Why We Need the SMART Program

For the first 20 years of my adult life I served on research universities’ faculties, worked with medical students, and wrote peer-reviewed papers. As a medical doctor, a scientist, and a professor, I had enormous pride in the strength of America’s scientific establishment. The United States trains the world’s best scientists, runs the best research universities, and attracts the brightest minds from all over the world. Year after year, we take the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes.

I proposed the SMART Grant Program to make sure that we retain our global leadership in the sciences. The program will provide grants up to $4,000 on top of Pell Grants (a total of $8,050 in assistance per year) to help bright, hard-working, full time students of modest means pursue degrees in math, science, and strategic foreign languages. Between now and 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that almost 600,000 students will benefit from the program. These students, I am sure, will go on to teach at our leading research universities, run our top medical research labs, and administer our national science establishment. For them, the program will help a lot: at most land grant universities, in-state students receiving the maximum Pell Grant and a SMART Grant will pay no tuition for their last two years of college. Much of the money to finance SMART Grants comes from revisions to student loan formulas that ask private banks to accept reduced profits.

The SMART Grant program will also help America’s research universities retain their global preeminence. Today, India and China together graduate more than twice as many engineers as the United States. Both nations will continue to increase their ranks of scientists and engineers rapidly in the coming years. Meanwhile, many American employers have a difficult time finding qualified scientists and engineers. Since 85 percent of growth in U.S. income comes from technological change, we need to do everything we can to encourage our best and brightest to enter key scientific fields.

I designed the program with the needs of students and research universities in mind. College presidents, families, and students told me that financial pressures turned many bright students away from pursuing math, science, engineering, and languages. Friends of mine like James Wingate, the president of LeMoyne-OwenCollege, and Gordon Gee, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, knew about the program from its origins and joined me in praising SMART Grants after the Senate passed the legislation.

I know that some college officials have expressed doubts about the way the program shifts away from the traditional practice of awarding federal aid to undergraduates based primarily on economic need rather than merit. But while I believe that the federal government should provide generous financial assistance to students with a wide range of abilities, I see no reason to apologize for creating a program targeted towards the very type of bright, motivated students nearly all colleges seek to recruit. I’m shocked that some of SMART Grants’ critics appear to believe that low-income students can’t earn good grades. While they use the same financial eligibility criteria, the SMART and Pell Grant programs will remain distinct; one won’t impact the other. The program also limits itself to full time students because they pay the most tuition and have the greatest financial need. Although fiscal considerations will play a role in future action, I am open to proposals that would expand SMART Grants to cover needy part-time students who meet similar academic criteria.

I helped create SMART Grants to help bright students from all backgrounds to learn the skills most vital to our country. The future of our nation’s global leadership depends on America’s ability to produce more graduates with degrees in science and engineering. Once they understand it, I believe that America’s great colleges and universities will welcome the SMART Grant program with open arms.

Author's email: 

Sen. Bill Frist, a former assistant professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical School, is majority leader of the United States Senate.

Stolen Words

What I remember about that morning was that the black cloud was already overhead when I woke up. It followed me around. My wife wondered what all the sighing was about.

"Today I ruin this guy’s life," I told her. "His department told me he has office hours around noon. He’s going to pick up the phone, and when he does, I’m going to have to ask him questions that will be humiliating. It's going to ruin his life.” 

“You shouldn’t look at it that way,” she said. “He did it to himself.” 

True enough. I had a dossier of material showing that the professor in question had engaged in plagiarism -- quite a lot of it, actually, and in the very book that had gotten him tenure. 

One author he plagiarized from had assembled a document in what seems to be the classic format for such cases. The lefthand column contained paragraphs of her work. The one on the right was from his book, published several years later, copied more or less word for word, with the occasional minuscule tweak of phrase or punctuation -- but without so much as a faint gesture of acknowledgment in the text, the footnotes, or the bibliography. 

As I found through some digging, she was not the only author he had expropriated. (It is a safe generalization that plagiarists are always serial offenders.) With the other aggrieved parties, he had come to some kind of quiet agreement -- while the university he worked for remained none the wiser. That was about to change.

I would give him a chance to explain himself, of course. But really there was not much he could say. Plagiarism is one offense where simply presenting the evidence often amounts to conviction.

To be honest, researching the story had involved a certain amount of aggressive glee on my part. There is a special pleasure that comes from establishing an airtight case. (Besides, the superego is a bit of a sadist.) But now, with the prospect of actually talking to the guy looming, it was surprising to feel contempt give way to pity. His luck had run out. In a couple of days, he would be notorious. It felt as if I were serving as his judge, jury, and executioner – not to mention the court stenographer. Oddly enough, I felt guilty.

Besides, the psychology of the serial plagiarist is so puzzling as to be a fairly absorbing mystery. So I’d discovered a few years earlier from Norman Fruman’s book Coleridge, the Damaged Archangel (Brazillier, 1971).

The poet had not simply borrowed a thought or image here and there. Some of the occasional borrowings in his verse might be discounted as, well, poetic license. After all this time, the fact that Coleridge extracted large parts of his theory of imagination from the work of German philosophers seems more interesting than it is shocking. (The notion of intertextuality can be used to excuse a variety of sins.)

But when you learn that most of Coleridge’s prose writings were also copied from other writers -- often from Grub Street hacks of his day -- then it seems that something very odd is going on. And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to think of his kleptomania. Should you be indignant? Or just perplexed?

As for the 21st century professor .... he was no tortured Romantic genius. He did sound mortified when I called, and deeply regretful. He also managed to blame his graduate student assistant, who, he asserted, was somehow the one really at fault. (Just as the two-column format is the standard way of documenting plagiarism, so, it seems, the grad-student assistant is the standard scapegoat, at least with light-fingered academics.)

That half-hearted acceptance of responsibility on his part did the trick. My ambivalence vanished. A week or so later, the university announced that he had resigned from his position. I felt neither pride nor guilt -- only the mild curiosity appropriate to something that's now really none of your business.

But the topic of plagiarism itself keeps returning. One professor after another gets caught in the act. The journalists and popular writers are just as prolific with other people's words. And as for the topic of student plagiarism, forget it -- who has time to keep up?

It was not that surprising, last fall, to come across the call for papers  for a new scholarly journal called Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. I made a mental note to check its Web site again -- and see that it began publishing this month.

One study is already available at the site: an analysis of how the federal Office of Research Integrity handled 19 cases of plagiarism involving research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service. Another paper, scheduled for publication shortly, will review media coverage of the Google Library Project. Several other articles are now working their way through peer review, according to the journal’s founder, John P. Lesko, an assistant professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, and will be published throughout the year in open-source form. There will also be an annual print edition of Plagiary. The entire project has the support of the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan.

In a telephone interview, Lesko told me that research into plagiarism is central to his own scholarship. His dissertation, titled “The Dynamics of Derivative Writing,” was accepted by the University of Edinburgh in 2000 -- extracts from which appear at his Web site Famous Plagiarists, which he says now gets between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors per month. 

While the journal Plagiary has a link to Famous Plagiarists, and vice versa, Lesko insists that they are separate entities -- the former scholarly and professional, the latter his personal project. And that distinction is a good thing, too. Famous Plagiarists tends to hit a note of stridency such that, when Lesko quotes Camille Paglia denouncing the poststructuralists as “cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents' generations in Nazi France,” she seems almost calm and even-tempered by contrast.

“It seems that both Foucault and Barthes' contempt for the Author was expressed in some rather plagiaristic utterances,” he writes, “a parroting of the Nietschean ‘God is dead’ assertion.” That might strike some people as confusing allusion with theft. But Lesko is vehement about how the theorists have served as enablers for the plagiarists, as well as the receivers of hot cargo.

“After all,” he writes, “a plagiarist -- so often with the help of collaborators and sympathizers -- steals the very livelihood of a text’s real author, thus relegating that author to obscurity for as long as the plagiarist’s name usurps a text, rather than the author being recognized as the text's originator. Plagiarism of an author condemns that author to death as a text’s rightfully acknowledged creator...”  (The claim that Barthes and Foucault were involved in diminishing the reputation of Nietzsche has not, I believe, ever been made before.)

To a degree, his frustration is understandable. In some quarters, it is common to recite – as though it were an established truth, rather than an extrapolation from one of Foucault’s essays – the idea that plagiarism is a “historically constructed” category of fairly recent vintage: something that came into being around the 18th century, when a capitalistically organized publishing industry found it necessary to foster the concept of literary property.

A very interesting argument to be sure -- though not one that holds up under much scrutiny.  

The term “plagiarism” in its current sense is about two thousand years old. It was coined by the Roman poet Martial, who complained that a rival was biting his dope rhymes. (I translate freely.) Until he applied the word in that context, plagiarius had meant someone who kidnapped slaves. Clearly some notion of literary property was already implicit in Martial’s figure of speech, which dates to the first century A.D.

At around the same time, Jewish scholars were putting together the text of that gigantic colloquium known as the Talmud, which contains a passage exhorting readers to be scrupulous about attributing their sources. (And in keeping with that principle, let me acknowledge pilfering from the erudition of Stuart P. Green, a professor of law at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, whose fascinating paper "Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights" appeared in the Hastings Law Review in 2002.)

In other words, notions of plagiarism and of authorial integrity are very much older than, say, the Romantic cult of the absolute originality of the creative genius. (You know -- that idea Coleridge ripped off from Kant.)

At the same time, scholarship on plagiarism should probably consist of something more than making strong cases against perpetrators of intellectual thievery. That has its place, of course. But how do you understand it when artists and writers make plagiarism a deliberate and unambiguous policy? I’m thinking of Kathy Acker’s novels, for example. Or the essayist and movie maker Guy Debord’s proclamation in the 1960s: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it.” (Which he, in turn, had copied from the avant-garde writer Lautreamont, who had died almost a century earlier.)

Why, given the potential for humiliation, do plagiarists run the risk? Are people doing it more, now?  Or is it, rather, now just a matter of more people getting caught?

Given Lesko’s evident passion on the topic of plagiarism as a moral transgression – embodied most strikingly, perhaps, in his color-coded War on Plagiarism Threat Level Analysis – I had to wonder if the doors of Plagiary would be open to scholars not sharing his perspective.

Was it worth the while of, say, a Foucauldian to offer him a paper? 

“It may be that I’m a bit more conservative than some scholars,” he conceded. But he points out that manuscripts submitted to Plagiary undergo a double-blind review process. They are examined by three reviewers – most of them, but not all, from the journal’s editorial board. 

There is no ideological or theoretical litmus test, and he’s actively seeking contributions from people you might not expect. “I’m willing to consider articles from plagiarists,” he said. 

That’s certainly throwing the door wide open. You would probably want to vet their work pretty carefully, though. 

Author's email: 

Memo From the Chairman

College officials and members of the public are watching with intense interest -- and, in some quarters, trepidation -- the proceedings of the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Given that interest, the following is a memorandum that the panel's chairman, Charles Miller, wrote to its members offering his thinking about one of its thorniest subjects: accountability. As always on Inside Higher Ed, comments are welcomed below.


To: Members, The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education

From: Charles Miller, Chairman   

Dear Commission Members:

The following is a synopsis of several ongoing efforts, in support of the Commission, in one of our principal areas of focus, "Accountability." The statements and opinions presented in the memo are mine and are not intended to be final conclusions or recommendations, although there may be a developing consensus.
I would appreciate feedback, directly or through the staff, in any form that is most convenient. This memo will be made public in order to promote and continue an open dialogue on measuring institutional performance and student learning in higher education.


As a Commission, our discussions to date have shown a number of emerging demands on the higher education system, which require us to analyze, clarify and reframe the accountability discussion. Four key goals or guiding principles in this area are beginning to take shape. 
First, more useful and relevant information is needed. The federal government currently collects a vast amount of information, but unfortunately policy makers, universities, students and taxpayers continue to lack key information to enable them to make informed decisions.
Second, we need to improve, and even fix, current accountability processes, such as accreditation, to ensure that our colleges and universities are providing the highest quality education to their students. 
Third, we need to do a much better job of aligning our resources to our broad societal needs. In order to remain competitive, our system of higher education must provide a world-class education that prepares students to compete in a global knowledge economy.  
And finally, we need to assure that the American public understand through access to sufficient information, particularly in the area of student learning, what they are getting for their investment in a college education.       

Commission Meeting (12/6/05)

At our Nashville meeting, the Commission heard three presentations from a panel on “Accountability.” Panelists represented the national, state and institutional perspectives and in the subsequent discussion, an informal consensus developed that there is a critical need for improved public information systems to measure and compare institutional performance and student learning in consumer-friendly formats, defining consumers broadly as students, families, taxpayers, policy makers and the general public.


Needs for a Modern University Education

The college education needed for the competitive, global environment in the future is far more than specific, factual knowledge; it is about capability and capacity to think and develop and continue to learn. An insightful quote from an educator describes the situation well:

“We are attempting to educate and prepare students (hire people in the workforce) today so that they are ready to solve future problems, not yet identified, using technologies not yet invented, based on scientific knowledge not yet discovered.”    

--Professor Joseph Lagowski, University of Texas at Austin


Trends in Measuring Student Learning

There is gathering momentum for measuring through testing what students learn or what skills they acquire in college beyond a traditional certificate or degree.

Very recently, new testing instruments have been developed which measure an important set of skills to be acquired in college: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communications.

The Commission is reviewing promising new developments in the area of student testing, which indicate a significant improvement in measuring student learning and related institutional performance. Three independent efforts have shown promise:

  • A multi-year trial by the Rand Corporation, which included 122 higher education institutions, led to the development of a test measuring critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other skills. As a result of these efforts, a new entity called Collegiate Learning Assessment has been formed by researchers involved and the tests will now be further developed and marketed widely.
  • A new test measuring college level reading, mathematics, writing and critical thinking has been developed by the Educational Testing Service and will begin to be marketed in January 2006. This test is designed for colleges to assess their general education outcomes, so the results may be used to improve the quality of instruction and learning.
  • The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education developed a new program of testing student learning in five states, which has provided highly promising results and which suggests expansion of such efforts would be clearly feasible.

An evaluation of these new testing regimes provides evidence of a significant advancement in measuring student learning -- especially in measuring the attainment of skills most needed in the future. 
Furthermore, new educational delivery models are being created, such as the Western Governors University, which uses a variety of built-in assessment techniques to determine the achievement of certain skills being taught, rather than hours-in-a-seat. These new models are valid alternatives to the older models of teaching and learning and may well prove to be superior for some teaching and learning objectives in terms of cost effectiveness.


Institutional Leadership

There are constructive examples of leadership in higher education in addressing the issues of accountability and student learning, such as the excellent work by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The AAC&U has developed a unique and significant approach to accountability and learning assessment, discussed in two recent reports, “Our Students’ Best Work” (2004) and “Liberal Education Outcomes” (2005).

The AAC&U accountability model focuses on undergraduate liberal arts education and emphasizes learning outcomes. The primary purpose is to engage campuses in identifying the core elements of a quality liberal arts education experience and measuring students’ experience in achieving these goals -- core learning and skills that anyone with a liberal arts degree should have. AAC&U specifically does not endorse a single standardized test, but acknowledges that testing can be a useful part of the multiple measures recommended in their framework.

In this model, departments and faculty are expected to be given the primary responsibility to define and assess the outcomes of the liberal arts education experience.

Federal and State Leadership    

The federal government currently collects a great deal of information from the higher education system. It may be time to re-examine what the government collects to make sure that it’s useful and helpful to the consumers of the system.

Many states are developing relevant state systems of accountability in order to measure the performance of public higher education institutions. In its recommendations about accountability in higher education, the State Higher Education Executive Officers group has endorsed a focus on learning assessment.

Institutional Performance Measurement

What is clearly lacking is a nationwide system for comparative performance purposes, using standard formats. Private ranking systems, such as the U.S. News and World Report “Best American Colleges” publications, use a limited set of data, which is not necessarily relevant for measuring institutional performance or providing the public with information needed to make critical decisions.

The Commission, with assistance of its staff and other advisors and consultants, is attempting to develop the framework for a viable database to measure institutional performance in a consumer-friendly, flexible format.


Historically, accreditation has been the nationally mandated mechanism to improve institutional quality and assure a basic level of accountability in higher education. 

Accreditation and related issues of articulation are in need of serious reform in the view of many, especially the need for more outcomes-based approaches. Also in need of substantial improvement are the regional variability in standards, the independence of accreditation, its usefulness for consumers, and its response to new forms of delivery such as internet-based distance learning.

The Commission is reviewing the various practices of institutional and programmatic accreditation. A preliminary analysis will be presented and various possible policy recommendations will be developed.

Author's email: 

Tenure Decision

after Madam Professor

Please let me know you’re happier than
It's not hard. The big thing in my day
(picking up wind-broken branches)
has already been done by more wind,
the fierceness of bare limbs, and kids
crazy with glee to fill a red wheel
with their poetry while I gaze out the
seeing mostly a writing-crazed writing
stressed out about writing
before the school term even begins.

I should be more like that academic
Ph.D. genius of a Sociology professor,
the one who when charged as a prostitute
explained her intelligent instruction
and discourse with professional clients
(while providing companionship)
was what the money was for.
Anything else is a personal choice
between consenting colleagues,
be it college or marriage.

Author's email: 

Will Hochman is an associate professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University. His new book of poems, Freer, will be published this spring by Pecan Grove Press.

An Idea Too Dangerous to Ignore

To Andrew Jones and the Bruin Alumni Association:

When ideas are merely bad, it is often best to ignore them. But when bad ideas are also dangerous and based on fallacious assumptions, and when they set up convenient straw men rather than dealing with the real problems, it is better to speak up against them. You appear to be deeply concerned about the type of education that hard-working college students receive, and you claim to be concerned about the "debasement" of higher education. In this we are in complete agreement.

With tuitions increasing at alarming rates; with federal research funding for higher education leveling off and in serious danger of decreasing due to a ballooning federal deficit; and with the value of humanistic inquiry and critical analysis needed as much now as at any other moment in history, we all ought to be actively fighting the debasement of education in the United States.

But the solution you offer is not centrally concerned with such trifling matters. Your solution is to pay students to tape or transcribe their professors’ lectures and provide you with other documentation of ideological “intrusions” into the classroom in order to help you gather momentum in the political sphere to impose restrictions on academic speech. There are several fundamental errors in your logic, and I would like to take this opportunity to address only the most egregious ones.

You claim to be most interested in providing students with a proper educational experience untainted by professors’ ideological intrusions, but in order to achieve this, you then ask the students to impose on their own educational experience by taking the time and energy to provide you with detailed information that you hope to use as evidence in support of your arguments about, as you say, “ideological issue[s] that have nothing to do with the class subject matter.” Can you explain how a student taking notes on other students’ reactions to statements made by their instructor, or taking particular care to transcribe an instructor’s “non-pertinent ideological comments” is not being diverted from the true matter of the class?

If your real concern is with burning away anything from the course that could be considered extraneous to the subject matter, one has to wonder why you think that paying students to perform tasks aside from their own reading, attendance, writing, studying, and participation would not also be a diversion from the true purpose of their class time. Because, as you argue, your “standards” for accepting evidence of radical proselytization are so exacting, “[t]he fees paid to students are truly nominal compensation for the extra work we demand.” This is particularly confusing. Is it the case that you are not interested solely in providing students with detailed information about which petitions a given professor signed, but with using these overworked and underpaid students as cheap labor for your own ideological ends?

Many students struggle daily to pay their way through college. In addition to the unpaid labor of their work as students, many of them work in demanding, low-paying jobs that are often insufficient to cover their expenses, even though many of them sacrifice precious study time, a social life, and even their own physical and mental health in order to attend college. I made similar sacrifices as a student, scrambling to keep up with my studies while also being concerned with how I was going to afford groceries each week. Your plan to dangle money in front of impoverished students is akin to the credit card companies that provide free pizza or T-shirts to those same students for filling out an application. In both cases, the parties that will benefit most from such transactions are not the students themselves, but those who have exploited their poverty for their own ends. Your offer reeks of opportunism. At the same time, you offer a crass material incentive for students to perform activities that they may not have had any interest in performing had they not been promised cash for their efforts. This approach sends a message to students that the relationship they ought to cultivate between themselves and their instructors is one based on surveillance, distrust, and economic gain rather than one based on dialogue and debate.

I will not deny that the power structure of the classroom can favor the instructor. The instructor is the person primarily responsible for the content and direction of the course as well as the grading of student work. The instructor is in many ways the person most likely to be heard in the classroom. But you imply a significant lack of agency on the part of students, when in fact they have at their disposal a myriad of resources. If they have legitimate problems with elements of the course that might be construed as “ideological,” as you are fond of saying, they can file complaints to course directors, deans, and chairs; write critical course evaluations (whether official college forms or the various online forums); offer helpful warnings to friends and neighbors; provide challenges and criticism in the classroom itself; and on and on.

Would I be wrong to assume that you or other acquaintances of yours have been subjected to what you characterize as ideological proselytizing in the classroom? If so, how do you explain the fact that you managed to emerge from the class without succumbing to the professor’s political propaganda? You should consider the possibility that you just might have a mind of your own, and that the same could hold true for other students. Of course, if this is true, then students are not the helpless victims you make them out to be in your many anecdotes, but in fact already possess sufficiency agency and power to deal with problems in the classroom. But admitting this would compel you to recognize yet another significant hole in your arguments and prevent you from using a convenient fiction about student/instructor relations to advance your own ideological goals.

Or perhaps you do recognize that students are not mere empty vessels, and that the real complaint is not with the particular political views you document in such lavish detail, but is simply a practical one: class time is limited and there is much to learn about the French Revolution or Baroque architecture, so kindly spare us your personal opinions of U.S. foreign policy. But this isn’t quite your complaint either, because it is not really the simple fact of “talking about” the war in Iraq or “any other ideological issue” that you believe has no bearing on the legitimate subject matter of a course that so concerns you. Rather, it is only criticism of President Bush’s policies or the war in Iraq (to name but two of your examples) that compels you to castigate professors for their views. In the elaborate profiles you have produced, I find no stinging indictments of professors who dared to say something laudatory about those same subjects when they should have been lecturing on anthropology, law, or Germanic languages.

Since you say your concern is with the deviation from the “true subject matter,” perhaps we can expect similar efforts on your part to expose such dangerous expressions once you have finished scouring the Internet for names of people who signed petitions that you, coincidentally, would never sign. As your project gathers steam, I look forward to reading the accounts of professors who interrupted their lectures on Stoic philosophy or South American history (or perhaps more likely their lectures on business strategy or advanced economics) to interject their criticisms of Michael Moore’s voiceover techniques or Noam Chomsky’s obsessive interest in the U.S. military-industrial complex. It will be useful to know which professors have a penchant for praising the incisive commentary of Bill O’Reilly or the profound wisdom of U.S. reliance on extraordinary rendition and the torture of prisoners. Better yet, in order to relieve our hapless students of distractions and restore higher education to its vaunted purpose of delivering content, we also ought to expose those instructors who cannot help but burden their students with endless anecdotes about their family dogs. Surely there are cat-loving or pet-hating students in the audience who must be rescued from such blatant pro-canine ideological claptrap.

In addition to the dissemination and memorization of names, dates, and key ideas, the true subject matter of the college classroom includes the cultivation of an environment of open discussion, critical analysis, and intellectual inquiry that lends higher humanistic education its particular value. You seem to recognize this when, in one of your articles, you fault certain instructors for intellectual partisanship. Your main complaint here, however, is that such an approach does not give equal time to competing viewpoints. So is it the intrusion of anything you consider extraneous that is the real problem, or the fact that there isn’t enough space devoted to the other sides of an issue?

Here is where the disingenuous nature of your rhetoric manifests itself most clearly, for your real complaint is neither of these. If you were in fact concerned with eliminating extraneous ideological viewpoints from the classroom, how could you also want more space devoted to competing views on those same subjects? This would mean these competing views would also be a distraction from the “true” subject matter, or it would mean that the original views expressed by the professor do in fact connect to the matter at hand. As it turns out, your general complaint is not that these ideological views cut into class time or that they are not situated alongside contrary perspectives, but that the particular views being expressed are radically different from those you or your supporters endorse. By virtue of that fact alone, such ideological intrusions are worthy of opprobrium.

I cannot remember the last time I proselytized (according to your definition) in class, if I ever did; nor have I found it necessary to offer a disquisition on any of the particular subjects you consider off-limits or ideologically suspect, but this has nothing to do with the fact that I think your entire approach is wrong. In fact, all of what I have said thus far is really only a relatively minor criticism of your ideas, the faulty assumptions behind them, and the dangers inherent in your approach to solving this perceived problem. In the end, the greatest weakness in your investigative project is that your own ideological investment in curtailing academic freedom to express views you disagree with has blinded you to a whole set of profound crises that are in fact debasing higher education and shortchanging generations of hard-working students.

While you target professors whose political views conflict with your own and attempt to paint a shocking portrait of the corrupt ideologies that are eating away at the very foundations of higher learning, you ignore the legitimate problems most students face and instead direct your energies toward the worst sort of partisan whining and straw-man argumentation. If you were genuinely interested in preventing students from receiving a “debased education,” you might want to devote some of your estimable energies to dealing with the following crises in education: the increasing burden of debt being carried by students; the skyrocketing costs of attending college (from tuition increases to the lack of affordable housing); restrictive immigration policies that prevent many excellent international students from attending American universities; the corporate takeover of the university; and so much more. In order for me to continue to talk about these issues, however, I may find it necessary to mention something other than Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, or the assorted subjects you are willing to grant me license to discuss. If I do, perhaps I can monitor myself, and provide you with all the materials you need to add another profile to your archive. For the sake of convenience, please make the check out to “Cash.”

Author's email: 

Brian Thill is completing his Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Irvine.

No Professor Left Behind

At the annual meeting of one of the regional accrediting agencies a few years ago, I wandered into the strangest session I’ve witnessed in any academic gathering. The first presenter, a young woman, reported on a meeting she had attended that fall in an idyllic setting. She had, she said, been privileged to spend three days “doing nothing but talking assessment” with three of the leading people in the field, all of whom she named and one of whom was on this panel with her. “It just doesn’t get any better than that!” she proclaimed. I kept waiting for her to pass on some of the wisdom and practical advice she had garnered at this meeting, but it didn’t seem to be that kind of presentation.

The title of the next panel I chose suggested that I would finally learn what accrediting agencies meant by “creating a culture of assessment.” This group of presenters, four in all, reenacted the puppet show they claimed to have used to get professors on their campus interested in assessment. The late Jim Henson, I suspect, would have advised against giving up their day jobs.  

And thus it was with all the panels I tried to attend. I learned nothing about what to assess or how to assess it. Instead, I seemed to have wandered into a kind of New Age revival at which the already converted, the true believers, were testifying about how great it was to have been washed in the data and how to spread the good news among non-believers on their campus.

Since that time, I’ve examined several successful accreditation self-studies, and I’ve talked to vice presidents, deans, and faculty members, but I’m still not sure about what a “culture of assessment” is. As nearly as I can determine, once a given institution has arrived at a state of profound insecurity and perpetual self-scrutiny, it has created a “culture of assessment.”  The self-criticism and mutual accusation sessions favored by Communist hardliners come to mind, as does a passage from a Credence Clearwater song: “Whenever I ask, how much should I give? The only answer is more, more!”     

Most of the faculty resistance we face in trying to meet the mandates of the assessment movement, it seems to me, stems from a single issue: professors feel professionally distrusted and demeaned. The much-touted shift in focus from teaching to student learning at the heart of the assessment movement is grounded in the presupposition that professors have been serving their own ends and not meeting the needs of students. Some fall into that category, but whatever damage they do is greatly overstated, and there is indeed a legitimate place in academe for those professors who are not for the masses. A certain degree of quirkiness and glorious irrelevance were once considered par for the course, and students used to be expected to take some responsibility for their own educations.

Clearly, from what we are hearing about the new federal panel studying colleges, the U.S. Department of Education believes that higher education is too important to be left to academics. What we are really seeing is the re-emergence of the anti-intellectualism endemic to American culture and a corresponding redefinition of higher education in terms of immediately marketable preparation for specific jobs or careers. The irony is that the political party that would get big government off our backs has made an exception of academe.  

This is not to suggest, of course, that everything we do in the name of assessment is bad or that we don’t have an obligation to determine that our instruction is effective and relevant.  At the meeting of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, I heard a story that illustrates how the academy got into this fix. It seems an accreditor once asked an art faculty member what his learning outcomes were for the photography course he was teaching that semester. The faculty member replied that he had no learning outcomes because he was trying to turn students into artists and not photographers. When asked then how he knew when his students had become artists, he replied, “I just know.”

Perhaps he did indeed “just know.” One of the most troubling aspects of the assessment movement, to my mind, is the tendency to dismiss the larger, slippery issues of sense and sensibility and to measure educational effectiveness only in terms of hard data, the pedestrian issues we can quantify. But, by the same token, every photographer must master the technical competencies of photography and learn certain aesthetic principles before he or she can employ the medium to create art. The photography professor in question was being disingenuous. He no doubt expected students to reach a minimal level of photographic competence and to see that competence reflected in a portfolio of photographs that rose to the level of art. His students deserved to have these expectations detailed in the form of specific learning outcomes.

Thus it is, or should be, with all our courses. Everyone who would teach has a professional obligation to step back and to ask himself or herself two questions: What, at a minimum, do I want students to learn, and how will I determine whether they have learned it? Few of us would have a problem with this level of assessment, and most of us would hardly need to be prompted or coerced to adjust our methods should we find that students aren’t learning what we expect them to learn. Where we fall out, professors and professional accreditors, is over the extent to which we should document or even formalize this process.

I personally have heard a senior official at an accrediting agency say that “if what you are doing in the name of assessment isn’t really helping you, you’re doing it wrong.” I recommend that we take her at her word. In my experience -- first as a chair and later as a dean -- it is helpful for institutions to have course outlines that list the minimum essential learning outcomes and which suggest appropriate assessment methods for each course. It is helpful for faculty members and students to have syllabi that reflect the outcomes and assessment methods detailed in the corresponding course outlines. It is also helpful to have program-level objectives and to spell out where and how such objectives are met.

All these things are helpful and reasonable, and accrediting agencies should indeed be able to review them in gauging the effectiveness of a college or university. What is not helpful is the requirement to keep documenting the so-called “feedback loop” -- the curricular reforms undertaken as a result of the assessment process. The presumption, once again, would seem to be that no one’s curriculum is sound and that assessment must be a continuous process akin to painting a suspension bridge or a battleship. By the time the painters work their way from one end to the other, it is time to go back and begin again. “Out of the cradle, endlessly assessing,” Walt Whitman might sing if he were alive today.

Is it any wonder that we have difficulty inspiring more than grudging cooperation on the part of faculty? Other professionals are largely left to police themselves. Not so academics, at least not any longer. We are being pressured to remake ourselves along business lines. Students are now our customers, and the customer is always right. Colleges used to be predicated on the assumption that professors and other professionals have a larger frame of reference and are in a better position than students to design curricula and set requirements. I think it is time to reaffirm that principle; and, aside from requiring the “helpful” documents mentioned above, it is past time to allow professors to assess themselves.

Regarding the people who have thrown in their lot with the assessment movement, to each his or her own. Others, myself included, were first drawn to the academic profession because it alone seemed to offer an opportunity to spend a lifetime studying what we loved, and sharing that love with students, no matter how irrelevant that study might be to the world’s commerce. We believed that the ultimate end of what we would do is to inculcate both a sensibility and a standard of judgment that can indeed be assessed but not guaranteed or quantified, no matter how hard we try. And we believed that the greatest reward of the academic life is watching young minds open up to that world of ideas and possibilities we call liberal education. To my mind, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

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Edward F. Palm is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College, in Bremerton, Wash.

Martin Luther King vs. Role Model Nonsense

As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King this week, we recall his famous wish that Americans be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. How are we doing in fulfilling that dream?

Well, I am amazed at how frequently I will read a news article in which a school district or college will declare that it is essential to hire more teachers of this or that skin color or national origin. The faculty must mirror the student population, we are told, and students of each race and ancestry need “role models.”

Two recent examples: The Indianapolis Star ran an article headlined “Schools intensify hunt for minority teachers,” with the subheadline “Metro-area districts struggle to make faculties mirror growing diversity of student enrollments.”

Likewise, the Leadership Alliance -- which is a coalition of 29 higher-education institutions that was established 13 years ago to bring more minority students into mathematics, science, engineering, and technology -- held a conference in Washington. At the meeting, speakers cited the “need to increase the number of faculty of color who can serve as role models.”

One more example, that came across my desk as this piece was being edited: The Boston Globe ran an article about Randolph, Mass. headlined, “To reflect students, town woos minority teachers.” The school committee chairwoman was quoted: “It’s providing role models for the kids.”

It is understood that, in order to achieve this greater diversity, skin color and ethnicity will be considered in the recruitment and hiring process. And so, inevitably, some candidates will be given preferences, and others disfavored, because of these external characteristics. It cannot be denied: If race is given weight in the search, then you are no longer looking for the best candidate, regardless of race.

I’m amazed at the news stories because the role model justification for hiring preferences is so clearly (a) illegal and (b) bad policy.

The Supreme Court flatly rejected the role model rationale nearly 20 years ago, in Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education. A decade before that, in Hazelwood School District v. United States, the Court had similarly noted that a school district could not point to the racial makeup of its student body as a justification for the racial makeup of its faculty.

Don’t these schools have lawyers?

And, really, they shouldn’t even need a lawyer to tell them that the role model approach is wrong.

For starters, universities, colleges, and schools should ignore skin color and national origin and simply hire the best professors and teachers they can. Period. It’s hard enough to get competent teachers at any level without disqualifying some and preferring others because of irrelevant physical characteristics.

Show me a parent who would say, “I’m willing for my child to be taught by a less qualified teacher so long as he or she shares my child’s color.” As for research and writing, hiring anything less than the best qualified minds will inevitably compromise the school’s or college's academic mission.

Second, it is ugly indeed to presuppose that one can admire -- one can adopt as a role model -- only someone who shares your skin color and, conversely, that a white child could never look up to a black person, or a black child to a white person, or either one to an Asian or Latino or American Indian. Does this also mean that men cannot admire women, or a Christians admire a Jew, or the able-bodied admire someone in a wheelchair?

When President Bush was asked who he wanted to grow up to be when he was a boy, he replied without hesitation, “Willie Mays.” And why not?

Third, the notion that our schoolteachers and professors must look like our students leads into some very undesirable corners.

As Justice Powell wrote in Wygant, “Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that black students are better off with black teachers could lead to the very system the Court rejected in Brown v. Board of Education.

Just so. 

And if you have a school district that is all-white, does that mean that it is all right to refuse to hire blacks? If you have a school district that has no Latino children, does that mean you should avoid hiring Hispanic teachers? And if your school district’s students are only 5 percent Asian, should that be your ceiling for Asian teachers?

Likewise, are Idaho universities entitled to avoid hiring African Americans, Maine colleges Latinos, and Nebraska schools Asians -- to ensure that those states’ natives are not taught by someone who may not look like they do? Should Ruth Simmons have been disqualified as president of Brown University, on the grounds that she is an unsuitable role model for the white male students there?

Yes, sex will rear its ugly head, too.

Schoolteachers remain a disproportionately female profession, but students include as many boys as girls. Does that mean that schools ought to be granting a preference to men when they hire faculty?

The truth of the matter is that the “role model” claim is just another made-up excuse to engage in the politically correct discrimination that is so fashionable among so many of our so-called educators.

This discrimination is illegal, unfair, silly, and harmful. Whenever a school is distracted from looking for anyone other than the best possible teacher, it is in the end the students who will pay the price. Hire by content of character, not color of skin.

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Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

Notes from the Underground

Normally my social calendar is slightly less crowded than that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. (He, at least, went out to see the pawnbroker.) But late last month, in an unprecedented burst of gregariousness, I had a couple of memorable visits with scholars who had come to town – small, impromptu get-togethers that were not just lively but, in a way, remarkable.

The first occurred just before Christmas, and it included (besides your feuilletonist reporter) a political scientist, a statistician, and a philosopher. The next gathering, also for lunch, took place a week later, during the convention of the Modern Language Association. Looking around the table, I drew up a quick census. One guest worked on British novels of the Victorian era. Another writes about contemporary postcolonial fiction and poetry. We had two Americanists, but of somewhat different specialist species; besides, one was a tenured professor, while the other is just starting his dissertation. And, finally, there was, once again, a philosopher. (Actually it was the same philosopher, visiting from Singapore and in town for a while.)

If the range of disciplines or specialties was unusual, so the was the degree of conviviality. Most of us had never met in person before -- though you’d never have known that from the flow of the conversation, which never seemed to slow down for very long. Shared interests and familiar arguments (some of them pretty esoteric) kept coming up. So did news about an electronic publishing initiative some of the participants were trying to get started. On at least one occasion in either meal, someone had to pull out a notebook to have someone else jot down an interesting citation to look up later.

In each case, the members of the ad hoc symposium were academic bloggers who had gotten to know one another online. That explained the conversational dynamics -- the sense, which was vivid and  unmistakable, of continuing discussions in person that hadn’t started upon arriving at the restaurant, and wouldn’t end once everyone had dispersed.

The whole experience was too easygoing to call impressive, exactly. But later -- contemplating matters back at my hovel, over a slice of black bread and a bowl of cold cabbage soup -- I couldn’t help thinking that something very interesting had taken place. Something having little do with blogging, as such. Something that runs against the grain of how academic life in the United States has developed over the past two hundred years.

At least that’s my impression from having read Thomas Bender’s book Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993. That was back when even knowing how to create a Web page would raise eyebrows in some departments. (Imagine the warnings that Ivan Tribble might have issued, at the time.)

But the specific paper I’m thinking of – reprinted as the first chapter – is even older. It’s called “The Cultures of Intellectual Life: The City and the Professions,” and Bender first presented it as a lecture in 1977. (He is currently professor of history at New York University.)

Although he does not exactly put it this way, Bender’s topic is how scholars learn to say “we.” An intellectual historian, he writes, is engaged in studying “an exceedingly complex interaction between speakers and hearers, writers and readers.”  And the framework for that “dynamic interplay” has itself changed over time. Recognizing this is the first step towards understanding that the familiar patterns of cultural life – including those that prevail in academe – aren’t set in stone. (It’s easy to give lip service to this principle. Actually thinking through its implications, though, not so much.)

The history of American intellectual life, as Bender outlines it, involved a transition from civic professionalism (which prevailed in the 18th and early 19th centuries) to disciplinary professionalism (increasingly dominant after about 1850).

“Early American professionals,” he writes, “were essentially community oriented. Entry to the professions was usually through local elite sponsorship, and professionals won public trust within this established social context rather than through certification.” One’s prestige and authority was very strongly linked to a sense of belonging to the educated class of a given city.

Bender gives as an example the career of Samuel Bard, the New York doctor who championed building a hospital to improve the quality of medical instruction available from King’s College, as Columbia University was known back in the 1770). Bard had studied in Edinburgh and wanted New York to develop institutions of similar caliber; he also took the lead in creating a major library and two learned societies.

“These efforts in civic improvement were the product of the combined energies of the educated and the powerful in the city,” writes Bender, “and they integrated and gave shape to its intellectual life.”

Nor was this phenomenon restricted to major cities in the East. Visiting the United States in the early 1840s, the British geologist Charles Lyell noted that doctors, lawyers, scientists, and merchants with literary interests in Cincinnati “form[ed] a society of a superior kind.” Likewise, William Dean Howells recalled how, at this father’s printing office in a small Ohio town, the educated sort dropped in “to stand with their back to our stove and challenge opinion concerning Holmes and Poe, Irving and Macauley....”

In short, a great deal of one’s sense of cultural “belonging” was bound up with community institutions -- whether that meant a formally established local society for the advancement of learning, or an ad hoc discussion circle warming its collective backside near a stove.

But a deep structural change was already taking shape. The German model of the research university came into ever greater prominence, especially in the decades following the Civil War. The founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 defined the shape of things to come. “The original faculty of philosophy,” notes Bender, “included no Baltimoreans, and no major appointments in the medical school went to members of the local medical community.” William Welch, the first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “identified with his profession in a new way; it was a branch of science -- a discipline -- not a civic role.”

Under the old regime, the doctors, lawyers, scientists, and literary authors of a given city might feel reasonably comfortable in sharing the first-person plural. But life began to change as, in Bender’s words, “people of ideas were inducted, increasingly through the emerging university system, into the restricted worlds of specialized discourse.” If you said “we,” it probably referred to the community of other geologists, poets, or small-claims litigators.

“Knowledge and competence increasingly developed out of the internal dynamics of esoteric disciplines rather than within the context of shared perceptions of public needs,” writes Bender. “This is not to say that professionalized disciplines or the modern service professions that imitated them became socially irresponsible. But their contributions to society began to flow from their own self-definitions rather than from a reciprocal engagement with general public discourse.”

Now, there is a definite note of sadness in Bender’s narrative – as there always tends to be in accounts of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Yet it is also clear that the transformation from civic to disciplinary professionalism was necessary.

“The new disciplines offered relatively precise subject matter and procedures,” Bender concedes, “at a time when both were greatly confused. The new professionalism also promised guarantees of competence -- certification -- in an era when criteria of intellectual authority were vague and professional performance was unreliable.”

But in the epilogue to Intellect and Public Life, Bender suggests that the process eventually went too far. “The risk now is precisely the opposite,” he writes. “Academe is threatened by the twin dangers of fossilization and scholasticism (of three types: tedium, high tech, and radical chic). The agenda for the next decade, at least as I see it, ought to be the opening up of the disciplines, the ventilating of professional communities that have come to share too much and that have become too self-referential.”

He wrote that in 1993. We are now more than a decade downstream. I don’t know that anyone else at the lunchtime gatherings last month had Thomas Bender’s analysis in mind. But it has been interesting to think about those meetings with reference to his categories.

The people around the table, each time, didn’t share a civic identity: We weren’t all from the same city, or even from the same country. Nor was it a matter of sharing the same disciplinary background – though no effort was made to be “interdisciplinary” in any very deliberate way, either. At the same time, I should make clear that the conversations were pretty definitely academic: “How long before hundreds of people in literary studies start trying to master set theory, now that Alain Badiou is being translated?” rather than, “Who do you think is going to win American Idol?”

Of course, two casual gatherings for lunch does not a profound cultural shift make. But it was hard not to think something interesting had just transpired: A new sort of collegiality, stretching across both geographic and professional distances, fostered by online communication but not confined to it.

The discussions were fueled by the scholarly interests of the participants. But there was a built-in expectation that you would be willing to explain your references to someone who didn’t share them. And none of it seems at all likely to win the interest (let alone the approval) of academic bureaucrats.

Surely other people must be discovering and creating this sort of thing -- this experience of communitas. Or is that merely a dream? 

It is not a matter of turning back the clock -- of undoing the division of labor that has created  specialization. That really would be a dream.

But as Bender puts it, cultural life is shaped by “patterns of interaction” that develop over long periods of time. For younger scholars, anyway, the routine give-and-take of online communication (along with the relative ease of linking to documents that support a point or amplify a nuance) may become part of the deep grammar of how they think and argue. And if enough of them become accustomed to discussing their research with people working in other disciplines, who knows what could happen?

“What our contemporary culture wants,” as Bender put it in 1993, “is the combination of theoretical abstraction and historical concreteness, technical precision and civic give-and-take, data and rhetoric.” We aren’t there, of course, or anywhere near it. But sometimes it does seem as if there might yet be grounds for optimism.

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Hasty Professionalization

When he arrived at my office, one early spring morning, he looked like any other student, many of whom had been there with their add/drop slips. But he wasn’t. Ever since he had taken one of my classes two semesters previously, I noticed he was, as the saying goes, “going places.” Let’s call him Joe. Just entering his junior year, Joe was going places.

But that morning the only place he was going was my office, to ask me to add him to one of my classes. After I signed the required form, gave him the syllabus, and told him to buy the books and make sure he brought the assignment for next class, he gave me his card. It read, “Joe X, Business Major, Undergraduate Student,” followed by his e-mail address, his dorm address, phone number, cell phone number, and his Web site's address. After this last item, a line in italics said, accepting inquiries. In a corner, the (copyrighted) symbol of the university.

First, I thought that this card was some kind of a joke. After all, this young man was a first semester junior, and to judge from how he had done in my class, may not even be a particularly successful student in classes in his major. In spite of his “I know it all” attitude, which I remembered well, he did not have the most compelling study habits, and could not write well. But he could be seen schmoozing with the fraternity folks, and had gotten himself elected to be part of the student government. Right moves, I thought. Too bad, from a purely academic point of view, he did not have the same desire to excel. In any case, I visited his site, mainly out of curiosity. I was expecting some kind of blog where he felt free to disclose his feelings and reflections about life in school, girls, plans for the next spring break, and such.

The site, however, was a very professionally designed page, in which the young man appeared more like a “product,” than as what he was, an undergraduate. The opening page had a disclaimer that he was still an undergraduate, and gave the date of the probable graduation. In links, I could check his résumé: classes taken, papers written, and his evaluation of the classes as well as of the professors. I checked for the comments on my class: not bad (especially considering he had gotten a mere B-). There were pictures of him wearing a suit, talking to some other young people, another picture with some professors of my university, and a last one of him at a podium,  giving a speech. He had a list of abilities and skills, out of which a particular one called my attention: “capacity to transform any assignment into an opportunity to learn and to improve his skills.” Finally, he had a kind of unofficial  transcript -- a list of courses and grades earned. The grade for my class had risen to an A-.

This student’s attempt to present himself as a neat package, almost ready to enter the workforce, may have seemed exaggerated. I called him to my office and asked about the change in the grade for my class, to which he replied that the friend who had put the page together may have made a mistake, and that he would have it fixed. I asked him what he wished to accomplish with such a page, and he had no qualms to explain that he wanted to get a good job as soon as he left college. “The employers will not look at your transcript, anyway. They just want to know that you graduated.”  And what if you want to go to graduate school? I asked. “In that case, they will look mostly at your GPA.” I told him that I thought that the home page was very well done, but that he should not appear to have or know more than he did. I don’t recall what he said in reply. Maybe he didn’t say anything, after all, who am I? Only a professor, not even in the department where he has a major.

After this exchange, I began noticing that many of my undergraduate students had similar pages or blogs, whose main purpose was to advertise them as employable. I could not check the truth of the claims in many of them. But this led me to reflect on what seems to be a trend, at least in my university: undergraduate students who either haste or are led to haste to the next level, to become professionals even before they are ready, or minimally prepared.

I checked with some friends in the biological sciences, and they said that their students are indeed encouraged to start looking for assistantships, internships, and other research possibilities as soon as they start their freshman year. Colleagues in the business school say the same. The students in technology begin thinking about résumés even before they can write “curriculum.” It is no wonder that students in the humanities are doing the same, by putting together their home pages and pumping themselves up as soon as they understand that this is what everyone is doing. In each of my advanced classes, students are eager to “publish” their final essays, even when I tell them that the material is not ready, and that they should revise them and wait a while longer, to mature their takes on their subjects. Very few listen. Most just go ahead and publish their essays in their blogs and on their Web pages, thus making public something that is not ready, and that may, in the long run, not reflect as positively on their authors as they would like.

Of course, there should be nothing wrong in this attempt to move on, to promote what one has accomplished. However, such speed can cause a number of side effects that can be very negative to a young person’s professional future.  

First, there is the matter of the conflict between the unofficial and the official transcripts. Even though my first professional undergraduate insisted that neither prospective employers nor grad school officials ever read the whole transcript, there is always the matter of keeping as close to truth as possible. Second, there is the real danger that, if the employer buys the package “whole,” this person will be given responsibilities and tasks above his or her level of maturity or knowledge.

But who is powering this machine? The professors in departments that want their majors to obtain jobs quickly and thus reflect positively on the department? The parents who want their children employed as soon as possible so that they can begin to repay the student loans? Or the students themselves, who want to look grown-up as soon as possible, to “get on with real life”? The current job situation, which pushes every new graduate into a kind of terror of not getting a job as soon as he gets his diploma?  

Because I teach in the humanities, this situation reminds me of the story of a brilliant woman who never finished her Ph.D. and never forgives herself for giving it up. No matter how successful she may be in her current profession, she feels she has a terrible failure in her life, because she gave up teaching, her first love. And the reason for her failure is that she went into teaching before she was prepared, and that experience scarred her so much that she lost all confidence in herself. As she tells the story, when she finished her graduate comps, her advisor encouraged her to take an adjunct position at a very wealthy college in the East. The chair of the department was his friend and they needed somebody for a year. “A year is nothing,” her advisor said, “and you can mature the subject of your dissertation. Besides, it will look good in your CV for when you are ready to go for tenure-track positions.”

He failed to give my friend some pointers about teaching in a very exclusive institution whose students drove cars of the year, took spring break vacations to Europe, and whose parents practically owned the school. The department chair did not fail to remind her, however, that the parents paid for and demanded total dedication from the faculty. She spent the year terrified of making a mistake, preparing classes to the last minute detail, and feeling that she could be called down by any student, colleagues, the chair, the parents, at any time.

The dissertation? She did not have time to even think about it. Her advisor never called, never wrote, never tried to know how she was doing. Not that she wanted any contact, because she was sure that he would not like to see that she was barely managing to keep a semblance of normalcy during the year. She was afraid she was going to disappoint him.

After two semesters, the contract over, she was completely stressed out, disappointed, unsure of the validity of her dissertation, and suspecting that she could never acquire enough confidence to face a classroom again. She never returned to finish her Ph.D. The year teaching proved to her, she thinks, that she would never know enough to teach the subject. Her memories of the dread of being “outed” as an “incompetent” kept her from ever trying to be a teacher anymore.

Of course, somebody who doesn’t know this woman can say that it may just have been as well. Probably she would not be a good teacher anyway. But the truth is that she is, actually, someone who is a good teacher. She just was placed in front of the classroom without real teaching preparation, and without enough confidence in her knowledge in order to just “wing it” when she didn’t know the answer to every question. Her advisor, in his haste to “place” his student, did not remember that this person needed a longer time to mature in the profession, and that she needed to start teaching in stages, to acquire her style and her self-confidence. Some people do not need these stages, and can jump into teaching, so to speak. But these are the exception.

The result, for this friend, has not been so devastating. She collected her master’s degree, and got a job in a company. Now she prepares and trains co-workers. She does not feel threatened by the atmosphere, and is indeed considered one of their best workshop leaders. But the lack of a Ph.D. weighs on her, and the memory of the “year in fear” are strong enough for her to mention them frequently.

When my undergraduates want to prove they know and are more than they are and know, I now sit with them and tell them they should not try to run before they can walk with confidence. I have advised some to think about the Peace Corps. To others I have said that they could consider internships. And to some I have said that they should give another thought to graduate school, before they go on to a full-fledged career. I understand that many need to start making money as soon as possible, but I still tell them that they should not try to jump stages and take on more than they are prepared for. As advisors, we owe it to our students to remind them of these truths that seem to not be apparent.

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Anónima teaches at a Southwest institution. She hates not to use her real name because of fear of losing her job over this column. But she doesn't have tenure and you never know.

Two Takes on Teaching

Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years, since earning her Ph.D. at Indiana University. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty has been an administrative assistant at Rutgers University’s Camden campus for a year longer than Paula has been at Wheaton. Last fall Mary taught her first course, Basic Writing Skills III, on the inner-city, campus of a two-year college, Camden County College. She teaches on her lunch break from her job at Rutgers. Mary has been taking evening classes toward her M.A. for three years, ever since she finished her B.A. at Rutgers via the same part-time route. This article is the first in a series in which Paula and Mary will discuss what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.

Paula: My place is about as different from yours as can be, I know. I often find myself longing for your city setting, your students who are so motivated. At the same time, I realize that teaching my students is a real privilege -- I can push them in exciting ways. Wheaton’s admissions standards keep going up, and I’m starting to see it in my classes. This semester my sophomores in English 290, Approaches to Literature and Culture, seemed to finish with a really good sense of how they can use literary criticism and theory in writing essays for their other English classes. They weren’t intimidated by the critics and theorists they were reading -- they actually used them well in their final essays.If only they could follow MLA style and prepare a proper Works Cited!

Mary: MLA style is something my students can do. They were able to pick up on it easily -- I think that’s because they take well to the idea of structure. They like the five-paragraph theme. The part of the class they had the most difficulty with was the content of their papers -- they couldn’t find their voice at all, let alone critiquing literary theorists.

Paula: Oh, mine had plenty of voice. Sometimes I wished for a bit less voice and a bit more work. I think sometimes that the sense of entitlement many of them have means that they don’t necessarily understand that their word isn’t always good enough. They need to cite some authorities, place their work in a larger context, indicate their scholarly debts. They have pretty good skills coming in, so it’s sometimes difficult to make clear to them how they can push to the next level. If they’ve been getting A’s on their five-paragraph themes in high school, they find it difficult to understand why their first efforts, in English 101 or a beginning lit class, are producing C+’s or B-‘s. Some are grade-grubbers, but most just don’t understand what makes a college A.

Mary: Just a week before the semester ended, one of my students finally understood what makes a college B. In the beginning of the term, her grades were “R’s,” which means that the paper cannot receive a grade; it must be revised. When she failed her midterm portfolio, she cried to me that she couldn’t see her mistakes so she couldn’t fix them. She continued to work on her essays and revise them, over and over. Close to the end of the semester, she approached me before class and said, “Mary, please take a look at this paper that someone wrote for another class and tell me what you think.” Knowing that I was being set up, I quickly looked over the essay. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her smirking, so I told her “You’re right, I wouldn’t have graded this paper.” She shouted, “I knew it! Look at the subject-verb agreement error in the first sentence. There’s even a fragment in the introduction!” Not wanting to trash another teacher’s grading, I pointed out to her that the most important thing was how she had changed since midterm -- that she was now able to identify mistakes so she could correct her own. She passed the course with a B and I am so proud of her.

Paula: See, that’s what’s so great about teaching! I knew you’d love it. That pleasure when you see the lightbulb go on over their heads. That’s the same at Camden County as at Wheaton. But I think you have to do a different kind of work than I have to do in order to get it to happen. In some ways, both our students believe in the value of what we’re teaching, but we both have to do some convincing as well.

Mary: Mine need convincing that what they have to say is important and that saying it in an academic format is worth the effort. Most of the Camden campus students are from Camden city, recently awarded the dubious distinction of being named the most dangerous city in the nation for the second year in a row. They are typically from poor or working class families whose parent(s) may or may not have a high school diploma; many students are parents themselves, and most are minorities: African-American, Latino, or Asian-American. Many CCC students test into basic writing or reading skills classes, which is an indicator that their high school education did not prepare them well enough for college. In an informal discussion, I asked several students about their high school experience, and they claimed that they were never asked to write for content in English class -- the focus was on grammar and fill-in-the-blank or short answer tests. This explains why they are more comfortable with the grammar portion of the writing skills class, as well as how easily they grasp the five-paragraph essay structure. Following the rules is easy for these students, but finding something to say is much more difficult. I am there to assist them in this writing process and hopefully to convince them that they can grow as individuals and be successful in the academic community.

Paula: I have to do some of that, too. But we’re starting from such different places. Mine come to college because it’s expected of them. They need convincing that a liberal arts education really can bring them advantages after they graduate -- that digging into how a literary text works, learning to put together a really well researched research essay, or understanding the connections between Darwin and the poetry of Robert Browning is worth the money the parents are investing and the time the students are investing. In some ways, it’s a harder sell than yours. I have the luxury of time, though, in a way you sure don’t. My teaching is my full-time job, and my teaching load is relatively light. I can’t even imagine what it is like for you, working fulltime and taking classes while learning to teach in probably the most challenging of circumstances -- as an adjunct at a community college. I know how hard it is for you to keep all these balls in the air. Do you think it’ll be worth it in the long run?

Mary: I certainly hope so. That’s the reason I’m teaching this year -- to find out the answer to that very question.

Mary Krebs Flaherty
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Paula and Mary's next exchange will be about the out-of-classroom work they can ask of students.


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