Following the fourth round of the Republican presidential debates, a flurry of media attention focused on Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that “we need more welders, less philosophers.” In addition to noting the grammatical error in his statement, defenders of the liberal arts leaped to prove Rubio wrong by producing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that the median salary of philosophers in fact exceeds that of welders.
Many commentators also highlighted the value of a discipline that fosters the critical-thinking, writing and arguing skills necessary in a rapidly changing, globally interdependent world where the jobs of the future have not yet been invented. Moreover, they contended that philosophical training, which encourages the kind of adaptability and flexibility required in an uncertain job market, is a plus.
A case in point is the highly publicized, and ironic, story of Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and used online tutorials to become a welder and motorcycle mechanic. Rather than reaffirm that a liberal arts education leads to a life of underemployment, Crawford’s story illustrates the capacity of someone who is liberally educated to be an innovator in his own life.
As a college president, I pay careful attention to contemporary discourse surrounding the value added of higher education. Yet I admit to being personally interested in the response, both within and outside of the academy, to Rubio’s assertion. I was trained as a philosopher, earning my Ph.D. from Brown University in metaphysics and ethics. My father, by contrast, dropped out of school at the age of 16 to join the war effort following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and later traveled 70 miles round-trip daily on a bus to work third shift as -- you guessed it -- a welder at Pratt and Whitney. Known by his buddies in the Marines as Satch, my father had street smarts and could fix anything. I spent hours by his side as he dismantled engines, repaired faulty starters and dabbled in electronics using discarded tubes and cylinders that we salvaged on weekends from the town dump.
Both of my parents valued effort and disciplined work, and they encouraged me to go to college to escape the factory jobs that circumscribed their lives. Nevertheless, when I invited my father to my graduation from Brown, he declined, admonishing, “I hope you don’t think this makes you better than us.” I assured him that my academic success did not constitute a rejection of my working-class roots, or of him.
I was reminded of this long-ago conversation with my father when Senator Rubio condemned those of us in higher education for stigmatizing vocational education in the context of whether to raise the minimum wage. My fear is that in the quest to prove Marco Rubio wrong regarding the value of the humanities, we fail to take seriously the message at the core of his controversial statement. Those of us seeking to respond to Rubio’s assertion regarding the value of welders over philosophers must ask why his message resonates with such a broad segment of our society.
For many people in America, a liberal arts education seems reserved for those within the ivory tower, reflecting a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life. And according to Senator Rubio, higher education is too expensive, too difficult to access and doesn’t teach people 21st-century skills. Those accusations fuel the image of a liberal education as a self-indulgent luxury, underlying calls for the elimination of humanities programs in favor of vocational and preprofessional programs that are regarded as singularly responding to demands for economic opportunity.
Of course, it is little wonder that the liberal arts are considered a luxury and irrelevant to success in a world that equates long-term happiness with wealth. But while those of us in the humanities may condemn the skeptics for being misguided, it is time to recognize the extent to which we ourselves have perpetuated this misconception.
Senator Rubio’s statements should remind us of the risk of slipping into Casaubonism and of the failure to connect liberal learning to the lives of people outside of the academy. Consider this: there is growing economic segregation in American higher education, with more than 50 percent of students attending community colleges and one in every two students dropping out. Yet a liberal arts education will remain secure in wealthy communities and at elite, private institutions, which were built upon the foundation of liberal learning and its inextricable link to democratic engagement and civic responsibility. In contrast, liberal education will be under increasing scrutiny at public institutions -- community colleges, where I began my education, and other state colleges and universities.
In challenging Rubio’s rhetoric, we can learn lessons from the past. Remember Sarah Palin’s talk of death panels? She opposed President Obama’s proposed inclusion in a health care reform plan of a provision that would reimburse physicians for talking to their patients about advance directives for end-of-life decisions or hospice care. The phrase's invocations of Nazi programs targeting the elderly, ill and disabled subsequently led politicians to excise the proposal early on from the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tri-Committee bill. The furor started with a post on Palin’s Facebook page asserting that if the government passed health care legislation, boards would be set up to determine whether the elderly and disabled were worthy of care. In the weeks that followed, politicians issued statements warning against a policy that would push us toward government-encouraged euthanasia; they trumpeted instead the need to protect seniors from being put to death by their government.
In fact, the positing of death panels was Politifact’s 2009 “Lie of the Year.” However, by disavowing the truth of the claims of death panels by calling them laughable, President Obama failed to address the real fear underlying the concerns of those who readily believed the rhetoric, namely, the denial of necessary medical care at a time of urgent need. Thus, an opportunity was lost for meaningful debate over critical end-of-life issues that were pushed aside during the process of political jockeying.
My goal here is not to dredge up partisan debates, but instead to draw attention to the nature of the fear that people across the country have expressed, then and now. Just as people during Palin’s run were genuinely concerned that the government would be allowed to determine what constitutes necessary care and who should be allowed to receive it, those pushing vocational education over liberal education today do so grounded in fear that their children will not be able to have a better life than they had. That fear creates a false dichotomy between vocational and liberal education, between welding and philosophy. Everyone, including welders, can benefit from liberal learning precisely because the illumination of human consciousness through literature, philosophy, music and the arts enriches the experience of individuals alone and as members of a community, allowing us to flourish fully as human beings.
Inasmuch as scholarly traditions in the liberal arts serve as benchmarks and frameworks for grappling with abiding human questions and concerns, reserving these opportunities only for those who can afford an elite education or live in well-heeled communities has profound consequences in terms of egalitarian principles of justice and fairness. Most important, it thwarts our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy. We must restore America’s trust in higher education, viewing it not as a private commodity but as a public good -- one that all our citizens, whatever their socioeconomic background can access. While there has been a good deal of rhetoric regarding the principle of universal access to higher education as an essential symbol of our nation’s commitment to equality of opportunity, the reality is that many of our citizens still have “closed futures” and consequently are, in a very real sense, unfree. Denying access to higher education not only drastically undermines the promise of equal opportunity for individuals, it limits prospects for economic growth at the national level.
In an effort to redress social inequality, colleges and universities must establish partnerships with businesses and industry, primary and secondary schools, public officials and community members. This approach to creating access to higher education necessitates bringing leadership beyond the academy by making our scholarly expertise available as a public resource. The result would be a transformation of colleges and universities into a visible force in the lives of even the most disenfranchised members of society. Until we do so, we will have failed to address the real concerns of those whose cheers filled the auditorium when Senator Rubio urged us toward a return to vocationalism on the back of philosophy jokes.
Lynn Pasquerella is president of Mount Holyoke College and president-elect of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Submitted by Paul Fain on January 20, 2016 - 3:00am
The Warrior-Scholar Program hosts academic boot camps for veterans of the U.S. military to help them make the transition to college. Teams of student veterans run the two-week sessions, which are taught by university professors and graduate students.
The program started at Yale University four years ago. It now has expanded to 12 universities, having added the University of Arizona for this year's summer sessions. More than 200 veterans are slated to participate this year. The host institutions are: the Universities of Arizona, Chicago, Michigan, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Oklahoma and Southern California; and Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, Syracuse and Yale Universities; and Vassar College.
"Post-9/11 veterans have an immense degree of untapped potential to succeed in higher education institutions and to progress on to successful careers. Yet college can be a significant challenge, even when the GI Bill and other sources of funding are helping pay tuition," said Sidney Ellington, the program's executive director, in a written statement. "To tap that potential and reduce obstacles to success, our boot camps address veterans’ misperceptions about college and build their confidence through an intense academic reorientation."
Pause a moment to consider the way we’ve been grading our students’ work since time immemorial. The way we allocate points on the basis of apparent quality. The way we struggle to be fair in giving the same number of points to works of comparable quality, even though they differ a great deal -- and the time it takes us to make these hairsplitting decisions. The way students stress over the points their work does or doesn’t get. The way they challenge our grading decisions in the hope of squeezing more points out of us -- despite the agonizing care and attention to detail we give to their work. For students, it’s all about maximizing partial credit.
Consider, too, the value that external stakeholders attach to our grading. Most employers of our graduates give grades little heed in hiring. They want experience. At the program and university level, accreditors eschew grades and demand independent evidence of student achievement of learning outcomes.
Our grading system is broken, yet we educators keep using it. You may think you have no alternative. But you do. And you can comfortably make the change in your own classes and not confront your administration.
Imagine another grading system, one where you grade all assignments and tests satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail. Students earn all of the points associated with the work, or none of them, depending on whether their work meets the particular specifications you laid out for it. This is why I call this grading system specifications, or specs, grading. Think of the specs as a one-level, uni-dimensional rubric. But don’t think of them as defining D or even C minus work. Rather, imagine that they define truly “satisfactory” as at least B work -- maybe even A minus work. This assures rigor.
The specs may be as simple as “completeness”: for instance, all the questions are answered, all the problems attempted in good faith or all the directions followed (that is, the work satisfies the assignment), plus the work meets a required length. Or the specs may be more complex: for instance, the work fulfills the criteria you set out for a good literature review, research proposal or substantial reflection.
You must write the specs for a complex assignment very carefully, clearly and thoroughly. They must describe exactly what features in the work you want and will look for. This may mean specifying the organization as well as contents of each section of the work, perhaps even paragraph by paragraph.
Too formulaic? Let’s be real: most of our assignments follow a formula. All you have to do is lay out that formula or whatever part of the formula is important for your students to learn and follow. If you’re bothered by late work, you can include on-time submission among the specs, too.
If your objective for an assignment is creativity, simply provide loose specs of the various ways that students can demonstrate their ability to explain and apply the material -- such as a 20-minute informational video or dramatic performance, a four-minute original musical performance, a 15-page short story or an eight-minute persuasive speech. You can specify basic parameters for creative assignments and not worry about “grading” them.
In sum, complete, satisfactory work receives full credit (full value), and incomplete, unsatisfactory receives no credit/value. For students, it’s all or nothing. No skipping the directions and no sliding by on partial credit for sloppy, last-minute work.
In fact, research reveals that this kind of assignment grading increases student motivation and produces higher-quality work than traditional grading systems do. And the 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement has found that only 54 percent of freshmen and 61 percent of seniors believe that they have been “highly challenged to do their best work” in college. Clearly, our students have room to meet higher and more rigorous academic standards. Maybe we’ve gone too far with lowering the stakes of our assignments and tests. Now, nothing students do matters much to them.
But what about second chances, redemption and flexibility? Consider this second element of specs grading: a virtual-token economy, which buffers the riskiness of no partial credit and allows the opportunity for redemption.
At the beginning of the term, you give your students one, two or three virtual tokens that give them the chance to revise an unsatisfactory assignment, hand in an assignment 24 hours late without penalty or to take a makeup exam. (It’s easier to keep track of three tokens than points docked.) Of course, students who consistently submit satisfactory work on time will keep their tokens. If you choose, you can even let students earn tokens by submitting satisfactory work early, successfully completing additional assignments or doing whatever you’d like to reward. Then, at the end of the course, you can give the student(s) with the most tokens something desirable -- perhaps the chance to skip the final exam or a gift certificate for a pizza.
Actually, you can import this token economy into any grading system. Many students regard it as a game and want to hoard their tokens.
Bundles of Assignments
Specs grading has one more exotic feature: course grades are based on the bundles of assignments and tests that students complete at a pass/satisfactory level. Bundles that require more work, more challenging work or both earn students higher grades. No more points to painstakingly allocate and haggle over with students. By choosing the bundle they want to complete, students select the final grade they want to earn, taking into account their motivation, time available, grade point needs and commitment. If a student chooses a C because that’s all he or she needs in your course, you can respect that. Under such conditions, students are often more motivated to learn because they have a sense of choice, volition, self-determination and responsibility for their grade, as well as less grade anxiety.
Another benefit is the option to associate each bundle with one or more student learning outcomes, so completing a given bundle indicates that the student has achieved certain of those outcomes. Why shouldn’t our grades reflect the outcomes students have and have not achieved? Then our grades may actually mean something.
Let’s admit that, right now, our grades have little connection to outcomes. Students earning an A may have achieved all the outcomes of a course, but what about those getting a B, a C or a D? Did they achieve some outcomes and not others? If so, which ones? Or did they achieve few or none at an acceptable level? Even so, they passed the course.
The idea of bundles can be hard to grasp without examples. Let’s say you set up 10 assignments and tests. These may be papers, essays, objective items, problem sets, programs, designs or some combination of these. Each assignment and test has a companion assignment that enhances its learning value, such as a self-regulated learning exercise, a self-assessment, a paraphrase of your feedback or a plan for doing better next time. Together, they form a bundle.
Then, number each bundle according to the challenge level so that the lower numbers designate relatively easy and lower-level thinking assignments and tests and the higher numbers indicate increasingly demanding and higher-level thinking assignments and tests. Therefore, your course offers 10 bundles.
For a D, students have to complete bundles 1 through 5, which require achieving only knowledge/recall outcomes, plus the ability to write brief reflections.
For a C, they have to complete bundles 1 through 6, where bundle 6 also requires comprehension, plus the ability to correct their errors.
For a B, they have to complete bundles 1 through 8, where bundles 7 and 8 also require application, plus the ability to plan improvement strategies.
For an A, they have to complete all 10 bundles, where bundles 9 and 10 also require evaluation and creation, plus the ability to assess their work.
Here is an even simpler system with only four bundles of assignments and tests, ranging from relatively easy/basic to very challenging/advanced. The more challenging bundles will require students to achieve more learning outcomes, including higher levels of thinking about broader and more complex knowledge.
For a D, students have to complete only the easiest and most basic bundle.
For a C, they have to complete that basic bundle and a somewhat more challenging one.
For a B, they have to complete these two bundles and a third one that is even more challenging.
For an A, they have to complete all four bundles, the fourth of which is the most challenging.
Again, to complete a bundle, a student must finish all the assignments and tests within it at a satisfactory level -- which means at least a B level. That is, each piece of work within a bundle must meet all your specs for satisfactory completion.
Specs grading is flexible. You can adopt one or two of the three elements, or apply an element in some cases and not others. For instance, you can integrate pass/fail grading and tokens into a course but retain your current point system. Or you may choose to grade only some assignments and tests pass/fail. Or you may institute bundles only for grades C and D, or only for grades A and B.
Some faculty members already use specs grading in their courses, in whole or in part, and they get better results than they did grading the traditional way. Most of them claim that their students produce higher-quality work, pay more attention to feedback, feel more responsible for their grades and are less grade anxious and less likely to protest their grades.
In addition, these instructors find the grading process simpler and less stressful and time-consuming. More of their time goes more toward figuring out what they want their students to show they can do and at what level.
So take heart. If you don’t like the impact that our grading system has on you and your students, you don’t have to tolerate it anymore.
Linda B. Nilson is director of the office of teaching effectiveness and innovation at Clemson University.
Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.
Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.
How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?
The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)
The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.
Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.
College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.
Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.
When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.
Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.
In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.
And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.
Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.
The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.
In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.
Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.
Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.
Submitted by Paul Fain on January 12, 2016 - 3:00am
Hobsons, a student-success-oriented company, will buy the Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework, a nonprofit learning-analytics project that last year was spun off from the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education. The commission began the project in 2011 as a collaboration between six online institutions, which shared data about student learning. Since then it broadened to include on-ground and competency-based institutions. The PAR currently has more than two dozen member institutions, according to Hobsons. The company also recently bought Starfish Retention Services, which uses software to try to boost student retention.
From angry student protests to the backlash that paints them as coddled and pampered, we have reached a watershed moment on college and university campuses across this country as we begin 2016. Empowered and emboldened by their peers at the University of Missouri and many other institutions, students have presented college presidents, faculty members and administrators with lists of demands meant to address discrimination, racism and sexism, and to create more inclusive environments.
Those requests have been wide-ranging: hire more minority faculty, remove the names of donors and patrons implicated in colonialism and racism from buildings, include questions about microaggressions against students in faculty evaluations. And that’s just the short list.
The pushback against these students has been equally lively and includes outright mockery and ridicule -- citing the grammatical errors in a list of demands, for example. Some observers have criticized the students for being too sensitive. The president of one university accused some of them of wanting to “arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn.” Unfortunately, those are precisely the responses we would expect when those with power are being challenged.
But some of the reactions of college administrators and faculty members are well reasoned. Certain things can’t be accomplished within existing faculty governance structures -- or if they can, they will take time. For example, much of the faculty hiring process is well beyond the jurisdiction of students. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect not just students but also faculty members.
Those are, in fact, reasonable responses. But sometimes administrators, faculty members, and other campus leaders have undercut those responses with an air of impatience and frustration: students just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the college or university works. They don’t understand the role of faculty. They don’t understand history.
All of which prompts me to ask, as students return to classes: Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Until this past year, our hand-wringing about students focused on their apathy and selfishness. We criticized Millennials for their passivity and lack of empathy. But lately they’ve been standing up, asking questions, criticizing the system and arguing not just for themselves but also on behalf of others. Isn’t this precisely the behavior we wanted?
Certainly, their responses are sometimes naïve, sometimes overly ambitious. They haven’t always reflected the complexities of the higher education environment and its management. But that’s OK. They’re college students. College should be the place where they try on controversial ideas, push the envelope, make demands. And get things wrong sometimes.
What if we -- administrators and faculty members -- leveraged this moment? There is an opportunity here. We have the students’ attention -- perhaps for some less than ideal reasons, but we have their attention nonetheless. The question is, what are we going to do with it?
We could simply rebuff them and say that they need to “humbly learn.” What if, rather than rejecting their ideas outright and saying they just don’t understand how things work, we taught them how the university works, acknowledging that it doesn’t always work well? What if we engaged their demands and told them to bring their critical-thinking skills (which we say we are teaching them in every curricular assessment report I’ve ever read) to bear on the situation?
To take just one example: the historian in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if we harnessed the student critique of donors, patrons, named buildings and the like to examine our institutional histories. I’m envisioning a series of conversations among faculty members, students and administrators that explored the lives of the historical figures whom students find controversial and whose names they want erased from the institution. Rather than dismissing such demands out of hand as too sensitive or misinformed, we should use students’ demands and critiques to further their education and the cultivation of critical-thinking skills.
What if professors and students engaged in the process of curricular design to increase the diversity of course offerings? We could harness student enthusiasm for particular issues and topics and involve them in the research and work necessary to guide curricula in new directions.
What if we pulled back the curtain and let students see what shared governance and the administration of higher education looks like? I’ve mentioned a university’s obligation to protect its faculty members -- which to students often sounds like an excuse for inaction. But what if we invited them to participate in a series of conversations about academic freedom and what it protects?
Even as I pose these questions, I know why we haven’t done it yet. Digging deep into the past of our institutions’ donors and patrons might result in some uncomfortable discoveries. It might even incite the removal of those names from our campus buildings. Involving students in curricular design would mean exposing our teaching and pedagogy. And a conversation about academic freedom? I can’t even get my colleagues to have such a discussion among themselves, much less with students and administrators.
The reason we hesitate is because these protests and these demands, even when they are naïve and even when they overreach, challenge our power and authority. But that’s just it: we have the power and the authority in this situation. And without perhaps fully realizing it, our students may be asking us to use it in the service of their education. Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for?
Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University and vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.
A University of Missouri at Columbia task force is recommending better pay for graduate assistants, increased access to housing and child care for graduate students, and more shared governance, along with other improvements, theColumbia Daily Tribune reported. The news follows months of turmoil on campus over climate concerns and the news in August that the university was eliminating health insurance subsidies for graduate students because they did not comply with the Affordable Care Act. The health care changes were soon suspended, and a task force on graduate students' concerns picked up the issue.
The task force, formed by Leona Rubin, associate vice chancellor for graduate studies at the request of Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin (who has since resigned), looked at three things: quality-of-life issues for graduate students, nonacademic resources and academic experiences. Its newly issued report recommends the university increase minimum stipends for graduate students with 20-hour appointments to $18,000 annually by 2020, whereas some students currently make as little as $14,000, according to the Tribune.
For many of our students, procrastination is a monster hiding in the closet.
At least once a semester, one of us will receive a last-minute email from a student with a question that, had that student been working on a project in advance, he or she would have asked days before bumping up against the deadline. Or, similarly, we will sometimes receive questions from students an hour before class claiming that the link that we sent for the day’s reading did not work.
These are the telltale signs of students suffering from procrastination syndrome. And it would be easy to say, “Start earlier next time,” and then move on. But as we note the level of anxiety, panic and supercharged emotion that our students express when they come clean about a botched timeline or poor planning, we realize that working through a habit of procrastination is too important a quality-of-life issue for our students to dismiss so easily. As we’ve asked them: Isn’t it better to know what sort of monster is hiding in the closet than to wait for it to come lurching out unexpectedly -- and at the worst possible moment?
It seems to us that the more we understand procrastination and think it through with our students, the more we can help them build lifelong habits that allow them to be successful in our writing classes. Indeed, antiprocrastination habits can also help students manage the many competing priorities in their busy schedules as well as help us all remember what’s really important in life.
The Many Faces of Procrastination
When you get right down to it, procrastination really involves the what-ifs of Murphy’s Law that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. This should be the main motivator behind procrastination awareness. It’s always a good idea to have a backup plan. Don’t put off getting started on a project because it feels like it will be easy to put together. Start assembling resources, outlining, thinking forward and scheduling activities to avoid the unexpected. When a project is due, leave yourself plenty of wiggle room for issues with printing, traffic, parking, finding the drop-off place for paperwork, etc.
A health sciences team that one of us once worked with famously told and retold the story of a National Institutes of Health grant application that was five minutes too late for the FedEx truck. An important project was delayed funding for a whole year because a copy machine ran out of paper and the team had not allotted enough time to the final stages of the job. The more we can help our students realize that these sorts of habits -- being prepared, starting early, problem solving in advance -- can make or break a project, the sooner they can start taking action.
But what about students who have writing or performance anxiety? Such students stand to gain the most from developing antiprocrastination tactics. If they experience the gains that can occur if they start on projects earlier, they will begin to feel their anxiety lessen. If the paper is due in two weeks, they can start right away by analyzing and note taking on the assignment sheet, breaking the assignment down into discrete stages or tasks. That simple act will activate the composing process, launching the task in their minds. Starting earlier on the assignment or task might lead to better time management, including catching any unforeseen time sensitivities well in advance.
Complicating the picture slightly, procrastination does offer some positive possibilities. Sometimes writers need to put a project aside for a later time to let it stew or to allow thinking to mature. And if we teach our students that this approach can be a productive conscious part of their own processes, we can again help them to build more conscientious tactics. People who work hard not to procrastinate develop a good working sense of when to put something off strategically and when to dive into something more forcefully. Sometimes procrastinating on a project might be a sign that we aren’t quite ready to grapple with something about it -- perhaps for good reasons.
Helping Students Develop Procrastination Awareness
Procrastination syndrome is a tough phenomenon to deal with. It can take many subtle and not-so-subtle forms: the student who always seems to have a rough draft, no matter how much time he’s been given to write a paper; the student who always goes missing on the day a draft of a paper is due; the student who just always seems anxious about something.
In line with the context that we’ve offered above, we can take further steps to help students develop strategies to manage and work toward overcoming procrastination:
We can discuss with them valid reasons why people procrastinate. If you ask students whether they consider themselves procrastinators, most will say that they are. But then if you ask why they tend to procrastinate, they have to think about it a bit. The beginning of any procrastination-awareness intervention starts with the question of why we procrastinate: because we’re feeling overwhelmed, because we are uncertain about where to start, because we are fearful of failure, because we really would rather not do what we know we have to do.
We can start nudging students to think about the different reasons for procrastination and to start to make distinctions between wise waiting and unhelpful delaying.
We can share with students our own experiences with procrastination. If we are anxious about writing or performing, we can confess that to students -- many of whom share this anxiety and would appreciate hearing it from an instructor. If we’ve ever lost a significant amount of work due to not saving it in more than once place, students will see that it can happen to anyone. And if we tell students the story of how we arrived late (and embarrassed) to that important interview or conference presentation because we simply did not leave enough time to find what turned out to be a labyrinthine locale, we will be reiterating a lesson applicable to many other circumstances.
As teachers of writing and other creative performances, we can try to build antiprocrastination fail-safes into our curriculum. Portfolio assessment systems, for example, offer students the opportunity to experience their writing tasks as works in progress. We can give students opportunities to see just how good a piece of writing can become if they have enough time, space and opportunity to revise multiple drafts of their work throughout the course of a term. The peer pressure involved in working together closely and extensively with a peer writing group can also nudge them to meet deadlines more responsibly.
Finally, students can internalize this (almost) procrastination-proof process more deeply if we ask them to write reflectively and critically about what they learned from the process. Most of our students come to realize the benefits of starting early and staying persistent.
Life, Work, Time
So what if students procrastinate? The cream will always rise to the top. The good students will always be more proactive and thoughtful. It’s not really that big of a deal, is it?
Well, it might actually be about as big as a deal can get. In her memoir The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware details her experiences working as a palliative nurse with people in their last three to 12 weeks of life. She discusses the top five regrets, or things they would have done differently, that repeatedly surfaced in all their stories. All of those regrets seem to revolve around important things people kept putting off: not living a life true to themselves and their dreams, not taking time away from work, not sharing their feelings with the people they loved the most, not keeping in touch with friends, and not letting themselves be happy. We always seem to think we will have enough time to get to, start or restart the big deals in life … later.
These quality-of-life questions remind us of Thomas Carlyle’s antiprocrastination exhortation in Sartor Resartus (“The Tailor Retailored”). Carlyle proclaims the importance of what he learned from Professor Teufelsdrӧckh about not waiting too long on the most important life choices and actions:
I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even a Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.
(And we might well replace the words “work” in the last sentence with “start.”) If we try, we can perhaps also help our students retailor some of their most pernicious procrastination habits of mind.
But, of course, we must not wait too long in starting to offer our students some of this potentially lifelong good advice.
Steven J. Corbett is a visiting assistant professor of English at George Mason University, and Michelle LaFrance is an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at the university. They are co-editors (with Teagan Decker) of the collection Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom (Fountainhead Press, 2014).