students to show up ready to learn, employers expect new hires to show up ready to work.
You can see this in employer postings for entry-level jobs and even internships, where companies are quite specific about the skills students need to even be considered. Perhaps it’s no surprise that internships in IT and related fields demand knowledge of SQL or C++. But even in fields like finance, communications and design -- the kinds of careers to which many liberal arts students aspire -- employers call for interns and fresh graduates to have specific knowledge of social media, particular accounting software, Adobe Creative Suite and the like.
Faculty members in career-oriented departments make sure to build those skills into their courses. It’s hard to imagine a student getting through a design program without knowing Photoshop. And while it’s unreasonable to expect that the history department will similarly align its instruction to the demands of the market, liberal arts programs owe it to their students at least to point them in the right directions.
The most striking thing about the employment challenge facing the liberal arts is that the solution lies so close within the academy’s grasp. Indeed, providing students with a career map that leads through the liberal arts can only strengthen their appeal.
How many business students would be majoring in humanities if they felt confident they could still have a career in business after graduation? This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.
The lazy debate between art and commerce, in the end, will advance neither one. If employers truly value skills like writing and critical thinking -- and the evidence clearly says they do -- then abandoning America’s liberal arts heritage will only make a skills gap worse. And if the liberal arts become a luxury item, pursued only by those willing to make a financial sacrifice, then their influence in the fabric of American intellectual life will wither as well. The good news is that this lazy debate can be ended. It just requires an acceptance that a fulfilling career is as much a part of a life well lived as broad knowledge for its own sake -- and a new approach to making both accessible for students.
Matthew Sigelman is chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies, which delivers job market analytics to empower employers, workers and educators to make data-driven decisions.
Liberal arts education is often thought of in terms of a balance of knowledge across a range of fields and disciplines. Such an approach results, so the story goes, in the well-rounded individual who has an appreciation for the sciences and the humanities, who can work, at turns, with raw data and with subtle hermeneutics, and who understands history as well as the complexities and nuances of the contemporary moment.
This understanding is relatively accurate as a zoomed-out view of how the liberal arts work. But then there are other parts of a liberal arts education. Smaller parts.
David Foster Wallace, in his Kenyon College graduation speech, talked about some of the more weighty benefits of liberal arts, such as learning to recognize the difference between cultivating awareness and sensitivity, on the one hand, and sliding into the mindless mode of the rat race, on the other. But I’m not talking about this sort of heaviness.
When I think back on my own liberal arts education, I realize that many small things contributed to my overall experience. Those things weren’t necessarily planned in advance nor did they show up on my transcript. But they were absolutely meaningful for me.
For instance, I recall when my English professor drove me up to Ann Arbor, Mich., to hear poet and essayist Gary Snyder read some of his new work. Our little college was about 45 minutes south of the University of Michigan, and we were far less likely to get a speaker like Snyder.
Another English professor, an early modernist, took sympathy on me for my lack of curricular planning. She agreed to do an independent study on Shakespeare and nature so I could satisfy a certain graduation requirement.
Then there was the time a favorite philosophy professor went along with a gaggle of us students to see the film The Matrix when it first hit theaters. We saw the movie and then went to a pub to discuss the film in relation to various readings and class discussions we’d had.
In the spring when the weather turned nice, my Latin professor would take us outside with a big bucket of colorful chalk, and we’d do our translations on sidewalks around the quad, in garish pinks, yellows and blues. That may seem entirely whimsical, but it made some pedagogical sense, too: changing the context of learning to make the lessons stick.
Doubtless, many other small things shaped my education, as well -- but I’m focusing here on the ones that involved my professors. As a professor myself now, I often find myself thinking about all the aspects of the position that go unremunerated but that are also immeasurably part of the job.
This might be a last-minute, unplanned “office hour” with a student that ends up being a walk through the park on my way home. Or it might be helping with a senior thesis, which is a voluntary overload credit in terms of a teaching assignment but which ends up (usually, hopefully) as a student’s capstone experience, reflecting in unpredictable ways the sum total of her or his education thus far. Or it can simply be a coffee or a beer that I buy for a student over an impromptu session of giving life advice or calming near-graduation trepidation.
Such small things add up in at least two ways: they are the uncompensated and incalculable parts of the job, and they are also the things that can result in lifelong memories for students. They are the aspects that can make the whole enterprise seem worth it -- when you actually help someone make a good decision or at least avoid a bad one.
As my own university goes through a prolonged and at times painful financial equilibrium process, dovetailing with a general assessment phase, I am trying to keep all this in mind. I do that both in terms of being aware of the small things I do (and trying not to overextend myself) and in terms of simply remembering that such small things make my position meaningful -- especially during salary freezes or threats of across-the-board cuts.
It is an economic paradox of sorts that the parts of this job that are about uncompensated giving are also those parts that give back -- and that these things might also be the very measures by which we defend this model of education. If we are truly interested in educating the whole person, then we have to be whole people, too -- knowing that this sometimes means delayed gratification and generosity beyond calculation.
Being a professor is still a great job for so many reasons. And a lot of those reasons will always necessarily remain unquantifiable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to be fairly compensated or to try to find ways to recognize much of what we all do.
But it means that we should also acknowledge that many things we do on our campuses (and off) for our students will always fall through the cracks of assessment and reimbursement. Yet they will nevertheless benefit our students in inestimable ways. It’s the small things that count.
Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans.
Submitted by Paul Fain on February 1, 2016 - 3:20pm
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities this week announced a project to work with 44 of its member institutions to substantially change students' experience during their first year of college. The project is aimed at improving college completion rates, with a particular eye at helping low-income and first-generation college students, as well as members of minority groups. The public university group said the work would feature several proven methods of improving student retention and success.
"We know a lot of things that work," said George Mehaffy, the association's vice president for academic leadership and change. "The logical place to start was the first year."
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USA Funds are contributing funds to the project. The work will include a focus on "institutional intentionality," Mehaffy said, such as through changes to the administrative structure and budgeting process of participating colleges. It also will include elements of curriculum redesign and changes to the roles of faculty members, staff and students.
One likely outcome, said Mehaffy, would be degree maps and narrower, more defined pathways for students to get to graduation.
"There are too many choices for students," he said, which can be "paralyzing."
(Note: This article was taken down temporarily to comply with an embargo.)
It's probably for the best that Voltaire (at right) isn't around to see what's going on in the best of all possible states, by which we mean Kentucky. The new Republican governor, Matt Bevin, told reporters last week that he wants to change funding formulas for public higher education so that colleges and universities receive more money for study in fields like engineering and less for others.
"There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors. There just will," Bevin (left) told reporters, the Associated Press reported. "All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer."
Bevin's comments are similar to those of presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both from Florida, who have questioned liberal arts majors such as philosophy and psychology, respectively.
Jeffrey N. Peters, a professor of French literature at the University of Kentucky, responded to his governor's proposal with an essay in The Lexington Herald-Leader in which he charged that Bevin was trying to have the government, not students, decide what to study. Further, Peters noted that language graduates go on to many careers, including business, in which they use the skills they learn (even if they aren't speaking, for example, French) in their jobs. "At this moment of rapid globalization, majors in our department learn to become well-rounded citizens of the world, both by studying abroad and by studying the world’s great thinkers and artists, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western," Peters wrote. "They learn to speak and write effectively in both English and their chosen world language, and they come to understand the importance for their future professional lives of thoughtful communication and confident self-presentation."
The governor has indicated that he's fine if private colleges offer French literature. That distinction may be relevant given that Peters pointed out the governor's undergraduate major at (private) Washington and Lee University: Japanese and East Asian studies.
Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper posted a message on his college’s website titled “This Is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” in response to a student who was offended during a sermon and feeling victimized. He declared that his university is not a “safe place” and excoriated the student for being self-absorbed and narcissistic. With a tough-love stance, he recommended that the sensitive student consider going elsewhere for his education.
Students in higher education are becoming increasingly vocal and powerful with requests for more sensitivity to their needs. Some professors, viewing their students as thin-skinned, are condemning that trend, and Piper’s voice is but one of many exasperated educators. Earlier this year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a piece in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” concluding that student requests for trigger warnings and increased protections are a disaster for education and mental health. More even-tempered than Piper’s rant, the article is no less harsh when it comes to castigating students for creating an atmosphere of what the authors call “vindictive protectiveness.”
I agree that shielding students from difficult material and discussion is a mistake. But Piper publicly humiliated a student as a means to remind everyone that higher education must be challenging. I question the need to berate a student for asking for more sensitivity. If we perceive that some of our students are hypersensitive, we should teach them how to gain strength rather than scold them for being weak.
In the recent film Whiplash, J. K. Simmons plays Fletcher, a music professor who uses drill-sergeant tactics -- including humiliation, intimidation, degradation, physical torture and mind games -- with an aim to push students beyond their comfort zones and force their potential. This professor drives some students to greatness, but the collateral damage includes suicide and violence. Although a work of fiction, Whiplash highlights a real situation: educators have the potential to push vulnerable students over the edge.
Several years ago, I lost one of my students to suicide. I had not known that she was struggling with mental-health issues. The loss was devastating. If she had told me that she required a heightened sensitivity from me in the classroom, I hope I would have been receptive. I hope I would not have castigated her for not being strong enough to handle her problems.
There is not much value in education if students are taught to hate themselves. Removing a student’s self-esteem is not necessary to challenge him or her. Can we, as educators, be positive without coddling? Is it possible to increase a student’s self-worth while simultaneously challenging that student’s comfort zone?
Focusing on Talents
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Piper, Lukianoff and Haidt, is Chris Ulmer, a Florida special education teacher who recently posted a video on his “Special Books by Special Kids” Facebook page showing his distinct way of complimenting his elementary school students before the start of every class. He writes that “instead of focusing on deficits, I focus on talents.” Ulmer reports that, over time, practicing overt positive reinforcement creates better results in his students’ schoolwork. In addition, the positive environment develops support among the students.
Ulmer’s practices for elementary special ed students may not be the answer for higher education, but there is something to be learned from him here. Being positive allows students to accept teaching more readily. Rather than condemning his students for being self-absorbed, Ulmer raises their self-worth before introducing the day’s lesson plan. If he teaches challenging material one day, he has built strength in his students and they are better equipped to handle it.
As a theater professor and stage director, I have adopted similar techniques in my acting classes and play rehearsals. In his 1984 book A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing, William Ball writes that actors (and, by extension here, students) carry with them a “starvation for approbation.” Ball says that we, as mentors, must discipline ourselves to “praise ceaselessly” and to “praise whatever is there.” Since “habitual admiration is not usually a natural tendency,” Ball recommends that we become “purveyors of praise.” If we want the best out of our students, he says that “fear has to be superseded.”
That is not unrealistic, overly optimistic advice. It is a reminder that we tend to overlook the positives because critiquing and criticizing come much more naturally. We must strike a balance. We must work at learning how to recognize the positive stuff in front of us. Pushing a fledgling out of the nest is not the only way to promote strength. Building self-esteem has its merits and should not be ignored.
Whiplash’s Fletcher tells his students, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” I disagree. We are not coddling our students if we compliment, affirm and recognize their strengths.
I am not advocating for trigger warnings or easing up on provocative course work in order to make students’ lives less stressful. But we should look more carefully at those students who are demanding these protections. If a student struggles with personal issues and asks for help, public shaming will not teach the student to cope. It is a cruel world out there. Must we model that cruelty in order to “toughen up” our students?
Domenick Scudera is a professor of theater at Ursinus College.