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.

11 June 2014


Suppose the Modern Language Association were a professional organization that reflected the lives of most people teaching modern languages and literatures.  The annual convention would be a very different thing.  Instead of taking place in a cluster of upscale convention hotels in a major American city, it would be centered on a interstate offramp somewhere in the the middle of the country, one with a huge concentration of cheap motels.  Even so, there probably wouldn't be enough rooms for everyone attending, so some people would have to reserve rooms at the next few offramps, but that's okay--a lot of them are used to commuting.  Sessions would take place in the party rooms of McDonalds, Applebees, and the like.  In some cases, tables in the regular seating areas of the Bob Evans or Arby's could be pushed together to accommodate smaller groups. A hat could be passed to cover the cost of ordering enough food to justify taking up the space--and after all, everyone's got to eat, right?

10 June 2014

The Noncontingent Labor Crisis

This is mortifying.  Even though I've been blogging about this stuff for some time now, I'm only now starting to get straight terms that I had thought were synonymous.

Adjuncts?  People tell me those are part-time.

NTT?  That's the term (or rather, abbreviation) to use for full-time non-tenured faculty

Contingent?  The all-purpose catch-all phrase except that in some cases, NTTs are on multiyear contracts (it's not tenure, but not all contingency is created equal).  And sometimes people include graduate students in this category.

These terms are particularly confusing when people try to arrive a numbers that will convey just how dependent higher education has become on underpaid people who don't have the job security of the tenure stream. Part-time faculty members are a growing part of the academic labor force, but efforts to address their situation specifically can be skewed by the small (but not irrelevant) number of tenure stream faculty who teach full time.  The oft-cited figure of "75%" comes from this 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education. summarized by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce in their recent Portrait of the Part-Time Academic Workforce as follows:
Of the nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.
I have blogged before about some of the confusion generated by the AAUP's 2012-13 chart on the status of the profession, which has yields an "adjunct problem" consisting of 41% of faculty, 57% of faculty, or 76%, depending on how you add up the numbers.

The distinctions between the various ways of being not-part-of-the-tenure-track are vital for purposes of labor organizing.  If the labor law in a given state and the statutes of a particular institution prevent part-timers and full-timers from forming a joint collective bargaining unit, then it's futile to try to do so, regardless of the benefits of solidarity.   They are also useful for building broader coalitions: faculty teaching at institutions where relying on part-timers is the norm have different shared concerns than faculty at institutions with a cohort of NTT full-timers.

The complexity otherwise obscures a crucial question, though: who is doing the teaching? One full professor teaching a handful of graduate students each semester signifies differently for college teaching than one NTT who is teaching 100 students in two classes, particularly if the NTT also teaches two additional classes as a part-timer at another institution.   Faculty head-counts tell only part of the story, and not the part most relevant to the tuition- and tax-paying public.

To demonstrate why the insider-baseball of academic staffing should matter to anyone outside academia, we should be counting contact hours.  Of all the hours of instruction delivered in a given institution, how many of those involve a tenure-stream faculty member interacting directly with students?

Rebecca Schuman has suggested deploying a scarlet "A" for "adjunct":
I propose that the “A” (and everyone else’s faculty rank, too) be codified into every course catalog in America. I propose that we do it in a way students and parents can understand, and that we do it with a link to each rank’s salary range. So instead of CHEM 104 STAFF (most of us adjuncts are, after all, Professor Staff), it would read CHEM 104 ADJUNCT, with a link to the pay range. Instead of CHEM 500 DOE, J., it would read CHEM 500 DOE, J. (FULL)—with a link to the pay range, again. 
What if we could calculate a number for every institution of higher learning: the average number of hours an average student, upon graduation, has spent classes taught by instructors who have (or are eligible for) the protections of tenure?  Or compare averages within particular majors across institutions? The possibility of counting the role of contingent faculty by instructional time rather than a head count (as well as the complexity of whose heads are counted) has been a subject of recent Twitter discussion between @KateMfD, @gerrycanavan, @pankisseskafka, @VCVaile, @josh_boldt, @deandad, @MattBruenig, @JeffreyKeefer, and of course @goodenoughprof.

I suspect the underlying reality would be the same, however.  "Faculty' doesn't mean what it used to mean or imply the norms of status and employment that used to go along with college-level teaching. It is time to bundle the complexities of assistant/associate/full/tenure-track/tenured into the blanket term "noncontingent faculty" and reserve the term "faculty" tout court for what it is: everyone who teaches college classes without the increasingly dubious security of the tenure stream.

09 June 2014

Ban Disconnection, Not Laptops

It's a great party, so no one complains when the NewYorker is late to it, but hasn't the issue of laptops in the classroom been fairly well canvassed by now?

I ban laptops, mostly.  In my small (<40 students) discussion-based classes, students build skills in interpretation and analysis.  For the most part, the information that gets delivered can be recorded on post-it notes attached to the relevant pages of the book we're discussing--and that's the method I recommend.  I point out that our classroom as is akin to a nature preserve or national park: one of the few remaining spaces where face-to-face conversation among people who are otherwise strangers is a method of attaining knowledge.

07 June 2014

That "We" Again: Who Did We Say We Were?

Warning: this post is very specific to the campus where I work.  The post may be of interest to those who are following the nationwide push to organize adjuncts, but its merits are otherwise site-specific (which seems to be true of union-related things generally).  The post responds to Nicholas Burbules, Gutsell Professor of Educational Policy Studies at UIUC, whose blog, No Faculty Union at Illinois (coauthored with Joyce Tolliver, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese), seeks"to deconstruct the rhetoric and strategies of faculty union advocates." 

Back in April, as academic labor unrest was stirring on our sister campus, I wrote this post about the issues that are prompting many faculty to look anew (and where legally available) at unionizing to solve at least some of the problems besetting higher education.

Now "we" (or at least, some of us) are upset because "we" voted by union card to form a union without telling...well whom, exactly? "Us"?

We actually did tell us. A union card drive for non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty involves speaking, individually, to as many members of the potential bargaining unit as can be located. Nearly every NTT faculty member who could form part of the bargaining unit was contacted, and a majority of those faculty members decided that they wanted a faculty union to represent their interests in collective bargaining. So who is this "we" who weren't told? Precisely those people who are not part of the bargaining unit. "By May 5, when the Senate held its last meeting of the 2013-14 academic year, and when union organizers were intensely engaged in a no-holds-barred attempt to persuade specialized [aka, NTT] faculty to sign union cards, once again no mention was made of the card campaign."

06 June 2014

The Diversity Question

"You're a white instructor seeking employment at an institution of higher education where the enrollment of white students and the employment of white instructors over-represents the proportion of white people in the population. We recognize that these numbers are a problem for our institution, and though we may well will hire more white people for this job, we want to make sure that those white people we hire see it as a problem, too. So, what steps might we expect you take in the classroom to compensate for the fact that your sheer presence in no way (you're probably cis and lacking a visible disability) contributes to the diversity of our campus?" 

That's not the question that gets asked in interviews. For examples of questions that do get asked when college teaching staff is getting hired, you can google "interview questions about diversity in the classroom"--but at many institutions, they amount to the one I asked above.

03 June 2014

The MLA Task Force on Being Nice to People Leaving Academia But Otherwise Keeping Things the Same

If modern languages and literatures survive as academic disciplines, it will be because students (and the people students become when they graduate: tax-payers, tuition-payers, and folks who make decisions about allocating public resources) recognize that taking these classes in college makes a difference.

But you wouldn't know it from reading the Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.  The document has been well chewed over by now, and the indigestible truth lies strewn in tatters around us: there are far more qualified potential professors than there are jobs for them and Ph.D. students ought to be supported (not vilified) for their efforts to find work outside academia.  The bulk of the report's recommendations, though, have been slurped down like the tasty morsels of cluelessness that they are: alt-ac training?  technological know-how? watered down dissertations?  five years to degree?  Doctoral education confronts a supply-and-demand problem.  As many academic bloggers have pointed out, fantasizing about some alternative demand (that only a retooled supply of literature and language Ph.D.'s can fill) won't fix it.

The Posts Not Written

And suddenly, the number of things I couldn't blog about--too personal, too mired in the concerns of relevant parties, too subject to institutional regulation, too specific to the bitterness of a particular moment, too consequential--left no room for the things I could blog about.  Here are some of the posts not written:

  • Work-Life Vertigo, or The Limits of Compartmentalizing.
  • Tales from the First Time on a Search Committee (adjunct hiring edition).
  • The Plagiarism Smackdown
  • The Making of a Faculty Union
  • Mercy, Despair, and Sloth: The Truth of Grading Finals.

But the semester has finally washed me up on the shores of summer and I've had some time to catch up on the last six weeks of academic fun on the internet.  Let the blogging recommence!