Curriculum

Survey looks at foreign language programs' response to decade-old call to transform teaching

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In 2007 the Modern Language Association issued a report calling for major reforms in the teaching of foreign languages. What's happened since?

We should stop distinguishing between 'creative' and other forms of writing (essay)

Bad Ideas About Writing

To many people, if not most, the phrase “creative writing” marks a genre. A man writes in a garret, his pages lit by the faint glow of a lamp. Ideas are spilling madly from his cerebral cortex to the page. He probably has a cup of coffee next to him. Or a dog. And he is writing a story -- perhaps about a road trip.

I know that is the image in most people’s brains because it is the one I’ve read or heard described hundreds of times by the news media, in popular culture, by writers themselves, in books written by writers on writing, by my students and by friends. It is also the image most strangers (or distant family members) produce when I tell them my field is writing studies, a discipline dedicated to the academic study of writing of all kinds: college writing, digital writing and workplace writing, just to name a few examples.

Upon hearing that, a man I met in a hostel over breakfast asked me to listen to his poem to see if it was publishable, even though, not being a poet, I have no credentials for evaluating his text. My distant cousin, after years of asking at Thanksgiving dinners, still can’t understand why I don’t want to edit his novel. Most of us learn to laugh off the glaze that comes over people’s faces as we academics in writing studies explain what we, in fact, do write. 


The problem is that one image of writing dominates the popular imagination and is weighted with value more heavily than all others: writing as “creative writing,” which is treated as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry. Over the years, I’ve come to understand a few pervasive problems that stem from the view of creativity as tied to fiction and poetry, from the public’s lack of awareness of what academics and other workplace writers do, from problematic attitudes held within the so-called field of creative writing itself about what types of writing are creative, and from the ways we as writing studies/English scholars reinforce problematic ideas about creativity. Those attitudes include:

  • One sphere of writing is marked off as “creative” while others are devalued.
  • People who write everything except poetry and fiction -- those who contribute the vast majority of writing to the world, in the form of lists, essays, emails, blog posts, texts, instruction manuals and so on -- see their work as less creative and important.
  • This mass of unrecognized writing and labor is virtually unrepresented in popular culture, and academics and other workplace writers are not part of the cultural narrative around creativity (save for some exceptional examples, such as the way writing is represented in the TV show The West Wing, often a powerful meditation on the importance of collaboration and revision in workplace writing, and in Her, a movie that celebrates the ghostwriting of love letters, not generally a celebrated writing genre).

I first took note of the emotional weight and impact of this phenomenon when conducting interviews for my dissertation on the impact of materials of all kinds on the writing process. I interviewed four dozen people and, in countless interviews, they expressed the heartbreaking sentiment that there once was a time when they wrote creatively (i.e., they wrote poems and stories), but now they are just academics or workplace writers. Even more troubling was that when asked if they considered themselves writers, they resoundingly answered no. Even for people who write daily for their trade, writing has become synonymous with poetry and fiction writing, which has become synonymous with “creative writing.”

I began asking more people whose livelihoods depend on the written word and who write daily if they see themselves as writers. I also began asking graduate students who came to see me at various writing centers where I worked whether they considered themselves writers. And again most said no. There was something in the identity label of “writer” that people have attached to a particular kind of writing. Deborah Brandt voiced this powerfully when she pointed out that while the identity label of “reader” is available to most people -- meaning that most readers could confidently say “I’m a reader” -- the identity label of “writer” is not.

In her book, Brandt demonstrates how cultural narratives around the importance of reading enable families to understand the value of this act and to support reading as a family value and practice. This practice, of course, has a long history -- reading was not a solitary or silent activity until relatively recently. (Scholars debate exact dates, but some point to silent reading as a late-19th-century or even 20th-century phenomenon.) Writing, in contrast, has often been associated with privacy, secrecy and solitude, as Brandt asserts.

Writing is also associated not with workplace forms but with poetry and fiction. A question that comes to mind is that if a persistent narrative around writing is that the only creative writing is fiction and poetry, and if families do not see themselves as skilled in this way, how can they encourage writing in all of its forms as a family value? Brandt notes that in her hundreds of interviews with families, people rarely remembered writing around parents. For many families, being a writer is not seen as a valuable trade -- it’s the stuff of fiction.

What persists are damaging stereotypes about writing and creativity that continue to reinforce troubling dichotomies about the nature of creativity. Consider the famous joke that “those who can’t do teach,” which parodies the work of people dedicated to fostering creative thinking in others, which requires them, also, to be constantly creating. Or consider that teachers and professors are almost always depicted in popular culture as practitioners, not talent.

For instance, in the 2015 film Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Nick Offerman plays a bumbling sociology professor whose intellectual contribution to his field is portrayed solely via his penchant for wearing “tribal” clothing from around the world. His son characterizes him as a person who basically sits around a lot. When faculty members aren’t being ridiculed in popular culture, all sorts of other problematic stereotypes are propagated, such as the effectiveness of white teachers or teacher figures inspiring at-risk or inner-city students and/or students of color to be “creative” by writing fiction or poetry. (See, for example, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers, Up the Down Staircase.) Try to imagine those movies teaching writing skills that would actually potentially be valuable in today’s marketplace.

In Dead Poets Society, we even see the symbolic gesture of a teacher tearing up the syllabus, perhaps imagined to be the dullest of literary genres. But as a material representation of a 16-week experience, it is, I would argue, one of the most creative and rewarding of writing forms. Indeed, if creative writing is about world creation, as many people contend it is (although that, too, is debatable), what is closer to this than the creation of a new experience?

How did the field of creative writing, and the public’s idea about this type of writing, emerge? In The Elephants Teach, D. G. Myers traces the origins of this term, the genre and the workshop that has become the standard in English departments across America. Myers presents ample evidence that the institutionalized field of creative writing barely resembles the ideals and movement that produced it in the 1920s, when it exploded in popularity largely due to the writings of educator William Hughes Mearns. Mearns developed and popularized what’s considered to be the first creative writing workshop for junior high school students. He was tired of English courses that used literature as a means of drilling students on vocabulary or grammar or as some other means to an end.

Mearns proposed the practice of writing literary texts for self-expression, so that kids would enjoy literature, and for promoting an understanding of literature by writing it. His description of his creative workshop spread quickly and was rapidly adopted across the United States, largely because he traveled throughout the country presenting the model to teachers and schools and then published student work in various texts that were also publicly devoured.

However, according to Myers, in contrast with current conceptions of writing that treat fiction and poetry as more cultured than genres such as workplace writing, emails, lists or even theses, Mearns would not have abided by a view of creative writing as somehow more cultured or valuable. Neither would the prominent progressive educator John Dewey, Mearns’s influencer.

In fact, both Dewey and Mearns were highly critical of the notion of “culture,” which seemed to be a means of discriminating against the masses for abilities that people held due to various privileges and advantages (such as speaking “proper” English). Myers demonstrates how the rise of creative writing paralleled the rise of post-World War II college enrollments due to the GI Bill, as well as the rise of federal student aid. The growth of creative writing programs also divorced creative writing from its study of literary texts, and the field emerged as one that -- rather than training future writers -- trained future teachers of fiction and poetry. He notes that “Creative writing was devised as an explicit solution to an explicit problem. It was an effort to integrate literary knowledge with literary practice,” but that “what had begun as an alternative to the schismatizing of literary study had ended as merely another schism.” Now, English departments are divided, with the study of fiction and poetry quite divorced from other parts of the program.

An effect of popular attitudes about writing is that much public, popular and workplace writing is devalued, despite its ubiquity, importance, creativity and potency. The division impacts so-called nonfiction, too (a genre defined by a lack). As Barbara Tuchman articulates, “I see no reason why the word ‘literature’ should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘nonfiction’ -- as if we were some sort of remainder.”

Too often, binaries are leaned on in order to praise one thing and devalue another. This is the case with the phrase “creative writing” and just about every form of writing that is set apart from it. And also too often, what’s placed on the other side of the binary is work that is “critical” in nature. Consider an article by scholar and literature professor Graeme Harper, who, in championing the creative writing workshop, repeatedly utters sentences like these: “[My students] are required to write both creatively and critically.” When the critical is opposed to the creative, it’s easy to understand why public attitudes, and even those of academics and other writers who produce critical work, are so pervasively seen as uncreative.

Over the years, the students with whom I have worked, and particularly those who see me in the writing center, have reported that after I talk with them about some of these ideas, and after they begin thinking of themselves as writers, their positive feelings about writing intensify. No one wants to feel that the daily work they do is valueless, dull, uncreative. And everyone should be able to access an identity that they are proud of related to their trade.

I am concerned that narratives about what it means to be creative and a creative writer are to blame for much of what I’ve described. I’ve seen this in the various departments in which I’ve worked, where certain faculty members spurn the fields of professional writing and writing studies and reinforce the idea that teaching poetry, fiction and even literary analysis are somehow more desirable.

I would love to see English and related departments banish the use of “creative writing” in titling disciplines, tracks and departments. Instead, bring us all together under the banner of Writing Studies, Writing or Writing Arts. In my courses, I tell my students at the beginning of the term that they will not hear me use the phrase, and I tell them why. Most of my students are not going to be fiction writers and poets; they are going to be journalists, technical writers, emailers, texters, medical record writers, memo writers, proposal writers and list writers. And I want them to understand that if they enjoy this work, it is as valuable to them as fiction and poetry.

It’s time we banish the idea that certain writing forms are creative and certain aren’t. And that academic writing is dull. Let’s challenge ourselves to stop using the pernicious phrase “creative writing.” To produce more public texts that depict the creativity involved with forms besides fiction and poetry. And to expand our fundamental ideas about what it means to be creative.

Cydney Alexis is an assistant professor of English and writing center director at Kansas State University. You can find her on Twitter at @cydneyalexis. This is the first in a series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. The essays are being published this spring as an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries -- in which scholars and writing instructors identify bad ideas and suggest more productive, inclusive and useful ones.

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Freshman announces he's dropping out of Kansas State and sets off debate on general education

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A freshman who says he has a 4.0 announces his plans to drop out and denounces college as a scam -- setting off a debate on his soon-to-be-former campus and elsewhere.

How for-profit institutions can generate better student outcomes and long-term success (essay)

In this year’s presidential election, Trump University brought for-profit colleges into focus, but it should hardly be considered representative of the promise that lies within postsecondary education. To the contrary, for-profit institutions can, in fact, play a valuable role in furthering knowledge and career prospects for a large group of nontraditional students, including military veterans, working adults, single parents and unemployed workers.

The ability of such institutions to effectively deliver on that promise may experience a boost in the coming year under the incoming presidential administration. The stock prices of companies running for-profit colleges rose significantly after the election of Donald Trump. The president-elect is expected to roll back regulations that have negatively impacted hundreds of struggling for-profit schools over the past four years, many of which have been wrestling with falling enrollments and unprofitable operations.

But even though for-profit colleges may be poised to benefit from deregulation under the Trump administration, the potential reduction of regulations governing the sector should not be viewed as a signal that for-profit school operators should pursue taking a passive, business-as-usual approach to managing their operations.

If the goal is to generate better student outcomes and long-term success, as well as attract new financial investment, leaders of struggling postsecondary colleges must be willing to embrace change and move forward with a sensible rethinking of their business models and a restructuring of both their institutional assets and curricula.

Headwinds

Changing demographics are a key challenge for for-profit colleges. The number of eligible enrollments peaked in 2010, and the pool of 18-year-old high school graduates that would typically pursue postsecondary education isn’t expected to rebound until 2021. Enrollments at for-profit colleges have already declined markedly since 2010 as a result of student concerns about job placement and the return on investment of a college degree. In addition, economic challenges mean that students and parents have less discretionary income and ability to pay.

For example, Congress shortened Pell Grant terms from eight years to six years, reduced overall funding for direct-loan programs like Parent Plus, and renewed support for Perkins Loans for just two years. Competition has also heightened. Online offerings from nonprofit colleges have been luring students away from campus-based for-profits. What’s more, for-profit educators have also had to contend with the exit of traditional lenders from the sector. Nontraditional lenders, such as private debt providers, are starting to emerge to fill the gap in financing, but it comes at a price: a higher cost of capital.

However, what has really been putting a choke hold on revenue and cash-flow generation for many for-profit schools -- which typically derive upward of 86 percent of their funding from federal dollars -- has been stiffer government regulation, such as the Obama administration’s gainful-employment regulation that took effect in July 2015. That rule stipulated that for-profit colleges must ensure a student’s annual debt payment does not exceed 20 percent of his or her discretionary earnings or 8 percent of his or her total earnings. Programs that do not meet the gainful-employment thresholds will need to either be discontinued or shortened, which reduces revenue. The stakes got higher in March, when the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the rule brought by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (which is now called Career Education Colleges and Universities). Industry operators are hopeful that relief comes from the new Trump administration, but no specific changes have been discussed or announced.

In addition, some for-profit institutions shut down due to the U.S. Department of Education declaring them ineligible for Title IV programs, terminating their students’ ability to receive financial aid. In February, for example, the department announced that it denied eligibility to 23 campuses of Marinello Schools of Beauty, leading to the subsequent closing of all 56 of the California-based institution’s schools in five states.

Given all that, it shouldn’t be surprising that the prognosis hasn’t been good for for-profit colleges. Data from the U.S. Department of Education, which analyzed the financial health of 160 private colleges, indicated that 66 for-profit institutions failed the government agency’s financial responsibility test. (The test combines three ratios from an education institution’s audited financial statements: a primary reserve ratio, an equity ratio and a net income ratio.)

A Ray of Light

All that said, owners of for-profit enterprises may have reason for hope after the new presidential administration takes over in January. But perhaps an even greater cause for optimism is the recently approved $1.14 billion sale of Apollo Education Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, to a group of three private equity firms. As former Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, an investor in the deal, said at the time, “We are excited by the opportunity to build on the transformational work being done by the company. For too long and too often, the private education industry has been characterized by inadequate student outcomes, overly aggressive marketing practices and poor compliance. This doesn’t need to be the case.”

The statement is telling, but more important, it should signal a call to action to owners of for-profit enterprises. When an institution representing one of the largest operators of for-profit institutions has been able to generate interest from a group of institutional investors at a time when regulation has undercut the industry, it illustrates how restructuring can attract new investment.

Indeed, the good news is that for-profit-college administrators can undertake a number of restructuring alternatives, without resorting to filing for bankruptcy, to improve their business operations, maintain accreditation, strengthen financial resources, improve use of campus resources and bolster enrollment. Traditional Chapter 11 reorganization isn’t a viable solution for postsecondary colleges that depend on Title IV funding. But owners and administrators at these institutions can be -- and must be -- willing to be accountable, as well as more open to restructuring, if the goal is not just to survive but also to thrive.

Making the Most of Fixed Assets

The way forward for challenged institutions may not be easy, but they can take a number of practical steps. For starters, for-profit operators can scrutinize and reduce capital expenditures as well as costs for duplicate or unnecessary staff involved in campus administration.

For example, one of the biggest challenges for troubled for-profit colleges is how to use campuses efficiently and manage costs connected to long-term property portfolios. Owners of for-profit institutions should close or put up for sale any facilities that aren’t being used and hire a qualified third-party selling agent to manage the process.

As part of that, leaders of for-profits should recognize the impact of liquidity on campus asset sales. If an institution has limited liquidity, it is not going to command top dollar for the sale of its assets. Therefore, it’s crucial for administrators to improve their college’s liquidity before initiating a formal sales process by improving the efficiency of their Title IV funding operations to receive timely disbursements from the Department of Education.

Long-term leases should also be renegotiated with landlords, with the focus being to secure rent concessions. At campus locations with short lease periods or that are facing imminent shutdown, administrators should not be reluctant to move courses to other facilities off-site. They should also consider holding the same courses online to reduce costs and retain students. Beyond leases, for-profit institutions would be wise to review and renegotiate all types of contracts with major vendors for food service, conference center operations, the bookstore and other services.

When assessing institutional resources, owners of for-profits should also evaluate management and teaching staff. If a number of administrators or instructors are determined to be underutilized, or campuses are expected to close, it’s important to be able to make the hard but necessary decisions to reduce the size of the staff. Most for-profit institutions do not typically cancel programs and reduce faculty members unless they lose eligibility for the program. Or, for example, they might hire more counselors and advisers, when instead they should be more effectively training the employees that they do have to perform better and to foster a culture that encourages students not only to enroll in the institution but also to persist and graduate.

Indeed, in some instances, for-profits should not have expanded but rather should have focused on increasing retention by emphasizing student placements and outcomes, the creating of a high-quality culture, and lowering tuition costs. Strayer University, for example, reduced its expenses significantly and cut its tuition costs by 20 percent by more closely managing its operations.

The fact is that the most effective way for-profit institutions can improve their profitability is to enhance retention among their students. Thus, instead of hiring more instructors and staff, a better use of resources might be investment in data and analytics that can provide thoughtful intelligence about when a student needs help so that the institution can effectively intervene and provide the support that student needs.

Rethinking Curriculum

One of the other most important steps for-profit educators can take to improve student outcomes is to innovate their curricula, particularly programs that are relevant to students’ job placement after they graduate. Course offerings should reflect current trends in education delivery and include high-quality online courses that can strengthen retention and lower campus costs.

In addition, for-profit educators would do well to consider the role local businesses can play in developing new course material. That approach offers a win-win for businesses and pupils alike. Many students are interested in securing employment opportunities in their local community upon graduation, while companies are often eager to use low-cost interns to assist with business projects, as well as scout for future employees. In some instances, some interns are qualified to become full-time employees. Teaming up with corporate partners to develop curriculum also leads to diversification of revenue streams.

For-profit institutions can also augment their traditional sources of revenue by offering contracted education and training services to corporations. For instance, Strayer University has reportedly teamed up with Fiat Chrysler to provide education programs for its work force, including employees of the company’s auto dealerships. By engaging in such contracted services, for-profits can help train and educate new student groups and also use any additional revenues to invest in new programs and support services for their students.

One thing is certain: unless for-profit educators engage in more hands-on restructuring of their institutions, they won’t be able to serve the large number of nontraditional learners that turn to them to advance their careers. The demise of more for-profit colleges would not be a good outcome for millions of students -- or for America’s future job growth in years to come.

Joseph R. D’Angelo is a partner at the investment banking and advisory firm Carl Marks Advisors. He has extensive experience in the education sector, particularly in working with underperforming businesses and advising on restructuring matters.

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Alamo Colleges drop required 7 Habits course with reaccreditation at risk

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With reaccreditation at risk, Alamo Colleges drop course based on the 7 Habits self-help book that board had approved to replace a humanities requirement.

How various disciplines can shed light on the election (essay)

Maybe there are years when professors can plod through their syllabi untouched by current events. We lack the luxury of living in such a year.

American politics are now at the forefront of students’ consciousness. Many feel it acutely and personally. In my normally nonpolitical course on negotiation and conflict resolution at the City University of New York, I have seen passion and uncertainty on students’ faces all year. President-elect Donald Trump generates a wide range of deep emotions, from cutting anxiety to genuine optimism.

As professors finish out this semester and prepare for the next, how can we reckon with the election of Trump? How can we discuss his election without silencing or alienating some students? And, at the outset, is it appropriate for courses beyond pure political science to discuss politics at all?

With such heightened student engagement, it would be pedagogical malpractice not to harness those emotions into informed discussion within our disciplines. “Informed discussion” means more than having students express how they feel about the election -- although that, too, can be valuable -- but structurally integrating this election into syllabi this winter and spring. Fortunately, politics is an inherently multidisciplinary field with many entry points. Dozens of academic disciplines can offer meaningful insight into our current political landscape, even disciplines that seem less obvious on first blush. I offer my own approach here for consideration (or critique).

Teaching With Trump: The Example of Negotiation

I am a full-time attorney and teach an evening course each semester. My CUNY students are undergraduates, generally majoring in business or communications. Many are first-generation college students, immigrants and/or students for whom English is a second language. While the course focuses on business conflict -- the negotiation, mediation, arbitration and litigation of commercial disputes -- we also consider conflict resolution in other areas of life, such as handling a noisy neighbor or writing a separation agreement with a spouse.

Much of Trump's appeal throughout the campaign has been his professed ability to “negotiate good deals.” He has written and spoken about negotiation for decades, most famously in his 1987 book (co-written with Tony Schwartz), The Art of the Deal. This makes our president-elect particularly relevant for those currently teaching or taking courses in negotiation. Throughout the campaign, I have used Trump’s approach to negotiation specifically, and conflict more broadly, as an occasional bridge between current events and my syllabus.

With that in mind, I try to frame discussion topics as objectively as possible in furtherance of the course’s goals and match those topics to scholarly readings. Here are some topics that my class has discussed so far this election cycle.

Can you negotiate with someone whose values are inconsistent with yours? During the campaign, Trump called Washington a “swamp.” He accused Democratic leaders of being stupid and ineffective and Republican leaders of being weak and mendacious. Both Democratic and Republican leaders, at various times, accused Trump of being intellectually and ethically unfit for office. Some went farther, suggesting that Trump rejects core American values. How can these political actors now sit across the bargaining table from one another? Is it possible to negotiate legislation, budgets and other business with someone whom you believe is wrongheaded or immoral?

The students read excerpts of Bargaining With the Devil by Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School, which offers advice for negotiating with someone whom you feel you cannot trust or who holds opposing values. In class, we discuss situations when negotiation is appropriate, as well as situations when negotiation creates untenable ethical challenges.

Is it a smart negotiation strategy to take an exaggerated initial position? Trump has proposed building a southern border wall, which would cost billions of dollars, and said that Mexico would foot the bill. Mexico’s president has flatly countered that his country will never do this. Putting aside the merits of constructing such a wall, is it an effective strategy for Trump to begin this negotiation by staking out a position that Mexico views as inherently unreasonable? Would it have been any more effective for Trump to begin the discussion by suggesting that each country pay 50 percent? Or propose a different form of border control? Or solicit Mexico’s views before offering an initial proposal?

In negotiation, there is a concept known as anchoring -- starting a negotiation at a very high number that you know you will never achieve. There are potential benefits to this as well as potential risks. Here, I have the students read work by legal negotiation scholars like Nancy Welsh (Penn State Law School) on fairness, Chris Guthrie (Vanderbilt University Law School) on anchoring and Jennifer Reynolds (University of Oregon Law School) on strategy. When Senator Bernie Sanders was running, we also discussed these concepts in connection with his staunchly progressive proposals for single-payer health care and free college tuition.

How can tone shape a negotiation, and how can tone change online? Trump has used ad hominem attacks, particularly over the internet, to hurt opponents and gain sizable media coverage. When you negotiate with an adversary, what is the value of publicly criticizing that person compared to criticizing them privately? What effects might ad hominem attacks have on bargaining? And how are emotions conveyed differently when communicating online?

The students read a book on party-centered dispute resolution by Lela P. Love (Cardozo Law School) and an article on negotiating over email by Noam Ebner (Creighton University School of Law). We also discuss excerpts of a book by Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University) to consider gender’s important role on tone and substance of this election.

What rhetorical devices has Trump used effectively? As a lawyer, I am always attuned to logical fallacies -- rhetorical constructions that leave the listener with a particular framing of an issue. Politicians (and attorneys) of all partisan persuasions use such devices, which are not inherently good or bad. Trump is fond of several. For example, he sometimes begins an assertion by stating, “Many people have said …” or “Believe me” or cites unnamed people in authority -- a device that allows him to suggest expertise (argumentum ab auctoritate). He also blamed President Barack Obama’s administration for the creation of certain terrorist groups, because those groups emerged after President Obama came into office (post hoc, ergo propter hoc).

Every semester, my students must learn a set of common logical fallacies. But this past semester, I also had them watch the second presidential debate and record each candidate’s logical fallacies. In the next class, they split up into small groups, and whichever group found the highest number (combining both candidates’ statements) “won.” Importantly, the goal was not to find flaws in the candidates’ policies but in their persuasive logic, thus fitting within the course’s goals without the perception of partisanship.

The Value of Political Discussion

There are no right answers to these discussion questions. They do not frame a conversation that inevitably supports or opposes Trump himself or his policies; those judgments are left to the students after putting the course materials into conversation with current events. My hope is that by interrogating such issues, students will be more attuned to a legal argument containing a fallacy meant to obfuscate, or consider the effect of publicity on their future business negotiations. If this election makes those concepts memorable, or helps them to contextualize the news, the integration is well worthwhile.

Not all professors believe this is the right approach. Some argue that this is a moment for faculty across disciplines to take a strong political position, one of unguarded advocacy in their teaching and scholarship. These voices assert that faculty simply cannot be “objective” about a politician like Trump, discussing him like a theoretical doctrine, literary character or far-off historical figure. Doing so, they argue, risks “normalizing” Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies.

But such advocacy in the classroom can create an uncomfortable dynamic that mutes productive disagreement among students -- the most fruitful type of disagreement. Few undergraduates will take a “side” opposed by the teacher, especially if they immediately see what “side” that teacher supports. (This calculus shifts in graduate courses, where students have greater context and may feel more comfortable engaging the professor in debate.)

Another reason to leave your politics at the door: if you think you already know your students’ opinions, you may be gravely mistaken. An off-color joke about a politician could easily create discomfort and, again, chill the very dialogue we hope to enliven. I teach in New York City, which overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. But I have seen genuinely thoughtful class participation from supporters of Trump (as well as Senator Sanders and third-party candidates).

Rather than making assumptions about our students’ politics, or advocating our own, teachers should methodically create apolitical discussion topics and allow students to come to their own conclusions or disagreements. This is the pedagogy perfected by America’s small liberal arts colleges like Vassar and Williams; students learn as much from the perspectives of their peers as from their professors. Whether you teach history, politics, communications, law, economics, biology, gender studies or almost any other subject, let’s meet this moment by using our disciplines to provide critical context. There are surely angles we can explore, and scholars whose voices shed light on current events. To prepare for next semester, we may all need to do some syllabus surgery over the holidays.

I cannot pretend to have all the answers on how to effectively teach this election or its complex, indefinite aftermath. But I will try.

Brian Farkas is a business litigator in New York. He is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York and Brooklyn Law School, teaching courses on negotiation, mediation and arbitration.

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Private universities branch into associate degrees

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Two private four-year universities are starting associate degree programs.

Bennington College's experiment with short-term, pop-up courses

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Bennington College’s pop-up courses allow professors and students to tackle world events as they happen.

How to develop curricula that are inclusive of transgender students (essay)

Stacy Jane Grover gives advice on how to avoid curriculum choices that exoticize, tokenize and discipline the experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

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How to improve student persistence and completion (essay)

For years, our prevailing view of student retention has been shaped by theories that view student retention through the lens of institutional action and ask what institutions can do to retain their students. Students, however, do not seek to be retained. They seek to persist. The two perspectives, although necessarily related, are not the same. Their interests are different.

While the institution’s interest is to increase the proportion of their students who graduate from the institution, the student’s interest is to complete a degree often without regard to the college or university in which it is earned. When viewed from the students’ perspective, persistence is but one form of motivation. Students have to be persistent in their pursuit of their degrees and be willing to expend the effort to do so even when faced with challenges they sometimes encounter. Without motivation and the effort it engenders, persistence is unlikely -- institutional action aside.

To promote greater degree completion, institutions have to adopt the student perspective and ask not only how they should act to retain their students but also how they should act so that more of their students want to persist to completion. The two questions, while necessarily linked, do not lead to the same sort of conversations about institutional action. The latter, rarely asked, requires institutions to understand how student experiences shape their motivation to persist and, in turn, what they can do to enhance that motivation.

The answer to that question is far from simple. Many experiences shape student motivation to persist, not all of which are within the capacity of institutions to easily influence (e.g., events beyond the campus that pull students away from persistence). But of those that are, three stand out as being central to student motivation: students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.

Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation. It is one manifestation of how past experiences shape how individuals come to perceive themselves and their capacity to have some degree of control over their environment. Self-efficacy is learned, not inherited. It is malleable, not fixed. It is not generalizable in that it applies to all tasks and situations but can vary depending on the particular task or situation at hand. A person may feel capable of succeeding at one task but not another.

When it comes to students’ belief in their ability to succeed in college, a strong sense of self-efficacy promotes goal attainment, while a weak sense undermines it. Whereas people with high self-efficacy will engage more readily in a task, expend more effort on it and persist longer in its completion even when they encounter difficulties, persons with low self-efficacy will tend to become discouraged and withdraw when encountering difficulties. Although many students begin college confident in their ability to succeed, more than a few do not, in particular those whose past experiences lead them to question their ability to succeed in college as well as those who experience stereotype threats that label them as less likely to succeed.

But even those who enter college confident in their ability to succeed can encounter challenges that serve to weaken their sense of self-efficacy. That is particularly true during the crucial first year as students seek to adjust to the heightened demands of college. What matters for success in that year, however, is not so much that students enter college believing in their capacity to succeed, as it is that they come to believe they can as the result their early experiences.

Therefore while it is important that institutions challenge existing labels as marking some students as less likely to succeed than others, it is equally important that students are able to obtain the timely support they need to succeed when they encounter early difficulties in meeting the academic, and sometimes social, demands of college. To be effective, such support must occur before student struggles undermine their motivation to persist -- thus the need for institutions to employ early-warning systems that, when properly implemented, alert faculty and staff to struggling students and trigger support when needed. Midterm grades will not do.

Sense of Belonging

While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it. For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership -- that they matter and belong. Thus the term “sense of belonging.” The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise. It is here that engagement with other people on the campus matters. But more important still are students’ perceptions of those engagements and the meaning they derive from them as to their belonging.

Although a sense of belonging can mirror students’ prior experiences, it is most directly shaped by the broader campus climate and their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus -- and the messages those interactions convey. Students who perceive themselves as belonging are more likely to persist because it leads not only to enhanced motivation but also a willingness to become involved with others in ways that further promote persistence. In contrast, a student’s sense of not belonging, of being out of place, leads to a withdrawal from contact with others that further undermine motivation to persist.

Here there is much colleges and universities can do. First, they must ensure that all students see the institution as welcoming and supportive -- that the culture is one of inclusion. They can do so by not only speaking to issues of exclusion but also by promoting those forms of activity that require shared academic and social experiences. In the academic realm, that can take the form of cohort programs and learning communities. Within classrooms, it can mean using pedagogies like cooperative and problem-based learning that require students to learn together as equal partners. In the social realm, institutions can take steps to provide for a diversity of social groups and organizations that allow all students to find at least one smaller community of students with whom they share a common bond. However they promote students’ sense of belonging, institutions should address it at the very outset of students’ journey -- indeed as early as orientation. As is the case for self-efficacy, developing a sense of belonging during the first year facilitates other forms of engagement that enhance student development, learning and completion.

Perceived Value of the Curriculum

Students’ perceptions of the value of their studies also influence their motivation to persist. Although what constitutes value is subject to much debate, the underlying issue is clear: students need to perceive the material to be learned is of sufficient quality and relevance to warrant their time and effort. Only then will they be motivated to engage that material in ways that promote learning and, in turn, persistence. Curriculum that is seen as irrelevant or of low quality will often yield the opposite result.

Addressing this issue is challenging if only because student perceptions of the curriculum vary not only among different students but also the differing subjects they are asked to learn. But there are steps institutions can and should take. First, institutions should see to it that students enroll in a field of study appropriate to their needs and interests, that they find the material within those courses sufficiently challenging to warrant their effort and, with academic support, reasonably within their reach to master. Second, they should ensure that the curriculum -- in particular, but not only, in the social sciences and humanities -- is inclusive of the experiences and histories of the students who are asked to study that curriculum. Third, institutions, specifically the faculty, should be explicit in demonstrating how the subjects that students are asked to learn can be applied to meaningful situations in ways that have relevance to issues that concern them. This is particularly important in first-year introductory courses as they serve as gateways to courses that follow. Too often, meaningful connections in those courses are left for students to discover.

One way of making those connections is to use pedagogies, such as problem and project-based learning, that require students to apply the material they are learning to resolve concrete problems or to complete a project that frames the class. Another is through contextualization, where students are asked to learn material within the context of another field, as is the case in developmental education, where basic skills are taught in the context of another area of study. In this and similar cases, students are more likely to want to learn basic skills because it helps them learn a subject in which they are interested. One promotes the learning of the other.

Colleges and universities can also achieve contextualization through the use of learning communities. When properly implemented, students co-register in two or three courses that are linked through an issue, problem or project that provides a unifying theme to the community. Such multiple course linkages can provide not only academic and social support but also promote a form of interdisciplinary learning that is not easily achieved in stand-alone courses. Lest one forget, the goal of persistence is not simply that students complete their degrees, but that they learn in powerful ways while doing so. Education is the goal of our efforts; persistence is only a vehicle for its occurrence.

All this is not to say that students will not persist if they have little sense of belonging or see little value in their studies. Some will if only because of external pressures to do so (e.g., family) or because of the perceived value of obtaining their degree from the institution (e.g., occupation, income and status outcomes). But doing so is a hollow achievement, for it fails to take advantage of the intrinsic benefits of a college education: belonging and learning. At the same time, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has made abundantly clear, many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, who want to persist are unable to do so because they simply can’t afford the full cost of attendance. Many would succeed if only they could find a reasonable way of financing their education.

There is little doubt that many colleges and universities have improved rates of student completion. But they can and should do more. Institutions must expand their conversation about college completion beyond simply how they can retain their students to how they can act in ways that lead all students to want to stay and complete their degrees. Though it is undeniably the case that academic ability matters, student motivation is the key to student persistence and completion. But addressing student motivation requires institutions to do more than simply issue another survey questionnaire. Rather, it necessitates that they understand students’ perceptions of their experience and how events throughout the campus influence their perceptions and shape, in turn, their motivation to persist.

Colleges and universities need to listen to all their students, take seriously their voices and be sensitive to how perceptions of their experiences vary among students of different races, income levels and cultural backgrounds. Only then can they further improve persistence and completion while addressing the continuing inequality in student outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society.

Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University.

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