Encouraging Political Incorrectness and Civility

Editor's Note: Vanderbilt University Press is this spring releasing American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It, by Paul Lyons, who died in January. In the book, Lyons features writings from a teaching log he kept from a course on conservatism that he taught at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The material from the log appears below in italics, and his additional commentary is in regular text.

February 15

Most of academic life is a blessing; sometimes I’m amazed that I get paid for doing this, doing what I love. When class discussion turns to work, I always ask my students if they or people they know would stay at their jobs if they won the New Jersey lottery big time. Almost all say that they’d quit. This is a useful marker for defining alienation, doing what is alien to you. And, of course, it is paralleled by students staying in school for reasons that are alien to their desires. Similarly, all academics hate wasted time with self-important administrators, having to deal with petty and occasionally vicious colleagues (the academy is more vicious than high finance precisely because so little is at stake), paperwork and more paperwork. For most of us it is relief to walk back into the

In this particular classroom, I found myself offering a brief biog of William F. Buckley Jr. I was well prepared having reread John Judis’s definitive study. So I walked them through his family life, his early “bad boy” years at and after Yale, his most influential books, his role in the founding of National Review. Then, with maybe 10 minutes remaining, I read to them marked-out sections in Judis’s biography that pointed to Buckley’s worst moments of narrow-mindedness, comments he made in the 1950s and early 1960s about civil rights in America and independence movements in Africa. The statements, sometimes flippant in that Buckley “squire of the manor” style, were at best patronizing, at worst, deeply racist, particularly one statement in which he suggests that Africans will be ready for self-determination when they stop eating one another. I wanted my class to come to grips with the burden conservatives carried in that period, being on the wrong side of history, still holding onto a kind of British arrogance about “wogs” — Colonel Blimp if you will. But one of my most conservative students, Dick, jumped in with support for Buckley’s worst comment, responding with a smirk, with a knowing look about “those people,” those Africans.

If there is such a thing as a teaching moment, this was it. I stopped him and asked the class if it would be different if there were African American students in this class. They quickly saw my point, but one responded, “They’d beat the shit out of Dick.” I countered by suggesting that it shouldn’t be the obligation of black students to call Dick on his statement, but the obligation of whites to do so. There were a few quizzical looks as I explained the unfairness of expecting blacks — or Jews or women or gays or Catholics — to be obliged to defend themselves from inappropriate assault.

I was thinking on my feet, mostly trying to figure out how to chastise Dick without putting him too much on the spot, how to signal what’s OK and not OK in my classroom without stifling legitimate commentary, how to, in effect, be politically correct without being stuffy, hypocritical, humorless, unwilling to engage on controversial issues. I have examined some of the literature that addresses the plight of so many African nations — the kleptocracies, the genocides, the ethnic wars, the waste of resources. I have rooted for the best of African leaders, anticipated that the resource-rich nations of Nigeria, South Africa, and Congo would have to be the linchpins of development. And I have thought a great deal about the reason why East Asia and now all of Asia is moving forward to rapid economic growth — with all the caveats about inequalities, environmental dangers, corruption, dictatorship — and Africa stagnates. Sometimes I think that it must be that Asian cultures, Asian imperial history, especially in China and India, sustained an identity that now provided the cultural capital for an Asian version of the work ethic. Africa seemingly has struggled more with the very creation of nation-states. When I consider Latin America and then the Islamic Middle East, I am more confused, in my relative ignorance of their respective histories.

I am sometimes taken aback by what we do not teach our students. Aside from the above-noted gaps in what we can reduce to the “great books,” there are other appalling shortfalls, at least in many public institutions: the shortage of courses in what are probably the most salient developments of our times, the reemergence of China and India as players on the world stage, the increasing importance of Asia where almost two-thirds of the world’s population lives; the minimal attention paid to world religions — my students are not only unable to demonstrate any accurate knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam, but they are also remarkably ignorant about their own religious backgrounds. Few can tell me what a Christian is, at least if I ask for comment on Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Fewer can distinguish Presbyterians from Episcopalians, nor can they define evangelicals or fundamentalists, not to speak of Pentecostals. More heartening is that most of my students are motivated to learn about organized religions; our K–12 schools, afraid of offending almost anyone, do not teach them about the history of the very Judeo-Christian tradition they abstractly celebrate.

But I do know that leftists and well-meaning liberals too often respond to questions of African horror with the same old saw — its colonial and neocolonial factors. True but not enough to explain why Taiwan and South Korea and China have moved forward. And it just plays into conservative stereotypes that the Left always blames the West and the United States and never holds people of color, here or elsewhere, accountable. It is the macro version of what I will simplify as the attacks on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study of the African American family. So I tried to make sure that in chastising Dick and indicating acceptable boundaries of discourse, I was simultaneously, and as strongly, modeling that raising questions about African nations is legitimate. How could I not, given my own point of view? Whether I was successful remains to be seen. Time will tell. But it was, I think, a useful beginning of a discussion I assumed we would engage when we got to George Wallace and the white backlash of the 1960s. I am debating whether to post a question on this issue on Web Board this week or to wait until we have more meat and potatoes on the plate such that we can do more than discuss without context or information. But I must admit that I left class pumped with the anticipation of that set of discussions and, hopefully I’m right, with some confidence that we started it well.

I don’t think we as academics and teachers do a very good job teaching about race and racism. Some seems to be liberal guilt. Mostly it rests on the lack of confidence that one can present complicated situations, nuanced realities without risking being misinterpreted by colleagues and students.

Several years ago at a panel on racism I suggested that we begin by seeing if we could agree on four axioms, the first being that there is more racism in America than most white people were willing to admit. No controversies there. The second was that there has been considerable progress over the past 40 years based on the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. More curious looks but no hostility. Then the third axiom, that there were some African Americans who see racism when it doesn’t exist. At that point, the room became more agitated with some furrowed brows and raised eyebrows. The fourth axiom brought down the house: that given the above three axioms, it was presently more difficult to assess allegations of racism. Indeed, I added, there were now so many divergent voices within the African American community — a partial measure of the successes above noted — that no one could any more claim to represent “the black voice.”

The panelist following me denounced my position, arguing that racism was as bad or worse than 40 years ago, merely more hidden. Then the panel opened for questions from the audience. A black female undergraduate asked me how I would respond if she believed that I had said something racist in class and she came to complain to me. I told her that I would take her allegation very seriously, consider whether I thought it was valid, and give her my most honest response. She was dissatisfied, indeed offended by my response, as were many on the panel and in the audience. The student asked me why I wouldn’t accept the validity of her allegation. I told her that I thought it would be harmful to her or any other student to allow an automatic acceptance of any allegation, that it risked corrupting her or anyone else in that it would allow for false charges to go unchallenged. I ended by suggesting that true respect included disagreement. I added that if not satisfied, a student always had the remedy of taking the allegation to my superiors.

The room erupted with anger at me, with one white colleague screaming at me that I was patronizing the student. I was disappointed and depressed by this display of what seemed to me to be wrong-headed, racially retrograde, and demagogic. I need to add that I was not angry at the student who raised the issue; she seemed honest and forthcoming, even in disagreement.

Most interesting is that over the next weeks several of my African American students asked me what had happened — there obviously had been a buzz in the hallways. This led to some fruitful conversation about how one determines the existence of racism. I also received several notes from white colleagues expressing admiration for what I had said but confessing that they were too cowardly to do the same. This depressed me even more than the hostile responses. Had we come to this — faculty, even tenured ones, afraid to speak their minds in fear of being charged with racism? Indeed, we had. One junior faculty member told me that he never goes near certain hot-button issues like affirmative action or underclass behavior because of his fear that it might put his job at risk.

As teachers we struggle with students who hold back from authentically discussing issues of prejudice, who go silent or simply echo agreement. It is hard work to achieve honest discussions; all students enter with bruises. One must establish a trusting environment for such discussions to be fruitful. Trust does not exist at the beginning of a class. I tell students that the handshake is an apt metaphor for our relations — I hold your hand, you hold mine — we trust one another but I also prevent you from hitting me in case that is your hidden desire. We trust and mistrust simultaneously. And then we can begin to have an honest dialogue.

I begin with a modest sense of how much influence I have with my students, especially regarding changes in their essential behavior regarding issues of social justice. Teachers are fortunate if we increase at the margin those who are willing to stand up for others. But human behavior being what it is, we remain burdened with the knowledge of how difficult it is to educate individuals to identify with all of the “others,” to construct a global identity focused on human rights. Sigmund Freud, given the trauma of World War I, asserted not only that reason and enlightenment were fragile, but also that there was something in the existence of human intelligence which never allowed the darkness to be all-engulfing, and that this indistinguishable light of humane thought had a surprising persistence. Our goal as educators is to widen that ray of light, to assist a few more ordinary men and women to resist the extraordinarily evil and to stretch toward the extraordinarily good.

My own view is that the optimal way to help students respond to moral challenges is to help them understand the contradictory strands of heroism and knavery, the victimized and the victimizing, of many of our peoples. And we as educators need to understand and communicate the contextual nature of human behavior, its range and subtleties, and the contradictory ways that humans respond to moral challenges. As such, we teach humility before the wonder — the heroism, the cowardice, the insensitivities, the villainies — of our own natures, our own histories.

This might be called the double helix of all peoples, the intertwining of their burdens and their inspirations, their hidden shames and forgotten accomplishments, the recognition of which makes it more likely that they will be able to recognize the same complexity in others.

All of this has to begin with the obvious: that I am a white guy teaching about race and racism. No matter how you slice it, it makes a difference. It does help that I was born and bred in Newark and have some “cred” with my city kids (keep in mind that many of my African American students are middle class and suburban). I work very hard to break down the obvious stereotypes, including those blacks have of non-blacks. I want all of my students to recognize that each of us is simultaneously a member of an ethnic/racial/religious group, a human being, and a very distinct and unique individual. When we address social class and poverty, I want my students to understand the need to disaggregate poverty, to note three kinds of the poor: the temporary poor, the working poor, and the underclass poor. The first two groups share all of the values and behaviors of Americans, for example, the work ethic. They suffer from short-term crises, such as a husband and father splitting and not providing sufficient support, a worker facing a health problem without insurance, or people suffering from poor educations that limit their income potential to close to minimum wage, holding jobs with no benefits.

It’s only the latter category, sometimes linked to a “culture of poverty,” certainly no more than one-fourth of those poor, who exhibit the self-destructive behaviors — substance abuse, bad work habits, impulsive control problems, criminal activities, abuse of women and children — that fall outside of societal norms. Most of my students of color have no difficulty in affirming that such behaviors exist; indeed, they often go farther than I am willing to go in ascribing such behaviors to the black poor. I rely a great deal on the work of William Julius Wilson, the extraordinary black sociologist, in teaching about the links between class and race, between behavior and opportunity and, especially, the need to address the most painful and least flattering aspects of black street life
honestly and directly.

I tell all of my students to go beyond the snapshot to the motion picture. That guy drinking from a bottle in a paper bag in front of a
bar — how did he get that way? I bring in the start of the motion picture, the differential chances of success already there in birthing rooms. How is it that I can stand in front of that room full of newborns and, based on race and social class, tell with a high degree of accuracy which babies will graduate from college, who will have a decent middle-class life, and who will end up in prison or dead before age 30. That is criminal to me. No baby determines the well-being of its parents. But the odds are set very early. Now odds are not determinants; people beat the odds. But I remain angry and want my students to share that rage at the inherent injustices that await so many of our poor children.

Many of my African American — and increasingly, Latino — students are quite inspirational. Many, not most or all, come from difficult environments. Many have surmounted extraordinary barriers — broken families, crime-infested neighborhoods, drug experiences, lousy schools, early pregnancies and child-rearing, physical and sexual abuse — to make it to college. I hope that my pride in them, which includes pushing them to excel, prodding them to resist racial and often gender stereotypes, comes through in the classroom. I want that young woman who was offended by my comments at the panel discussion to hang in there, continue challenging me, but I also want more time to try to persuade her that there is respect in disagreement, that she will be best served by being taken seriously.

Paul Lyons
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The late Paul Lyons taught American history and social policy at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. This essay is an excerpt from American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It, and appears here with permission of the publisher, Vanderbilt University Press.

Identity Politics and Invisible Disability in the Classroom

When professors interact with students, an unspoken rule dictates that we should avoid calling unnecessary attention to the bodies in the room. We follow this rule instinctively and, for the most part, with good reason. This rule works well particularly in regard to gendered bodily differences. De-emphasizing bodily differences -- most differences being clearly of minor or no importance in an academic setting -- between groups constitutes one way to foster tolerance for individual differences and American democratic ideals. In this regard, classrooms mirror national ideals of human equality.

In the case of disability, America values the benefit gained from de-emphasizing bodily difference so much that this benefit has become a national objective through law: the Americans With Disabilities Act. The central functions of the law include not only ensuring that people with disabilities are provided with reasonable accommodations in the workplace but ensuring as well that they receive accommodations without having to disclose their disability publicly. This latter legal right is, of course, considered a particular advantage for those who have invisible disabilities, such as minor hearing loss (like mine) and other minor to moderate sensory disabilities, chronic non-life-threatening disorders, and some kinds of psychological/cognitive disabilities.

Notwithstanding the potential benefits of retaining this right to privacy about one’s disability in our workplace — the college classroom — I would like to make a bold counter proposal to my professional peers who, like me, have invisible disabilities: let us as a group establish a common policy to come out as disabled in our classes each semester. My experience with both options of negotiating my disability — retaining privacy and coming out — has shown me that, although coming out is not a necessity for me to perform my job as a professor and has even brought about occasional awkward moments, coming out as a professor with a disability is more than worthwhile in so far as it fosters positive identity politics among my students with disabilities.

I had chosen to retain privacy at the universities, one in Rhode Island and one in Louisiana, I had taught at as a teaching assistant prior to being hired 13 years ago on the tenure-track at Angelo State University, in West Texas. However, to adjust to my new Texan students’ speaking style (for an exaggerated example of this style of speaking, think of Boomhauer on the Fox Network show "King of the Hill") and low-keyed body language, which limits visual communication cues I can usually rely on, I was prompted to disclose my right-side hearing impairment. I worried at first about causing unnecessary confusion for students about the extent of my impairment. But I found after that the results of the first experiment in coming out were so positive that such minor confusion, which was less difficult to dispel than I originally thought, was unimportant in comparison with what was gained in coming out as disabled.

In just the first couple of academic years out of the “able-bodied” closet, I was approached by more than a dozen students, including two hearing impaired students who had taken previous courses with me but whose hearing impairments I had not known about, who told me about their own invisible disabilities and sought me out as an academic mentor. I noticed that students with both visible and invisible disabilities exhibited a different attitude toward me and about their own identities as students with disabilities than I had perceived when I was passing as non-disabled. These students with disabilities to whom I had disclosed my disability were more self-assured than my students with disabilities had been with me when I had been passing as nondisabled. They participated more freely in class discussions and asked more readily and with less self-consciousness for appropriate disability accommodations. And in the decade or so since my first experimental semester coming out as disabled to my classes, I have found that these initial impressions were correct, as scores more students with disabilities responded in the same encouraging ways.

Of course, coming out with an invisible disability must be done carefully to avoid the difficulties often associated with any coming out process involving stigmatized identities. The disclosure must be performed so that one does not seem to be trying to elicit pity from students, either nondisabled or disabled. Nondisabled people confronted with another person’s disability tend to feel, often unconsciously, as Lennard Davis aptly asserts in Enforcing Normalcy, a “welter of powerful emotional responses . . . . horror, fear, pity, compassion, and avoidance," emotions that most professors would do nearly anything, short of a crime, to avoid evoking on the first day of class.

And, even more important for my argument here, many disabled people despise pity-inducing moments on a more conscious level, thinking of them in the same category as Jerry Lewis’s annual Labor Day pity fest, which achieves its financial end through the unjustifiable means of ritually parading Jerry’s “poster kids” in front of a nondisabled television audience so that this audience may collectively sigh in gratitude that they are not “crippled” too. To avoid this counterproductive evoking of pity, I have found that maintaining a matter-of-fact attitude, keeping explanations as brief as possible, and focusing on the impact of the disability on classroom dynamics specifically make the disclosure practically and ideologically useful for both disabled and nondisabled students. (Conversely, professors with invisible disabilities that do not impact classroom dynamics might need only mention that, like some students and faculty, they have a disability too, without specifying it, perhaps as a quick addendum to calling students’ attention to their university’s procedures for acquiring accommodations, which most professors include on their syllabi and refer to on the first day of class.)

In light of these experiences, I urge other professors with invisible disabilities to come out to students as well and to become more aware of the considerable number of faculty with such disabilities on their campuses. For instance, in the English departments at the three universities at which I have taught about 20 percent of faculty members have invisible disabilities (not surprisingly, far fewer than this percentage — less than 5 percent — have visible disabilities). Unfortunately, however, none routinely come out as disabled to their students, and none have given much thought to how many professors and students with disabilities exist around them. Further, all of those to whom I have advocated coming out as disabled have been concerned about negative repercussions in their classes, while none of these professors have thought about the negative repercussions to students with disabilities of such passing by professors.

Indeed, the choice to pass among professors with invisible disabilities prevents all of their students, disabled or nondisabled, from seeing an important facet of the diversity of American culture. Such passing particularly undermines the academic and career-related success of students with disabilities. When these students cannot find appropriate mentors among the faculty who serve them, they lose an opportunity to develop the identity politics necessary to collective social activism. Coming out, in contrast, provides an ideal moment to introduce disabled and nondisabled students to the growing interdisciplinary field of disability studies, and to direct them to research done in the field through the Society for Disability Studies and other resources that examine disability as a category of identity instead of merely as a medical construct. By coming out — refusing the less ethical choice of passing — professors with invisible disabilities can educate students to become truly democratic citizens prepared to explore individual identity from all perspectives.

Linda Kornasky
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Linda Kornasky is associate professor of English at Angelo State University.

The Dreaded Grade Appeal

During a routine conversation about the semester, curriculum, and student population, a colleague of mine burst in with a frustrated comment about grade appeals. He thinks that we’re seeing more formal grade complaints than in past years. A dozen contacts at community colleges and universities seem to agree; we’re seeing more and more students going to the administration to complain about individual assignment grades, course policies, and final course grades. On a bad week, I will see more students in my office wrangling over assignment grades than those truly hoping to improve their academic performance. It’s depressing. Like many of my academic friends, I want to blame the generational divide for what looks like an increase in the number of grade appeals. After watching “I Love the 80’s” every night in a week, I want to wail and cry, mumbling that this new generation just doesn’t understand. They have no sense of what’s appropriate. They don’t respect authority. And their sense of entitlement is overwhelming. That, my friend, is what’s causing this increase in grade appeals across the nation.

Maybe. Maybe not.

When I off VH1 for a moment, I start to sort out some of what’s underneath this blanket statement that it’s us against them. Yes, the new Millennial students have a different sense of hierarchy than middle-aged folks like me. In the 70’s and 80’s, most administrators of businesses hid behind heavy doors and left customers to talk to counter staff or receptionists. Today, many businesses are transparent. The Internet allows customers to find out the name of the owner of even the largest business and with a click, e-mail them directly about a concern. In forums and chat rooms, anonymous posters can reveal an opinion about anything at any time. No one knows the poster’s age, gender, level of education, culture, or social status. In a way, this is the most democratic of processes. Of course this may have been one of many reasons why our traditional authoritative structure has shifted and changed in the last few decades. And this might explain the occasional “That’s just your opinion” response I receive when I return an essay to a student with comments and a rubric. After all, in the online world, all opinions seem to be of equal value. For the less experienced student, having one’s roommate, boyfriend, or role-playing forumites reading one’s work may be just as useful as having a trained tutor or instructor take the time to critically read and make suggestions. Maybe.

And maybe my students’ increased level of comfort at exposing one’s ideas online (or elsewhere) could help convince them that there is no hierarchy in knowledge — just fantastic bits and pieces of wisdom gleaned through online forums and blogs. Sewn together, this patchwork may seem just as valuable as the scholarly journal that is edited and produced by Ph.D.'s at a respected institution. And my students’ cauldron of original thought is available at 3 a.m. with the click of a button.

Sometimes I agree with colleagues who feel that the recession has not only forced students to feel desperate to get a degree, but also encouraged our administrators to reach farther and farther out to recruit students to support programs developed decades ago. And maybe we are approaching less qualified students. But I also know that I love teaching. And one reason for that is the occasional surprise brought on by what we would have called an “unqualified” student who suddenly becomes interested in a subject, changes his or her major, and pursues a certificate or degree — something that no one could have predicted. Lives are changed and generations feel the impact. For that I will slog through the stack of papers that simply restate the same lukewarm opinions again and again. After all, hidden in that towering stack (or the next stack) may be the paper that reveals an “Aha!” moment for a student who others may see as “unqualified.” This is the reward that goes beyond the student.

I do think what is behind the increase in grade appeals is more complex than a generational split. Some of the reasons for students’ grade appeals are age-old. Yes, our institutions are more transparent and administrators are more available. Yes, our administrators may be under increasing pressure from students, parents, and the community to provide a certificate or degree to a student where a high-school diploma may have sufficed 10 or 20 years ago. And yes, our digital native students may have more confidence questioning authority or structures that seemed inapproachable years ago. Still, according to a few administrators I’ve worked with, the complaints are often the same — vague class requirements, uneven enforcement of policies, and poor communication head the list.

After serving on a formal grade appeals panel at my community college, I vowed to simplify my own class policies and put into place some very comprehensive (and visible) statements on difficult topics like plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Not only do I state verbally and in writing what is necessary to pass my course — I now quiz my students so that I can reassure my administrators that on the first day of class, out of 24 students, 24 demonstrated that they understood the most important class policies and requirements. Of course this won’t guarantee that I won’t be suffer a formal grade appeal later that semester; still, it gives me some confidence that not only will I be able to show that my requirements were clear, but that the student had at one point reiterated those requirements to me.

Why the push to avoid grade appeals? Like other not-yet-tenured instructors, I realize that no matter how positive my reviews, if I receive too many grade appeals, I may not be given tenure. And my adjunct friends have it even worse. Complaints and grade appeals often mean not being offered work the next semester. And for those seeking full-time work, this can be the black mark that means no interview when the next full-time position becomes available. Experienced colleagues may see a certain number of complaints and grade appeals as healthy; they often indicate an instructor who is rigorously teaching the curriculum. Still, those of us who have been in education for some time understand how multiple grade appeals will be viewed by the administration. Reviewing one’s materials for clarity, spelling out expectations in many formats, and attempting to minimize miscommunication would have a positive impact on one’s teaching in any case.

This last year, I also talked to colleagues at length about how they handled attendance, absences, make-up work, and late work for their courses. I then altered my own policies to reward students for their attendance and hard work (the carrot) rather than punish them for a lack of attendance and missed work (the stick). Rather than assign a specific percentage for attendance and then take away points when students are not present, I now give students points for a short quiz given at the start of each class. I still have strict requirements for passing the course, but my mentors assured me that this small change would help students perceive me as fair and less cynical. In just one semester, I experienced a significant drop in the number of students who made the decision to march into my associate dean’s office to complain about my teaching (or grading).

One great read on grade appeals is Marcia Ann Pulich’s, “Student Grade Appeals Can Be Reduced” published in 1983 in Improving College and University Teaching. Although it’s dated, many of the concepts are still applicable. In short, Pulich advises professors to communicate grading policies clearly and stick to them. She advocates a simple grading method and recommends that professors check to see that students understand individual grades and how they relate to their final in-class grade.

An experienced colleague I know uses a simple computation for final grades — each assignment is worth points that add up to 1,000. Students can clearly see how they’re doing at any stage in the course. I weight grades, stating the total percentages for each area on my syllabus. I’ve also had support staff at my college add my name as a student to my Blackboard sites for all my courses. I then load in some grades for assignments, and project this overhead several times during the semester so that I can explain in detail what each percentage means to that assignment. Since this corresponds visually to the percentages listed on my syllabus, students often have fewer questions and complaints later in the semester.

Pulich advocates concrete responses to students’ inquiries. She states that on an essay, comments justify a lower grade. I also use a customized rubric that shows how a student fares in a number of areas including content, logic, structure, and mechanics. There’s no mystery to this rubric; in fact, students have already seen this instrument before they’ve completed their written work. Before we get started on that particular assignment, I not only show them sample student essays, but I also grade an essay (with comments and a rubric) in class on an overhead. This helps students understand what’s most important in their own work. They also feel less frustrated later if they don’t receive a perfect grade.

Like Pulich, I believe that some misunderstandings between student and instructor can be avoided by clear, concrete response in verbal and written communication. In my early teaching days, I might have written to a student, “I’m concerned about your recent rough draft. Please see me immediately.” Today I would write, “I am giving this paper a zero because outside sources are not cited. If I don’t hear from you by Friday, September 25th, I will consider this a case of plagiarism and you will be failed in this course. If you contact me before Friday, September 25th, I will allow you to rewrite this material for your final draft without a late penalty.” I then copy the e-mail to myself, print out a copy of the e-mail to deliver to the student in person at our next class meeting, and wait for a reply. If the student replies by e-mail, I keep a copy of that message in a digital folder for the course and reply, reiterating my instructions. Perhaps this sort of rigidity isn’t necessary with upper-level courses and graduate students; however, in my area (developmental- and transfer-level English), providing deadlines and penalties ensure that I get a response from the student, helps them understand exactly what they must do to succeed, and protects me in case there are questions later.

Pulich suggests being clear about course policies — including vague categories like “participation.” Depending on the professor and the course, “participation” might mean speaking up in courses, in other courses, it might mean simply attending class, being on time, and not leaving early. If students’ grades are impacted by “participation,” this must be carefully spelled out in writing to avoid misunderstandings later. She also advocates grading “blind” — that is, without a student’s name on typed-up work. This helps a professor keep from playing favorites and if this is not a problem, helps students see the grading process as more fair. With my hybrid and online courses, this is easy. When I use the assignment feature on Blackboard, I am often grading without a student’s name visible. With materials from traditional face-to-face courses, I often flip the first page of the essay over and start reading from that point. In both cases, I consult a rubric (customized for that assignment) again and again during a second read. This keeps me on target with the original assignment requirements.

Last, Pulich writes that one should be “human but fair.” Enforcing due dates and applying rules about late work (no credit, partial credit) for everyone keeps students from doing a slow burn and running to my administration as soon as class is over. This generation is surprisingly bold about sharing information about the grades they’ve received and how an instructor has treated them with other students. If I make an exception with one student, I can assume it will be common knowledge with my college’s student population almost instantly. But being “fair” is much easier than being “human.”

One strategy I’ve started to employ is an empathy line in e-mail replies to students’ requests. When students e-mail me with terrible news about their personal lives (a friend’s father died, they locked themselves out of their car, they broke up with their significant other) and ask to make up a quiz or turn in an essay late without a late penalty, I immediately reply with a sympathetic statement. I follow up with a comment reiterating my course policies and list something they can do to be prepared for the next assignment. In past years, I might simply have responded, “No. Please refer to my course policies.” Today, however, I respond with, “I’m so sorry that you’re having problems with your car. My course policies, however, state that students won’t be allowed to make up quizzes if they’re not in class. Do review Chapter Four so that you’ll be ready for the quiz on Wednesday. I’ll look forward to seeing you then.” Interestingly, the core information is exactly the same — “No.” But how I frame it makes the student feel heard and gives him or her the feeling that he or she has control over some part of his or her life.

This strategy, combined with my change in attendance rules has gone a long way in improving my reputation with students. And the number of students who have complained has dropped over 90 percent in two semesters. I can’t say that my fear of being criticized by students is less; but I do feel more confident that the degree of caring that I have for my students is somehow more visible. In my last stack of student evaluations, one student wrote that she was upset she wasn’t allowed to make up a quiz on a day that she was late for class, but also stated, “The instructor was always willing to help students in her office and was understanding — even if she couldn’t really change the rules. She seems to actually care about her students as people.” Other students commented that my grading was “tough,” but that I was a good instructor. To me it is the perfect balance. I’ll never be one of the fun, popular instructors whom students try to befriend through social networking sites, but I feel more and more convinced that the greater number of students who pass my course are truly prepared for the next course. That good feeling surpasses the feeling of making my students happy in the short run.

Nothing I do will guarantee that a student of mine won’t march into my dean’s office to complain. But providing clear course materials in a number of formats, defining and quantifying areas that will be graded, spelling out deadlines and penalties in course materials and e-mail communication, packaging a “no” with empathy, and testing students to ensure that they understand integral issues like academic dishonesty and plagiarism will give me confidence when I’m brought to a formal grade appeals panel.

Shari Dinkins
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Shari Dinkins is an assistant professor at Illinois Central College.

Lessons From V.I. Lenin and Father Roderick

I have just given the first examination of the semester. The results are poor, and I am upset. I return the tests and begin my standard pep talk. I tell them that the reason their grades are low is because they made inadequate preparation. They missed too many classes; on most Fridays, more people are absent than in attendance. They do not know how to take notes.

Sometimes students leave their notebooks behind after class, and when I notice, I read them. I am surprised how often the notebook has no name on it. The notes themselves make for depressing reading. An entire week of complicated and well-thought-out lectures has been reduced to a single page of semi-coherent jottings. I can imagine a chronic absentee copying these notes and further reducing them to three of four sentences. Perhaps if this student lends the copied notes to another and this student to still another, my lectures will eventually be reduced to a single word.

As I warm to my task, I continue to harp about the notes. Students come up after class and question my grading with the explanation that what they had written was what they had in their notes. I say that their notes are theirs, not mine, and what they have in them and what I said may be two different things.

Once, I was lecturing about the workings of a capitalist economy according to Karl Marx. Marx tells us that our economic system is based upon the “accumulation of capital,” the process in which employers exploit their workers to make profits, which are then plowed back into the business so that it can expand in the face of stern competition. Utilizing the story from the Old Testament in which Moses receives the stone tablets from God on which are written the commandments the Jews must obey, Marx says that for the capitalists, “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.” This is such a famous phrase and so well sums up the behavior of business firms that I repeated it a dozen times.

As I said it, I wrote it on the blackboard. But because it is physically painful for me to write, I sometimes did not write out the word “Accumulate” and just wrote the letter A. On the final test of the semester, I had a list of simple fill-in questions. One of them, worth two points, said, “_____, _____! That is Moses and the prophets.” All that the student had to do was write the word “Accumulate” two times on the appropriate spaces. As students turned in their exams, I started to mark them. I noticed that a number of students had answered this fill-in by writing the letter A twice. This began to infuriate me, so when I noticed that the student who had just handed in her exam had done this, I called her back to my desk before she left the room. I pointed to the two As and asked, “What is this?” She looked and without missing a beat told me, “That’s what I have in my notes.”

I rant on about preparation. Preparation must be ongoing, I say. I appeal to the athletically inclined. Can you become a good basketball player or wrestler without practicing? Students will sometimes advise me that they are going to miss an upcoming class. They ask, “Will you be covering anything important today.” Yes, today and every day. Or they will ask, “Do we have to read the parts of the textbook assigned but not covered in class?” Yes, I chose the book to complement the lectures not substitute for them. Why would I come to class if I had nothing to say? Why would I pick a book I thought was unimportant?

By this time the students are getting angry with me. No one cares much for criticism, no matter how true, and especially if the critic’s voice is, perhaps unintentionally, tinged with sarcasm. So, to diffuse their hostility and to make my points less abstractly, I tell them two stories, one about Lenin and one about my old teacher, Father Roderick.

Lenin is a favorite of mine, a man of iron will and determination, who once said that he could not listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata because it made you want to hug people when what you needed to do was crack them over the head. Nowadays, I have to identify the great Russian revolutionary. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had a student write on an examination in a comparative economics systems class that the Bolshevik revolution took place in 1967! In any case, I told my students, Lenin had a facility for languages, which he studied during his years in exile and in prison. An admirer asked him how he approached learning a language. Lenin replied that it was simple. First, you learned all of the nouns. Then you learned all of the verbs. Finally, you learned all of the rules of grammar. Just learn everything, and you’ll have it. No tricks. No shortcuts. Just hard work.

Father Roderick gets a longer story. He was my first college history teacher. Few students liked him. Not only was he an impossibly hard grader, but he was also extraordinarily boring. College folklore had it that he had fallen asleep during one of his own lectures. I can still see him pointing with a yardstick at a map of Europe and droning out in his monotone, “By this time, Spain was a third-rate power.” As I am talking to my class, I begin to daydream about those classes from so long ago. There was something about Father Roderick that I liked. Maybe it was because he seemed oblivious to his inadequacies as a teacher. He never seemed to notice our numbed looks, and he never reacted to the audible groans that emanated from us at least once in every class. Perhaps it was because, at a faculty-student “tea” one afternoon, he told me that Eisenhower had been a lousy president. Father Rod was a liberal, and that was all right with me. As was the fact that he was a sports fan. He had been the school’s athletic director, though not a good one, having forgotten to pay the baseball team’s tournament fee the one year the team had been invited to play.

I explain that Father Rod’s tests were devilishly difficult. They consisted of three parts. Part One was a long matching exercise in which all of the terms were so obscure that it was not unusual for some students to recognize not a single one of them. Some of the items were drawn from textbook footnotes and picture captions. Section Two consisted of the “Threes”; we would be asked to give three reasons for this, or to name three of these, and so forth. Further, Rod was enamored with threes, as I suppose all priests are. Part Three required us to write a 500-word essay in answer to a question breathtaking in its generality. One went something like this: “Discuss the political, social, cultural, and economic aspects of the decline of the Roman Empire.”

We had 50 minutes to complete the examination. It was said that Father Rod had not given an A in a long time. And no wonder. You needed 90 percent for an A, and given that you were bound to lose at least 7 to 10 points on the essay, you had no chance for one. Plus, he never rounded a grade up. If you scored 89.9 percent, you got a B. In my first class, I missed an A by a fraction of a point. I became determined to get an A the following term. In fact, I achieved the unprecedented distinction of earning three As in his classes, unprecedented, no doubt, because I am certain that no one ever took four of his classes.

I tell my class about how I succeeded. I explain that I had decided upon a Leninist strategy. Before each test, I rewrote my lecture notes in complete sentences and with insights gathered from the readings. The act of writing the notes helped me understand the material much better. Next, I took the notes and the textbook and made a list of every name, date, and important term in them, including those in the footnotes and picture captions. I then wrote a definition for each of these, a time-consuming task since I might have several hundred entries. But again the act of constructing the definitions greatly aided the learning. I combed through the notes and book one more time, recording every possible “three” I could find, in preparation for Father’s obsession with the Trinity. And last, I made a short list of possible essay questions and wrote out at least an outline answer for each one. I was ready.

My strategy worked. I got an A, something like 97 percent. As news of this spread, classmates began to ask me for help in boosting their grades. Before the next exam and for the next two semesters, students would gather in a dormitory study room and take notes while I lectured from my preparatory materials. Everyone paid attention, because I now knew what would be on Father Roderick’s tests, and my lectures would probably be the difference between a good and a bad grade for my listeners. No one dared interfere with my presentation lest he be shouted down by the others: “Let Mike talk. He has the key to the course.”

By the end of the story, at least the students are smiling. Perhaps a few leave the room with a new resolve. It always seems that the grades improve on the next examination. But most likely it is I who have learned the most. I have put what I learned from Lenin and Father Roderick to work in my teaching. I enter class well prepared. I have come to know the material so fluently that I no longer need notes. I can talk for any length of time about a wide variety of subjects. I can teach in large lecture halls to 200 students or in small seminars. I can do most of the classroom work myself or involve the students in projects of self-learning and discussion. I have had classes in my office, in my living room, in dormitory rooms, and outdoors. I can handle any question, and I can improvise on something I’ve read in the newspaper or seen on television or that simply pops into my mind while I am talking. I have invented hundreds of examples, and I have a reservoir of dozens of stories and anecdotes to clarify and simplify the subject matter. To give myself credibility I have done work in my teaching areas. I have done economic consulting for attorneys; I have been a labor arbitrator; I have helped to organize unions; I have been a negotiator; and I have written widely on topics related to what I teach.

For years, I got the biggest kick out of teaching. It seemed an ideal job, one in which I had about as much control as this economic system can tolerate. I enjoyed putting the lectures together and dramatizing them every day in front of the classes. I felt that I was performing a useful and necessary social task, educating young people about the reality of our society and hopefully giving them a more critical outlook than they had ever had. They could take what I taught them and go out and do good deeds and make the world a better place.

Over the years, however, my love affair with teaching faded and finally ended. I do not give my post-test pep talk very often, and the skilled work of preparing the lectures seems wasted effort. The theatricality of the actual teaching has become rote, something I do because I need a paycheck. I still do it better than most, but then, in my experience, most professors are pretty inept. I have tried to figure out why I have lost interest in my job. The students are a big part of it. Their past “mis-education” and total absorption in consumer culture have made most of them incapable of critical thinking. They want instant gratification and cannot be bothered with the work of learning. College, like high school, is just another hoop they have to jump through to get a job that will pay enough money to keep them in cars, houses, VCRs, cell phones, and all the trappings of middle-class living.

Most of my students are products of the suburban life and do not know enough or care to learn enough to be interesting to me. I still get some kids who yearn for knowledge and some poor adults who know now that it is important to educate oneself. But these few stand out like sore thumbs, and the other students look at them when they ask and answer questions as if they were creatures from outer space. I do what I can for them, but this does not give me the satisfaction it once did.

Whenever I get despondent about work, my wife tells me that I have had an impact on hundreds of students. If I am particularly irritable, I say, “I doubt it.” Then I’ll get an e-mail from someone thanking me for classes I taught long ago. I published a book in 1994 in which I acknowledged Father Roderick. I knew he would never see it, so one afternoon we drove to my old college to visit him. I didn’t know if he was still alive, but someone in the library said that he was retired and living in the monastery. We found him in his spare monk’s room. He didn’t remember me, but he was happy that I had remembered him. He said that he had been happiest when he was out of the college and serving as a parish priest. He missed driving a car. Not long after, he died. Maybe, in inadvertent honor of his memory, a few of my students have learned the method I learned when he was my teacher.

Michael D. Yates
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Michael D. Yates is a retired professor of economic and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. This essay is an excerpt from his book, In and Out of the Working Class (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).

The Kindle Factor

Recent announcements of a series of new experiments with Amazon’s Kindle reader have prompted much discussion about how it can be used to help students learn and, perhaps, save money at the same time. Naturally, some academics – having been burned before – are dubious of claims of technology revolutionizing instruction. But as one who has been using Kindle well before the recent announcements, I think there is real promise. Here’s what I’ve found.

The Opportunity

Southern Vermont College is a small, private college with both liberal arts and professional programs. Our educational and operational tasks are challenging and demanding. I lead one of our innovative programs, Build the Enterprise (BTE), a four-year entrepreneurship and management degree program. Through the lens of BTE, I want to share our experience with Kindle.

Our learners’ stories – which inspire me – are a critical feature in our strategy. They read like this: first generation to college and/or imperfect academic experience and/or limited financial resources. They have no unallocated money. They are also like every other contemporary young learner: they possess a different cultural literacy. Now add the Kindle, an eBook reader, to this learner profile. Amazon’s Kindle 1.0 arrived in late 2007 and, admittedly, it didn’t catch my interest right away.

Now it is “Kindle this, Kindle that” in the media, with the Kindle 2.0 (introduced in February 2009) and the new Kindle DX (introduced in May 2009 and will ship sometime in Summer, 2009). It is sold exclusively by Amazon.com, although there are competing models, such as the Sony Portable Reader and the BeBook. It has wireless connectivity almost anywhere via the Sprint 3G network. Connectivity is free. It includes a Web browser. It has a keyboard. You can send and access e-mail. You can browse the Web, although not nearly with the effectiveness and full screen display of a computer. It can be both an educational and a leisure tool. Importantly, it has many of the attributes of a digital communication tool.

My thought, then, was that the Kindle could be a viable addition to the digital cultural literacies of our learners. It aligns with two pedagogies: a more traditional one and a more contemporary pedagogy.

The Traditional Pedagogy and Its Budgetary Argument

I was an early adopter of the Kindle 2.0. I brought it to my classes. I brought it to admissions open houses. Learners were quite intrigued. Prospective enrollees in the college were intrigued. Mom, Dad, and the attending siblings were quite intrigued. This techno-cultural symbol had meaning and implicit value to all of them. I began to experiment with using the Kindle 2.0 as a substitute for textbooks. For my own pedagogical practice, it is a powerful learning tool.

Our use of the Kindle has two important benefits. One of the prospective benefits of the Kindle is budgetary. Another benefit is favorable market differentiation.

The marketing benefit for the Kindle (and other multi-format eBook readers) available to an educational institution is the opportunity to demonstrate sensitivity to the costs of higher education by deploying an innovative strategy that significantly lowers textbooks expenses.

The budgetary argument is this. According to the College Board, the average costs for books and supplies for private, four-year colleges in New England, for the 2008-9 academic year was $965.00. Nationally, for that same time period, the average cost for books and supplies was $1,054.00.

One of the benefits of the Kindle is that learners can replace expensive textbooks with digital books in a format read by the Kindle. For example, for a Knowledge Organizations course I will lead in the Fall, one hardcover textbook, Organizations as Knowledge Systems (2004, Tsoukas, H. & Mylonopoulos, Eds.) currently costs $89.95 at retail, $71.97 from Amazon.com, and $63.96 in its Kindle version. That’s a 28.9% savings over the retail cost of the book. Another textbook, Theory U (2009, Scharmer, C. O.), in paper, currently costs $28.95 at retail, $26.05 from Amazon, and $15.92 in its Kindle version.

The sum of those savings would be $39.02, or a 32.9% savings over retail for both books.

For my upcoming Ecological Economics course, I expect to use Daly, H.E. and Farley, J. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (2003), which sells at retail at $49.95 and through Amazon.com for $39.95. For this book, there is currently no Kindle version. In addition, another assigned reading in the course is “How to be an Ecological Economist” (Faber, M. 2007) available on the Web here.

In the instance of this Ecological Economics course, there will be no textbook savings available through the use of a Kindle – although that signals that perhaps I should re-think the materials I am using and assigning, and search for comparable eBook or digital journal resources.

These two circumstances form what we can construe as two likely boundaries of the current “Kindle opportunity”: one course with Kindle choices for all of the selected textbooks and another course in which there are presently no Kindle choices.

If we extrapolate these savings from these two courses over a two-semester, ten-course academic year, we could expect an average savings of $245.05. That number, of course, would vary according to the cost of the respective textbooks, their number, the number of textbooks in a Kindle format, and the Kindle version price of those textbooks. Lots of variables, but my point here is that there are some budgetary savings available from a traditional pedagogical approach to using the Kindle. As textbook publishers put more and more textbooks into formats that can be read by eBook readers of any type, the savings should be larger. I’ve modeled prospective savings in a traditional, textbook-based pedagogy, and the savings would appear to be on the order of 50 percent per year. Over four years of undergraduate school, that’s a savings of several thousand dollars.

The Budgetary and Pedagogical Impact of Another Approach

Several thousand dollars in prospective savings is not an insignificant budgetary impact, but here’s an alternative approach with an even greater budgetary (and pedagogical) impact.

The Kindle 2.0 is both an intriguing and powerful learning tool. It is small and lightweight (no more lugging around heavy parcels of books); it is convenient to use (I find that I read much more, pulling my Kindle 2.0 out of the case for my laptop when waiting in a queue, waiting for a meeting to start or the conference call to begin, at my daughter’s soccer practice, at the airport or after boarding a plane, or in those few minutes when I arrive somewhere early, and so forth); and you can transfer documents to it. For example, you can transfer to it syllabi, assignments, and other faculty-created documents in Word (.doc), .txt, unprotected MOBI, PRC, PDF, and HTML formats.

One of the attributes which currently separates the Kindle from its competitors is its free (yes, free) high speed wireless access almost anywhere in the continental United States.

Yet, the real power of the Kindle and other eBook readers is their ability to receive and read documents.

More clearly, nearly all colleges and universities have significant digital professional and scholarly journal collections for which they pay subscription fees. For example, EBSCOhost and ProQuest are major digital information databases commonly used by college and university libraries. Importantly, individual learners have full access to these online research scholarly and professional databases.

So what if we could use these features in a way that significantly lowered textbook expenses to learners? What if we could use these features in a way that not only eliminated all, or nearly all, of the textbook expenses for learners, but also raised the quality of our pedagogy?

The average timeframe for college textbooks, from proposal to printing and distribution, is five years. No viable business organization would attempt to operate on the basis of contemporary information five years out-of-date. Neither should our learners, especially in the contemporary global environment.

In addition, the pedagogical benefits of requiring faculty to stay sufficiently current in their professional fields so that they can identify, evaluate, and select current articles out of the scholarly and professional literature – and, thereby, replacing the textbooks they currently use -- would be extensive. This is exactly the approach the faculty in our Build The Enterprise program will employ in courses for this academic year and in all of our coursework thereafter.

There are, of course, instances where one or several textbooks may be indispensable or, in the instance of professional programs like nursing, there may need to be, at least in the near-term, a continued reliance on selected textbooks in traditional (as opposed to eBook) formats. Accordingly, the savings would be less.

Fair Use

Rarely does an innovation come easily. This is also true in a transition away from a traditional reliance on hard- or soft-copy textbooks to digital media and utilizing the Kindle and other eBook readers.

One current challenge is the limited number of first-rate textbooks that are available in eBook formats. (There are, though, more than you might think.) In addition, in order to acquire both the cost savings and the pedagogical benefits of the capabilities of the Kindle or similar eBook reader, there is the need to utilize the professional and scholarly resources of online, digital journal resources most likely already available through your institution’s library.

Here, then, is a very important Fair Use principle to which I strongly subscribe: as you migrate from print to digital media and the use of the Kindle or other eBook readers, authors should continue to be compensated, fairly and properly, for their work and their ownership privileges thoroughly protected. Access and use of research databases, online full-text journals, and additional types of electronic content are governed by license agreements which restrict use to educational pursuits, and distribution of content is prohibited

Hence, as a critical operational point when utilizing the Kindle, faculty may offer the source of a digital document in an online, digital collection like EBSCOhost or ProQuest, but, in order to conform to Fair Use practice, learners must each individually access such documents and transfer them to their Kindles themselves.


The prospects here are compelling. With a little reconsideration of how we use and frame simple educational tools like textbooks, we can not only significantly lower some of the costs of higher education, but also enhance our pedagogical practices and educational outcomes. A little new work. A little innovation and new practice. Lots of benefit. At SVC, we’ll be documenting our practices and assessing our progress with these innovations beginning this fall.

Charles Crowell
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Charles Crowell is associate professor and director of the Build The Enterprise program at Southern Vermont College.

Occupational Hazard

“The students said they don’t do paragraphs anymore. They insisted that I let them do PowerPoint,” the professor regaled his colleagues. The room of instructors stopped chewing lunch to chuckle.

“So the students can’t write,” he went on, “I guess we have to live with that and I told them they could use bulleted slides. I assigned a chapter with five short answer questions. And you know what?” He threw up his manicured hands. “They can’t read either.”

The room rumbled with laughter. My gut grumbled as I waited for enough chicken salad to disappear before I could start my talk. When faculty members discuss teaching, stories about ill-prepared, unmotivated, and ungrateful students bubble up like swamp gas. Always this talk ends in gallows humor. Everyone laughs and walks off with the same unspoken phrase – “How are we supposed to teach these creatures?”

Who hasn’t heard that message? When my patience thinned as failures multiplied, I shared my student stories, enjoyed the laughs, and walked away feeling like I’d been playing in the dirt. These moments happen. Students resist learning. They are sometimes cunning, incompetent, threatening and privileged. The worst scenarios get passed around like bawdy postcards.

The practice corrodes our craft. You can’t be a competent and successful teacher until you throw it out. Most good teachers can tell you when they gave it up. But truthfully it takes time to kick the cynicism monkey.

On an early morning walk many years ago with my neighbor, a journeyman carpenter, I expounded instructor funny bile for maybe a mile. My companion began shaking his head even as he laughed at my riffs on preposterous excuses and dumbfounding laziness. Finally, he said, “You know I could never be a professor. I don’t know how you do it.”

I waved off the acknowledgment of our heroic task. “You get tough and you learn to laugh.” His head shook. “No, no. I’ve listened to your jokes and complaints about students for a long time. I feel sorry for you.”

I slowed the pace. “Every day,” he went on, “I build houses. The studs are never quite straight; the nails are imperfect and the plans mistaken. Contractors screw up schedules, suppliers deliver late, clients change their plans -- I could complain about these blunders every day but I’d never build anything.”

I flushed as I saw myself through his eyes – a crabby professor, always with a funny student story flavored with blame. The jokes hid a deeper problem. I saw students in terms of their deficits, not mine. They couldn’t construct or evaluate arguments; fathom an author’s conceptual framework; read for connections and patterns; write engaging and vibrant prose; and most of all bring knowledge of culture or history to their learning. They were impossible.

Seen that way there was no way to teach them. I thought about my neighbor’s example. His materials and conditions weren’t perfect but he continued to learn to be a better carpenter.

Blame the student stories stopped on our walks that day. My students weren’t perfect but they were all the materials I had. I couldn’t do my job without them. In my head there was a new rule – the students are the stuff with which you work. You can’t blame them. If they don’t learn, you haven’t taught well enough. To follow that rule was hard.

My colleagues thought I had become an “idealist” – a polite way of saying, “patsy”. They knew that so many outside things caused student failure – high schools, the media, computer games, and all the other flotsam of ignorance – it was beyond their control. By taking responsibility for all those failures wouldn’t I doom myself to flagellation?

At first, it wasn’t so bad. I organized past data on grade distributions by topics, assignments and schedules. Performance always went down in the seventh and eighth weeks of the semester no matter what I did. Investigating assignments I found learning failures caused by my mistaken assumptions.

Unease developed as I got deeper into the details. Students dropped more often; hostility grew in the classroom. It came to a head one day when Tony bristled into my office. He was just the kind of student – always curious and fermenting with ideas and questions – that delighted me.

Tony said, “I can see what you are trying to do. We need skills and practice. “But,” he stared at the floor to hide the embers in his eyes, “does it have to be so awful? Can’t we ever feel good? Must we always hear about mistakes?”

My ready answers – learning is hard, the early stages confuse, and you have to practice even when you hate it -- stuck in my throat. A fine student was miserable and something was wrong. As we argued, I began to see my mistake.

Learning for me was about disciplined practice and correcting mistakes. But Tony saw learning as curiosity, questions, and triumphant answers. My version had no emotions to mush things up. Tony thought it was drab and joyless; based on fear and shame. Tony’s version could keep him working for hours. My version made it hard to even get started.

Mistakes are mistakes, I told myself, but that didn’t alleviate the gloom of failure. I remembered my infant son determined to walk and falling down, getting up and falling down; sometimes crying and sometimes smiling as he swayed upright. What could drive that relentless resolve to learn but desire? All learning, I began to see, was ignited by emotions. Without them, classrooms were barren.

That insight forced me to see students not as deficits, but as knowing people with potentials that I could not imagine. As a result, my courses did not get easier for me or the students; but they ignited with energy and occasional bursts of joy.

The great teacher of basketball, John Wooden, once said you aren’t a loser until you blame others. I thought that was a moral judgment. It wasn’t. Wooden meant that if you blame others you can’t learn. And I would add if you can’t learn you cannot teach.

Larry D. Spence
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Larry D. Spence is a learning innovation consultant at the Smeal College of Business of Pennsylvania State University.

Teaching After Midnight

3:15 a.m. Friday, today, as in a little while ago. Back from teaching my midnight class, College Writing I, 11:45 p.m. to 2:45 a.m. at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. I drove past Harvard and MIT on the way home. The lights were out. I only have a few minutes until Inside Higher Ed’s 4 a.m. deadline. Here goes.

Any students at midnight?

Yes. My section is full. Same for Pysch 101, which began Tuesday. Forty-seven students in all are enrolled in the two midnight courses. Four students are taking both courses. Two thirds of the midnight students are part time, same as at the college as a whole. The youngest of the 47 is 18, the oldest 59. Sixty-four percent of the midnight students are 18-22 years old, the so-called traditional college age. Nationally and at Bunker Hill, most students are women, but most of my midnight students are men. The national average age for community colleges students is 27. Languages other than English in my class this morning: Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Somali. The Russian student also spoke Ukranian and German.

Since the classroom had no windows, I couldn’t tell it was midnight. No one nodded off. This was just a regular class. Kathleen O’Neill, who taught the Tuesday midnight class, said that her section may even have been livelier than daytime sections. This morning we applied Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle, writing in class to read aloud. I sent them off with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and an assignment, from the Advanced Placement English composition exam, to analyze the rhetorical strategies Lincoln used to achieve his purpose. Students stayed after class to ask questions.

Why midnight?

“Adding other sections during the day or running classes until 10 p.m. isn’t enough. We are already doing that,” said my colleague John P. Reeves, chair of the behavioral sciences department. “And there is also a whole population whose day begins after everyone else’s ends. There’s a crying need to address their education as well as we do everyone else’s.” Reeves and his colleague Kathleen O’Neill, who taught Psych 101 on Tuesday, thought up the midnight classes last winter. “What if we ran all night?” O’Neill wondered.

Reeves, as it happens, was a model for the Robin Williams character in the 1997 film, set at MIT and Bunker Hill Community College Good Will Hunting. Reeves took the plan to Bunker Hill’s president, Mary L. Fifield. She loved the idea. By July, posters and fliers and newspaper ads were appearing all over Boston. I volunteered. The economy has since driven enrollment here to 10,849, an increase of about 25 percent, and the registrar has added 109 new sections. No one knows how many midnight sections could have filled this time.

Take a course at midnight? Why?

Two thirds of my class this morning enrolled at midnight because all the day, evening and weekend sections were full. The rest have night jobs, most of them at hospitals, and one is a taxi dispatcher. Almost all plan to go on to a four-year college. One loves physics. One is earning the credits to transfer to become a doctor of pharmacology. It was midnight or put their ambitions on hold.

Is this a good news story, or what?

No. This is a national nightmare. Not a cry but a scream for help from these students. Sure, it’s great that community colleges are finding ways to respond to the huge enrollment increases they are seeing. But, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, do we want to be citizens in a country that forces its poorest students to go to college at midnight?

We, the people, are all supporting federal education policies that discriminate against students like my 47 midnight students. There’s federal tax policy, extravagant overhead reimbursement for federally sponsored university research, and fine print for student aid even a CPA can’t figure out. Yes, I rejoice that the Obama team is here. Simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is on the way.

But actually providing community colleges with enough money to meet the demands of their very hard working students? Actually give these institutions enough money so that there are professors and classroom space before midnight? No one is really talking about that – and students are being denied sections in massive numbers, nationwide this year.

Why me? I already have a 7 a.m. section of College Writing I.

Outrage. Fury. I’ve shredded several drafts that were not in a tone, as I’d point out to my students, likely to persuade anyone of anything. If motivated students want to learn writing and psychology at midnight, Kathleen O’Neill and I are honored to teach them. This is what community college professors do. Kathleen and I agree that we are examples, not exceptions.

Outrage? Fury? Too strong? No. As I’ve noted before, the federal tax policies of we, the people, through deductions on donations and tax-free endowments, subsidize Ivy League and other wealthy-college students by at least $20,000 per student. A single mother at a community college or a 23-year-old student supporting her parents are lucky to win a full federal Pell Grant. Harvard lost $8 billion from its endowment and Williams College, where I went, lost hundreds of millions by taking their charitable, federal tax-deducted dollars to the dog track. So what? We haven’t changed any of the federal tax rules, and these wealthy colleges are out panhandling for more money.

Last Sunday, I settled in on the lawn of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. I can’t make this up. I ended up, to my left, surrounded by a busload of Williams freshmen, with picnics and tickets bought by Williams. I telephoned Williams this morning. Are jazz festivals a prudent use of money by a place that’s just lost hundreds of millions of dollars? No clear answer. I learned that this was a freshman orientation group that had also done community service. I don’t begrudge the Williams students great music. What about my students? Why no federal penalties for losing hundreds of millions? (Anyone know U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee? Please forward him a copy of this column.)

Are we professors getting time and a half? Like the people who fix the roads at night?

No. Our union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, made no provisions for this possibility. On Tuesday, I e-mailed our NEA president, Dennis Van Roekel, to ask what exactly the NEA has on the table now to address the exploding workload for community college faculty. True, the states have no money. The federal stimulus package is just sitting there, I said. I gave Van Roekel my cell phone number and asked him to call. No reply.

Is anyone else there after midnight?

A security guard and a campus police officer, who was already at work when I arrived yesterday morning at 8 a.m. She had arrived at 6 a.m. and would be back at 6 a.m. today, Friday. She is also a Bunker Hill student, putting in as many hours on the job as possible to help her daughter, a BHCC graduate now at Northeastern University. Tuesday night, though, had a reporters and photographers from the Associated Press and the Boston Globe, plus a reporter from WBUR, Boston public radio. Channel 5 TV was going to come to my class but postponed until next week.

Why Bunker Hill Community College?

Charlestown, the Boston neighborhood where BHCC stands, has known midnight action and history before. Just a few blocks from the campus, on the 18th of April in ’75, Paul Revere mounted his horse and rode to warn the colonists. (The BHCC site then was water, part of the Boston Harbor. I’ve suggested to my students that Paul Revere rowed here.) In the 19th century, The Charlestown Prison, designed by the Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, rose on the present BHCC site.

That prison housed Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, two immigrants convicted of murder amidst an international uproar over whether they received a fair trial. Shortly after midnight on August 23, 1927, according to an article in The New York Times, Sacco and Vanzetti were both executed in the Charlestown Prison electric chair. (Thank you, Jessy, at the Boston Public Library Reference Desk.)

Back to John Reeves and the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Reeves has been teaching since 1967. In the film, Matt Damon/Will Hunting is night janitor at MIT, who left solutions to impossible problems on the black boards for students and professors to find in the morning. Robin Williams, from his BHCC office, helps Damon/Hunting out of the trap. “It’s not your fault,” was Williams’s repeated point to the anger and pain of the trapped Hunting/Damon. Robin Williams and director Gus Van Sant ("Milk") spent an afternoon with Reeves talking about how to make the story credible. Nine years later, Reeves is still living that story.

I hope this semester we add to the midnight history of Charlestown. I think I’ll imagine that Paul Revere, reining in his horse before galloping off and looking over his left shoulder across the water, where Bunker Hill Community College would stand 324 years later, tipped his cocked hat to Kathleen O’Neill and John Reeves and Mary Fifield, who would take another run at freedom 324 years later, but with the pen, not a musket or a sword.

Are nobility and altruism and history my true motives?

No. I want a movie deal with Denzel playing me.

Haben wanagsan. That, I just learned, means “Good night” in Somali. Subah wanagsan, though, means “Good morning.” Whatever.

Wick Sloane
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Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He is also the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.

Resist the Pedagagogical Far Right

This fall I will be starting my 41st year as a professor at a so co-called “Public Ivy” institution. Some of my colleagues ask me if I’ll ever retire. Whenever I give my stock response -- “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box, and bury me on the main university green before I retire” -- my colleagues look at me as if I’m crazy. Perhaps from their perspective I am, but from my own view, I’m very sane. I love the life of academe, in spite of its irritating intellectual rigidities, its sometimes lethal, passive-aggressive competitiveness, its deeply entrenched resistance to change, and, worst of all, its over-the-top superiority complex. Still, I’m here to shout to the world that academe has been good to me, and I consider myself lucky to be a professor. But it is my teaching that fills me up the most, and it is my teaching that has provided the lasting memories.

The past few years I’ve been reading a lot about teaching and learning as preparation for writing a book on how to help students create meaning both inside and outside the classroom. Most of the work I’ve read, with a few remarkable exceptions, resounds with critique, regrets, complaints, settling old scores with some perceived enemy, and, worst of all, with belligerent put-downs of millennial and quarterlife students. For many of these authors, today’s college students are lazy, preoccupied, unmotivated, poorly prepared, distracted, politically correct, and, above all, “entitled.” In a word, students today are “unteachable.”

These scholars go on to say that if the academy is to save itself, it must return to the older ideals of a reduced elective curriculum, a stringent, no-prisoners-taken grading policy, an uncompromising commitment to the tried-and-true academic research methodologies, and, most of all, a no-nonsense, lecture-only, close-textual-analysis, stick-to-the-facts/research approach to reading and writing. “Rigor” is the catchword for these writers. Sadly, in the aftermath, “rigor mortis” could very well become, if it hasn’t already, the catchword for students.

I mourn the current turn to the far pedagogical right in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. I am deeply troubled by the retreat from recent curricular reform, alternative research methodologies, innovative teaching and learning experiments based on a multiple-intelligences understanding, and, most of all, the turning away from helping students at all levels to find and make meaning of their personal and professional lives through their classroom studies. And, so, in the spirit of reviewing the personal meaning of my own professorial calling — particularly its teaching-learning dimension — I offer the following propositions:

As professors, our primary purpose on a college campus is to teach students. Without them, there would be no campus, no professors, and no subject matter to teach, scholarship to cite, or research to undertake.

As professors we are in the classroom to inspire, evoke, respond, inform (not conform), and clarify. Students must retake center stage on the college campus. At best, we educators ought to be located somewhere backstage or in the orchestra pit. Only secondarily, if at all, are we there to direct or choreograph. Neither is our classroom function primarily to expound, propound, or confound. The conventional pedagogical practices of most professors serve only to blunt and defeat students’ independent pursuit of learning.

Truth be told, before we are anything else, we are teachers. Proportionately speaking, few of us actually spend much time researching, writing grants, and producing original scholarship. We may talk this game, but we don’t play it. Those of us who do consistent research reside in perhaps 100 of the most elite colleges and universities in the country. Furthermore, of this privileged group, a large percentage stops doing original research and creative scholarship upon getting tenure.

Thus, most professors in the majority of the 3,500 institutions of higher education in the United States get paid primarily to teach, advise, and do committee work. The point I am making is that the academic culture in more than 90 percent of higher education is built on the teaching function of its workers. Shouldn’t we, therefore, avoid sending the message to our constituents that the university would be a great place to work if only there were no students there to interrupt what’s really important — our research, intra-mural politicking, grantsmanship, and committee work?

The publish-or-perish reward syndrome on college campuses today is the major cause of the retreat from effective and innovative teaching and learning.

In many of our colleges and universities, faculty are still driven by the myth of tenure-track terror fueled by the unrealistic desire for second- and third-tier institutions to enter the first-tier ranks. Even though this rarely if ever happens (why this goal is important in the first place is a question we ought to be asking throughout higher education), the publish-or-perish imperative in these institutions keeps junior faculty constantly on edge. It reduces the time and effort they can put into their teaching. While it might be true that grants, scholarly publications, and conference gigging throughout the country put some institutions on the prestige map, it is effective, responsive, and passionate teaching that attracts, and retains, students.

I believe that the realistic, everyday question for most of us in the academy ought to be how to make our teaching better. How can we get our students actively and passionately involved in their own learning? And, from the perspective of their critics, how can we excite them enough to distract them for a little while from texting, surfing the Internet, tweeting, and Facebooking? How can we convey to them that, when push comes to shove, we want to teach students as much as we want to teach our cherished subject matter? Better still, how can we find that special pedagogical flow in our classrooms that does not even promote such a dichotomy; a flow that makes process and content, and teaching and research, inseparable? Whether one publishes a hundred articles or none, these questions ought to be central to the academic experience. Here’s a maxim that guides my own teaching and scholarship these days: research is best whenever it’s connected directly to a student’s me-search.

There is a body of research that can help us to put the student at the vital center of the teaching-learning transaction — without compromising the high intellectual standards that are so near and dear to most of us.

I’ve been able to unearth the following research during the writing of my newest book that points the way to what students will need in order to be fully engaged in their own learning. Richard Light’s (2001) and Kenneth Bain’s (2004) empirical findings confirm that when teaching is working well, the following learning patterns are evident:

1) Students engage actively in their learning with a vibrant sense of expectancy and excitement; 2) open-ended, evocative, problem-based questions in lively conversation are far more prominent than close-ended, test-based answers; 3) learning is interdisciplinary, unbounded, and wide-ranging; 4) teaching and learning are frequently narrative-based, personally vulnerable, and honest; 5) a variety of pedagogical techniques fill the learning space, including lectures, small and large group conversations, student-generated colloquia sessions, service learning, and the frequent use of internet chat rooms, listservs, and blogs.

So, too, the latest research on brain-based learning by such neuroscientists as Gerald Edelman (2006) and Michael Gazzaniga (2008) demonstrates that students learn best when they are given the opportunity to personalize their learning by looking for its practical implications in their everyday lives. When students can see the organic connections between subject matter and their interests in performing service to others, or dedicating themselves to a social cause that results in self-transcendence, or creating something artistic, then their learning becomes intense, focused, integrated, and full of passion. Dichotomies disappear. During this time, students’ neurons are at optimal firing capacity, and their cognitive patternings are rich and complex. Also, according to this brain-based research, while students highly appreciate some type of evaluative feedback from educators, nearly always the imposition of grades acts as a serious deterrent to their relaxed alertness and complex cognitive processing.

Building authentic relationships with our students both inside and outside the classroom is the sine qua non for successfully transmitting subject matter.

A growing body of research supports this assertion. Light’s findings, stemming from his decades-long research on the Harvard Assessment Project, confirmed that the classes hundreds of undergraduate students like the best and learned the most were those that involved being able to make connections with others. Students mentioned getting involved outside of class with the arts, special-interest clubs and groups, and a variety of content-linked, experiential activities. While the hands-on experiences were important to them, even more important were the interactions they had with others in order to achieve a common goal. Through these interactions, students learned the invaluable human skills of how to initiate, sustain, and deepen relationships.

In the classroom, students especially appreciated small classes. It was in this setting that students were best able to get to know the professor, both in and out of the classroom. Students also enjoyed classes that emphasized writing assignments. They particularly appreciated classes with a lot of personal narrative writing, because over 90 percent of them felt that being able to write clearly and creatively about their own lives was the most important single skill they hoped to develop during their undergraduate years. Also, students learned best about how to write when they were able to share their writing with small groups and, in the process, receive valuable feedback from their peers.

The warning flag that predicted future academic frustration and failure, however, was when a student felt a sense of isolation from others. Light’s research showed that initial feelings of being isolated only served to intensify the state of isolation, because the student, motivated by feelings of embarrassment and loneliness, tended to dig in, withdraw even more, and work alone. Isolation led to increasing feelings of desolation. It was when faculty and staff reached out to put students in touch with like-minded others, as well as with counselors, however, that their grades, and attitudes, drastically improved.

We must rethink conventional assessment strategies and homework assignments.

The key is to remember that the most important part of the word evaluation is value. The best way to evaluate the outcomes of meaning-making learning is to ask students themselves what the value of their experience has been. According to Bain’s research, the best evaluation stresses learning rather than performance. Performance means living up to others’ expectations and requirements. Learning means that students take full responsibility for their own intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, and personal development. Performance is mainly about acquisition, storing information, and taking tests. Learning is developmental and an end in itself.

Some of Bain’s best teachers asked their students to evaluate themselves, while still requiring them to provide various types of hands-on evidence that learning did, indeed, occur. Often, these students presented this evidence in face-to-face conversation with their teachers, in addition to writing extensive narrative self-evaluations, complete with such “evidence” as learning portfolios, time logs, daily or weekly written reports, and a variety of independently designed work projects. The upshot for the successful assessment of learning in meaning-making is to encourage students to set their own goals and to take full responsibility for determining whether or not they were able to meet those goals.

So much of what I’ve learned about teaching in the academy for over four decades can be summarized in this way: often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a “pedagogy of ironic minimalism.” Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the “endless breadth and depth” of my own “vast wisdom and knowledge,” then my students learn the most. This, dear readers, is why I keep coming back to the classroom — for lo these many years.

Robert J. Nash
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Robert J. Nash is an Official University Scholar in the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Vermont. His latest book, co-authored with Michele C. Murray, is Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making (forthcoming from Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2010).

The Limitations of Portfolios

Colleges have come to realize the need to assess and improve student learning and to report their efforts to students, faculty, administrators, and the public; including policy makers and prospective students and their parents.

The question is how to accomplish this. The roar of yesterday’s Spellings Commission and its vision of accountability is background noise to today’s cacophony of calls for more transparency and campus-based, authentic assessment of student learning. Some of the advocates for more authentic measures, such as Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, have suggested using electronic portfolios -- collections of a student’s work products, such as term papers, research papers or descriptions, and the student’s written thoughts (“reflections”) about these work products and curricular experiences that are bundled together on an electronic platform. The presumed merits of portfolios, such as their supposed ability to drill down into the local curriculum, have been extolled elsewhere.

Portfolios are simply not up to the task of providing the necessary data for making a sound assessment of student learning. They do not and cannot yield the trustworthy information that is needed for this purpose. However, there are approaches that can provide some of the information that is required.

Portfolio Assessment’s Inherent Limitations

There are three major reasons portfolios are not appropriate for higher education assessment programs: They are (a) not standardized, (b) not feasible for large-scale assessment due to administration and scoring problems, and (c) potentially biased. Indeed, course grades, aggregated across an academic major or program, provide more reliable and better evidence of student learning than do portfolios. Here’s why.

Lack of Standardization

Standardization refers to assessments in which (a) all students take the same or conceptually and statistically parallel measures; (b) all students take the measures under the same administrative conditions (such as on-site proctors and time limits); (c) the same evaluation methods, graders, and scoring criteria are applied consistently to all of the students’ work; and (d) the score assigned to a student most likely reflects the quality of the work done by that student and that student alone (without assistance from others).

Portfolios do not and cannot meet the requirements for standardization because by their very nature, they are tailored to each student. AAC&U’s attempts at “metarubrics” are not even close to being an adequate solution to address this problem. Portfolio advocates simply ignore the evidence that valid comparisons in the level of learning achieved can only be made when students take the same or statistically “equated” measures (such as different versions of the SAT).

Without standardization, faculty and administrators at individual campuses cannot answer the fundamental questions: Is the amount of student learning and level of achievement attained by the students at our campus good enough? Could they do better, and if so, how much better? For example, are the critical writing skills of our students on a par with those of students at comparable institutions and if below, what might be done to improve their performance?

The reason that campuses using portfolio assessment cannot answer these types of questions is that determining how much learning has occurred has to be measured by comparison to some type of standardized benchmarks. For example, to assess whether seniors write better than freshmen, both groups need to respond to the same essay questions within the same time limits and have their answers mixed together before being graded by readers who do not know whether an answer was written by a freshman or senior.

The same standardization is needed to assess whether the students at one school (or in one program within a school) are more proficient (or learned more) than students at similar schools. In short, learning has to be measured by some type of standardized, controlled, and unbiased comparison. There is no absolute scale (like weight and height) that is interpretable in and of itself.

Descriptions of scoring criteria are not sufficient to ensure comparable grading standards even when benchmark answers are used to train raters. In order to answer the good enough question, performance comparisons -- “benchmarking” -- is necessary. But benchmarking cannot occur without standardization and benchmarking is necessary to interpret differences in scores between programs within a campus and between peer campuses. Without standardization, differences might be due to variation in portfolio content, rater background and training, assistance provided to students for building their portfolios, bias (see below), and a host of other factors.

Valid interpretations of differences in scores between students, programs, and schools can only occur when the assessment is standardized. Only then can institutions monitor their students’ progress toward improving their skills and abilities relative to (a) their school’s academic standards, (b) the progress made by their classmates, and (c) the improvements in performance made by students in other programs and similar institutions. Ironically then, by eliminating the standardization that is necessary for benchmarking learning, the portfolio method prevents making the kinds of comparisons that are essential for assessing improvement.

We recognize that there are roles for portfolios. For example, they might be used to provide information about the range of tasks and activities students engage in and their views about the importance of different aspects of their education and campus experiences. This information may have heuristic value in providing possible insights into areas for improvement.

Not Feasible for Large Scale Learning Assessment

By their un-standardized nature, portfolios (even electronic ones) are not practically feasible on a large scale. A moment’s reflection reveals why this is true. Because of their length, a single grader will typically need an hour or so to grade a single portfolio. To assure adequate score reliability, each portfolio needs at least two independent graders (and major differences between them should be resolved by a third). In addition, due to the potential interdisciplinary nature of a portfolio’s contents, raters with different areas of expertise might be needed which could lead to even more scoring time and feasibility problems.

For portfolios to be truly authentic, they have to relate to each student’s academic major or combination of majors. Hence, different teams of graders (and most likely different scoring rubrics) are needed for students with different majors. These and related concerns preclude combining results across students with different and perhaps unique combinations of majors.

Computer technology cannot solve portfolio feasibility and reliability problems. For example, computers with natural language processing software have been shown to provide a cost-effective and accurate way to grade large numbers of student responses to essay questions and other open-ended tasks. However, these machine grading methods require standardized prompts. They require that thousands of students respond to the same prompt and thus they are not applicable to portfolios.

Simply put, the time, content expertise, and other challenges -- and hence feasibility -- of grading portfolios substantially exceeds that of grading constructed responses (e.g., essays) that are administered and scored under standardized conditions. Incidentally, the solution to this problem does not lie in having local faculty grade portfolios, even when justified as a professor’s instructional and professional development responsibilities. The evidence is clear: in large-scale programs, portfolio assessment overwhelms faculty, and is a source of faculty resistance and low morale. Portfolio assessment, then, is simply not a feasible or practical tool for large-scale assessment programs.


A portfolio may include a photograph, videoclip, or other information about student identities. Their gender, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics also may be known by those evaluating the portfolio. This lack of anonymity may bias results.


Faculty are understandably skeptical of standardized tests. In an article last year in Academe, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein pointed out that many faculty erroneously equate standardized exams with the highly questionable multiple-choice tests that characterize the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Professors and administrators rightly celebrate the diversity of American higher education and therefore do not see how the same standardized test could be used across this range of institutions. However, colleges may share some important goals. For instance, virtually all faculty and college mission statements agree that critical thinking and writing skills are essential for all college graduates to possess. Graff and Birkenstein put it well:

A marketing instructor at a community college, a biblical studies instructor at a church-affiliated college, and a feminist literature instructor at an Ivy League research university would presumably differ radically in their disciplinary expertise, their intellectual outlooks, and the students they teach, but it would be surprising if there were not a great deal of common ground in what they regard as acceptable college-level work. They (these instructors) would probably agree -- or should agree -- that college-educated students, regardless of their background or major, should be critical thinkers, meaning that, at a minimum, they should be able to read a college-level text, offer a pertinent summary of its central claim, and make a relevant response, whether by agreeing with it, complicating its claims, or offering a critique.

If standardization is possible, the question arises as to whether it is possible to standardize “authentic” tasks. David C. McClelland's 1973 paper, provided the key to authenticity with standardization. He argued for a “criterion-sampling” approach to assessment in which students confront “real-world” tasks like those they may face in their further education, work, and private and civil lives. As McClelland said, if you want to know if a person can drive a car, observe and evaluate his performance on a sample of tasks like starting the car, pulling out into traffic, turning left, parking and the like. Moreover, you can evaluate performing these tasks in a standardized way. Put succinctly, he provided a strong argument for gaining authenticity through the assessment of criterion performances.

Performance assessment, then, represents an authentic, standardized testing paradigm in which students craft original responses to real-life (criterion-sampled) tasks. For example, most state bar examinations now include tasks in which candidates are given a realistic case situation and asked to use a library to perform a typical task, such as prepare deposition questions or a points-and-authorities brief, draft instructions for an investigator, or write a letter to opposing counsel. Candidates are given a “library” of documents and told to base their answers on the information in these documents. The library might include the opposing counsel’s brief, excerpts of relevant and irrelevant case law, letters, investigator reports, and other documents… just like they would review in practice. Performance tasks also have been used in credentialing teachers.

We applied this testing paradigm in developing the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). This testing tool taps critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem-solving and written communication skills of college students with standardized analytic writing and performance tasks that have been described elsewhere. Over 450 colleges with 200,000 students have participated in the CLA. Faculty and students recognize its authenticity and report that its tasks tap the kinds of thinking and reasoning they expect a college education will help students perform.

We are concerned about the suggestion to replace standardized higher education measures with electronic portfolios as a means for assessing the effects of campus’ programs and as a response to the demand for external accountability. Because of the inherent problems with portfolios, they do not and cannot provide trustworthy, unbiased, or cost effective information about student learning. This is just not in their DNA.

Gathering valid data about student performance levels and performance improvement requires making comparisons relative to fixed benchmarks and that can only be done when the assessments are standardized. Consequently, we urge the higher education community to embrace authentic, standardized performance-assessment approaches so as to gather valid data that can be used to improve teaching and learning as well as meet its obligations to external audiences to account for its actions and outcomes regarding student learning.

Richard J. Shavelson and Stephen Klein
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Richard J. Shavelson is a professor of education at Stanford University. Stephen Klein and Roger Benjamin are director of research and development and president/CEO, respectively, at the Council for Aid to Education, which owns the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

The Kids Are All Right

It happens. A few weeks into the semester you finish grading the first exam in a course, and check the class average only to find that performance is decidedly underwhelming. What happened? Was the exam too hard? Did it have confusing questions? Impossible, of course. You wrote the exam yourself and made sure that it assessed everything students should have gleaned over the past few weeks. The exam was a finely tuned instrument designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But, for whatever reason, the exam results were predominantly chaff.

Was it your teaching? Impossible, of course. You are a conscientious teacher who worked diligently on your lectures. You tracked down recent references, created examples, embedded discussion questions, made several rounds of revisions, and followed tips for creating proper PowerPoints. But the students still did poorly, and will surely blame you and exact revenge on your teaching evaluations. The only viable explanation for the students’ poor performance is that the students are to blame. It’s not you, it’s them! (Or so you think.)

Teachers want students to learn, and when students fail to meet that goal, someone must bear the responsibility. The kids aren’t all right – they’re the problem. At one time or another, it is easy to feel as though students are not holding up their end of the teacher-student "relationship."

This conclusion that students are not "all right" often takes the form of lamenting students’ lack of motivation, lack of interest, lack of preparation, excessive partying, excessive socializing, and a lack of enthusiasm for our teaching. Worse, some make broad claims that students in general "don't read," "can't write" and "can't think," especially compared to students of yesteryear. But are these novel complaints? A faculty report once concluded that 25 percent of students admitted to Harvard in 1897 did not have the writing skills necessary to succeed in college. This does not bode well for progress in higher education over the past 100+ years.

Unfortunately what this does suggest is that the phenomenon of blaming students is more ubiquitous and may not be limited to teachers who are exceptionally egocentric, narcissistic, burnt-out, curmudgeonly, or those who would rather not teach at all.

As professors who have the responsibility for helping our students learn, this seems like a counterproductive perspective. Teachers are all familiar with the notion that when students do well in our courses, they take the credit as the smart and capable students that they are. However, when students do poorly the teacher often bears the blame. Students have "earned" every A, but have been "given" every B, C, D, or F by their less than stellar teachers.

However, professors are not immune from adopting a similar self-serving bias. When a specific class, an entire course, or an entire semester of teaching evaluations go well, we simply re-affirm our teaching prowess. But when evaluations are less than complimentary, there must be another explanation. Most commonly we attribute poor teaching outcomes to the occupants of the desks in our classroom. Yet, if you asked students why some of their courses are less fulfilling, less educational, and less enjoyable, students would likely suggest that the instructor is to blame. Certainly both perspectives have a kernel of truth.

If students are not ideal scholars, there must be a good reason for how this came to be. A common explanation for students’ shortcomings involves generational differences. But it seems too easy to merely conclude that the students of today, "generation me," are qualitatively different than students of the past. We must remember that when we compare students past and present, we may be using an unfair comparison group.

We run the risk of using our own past experience as the default comparison group. This presents two problems. First, our recollection of our own college experience may suffer from retrospective biases where we recall things more favorably than they were. Did we really do all of our reading? Did we really avoid procrastinating? Did we truly devote ourselves to our coursework? Were we really attentive in class 100 percent of the time? Certainly, we are prone to some degree of rosy retrospection.

The second problem is that even if we have perfect and bias-free retrospection, it is likely that you were not a typical college student. In fact, it is much more likely that you went on to become a professor because you were not a typical student. Compared to the typical student, you probably earned better grades and placed a higher value on education. Compared to the average student at most colleges and universities, you may have graduated from a better high school, had more encouragement along the way, or had better role models who reinforced the importance of pursuing higher education. Perhaps, as a result, you emerged from high school with better critical thinking skills, better writing skills, better reading skills, and were a more skilled test taker. Even if you did not benefit from any of these advantages, your superior performance as an undergraduate was undoubtedly the result of you paying better attention in class, studying more, reading the assigned texts, and conscientiously completing assignments.

More to the point, it is likely that your own college classrooms were not teeming with aspiring academics who shared your enthusiasm and appreciation of the learning process. Chances are that some of your fellow students were supremely prepared, some were supremely underprepared, the rest were somewhere in between. The same is true in our classrooms today. Thus, we should be careful to avoid portraying our personal academic experiences and motivations as the benchmark for comparisons.

In reality, we are much more like our students than we care to acknowledge. Who among us can say they have read all of the recent journals in their field, have never submitted a less than perfect manuscript or grant proposal, have never procrastinated on a project, have never missed a deadline, have never been late to class, have never skipped a meeting, or have not paid astute attention while a speaker provided information? If you have any doubt about this last one, I urge you to look around the room during your next faculty meeting to see how many of your colleagues are otherwise occupied.

Students in our classes today do check their cell phones excessively. When we were students, most of us never would have dreamed of doing such a thing (mainly because there weren’t cell phones). But, if you had such a device as a student, I suspect that you may have found it difficult to avoid checking for text messages about that night’s social activities as well. Now that we do have these devices, how many of your colleagues (if not yourself) check their BlackBerrys or iPhones on a potentially excessive basis? Although there may be generation differences in the available technology, students and teachers of yesterday and today share the same desire to learn useful information, to be financially secure, to lead a happy life, and to be efficient, and to avoid wasting time engaging in seemingly meaningless activities. Ultimately, if we focus on the similarities rather than highlight the differences, we will be more effective in helping our students to learn.

Students as a whole are not going to change. It is unlikely that an entire generation, student body, or even your early morning class will see the light, rebel against their nature, and suddenly enter your classroom as the dedicated scholars you think they should be. Not only will your students show up in the same state as they did last semester, it may be unrealistic to expect otherwise. If someone had the courage to enact change in our students, which of the following would be the wiser course of action? A) Assume that you should simply keep doing what you have been for years as students will make the choice to change and will enter your class prepared, motivated, and enthusiastic. B) Ask yourself, what can you do to connect with your students in a way that allows you to achieve the goals that you have for them? The wisdom is in Choice B.

Given that we may be unable to effect wholesale, lasting changes in the inherent natures of our students, we as teachers can adapt and better meet our teaching goals. As they say, the first step is acknowledging that we contribute to the problem. By focusing on student deficiencies, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem. Case in point, by developing a mindset that students have significant deficiencies, you may become more prone to developing a confirmatory bias that leads you to more easily identify and remember students’ deficiencies. Worse, negative expectations about students might lead you to act in a way (perhaps unknowingly) that elicits negative behaviors from students.

For example, if you became convinced that your class was unenthusiastic, you might devote less effort to your next lecture because quite frankly "why bother? They aren’t interested anyway." Thus, your next lecture is subsequently less engaging, and the students are, as you predicted, unenthusiastic. By identifying and resisting this self-defeating pattern, you can take steps to avoid it. After all, you are the person with the most influence on the classroom and have the most ability to produce the desired change.

We'd like you to think back to the question posed above. When you were an undergraduate, were you really attentive in class 100 percent of the time? Always engaged? Or were you only attentive and engaged in the better classes, with the better teachers who projected positivity and respect for their students? If so, are you teaching one of the better classes? Are you one of the better teachers? If you have room for improvement, as all average, good, and great teachers do, keep in mind that it is impossible to be a master teacher without a fundamental respect and appreciation of your students. Only by avoiding the obstacle of blaming students, can you proceed to instill in your students a sense of curiosity, skepticism, and an interest in pursuing new ways of thinking about the world.

Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. and David B. Strohmetz
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Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. is associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University. David B. Strohmetz is associate professor of psychology and associate vice president for academic and institutional assessment at Monmouth University.


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