Real-World Experience, Teaching Contingently, and Academia

In my last post, I examined how the stereotype of the cloistered academic is wrong-headed and patently false. I also dealt (albeit briefly) with the idea that students need to eschew such low interests as monetary compensation in the name of “experience” and “application character building.” The post has generated a lot of discussion, both on the post and on Twitter. It would seem that a lot of us out there are sick and tired of our students and the public at large assuming what they do about our professional lives and history.

But I wonder how much of that is a result of our own doing. We are told, repeatedly, not to include any sort of non-academic (or tenuously academic) positions in our job applications. We also need to police our non-academic interests (be it past paid employment or current interests and hobbies) lest we appear unfocused or lacking the dedication necessary to make it as an academic. Never mind that for most of us who are off the tenure track, the second job is a necessity and our hobbies and interests get sidelined because of a lack of time and resources. So when, as an academic, we appear single-minded or narrowly focused in our pursuits, professional or otherwise, we need to take some blame. That’s why I encouraged my colleagues on Twitter (and do so again here) to write their own non-academic professional narratives.

Because it also will help break the notion that we have no idea what we’re doing in the classroom when it comes to teaching students the skills they need in order to secure employment or the accusation that we don’t understand how hard it is out there. Ask the 75% of faculty who aren’t on the tenure track, or any public sector university employee who hasn’t had a raise in years, they’ll tell you they know how hard it is out there. Perhaps this is the reason why we find it so frustrating when our students appear disinterested, disengaged, or just plain lazy in our classes; we know how hard it is out there, and we know that if they keep doing what they’re doing, a BA isn’t going to save them from unemployment.

But back to my first point. Is one of the reasons our students are so skeptical of us is because they don’t understand that we know what it is like, and that the skills (hard or soft) that we are trying to teach them will not only help them succeed in college, but in their future employment? I might not be on the cutting edge of technology, but I do know that learning how to write and communicate well in a variety of circumstances isn’t just a college skill, it’s a life skill. There are very few people out there who can speak to the soft skill of adapting than the writing instructor, often trained in a different field and “forced” out of necessity to teach writing, not to mention having to adapt to the constantly shifting reality of the students we teach.

I often wonder why more writing instructors don’t become entrepreneurs, as we have huge skill set and survival techniques well-suited to the volatile role of running your own business. But, then again, I’m still here, teaching Freshmen how to write. My next post for the University of Venus deals with my growing dissatisfaction with being off the tenure-track (look for it, coming soon!), and perhaps the sting is even worse when I consider that I am looked down upon by all comers: the university because I am “only” an instructor and the public at large because I am an out-of-touch professor. I belong in both worlds, but am accepted by neither.

That’s a depressing way to end my day.

The Real World: My Pre-Academic Jobs

There is a persistent image that many undergraduates (or, more accurately, the public at large) have about professors, that we, locked away in our ivory tower, have no idea what it is like in the “real world” where people really work (as opposed, I guess, to pretending to work?).

There has also been quite a lot of talk recently about the value of internships, especially the kind where students have to pay to participate and don’t see any money in return. And, as college admissions seasons have came and went, there has been a deluge of hang wringing about how high school students can no longer afford to work, lest their college application not reflect the right kind of values and experiences.

I have been working since I was 10 years old (crap, here she goes). I started with a paper route (mind you, it was only for our weekly local paper, but still) that I inherited from a friend. I moved on to babysitting, found through hand-made fliers that my mom graciously copied at work (I colored them afterwards, too). These jobs didn’t pay much, but they were enough to keep a 10-13 year old in Tiger Beat magazines and cassettes. 

I also did some unpaid work at that time, via a quasi-internship program run by the city, Leaders in Training/Leaders of Tomorrow. I wanted to be a lifeguard, and this was how the city (who ran the pools) helped prepare us for our eventual job as lifeguards (or park attendants). Basically, we got to do all the nasty jobs (like clean out the gutters) that the lifeguards didn’t want to do. It was sort-of terrible, but that was outweighed by the fact that it meant you got to hang out in the office with the lifeguards who were all older and impossibly cool. That was worth a lot of dead bugs.

Now, a few words on lifeguarding, my first real job. To all those college admissions people who think that lifeguarding equals lazy, I’m here to tell you, you’re dead wrong. At least where we grew up, lifeguarding meant not only sitting on a chair in the sun, it also meant that you had to coach a water sport (diving, swimming, synchro, or water polo), teach swimming lessons, organize the competitions for the sport you coached, and organize community events to be held at the pool. Sometimes, we also had to do fund-raisers. At the age of 16. No one working at the pools were usually older than 21 or 22, and they were manager. These were not insignificant jobs with no responsibilities. And, trust me, when the patrons weren’t happy with the job you were doing, they let my bosses at City Hall know (being how my salary was paid by their taxes and all that).

But even if lifeguarding only consists of sitting up on that chair, know that that job is one that is a matter of life and death. If someone is drowning, has a stroke, a heart attack, has a severe allergic reaction, etc, it is our responsibility to save them. We’re trained to do that. It’s one of those jobs where it doesn’t look like you’re doing much until you are called upon to act. And then, you’d best act. I’ve had to clear the pool for one spinal (which is stressful because one wrong move and the person could be paralyzed), and it was frightening. We might not always have to put our knowledge into practice, but if something were to go wrong, lifeguards (at least the ones I grew up with) are professional, capable, and still in their teens.

Kids, you can quote me on that one, too.

I learned some valuable lessons. I had to show up for work, on time, or suffer the consequences. I was once suspended for a week because I missed staff training (this precious little snowflake simply forgot). And so, I didn’t work for a week, lost the wages, and had to deal with the ire of my staff-mates who had to make up my shifts. I learned how to deal with the public, think on my feet, and get my head out of my own ass. I remembered how much I looked up to the lifeguards who coached me, so I knew the responsibility I had to my swimmers. I’m not saying I didn’t do stupid things, but I owned up to them, took my licks, and moved on. I also learned that it is really, really hard to work with friends, especially when they are your boss.

When I went to university, I chose my program, in part, because built into the program were paid internships. Our tuition money paid for an entire department devoted to finding related and relevant jobs and job experience. They had to be directly related to our major (professional writing) and they had to pay. We did pay a nominal amount of tuition during our work terms, but it was nowhere near full tuition and was easily covered by the salaries we were earning. I had applied and been accepted into a much more prestigious journalism program in large part because I wasn’t about to work at unpaid internships.

When I was 14, my parents divorced. I still swam competitively, and much of the costs became my responsibility. I loved lifeguarding, but I needed to work in order to pay for swimming and any other activity I wanted to do. University was no different; I was paying my own way, and I couldn’t afford to take summers or semesters off to get coffee and not make any money. While I understood that an unpaid internship was a “foot in the door,” if there was an option on the table where I would get paid, well, there really wasn’t a choice.

And this is where the discussion about voluntourism, unpaid internships, and the college admissions game gets me really, really rilled up. While I am fortunate that I never had to work retail or in fast food, I nonetheless had to earn my keep. I had to work (although I would have anyway, probably). I think, as valuable as unpaid internships may be, they are exploitative and unfair because they favor those students who can afford to not make any money. Summers in the developing world building houses is great, but that wasn’t going to pay for school.

I think that the people who are disconnected from the “real world” aren’t academics, but the people who think that unpaid work and luxury volunteer opportunities are what build character. I think the same people who think lifeguards are lazy are the same people who think academics are lazy. My real world is a lot more real than you think.

Lesson Learned: Using Corkboard.me and Letting Go of Lecturing

My 100-level students are currently reading and writing about the future. I’ve been depressing them with apocalyptic and dystopic visions of our world, starting with Fahrenheit 451 and ending with the short films at http://futurestates.tv/. Don’t worry, there were some essays in between, like if Google is making us stupidwhy we love robots, or how living longer impacts our morality. Yup, it’s been a real happy time over the past two months, culminating in the creation of a persuasive essay on their vision of the future.


Taking comPOSITION’s advice, I used corkboard.me for brainstorming ideas about the essay and then about how they thought they could best persuade their audience about their vision for the future. I have to say, I was blown away by the results (which you can see here). They all not only had clear ideas about the future, but they also had clear ideas about how to write their essay. I had nothing to add. Class dismissed.


If I had done the same thing in the classroom, I know I wouldn’t have received half the answers that are now living on corkboard. Because it is anonymous and spontaneous, students were free to try, fail, and post again. Usually I write their answers on the board, but they have to be willing to share them. Usually, they just wait for me to give them the answer. And, seeing as how I can’t stand silences, I’ll answer the question myself. But this experience has really forced me to realize that I don’t need to lecture as much as I do, and in fact I am potentially wasting my students’ (and my) time by telling them things they already know. 


This is not a minor revelation. I’ve now realized that over the summer I need to find a way to more fully incorporate corkboard, twitter, blogs, and other social media tools in order to not just engage my students, but get an accurate snapshot of what they know so I can spend my time on things they don’t. It allows me to finally turn my classroom into a more dynamic space of give and take between myself and the students. The challenge becomes when I don’t have regular or consistent access to a computer lab in order to use these technologies. 


Thankfully, I have all summer to figure this out. And while I knew I lectured too much, I don’t think the practical reality of that knowledge really influenced how I approached teaching. So, thank you corkboard.me for making me reexamine my teaching and ultimately improving my approach to the classroom. 

I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.

Dilettante, Generalist, or Unfocused? Teaching and Research Tensions

Conference season is upon us academics. I’ll be going back to Sherbrooke in a few weeks to present a piece of my dissertation, investigating how a translator and editor worked together to produce a collection of translated poems. I just presented last weekend on Dany Laferrière’s practice of rewriting his novels, specifically looking at the transformation of La chair du maitre into Vers le Sud. This summer, I’m working an essay on how Nalo Hopkinson uses the female body in her speculative fiction. 

Oh, and I teach writing. 
I’ve recently become more acutely aware of how my “research output” reflects my image of a scholar (both a teacher and researcher). Should I be moving more towards presenting and publishing on teaching writing, as that is where my professional career seems to be heading? Should I try to find more English authors to study and write about as I teach English? Can I indulge my growing interest in digital humanities, with the limited resources at my disposal (time and money)?
The question of resources is not a trivial one. I do not have a great deal of travel support, and it is expensive to fly anywhere from where I currently live. I teach a 5/4 course load, all of which are writing intensive. I had to cancel going to THATCamp, an experience I had been particularly looking forward to, because it was hard to justify the expense. My past training, publications, and current teaching don’t scream digital humanities; why do I need to change directions, yet again?
I get bored very easily, and I like to have lots of ball up in the air, mentally. When I get burnt out from writing about the middle-aged menopausal body as magical, I can move to how and why an author rewrites his life story. And then, if I can focus on either of those topics, I can comb through the new thoughts related to my dissertation in an effort to change it into a book. And then, on a break, I revise and refine my writing courses.
When I was hired for my (brief) tenure-track position, it was as a generalist, a role I felt well-suited for. Intro to lit or world lit? A PhD in comparative literature certainly prepares you for that. Postcolonial? Got it. Immigrant writing? Got it. Minority? Got it. Popular? Got it. Teaching experience, especially with non-traditional student populations? Yup, got that, too. While looking for my first tenure-track job, I was most successful with the generalist jobs I had applied for. I can imagine that my research and interests were either too diverse (or, too focused on one or two authors) for a more specialized position. 
There is a thread that connects all of my interests, however, and that’s the process and results of writing. If it be translating, rewriting, or imagining, it seems to always come back to writing.  Even my MA thesis, concerned with magical dystopias, is essentially about books that are making clear arguments about the (possible) future. How do we shape and reshape ourselves and the world around us through language? I suppose this is what we are all doing in literature, but I wonder how many of us would describe what we do in such general terms? We are often sent the message in academia that our research and teaching be hyper-specialized, or at least unique. I know that what I am doing is unique, but perhaps I haven’t stuck with any one subject long enough to become hyper-specialized, and thus well-known, in order to become a “successful” academic.
I expressed my thoughts and apprehensions on a recent post on Dr. Davis’ Teaching College English blog. Her thoughtful response:

I figure, I may never be “the” expert on a field, but I can have multiple important contributions to a number of disparate studies.

This, ultimately, is what I aspire to. I might never be an expert in any one area (although I’ll wager there are few other academics who have devoted as much time and mental energy on Dany Laferriere as I have), I want to and can have multiple contributions in a lot of different areas. It might not ultimately benefit my career, but I’m doing what I love. For that, I am grateful, even if I do look a bit like the academic equivalent of a flake.

Teacher or Preacher? On Basic Writing, Gen Ed Courses

I have a particularly bright student in my developmental writing course this semester. While I know why he is in my class (ACT scores not high enough), I’m not entirely sure how that happened. It would seem that he fell through the cracks. He is everything that you dream about in a student, especially when you are teaching developmental writing: he attends class, he takes the work seriously, does his homework, and participates in class discussions. But I know that he resents the hell out of my class, especially when I have to come down hard on the other students who don’t show up, don’t do the work, and don’t take it seriously. One day I made sure that he knew that I knew that the speech was not meant for him. He shrugged, said he understood, but it got his back up when I started to preach. I hate church, he said, and I don’t want to hear a sermon at school.

This conversation took place almost a month ago. It’s troubled me ever since. I want my classroom be an open place for an exchange of ideas, but, at the same time, there are certain lesson, sermons so to speak, that the students need to hear, often repeatedly, if they hope to be successful in college. While taking the time to do the work and taking that work seriously doesn’t guarantee success in college, it certainly increases the odds. I know there are students who can do little to nothing during college and still do well (I was one of them), but I also know that my developmental students can’t afford to allow school to be the last thing on their list of priorities if they want to graduate and not have wasted their money. 
I speak from a position of experience. I have taught developmental and other lower-level general education courses for more than ten years now (seriously, when did that happen?). I’ve seen the students who struggle and ultimately succeed versus those who don’t even bother trying. I also know that one of the ways we learn is through repetition, so I repeat the core mantra every chance I get. But what does that say about my teaching style or my attitude towards my students. On one hand, I want to treat them like adults, but on the other hand, I seem to scold them like children. Minister to them like a flock of unthinking sheep. But if we teach in an influence-based society, is it any wonder some of us adopt a strategy that mirrors some of the most successful personalities, like the preacher?
Teaching might not be a vocation, but there are some very real similarities between what I am expected, required, or choose to do in front of the classroom and what a good preacher does. But is this a good thing? Religion is often seen as a means of indoctrination, and it pains me to say that in some ways, I am trying to indoctrinate my students on how to be successful in college and beyond. I’ve written before how for many of us in academia, institutions of higher learning are the new church, and our religion is based on the tenants of hard work and critical thinking. Some sections of society think that if everyone had a little more God, this world would be a better place. Nationally, however, the common refrain is that this world would be better place if were all just had a little more higher education. 
In my classes, it boils down to getting my students to think critically about why they are in college, and then convincing them to use that as motivation to do the unpleasant tasks that are required of them. I know I am supposed to make my classes relevant and engaging, which I try very hard to do, but when faced with a classroom full of students who tell me that they hate writing and reading, well, no matter how exciting and entertaining I make the assignments, they will still have to write and read, in my class and beyond. So, yes, I guess I am a bit of a preacher, trying to convert the masses. But, it is only one of the many personas I use when I teach. 
At least he didn’t say I reminded him of a missionary. That’s a whole other can of worms. 

Calling All CRW Readers! An Invitation for Feedback

I don’t know if I’m writing on topics that people aren’t interested in, if my current state of end-of-semester doldrums are impacting my writing, or if I’m just not as dedicated as I was to tweeting my posts, but my numbers are way down. This, along with everything else, has got me down. I have at least six posts that I have been meaning to or wanting to write for the past month, but they aren’t coming together for me. 

Topics include:
– What role professors/instructors play in this information age;
– Who should go to college (although Tenured Radical seems to have covered the topic quite nicely);
– My pre-academic jobs (and what they taught me);
– Response to the consistent accusation that professors are disconnected from the “real world”;
– Why you should be nice to your administrative assistant(s);
– How to talk like a pirate and make a living (trust me on this one).
But I am stuck. It’s hard to be motivated when people don’t seem to be responding to my posts. I’m thinking that, for the summer, I’ll be cutting back on the posting, in part because, hey, it’s summer, but also because I need to focus on my research. Maybe this summer, the blog will be more about my research than my teaching (makes sense, as I won’t be teaching, no?). I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write about what my dreams are; seriously, you didn’t think I wanted to be an instructor the rest of my life, did you? 
So I’m going to throw it open to you, dear, loyal readers, tell me what you’d like to read about. Why is it you come here? What can I do better or do more of? I know it can be a little bi-polar around here, with both talking about teaching, but also talking about larger issues of higher education. Is that a strength, or a weakness?  
Either post it in the comments below, or tweet me (@readywriting, if you didn’t already know). I’m serious about this; I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t listen to my students, and thus I wouldn’t be a good blogger if I didn’t listen to my readers. Please, don’t make this like the classroom of blank stares and awkward silence. I know y’all are better than that. 🙂 

How to Evaluate Teaching? Tale of Two Classes

This semester has been a study in contrasts for me. I have two of the same class on different days, and the two classes couldn’t be more different. 

The class that is on one set of days has “lost” about one third the students. On any given day, only about 14 students are present of a class listed at 23. The class itself takes place at mid-day, so one would imagine that it is neither too early or too late in the day to reasonably justify many of the students not showing up. But the students who are left are a pleasure to teach; they participate thoughtfully in class discussions, always have their work done, and, if they don’t, generally don’t make excuses. They are engaged with the readings and invest real time and effort in the essay writing process. Their grades are generally good, and even those whose grades aren’t stellar are making a real effort. 
My other class is first thing in the morning. I don’t think one student has dropped it, and they all show up consistently and persistently. But the class is painful. While they all show up, more than half the class doesn’t seem to have done the homework. No one wants to offer any sort of meaningful contribution to class discussions. They visibly resent any work they are assigned. And the list of excuses I get from them is bordering on infuriating (this is the class that inspired my post on ethos and emails). And while they all dutifully go through the motions on the writing process, they rarely ever actually change anything in their papers. And it shows in their work. Grading their papers is an exercise in endurance. 
The content in the classes is exactly the same; same readings, same assignments, and ostensively I’m giving the same lectures. But of course, the dynamic in each class is completely different. But it leads me to wonder how we can effectively evaluate teaching (or, to use current rhetoric, ensure accountability)? I don’t know how this different dynamic will translate in my students evaluations at the end of the semester. I’m also not sure that if the results of a peer evaluation would be the same if they came to one class over the other. On the one hand, I have a dynamic class with lots of absences, versus a less dynamic class with stellar attendance. Does my apparent failure to engage my early morning class reflect a teaching deficiency on my part anymore than my success in the later class represent an inherent gift or talent? Nor will the final class average really reflect communicate anything meaningful; thinking about it, the two class averages will probably turn out to be identical, with one class of failures because of no-shows balancing out some very good students, while the other class will just generally be lower. 
We, as teachers, cannot control what kinds of students we get in our classes. If they drop or not is not always a reflection of the job the teacher is doing. Nor is their willingness to take the work seriously or their ability to do it well. I am not afforded the flexibility to simply throw out the syllabus because it is not working in one of my classes. I can’t control what time of day I teach (students HATE morning classes). I can teach the same course in two different classes and get two completely different results. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t evaluate and give periodic feedback on professors’ performance in the classroom; I’m saying we need to take the long view and remember, so much of this is out of our control. 

Writing Advice: Take Your Time

Seems like I’m back to writing about teaching and my students after a bit of a break to talk about higher education more generally. Today, I handed back an essay assignment to my first-year composition students. Being that this is second semester, most of the students taking my class either failed their first try or did developmental writing during the fall semester. Needless to say, anything we write in the class is a huge challenge for both the students and myself.

I blindsided them in a way by demanding that they have a meaningful thesis for their recent compare and contrast essay. I struggled with how to help them figure out what meaningful things they could say in their essay without simply telling them, your essay could be about x, y, or z. I wanted them to work through it on their own. Each student had their own unique ideas, as well as their own unique set of challenges. How, then, do I maximize my effectiveness? 
It turned out that the only way I could do it was to work with them one-on-one. I read and gave detailed feedback to a draft and set aside class time for conferences. A large part of what I ended up having to do was cheerleading, reassuring that yes, they did have a good thesis, examples, and organization. Yes, I had to talk out some of their thesis or suggest better examples, but for the most part my students had good ideas that they just didn’t believe were good. But, to me, it felt like pulling teeth, getting this essay out of my students.
When the long (we worked on this essay for almost a month) process was finally completed and the students handed in their essays, I was thrilled with the results. Each student had, indeed, found their thesis and crafted an essay that tied their sometimes disparate examples together. The class, or at least the part of the class that actively participated in the process, did very well. And I told them as much. But I also pointed out the one important factor in their success: time. They took the time to work on their essays. The time and effort paid off, but they needed to understand that if they wanted to continue being successful in their essay writing, they needed to give themselves the time.
Learn what is the most difficult part of the writing process and start early enough to get that part done without panicking or rushing. Look at your schedule for the semester, and rather than blocking out the weekend before the essay is due, block off the one two weeks before it is due. Even if you’re not actively writing, at least plan to start thinking/reading/free writing/outlining on the topic. Take the time to sit down and run your ideas by the professor at least a week before the essay is due (it’ll look good for your ethos, too). Allow yourself an opportunity to try, fail, and then try again. Make sure you can read through the essay at least once, carefully, before handing it in. 
All of this takes time. I tell my students that one thing that I do is give them the gift of time in my class to allow for them to see that if they take the time, they’ll get results. I’m hoping that if they can see the impact extra time has on their final work and final grade, they’ll really take the lesson to heart. I’m not optimistic, I’m sorry to say, but at least I tried. And I can also sleep well at night knowing that, for at least one essay, we did it and we did it well.

Student Ethos and Email Etiquette

I’ve been silent this past week, in part because I got sick, fell behind, prepared the house for weekend guests, planned my soon-to-be four-year old’s birthday party, partly because while I had a whole list of planned posts, I couldn’t concentrate on writing them. No, I was distracted by trying to come up with a way to write the following posts without impacting my own ethos as a writer and a teacher in higher education.

I received a number of emails from my students all at the same time that really, really got under my skin. Now, I am (still) a regular visitor to College Misery, and I talk to my colleagues, so I know that my students are not an anomaly and professors all over the country are dealing with emails from students that are…frustrating in any number of ways. What really bothered me was that we have just spent an entire semester talking about ethos in writing – how a writer is perceived and how students want to be perceived as writers, students, professionals. We are even doing a blog assignment so they can really start to think about how they are seen by people other than their professor.
But nonetheless, I think it’s important that students realize how their emails impact their ethos with their professors. This, of course, should be expanded to face-to-face meetings and any assignment, written or otherwise, handed in to their professor. And I tell them this. I had hoped that the lessons about ethos, even though not explicitly taught, had been applied by my students to other facets of their communications with me. Namely, their emails. 
But I guess not. This troubles me not because their emails communicated to me that my class was indeed not a priority, but because they haven’t applied what they have learned beyond the classroom setting, beyond what they were “told.” And again, I can imagine an undergraduate reading this and complaining, I didn’t mean it that way. And I get that how a student understands the ethos they are (trying) to present versus what a professor may actually read and receive. 
For example (and this is an example based on an email I received this week), a student emails explaining that he has an opportunity to go hunting but it would mean that he would miss two [out of three] of the classes this week. Would it be ok, and he promises he’d make up any work that he missed, especially if I let him know now, before he leaves.
Now, some additional context. They have a paper due next week, and the classes missed are peer review/writing workshop classes. This student is pretty good; not the best but also not the worst. I can imagine the student thinking that they were doing the right thing by a) letting me know they intended to miss class, b) not lying about why they were missing class, and c) showing initiative by proactively asking for the work to be missed. 
For me, all I read is: your class, in fact, university, is not that important to me. And that may be true. But why, then, should I, someone with over 100 students all taking writing-intensive classes from me, make you a priority, or devote extra time to you? I also wonder about how serious a student he is when he claims he can keep up with the work while outdoors trying to shoot animals. 
Critical thinking. We, as professors, want our students to develop the skill. Employers want employees with that skill. But my students can’t think critically about their own communications with their professor, the person, for better or for worse, who holds their future (through their grades) in their hands. It’s frustrating. I don’t care that the student doesn’t care about my class. I care that they don’t see what that might be a problem. 
This email will become a unit on ethos, on digital communications, on email etiquette, and on why my students are even in college to begin with. I’m sure I’ve opened a can of worms by writing about it, but it’s been bothering me for a week, and I needed to get it off my chest. 
What do you think? Why do students have such difficulty recognizing how their communications with their professors impacts their ethos?

More Thoughts on the Standardization of Higher Education

My post on the standardization of higher education from earlier this week was a hit, so to speak, driving traffic and stimulating some interesting discussions on Twitter. I’ve decide to address some of these concerns and continue venting on what I think is going to be the undoing of higher education in this country.

I received two tweets (one from @qui_oui and another from @rwpickard) about how a certain degree of standardization is necessary for transfer and the like. Look, I’m all for standards. We should all have a clear idea of what a 100, 200, 300, or 400 level class should contain within a discipline (how much to read, write, and the level of ideas/concepts expressed). I also understand that in other disciplines, you need to know a certain set of skills or concepts before moving on to the next level; I completely understand that Cal I has to come before Cal II, and that there has to be some standards in order for a student to make progress in their education. But, these standards would seem to grow organically from disciplinary requirements. Sometimes they are imposed by professional organizations, but often in the name of safety; I’m glad that my nurse has a standard set of skills that are required of her before being accredited.

It’s when we get into the “softer” disciplines, like English, where I live, that things get dicey. I have written already about my experience teaching an upper-division Modern Literature course. I appreciated the fact that, within a set of clear guidelines (400-level class on English literature written during what is known as the Modernist period), I had the freedom to teach the texts that I wanted to using the approaches that I thought would work best. I was able to “create” arches, comparisons, contrasts, and evolutions with the works we studied. Modern literature is a huge field (much like any field in English) and each professor will teach the course differently, according to their biases and expertise, but also based on the make-up of the student body and institutional culture. What works in a Modern Literature course at Yale won’t necessarily work in a Modern Literature course at Regional State U. But we can safely assume that given the guidelines and descriptions, a student coming out of an upper-division Modern Literature course should be able to do a certain set of things, from identify the major authors and features of the movement, as well as write a lengthy, in-depth research essay on a work from that period. How we get there will vary wildly.

And it should. Some may point to my characterization of the class as a disaster as a reason why we need more, not less, standardization. The argument goes that I was not to be trusted with coming up with the class, and instead I should have been given the syllabus and reading list to teach in a prescribed way (hey, just give me the script while you’re at it). I say that my failure is an indication that the institution needs to invest in professors, not temp workers, to teach class. If the administration continues to undermine and devalue what goes on in the classroom, no amount of standardization and accountability measures are going to improve student learning. Saying that we should teach all students the same things in the same way, all in the name of accessibility, is not the answer.

Which brings me to the next point of contention. Faculty, then, should then take it upon themselves to develop the accountability measures. We do already; it’s called the syllabus and grading. Apparently, that’s not good enough anymore. But is that the faculty’s fault or the fault of an administration that continually undermines the classroom experience (and professor’s authority) in the classroom? I just came across this essay about how we, the faculty, are increasingly pressured to let learning slide in the name of “customer service”:



Faculty members were being asked to be responsible for students instead of creating a system within the classroom that makes the students responsible for themselves.

This is what I am talking about when I say that the administration often don’t support what professors and instructors are trying to do in the classroom, but then blame us when learning doesn’t happen. Students are seen as tuition machines, and we are told they are to be retained, at all costs. When a student isn’t happy, we hear about it and need to adapt to keep the customer satisfied.

I say, get our backs, get out of our way, and let’s see what happens.

Money is being invested everywhere on campus except in front of the classroom, illustrated by increasing class sizes, the increase in online education, and the over-use of adjunct faculty. Students get the message; the professors (and learning) are the least important component on campus.

And even when faculty are involved in developing the accountability measures, it is usually because they are being required to do so and have to follow narrow guidelines with the demand for very prescriptive (and arbitrary) outcomes, in order to feed the data machine. Yes, cosmetically, faculty came up with the measures, but our hands are tied, impacting the results. Rather than having measures and standards that are organic to a given discipline, we have data driven measures that give us stats, but little else.

Time and resources are also a factor. Often, it is an already over-worked tenure-track faculty member (or committee of tenure-track faculty members) who is tasked with coming up with the measures. Those measures are then imposed on even more precariously positioned instructors and adjuncts, who are already burdened with the demands of teaching intensive introductory courses to larger and larger numbers of students. But none of that comes into the minds of the administrators requiring the extra work from their instructional staff (tenure-track and contingent). There’s no course release, no reduction in class sizes, nothing. Something has to give, and it is either dropping other elements from the syllabus or devising the “easiest” measures to implement.

There’s a win-win situation for student learning outcomes.