• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Yeah, We're Really Screwing This Up

I think there's a different path out of the "crisis" of higher education.

December 4, 2014

I can’t remember when I stopped explicitly punishing the failure to turn in preliminary drafts of assignments, i.e., docking the grade on the final version, but it’s been awhile.

It was sometime after I read Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do and learned that the most effective teachers tend to cede as much control in the classroom as possible to students. I’d been heading in this direction already, as over the years I’d discovered that I was dispositionally ill-suited to being an authoritarian, and the examples in Bain’s book encouraged me to take the leap to first dump any explicit punishment for missing class, followed shortly thereafter by amending my policy on missing drafts[1].

This brought my policies in line with my beliefs, that missing the peer exchange and feedback is its own punishment, as has been proven time and again in the demonstrably superior performance of students who do turn in the drafts and take advantage of the feedback and opportunity to revise[2].

I believe that students do their best and most meaningful work when they have the maximum freedom to explore their own interests. Sometimes that freedom is going to result in them choosing to not do the drafts for my assignments. Sometimes their reasons are sensible (an important exam in another class), while other times they’re silly, (insert non-essential activity here), but in either case, students are going to learn something about choice and consequences from their decision, which is maybe one of the most important things a college education can deliver.

As much as I think freedom is a necessary condition for our best work, this freedom also means that fewer drafts are turned in, and because fewer drafts are turned in, the final, graded versions are not as good as they would have been otherwise, which means that while some of my students are thriving because they have been set free, there is another group that is receiving lower grades than they otherwise might.

The sample is too small to make any definitive conclusions, but the latter group, the ones who are not consistently doing drafts, seems to be growing[3].

This was especially pronounced with this semester’s final researched essay, which had three draft check-ins prior to the final version being due. Out of 36 students over two sections, only 21 turned in a fresh draft at each checkpoint.

Eleven students turned in either zero or only one draft prior to the final version.

Because I do end of semester conferences with each student after grading their final projects, I decided to ask them what was going on, ask them why they didn’t turn in drafts.

The most common answer: fear.

Somewhere along the line, these students have been inculcated with the idea that everything academics-related is of the highest stakes and that when they know what they’re working on isn’t good, the anxiety gets so high, they experience a kind of paralysis of self-judgment.

They type and type and delete and delete.

This belief is so strong that it persists even in the face of a semester-long discussion about how all writing is bad when it is in draft form, that writing is a process where we cannot hope to get it right the first time we put words on the page, and that getting some words on the page is a necessary pre-requisite for making the not-yet-good thing into an actually-good thing.

These students are capable of turning in a final version because the fear of failing the class supersedes these other anxieties, and they finally churn out something – something they know isn’t very good - but something that will at least pass.

And they’re miserable about it[4].

And it makes my heart crack a little, and I start wonder if I need to go back to punishing missing drafts, if I am damaging them by insisting they be free.


Coincidentally, as I was engaging my end-of-semester conferences, I read Goldie Blumenstyk’s appreciation of Big Data student surveillance technology in the New York Times.

The essay touts various monitoring tools employed by universities used to track both their students’ academic and non-academic behaviors. For example, Ball State monitors ID swipes at their career center, while Arizona State’s eAdvisor software steers students to courses and majors where they (statistically speaking, based on the performance of other students with similar demographic and academic profiles) have the best chance of success (as defined by good grades).

Blumenstyk offers a faint whiff of concern before turning toward a full-throated endorsement, “Big Brother-esque? Perhaps. But these ‘big data’ developments have the potential to cut the cost of higher education for students and their families, as well as for taxpayers.”

Blumenstyk’s approach is an acknowledgment that when it comes to education, the stakes are now unbelievably high. Costs to students may result in a lifetime of debt. When that debt is coupled with a failure to complete the degree, we’re looking at a life ruined before they get out of the gate.

Blumenstyk says that in today’s world, “Students, especially low income ones don’t have the luxury of making mistakes in the name of exploration.”

We are, according to Blumenstyk, in a “crisis,” and analytics is the road out.

Apparently, we have no choice but to establish these systems that will herd students through the educational chutes as efficiently as possible.

But each of Blumenstyk’s examples fills me with more despair than the last. To survive this crisis, are asked to abandon what I assumed are the fundamental underpinnings of education, free choice and opportunity.

Blumenstyk’s essay makes clear that we are now compelled to see education as a system, with students as cogs inside of this system. Being individuals is too expensive. Failure is not an option.

And really, this is just an extension of the systems our students have experienced in their K-12 educations.

I can't say that they are comfortable with this because they appear to be genuinely suffering under this system, but they are at least familiar with it.

Having a Deanlet (or more likely, an app) contact them because my course software informs the administration that drafts haven’t been turned in will be entirely ordinary, expected even.

And we will continue to destroy them, bit by bit.

What happens when we run out of apps?


It’s not coincidental that the sorts of places that allow students to make mistakes in the name of exploration, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, et al, will not be putting these algorithms to use because the university as paternalistic surveillance state isn’t consistent with genuine student welfare.

Freedom’s just another word for something that’s too expensive for anyone other than the wealthy to possess.

The chief beneficiaries of the surveillance state university will be the corporations (some of which will be housed inside the universities) that stand to make billions selling these tech-based “solutions[5]” to problems we’ve created because we refuse to see education as a collective endeavor, because we refuse to see education as a public good.

To my eye, Blumenstyk describes a dystopia. That she seems to be urging us to move towards it makes me wonder if I’m inside a nightmare.

A significant portion of my students fear failure even when there are no stakes. I can’t imagine what happens when they receive their daily or hourly or even real-time alerts on their academic progress sent to their biofeedback sensors[6].

Will I have students jolting awake in class when those sensors detect a slowing of respiration and pulse?

Paging Professor Pavlov.

Maybe I too can be assessed using the data. We shall conduct class inside giant MRI machines that measure our brain activity. The brighter the lights on the scan, the better the instructor.

RateMyProfessor better get on this, lest they be left behind.


I have a different idea to the current crisis: Let’s lower the stakes.

Let’s make education affordable.

Let’s have a society where decent-paying jobs are available to people without four-year degrees.

Let’s pay all faculty a wage that allows them to do the kind of work that makes a difference in students’ lives.

I will never understand why we subject students to treatment we would never accept for ourselves.

And yet, here we are.


[1] This is coupled with an almost zero-tolerance policy for not turning in the final draft on time. Late drafts are not accepted. Failure to turn in any major assignment results in a failing grade.

[2] It took a couple semesters for students to even notice that I didn’t punish missing drafts. They came in assuming that missing any deadline would be met with a grade deduction.

[3] Because I collect digital copies of all drafts I can track the percentage of drafts that are turned in. Data!

[4] Yesterday’s IHE article about Wake Forest’s “Recommended Resting” program is exhibit 1,457,980 testifying to the outsized anxiety our students experience.

[5] Let’s not forget that the promises of things like adaptive software and computer mediated instruction are, as of yet, entirely illusory.

[6] No doubt someone’s already working on this, and is convinced it’s a good idea.


We can talk it on a Twitter, 140 characters at a time.



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