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.
To: Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Subject: Trigger Warnings
In order to anticipate potential liability issues rising from the teaching of humanities and social science courses, we have reviewed the syllabuses across your college’s departments, with particular attention given to the impacting of racial and ethnic themes on our clientele’s (aka students’) emotional well-being. We have provisionally concluded that the English department can continue to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice, while taking into careful consideration the sensibilities of African-American, Jewish and related niche audiences.
But in the course of our investigation, we found other reasons to anticipate future legal and public relations challenges for the university. With the support of the offices of student services and marketing and communications, which coordinated several focus groups, we found several books that could become the subject of class action suits. Please find below five examples from our full list that, if present campus trends continue, will raise red flags.
Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey
Students were disturbed by Homer’s “relentless” depiction of mayhem and gore: “Like the X-Men franchise, but Wolverine is definitely a more likable mutant than Achilles,” concluded one respondent. Several students objected to the treatment of women -- mostly relegated to domestic activities or war booty -- and demanded to know if there were other epic poems by blind Archaic Greek bards that offered examples of female empowerment.
Also, a small but vocal number of students wearing PETA t-shirts protested the “inhumane” treatment of the dog Argo, left to die on a dung heap. Given the youthful impressionability of our customer base, we find potential problems with the Lotus-eater episode, as well as the character Helen’s liberal use of pharmacological agents.
Anonymous' "The Book of Job"
“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions. The mounting suspense in waiting for God to reply adversely impacted many students (as did the irritation factor supplied by Job’s friends).
While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers -- which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence -- all matters of concern for our office.
Though we were informed this work combines the two “Homeric” poems in one, the focus groups concluded it was somehow longer. Respondents were disturbed by the negative depiction of the character Dido -- “If she, like, died ‘before her time,’ how fair is that?” -- while the character Juno also elicited negative comments: “Clearly the product of a harsh patriarchal society determined to depict independent women as hysterical and dangerous.”
More generally, respondents were disoriented by Virgil’s habit, in the words of one participant, “to undermine the Roman values he pretends to uphold.” We find sufficient grounds for concern that students might argue they cannot be expected to give clear answers on their final exam if Virgil could not give any in his final poem. Our staff also suggests that more litigious individuals will claim that if Virgil could leave his poem unfinished, they could do the same with their exam.
Machiavelli's The Prince
Several students spoke of their emotional distress after reading the author’s claim that if a ruler obeys “something resembling good it will lead to his ruin, while something resembling vice will lead to power.” Other students, however, announced their decision to run for president of their fraternity and sorority chapters.
Significant liability potential resides in the author’s use of Cesare Borgia as a role model: his praise of Borgia’s public “dicing and slicing” (in one participant’s phrase) of a subordinate does not reflect the “brand” values of our university.
Our office for students with special needs signaled its concern over the presence of two characters with disabilities -- they lost “their shanks in the Ardennes” -- who are confined to garbage pails. The office also worries that two other characters -- one who cannot sit down, the other who cannot stand up -- appear indifferent to this situation.
We cannot decide which is more problematic for the university: those respondents left despondent by the play’s existential desolation, epistemological doubts and ethical despair, and those respondents who kept giggling. In general, it remains to be seen whether, when it comes to the trigger warning controversy, we can’t go on or must go on.
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Completing a journey spanning more than half a century, Peyton (Perry) Potetick today received his master’s degree in education from Harvard University, making him the first person to earn a degree from each of the eight Ivy League schools.
When asked how he felt now that his quest is complete, Potetick replied, “tired.”
Potetick’s tour of the Ivy League began before the league was even formed. A returning war veteran, Potetick took advantage of the GI Bill and completed his undergraduate education in 1950 at Princeton in his home state of New Jersey. Four years later, Princeton formally joined with seven other old, prestigious, wealthy institutions in the Northeast to form an athletic league that would compete more for Nobels and Pulitzers than for Heismans (even though Heisman himself attended two of the Ivies) and whose name would become synonymous with cardigans, elbow patches, tweed and aristocratic exclusivity, at least until the late 1970s.
Following graduation, Potetick landed a job with Mallblight, Inc., a real estate development firm in Trenton. Eyeing a position in upper management, Potetick pursued an MBA degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“It seemed like a good move at the time,” recalled Potetick. “I really thought I wanted to spend my career in the strip-mall business ravaging suburbs.”
Mallblight made his decision a bit easier by footing the bill for his education. “All they wanted in return was a commitment of 10 years when I was done,” he said.
Potetick paid half his debt before realizing that his interests lay elsewhere. He wasn’t exactly certain where, but surely somewhere else, he thought.
That overwhelming desire to do something — anything — else led him to the inexorable conclusion to attend law school, which he did at Yale. Potetick plodded his way through Yale, to the extent one can plod through Yale, and graduated in 1962. He never did practice law, however.
“It dawned on me that I was more enticed by the prospect of studying law than practicing it,” Potetick admitted. “Actually, I just wanted to be back in school. That feeling never really left.”
Armed now with three Ivy degrees, certainly not by design at this point, Potetick began teaching business law part-time at Columbia while supplementing his income by tutoring Albanian undergraduates and writing for an underground newspaper called The Happy Hippy.
“Those days at the Hippy, man…they were pretty far out,” said Armand Arme, a fellow Hippy writer. “Perry was just about the most bitchin’ cat going.”
Bitten by the newspaper bug and buoyed by his favorable reviews, Potetick enrolled in Columbia’s journalism school, taking courses here and there while he figured out how to put all his education and work experience together. He earned his fourth degree in 1968, reaching the halfway point in his Ivy journey, and set his sights on the fourth estate.
But love soon intervened. He met his future wife, Anna Fora, a Columbia doctoral student in Icelandic philology, falling for her straight, stringy hair and bottle-bottom glasses. “She was a true beauty,” remembered Potetick, “by the 1960s definition of the term.”
Fora found a faculty position at NYU, and Potetick managed to wangle a job in the assistant to the associate provost’s office collating tenure review forms. Before long, he and Fora married, and their twin sons, Larry and Gary, arrived. Potetick tended to their needs while plotting his future.
“I tried to get Perry a teaching job at NYU,” Fora said, “but everyone considered him overqualified. I tried to encourage his writing career, which spit and sputtered as much as Larry and Gary. And I tried to talk him into pursuing another degree at NYU, given, you know, his love for education and all, but he said it wasn’t an Ivy.”
“It wasn’t an Ivy,” echoed Potetick, who began to realize his life’s purpose. “I started to think, ‘Hey, I have half of the Ivy League covered, so why not keep going?’ ”
The couple toiled awhile in New York before Fora saw an opening in Icelandic philology at Dartmouth, one of two such positions she’d seen in seven years. “It was a sign,” realized Fora. “It was a sign that Perry’s quest was more than just an odd obsession.”
So off they went to New Hampshire, where Fora thrived and Larry and Gary became left- and right-wingers for the local youth hockey club and showed an early interest in politics. Meanwhile, Potetick, by a sheer stroke of luck and a good bit of pluck, got a job at Tuck archiving the financial records of Dartmouth alumnus Theodor Geisel. Money remained fairly scarce in the Potetick household, and Perry’s student loans came home to roost.
“I decided it was time to return to school once again to keep the loans at bay,” Potetick said. “Plus, Dartmouth let me pursue a degree for free, so it was a win-win.”
Potetick’s Ivy tally rose to five in 1988 when he completed his Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a focus on international pan-globalization.
“The world was my oyster,” said Potetick, who continued to diligently pursue a career worthy of his intellectual investments now that he’d earned degrees from 62.5 percent of the Ivy League.
His plan to finally buckle down and establish a consultancy focused on international business journalism libel law was dashed when Fora was denied tenure at Dartmouth, forcing the couple to uproot Larry and Gary and seek greener pastures. As fate would have it, Fora’s former flame, Rick Javik, who recently had become head of Nordic studies at Ithaca College, invited her to join the new department.
The disruption put Potetick’s employment plans on hold but rekindled his passion for Ivy completeness. Nearby Cornell represented conquest number six and offered him an opportunity to pursue yet another utilitarian degree, an M.F.A. While Fora immersed her students in Vikings, Ibsen and cured cuttlefish, Potetick workshopped his short stories and creative nonfiction. He felt a fervor not realized since his days at The Happy Hippy, and he was, once again, happy.
“We were happy,” recounts Fora. “We were happy, but, alas, it wouldn’t last.”
Just as Potetick was finishing his M.F.A. and Fora was in the throes of a course on Norwegian hammer throwers, the flame between Fora and Javik was rekindled and romance began anew. Cuckolded, Potetick departed Ithaca a week after graduation, leaving Larry and Gary and his idyllic Ithaca existence for a small studio on a hill in Providence.
“Those were some black days, and I was feeling blue,” Potetick said, “but I soon discovered a home at Brown.”
In 1995 he enrolled in Brown’s graduate program in American studies in an effort to complement his international pan-globalization degree and obtain pure academic hegemony. Potetick sustained a relatively meager income by teaching writing to Latvian orphans and polyeurothaning hardwood floors at the local square-dance hall.
“We were a bit reluctant to admit Perry at first,” said Steve Rogers, former head of Brown’s American studies department. “He was of course qualified academically, but he just seemed to be such an intellectual… vagabond. After some downright ugly debates among the faculty, we totally bought into his quest to touch every Ivy base, so it became a no-brainer.”
Potetick finished his master’s thesis on “The Sociocultural Ramifications of Culture in Society: Circular Reasoning for Reason’s Sake” and graduated from Brown in 1998, receiving the department’s highest honors for his thesis. His mentors begged him to stay on and teach random undergraduate courses -- and poly the faculty lounge floor -- but Potetick declined.
“I really loved Brown,” said Potetick, “but it was time to leave the academy for a real job. I felt I was finally qualified. For what, I didn’t know.”
Over the next decade, Potetick worked his way north along Route 95, stopping for stints as a batman for the Pawtucket Red Sox, a carnival pitchman in Attleboro, a concession stand operator in Foxboro, a conjugal visit coordinator in Walpole, and an assistant embalmer in Dedham. All along, one goal remained.
“I needed to conquer the White Whale,” he revealed. “I knew all roads led to Cambridge.”
Cambridge is home to MIT, which happens not to be an Ivy, and it’s also home to Harvard, the eighth and final Ivy necessary to complete Potetick’s impossible dream.
The question for Potetick became which degree to pursue. He’d covered business, law, international relations, literature and American studies and a few others informally. After an excruciating day of thought, he concluded there was only one discipline that could culminate his education: education.
In the fall of 2012, Potetick began his studies at Harvard. He diligently dove into the one-year master’s program, finishing comfortably in 18 months. At commencement, Harvard’s president singled out Potetick for his unwavering commitment to learning and for completing his remarkable journey through the Ivy League.
“The thrust of what Perry set out to accomplish was educational enlightenment and a life explored,” said Harvard’s head honcho. “But he turned it into so much more than that, did he not? For Perry, the thirst for learning became an unreasonable and — let’s be honest — frivolous pursuit of academic credentials as trophies to be mantled. Can there be a better testament to the human appetite for self-aggrandizement? For this, Perry surely must be celebrated.”
There to celebrate with Potetick were Fora, Larry and Gary. Javik was on a whaling expedition near Spitsbergen and sent his best wishes.
“Finally,” Fora said with a smile. “Finally you can die in peace.”
When asked what he planned to do now that he’d achieved his goal, Potetick looked pensive. After a pause, he suddenly brightened.
“With my degree in education and my certification,” he said, “I’m finally qualified to teach first grade. Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to shape young minds, to inspire a new generation of strivers, of dreamers, of credential collectors. I’m living proof that with hard work and a bit of good fortune, anyone can convince an admissions committee. After all, isn’t that what life’s all about?”
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.
At U of All People, the administration has grown concerned over the slackness of our student body. Make that bodies. The athletic facilities are so underutilized that you can see tumbleweeds drifting past the exercycles. The freshman 10, the weight gain from our students’ first encounter with our dining halls, became the freshman 15 about five years ago and has recently climbed to the freshman 25. The feat of physical prowess the students got most excited about last month was the annual hoagie-eating contest, won by the combined efforts of the Eta Beta Pi fraternity at 232 sandwiches in half an hour. When asked their favorite activity on a Sunday afternoon, 75 percent of the students answered, “A nap.”
But when an article on the subject appeared in The Weekly People last week, the Student Recreation Board fired back a reply. “Our student body is extremely active,” proclaimed Rec Board head Ann E. Robics. To highlight “the intense physical activity that our students participate in on a daily basis,” the board is now organizing a campus competition: the first academic triathlon -- but it can’t use that name, because it’s already been co-opted by a nationwide bunch of grade-school math and science nerds. Instead, the board has adopted the title TPC: Three-Part Competition, though “TPC” alone has a knowing feel to it that the explanatory part drags down, so the board is going to stick with just the initials. As physics professor Moe Mentam, academic adviser to the TPC committee, says, “All movement is good movement!”
Seven competitions have already been proposed and field-tested, just not in any actual fields. See below for what’s on the docket, complete with an almost meaningless point system. Any resemblance to the Olympic Games is more than coincidental.
Morning class preparation:
* vault out of bed (10 bonus points for those sleeping in bunks)
* swim into cast-off clothes (tight jeans, 15 bonus points)
* run to bathroom (carpeted corridor counts 10 points more than bare floor)
Making it to class:
* sprint to car, parked on far side of campus (illegal spots, 10 points off)
* drive seven laps around building where class is held (hitting pedestrians, 50 points off)
* return to original parking spot and run to class (stupidity, 25 points off)
In-class phone calisthenics:
* thumb exercises: text 50 characters per minute (obscene messages, 10 bonus points or 10 points off, judges’ discretion)
* REM (Rapid Eye Movement): view smartphone screen and classroom smart board simultaneously (15 bonus points for twitches over 3 per second)
* curls: haul phone from under desk and surreptitiously slip it back (20 points off for getting busted)
* hoist textbooks (handicap weights at 5, 10 and 20 lbs.)
* jog across campus to art class held in physics lab (25 points off for getting lost)
* dash to vending machine during break to grab 2:30 lunch (10 points off for indigestion)
* walk circuits around library tables until a spot opens up (flirting in place, 10 bonus points)
* manual dexterity: set up laptop, notebook, cell phone, earbuds, water bottle, and snack (15 bonus points for cool hardware)
* task management: move among computer, phone, and notebook until time to leave (subtract 10 points for each task completed)
* aerobic conditioning: pace outside professor’s office until beckoned in (75 points off for knocking on door)
* arm exercises: gesture vigorously when discussing project (10 points off for knocking over professor’s prize doohickey on desk)
* neck extensions: nod at everything professor says (10 bonus points for making professor think her idea was yours)
Writing a paper:
* try to boot up laptop; try again; hit student writing lab (subtract 10 points if after hours)
* surf; cut; paste (subtract 50 points for plagiarism, if caught)
* pull all-nighter (disqualification for use of Adderall)
The TPC committee is currently thinking up competitions for the faculty, including the race for tenure and marathon grading sessions. And it could use more. All suggestions are welcome, though it’ll probably claim credit for any good ones.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
As Inside Higher Edreported last week, the newest round of curricular mayhem instigated by Bruce H. Leslie, the chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, is to replace his district’s second three-credit humanities course requirement with a class based on The 7Habits of Highly Effective People. (Leslie might have suggested Machiavelli’s The Prince, which seems closer to his style of governance.
The FranklinCovey Company plans to release a textbook specifically for EDUC 1300, Learning Framework, which will be required for every student taking the course. Perhaps Leslie read the 2013 version from Save Time Summaries, whose motto is “Save Time and Understand More”! The lengthy list of short takes in the Save Times Summaries series includes Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Tim Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, and, most puzzling of all, Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander III (surely, reading this proof doesn’t require saving time -- presumably we have all of eternity). All that remains, for some enterprising individual, is a proposal for “7 Effective Habits for Dummies.”
And the new core course can’t be too intense; work place seminars on the book generally run around two days, and after all, as Colleen Flaherty reported for Inside Higher Ed, Leslie’s inspiration was a kindergarten class that he visited, where one young scholar shook his hand. Chancellor Leslie, in fact, seems fixated on the handshake, something even my mother’s succession of poodles has mastered.
It came up again in his rationale for revising the core: According to Flaherty, “Leslie said the proposed course is a measured response to calls ... to ensure that students graduate with ‘soft skills’ -- leadership, knowing how to shake a hand, how to manage time effectively -- and from his own personal experience. Several years ago, Leslie realized that some graduates hardly looked him in the eye or knew how to shake his hand... .” Perhaps they just weren’t all that into him.
As for eye contact, that can happen just as easily in a humanities course as in a class centered on a self-help book. I’ve encountered it hundreds of times: maybe it’s sparked by a line from a Seamus Heaney poem, or the final chapter of a novel by Zadie Smith, or a passage from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave: it’s the look of learning, the look that says, “I get it.”
Perhaps in the chancellor’s dream course there will still be time for a short poem or a snippet from history or a mini lesson in how to say “Hello!” in different languages -- in weekly “Show and Tell” sessions, scheduled in between nap and snack times.
And there may be additional reading. While the logical companion text would seem to be All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, other equally frightening supplemental possibilities include WhoMoved My Cheese? and Fish! My recommendation is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, if only because it includes the word Think in the title.
Instructors at the Alamo Colleges are limited in terms of selecting their own texts, but they might also want to sneak in Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, if only for Gatsby’s Franklin-like self-improvement list, or what the little boy who so inspired Leslie on his fateful visit to that kindergarten class called his “data book.”
Time permitting, students might also benefit from reading Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” a concise and precise lesson in perception; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a reminder of the dangers of procrastination, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, a reminder of what highly effective people know: “Be kind.” Or, as Mr. Rosewater actually said, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
The Save Time Summaries version of 7 Habits cut the original accompanying anecdotes, in the interests of time and space; this isn’t surprising, coming from a venture that also includes Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller on its list, with the promise of “From Start to Finish -- 20 minutes!”
Now Chancellor Leslie’s lose/lose plan (see the discussion of Habit #4 of highly successful people) will do something similar for the students in his district. They’ll just have to wait for grad school curriculums in medicine, law, and business to find another course on the value of storytelling.
Planners of those programs have recognized that storytelling -- both the telling and the listening -- are important. Narratives convey information and facilitate learning. Besides, it’s helpful to have a good tale to go along with that firm handshake.
But you don’t have to take the word of curriculum planners at Columbia University or Saint Louis University or Penn State University on the significance of storytelling -- just ask any five-year-old.
Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.
It’s that time of decade again, when randomly selected departments at U of All People are faced with assessment. The administration brings in a posse of NAAAAAA experts with credentials bought from the people who sell fake IDs, and has the faculty entertain them for three days while they poke their noses into everything, including Professor Winkle’s Dryden seminar, which no one has disturbed in years. Here’s how the process works, at least in the English department:
Three months before the assessors arrive, the department is galvanized into action by the chair, acting on directives from the dean, obeying the orders of the provost, who bows to the president. “The assessors are coming, the assessors are coming!” shouts the chair from the comparative safety of the rostrum at the semester’s first departmental faculty meeting while everyone else dives for cover. After this warning shot comes the collective indignation of the faculty -- How dare they judge us? We’re in the humanities! -- as the professors go through the Kübler-Ross stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When everyone has settled down (except for Professor Winkle, who’s settled in for a nap), the chair starts planning the arduous task of self-judgment. The task consists of recruiting three faculty members who blinked at the wrong time, including Professor Winkle, who opened his eyes after his nap. The disgruntled three are assigned to gauge how much the students aren’t learning from the department’s courses.
What are the standards, criteria, methods? The Renaissance contingent proposes noble goals, such as achieving wisdom and learning to appreciate a Shakespearean sonnet, but no one wants to set the bar too high, or the assessment will be that this department needs to pull up its socks.
The faculty debate setting the bar absurdly low: for instance, that students should learn to read, but there’s no guarantee of students passing that bar, either. After several more meetings and the formation of a committee to oversee the assessment committee, the proposal is that each student should be familiar with the terms literature and irony; must know how to put together an argumentative essay proving that Shakespeare was a great writer; and should have enough literary history to realize that 1800 came after 1564, and that both are before 1922. These arbitrary criteria, once insisted upon, achieve a solidity as satisfying as trompe l’oeil papier-mâché walls.
The methods for data collection are decided by the assessment committee, eager to pass on responsibility to other, unwilling faculty. The methods involve snatching away student essays for disappointed analysis: counting how many times the words in my personal opinion and irregardless appear in the essays, seeing whether the arguments hold water (Professor Winkle performs that job over the sink in the fourth floor men’s restroom), and checking for spelling and grammar, assuming that the faculty are up to it.
As an extra concession, the department tracks alumni/ae to see whether anyone actually used the English major to wangle a job; and contemplates giving an exit exam to department seniors, though the offer of free pizza to anyone who’ll sit for the exam gets only three takers. The sample questions include references to periods, movements, literary terms, authors and works, and seven questions on Dryden. The sample size of all the data varies from a dozen to one faked reply by Professor Winkle.
Other creative assessment methods involve tossing the student essays downstairs to see which go farthest, and throwing the I Ching. To tabulate the results: charts with percentages look good, as do bulleted lists, though the superimposition of one over the other is probably (too late) a poor decision.
Tension mounts till the assessors arrive, at least one in a rumpled brown business suit, all looking as if they haven’t slept since the start of the fall semester. The assessors ask a lot of questions, visit classes, and interview people whom no one ever thought to talk to previously, including Clarice, the custodial supervisor for the liberal arts building. Eventually, they write up a report that recommends a 15 percent reduction in adjunct labor, greater funding for core courses, less departmental internecine warfare, and more attention paid to Dryden.
The report is circulated down the ranks until, months later, it reaches the English department faculty. Since the administration has ignored the implications of the report, the department restricts discussion to only 17 hours, spread out among four faculty meetings.
What rides on all this? Not much till next decade’s visit, when the department scrambles to recall what it did the last time.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
In an effort to better-understand differences among student subgroups, the institutional leadership requested an analysis of engagement levels among Zombie students.
Analysis of institutional data indicates that students who self-report as Zombies also report statistically significant lower levels of engagement across a wide range of important student experiences. Many of these lower levels of engagement on specific student experience items are also negative predictors of Zombie student satisfaction.
Zombie students report lower levels of participation in class discussion despite higher satisfaction with faculty feedback. Further investigation found that these students often find it difficult to raise their hand above their heads in response to the instructor’s questions.
Zombie students also report that their co-curricular experiences had less impact on their understanding of how they relate to others. Additional analysis of focus group transcripts suggests a broad lack of self-awareness.
Zombie students indicate that they have fewer serious conversations with students who differ by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or social values. Instead, Zombie students seem to congregate and rarely extend themselves out of their comfort zone.
Interestingly, our first- to second-year retention rate of Zombie students is 100 percent, despite high reports of tardiness and absences. Yet our six year graduation rate is 0 percent. While some have expressed concern over these conflicting data points, the Commencement Committee has suggested that the graduation ceremony is long enough already without having Zombie students shuffling aimlessly across the stage.
Finally, Zombie students report an increased level of one-on-one student/faculty interaction outside of class. However, we found no correlation between the substantial drop in the number of evening faculty from last year (108) to this year (52) and the number of Zombie students enrolled in night courses. Strangely, the Zombie students in these courses did indicate an unusually high level of satisfaction with the institution’s meal plan.
Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. He blogs at Delicious Ambiguity, where a version of this essayfirst appeared.
It is not the first time that our cat, Finn Segal, has disappointed us by failing to live up to our expectations, but this may be the last straw. Perhaps most disconcerting is that even now he shows no concern and has stubbornly assumed his usual meatloaf position in a sunny spot.
It’s not that Finn, with a little training, could not master the computer keys. He is already adept at stepping on the capslock and delete buttons. And he darn well has a working knowledge of the internet; it’s just that this slacker would rather spend 8 hours a day watching cat and chipmunk videos on YouTube than applying himself to “International Finance.”
Especially galling is the fact that not only could our cat have been a contender, but he also let slip through his paws the definitive answer to the time-honored question of “Just who’s smarter: dogs or cats?”
In fact, I will wager a six-month supply of Revolution Parasiticide (for fleas, ear mites, and heartworm) that Finn was the first to complete an online class. Just last winter, we enrolled in an online course in "Introduction to Poetry." While it is true that we registered under my name alone, Finn was with me every step of the way.
Moreover, I am now willing, given the present circumstance and dismaying news about Pete, to come forward with an admission: Finn logged more hours than I did. By the fourth lesson, he had moved into the alpha chair in the study, freeing me up to take care of other tasks around the house and the town. I have many warm memories from that time, when I would peek into the study and see Finn curled up on my desk chair, quietly napping as a soothing voice read from the works of John Keats, Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens.
As of today we are instituting a new instructional regime for Finn. He will still be allowed to go outside and he will still be permitted to watch YouTube -- but only after he has completed his M.B.A.-related coursework for the day.
After all, if he could complete a session devoted to the poems of John Ashbery, Finn should have no trouble at all with “Taxation and Accounting.”
Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.