22 July 2014

The Wrong Problem

Nothing jolts me out of the midsummer shallows like lots of smart people linking to the same misguided solution to the wrong problem.   Did you think the MLA report on reforming graduate education was done and dusted?  No: prepare for another round of handwringing.  Once again, those who resist the call to cut down graduate humanities education find consolation in the hope that it can be retooled as a sort of vocational philosopher's stone, a magical Ph.D. that allows anyone who touches it to both embark on an exciting career in a nonacademic field AND to eschew narrow careerism.
Doctoral recipients have a rich set of skills — in communication, research, and leadership....Nonetheless, doctoral study should not be viewed exclusively as the pursuit of a career-oriented credential. It must also involve an intellectual passion for languages and literatures, as defined by our evolving disciplines....The qualities cultivated through intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing are not just transferable to other careers; they are valuable in their own right, just as it would be valuable to our culture as a whole — and particularly to the future of the academy — to have highly educated professionals who appreciate scholarly thoughtfulness and humanistic perspectives working throughout society.
One would think that, without such stirring words, prospective graduate students might slink off to MBA programs, entry-level digital marketing jobs, and whatever other tedious fates awaits those who have failed to develop "intellectual passion."   They might enter graduate programs warily, with one foot already in the alt-ac/post-ac camp of their choosing, sacrificing hours in the library to opportunities to build their network or gain a marketable skill.

Cheer up!  There's no shortage of young people willing to fall on the sword of "intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing."  Despite ample evidence that academic careers are dwindling, enough continue to apply to graduate programs to sustain the exploitative academic labor market.  And so long as R1 faculty are willing to fight tenaciously to preserve their graduate student funding and research support (and so long as faculty at other kinds of institutions are encouraged to emulate the research model and productivity of the R1s), the economy of prestige will sustain the Ph.D. pipeline and keep graduate programs in business.

What there IS a shortage of, the problem that we need to solve, is the declining number of people who see "an intellectual passion for languages and literatures" as "valuable in their own right" and "valuable for our culture as a whole."  The long-term survival of the academic humanities doesn't need retooled programs; it needs more undergraduates who are drawn to humanities majors, more parents willing to pay tuition for a nonprofessional degree, more taxpayers willing to fight cuts to higher education, and a broader recognition of the public value of all of the liberal arts.

The proposed solution to the oversupply problem will only make the demand problem worse. Broadening the scope of Ph.D programs in order to prepare students for careers outside academia may make graduate faculty feel better about accepting more students for whom there are fewer academic jobs, but it will do little to draw undergraduates to study their fields.  What does a BA in literature or language equip a college grad for, other than (a) grad school of whatever flavor or (b) alt-ac/post-ac work minus the additional debt and time for the "ac" part?

We promise incoming majors that they are not limited (as they often assume) to high school teaching or low-paid writing/editing drone work.  Instead we point to the same kinds of possibilities now being dangled in front of contingent malcontents and worried ABD's by those who would preserve graduate education at all costs: grantwriting! museum work! nonprofit arts organizations! management consulting! internet journalism! entrepreneurship!

We're not wrong to do so. Grappling with centuries of literature, negotiating between close reading and broader contextual understanding, writing arguments involving complex ideas, chewing over dense and unfamiliar texts--all these are practices that give literature and languages majors the creativity, broadmindedness, and intellectual agility that are both a public good and a career asset.   We as a profession, though, have done a piss-poor job of convincing anyone but ourselves and the already-converted of that truth.  Obviously, we owe it to the Ph.D's already in the pipeline to give them the support they need to be paid what they're worth, in whatever line of fulfilling work will make that possible.  But changing the shape and focus of the literature and language Ph.D. will not save the academic humanities.  Changing the shape and focus of the BA (and concentrating our energies there) just might.

01 July 2014

The Absence on the Horizon

Photo from http://www.mnh.si.edu/highlight/riola/
This post, for once, isn't about academia.  At least, not directly.

When I was a kid, my mother and I would drive at least twice a year from Morgantown, West Virginia to the middle of Indiana to visit her family.  Ohio was long and boring to get across, but when we had left the hills behind us and the landscape flattened out, I knew we were really on our way and getting to somewhere I very much wanted to be.  The fields stretching out in all directions told me so: the dome of sky was not part of my experience at home in West Virginia and I loved it, even if the long drive under it was tedious.  My mother had long since pointed out the rim of trees circling the horizon.  "Have you ever wondered why we never get to those trees?" she asked me once, and in a few moments I had worked out why.  The fencerows, the occasional buildings, which appeared individually as we passed them by, piled up at the end of one's field of vision, making it look like permanent border between earth and sky. My mother had been pondering the phenomenon with much more regularity than me from an earlier age, and still remembered the bewilderment she felt as a young child, about the forest that always receded.

Now I live under the dome, a bit farther west, in Illinois, but my days are so sheltered by a tree-covered campus and academic neighborhood that I only see it when I drive or bike out of town.  A few years ago on such an excursion I started to point out the rim of trees on the horizon to my daughters, to pose to them the same question that had puzzled my mother.  But it was gone.  There was no rim.  There were a few trees here and there, now and then a house and barn and outbuildings, but mostly there were just soybeans, and then corn and more corn, as far as one could see into the distance.  With no fences to piece out the landscape, less variation between corn and beans, the fields looked less flat, the undulations in the ground were more apparent.  Beyond them, the corn and beans met directly with the sky.

The change fits in with the story that's getting told with increasing urgency, about why the bees are in decline.   These big unbroken fields under a sole manager make it easier to spray pesticides. They lack the borders and fence and marginal spaces where flowering weeds used to flourish.  It's complicated, of course.  My grandfather, a farmer, prided himself on keeping his fencerows clear of the weeds and undergrowth that we now know provide habitats crucial to the ecosystem.  

Thousands of small choices, each of them made for good reasons, have changed the relationship between earth and sky within my lifetime.

28 June 2014

The Tombstones of Education

Were I the Queen of Higher Education, I would banish all college textbooks from my Queendom. Books, proper books could stay: anything that reasonable people might purchase, independent of a course requirement, for their edification or entertainment, could be used in a college-level class.  But the hefty, slick, overpriced repackaging of knowledge for the captive educational postsecondary market?  No.

Many instructors (including me) get frustrated that students don't buy the assigned textbook, anyway.  Banning textbooks is not capitulation to their misguided frugality. It's recognition that students don't view their textbooks the way we expect them to--and they may have a point. Students don't buy the required textbook because:

1.  The information it contains is available more cheaply elsewhere (this is particularly true of textbook anthologies).  Students in my "Intro to Fiction" course routinely come to class with printouts of the assigned short stories rather than the textbook I painstakingly selected.

2.  The textbook is superfluous.  Many lecture-heavy courses involve Powerpoint presentations that contain all the required material and that the instructor makes available.  Additional study guides further predigest the material in advance of exams.  The supplementary power of the textbook simply isn't worth the hefty price.

3.  The textbook costs a lot.  Students who otherwise no longer recognize the existence of library print holdings can be motivated to discover the library course reserve desk when it saves them several hundreds of dollars per semester.

4.  The textbook is not as crucial as the instructor thinks it is.  Students limp along without some of the required readings, simply because life is short, there are a lot of demands on their time, and they can.

When they do buy the textbook, they use it poorly.  Many forces in their K - 12 education have taught them to view learning as information processing.  Those who aren't trying to preserve the sell-back value of the textbook read with highlighter in hand, so as to sift out the information that doesn't matter from the information that does.  Rather than taking on board whole concepts and ideas, they search for the keywords that lock on the learning goals or questions that they've been given to guide their reading.

I realize that things may be different in STEM disciplines that involve a lot of problem solving. Textbooks save instructors from having to devise problem sets, and they often give students several different channels for learning problem-solving strategies, practicing solving problems, and trouble-shooting their failures.

But these are precisely the kinds of skills that textbooks fail to encourage in other disciplines. More and more, we need to teach students to learn.  Textbooks, which repackage reality into easily assimilated clumps of information, too often prevent us from doing that.  Students want to adroitly navigate the world of information--hence their zeal for finding workarounds.  By abandoning textbooks, we can better work with that grain rather than against it.

Of course, since I'm not actually the Queen of anything, I don't have to abide by my own edicts, even as I'm formulating them.  But I have not ordered a textbook for the course I'm teaching in the Fall (a 100-level intro to poetry), and I am thinking about how to make my 1600 - 1800 global literature survey and Intro to Fiction classes textbook-free as well.

23 June 2014

Learn Local! (more on ASU and Starbucks)

If any local Starbucks baristas happen to be reading this blog and thinking about starting college in the next year, I crunched the numbers for them.

Only after you've accumulated 56 hours of credit (at or acceptable to ASU) will Starbucks pay your full tuition.

To acquire those 56 credits through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan will cost somewhere between $20,966 and $23,718.  It seems like a lot, but that's a discounted tuition, 78% of what a non-Starbucks employee would pay.  (ASU-Online credits vary by course, from $480 to $543 per credit hour, or $374.4 to $423.54 with the Starbucks discount.)

To acquire those credits at your local community college, assuming that you live in district? $7,364 (our local community college charges residents $131.50/credit hour).

Of course, in both cases, what you pay may be less than the sticker price.  ASU/Starbucks assume that you will apply for any federal aid you're eligible for, like military education grants and Pell grants (which, if you're supporting yourself at Starbucks, you're probably eligible for).  You are also eligible for such grant support at your local community college.

Assuming that your eligibility for federal aid will help to bring the cost of the ASU/Starbucks degree in line with the cost of a local community college education, the advantages of the ASU/Starbucks degree are as follows:

  • You know that all your credits will count towards the 56 required for full tuition reimbursement to kick in.  There's always a chance that some of your community college credits will not transfer.
  • ASU-Online/Starbucks is acquiring a good deal of name recognition.  People outside of your community may not have heard of your community college.
  • Everything is online.  At no point you will you have to (or even be able to) get in a car to take a final exam, talk face-to-face to sort out a financial aid mix-up, take a course that's only available in brick-and-mortar form.
  • There will be a seamless similarity in the format of your classes.  Since ASU-Online is partnership between Arizona State University and Pearson, an education and media company, any individuality in course content and design will be filtered through the Pearson learning management system and Pearson course products.    
  • You will receive a lot of encouragement to remain at ASU-Online until the completion of your degree.  As a profit-generating venture, ASU-Online and Pearson have an interest in retaining as many students as possible.  

The advantages of the local community college are as follows:

  • Even if you are a good candidate for online learning, where the subject matter can be more effectively taught in a hands-on manner, you can get face-to-face instruction, and you have the option of taking courses in fields that don't lend themselves well to online teaching.
  • Because your community college offers a limited number of four-year degrees, you will be encouraged to think broadly about how and where to transfer those credits that you've paid for. Further online education at a for-profit institution might help you achieve your goals, but then, it might not. 
  • Your federal aid dollars will be used within your community.

21 June 2014

On the (ahem) SERIAL Comma

The fucks one gives about the Oxford comma should start with the fact that everyone calls it that. The Chicago Manual of Style humbly calls it the "serial comma," even though naming rights could well go to the university press whose style guide has codified its use for copy editors everywhere.  Oxford hasn't held the line; the University of Chicago has.  Unlike the "Chicago serial comma"--that brisk tool of clarity, the "Oxford comma" reeks of elitism, which is perhaps why its detractors prefer to call it that.  "Elitist, Superfluous, or Popular?" asks the headline of the much-linked FiveThirtyEight story describing a poll taken on the issue.  Those are, apparently, the only options.  Of course, "Oxford comma" connotes both elitism and superfluity--it lounges by the tennis court or cricket field in its crisp button-down-collar shirt, sleeves rolled up, shirt-tail hanging out, sipping gin, all the trappings of privilege with no sign of the exploited labor that sustains it. It's a heedless, unnecessary comma. The "serial comma" on the other hand, is hard at work disambiguating long sequences of words. The truth, however, is that my affection for the serial comma is aesthetic. I like the way it gives a sentence a visual anchor--those final two terms in a series always look like they could drift off into the ether, unheeded and irrelevant. The comma affirms their shared relevance to everything that has come before. Yes, it distinguishes appositives from terms in a series, and its absence can produce hilarity:

Never mind that in the real world the context often makes the meaning clear (would anyone be led by a misplaced comma to believe that Stalin is a stripper?).  Rearranging the terms in these series would also eliminate the confusion: "Stalin, the strippers and JFK," "Wonder Woman, Superman and my parents," "Washington, the rhinocerii and Lincoln."  Genuine confusion generally only emerges from a series of terms when it is so complex that it has to be punctuated with semicolons, rather than commas.  Eliminating that final semi-colon before the final "and" can distort the relationship of the terms in the series--but at that point the prose is generally so turgid and unreadable that the errant semi-colon is the least of its problems.

The serial comma may not be the bulwark of reason and order that its supporters claim, but that's no reason to eliminate it.  In a world of dwindling resources, why not be generous with those that are renewable and sustainable, pleasing to the eye and the sense?  The serial comma stands ready to serve, even when it is not, strictly speaking, needed.

20 June 2014

Online Re-, Dis-, Mis-, and Anti-Education

I am really good at going to school.   A few years ago I was contemplating a career change, so I waded in gently, taking one course towards retraining at a time at the nearest community college, where tuition was only slightly more expensive than the required textbooks.  When I could take a course online, I did.  It saved me forty minutes of commuting time (not to mention gas money) for every brick-and-mortar class meeting and didn't lock up my schedule as I continued to work full-time.

Online education was a surprise.  My education, from high school through to a Ph.D., involved top-shelf, private institutions, but the best science class I ever took was the required chemistry sequence that the community college offered online.  Few of the classmates I got to know in brick-and-mortar classes felt the same way about it.  They mostly urged one another to take chemistry in person if possible--it was just too hard without the discipline and structure of regular lecture meetings. So tempted as I am to use my experience as evidence that online learning can work, I resist.  It can be excellent, but its excellence depends on the same factors (pedagogical labor, student preparation and motivation) that shape non-online learning.

The other surprise was just how bad it can be, and just what a difference that badness makes. Where the pedagogical labor is missing, all the excellent student preparation and motivation in the world will not make up for it.  The worst class I ever took was also online, a four-credit Introduction to Psychology.  By the end of the course, I had honed my skills in the following:

16 June 2014

Getting What You Pay For (On Starbucks and ASU)

Starbucks has agreed to foot the bill for its employees who want to go to college.  The catch: they can only get their college education online and they have to do it through Arizona State University.  That's still a whole lot of opportunity right there, but unfortunately not for the two students featured in the New York Times article about the Starbucks/ASU partnership.