“As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and ensure that all students graduate with a quality education of real value.”
--Secretary Arne Duncan, December 19, 2014
With the release of the Obama administration’s much-anticipated framework for rating the nation’s colleges and universities, commentators already are weighing in on the yawning gulf between the stated intention of ensuring “a quality education of real value” and the severe limitations of the metrics being considered. While the proposed college ratings system can and should expose some truly bad institutions that don’t deserve to receive federal support, the ratings framework by design presents a severely limited picture of how individual colleges and universities serve students and the nation. Regardless of whether one judges the proposed ratings data to be clarifying or misleading, the fact remains that the most important outcome of higher education — the impact a college or university has on student learning outcomes — is completely missing from the federal ratings framework.
American higher education urgently needs a college learning assessment system, but not one that equates student learning with disciplinary knowledge alone. Rather, it needs a way to account for the higher-order capacities and skills that are the hallmarks of a liberal education. The ordinary citizen will very reasonably assume that the college ratings system the federal government is now poised to promote does provide the needed evidence on college learning and quality. (Secretary Duncan himself seems to assume this, as the quote above makes clear.)
But the ordinary citizen will be wrong in this assumption. The proposed college ratings system does not, in fact, provide any evidence at all about the quality of student learning. By design, the federal ratings system is focused carefully and exclusively on data related to who enrolls in college, institutional affordability, and employment at a living wage after graduation.
What then should we do about the quality of learning challenge? What America absolutely does not need the federal government to do — and what the administration has so far very prudently and thoughtfully refrained from doing — is to create a national, federally devised and controlled system that would specify what the learning goals of college should be and then assess whether students are achieving them. Nonetheless, the public does need to know how well colleges, universities, and community colleges are doing in providing the kinds of learning that contribute directly to students’ success beyond graduation.
Under established law, private college and university boards of trustees and public college and university state system governing arrangements rightly determine the missions of individual higher education institutions, and through longstanding shared governance arrangements faculty and institutional leaders set the goals for student learning on individual campuses with the needs and goals of students and of the nation very much in mind. Yet there is wide recognition — especially among America’s employers, but also within higher education itself — that far too few students graduate from college well-enough prepared for success in work, civic participation and democratic citizenship, and life in the 21st century.
American higher education must do much better in both assessing and improving learning.
And, on this front, there is genuinely good news to report. This year, far away from the ratings furor, educators themselves are taking the lead in developing the kind of learning assessments the public deserves from higher education. The VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) represents an important step forward — one that has at its core not only the assessment of student learning, but also the creation of a platform for providing institutions with direct feedback to support continuous quality improvement in teaching and learning. Developed in 2007 through a national collaboration of faculty, institutional, and state-system leaders along with content knowledge and student learning experts, the VALUE approach to assessment has since gained acceptance with remarkable speed.
This year, building on this foundation, AAC&U, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), nine state systems, and 85 public and private institutions are engaged in a major proof of concept study designed to demonstrate the different direction the VALUE approach represents both for assessing learning outcomes and for providing useful feedback to educators about strengths and needed improvements in student performance. The states working in concert with AAC&U and SHEEO are Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah. Private liberal arts institutions in additional states also are contributing to the study.
Under the VALUE approach, rubrics — common across participating institutions — are used rather than standardized tests, and scores are based on faculty judgments about actual student work. Specifically, graded student work products that show what a student knows and can do — an essay, a piece of creative writing, a lab report, an oral presentation — are evaluated and scored by faculty members (not those who originally assigned and graded the work product) against a rubric that describes multiple dimensions of what it means to do critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, integrative reasoning, or any of the other forms of higher-order learning for which the VALUE rubrics describe achievement at different levels. The exciting promise of this work is that higher education itself is advancing an approach to assessment that is meaningful and accessible to faculty, students, and higher education stakeholders alike.
The VALUE rubrics were initially created by faculty members, and they reflect educators’ shared judgments about both the substance and the quality of student learning outcomes. Teams of faculty and academic professionals from more than 100 campuses across the country contributed to the development of these VALUE assessment rubrics for each of 16 liberal learning outcomes: inquiry and analysis, critical thinking, writing, integrative learning, oral communication, information literacy, problem solving, teamwork, intercultural knowledge, civic engagement, creative thinking, quantitative literacy, lifelong learning, ethical reasoning, global learning, and reading. These outcomes are important to the education of all college students, whether in two-year or four-year institutions, liberal arts or pre-professional programs, online or in-person courses, and regardless of institutional mission.
But the VALUE approach offers more than just a way to assess student learning. It is itself potentially a “high-impact practice” that will lead to greater student persistence and completion and to a reduction in the achievement gap between white students and disadvantaged students of color. The VALUE rubrics show students what excellence with regard to a particular learning goal looks like, and they let students see where they are on the path toward excellent performance. When faculty talk with students about their work and how it was scored, they are providing students with precisely the kind of “frequent, timely and constructive feedback,” “interactions with faculty ... about substantive matters,” and “structured opportunities to reflect on and integrate learning” that is characteristic of high-impact practices as George Kuh has defined them in his influential reports. In addition, AAC&U has learned already from campuses piloting the use of VALUE rubrics that, after initial experiences with the rubrics, faculty come together to develop assignments that directly address higher-order liberal learning skills — especially evidence-based reasoning — rather than lower-order skills such as description, summary, and paraphrase. None of this happens when a student is sent his or her score on a standardized test. This feature of VALUE, above and beyond its great utility as an assessment system, is responsible for its already very wide and growing support in colleges, universities, and state systems nationally.
What the federal government could and should do, even as it develops and tests its new ratings system, is to remind the nation, over and over, that student acquisition of the knowledge and skills college graduates need is the primary and most critical public purpose for which colleges and universities are chartered. Hence, the federal government should say that assessing what college students know and can do must be a very high institutional — and, for public institutions, institutional and state-system — priority.
While the federal government should not seek to take responsibility for this assessment, it can and should remind those properly responsible that the quality and assessment of student learning — not just access, completion, and non-learning outcomes — must become a top priority.
At the very least, the US Department of Education should publicly be calling attention to and rooting for the success of state- and institution-driven efforts like VALUE that have national potential. But it also could, through existing federal grant programs such as the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) or through Department of Education contracts, create incentives for institutions and state systems to adopt new assessment approaches by offsetting temporary institutional “ramping-up” costs or providing financial support for the necessary infrastructure to allow initiatives like VALUE to become functional nationwide.
This is how public-private partnerships should work: investing in promising ideas and facilitating their testing as they develop. Both at the federal and state levels, public policy can be an enabler for the radically better approach to assessment that VALUE represents.
So even as we debate what’s right or wrong with the ratings, let’s remember that advancing accountability in higher education ultimately needs to include what students are learning.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Daniel F. Sullivan is president emeritus of St. Lawrence University and chair of the AAC&U LEAP Presidents’ Trust.
It should not be controversial to believe that growing up involves becoming stronger, becoming better able to withstand whatever slings and arrows life throws at us and to pursue our goals even against difficult challenges. Surely the college years can and should play an important role in that growing-up process.
And yet, too often colleges treat their students like hatchlings not yet ready to leave the nest, as opposed to preparing and encouraging them to fly.
There are a variety of policies and practices that give students what most of them seem to want, but not necessarily what they most need. Speech codes and trigger warnings are two over-protecting initiatives that have received considerable attention in the higher education press and beyond.
So much has been written about the problems with speech codes that there is no need to belabor the subject at this point. Aside from the legal problems they can present with regard to free speech issues, especially in public higher education, they presume that students cannot withstand, much less respond with vigor to, speech they find objectionable. They also serve as an example of how formal codes and policies are no substitute for shared norms and values concerning how people should behave with one another.
The trigger warning movement, which has offered another field day for those on the lookout for opportunities to ridicule colleges and universities, advocates alerting students in advance to anything potentially upsetting in materials required for a course. Above and beyond being forewarned, some students would presumably be allowed to avoid an encounter with such materials altogether. Aside from this being an insult to the intelligence and good sense of students and faculty members alike, it also threatens to spoil the thrill of discovery. After all, would all first-time readers of Anna Karenina really want to be told ahead of time that [SPOILER ALERT!!] Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train at the end of the novel.
And then there is the rash of speaker cancellations due to student unwillingness to be exposed to “objectionable” views from a guest to the campus. Part of this particular problem might be addressed by recognizing that an essentially ritual occasion like a graduation ceremony may not be the best venue for a controversial, as opposed to celebratory, message. That issue taken care of, it should be easier to push back on other occasions against students who are being overly selective in their defense of free speech.
Student reactions to displays of racial insensitivity and prejudice can be considered in this context. The persistence of racism in our society and on our campuses is most certainly disturbing and unacceptable. At the same time, while a couple of students hanging a Confederate flag in their dormitory window or some students sending anonymous offensive tweets should not go without some critical response, incidents like these do not seem sufficient to put an entire campus into a state of turmoil. Surely, that is attributing too much power to the offenders and displaying too much vulnerability on the part of those they would offend.
It is important to consider which institutional customs may be at odds with the task at hand. There is, for example, the practice that has become common of designating certain areas of campus as “safe spaces” for certain kinds of activities and identities. Such language goes above and beyond the informal establishing of preferred comfortable gathering spaces. The implication is that certain students, depending on their identities or preferred activities, are “unsafe” on other areas of campus. This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril. It is an obstacle to the development of authentic courage.
The exponential growth of professional student services staff – which, to be sure, has had its positive side – has played into a tendency toward what we might see as self-infantilization on the part of students, who are now in the habit of seeking formal institutional support and approval for the kinds of activities they used to be capable of managing themselves. The most unusual example of this in my own years as a college president occurred when a student came to me seeking institutional recognition for the group she represented, which, as it happened, was composed of students favoring safe, consensual S&M sex. I inquired as to why it was not sufficient that her group was not being interfered with by the administration. That was apparently not good enough for her: she wanted a blessing from those in authority. I declined to provide the blessing, preferring to encourage her to see that she could manage without it.
This support-seeking seems to be of a piece with the prolonged umbilical role that many students maintain with their parents into their college years, calling them several times a day on their cellphones. The parents, for their part, remain overly involved with their children – at least those parents whose life circumstances allow them to do so. And so we have socialization in reverse: rather than helping their offspring achieve adulthood, those who should be the grown-ups are living the lives of their children along with them. Parental over-involvement can make the institutional exercise of authority all the more challenging when it rises to (or descends into) litigiousness.
So -- whose responsibility is it to address this and other aspects of campus culture that stand in the way of students developing the kind of resilience and strength that they need in life? First and foremost, this job, like so many other tough and often thankless tasks, falls to college and university presidents. A job far easier to assign than to fulfill.
Those of us who have moved on to less complicated lives must at least have the good grace to feel their pain. The task, however, must be taken up if the undergraduate experience is to be what it should be. Where presidents lead, staff will follow – and so even will the faculty, if a persuasively argued connection is made to the essential purposes of the institution.
Here, then, are the questions that must frame a president’s response when one of those increasingly common eruptions breaks out on campus: How high does this measure on the Richter scale of crises? How can I respond in a way that plays to my students’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses? How can this serve as an occasion to increase their wisdom and self-confidence? How will I help them to grow up?
To invoke the timelessly wise words of the Rolling Stones: If students can’t always get what they want, if we try sometimes, we might just find they get what they need.
Judith Shapiro is a former faculty member and provost at Bryn Mawr College and former president of Barnard College.
Attention is how the mind prioritizes. The brain’s attention circuits stay busy throughout our waking hours, directing on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis where our limited cognitive resources are going to go, monitoring the information that floods into our senses, and shaping conscious experience. Attention is one of the most mysterious and compelling topics in cognitive science. Years of research on the subject are now paying off handsomely in the form of recent advances in our understanding of how these mechanisms work, on both theoretical and physiological levels. And the more we learn, the more we realize that these findings aren’t just important for theory-building -- they offer myriad practical applications that can help people function more effectively across all aspects of life. Teaching and learning is one area where attention research is especially useful for helping us get better at what we do.
In my book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I foreground attention as the starting point for everything designers of college-level online learning experiences should know about human cognition. Without attention, much of what we want students to accomplish -- taking in new information, making new connections, acquiring and practicing new skills -- simply doesn’t happen. And thus, gaining students’ focus is a necessary first step in any well-designed learning activity, whether online or face-to-face.
But how does this principle play out in a contemporary learning environment littered with tempting distractions -- the smartphones that accompany students to class, social networks that let us reach out to friends around the clock, the sites for games, media, and shopping that beckon every time we open our browsers? It’s especially concerning given how overly optimistic people tend to be about their ability to juggle different tasks. As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon eloquently explain in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, human beings are notoriously bad at knowing what we can handle, attention-wise. Essentially, we lie to ourselves about what we notice and what we know, believing that we take in much more that we actually do.
For our students, this adds up to a serious drain on learning. And as learning environments become more complex, it is a drain they can’t afford. Consider, for example, some forms of blended learning in which students master foundational knowledge outside of class, usually through online work, then spend class time on focused application and interaction with instructors and classmates. A tightly scheduled and synchronized system like this can work beautifully, but doesn’t allow much margin of error for wasted time and scattered focus.
So what can we do about this situation? One strategy is to educate students about the limits of attention and just how much they miss when they choose to multitask. This, however, is easier said than done. Incorporating a learning module on attention is straightforward enough, but what would it take for such a module to be effective? First, it would need to be brief and to the point, reinforcing just a few crucial take-home messages without a great deal of history, theory or other background more appropriate to a full-length course in cognition. At the same time, quality control would be a major concern, especially for the module to be usable by an instructor without academic training in cognitive psychology. Just Googling for materials on attention brings up at least as much pseudoscience as reputable work, and without this solid scientific grounding, a module on the dangers of multitasking could easily devolve into a “Reefer Madness”-style experience, more laughable than persuasive.
Keeping these caveats firmly in mind, I’ve worked with my instructional designer colleague John Doherty to create a free-standing, one-shot online learning module called Attention Matters that instructors can drop into existing courses as an extra credit or required assignment. Besides being scrupulous about the science, John and I prioritized interactivity and use of the multimedia capabilities of online learning -- enabling us to show students, not just tell them, what distraction can do to performance in different contexts. Too many online learning activities consist essentially of glorified PowerPoint slides, so although there is a certain amount of text within our module, we put most of the emphasis on media, demonstrations, self-assessment and discussion.
As an example, we used a demonstration we called the “Selective Reading Challenge” to show students how attention mechanisms constantly filter incoming information, and also, how little we remember of information we don’t attend to. The demonstration consists of a page of text, alternating lines of bold and regular typefaces. Students are instructed to pay attention to only the bold lines, ignoring everything else, then proceed immediately to the next page. In the “to be ignored” text, we hide a few stimuli that may break through to awareness -- a couple of common names (Michael, Emily, Stephen, Christina), that if they belong to you, will probably pop out, as well as a few attention-grabbing emotional terms (911, murder). After completing the “selective reading,” students are invited to go back review the entire page of text -- bold and regular -- to see what they missed, and what they (likely) don’t remember at all even though it was well within the field of vision.
Other demonstrations illustrate the dramatic slowdown in processing that takes place when we multitask among competing activities. We present an online version of the classic “Stroop effect” to illustrate how distraction -- even from other mental processes going on at the same time -- can make a simple activity slow and inaccurate. The task involves naming the colors of a sequence of multicolored words -- not a difficult task, except when the words are themselves color names. red, green, blue, and so on – that contradict the colors they are printed in. Lastly, we pulled in several video clips from around the Web to drive home the multitasking point. One shows a prank “driving test” in which unsuspecting students were told to text while navigating a practice course, with predictably disastrous results. Another classic clip called “The Amazing Color Changing Card Trick,” created by psychologist Richard Wiseman, dramatically illustrates how attending to one part of a scene causes us to miss major developments going on in practically the same location.
These videos, activities and demonstrations form the anchor for brief, impactful student learning activities throughout the module. Students respond to discussion prompts asking them whether the demonstrations worked on them as predicted, and what they may mean for everyday attention. They also complete self-quizzes with feedback that target the different learning outcomes for each part of the module. At the end, they revisit what they have learned in a brief self-reflection and survey on attitudes and beliefs about attention and its importance for learning.
Attention Matters is an exciting project, offering us the opportunity to apply cognitive science in a novel and – we hope – useful way. The project also has a research component, through which we will be gathering data on student attitudes and beliefs about their own attentional capabilities, as well as on the frequency of different multitasking behaviors in their own lives.
There’s another important side to Attention Matters, and that has to do with the collaboration between an instructional design expert and a Subject Matter Expert, or SME. Much has been written about the virtues of instructional design experts’ pairing up with SMEs, and yet, such collaborations remain fairly rare within higher education. We hope that this project demonstrates the real benefits to be gained – perhaps motivating others to take the plunge.
It’s still too early to know what the long-term impacts of Attention Matters are going to be, or to predict exactly what we might discover about student attitudes and behaviors around multitasking. But I do foresee that as seismic change continues to occur in higher education, we will see more educators entering similar new territory – collaboratively creating focused, technologically delivered learning modules that live outside of traditional courses and use learning theory and cognitive science as the basis for design. And in our case, we may be able to add to our arsenal of strategies for getting students to become better stewards of their own attention.
“Success” means many different things. There are as many definitions as there are people (or students in this case).
“Student success” is the big push at colleges and universities across the nation, and this push is largely being forced upon colleges by state legislatures and federal bodies overseeing education. This well-intended goal has many definitions but generally includes a focus on having higher enrollments, more full-time students, students passing their classes (with high grades), and more graduates.
One aspect of this approach is that it tends to, at least sometimes, imply that students who do not graduate or who are not full-time are not successful. Not everyone needs a degree to do what they want in life. Not everyone ultimately decides they want a degree. Additionally, some students only want to take a few courses.
To me at least, “student success” in its ideal and highest achievement has been the hope or goal of students earning higher and higher grades. I always tell my classes I hope everyone earns an “A.” Any of my students can tell you that you have to really work for an “A” in my class. If 50 percent earn an “A”, it’s not because of grade inflation; it’s because they worked really hard for it.
Last night my dad (who is also a professor – I loved teaching and school so much, he decided to follow my steps) and I were discussing different situations we had with students. The conversation evolved into a discussion of the emotional costs of student success.
The basic thought is – and it seems very true from personal experience and experience working with approximately 2,830 students since May 2007 – that there are certain negative consequences to earning an “A” in a class, or especially to having a 4.0.
As someone who earned an “A” in every class as an undergraduate, I can testify to the fact that being an “A” student is lonely.
The “A” student can experience this loneliness because they are spending most of their time studying. Studying instead of partying, hanging out, etc. Additionally, there is a certain negative stigma attached to doing extremely well. The “A” students are labeled as nerds or geeks. People who have no life. People who are different.
Consider the following two conversations (at non-elite institutions, like those most students attend):
“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Did well. No big deal but got a 4.0. What about you?”
“Wow. Not that well.”
“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Got an A, two Bs, and a C. What about you?”
“Sweet. About the same for me.”
While these quotes are made up, I have seen conversations like this play out many times.
There are at least two implications for educators:
One, although we want our students to all do well, study hard, ask questions, and be 4.0 students, this is an unrealistic goal in a large part because of the negative consequences of making good grades. It is sometimes alienating, and it sets a precedent to continue studying really hard.
Two, for student success to be truly effective – carried to its logical and ideal ends – we need a culture that truly celebrates and embraces thinkers, studiers, questioners. Of course, all students are capable of learning the skills necessary to be the “A” student, but this is not what society or peer pressure really wants or rewards or even allows in some cases. Consider how the Culture of Beer, the Culture of Football, the Culture of Politically-Rewritten-History-Books, for example, and the anti-intellectualism generally therein is vastly different than the Culture of Intellectualism. Consider a world where there are commercials advertising an upcoming talk by a philosopher instead of the newest flavor of beer or the newest gun. The rhetoric of what we advertise speaks volumes to what we truly value.
So as we ask ourselves what we can do to help more students earn higher grades and ask ourselves what we did that caused so-and-so to not reach “their full potential,” we must recognize that at least some of the issues are systematic and institutional. The emotional costs of success are high, too much so for some.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda is completing his Ph.D. in history. He teaches at the University of Houston and at Alvin Community College. He blogs here.
On Sunday, October 5, Mumia Abu-Jamal, African-American public intellectual and death row survivor, delivered a commencement address to graduates of Goddard College's low residency bachelor's program. The students chose their speaker and the speech was pre-recorded, given that Abu-Jamal is serving a sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania. Following announcement of the speaker choice, Goddard endured a barrage of scornful press reports, hate-laced phone messages, and social media backlash. Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey pressured the college to rescind its invitation, with police and corrections officials issuing similar calls.
As a Goddard faculty member and longtime social justice activist, I've been much distressed by the high volume of shrill, one-dimensional press coverage. You would never know that "convicted cop killer" Abu-Jamal (in Fox News parlance) was found by Amnesty International to have been deprived of a fair trial, nor that he and an impressive group of supporters here and abroad credibly claim he was framed. Nor could you grasp why Goddard would let its graduates pick their speaker and stand firm as the controversy severely taxed the small Vermont college's resources -- or why so many faculty and staff see upholding our association with Abu-Jamal (who received his own Goddard B.A. in 1996) as not just "the right thing to do," but an affirmation of everything we've long been about.
A transcript of the commencement speech may be found here, and a recording appears at the bottom of this essay.
Not that you would really expect any of this context to be clarified by soundbite journalism and Facebook flame wars. Abu-Jamal represents a tradition of uncompromising progressive activism within grassroots African-American communities, a political lineage relentlessly marginalized in the current political environment. Meanwhile, Goddard's own roots in a radical educational philosophy that values critical dialogue and social engagement don't make sense to a public encouraged to see higher education as job market training, worthwhile only when "learning" can be quantified and monetized.
Yet, in a wonderful irony, the obfuscating public uproar has sparked a rich internal conversation among Goddard's faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Does our penal system deserve the label "prison-industrial complex"? If so, why? Do recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri illuminate historical dynamics between police and low-income communities of color on levels relevant to what happened when Officer Faulkner was killed in Philadelphia in 1981 (the crime for which Abu-Jamal was convicted)? Apart from the specifics of this case, what are the implications of the fact that the name Mumia Abu-Jamal still sparks outrage in people who would never blink at academic honors for men like William Burroughs and Louis Althusser, both of whom killed their wives?
How can we uncover and name the often hidden ways in which race and class assumptions are buried within these reactions? Most challenging of all, how might we as faculty and students in a small, nontraditional liberal arts college begin to address our own participation and complicity in the oppressive aspects of the larger education system?
Goddard alumnus Kevin Price, who works on Abu-Jamal's defense, has written eloquently of how his own enrollment at Goddard was partly inspired by his contact with the man. He concludes that despite many "wonderful symbolic reasons to support Mumia as a commencement speaker, Mumia is not a symbol. He is a man who was wrongfully held in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 30 years and is now being wrongfully held in general population with no legal possibility for parole.... He is a man with a brilliant mind and an unstoppable pen.... With so much at stake it only seems right that we listen."
The example of this student's educational journey bears out the observation of Dr. Herukhuti, Goddard Faculty Council chair, that it is our educational philosophy rather than the political content of our academic program that makes Goddard a radical college: "We have created a space for people, like Mumia and our thousands of students and alumni/ae around the world, who have tremendous obstacles to their educational ambitions to unshackle their dreams and achieve their goals. We have created an incubator for thinkers, artists, healers, activists and writers who have decided not to allow their brilliance to be diminished nor snuffed out behind the walls of any form of prison — real or metaphoric."
How I wish that Goddard could "publish" our internal dialogue, thereby usefully complicating the seductively simplistic mainstream media account. What a teachable moment that would be!
Jan Clausen is a poet whose most recent book is Veiled Spill: A Sequence (GenPop Books, 2014). She teaches in the Goddard College M.F.A. in Writing Program. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
As a student at a private university I had a sneaking suspicion that the magic between the pages of our great books had nothing to do with the cost of tuition, but had much to do with the generous heart of the instructor -- no matter the setting. I think I was right.
I spent the fall of 2013 enrolled at a community college in Texas trying to discover what you really get when you pay the most in the world of higher education -- and what you get when you pay the least.
By day, I was a junior English major at Southern Methodist University, one of the nation’s most expensive private universities. By night, I was a commuter student in an American literature class at Richland College, a nearby community college. An English class at my university cost over $5,100, while at Richland it was only $153. While at SMU, after a few false starts, the liberal arts had come alive through accessible professors and vibrant class discussions, something near the fantasy of "Dead Poets Society" but with textbooks too expensive to be able to justify tearing out any pages. As the semesters passed, I began to wonder about the extent to which this experience was tied to the amount I paid for it -- what do the liberal arts look like on a budget? What does a literature class feel like at our most accessible institutions? I went to find out.
The most important thing I had done at SMU was to go to my English 2312 professor’s office on a Friday afternoon and tell the truth. The truth was not that I was unprepared for college, but that I simply didn’t like college. It’s a different world up there, my mother had warned. I must have misplaced the map. And I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at SMU. I wondered how I would I ever begin to come to terms with this whole college thing -- what it was for and how it could ever be worth the cost. These are hard questions to ask during the best years of your life, which is what they called college in the movies I had watched. But I couldn’t recall a scene where the freshman pulled doubts like rabbits from a hat and turned them into answers for his soul.
The teacher was there, door open and waiting, just as the syllabus had promised under the heading of “Office Hours.” My purpose was to discuss my second paper -- a postmortem. Tim Cassedy, a young assistant professor recently arrived from New York, observed that it seemed my high school had prepared me well for college writing -- an innocuous compliment to most students. But for me it was an invitation. The proper response is to say "thank you" and indicate how happy you are to be at college now instead of that dreadfully confining high school that taught you how to form simple paragraphs. I hesitated for a second, half-inclined just to agree, give the correct answer, and continue with the conversation. But another part of me, the honest part, wanted badly to tell the truth.
I began to unpack my situation, my confusion, my questions, my longing for something more from my college experience than just velvet green lawns and affluent classmates. And Professor Cassedy listened. He didn’t dismiss or diagnose. He didn’t tell me that everything would be O.K. I was surprised to find that he seemed just as interested as I was in finding the answers to my questions and wishful thinkings. He understood. I got better. And I became an English major.
That moment saved college for me. If I had decided not to tell the truth that afternoon, I could have continued to accrue credits and eventually a degree, but I wouldn’t have been to college. Something significant would have been missed and valuable time wasted. I went back to his office another time and again I was reassured and challenged. I went back again and again and the door was always open. All of my big and important realizations were tested there; made sharper through discussion, questioning and that ancient practice most simply known as “teaching.”
Three semesters later I was at Richland, looking again for a way to understand college. My search led me to a green armchair. You nearly trip over it when you walk into Crockett Hall 292, but its importance there has more to do with symbolism than functionality. Near the halfway point of the semester, I decided to go to the office of my English 2326 professor, Mary Northcut, and try to tell her the truth about why I was taking her class and the answers I was seeking. I say “try to” because I didn’t know whether it was even possible to experience this part of the professor-student relationship in the way I had at SMU. There were office hours listed on the syllabus, but how could my professor, who was teaching six classes that semester, possibly have the time or energy to engage meaningfully with her students one-on-one? I was mistaken in questioning her availability and commitment to her students, and along the way I found that I was wrong about many other things as well. Important, life-changing conversations are happening at community colleges too, and I was lucky to have found myself in the middle of one that afternoon.
Professor Northcut has been teaching at Richland College for nearly 40 years. After completing a doctorate at Texas Christian University, she immediately devoted herself to teaching outside the spotlight but inside a social mission. She first taught at Bishop College, a historically black college that later closed its doors in 1988, and then at El Centro College before transferring across the Dallas County Community College District to Richland. At some point during her decades-long stay she must have acquired this green padded chair, the arm of which served as my seat during our hourlong talk. She was a fascinating conversation partner, possessing the tendency toward eccentricity that marks college professors everywhere. Between exchanges on the nature and purpose of higher education we discussed her love for horses, East Asian cinema and collecting Ancient Grecian coins. (In fact, it seemed I had walked into her office at a crucial moment in an eBay bidding war over a coin bearing the image of Phillip II of Macedon.)
But what deeply moved me, largely because I had foolishly believed that it couldn’t possibly be true, was this important truth: Professor Northcut wants to be at Richland and she is there on purpose. She is convinced that community colleges serve a vital purpose in aiding the best and brightest students who lack the resources to attend four-year schools right out of high school, or perhaps got sidetracked along the way. By her description, Richland exists explicitly to help those students find their way to universities and brighter futures. She is not at Richland because she never found a better job, or to collect a few extra paychecks before retirement. And she certainly does not see her students as the caricatures they often become in our higher-education debates -- representatives of broken systems; too unprepared to make it at a “real college.”
She knows them to be just as capable of academic success as any other students. And she has an astounding track record of helping her students take the next step. Professor Northcut is full of stories of her students, many of whom she describes as being like her own children, going on to schools like TCU, SMU and even Columbia University. To her, Richland College is a serious place with serious goals, and despite decades of changes and challenges, she is no less committed to its mission now than she was as a newly minted Ph.D. joining the ranks of socially conscious community college faculties in the 1970s. She told me she plans to keep teaching full-time for the foreseeable future and to retire later, reducing her teaching load to only “one or two classes” per semester. Two classes per semester is the ordinary teaching load for professors at SMU and most other elite colleges.
As I sat listening to all this on the arm of the green chair, worn threadbare by the pants of many students before me, I was overwhelmed with an awareness that the ancient art of teaching had found a home in this small office also. And the stakes in this office were much higher, the problems more pressing and the margin for error more perilously thin than perhaps in most of the offices at SMU. Futures were forged here not from an abundance of advantages but out of a struggle for a fighting chance. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that lives were saved in that office, in addition to the moments of intellectual growth we expect from any college experience. And most important for me, I left with that same feeling I had found my freshman year in Professor Cassedy’s office -- that the world is full of complexity and college is here to help you recognize and make sense of it. The best professors show you how. The best professors are everywhere.
I can no longer assume that office hours and compelling professors are the exclusive property of private universities. But of course, I cannot guarantee that they exist at every single college either. I can only claim this: I am a product of office hours and great teachers and truth-telling, and I would not pay for a class, be the cost $150 or $5,000, that doesn’t include the chance to find an open door and welcoming ear whenever the questions become too large to face alone. This is the difference between a degree and an education.
Preston Hutcherson is an undergraduate English major at Southern Methodist University.