Our younger child just finished the college admissions sweepstakes. He got into one of his top choice schools, but he says he feels more unburdened than proud. Now he can get on with his life, enjoying the things he loves to do. He no longer has to worry about marketing his “admissions package,” as if he were the latest toothpaste or laundry detergent.
Our family last went through the admissions experience eight years ago when our older child applied to college. Although he ended up at one of the “hot” Ivy League universities, we sadly concluded that the selective college admissions process had no redeeming social value. You just lived through it, hoped your child survived unscathed, and prepared to hand over your bank account.
Unfortunately, it has gotten worse since then. More than ever, higher education seems like a commodity, as selective colleges market themselves shamelessly, increase applicant demand, and manage enrollments as if they were commercial enterprises. And, in response, an industry of expensive services and consultants to teach applicants how to game the admissions system is booming. Uncalculated is the toll on students, integrity and fundamental fairness.
This time around, college planning started just before ninth grade, when the college counselor at our son’s school met with parents and students to advise on the importance of course selection over the next four years. The message was to take diverse and challenging courses if you hope to get into a selective college -- loosely defined as the top 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. News & World Report annual survey. No big deal: Anyone who is interested in a rigorous liberal arts education for their child would probably take this advice anyway.
Then came 10th grade’s pre-pre-college admissions testing regimen: the PSAT, given by the College Board, and the PLAN, from ACT Inc. This was to get students ready to take the same tests again in 11th grade, to get them ready to take the tests that count big time in college admissions, the SAT and ACT. Although originally devised as alternatives, counselors now tell students to take both the SAT and the ACT and submit the score of the one they do best on. These tests are in addition to at least three SAT II “achievement” tests and, of course, a battery of Advanced Placement exams for those rigorous courses they are counseled to take. Pile on top of these the now de rigueur SAT and ACT review courses -- at, not incidentally, anywhere from $700 to $3,000 a pop.
Our son, a motivated student with top grades and a challenging academic program, is a very good, but not spectacular, standardized test-taker. Friends with children at other schools told us that kids had to have 1500 SAT’s to be in the admissions hunt at top-echelon colleges. Looking at the median test scores published by colleges and information services all over the Internet, this notion did not seem completely off-base. But even if it meant going to a lesser member of the “nifty 50” group of colleges, our son eschewed review courses on the grounds that he already had a heavy schedule and would rather read some good books than spend hours taking boring SAT or ACT prep classes. Obviously, we had done something right in his education, but we were definitely out of the mainstream.
He opted not to take the SAT at all, and ended up scoring in the 99th percentile on the ACT after doing some test prep at home on his own. This he was proud of, because, as he said, he isn’t a wiz at standardized tests, and he didn’t take an expensive prep course. I suppose it was a kind of reverse snobbery (“anyone can do well if they take a prep course, but I did it on my own”) and a real sign of the times in the selective college admissions world.
Fate was cruel to him in other ways. The night before the first AP exam in his junior year, he developed golf-ball-sized lymph nodes all over his neck and groin that looked suspiciously like lymphoma. It took four days to determine that he had mono, not cancer. This scare did put the whole college admissions lunacy in perspective for us.
On the other hand, our son endured AP and SAT II exams while suffering from mono. Now he had a new dilemma. Does he tell colleges he took the exams while sick? Does he take tests over in the fall? No matter how well he did, would he have done better if he had not had mono? In the end, he decided to accept fate. He did reasonably well on the tests, there were limits to how much of his life he was prepared to devote to getting into the “perfect” college, and he did not like making excuses, even good ones.
Our son’s college application experience was tame compared to children of a lot of upwardly mobile, well-educated, Baby Boom parents. For starters, the popularity of private “college consultants,” notwithstanding their ludicrous fees, took us by surprise. One family we know had a consultant on retainer from the time the child was in seventh grade. This was in addition to the cost of SAT prep courses and the professional editor for the college essay. The total bill for these services was more than $30,000.
An acquaintance we bumped into at a wedding last summer informed us she had just opened a private college consulting business, having recently retired from her position as a highly successful college counselor at an elite prep school. She offers a four-year package for about $15,000, or the college-application-only option for the all-important senior year for about $5,000. Her phone was ringing off the hook. Could this possibly be worth the extraordinary expense?
More important, what message does it send to children about their worth and competence when we act as if the only way they can make it into a selective college is to hire high-priced help to package and market them? Is the admissions prize worth this psychological price? As bad, are we raising a generation of young cynics?
Looking for Help
A quick Internet search revealed no shortage of expensive, fear-mongering consultants to guide students and their families through what they imply is the mine field of selective college admissions. After reading these sites, we wondered if a mere mortal could possibly fill out an application for an elite college, never mind actually get in. I went to Amazon.com and did a search for books on college admissions. The first book that turned up was A is for Admission; the Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Warner Books, 1999), the controversial, tell-all exposé of selective college admissions by Michelle A. Hernandez. Hernandez is a former Ivy League admissions officer who now has -- you guessed it -- a college consulting business. I ordered the book and read it cover to cover.
She confirmed what our older son had learned from an admissions office friend at his Ivy League university: You are lucky if an admissions reader devotes 15 minutes to the application your child labored over for months. It might even be more like 10 minutes. Hernandez also explained how, by calculating a so-called “academic index,” the selective college admissions office will reduce your child’s entire high school career to one number, weighted heavily in favor of standardized tests. The book had the ring of truth, not the least because it confirmed my by-now-cynical view of the selective college admissions process.
Hernandez also instructed how to play the admissions game, with specific coaching like: play down economic advantages; play up work experience, especially hard manual labor; show long-term passion about a few things; choose teachers for recommendations who you know can write with style; and most importantly (was this tongue-in-cheek?) be yourself. Her follow-on volume, Acing the College Application: How to Maximize Your Chances for Admission to the College of Your Choice, was prescriptive about how to fill out an application, including how to do the “brag sheet,” the list of activities and interests that is required in the Common Application now used by most colleges.
Of course, her example of a brag sheet, taken from one of her clients, made the applicant sound like a combination of Albert Schweitzer and Steven Spielberg. If this was the competition, it was very discouraging. Her advice on college interviews was sensible and contained a list of common interview questions. (Spot on, according to our son, after having gone through six interviews.) You can retain Ms. Hernandez for what is undoubtedly thousands of dollars, or you can buy the books for a total of about $25. We chose the cheap alternative.
One of the great eye-openers in the college admissions experience was the amount of disingenuousness involved in writing the college essay. Our son’s school spends a few weeks in English class early in the senior year working on crafting personal essays in order to prepare for college applications, so we naively assumed that students wrote their own college essays.
Not necessarily. As we spoke to parents in other places who had lived through the senior year with their children, we personally came to know of a father who wrote his daughter’s college essay, a father who had his son’s college essay written by an employee of the father’s business, and parents who hired professional editors or writers to “help” with the college essay. The worst part is that in every case, these children got into their first choice schools.
We live in a small town in upstate New York and thought we were immune to what we viewed as these metro-area ethical challenges. Wrong again. The summer before our son’s senior year, we received a glossy brochure from a professional writer in our town. He has gone into the business of helping students to “find their voices” in the “all important” college essay, a service for which he charges the mere pittance of $1,500. Isn’t your child’s future worth it? There seems to be so much deception in college essay writing, I have come to the conclusion that essays should be eliminated from applications in favor of a personal essay question administered in a controlled environment by the College Board or ACT and forwarded by them to colleges. Ironically, I never imagined I would find myself advocating for yet another college admissions test.
The same family that spent more than $30,000 on college consultants claimed that the college counseling staff at their well-regarded country day school advised that if the family was of a charitable bent, the application year would be a good time to make a significant donation to their child’s first-choice college. The family said they pledged half a million. An old friend who has been on the faculty of an elite liberal arts college in New England for a quarter century confirmed that over the past five years it has become well known that a contribution of $500,000 to $1 million to a selective college can secure a spot in the class for a student who is academically qualified.
Since 90 percent of applicants to such colleges are academically qualified and most of them are not admitted, the wealthy who are prepared to be generous at the right time appear to be able to buy admission for their children. Off the record, some selective college administrators we know demur that you have to pledge to rebuild the library in order to influence an admissions decision. Whatever the price, the dirty little secret seems to be that admission is for sale in what sounds like a pretty straight-forward, if expensive, transaction.
Toward the end of our son’s wait to hear from colleges, he had a nightmare that notification finally came but merely said, “No conclusion.” Did it mean he was consigned to college admissions purgatory forever? This was a fate worse than death. Happily, he awoke and was eventually admitted. Just as happily, we will never have to live through this experience again.
But we cannot help wondering if the selective college admissions process is losing integrity with every passing year. Reading thousands of applications at ten or fifteen minutes apiece, can admissions officers really see through anything but the most obvious and overblown applicant marketing? How can we believe their universal representation that each application is carefully reviewed? And what happens to families whose children go to schools with under-staffed and overburdened guidance offices and who cannot afford private college consultants, clever essay editors, test prep courses and mammoth charitable contributions?
These questions raise issues of fairness that go far beyond the current debates about affirmative action. Let’s hope the colleges are trying to answer them.
Deirdre Henderson is a mother and lawyer who lives in upstate New York.
Today, U.S. News & World Report will once again come out with its annual college rankings. Having worked as a college administrator my entire professional life, I often get questions about the usefulness of such rankings in the search process.
While rankings such as those published by U.S. News and World Report offer some useful data, I have developed a different set of five simple criteria or considerations for evaluating the value and for choosing one of the best educational experiences offered by our country’s 600 liberal arts colleges. Were I to provide counsel to parents of students interested in attending one of these colleges -- or to educators wondering how their institutions are doing -- here are five lines of questioning I’d suggest they pursue:
1. Has the institution’s faculty been granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter? Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and strongest academic honor society. Only those colleges or universities that meet the most rigorous academic standards are granted chapters. Criteria for membership include the number of volumes in the library, the number of faculty members who hold terminal (doctorate) degrees, and the number of faculty members who are members of Phi Beta Kappa. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa is an icon for maintaining a faculty of high caliber. Of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, only 270 -- 7 percent -- have been granted Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Other measures of academic quality include accreditations by national organizations, honors and awards received by faculty, and participation of students in undergraduate research and related regional and national competitions.
2. Has the college or university earned a favorable rating (A or better) by Moody’s Investors Service or another rating service such as Standard and Poor’s? Moody’s rates bonds issued to finance capital projects. Each series of bonds carries a different rating, but taken in aggregate, the bond ratings provide a meaningful and important gauge of institutional health. No institution can get an A or better rating if it does not have a history of balanced budgets. In Texas, for example, only five of our private colleges have an A or better rating from Moody’s as of June 2005. Bond ratings show financial strength in the way Phi Beta Kappa membership shows an institution’s academic strength. A good bond rating is an indication that an institution has the funding to sustain important academic programs. Other measures of financial health include the annual National Association of College and University Business Officers Endowment Survey and the college’s annual report, which should include a financial statement that shows expenditures for instruction, library and technology, scholarship, maintenance and construction as well as income from tuition, endowment, and gifts and grants.
3. Do graduates of the college earn predominantly Bachelor of Arts degrees? Bachelor of Arts degrees, which often require mastery of a foreign language, are the “union cards” for people who truly pursue undergraduate study in the liberal arts. Generally, it can be said that the higher the ratio of B.A. degrees to pre-professional degrees such as the B.B.A., the greater the college or university’s commitment to teaching. At the strongest liberal arts colleges and universities, at least 75 percent of the degrees awarded each year are B.A.'s as opposed to pre-professional degrees.
4. What percentage of students resides on campus? Living on campus is an important component of a student’s education, as it helps develop a sense of community and civic duty and provides a more complete living and learning environment. Campus residency leads students to participate in campus organizations where they learn valuable leadership and teamwork skills. Ideally, 80 percent or more of a campus’s full-time undergraduates should reside on campus to ensure a vibrant collegiate experience.
5. How diverse is the campus community? Diversity comes in many forms: racial/ethnic, gender, socio/economic, age, geographic, to name a few. A hallmark of a broad-based undergraduate education is consideration of a variety of perspectives based on the different experiences of diverse students and faculty. This type of rich and vibrant dialogue proves invaluable in students’ future professional, civic and personal lives. As a threshold, campus communities of students, faculty and staff should include 20 percent or more who represent populations other than its dominant majority.
I’m not saying that we should throw out rankings such as those compiled by U.S. News. An unfortunate characteristic of our society is that we always want to know who is No. 1 – whether it be in the classroom or on the football field. But the problem with rankings is that they encourage institutions that are uniquely different to change their programs in an attempt to improve their rankings. This doesn’t make sense for institutions that have specific missions that do not complement the rankings game.
For students who want to choose a great liberal arts college, I believe the above five questions are the ones that should be asked. You won’t find a college in America that meets these criteria and isn’t a great liberal arts college.
Jake B. Schrum
Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Tex.
Two years ago, The Virginia Quarterly Review published an essay called "Quarterlies and the Future of Reading." The author, George Core, has been the editor of The Sewanee Review since 1973 -- at which time, it was already a venerable institution, one of the oldest publications of its kind in the United States.
By "publications of its kind," I mean the general-interest cultural quarterlies, usually published by universities or liberal-arts colleges. Unlike scholarly journals, they aren't focused on a particular field. Usually they offer a mixture of contemporary poetry and fiction with essays that are learned but nonspecialist.
It pays to be explicit about that, because so few people keep track of the university quarterlies now. Many of them are still around, with a modest if reliable subscriber base in the libraries. But it often seems as if they continue just by inertia.
It is always a sentimental gesture to speak of a golden age. But what the hell: The years between, say, 1925 and 1965 were a glorious time for such journals. Then, as now, their circulations were usually modest. But the worlds of publishing and of the university were smaller, and the quarterlies had a disproportionately large role to play. Truman Capote once mentioned in an interview how he knew he had "arrived" as a young writer in the 1940s: On the same day, he received two or three letters from the editors of quarterlies accepting his short stories for publication in their pages.
In his essay, two years ago, Core insisted that "the literary quarterly ... has been the linchpin of civilization since the 18th century." And if things did not look encouraging at the dawn of the 21st century ... well, so much the worse for what that says about civilization. "The average librarian these days, like many members of various departments in the humanities," wrote Core, "has become hostile to books and hostile to reading." Needless to say, technology is to blame.
It is hard to know what to make of the fact that Core's essay is now available online. I mean, sure, you can read it that way, but would he really want that?
But cantankerousness in defense of the quarterly is no vice. Nor, for that matter, is it a virtue to overstate how much the university-based general-interest periodical has declined. The situation may not be good, but it is not quite catastrophic.
Core's Sewanee Review is hopelessly out of touch with many trends in contemporary literary studies -- which is one reason it is still worth reading. But The Minnesota Review is very much in touch with developments in cultural theory, while also publishing a good deal of poetry, fiction, and personal essays. I've been reading it with interest for 25 years now (during which time it has never actually been published or edited in Minnesota). The Common Review, published by the Great Books Foundation, occupies a niche somewhere between the old-fashioned university quarterly and magazines such as Harper's and The Atlantic Monthly.
The list could go on -- and if it did, would have to include such non-academic, sui generis publications as N+1, which I've been urging upon the attention of startled bystanders ever since seeing the prototype pamphlet that appeared in advance of its debut, not quite two years ago. A third issue is now at newsstands. (See also the magazine's Web site. )
And if you want to see some interesting and successful experiments in updating the whole format, keep an eye out for Boston Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review.
The September/October issue of Boston Review marks its 30th anniversary. Coming out six times a year, and as a tabloid, BR might at first seem to bear little resemblance to the university quarterlies of any era. But those differences are superficial. The mixture of political, philosophical, and literarydiscussion calls to mind the early Partisan Review, the most agenda-setting of the quarterlies published at mid-century.
Boston Review's anniversary issue contains a 12-page anthology of poems and essay organized by year -- including work by (to give a partial list) John Kenneth Galbraith, Adrienne Rich, Rita Dove, Ralph Nader, George Scialabba, and Martha Nussbaum. (Somebody on that list is bound to interest or agitate you.) One of the selections for 1993 comes from an essay by Christopher Hitchens called "Never Trust Imperialists." It would have been interesting to hear the editorial discussion that resulted in that one being included.
As for The Virginia Quarterly Review, it has come under a new editor, Ted Genoways, who seems to have ignored entirely the worries expressed in George Core's ruminations on the state of the quarterly. In its new incarnation, [ital]VQR[ital] is colorful, topical, even a bit flashy -- with the latest issue offering a gallery of photographs from Vietnam as well as a pull-out comic book by Art Spiegelman, along with poetry, fiction, a play, and several essays.
Some of the once-vital quarterlies ended up becoming so polite and reserved that their audiences did not so much read them as search each issue for signs of a pulse. You certainly don't have that problem with Boston Review or VQR. Recent discussion of standards for "public scholarship" has emphasized the possibility of creating venues "at the interface of campus and community."
Arguably, that is what the quarterlies and review always were -- and their revitalization now can only be a good sign.
My nephew always wanted to design things, and as a teenager he seemed to be on the fast track to a good engineering degree. Took a community college calculus course while in high school. Worked for a computer aided design (CAD) company part-time. Got admitted to a top-notch engineering program.
In the middle of his first year, however, he dropped out. Now he’s enrolled in a technical institute, learning CAD skills and only CAD skills. He’s very happy, apart from the fact that he’s had to move back home.
Where did I, his college-professor aunt, go wrong? Or did I?
What upsets me is that he doesn’t see any inherent value in a liberal education, in a college degree rather than a tech-school certificate. But I also wonder whether mine isn’t a narrow attitude -- after all, the kid wants to do CAD, so why should he have to get a degree? What doors would a bachelor’s degree open for him? He knows what kind of work he likes to do, and he can start earning money at it a lot faster with a certificate in “Drafting/CAD.”
I checked out the Web site for the school he’s chosen. The school’s URL is a .com, not a .edu. It boasts that "Our short term curriculums focus only on courses directly related to your field of study, without any fluff. These classes are taught by instructors that have professional experience in the industry."
Besides bringing out my usually-held-in-check pedantry (“the plural of curriculum is not curriculums, dammit” and “instructors WHO, not instructors that!”), the Web site rankles because it’s pitching itself directly against the idea of a liberal arts education or “fluff.”
I worry that I’m being a snob. Why shouldn’t he study a job skill instead of spending his time reading books he doesn’t care about? Why not go to class at a place that teaches auto body repair instead of philosophy? I’m sure they’ll get him a job when he graduates, which is more than I do for my students.
My nephew is a working-class kid. Neither of his parents went to college, and most of his friends won’t. Still, I had assumed that because he got good grades in high school and wanted to be an engineer he’d want to get a degree. The problem is, I think, no one ever told him what a degree was. No one ever talked to him about the difference between higher education and job training. No one ever said why he should want to read books he wouldn’t choose on his own or take a class in chemistry or go to a lecture by a political scientist. And now he probably will never do any of those things.
As a professor I have to mourn that choice. Yet as an aunt who wants to see her nephew happy, I have to agree with my brother that the tech school is probably an OK place for my nephew right now. I don’t mean to imply that he’s doomed. I just worry that he’s severely limited his future choices.
I wonder how it is that higher education is still, in the 21st century, failing to get its message across. Failing to explain the difference between a college degree and a tech-school certificate to the high school student whose parents never went to college. Failing to convince the engineering-school freshman that he should bother to stick around and learn the things that don’t seem immediately applicable to his future career. We have not convinced legislatures that the state has a stake in higher education, that a citizenry trained in critical thinking, writing, and research skills beyond the high-school level is citizenry better able to make informed decisions.
Both my nephew and I want him to be happy in his work. But he sees short-term, where I am trained to see long-term. He wants a job, very soon, in the computer work he has come to like in his part-time job. His model is his father, a union worker who will spend his whole adult life doing the same well paid work with good union benefits. But such jobs are fast becoming extinct in the United States, and the jobs that are replacing them, especially information-industry jobs, are nowhere near as secure.
As the sister who didn’t start building up her retirement fund until 15 years after her younger brother (all those years of college and graduate school), I may have limited credibility here. Nevertheless, I believe that a degree would offer my nephew more options in the long run, more opportunities years down the line, in an age in which most people change careers multiple times in their working lives.
The problem is that I cannot be convincing in a larger culture that does not actively promote the value of higher education. Cushioned in a liberal arts college whose mostly middle- and upper-class students enroll (presumably) because they already understand that there’s value in an education that is not job training, I sometimes forget that a college degree can still be a tough sell. That’s why my nephew’s rejection of college came as such a jolt. But it’s reminded me that American anti-intellectualism can have personal consequences. It’s reminded me that I can’t assume the product I’m selling will advertise itself. If I believe that a better educated citizenry would make for a better state or country or world, then I’d better start writing letters and contacting legislators and talking to kids. Guess I should have started with my nephew.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
Most people think of small liberal arts colleges as cloistered sites nestled on sweeping land in the middle of a city, out in the suburbs, or in quaint small towns miles from civilization. The stone buildings and gothic architecture of most of these colleges invite thoughts of monasteries, of being somehow beyond the world.
They are places where students go to study at the feet of masters, to reflect, to be removed from the cares of the world. And they’re certainly not places where one thinks of cutting-edge technology in the fast lane of the information superhighway. No, that’s for places like MIT, Berkeley, Harvard.
Many students and faculty believe that there is no place for technology in small liberal arts colleges, a belief they cherish and are loathe to let go of. But technology doesn’t have to be the great invader, the destructor of the special nature of a liberal arts college education. It can, in fact, make that education better and more sustainable.
When I was an undergraduate in the late ‘80s, our technology resources were limited. Always a little ahead of the technology curve, I had a computer of my own. It had no hard drive; data was stored on a floppy which had to be switched out with the floppy for the program itself. It was prone to crashing. Once it crashed in the middle of not one, but two, papers I was writing. When I called tech support, I heard a message indicating that the manufacturer had just filed for bankruptcy. We had no computing department to whom I could turn for help.
My only other option for computing was to use the terminals in the library, VAX machines. In order to write a paper, I had to know a few formatting codes, symbols that now make even the most tech-savvy among our students and faculty cringe. And the papers printed out on dot-matrix printers with holed edges that had to be torn off. There was no Internet, no e-mail, on the campus. All our research had to be done in the library using card catalogs and journal directories.
I cannot imagine going back to that. I recently returned to my alma mater for my 15th reunion and was amazed at how much has changed, and yet how much has remained the same. The buildings, built from stone mined from the same quarry, look like they did a hundred years ago. But inside, much has been transformed. Computers now sit on every professor’s desk. Students have access to computers in any number of places and wireless access in even more places. The new library puts books, journals and computers side by side comfortably. The fiberglass stone-like columns hide all the data conduits to allow information to speed around the library quite quickly. As at many small colleges, technology and the liberal arts are coexisting quite nicely.
One of the advantages of a college like my alma mater, or of Bryn Mawr College, where I am now an Instructional Technologist, is to have a more intimate experience of college. Students have smaller classes, participate in extracurricular activities together and see each other around campus frequently, which means they know each other well. They also know their professors well. Professors open their office doors to students more often than at larger institutions. There is more opportunity for a face-to-face conversation with just about everyone. In light of this opportunity, people think that technology only distances people from each other. But that’s not necessarily so; in many ways, technology helps to encourage more face-to-face interaction rather than less.
From a basic communication standpoint, technology such as e-mail, instant messaging, course management systems and course Web sites offer the ability for students to ask questions, to find information about the class, to interact with other students or with course materials. The mechanics of assignments, class schedules, announcements and the like can be relegated to course management systems or Web sites, leaving more time to cover real material in class. E-mail and IM exchanges can lead to a face-to-face appointment.
These methods of communication, one-way or two-way, merely provide an opening for a more meaningful exchange. An e-mail from a student that asks a question might indicate that he or she is having trouble understanding a particular concept -- which might lead the professor to invite the student to visit and go over the concept more thoroughly. Several such e-mails from students might prompt the professor to shift the next class’s focus to the concept in question.
No matter how much instruction is offered on the Web, the core of these schools is the classroom experience. Technology can do a lot to enhance that experience. At Bryn Mawr, Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry, is recording all of her lectures for her physical chemistry course. She’s capturing her computer screen and her voice, saving the video and the audio file, and posting them to her blog. For now, these recorded lectures, or screencasts and podcasts, serve primarily as review for the students. In the future, however, she plans to assign these recorded lectures much as she would assign a text and use class time for something more engaging than a lecture.
As she said recently at a conference, “I used to always show the students the easy case during the lecture and send them home to work on the hard case, but that’s just the opposite of what I think I should do. Now we can work on the hard case in class.”
At the same conference, Scott Warnock of Drexel University, demonstrated how he was using the same technology to comment on student papers. He created a video of the paper with his voice commenting on different parts of it, highlighting as he went along. I was so excited by his demonstration that I tried it myself when I returned. I posted the resulting flash files in Blackboard and asked students to review them before our conference and come prepared to discuss their plans for revision. This worked out wonderfully and I had much more productive conferences. The students were able to ask what I meant by certain comments I’d made. Rather than my spending conference time saying what I had already said in the video, I was able to guide them in their revision process and work with them on more complex aspects of the paper. This, to me, is the essence of a liberal arts education, the ability to have these one-on-one conversations that are productive and help the student begin to tackle problems themselves.
For me as a student, the biggest benefit of a liberal arts education was the ability to make connections between classes and topics. I remember realizing that my classes were not these discrete units, that my economics class had something to do with my Victorian literature classes, that in fact, my classes could inform each other. The advent of the Internet and many Web-based technologies creates a unique environment in which those connections can not only thrive, but flourish.
Via blogging, for instance, students can write about the connections they’re making between topics and classes. They can actually make connections with people and resources that I just couldn’t 15 years ago. Now, they can e-mail a researcher or read their blog and comment on it, which might, in turn, lead the researcher back to the student’s blog and might even lead to a collaboration. Not only do students have nearly instant access to many library resources, but they also have access to the wider resources on the Web, including personal blogs by academics, unpublished papers, “open access” journals, and Wikipedia.
But students aren’t content anymore to simply be passive recipients of this plethora of information; they also want to create their own content and increasingly are provided the resources with which to accomplish that aim. In the lab that I run, I have helped many a student create multimedia presentations, using video, audio, and photos. Some have created Web sites and still more have blogs (some of which I read), on which they reflect on their schoolwork and college life. Last semester, in fact, a computer science professor, Doug Blank, and I co-taught a class that is studying the blog phenomena, mostly by writing in our own class blog and reading other blogs and media. The students write an average of two posts a week and comment on each other’s posts even more frequently than that.
They are creating content that is, in turn, being commented on by others, including the authors of the articles they’ve written about. In the beginning, we felt we had to post and comment fairly frequently to help get the blog off the ground, but now the students are the primary authors of most of the content. We use that content as fodder for class discussion. Not only do we discuss the topics that they have addressed, but we also discuss they way they’ve formulated their arguments and how they could be improved. We talk about any comments that present counter arguments and how they should address them. The students are learning valuable lessons about what it means to write publicly and how to evaluate what they say against the standards required by writing publicly.
By now, some of you may be feeling a little queasy about all of this. Blogging? Screencasting? How is that part of the liberal arts? Aren’t we losing control if the students are creating the content? If all the content is online, what need is there for books? What need is there for a teacher then?
Students still need guidance -- and perhaps more so now than ever before. They still need help figuring out when an online resource is a good one. They still need to learn to analyze, synthesize, and critique. They need help making connections. These are skills that technology can’t teach, though it can facilitate the process. I am not saying, you’ll notice, that technology makes it easier.
It doesn’t, but it definitely opens up possibilities that fit in quite naturally with a traditional liberal arts education. Instead of just reading a book and writing a paper about it that gets read only by a professor, students can write an analysis of it on their blog, which their classmates and instructor can then comment on, giving them valuable feedback. Students may engage in an out-of-class online discussion of reading or lecture material that helps them think more deeply about the material. They can ask questions of not just the faculty member teaching their course, but even of the author of an assigned article or other experts.
If a liberal arts education is about increased connections between students and faculty, about learning to learn, about creating critical thinking skills, about eventually going into the world and contributing, then technology is absolutely a part of that. Technology broadens the conversation beyond the ivied walls of the institution, facilitating a student’s own transition beyond those walls. Professors, especially at liberal arts institutions, certainly see themselves as instrumental in that transition. To remain so might mean trying out new technology. It doesn't have to be scary and it doesn't mean an end to the liberal arts. As Sam said in Green Eggs and Ham, "Try it. You may like it. You will see."
Laura Blankenship is Senior Instructional Technologist at Bryn Mawr College. She is also Geeky Mom.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years, since earning her Ph.D. at Indiana University. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty has been an administrative assistant at Rutgers University’s Camden campus for a year longer than Paula has been at Wheaton. Last fall Mary taught her first course, Basic Writing Skills III, on the inner-city, campus of a two-year college, Camden County College. She teaches on her lunch break from her job at Rutgers. Mary has been taking evening classes toward her M.A. for three years, ever since she finished her B.A. at Rutgers via the same part-time route. This article is the first in a series in which Paula and Mary will discuss what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: My place is about as different from yours as can be, I know. I often find myself longing for your city setting, your students who are so motivated. At the same time, I realize that teaching my students is a real privilege -- I can push them in exciting ways. Wheaton’s admissions standards keep going up, and I’m starting to see it in my classes. This semester my sophomores in English 290, Approaches to Literature and Culture, seemed to finish with a really good sense of how they can use literary criticism and theory in writing essays for their other English classes. They weren’t intimidated by the critics and theorists they were reading -- they actually used them well in their final essays.If only they could follow MLA style and prepare a proper Works Cited!
Mary: MLA style is something my students can do. They were able to pick up on it easily -- I think that’s because they take well to the idea of structure. They like the five-paragraph theme. The part of the class they had the most difficulty with was the content of their papers -- they couldn’t find their voice at all, let alone critiquing literary theorists.
Paula: Oh, mine had plenty of voice. Sometimes I wished for a bit less voice and a bit more work. I think sometimes that the sense of entitlement many of them have means that they don’t necessarily understand that their word isn’t always good enough. They need to cite some authorities, place their work in a larger context, indicate their scholarly debts. They have pretty good skills coming in, so it’s sometimes difficult to make clear to them how they can push to the next level. If they’ve been getting A’s on their five-paragraph themes in high school, they find it difficult to understand why their first efforts, in English 101 or a beginning lit class, are producing C+’s or B-‘s. Some are grade-grubbers, but most just don’t understand what makes a college A.
Mary: Just a week before the semester ended, one of my students finally understood what makes a college B. In the beginning of the term, her grades were “R’s,” which means that the paper cannot receive a grade; it must be revised. When she failed her midterm portfolio, she cried to me that she couldn’t see her mistakes so she couldn’t fix them. She continued to work on her essays and revise them, over and over. Close to the end of the semester, she approached me before class and said, “Mary, please take a look at this paper that someone wrote for another class and tell me what you think.” Knowing that I was being set up, I quickly looked over the essay. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her smirking, so I told her “You’re right, I wouldn’t have graded this paper.” She shouted, “I knew it! Look at the subject-verb agreement error in the first sentence. There’s even a fragment in the introduction!” Not wanting to trash another teacher’s grading, I pointed out to her that the most important thing was how she had changed since midterm -- that she was now able to identify mistakes so she could correct her own. She passed the course with a B and I am so proud of her.
Paula: See, that’s what’s so great about teaching! I knew you’d love it. That pleasure when you see the lightbulb go on over their heads. That’s the same at Camden County as at Wheaton. But I think you have to do a different kind of work than I have to do in order to get it to happen. In some ways, both our students believe in the value of what we’re teaching, but we both have to do some convincing as well.
Mary: Mine need convincing that what they have to say is important and that saying it in an academic format is worth the effort. Most of the Camden campus students are from Camden city, recently awarded the dubious distinction of being named the most dangerous city in the nation for the second year in a row. They are typically from poor or working class families whose parent(s) may or may not have a high school diploma; many students are parents themselves, and most are minorities: African-American, Latino, or Asian-American. Many CCC students test into basic writing or reading skills classes, which is an indicator that their high school education did not prepare them well enough for college. In an informal discussion, I asked several students about their high school experience, and they claimed that they were never asked to write for content in English class -- the focus was on grammar and fill-in-the-blank or short answer tests. This explains why they are more comfortable with the grammar portion of the writing skills class, as well as how easily they grasp the five-paragraph essay structure. Following the rules is easy for these students, but finding something to say is much more difficult. I am there to assist them in this writing process and hopefully to convince them that they can grow as individuals and be successful in the academic community.
Paula: I have to do some of that, too. But we’re starting from such different places. Mine come to college because it’s expected of them. They need convincing that a liberal arts education really can bring them advantages after they graduate -- that digging into how a literary text works, learning to put together a really well researched research essay, or understanding the connections between Darwin and the poetry of Robert Browning is worth the money the parents are investing and the time the students are investing. In some ways, it’s a harder sell than yours. I have the luxury of time, though, in a way you sure don’t. My teaching is my full-time job, and my teaching load is relatively light. I can’t even imagine what it is like for you, working fulltime and taking classes while learning to teach in probably the most challenging of circumstances -- as an adjunct at a community college. I know how hard it is for you to keep all these balls in the air. Do you think it’ll be worth it in the long run?
Mary: I certainly hope so. That’s the reason I’m teaching this year -- to find out the answer to that very question.
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
Paula and Mary's next exchange will be about the out-of-classroom work they can ask of students.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of artiles about what it's like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: I'm trying not to be annoyed at my students who have e-mailed me that they won't be in class today and tomorrow because their flights back to school were cancelled due to the snow. What business, I wonder, do they have flying out of town three weeks into the semester? And this snowstorm was predicted all week -- they knew there was a chance they'd not get back for classes. Then I remind myself that one said she'd left for a "family emergency" and another because his sister had just given birth. They have a right to set their own priorities -- it's up to me how to handle those decisions in terms of grading.
Mary: Very few of my students have a computer at home, let alone internet access, so they can't e-mail me about problems that come up, such as not being able to attend class due to a snowstorm. None of my women students with children attended class during the snowstorm -- not because they couldn't make the commute, but because they didn't have a babysitter for their kids and the elementary schools were closed in Camden. The priority for these students is exactly that -- their children first, class second. I am acutely aware of the time restrictions that my students face in their personal lives. Most, if not all, have part time or full time jobs, and as I said before, many of my female students have parenting duties when they get home. I find that I have to make homework assignment decisions based on what I think they can actually accomplish without overwhelming them.
Paula: Mine would love it if I took into account their part-time jobs and other obligations when I assigned homework, but I can’t do that. This is a residential college (more than 90 percent of our students live on campus), and I operate on the assumption that taking classes is their full-time job. So I assume that they’ll spend at least three hours outside of class for every hour they spend in class, and I assign reading and writing accordingly. They grumble, but most of them do it.
Mary: I would love half of that time commitment from my students! Instead, I have accepted doctor’s notes for prenatal care appointments and family court documents from students who wanted “excused” absences from class. If a student wants to see me before or after class for additional help, I feel that I have to be generous with my schedule to accommodate them given that, as an adjunct, I have no office or office hours. Since most students have part time jobs and several students even work full time jobs, they have to balance outside work, family obligations, and homework. I admire their tenacity, but I also have to make sure that they are doing a fair amount of school work outside the classroom. This is especially difficult because for many of them their only access to a computer is on campus, and they have to alter work schedules and family schedules to type their papers. To add on to their schedules, I encourage them to participate in a campus bookclub called Mental Elevations, which is one of only three school-sponsored clubs on the Camden campus.
Paula: On my campus, most students have part-time jobs, but many also participate in activities on campus -- theater, singing groups, clubs, and, of course, sports. Scheduling events outside of class is always problematic. We have to work around rehearsals, practices, and working hours. I have never had a student with childcare responsibilities. For me the biggest problem is to make sure they see the relevance to their future careers of what I’m asking them to do. The value of a liberal arts education is clear to the faculty, but it isn’t necessarily self-evident to a 19-year-old how reading Elizabeth Gaskell will help in the world of high finance or state government or retail management.
Mary: It’s much easier for me to make clear to my students that effective writing carries over into their other academic courses as well as future careers. We read paragraphs and essays in different rhetorical patterns that directly correlate to specific career choices. We recently worked on the process essay (“how-to”), and I told them to think about being a human resource manager who had to write a training manual. Before that, we went over the narration paragraph, which corresponded with a nurse’s record of a patient. For me, translating the usefulness of effective writing is relatively easy -- getting the students to believe that writing is a skill that they can learn is the difficult part. They bring a "one and done" attitude into the class, and I need to help them come to think about writing as a process. By following certain steps, they can learn to be effective writers.
Paula: Your students must have pretty clear career goals or aspirations that bring them to a community college at a nontraditional age.
Mary: My class dynamic is definitely interesting because I do have some students directly out of high school (with children of their own), as well as a number of returning students who have now realized that, say, having a CNA certificate (Certified Nursing Assistant) is not as valuable or rewarding as an RN degree. In either case, it seems that the beginning students in Basic Skills classes only have a level of practicality that college equals money and better opportunities for their potential careers.
Paula: I think liberal arts colleges like mine want to have it both ways, really. The students and their parents are investing huge amounts of money in this bachelor’s degree, so they want a return on that investment in the form of a job. At the same time, they have chosen a liberal arts college and not a community college or a state college or university, so they also have a sense that they want an education that is more training in critical thinking, writing, and arts and sciences than it is job training or vocation-oriented, as in engineering or business school. So in our courses we treat knowledge and inquiry as valuable in and of themselves, but outside of class we stress internships, networking, and job and graduate school placement.
Mary: I find myself having this exact duality in my role as graduate student and as a teacher. There is a huge gap between critically discussing 19th century novels like Bleak House at night with fellow graduate students, then turning around and teaching the concept of concrete supporting details in a basic skills class the next morning. What makes this even harder is the fact that in between teaching and being a grad student is working 40 hours a week at a job that doesn't have any relevance to my academic life. But it's the job that pays the bills, and allows for my education, so it has first priority. Maybe this is why I have so much empathy for my students....
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty explored grading and other measures of academic performance.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Mary: I took spring break week off from my 9-5 job at Rutgers as well as my adjunct teaching and my night class, and I spent it reading, resting, and relaxing. But as soon as I got back, I noticed a lot of students missing for our first class. So I did a head count of the number of students who showed up -- 11 out of 22. Where was everybody? I waited an entire week -- three classes -- and the same 11 students showed up. I think to myself, "Can students actually believe that they can pass a class without showing up?" I log onto Web Advisor (Camden County College's administrative Web site) to see if they have dropped the course -- and only two of them have officially dropped! Then, as if by fate, I ran into one of the students who officially dropped my class and I asked her why she dropped. She replied that she has two young children and she was finding it too hard to arrive on campus by 9 a.m., so she withdrew and plans to take a late morning class in the fall. But this leaves unanswered questions about the students who are just not showing up. Are they not interested in finishing the course? Are they not interested in my class or school entirely? And most importantly, how can I get them back into my classroom?
Paula: That is so not my problem this semester! I started with 51 students in my Victorian class, and I was praying for it to shrink. One reason is the U.S. News & World Report college guide statistics. We lose points for classes over 50 -- even if there are only 51 in the class. So it was a good result the day I dropped to 49 in that class. Now I’m down to 47 and I am not the least bit interested in why the students dropped or in getting them back into English courses. If it’s not their cup of tea, that’s fine. It would be a different matter if it meant they might be dropping out of school entirely. With your teaching, so much hinges on keeping them in the class -- students’ futures are at stake. That’s the difference between our institutions but also the difference between our courses. Teaching literature is lovely. It opens up minds, and it pushes students outside their own perspectives in wonderful ways; I wouldn’t give it up. But teaching writing, especially teaching writing the way you do and where you do, can change lives.
Mary: Stop scaring me! That's what bothers me the most -- I know the magnitude of the importance of education in these students' lives, but I can't make them come to class. I know that some of their excuses are sometimes just that -- lame excuses. But for the other students, like the one I ran in to, their issues are real. I contacted the program director to ask her about my retention rate this semester and she advised me that the spring semester is problematic for retention. She also said that retention problems for Camden County students could be caused by numerous reasons, among them are that some of these students lack the support, commitment, or confidence to make college their first priority.
Paula: Well, I had a conversation with a student of mine today that could have been a conversation with a student of yours, I think. She’s a second-semester first-year student, living at home (itself highly unusual at Wheaton, where something like 95 percent of our students live on campus), working to help pay the family bills since her parents broke up and her dad lost his job. Whereas you worry about your students sticking it out at Camden County, I found myself advising this student to get the heck out of Wheaton. We don’t have the kind of financial resources that would allow us to give a student like this one the financial aid she’d need to stay here once her home support has fallen apart. I could just picture her trying to support her dad and brother on three or four summer jobs, all the while accumulating massive student loan debt. It does not make sense for her. I’m a huge believer in a liberal arts education, but I think she could get a very good liberal arts education at a place that could get her through more cheaply, and that needs to be a priority for her now. It’s different at your place, where the only option for someone like her would be to drop out entirely.
Mary: It's an ominous choice, though, isn't it? Maybe that explains why I still have 20 people on my roster and only 11 or 12 showing up to class -- they just can't bear the finality of dropping out. Or another explanation -- which I think may be more likely -- is that these students don't know how to withdraw or ask for help because, as the director of the program pointed out, they lack the necessary support. I don't think she's referring to financial support; it's more personal and familial for these students. Most of my students do not have parents or siblings who graduated college, and therefore they are in a totally different world with no assistance from family members.
Paula: That seems like a real issue -- you can make help available, but you can’t manufacture the conditions under which students can take advantage of it. A student whose family members are used to depending on each other, who has never sought help through an institutional structure, may not know how to do it. She might not know how to walk into the financial aid office or the counseling center or even the advising office and say, “I’m lost. My life is out of control, and I don’t know what to do about my classes.” And the longer they delay seeking help, the more things spiral out of control. And how can you, an adjunct instructor, know how to find them so they can get the help they need?
Mary: That brings me back to my issue with computers, or my students' lack of computers at home. After many of my students did not show up for a week after spring break, I used the e-mail addresses that were on the Web Advisor program to try to contact them and encourage them to come back to class. Out of the eight e-mails I sent out, six came back undeliverable. The two who actually received the e-mail opened it when they came back to class and logged into their e-mails from the classroom workstations! Obviously the e-mail approach doesn't work too well. Similarly, the phone numbers listed on the student handout sheets from the college are also outdated. The college does have a Student Support Service office, but they do not have the resources to track students down. If the students do come back to class, I work with them as much as possible to help them catch up. But the ones who don’t come back or seek help may not make it, and to me that is devastating. I think I’d better learn not to take this as a personal failure, or my teaching career may fizzle before it starts.
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty explored expectations of students.
Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: Well, how was your first year of teaching? When I started teaching in grad school, it was freshman comp, a required course but one that at least carried graduation. I've never taught "developmental," non-credit courses like the ones you were teaching. Was it frustrating to your students to have to pass your class just to get into a position where they could take an English course that counted for credit? Was it frustrating for you? Did it feel like college teaching?
Mary: Since I've only taught developmental, non-credit courses, I'm not sure there is a difference, but I can tell you that I had college expectations for my students. Several of my first semester Writing Skills III students approached me this past semester and thanked me for preparing them for Comp 101, even though they had complained about how much work there was in my class. They said that Comp was a breeze. I think that their frustration while taking my class was in part due to it being a lot of work for a non-credit course (eight essays in 15 weeks).
Paula: Eight essays in 15 weeks is a lot of work, especially if you know you’re not getting college credit for it. How do you keep them motivated? My students are sometimes motivated to pass my classes so they can keep their scholarships or stay on an athletic team or just stay out of hot water with their parents. But more of your students are independent, aren’t they?
Mary: You’re right -- the students in my classes are at just completely different starting points than your students. Many of the Camden County College students on the Camden campus are usually the first of their family to attend college and they seem to have an inner drive to pass their classes for themselves, while the students with children are motivated because they want to eventually provide better lives and opportunities for their children. Students who test into basic writing classes also test into developmental reading and math classes as well. Imagine paying for three remedial classes that you aren't getting any college credit for!
Paula: Speaking of paying for classes you aren’t getting any credit for: I have a colleague who once a year or so asks his students to bow their heads in silent thanks to the students who don’t show up for class -- the ones who are not cluttering up the classroom but whose tuition dollars are making it possible for those who want to learn to do so. But back to the point: How do you motivate students if they’re not getting credit, and what exactly goes on in a "developmental" course?
Mary: Well, my Writing Skills II class in the spring seemed even more frustrated than my Writing Skills III course in the fall, partly because they knew they still had to pass into Writing Skills III before getting into Comp 101. That's a lot of work to do and not receive any course credit. The students also know that they only receive a pass/fail grade for the developmental classes (although their actual numeric grade will show on their transcripts). On a daily basis, keeping their interest in the writing material and assignments is pretty easy. It’s when we cover a grammar lesson that their eyes glaze over. Luckily, I have a lot of support from the program director and I've done a lot of research for interesting grammar activities. Students’ favorites seem to be cartoons and ad spoofs with grammar topics.
The objective for the Writing Skills II students is to write grammatically correct essays with unity, support, and coherence. These students start at the paragraph level with a focus on topic sentences, supporting evidence, and grammar, and are given ample classroom time for revising and editing with teacher input. After mid-term portfolios, each Writing Skills teacher can modify assignments based on the class’s needs (as long as each student completes seven essays). The majority of my students were ready to move on to a five-paragraph essay. I added in some reading-based assignments, but allowed students to continue to use their personal experiences as supporting evidence. On the other hand, WS III students start off with the five-paragraph essay, usually experience-based as well. They concentrate on writing thesis statements, grammar, and eventually work up to doing peer editing in class. They also move on to reading-based essays and using citations by the end of the semester. The objective for these students is, in addition to proper grammar, unity, support and coherence, to be able to edit their own papers, and to start to critically read an article and write about it objectively. I think the largest leap into Freshman Comp 101 is that comp students must come up with a thesis statement that attempts to prove something, not one that just states the obvious. Of course, you've probably had some students in your classes that could have used a bit of developmental writing before coming into your class!
Paula: My problem this semester was not first-year students who needed developmental writing (although I did have a couple in my Victorian lit class). No, my problem was my seniors, all of whom were well trained in writing good essays. But good training did not always translate into motivation, as it turned out. I had some excellent essays in the senior seminar, and I also had some of the laziest work I’d ever read. It really took me aback. I try to tell myself that it was an acute and contagious case of senioritis, causing otherwise hard-working students to turn into do-the-bare-minimum artists in their last semester. But I can’t help blaming myself, too -- I had to have created the conditions that let them think they could get away with turning in such work. I hate giving C's. It’s a rare thing in a course for majors.
Mary: My students ran the gamut in both semesters: A’s through F’s. All of the F’s in my Writing III were simply no shows -- there wasn’t one student who tried but didn't pass. The Writing II class seemed to be divided in half -- they were either really strong or really weak writers. There were several students in my Writing II class who tried and still failed and there were a couple of others who were right on the border of passing or failing their final portfolios. The decision then comes down to which would benefit the student the most -- repeating the class or taking a risk of failing Writing Skills III the next semester. It’s a difficult decision, especially considering the non-credit status of the class and keeping the students motivated and interested in staying in school. I realize that not everyone is college material, but if students can maintain the desire to do well, then I really do believe that they will eventually succeed.
Paula: Well, I’m really proud of you. I know I never could have done it -- worked full time, taught during my lunch hour, and taken graduate classes at night. I loved doing grad school the traditional way, and teaching is a great joy for me. But I do envy you. I envy you the impact you have on your students -- the difference an inner-city two-year college can make in a student’s sense of self, career prospects, family life. I hope you can stick it out and eventually, if you want, move into full-time teaching.
Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty examined the meanings of classrooms that are full (or aren't).
Why do narratives of decline have such perennial appeal in the liberal arts, especially in the humanities? Why is it, year after year, meeting after meeting, we hear laments about the good old days and predictions of ever worse days to come? Why is such talk especially common in elite institutions where, by many indicators, liberal education is doing quite well, thank you very much. I think I know why. The opportunity is just too ripe for the prophets of doom and gloom to pass up.
There is a certain warmth and comfort in being inside the “last bastion of the liberal arts,” as B.A. Scott characterized prestigious colleges and research universities in his collection of essays The Liberal Arts in a Time of Crisis (NY Praeger, 1990). The weather outside may be frightful, but inside the elite institutions, if not “delightful,” it’s perfectly tolerable, and likely to remain so until retirement time.
Narratives of decline have also been very useful to philanthropy, but in a negative way. As Tyler Cowen recently noted in The New York Times, “many donors … wish to be a part of large and successful organizations -- the ‘winning team’ so to speak.” They are not eager to pour out their funds in order to fill a moat or build a wall protecting some isolated “last bastion.” Narratives of decline provide a powerful reason not to reach for the checkbook. Most of us in the foundation world, like most other people, prefer to back winners than losers. Since there are plenty of potential winners out there, in areas of pressing need, foundation dollars have tended to flow away from higher education in general, and from liberal education in particular.
But at the campus level there’s another reason for the appeal of the narrative of decline, a genuinely insidious one. If something goes wrong the narrative of decline of the liberal arts always provides an excuse. If course enrollments decline, well, it’s just part of the trend. If students don’t like the course, well, the younger generation just doesn’t appreciate such material. If the department loses majors, again, how can it hope to swim upstream when the cultural currents are so strong? Believe in a narrative of decline and you’re home free; you never have to take responsibility, individual or collective, for anything having to do with liberal education.
There’s just one problem. The narrative of decline is about one generation out of date and applies now only in very limited circumstances. It’s true that in 1890, degrees in the liberal arts and sciences accounted for about 75 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded; today the number is about 39 percent, as Patricia J. Gumport and John D. Jennings noted in “Toward the Development of Liberal Arts Indicators” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005). But most of that decline had taken place by 1956, when the liberal arts and sciences had 40 percent of the degrees.
Since then the numbers have gone up and down, rising to 50 percent by 1970, falling to 33 percent by 1990, and then rising close to the 1956 levels by 2001, the last year for which the data have been analyzed. Anecdotal evidence, and some statistics, suggest that the numbers continue to rise, especially in Research I universities.
For example, in the same AAA&S report ("Tracking Changes in the Humanities) from which these figures have been derived, Donald Summer examines the University of Washington (“Prospects for the Humanities as Public Research Universities Privatize their Finances”) and finds that majors in the humanities have been increasing over the last few years and course demand is strong.
The stability of liberal education over the past half century seems to me an amazing story, far more compelling than a narrative of decline, especially when one recognizes the astonishing changes that have taken place over that time: the vast increase in numbers of students enrolled in colleges and universities, major demographic changes, the establishment of new institutions, the proliferation of knowledge, the emergence of important new disciplines, often in the applied sciences and engineering, and, especially in recent years, the financial pressures that have pushed many institutions into offering majors designed to prepare students for entry level jobs in parks and recreation, criminal justice, and now homeland security studies. And, underlying many of these changes, transformations of the American economy.
The Other, Untold Story
How, given all these changes, and many others too, have the traditional disciplines of the arts and sciences done as well as they have? That would be an interesting chapter in the history of American higher education. More pressing, however, is the consideration of one important consequence of narratives of decline of the liberal arts.
This is the “last bastion” mentality, signs of which are constantly in evidence when liberal education is under discussion. If liberal education can survive only within the protective walls of elite institutions, it doesn’t really make sense to worry about other places. Graduate programs, then, will send the message that success means teaching at a well-heeled college or university, without any hint that with some creativity and determination liberal education can flourish in less prestigious places, and that teaching there can be as satisfying as it is demanding.
Here’s one example of what I mean. In 2000, as part of a larger initiative to strengthen undergraduate liberal education, Grand Valley State University, a growing regional public institution in western Michigan, decided to establish a classics department. Through committed teaching, imaginative curriculum design, and with strong support from the administration, the department has grown to six tenured and tenure track positions with about 50 majors on the books at any given moment. Most of these are first-generation college students from blue-collar backgrounds who had no intention of majoring in classics when they arrived at Grand Valley State, but many have an interest in mythology or in ancient history that has filtered down through popular culture and high school curricula. The department taps into this interest through entry-level service courses, which are taught by regular faculty members, not part timers or graduate students.
That’s a very American story, but the story of liberal education is increasingly a global one as well. New colleges and universities in the liberal arts are springing up in many countries, especially those of the former Soviet Union.
I don’t mean that the spread of liberal education comes easily, in the United States or elsewhere. It’s swimming upstream. Cultural values, economic anxieties, and all too often institutional practices (staffing levels, salaries, leave policies and research facilities) all exert their downward pressure. It takes determination and devotion to press ahead. And those who do rarely get the recognition or credit they deserve.
But breaking out of the protective bastion of the elite institutions is vital for the continued flourishing of liberal education. One doesn’t have to read a lot of military history to know what happens to last bastions. They get surrounded; they eventually capitulate, often because those inside the walls squabble among themselves rather than devising an effective breakout strategy. We can see that squabbling at work every time humanists treat with contempt the quantitative methods of their scientific colleagues and when scientists contend that the reason we are producing so few scientists is that too many students are majoring in other fields of the liberal arts.
The last bastion mentality discourages breakout strategies. Even talking to colleagues in business or environmental studies can be seen as collaborating with the enemy rather than as a step toward broadening and enriching the education of students majoring in these fields. The last bastion mentality, like the widespread narratives of decline, injects the insidious language of purity into our thinking about student learning, hinting that any move beyond the cordon sanitaire is somehow foul or polluting and likely to result in the corruption of high academic standards.
All right, what if one takes this professed concern for high standards seriously? What standards, exactly, do we really care about and wish to see maintained? If it’s a high level of student engagement and learning, then let’s say so, and be forthright in the claim that liberal education is reaching that standard, or at least can reach that standard if given half a chance. That entails, of course, backing up the claim with some systematic form of assessment.
That provides one way to break out of the last bastion mentality. One reason that liberal education remains so vital is that when properly presented it contributes so much to personal and cognitive growth. The subject matter of the liberal arts and sciences provides some of the best ways of helping students achieve goals such as analytical thinking, clarity of written and oral expression, problem solving, and alertness to moral complexity, unexpected consequences and cultural difference. These goals command wide assent outside academia, not least among employers concerned about the quality of their work forces. They are, moreover, readily attainable through liberal education provided proper attention is paid to “transference.” “High standards” in liberal education require progress toward these cognitive capacities.
Is it not time, then, for those concerned with the vitality of liberal education to abandon the defensive strategies that derive from the last bastion mentality, and adopt a new and much more forthright stance? Liberal education cares about high standards of student engagement and learning, and it cares about them for all students regardless of their social status or the institution in which they are enrolled.
There is, of course, a corollary. Liberal education can’t just make the claim that it is committed to such standards, still less insist that others demonstrate their effectiveness in reaching them, unless those of us in the various fields of the arts and sciences are willing to put ourselves on the line. In today’s climate we have to be prepared to back up the claim that we are meeting those standards. Ways to make such assessments are now at hand, still incomplete and imperfect, but good enough to provide an opportunity for the liberal arts and sciences to show what they can do.
That story, I am convinced, is far more compelling than any narrative of decline.