Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A response to Professor X, Part I: "College material"

Click to enlarge. Image found here.

[UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from In Medias Res! Thanks for spending part of your holiday here.]

While I was away from "here" and not otherwise involved in teaching and grading, I did surf the 'Nets a bit. In a couple of places, as I noted a couple of posts ago, I bumped into mentions of Professor X's article in this month's Atlantic, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." So also had a couple of my bloggy friends, R. Sherman of Musings from the Hinterland (his posts are here and here) and J.D. of Evolution, here (J.D. also has an earlier post on the value of a college education that's also worth your time).

As I read all this, along with Russell Arben Fox's musings on how, in a fit of communitarian pique, he and some colleagues decided what they would do if they ran the academic railroad that is Friends University (and don't miss his Part II, here), I first of all thought, "As usual, Thoreau has already seen--and lamented and proposed a (philosophical) solution for--all this":

Those conveniences which the student requires at Cambridge or elsewhere cost him or somebody else ten times as great a sacrifice of life as they would with proper management on both sides. Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made. The mode of founding a college is, commonly, to get up a subscription of dollars and cents, and then, following blindly the principles of a division of labor to its extreme -- a principle which should never be followed but with circumspection -- to call in a contractor who makes this a subject of speculation, and he employs Irishmen or other operatives actually to lay the foundations, while the students that are to be are said to be fitting themselves for it; and for these oversights successive generations have to pay. I think that it would be better than this, for the students, or those who desire to be benefited by it, even to lay the foundation themselves. The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful. "But," says one, "you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; -- to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month -- the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this -- or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers' penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?... To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation! -- why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it. Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably.
Keep in mind: Thoreau (himself Harvard-educated and a child of privilege) writes this at a time when college was indeed an elitist domain, a time when, as Randall points out in his second post, the vast, vast majority not only got by but did quite well with, at most, an 8th-grade education--yet there, already, lie the various problems with higher education identified by Professor X and my blogospheric brethren.

All Socrates needed was dialectic and a willingness to travel: a proto-distance learning. Aristotle, thinking he needed a physical plant with which to teach, used a grove of trees. But hey: low overhead and, I'd assume, no administration. Yet.

But all the above is just throat-clearing. I've tried thinking about my own response to Professor X, but I kept finding myself responding as both a community-college prof and as a (former) student who in some ways wasn't much different from the students I teach now. Also, though I have no way of knowing whether this describes Professor X's circumstances, I couldn't help but hear as a subtext in his/her article something I'd run into among my grad school colleagues--that is, that enterprise known as Graduate School (at least, the humanities version of it) is something like the mirror image of that which s/he describes. All that was getting balled up into one very convoluted mess.

So, why write just one post when you can write two?

What follows is my "student" (undergrad and grad) response. As you'll see, some of it will confirm Professor X's observations about his students and some will not. I'll post the "professor" response later on.

(Much) more below the fold.

By rights--that is, by at least one objective measure--I wouldn't have admitted myself into any self-respecting college, let alone predicted that I'd end up earning a PhD anywhere, much less at a place like Rice. I have what education I have through a combination of enormous good fortune and (after some initial resistance) the desire to take some advantage of what that enormous good fortune was offering to me.

I had a couple of intangibles working against me--neither of my parents went to college (though on my mother's side, several siblings and relatives did; one of my great-uncles was even a co-founder of a college, and his son was a professor of history at the University of Maryland), and we were, at best, lower-middle class. But the objective measure I mentioned earlier was that I was such a disinterested student in high school that I didn't graduate with my senior class. Mind you, this was back in the late-'70s, a time when one could still get a decent job with just a high school diploma. I've been down on myself before, and that was a time when I was especially down on myself. And college? Please. My father was the smartest person I knew, and he hadn't gone (he'd been offered a scholarship to the College of Engineering at UT-Austin, but his parents needed him on the farm more, they figured). College for such as me, especially when I fell short of the number of credits required to graduate, wasn't something I even daydreamed about--it never ever crossed my mind, not even as something to daydream about. That is not hyperbole or false modesty, I assure you.

What happened next, that summer of 1980, while I was finishing up a correspondence course to earn the credit I was short of and my father was in the hospital--a portent, though we didn't know it at the time, of his death the following spring--was something, if you were to see it in a made-for-TV movie, you would be welcome to scoff at for its implausibility: Someone in our church anonymously offered to pay my tuition for 4 years if I would attend a Lutheran college. They're nuts! I said. You will not screw this up, my father said. (Another strike against me as "college material": in the beginning, my parents--my father in particular--were far more keen on this college thing than I was.) But I figured: it's too late to be admitted for the fall; I'll have to take the SAT (and probably bomb that); and then they'll take one look at my checkered high school transcript, and that will be that. In my mind, I slammed that door shut before it even had a chance to open.

But Texas Lutheran University née College did accept me for enrollment in the spring of 1981. That was Piece of Dumb Luck #2. Long-time readers of this blog know at least some of the rest: in my senior year, deciding between 3 offers of admission to graduate programs and the foolish notion of teaching English in Mexico, I did the sensible English-major thing and opted for Mexico; upon my return to Texas two years later and turned down for admission to the MA program by one of the very schools that had accepted me before, I applied (and was accepted) at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) the week before classes began; thence to Rice for the PhD. (Piece of Dumb Luck #3, by the way, was that I applied to Rice only because I'd applied to three other schools and thought I should apply to a fourth school but didn't have much extra money, and in those days Rice wasn't charging an application fee. Guess which was the only school out of those four to offer me admission?) Add to all the above the fact that since being hired for my first job I've never been without full-time employment, and I hope you'll understand when I say that I feel very very lucky to have what I have, seeing as I didn't exactly seek out those two crucial opportunities--the anonymous benefactor and the fluke admission to Rice--that furthered my education.

But as I said above, I wouldn't have admitted myself, though of course I'm exceedingly grateful to whoever it was on Texas Lutheran's admissions committee who decided to take a risk on such a loserly student. But even then, my success in college was by no means a fait acompli: there was still my early, firm belief that there'd been some mistake, that I didn't belong there (I remember laughing in the face of an RA who told me she thought I'd end up being a college professor), and my father died during that first semester as well (I thought I should quit, but Mom said she'd get a job and we'd make it work). I'm not at all arguing with Professor X's contention that many (most?) students in colleges and universities are not "college material" or, at least, don't need to be there--I certainly see my share of such students where I teach (more about the inherent tension between those terms "community" and "college" in Part II of this post). However, in my own experience as both a student and a professor, I know that predicting who will do well and who not is no sure thing. It's like when students ask me if a school is "any good": I tell them that the only way to know for sure is to enroll and go through it. I too know very well, many times over, the sinking feeling Professor X describes feeling during his/her interactions with Ms. L., but I've also seen some--not all, but some--of the students with whom I've had those conversations pull off minor miracles of freshman-level scholarship. One can know certain things only in retrospect.

[I'd also just add, by way of an aside, that Professor X's dismay that not all his students are capable of doing what is asked of them would seem to imply that if all of them were capable, then no one would fail, à la Stanford (who, last I heard, no longer awards "F"s). I'm not missing, or disagreeing with, X's larger point, that there's something unseemly at best that many schools admit students that they are probably certain will not succeed academically; but surely even the best schools admit students they think are "college material" who in the eyes of their profs fall somewhat short of their potential as students. Sure: I'd prefer that all my students be "college material," too, but color me dismayed by the institutionalization of the "Gentleman's C" route: I'm all in favor of having the intellectually-privileged at the Ivies run the very same risk of failure that the 40-year-old returning student runs when s/he enrolls in my Comp I class.]

All this is a long way of saying the following: If my experience has any meaning in this context, it's that no one--not the student, not the instructors, not the admissions committee--can say with surety who will succeed or fail as college students. I succeeded to the extent that I did because, a few weeks into my first semester, I realized I could do this after all . . . and I liked it, too, and so did those things students should do to remain in good standing so as to retain the privilege of being allowed to keep on doing this thing I liked. "Students grade themselves," I'm fond of saying. That's not a cynical statement, though; it's demonstrably true: in my experience, it's the choices students make that lead to their success or failure as students, more than their ability or lack thereof.1

That's not the same thing as saying, though, that we should fling wide the doors of academe to anyone able/willing to pay--as I said above, I've seen more than my share of students at my community college who, for whatever reason, should not be there. In Part II of this post, I'll propose a different way of thinking about this issue.

But I want to move on now to talking a bit about some things I observed both as a prospective graduate student and while working toward the PhD at Rice. This is prompted by the following paragraph from Professor X's article:
I work at colleges of last resort. For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.
It struck me, reading this, that with a bit of fiddling with wording, I'd reproduce pretty closely some things I'd heard my fellow students at Rice (where 2 courses/semester is a full-time teaching load) say as they interviewed for jobs at public universities with 3-3 loads (three classes in the fall, three in the spring) and expectations of "scholarly activity" (read: publish-or-perish): In so many words, "This isn't what I signed on for." (For comparison's sake, a full load where I work is 5-5; for the past couple of years, I've been teaching at least a one-course overload, and occasionally a two-course overload.) In other words, Professor X records here, turned somewhat inside-out, the dilemma students in grad programs in the humanities have faced ever since the '80s: At their most traditional, these programs are training students for jobs in places just like them--jobs that are pretty scarce--when the places that are hiring either require more teaching or place a higher premium on good teaching.

In my listing of Pieces of Dumb Luck above, I left out perhaps the most crucial one at all, though it really wasn't luck so much as just my honestly recognizing where my talents and temperament lay: I envisioned myself early on in the grad school game as a teacher first, then a scholar. I suppose it came to me gradually, with reading more and yet more cookie-cutter, theory-driven (and predictable) readings of texts, lacking in passion (the articles, not the texts): What a lousy way to earn a living, writing stuff that you're committed to only professionally. The perfect phrase for this state of things, as coined by someone at the U. of Alaska-Fairbanks in an article that I've otherwise completely forgotten: "Own-an-ism." Even before I read that article, I'd decided to derive a bit more academic and scholarly jouissance from my work, if at all possible.

At Rice, everyone in the department that I had was at least a good teacher; most were excellent. But what was valued in students' work was theoretical sophistication--that's where the fame lay in those days. Good, solid explications of texts that employed whatever theoretical wrench or hammer that seemed best-suited to the task at hand--you know, the sort of thing teachers do in classrooms in front of students--wasn't exactly pooh-poohed, but neither were those of us oriented in that way regarded as fair-haired children, either. In talking this over with my then-wife, I joked that maybe I'd win the department award for Most-Lovable Grad Student.

As it turns out, though, those of my colleagues most like me were more likely to have landed full-time jobs that we're happy with. The more theory-oriented students tended to end up bumping about between/among adjunct and temporary appointments for a few years before giving up on academe. They, too, had been offered a more-sophisticated (read: elitist) version of that same college-as-populist-dream that so dismays Professor X regarding his students, expressed thusly: "I don't need a program to tell my Spivak from my Bhabha, and all you have to offer me are two sections of Comp I??"

I don't know Professor X or his/her particular circumstances; I'm certainly not saying his/her article is some sort of projected sour grapes. All I'm saying is that that one paragraph, if rewritten a bit, would have a familiar ring to it.

This semester a student thanked me for granting him an Incomplete for the semester rather than failing him; he said he wasn't accustomed to people troubling themselves on his behalf and so he was grateful. After telling him that it was no trouble, I said that education, no matter the grade level, in its essence is the offering of a chance to the student. It's not a promise or a gift or a guarantee of anything. It's the offering of a chance. It's up to the student to do with it what s/he will.

To come: My take on all this as a professor.
1Case in point: last fall, a student who had yet to turn in an assignment finally wrote a paper for the third assignment for me. The fact that it was an in-class paper may have had something to do with it, but never mind that. In it he wrote an apology for not having written any papers, that his schedule wasn't allowing him to get any of his work done. He then proceeded to tell me that after he got home from work (around 10:30 at night), he would fix himself some supper and then watch TV "for 1 1/2 to 2 hours" before going to bed. I wrote him a note to the effect that I think I see something in his schedule that he could tweak . . . but I never saw him again.


R. Sherman said...

I look forward to Part II.


R. Sherman said...

Sorry. I forgot to say, "thanks" for the plug.

I came back for a more substantive comment.

Query, how do we identify the "John Bs" of the world, who, with the right kick in the pants, become successful in a college environment versus those who never will be but whose talents lie in other areas?

I ask the question, because I feel strongly about society supporting the efforts of the former, whether they are studying humanities or physics. Yet, so many of society's resources in the form of Pell grants or whatever, go to students and, let's face it, suspect "institutions" of post secondary education, that those "John Bs" who do not have a benefactor get short changed.

And as a result, society loses their gifts.

Anyway, again, I look forward to Part II.


John B. said...

Good questions. I feel a bit awkward in commenting on this because, though I'm obviously grateful that things happened as they did for me, it goes without saying that I'd not recommend to anyone that they just sort of stand around waiting for miracles to happen, pointing to my story as their justification. I don't feel, even--heh, especially--in retrospect that I was/am in any way entitled to or deserving of a college education, and I wouldn't make that argument for anyone else, no matter his/her abilities.

That said, I think the state could and (so long as it is reluctant to fund higher ed. more adequately--even as it argues that it's in the best interests of the state that it be funded adequately) perhaps should, be a bit more pro-active in figuring out and gently nudging and encouraging, in various ways, which folks should be headed where. As you imply, it's too wistful to think that everyone who would most benefit from college ideally offers students (and I don't mean financially here) will eventually find their way there: the more-believable, miracle-less version of my story is the proof of that wistfulness . . . assuming, of course, it's not presumptuous of me to say that folks such as me are included in that group of Those Who Would Most Benefit from College. That's something else that we can know only in retrospect; the alternative, pre-identifying and then routing, Sorter Hat-like, who goes where, as the Germans and Chinese do with their students, rightly (I think) grates against our populist assumptions about Education as the Great Equalizer in matters of socio-economic status. A former colleague of mine, a Chinese national, wasn't merely told she would be educated as a foreign language teacher; she was told she would learn and teach Spanish. She'd had no prior connection with the language; she ended up in that field through a combination of her aptitude for languages and (apparently) the state's need for a set quota for Spanish teachers with PhDs.

There's a fine line in all this. As I've been thinking about how to respond to your comment and thinking ahead to Part II of this post, I found myself thinking about something Hannah Arendt says early on in The Human Condition. Her starting point is technology's consequences for people displaced by the labor machines perform, but I think the questions she raises are analogous to those raised by the notion of College For Everybody:

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

She's absolutely right, of course; the initial response--send 'em to college--worked for a while, too. But I was just reading yesterday elsewhere that the wage gap between people with college degrees and those without has widened, but not because the work of the former is more valued but because the wages for the latter group have begun to fall (translation: the number of college grads coming out of schools is beginning to exceed the number of jobs available for them). Uh-oh. But the other uh-oh is that, at least under the current funding model for colleges in Kansas, schools have to have students in the seats in order to argue for their continued relevancy, independent of whether there is, you know, labor for these folks to do when they graduate.

Part of the solution to this is some sort of rationing--call it admission standards, intellectual means-testing, what you will--of access to higher education. But how to do that in such a way that as many students as possible have some sort of choice in whether or not they have that access: that, for me, is a crucial matter if education is to have value for both the state and the student.