Category Archives: Higher education

Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.

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Bilan, the balance sheet (or the profane)

Having perused one of the more recent Chronicle articles on stress and productivity, I’ve been reflecting on August being fully underway.  It’s the time of the balance sheet for those of us who kept saying, “Bah! This summer will be a wonderland of academic production!” 

I have by no means achieved herculean levels of labor. Though, I am pleased to report (to myself) that I have made progress that falls under the category of “not too shabby,” rested and brought my work to a new level.

Essentially, this topic is à l’esprit for most of us during this time of the year since we’ve spent most of the teaching part of the year looking forward to our “great summer of working.”  Sighing longingly through the stretching semesters, we dream of the uninterrupted (read: no students) months where we decide our wake-up time as we like, can read leisurely all day if we like, and fold ourselves in front of our favorite computer to tap diligently at the keys, pouring our most profound academic reflections onto the Great White Page.

Similarly, we tend to view the long-weekend and the short holiday breaks as sacred working time. Yet, I will confess, at least, that during these shorter ‘breaks,’ I’m so exhausted from an over-loaded teaching schedule that not a whole lot more than netflix, sleeping, and grading gets accomplished. I also make a pretty convincing argument to myself during these times to justify my avoidance of all things academic.

If we take a look at the ledger, how many of us get all this work done that we day-dreamed about in a grass-is-greener type way during the academic year?  As I said, I know during the short breaks I rarely accomplish anything unstructured without a deadline looming.

This is where (and yes, it’s a cliché, but a damned good one ) Paul Silvia’s book about being a productive little academic worker very much revolutionized my perception of what it is I do (or am supposed to do).  Essentially, it’s a self-help book for academics. But, if you haven’t read this book and are considering reading it, don’t expect a session of care and concern for your well-being.

Instead, Silvia lords his own work record over our heads (because, in the end, no matter what other lies we tell ourselves, we all know that academia is not very different from any other corporate structure these days. Money talks. Competition (healthy and unhealthy) thrives. Colleagues are annoying. But, we do get to set our hours, for the most part – it only took 3 degrees and mountains of money to get there).  He lists all the common (voiced and unvoiced) objections that we cry in dismay, all the ‘plans’ we come up with for ourselves and deftly finds the flaws in the logic as we’d do with our own students. It’s almost like he’s reading our thoughts (tricksy psychologist that he is).

In the end, you can reduce his lesson to the following: stop whining, stop procrastinating and schedule your ‘real’ work like you schedule your classes. Adhere to one as you would the other.   He says,

“As an academic…you’re a professional writer, just as you’re a professional teacher. Treat your scheduled writing time like your scheduled teaching time. Say no to well-intentioned intruders, and explain why you can’t (not won’t, but can’t) break your committed writing time. If you feel bad about saying no, then lie. If you feel bad about lying, then use the obscurantism you learned in grad school: Claim a “recurring intractable obligation.”

His sermon on the Sacred Writing Time is not without its humor and levity but the weight of his point resounds: schedule your work, get it done and stop making excuses: we all know the excuses.  I heartily recommend this for all graduate students — and anyone else who has large projects waiting to be completed. 

Of interest, I found that this program, Omm writer,  allowed me to increase my  amount of words that end up on the page (even just for reflecting on ideas and readings Note: it’s very much an aesthetic program and all sound effects can be muted) as one of his secrets is to not engage the rest of the world when you’re working.  Equally, Scrivener has revolutionized my approach to writing and is advised for large project management (such as the dreaded D-word or books).

The tools are there. I can attest to the efficaciousness; my productivity is up with the trifecta of the book and these two cheap (at least on a Mac) programs.

A renewed outlook (and wrist-slapping by Silvia) didn’t hurt either.

* *

Edit: I forgot to include a great resource from a fellow academic writing savvy blogger: Dailychicana’s resource page is great.


ef-fron-ter-y

[ihfruhn-tuh-ree]
noun, plural ef-fron-ter-ies.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for two free samples.

2. an act or instance of this.

Origin:

1705-15; < French effronterie, equivalent to Old French esfront shameless (es-exfront brow; see front) + -erie -ery

Synonyms
1. impertinence, impudence, cheek.

* * *

Many of us will be familiar, and indeed may be mulling over this word or its comrade-in-arms synonyms during this hectic time of calculation and notation. This morning, I awoke to a cheeky communiqué from a student exemplifying the meaning of this word. I have decided to reproduce the thrust of the message without its form, much like a translation. It should not take me aback, as they say. But as the dictionary confirms, the absolute  barefaced audacity threw me through a loop.

Hello title, 

This morning I looked at my grades and I see that I have a grade in subject. As of today, my cumulative GPA is number-point-numbers. I want to be on the Generic Honor Group and I would need a higher-number-than-I-have. Can you raise my grade to include decimal point-difference-number? 

Sincerely, me. 
sent from my ipad.

* * *

Well shoot, I was really, really hoping that you were insincere on this one. In fact, I was banking that you were facetious. I confess. I blinked a few times. I pet the cat. I went back to the kitchen to pour some coffee. Clearly, I was not expecting this. But, what was it precisely that I was not expecting? I’d like to think that I am not a rube. Students will always try to negotiate their grades – I don’t see this changing in the future, ever. Still…something about this message struck me. This message was different than the other messages I have received over the years.  What was it that marked this message as not belonging to the group? Ah, well, that would be the effrontery.  I would say most students have some sense of propriety, even if they often seem audacious by our standards. Usually, there is a negotiation involved in grade lamentation, non?  Something to the effect of:

Dear Herr God Doctor Professor, I saw my grade and I [woe-inspired appeal to your pity]. Is there any way I can [random request to produce more work after the semester ends] so that you can [give me an unfair advantage over my cohorts]?  [Shameless, desperate closing].  

I’m used to this type of request – I think it is safe to say we’re all used to this type of request. And, of course, circumstances mitigate our responses. Was there a traumatic event we’re aware of? Does this student deserve the benefit of the doubt? Sometimes, the answer is yes and we arrange for something, change the grading scale, remove assignments, add assignments. This is usually to keep the student from failing when life got in the way but they really did do their best to overcome it.

This instance is akin to elective surgery; to vanity purchases. This isn’t a matter of life or death, that is, of failing. This is an appeal to make one’s self look better. I was honestly embarrassed when reading. Not because a student shamelessly begged (though, there was no actual begging here, hence the label of effrontery). But because it was a baldfaced request to give me what I want.

No justification. No reasoning. No offering. Simply, give me what I want.

What disturbs me most? The seeming unawareness of the impropriety of the request – no indication that the student understands that such a request is 1) absolutely out of the question, and 2) brazenly inappropriate. How did I respond? I wanted to write an impassioned, three page letter about responsibility, obligation, results, behavior, rigor and the future. Instead, I wrote two emotionless lines:
Your grade is a product of the work produced and not something assigned. I cannot give you any grade but what you earned.

Students wanting better grades than what they earn is not new, not interesting, and in no way unique. What simultaneously disturbs me and makes me very tired is the lack of effort in the appeal itself.

I begin each semester with a talk about how a grade is calculated, preciesly what the weights are with a caveat that only the student can determine her or his final outcome. Apparently, this is not clear enough. What can we possibly do to curb this type of behavior? Do any of you have a fool-proof technique?

For now, I will be writing dictionary.com to ask for an example change in the definition.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for a grade she did not earn.


Sacred Cows

…and other reductive conclusions.

Now that the better part of a week has passed since the Chronicle of Higher Education made the decision to discontinue Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog pieces, I decided to do a quick web survey to see what was being generated surrounding the issue. Several key terms have appeared in conjunction with the brouhaha.

I have several personal favorites:

  • Witch hunt
  • Mob
  • Sacred Cow

The general gist of the criticism is that the editorial staff of the CHE capitulated to a bunch of incensed scholars who cried foul and pointed the clichéd finger of racism accusations because we disagreed with Ms. Riley.  Before moving on, I think it is important to first tentatively affirm that indeed – we screamed loudly and demanded that her time at the Chronicle come to an end. Yet, what I find most common is the misrepresentation of the reason we so vociferously demanded that her column  be guillotined.

The readership was angered by multiple things. Chief among the grievances, I think, is her manner of making her point: her opinion is largely uninformed. I have noticed that the vast majority of NSR’s work (I could not avoid reading her work and listening to her interviews) is actually comprised of hasty conclusions based in imprecise and elusive information gathering. (For an example see this  interview on CSPAN in which she discusses one of her books and the “problems” with the higher education system). I have noticed that like the great temptation, she couches her more biased attacks in legitimate criticism. Many of the points she makes about the problems within higher education are indeed largely recognized by the masses – yet, Riley derails when she begins to draw her conclusions for reform. Her main claim to argumentative probity? My father is a professor.  I will admit, I am personally split on the issue of research and tenure. In the humanities, I know I do not stand alone when I assert that we often have researched ourselves into obscure, often unpublishable, corners. Tenure becomes more rare; book publications harder to achieve. Do we need to rethink the model? Absolutely. Do we need to drop tenure? I’d be hard pressed to agree here. Should we stop researching highly specialized things? Absolutely not.

The point she seems to return to is that our research is “obscurantist.”  (A poor choice of words – what are we hiding? in the Derrida-Foucault bickering, Foucault accuses Derrida of this as a means of saying that the argument is so obscure so as to hide its failings, allowing the author to call the opponent an idiot for not understanding) Yet, how is this a problem? I think we can all agree that our research is to further the conversation, to challenge and push how and what we think, to promote further examination and analysis. This has nothing and everything to do with undergraduate education. The extreme focus of our doctoral education and research is a proving ground for original scholarship. Do we write for our peers and not our students? Yes. Yet, in deepening our knowledge, the goal, as I practice it, is to reduce these topics down to broad swaths (some more specific than others) for our undergraduates. We stay current in the field, its advances and its setbacks. The more we continuously learn, the more we continuously can bring to the classroom.

Several bloggers, academics, and “news” sources falling on the other side of the equation have accused the readership of the Chronicle of over reacting when one of its “sacred cows” was attacked (I highly encourage all readers to google NSRs name with “fired” after it). The majority of negative criticism has proven to be as reductive as Riley’s own reasoning. This reader did not protest because she attacked Black Studies. As far as I am concerned, the entirety of the academy is open to criticism (our own system of checks and balances, no?) It was the blatantly offensive manner in which she chose to make her argument. She is a hostile blogger in a sea of those she wishes to provoke. For my paltry subscription fee as a graduate student, I demand that what I read is of a certain standard, that when an argument is presented it is informed. What Riley offered was not up to the standards of the audience she writes for. If there is a sacred cow being defended here, it is not an area study. Rather, it is the practice and method we keep.

I invite you, if you have not yet done so, to read her eye-witness response in the Wall Street Journal, in which she defends herself against accusations of being uninformed:

I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now, having visited dozens of colleges and universities and interviewed hundreds of faculty, students and administrators. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country, most often this one, and I have written two widely reviewed books on higher education as well.

Though it should be self-evident, none of this means that Riley is 1) actually a scholar, 2) conversant in the field of Black Studies 3) well-researched. She leaves out the telling information! Two widely reviewed books..by whom?  I’ve already started reading them – they don’t pass muster.

The most amusing part of the fallout is the demonstrations of ad hominem attacks the commentators resort to: “flowery academics,” “whining scholars,” “witch hunting on behalf of our sacred cows,” among others. I’d invite any readers to submit all of the fallacious attacks they find.

For now, I’m going to print out what I find, including her articles, as teaching tools for my students on how not to make a point.


Insufficient comedy, low test score.

Or, sometimes we just need to whine.

Please note: there is nothing enlightened here. Well, perhaps there are a few worthy ideas. In the main, this is what I have opted for instead of reaching for the tequila.  

That’s right, the hell-bent race track to final grade submission. And so, not even a quarter of the way through the 900 + pages of final grading that I have on my desk. My spirits are dipping lower and lower.

I have just pre-heard the collective groan, just by mentioning the dirty “G” word. We’re all in this moment right now, or soon will be, or have just finished it.

Why? Accountability. I’ve heard a lot of

__________________________

The rest of the post has been redacted. The poster took a walk, bought some junk food, got over his it’s-humid-and-I-hate-grading woes, and generally saw la vie en rose.  

 


Spread of Doom

Students, grad students, junior faculty – I think we’re all known to have absurd eating habits. Some of us eat nothing but crap, some of us eat once a day. We justify this to ourselves by maintaining that we have no time, we have no money. We eat and live hand to mouth. Hey, I tow the party line. There is a new item on my shelf that I found at the store that fits right into the category of grad student crap.

Biscoff Spread.  First, you may find Biscoff cookies familiar if you’ve taken an airplane in the last five years. They go pretty well with airline coffee.  So, seeing this name in the store, I bought this jar of peanut-butter-looking spread and took it home. I set it on the table and stared at it for a little while, which of course then fascinated my cat, so he stared for a while too (perhaps I was expecting it to sing, or reveal its mysteries to me).

Having read the jar, Biscoff is a Belgian product. Now, I begin to think about non-American spreads.  Nutella – rocked my world when I was 16 and en France for the first time.  Marmite rocked something and it wasn’t my taste buds.

Finally, I twist the thing open and get a spoon. Viscous crack, the spread has the consistency of peanut butter (capriciously advertised so for Americans), tastes exactly like the airline cookie and is apparently made of the cookies.  Now, the logic game begins. Well, it looks like peanut butter. “They” say peanut butter is somewhat healthy – protein or something. This will not, then, instantly turn my ass into a helipad.  Run, don’t walk, out today and get yours.

** Trader Joe’s has made a rival spread – apparently made of the more sugar-filled American variety of cookie, crumbs present and all.  Aren’t we so industrious.


Riley fired, POST apologetics

Ding dong the witch is dead? Not in this fairy tale. In this one, the name of the game is hydra. Chop off one head, another racist is born.

As was hoped, Naomi Schaefer Riley was dismissed from her engagement with the Chronicle of Higher Education due to all of the reasons mentioned in my previous post and the outpouring of reader response to the editors, on the boards and their individual blogs on the CHE website. Victory for an active readership.

In her response, Liz McMillen tells us:

We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said.

We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.

Whew! She goes further, responding directly to one of our chief complaints:

In addition, my Editor’s Note last week inviting you to debate the posting also seemed to elevate it to the level of informed opinion, which it was not. I also realize that, as the controversy unfolded last week, our response on Twitter did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message.

Though, this sort of stinks of saying that we gave the CHE too much bad publicity  with our loud, insistent complaints and not an admission of bad decision making. I’ll take what I can get, though.  NSR will no longer write for the paper and I’m sure this will work out for her, too. I suspect there is a blog or commentator position for her in the very near future. One in which she will be free to express as many unsubstantiated opinions as she sees fit without the onus of proof, logic or reasoning.

Covering the Zola-esque débacle, Abby Schachter of the Post (always a supremely trusted news source around the world), writes not one, but two reductive articles on the event.   I’d quote her directly, but it is entirely too painful, much like a hastily written composition 101 paper (and that’s about how we should treat these things). So, I’ll summarize that in article one, she accuses us of silencing legitimate criticism in the holy wrapper of racism accusations. In article two, she asserts that NSR was engaged in serious debate and the result was the journal firing her. She says: “And this is supposed to be the premier journal on higher education in America? What a joke. ”   Oh,  it’s not quite Bovary level irony, but it’ll do.

So, Ms Schachter, I assign your paper a C-, both versions. Praise: You’ve done well in choosing a currently trending topic that has links to a ‘bigger picture’.  Problem: You’ve left out all of the salient details from one side of the argument in favor of an apology of racist journalism.  Solution: By structuring your argument with a basic thesis/antithesis, you will surely have a stronger case to make.