That horrible and strange article about writing by John G. Maguire

I have some time on my hands right now. I am completely done with the 2016-17 school year, I am not teaching this summer (and thus not contractually obligated to do much of anything until late August), I won’t be teaching this fall because of a research fellowship, I’m trying to work on finishing a book about MOOCs, and, just to top it all off, I am currently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and thus don’t really have that much to do). So I have some things I can/want to write about right now. But I’ll start with this really horrible and strange article about writing instruction from The Washington Post.

“Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help” is a post/article from WaPo’s “Answer Sheet,” which is essentially their education “beat” page. The byline is Valerie Strauss, but it’s really a post by John G. Maguire, who describes himself as a “man obsessed with clear writing” who has been teaching writing in one form or another at a bunch of different places over the years. He has no training or scholarship in writing pedagogy, and, as far as I can tell from his resume, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor. Maguire is the author of a textbook called “College Writing Guide” and a champion of a method he seems to believe he invented called “Readable Writing.”

Frankly, there is not really much of anything in Maguire’s article that is accurate. There’s the uncritical citation of the book Academically Adrift, a study with some clear methodological shortcomings; there’s the claim that first year writing courses are about all matter of things but not writing sentences. There’s a quote from someone named Phillip Mink about how the college writing profession has stopped teaching style, which comes as a bit of surprise to me since I’ve been teaching a class specifically about style (albeit at the 300 level) for going on 20 years now at EMU. There’s this unsupported claim that students don’t know how to write sentences, and so the solution to making first year students into “readable writers” is to teach them how to write sentences, presumably at the expense of everything else.

As a slight tangent: I’ve been teaching writing and/or writing for a long time now, and I think when people (like this guy, like professors in other departments, etc.) say “students can’t write good sentences or good paragraphs,” that’s not quite what they mean.  By the time they get to college, the vast majority of students can indeed write grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, though not necessarily particularly “good” sentences and paragraphs. So when people like Maguire or whoever say “students can’t write,” I think we need to parse that out and ask for some more details.

Anyway, there’s a lot of appropriate outrage and frustration on Facebook, on the WPA mailing list, probably on some blogs, etc., and also in the comments on the article itself. I’ll just add three other things to the discussion:

  • It is incredibly annoying that Main Stream Media routinely runs these sorts of pieces written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, Maguire has taught writing for a long time, and expertise in teaching writing is a bit more fuzzy than expertise in something like cancer research. Still, would it really be that hard for WaPo and similar publications to stop and think about the qualifications of someone like Maguire to speak in such sweeping terms about teaching writing? And can you imagine a newspaper publishing a thought piece on the shitty state of journalism written by someone without any demonstrable expertise in journalism (other than reading it?)
  • At the end of the day, what Maguire is really trying to do here is sell his textbook. So really, what the WaPo did for him is run an advertisement in the form of an op-ed piece. I hope they charged Maguire appropriately.
  • In earlier drafts of my failed textbook project The Process of Research Writing, I actually made reference to The Karate Kid for reasons similar to Maguire. I think a good way to teach lots of things (like research writing) is to try to break it down into smaller parts, exercises to be practiced before attempting to do the whole thing at once. This is what textbooks generally do, but my references to The Karate Kid fell flat because (surprise, surprise!) students nowadays don’t necessarily know a movie that was made 15 or more years before they were born.

Bruni should visit and write about the other 99%

There have been a number of articles/commentaries lately about the delicate and precious and “PC” state of today’s college students, mostly written by people who haven’t spent time on a college campus since they graduated 20 or 30 or more years ago. For the most part, these critiques haven’t phased me much, in part because one of the historic constants in critiques about education is the terrible state of “today’s students,” whether that “today” is in 2017, 1917, or 517 BC. As an aside and a nice round-up column that refutes many of these critiques, I’ll refer you to John Warner’s “On Political Correctness as the New Campus ‘Religion'” in Inside Higher Ed. Spoiler alert: Warner is spot-on when he points out that “Political Correctness” is not the “religion” on “today’s” (and yesterday’s) college campuses; rather, it’s sports.

But for some reason, I found this piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” particularly irritating.

Bruni is ostensibly writing about a protest that got out of hand at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, author of the book The Bell Curve and a racist the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white nationalist,” came to campus to have a “debate.” I’m not going to rehash the specifics of that event because those accounts are easily found elsewhere by Googling “Charles Murray Middlebury” and in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with Bruni: campuses should be a place to foster pointed debate about uncomfortable issues, no doubt about it.

Though I do disagree with one observation Bruni makes in passing about the specifics of this incident: “A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it.” First off (and I’ve seen this same point made elsewhere), the idea that “any student group” can automatically invite anyone they want to an official campus event is nuts. Of course the administration should do some basic vetting of campus speakers, especially if the college/university is paying for it and/or hosting the speaker as an official event. Second, if a college is going to allow someone who has been labeled by a credible advocacy group as a “white nationalist” to come to your extremely liberal campus to speak, then that college might want to prepare with additional security and the like.

But what Bruni really is complaining about is the so called “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of all college students. You know, the kids today.

The internal logic of this piece irritates me. For example, in his second and third paragraphs, he writes:

Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.

They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.

Well golly, aren’t you really describing the middle-aged to senior-citizens amongst us who have caused the polarization of politics in this country for the last couple of decades? Isn’t this the demographic that has a dangerous inability to compromise, fueled and exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and then the alt-right and now Trump? Honestly, can you really say with a straight face that the “kids today” ought to be “reacquainted” with the ability to see the world from different perspectives– even perspectives that are potentially offensive– relative to the generation in charge right now?!

Then later on, Bruni quotes from the CNN commentator Van Jones (who, as an important tangent that perhaps speaks to Jones’ judgement, is the same guy who lost all credibility with me when he said “Trump became president” during a speech in which Trump’s main accomplishment was he was able to sound like a normal human for an hour). Jones said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

Okay, but (setting the violence at the Murray event aside), isn’t this exactly what the students/participants at that event did? They were confronted with some hateful ideals and they dealt with it. Wouldn’t just sitting there and listening politely been a sort of passivity that seems at odds with that?

But I guess the part that just gets me the most is this paragraph:

Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.

Please.

Why is it that whenever the MSM wants to make sweeping generalizations about higher education, they always seize upon things that happen at the most elite and exclusive institutions in the country? Why are all of the examples of students generally being “coddled” drawn from colleges and universities that cater to the 1%?

Consider the statistics from The New York Times on the economic diversity of students at Middlebury versus where I work, Eastern Michigan University. The median family income at Middlebury is $244,300 a year, which is fourth highest among all 65 “elite colleges.” The median family income at Eastern is $75,800, which is 204th among all 377 “selective public colleges.” Our students are closer to the students Sara Goldrick-Rab describes in this article I happened across today on Twitter, “Student Aid Perspectives: The Case for Expanding Emergency Aid.” Among other things, Goldrick-Rab cites a study of “70 community colleges in 24 states (which) revealed that 33 percent of those students had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger, and 14 percent were homeless.” I don’t think our numbers at EMU are as high as reported in that study, but I do know we have students who are homeless and we have students who rely on the EMU food pantry.

I could go on, but the point is this: Bruni et al are literally making a generalization about college students today based on the 1 %. That’s dumb.

If Bruni et al really wanted to see if we were facing a dramatic “wake-up call” because of the demands students are making and ideological conformity gone too far, then they’d show up at a place like Eastern once in a while and look around. Oh sure, we have elements of what Bruni is getting at on our campus, but it’s not exactly “the norm” nor is it particularly new. We’ve had some protests on campus this year too, some as a result of Trump’s elections, but most as the result of a racist graffiti incident that happened in fall 2016 (I’ve blogged about that here and also over at EMYoutalk.org here). The student-led protests have not been without controversy, but for whatever reason, they aren’t “the problem” these commentators have with campus climates.

The truth of the matter is many of our students are not particularly “young” (we have a lot of returning students at EMU, so it’s common for me to see a twenty or more year range for even a small class), and we don’t have a lot of students who are likely to be the “future leaders” of a Middlebury or what-have-you. We have a lot of students who are up to their eyeballs in debt who are are working a couple of jobs, trying to have some version of a family life, and going to school full-time. When you come from a family where the median income is what it is, you don’t have a lot of time to be coddled and you don’t have the safety net of Mumsy and Paw-Paw to finance your lifestyle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone making sweeping generalizations about higher education in this country nowadays actually had some connection with average/in-the-trenches/middle-to-working class universities and colleges?

Why are academics so “liberal?”

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an interview a few days ago with Charles C. Camosy called “The Case for Trading Identity Politics for ‘Intellectual Humility,'” which more or less came about as a result of Camosy’s Washington Post “PostEverything” column “Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch.”  In brief, Camosy, who is conservative and a a professor of theology at Fordham University, argues that academics are too liberal and out of touch to understand why anyone would have voted for Donald Trump. Further, if academia doesn’t change it’s ways, the situation is only going to get worse.

In the CHE piece (sorry, behind a firewall), he argues that we need more “diversity” in terms of the liberal/conservative spectrum:

I don’t mean a quota coming down from the administration or anything like that. But for instance, in my own department, we looked around and didn’t see a lot of people of color. So we said, We ought to make an effort in hiring to have more diversity. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind — for departments to look around and say, Well, how much intellectual diversity do we have? Do we have even one conservative?

I don’t even like the liberal-conservative binary. I just want a person who really doesn’t have the views of the rest of us, who challenges us, who forces us to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different, who forces our students to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different.

He goes on:

One reason why racial justice was such an important issue in this election was because colleges and universities started that conversation, and it filtered down to the rest of the culture. That was a very good thing. So if we also make a commitment to other kinds of diversity, that will also filter down to the rest of the culture. We won’t see such enclaves of people over here — millions and millions of people — thinking something so diametrically opposed to people over there.

That’s a big part of my work as an academic ethicist: to show that these kinds of us-versus-them, right-versus-left, life-versus-choice binaries are too simplistic. People are much more complicated and interesting than identity politics allows us to imagine.

Fair enough, though as I’ll get to eventually, I’m not so sure that that last point about upsetting simple binaries is a position that would resonate with most conservatives.

Anyway, in the Washington Post piece published right after the election, Camosy is more blunt. He argues:

The most important divide in this election was not between whites and non-whites. It was between those who are often referred to as “educated” voters and those who are described as “working class” voters.

The reality is that six in 10 Americans do not have a college degree, and they elected Donald Trump.College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump. This is an indictment of the monolithic, insulated political culture in the vast majority our colleges and universities.

He goes on:

Higher education in the United States, after all, is woefully monolithic in its range of worldviews. In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.

I disagree with most (though not all) of this, and before I get to the real point here, why are academics so liberal (or are they so liberal?), I think there are three important things to always keep in mind about the outcome of the presidential election:

  • Clinton’s campaign did not spend enough time in working class/blue collar places in the midwest, and arguably, she forgot the James Carville prime directive of “it’s the economy, stupid.” Hindsight is 20-20, though as this New York Times piece from the day after the election points out, there were forces within Clinton’s campaign– including Bill!– who argued that she should be spending some time courting these voters and not concentrating on urban areas. And yesterday the New York Times had this piece recapping a “debate” between aides to the two presidential campaigns where Kellyanne Conway said “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for the white working-class voters? How about it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about they had nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message?” I hate to say it, but I think she has a point. But the point here is that Clinton’s loss is as much about her campaign mistakes as it was with any dissatisfaction from working class voters.
  • The exit polling data suggests that yes, level of education was an indicator of who voted for who– 51% of high school or less and 52% of some college or associate degree voters went with Trump. But it also shows that 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump (compared to 45% for Clinton), 67% of white college graduates without a degree voted for Trump, and 75% of of nonwhite voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. There’s a bunch of other data to sort through here too, but the point I’m trying to make is for Camosy (or anyone else) to suggest that race was not as an “important divide” in this election than education is just plain wrong.
  • Always always remember and never ever forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and by what seems to be a large margin. Yes, Trump won with the electoral college, and yes, this seems good evidence that the most significant divide in this country right now is between urban and rural areas, a divide characterized as much by race and income levels as it is by education– not to mention basic geography. Also remember that the margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin combined  was under 80,000 out of like 12 million votes (Phillip Bump has a commentary/analysis about this in the Washington Post here), which isn’t exactly an overwhelming mandate even in these rustbelt states. And yes, I agree the Democratic party as an organization is in disarray and needs to think a lot harder about how to appeal both to voters who are interested in “identity issues” and to voters interested in “economic populism” (and as a slight tangent, here I’m thinking of this post from Freddie deBoer, someone I often don’t agree with but I think he’s right here).

However, people who voted for Clinton (and all the “liberal values” she represents) and/or against Trump are still in the majority in this country. That doesn’t mean much when it comes to Trump’s cabinet appointees or the frightening policies he might be proposing and it probably means even less if your a Muslim in a particularly red part of the country, but it does mean a lot in terms of how the citizenry can respond. The man who will be president didn’t actually “win” because a significant majority of eligible American voters either didn’t vote at all (which in my book is even worse than voting for Trump) or they voted for Clinton, and of those who did vote for Trump, I have to assume that there is some difficult to determine but still healthy percentage who didn’t so much vote for Trump as they voted against Clinton, and/or who voted for Trump as a protest. That’s depressing, that the winner didn’t really “win,” but it also means that those of us who voted for Clinton are far from alone. Or let me put it this way: the first presidential candidate I voted for was Walter Mondale. That was an entirely different kind of loss.

But I digress. Why are academics so “liberal?” Continue reading “Why are academics so “liberal?””

Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)

I am writing this (or I at least started writing this) post while flying back from Italy where I was at the second conference I have attended in Anacapri in the last two years, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” sponsored by Federica Weblearning at the Universitá di Napoli Federico II (here’s a PDF of the program).  I of course didn’t have to do this on the plane, but a) because it’s the first day of classes, including for my online one, I thought it was worth it to to pay the money and do some teaching/worky-work stuff over the Atlantic and b) I wanted to do my best to stay as awake as possible to adjust to the time difference once we get home (more or less mission accomplished on that one).

Once again, I wondered why I was invited in the first place (pretty much the same reason as before, the Invasion of the MOOCs book and also because I was there last year), and once again I was one of only a few Americans (though also once again there were a few Canadians and folks from South America, too), and this time, I think I might very well have been the only “teaching classes on a regular basis” kind of professor.  Everyone else was some version of administrator, entrepreneur, policy analyst, researcher, and/or educational tech person. Originally, there had been some people on the program from Africa and India, but it didn’t work out for them to be there for one reason or another.

Here’s a link to my presentation (slides incorporated into the Google Doc that was more or less my script– the live version was a little different of course). A general recap of what happened after the break:

Continue reading “Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)”

Trigger Warning Repeats With Added Herky and Flexner

I had collected/seen/read a bunch of recent pieces about “trigger warnings,” particularly the dust-up about the lack of such warnings at the University of Chicago. In response to that:

I could go on, but you get the idea. Anyway, I was going to write up some pithy little response but then I realized that I already had, and almost exactly one year ago. So, is the angst for and against trigger warnings the new signal of the coming fall college semester? Is it to accompany and/or replace the always problematic Beloit College mindset list? (Slight tangent: one of the truisms missing from this year’s list is the fact that students in the class of 2020 have never known a time where there wasn’t this shot-from-the-hip list of assumptions about what new college students are like.)

My take on trigger warnings hasn’t really changed– they aren’t that big of a deal, they arguably expand academic freedom in that they are a way for faculty to not censor content because students “have been warned,” and, as the example I share from my own teaching going on 20 years ago makes clear, these warnings are not always heeded. But I will share two new items for this year’s edition.

First, “Iowa professor: Herky the Hawk ought to smile more.”  “Herky” is the name of the mascot for the University of Iowa, the Hawkeyes, which sort of/kind of has origins as a nickname for the state but which I’ve frankly always thought of more as a made-up kind of name for a bird rather than anything having to do with geography or Native Americans. Anyway, to quote from the Iowa City Press-Citizen on the dangers of the grimacing Herky:

“I believe incoming students should be met with welcoming, nurturing, calm, accepting and happy messages,” Resmiye Oral, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UI, wrote recently in an email to UI athletic department officials. “And our campus community is doing a great job in that regard when it comes to words. However, Herky’s angry, to say the least, faces conveying an invitation to aggressivity and even violence are not compatible with the verbal messages that we try to convey to and instill in our students and campus community.”

Hard to say how “Herky-gate” is going to turn out, but it’s worth noting for now that a) this concern over the threats of a sports mascot come not from students seeking coddling but from a faculty member who seeks to coddle, and b) the UI faculty senate has declined to pick up the issue as part of their ongoing work on ensuring that the “university climate is one that is safe, inclusive, and supportive.”

Second, a trip in the wayback machine to trigger warnings circa 1930. As part of my ongoing MOOC research– specifically the historical part that looks at the parallels between MOOCs and correspondence study in the early 20th century– I came across the writing of Abraham Flexner in his 1930 book Universities: American, English, German.  Flexner’s crankiness about “the kids today” way back when is both amusing and enlightening as to how “the present” college youth have always been horrible. Here’s a favorite passage:

Surely the Dean of Columbia College knows American college youth. “I am convinced,” he has recently said, “that the youth of college age at the present time are as immature morally and as crude socially as they are undeveloped intellectually.” In part this is true because, the high school having coddled them, the college continues the coddling process. Every jerk and shock must be eliminated; the students must be “oriented”; they must be “advised” as to what to “take”; they must be vocationally guided. How is it possible to educate persons who will never be permitted to burn their fingers, who must be dexterously and expensively housed, first as freshmen, then as upperclassmen, so as to make the right sort of social connections and to establish the right sort of social relationships, who are protected against risk as they should be protected against plague, and who, even though “they work their way through,” have no conception of the effort required to develop intellectual sinew?

Heh. Maybe the trigger warning haters ought to time travel to the 1920s and straighten those kids out; maybe that would help fix the kids today.

Clinton’s not exactly brilliant plan on addressing costs in higher ed

There was an article in Inside Higher Ed the other day about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “innovation” plan for helping to address costs in higher education. I am sure there is a lot more to this than what IHE was able to summarize, but here’s part of what IHE said:

The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation.

For entrepreneurs, the plan proposes letting them and potentially their first 10 to 20 employees defer payments on their student loans, penalty-free, for up to three years “as they work through the critical start-up phase of new enterprises.” Entrepreneurs whose start-ups serve “distressed communities” or “provide measurable social impact and benefit” will after five years be able to apply to have up to $17,500 of their loans forgiven.

There’s also a big emphasis on STEM programs, education toward jobs, etc., etc.

I think Alexander Holt has a nice follow-up column to this, also in Inside Higher Ed, “Clinton’s Giveaway to Silicon Valley.” Among other things, Holt points out that more STEM training isn’t automatically “the solution” since there is some evidence that there is actually a larger supply of STEM trained would-be employees than jobs, that the status quo already has loan deferment plans along the lines of what Clinton is proposing, and the last group of students who college students who need financial help from the government is would-be entrepreneurs. To quote:

If Clinton wants to give away money to people who will eventually be wealthy, this proposal is a great idea. People working in tech start-ups will likely go on to earn a fairly high income in life. If a young entrepreneur has a degree from a good school and highly valuable skills, she can still get a high-paying job even if the company fails. If her company succeeds, she will eventually have a lot of money.

And just to add: for the most part, Clinton’s plan to help entrepreneurs is not going to help most of the students we have at Eastern. Most/many of our students are from working class/working poor backgrounds and they are often first generation college students. These students are getting college degrees to get a foothold into the middle-class. Sure, some of our students have Silicon Valley-like savvy and the desire to start their own businesses, but the vast majority of our students are trying to get into an already existing field and business. The same probably goes for most students at most universities, actually.

But speaking specifically about MOOCs and alternative providers: Clinton (and whoever she is listening to on this) is just flat-out ignoring how higher education works. I’ve blogged about this many many times before, and I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new or controversial. To sum up:

  • MOOCs and professional training enterprises (like Lynda.com) are mostly useful to adults who already have college degrees and jobs who are seeking additional training and credentials, and particularly training and credentials in IT related fields. Traditionally-aged (18-21 year olds, more or less) would-be college students are interested in a degree program, not miscellaneous classes that they cobble together from various MOOCs and “boot camps.” This is why MOOCs have been pivoting to the adult/corporate training market and away from the higher education market.
  • While everyone agrees that college is too expensive and that the costs should be contained, the solution is not to offer cheaper and largely unproven alternatives. Rather, the solution (IMO) is to look at all of the alternatives that already exist. Unlike in a lot of parts of the world, in the U.S. we have hundreds of community colleges and regional universities (like EMU) that are geographically accessible.
  • Furthermore, (as I’ve blogged about before too), while the costs of attendance obviously matters to traditional college students and their families, it is only one factor students make about where to go to college, and it’s usually not the most important choice. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying first year students for fifty years, and in answer to the question about what was “very important” in their decision about where to attend college, cost consistently runs behind “the college has a very good academic reputation” and “the college’s graduates get good jobs,” and it is almost tied with “the college has a good reputation for its social activities.” If cost was the most important reason for why students decide to go where they go, Washtenaw Community College would have to turn down a significant percentage of the students who applied and the University of Michigan would be begging people to think about going there. In short, the solutions being proposed– making higher education cheaper– doesn’t address the real problem, which is access to high quality higher education.
  • To the extent that MOOCs are going to be useful for students earning college credit, it is most likely going to be for things like the College Level Examination Program (aka CLEP tests), advanced placement, or for various “experience-based” degrees and credits. For example, Georgia Tech has an Online Masters of Computer Science program that is running more or less as a MOOC. As I understand it, a lot of the students in this program are IT people who are well-versed in the kinds of things they are studying.The students enrolled in this program are there not so much to “learn new things;” they are there to prove to a credential-providing institution that they already know these things. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t going to help the 18 to 20 year old looking for experience in the first place.
  • While the dropout rates in MOOCs might mean a lot of different things, one thing is for sure: students who successfully start and complete a MOOC for credit have an unusually high level of self-motivation and ability to work independently. Most traditional college students are not like this. Actually, most everyone is not like this.

Now, if Hillary et al were to call me and ask for my ideas, the first thing I would suggest is that they look around them to the solutions that exist in the form of accessible community colleges and regional universities like EMU. In theory, I’m for a system where students can attend universities like EMU for free, though in practice, I worry about the strings that would be attached to that kind of program by the Feds (as if Institutional Assessment of various flavors wasn’t bad enough). Besides, it’s a fantasy to think that Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) can wave a magic wand and make that happen over night.

What could happen more easily (maybe?) is the Feds could boost the amount of money going into the Pell Grant program, they could ease the restrictions on how students can use that money (let them go to summer school, for example), and they could roll back the cost of student loans to either zero points interest or the same as the prime rate. There is absolutely no reason why the Federal government ought to be making any money off of its student loan program.

But then again, no one asked me, so….

Instead of banning laptops, what if we mandated them?

Oy. Laptops are evil. Again.

This time, it comes from “Leave It in the Bag,” an article in Inside Higher Ed, reporting on a study done by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael S. Walker, all economists at West Point (PDF). This has shown up on the WPA-L mailing list and in my various social medias as yet another example of why technology in the classrooms is bad, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Mind you, I only skimmed this and all of the economics math is literally a foreign language to me. But there are a couple of passages here that I find interesting and not exactly convincing to me that me and my students should indeed “leave it in the bag.”

For example:

Permitting laptops or computers appears to reduce multiple choice and short answer scores, but has no effect on essay scores, as seen in Panel D. Our finding of a zero effect for essay questions, which are conceptual in nature, stands in contrast to previous research by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), who demonstrate that laptop note-taking negatively affects performance on both factual and conceptual questions. One potential explanation for this effect could be the predominant use of graphical and analytical explanations in economics courses, which might dissuade the verbatim note-taking practices that harmed students in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study. However, considering the substantial impact professors have on essay scores, as discussed above, the results in panel D should be interpreted with considerable caution. (page 17)

The way I’m reading this is for classes where students are expected to take multiple choice tests as a result of listening to a lecture from a sage on the stage, laptops might be bad. But in classes where students are supposed to write essays (or at least more conceptual essay questions), laptops do no harm. So if it’s a course where students are supposed to do more than take multiple choice tests….

After describing the overall effects of students performing worse when computing technology is available, Carter, Greenberg, and Walker write:

It is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point. In a learning environment with lower incentives for performance, fewer disciplinary restrictions on distracting behavior, and larger class sizes, the effects of Internet-enabled technology on achievement may be larger due to professors’ decreased ability to monitor and correct irrelevant usage.” (page 26)

Hmmm…. nothing self-congratulatory about that passage, is there?

Besides the fact that there is no decent evidence that the students at West Point (or any other elite institution for that matter) are on the whole such special snowflakes that they are more immune from the “harm” of technology/distraction compared to the rest of us simpletons, I think one could just as easily make the exact opposite argument. It seems to me that is is “quite possible” that the harmful effects are more magnified in a setting like West Point because of the strict adherence to “THE RULES” and authority for all involved. I mean, it is the Army after all. Perhaps in settings where students have more freedom and are used to the more “real life” world of distractions, large class sizes, the need to self-regulate, etc., maybe those students are actually better able to control themselves.

And am I the only one who is noticing the extent to which laptop/tablet/technology use really seems to be about a professor’s “ability to monitor and correct” in a classroom? Is that actually “teaching?”

And then there’s this last paragraph in the text of the study:

We want to be clear that we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction, as these exercises may boost a student’s ability to retain the material. Rather, our results relate only to classes where students have the option to use computer devices to take notes.   We further cannot test whether the laptop or tablet leads to worse note taking, whether the increased availability of distractions for computer users (email, facebook, twitter, news, other classes, etc.) leads to lower grades, or whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers. Given the magnitude of our results, and the increasing emphasis of using technology in the classroom, additional research aimed at distinguishing between these channels is clearly warranted.(page 28)

First, laptops might or might not be useful for taking notes. This is at odds with a lot of these “laptops are bad” studies. And as a slight tangent, I really don’t know how easy it is to generalize about note taking and knowledge across large groups. Speaking only for myself: I’ve been experimenting lately with taking notes (sometimes) with paper and pen, and I’m not sure it makes much difference. I also have noticed that my ability to take notes on what someone else is saying — that is, as opposed to taking notes on something I want to say in a short speech or something– is now pretty poor. I suppose that’s the difference between being a student and being a teacher, and maybe I need to relearn how to do this from my students.

This paragraph also hints at another issue with all of these “laptops are bad” pieces, of “whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers.” Well, maybe that is the problem, isn’t it? Maybe it isn’t so much that students are spending all of this time being distracted by laptops, tablets, and cell-phones– that is, students are NOT giving professor the UNDIVIDED ATTENTION they believe (nay, KNOWS) they deserve. Maybe the problem is professors haven’t figured out that the presence of computers in classrooms means we have to indeed “teach differently.”

But the other thing this paragraph got me to thinking about the role of technology in the courses I teach, where laptops/tablets are “used deliberately in classroom instruction.” This paragraph suggests that the opposite of banning laptops might also be as true: in other words, what if, instead of banning laptops from a classroom, the professor mandated that students each have a laptop open at all times in order to take notes, to respond to on-the-fly quizzes from the professor, and look stuff up that comes up in the discussions?

It’s the kind of interesting mini-teaching experiment I might be able to pull off this summer. Of course, if we extend this kind of experiment to the realm of online teaching– and one of my upcoming courses will indeed be online– then we can see that in one sense, this isn’t an experiment at all. We’ve been offering courses where the only way students communicate with the instructor and with other students has been through a computer for a long time now. But the other course I’ll be teaching is a face to face section of first year writing, and thus ripe for this kind of experiment. Complicating things more (or perhaps making this experiment more justifiable?) is the likelihood that a significant percentage of the students I will have in this section are in some fashion “not typical” of first year writing at EMU– that is, almost all of them are transfer students and/or juniors or seniors. Maybe making them have those laptops open all the time could help– and bonus points if they’re able multitask with both their laptop and their cell phones!

Hmm, I see a course developing….

Expanding on a Twitter Talk with @saragoldrickrab

Social media platforms like Twitter are useful for all sorts of things, including making connections with scholars/writers “out there” in academia and beyond. But these platforms aren’t very useful to host/sponsor a more thoughtful discussion about some complicated topic. Twitter is particularly bad at this.

This is why I thought it’d be useful (at least for myself) to create a blog post responding to the 25 or so Tweets I received from @saragoldrickrab last night (and another eight or so this afternoon).

And just to be clear: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Goldrick-Rab. She’s a rock-star academic who writes lots of smart stuff about education policy (I blogged here about a piece she wrote with Audrey Watters about Kevin Carey’s book), and I also blogged previously about a “Twitter storm” she was in back in July. So I’m not writing this as some effort to “mansplain” anything to her or anyone else; I’m trying to parse this out a bit more for myself and anyone else who might be interested.

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New and old thoughts on the challenges of fycomp and/or “why students can’t write” through the lens of John Warner

John “Just Visiting” Warner had a very good column/blog entry at Inside Higher Ed the other day called “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc…) Papers.” It’s a smart piece; here’s how it starts:

Occasionally, one hears grumbling from faculty who assign writing in their courses about the apparent lack of preparation of students to successfully execute those assignments. They wonder what’s happening in the general education writing courses when so many students seem to arrive in without the skills necessary to succeed at college-level writing, particularly research-based analytical work.

As an instructor of first-year writing it can be hard not to take these things personally.

I do my best to help students succeed for the future writing occasions they’ll confront in college and beyond, but the truth is, I cannot properly prepare them for what’s coming.

And then from there, Warner goes on to a list that I’ll build on in a moment/after the break.

Warner’s piece really struck a cord with me for a variety of different reasons, most of them timing around the end of the semester and what-not. This isn’t new territory for anyone involved in first year composition– certainly not for folks who have some kind of quasi-administrative connection to writing programs– and, personally, I long ago stopped taking these things personally. The first time some professor from outside of writing studies (though not always from outside English or even the field of writing studies, frankly) or some administrator confronts you with “hey, how come students come out of that first year writing program you teach in (and/or run) can’t even write a decent sentence?!” you get angry and/or you kind of get that whole deer in headlights freeze. The 200th time you get some version of this question/confrontation, you just kind of smile and sigh.

Warner’s article here is basically a list– a good one, and one that I thought was worthy of embellishing, at least for my own purposes. After all, I’m finishing up this semester as the associate director of the first year writing program and while Derek Mueller is on sabbatical in the winter, I’ll be in the director’s chair. I might need this post in the near future. Maybe others will find my expansions on Warner’s points interesting and useful as well.

Continue reading “New and old thoughts on the challenges of fycomp and/or “why students can’t write” through the lens of John Warner”