Student life

Talkin 'bout Their Generation

Everyone knows that rock and roll is all about kicking out the jams: ditching uptight squares, taking long rides in the dark of night, and being a street fightin' man -- or woman. As The Who put it, it's about hoping to die before you get old.

But what does rock mean to a new generation of uptight (if updated and wired) squares, afraid of the open road, who have little fight in them? What does rock mean for a generation that has never been allowed to be young -- let alone hope to die before they get old?

For my students, the answer is simple. Rock and roll is about family happiness.

I discovered this disturbing undercurrent of rock-as-the-soundtrack-of-familial-bliss when I began teaching a college writing class this semester. The undergraduates' first assignment was to assess the personal meaning of any song of any genre. I was willing to wade bravely through the melancholy emo, the raging gangsta rap, the whiny indie rock, or even contemporary pop schlock in order to achieve my real agenda: a glimpse into the soul of my students, the inner world of their desire locked in their shiny iPods.

What I read in those papers was as unsettling and unfamiliar as the day Elvis shook it on the Ed Sullivan show -- but hardly as exciting. For my students, rock and roll is not the aural fuel of rebellion but soundtrack of familial love and safety. The essays were not about chillin' with the crew but hangin' with mom and dad; and they were not about cruising into the mystery of the night, but heading off to Cape Cod in the mini van. Rock is no longer about alienation but connection; not about escape but home; not about rebellion but reconciliation. Even bands like Led Zeppelin and The Stones emerged from my students papers in an un-purple haze of family nostalgia.

Turns out that for my elite students -- en route to becoming sharp suits and clever corporate cogs -- rock and roll is simply one more element in the finishing process of becoming just like the folks. Roll over Bob Dylan and tell Norman Rockwell the news. Jack Black's character in School of Rock had to teach his anxious and repressed grade schoolers what he knew viscerally: that the purpose of rock and roll is "Sticking it to The Man." Given that most of my students want to become "the man" (in whatever gender the icon of power might come in today), it's certainly not about sticking it to 'em.

Truth be told, many of these essays pulled at my fatherly heart strings, but I am mostly disturbed by them. I am haunted by the fact that perhaps their parents are so scarred by their own years of boomer alienation that they now feel compelled to crush any sense of rebellion with the weight of a generation's love, coddling friendship, and smothering safety. I could be wrong, but it seems that there ought to be at least an edge of disdain for the SUV-driving, suburban-dwelling, vanilla affluence of their parents, but instead, students remain hopelessly connected to them, not just by their ubiquitous cell phones but also by their parents' record collections.

The collateral damage here has little to do with contemporary debates about politics in the classroom and everything to do with students' ability to live life freely and creatively. There are glimmers of hope, but they're only glimmers. One particularly sharp student trailed me back to the office after an intense discussion about the "authentic" in Bob Dylan’s work. "Why," he asked longingly, "don’t we learn more about this in college?" Honoring the sincerity of his quest, I resisted the retort, "Because you're supposed to be talking about this with your buddies in the dorm."

Ah, you say, but this is the hip hop generation, so why should I worry about rock and roll? Despite explicitly opening the assignment up to any genre, few of my students chose to write about rap, which I found astonishing. Their commitment to most hip hop (except for the lonely black student from Detroit) was very thin and interwoven with ambivalence. Rap simply seems to be what's out there. They know the genre's prime has passed, that the heart has been taken out of it by the record industry.

At the same time, white indie rock has been devoid of soul and blues influences -- drained of the alchemical lifeblood created in the synthesis of white and black musical traditions. Indie is left with a whiny, trebly, irresolute sound that seems to fit the dull green glow of a computer screen in darkened suburban bedrooms. Music today is just another part of the price of America's re-segregation.

My own kids' strange connection to Dylan and the Clash at the tender ages of 7 and 10 suggest that I may be well on my way toward being part of the problem. Am I screwing them up by not adequately screwing them up, softly indoctrinating them into the glory days of rock and roll over family brunch on Sunday? Will they learn about the backbeat of power and rebellion at the displays of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instead of the more illicit places they ought to be receiving such education?

Of course, the most famous momma's boy of them all was the king of rock n roll himself, Elvis Presley, and in that fact there is home for the youth of America. But that was before cool had become one of the official anchors of consumer capitalism, before the commercialization of dissent had extended into every crevice of American culture. If the reason "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," as Tom Frank put it, is the commodification of resistance, maybe it's also why Johnny doesn't know his rock from his rebellion.

Author/s: 
Jefferson Cowie
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Jefferson Cowie is an associate professor at Cornell University.

'To Gather From the Air a Live Tradition'

At three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, the voice of a lone chorister will rise from a small college chapel in the Ouse Valley of England, and from there it will encircle the globe. It will climb into the foothills of the Himalayas, skim across islands in the far South Seas, enter the equatorial villages of Africa, and emerge in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States.

This solitary voice will open the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, held each year in the chapel of King's College at Cambridge University. The King's Festival was first organized in 1918 by the chapel's then-dean Eric Milner-White, and since the 1930s it has been broadcast annually by BBC radio and its international affiliates.

Millions of people now listen every year, and visitors to Cambridge "from all over the world are heard to identify the Chapel as 'the place where the carols are sung.' "

I have a special interest in the King's Festival because I am an advocate for decentralized residential college systems like those at Oxford and Cambridge. Collegiate systems of the Oxbridge kind provide students and faculty alike with a wealth of opportunities for learning and service, and they can multiply the strengths that already exist within any university. The creation of residential college systems within larger institutions is a growing international trend.

But independent of its origins in a Cambridge residential college, the Festival of Lessons and Carols from King's is an example of the kind of rich cultural tradition that any college or university can aspire to develop and maintain, not only for its own members, but also for its city, its country, and the world. And it is young people in their teens and 20s who are especially strengthened by traditions, because traditions give them not only something to stand upon but also something to push against as they seek to define their own lives.

Do successful traditions require lots of money? They do not. It's true that few of us will have the resources of King's College available to us -- their chapel did take more than 100 years to build, after all. But successful traditions are about people and about social cohesion, they are not about money. If you begin by asking how you can use a tradition to make money, you'll never establish a great tradition.

Think first about what you can do for the members of your college or university in themselves, and forget about the outside world. If you do a good job, the outside world will eventually notice.

But how to do a good job? If we anatomize the King's College Festival, we can identify a number of structural features that can be replicated anywhere by people seeking to develop and maintain strong traditions within an educational environment.

First and foremost, a successful tradition must be regular and must never fail. If it follows the full moon, it must always follow the full moon. If it settles into Sundays at three, like tea in the college master's house, it must always settle into Sundays at three, even when people are few, the weather is bad, or the usual host is away. And if it's on Christmas Eve it must always be on Christmas Eve, at the same time, year after year.

The regularity of the King's Festival and its Christmas Eve broadcast was not even interrupted, the college tells us, "during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King's could not be broadcast for security reasons." Regularity inspires confidence and strengthens the desire of people to participate.

A successful tradition must also exhibit structural stability, and within that stability, variety. Stability gives comfort, variety gives delight. Something that is continually reinvented cannot, by definition, be a tradition -- a thing handed down. But if a tradition is to remain vital it cannot be wholly static either: it must adapt, like a gradually changing species, to its local environment.

The overall structure of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has remained stable for more than eighty years now, and people who heard it as children would recognize it today. In particular, it always begins in exactly the same way, with a solitary chorister singing the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City."

But within this pattern of stability the Festival exhibits annual variety. Most of the elements are carried over from year to year, but not all are, and original hymns and anthems are often commissioned specially for a given year's service. Each year we know how it will begin, and how it will proceed, but each year we also know there will be a few surprises in store for us to make the experience ever green.

Finally, a successful tradition must bind the members of the community together in all their diversity, and link them to other groups with which they have historical connections. This is the most important function of every tradition, and it deserves particular attention in educational environments today, environments that are often subject to terrible social fragmentation. One of our central obligations to the young people in our care should be to connect them with those who came before and those who will come after, and well-crafted traditions like the Festival of Lessons and Carols can do just that.

The scriptural lessons in the King's Festival are read by a range of people of different ages who are purposely chosen each year to bring the college and the local community together: a member of the choir, an undergraduate, a fellow of the college, a member of the college staff, the dean, the provost, a representative of the city of Cambridge, a representative of King's sister society at Eton, and several others. This conscious structure not only ties the college itself together, but links the college with its neighbors and its educational relatives as well. Through the act of participation, these many individual groups become one.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a Christian religious service, of course, and the older colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were all originally Christian religious foundations. But the general social principles that are manifest here -- the regularity of the service, its stability and variety, and the way it binds the community together -- apply with great generality. And they apply not only to Oxbridge-style colleges founded within other religious traditions (Shalom College at the University of New South Wales and Mandelbaum House at the University of Sydney are Jewish foundations, and the colleges of the Universiti Putra Malaysia follow Islamic traditions), but also to fully secular colleges and universities across the United States and around the world.

So please join me in tracking down a local radio station to listen to on Christmas Eve, and we can all spend an hour together as virtual members of that ancient collegiate society along the Cam. As we listen we will have to concede that the chapel's magnificent stained glass windows are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, and that its soaring Gothic architecture may never be surpassed. But we should also hold fast to the most important lesson the King's Festival teaches: that a college is built of men and women, and that the glory of every college resides not in its material fabric, but in the way it brings its members together and illuminates their lives.

Author/s: 
Robert J. O'Hara
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Robert J. O'Hara is an evolutionary biologist and the author of "The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life."

The Attack on Student Voting Rights

The 2008 elections have created some bizarre situations, particularly in Iowa, home of the first votes during the caucuses on January 3. After years of struggles to get more college students to vote and engage in politics, it is strange (and disappointing) to watch Democratic candidates suddenly declaring that students shouldn’t vote.

The debate over student voting was sparked when Barack Obama’s campaign gave out 50,000 fliers on college campuses declaring, "If you are not from Iowa, you can come back for the Iowa caucus and caucus in your college neighborhood." Since Obama has the strongest support of any candidate among college students, and many out-of-state students in Iowa come from his home state of Illinois, this was no surprise. But the reaction may have startled Obama, who worked in the field of voting rights as a lawyer and a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Hillary Clinton proclaimed, "This is a process for Iowans. This needs to be all about Iowa, and people who live here, people who pay taxes here.” Apparently that doesn’t include the out-of-state students who pay higher tuition in Iowa, not to mention the various taxes on their books, supplies, and pizza, and the income taxes on their salaries.

A Clinton spokeswoman went even further, “We are not systematically trying to manipulate the Iowa caucuses with out-of-state people. We don't have literature recruiting out-of-state college students.”

It wasn’t only the Clinton campaign that complained. Chris Dodd’s Iowa director, Julie Andreeff Jensen, said in a statement: “I was deeply disappointed to read today about the Obama campaign's attempt to recruit thousands of out-of-state residents to come to Iowa for the caucuses.... That may be the way politics is played in Chicago, but not in Iowa." Even Dodd’s wife claimed about voters, “They really resent it when candidates try to sign up people who are not really from Iowa.”

But encouraging young people to vote is only something to resent if you think students shouldn’t be voting. Actually, pretty much everything about the Iowa campaigning has a manipulative feel to it, including the Clinton campaign’s efforts to oppose the Obama campaign’s recruiting of students. After all, Hillary Clinton polls badly among college students, so she has few votes to lose. Instead, her campaign is skillfully appealing to the most xenophobic prejudice of older Iowa residents: the fear of people from Illinois.

This Illiniphobia is generated from many sources, from Big Ten rivalries to traditional border state snobbery, accentuated by the fear of big, bad Chicago and all its evil, urban influences. And not coincidentally, this fear goes along nicely with Clinton’s race against the junior senator from Illinois, Chicagoan Barack Obama.

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen wrote a blog post called “The Illinois Caucus” that denounced Obama’s efforts. According to Yepsen, “While it’s legal for college students to register to vote in Iowa to do that, this raises the question of whether it’s fair, or politically smart” since it “risks offending long-time Iowa residents.” Yepsen proclaimed: “We have to respect the integrity of this caucus system.” But part of the integrity of the process is encouraging everyone who lives in Iowa to vote, even if they’re a college student from out of state.

As Rock the Vote tells students, “As a college student, you have the right to vote from the residence that you consider ‘home,’ including your campus residence.” Here’s the law nationwide: Anyone can register to vote where they live. College students typically “live” in two places, their campus address where they spend most of the year, and the home address of their parents. Students can choose where they wish to register. There’s nothing illegal at all so long as you don’t vote twice in the same election. College students from other states are “outsiders” only in the sense of their hometown. There is no fraud here, nor any danger of fraud.

This is a fundamental issue of voting rights that should be core for all people, even if you think the students in Iowa may not vote for your favored candidate. Ever since 18 year olds have been allowed to vote, in some college towns, officials have worked hard to try to stop students from voting, fearing that these students might, if organized, wield enormous influence. After all, no one would dare to express the fear that “too many” African-Americans or Latinos might vote in the election.

Mike Connery of Future Majority called this opposition to voting by college students "advocating voter disenfranchisement." Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "Barack Obama doesn't believe that we should disenfranchise Iowans who meet all the requirements for caucus participation simply because they're in college... We should be encouraging young people to participate in the political process - not looking for ways to shut them out."

Rock the Vote cites many examples of attempts to attack student voting rights. In 2004 near Prairie View A&M (a historically black university located in a majority white county in Texas), District Attorney Oliver Kitzman publicly declared, “it’s not right for any college student to vote where they do not have permanent residency,” and threatened to prosecute students who tried to register to vote. In 2004, after several students at the College of William & Mary ran for city council in Williamsburg, Virginia, the local register declared four students did not live in town and could not run for office or vote there. In February 2007, a state representative in Maine even proposed a bill to ban students from voting where they go to college.

As a New York Times editorial pointed out, “Political campaigns and elected officials have used a variety of tactics over the years to keep students from voting. There are often too few voting machines, so lines stretch for hours. Sometimes, students are falsely told that they will lose financial aid, health care or even car insurance if they vote while attending school.”

I've seen those long lines. On Election Day in November 2004 at Illinois State University, I witnessed enormous lines of students snaking through the student center, waiting for up to three hours after the polls closed for the opportunity to vote. The president of the university issued a statement praising this tremendous outpouring of student civic interest. I saw something much different: a fundamental injustice that threatened voting rights. After all, in the areas where students mixed with non-students, such as my home, the wait to vote was about 15 minutes. In some places with almost no students, the wait was negligible. Yet the Republican county officials hadn’t planned for a large student vote (which happened to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats).

Long lines to vote aren’t merely a terrible inconvenience; they threaten the ability of many people to vote. For students who have to go to class or go to work, a three-hour wait isn’t always possible. And even the most civic-minded person would have to think twice before standing for hours just to cast a vote. Local governments in college towns are rarely responsive to student needs for the simple reason that students usually don’t vote in local elections, and they like to keep it that way. If you encourage students to vote for president, they might get used to the idea of democracy and start to want local representation, too.

College officials could do a lot more to assure the right of students to vote because they have influence in the community. They must work to ensure that adequate supplies and facilities are available for precincts on and near campus, so that students don’t have to wait in longer lines than everybody else. In Iowa, where the caucus will occur during winter break, Grinnell College students coming to caucus will sleep on a gym floor, while the University of Northern Iowa is planning to keep open some of its dormitories to accommodate students.

Of course, civic engagement must mean much more than mere voting. The understanding of democracy among college students must focus on much more than just the first Tuesday in November. For the next year, all colleges should create a civic engagement program to encourage students to participate not merely in elections but in the broader scope of public activity, such as debating what policies are best for the country, and which candidates are the best to elect to federal, state, and local offices.

But the quest to promote civic engagement by college students must begin with access to the ballot box.

Author/s: 
John K. Wilson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

The Election Challenge for Campuses

Although we have a long way to go until the end of primary season, the turnout of younger voters has been high so far. As one of many watching CNN, and waiting patiently for our turn to weigh in, I’m impressed with those crowds of cheering college students bobbing their candidate signage. High school and college students are out in force for most all of the candidates (particularly Paul, McCain as of late, and Obama), although the youth vote leans Democratic at this moment. Journalists witness their passion as we do, with surprise and delight. For researchers who have spent our
academic careers puzzling over elections, public opinion, and political communication, it simply couldn’t be a more promising start to an election year. Time will tell whether the so-called “youth vote” will sustain, build, or diminish come November. But at this point, thanks to the lack of an incumbent, some interesting candidates, YouTube, and the new structure of the primary season, scholars of political behavior and those who want to promote student engagement have many positive developments to scrutinize.

Public Service and Elections

Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when college students were a force in both electoral politics and the shape of political culture, campuses became quieter, although certainly not silent. We have seen compelling moments of intense student political activity since then, during election campaigns and in response to American policies abroad. Students made impressive showings on campuses across the nation in the 1980s, for example, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America or pleading with their administrative leaders to re-examine investment in South African apartheid. But there is no question that campuses are quieter than they once were, with regard to national electoral politics.

This is not to say students have been apolitical. Identity politics is an important and legitimate form of political engagement, and students have participated with vigor in critical and celebratory campus efforts related to race, gender, and sexuality. And conservative and liberal students have both been admirably outspoken on matters of free speech across the nation. Students do look outward, contrary to the oft-heard complaint that they are self-obsessed or egomaniacally pre-professional. In fact, anyone who has spent significant time on campuses in the past few years knows that there has been a tremendous awakening of interest in community, with students volunteering in great numbers to support K-12 programs, environmental efforts, faith-based organizations, HIV-prevention, anti-poverty initiatives, and more. This earnest collective effort, which these days tends to start in high schools -- has now become a central aspect of campus life: Sororities, fraternities, sports teams, honor societies, and whole classes can be found tutoring, cleaning up communities, and flexing their muscles as citizens in the very best sense of that world.

We watch this student heavy-lifting in public service with respect and awe. I recall a far less impressive set of undergraduate years: My fellow students and I spent many more hours playing Frisbee with bandana-sporting dogs on the quad than we did mingling with neighbors outside the campus gates. The altruism and generosity of our students are precious, and should be encouraged and admired. But those of us who study American politics worry that all the student public service we see might not quite take the turn from humanitarianism toward electoral politics. Shouldn’t these civic tendencies somehow lead to campaign participation, voting, and policy debate, in order to have the greatest effects?

Among students, sitting aside the tremendous surge of interest in public service and the public good, is an ambivalence or even distaste for conventional politics. In my experience, with the exception of some political science majors and a few others who somehow find their way to electoral politics, what the Democrats and Republicans (local, state, or national) are up to is a real bore. In general, students find “public policy” to be mind-numbing, once they find out what it really involves: hearings, complex budget maneuvering, extended debate, long periods of inactivity, professional lobbyists, tabled bills, and often, watered-down legislation.

And we in political science don’t help much. While the texture of everyday life in the United States is determined largely by state and local governments -- so vital in taxation, public health, education, and crime control -- state and local politics research is viewed as among the less “sexy” areas of expertise in political science. A typical college or university American political science curriculum is dominated by courses on the presidency, Congress, the courts, or national media, public opinion, elections, and political behavior. We do a poor job of bringing state and local politics to our students through the curriculum, and so it is no surprise that what government does feels very far away. It is something that happens in Washington, and affects them in some abstract way that they are told matters, but feel only slightly.

What we see, then, is an odd bifurcation in students’ sense of citizenship. They feel a deep sense of belonging through their community service: They’ve worked in the soup kitchens, tutored struggling elementary school kids, cleaned up parks, and aided staff in grim mental health centers. But this activity composes only one aspect of citizenship. Commitment to place -- being a caring member of a community -- is a critical dimension of American citizenship, but so are political knowledge, the exercise of rights, and pro-active engagement in conventional elections and governance.

Can we move our students from their current understanding of citizenship as belonging and local engagement, and take them to a more complex (and, granted, often dull) form of citizenry? Can we link their local public service, humanitarianism, and intense feelings of global citizenship (even if often Starbucks-inspired) to American electoral politics -- the “meat and potatoes” arena from where U.S. domestic and foreign policy actually emerge?

We can do all these things, but only if we have students paying attention in big numbers, as we may well have in 2008. It takes work on our part and theirs, and not only through political science courses.

Making the Most of 2008

Again, it’s a long year ahead with an extraordinarily fluid political environment and many twists and turns to come. But in the meantime, I have been reflecting the sorts of venues that enable us to work best on enduring aspects of citizenship, including forging those local-national politics links with our students. Professors and administrators should do the usual things: pursue candidates to speak on campus, encourage voter registration and “get out the vote” drives, and talk with students about the election where we can. In addition, though, we must structure the discussion on campus for the longer term.

I have failed as often as I have succeeded in my attempts to focus students constructively on national campaigns. So, let me close with some rules of thumb that might be helpful in using Election 2008 most effectively:

1. Don’t organize any election event without students leading and organizing. I am embarrassed to admit how many election-oriented forums I have organized or tried to organize, with refreshments, that resulted either in non-events or in a panels of my distinguished colleagues outnumbering students in big empty lecture halls. Even on the most frenzied October election season evenings, our students are still pulled in many different directions, so don’t count on them coming to a forum even if you’ve lined up your leading campus experts and famous authors.

2. Use current media advertising as a starting point for discussion. One of the best and most enjoyable ways to discuss elections with students is to show them what’s being aired, for their critique and to spur debates. While our students are on the Internet always, they don’t sit down and watch broadcast television in real time very often, so they
likely are missing the advertisements that most Americans see each evening. A format for student discussion that enables them to see what other (particularly older) voters see, works. And it’s a fine moment to pursue that ever-elusive “media literacy” we hope our students leave college with. Although Web sites like YouTube are for younger Americans,
the abundance of both official campaign advertisements and political films by amateurs are a welcome bonanza for the scholarly analysis of public opinion formation and political rhetoric.

3. Polls may often be dubious and annoying, but they do engage. The reason we see so many “horse-race” polls during election years is that this quantitative discourse has become -- for better or worse -- the way media (and therefore voters) engage elections. The polls shape our discourse because we follow the journalistic lead: We too want to know who is ahead, and strategize the expectations game along with the pundits. Polls -- or a census is more likely -- of dorm floors, students waiting in bank or bank lines, and in classes, are inevitably and chronically exciting. Use them for good, and don’t worry too much. I find that students in the minority on our campuses are typically fairly vocal and proud, so I haven’t seen much of what political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls the “spiral of silence” (fear of isolation due to the expression of a minority opinion).

4. Capture the energy, prepare for the letdown. Even if you use Election 2008 as a teaching moment, inside the classroom or out, and achieve tremendous student engagement and passionate display, it will end in a big thud after Election Day. I have counseled many students out of post-election depression, even when their candidates won. There is a way to -- during the height of the excitement of October -- start funneling the passion into experiences that will make our students truly great citizens for the long term. Think about bringing local and state officials -- legislative staffers are particularly good at this, and are thrilled to speak on campus -- to speak with students about how the local and national politics are connected, or about the way majorities and minorities, after elections are over, shape the nature of public policy.

5. Think about talk. While we discuss the campaigns and policies of our favored candidates, we should -- without dampening discussion -- try to push our students to argue better and more effectively. This is exceedingly difficult, especially as the election get heated and students have invested time and hard work in particular campaigns. The more involved they are in a campaign, the less they want to listen to debate. But the campaign is a time when the “culture of argument” is vibrant, and we need to consider how to keep it going long after the election is over. We now have so many fine scholarly works on the pedagogy of controversy, on what makes for meaningful political discussion, and on how to teach argument. It is best to read these works before the onslaught of the fall campaigns, and to keep the enduring nature of political talk in mind, as we help our students evolve into even better citizens than we are.

Author/s: 
Susan Herbst
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Susan Herbst is executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia. She is also professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Movie Industry's 200% Error

A week ago today, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) issued what had to be a hugely embarrassing news release acknowledging that an aggressively promoted and widely cited research report commissioned by the MPAA in 2005 significantly overstated the Internet-based peer-to-peer piracy of college students: "The 2005 study had incorrectly concluded that 44 percent of the motion picture industry’s domestic losses were attributable to piracy by college students. The 2007 study will report that number to be approximately 15 percent." The MPAA release attributes the bad data to an “isolated error,” adding that it takes the error seriously and plans to hire an independent reviewer “to validate” the numbers in a forthcoming edition of an updated report.

We should applaud the MPAA for going public with a painful press release about what some have tagged the “200 percent error.” ( Note: Here and elsewhere in this article, this percentage has been fixed from an earlier version -- our own little mathematical error.) Unfortunately, the MPAA has yet to release the actual reports that generated either the 44 percent or 15 percent claims about the role of college students in digital piracy; the public data are limited to PowerPoint graphics in PDF format on the association’s web site. Perhaps as part of its efforts to validate the numbers in the new report the MPAA will also make public the complete document, not just the summary graphics. (Academics do know something about peer review.)

We also have to admire the MPAA’s arrogance. The MPAA now asserts that college students account for 15 percent rather than 44 percent of the P2P piracy affecting the motion picture industry. However the press release says nothing -- not a word -- about the source of the other "85 percent" of the P2P piracy that affects the industry’s revenues, the activities of "civilians" who use consumer broadband services.

Consistent with past practice, the January 22nd MPAA statement continues to blast college students (and by extension campus officials) about the (now much reduced) levels of P2P piracy linked to college students: “Although college students make up three percent of the population, they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of stolen movie products in this country.” Additionally, the news release closes with a terse pledge that the MPAA “will continue to aggressively fight piracy on all fronts including working to forge alliances with other copyright organizations [and] deploying technologies that help combat piracy…”

The new (corrected) MPAA data affirm what many of us who follow this issue have said for several years: P2P piracy is primarily a consumer market issue. The enabling technology is not a campus network but the consumer broadband service provided by cable and telcom firms such as AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, TimeWarner, and Verizon, among others. Of course you would never know this from last week’s news release.

The MPAA’s statement is also laden with errors and misrepresentations. Let’s begin with some basic facts and simple math. The MPAA’s release says that “college students make up three percent of the [U.S.] population.” In fact, “college students” ages 16-67, account for almost 6 percent of the US population. The Department of Education reports the projected number of full- and part-time college students in two and four-year degree-granting institutions for the 2007-08 academic year totals some 18 million students; the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. population as of December 2007 totals some 303,579,509 individuals. Do the math and you’ll find that 5.9 percent of the nation’s population could be classified as “college students,” a population that includes full-time undergraduate and graduate students, part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs, commuter students in community colleges, and adults enrolled in online degree programs, among others.

But the population of college students that most concerns the MPAA are the undergraduates who live in campus dorms and who have 24/7 access to high speed campus networks: these are typically college freshmen and some sophomores in large public universities and the majority of undergraduates in small, private liberal arts colleges. The dorm residents total some two million students and account for 11 percent of the much larger population of 18 million college students, ages 16-67.

I and others continue to provide evidence that colleges have policies and impose sanctions on students who engage in illegal P2P activity using campus networks. Unfortunately, the MPAA and the Recording Association of America continue to press for costly “technology solutions” that campus IT experts have deemed both expensive and ineffective.

Now let’s turn the MPAA’s claim that college students account for a “disproportionate amount of stolen movie products.” The real metric for assessing “proportionality” should not be college students as a proportion of the total U.S. population, which includes millions of infants and the elderly who don’t go the movies or rent DVDs, but college students as a proportion of the movie-going population. Although the MPAA does not publish separate data for college students as a proportion of the U.S. movie-going audience, it does report that individuals aged 12-24 account for 28 percent of the “movie going” public. (Interestingly, the MPAA data seem to ignore all the “moviegoers” under age 12: this makes you wonder about Hollywood’s infamous accounting practices and suggests that no one under age 12 goes to the movies. But what about millions of kids under age 12 who went to see Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Night at the Museum, Superman Returns, Ice Age, Happy Feet, and Over the Hedge -- seven of the top 10 grossing films in 2006?)

Extrapolating from the MPAA’s public data on paid admissions (i.e., the number of purchased movie tickets) we see that individuals aged 18-24 accounted for 19 percent of the 1.332 billion movie tickets sold in 2006. Admittedly, a significant number, but not all, of the 18-24 year olds going to movies in 2006 were college students. But without condoning illegal P2P piracy, these numbers suggest that the proportion of downloading that the MPAA now attributes to college students (15 percent) may be roughly proportionate (or possibly even “under-proportionate”) to college students as a segment of the movie going public. (Perhaps the MPAA will offer up a grant for an independent study of the movie-going behaviors of college students, plus additional funds to find the millions of “missing” children under age 12 who are not included in their numbers about movie attendance.)

Then there is the news release’s closing statement about “deploying technologies that will help combat piracy,” which ignores the June 2007 Congressional testimony of both campus information technology officials and an IT industry executive that technology will never provide a comprehensive solution to stem P2P piracy.

At one time seemingly infallible in its continuing efforts to portray college students as digital pirates and campus officials as unengaged and unconcerned about digital piracy on campus networks, the MPAA now seems like the “association that can’t shoot straight,” a reference to Jimmy Breslin’s 1970 mob farce about a bungling Mafia gang. The January 22 press release is the second significant screwup for the MPAA on the P2P front in the past few months: in fall 2007, the MPAA released a software toolkit it said would help monitor illegal P2P activity on campus networks. Unfortunately, as reported by Brian Krebs of The Washington Post, the MPAA’s monitoring application posed a major risk to network security. In sum, it appears that the MPAA can’t count and also can’t do code.

But the MPAA’s press release also raises other interesting questions, some involving the backstory about the press release, some involving public policy questions now before Congress. With regard to the backstory, Inside Higher Ed's coverage of the MPAA press release reveals that members and staff of some key Congressional Committees knew about the errors in the MPAA data almost a week before the press release. Why did it take five days for the MPAA to acknowledge publicly the misleading data?

And then there are the issues involving public policy (and public posturing). Drawing on the MPAA’s widely publicized claims that college students accounted for 44 percent of the industry’s domestic loses due digital piracy, members of Congress have made public statements blasting P2P activity on college networks and by college students. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Internet and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology each convened congressional hearings about P2P piracy on campuses in 2007. These hearings, coupled with the continuing efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA, led to Congressional mandates intended to address illegal P2P piracy as part of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007.

Provisions of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 intended to address P2P piracy on campus include reporting requirements and an implied mandate to acquire a “technology solution” to stem P2P piracy. Both will involve significant costs for campuses: at the Congressional hearing on P2P convened by Gordon last June, Arizona State University CIO Adrian Sannier testified that his institution had spent approximately $450,000 on P2P technology deterrent software over the past six years; Mr. Sannier also described illegal P2P activity as an “arms race” that neither side will win, an assessment affirmed by other campus CIOs testifying at the June hearing.

Congressional mandates to stem P2P come at an interesting time for nation’s colleges and universities. In the wake of the recent, tragic events at Virginia Tech and at other institutions, colleges and universities have been scrambling to develop emergency notification plans and acquire notification technologies – some that are simple such as alarms and sirens and others that are complex such as notification and messaging systems that send email, text messages, and voice mail. Concurrently, given the downturn in the economy in recent months, many institutions now confront both mid-year budget recissions and impending budget cuts for the coming year. In many cases, colleges and universities had little or no money in their budgets this year for either notification systems or P2P monitoring technology.

Will college leaders receive a formal apology from the MPAA for the consequences of its “200 percent error.” Will Berman and Gordon issue new statements in the coming weeks, toning down their prior criticism and also admonishing the MPAA for providing bad data that led to ill-conceived legislation - the costly P2P reporting and enforcement mandates in the College Opportunity and Affordability Act?

And what about the source of the “other 85 percent” of the P2P piracy that affects the movie industry? Much as the RIAA and MPAA have named the campuses where they allege P2P piracy occurs, will the two associations now go public with (hopefully accurate) data about the level of P2P piracy that occurs on consumer broadband services? (Are AT&T broadband customers more likely to engage in P2P piracy than Earthlink, TimeWarner, or Verizon customers?) Much as the MPAA and RIAA leadership has criticized campus officials for not engaging on P2P issues, will the MPAA and RIAA’s leaders now take cable and telcom industry executives to task for their benign efforts to educate their customers about copyright and to address P2P activity on consumer broadband services?

Let me affirm (yet again) that the campus community does not condone digital piracy and that I am not condoning the behaviors of either college students or “civilians” who engage in digital piracy . As I stated in a November commentary published by Inside Higher Ed, "illegal P2P downloading is a messy issue. But the swiftboating efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA to portray college students as the primary source of digital piracy will not resolve this problem, in either the campus or the consumer markets. Neither will federal mandates that ultimately will mean pass-through costs for students."

Next steps? Perhaps the MPAA’s press release acknowledging its “200 percent error” will set the stage for new, less rancorous private and public discussions about P2P piracy. Colleges and universities respect copyright; colleges and universities are engaged in serious efforts to inform and educate students about the importance of copyright. And MPAA and RIAA officials, beginning with MPAA President Dan Glickman and RIAA President Cary Sherman, should acknowledge, respect and strongly support the continuing efforts of campus officials to address copyright issues, in part by ending the public posturing that portrays colleges and universities as dens of digital piracy.

Author/s: 
Kenneth C. Green
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Kenneth C. Green, a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate University, is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project.

A Different Way to Fight Student Disengagement

Student disengagement takes many forms and is particularly apparent in academic contexts, when many students avoid rigorous study, when professors and students mutually agree to a “if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you” compact, and when students and their families define education in terms of degree attainment -- the cheaper and faster the better. Other patterns of disengagement are perhaps most visible in student behavior and student culture. A variety of national surveys now indicate that over 40 percent of "millennial age" students self report episodes of depression sufficient to interrupt their academic work, yet students report only occasional faculty awareness of the crises the students see among fellow students or the pain they themselves endure. Over 35 percent of current students engage in binging with alcohol or other drugs with the intent of passing out -- emotionally and physically disengaging. And for some observers, students’ civic disengagement is so alarming as to question what and who will be preserving key democratic values in the future.

What all this reveals is higher education’s failure to attend to the most fundamental of our responsibilities: the development of the whole person -- intellectual, emotive/behavioral, and civic. All college students should reach deepened levels of learning and understanding, as well as develop a strong sense of self-direction, and self-realization or well-being, and a greater sense of civic identity and responsibility. These are three separable, equally important categories of outcomes, related to the core purposes of liberal education. The integration, the reassertion, and the achievement of these all-important aims and outcomes can and must become the priority of our colleges and universities. And if we are to seek reliable indices of quality and achievement at our institutions, we can and must develop reliable means that get at each of these outcomes and their interrelatedness.

At the source of the expressions of disengagement lies the problem of the disintegration of the purpose and core outcomes of college. All too many institutions of higher education -- and even proponents of liberal education -- are off-course, addressing only narrowly academic means and strategies rather than the integrated goals and ends that matter to our students and to our democracy. As a result, many of our institutions risk becoming complicit in the troubling patterns of student disengagement.

Most institutions, in official handbooks and documents, still attest with eloquence and conviction to the importance of students’ personal and civic development. Regrettably, helping students actually achieve the full range of essential outcomes is much less evident, and only rarely are the institution’s resources, including its faculty and professionals, prepared and aligned to accomplish these ends. What is even more regrettable is that the current national debate about accountability has entirely ignored both the personal and the civic aims of a strong liberal education. As educators, as parents, as a society at large, we simply do not hold ourselves, or hold our institutions, responsible for achieving them or demand and expect such achievement. In fact, few institutions would have in place, or individuals have clearly in mind, what could be examined to determine if the core outcomes of higher education had been, even partially, achieved.

An incomplete step in the direction advocated here is the institutional use of the National Survey of Student Engagement. NSSE studies begin to look at some forms of student engagement. While promising, use of NSSE does not allow the institution to examine outcomes of student well-being (including depression and forms of abusive behaviors). And its use to assess civic outcomes is modest; for example, the affects of volunteerism and other service experiences are not distinguished from experiences involving community-based learning pedagogies.

The failure to acknowledge the practical aspects of disengagement suggests a mix of anxiety over liability (or marketing) concerns by the institution, campus peer pressures by the students, a concern of being too busy or “it’s not my job” by faculty, and a lingering sense among most that we, as individuals and as institutions ought to be, but are not, dealing openly with these problems. What is apparent is that the efforts and resources currently in place on campuses are offering, in large part, partial treatments of symptoms, rather than dealing with causes.

Even a partial solution to the patterns of disengagement by students, and by institutions, will surely come as a result of at least noticing the linkages among the forms of disengagement and, ideally, some sense of how each of the forms of disengagement could be affected through specific contexts (including mentoring and learning communities) and educational practices (pedagogies and curricula) on campus and beyond. Signature practices that reverse student patterns of disengagement include service learning, residence-based learning communities, joint student and faculty research, and institutional initiatives that model and value active and reciprocal engagement with the community -- near and beyond.

The practices that work to deepen student engagement often take students beyond the classroom to applied contexts, reveal to those who study, and to those who teach, their own presumptions and privileges, and link knowledge with action -- helping all involved appreciate that there are multiple consequences to full engagement in learning. Not only are there learning outcomes from such experiences, there are also documentable outcomes, effects and affects, that influence the well-being and the civic development of those who participate. Different types of institutions have modeled these achievements. For example, Georgetown University’s “curricular infusion” project links faculty from philosophy, mathematics, and theater with the Center for Social Justice, the health and counseling Centers, the nursing program, and the Office of Learning Assessment. As integrated teams, they have developed and now offer as established parts of the undergraduate curriculum, courses using forms of engaged pedagogy, each emphasizing the infusion of topics and methods getting at the related forms of student development: intellectual, emotional, and civic.

St. Lawrence University has established a Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership, under which community-based learning pedagogies are developed and then spread. With presidential and provost support, faculty participation is highly valued by the institution, including with faculty rewards. Departments of philosophy, psychology, biology, history, economics, and communications have integrated these offerings for majors and non-majors. Some require them for their major and the institution is moving to establish this coming year a civic engagement minor, which will be linked to multiple major curricula.

Collectively, these and related engaged learning practices can comprise a solution to the most troubling aspects of student disengagement. But these practices will work educationally only when colleges and universities themselves both expect and reward greater student and faculty involvement -- and when faculty who sponsor engaged learning are valued and rewarded within the institution and within the profession.

What gives us confidence that engaged learning practices will work for today’s students? Over the past four years, the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP), supported by the Charles Engelhard Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, invited campus involvement in testing the hypothesis that engaged practices like these might mitigate patterns of disengagement and begin to address the problem of fractured or dis-integrated purposes and outcomes. In many respects, the rigor in evaluating their programs and initiatives was more extensive and thorough than any examination of learning assessments they had tried previously. To date, over 60 institutions have received grant support from the BTtoP Project in order to initiate or to sustain programs that have been defined to fit their institutional particularities, as they examine the linkages among the several core purposes and outcomes.

In addition to the contributions of the research documenting the relationships among outcomes, the process used in addressing patterns of disengagement makes its own contribution. We have seen that using the opportunities that already exist (from faculty meetings to parent weekends, from board discussions to town hall meetings), the institution that wants successfully to tackle the complexity of the problem of disengagement will involve its multiple constituencies (faculty and students, administrators and boards, researchers and parents, those within the campus, and those in the community beyond the campus) in considering openly and candidly the realities of disengagement on their own campus and their shared, among all of these constituencies, responsibility in both causing and solving them.

Through Bringing Theory to Practice, and through related “engaged learning initiatives” sponsored by AAC&U and other concerned organizations, faculty, administrators and students at many colleges and universities now agree that we must identify and address the patterns of disengagement in higher education and the fractured condition of its attention to core purposes and outcomes, and participate in exploration of the solutions. The beginning of a solution is to be found in recommitting our institutional actions and resources, robustly and creatively, to engaging students -- creating the contexts in which students can claim the full range of outcomes that liberal education promises -- and expecting that, in fact insisting that, such engagement occur.

Author/s: 
Donald W. Harward
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Donald W. Harward is director of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, president emeritus at Bates College, and senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The Wrong Idea on the Drinking Problem

The late Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who famously gave “The Last Lecture” on September 7, 2007, describes in that talk a sports metaphor called “The Head Fake.” Athletes use the head fake to mislead their opponents into heading one direction, while they run the other way. In life, a head fake is when we lead people to one conclusion about our goals while trying to head in another direction.

This July, the same month in which Pausch died, a group of college and university presidents began to collect signatures on a document called “The Amethyst Initiative” -- a move that appears to be a “head fake” of its own. There are two seemingly related parts to this document. The first states that “the 21 year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses.” The second calls for an informed and unimpeded debate by elected officials to weigh the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas. As of August 25, 2008, there were 128 presidents and chancellors who had signed the agreement.

The head fake seems to have worked; the Amethyst Initiative has created a flurry of media interest -- suddenly and dramatically increasing the visibility of this issue. Many of the college and university presidents and chancellors who initially signed have since had to defend their actions. Many said they signed the Amethyst Initiative not to change the drinking age (after all, it isn’t theirs to change), but to spark a national debate. I do believe that those who have signed are deeply concerned about the extent of binge drinking nationally and the number of deaths of college students every year. Close to 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol related injuries, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. And that is in addition to the thousands of injuries, assaults, rapes and wrecks that happen to young people who binge-drink and to those around them.

However, the legal drinking age won’t be changed by college presidents; lawmakers must take that step. I declined to sign the Amethyst Initiative. And I wouldn’t advise lawmakers to change the drinking age.

I do not believe that lowering the drinking age will do much to decrease drinking-related deaths, and there are dozens of studies supporting the 21 drinking age and suggesting that reversing this law will lead to more drinking-related deaths and injuries. I do, however, agree that there should be a national debate, and it should be about binge drinking.

This is where the presidents of colleges and universities must act; the college culture of drinking truly is an issue for leaders in higher education. Full-time college students on average drink more heavily than their non-college peers, according to a study cited by AlcoholPolicyMD.com, and around our community, the beer-brand signs in bars and liquor stores shouting “Welcome Students” are clear evidence of the attention paid to this population by alcohol advertising. Traditions among fraternities and sororities, athletes and the “Animal House” mystique further add to the pressure to drink to excess.

The argument has been made that if one can join the military and vote, why can’t one buy a beer, but binge drinking is a very different issue. The college students who die every year do not die from buying a beer. They die from drinking so much that they pass out, choke on their own vomit or lapse into a coma. Or they get into a car and kill themselves or someone else by driving while intoxicated. This issue isn’t about buying a beer. This is about high risk behaviors like funneling, beer pong, keg stands, body shots and the myriad other drinking games whose sole purpose is to get the participants as drunk as they can as fast as they can. And contrary to conventional wisdom, according to a study of binge drinking among the U.S. and 34 European countries, where the drinking age is generally lower, 33 European countries have higher binge-drinking rates among youth than does the U.S.

Frostburg State University is like most other residential institutions of higher education: Some students drink, sometimes to excess and sometimes with tragic consequences. But we refuse to throw our hands up in exasperation. Instead, we are attacking the problem from many angles. We have an alcohol education program that we require of freshmen and offer to their parents, as well. We have enlisted our local community in the fight, asking liquor stores to check IDs more carefully, bars to end the deep discounts on drinks, and local police to break up large parties. When students are issued alcohol citations, we tell their parents. And student groups who themselves are trying to fight the problem of binge drinking apply social-norming principles and good old fashioned peer pressure in the process. I told students not long after I came to Frostburg two years ago that I never, ever wanted anyone to have to place a call a students’ parents and say, "I'm sorry, but your child has died as a result of drinking too much alcohol." But even though we have made progress, I know there is no guarantee that we will be spared that agonizing duty.

If the intent of the Amethyst Initiative was to “head fake” the nation into a serious debate on the issue of binge drinking, then I say congratulations. This has been necessary for a very long time. College and university presidents like me have to deal with the issue of their students’ binge drinking and its risks every year, even every day. I only wish it didn’t take some 1,700 deaths a year to get us talking. Let’s review the evidence carefully before making a decision, then move this dialogue beyond this specific notion toward a truly comprehensive, sustained set of initiatives, policies and strategies to address this issue.

Author/s: 
Jonathan Gibralter
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Jonathan Gibralter is president of Frostburg State University.

Engaging Students as Volunteers and Voters

What would it take for the overwhelming majority of eligible U.S. college students to register, vote, and get actively involved in the November elections -- and in subsequent elections? For years, educators have bemoaned the political detachment of students -- the separation of so many from public issues that profoundly affect their lives. Too often, students have said their actions didn’t matter, or argued that the electoral sphere is so inevitably corrupt that it makes no sense to participate.

This election feels different, though. Young voters and volunteers are surging into the campaigns in numbers we haven't seen in decades. They're interested and concerned, and they want to make a difference. The question is whether we'll give them the tools they need to participate fully in a watershed election, as volunteers and voters. That means helping them register to vote, giving them opportunities to learn and exchange ideas about the issues, encouraging them to volunteer with one or more campaigns or with nonpartisan voter mobilization drives, and helping ensure that they turn out at the polls.

Young voters have been becoming more interested in electoral politics for a while. Between 2000 and 2004, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds jumped 11 points, from 36 percent to 47 percent, and among the larger pool of 18- to 29-year olds, it rose from 40 percent to 49 percent. In 2006, youth turnout rose by another 3 percent, more than any other segment of the electorate, and young voters made the key difference in half the Senate seats that changed hands.

This election promises to involve our students far more, with even greater potential impact. When citizens start voting and volunteering at a young age, these habits tend to stick. So if we build on their newfound passion and concern, we could set them on a path of civic engagement for the rest of their lives. This includes finding policy solutions to the issues they address through their volunteer work -- which means, among other things, voting for candidates whose positions on these issues they approve.

A variety of organizations are working to support college student involvement in the election on a nonpartisan basis. Campus Compact -- a nonprofit higher education association that supports all forms of civic engagement on campus -- has established a nonpartisan initiative to boost voter registration and education among college students. As part of this effort, the organization has created a comprehensive website that brings together key resources, tools, and models from around the country, www.compact.org/vote. Another key site, www.YourVoteYourVoice.org, offers additional resources. And the student PIRGs have created a superb online registration tool, available at www.studentvote.org, which colleges can customize and post on their own Web sites.

Registration is the first challenge, of course, although in most states the cut-offs just hit. Students often don't realize they need to register until the peak of the fall campaign season, when in most states it's too late. And when they can't vote, we have to work harder to get them participating in other ways, like volunteering or talking about election issues with others.

For future rounds, we can remedy this situation most easily by registering students to vote when they register for fall classes or as part of orientation. Springfield College in Massachusetts registered students as they moved into the dorms and has set a goal of registering all eligible students on campus. Ohio’s John Carroll University has created a designated election Web page, set up locations to register students throughout campus, organized debate-watch parties, and established an election-related discussion series covering issues such as the importance of youth voting and civic engagement, the economy, abortion, immigration, and social justice.

If your state’s registration deadline has yet to hit, or if you have same-day registration, many more options are still open. Faculty can hand out registration forms in their classes. Student groups can set up tables at high-traffic areas like the student union. A residential campus could invite student government and student organizations to register people in the dorms -- the University of California Santa Barbara used this approach and registered 2,400 voters in a single night. Financial aid offices can distribute registration information in conjunction with student loan and work-study disbursements. Our technology departments can pass the word through voice mails, text messages, and e-mail reminders -- something they can also do for absentee ballot deadlines and for getting students out to vote on election day. The more we can recruit both students and faculty to register students in whatever creative ways they can, the more likely we’ll engage the vast bulk of our college students.

However many students we’ve helped register, our challenge now is to help them think critically about the choices they'll now be eligible to make. Given major issues that affect students -- from global climate change to the Iraq war, from the financial bailout and an uncertain economy to the escalating costs of higher education -- students need to understand where the candidates stand so they can decide who best reflects their own beliefs. Campuses can encourage professors to weave election-related themes into their courses throughout the fall, by scheduling discussions and debates (including on local races and initiatives) both in larger campus venues and within classes, and by working to get all students to recognize how profoundly this election could impact their individual and common futures. We need to do everything we can so that every student in our classes and on our campuses feels welcomed and feels their political beliefs are respected. That may even mean bending over backwards to encourage the voices of students whose views we disagree with. But so long as we do that, and make sure the materials we present do justice to the realities, we have a responsibility to use our classrooms to explore the difficult issues of our time.

We can do even more than helping students vote and vote thoughtfully. We can also encourage them to volunteer with the national or local candidates they choose to support, whatever their party affiliations, and with nonprofit civic groups that seek to involve the community. In 2004, for instance, two small leadership classes, at Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College, registered 700 eligible inmates in the Cleveland jails. This year, the professor is assigning her students to volunteer in the local McCain or Obama campaigns, in local or state races, or in nonprofit registration efforts -- and then to write a paper analyzing their experiences. North Carolina Central University is encouraging students to help with major off-campus registration drives in the adjacent communities. Given sufficient institutional support, these kinds of efforts can make a tremendous difference.

How many of our students would volunteer, for instance, if we distributed information on the local McCain and Obama campaigns, or gave out the Web sites, or found ways for them to get involved even if they live in states where the outcomes of the presidential or senatorial races are pretty certain. We could, for instance, encourage them to participate in the voter calling programs that both of the national campaigns are running, where people in states without close national races use their extra cell minutes to call those in states where every vote can matter. So long as we make clear that who the students choose to volunteer with is their choice, not ours, we can encourage all this while still remaining meticulously nonpartisan.

Imagine if we worked through our service-learning networks to get a significant percentage of our students knocking on doors, making phone calls, having conversations that offer their fellow citizens an opportunity to engage with critical issues beyond 30-second attack ads and 1-minute TV sound bites. Once students begin to volunteer in these election-related efforts, they are far more likely to keep doing so throughout their lives. It's also a way to amplify the impact of their voices, as they reach out to others, both on campus and off.

Campuses can integrate these kinds of activities into existing service-learning and civic engagement programs. After the students go out and work with the campaigns of their choice, they could then return to their classrooms, reflect on what they learned, and share their experiences with their peers, including students volunteering for opposing candidates. These kinds of involvement could also connect them with role models of engaged community members. There's nothing like working side-by-side with an 83-year-old volunteer to teach a 21-year-old about keeping on for the long haul.

If we promote these efforts enough, they can shift the electoral landscape. Several elections ago, a Wesleyan University student registered 300 voters on her 3,000-person campus, and educated them on the candidates' respective stands on the environment and access to education. The lawmaker she supported ended up winning by 27 votes. This young woman almost didn't act "because I didn't think of myself as a political person." But the issues impelled her to risk. Had she not gotten involved, the district would have elected a different representative. Whatever we think of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, we can learn from the approach of the college he founded, Liberty University, to offer buses to take students to the polls and even cancel classes on the day of the election.

Once we register our students, we can encourage them to vote through voting pledges, e-mail, text messages, posters and fliers, student-to-student phone banks, and coordinating transportation to off-campus voting sites. In some states, colleges also need to let students know what they need to do to satisfy restrictive ID laws and provide them with whatever will meet the requirements -- for instance, through a university ID or a zero-balance utility bill for students living in the dorms. We also need a parallel process to help students who will vote absentee (www.longdistancevoter.org offers lots of the necessary tools). And, one way or another, we need to give them a sense that their votes could make the difference.

Considering the impact of this election on the future our students will inherit, we owe it to them to do everything we can to encourage them to participate, while respecting the wide variety of political views and experiences on campus. Given recent trends, they're likely to respond, if we offer them the relevant opportunities. Again, we wouldn't be prescribing the support of any particular candidates. The students would make those choices on their own. But we'd be giving them a powerful opportunity to make their voices matter, and possibly take the first steps toward becoming engaged citizens for the rest of their lives. If we believe that civic education and engagement are part of our mission, this seems a powerful historic moment to rise to that challenge.

Author/s: 
Paul Loeb, Maureen F. Curley and Sherry Morreale
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Paul Loeb is author Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Maureen F. Curley is president of Campus Compact, a national higher education association dedicated to educating students for social responsibility. Sherry Morreale is director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Paper Money

A novelist named Nick Mamatas has just published an essay in the Drexel University magazine The Smart Set confessing to what he calls the “terrible secret” of his career – that much of his income once came from ghostwriting term papers for students. Some clients, he says, were bright enough. They had fallen behind on their workload during the semester, or were just having trouble in a particular course; and there were immigrant students (some of them with advanced degrees from other countries) who did not feel confident enough in their English to venture an analysis of gothic imagery in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

But overextended overachievers were not, presumably, the norm. The agency for which Mamatas worked flagged some orders with the code “DC,” which meant “Dumb Client,” so that the ghostwriter knew better than to use polysyllables. The professors wouldn’t be fooled, while the DCs themselves would be perplexed, and require an explanation of what they had “written.”

Efficiency was important to the whole racket, as Mamatas describes it. He would accept an assignment and quickly skim the material it was supposed to cover. He knew – as the students, generally, did not – what the professor meant by such terms as “thesis sentence” and “argument.” The main challenge was to harvest a few good quotations from the assigned reading, then laying in a few pages of plausible filling to connect them. In a service economy, this was a marketable skill, and the consumer could pay for it by credit card.

The only other depiction of the life of a “term-paper artist” that I have come across was the character Dave, as portrayed by Will Farrell a few years ago on the short-lived program "Undeclared." When asked by students how he can churn out reports on The Brothers Karamazov or the origins of the Great Depression overnight, Dave says that he reads eight or nine books a week. “I also take a lot of speed,” he says. “A lot of speed.”

Farrell's character was a freelance – unlike Mamatas, who worked for a company selling what it euphemistically called “model” term papers to its customers. Either way, it was a business. The late David Foster Wallace may have been the rare case of a term-paper artist who was in it for – well, the art. Or so goes a story that has made the rounds.

Aside from writing two senior honors theses at Amherst College in the mid-1980s (one, in philosophy, on modal logic; the other, in English, his first novel), it is said that Wallace may have written the theses of several other students as well. It was “one of those open-secret kind of things,” an editor who worked with Wallace told The New York Observer last month. “The thing you have to understand about David is that he was the most facile -- and I don’t mean that in a bad sense -- the most facile writer since, I don’t know, Dickens.... It might be apocryphal, but I don’t think so. David could have knocked off the average undergraduate A paper on anything in a half an hour.”

My own brief, inglorious career in that corner of the black market was characterized neither by big bucks nor flashes of genius. Whether or not there is a statute of limitations on one’s callow youth, I will go ahead and confess that 20 years ago I wrote four or five papers, bringing in a total of well under a thousand dollars. It is tempting to blame the whole thing on the Zeitgeist of the 1980s -- which was, actually, one of my rationalizations at the time. It involved a willful effort to be cynical – to care about “the price of everything and the value of nothing,” more or less.

But the rationalizations were an afterthought. First there was the cash. And in my case, it was as simple as being broke despite working a number of jobs. One such was a very sporadic gig at a tutoring agency that served the very dim children of the lower upper middle class.

Nearly all of our clients were attending college with a major in getting drunk. By the standards of really rich people, they were not really rich. But they thought they were, and behaved with an arrogance that became all the more astounding after a session. For many of them were just functionally literate, and some in only the strictest sense. When even grade inflation could not get them a C, we tutors were available to help, for a price – one they (or their parents rather) could well afford.

It was honest work, but irregular. Every tutor was sooner or later presented with the opportunity to make a little something extra. A few of us took it. This was (we joked) a matter of redistributing a little wealth. There was also the pleasure of being paid for writing.

And finally, as if such rationalizations were not enough, there was Diderot. At the time, I was reading everything I could by and about the philosopher, if not actually wearing a “What Would Diderot Do?” bracelet. In his 20s, he, too, went through a long spell of rather precarious living. One way be got by was to crank out sermons for lazy priests. (Enjoyable work for an atheist, no doubt.) I don’t know whether professors assigned term papers at the Sorbonne in the 1730s. But if they did, Diderot seemed a likely candidate to have ghostwritten them, too.

But after a while, it became clear that I had a serious disqualification for this line of work: the lack of speed. (Speed of production, that is; amphetamines were never part of the process.) In his article, Mamatas reports that he could turn out a term paper in 20 minutes. I spent longer than that just on the outline. By black-market standards, this was highly unprofessional.

It was a matter of time before I left the business. And then my conscience started playing catch-up.

A few months after hacking out a final paper for some kid with more cash than brains, I met a woman who was working on her dissertation. Its topic was something I knew just enough about to be able to ask some questions. For a guy with no good moves, this was a good move. Word from our mutual friends was that the interest was reciprocal. But it soon turned out that the grapevine was only doing me just so many favors.

She mentioned having suspicions about the work being handed in by some of her students. And -- she continued -- the word was that I had first-hand information about the market for ghost-written papers. Could I tell her more about that, at some point? (This in a tone more curious than overtly disapproving; but still....)

Now, cheating my customers out of an education had never seemed a cause for concern. They were doing a pretty thorough job of that on their own. But suddenly I could picture things from the vantage point of an earnest, hard-working instructor who would no more have gamed the system than she would have held up a bank.

All the rationalizations fell away in a second; the embarrassment, so long evaded, now finally hit home. The experience was mortifying. Twenty years later, I still feel it. Regret always comes too late to do anyone much good, but better late than never.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

The Economic Collapse and Educational Values

As a college president, I see the world through the lens of education, and I can’t help thinking there’s a lesson or two to be learned from our current financial woes. A quick review: For a number of years we all watched housing prices rise seemingly without end only to be surprised when revelation of the extent and toxicity of sub-prime mortgage lending caused the credit markets to seize up, bursting the bubble with a bang and bringing some very large financial institutions to their knees. Just like someone surveying the morning-after remains of one helluva party, we are now asking our collective hung-over selves: What were we thinking? Why didn’t we see this coming, and why didn’t the very smart and well-educated folks who head these institutions take steps to prevent this?

I’m not thinking about specific courses economics majors and future M.B.A.'s and bankers should have taken but didn’t. I’m thinking of deeper patterns of rewards and expectations taken for granted for so long that we don’t reckon with their impact at all. Much of what lies behind our current economic train-wreck stems from short-sightedness -- focus on short-term goals and gains -- and near-sightedness -- seeking to maximize one vector without regard for context in which that vector has value to begin with. So we have had big players making millions, nay billions, in ways that ultimately blew up the very system that made such gain and growth possible. I think there’s a proverb about a goose and golden eggs that applies.

Most of the players had earned at least a bachelor’s degree along the way, many of them at pretty selective colleges and universities. Virtually all had learned to compete and succeed in a grading system that rewards students for mastering — and in the worst cases just regurgitating — discrete packages of information. How much is retained after each exam and each course varies by student, and of course many do integrate what they have learned into larger ensembles. But not every course of study insists on integrative learning, and colleges and universities may inadvertently set themselves up to promote a certain type of achievement by measuring their own worth as many rating systems do: by the SAT scores and rank in class of their incoming students.

This system of values is not lost on prospective college students and their parents, who, if they can afford it, have their kids coached to excel at standardized tests and tutored to a fare-thee-well. Students experience terrible levels of performance anxiety and stress, all the more if they come to believe that education is a steeplechase that one “wins” by jumping hurdles, one at a time, ever higher, ever faster. In rewarding the most successful grade and score hounds, aren’t we, even if inadvertently, promoting the pursuit of short-term gains?

It’s not likely students forget this lesson upon leaving school and entering a world only too happy to prize short-term gain. Get the best result now and don’t worry about the day after tomorrow. Maximize stock value at the end of the quarter. That way you’ll get the biggest bonus package this year. Is there a way to take advantage of market movements and make a killing tomorrow, in the next hour, in the next 10 minutes?

It goes on. Get as many folks signed up for mortgages at the low introductory interest rate and don’t worry about what happens when the rate resets. Home buyers: Get that introductory rate. Don’t worry about resets or the possibility the economy may sour. Back to brokers and local banks: Take the commissions and sell the mortgages now. Bigger banks: Bundle those mortgages and take the profits by selling them. Get the risk off your books. Put it elsewhere. Don’t worry what happens once you resell the mortgage. Just jump that next hurdle.

The system we use to grade students doesn’t just mirror this scale of values. It blesses and promotes it. Even as the admissions officers of our most prestigious colleges and universities claim to seek “well-rounded students,” they are choosing among students who have already learned to play the high-score-and-grades game in high school. Most colleges and universities do not question what students and their parents want of them: Enough seats in the “right” majors so they can get their passport to a professional school. How? By wracking up the same string of A’s during their undergraduate years as they did before. Little time for experimentation, for taking risks -- where the only “loss” might be a less than perfect transcript. If they don’t get into the right graduate or professional program they might not get the credential that is the ticket to a job where they can reap larger profits more quickly than those who went before them, in the same fields. Because, the assumption is, those fields will always be profitable.

Is there an alternative to the short-term, shortsighted thinking the pursuit of grades has encouraged our students to internalize? A handful of colleges, Hampshire among them, have long been tweaked for maintaining narrative evaluations in place of letter grades. Hampshire, the example I know best, confronts its students with detailed and nuanced performance evaluations. Some might equate escape from the tyranny of A, B, C, D, F to an invitation to slack off; the few students who enter Hampshire with that very fantasy soon discover its hollowness. Success at Hampshire and comparable colleges — and for the best students, in my view, everywhere — involves each student owning his or her learning and understanding the context and significance of that learning. Just the other day I overheard a proud Hampshire student (who didn’t know I was within earshot) tell a group of visiting high school seniors: “I knew how to get A’s on quizzes and examinations and for courses in high school. As soon as the course was over, I forgot most of the stuff that got me the A. I like Hampshire because I hold on to what I learn, because I know why I’m learning it and make it my own.”

This philosophy undergirds Hampshire’s whole system of education. Instead of choosing among pre-set majors -- predetermined fields with established questions -- each student crafts a unique educational plan of work that must be approved by two professors. Each student submits a portfolio to show that she or he has achieved the agreed-upon goals, and faculty evaluate the totality of each student’s accomplishments. Our students come to know that the first step in learning is defining the question and setting it in context. Even more: To take responsibility for deciding which questions to ask, quite often of a status quo that seems unassailable, and then by means of study, research, interrogation, and creative reflection, to reframe the question in light of changing circumstances.

While I know first-hand how Hampshire fosters a distinctive brand of self-reliance and critique among our students, I believe that there are ways comparable qualities can be promoted in more traditional systems. You cannot imagine doing away with grades? Faculty can still ask students to assess their own achievement and meet with them to share perceptions. There are distribution requirements and specific courses patterns in each major? Students could write a narrative that explains how the courses they chose to fulfill their distribution requirement contributed to their intellectual formation. The point would be to have students see how what they learned fits into a larger pattern, and could lead them toward a sense of personal ownership of their education. They would write another narrative on the eve of graduation in which they would evaluate the disciplinary mastery the courses with which they fulfilled their major led them to. And where the gaps in their mastery of the discipline remained, and what the limits of the discipline were. This would not only deepen their own ownership of the learning they had acquired but bring them face-to-face with the defining limitations of every field, of every perspective.

Wouldn’t it have been helpful if we had more corporate executives and board members who’d had such training in their college years and were primed to question the fundamental assumptions of the industries in which they were engaged? Who didn’t assume that if they got a big bonus at year’s end, they must be doing everything right?

Instead, we are left with an economy in near-ruin by the collective action of individuals who, I’m quite sure, got good grades, who knew how to ace the examinations on which they’d been coached, and whose long-term vision stretched no further than the end of the term. That view is great while it lasts, but, like that shiny “A” one crams for on the quiz, the substance is gone before the ink is dry.

Author/s: 
Ralph Hexter
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Ralph Hexter is president of Hampshire College. This essay is also being published on his new blog.

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