The importance of a core curriculum (essay)

In a recent salvo in what some observers call the “war on the core (curriculum),” Donal O’Shea, president of New College of Florida, points to the disadvantages of the ostensibly rigid and compulsory nature of too many fixed graduation requirements. He alleges that such a dynamic limits opportunities for intellectual exploration and development. Such criticisms might leave readers with the impression that colleges with strong core requirements leave students with little intellectual room to grow.

But naysayers rarely mention this: a thorough seven-subject general education sequence, such as the core curriculum for which the American Council of Trustees and Alumni advocates in its “What Will They Learn?” report, occupies at most 30 semester hours. It provides an unparalleled, diverse intellectual foundation for further study, while still affording students ample opportunity not only to complete their major but also to devote their attention to the topics that personally excite them.

Every educator will join O’Shea in his appreciation of the way that “serendipity” and discovery compose a major part of the excitement of liberal learning -- the “intervention of a gifted professor … taking an inspiring course or excitedly talking over an idea with a friend in a residence hall.” But colleges should not confuse intellectual exploration with the absence of structure and intentional scaffolding of intellectual growth or overlook how profoundly curricular standards help students distinguish between the serious and the trivial.

How does a course on Horror Films and American Culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder equate to an American history course designed to cover a comprehensive study of key events in our nation’s past? What about The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga, offered in 2013 at Indiana University, where the most frequent grade was an A-plus? These misplaced priorities are a predictable consequence of privileging curricular “serendipity” over sound curricular structure.

Students enjoy flexibility, agency and choice -- but they also need and appreciate direction and structure, rather than being left to pick and choose course sequences with limited intellectual coherence. How will students be ready for serendipity when it comes, if they lack the intellectual foundation required to meaningfully engage in those pursuits? A Lumina Foundation study found that students get “tangled up” when they are left with too many choices, lengthening their time to degree. Faculty members and administrators have an obligation to give students the framework they need to grow intellectually and graduate.

Attributing boredom and tedium to required courses, and excitement and joy to curricular choice, simply does not stand up to a logical examination of the facts. A required course can be taught well or taught badly, and the same is true of the most culturally relevant elective. Try telling graduates of core curricula at programs as varied as those at Columbia University, Hampden-Sydney College, Pepperdine University, the University of Dallas and the University of Georgia that their experience was stale and intellectually limited.

The decimation of clear requirements and frameworks is likely a major contributor to a growing sense of drift and disappointment among college graduates -- and their employers. Survey data show that while nearly all provosts believe their institution is doing an excellent job of preparing students for careers, employers sharply disagree -- particularly when it comes to writing and critical thinking. A survey of employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 26 percent deemed the critical thinking skills of their recently hired college graduates excellent. Just 23 percent thought that recent graduates were well prepared at “applying knowledge/skills to the real world.”

“Serendipity” is ultimately a poor substitute for academic leadership, for a board, administration and expert faculty coming together, determining the priority skills and knowledge that equip graduates for successful careers and informed citizenship, and then having the determination to reify those priorities in requirements -- not aspirations. Privileging faculty excitement over the needs of students -- about to face a ferocious, globalized job market -- is academic malpractice.

The survival of the liberal arts tradition demands that colleges act with urgency to clarify their requirements and expectations of students. Costs and sagging class enrollments are threatening entire majors and departments in essential subjects such as physics, philosophy and foreign language on many college campuses. Students at some liberal arts colleges are opting into vocational courses such as accounting and computer science.

Without rigor and cohesive requirements, the liberal arts will eventually confront a future of irrelevance. What’s called for here is a rigorous liberal arts education and facing up to our responsibility as standard-bearers in that process. Employers, taxpayers, parents and students are quite reasonably demanding more from higher education. Are we listening?

Michael B. Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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An alternate approach would have made the Evergreen State events less controversial and more educational (essay)

The controversy that roiled Evergreen State College in recent weeks stirred up a great deal of emotion within the campus community and the national media. It began because Evergreen students organize annual voluntary Days of Absence in which minority students and faculty members stay off campus -- not unlike the recent nationwide Day Without Immigrants. The students then observe a Day of Presence to reflect on the experience and reunite the community.

This year, however, the organizers said they wanted white people to remain off the campus, and a professor objected to that proposal in a message to an email list. Demands for the professor’s firing, protests and counterprotests, threats to safety, and the closing of the campus followed.

In part, the fracas resulted from a breakdown of the teacher-student relationship and a Crossfire cultural reflex: the faculty member chose to castigate rather than investigate the students’ actions, causing students to become defensive rather than inquisitive. In response, they felt the need to teach the teacher, who came off as dismissive rather than unconvinced of an inchoate but legitimate proposal.

The students’ intentions touched on what strikes me as an impossible problem. For in the end, questions perhaps should not have turned to “Who is right here?” but rather, “Who is white here?”

Defining Terms

A laudable tradition running back decades, absence projects underscore our nation’s interdependence among its diverse population. To remain logically consistent, Evergreen’s project was inevitably going to invite white people to participate. Indeed, why shouldn’t it? If it could be done, white people should be included in such a thoughtful project as Evergreen’s days of absence -- otherwise, they would ironically enjoy the privilege of being excluded from staged experiences of exclusion.

Inviting Evergreen’s white community members strikes me as ingenious, despite its being highly improbable, for reasons I’ll enumerate. White students and faculty might benefit from reflecting on what it feels like to be arbitrarily excluded and disadvantaged, although I wonder how many people might just enjoy one more day off from school or work. Concomitantly, students of color might see what I see: many privileges afforded by white identities also afford enormous opportunities to foment greater appreciation for the inherently interconnected nature of our society.

Many of us with such privileges leverage them to inspire change. I suspect on a white absence day, an overwhelming number of courses would have gone teacherless, even those treating issues of injustice. Generating discussions about complex topics and leading them toward nuance rather than overgeneralization requires skill and expertise: white absence could make plainer that the training for those activities has historically been doled out disproportionately to white people. Students of color might also appreciate how often white students contribute meaningfully, if not always in the most elegant terms, to all number of difficult conversations.

Yet an Evergreen biology professor, Bret Weinstein, chose to voice his objection in an unfortunate form, sparking an already charged campus community into an explosion. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, Weinstein might have chosen not to chide but to question the student leadership encouraging the participation of white people in absenting themselves from the Evergreen community. He knows as well as anyone how spurious biological claims about race are. Specifically, then, he might have posed the question, “Who are the white people in our community?”

I suspect the Evergreen student leadership would have to think quite some time before being able to start defining their terms. Let’s say I have an international student from a Central European nation in my class. Should I encourage her, as a white woman with no ties to America’s complex racial history, to avoid classes for a day?

Should I ask her if she’s Muslim first?

Or take my own family. There’s no question I’m a white guy, but my wife is Jewish and so are my children. Jews have faced so much discrimination throughout history that it would seem odd to request that they reflect on an incomplete understanding of what it means to experience arbitrary hatred. So, are my children white? I’d say yes … but I’d also say that in conversations about race in America, they are less white than I am. And as someone who was raised Catholic and knows acutely about the paranoia directed toward Catholics in post-Civil War and even Cold War-era America, I know that I would have not been considered white at moments in that past and now remain, however infinitesimally, less white than families with Protestant lineages. Keep in mind that Joe Biden’s Catholicism made him a historic U.S. vice president.

To this point, I’ve left staff members, traditionally included in Evergreen’s absence initiative, out of the conversation. Did Evergreen’s students determine if the college could offer adequate emergency health care without a large number of staff on campus? Would the dining halls run? Would all the buildings get unlocked, would the library be open, would facilities emergencies get proper attention, would Evergreen paychecks get processed on time and so on, without the so many staff members, often invisible, keeping the engines of the college running? Showing the vital contributions of staff might be the greatest object lesson from such a venture as a Day of White Absence.

A Rare Dialogue

Evergreen’s students initially acted bravely in standing up for a righteous cause. Tired of leaving diversity issues to “the other,” they took them to white people. Some took certain actions too far -- personally insulting the college president, whose academic research focuses on structural injustice, belies their faith in the very institution they purport to improve. When Weinstein moved the issue past the Evergreen students’ specific proposal to generalizing broadly about exclusion, the matter lost its local character and turned toward many already-defined national causes and concerns. Thus, George S. Bridges was left to moderate a campus discussion within pre-established terms, and (personal affections admitted here) he did just about all that a president can do -- which is not very much, as I see it, other than listen carefully and patiently to student concerns, issue a vague statement, and reaffirm commitments to improving diversity-related resources. More lasting solutions require time. Trust me, if not his own words: if Bridges had the answers, he would do all he could to implement them immediately.

In the end, Evergreen’s white absence project has failed so far for the very reasons it could yet succeed. It could inspire a dialogue we rarely have. What are we talking about when we talk about white people? To whom does it confer what specific privileges? “White,” perhaps more than any other racial category, eludes definition. One might say that the concept of white identity is a strategy in and of itself: a way of defining some people against an ineffable white selfhood such that it can be as inclusive as it needs to be and exclusive at it wants to be, both at the same time. It sorts people to degrees of greater and lesser inclusion, depending on circumstances, including who’s defining the category and for what purposes.

The problem thus remains: while the others always feels their otherness, the “other than” has not been adequately delimited. Maybe it can never be, though I hope it can. That a group of Evergreen students might not yet be able to articulate the reality of American white identity speaks less to their ideals and their ambitions than it does to the fact that the conversation does not seem to have gotten where it needs to go. Absent a will to instruct through reasonable questioning even -- or especially -- in fraught circumstances, I worry it rarely will.

Christopher Leise is an associate professor of English at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. His most recent book, The Story Upon a Hill: the Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction, will be published by the University of Alabama Press this July.

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The unintended consequences of too many requirements (essay)

Institutions across the country have been considering carefully scripted general-education courses in lieu of traditional distribution requirements (see “No Math Required,” “Rethinking Gen Ed” and “Gen Ed Redesigns”). Some months ago, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a report pointing out the efficiencies that would be realized by sequenced general-education courses with prescribed curricula, little student choice and lots of requirements.

The same organization also issued a letter deploring the fact that most college students could not identify James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution (most chose Thomas Jefferson) and that 40 percent did not know that Congress has the power to declare war. Their solution: a course on civic literacy required of every college student.

The push to require courses even comes from student groups. Last semester, I talked with a group of student activists concerned about their classmates’ use of phrases that had been used historically to demean others and the chilling effect of such discourse. Their solution: a course on cultural competence required of every college student.

Other groups decry college students’ lack of mathematical and quantitative literacy, of historical knowledge, of basic financial knowledge, and of writing skills. Common to all is the proposed solution: new required courses.

Administrators also enjoy required courses. They are stable and easy to section and schedule. Pointing to a required course that purports to convey particular content or skills is a highly efficient way of satisfying accreditors.

Unhappily, however, taking a course does not guarantee a student will learn what the course purports to teach. Civics courses are required in most high schools. If they worked, college students would not be lacking civic knowledge.

Worse, requirements have unintended consequences. Colleges are marketplaces: ideas are exchanged, professors vie for students and students vie for professors. The currency is not dollars, but student enrollments. Make a course required, and you remove the incentive for whoever is teaching that course to make it attractive to students. Professors are busy and they need to allocate their time carefully. Subsidizing a course by guaranteeing enrollment will cause a professor to devote more attention to other, unsubsidized courses.

Moreover, because departments also care about enrollments, they will not place their most gifted faculty members in a course in which enrollments are guaranteed. They will use their best faculty members to attract students to the major or to get students through the hardest courses. It takes a lot of vigilance and energy to ensure that required courses remain exciting and inspiring. Anyone who doubts that should think back on the worst courses they ever took.

The Power of Serendipity

I’m not suggesting that colleges and universities should have no requirements. Just as unregulated free markets concentrate capital, unregulated curricula concentrate enrollments. Think massive, entertaining, undemanding lecture courses. But the opposite -- centrally planned, highly sequenced curricula with lots of top-down requirements -- are precise analogues of Marxist economies. And we all know how those work.

The trick is to find regulations that are unobtrusive and actually improve student learning.

The first step is easy. Markets function best when there is equal and easy access to information. And students must have good information about what they can expect to learn in a class and why it is important.

But the way regulations are structured also matters. Think back to the best educational experiences that you have ever had. Common to most such experiences will be serendipity: the intervention of a gifted professor, reading a spell-binding book at exactly the right time, taking an inspiring course or excitedly talking over an idea with a friend in a residence hall.

In a college or university, regulations should be designed to maximize serendipity. How one does that depends, of course, on the institution.

Good liberal arts institutions (and many others) go to great trouble to hire faculty members who love their disciplines and truly enjoy teaching. In such institutions, distribution requirements that simply demand that students take courses in different disciplines are effective. Although one can talk about breadth and exploration, the distribution requirements spread students over that faculty. They increase serendipity by increasing the odds that a student will encounter a gifted professor who changes their life.

In addition to maximizing opportunities for serendipity, a good college or university will make it difficult for students to avoid learning material or acquiring skills they will subsequently need. In fact, rather than simply requiring a course, it will make sure that the outcomes desired of students are reflected in many of the courses those students will take. To guarantee that students write well, for example, students must practice writing in most courses they take. The same goes for civics or intercultural competence. That is the job of a strong faculty working together to align many different courses. To do that, faculty members need an institutional culture where people in different disciplines talk with one another openly about what they are seeking to do in their courses, and what seems to be working and what does not.

In smaller institutions, faculty members must know one another and interact regularly. In larger institutions, one needs structures that ensure that department members in charge of large multisectioned courses crucial to other departments know and interact openly with their counterparts in those departments.

In both small and large institutions, trust is essential. Administrators and faculty leaders can’t order up trust, but they can model it and facilitate interaction across different departments. For administrators and faculty leaders, it requires thinking about what groups to bring together and how to charge them. It requires being present and gathering and sharing data that departments and faculty can use. It requires the patience and wisdom to realize that time spent allowing different groups to explore not only what their students most need but also how to entice those students into acquiring what it is they need will pay larger dividends than top-down edicts mandating courses to be completed and exams to be passed.

It’s not easy, and it requires time, thoughtfulness and a deft touch. Higher education, like the economy, would be simpler if a benign leader could just require things. But it wouldn’t be better.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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Essay: Looking back at predictions about MOOCs

After thinking that interest in and excitement about massive open online courses had faded to the background of the higher education landscape, I was surprised to see a recent flurry of news media coverage of MOOCs. Even more surprising, I found myself impressed -- the work seems markedly different from the wave of stories that flooded the popular and higher ed trade press in 2012, with less hype and longer evidence-based studies. For example, recent coverage included a report from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that analyzes characteristics and behaviors of their own MOOC students, and a study by Stanford University and MIT researchers that addresses the persistence of international students who have enrolled in MOOCs.

Having written and spoken about MOOCs many times in the past, this recent resurgence prompted me to look back to my own articles, research studies and blog posts from the MOOC heyday to see if some of my own claims and predictions have come to pass.

The term “MOOC” will go away. I am somewhat surprised the moniker has stuck around as long as it has, because what exists today is quite different than what we were discussing five years ago. In “A MOOC by Any Other Name? An Online Course,” I suggested that we would stop talking about MOOCs because they were another variation of an online course, with too much variety in the term’s application. I was not entirely accurate, since we’re still using the term -- however, I stand by my assertion that we’d do better to move away from it. There still is no one thing that exemplifies what, exactly, makes an online course a MOOC. Since there are even more permutations of MOOCs these days, I’d be curious how the academy and general public perceives and understands the name.

A viable business model will emerge. The original MOOCs lived up to the first O: open. They were entirely free for the massive numbers of students who enrolled -- over 100,000 students in some courses. The courses were largely self-paced and included minimal or no faculty interaction. Completion rates hovered below 10 percent and the courses provided no transferrable college credit from the institutions that sponsored them. Course content was provided by reputable U.S. universities through various partnership agreements with the three major MOOC platforms, Coursera, Udacity and edX, which were mostly funded by venture capital. Free courses equaled no discernible revenue stream.

This has changed. Free and open is no longer completely true. Emphasis on personal enrichment is no longer the value proposition.

The three original MOOC platforms still exist but have been joined by others like Open University’s FutureLearn. In addition, institutions host their own MOOCs on local learning management systems.

All of the major platforms now charge fees for certifying completion. The original three MOOC platforms appear to have found their niche by migrating to the nondegree professional development and contract-training sphere, taking advantage of the growth of alternative credentials (e.g., nondegree certificates and microcredentials) that are recognized by industries and employers. Many offer and charge for badges or other credentials that can be displayed on social media platforms like LinkedIn. For example, Udacity offers nanodegrees, edX offers MicroMasters and Coursera offers specializations. Some of these credentials also include university credit through university or alternative credit providers. Computer and data science, programming, and software development dominate the offerings. Students pay to earn these various credentials and certifications, and some platforms offer need-based financial support.

Reputation, not revenue drives investment. Early on I studied institutional leaders’ motivations for investing in MOOCs. Important motivators included increasing institutional and individual faculty reputation, expanding international reach, and exploring innovative and more effective ways to teach. Generating revenue was not a principal motivation.

This, too, has changed somewhat. While general reputational enhancement and the exploration of online teaching innovation no doubt result from an institution’s involvement in MOOCs, generating revenue (at least covering costs) and integrating MOOCs into degree-granting programs appear more common.

Georgia Tech continues to offer a low-cost, high-enrollment master’s degree in computer science on the Udacity platform with support from AT&T. Well over 3,000 students have enrolled in the program. The university has recently added a second high-enrollment, low-cost master’s in analytics on the edX platform.

Arizona State University offers the Global Freshman Academy on the edX platform, providing credit-bearing, self-paced lower-division courses to a domestic and global audience. ASU also offers individual self-paced and instructor-led credit-bearing courses with edX. Though the courses and programs are not free, the relatively low cost of these programs, combined with the robust online platform, seem to contribute to the access missions of these large public institutions.

MOOCs can be vehicles for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Yes and no. The recent reports from Harvard, MIT and Stanford illustrate this. The Harvard/MIT report explored the background of students, time on task, paid certificate completion rates and the relationship between certification rates and the Human Development Index (World Bank composite index of a country’s life expectancy, education and income indicators). Researchers at Stanford and MIT focused on interventions to increase persistence and completion among international MOOC enrollees. These sophisticated studies increase our knowledge of MOOC student behaviors, but findings are not applicable to other academic settings.

Higher ed will be firmly entrenched in the MOOC 3.0 era. In a 2013 post, I applied the Gartner technology hype cycle to MOOCs and predicted, “we will enter a plateau of productivity and the various permutations of MOOCs will become part of the higher education mainstream.” I do believe we are in the plateau of productivity with MOOCs, but not within the higher education mainstream.

Both the MOOC platforms and universities emphasize using MOOCs and alternative credentials to support professional development for working professionals, mainly in technology fields where employers are willing to provide ample financial support. The exception would be institutions like ASU that focus on providing access to their regular undergraduate curriculum. But the push is overwhelmingly toward professional development markets.

Adoption of other technologies that support improved pedagogy, access and affordability -- such as open educational resources, learning analytics and personalized learning -- is growing, but not dependent on the development of or contribution from MOOCs.

MOOCs can play an important role in postsecondary attainment. In 2013, I optimistically wrote, “MOOCs and their derivatives, and the accelerated experimentation and wide-ranging conversations they have sparked, have played an important and energizing role in our quest to help more students along the path to postsecondary attainment.” I admit this was an overstatement, especially now that I am chancellor of an access-oriented institution.

With some exceptions noted previously, MOOCs are mainly a technology business, focused on providing a return on investment (even for nonprofits like edX) by targeting the large nondegree professional development and technology training market. Though the MOOC experiment over the past five years has resulted in many positives, this era also reminds us that when it comes to degree attainment, there really is no magic bullet. The hard, in-the-trenches work of helping the students of today get and remain focused, learn, and stick it out to degree completion remains the province of mainstream higher education -- MOOCs or no MOOCs.

Cathy Sandeen

Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin Extension. She previously served as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.

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Anti-Turnitin manifesto calls for resistance to some technology in digital age

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Essay argues the age of big data is the time for professors to reconsider their reliance on the anti-plagiarism business.

A professor's invitation: Senator, please come visit my classroom (essay)

Dear Senator,

I’ll try to make you feel comfortable, if not totally inconspicuous. I assume of course there wouldn’t be a coterie of administrators anxious to produce a dog-and-pony show. And no cameras. Just a visit to an unvarnished college physics class, warts and all.

You’ll want to see for yourself students who come totally unprepared for class, and the strategies and energy I (and by extension, my colleagues) use to pull them out of their IT-induced stupor and begin to focus on the chalkboard. You’ll also realize the unmatched effectiveness of an active classroom led by a concerned human being. You’ll understand why technology-based learning never captured the 20 million or so ordinary students who continue to fill our classrooms.

At class's end, you’ll watch as students come by to get a point cleared up -- or just exchange a few encouraging words. Then you’ll begin to see why students taught by adjuncts anxious to leave for their next assignment are being shortchanged.

Afterward, we might spend some time in my office, where I’ll let you leaf through a range of textbooks to see for yourself the dumbing down of college-level material, one outcome of the “increase the graduation rate at all costs” movement. You’ll hear my comment that colleges and universities aren’t vocational schools, and that the faculty -- the people legislators never get to see -- are interested in learning, not loan repayment or career success, as college outcomes.

Not that I blame anyone. You and your staff are inundated by calls to "improve" or change accreditation by having accreditors take quantitative student outcomes into account. You probably don’t know that even though we’ve been hearing the "outcome" story for over 30 years, there has yet to be found a quantitative outcome that is reliable and valid.

If you have time, I would explain to you how the emphasis on numerical outcomes led directly to the Corinthian Colleges disaster, and I would also explain why the direct, hands-on peer review of traditional accreditation is unsurpassed at evaluating a school.

By the way, you’re listed as a supporter of legislation calling for innovative approaches to accreditation. Have you walked through how they would work? I have, and I’ll be happy to explain to your staff why these approaches would generate future Corinthians.

I would also lend a word of caution: students are not widgets. They are human beings who can suffer harm. If they are asked to participate in an innovative (there’s that word again!) approach to learning, shouldn’t they be warned that they might acquire less content, fewer skills, delayed intellectual growth in this new untested scheme? Here’s an idea for legislation: Why not require informed consent from students who are about to enroll in an experimental, pilot or untested program?

I digress. While in my office, I’ll show you some graded exams and my grade book -- names covered, of course. You’ll be relieved to know that nobody earns college credit for "seat time." Splinters are all one gets from simply sitting in a classroom.

And a point of pride: you’ll look at the range of grades and you won’t be able to correlate race, sex or ethnicity with the A’s and the F’s. Everybody works for good grades. Or not.

We’ll get a chance to talk to students -- randomly selected -- in the hall, or downstairs in the lobby. You might want to ask them about the College Scorecard, and the basis on which they made their choice of colleges. I hope your new insight won’t cause you to want to cut funding for the Department of Education’s statistics efforts. They do marvelous work -- even though few people seem to care.

And as the pièce de résistance, you’ll meet other faculty members. Just don’t mention the effort to increase data collection now being proposed. Can I tell you how one person I know would react?

He would theatrically slap his forehead and probably say, “Of course! How stupid of me! More data is just what we need to solve the problems of higher education! We’ll successfully address the racial gap, the rising costs, the disengaged students and students who are hungry. Before we go off on another harebrained scheme, why not test any new hypothesis against the longitudinal data we own in virtually every state? Nothing ever came of 30 years of gathering data, and another dose will add nothing more than expense and headaches.”

I’m sure you’ll forgive him, because in your career you’ve met other exceedingly bright people who are no respecters of personages. But I hope you’ll listen to his words.

Your day will be full -- but at the end you will be able to address higher education from a position of direct knowledge, rather than from experts. You might want to tell these experts that they, too, would benefit immensely from a day or two in a college classroom, or on an accreditation visit.

You, your colleagues and your staff are always welcome to come by -- unannounced -- to visit, and to experience a reality so important to our nation.

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology.

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Dispute about sociology quiz question on slave families ends in lecturer's termination

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A dispute about a sociology test question on slave families ended in a lecturer's termination this spring at the University of Tennessee.

Teaching a class of students from myriad countries and backgrounds (essay)

Teaching Today

Which histories matter? Which literatures? Who gets to decide? These questions are particularly complex with an international student body, writes Deborah L. Williams

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A terrifying illness reminds an academic how difficult what he takes for granted is for others starting out (essay)

I spent last year’s Halloween weekend struggling with a writing project, as I imagine many people who work or study at colleges and universities all over the world did. Specifically, my struggle was centered on my attempt to find a specific turn of phrase that kept eluding me. Saturday morning, I found myself at the computer, typing an essay that involved superheroes, art and American politics in the 21st century, and I suddenly froze. My fingers stopped moving across the keyboard as something that felt like a traffic jam occurred in my head. The words, to put it simply, weren’t moving.

Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. Oh, I often decided to rewrite or eliminate words or sentences as I was writing them -- entire paragraphs during the revision process -- but I had never found myself, well, linguistically impotent. I knew the next sentence was in my brain, but it was somehow not moving forward to the part of my brain that would push it into the nerves that would move my fingers along the keyboard.

I could feel my heart speed up, signaling the beginning of a panic attack, and I found myself standing up suddenly and beginning to pace. I think I rubbed my temples as I tried to encourage myself to calm down. Surely this wasn’t such a big deal. I reminded myself that there had been quite a bit of wine the night before. That I was a middle-aged man. That it was simply what some people described as writer’s block, a phenomenon I’d never really experienced. I eventually relaxed, then decided to take the rest of the day off.

Sunday, I found myself back on the computer, working on the same project. I’d written about 400 more words, having mostly forgotten about the concern of the day before. And then, suddenly, it hit me: “Oh, that expression I’d wanted to include!” It struck me as a good one, something clever that I wanted to be sure to plug into the essay. So I moved back a couple of paragraphs and placed my hands on the keyboard.

But then … nothing.

Without any trace of a hangover, I found myself less panicked and more curious about what was going on. I closed my eyes, thought of several words, but then realized none of them were quite what I’d thought I had. Eventually, I simply shrugged, gave up and went back to working.

The phrase came back into my head while I worked on campus Tuesday afternoon. Or so I thought it had. When I went to write it down, I couldn’t. I did find myself writing several words that I would find again months later, when I was able to return to work. But when I looked back down at them after I’d stopped writing, they seemed like gibberish. I was a bit confused by what was going on but not exactly concerned yet.

That night, my wife and I sat on our front porch. It was an unusually warm November night in Ohio, and we thought we’d relax outside and talk about the day before we had dinner. I mentioned that I’d had trouble coming up with this particular turn of phrase and was feeling kind of silly about it, then asked her if she would help me. She said she was game. Our memories of what happened next are quite different.

I remember that I started to describe the phrase I wanted: “It’s like when a person …” And I remember her looking perplexed as she turned her head and leaned toward me. I knew that I wasn’t explaining myself well.

What she remembers was that I immediately started a barrage of words that in no way connected to each other. She thought, at first, I was playing some type of elaborate joke -- that maybe eventually I was going to make fun of something. But I just kept saying things, linking these words that in fact had no connection. And she remembers asking me, “Are you messing with me?” and my reply, “Why would he be messing with you?”

We both remember her calmly saying, “I think we need to go to the hospital. You’re scaring me.”

And then she remembers the seizure that caused me to fall off the porch, then sitting beside me while frantically calling 911 for an ambulance.

Starting All Over

My brain slowly began to heal after the neurosurgeon removed the tiny nodule that was growing against its left side. My parents flew to Ohio to be with us, and I woke up remembering who they were, and who my wife is, and very little else. Our friends Traci and Paul came to visit -- I later referred to them honestly thinking that their names were “Trapeze and Boobs.” Or so I’m told. Another friend, Brent, came to visit us, and I remember telling him, “You’re the lawyer,” which was true but, again, not his name, obviously.

For the most part, my wife says I was pretty calm, even funny, except for when I cried when I realized I couldn’t remember her name. The doctors spoke to her about what they had found, what the long-term prognosis was, and what would come next. Tests, radiation, chemotherapy, perhaps more surgery. But the good news was that most of them seemed pretty optimistic. As it turned out, the seizure -- terrifying as it was at the time -- was actually a good development, bringing my doctors’ attention to a very small cancer before it was fatal. I might have lived for months, maybe even years, with this malignancy growing inside me without any warnings or symptoms. And then I would have died.

Yes, any way you think about it, I was quite lucky. But that’s not to say I felt particularly lucky at the time. I had these Frankenstein’s monster-esque staples in my partially shaved head (and I had been so pleased about reaching middle age with such an awesome head of hair!). I was very, very tired. My wife had to help me bathe. I lacked the attention span to read anything significant or follow even the simplest of television shows. I even had trouble writing coherent tweets and Facebook status updates.

Most of these things got better as I recovered from the surgery and began to receive radiation treatment in my head. Writing still remained hard, though. In the past, I had taken a certain amount of pride in being a relatively quick writer, usually able to finish at least a first draft of any given project in one sitting, regardless of length. In the month of December, I wrote a very, very short essay -- about how much I appreciate and love my wife -- over the course of a couple weeks.

But otherwise, I found I really couldn’t do it. It was difficult. I would sit in front of the computer, and every sentence was like that sentence I couldn’t come up with the weekend before my seizure. And even when I got something typed up, when I looked up the computer screen I was frequently surprised to find grammatical errors and dull prose in front of me. “That wasn’t what I meant at all,” I would think as I deleted what my fingers had belched out from my damaged mind.

I announced to my wife that I was going to retire from essay writing. I’d published a book and appeared in most of the magazines and journals I liked, I figured. I could do something else for a living, then come home and live a quiet, normal life. “I just want to be with you and the cats,” I told her. “That’s all I care about.”

My wife does love me -- I’ve never doubted it, and I’ve been especially certain of it as I have continued to get healthy and she has been endlessly patient. She loves the cats, too. You should hear this woman talk to them when she doesn’t think any other human being can hear her. But the truth is, she does want more out of life then just coming home from work and sitting on the couch with her husband and cats. What’s more, she knew me well enough to know I needed more than just love and cats, too.

My wife and I met in graduate school, working on our Ph.D.s in English. We have taught both on and off the tenure track at quite a few institutions over the years. We have both, occasionally, found ourselves frustrated with our jobs. We have struggled to help students who were struggling themselves. We have both experienced how difficult it can be to work with students who have become frustrated to the point of giving up.

That is to say, we have both known how challenging it can be to work with someone like me.

Granted, the students we have worked with didn’t necessarily have seizures or brain surgery or lesions or cancer. (Although maybe some of them have; none of us really know what our students have gone through or struggled with, after all.) Still, they know what many of us who teach or counsel them often forget: writing is hard. Making sense of literature is hard. Doing the real work that a college education demands is hard.

Education involves skills that require a great deal of training from a teacher who is devoted and peers who are encouraging. As patient as we try to remind ourselves to be, it’s far too easy to forget that this work that many of us have been doing for decades can be tremendously difficult for those who are just starting out.

As I said, I’m quite fortunate. Not only because I can realistically hope to live for a long time, but because my wife was so patient and dedicated to my recovery. After a day of talking about literary theory, King Lear, logical fallacies, John Dewey and Virginia Woolf with her students, she would come home to recommend short stories, poems and -- most important, in my case -- personal essays she had recently read and thought I should read. Or she’d simply play Scrabble to help me recover the language that was still in my head, just harder to retrieve. And gradually, I began to relearn what I had once known. At this point, six months after the seizure that started all of this, I have nearly reacquired the skills that I used to take for granted.

I have known for a good 15 years that my wife is a dedicated and talented teacher, but I didn’t really know -- or hadn’t remembered -- how important such a teacher is until I needed one again myself. As I finish my recovery and continue my own career working with students, I hope I always remember to put this lesson to good use.

William Bradley is the interim writing center coordinator at Heidelberg University. He is married to Emily Ruth Isaacson, an associate professor of English and associate dean of the honors program at Heidelberg University as well as the president of the Midwest Modern Language Association. Their cats pretty much just sit on the couch.

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A community college creates a first-rate film production program, despite the odds against it (essay)

Over the last few years, I’ve presented at a number of regional and national conferences regarding Delta College’s advanced certificate in digital film production and its more recently developed two-year degree. Keep in mind that Delta is a midsize community college in the middle of Michigan, which is pretty far removed from the film centers of Los Angeles and New York City. Michigan’s tax incentives for out-of-state production companies have dried up so, as you can imagine, out-of-state production companies are seldom coming to the state anymore.

Regardless, Delta’s film program, which is geared toward independent filmmakers, continues to thrive. As a result, I continue to have opportunities to present at conferences about the evolution of the program.

My conference presentations tend to have titles like “Can a Community College Also Be a Film School?” What those who attend my presentations lack in number, they make up for in passion and interest. As I go through the development of Delta’s film program and subsequently illustrate the courses that it comprises, I see many of my attendees go slack-jawed. If the program’s scope doesn’t wow them, then ending by showing a couple of our student films usually does. None of this is bragging. For a community college, our program curriculum is extensive. If I may say so, our best student films are quite impressive, too.

When I finish, the attendees don’t file out to the next presentation. They stay. They have more specific questions about how our program came about. I ask them questions as well. Usually what I end up hearing about are the roadblocks that they’ve encountered. One gentleman told me, “I’ve been trying to develop an introductory screenwriting course at my college for the last six years. I always hear the same thing -- ‘We are a community college. We don’t do that here.’ I just can’t believe everything that Delta has done. How did you make that happen?”

I will admit that it wasn’t easy, especially the development of the two-year program. Our course offerings must look remarkable to someone who’s been trying to develop one course for six years. Courses in our program include: Introduction to Screenwriting, Advanced Screenwriting, Digital Cinematography for Film, Advanced Postproduction and Digital Film Capstone, in addition to many courses that already existed at Delta that make up the certificate and two-year degree.

The seed of the idea for a film program was planted years ago. While teaching my fiction-writing course, I continued to encounter students who really wanted to learn screenwriting, but Delta didn’t offer anything like that. Eventually, having heard students express the desire for a screenwriting course enough times, I went back and took courses in the genre. I used my experience to develop Introduction to Screenwriting. As I recall, it went through the curriculum process fairly quickly and was available to students in less than a year. As rationale, I had presented evidence of student desire for the course, and the evidence must have been accurate, because when the course was offered for the first time, it filled in six days. That was seven years ago, and since then, the course has run every fall and winter semester (and some spring semesters). Its sequel course, Advanced Screenwriting, runs at least once a year.

While I kept meeting fiction writers who really wanted to be screenwriters, a colleague of mine in the humanities was encountering broadcasting students who really wanted to be filmmakers. As a result, we sat down and cobbled together the advanced certificate in digital film production. To make it as easy as possible, we used existing courses and only later developed the more nuanced offerings mentioned above. After the certificate program existed for a few years, we began to hear from students who wanted more: the opportunity to earn a two-year degree in film production.

The endeavor of expanding into that kind of offering, admittedly, did take longer. In fact, it ended up taking about three years. We had to conduct a needs study and consult with our advisory board multiple times. We twice had to essentially start over due to administrative turnover, which meant bringing a new dean up to speed on the program. So, yes, there were hurdles and roadblocks, but never once did I have a chair, associate dean, dean, vice president or even a board member say, “A film production program? We are a community college. We don’t do that here.”

Instead, what I encountered sounded closer to, “A film production program? That sounds complicated and involved. It also sounds innovative and like a growth opportunity for the school. Proceed.” OK, nobody actually ever stated it quite like that, but that’s the vibe I felt as I worked through the process.

Had I been told “We don’t do that here” enough times, I probably would have backed down from the Introduction to Screenwriting course, which really got everything started in the first place. I have worked at other institutions where I heard “We don’t do that here.” It is the kiss of death to innovation, change and growth.

Had I heard “We don’t do that here” and listened, Delta College would not have an advanced certificate in digital film production or an associate’s degree. The college would not have all of the credit hours or the students the program generates. Many mid-Michigan students would not be able to pursue their dreams of film production, at least not at such a reasonable tuition.

Since we formed the program, our student films have begun to appear in regional film festivals. Some have won awards. One of our students recently landed a job in New York with the production company of a very well-known filmmaker. Why? Because the powers that be at Delta College didn’t say, “We don’t do that here.” Instead, they said, “Maybe we could do that here.” And that has made all the difference.

Jeff Vande Zande teaches fiction and screenwriting at Delta College. He has written screenplays that have been developed into short films and screened at regional and national film festivals. His novel American Poet won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. His most recent novel, Detroit Muscle, was influenced by his screenwriting knowledge.

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