Posts Tagged Higher Education

Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #11)

Greetings from Chicago!  The long hot days of summer are here in the city.  Normally I’m an outdoors person, but the heat has kept me in the air conditioned confines of my apartment the past few weeks, reading through the giant stack of books gathered during the past academic year.  I’ve also been working on a few writing projects and tidying up my living space before heading off to Vermont to visit my parents.

My thoughts in the past few months have turned in a few different directions.  Foremost on my mind have been the violent events going on throughout the world.  Some faculty (the most vocal of which is Stanley Fish) would have us bar the doors to current events and personal experience and make the classroom a sacred space, a true ivory tower.  We all know that this isn’t possible.  Students and faculty live in a less than ideal world where the walls of the ivory tower are already so full of holes that using those walls for protection is absurd.  The struggle for me is thus not whether or not to bring these “outside matters” into the classroom but how to do so in a meaningful way.  Every teacher has a slightly different way of addressing this issue.  Here is my approach.  First, I ask myself what events most lend themselves to the skills I am teaching within my discipline (English) and within my course.  Then I consider what impact these issues will have on student interaction in the classroom.

The first set of questions is pedagogical in nature and forces me to reflect on the nature of what I think I’m doing in the classroom.  What are my goals for students at each stage of the course I’m teaching?  I haven’t taught a literature class in quite some time so my general list of goals is typically matched to the curriculum for a first year writing course, the predominant class that I teach at UIC.  During the fall, I will be teaching a research paper course so my general goals for students are: to understand why research is important, to learn what constitutes research, to create steps for constructing and managing a research project, and to understand how to integrate research into your own writing.  Nearly any set of current events or personal interests could be matched to these general goals.  However, I wanted to meet my students half-way and create a course focused on themes related to their academic (and perhaps personal) interests.  Since UIC’s students predominantly choose to major in engineering, business, and medicine, I selected “infrastructure” as the focus of my course.

Most people think of roads and bridges when they hear the term infrastructure.  They also might wonder what these structures have to do with current events at all.  My approach to infrastructure, however, goes beyond considering the physical environment.  I tell students in the first few weeks of class that infrastructure is best understood as any element of our community that if it were removed would make the community cease functioning properly.  This definition clearly includes elements of physical infrastructure but it also includes specialized workers and types of knowledge needed to keep a community operational as well as shifts needed in that knowledge base to meet changing times.  Using this expanded definition, it is possible for us to examine infrastructure in terms of our political system and also to scrutinize the role of race in determining how communities are built and maintained.  Flint, Michigan’s water supply problems provided me an excellent teaching tool last semester.  This coming academic year policing and crime will more than likely play a prominent role.  It’s no accident that violent crime in Chicago takes place predominantly in neighborhoods that have long been neglected by the city for infrastructure improvement.

Of course, my plans for the fall semester will be shaped by the students I teach and I won’t meet them for several more weeks.  In some semesters, I have students who live in the situations we are discussing in class.  They may or may not want to talk about the environment they experience day to day.  Embarrassment is just as powerful a motivator for what to talk or not talk about as trauma or fear.  Other semesters, I have students who live worlds away from urban neglect in well-tended suburbs hours distant from the city.  These students present a different challenge as they often hold the attitude that “Well, my parents succeeded.  Why can’t they?”  My task as I design my course is to find a way to reach both groups of students.  Those for whom the issues we discuss might be “too real” and those for whom it is just another segment in the news.

In all these instances, I try to be aware of the power dynamic present in the classroom.  This is why I am a cautious practitioner of using current events and personal experience in the classroom.  As their professor, I hold the ability to pass or fail these students.  My evaluation is always in the back of their minds.  No student should ever feel pressured to think or act the way I do.  If that is what they take away from my class, I’ve failed.  I want them to feel comfortable enough to disagree with me while at the same time learning to articulate in a reasonable way why they disagree.  Or, at the very least, to examine an angle of the issues discussed that didn’t originally occur to me.  Students often agree with the general framework of the course, but look at the details in a radically different way from me.  This turn of events makes me happy, provided their point of view is backed up with reasons and evidence.

I’m now reaching the end of this month’s blog post and will just share with you briefly one last thought that has been on my mind.  I’ve long felt self-conscious about my poor abilities in foreign languages so I’ve decided to do something about it this summer.  I’m studying French, a language that I first encountered in elementary and middle school and have studied on and off for years.  I’m using an app called Duolingo to get started.  I’ll let you know how the process is going in my next post and discuss the relationship of foreign languages and literatures to the study of English.

Until next time…..

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #10)

Greetings from Chicago!

Summer is a strange time to be an academic.  Many in the general public imagine professors taking off for the beach or to country cabins to lounge about until the fall semester begins.  The reality, as I’m sure you all know, is considerably less romantic.

My spring semester finally ended in the middle of May.  I had papers from two composition classes and one course in literary theory to grade and then needed to go through my grading spreadsheets to calculate student final grades.  Once those final grades were calculated, I uploaded them and then faced the next challenge, answering student emails about their final grades.  I don’t know how many of you face this each semester, but I have at least five or six students each term who can’t understand why they didn’t receive an A.  These, of course, are usually the students with poor attendance records and even poorer writing.  Of course, in the corporatized world we live and work in, the attitude seems to be “I paid for an A.  Give it to me.”  Two of these students were persistent enough that I opted to meet with them to review their final papers.  They still weren’t happy with my decision, but I felt that I had acted in a professional manner dealing with their complaint.  That’s the best I could hope for in both cases.

After finishing up grading for the spring semester, my next task was as NEMLA area director.  I reviewed the session proposals for the 2017 conference in Baltimore.  This is a time consuming activity, but is generally enjoyable.  I’m always impressed at the wide range of research interests I see in these proposals.  The only distasteful part is having to reject proposals.  The careful vetting of proposals at this early stage, however, prevents having to deal with major problems later.  I always have an eye out for whether a session will garner paper submissions and participants.  I also try to imagine myself as a person submitting an abstract to a particular session.  Is the conceptual framework of that session clear?  Do I have an idea of the type of papers the session chair is looking for?  These are key questions that any conference session proposal should answer.

Acceptance and rejection emails for NEMLA sessions have now gone out and the Call for Papers is now open.  I have two sessions proposed.  One a panel session on the representation of agriculture in US fiction.  You can read the description and submit abstracts here.  The other is a roundtable on the teaching of 19th and 20th century war literature since 9/11.  You can read the description and submit abstracts here.  There are also a wide range of great sessions proposed for this year’s conference.  You can see all those descriptions here.

Once I finished reviewing session proposals for NEMLA, I got to work with Lisa Perdigao, the Cultural Studies area director to set up a Special Event speaker for Baltimore.  I think NEMLA members will enjoy the talk for 2017, which builds upon themes from this year’s conference speaker Jelani Cobb.

Then it was Memorial Day and my summer (in the conventional sense) could finally start.  Of course, now I have an essay to write that is due this fall and still need to attend bi-weekly placement essay readings for the First Year Writing Program as well as revamp my course syllabus for the fall.  But this is a state close to relaxation.  I also have enough money coming in each month, thanks to our current union contract, that I don’t need to find additional work this summer.  I know that I am blessed in this respect as many of my colleagues are looking for summer teaching or other work to fill the gap between now and September.  I just wish that I made enough money to take a real vacation.  It would also be nice to have a summer that didn’t turn into a research sabbatical for the next book or essay.

My blog post for this month is late due to all the busyness described above.  It’s also a bit somber as I re-read it.  This is due in large part to the sad state of affairs in Illinois.  We are still without a state budget and probably will continue to be until after the fall elections.  Who knows how many of our state colleges and university’s will still be around once that budget is passed. It’s also turning out to be an incredibly violent summer here in Chicago.  Austerity is starting to take its toll.

I hope your summer is off to a good start whatever you are doing.  Today I’m going to give myself permission to relax and recharge.  I think I’ll start with another cup of coffee and my knitting basket.  Yes, I knit.  We can talk more about that in another post.

Until next time…..

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #6)

Greetings from Chicago!  It’s cloudy and cold outside today as I sit and write this blog post but unlike the east coast there’s no snow on the ground here.  Perhaps I’m crazy, but I kind of miss the snow cover.  Haven’t had a chance to drag out my cross country skis at all this year.

My last blog post was written before Christmas.  I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the month of December off as I was focused on visiting my family and trying to wrap up a bunch of projects that had collected on my desk over the fall semester.  In that November post I examined the use of electronic texts.  This post will cover the topic of Educational Technology.

I first became aware of the term “Educational Technology” through Twitter, specifically the tweets of Audrey Waters.  Before reading some of her posts on Hack Education, I had never heard of the term but I was well aware of the programs and services the term described.  Most familiar to me is Blackboard, the Course Management System (CMS) used at UIC.  I was also familiar with the various products such as MyWritingLab that Pearson had long been promoting amongst writing faculty on campus.  Apparently they have a version of this My(fill in the blanks here)Lab for every discipline taught on campus.

Most faculty entering the market for Educational Technology are either lost in a field of options made more confusing by technical jargon or are simply content to accept whatever technological tools are provided to them by their employer.  Few of us have the time or inclination to ask what types of technology are cost effective and, more importantly, what tools will actually enhance what we do in the classroom.

I experimented with several different types of educational technology in my First Year Writing classroom during the Fall semester of 2012.  The course I was teaching (ENGL 160) is designed to teach students short genres of writing such as the argumentative essay and proposal writing.  At the time, the course was balanced between academic and non-academic genres.  You can find a link to the syllabus under the Teaching Materials tab of my website.  It’s called “First Year Writing:Genre and Argument.”

I chose the Profile genre as well as that of the Manifesto to help students practice writing in a public context.  Since many of these non-academic genres are published online, I decided to have them work on the text of their assignments in Microsoft Word but then import that content into Google Sites for the Profile and Tumblr for the Manifesto.  Neither of these tools are typically considered educational technology, but that is part of my point.  Marketers have software and services that they claim are designed with your classroom in mind.  But any technology can become educational technology if you provide the proper pedagogical context for it.

In the case of the Profile, Google Sites was chosen as a simple web design tool that would allow students to craft an online Profile for the person they interviewed.  This person was someone on campus at UIC that they felt others should know. My favorite example was the student project that focused on a custodian in her dorm complex.  The hope with this writing assignment was that students would not only learn basic rhetorical techniques associated with the Profile genre since its creation but also would learn how to translate those analog skills into a digital environment.  It worked generally OK.  My one frustration was with my choice of platform.  Google Sites proved easy to me, but not my students who struggled to figure out its design interface.  Tumblr was a different story.  Most of my students had already used Tumblr before and some had profiles on the site.  They also like the photographic emphasis of the platform as opposed to the text heavy set up of Google Sites.  They used Tumblr effectively to create a Fashion Manifesto (based on the popular Sartorialist blog) that was designed to teach UIC students how to be fashion savvy on campus.

This academic year our program has begun shifting to primarily academic forms of short writing.  I haven’t taught this particular course in a while so I’m not sure how that would shift my choice of educational technology.  One thing is for sure, however, I like choosing and shaping the tool I want to use rather than simply taking something given to me by an educational technology designer.  This saves students money but is also gives me flexibility as an instructor to shift from platform to platform as I see fit rather than being locked into a deal with a major publisher or software developer whose staff don’t fully understand the needs of my class. The downside to this approach, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is that it does take a bit of time to create your own context.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve stepped back from the process of platform selection in the last few semesters to more traditional pedagogical tools.  I’ve even tried, Lord help me!, to make Blackboard work to my advantage.  No luck on that yet.  It still serves mainly for me as a clunky version of Dropbox.

Faculty on campuses around the world are doing some excellent work with their students creating their own educational technology.  Two that come to mind are Chuck Rybak at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and Jeff McClurken at the University of Mary Washington.  There are many more.  What these faculty have in common is a desire to learn the logic behind technological tools and create a context for them in the work they do in the classroom.  Again, this takes time.  It also takes money and at the very least a minimal amount of institutional support.  Unfortunately, at my institution security concerns and legal liability issues trump the desire for experimentation.  As I often joke with colleagues, the answer to any question asked of our university computing center is “Blackboard.”

For anyone reading this post who’s interested in delving into the world of educational technology I recommend first finding a partner to work with.  This could be either another faculty member in your department who shares some of your interests, a colleague in a department such as computer science who would be interested in collaborating with a humanities scholar, or a librarian willing to help you create your own educational tool.  Not only will this save you time, but it will address the issue of funding, which is always a concern with new projects.  Free online tools are abundant but not always easy to find.  Adapting these tools might also cost you some money for things like hosting fees and access to advanced editing tools.

What I don’t recommend is simply taking the tools offered by educational companies and using them in your classroom.  Blackboard is useful.  Especially the announcements, file sharing, and grade book.  But using it teaches me nothing.  Nor does it teach my students.  All it does is deliver content.  The point of educational technology should be more than content delivery.  It should be the act of learning how to deliver content through an electronic medium (a.k.a. digital literacy).  

I hope you all find the tool that works best for you and don’t get distracted by technology that you don’t need.  If you are a faculty member and have some tools that you particularly like or educational technology projects you’re proud of and would like to share with my readers, feel free to comment on this post.

My next post is going to shift from pedagogy to research.  I’ll be sharing with you some of the themes associated with my next book project.  A work very much “in progress.”

Until next time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #5)

I hope that you all had a Happy Thanksgiving and are on track for a successful end to your fall semester.  After getting back from a visit with my in-laws in Springfield, Illinois, I find myself swimming furiously in a sea of student papers, articles and manuscripts in need of peer review, and revision of my own writing.  There’s also the constant rush of students in and out of my office now that they’ve discovered (belatedly) the location of my office as well as my posted office hours.  Ah, the glamorous life of the academic.  ; )

In my last blog post, I focused on the use of Twitter for academic purposes. This month I’d like to discuss the use of electronic texts in the classroom.  Among my colleagues at UIC, there is a robust debate over whether it is appropriate at all to invite the use of electronic devices in the undergraduate classroom.  Some faculty choose to prohibit phones, tablets, and laptops from their classrooms and require students to purchase hard copies of books and print out articles for discussion in class.  Other faculty on campus only use electronic texts, print sources than have been scanned or coded into an electronic format or sources that only exist electronically.

My approach is a hybrid of these two poles.  Certain books I prefer to have students buy in hard copy or print out.  These are typically sources that we will be reading closely or analyzing multiple times.  Other resources, mostly contextual in nature, I prefer students to access electronically as needed.  The rationale behind this decision does have some research to back it up, but is based largely on my teaching experience as well as feedback I have received from students.  “Close reading,” “Analytical Reading,” “Hermeneutics,” call it what you will, depends upon a form of deep concentration that it is hard for us to achieve when we are scrolling up and down a computer screen.  True (as Franco Moretti points out) readers have been engaged in superficial readings of texts for as long as humans have been writing language down.  However, it is just too easy for me to shift to Facebook, Twitter, or another document when reading an electronic text or skim rapidly across the words on the screen without registering much beyond the “gist” of what I have read.  With a  book or article in hand, I feel pressure to go back over text my eyes have lazily gazed over and highlight/annotate the parts of the text that seem significant.

Students in my courses have generally agreed with this assessment.  Contra Cathy Davidson whose most recent book, Now You See It, champions the benefits of distraction, students on the UIC campus have complained to me about how hard it is to focus with their phones buzzing and pinging with updates and notifications from various apps.  They have also found the technological limits of wifi, software compatibility, and device battery life a challenge.  We joked in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory course several semester’s ago that the main vulnerabilities of the codex as interface are water and fire.  Other than that, as long as you don’t lose the book or print article, you’re good to go.

These significant drawbacks to the electronic text have often left me skeptical about the best way to use them (if at all).  As I mentioned earlier, the main ways in which I have found electronic texts useful have been contextual in nature. This includes bringing historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, photographs, and maps into the classroom.  These supplementary texts help us better understand the social background of the writings we are analyzing.  Another effective use of electronic texts has been when a work is otherwise unavailable in print for students to read.  Most of the authors I teach and research are now part of the public domain, making their work freely accessible for all to distribute in whatever way they see fit.  What better way to appreciate the literary context that influenced an author’s aesthetic than to read the works of his or her contemporaries for comparison.

Perhaps the greatest source of influence in my decision on whether or not to assign an electronic text, however, has not been pedagogical at all.  Instead it has been driven by the rising cost of student textbooks.  The anthology I used in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory cost students on average $115 to buy.  Renting the book lowered the cost to around $70.  This might not seem like much in comparison to texts in other courses that can cost significantly more or software programs that students are required to buy for majors in the architecture and the sciences.  Yet the cost adds up over time.  Whenever I assign a print book or article, I make sure that we are in fact going to read the text exhaustively.  That it is in ever sense a “required” text for the course.  Anything that might even be vaguely considered supplemental, reference oriented, or “recommended” is assigned in an electronic format to save costs.

Now at this point it is worth acknowledging the hidden and often not so hidden cost of e-texts.  Publishers come by my office on a near constant basis around this time of the year, particularly Pearson.  They are more than eager to sell my students access to proprietary websites that mediate between them and the things they will be reading.  One example is MyReadingLab.  The allure of such technology is that it lessens my workload in and out of the classroom.  But is it worth the cost?  To me, at least, it isn’t.  I would rather find online resources that are either free or more affordable and link students to them via our course management site, Blackboard.  There is also the transfer of costs to students in printing fees, my xerox budget has been cut dramatically by my department, as well as the cost of buying a device to read electronic texts on.  Sure, a sizable number of our students have smartphones today, but who wants to read a novel on a iPhone?  Even youthful eyes are strained reading that tiny print.

The only honest way to conclude a discussion of electronic texts in the classroom is to admit that the data is mixed.  Their are numerous disadvantages to moving away from print texts but there are also many benefits.  I hope to have a fruitful discussion on both during my round table presentation in Hartford on “required texts” and “authoritative” editions of literary works.  In the meantime, if you have been using electronic texts successfully or unsuccessfully in the literature classroom, let me know.  If you haven’t tried using them at all, experiment with a few this spring.  Teaching and scholarship after all are a great adventure.  Why else would we keep slogging along through the seemingly endless writings by students and colleagues that call for our attention on an almost daily basis?

In my next blog post, I intend to revisit my comments on Pearson and other educational resource providers (including Blackboard).  What should scholars know when they enter the market for educational technology?  How can we choose the tools that make sense for our pedagogy when we are limited by lack of knowledge, money, and sometimes institutional bureaucracy?

Until next time….

John Casey

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A College By Any Other Name

Mid-terms have come and gone at the University where I teach and work as an administrator.  With their passing, students are left to ponder just what it will take to get them through the rest of the semester.  Some will take advantage of the services available to assist them as they try not to buckle under the growing burdens of their blended school work, jobs, and social life.  An even larger number, however, will fall by the wayside and drop out of their classes.

This is especially true of the First Year students I teach.  ACT statistics from 2012 show a first to second year retention rate at all of the United States’s colleges and universities they surveyed of approximately 67%.  Even if the financial burden of going to college were not as bad as it is today, this rate is still alarming.  It is indicative of an educational system that is good at persuading students to enroll, but not as good at ushering them towards the completion of their degree.

Part of the problem is the message that parents, educators, and public figures such as President Obama send to prospective students.  First they tell them that college is a surefire ticket to a better life.  And then they convince prospective students that any college and degree program will do.  All the would be students need concern themselves with is that they hurry up and get a BA before its too late.

A major problem with this message is that the first assertion is a selective interpretation of the truth.  Statistics show that “on average” college graduates have greater earning power than those with only a high school degree.  The reality, however, is much cloudier.  Earning power depends largely on the degree earned and the school granting the degree.  As more Americans have Bachelor’s degrees, employers can be more selective.  This makes the subject studied and the network of potential recommenders that a well-known school can provide more important than ever.  Also, it is worth noting that the only reason college earnings have remained higher than the take home pay of non-college graduates is that the average wage of high school educated employees has plummeted since the 1980s.

Armed with this faulty information, students are then fed the equally faulty perspective that all institutions of higher education are essentially alike.  How many students do you know of who are savvy enough to parse the distinction between a college and a university?  How many faculty can do this for that matter?  What does a community college really offer?  How about for profits?  Students are left with the impression that college is vital to their future, but then are left essentially adrift to figure out where they should go on their own.  Is it any wonder that undergraduates are often better at comparison shopping for a smartphone than they are at picking out a college?

One way to alleviate this problem is to be honest with would be students.  Don’t discourage them from going to college, but explain that, depending on what career path they are intent on pursuing, a college degree might not be necessary.  There are numerous certificate programs and high school vocational programs that can place students in satisfying careers that pay a living wage.  Additionally, there are two-year colleges that can either serve as a place for would be students to discover what they are interested in studying or provide them a skill that is immediately applicable to the workforce.

Making these career track options more visible and more viable will then enable colleges and universities in the United States to stop marketing themselves as job training centers.  Four year institutions of higher learning should busy themselves imagining the jobs of tomorrow rather than placing its students in the popular fields of today.

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Revisiting the Digital Divide

Much of the research on the “digital divide” focuses on individual users and demographic groups that have traditionally had limited access to technology. A recent study by the Pew Research Center continues this trend. Their findings indicate that thanks to mobile technology, specifically the smart phone, internet use among all social groups is increasing. Fear of technology is also fading as once excluded groups learn digital literacy.

Although these studies are heartening to read, indicating gradual progress towards greater access to technology for all citizens, they fail to take into account the digital divide that exists within educational institutions. While television, radio, and internet news providers have been busy bashing the teacher’s unions and tearing apart the educational policies of “No Child Left Behind,” precious little has been said about the uneven technological infrastructure of our nation’s schools.

For every school with access to i Pads and state of the art computer labs, there are hundreds with only a handful of aging computers (usually in the library) that are available on a first come first served basis for internet research and word processing. This problem is endemic throughout the current educational system, reaching as far as the ranks of higher education.

Right now I am writing this blog post at home on my personal laptop. Partially this decision was made voluntarily, as I wanted to write during the evening in the comfort of my home and not use work resources for non-work related activities. Even if I had wanted to write this post earlier at work, however, I could not.

I share an office at my institution with four other Non-Tenure Track Faculty (NTT as we’re calling them these days). At one point, we had a desktop computer that was five years old. Not surprisingly given the CPU intensive nature of WEB 2.0, this machine died during the summer semester.

In its place, next to the CRT monitor (i.e. the kind that looks like an old TV), mouse, and keyboard of the old computer, sits a seven-year old laptop–a PowerBook G4. This machine was wrangled from the department after over a month of hectoring our IT guy. I had never even heard of this particular brand of Apple laptop so I took the time to search for information about the system on Wikipedia. It turns out that the “new” computer in my office is the precursor to the now ubiquitous Mac Book.

With its limited CPU power and an outdated browser, the most I can do with this laptop is check my email and read websites that aren’t overly graphics heavy or interactive. On most days I go upstairs to the computer lab and wait to use one of the three computers in our departmental computer lab. I also have the option (unlike most of my colleagues) of using the computer in my other office where I serve as an undergraduate studies program assistant.

Added to these frustrations is the lack of wireless internet access in either of my offices, which prohibits me from bringing my personal i Pad to work and getting around the technological limitations of my work space. At one point, I was able to “hack” my way into the network by plugging the internet cable in my teaching office into my own laptop, but as of today our internet connection there is down. This also makes it impossible to use the telephone in that room as my institution switched a few years ago from regular phone service to VOIP (voice over internet protocol).

If we move from my early twentieth century office into the classrooms where I teach, the situation is only slightly better. In a course I designed to teach digital literacy and multi-modal writing to my students, the most advanced technology in any of my three classrooms is a flat screen monitor with a VGA cable that allows me to plug in my own laptop and display its screen on a 25″ television. Wireless access is available in all three rooms, but that assumes that my students can afford to bring their own technology to class as I have.

“Plug and Play” is better than nothing in a world where technological access is no longer a luxury but a precondition for education to take place. Yet it places the burden of technology’s cost on the students and educators. Not only is this unfair, it also sends a strange message to our students: “You need to be educated for the jobs of the 21st century, but we will not provide the tools.” No wonder self-learning is coming back into fashion. Why pay for school when you can buy a laptop and let the internet teach you the skills needed to survive in a tech-driven world?

Now I should perhaps qualify my statement/rant above by reiterating the fact that I am a NTT faculty member. I’m also an English Professor. Perhaps things are different for the TT faculty in my department or are significantly better in other programs at my institution. My suspicion, however, is that while the technological infrastructure might be less antiquated than what I described above it is still inadequate to meet student needs.

When we talk about the digital divide, we need to remember that surfing the internet is a skill easily learned alone at home. Using the web to your advantage, however, is a skill that should be learned collectively in the classroom. Regrettably, this can’t happen when many educators work in an environment designed to teach Baby Boomers to fight the Red Menace.

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How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

A very well-thought out analysis of the current state of higher education. If you care at all about the issue, this is a must read.

The Homeless Adjunct

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in…

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Coalition on the Academic Workforce Report Released

In what may qualify as the non-event of the year, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released its report on Adjunct working conditions yesterday.  The data paints a picture similar to that of Josh Boldt’s earlier crowdsourced study the Adjunct Project.  Non-tenure track faculty are working long hours for little pay, and they would gladly accept a full-time career track position if one were made available.  The more interesting statistic from the CAW study that gets lost in the overwhelming focus on pay is that a significant majority of those working off the tenure track are women who teach in humanities disciplines.

Reading through the CAW’s study, I couldn’t help but feel that the time spent on this project would have been better used somewhere else. The trends in Adjunct labor have not dramatically changed since the CAW was founded in 1997.  What has changed is that each year conditions in Higher Education have become steadily worse.  Studies don’t change society, men and women possessing moral courage who are mobilized for action do.  What makes this study even more useless (in my opinion) is the small number of non-academics who will ever see it.  They are the ones who need to see the data.  I would wager they are the only ones who would be surprised by the content of the CAW’s study.

So it’s official, the dead horse has been beaten once again.

More promising but still cringe-inducing is the plan endorsed by Middle Tennessee State University to create a four phase plan for non-tenure track faculty that would recognize their integral role in departmental life.  It would allow those teaching on semester-to-semester contracts (Adjuncts in the truest sense of the word) a path to becoming full-time lecturers and (eventually) senior lecturers.

That path is severely flawed, as the Homeless Adjunct points out.  Moreover, it’s not even that inventive.  My employer already has such a  system in place and has for at least as long as I’ve worked there (2000).

Yet in spite of these flaws, talk of a phased system of Adjunct employment moves us beyond the statistical study of “the Adjunct Question” and the tiresome stories of victimization to actually doing something about the problem.  Let’s hope that more talk about solutions comes into vogue so that better plans than Middle Tennessee’s might emerge.

If nothing else, the CAW study and the “four-phase” plan adopted by Middle Tennessee and endorsed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demonstrates the epistemological gap between the tenure track and the non-tenure track in Higher Education.  It also demonstrates that Academic Professional Organizations are paper tigers.  I guess that explains why union membership on college campuses is up while professional groups struggle to maintain their ranks.

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Quality Over Quantity–Computer Assisted Grading Revisited

A Reuter’s report describes recent efforts to create computer software that could scan and grade common errors in student essays.  Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.

Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills.  He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.

Steve Graham, a Professor at Vanderbilt who has conducted research on essay grading techniques, argues, in contrast, that the replacement of writing teachers by grading software is not only “inevitable” but also desirable as “the reality is humans aren’t very good at doing this.”

As the writer of the Reuter’s article notes, talk about paper grading software is not new.  It began in the 1960s.  Now, however, technology has reached a level where such grading is not only possible but also probable.  But the question still remains:  Is it a good idea?

Leaving aside for a moment the question of faculty employment, machine grading sidesteps a more important question than how to get students to write more and grade that writing effectively.  Namely–what is writing and who is responsible for teaching it.

In too many schools writing is viewed as the “problem” of the English department.  Students are sent to writing classes to learn essay structure, research techniques, and grammar.  Only the last of these is universal.  The other two skill sets are discipline specific.  I guess that explains why to my students everything they read is a novel and every paper a literary analysis.  They’ve been taught after all that writing equals English.

If we really want students to learn not just writing but effective communication, parents, teachers, and administrators need to spread the responsibility for this instruction across the curriculum.  Some schools already do this but most are content to leave communication training to literary scholars.  Machines won’t change this.  They will be programmed to evaluate whatever curriculum is currently in place.  Until the curriculum is changed, the machine will not only replicate the error but multiply it.

Moving on to the issue of employment, part of my unease with a machine that grades papers is it would most likely put me out of a job.  I have 48 student essays in need of grading that are staring at me right now as I pen this post.  Of course, the curricular changes I suggest would more than likely have the same effect, with or without machine assistance.  The way to counter this, however, is to lower class sizes.

This is the other aspect of the issue that is completely ignored by most research.  If class sizes are lessened, not only will more teachers have employment but writing will become a less onerous task to teach and evaluate.  It could also then be meaningfully integrated into the entire curriculum and not remain the purview of the English Department.

Would such changes cost a lot of money?  Yes.  But it is a good investment.  Far better than the money we’ve wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even larger sums of money we spend incarcerating drug offenders.  It’s even better, dare I say, than the cost of a certain software currently being designed to solve all my problems.

 

 

 

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March 1st National Day of Action on Behalf of Higher Ed

This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same.  My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States.  In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced.  Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments.

With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education.  A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000.  In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation.  That is up from 46% in 1990.

Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work-study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue-collar employment on campus.  Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar.

Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to “economize” and “monetize” their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen-house.  Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation.

In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution.

Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm.  Here are a list of those events:

8:30am– A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton.  That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.

11:00am–A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.

1:00pm–C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally.

These are just a few of the events occurring that day.  Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open.  If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker.  Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.

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