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.
Responsible academics have long attempted to discredit the positivistic data generated by IQ tests, variously demonstrating that such instruments favor certain socioeconomic groups under the guise of objectivity, reduce the many types of intelligence into a single rating, and imply a stable position for qualities that are far more variable, even volatile. The resulting bell curves, some scholars have demonstrated, may function as handcuffs for groups that don’t tend to do well. Yet analogs to the oversimplified and unyielding judgments of ability generated by those IQ tests are alive and well in the academy itself today. Too often, in situations ranging from a tenure decision to our expressed or internalized responses to a student paper, we impose firm and final rankings on academic aptitude rather than making a nuanced or provisional evaluation.
Can we generalize about situations ranging from marking a sophomore’s paper in the privacy of one’s office to participating in a meeting on a tenure decision? Clearly issues, stakes, and political implications may differ. The recurrence of certain problems and practices in situations across that spectrum, however, permits — even encourages — certain broad generalizations. At the same time, since some of these issues are field-specific, I am addressing the humanities, and particularly my own discipline, literary and cultural studies. And since the issue of how racial and gendered prejudices can contaminate judgments on intellect has been discussed extensively elsewhere, this essay devotes comparatively less attention to those issues.
Obviously, many types of judgment are necessary and valuable in such fields and in our universities as a whole; I have repeatedly — though by no means invariably — been impressed with the dedication, expertise, and care colleagues have brought to these responsibilities. And I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the parties opposing tenure, not least because I do not think that move would resolve the disgraceful reliance on adjuncts. But we need to acknowledge and negotiate the problems attending the way we evaluate academic ability.
One such problem is premature judgment. For example, deciding on the basis of a single paper that someone is not likely to be a good student throughout the semester or throughout his or her career is problematic for many reasons. In general the teacher should try to suspend that judgment, or, if it must be made, both bracket it with caveats and gradually buttress or modify it with additional evidence. As the literary historian Avrom Fleishman effectively argues in The Condition of English: Literary Studies in a Changing Culture, evaluations that may be appropriate for a particular example of or even a body of work all too often slide into more definitive overall judgments on the person creating it. Often a firm evaluation of the quality of the work at hand may well be entirely sound; a prognostication of future work feasible though risky, and a judgment on immutable qualities of mind deleterious.
The issue Fleishman identifies is especially risky when judgments are made on whether something or someone is “smart.” As Jeffrey Williams persuasively demonstrated in the minnesota review, the replacement of “solid” with “smart” as a term of praise marks an increasing delight in the startling or counterintuitive argument. The ability to generate such points in a single piece of work may indeed demonstrate the intelligence of its author from some perspectives. But again, doing so begs the question of whether those abilities will be sustained and whether they are adequate predictions in themselves of strong scholarship or criticism.
Moreover, should one privilege one version of intelligence over others? The emphasis on multiple types of intelligence in the work of the cognitive scientist Howard Gardner is an important caveat to making judgments of intellectual ability.
I vividly remember that after one of my early IQ tests I heard that I had puzzled teachers because I had done very well elsewhere but missed an apparently simple question. I still remember struggling with it: given a picture of a doll and gloves in three different sizes, we were asked in so many words which gloves would fit “this little doll.” I knew that one set of gloves looked right for the doll, but hearing the word “little” made me erroneously decide that the gloves that were best described as “little” were the correct answer. This mistake prefigured both the unusual verbal skills and indifferent visual and spatial abilities that have characterized my cognitive performances to this day — but since it was simply counted as an error, it also demonstrates the problems of measuring intelligence as a monolithic category.
Problems in the concept of “smart” as well as in other criteria for professional judgments are crystallized by the lecture-style presentation that is so important in hiring at many institutions. What are we measuring, and how effectively? Teaching abilities, some would assert. But such presentations at best reveal only a few of the many skills involved in effective teaching and in fact often serve as an excuse for not assessing other skills, especially at the sort of institution that gives only lip service to the importance of undergraduate education. Are we judging research through these presentations? Yes, and up to a point fair enough. But we risk devoting undue weight to impressions generated by job talks: a careful and protracted assessment of written material is typically both more time consuming (sometimes unfeasibly so) and more valuable.
Yet even faculty members who have reviewed that material sometimes allow their prior judgments on it to be subsumed or virtually forgotten, giving undue weight to the lecture that should instead be evaluated in close conjunction with earlier reading. What all that suggests is that often we are above all judging perceived smartness — or the performance of it — through job talks, and even judging if the candidate displays (flaunts?) precisely the putative markers of smartness we have ourselves, or to which we may aspire. The Q&A, itself unduly weighted in many decisions, also reflects performance and polish — and at its worst invites judgments based on whether one approves of the answer to one’s own question.
Even if one does decide that smartness in its customary senses of rapidly producing a startling insight is the sine qua non for and best measure of academic ability, or if one assigns that role to other dimensions of intelligence, we certainly risk not measuring them accurately, whether in job talks or many other situations. As noted above, the academy has recognized although not invariably curtailed the impact of racial, ethnic, and gendered stereotypes on judgments of academic ability, but many other prejudices may come into play as well. One of the top graduate students I ever taught told me that she had worked sedulously to discard her Southern accent, correctly perceiving that listeners in other regions might be less likely to take her seriously.
For all the consciousness of class and social status in literary and cultural criticism, in our own personnel decisions we too often interpret as signs of mental prowess mannerisms and behaviors that may well result instead from upper-middle-class breeding. Both verbal facility and refined social assurance, frequently though of course not invariably encouraged more in families from the more elite socioeconomic groups, may convey an impression of smartness. (Notice that “smart” is the very term used for elegant clothing.)
More broadly, some members of the profession will be less likely to identify intelligence in someone with an unpolished social manner — though on the other hand others are more likely to expect smartness there. (Another race in which I have a horse, though one emphatically not ready to be put out to pasture: aren’t colleagues more likely to describe people their own age, rather than significantly older, through these and related positive epithets?) As these instances suggest, both judgments on “smartness” as well as other monolithic overall evaluations may screen other, less savory evaluations, whether or not the person making them is aware of that.
Moreover, as the attacks on IQ tests also revealed, intelligence is far from the “ever-fixèd mark” that Shakespeare associates with love in one of his sonnets (116.5). Pressures of all types may temporarily block its components, notably memory; shortly after my father’s unexpected death, I repeatedly had trouble remembering the number for my ATM card, which I readily recalled before and after that event. People in the humanities may well grow and develop in many ways, not only at the stages of their undergraduate and graduate work but often considerably later in their careers. Often switching to a more congenial specialty or critical methodology produces such growth; its predecessor, less compatible with the interests and abilities of the person in question, may well have been encouraged or even dictated by a mentor or the perceived direction of the field. For such reasons, many people who composed an indifferent first or even second book do much better work later on; those who evaluate them throughout their careers on the basis of their early work, followed by a cursory familiarity with later writing or none at all, risk making unfair judgments.
Even if we do calibrate our scales to arrive at more accurate measures for academic aptitude and abilities, those categories may downplay one characteristic necessary for success: the drive that encourages intense and sustained work. Indeed, certain conceptions of intelligence dismiss that type of work as plodding , instead celebrating explicitly or implicitly a concept related to the Renaissance belief in sprezzatura: according to this model, the truly gifted will, as it were, rapidly and effortlessly turn out impressive academic work with their left hand, the right hand perhaps holding a crystal glass of, say, Meursault or another premier French burgundy (reminding us again of the implicit role of class in some judgments). But in fact, as anyone who has followed the career of graduate students over the years knows, the difference between a strong career and a disappointed and disappointing one typically involves not only talent and a sadly and increasingly large component of sheer luck. The recently publicized work by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated the effectiveness of what she terms “grit,” a conclusion that may variously to reinforce and to temper judgments made on other grounds.
The prices paid for the mistakes chronicled above are all too evident. Even if the teacher attempts to be tactful, both undergraduate and graduate students sense judgments; whether or not their perceptions are completely correct, thinking one has been classified as second-rate can too readily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Above all, when the pie is as small as it is in the academy today, we must work to distribute it as fairly and judiciously as possible
How, then, can we avoid such errors, given that academic judgments are so often necessary and even desirable? We need to remain vigilant about the likelihood of mistakes, remembering, for example, that much as opponents of straw votes point out that they tend to solidify what should be tentative positions; the same danger shadows preliminary judgments on a student or colleague. We need to examine why we ourselves may be tempted into deceived and deceiving judgments. In particular, might we find it hard to challenge standards and procedures of judgment that have aided our own professional advancement?
Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University and taught previously at several other institutions. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.
The article about Spring-Serenity Duvall, a communications professor who banned students from emailing her and lived to blog about it, caught my eye on the same day my own inboxes at two colleges spilled over with bewildered messages from students. Some had been told to purchase the wrong edition of our course text, resulting in their plodding through a chapter on meta-commentary instead of one on contributing meaningfully to group discussions; more simply hadn’t received their textbooks and didn’t know when they would; still others, I suspected, were so besieged by first-week information overload that they needed reassurance from a human who had seemed friendly enough on the first day of class.
When I announced to my Critical Reading and Writing classes the next morning that we wouldn’t cover the assigned reading so we could instead talk about “a professor who doesn’t allow students to email her,” many likely assumed I was using this hook as a launching pad for my own ban. Several — the ones who had dared type a few words or even sentences to me at quiet, unobtrusive hours of the night — looked somewhat repentant. We were going to read this article together, I told them, and in addition to identifying its purpose, audience, context, and noteworthy rhetorical moves, they would be invited to interject their opinions.
“I had a strong reaction when I read this,” I admitted, “and I expect you might as well.”
Turns out, the students generally endorsed Duvall’s policy more than I did. One young man remarked that he initially opposed the idea but began to see its merits as we dug further into the reasoning. Both classes and I settled unanimously on a valuable lesson that could be learned from the spirit of such a ban: Students should try to find the answers themselves, several pointed out, before they bother the professor, who they all (charitably) agreed would be busy with other matters. Others said it would be useful to practice reading course documents more carefully and researching answers on their own or with other peers.
As we identified potential audiences for an article championing such a ban, some responses were obvious, such as fellow professors with hectic schedules. Other responses were disconcerting. More than one student claimed their parents were a perhaps-unintended audience. Parents who foot the bill for this whole venture might be interested (disgruntled?) to discover a brick wall separating their children from the people who are paid to teach them important things.
I have no doubt the email embargo worked miracles for Duvall’s time management. Just because I find student correspondence one of the least complicated demands of the teaching profession doesn’t mean I should impose my preferences on others. And since 47 glowing course evaluations suggest that Duvall’s students not only didn’t feel cheated, but actually thought her in-person-or-by-phone-only rule made her more accessible, I won’t belabor my somewhat obvious challenge that such a policy could deter students — those, perhaps, who are at risk of doing poorly and therefore need the most encouragement — from asking questions down the line or even approaching their future professors.
But isn’t there something to be said for letting young adults — especially those enrolled in a communications course — navigate the delicate rules of student-professor etiquette on their own? For letting them fail at it even? Suppose you email about a problem your professor deems trifling. The two worst consequences are (a) no response or (b) a snippy response. In my own college days, I sent emails that at the time seemed vital but that I now recognize as self-absorbed and/or irritatingly Type A. After a few terse one-liners from professors I admired, I became a less zealous emailer.
There need not be an official ban committed in writing on a syllabus for professors to ignore or even confront messages that are petty or unprofessional. Furthermore, today’s students are attending college in the first place so they can land a job that might one day allow them to emerge from — or even to buoy — this faltering economy. Employers prize communication and collaboration skills more highly than ever, and it’s hard to imagine the 21st-century workplace functioning without people who can competently email.
Do we really want to graduate a generation of students who can’t decide for themselves what warrants pressing the send button? Or, to take this issue to its logical extreme, who think their employers should drop everything to schedule in-person conferences for matters that can be handled in one pithy sentence? If our wading through a bunch of syllabus emails can contribute to a larger discourse about the importance of good professional writing, then maybe we are — in the eyes of the public — one step closer to earning our keep as educators.
Danielle DeRise is an adjunct professor of English, literature, and writing at Piedmont Virginia Community College and James Madison University.
Submitted by Dan Butin on September 4, 2014 - 3:00am
With the start of the academic year upon us, it may be surreal to suggest that the college course is going the way of the dinosaur. Twenty million postsecondary students are streaming back onto college campuses, filing into lecture halls, and bracing for yet another semester of study. Sure, a fair portion of them will be doing this on their laptops. But even then, they’ll still have a professor and all the trappings (a syllabus, an overarching theme, a grade that gets put on their transcript) of a traditional semester-long course.
And yet, “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” So suggest the authors of a just-released Massachusetts Institute of Technology report. MIT has spent over a year investigating the question of the future of residential education and has begun to systematically explore, among other things, the “modularization” of the curriculum into smaller Lego-like units that can be taken apart and put together in a myriad of ways.
"This,” the report argues, “in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus. The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society — a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook. Modularity also enables 'just-in-time' delivery of instruction, further enabling project-based learning on campus and for students worldwide.”
For MIT and other institutions who have come to similar conclusions (see, for example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Harvard University), the push comes from both the successes and challenges of digital learning technologies (such as MOOCs) that have proliferated in the last few years. But even more than that, they are well aware of what’s on the horizon.
“Might the Online Skills Academy,” muses Paul LeBlnac in a recent op-ed about the U.S. Department of Education’s “experimental sites” initiative, “be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system?” For LeBlanc and many others, competency-based education offers a credible alternative to today’s “deeply flawed” system. “I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials.”
This, dear reader, is the beginning of the end for the college course. Not everywhere. Not for everyone. Not immediately. But for much of our current postsecondary system, much of what we do in our “chalk-and-talk” educational model can be automated and replaced by cheaper and more efficient systems. And I, for one, can’t wait to see it happen. Because, I suggest, it will allow us and force us to develop a system that sees the college course as not just the transmission of academic knowledge but as its use and transformation.
For the competency-based education (CBE) crowd, this will be about demonstrating proficiency – through portfolios, exams, or other standardized means where “time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable” – that shatters the monopoly of the credit hour. It suggests that the product matters, not the process. It is a one-for-one swap: forget the four years on campus; just show us that you have learned.
For the MIT crowd, this will be about finding the sweet spot of deep learning – through a blended mix of online and on-site modules, projects and courses curated by faculty and informed by the learning sciences and data analytics – that shatters the monopoly of an “is it on the exam?” student mentality (yes, it happens at MIT as well). It suggests that we must fundamentally revise the process if we are to change the product. It is backward design approach: the four years on campus are useless if you don’t come out transformed.
But in either case, the traditional course is dead.
I am not simply talking about the fact that, as the saying goes, “online education starts in the seventh row.” Sure, there is nothing to be gained from sitting in a lecture hall when you can watch the archived lecture online while pulling up a tutorial or a peer’s comments about the lecture as you go through it. I am talking about the realization that CBE and digital learning technologies give us the unique opportunity to rethink and revise our models of teaching and learning from the ground up.
I, of course, have to voice some caveats and concerns.
CBE, for all its emphasis on “mastery as non-negotiable,” has no theory of learning. CBE advocates avoid talking about how students will actually learn to demonstrate mastery. This has troubling implications for who supposedly can and can’t learn and the structural impediments to and stratification of academic success.
Similarly, MIT’s model confuses the way we learn with the way we teach. A single module is actually not like a single song, book chapter or newspaper article. A song can stand on its own, as it has a self-contained narrative arc and structure. But to see a module as a “mini-course” – kind of like a highlight reel of best lecture quotes – is to cater to a style of teaching rather than to a way of learning.
If I could mix and match these two perspectives, I might suggest that we view the MIT module in exactly the way that CBE proponents view their competencies: as transmitting information to gain highly bounded skills and knowledge that are linked explicitly to specific learning outcomes.
Think of modules more like a football player training certain fundamental skills and moves that he can then deploy automatically and fluidly and improvisationally in a game depending on the situation. Such skills and knowledge are crucial – as they form the foundation for the habits of mind and repertoires of action that we think of in experts – but they are in and of themselves almost irrelevant if they do not get used in practice. In this vision, a “course” becomes a set of mastered units of knowledge (modules) that are integrated into a project- or practice-based outcome. Put otherwise, the transmission of academic knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition to count as a course, which must be able to apply and transform such academic knowledge.
In either case, though, when both Southern New Hampshire University and MIT are grappling with the future of the college course – which has served as the basic unit and building block for all of higher education – we are seeing a system truly shattering. The question for all of us is what will be built up instead.
Dan Butin is dean and associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College.
Depending on the geographic locus, the beginning of the semester is upon us and we have begun to do real work, finishing the musical chairs game of finding seats for students in the classes they need or a match with an instructor that they can live with for 50 minutes three times a week.
In my English composition classes we are now at work on the narrative and in order to not just talk about English 1101 being a workshop or activity class, my students and I took 25 minutes out for what is commonly called "in-class" writing.
When I say "we" I mean that my students and I write at the same time. This is by no means a radical or new pedagogical tactic, though for some reason most colleagues I have had over the years do not write with their students.
I write with my students because I want to feel what 25 minutes really feels like when one has been told to keep the pen or pencil going. Of course my 25 minutes might be very different from my students' 25 minutes, and that 25 minutes might differ as it relates to the writing experience from student to student.
I could not help but get philosophical, and maybe even a little nostalgic, about in-class writing this fall, the beginning of my 22nd year of full-time teaching at the college level.
My mind began to survey as I heard tables in the class creak -- most likely wood laminate surfaces, and these tables were good, tall tables where three students could sit, a far cry from the desks of my own school days and also most of my teaching career, which were uncomfortable and represented a strange continuance from secondary education. Come to think of it, and I did of course do so during this in-class writing session, most students would have a difficult time fitting into the "retro" desks; perhaps that is one reason they are no longer widely used.
Fortunately some things remain the same, such as students contorting their necks a certain way as they write, some with faces just above the erasure marks they make on notebook paper, while others have their own light imprint and yet others boldly press onto papers so that a felt tip pen would be short-lived prey in their hands. Thank God for cheap ink pens that are strangely resilient in the hands of some.
As I wrote this year I could feel my right hand hurt; I have begun to feel that very quickly these past three years or so, to be honest. It would be lovely to say that this is from all my years of hard manual labor of the mind and hand-writing. The truth lies in my orthopedic surgeon's diagnosis, "You're just like a car with a lot of miles on it."
I think most of my students will be spared, are already spared the experience of involving the whole hand, arm, shoulder, in the manual labor of writing. They are thumb writers, more advanced than I am when it comes to producing electronic texts. I use one finger to type out texts, more advanced than many of my middle-aged peers if I may say so proudly and slightly in illusion and defense of being youthful still. My students are athletic writers made for our times, I have for the first time not only come to accept but also to observe with some admiration.
In my introduction to writing I somehow spontaneously said, "You can probably write an essay with two thumbs on your smartphone," and this remark was very well-received by my students, friendly smiles and eyes lighting up in a positive way. I must have hit a nerve. And as my students were making the desks creak before me, some even wearing earphones because I had encouraged them to wear them to be in their own world as long as they kept them turned down enough so that no one else could hear them, I thought, I should experiment this semester and have students write their one timed, in-class essay on their smartphone.
I began to take this enormous pride, almost parental, at the thought of my students brilliantly, or at least with accomplishment, writing an essay with probably better results than they could produce on paper simply by typing on their tiny electronic device, performing a feat I and many others of middle age would consider almost something for the circus.
My free-writing brain then ventured into the territory of students' in-class writing over the last few years. I had one of those eureka moments, or if not that, the time was right for a revelation. Suddenly the answer was before me. I knew now why I had increasingly been receiving neatly printed essays and also anything that I had asked for to be written in class, in letters that were not cursive writing. I had over the years marveled at the students' scriptorium work, as if they were continuing some tradition, like monks illuminating manuscripts.
But the truth is more related to the gradual abandonment of cursive writing and the teaching of cursive writing in public schools.
I observe this not with negativity or in some kind of subdued snarl. Why would students really need cursive writing? Why do so many of us complain that students do not know this "art," and why might we say, "Look at this stack: only one person wrote in cursive"?
No, students have evolved and they have no need to write in cursive, not even during in-class writing. Judging by the amount of words they can produce they have adapted to print faster.
And look at us -- we might employ that ancient, "lost" "art," but really, often that is used to record a thought that might as well have been committed to our idea bank on a smartphone. And when was the last time you wrote an entire essay or article by hand and then transcribed it on the computer? Let's be honest here. Evolution has taken place.
Is there room for cursive writing as we now begin the academic year in the not-so-hallowed halls of academe across America?
Sure, but along with this kind of circus-act writing there is room, even more so, for the two-thumb essay.
Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.
As summer ends, professors across the country are gearing up for a new academic year: refurbishing old syllabuses, reviewing some alternate readings, perhaps adding service learning or a new assessment tool to their courses. I’m designing one entirely new seminar, plus working with colleagues to rethink our team-taught intro class. It all requires time and energy, and has to be done. But the best thing I do to improve students’ work in my courses is far simpler.
I will learn and use their names. It’s easy, and it works.
Using those names in class is uniquely powerful. As Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a man’s [sic] name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.” (Of course we know today that this is true for a woman too.) A student who hears his name suddenly becomes completely alert; one who hears herself quoted (“As Hannah said, Machiavelli was just trying to be realistic”) will be replaying those words in her head, over and over, for at least a week.
I used to learn names by taking the class list and scribbling descriptions, and for a time I would videotape students actually speaking their names, then review the tape every morning over my Cheerios. My current technique, at least for larger classes, is flashcards. The first day I line up the students alphabetically (they’ll already be smiling at each other, with a nice excuse for meeting), then take their pictures one by one, bantering like a novice fashion photographer (“Excellent!” “You look sharp,” “Nice t-shirt,” “Great smile,” and so on).
After being photographed, the students write their preferred first and last name, with phonetic guides if needed, on a pressure-sensitive file label, a sheet of which lies on the desk. At the end of the day, I deliver the pictures to a one-hour development kiosk, and by morning have a full deck of photos, each with a name stuck on the back. Before each class meeting I spend a few minutes going through the deck again, memorizing the names. Whenever I pick up a new tidbit about a student I’ll write it on the back: “Plays lacrosse,” “Civil War buff,” “always wears these glasses,” “from Vermont.” The names take maybe four class meetings to learn; last fall, when I had 82 students in two courses, it required about two weeks in total.
And the technique, or at least its principle of individualized recognition, is scalable. With smaller classes (say, 29 students or less), you can make up nameplates – just a folded paper card will work, with names on the front. Within a few days not only will you know their names, the students will also know everyone else’s – a nice side benefit, and very helpful in seminars. With larger classes, learning the names certainly takes more work -- although a dean of students I once knew was famous for knowing and using the names of all 700 or so students at his college, from the day they matriculated. It’s impressive if you do learn so many; even if you can’t, your teaching assistants can learn students’ names in their sections. Or even without knowing any names, a lecturer who pays attention can spot a puzzled student and say, “Do you have a question?” It is possible to connect well, with even a large class.
Why is knowing someone’s name or acknowledging them individually so important? Any person’s name is emotionally loaded to that person, and has the power to pull him or her into whatever is going on. By putting that person at the center of attention, naming takes only a moment from you – but for them, it is deeply affecting, and lasts.
But more than that, calling a student by name opens the door to a more personal connection, inviting the student to see the professor (and professors generally) as a human being, maybe a role model or even a kind of friend. In the 10-year longitudinal study that Chris Takacs and I did of a cohort of students moving through college (for our book How College Works), students who found congenial advisers, or even full-fledged mentors, were more likely to stay in school, to learn more, and to enjoy the entire experience.
Several years ago I saw Jon Stewart, the television show host, deliver a marvelous 74-minute stand-up comedy routine for an audience of 5,000 people, apparently with no notes whatsoever. Stewart worked the crowd, picking up on what we liked, playing off of a few local references, sensing groups in the audience who responded differently, asking questions, riding the laughs but knowing when to quiet our responses. He connected with us; he made us part of the show. It was exciting and memorable.
I’m no Jon Stewart, nor a match for that dean of students. But once about 20 years ago I had a social psychology class of 144 students. Armed with the freshman facebook (small “f,” remember that?) photos and some scribbled hints, I worked on their names for a couple of weeks. Then one day I came into class and started pointing at each student, slowly speaking his or her name. Some were easy, others took a moment; still others I skipped, to return to when I remembered or had eliminated possibilities. As I progressed around the room, students became increasingly focused on what I was doing, smiling and laughing at who was remembered, and who took a minute. Eventually I got to the last few, the people at the outer edge of my mnemonic ability. When I declared that last name – correctly -- the entire class hesitated, and then erupted in a long, sustained round of applause. Some cheers were thrown in.
And the course went well.
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, ofHow College Works(Harvard University Press).
Regular readers of the higher education press have had occasion to learn a great deal about digital developments and online initiatives in higher education. We have heard both about and from those for whom this world is still terra relatively incognita. And, increasingly, we are hearing both about and from those commonly considered to be to be “digital natives” –- the term “native” conveying the idea of their either having been born to the culture in question or being so adapted to it that they might as well have been.
When we think of digital natives, we tend to think of students. But lest we think that things are easy for them, let us bear in mind their problems. Notably, they share the general difficulty of reputation management or what we might consider the adverse consequences of throwing privacy away with both hands when communicating on the internet. More to the point in the world of higher education, many suffer from the unequal distribution of online skills most relevant to academic success –- yet another factor in the extreme socioeconomic inequality that afflicts our nation’s system of higher education.
But let us turn our attention to the faculty, and first to those relatively unschooled in new information technologies. At the extreme, there are those who view the whole business with fear and loathing. We must find ways to persuade them that such an attitude is unworthy of anyone who has chosen education as a vocation and that they would do well to investigate this new world with an explorer’s eye –- not uncritically, to be sure, given the hype surrounding it –- in order to reach informed positions about both the virtues and the limitations of new information technologies.
Others are more receptive, but also rather lost. They are fine with what Jose Bowen calls “teaching naked” (i.e., keeping technology out of the classroom itself), since they have been doing it all their working lives, but are unable to manage the other major part of the program (that is, selecting items to hang in a virtual closet for their students to try on and wear to good effect, so that they come to class well-prepared to make the most of the time together with one another and their instructor). What these faculty members need is the right kind of support: relevant, well-timed, and pedagogically effective –- something far less widely available than it should be.
Digitally adept faculty have challenges of their own, some of which are old problems in new forms. There is, for example, the question of how available to be to their students, which has taken on a new dimension in an age in which channels of communication proliferate and constant connectedness is expected.
And then there is the question of how much of themselves faculty members should reveal to students. How much of their non-academic activities or thoughts should they share by not blocking access online or perhaps even by adding students to some groups otherwise composed of friends?
Many of us have worked with students on civic or political projects –- though not, one hopes, simply imposing our own views upon them. Many of us have already extended our relationship into more personal areas when students have come to us with problems or crises of one sort or another and we have played the role of caring, older adviser. We have enjoyed relatively casual lunches, dinners, kaffeeklatsches with them that have included discussion of a variety of topics, from tastes in food to anecdotes about beloved pets. The question for digital natives goes beyond these kinds of interaction: To what extent should students be allowed in on the channels and kinds of communications that are regularly –- in some cases, relentlessly and obsessively –- shared with friends?
Not all of this, to be sure, is under a faculty member’s control. Possibilities for what sociologists call “role segregation” hinge on an ability to keep the audiences for different roles apart from one another –- hardly something to be counted on in these digital times. But leaving aside the question of how much online information can be kept from students, how much of it should be kept from them?
Will students be better-served, as some faculty members seem to believe, if they see ongoing evidence that their teachers are people with full lives aside from their faculty roles? Should students be recipients of the kinds of texts and tweets that faculty members may be in the habit of sending to friends about movies, shopping, etc.? Given how distracting and boring some of this may be even to friends, one might well wonder. Some students will perhaps get a thrill out of being in a professor’s “loop” on such matters, but do we need to further clutter their lives with trivia? This is an area in which they hardly need additional help.
To put this issue in a wider context: In her 1970 book Culture and Commitment, anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction among three different types of culture: “postfigurative”, in which the young learn from those who have come before; “cofigurative”, in which both adults and children learn a significant amount from their peers; and “prefigurative”, in which adults are in the position of needing to learn much from their children. Not surprisingly, Mead saw us as heading in a clearly prefigurative direction –- and that years before the era of parents and grandparents sitting helplessly in front of computer screens waiting for a little child to lead them.
Without adopting Mead’s specific views on these cultural types, we can find her categories an invitation to thinking about the teaching and learning relationship among the generations. For example, should we just happily leap into prefigurativeness?
Or, to put it in old colonialist terms, should we “go native”? Colonial types saw this as a danger, a giving up of the responsibilities of civilization –- not unlike the way the Internet-phobic see embracing the online world. The repentant colonizers who did decide to “go native”, motivated either by escapism or by a profound love and respect for those they lived and worked with, sometimes ended up with views as limited by their adopted culture (what is called “secondary ethnocentrism”) as were limited by their original one. This aside from the fact that attempts to go native are not always successful and may even seem ridiculous to the real folks.
Perhaps it is helpful to think of ourselves first as anthropologists. We certainly need to understand the world in which we ply our trade, not only so that we can do our work, but also because we are generally possessed of intellectual curiosity and have chosen our vocation because we like working in a community. We believe that we have much to learn from the people we study and, at the same time, know that we can see at least some things more clearly because we have the eyes of outsiders.
But we are also missionaries, since we feel we have something of value to share –- to share, to be sure, not simply to impose. What might that something be?
In the most basic sense, it is the ability to focus, to pay attention, take time to learn, looking back at least as often as looking forward. Most of our students live in a noisy world of ongoing virtual connectedness, relentless activity, nonstop polytasking (how tired are we of the word “multitasking”?). Like the rest of us, they suffer from the fact that too much information is the equivalent of too little. Like the rest of us, they live in a world in which innovation is not simply admired, but fetishized.
So, even as we avail ourselves of the educational benefits of new information technologies, we might think of complementing this with a Slow Teaching movement, not unlike the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 with the goal of preserving all that was delicious and nutritious in traditional cuisine. We have such traditions to share with our students even as we become more knowledgeable about the world in which they move.
Our students and junior colleagues don’t need us to be them; they need us to be us. Or, as Oscar Wilde so engagingly put it: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.
It’s the start of the spring semester and I walk across campus to my first Beginning Bagpipe class, wondering if I can learn to play an instrument that is so important to my university’s Scottish heritage -- our pipe and drum band plays at every major event. It was the undergraduate pipers who had talked me into taking this class while I was chatting with them before our December commencement.
As soon as I get to class, I realize I am the student professors abhor. I look around and every undergraduate — all 23 of them — has the required book and practice chanter (on which beginners learn to pipe). I have never taken college-level applied music, but rather than finding out what was expected before class or checking the bookstore, I felt like my part was just to show up. How many of our freshman students feel like their responsibility is simply getting themselves to class?
The professor takes attendance; “Julie Wollman,” he calls out, just like I am any other student. I think for a desperate moment that maybe I can take the class undercover, but they all know who I am and I clearly did not come to class prepared. I have no pen to take notes on the syllabus — important information about assignments, the required Facebook page, and upcoming classes. I have not gone to the bookstore. I hadn’t even considered that I should come to class with the necessary materials or that there would be a book. Like the stereotypical undergraduate, all I brought was my iPhone. I find myself silently voicing a phrase that my younger daughter used frequently, as a teenager, in new situations: “How was I supposed to know...?”
“How was I supposed to know?” In the 25 years since I was a doctoral student, I have rarely had a learning experience — a professional development seminar, a conference, a retreat — where I wasn’t provided with everything I needed before and during the experience or told ahead of time exactly what to bring and even what attire would be appropriate. It strikes me that this direction is much like what our students experience in high school. Why, then, are we so troubled by first-year students who need far more guidance than we think is appropriate for a college student?
Fortunately, the professor is patient and experienced and he has us all playing a simple scale on the chanter before the first class ends. I also learn that each week one beginner will be called up to the front of the circle of chairs and music stands and be asked to play the day’s lesson. Potentially having to be “in the center” and embarrassing myself makes me practice as much as possible during the week before the second class, but I really don’t know if I’m doing it right. Tackling something brand-new makes me feel terribly inept, but we regularly encourage our first-year students to explore new fields without acknowledging the inevitable stress.
Fortunately my professor places each beginner with a more experienced undergraduate mentor; we are to meet weekly in between classes. I have always doubted the value of study groups, but on Sunday I trudge through the snow to the Music Building where I meet my student mentor in one of the second-floor practice rooms — a place on campus I would never otherwise venture to, but I came to understand our music students pretty much live there. Neil, my peer mentor, spends an hour with me, patiently and gently correcting, praising, joking and instructing. All week it has been so hard to get the breathing right, never mind the fingering, but by the time I finish with Neil I feel much better. “Maybe I can do this?” Without Neil’s encouragement and help every week throughout the semester I would have felt incompetent and out-of-place in class, and would have learned far less from my professor. For novices there is great value in building skill and confidence outside of class through peer mentoring and instruction.
Still, I’m really nervous about going to the second class, afraid I’ll be the only one who isn’t any good. I’m not taking it for credit or a grade, but the thought actually crosses my mind that I should skip class; after all, I can offer a good excuse. I am shocked to realize that, 36 years after I started my freshman year of college, being in a simple but challenging class well out of my comfort zone, I am again looking for excuses to miss class. So I go, despite my fear. Before class, waiting for the professor to arrive, I chat with my classmates about how hard it is to breathe right and make a sound come out and I feel less alone in my incompetence.
The professor gives us a full song to play in class number two, even though we haven’t even learned to play the scale well. “What is he thinking??” I know it’s not just me who is challenged because I am no worse than the student he brings to the center of the circle to demonstrate the lesson. I actually feel better after class because I’m not noticeably worse than the other beginners (how perverse to delight in others’ incompetence), but I’m certain they must find it easier than I do. Still, I can now attempt to play a real song! It is a genuine relief to learn that others are challenged by the class, too, and I wonder if we need to spend more time reinforcing for freshmen that they are not alone in finding new skills difficult but that there is a reason we push them to apply the skill early on.
I’ve made it to the third week and I know I’m practicing as much as any student but when I’m in class it’s hard to perform. I know what to do and I’ve done it at home and in the practice room, but I can’t do it right in front of the professor. I wonder if this will be like the experience of reading professional journals as a beginning graduate student — it’s like a foreign language and then one day it just clicks and you feel like an “insider.” It’s not clicking today, though: my professor gives us a harder song this week, much harder. As a teacher, I understand what he’s trying to do. As a student, I think he’s crazy. When I try to practice it later I just can’t do it.
My younger daughter — a real freshman — calls to tell me about struggling with her physics homework and being afraid to go to class because she thinks she’s the only one who will have had trouble with the work. “I know. That’s how I feel about my class, too. The homework is too hard. I can’t do it and he might ask me to play the song in class.” She laughs and reassures me that I’ll be fine.
Trying to be supportive, a colleague notes that the professor wouldn’t fail the president but, just be sure, she suggests I take the class on a pass-fail basis. I think seriously for a few minutes about whether it’s too late to drop the class before I realize that I’m not really registered for it and what kind of a message would that send to the 23 undergraduates in the class? I continue to struggle through the new song but I need help and I’m losing any flicker of confidence I may have had. It would be so much easier to just give it up now and stop pretending I can learn this.
Again, when we meet later in the week, my student mentor saves the day, saying the song I have battled all week was too much for week three and our professor won’t expect us to know it. Instead he photocopies and goes through various scales with me and this soothes my wounded self-confidence. I leave this meeting grateful for the help and moral support and for the fact that I have a “friend” in class, even as I worry that he’s probably mortified that I am his assigned partner.
During weeks four and five I have to travel for meetings in Washington, Harrisburg and then, a few days later, Florida to meet with donors. I have been excused from class but I pack my chanter and practice daily, amazed that I’m not evicted from hotels. On the trip to Florida I’m with my husband and an advancement colleague and they laugh incessantly as I practice in the car while we crisscross the state between donor visits, but I find the extended practice time helps me a lot so I ignore the laughter and press ahead.
Because of these trips I miss two classes and I’m worried about falling behind. But I meet with my mentor on the one day I’m home between trips and then again when I get back and these focused one-hour meetings prove extremely helpful as Neil reviews what I missed and keeps me moving ahead. He builds my confidence and, hopefully, in some small way I am building his confidence as a teacher. He adjusts to my challenges and is responsive and supportive and always tries to get me one step ahead of the class. He wisely pushes me to not stop but continue to soldier through when I make a mistake. I’m still worried about going back for week six but can’t imagine how worried I’d be without Neil’s help. At the same time, I’m eager to go back because the professor is relaxed and funny but also serious and attentive to each individual. He realizes when we are confused and switches gears to explain or demonstrate in a different way or change the lesson plan entirely. How many of us appreciate the need to adapt to our students’ needs or risk losing them forever after they have missed a class or two?
Near the end of week five I realize that I no longer have trouble with the breathing and that my fingers don’t cramp up any more when I play. Why is it I know how to do things while practicing but then make mistakes in class? In class on Monday I realize that while I can play the notes I need work on the timing, and Neil tries to help with several different strategies. This is another hurdle, like the breathing, that I just need to work through by practicing. And now, when I have developed a little faith that I can learn this instrument, Neil ups the ante and is paying a little more attention to my fingering technique so I don’t develop bad habits. Progress requires meeting a student where she is and gradually increasing the expectations.
I practice Tuesday but count on lots of time Wednesday through Friday since I have to travel to Harrisburg with a colleague who is driving, so I will practice in the car. It is not until we have been in the car for over an hour that I realize I forgot my chanter. What a sinking feeling. “I’ll fall behind. I’ll never catch up... .” I am disgusted with myself. At the same time, I feel genuine sympathy for student-athletes, performers, and others who travel frequently and have to remember everything and keep up with classes while on the road.
I am reunited with my chanter on Saturday morning and practice extra over the weekend so that I don’t humiliate myself in class. I meet with Neil on Sunday and he starts me on the next song, just when I’m finally catching on to the last one! Oh, yeah, that’s right — I believe in always stretching students by moving them toward the next challenge. But I don’t want challenge; I want the sweet, elusive taste of mastery.
I’ve made it to the halfway point and I am lucky to meet with Neil on Wednesday before I leave for a brief vacation. First thing I pack is my chanter. I love practicing looking out onto the beach and notice that being relaxed and unhurried compared to my usual routine improves my playing. I even try to play Amazing Grace for fun. Neil has been encouraging me to try playing new songs for fun, but is it fun when you can’t do it? When I’m relaxed and have time, I actually enjoy it. How can we help our students overcome their stress and achieve this kind of freedom to learn?
After spring break I’m excited to go back to class — I missed it. But Monday morning I forget my chanter and book and don’t have time to turn back and get them before my first meeting. I realize how easy it is to forget materials for class even with the best intentions. The difference for me is that I live on the edge of campus and can get what I left behind if necessary. For commuter students that’s not possible. Again, I am humbled and ashamed that I have ever assumed a student who came to class unprepared just doesn’t care.
The professor has selected several of the songs we composed for homework to use as examples in class and I see that one of the three written on the board is mine. I am uncertain. Will it be used as a good example or a bad one? For once when he asks someone to come up to the front and play this song I cannot avert my eyes, bow my head, and hope he doesn’t notice me. No one else offers to come forward, and it is my song, after all. So up I go and play in front of the class for the first time this semester. I actually learn a lot from this class, which is focused on typical bagpipe music composition. This bit of music theory helps me think about how the songs we’re playing are composed and why and makes reading the music more predictable. Theory really does guide practice and can be helpful to a beginner.
Soon after spring break the course evaluation is administered. I can’t fill one out because I am not registered for the class, but I wish I could. I have so much appreciation for what the professor is doing to push, cajole, and trick us all into doing what we thought we couldn’t.
New this week — playing together. Of course, that’s what pipe band is all about! Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I can’t keep up. “I just need to play a little slower.” I realize later, I just need to practice more so I can play a little faster. I talk to Neil about this challenge and he starts having me play more with him when we meet. Still, I really lost any confidence I had after trying to play with others in class. I realize that what happens in class really impacts how students feel about their ability to succeed. Just a couple of moments of uncertainty or “failure” can shape a student’s approach to class for the rest of the week.
At the same time, I finally feel like I blend into class and can sit with different peers. People are friendly. The importance of this is not lost on me as I think about our freshmen who never make friends or feel like they belong and end up dropping out early in their college careers.
When we meet, Neil introduces me to his new electronic bagpipe that sounds like the real thing. He lets me play it a few times and I love it — I know the fingering and don’t have to worry about breathing, and it actually sounds like I’m playing a real bagpipe. I can do this! I wonder if too often we fail to provide students with the sense of accomplishment necessary to tackle the challenges of another semester ahead; this may be a fundamental reason for attrition.
It’s the night before our last class — the very last day of the spring semester — and I am busy finishing up my reflective journal for the semester, thinking about the “final exam” tomorrow, and wondering why I waited until evening to start working on the final journal entries?! Maybe because it has been such a busy couple of weeks with the usual whirlwind of end-of-semester events, projects, never-ceasing emails to answer. Maybe because as much as I want the semester to end I’m going to miss class and the forced break from my daily work that comes with having to practice. I wonder what my fellow students are doing and if they too left things until the last minute because other responsibilities crowded out bagpipe homework. Becoming a freshman again has helped me understand them in a new way and has taught me so much about their experience that I’ve decided to teach a freshman seminar in the fall.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.