Essay: massive online courses not a game changing innovation

Over the past few weeks, the news media has been abuzz over two developments in higher education that some in the chattering class foretell as the beginning of the end of degree programs.

First, MIT announced that it would extend its successful OpenCourseWare initiative and offer certificates to students who complete courses. Like OpenCourseWare, which has provided free access to learning materials from 2,100 courses since 2002 (and which, with more than 100 million unique visitors, has helped launch the open education movement), MITx will allow students to access content for free. But students who wish to receive a certificate will be charged a modest fee for the requisite assessments. The kicker is that the certificate will not be issued under the name MIT.  According to the University:  “MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the institute that will offer certificate for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.”

Then, Sebastian Thrun, an adjunct professor of computer science at Stanford who invited the world to attend his fall semester artificial intelligence course and who ended up with 160,000 online students, announced he had decided to stop teaching at Stanford and direct all his teaching activities through Udacity, a start-up he co-founded that will offer online courses from leading professors to millions of students.  Udacity’s first course is on building a search engine and will teach students with no programming experience how to build their own Google in seven weeks. Thrun hopes 500,000 students will enroll. He called the experience of reaching so many students life-changing:  “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again.  I feel there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students.  But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”


Just as the Web 2.0 boom is recapitulating much of the excitement and extravagance of the dot-com boom, we get the funny sense we’ve seen this movie before.  Take a look at this excerpt from a dot-com era New York Times article with the headline “Boola Boola, E-Commerce Comes to The Quad,” which anticipates Professor Thrun’s announcement by 12 years:

"We always thought our new competition was going to be 'Microsoft University,' " the president of an elite eastern university ruefully remarked to a visitor over dinner recently. ''We were wrong. Our competition is our own faculty.''  Welcome to the ivory tower in the dot.com age, where commerce and competition have set up shop…  Distance learning sells the knowledge inside a professor's head directly to a global on-line audience.  That means that, just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students signed up by the Internet-based educational firm that marketed the course and handles the payments.  ''Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth,'' said Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School. ''They are doing things like saying, 'This technology allows someone who is used to teaching 100 students to teach a million students.' And they are running numbers and imagining, 'Gee, what if everyone paid $10 to listen to my lecture?' ''

It was a heady time, and many in higher education really believed the hype that brand-name institutions would grow to hundreds of thousands of students and that “rock star” faculty would get rich teaching millions of students online. Twelve years later, the only universities with hundreds of thousands of students are private-sector institutions whose brands were dreamed up by marketers in the past 30 years, and the only educator who has become a rock star through the Internet is in K-12, not higher education (more on him in a moment). So what happened?

The currency of higher education is degrees because degrees are the sine qua non of professional, white-collar, high-paying jobs. The difference between not having a degree and having a degree is hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings.  So what happened is that Professor Thrun’s antecedents like Arthur Miller, the Harvard Law professor, found that while they might offer courses, faculty cannot offer degrees.  And their brand-name institutions have continued to prioritize avoiding “confusion” over extending access. Even MIT, the most forward-thinking of the lot, will ensure its new offering cannot possibly be construed as an MIT degree.

The noise emanating from these recent announcements boils down to this:  when the chattering class meets Professor Thrun, it’s love at first sight.  The notion that they might take a Stanford course for free recalls their youthful days at similar elite universities. But of course, these educational romantics already have degrees. And when Udacity begins charging even modest fees for its courses, Professor Thrun may find this group resistant to paying for lifelong learning.

On the other hand, you have the much, much larger group of non-elites who need a degree. The United States, once the global leader in the number of 25-34 year-olds with college degrees, now ranks 12th, while more than half of U.S. employers have trouble filling job openings because they cannot find qualified workers. The outsized importance of the degree itself over the university granting the degree or the faculty member teaching the course is the simplest explanation for the explosion in enrollment at private-sector universities. 

As a result, the notion that certificates or “badges” might displace degrees in any meaningful timeframe is incorrect.  Even in developing economies, where there is truly a hunger for knowledge in any form and where the degree may not yet be as central to the evaluation of prospective employees, the wage premium from a bachelor’s degree is even higher: 124 percent in Mexico, 171 percent in Brazil and 200 percent in China, compared with a mere 62 percent in the U.S. Degrees are definitely not disappearing; they’re not even in decline.


There are two important respects, however, in which this movie is different. The first must be credited to the first online “rock star” educator:  Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching a Khan video, you haven’t missed much in the way of the simulations, animations and expensive special effects many dot-com pundits predicted would dominate online learning.  A Khan video is short, just a few minutes, and teaches a single concept.  It does so by showing Khan’s hand on the whiteboard while you hear his narration – an approach that is especially effective for math.  Professor Thrun’s online course builds on Khan’s innovation, and the resulting andragogy is remarkable.

With regard to the more important innovation, here’s what Professor Thrun had to say in his announcement:

We really set up our students for failure.  We don’t help students to become smart.  I started realizing that grades are the failure of the education system.  [When students don’t earn good grades, it means] educators have failed to bring students to A+ levels.  So rather than grading students, my task was to make students successful.  So it couldn’t be about harsh, difficult questions.  We changed the course so the questions were still hard, but students could attempt them multiple times.  And when they finally got them right, they would get their A+.  And it was much better.  That really made me think about the education system as a whole.  Salman Khan has this wonderful story.  When you learn to ride a bicycle, and you fail to learn to ride a bicycle, you don’t stop learning to ride the bicycle, give the person a D, and then move on to a unicycle.  You keep training them as long as it takes.  And then they can ride a bicycle.  Today, when someone fails, we don’t take time to make them a strong student.  We give them a C or a D, move them to the next class.  Then they’re branded a loser, and they’re set up for failure.  This medium has the potential to change all that.

So when Anant Agarwal, one of the leaders of the MITx effort, notes that “human productivity has gone up dramatically in the past several decades due to the Internet and computing technologies, but amazingly enough the way we do education is not very different from the way we did it a thousand years ago,” the major advance he has in mind is not rock star professors lecturing to millions, but rather that the online medium lends itself perfectly to a competency-based approach. 

The shift from “clock hours” or “seat time” to competency-based learning is just around the corner and much more fundamental to higher education than the explosion of online delivery itself. Awarding credits and degrees based on assessed competencies will significantly reduce time to completion and therefore increase completion rates and return on investment. More important, it ensures that students actually have mastered the set of competencies represented by the degree they have earned. Though not without significant challenges, this approach has the potential to revolutionize degree programs and all of higher education from within. That’s the real Wonderland adventure.  And we don’t need to take a pill to find it.

So have we seen this movie before? Turns out this one’s a sequel. But this is that very rare occasion when the sequel is much better than the original.

Ryan Craig is a partner at University Ventures Fund.

Essay: How free speech and offensive art can exist on college campuses

A fairly typical art school event: Students submit two- or three-dimensional artwork to fulfill a class assignment, or for a school- or department-wide exhibition. Perhaps less typical: At a West Coast independent art college some years back, with no advance warning, a student killed a chicken in class as his project. As one might guess, this was not a class in animal slaughtering, and the school did its best not to criminalize the student’s action (“Why make a big deal out of it?” the school’s then-president said), but some faculty members did give the student a talking-to.

Tensions over the nature of classroom content can occur in many disciplines, and professors in science, business or humanities courses get little if any training, too, in how to handle difficult situations. But the problem is arguably greatest of all in the fine arts, where a culture of epater la bourgeoisie – shock the middle-class, afflict the comfortable – has existed for 150 or so years. Art is supposed to get people to see the world in new and different ways, but what if that awakening is rude or employs violence or obscenity or blasphemy or something else that may cause offense? It may be assumed that art schools and universities are bastions of free speech and experimentation but, Lord, not in my classroom! 

Art instructors tend to plan for the typical, preparing lessons and critiques, but they sometimes get the atypical, because art students occasionally look to shock/provoke/offend/transgress. Few enough of these instructors receive any pedagogical training, and the little they do learn concerns classroom management, organizing a syllabus, how to grade students and lead discussions. This essay aims to explore the issues that can arise and to suggest ways that institutions and instructors can be better prepared for what can unfold in art classrooms.

In the thick student and faculty handbook at the Maryland Institute College of Art, for example, there are pages devoted to limiting certain types of art speech – graffiti art on public property is “vandalism,” animals must be treated “in a humane manner when used in/as art work,” no setting off fireworks, displaying or using weapons, possession or use of illegal drugs or alcohol, no exposing others to “blood, urine, feces, chemicals or other hazardous materials” – and the prohibitions were recently expanded to include the more nebulous “works that involve physical/emotional stress (potential or real) to the artist and/or audience.”

“You think you’ve covered all the bases and then someone comes up with something new,” said Ray Allen, the college’s provost. One student’s art project was to attach a commentary on sexual abuse by priests on a nearby church door, which led to another addition to the handbook, prohibiting the placement of “artwork” “on Corpus Christi Church or church property.”

The exposure to “blood, urine, feces…” section somewhat applies to the actions of the photography student who invited several men into the school so that she could take pictures of them at the moment of climax, but that prohibition covers only what Allen called the “ejaculants.” The fact that the student brought strange men onto school property was a separate matter. And, of course, where do you include a section on a student not locking himself in a box filled with snow (when he was finally pried out of the box, the student was unconscious and suffering from hypothermia)?

Walking a thin line between encouraging free artistic expression and what Ron Jones, president of the Memphis College of Art, calls “the rights of others not to be exposed to what they do not accept,” is a learned skill, and what one learns may apply only to a particular college, because each may have more or less tolerance of students with a desire to generate outrage. Artists, like so many others, are First Amendment absolutists when it comes to themselves, but in the context of a classroom or a college with a diverse student body or a publicly supported university where some state legislator may use a challenging art exhibit as the basis for a campaign to reduce governmental funding, they may question their moral footing.

At times, for example a student art project may involve, or suggest, violence, such as the performance piece staged at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2005 in which an MFA student pulled out of a bag what appeared to be a handgun, loaded it with a single bullet, spun the cylinder and aimed the pistol at his head, pulling the trigger. (The gun failed to discharge, and the student received a talking-to.) At other times, the issue is sexual content, such as the photograph of a male nude by a Savannah College of Art & Design student, which was removed by college administrators from the school’s Open Studio Exhibition in late 2010, because the image was “unacceptable” for a “family event.”

Politics in art also may make people uncomfortable, such as the pair of portraits of former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney framed with actual American flags exhibited at the student gallery by a graduate student at California’s Laguna College of Art & Design in in 2010. “A staff member took offense and complained to the president and development director, who were initially opposed to showing this work,” said Perin Mahler, chair of the college’s Master of Fine Arts program. (After a considerable amount of debate, the portraits were permitted to stay in the show.)

Religion is no easier a subject, as the Brigham Young University alumnus Jon McNaughton found when his painting “One Nation Under God,” depicting Christ holding the U.S. constitution and standing among the nation’s founding fathers, was removed from an exhibition space at the BYU bookstore in the summer of 2010. (One faculty member complained that McNaughton’s artwork should not be displayed unless an alternative liberal painting was also hung, and one of the university’s vice presidents declared himself “uncomfortable” with the presence of “One Nation Under God.”)

There are no rules of the road to help art instructors and college administrators in this realm. History professors (I hope) would know that it would be reprehensible and illegal if a student in a Revolutionary War class brought in a musket and began firing it, but art faculty seem immobilized by the term “freedom of expression.” Maintaining standards and order is not reactionary ("the critics hated the impressionists, too!") but helps students learn larger lessons of propriety.

Throughout a long career, most college studio art instructors will have students who look to test limits of taste and propriety, and some faculty will have these students sooner than others. Some tricks of the trade of teaching are learned on the job, but instructors need to have a firm idea from day one not only about how to educate and guide their students, but how to explore their ideas and materials, “but also to understand that there is a responsibility that goes along with that freedom,” said Kevin Conlon, vice president of academic affairs at the Columbus College of Art and Design. “We have a cultural value at this school that respects tolerance and diversity, and artwork that borders on hate speech requires us as faculty to help students understand the context of what they’re doing.”

He recalled one student who produced a painting that was based on photographs from pornography magazines, “which I knew was going to make many of the women in the class uncomfortable. I sat down with this student and asked him, ‘Why are you doing this? What do you think the effect of these images will be on other people?’ He really hadn’t thought much about it and had nothing to say. I told him, ‘If you can come up with a reason for what you’re doing, we can go forward.’ ”

"Going forward” is a pretty vague concept, but there are ways that potentially offensive student (or faculty or non-faculty, for that matter) artwork may be exhibited in good conscience. There is usually more than one gallery space on campuses in which pieces may be displayed, some more open to the public than others, and school hallways also may be the site of temporary exhibits. Some exhibitions have advisory signs that warn prospective visitors of challenging content, giving them the choice – and making them party to the decision – not to see something. Finally, potentially offensive artwork may be edited out for reasons of space rather than content. Censorship (if we are allowed to use that word) may take place along a continuum.

One would assume that even the most novice instructor understands that cruelty to animals or humans should not be permitted and that use of bodily fluids or hazardous products creates safety issues that need to be checked, but that’s not a given. Schools look to hire young instructors, because they are expected to form strong connections to students to whom they are closer in age than older, more experienced teachers. “Very often, younger faculty pride themselves on getting their students excited about an art project, and they lose what you would think would be common sense,” Allen said. That photography student at the Maryland Institute College of Art received approval from her young faculty adviser for both allowing the men on campus and their production of semen (that instructor was later reprimanded by the school’s administration on both counts), and the instructor of the student who locked himself in a box of snow and was eventually pulled out unconscious “didn’t have the sense to call 911,” he noted. (Another talking-to.)

What to do about an artwork that is likely to produce strong reactions in those who experience it is a toss-up, which is why schools resort to the less accessible galleries or warning signs. When in doubt, according to William Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, instructors should bring problems and situations to their department chairs in order to receive guidance and support, which may be necessary in the event that a student’s artwork becomes a matter of significant controversy. Talking-tos are O.K., but they tend to take place after the fact, whereas instructors need to be more alert to what might happen and be ready.


Student artwork that may seem in poor taste or just disgusting has often elicited solutions that are even less appetizing. Many school administrators and faculty will try to talk students out of exhibiting works that are likely to engender controversy. However, from the eyes of a 19- or 22-year-old, this meeting is unlikely to be seen as a value-free discussion; students will see it as a directive from the people who give them grades and on whom they may rely for recommendations to make some change or do something different. Faculty may be worried about their own job security, and administrators may be fearful of criticism from trustees or groups in the community or the press, and their part of the conversation is apt to show that stress.

Buffeted by the calls for almost limitless free speech and the potential black eye that negative publicity over controversial artwork may create, schools and universities tend to establish few rules about what is unacceptable, but many are also reluctant to fully support their students and faculty in the event of complaints over the content of the art. Younger faculty especially may worry about promotions and tenure if their classroom work results in controversy that requires administrators to defend artwork that strikes the public as insulting to one group or another or as offensive to common standards of good taste.

Some schools are offering “artist as citizen” courses that view the role art plays in the general society. Artists must learn to be responsible to the community and culture they live in – so goes the thinking. Again, something is very troubling about this development: Were the purpose of this type of class to broaden the student’s intellectual outlook, there would be no complaint; however, half of the curriculum for art students already consists of liberal arts courses, which should provide that broadening experience. If schools want to offer an elective on art controversies in history or 20th-century art controversies or even art controversies of the past decade, that would be perfectly valid. Where it moves from an analysis of art in the social milieu to how artists are to behave and think about their audience and be sensitive to group members of that audience (which I think these courses are really about), then the educational component is left behind and the political correctness element enters in. In fact, it becomes a course in political correctness.

Then, there is the question of whether some groups are more acceptable to attack or parody than others. One art instructor at a state university proudly spoke to me of her efforts defending to school administrators a woman student whose artwork included a painting of Virgin Mary using a crucifix as a sex toy. I asked her if she would have made as strong a case if the student were male and the imagery was arguably misogynistic or Neo-Nazi. “Absolutely not!” she said. Political correctness meets comparative victimhood.

Other solutions are a toss-up. Making artwork less accessible by exhibiting it in a less public, harder-to-find space skirts the boundaries of censorship, and parental advisory signs about the content of works at the front of an exhibit removes the surprise element from art.

Publicly supported institutions, such as universities, and particularly those located in rural and traditionally conservative areas of the country, are more likely (but not always) the focus of controversy than private and more urban colleges and art schools. Private schools are answerable only to their trustees and immediate community, whereas public institutions additionally may be condemned by citizens’ groups and legislators for spending taxpayer money on blasphemy, homoeroticism, pornography, racism or something else to which they object. Obscenity laws, for which "community standards" establish a legal basis of judgment, have not been applied to schools, and it certainly is not clear who or what the community is: other students, the entire campus, the entire campus plus the surrounding community? For a state-supported institution, the community may be the entire state, plus out-of-state students (and parents), alumni, businesses, foundations and government agencies that provide the operating budget of the school.

Better Solutions?

Students are generally young, generally inexperienced about the world, and it may make sense not to put their work up for display so much. That is not censorship but based on pedagogical theory: Student work should be seen as part of their artistic development, a process and not a product to be exhibited and defended. The effort to get students to rework their pieces and rethink their ideas would be less fraught with anxiety if exhibitions were not part of the issue.

The student’s world is often a circumscribed, cloistered one, existing almost completely within the confines of the school, and the intellectual parameters are defined by teachers and fellow students. The work that is created tends to reflect the culture of the school, because students have a very limited sense of what actually is exhibited and sold in art galleries. It is a good thing for students to be “out of the market” and in an educational setting where they may develop artistic skills, ideas and a sense of process, but they should not become out of touch with how the real world works. Were art students more out in the world – directed there through internships, externships, mentoring relationships with full-time artists, employment in the art world and visits to galleries and museums – they might quickly recognize that simply being provocative carries no weight in the arena that they look to enter.

Daniel Grant is the author of several books published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist and The Fine Artist's Career Guide. He has taught at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and has a blog on the arts page of the Huffington Post.

Montgomery College follows remedial math revolution

New Montgomery College math lab takes increasingly popular "emporium" approach to remedial math, where professors change their role to boost student success.

Professor told to stop requiring students to bring snacks

Sacramento State professor told he must end unusual teaching technique. He wonders why university focused on quirky policy rather than deteriorating availability of courses.

Essay on role of collaboration and internships

A critical challenge to American industry, and hence to our competitiveness in the global innovation economy, is the availability of a talented workforce. Despite historically high unemployment, the U.S. continues to experience worker shortages across a wide spectrum of jobs — in large part because students don't understand the wealth of opportunity available to them in growing fields.

Consider the life sciences industry, one of the fastest growing industries in the world, which has a difficult time finding qualified workers. In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick created the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) in order to promote job creation and scientific advancement. Shortly thereafter, the MLSC created the Internship Challenge Program to encourage paid internships for students majoring in the life sciences.

The creation of the internship program reflects strong consensus views held by such organizations as the Council on Competitiveness, which determined that a highly skilled workforce is vital to our economic future. It’s also a smart way to show students that one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in biology to have a very satisfying career in the life sciences.

The Internship Challenge Program has been an immediate success, with both companies and students responding in robust numbers (1,300 applications for 219 internships in the most recent round). Students from my own institution, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have won the largest number of internships in all three years of the program’s existence, and I have been asked the wonderful question, Why?

The answer is tied to a philosophy of education that, I believe, needs to be more prevalent in higher education. That is, at WPI we emphasize cooperation among students, not competition, focusing on what can be achieved through collaborative learning and achievement. This collaborative approach yields remarkable results and sets the tone for the remaining undergraduate experience, focusing not just on the acquisition of knowledge but on how to put that knowledge to use.

This collaborative spirit also pervades WPI’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, home to WPI’s academic programs in the life sciences, which also offers incubator space for start-up firms in the life sciences, giving our students a real-world opportunity to see and experience the industry for themselves. These experiences make our students passionate about getting into research labs early on, as they have a better understanding of both the intellectual and technical skills they will need to tackle open-ended research problems in the life sciences. Working alongside start-up firms offers an experience that goes well beyond those of conventional science lab courses, providing students many added benefits, such as acquiring professional mentors who can provide career guidance and references rich in practical insights.

A focus on collaborative, team-based work, including interdisciplinary thinking and communication (plus the constant press of deadlines due to our short, seven-week terms), fits well with the demands of the typical biotech start-up or even a more mature life science company. People need to work well together, generate good ideas, make decisions quickly, and move projects forward at a rapid pace, whether as students or in the working world.

Emphasizing such skills gives students a lot of confidence, as documented in their assessments of our curriculum. Equally important, these students have a measurable increase in comfort when speaking with people in positions of authority, which makes for favorable impressions in interviews for both internships and jobs. Best of all, it exposes our students to real-world opportunities within an industry that is actively and aggressively seeking these skills and knowledge.

Dennis D. Berkey is President and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

University investigates professor who requires students to bring snacks

Professor at Sacramento State leaves class if his students don't bring snacks they have made. He says he's illustrating important lesson, but not everyone agrees.

Essay on what an English professor learned teaching soldiers

When I entered graduate school, my goal was to become an English professor. I had loved literature from an early age, and teaching as a graduate student only deepened my resolve to be a professor. But the job market for humanities professors was wretched, and the gallows humor of my professors and other graduate students was enough to send me scurrying on my way. I finished my master’s degree and went to work for the Department of Pensions and Security, a part of the welfare program in the State of Alabama.

It was only later when I took on work as an adjunct that I cobbled together the courage to finish what I had started by getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.  And the wherewithal came from an unexpected place: my students.

I signed on to teach general education classes as an adjunct at Troy University’s campus at Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of my students were soldiers. I brought to the class all of the assumptions that often afflict young, smartass humanities graduates. I was opening the eyes of the nearly blind. I certainly never expected my students to open my eyes. I didn’t even know how blind I was or how little I knew about literature or about teaching — about life itself.

Wilfred Owen’s "Dulce Et Decorum Est"  taught me to see my students in a new way. I had taught it many times as a teaching assistant, finding the anti-war theme of the poem one that resonated with me and the traditional undergraduates I taught. The narrator discovers what I supposed all of us in a post-Vietnam War America had learned: that Horace’s famous phrase "it is sweet and becoming to die for your country" (in Latin Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori) is a lie. Since Owen was a soldier who died in World War I, I thought the poem would be particularly interesting to my soldier students. But the single phrase “fitting the clumsy helmets [gas masks] on just in time” opened the poem in an unexpected way.

The narrator describes mustard gas canisters falling on his platoon as he and his comrades are marching. They struggle to get the "clumsy helmets on just in time." One in the group is not fast enough with the gas mask. Helplessly, the others watch him die. A private in the room stopped me on the word "clumsy."

"All soldiers complain about the gas masks," he said. "There’s not an easy way to put ‘em on, Sir." He then demonstrated the process of putting the mask on.  Looking around at the fatigues, I realized that I was the only one in the class who didn't personally know what it felt like to put on a gas mask. I had never even seen one except in movies.

When we got to the passage in the poem where Owen describes the soldier who dies — "guttering, choking, drowning" — because he doesn’t get the gas mask on in time, a sergeant raised his hand. "Mustard gas causes the lungs to produce fluid, Sir. This man is drowning on dry land." I then read aloud the narrator’s description of the body of his fallen comrade, thrown into the wagon as the platoon continues to march:  "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs." We were all suddenly inside the poem, living together the horror that Owen described.  It was 9:15 p.m. on an average Wednesday night.

I had gotten up at 6:00 a.m. to prepare for class. I had worked all day at my state job. Most of the soldiers had reported for drills at 5:00 a.m. Some of them had come from the field so late that they had not had time to put their weapons away. They lay on the floor near their desks. And yet at that moment, every eye in the room was focused hard and tight on the page. Through the power of Owen's words, brought to life by my students, we were living the poem together, caught in its deadly magic.

When we got to the end of the poem, I stumbled upon the most important surprise of the evening. Most of the soldiers in the room agreed with Owen: Horace did lie -- it is not "sweet and becoming" to die for one's country. Still, like Owen, they had taken that risk for the array of reasons that people do what they do. Some were there because their fathers and their father’s fathers had served and it was in their blood; some because they felt called to defend their country. But all of them had taken the oath to sacrifice themselves if the occasion arose. And yet as far as I could tell, nobody in the room disagreed with Owen. In fact, they had earned the right to agree with Owen in a way I never would: by taking the risk that their time of service would coincide with a war, that they too would be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

I taught as an adjunct professor at Troy State at Fort Benning for three years. Some of my students were distracted and uninterested, just the way most college students sometimes are. But others were the smartest, most well-informed, most disciplined students I have ever taught. More important, they brought to the literature classroom an array of experiences that I had never had. For that reason, they taught me to teach literature. They also taught me about real-life choices, real-life risks, real-life consequences: the reality that stands behind works of great literature.

When it works the way it should, a beginning literature classroom is a place where teacher and student sit at the knee of the storyteller. And through the vehicle of the story, they help each other piece together the mystery of human existence. The teacher brings to the classroom a knowledge of literary form and history that the students most likely do not have. But the students will often have an array of experiences or reactions that the teacher can never guess or predict. This is particularly true in a class of nontraditional students. Again and again at the end of long, weary days, with the help of my soldier students, we summoned long-dead poets to life, brought fictional characters into flesh and blood, and pondered words that had rung in the ears of generations of men and women. And when I left the classroom, there was inside me a kind of awe. In part, it was for literature, which despite my years in school, I had never really understood before.  But another part of it was simply for the students. They gave so much of themselves to be there, and while there, they brought my classes to life.

The final gift I got from my students was the willingness to tread uncertainly into a profession that was at best a dare, given the bleak job prospects for English Ph.D.s in the 1980s. I did not take half the risk that my students did — the risk of dying in the midst of enemy fire. I did not take the risk that Wilfred Owen took. After writing some of the best war poetry we have and discovering just how much a wretched lie Horace had told, he was killed one week before World War I was over. He died on November 4, 1918, and his parents got the news of his death on November 11th as the armistice bells were tolling. But I did in those years find the courage to risk failure. I went back to school, earned a Ph. D. in English, and became a professor.

So what if there were no jobs?  So what if I finished a Ph. D. and had to go to work as a hack writer or a sales associate? It was worth the risk because of those classes and those students. And I knew then what I still know: that every day of my life, they and those like them took a much larger risk than I ever have.

I have never regretted my decision, nor have I ever forgotten the students who taught me how to make it. I will forever be in their debt.

H. William Rice is chair of English at Kennesaw State University.

Essay on how to deal with complaints about grades on papers

Instant Mentor

Rob Weir discusses how to deal with student complaints about grades on papers.

British academics reject idea of training new instructors on how to teach

Little support found for idea of requiring new instructors to learn how to teach.

Big History on Campus

Dominican U. of California tries a four-course sequence to teach new students how we ended up where we are.


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