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Mon, 06/13/2016

How curricular glut negatively impacts higher ed innovation and budgets (essay)

Higher education is glutted with courses, many of which are marginal or associated with arcane, duplicative or outdated subjects. That is at the heart of tuition increases, student debt, budget shortfalls, legislative distrust, poor adjunct pay and too few tenured or tenure-eligible professors at typical colleges and universities.

Last year Forbes reported that more than half of American professors are part time or not tenure eligible. Contingent faculty members are hired to facilitate the ever-expanding curricula. Because they typically are not empowered to take leadership roles in departments, the service workload of continuing professors has increased, affecting research, advising and instruction.

Professors can debate the causes of budget shortfalls at their institutions. There is plenty of blame to go around.

An influential opinion piece in The New York Times Sunday Review, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” notes that public investment in higher education, when adjusted for inflation, is vastly higher than 1960s levels when government funding was deemed generous.

According to the op-ed, any argument about a lack of public support for higher education “flies directly in the face of the facts.” Rather, the piece cites the increase in administrative positions coupled with seven-figure salaries for presidents as the real reasons for budgetary deficits triggering higher tuition.

The Atlantic Monthly ended 2015 with a special report titled “Hope and Despair: What Is the Future of Higher Education?” It included interviews with leading scholars and advocates for higher education who spoke about the usual impediments: lack of public funding, declining student competencies and overemphasis on preparing graduates for the workforce.

In the wake of such an environment, the report noted, colleges resort to “an array of cost-saving measures, relying increasingly on adjunct faculty and student-tuition increases.”

Not once was curriculum mentioned, nor how it impacts the budget.

Many colleges and universities have adopted budget models called by many names, including responsibility-centered management or resource management models. Those practices are often tied to curricular development, allocating funds based on student credit-hour generation rather than on the number of majors.

In other words, a department with fewer than 50 majors may have a bigger budget than another with 1,000 majors, all based on the number of credits amassed via curriculum.

These budget models became prevalent in the last decade, spawning a tsunami of courses across disciplines as units promoted trendy topics or duplicated other departments’ popular classes. Budget models were not supposed to inflate catalogs. Initially, the hope was more relevant courses would be embraced and low-enrolled courses eliminated.

However, administrators overlooked a fundamental problem: the faculty owns the curriculum.

As such, presidents, provosts, deans and even chairs can do little to stop departments proposing new courses, retaining outdated ones, mandating prerequisites and creating sequences, options and tracks.

Professors and the organizations that represent them will have difficulty amending budget models, addressing top-heavy administration, reducing salaries of presidents, urging corporations to stop agenda setting and rallying legislatures for more funding.

But they and faculty senates can and should do something about glutted curricula. Otherwise, they can count on:

  • Slim to no raises each year because of tight budgets.
  • The more new courses, the more people will be required to teach them.
  • Adjuncts will probably be working even harder for lower pay because that is the only way glutted curricula can be serviced.
  • Assistant and associate professors will be teaching more with extra service and conducting scholarship less, potentially affecting promotion.
  • Degree progress will slow, adding to student debt.

Below you will find recommendations for the faculty to fight curricular glut, the sheer scope of which indicates the power of the typical professoriate in matters associated with curricula:

  1. Require paperwork within your unit documenting why any new course is needed, what it will cost (equipment, software, licenses, subscriptions, graduate assistants, etc.), how it will affect degree progress and whether it will add to colleagues’ workload.
  2. Create or use universal course titles, such as “seminar” or “workshop,” allowing different subjects each semester without expanding curricula.
  3. Eliminate outdated courses that may have been important in other eras but less so now. (Often classes remain long after professors who proposed them have retired.)
  4. Delete any course with the word “intermediate” in the usual triptych of classes titled “beginning,” “intermediate” and “advanced.” (Or with suffixes 1, 2, 3, as in Economics 1, 2, 3.) Those are often artifacts of the quarter system. Make beginning and advanced classes more rigorous so the same content exists in two rather than three courses.
  5. Require no more than two cornerstone classes (introductory course work) for first- and second-year students and two capstone courses for juniors and seniors. Make as many as possible of remaining courses electives that any of your own majors can take, accelerating degree progress.
  6. Remove as many prerequisites as possible, especially ones associated with silos (courses promoting one viewpoint or topic). Silos undermine degree progress if students must take one course to qualify for another when no new particular skill is required.
  7. End sequences and tracks. If a genre of courses doesn’t appear on a diploma, it may be a silo. (Example: American Colonial History on a history diploma.) Make those classes electives, and let students decide whether to take them. Better still, reduce the number of courses in the silo so that it no longer is one.
  8. Generate student credit hours strategically by offering large nonmajor principles courses, saving small classes for majors. (Example: a 200-seat Principles of Poetry class rather than 10 poetry workshops for the same number of students.) You will produce the same number of credit hours while reducing sections. And if your principles classes are good enough, you’ll recruit new majors.
  9. Assess each course annually in your department to see if it emphasizes competencies or advances innovation and degree progress. If not, revise or eliminate it.
  10. Work with deans to change promotion and tenure requirements that encourage curricular development, which often inspires unneeded courses, and instead promote curricular enhancement. (Example: adding a digital aspect to an existing class is considered enhancement.)

Faculty senates can also help in the effort. They can:

  1. Create a curriculum policy for every academic unit outlining what each department should and should not be teaching. (Example: journalism creates content for a mass audience. Communication studies does not.) Departments need to stop duplicating each other’s classes in the competition for seats. A senate policy designating pedagogical areas is a shared governance way of doing so.
  2. Create a Faculty Senate curriculum council that requires strictly adhered-to paperwork before any new course is approved. (Example: mandate sign-off by the faculty of another department for any related course work in addition to an impact statement documenting how the proposed course will affect student degree progress, the teaching budget and colleagues’ workload.) The council can reject or sanction new courses according to the assigned pedagogical area (No. 1 above).

In the end, we can wish for an academic environment in which public support continues to underwrite existing practices. We can post invectives on social media about administrative hiring or salaries, believing our opinions will inspire change. We can blame political parties, entitled students, helicopter parents, corporate interference or any number of excuses or justifications for the state of affairs.

Or we can understand the impact of curriculum on innovation as well as on practically every aspect of the higher education budget, take responsibility and do something about it.

Michael Bugeja, winner of the 2015 Scripps Howard Outstanding Administrator Award, directs the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. These opinions are his own.

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How to write an effective diversity statement (essay)

Tanya Golash-Boza gives faculty job applicants eight tips for writing a stellar diversity statement that stands out to search committees. 

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How to autoreply to email most effectively over the summer (essay)

Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra offer advice for those who choose to set an automated email reply message when unavailable at work over the summer.

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Mistakes that newly tenured professors can make (essay)

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Kerry Ann Rockquemore outlines the three biggest mistakes newly tenured professors commonly make.

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Can colleges truly teach critical-thinking skills? (essay)

“The university seeks to foster in all its students lifelong habits of careful observation, critical thinking, creativity, moral reflection and articulate expression.”

“… University fosters intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, preparing graduates who will serve as effective, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.”

“The college provides students with the knowledge, critical-thinking skills and creative experience they need to navigate in a complex global environment.”

These are but a tiny sampling of the mission statements from higher education institutions around the country where critical thinking is a central focus. Indeed, in many ways, critical thinking has become synonymous with higher education. Yet we have not found evidence that colleges or universities teach critical-thinking skills with any success.

The study that has become most emblematic of higher education's failure to teach critical-thinking skills to college students is Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011). The researchers found that college students make little gain in critical-thinking skills, as measured by students’ scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment. This study has been criticized for relying too much on the CLA, but that overlooks a much more fundamental issue underscored by a growing body of research: we don’t know what critical thinking actually is, and we can’t be sure that it even exists.

Those of us who work in higher education have assumed that we know what critical thinking is -- how could we not? Don’t we see it happening every day? Don’t we do it? Yet, if we realize that “critical thinking” implies a set of general thinking skills that transfer from one subject or domain to another, then the task of identifying exactly what those skills are becomes extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to accomplish.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that higher education has gambled on critical thinking, and it makes sense: given that so much information is accessible via digital technology, and given the rising costs of tuition, classrooms must move beyond being places where content is delivered and become places where students learn how to process that content -- or, in other words, where they learn to think.

The question remains, however, can we actually teach students that skill?

The Thinking Skills Debate

The debate over whether or not general thinking skills, or GTS, actually exist is well traveled within a relatively small circle of researchers and thinkers, but virtually unknown outside of it. Given our belief in the importance of critical thinking and our assumption that students learn it, I would argue that this debate is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood issues in higher education today.

As the name implies, GTS are those skills that supposedly transfer from one discipline to another. A key question in the debate, therefore, is whether thinking skills can exist independently from discipline-specific content in a meaningful way such that transfer is possible. Writing on this, Tim John Moore, a senior lecturer at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, called this “the generalizabilty debate.”

On one side are the generalists, who believe “critical thinking can be distilled down to a finite set of constitutive skills, ones that can be learned in a systematic way and have applicability across all academic disciplines.” Some notable proponents of this position are Robert Ennis, emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the University of Illinois; Peter Facione, former provost at Loyola University of Chicago; and Richard Paul, director of research and professional development at the Center for Critical Thinking.

On the opposing side are specifists, or those who argue that “critical thinking … is always contextual and intimately tied to the particular subject matter with which one is concerned.” Thinking, in other words, is always about something. John McPeck, professor of education at the University of Western Ontario; Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia; and, to a certain degree, Moore himself have defended the specifists' position.

The generalist position, the one that many of us simply assume to be true, is the philosophical basis for the stand-alone, generic “thinking skills” course, in which students supposedly learn skills that transfer across subjects and domains. But Daniel Willingham points out that evidence shows that such courses “primarily improve students’ thinking with the sort of problems they practiced in the program -- not with other types of problems.” That suggests that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate the thinking skill from the content. In other words, Willingham argues, critical thinking is only possible after one acquires a significant amount of domain-specific knowledge, and even then, it’s no guarantee.

As educational researcher Stephen P. Norris wrote in Teaching Critical Thinking: “There is no scientific legitimacy to [the] claim that critical-thinking ability involves ability to control for content and complexity, ability to interpret and apply, and ability to use sound principles of thinking. If anything, scientific evidence suggests that human mental abilities are content and context bound, and highly influenced by the complexity of the problems being addressed.”

More recent research that Moore has conducted continues to support the finding that the existence of a set of thinking skills applicable across disciplines is indeed dubious. In Critical Thinking and Language, he explored how critical thinking is understood and taught by faculty from a range of disciplines at an Australian university. While he outlined certain relations among disciplines, he found nothing to suggest that the complexity of those relations could be reduced to a core set of cognitive skills.

Again, given the rising cost of education and the increasing accessibility of information, instructors and professors must move beyond being deliverers of content to remain relevant. Yet, what to do if the research is telling us that teaching GTS is extremely difficult, if not impossible?

Moving Forward

If higher education is to come to terms with its promise of producing critical thinkers, it must take some specific measures. First, no matter what they teach, professors must become much more familiar with the thinking skills debates occurring in the cognitive science, educational psychology and philosophical domains. In fact, if institutions disseminated essential readings in this area as a sort of primer to get people started, it would be time and money well spent.

With a wider appreciation of the debate, faculty members must then begin to think about thinking within the context of their own disciplines. It does not make sense to impose some set of critical-thinking skills onto a subject area independent of the content being taught. Rather, professors of literature, science, psychology, economics and so on must reflect on how they think as scholars and researchers within their own disciplines -- and then explicitly teach those cognitive processes to students. If there is one thing that we know for sure, it is that thinking skills, general or otherwise, can’t be learned if they’re not taught in as overt a manner as other content in college courses.

Finally, we need to adjust the metaphor of “transfer” that drives how we view thinking skills in general and critical-thinking skills in particular. That metaphor leads us to look for a packaged set of thinking skills that apply with equal relevancy to virtually any situation or domain, when, while still debatable, it seems increasingly clear that no such skills exist.

When it comes to thinking skills, it would be much more productive if we stop thinking “transfer” and start thinking “overlap.” That is, once thinking skills become more explicitly taught, especially in general education classes, both professors and students will notice how thinking in the context of one domain (say, economics) overlaps with the kind of thinking processes at work in another (biology).

Moreover, the metaphor of overlap -- like a Venn diagram -- makes the differences between sets of thinking skills as instructional as the similarities. So, as thinking skills become explicitly taught in different subjects, the student, proceeding through college, will gather overlapping investigative experiences based on his or her efforts to employ said thinking skills in various courses. The student can then manage those overlapping experiences as a kind of portfolio that shows him or her how content is processed and problems are solved. If a core set of thinking skills can be distilled from this portfolio, great. If not, the student still has a rich picture of how different ways of thinking overlap, even if they are always tethered to a specific domain or problem.

Ultimately, we in higher education must recognize that money is on the table. We have gambled on critical thinking, and if we are not to lose our shirts on this bet, we can no longer expect students to magically become critical thinkers. Instead, we must move toward a pedagogy that foregrounds the explicit teaching of thinking skills.

John Schlueter is an instructor of English at St. Paul College.

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How best to answer job ads (essay)

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To land the position you really want, it's important to spend some time analyzing the job postings first, argues Julia McAnallen.

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A professor struggles to cope after a campus shooting (essay)

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant,” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.

I call April 12, 2013, “my” shooting, to distinguish it from all the others -- the more than 23 that occurred on college campuses last year alone and now the terrible murder of a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. No one died in the shooting at the college where I teach, although two people were seriously injured. Few people outside my area remember it. For me, though, it possesses startling power: 10 minutes of one afternoon bleed into the 1,000 days that have followed. I went to work that Friday morning with plans to spend the weekend with my father. I ended that Friday afternoon in shock, mutely scrawling a witness statement in red ink.

Like Didion, I turned to information as a way of managing my grief and dislocation: “Read, learn, work it up. Go to the literature.” I spent hours on the library databases, keying in terms like “professor” and “school shooting.” As though I were a patient with a rare malady, I needed an expert to explain the prognosis. What symptoms would ensue? Was I going to be able to continue teaching? There was plenty of research about the psychology of school shooters and assessments of campus safety but nothing about the long-term impact on professors who survived a shooting. That was another shock: if there was no research, maybe I wasn’t going to be OK.

I turned then to a different kind of literature. I read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. I read Parker Palmer’s affirmations about the necessity of courage and integrity in higher education. I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and pondered what would emerge from my disoriented grief. I moved to South Africa for a year, finding equilibrium in the middle of cultural dislocation.

David J. Morris, in The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, describes how early cultures regarded trauma as a moral and spiritual crisis rather than as a neurological disorder. Trauma, he argues, was a “social wound, a damaging of the intricate web of relations that keeps a person sane and tethered to the world.” Rather than a pathological reaction to extreme peril, trauma is a natural response to a world of incomprehensible brutality.

It was through an existential lens that I had to address how the shooting had damaged my sense of identity as a professor, my assumptions about safety and my beliefs about the holiness of education. I wasn't concerned with the logistical aftermath; I needed answers to questions that few were willing, or able, to discuss. They remain an endless echolalia: “Is this the cost of teaching in the 21st century? And if so, can I pay it?”

The costs emerge over and over again; the bill is never settled. I have nightmares that my dog is being mutilated and I’m unable to save her. She is the stand-in for my students, the precious thing that I am unable to protect. I prepare myself for a nightmare whenever I speak publicly about that day. I endure the heavy silence that descends when I tell other professors that I have witnessed a school shooting.

I shudder when I recall the campus as it was the morning after: bullet holes in the doors and walls, computer stations littered with students’ abandoned mugs and notebooks, yellow crime tape, plastic sheeting in the doorway. I feel a sickening empathy when I see the faces of other horror-stricken students and teachers on television. I wonder how I will protect my students who use wheelchairs the next time. I am always aware of the ordinary instant in which it all crumbles.

Though a fellow survivor once reminded me that there is no hierarchy of suffering, my story is nothing compared to what others have endured. Yet stories need a listener. Witnesses to campus violence remind others of the toll that these events enact and demand that we have hard conversations about what it means for educators to be expected to accept violence, injury or death as part of their professional lives.

In 2017, despite widespread opposition, Kansas will also allow concealed carry at all public colleges and universities, the ninth state to do so. Supporters invoke the usual rhetoric of preserving public safety and providing defenseless people with deadly recourse in the event of an active shooter. Opponents decry the impact on academic freedom and the potential for impulsivity to overcome reason.

My reasons for opposing campus carry are personal: I do not want another professor to become like me. I do not want anyone else to have to write a document called “Post-shooting lesson plans.” I do not want anyone else to have to spend three years in therapy to find ways to let those 10 minutes settle into the rest of their lives. I do not want anyone else to witness the fearful, childlike, exhausted looks on their students’ faces the day they return to class. I do not wish this journey back to “normalcy” on anyone.

Guns have no place on campuses and in classrooms. One gun made April 12, 2013, the worst day of my life. More guns would not have improved it (and in my case, there was no “good guy with a gun”: the shooter was subdued by an unarmed off-duty security officer who shouted at him to put the gun down). Beware the people who proclaim that they could kill a shooter, if only they were allowed to carry their guns to school. To employ a military analogy, that is the bravery of being out of range. It is swagger masquerading as courage.

No one knows what they will do until it happens. It has already happened to me, and I don’t know what I am going to do the next time. I don’t know if the choices I made that day will always be the right ones. Nor do I even remember consciously choosing. I heard the gunfire, and I acted.

I've been asked so many times, “Don't you wish you’d had a gun that day?”

No. I only wish that he had not had one.

In spite of the label “post-traumatic stress disorder,” I am not disordered. I am the natural response to a shooting in a place that should be a place of inquiry, vulnerability and transformation. What’s abnormal is a country in which students are given active shooter training and teachers are expected to be human shields. What’s deviant is a culture in which witnesses are blamed for not rushing a shooter and derided for not carrying a weapon themselves.

None of us are safe. The challenge for us and for our students is how to dwell in that awareness and still be courageous enough to live and learn unarmed, both literally and figuratively.

Megan Doney is an English professor at New River Community College. She wrote this article while on sabbatical at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

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Vigil at UCLA

The price LGBTQ academics pay for safety and well-being (essay)

LGBTQ folks pay a price for prioritizing their safety and well-being in academe -- often taking less stable or lower-paying positions to be in hospitable cities, writes Bonnie J. Morris.

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The enduring power of textbooks in students' lives (essay)

“We can give you three dollars,” the clerk at the campus bookstore told me.

“That’s all?” I asked. I had hoped to get more for the book I wanted to sell back, given what I had paid for it just months before.

“Sorry. It’s not assigned next term.” She shrugged.

“Well,” I decided, “for three dollars, it will look good on my bookshelf.”

That was the moment I kept my first college book.

At the end of every term, college students lug piles of books across campus to sell back to the bookstore (or post the books online to sell directly to next term’s students) for a fraction of what they paid for them. Selling back books is so ingrained in college culture that it seems natural, inevitable. Strapped for cash, most students accept the few dollars joyfully.

But there’s something to be said for keeping books, too. In the years since my own small beginning -- just the one book, just three dollars, just to look good on my bookshelf -- I have developed a lasting commitment to having books around.

These days, as each semester nears its end, I find myself on the losing side of a friendly argument with my own students. I tell them they should not sell their books back. They raise objections:

“The book’s not in my field.”
“I already read it, and I remember what it says.”
“I can always get another copy if I need it.”
“I can find the same text, or the same facts, online.”
“The information will be outdated soon.”
“The edition will be replaced with a new one soon.”
“I want to put this class behind me!”
“It’s too expensive to keep. I need the money.”

I do my best to respond. Then, of course, the students make their own decisions. I’m afraid I’m not very convincing. And I understand why. Most of the reasons to sell back books are quite reasonable. In certain cases, I have to concede the point.

Yes, I do agree, some books are just fine to sell back. I have little fondness in particular for stereotypically textbookish textbooks: repositories of facts, good for exam prep but not for actually reading, likely to be replaced by a new edition in a year or two, apparently written by a committee or a machine, duplicating material available online for free. By all means, students should sell those back.

And, yes, I also agree, some books are too expensive to keep. Costs for textbooks are the primary reason students sell textbooks back, rent them instead of buying, pirate them or simply don’t get them at all. Each year, costs for books increase faster than tuition. A multibillion-dollar industry, bookstores and publishers for college textbooks take advantage of a rather trapped student market. For many students -- particularly students with multiple jobs, loans and responsibilities to young children or aging parents -- just getting books each semester can be a Herculean (indeed, Sisyphean) task. And not selling books back, even if they would love to keep them, can sometimes simply be out of the question. By all means, if it’s keep the books or pay the rent, students should pay the rent.

Accordingly, colleges and universities must recognize that not being able to keep books is a disadvantage faced disproportionately by students from poor and working-class backgrounds. We need to take steps to make books affordable as a matter of social justice. Some have suggested switching to ebooks as a solution. But ebooks can cost just as much or more than used print books and offer less. (Moreover, most students prefer print.) Better ideas include increasing financial aid, reducing the overall cost of college, including books in the cost of tuition, assigning more affordable books and writing our own books and giving them to students for free, among other strategies.

Even with these caveats, I still insist students should keep books. As college teachers, we usually focus more on what students do (or do not do) with books during our courses, not after. But I think we can do more. Just as we would like students to remember what they learn in our courses and to continue learning after the courses have ended, so should we also care that they keep the very books that can help that remembering and learning along.

With the loudest voices (including bookstore advertisements) telling students to sell their books, it’s up to us to teach them otherwise. We can assign books worth keeping. We can help students connect with the books for themselves. We can talk to students about keeping books, telling them something like this:

Keep your books. Not every single one, necessarily, but keep many. Keep most, if possible. Do not let a book go without deliberation. Begrudge the ones truly not worth keeping. Grieve the ones you truly cannot afford. Keep books from your field and from other fields as well. Be well-rounded in your keeping.

Yes, appreciate what the internet can offer (through sites like Project Gutenberg), but also appreciate what books can offer. Yes, some books contain nothing but information with a short shelf life, but keep the books that are not of this sort. Keep books with ideas, argument, voice -- books in which writers say something to readers. Keep books you know you will use again and books you think you won’t, just in case.

Start small, if it helps: keep one book you otherwise would have gotten rid of. Next time, keep two. Keep keeping books until you’ve built a library. Why? There’s value in having books and being the sort of person who has them. This value often outweighs the cost. Sometimes books are even worth a little sacrifice.

Finally, while asserting there’s value in having books, we teachers can also explain just what that value is. We might communicate to students the following points:

Having books around can make a difference in students’ lives. Analyzing decades of data from dozens of countries around the world, sociologists found that the number of books in a home correlates strongly with academic accomplishment for children in the family. Specifically, the more books around, the farther in education the children go. That holds true across time, culture and socioeconomic status. The connection between books and academic accomplishment is so strong, the researchers comment, that there almost seems to be “an intrinsic advantage in growing up around books.”

Of course, merely having books around is “not enough,” they add. One does not imagine books that are just sitting there unread, unnoticed and ignored doing much good. But there is a high “correlation between owning books and reading.” Books offer “skills and knowledge.” Having books around demonstrates “a commitment to investing in knowledge.” Having books around indicates that people in the house “enjoy and value scholarly culture, that they find ideas congenial, reading agreeable, complex and intellectually demanding work attractive.” In a home that has books, it is likely “conversations between parents and their children will include references to books and imaginative ideas growing out of them.”

Students who are (or hope to become) parents should certainly keep books for the sake of the children. But if children benefit from books, no doubt adults do as well. It’s not that books are magical (at least, not in the strictest sense of that word). It’s that deciding to have books and to be the sort of person who has books can change a person’s life and the lives of those closest to them.

Students might want to read certain books in the future. Sometimes students feel finished with a subject once they complete the final exam. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. They do not know what they will want to read or reference in 10, 20, 30 years. But if they have built up a library over that time, it will be all the easier for them to grab the right book when they want it.

Students might want to lend books to someone someday. It is easy for students to ask, “Will I use this book again?” But building a library allows students to be a resource to others. One of my fellow professors calls it a “joy” to have the right book on hand to give to someone. He compares it to the proverbial “word fitly spoken.”

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have read. Reading doesn’t end when one puts a book down for the last time. Reading ends when one thinks about a book for the last time. When students read enough, they will likely forget not just what they read in certain books but even that they read certain books. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies here.

But so does the opposite. Books as physical objects sitting in plain sight on a bookshelf, glanced at regularly and browsed through from time to time, can remind students of what they have read, keeping that reading alive, active in their minds. (For this to work, of course, books can’t stay boxed up in storage.)

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have not read. As Umberto Eco and Nassim Nicholas Taleb know, unread books remind people of what they do not know. Some unread books eventually get read. Others don’t. In that way, sitting on bookshelves, unread books can remind students to be both curious and humble.

Books shape the meaning of a place. According to place theory, places are not mere locations; they are laden with meaning. The physical environment of a place shapes its meaning (including walls, doors, furniture, the lack thereof, etc.). What happens in a place also shapes its meaning. So do names, memories, objects and so on. A grass field marked by the lines and plates of a baseball diamond means something different than a grass field marked with tombstones and flowers. The apartment wall lined with books means something different than the apartment wall lined with family photos, band posters, sports memorabilia, works of art, bottles of wine or nothing. Having books around says, “This is a place where thinking and learning are valued.”

Books shape students’ identities. Of course, people are more than their books, degrees, careers, relationships or experiences, more than their thoughts, feelings, even bodies. And yet, these all shape how one lives in the world, the kind of person one appears to be, one’s identity. Having books around says, “I am the sort of person who values thinking and learning.”

Keeping books allows students to return to them over the years. The most meaningful connections people can have with books play out over a lifetime. The weeks or months during a course count as an introduction. That’s enough for some books. Others offer more. Students can return to a book after 10 or 20 years, reread the notes they wrote in the margins the last time they read it, observe how their thinking has changed, see what new layers of meaning they can find in the text at different times in life.

Books are a tangible investment in lifelong learning. College students’ finances vary vastly. It’s not my place to tell students whether they can or cannot afford books. At the same time, I know many students already sacrifice a lot to attend college, as an investment in something that matters to them. All I can add to that is that books are a good investment, too, a real commitment to continue learning long after graduating.

Distinguished scholar bell hooks testifies to this final point. Growing up poor in a patriarchal, segregated town, she learned the value of books from her mother, who had never graduated high school. “Against my father’s wishes,” hooks recalls, “she was willing to spend money on books, to let me know the pride of book ownership and the joy of possessing the gift that keeps on giving -- the book that one can read over and over and over.” Reading books, she continues, “empowered me to journey to places with the mind and imagination … expanded my consciousness … made the impossible possible.”

At the end of each semester, when the line at the bookstore to sell back books is at its longest, one of my dear friends and fellow professors walks by crying out, “Traitors! Traitors!” His joke -- and, of course, he does this playfully -- contains a historical pun. The Latin root of the word traitor, traditor, was the name given to those early Christians who under persecution handed over their sacred texts to be burned by the Roman authorities. The Latin cognate literally means “to hand over.” To hand over one’s books is a betrayal of our common purpose -- although if it’s that or die (or miss the rent), one will surely be forgiven.

We hope students leave college with memories, friends, knowledge, skills and a diploma, and we do well when we remind students to obtain them. We need to add a library to the list. When students sell back their books, they sell back part of their education. I care much more about what books students keep, and what notes they wrote in them, than what courses they passed or what grades they earned. Students’ bookshelves say much more than their transcripts.

Paul T. Corrigan is associate professor of English at Southeastern University.

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