The press and the blogosphere have devoted significant coverage recently to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that predicted that the United States is on "collision course with the future." The report estimated that within a mere eight years, the nation will suffer a shortfall of at least 3 million workers with college degrees and 4.7 million workers with postsecondary certificates. The authors of the report concluded that to meet the challenges of a global economy in which 59 to 63 percent of domestic jobs require education beyond the high-school level, America’s colleges and universities "need to increase the number of degrees they confer by 10 percent annually, a tall order."
Although numerous commentators have responded to the report by echoing its call for increased access to higher education, it seems to me that few have focused on a key term in the report’s call to "develop reforms that result in both cost-efficient and high quality postsecondary education." Producing millions more baccalaureate-educated workers will do nothing to address the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce if those degrees are not high quality ones. Sadly, it is pretty clear that far too many college degrees aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed.
In 2006, the Spellings Commission reported disturbing data that more than 60 percent of college graduates were not proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy. In other words, significantly more than half of college degree holders in the United States lack the “critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, cited these findings in his recent Huffington Post essay, "The Failure of American Higher Education." He shared stories about recent college graduates, many from prestigious universities, who had applied for jobs at his think tank who were unable to complete basic tasks such as summarizing a person’s credentials into a short biographical sketch or calculating an average using a spreadsheet. Atkinson argues that one of the primary reasons for the inability of so many college graduates to think, write, speak, argue, research, or compute proficiently is that colleges “are focused on teaching kids content, not on teaching them skills.” His explanation for this is that members of the professoriate are not interested in teaching these important skills, but rather are interested in exploring the content of the subject matter in which they specialize. Atkinson then advocates several "solutions" to his perception of the problem, which include a requirement that all college graduates take a national test to measure skills competencies and “radical experimentation” in college design that focuses “on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.” These ideas are typical of the well-intentioned but misinformed suggestions that abound these days about higher education.
The commentators are correct that there is a mismatch between what faculty members are doing and could be doing to teach students. But the problem isn't a lack of faculty interest in students, but a broader set of staggering challenges facing professors – challenges that deserve more attention.
First, college and university faculty members often lack the ability to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills. Why? Because most professors are not trained to do so. With few exceptions, doctoral programs focus on teaching disciplinary content and methods of inquiry, not pedagogy. Even in universities that provide their doctoral students with a "preparing future faculty" program to help Ph.D. candidates develop some teaching skills, such programs focus on teaching and learning at the college level, not on basic reading comprehension, the fundamentals of composition, or elementary quantitative skills. The K-12 educational system is supposed to teach these abilities. By the time students get to college, faculty members rightfully expect that they will already know how to calculate an average or summarize the main points of a newspaper article, a book chapter, or a journal article. Accordingly, faculty members see their role as then honing students’ critical thinking abilities within the context of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information, often within a disciplinary framework.
These assumptions were fair ones once upon a time. Sadly, though, far too many students who have earned a high school diploma are unable to meet such expectations. Absent a handful of specialists in English departments, most college faculty members are simply ill-equipped to know how to teach students how to begin writing coherently. Professors expect to provide students with feedback on writing more efficiently and persuasively, not teach about tenses, subject-verb agreement, or basic punctuation. Yet, these are types of problems with which faculty routinely try to cope, at least for a while. And that leads to my second point.
Given the woefully inadequate preparedness of high school graduates to engage in college-level work, many professors quickly become burned out attempting to teach skills that they never expected they would need to teach at the postsecondary level. I have heard dozens of colleagues from across the country at different types of institutions of higher education say, "I didn’t earn a Ph.D. to teach what should have been taught in elementary and high school." Many such instructors give up; rather than teaching the skills that should have been learned before students arrive in college, they focus on content because it’s easier to do so. There is only so much that can be done over the course of a college quarter or semester. Worse yet, they fear holding students to high standards for a myriad of reasons, which is the third problem I wish to discuss.
College faculty members, especially those who are untenured, often fear setting course expectations too high, challenging students’ comfort levels too much, or being rigorous in their assessments of student performance. If students perceive a professor as being too hard, they will avoid that person's classes, which can lead to under-subscribed classes being canceled. Full-time faculty whose courses are canceled may be reassigned to less desirable duties; part-time faculty members whose classes are canceled often find themselves without any courses to teach. In addition, students often "punish" faculty members they perceive as being too demanding by evaluating them poorly at the end of a course. Because low student evaluations can lead to both tenure-track and adjunct faculty being fired, untenured professors may keep workloads at levels that students perceive to be reasonable and assess their performance more generously than may be actually deserved. Much has been written on this phenomenon as one of the leading factors contributing to the nationwide problem of grade inflation, the fourth issue I will address.
In one of the most comprehensive studies of college grading practices, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy documented that the average grade point average at U.S. colleges and universities rose from 2.35 in the 1930s, to 2.52 in the 1950s when a bifurcating trend in public and private institutions emerged. After sharp increases in the 1970s and 1980s, GPAs currently average an astonishing 3.00 and 3.30 at public and private schools, respectively. This trend could be explained by better students achieving at ever-higher levels. But, as discussed above, that is simply not the case when more than 60 percent of college graduates are not proficient in basic reading, writing, and math. Rojstaczer and Healy contend that grade inflation surged in the 1980s with “the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education.” And the growth of the for-profit sector of higher education has only compounded this problem in higher education since corporate-based education is built upon the faulty premise of delivering a product (an "education" or a "degree") to paying consumers (what we used to call "students").
Professors who resist the pressures of grade inflation find themselves in the position of having to defend their rigorous teaching in a variety of forums, ranging from resolving complaints lodged against them with their department chairs to participating in pseudo-adversarial grade appeals proceedings and formal grievance hearings. Contemporary college students hold intense senses of consumer-based entitlement in which they see the default grade as an “A.” Recently, I defended a professor who had awarded a “D” to a student who, by my assessment, should have failed the course. During the heated discussion, the complaining student obnoxiously referred to the professor as “incompetent” and “unrealistic.” At one point, she said, “I pay your salaries!” I replied to her, “Then we want a raise for having to deal with snotty, entitled brats like you.”
Notably, the professor involved in this grade dispute was a tenured member of the faculty. For the reasons summarized above, untenured faculty (who comprise more than 70 percent of college instructors nationwide) may have caved in to the student’s demands and changed the student’s grade to avoid a confrontation in which the department chair became involved. But even when faculty members stand their ground, administrators often cave in to student demands because they are concerned with retention rates, time-to-degree completion statistics, complaints from helicopter parents (some of which escalate into lawsuits), and angry students who may turn into alumni who want nothing to do with their alma maters instead of happy alumni who become donors.
The recent case of Professor Dominique Homberger illustrates how college and university administrators contribute to grade inflation. The dean of her college recently removed Homberger from teaching an introductory biology course at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge in the middle of semester after students complained about her harsh grading on the first exam in the course, even though grades on subsequent quizzes and exams were higher (students appear to have gotten the message that they really needed to up their levels of performance).
What do we do about the sad state of affairs in higher education? There are changes we could make at the college level that could go a long way in improving the quality of higher education. First, no one should be able to earn a Ph.D. and secure a faculty position in an institution of higher education who has not taken graduate-level courses that prepare them to teach effectively at the college level. Graduate education must provide the next generation of college instructors the pedagogical toolkit to be more effective teachers, as well as more effective assessors of student learning. This is especially important with regard to teaching prose, information, and quantitative literacy.
Second, professors who rely exclusively on textbooks must change their ways. Of course, there are many fine textbooks out there, but no college course should rely on a textbook exclusively. Primary source materials from scholarly books and peer-reviewed journals, as well as material from popular culture media (newspapers, magazines, blogs, films, television shows, etc.), when applicable, should be assigned to complement textbook readings. But even more importantly, professors must jettison the “supplements” provided by textbook publishers. Today, many textbooks come with canned lecture notes, study guides, exams, PowerPoint presentations, and other supplementary materials designed to make professors’ lives easier. With few exceptions, most of these materials are targeted at the lowest common denominator.
For example, canned PowerPoint presentations and study guides boil down the information in a textbook chapter to a series of bullet points. But “test bank” questions are the worst offenders. These question focus exclusively on content and are targeted at low levels of cognitive achievement in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains: mere recall of data or information. These assessments do not provide any basis for professors to test students’ ability to analyze, synthesize, or evaluate information in a manner that demonstrates critical thinking, writing, or problem-solving abilities.
Third, we must get serious about confronting grade inflation. College professors are not just teachers; they also should be serving as gatekeepers as generations of professors did in the past by awarding grades commensurate with student performance. For this to occur, the consumer-based culture that pervades higher education must be changed. Professors, parents, and administrators must stop coddling students. If a student is not performing satisfactorily, then college instructors must be able to award “D”s or “F”s without worrying about whether doing so will cost them their jobs. Moreover, faculty rewards policies (e.g., reappointment, tenure, promotion, merit raises, etc.) must be changed to reward professors who teach and grade with rigor.
Such assessments must focus not just on the content of professors’ courses, but also on how they develop critical thinking, writing, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. Conversely, professors who give away high grades that are not actually earned by students should not be retained. This is not to say, however, that only those professors who award As to 10 percent or fewer of their students are necessarily effective teachers. Rather, we need to develop better ways of assessing a college instructor’s performance than student evaluations and grade distributions. Reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions should be based on holistic assessments which include qualitative evaluations by several peers who have observed the instructor teach and on teaching portfolios containing exams, writing assignments, grading rubrics, cooperative learning exercises, and the like. Rigor and transparency should be rewarded.
Finally, to effectively combat both grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in the college student–professor dynamic, politicians, accrediting bodies, and senior administrators must stop worrying about graduation rates and time-to-degree-completion. These artificial metrics miss the mark. The obsessive focus on what percentage of students graduate in four or six years only reinforces grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in higher education. If it takes a student eight years to graduate because professors actually hold that student to high levels of achievement before certifying that student as worthy of a degree, so be it! That, at least, would help to restore the value of a college degree rather than perpetuating the disturbing trend of the past few decades in which the value of the baccalaureate degree has deservedly diminished.
Henry F. Fradella
Henry F. Fradella is professor and chair of criminal justice at California State University at Long Beach .
True confession: I’ve never taught freshmen in my life. So why am I, a provost, offering a class to 18-year olds? I asked myself this question earlier this summer as I enrolled as a participant in a faculty workshop. Although I’ve taught employment law and public administration courses to thousands of graduate, law, and upper-level undergraduate students during my 25 years in the academy, all this was done at my former institution, a research university. But here I am, joining my colleagues from across the campus as we launch our new First Year Seminar program this fall.
For 20 years, the University of Richmond had a year-long, common-syllabus required course for freshmen. Last year, however, the faculty voted to replace that course with a series of seminars. Limited to 16 students apiece, the seminars have three major goals: enhancing our students’ ability to read and think critically, to communicate effectively, and to develop the fundamentals of information literacy and library research. The seminars are part of an exciting and significant curriculum change at our university, a change designed to increase student engagement at every level.
Even after substantial faculty deliberation and discussion, we knew we were taking a risk – particularly when we first reached out for enough course proposals for the year. After all, we were asking faculty to come up with completely new writing-intensive courses, without much incentive beyond a small course-development stipend. And, we needed to staff 54 seminars each semester to ensure we met our commitment to small sections.
But the program had the support of the faculty — they’d voted it in, after all — and to our delight, we received 85 proposals from 28 departments, generating full participation across Richmond’s five schools. That means students have direct access to classes taught by faculty in our Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the Law School and the Robins School of Business — traditionally not available until the junior year or graduate school. We could offer an unexpected breadth of topics, meaning that students could find a required seminar each semester to match their interests. Proposed seminar topics included bioethics, oceans, the postapocalyptic imagination, civilization and its discontents, heaven and hell, the social meanings of home, climate change, wrongful convictions, Muslim women, comedy, aging, gender, heroes and villains, Shakespeare, food, judicial leadership, sports, social justice, and a host of others. Although most proposals were offered by individual faculty, several were proposals for team-taught courses, and many were interdisciplinary offerings.
Two features of the program were striking: first, the range of topics was extraordinary; second, having senior faculty from across the campus, including the Law School, willing to share the investment in teaching freshmen was heartening.
So what was I to do? Rather than sitting on the sidelines, I decided to join in, and proposed a seminar entitled “Working: An Examination of the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of the Nine to Five World.” But once the proposal was approved, the hard part began: how to teach this new class, to an entirely new (to me) population of students?
Like the rest of my colleagues, I got help. Last spring, I attended four workshops to help me understand the students I’d be teaching. Two sessions addressed effective use of library materials to conduct research and copyright rules. Our counseling and student affairs staff led the third and fourth sessions, “Impediments to Academic Success,” and “Development and Transition in the First Year,” which revealed the incredible range of difficulties students face. Those of you who teach freshmen regularly may not be surprised to learn these findings from the 2008 National College Health Assessment: 34 percent of students feel stressed, overwhelmed, and over-scheduled; 25 percent experience sleep difficulties; and 16 percent suffer from depression or anxiety disorders. Data on our University of Richmond students showed they mirrored the national averages, and that problems of alcohol abuse, relationships, and uncertainty about identity were as real here as on any other campus. I was reminded of the challenges student affairs professionals face every day, and how important it is that those of us in academic affairs appreciate the work they do.
At first, this made me want to turn and run (and to increase our liability insurance). But I was also reminded during these workshops of how optimistic, capable and high-achieving most of our students are, and how many are focused on public service, sustainability, and creating a better life for themselves and others.
But the greatest help I received was through the FYS Summer Institute, a weeklong intensive academic boot camp. Five sessions were offered throughout the summer, and I enrolled in the first offering in May, along with my fellow participant, University of Richmond President Ed Ayers, a distinguished historian of the American South. We were joined by six faculty from the biology department, and eight other faculty members from the departments of philosophy, English, political science, psychology, theater and dance, and, just for good measure, the Law School. Our hearty band spent the first two days defining our common goals for the seminars, learning more about our student profile, and examining a variety of techniques for stimulating writing and addressing transition issues. We talked about designing our courses around controversy, so that students have something to argue about; the need to make frequent writing assignments to help students think through issues and receive constant feedback on their writing; the importance of group work outside of class to increase engagement, and other means to make the seminars a valuable learning experience. It was intriguing to move from the general goals of curriculum change to the hard work of accomplishing those goals one course at a time.
We were fortunate to spend the third and fourth days of the Institute with Nicole Wallack of the Columbia University Writing Program and the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking. She led us through a series of writing exercises in which we played the role of the student, trying out approaches like guided exploratory writing, evidence finding, and free writing. We critiqued essays, examined academic vs. nonacademic writing, listed our pet writing peeves, synthesized works, and generally tried to replicate the freshman experience for two days. By Thursday, we were exhausted but truly appreciative of Dr. Wallack’s techniques for teaching writing, and we all vowed to incorporate at least some of her methods into our seminars. The last day of the Institute focused on assessing learning outcomes, helping our students use library resources, and summarizing all we had discussed that week.
My confidence renewed, I began crafting my syllabus. I thought about the fact that our students come to college right out of high school with some idea of the working world, formed primarily from their own limited experience and by observing what their parents do. But few have had the opportunity to look into why the 21st century American workplace is the way it is, and to examine the role the courts, Congress, unions, and social movements have played in shaping that world. I decided that my seminar would require students to consider the views of writers ranging from U.S. Supreme Court justices to assembly line workers, and that it should challenge assumptions students may have about why people choose the work they do, and how they are or are not satisfied by that work.
Soon, however, I was confronted with a number of thoughts: should the first class begin with a case study? a writing exercise? a “get to know you” discussion”? When I taught graduate students I had them prepare an assignment for the first day of class; was that appropriate for freshmen? How, I wondered, should I accomplish the writing goals of the course in a way that required the student to produce a good research paper but would allow them to ease into the process? Given that one of the seminar goals is to enhance students’ oral communication skills, should individual presentations be required, or would classroom discussion and feedback be sufficient?
In the end, I designed a syllabus with readings that span the spectrum from Ben Hamper’s Rivethead to the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal 1971 ruling on race discrimination, Griggs v. Duke Power. I read a dozen books, rejecting Studs Terkel’s classic Working for the newer Gig by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, and enjoying again the humorous yet touching Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. I read aloud to my wife some of the breathtaking prose of Alan de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and considered numerous other books, essays and descriptions of the American workplace, from Joanna Cuilla’s The Working Life to the Harvard Business School’s case study on the Hawthorne experiments. I don’t know if I’ve assigned too much or too little, although I suspect I’m guilty of the former. I devised a series of writing assignments, ranging from in-class one-page reaction pieces to a ten-page research paper. I decided to combine the students’ research with a requirement for a short presentation at the end of the semester, to help them synthesize and present their findings, answer questions from their fellow students, and simply have the crucial experience of publicly defending a point of view.
So here I go, off to teach freshmen in a seminar about working.
Oscar Wilde famously observed that “work is the curse of the drinking class,” but whether we view work as the fulfillment of our dreams or as daily drudgery, we’re all destined to spend the better part of our lives in various vocations. So we’ll use our seminar experience to consider workplace questions of employee rights, social justice, motivation, challenges, social behavior and economic necessity. I don’t aim to turn my students into experts in employment law, sociology, history, or economics. Rather, like all First-Year Seminars, my course should enhance students’ ability to read and think critically, to communicate effectively, and to conduct research. And I expect to learn as much – and have as much fun — as my students do in the journey.
Steve Allred is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Richmond.
Imagine the following hypothetical scenario. Jen is a college first-year student. She attended a public high school in which randomly selected students received iPads as part of an innovative curricular grant project. Jen was fortunate enough to be one of the selected students. She loved writing, reading and using the computer – sometimes for fun, sometimes for homework.
Jen scored in the 78th percentile on the SATs, played on a varsity athletic team, and late in her senior year, showed an aptitude for and interest in photography. She worked during the summer. One of her two parents is a college graduate. Their combined income approximates $95,000.
Jen was accepted to a variety of colleges and universities, and decided to attend a mid-sized university, largely because of the financial aid package, and because its website showcased a new photography major.
Jen was bemused after her first week in college. She is a product of iPhones, smartboards, iPads and text messaging, and yet her classroom was devoid of technological gadgetry. Her professors lecture, sometimes with PowerPoint, sometimes without. They talk about research as if it is something to be done in a library, and not on one’s lap or in one’s hand.
The preceding example may or may not sound familiar to many educators and students, but it is likely to be the norm in the next few years. Our students process, retrieve and garner information in ways unimaginable a few years ago, if not months ago. We faculty, trained with card catalogs, photocopy packets, and reserve reading, are rapidly becoming living, breathing anachronisms.
Challenges abound – for Jen and for us. Students’ demand for infotainment need not be satisfied, but so too one should not dismiss the reality that such demand is a creation of cultural forces not easily ignored. Similarly, Jen’s technological acumen is not unique, nor is her professor’s lack of it. That divide is only likely to grow. Even as universities attempt to prepare faculty with info-tech workshops and seminars, today’s teenager is going to be more proficient at web design, for example, than your typical 50-something year-old English or sociology professor.
Years ago, I would find an article – in hard copy or on microfiche. If the abstract looked relevant, I would print out the article and read it. Now the digital version of that article is available with the touch of a few clicks. Which article abstracts does one read? How does one choose? The plethora of data is overwhelming for me; it must be daunting for someone without years of experience filtering and culling information.
We need to devote some time to rethink how we – faculty and students alike – read, write, study, research, and more generally, learn. As a relatively new dean, I have asked faculty to rethink their classes, not by tweaking a syllabus by adding or removing a book, but by thinking about today’s and tomorrow’s students. While this process has just commenced, I find that, generally, faculty are eager to accept the challenge. They too realize that today’s students are showing different learning skills than but a few years ago. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they are comfortable with facts – dates, times, and places – but less secure questioning ambiguous or conflicting ideas. Perhaps this is nothing new. After all, contextual analysis is a tricky and sometimes exhausting enterprise.
We have to develop those skills by adapting our own pedagogy and modifying our formal training. Many of us still love the book – the smell, the spine, and the ability to write in the margins. But we need not be intellectual dinosaurs. Perhaps there is something to be said about digital textbooks, replete with high-pixel digital images, highlighting and note-taking capabilities, podcasts and moving cameras. (The new digital art history books are mesmerizing.)
How do we develop those skills? The responsibility, I would suggest first lies with provosts, deans and chairs. Instead of wasting valuable time on weekly meetings about the status quo, we should be listening carefully to college-bound high school students. Our faculty should be present too, perhaps sitting in the background taking copious notes (either on a memo pad or an iPad). Provosts should make technology in the classroom the theme of their faculty retreats, perhaps for the next year or two, if only because technological advancements find the marketplace faster than the glacially slow academic calendar.
We then should be holding a series of summits with our information technology departments, not as we always do to discuss next year’s budget, but to imagine together what the next five or ten years of classroom instruction will look like, and to develop specific strategies for implementing that vision. Perhaps it will require a million dollars. Perhaps, indeed. If so, then it is time for us deans to raise funds, or for us quickly to develop strategic partners with computer companies.
There are no more Luddites in the university. I should know. I learned how to do chi-squares calculations by hand, and I still believe such a method teaches students how to understand the relationship between two variables. I still have a file cabinet full of journal articles. My fondness for books and bookstores has not dissipated, nor has my passion for reading the hard copy of the newspaper.
Critics may misinterpret this call for action as a desire to teach to the whims of technology. Quite the contrary. Even the able scholar with a fountain pen now uses a laptop and a flash drive. Information abounds – good, bad, true and false. It can be retrieved and stored in ways inconceivable but two years ago. Teaching Jen to discern what is crud and what is critically valuable – in a way that both inspirational and imaginative – is no easy task. Her voracious intellectual appetite must be met with creative energy we have not yet tapped.
Robert M. Eisinger
Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
The entire nation is reeling with the devastating events in Tucson and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. While we do not yet know the full details of this tragedy, nor do we understand the true motivation that led to the killings, authorities indicate she was the clear target. We all struggle to understand how anyone could do something so heinous.
Scripps College, a small, women’s liberal arts college is Gabrielle Giffords’ alma mater. So we are particularly heartbroken by the tragic events and are rallying around Gabrielle and her family. As we hold her in our hearts, we are unified in our voice that Gabrielle embodies the values of Scripps College and a liberal arts education, and thus represents the best the nation has to offer.
Gabrielle is a role model, not just for our students, but for all women and for all Americans. She did not shy away from her calling to be a leader. With grace and determination, she has become an outstanding and courageous public servant. Gabrielle Giffords’s career shows that she is fiercely independent — framing her positions on issues thoughtfully and humanely, and, in the words of our founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, "with confidence, courage and hope."
Listen to her own words. In her 2009 commencement address at Scripps, Congresswoman Giffords told our students: “The safety of the world depends on your saying ‘no’ to inhumane ideas. Standing up for one’s own integrity makes you no friends. It is costly. Yet defiance of the mob, in the service of that which is right, is one of the highest expressions of courage I know.” Prescient words.
Public service, in all forms, is courageous. Respectful disagreement — the ability to hear another’s viewpoint despite your own, without hate and distortion — has been lost in the current political climate. Gabrielle Giffords believes in her calling to enact change through the political process in an open, honest, and authentic manner, without harsh criticism or inflammatory rhetoric.
Gabrielle deeply appreciated her liberal arts education: the exposure to different ideas, different ways of thinking. In her words: "What Scripps forced you to grapple with was a peeling back of the human onion in order to discover the supreme value of the soul and how crucial it is to maintain personal integrity and honesty." She believes in free exchange of ideas, understanding difference, and taking a stand based on rational and critical reasoning. As Martha Kantor said to the Annapolis Group in 2010, "A liberal arts education teaches us [that] empathy is hard-learned, but demagoguery is easy."
What can we take away from this tragedy? We have a responsibility to the victims and their families to learn from this event. A senseless act must be turned into an opportunity for this country to unify, to learn from Gabrielle Giffords about the power of constructive and collaborative dialogue. To embrace human dignity, to resist the temptation to point fingers and blame, but to change the discourse for the betterment of our future. We are, after all, a democracy — a democracy that requires an empathetic and knowledgeable citizenship and respects the right to disagree.
Lori Bettison-Varga is president of Scripps College.
Suppose you are an ambitious, gifted college student with a passion for your major and the potential to become a world-class college teacher. You are precisely the person parents and taxpayers want to be teaching tomorrow’s students. Furthermore, private and public spending per college student has grown faster than median household incomes for the past three decades, suggesting that people are willing to pay more for your services. You want this career, parents/taxpayers want you to have this career, and they are willing to pay for it; what wonderful prospects!
During your undergraduate studies you were introduced to several luminaries in your field who receive considerable attention from the news media and are often on the lecture circuit. They are well-known for their six-figure salaries and commanding positions in your discipline. So far, it’s all good. Except …
Unfortunately, the luminosity of the luminaries has nothing to do with their teaching prowess; it is entirely due to their scholarship. There is a thriving market for senior scholars in higher education -- a market that brings plenty of release time from teaching, along with high salaries and fame.
There is no corresponding market for world-class teachers. No one in higher education becomes famous or well-compensated for exceptional teaching. How could this happen, since the students, parents, and taxpayers (those who pay the bills) have only a passing interest in research, but an abiding and personal stake in high-quality teaching?
Before we address that question, it is important to note there are many social benefits to be derived from an efficient market for senior scholars; the existence of that market is not the problem. Only spite and envy would ban the market for scholars as some ill-conceived “fix” for the imbalance between teaching and research. The correct response is to learn why we have a market for scholars and no market for teachers.
The critical reason why one market exists and the other does not is the information available to potential employers. Potential employers of professors have sufficient information to judge scholarly productivity, but virtually no information that would allow them to judge teaching productivity.
Institutions seeking to hire exceptional scholars can identify productive scholars at other institutions. The information they need is provided by outside sources that are independent of the scholar’s home institution, the scholar in question, and the potential employer. That information comes from the journals where the scholar publishes, books they’ve written, citations by other scholars, and their reputation among other scholars in the field.
None of this information exists for gifted teachers, and as a consequence, a potential employer seeking gifted teachers cannot identify those candidates. This creates a real problem for the potential employer. The teacher’s home institution may know who is an exceptional teacher and who is not, but too many institutions don’t even bother to find out.
If the potential employer makes an offer to a candidate and that candidate is in fact a gifted teacher, the home institution will make a counter offer. If the candidate is in fact a poor or average teacher, the home institution will not make a counter offer and the potential employer is likely to hire a poor or average teacher. This leads to what economists call “adverse selection” for job offers to potential teachers. Since the prospective employer knows it is likely to hire a poor or average teacher rather than an exceptional teacher, it does not make offers designed to attract exceptional teachers, and the market for exceptional teachers does not exist. Clearly, this problem is made worse by tenure, since tenure greatly increases the cost of making a bad hiring decision. In short, the “market for superior teaching” has unraveled due to insufficient information about teaching quality.
What does this mean for our prospective college teacher? First, he or she will not be able to find a Ph.D. program that specializes in preparing world-class college teachers; all the Ph.D. programs try to produce scholars, even when their own faculty members are not good enough to adequately train a new scholar. Most of these second- and third-tier Ph.D. programs could succeed in training teachers, but they do not because all the rewards in the faculty tenure and promotion process go to scholarship.
Second, the lack of a market for teaching creates a real dilemma for a new Ph.D. starting an academic career. If he starts his career on the teaching track, his future employment opportunities are limited to the teaching track since it is the information attached to research output that enables outside job offers and he will not have time to do research. Further, if he gets tenure through teaching, he will never be able to move to another comparable institution with tenure; the tenured teacher is stuck at his home institution and his employer knows he is stuck. On the other hand, if he starts on the research track, there is a chance he can move up the quality rankings, gaining more salary and fame if he succeeds as a researcher.
Now, suppose we have two fully informed young people: one aspires to be a world-class scholar and the other aspires to be a world-class teacher. They are about to make their career choices. The fully informed potential scholar chooses an academic career and the fully informed potential teacher decides to apply her talents to some other career. The few talented potential teachers who choose college teaching careers are those who derive significant personal satisfaction from teaching (despite the lack of public acclaim or financial rewards) or are very risk-averse (they crave the economic security provided by a tenured position).
What does this mean for college prices and quality? Since there are few rewards for teaching, faculty members focus too much on scholarship. Rather aspiring to be well-balanced teacher/scholars, faculty members become slaves to scholarship. We have a similar result for institutions. “Mission creep” among colleges and universities is partially due to the imbalance in the rewards for teaching and research. Colleges and universities try to become research institutions, rather than world-class undergraduate teaching institutions. As great teachers are discouraged from becoming professors, and as professors are discouraged from focusing on teaching, undergraduate teaching quality declines steadily over time.
Some may argue that an active research agenda improves teaching quality, but the evidence proves otherwise. A meta-analysis of the studies looking at the relationship between research and teaching by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh finds that they are completely unrelated. Nor is it hard to imagine why -- more research means less time for teaching.
Why has this obvious imbalance existed for so long? First, the average faculty member has nothing to gain from correcting the problem. This is obvious if the average faculty member is a scholar, but, it is also true if the average faculty member is a teacher, as the average teacher is by definition not a world-class teacher (out of the entire population of potential teachers, the current system weeds out a disproportionate share of good teachers and encourages the rest to focus on research, meaning that the current crop consists of below-average teachers).
Further, teaching institutions have little incentive to correct the problem. If they compete for students by publicly promoting their exceptional teachers, they run the risk of having those teachers hired by another institution, and they strengthen the teacher’s negotiating position with respect to the institution. In other words, recognizing the exceptional teachers increases their mobility and raises the probability they will be hired by others. Even among teaching institutions, colleges do not invest in the personal reputations of individual teachers; they always tout the high-quality teaching of their faculty as a group (everyone is above average). While there are a plethora of campus teaching awards and recognitions, they count for little outside their home institutions. Prospective employers know that most institutions do not make a serious attempt to measure individual value added and that leads teaching awards to be more political than they should be.
Even if the home institution sincerely wants to compete on the basis of high-value-added teaching, it has no way of changing the environment it operates in. If it is the only institution to identify and promote their exceptional teachers, those teachers can be lured away by other institutions, and the rest of the faculty will resent the recognition given to exceptional teachers (current teaching awards do not lead to this behavior because no one knows what a teaching award at different institution signifies).
What Can Be Done?
The “holy grail” of higher education reform should be the creation of a market for exceptional college teachers. The vigorous market for scholars provides the keys to this project. First, the information required does not have to be perfect in order for the market to be efficient (the information about scholars is not perfect). Second, the source of this information should be independent of the individual teachers, their home institutions, and their potential employers. There is great hope that the Web will be the requisite outside platform. Intercollegiate teaching tournaments are another possibility, as are digital course offerings.
The key requirement is a mechanism for excellent teachers to establish their reputations independently of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. Once that happens, teachers will no longer be filtered out of the pool of professors, as they are now. As a result, great teachers will enter the profession in greater numbers, and existing professors will have incentives to improve their teaching as well.
Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd., forthcoming). Andrew Gillen is the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
In travels around the country, I’ve been seeing signs of a trend in higher education that could have profound implications: a growing interest in learning about learning. At colleges and universities that are solidly grounded in a commitment to teaching, groups of creative faculty are mobilizing around learning as a collective, and intriguing, intellectual inquiry.
This trend embraces the advances being made in the cognitive sciences and the study of consciousness. It resides in the fast-moving world of changing information technology and social media. It recognizes and builds upon new pedagogies and evolving theories of multiple ways of knowing and learning. It encompasses but transcends the evolution of new and better measures of student learning outcomes.
As more and more institutions sign on to administer the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, some see the resulting data as sufficient to close the books on the question of student learning, while others see them as no more than a rudimentary beginning. The advent of new instruments reflects in part the desire to unseat the commercial rating systems that wield enormous influence despite their well-known shortcomings and distortions. The new measurement regimes are responding, as well, to demands from accrediting and regulatory agencies for convincing data on "value-added educational outcomes." But educators know that assessing what students have learned is far less valuable than finding out how they learn.
Uri Treisman’s landmark study at Berkeley a quarter century ago validated this proposition. He compared how students of African and Chinese descent learned calculus, used the findings to export successful strategies from one group to the other, and evaluated the results. Richard Light’s studies at Harvard carry on the Treisman tradition.
Efforts to identify fruitful points of intervention in the classroom and in co-curricular offerings are picking up steam, importing into the councils of higher education -- and strengthening -- a line of educational research that had been largely overlooked by faculty and administrators whose disciplinary allegiances were with the liberal arts and sciences, not the study of pedagogical practice. A number of foundations, notably Teagle, Spencer, and Mellon, are funding empirical studies that are uniting these worlds. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been a leading voice in this conversation for many years as, more recently, has the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Faculty at Indiana University have since 1998 been fostering interdisciplinary communities for innovative course-focused research to improve undergraduate learning, and exporting the work through conferences of a growing International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Georgetown’s Center for New Design in Learning and Scholarship is hosting cutting-edge events to feed faculty interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning. John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox, has been exploring the edges of this new field, drawing, for example, on Polanyi’s distinction between "learning about" and "learning to be," activities that take place in iterative cycles ("I get stuck; I need to know more"). "Learning about" involves explicit knowledge, "learning to be" is more tacit: sensing an interesting question, feeling the rightness of an elegant solution. Now we can enable with ease the "socially-constructed understanding" that fuels the cycles of being stuck and learning more through "interactions with others and the world" in this new digital age, he observes.
"Something is in the air," adds Michael Wesch in a YouTube video that has been watched by over three million viewers. He’s standing in an old-fashioned auditorium at Kansas State University and the "something" that all teachers have no choice now but to reckon with is all of human knowledge instantly available to all students through their wi-fi connections. The pioneers on this new frontier are pursuing novel learning technologies that can be harnessed in the service of greater intellectual connection between students and faculty, enhanced student learning, less drudgery, more creativity, more freedom and more joy for students and faculty alike. Clay Christensen warns that if we fail at this task, "disruptive technologies" will do it for us, and eat our lunch.
Where might this lead? If groups of faculty were to think deeply and systematically over a number of years about student learning and student success, they could create for their own institutions and the wider field a more robust evidence-based culture of learning, a “science of improvement,” as groups of medical leaders are advancing for their profession.
An effort like this at one institution would require the gradual creation of highly-intentional learning (not teaching) cultures with explicit cycles of improvement in place throughout the college or university, starting with academic departments and working up from there. The results would be widely discussed by everyone: faculty, students, staff, trustees. Over time, and without much fanfare, they would influence hiring decisions and criteria for promotion and other rewards. Resources would be re-allocated to activities that were demonstrably advancing student learning in the context (not in lieu) of serious disciplinary scholarship.
This work would necessarily be multidisciplinary, iterative, and methodologically inventive and yet tight. It would come over time to define an inquisitive and ambitious learning community. The findings would not be available for use as a punitive club to force accountability to the state or federal government or to other external groups. Pressure for accountability must not be allowed to confound and corrupt the assessment and continuous improvement of learning outcomes.
I know that this essay is loaded with fighting words. But I believe we need, and are now beginning to see, ways to reframe the problem of learning outcomes, ways that might galvanize positive energy and support within a faculty. Imagine “the administration” saying to faculty, in effect: We want you to be learning all you can about who your students are now, how they learn and what they need to know in order to be successful in a world that is changing faster than we can imagine much less anticipate. And we want you to have the resources and collegial connections you will need to make the pursuit of that question an exciting and fruitful complement to your scholarship. From learning science there are stunning advances that need translation before they can be brought successfully into classrooms, findings and possibilities that at least some faculty might find inherently fascinating if they were approached right, offered a supportive culture with meaningful incentives and rewards and scholarly payoffs.
More than a decade ago, at Wellesley, I watched a group of faculty from several liberal arts colleges, with Trinity in the lead, take up the issue of how to close the academic achievement gap, an issue brought to attention by Bill Bowen and Derek Bok in The Shape of the River and one about which faculty cared deeply, an institutional failure they felt keenly as their responsibility. They found allies in their own and other institutions and created an organization (Consortium on High Achievement and Success), a collaborative learning group that invented an emergent process, adjusting as they went. They assembled data; consulted experts they could respect; found local champions in their own institutions and raised up their work; sought out promising strategies in other institutions; listened to their students’ accounts of challenges they were facing and developed student partnerships to address those issues. They pooled knowledge, shared data, assembled resources, designed honest conversations and entered them with inquiring minds. The element that was missing then was systematic research: testing pilot initiatives and developing intervention studies. Without solid research it’s impossible to know what really works. The learning initiative I have in mind would need to build this in from the start. But, first and foremost, it would have to be rooted, as was CHAS, in the belief among a group of faculty that their students could be better served.
I’m convinced that some faculty could become absorbed in a sophisticated intellectual collaboration to learn about learning. Throughout higher education, we fret about unsound expenditures we know are driven by crude rating systems and the fierce competitive dynamic they fuel. We are not going to eliminate competition between institutions of higher learning, even if we wanted to, which we probably don’t. But could we conceivably change the terms of the competition, put learning rather than amenities at the center of the arms race, spend less on making students more and more comfortable at college and more on making them more and more curious?
Now there’s a question worth asking.
Diana Chapman Walsh
Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.
At the end of each semester, as I read the last papers and enter the final grades, I wonder: how much of this will students actually remember a year from now — or a week from now? They ought to remember something. In a typical semester we will have spent some 40 hours together. Something must stick. But what is it? Material from the course? Skills they’ve mastered? The time a kid in the back row had his desk collapse right before a test?
A year ago I decided to try to find out. On each of the final exams I have given over the past three semesters I included the following question, worth one point of extra credit: "What one thing from the course did you find most memorable? Explain why."
I received 359 responses altogether from the nine courses I taught, courses that included everything from Western Civ. and European History to the U.S. History Survey, the American Revolution, and the Age of Jackson. While some of the results were predictable, others were surprising, instructive, and, ultimately, encouraging.
Students named something visual as most memorable more often than anything else. Twenty-nine percent cited a specific video or picture. Another 8 percent mentioned material that we covered only or primarily through a documentary. Thus, for more than a third of the students, the class will be associated with an image.
I expected videos and pictures to be popular, and I use a lot of them in my teaching. I showed documentaries such as The Last Stand of the 300, about the Spartans; Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency; and The Nazi Officer’s Wife, about a young Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust in a very unconventional way. I also showed clips from TV shows and movies ranging from Johnny Tremain and HBO’s John Adams to Mad Men and Gladiator to examine how the past has been remembered.
I did worry, though, about the courses lapsing into mere edu-tainment, with the visual elements amusing the audience of students while providing little intellectual substance. My survey results confirm that entertainment explains much of the popularity of the videos and pictures I showed. At the same time, reading between the lines of my students’ responses suggests that they also learned something important. Many of the Western Civ. students who cited The Last Stand of the 300 were struck by how different the Spartans' values were. The brutal training regimen of Spartan boys, in which they were taken from their families at age seven, attracted particular interest. One student wrote, "I couldn’t imagine my son gone not knowing if he would even survive the training [let alone] become a soldier."
Spartan women wouldn’t have wanted the sympathy. It was Spartan mothers, after all, who said to their sons, "Come back with your shield or on it." Several students remarked on the surprising toughness of these women. One student recalled the "Spartan people, especially the women and how they treated their sons and how the happiest moment for them would be when their sons were going into battle." Spartan mothers were not like the students’ moms today. Dropping off their kids at college, no one shouts, "Come back with your diploma or on it" from the family minivan. It's a basic point of history that the past is a foreign country. Students got that message from the documentary. For a survey class full of students who don’t really want to be taking the course, that's a vital point for them to understand.
A surprising number of students did not choose something visual. Some students even said that a book — a book! — was what they remembered most. Twenty-three students, upper-level majors as well as survey students, designated a book as what they best recalled. Seven students in my 20th-Century Europe class named Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, about a group of German police conscripts who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, as the most memorable part of the course. Ordinary Men is an extraordinary book, chilling, challenging, and compelling. It's gratifying to see that students responded to it.
As for topics, responses were diverse. In Western Civ. the Spartans were the champs, followed by gladiators and knights. Interestingly, religion was also popular, with 19 students picking a religious topic (one even said Zoroastrianism). In 20th-Century Europe, World War II and the Holocaust were far and away the most popular responses, and rightly so. In my U.S. history classes, Andrew Jackson was the winner. In particular, students were awestruck by his personality. "The guy was crazy but still led our country. I don’t know how he did it but it happened," a typical response read. I suppose I’ll be known as the guy who told wild stories about Jackson.
At the same time, a satisfying number of students mentioned the experience of slaves and how slavery changed over time as what they recalled best. This was a major course theme, with multiple classes devoted to it. Maybe, just maybe, some students will retain the difference between a society with slaves and a slave society.
About 17 percent of students brought up my teaching style, the classroom atmosphere, or some non-lecture activity as what they recollected best. They seemed to have liked me personally, which is always nice to hear. They enjoyed the discussions and debates we had in class. When I was adjuncting in Buffalo, New York, two classes took field trips: one to a local French and Indian War-era fort and another to an on-campus art museum for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad. Students appreciated the hands-on experience and seeing a piece of local history.
Several students wrote about the friendships they had made during the class. "I think the most memorable time I’ve had in this course is just getting to know everyone," wrote one student. Another offered that the class was memorable "for social reasons, the people that I met in the class. It was by far one of the more sociable classes that I’ve been a part of since community college." One student had a slightly different social priority. What did he remember most? "The three girls in the fourth row. Good eye candy." Well, at least he had some reason to come to class!
I would rather they had improved their writing skills, but if part of the reason for attending college is to have the "college experience," then, I suppose, mission accomplished.
Over all, I have taken three things away from my survey experiment. First, visuals work. As the education theorists point out, some people are visual learners and need some kind of image to make information stick in their minds. But visuals do more than help students retain information for the midterm. Some documentaries today are of such high quality, in both production values and scholarship, that they convey important concepts as well. Even popular movies and TV shows, whose quality may be doubtful, are vital in helping students understand how to be critical about the kinds of information they receive every day.
Second, variety makes for memorable experiences. Even as I was flattered by their praise I was struck by how often students named something I didn’t do: the discussions, the field trips, the visuals, their relationships with each other. Many classes are structured with the professor as the center of attention. Stepping out of the spotlight can be a good thing.
Third, students want to learn. Not all of them, of course, and especially not in surveys where student interest is low and disengagement high. It’s easy to become discouraged looking at blank stares and hearing the tap-tap-tap of fast-texting fingers. At the same time, there are interested minds out there — even in large surveys held in cavernous lecture halls. If you are feeling jaded, focus on those students.
The real test of what students remember will come later on. Did they acquire skills that will help them in their careers? Will they find their lives enriched by learning about the past? Thirty years from now, when those 19-year-olds from Western Civ. are attending their own children’s graduations, I hope they can say yes. And if they can remember some video, some book, some discussion — and recall why it mattered — then I’ll be very happy indeed.
David Head is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida.
From the moment the guard at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center escorted my students and me into the multi-purpose room, where a group of incarcerated adolescents, aged 16-20, in maroon jumpsuits awaited us, we knew that this was not going to be Russian literature class as usual.
To begin with, I wasn’t doing the teaching. My students were.
And by teaching I don’t mean guiding these residents through brilliant analyses of narrative strategies in Dostoevsky, or how mimetic desire works in Tolstoy. No, students in this academic community engagement course, “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership,” piloted in 2009, have a different task: to promote authentic conversation about major life questions raised by short classics of Russian literature: What makes for a “successful” life? How I can be true to myself? What is my responsibility to others? Given that I will die, how should I live?
These are the sorts of questions, of course, that many academic humanists these days consider to be too personal, quaint, or irrelevant to take seriously in their classrooms, let alone their scholarship. Over 20 years ago, in 1988, a National Endowment for the Humanities report was already sounding an alarm that the humanities were veering away from pursuing questions of human purpose and meaning in favor of mind-numbing abstraction and captious analytical exercises.
More recently, Martha Nussbaum, Anthony Kronman, and Mark Edmundson, among others, have voiced eloquent fresh concern about this continuing trend. Still, relatively few scholars have developed concrete methods for addressing this ongoing problem in the classroom itself. My colleagues and I believe that “Books Behind Bars” offers one successful model for doing just that.
In this course pairs of University of Virginia students lead weekly discussions with small groups of residents at either a juvenile treatment or a correctional center. Before each meeting, students write in their journals about which characters and topics they think will resonate with the adolescents. Afterward, they discuss how their interactions with the residents affected their earlier ideas, not only about literature, but about juvenile offenders, about themselves, and about what it means to read and study literature in a community context. At the end of the semester they write a reflective essay describing their intellectual, creative, and emotional journey throughout the course.
"For once, I was actually able to take literature and apply it to a situation," wrote one student, an English major, in her final essay. "I had almost forgotten that was possible." Another reflected: "I do think literature can change people and that words hold a tremendous, awe-inspiring power. Perhaps this is the most serious and intense transformation I’ve experienced in this class." In anonymous end of semester evaluations students described the course as "powerful," "transformative," "eye-opening," "humbling" and "profound."
The “Books Behind Bars” course appears to be having an equally strong impact on the residents, as well. When one resident found out that she was reading the same books college students study in their classes, her face lit up with pride. When asked to describe the most important life lesson they learned from Russian literature, participants at Jefferson Trail Treatment Center for Children said things like “Love life,” “Be a good person,” and “Never give up on your dreams.” After the semester was over three musically talented residents voluntarily got together to work on a rock rendition of their favorite Russian short stories.
Encouraged by the success of the pilot, a team of faculty from three different schools at UVa is now assessing the impact of "Books Behind Bars" more closely. This study is being conducted through Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. One hypothesis is that UVa students grow in this class because they are asked to move outside of their intellectual and personal comfort zones.
Smart English majors familiar with the latest critical lingo quickly discover that incarcerated adolescents are not so interested in Derrida’s theories about identity, meaning, and power. These are youth, after all, with long histories of economic disadvantage, social delinquency, mental illness, and dysfunctional or nonexistent families, and they live in a secure facility. In such an environment discussions about freedom and moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and social alienation, become very concrete very quickly.
To bring alive the themes of Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, “Homeland,” for instance, a pair of students gave residents cardboard paper, pencils, and markers, and asked them to create their personal vision of “home.” While some residents created pictures of calm lakes and soaring birds, one 16-year old represented her home as a large black space with a tiny white opening in the middle. My students were astonished to learn that she had lost both parents by the age of 8 and spent most of her teens in juvenile treatment centers, and that a concept as familiar to them as "home" could have such different associations for an adolescent growing up in extreme circumstances.
This is just the sort of discovery, in turn, that deepens students’ understanding of the literature itself. Russian writers, who knew firsthand what it means to lose one’s freedom, to be an outsider, to search for an ideal in a broken world, become strikingly relevant.
And relevance is what college students find missing today from too many of their literature classes. What Hannah, an English major at UVa who took the pilot run of "Books Behind Bars," writes below reinforces my own belief that academic community engagement might be a solution to the current crisis in the humanities. Her thoughts also reflect a hunger I see among many students for a humanities education that promises more than the rarefied parsing (or pummeling) of texts by a small cadre of trained specialists.
For Hannah and other students of "Books Behind Bars" the humanities become about actual human beings — university students, incarcerated youth, great writers, and their characters, confronting life’s biggest questions and exploring their common humanity across a great social, economic, and cultural divide.
A Student’s View – Hannah Ehrlinspiel
Throughout my four years at UVa, I’ve noticed that most of my fellow students even slightly interested in reading usually fall into one of two camps: those who believe literature has the power to change your life, and those who, well, don’t. When I first signed up for "Books Behind Bars," I considered myself a member of the former group — but just barely. That is, I thought literature might have the power to change my life, but I wasn’t so sure about everybody else’s.
What’s more, I was a little skeptical of a class that purported to structure itself on a peer-peer model of teaching. The typical teacher-student paradigm was just something I’d grown accustomed to in the world of undergraduate literary studies, and it was the one I assumed I’d put into practice when interacting with the residents.
But not only did the residents in "Books Behind Bars" turn out to be my equals in picking out moments of personal relevance in the texts, they also taught me an invaluable lesson: that the questions raised by great literature are actually the most important questions raised by life itself. Surprisingly, I had never really gotten that from my other classes.
One of the first things that struck me was that the word "discussion" was not a mere code word for "impress the teacher with my incredible wit." The main difference in this class is that we weren’t speaking for ourselves only. We were helping others to speak for themselves — others who truly depended on us and the work we were doing. If I didn’t prepare adequately for class, I would not only let myself and my classmates down. I would also betray the trust and rapport I was hoping to build with the residents.
And rapport was critical. During our introductions, I observed that the two adolescents (John and Claire) my partner and I were working with would only really answer anything (even such banalities as, "Oh, what kind of dog do you have?") if I, too, shared something personal and anecdotal. This democratization of introductions forced me to deconstruct the teacher-student binary I’d built in my head.
I saw that I wouldn’t be allowed any insight into their thoughts if I didn’t make myself vulnerable, as well, which was difficult for me at first because real, personal relevance and human connection had often been discouraged in my other classes. Yet without that authenticity discussions would have gone nowhere.
They almost did go nowhere when I started off thinking I’d ask them for their thoughts on "the structural anachronism of narrative collapse" in Nikolai Gogol’s "The Overcoat." However, such a question would have been utterly ludicrous and totally ineffective. I had to learn to ask questions not just that sounded smart, but ones that really mattered to these kids — and to me: "Do you feel worse for Ivan or Akaky? Did one deserve to die more than the other?" As simple as these questions appeared, they were, surprisingly, the most difficult to answer, and the very ones that generated the most discussion with the residents.
I learned something important about the residents, too. Surrounded by such sensational images as those seen on "Law & Order" and "Maury," it seems that people often dismiss youth in treatment and correctional centers as mere "types." Far from a bunch of rag-tag ruffians and bloodthirsty cutthroats, however, these adolescents were highly feeling, emotive, complex, and even humorous. Above all, they had a huge capacity for sympathy — and it surfaced in their interactions with the texts.
During the discussion of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” John was put into the position of Ivan’s son and asked to describe his father in one word. “Kindhearted,” he said. “If I had to describe my dad in one word, it would be kindhearted.” In previous discussions it had come out that John’s father had been abusive towards him, so I was anticipating some real vehemence directed toward Ivan (who more or less completely ignores his son throughout the entire story).
John’s reaction floored me. How was this boy, abused by his father and condemned to institutionalization for a large part of his life, able to judge another with such purity of intention, with such sympathy? I realized in that moment that incarceration may be a term to describe the residents’ concrete daily lives, but amazingly, they also possess a moral imagination which allows them to rise above their circumstances and bestow upon others far more charitable and nuanced judgments than they themselves have received.
For years I had always been taught that literature was something you had to stab at, to pick through until it gave up its most complex secrets. "Books Behind Bars," however, taught me to appreciate simplicity, to yield to the most basic stirrings of emotion caused by a genuine smile or by a beautiful simile. As a result, I got much closer to the texts than ever before, and became genuinely interested in what each work really means.
But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is that if you touch one life anywhere, you’ve touched lives everywhere. And isn’t that what reading literature is all about?
Andrew D. Kaufman and Hannah Ehrlinspiel
Andrew D. Kaufman is lecturer and Academic Community Engagement Faculty Fellow in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and research affiliate in Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at the University of Virginia. Hannah Ehrlinspiel is an English major, Class of 2011, at the University of Virginia.
I've taught high-school and college writing for nearly 15 years now. And I've directed a university writing program for three. In that time, I’ve found countless risible examples of student writing. I try not to share these. But temptation occasionally gets the better of me.
Here's a gem from this past semester. A student in a required first-year course recently sought to explain what he had learned. (I require such a written explanation at the end of the semester.) He wanted to show that he grasped something about "presentation," a category including grammatical correctness and stylistic felicity. So he wrote: "My improvement in presentation has improves also, I’ve gone from writing long and confusing sentences, to writing more clear and readable ones."
This is like hearing a cologne-soaked man intone: "We should talk more about how I’ve stopped philandering, perhaps over a drink at my apartment." Nevertheless, I’d like for you to consider something. Something that I had to remember myself. Writing is different from casual romance in a very important regard: the writer gets to revise. And the revision erases the first performance altogether. Would that all were so.
Perhaps, in some teaching practicum or graduate seminar, you were exposed to the glory of composition pedagogy, so you know the glittering magic of process and the transformative luster of revision. Those of us in rhetoric and writing delight in such terms, so we readily forget that others aren’t so dazzled by their appearance. Allow me to illuminate.
The student mentioned above did write a poor sentence at an inopportune time. But I won't say that he learned nothing of grammar and style. Over the course of this semester, I watched as he wrote and revised several papers. The first drafts typically featured many sentences like the above. But subsequent drafts improved. As the class practiced editing techniques, as they learned a few choice grammar rules, I noticed that his ability to improve … well, improved. He got better at sentence-level revision. He learned to write concisely, clearly, and appropriately. Just not in the first draft.
By the way, the ability to revise for correctness and felicity improves all writing. It improves my writing. The second-to-last sentence in the paragraph above started out like this: "He really did learn to write clearer, more concise, and more readable prose." Then it became, "He did learn to write more clearly, more concisely, and more readably." Somewhere during the third iteration, I settled on a form but misspelled "learned”: "leared."
Even the writing teacher needs a chance to rewrite.
Since my students submit their materials in electronic portfolios, I can revisit various stages of their work. I can see evidence to support this student’s claim. His ultimately elegant expressions evolved from hideous, writhing syntactic monsters. Unfortunately, he did not have an opportunity to reconsider the sentence quoted above. While professing his ability to revise for style and grammar, he could not revise for style and grammar.
And so, this end-of-the semester self-evaluation that I require of my students is a cruel little puzzle with no satisfactory solution. This is like evaluating a professional dancer’s merit based on an impromptu oration that describes his most recent and successful performance. Or evaluating an orator based on an interpretive dance version of her best speech. Perhaps the impropriety under investigation is not stylistic but pedagogical, not my student's but mine.
It's easy to chuckle at a single sentence, easy to focus on what's written and to overlook the writing. Good writing instruction, as you may have heard, requires attention to process and opportunity to revise. Or so a diligent, though not initially eloquent, student reminds me.
Mark Longaker is associate chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is grateful for his student’s patience and permission to reprint the quote in this article.
Last fall I confessed to readers of Inside Higher Ed that, although I’d never previously taught freshmen, I’d signed up to offer a First Year Seminar (FYS) at the University of Richmond, where I serve as provost. Now that the academic year is over and I’ve finished my foray into freshman seminar teaching, I offer a few reflections.
I drew on my previous academic career teaching law and graduate students at another university and decided to offer an FYS entitled "Working: An Examination of the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of the Nine to Five World." My first concern was if any students would sign up for the class. To my delight, all 16 slots filled up on the first day of registration. Then I wondered if that quick response was a consequence of the inherently attractive course topic and title, or was it that the class was scheduled from 3–4:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when even the sleepiest of freshmen would be up and ready to go to class?
As it turned out, the students were indeed interested in the topic of working. We began the first class with a discussion of the jobs they had held in high school, which represented a surprising range of positions: lifeguard, hospital emergency room aide, fashion model, babysitter, salesperson (lots of salespeople!), camp counselor, and waitress. We spent our first week exploring the legal foundations of the employment relationship and the harsh realities of the employment at will rule, and then we launched into the semester’s readings and topics.
We read five books, a half-dozen articles, three U.S. Supreme Courts cases, and a case study, all tied to the American workplace. I’m pleased to report that the students did the reading. They came to class prepared and ready to discuss what they had read. Even more satisfying, they sent me newspaper articles that related to the topics we’d discussed in class. For example, when I assigned the seminal 1968 Supreme Court decision Pickering v. Board of Education, which established the free speech right of public employees, one of my students e-mailed me a clipping from her hometown newspaper describing a local teacher who had been fired for blogging about her school principal. Needless to say, class discussion that day was enriched by the comparison of the two circumstances, occurring 43 years apart yet presenting the same issues of justice, fairness, and expectations of loyalty in the workplace.
The students loved Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, which they found authentic, profane, and rich with humor. They were somewhat troubled by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, not so much for the working conditions she described as for the reality that as a writer posing as a low-wage worker she could choose to leave those abysmal conditions at any time. Reading three Supreme Court opinions was a challenge, but the students persisted through the unfamiliar language of concurring opinions and marathon footnotes. Other well-received books included Gig and Nobodies, both by John Bowe.
Writing assignments varied from single-page exercises written in class to a 10-page research paper. The variation in my students’ writing ability was striking. Some wrote beautifully, regularly employing topic sentences, descriptive adjectives, effective transitions, and properly-attributed quotes, all in grammatically correct sentences. Others wrote paragraphs that rivaled Faulkner in length and complexity (but alas, not in depth). Punctuation conventions were many and varied, and sometimes mystifying (why does that semicolon appear here?). I used the old-fashioned technique of correcting papers with a red pen, often rewriting entire paragraphs to show what I was looking for. The good news is that my students’ writing improved over the semester. The not-surprising news is that my students will need to have continuous writing assignments across the curriculum throughout their college careers if they are to graduate as skilled writers.
What surprised me the most was the vast divide between the world I knew and the one my students brought to the classroom. Stated simply, our cultural references were miles apart. Granted, I’m 40 years older than they are, so I expected a certain level of generational difference; after all, I had stopped making references to bands in class many years ago when I realized no one else in the room had ever heard of the Grateful Dead.
An example: when we came across a reference in Gig to the fiery conflagration in Waco, I stopped and asked “Do any of you know what the author is talking about when he refers to Waco?” They solemnly shook their heads. “The Branch Davidians? David Koresh?” I continued. Nope. My students have no knowledge of that event, nor of Timothy McVeigh’s subsequent bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. They did remember 9/11, although they were only 8 years old when it happened.
Another time, while discussing a brief history of union organizing attempts in the South, I asked if any of them had ever seen a textile mill – or indeed a mill of any kind. Not a one answered yes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but as someone who grew up in North Carolina, where two of my aunts spent their entire working lives in the mills, I was a bit taken aback.
The killer was when one of my students was describing the plush setting at a software startup company she had visited, complete with pool tables and a Wii — and she suddenly stopped in embarrassment and asked if I knew what a Wii was. Although my head was in my hands, I assured her that I did indeed know about Wii.
What pleased me the most was the skill my students showed in making class presentations at the end of the semester. All were adroit with PowerPoint, many using embedded videos and creative graphics to underscore their main ideas. Some were nervous, and some hesitated when their classmates or I asked follow-up questions, but they did well. They were comfortable with technology and, more importantly, they were comfortable speaking before the class. Lest you think my praise is limited to their communication skills, the substance of their presentations was impressive as well; in fact, one student’s presentation on the economic effects of the Family and Medical Leave Act was as sophisticated as any presentation my former graduate students might have made.
So will I do this again? Emphatically, yes! After a nine-year absence from the classroom, I was exhilarated by the give and take of class discussion (including one lively 30-minute exchange on whether or not the profession of bookmaker should be legalized), the occasional flashes of insight in some papers, and the bond I formed with my students over the course of the semester. I have to admit that even after grading seven sets of papers, evaluating 16 presentations, and leading four months of discussions, I was sad to see the semester end. I’ll revise my syllabus, drop a couple of reading assignments and add a few others, give some more thought to the number and type of writing assignments I should require, and fearlessly face a new class of freshmen next year!
Steve Allred is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Richmond.