Tag Archives: book

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, But…

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or its title, but how about from an extended interview with the authors?

On November 2, Inside Higher Ed carried such an interview with the three authors of a new book entitled Occupying the Academy. The authors, Christine Clark (a professor of multicultural education at UNLV), Kenneth Fasching-Varner (a professor of elementary education at LSU), and Mark Brimhall-Vargas (associate director of the Office of Diversity Education and Compliance at the University of Maryland), want people to know, as their subtitle puts it, just how important diversity work is in higher education.

Reading through the interview, we never find out exactly what “diversity work” is. Once the admissions people have done their best to engineer a student body that has the right quotas of students of certain ancestries, what more is there to do for the “diversity workers” to do? I have ordered the book and will read it to find out, but I think that the honest answer is that they pretend to keep busy by obsessing over student differences. Diversity work entails a constant search for issues of “insensitivity” that can be used to pry money out of administrators.

That money is very important to these diversiphiles becomes clear in the interview. Diversity offices, we read, “face problems that are largely invisible and hard to understand. They are often starved of resources or are constantly made to scramble for declining resources. This climate of instability makes it hard so that the workers dedicated to equity and diversity are always unsure of whether they will be around.”

Apparently it does not occur to those diversity workers that almost every part of every university now has to scramble for resources and that if they don’t get all the funding they want, it could be because departments that actually do some educating are regarded as more important.

An idea as to the inflated sense of self-importance of these diversity workers comes from Professor Clark’s statement that following Obama’s election, she expected that “our work would get easier, become more respected, be more well-funded, and be able to penetrate further in more substantive ways into the fabric of the academy.” You can probably guess why those dreams didn’t come true – racism.

Furthermore, we learn that diversity workers, displaying the victim mentality that Bruce Bawer brilliantly describes in his book The Victims’ Revolution, believe that they are “under assault.”

Now, I doubt very much that there has ever been a single assault – much less a battery – against any diversity worker. The alleged assault consists of not having a “guarantee that they will have access to the places where meaningful change can happen.” What that means is that the guilt-ridden academic officials who get mau-maued into creating “diversity offices” don’t actually take them seriously, so they can’t “have a real chance at changing the campus composition and climate.” Don’t the diversity workers understand that they’re nothing more than politically correct ornamentation on campus? It’s as if the guards at Buckingham Palace complained that they don’t get to play any role in preparing the defense of the nation.

Again, I will read Occupying the Academy when I get it. If the authors make a persuasive case that all of this “diversity work” is something other than a sheer waste of money, I will be glad to say so.

Common Core Mandates Will Harm Critical Thinking

Jay Mathews is one of the few education reporters who gets it. He understands that the heavy diet of informational reading Common Core mandates at every single grade level for the language arts or English class may decrease, not increase, “critical” or analytical thinking. But how are teachers and parents to know that black is white and freedom is slavery? No one tells us how reading “informational” texts could necessarily stimulate “critical” thinking better than literary reading–or stimulate it at all.

For example, how would the “informational” texts recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English for the secondary English curriculum stimulate analytical thinking more than, say, a close reading of Pride and Prejudice? According to a NCTE volume she co-authored, an Iowa English teacher has assigned her grade 10 students books about teenage marketing and the working poor–Branded by Alissa Quart and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich–to address Common Core’s mandate. Do these books present their “information” in such ambiguous or subtle ways that close reading is needed to figure out the authors’ messages? In contrast, think how much class discussion is needed to help students understand the irony in Austen’s works.

Common Core thinks rigor is addressed by requiring reading and English teachers to use texts that increase regularly in complexity. But, as American College Testing (ACT) notes, complexity is laden with literary features: it involves “characters,” “literary devices,” “tone,” “ambiguity,” “elaborate” structure, “intricate language,” and unclear intentions. Reducing literary study means reducing the opportunity to develop in all students the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group of students by the vocabulary, structure, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.

Some ostrich-like supporters of Common Core claim that there will be no reduction in the amount of literature assigned and studied. Tell that to English teachers who have been told to divide their reading instructional time as Common Core does: 10 reading standards for informational texts, 9 for literary texts. And in grade 12, make it 70% informational, even though Common Core explicitly says English teachers shouldn’t be responsible for 70%. How much they should be responsible for, Common Core’s architects don’t say.

Reading researchers know there is absolutely no research to support the idea that more “literary non-fiction” or “informational” texts in the English class will increase students’ level of analytical thinking. There is every reason to believe they will, instead, lower the level.

A ‘Magisterial’ Work on Affirmative Action

SCOTUS.jpg

“Mend it, don’t end it” was the famous advice
on affirmative action from Bill Clinton, who did neither. There are, of course,
other useful slogans, such as “Muddle it,” which the Supreme Court essentially did
in the 2003 Gratz and Grutter cases. The Court held that the University
of Michigan could not give a fixed number of points to minority applicants but
that its law school could give even more substantial preferences based on race
so long as it sufficiently disguised what it was doing under the smokescreen of
individualized, “holistic” review.

Now under new leadership and with a few new
members, the Court will see if it can do better when it decides, after hearing
oral arguments this week, whether the University of Texas is allowed to
supplement its successful, facially race-neutral diversity-producing “top 10%”
admissions policy by taking race into account in the admission of other
students. 

Continue reading A ‘Magisterial’ Work on Affirmative Action

What Should Kids Be Reading?

Books above a sixth-grade reading level, for sure. According to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report on the books read by almost 400,000 students in grades 9-12 in 2010-2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books is a little above fifth grade (5.3 to be exact). While 27 of the 40 books are UG (upper grade in interest level), a fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship.

Continue reading What Should Kids Be Reading?

The Terrible Textbooks of Freshman Comp

Norton Reader.jpgFreshman composition class at many colleges is propaganda time, with textbooks conferring early sainthood on President Obama and lavishing attention on writers of the far left–Howard Zinn, Christopher Hedges, Peter Singer and Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance–but rarely on moderates, let alone anyone right of center. Democrats do very well in these books, but Abraham Lincoln–when included–is generally the most recent Republican featured.

Take The Norton Reader, for instance. Someone sent it to me, presumably because I teach freshman composition myself. Much of the volume is made up of popular writing by ideological writers of the left and political speeches that strain the traditional standards of rhetorical worthiness. Among the latter is the instant classic, Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech delivered in Cairo in 2009. It drew quite a bit of criticism, especially over historical inaccuracies. Yet none of this was mentioned. Topic questions were also embedded to trigger predetermined responses from students.

Lincoln, King and Obama

With my curiosity piqued by the obvious bias, I decided to look at other textbooks. What I found was the widespread promotion of Obama, thinly disguised by claims about his rhetorical skills. (Entering college freshmen are likely to have already been exposed to a lot on Obama, much of it from Scholastic, which offers a teachers’ workbook, as well.) Other than one or two columns by a token conservative, like David Brooks, the rich array of conservative writing was ignored.

The Norton Reader, like most, is divided thematically. Interestingly, Obama’s speech is not included in the section, “Politics and Government,” where Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” appear. It shows up in the “Spoken Words” section that is made up of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “On the Declaration of Human Rights,” William Faulkner’s “Nobel Prize Speech,” and Al Gore’s speech, “The Climate Emergency” that became the basis of the film and book, An Inconvenient Truth. While acknowledging that Gore’s speech was given during the 2004 presidential campaign, the editors treat his data as undisputed scientific fact. For example, topic question 4 asks the student: “Gore gives three leading causes of the climate emergency: population growth, technology, and our way of thinking. List the kinds of evidence and examples he uses in this part of his speech, and suggest how the diversity of evidence and examples helps him communicate with his audience.” There is no hint that there is disagreement on the issue. None of the five topic questions allow the student to dissent from any part of Gore’s argument.

Similarly, Obama’s claims in his Cairo speech are presented without any skepticism. CBS News, hardly a conservative organ, reported that praise for the speech usually focused on its “delivery,” but noted that even the Huffington Post marked the “lack of substance in the words.” William Bradley’s column there claimed that the speech’s arena itself was reason for its success: “The positions [Obama] laid out are positions he had in his campaign. But he did say it all at once, and quite well.”

Obama’s historical inaccuracies in the speech go unchallenged, like attributing the invention of printing to Muslims (it was the Chinese) or crediting Morocco with being the first to recognize the United States (No–Russia, France, Spain and the Netherlands did it earlier). And again, there is no mention of criticisms of the speech, many of them well-founded.

Two of the four topic questions require the student’s uncritical affirmations. Question 2 refers to the seven “specific tensions or issues affecting the current relationship between the United States and Muslim nations.” Were the enterprising student to select one of those as instructed and examine it in detail, but with outside evidence, he would then be faced with the next part of the question: “How does Obama develop his argument so that it will appeal to various audiences?” The assumption that Obama does appeal to various audiences gives the lie to the usual claims about making students “critical thinkers.”

Just Obey the President’s Call

Obama speaking.jpgUsually the last topic calls for a more open, creative response. For Obama’s speech we have: “Obama concludes with a call to action directed especially toward the world’s youth: ‘And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country–you, more than anyone, have the ability to re-imagine the world, to remake this world.’ Write a paper in which you discuss ways you personally might respond to this call.” Disguised as a question, this is a not-so-subtle request to obey the president’s call.

There is not only lack of balance in terms of political representation, but also in sources of the essays. While the anthology does contain a smattering of classics from Emerson, Thoreau, Orwell, and the like, modern selections make up the bulk of the volume. Most come from general interest publications, but it seems the editors never heard of National Review, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, or New Criterion. Yet, The New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s offer numerous excerpts each. A number also come from American Scholar and Georgia Review. There are multiple offerings by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Joan Didion. The “Ethics” section contains an offering by Peter Singer, by an abortion clinic nurse, and from several animal rights advocates, but nothing from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective. Bedford/St. Martin’s too includes Obama in several textbooks. A Memorial Day speech at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery provides the sole presidential offering in Making Sense. The 2012 edition of The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings offers Obama’s election night “Grant Park Victory Speech.” (The previous, 2009, edition that contains an excerpt from Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father apparently went to press before the election. Dreams must have been assigned widely, for endotes offers help to students, as does BestEssayHelp.com for the Inaugural Speech.)

The Victory Speech’s salvific message is enhanced by its placement amidst accounts of the inherent hopelessness of life in America by the same authors (Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter Singer). Again, no balance is offered. What might be useful is Ronald Reagan’s short speech on his landslide victory that is marked by humility, in contrast to Obama’s insistent proclamations of the historical significance of his election as “the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful….” Topic questions at the end ask students to connect this speech to the Gettysburg Address (!) and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” The editors seem to be aware of crossing a line, however, for in the instructor’s manual they acknowledge that Obama is “the focal point of a great deal of emotion on either side of the political spectrum.” They therefore advise limiting class discussion to the speech’s “persuasive power.” The attempt to mask such cheerleading is further betrayed by the inclusion of other selections, like John Edgar Wideman’s “Street Corner Dreamers,” which is about what the Victory Speech means to the hitherto hopeless denizens of our nation’s cities. Wideman asks, “Do I glimpse that change in the way they walk and talk, the way they occupy space and flash looks at one another, urgent exchanges of joy, anger, longing, understanding, impatience, solidarity, challenge, like the undeniable, irrepressible reality embodied in singer Sam Cooke’s voice when he promises change that must come–music that might be in the general air now or playing just around the corner in the voice of Barack Obama?”

(An accompanying photo announces, “Barack Obama plays basketball with local youths in Chicago’s Southside, where he launched his career in public service as a community organizer.”)

Wideman continues the rhapsody: “Not Barack Obama singing, but Barack Obama in charge, calling the meeting to order. Putting a finger to his lips: Quiet, everybody, please.” The section includes an essay by Howard Zinn, the late over-the-top historian who is simply described as “professor emeritus of political science at Boston University . . . known both for his active involvement in the civil rights and peace movements and for his scholarship,” however, strains credulity regarding simple rhetorical criteria. The editors list Zinn’s numerous publications and say only about his political allegiances that he argued “that perseverance [sic] in the face of opposition is essential.” Topic 1, though, asks, “Explain what Zinn means by what Leon Trotsky called the ‘natural selection of accidents’ (paragraph 2) preventing true depictions of war, class, and race from appearing in films.” Topic 3 then directs students’ attention to Obama again: “‘What steps do you believe President Obama will take to improve your life? (Possible answer: he could lose in November.)

‘Hearts Bursting with Love and Pride’

Another Bedford anthology, America Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals, does not include speeches or book excerpts. Yet, a thematic section focuses on “Barack Obama: What Does His Election Mean to America?” The head note introduces the readings with the claim that Obama’s election “filled the country, from left to right, with a momentary euphoria.” In this section are two essays from Essence, one the aforementioned Wideman essay, and one by Diane McKinney-Whetstone on “The First Family” (“When the crowd surged forward, hearts bursting with love and pride, the lens shifted and altered the world’s view of the Black family,” with topic questions driving home the point that racism had hitherto stymied the black family); an essay from Tikkun that the editors explain is a criticism from the left, “arguing that [Obama] represents a continuation of the conventional policies of the Bush administration, policies [the author Christopher Hedges] believes are determined and orchestrated by a corporate oligarchy”; and a student essay titled “Obama–President for All” (“while Obama embodies a milestone in America’s history as the first African American president. . . .”).

Hedges, an unusually angry senior fellow at the Nation Institute, who wrote what is described as a “call to arms” for the first issue of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, claims that “the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country.” Obama is simply, in Hedge’s estimation, a new brand of the unlawful President Bush, for he refuses to “dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws and restore habeas corpus.” The editors’ footnote explains only, “habeas corpus: The principle that an accused person should be allowed to know the charges against him or her exactly; the Bush administration suspended it during the War on Terror.”!

The substitution of “person” for “citizen” and the refusal to describe Hedges’ real position is, of course, irresponsible. The fact that this textbook is aimed at the student with a low reading level, one who would be least likely to know this information on his own, suggests a goal that has very little to do with education. Nor do the other volumes for that matter. They want to tell students what to think, not how to write.

One Vote Here Against For-Profits

office-cubicles-for-profit.jpgIn his recent book, Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy, Andrew Rosen writes: “It’s rare for anyone to lay out a clear case as to exactly what the problem is with private-sector education.” Ok, here it is. The problem is not, as Rosen says, that the pairing of the words for-profit and education makes advocates of traditional education like me squeamish; it’s that most for-profits work from a model that undermines the essence of what higher education is about.Is Rosen right that most traditional colleges and university have abandoned the mission of educating students for the great world? Absolutely. Have inferior colleges lusted for too long after the prestige of the elite universities (what he dubs “Harvard envy”), spending more time, money, and energy than they should on research and scholarship than they do on teaching and learning? No disagreement here. Have they also attempted to keep the supply-line of students flowing by pumping millions of dollars into luxurious residential halls, fitness centers, water parks, and cafeterias–“Club College” at its best? Spot on again.Rosen’s also right that community colleges, which he admires for servicing nontraditional and under-served students, are failing because they try to be everything to everyone and, like their four-year counterparts, are “stretched across myriad constituencies.” Overburdened, excluding students, refusing to raise tuition, they follow an economic model that subscribes to the idea that “paying for education is primarily the responsibility of taxpayers, with students to be shielded from cost to the maximum extent.” Are Teachers Just Hirelings? But is more private-sector education the big change that we ought to embrace? Only if students are customers and professors mere hirelings who have less academic freedom in a curriculum that is more centralized, standardized, controlled. For Rosen, the virtue of the for-profit model is twofold. First, it is driven by tuition and fees and forces for-profits to keep costs (not necessarily tuition) down. Second, “private-sector educators are able to tailor their education to specific, identified learning outcomes and measure performance against those outcomes.” They can “focus almost exclusively on students (both recruiting and educating).” How so? By operating “in a far more centralized fashion”–meaning a single syllabus mandated in each course; the same readings from class to class; written assignments, quizzes, and exams that assess the same content; supervising faculty more closely to provide a uniform level of quality; designating learning outcomes in class that come together into a set of program-level outcomes across all courses in a given major. Faculty are treated as hirelings–not as experts in their field–who are basically given a syllabus and a textbook and told, “Teach this class.” At the for-profit where I taught, I wasn’t even allowed to assign additional (i.e. real) books or primary sources. That’s not how genuine teaching and learning work, but it doesn’t trouble those who are engineering education at for-profits: “By refusing to cede complete control of course design and learning assessments to each individual faculty member, it’s possible for proprietary colleges to be better able to make sure learning actually happens.” The alleged tradeoff is that this “standardized, closely evaluated process” will “hit the mark consistently. More importantly, by standardizing the curriculum, it is possible to measure outcomes and make continuous improvements that will ensure that each term of students is getting a better learning experience than the term before.” But by Rosen’s own admission for-profits are only graduating 38.1 percent of their students. This abysmal showing is corroborated by other studies–for example, a 2010 Education Trust report by Education Trust found that only 22 percent of the first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree students graduate within six years, compared to 55 percent at public institutions and 65 percent at private nonprofit colleges. The powerhouse University of Phoenix Online is one of the worst offenders, graduating only 5.1 percent of students in six years (fewer than 1 percent of its more than 253,000 students) in its B.A. program at its biggest campus. Rosen dismisses such studies, claiming that they compare apples to oranges, since students at for-profits are more likely to have kids, or full-time jobs, or be very poor–unlike typical students at traditional four-year colleges and universities. But a recent apples-to-apples study shows that graduates of for-profits also lag behind their peers in earnings and employment. Rosen gives the impression that while students at Club College and Party U are guzzling beer, eating sushi, rock-climbing, or working out in the gym, all the real studying is going on at the for-profits. Nearly halfway through the book, we finally hear about academic rigor. Patricia Feggins, a fifty-three-year-old student, was “impressed by the academic rigor of the Kaplan classes–even if, at times, she was slightly overwhelmed by the number of research papers and essays her professors required her to write.” I don’t question the sincerity of this student; I question whether she is qualified to judge what is appropriate college-level rigor. At the for-profit where I worked, I typically stopped teaching my subject every second week because I had to teach students basic skills: how to read a textbook, how to take notes, how to follow an argument during a discussion, how to write. The problem was compounded because they were expected to do in ten weeks what most students do in a sixteen or seventeen-week semester. They showed almost no interest in learning how to think; they wanted to be told what to think so that they could pass the class and move another step closer to the job their recruiter promised awaited them once they got their degree. This mindset is reinforced by educational model designed to equip people for the marketplace rather than produce human beings who are adaptable, curious, questioning, and capable of learning new concepts. Somehow technology is supposed to change this by making “education more responsive, engaging, and interesting. Imagine simulations that enable students to experience how blood courses through the body, how a volcano erupts, or how change in the price affects all competitors in a marketplace. Imagine robots and avatars that enable a student to travel to Germany in the age of Bismark, to Craig Venter’s lab as he worked to sequence the human genome, to Washington’s headquarters on Christmas 1776, or to the Enron boardroom.” Education as easy as watching TV or browsing the web. Never mind the effort of learning about these great achievements through reading documents, analyzing sources, and working through them to come to one’s own understanding. That’s so old school. Everything must be visual, literal, and available to students with a click of a mouse–hence the popularity of Wikipedia and the Khan Academy. Toward the end of his book Rosen predicts what the higher education landscape will look like by 2036: more mobile, more disaggregated, more personalized, more focused on learning outcomes, more accessible, more global, more cool. I predict that it will be all of these things much sooner than that. By 2036, higher education will be so career-driven, technocratic, standardized, centralized, efficient, and soulless, people will be clamoring to change it back to the way it was in the good old days.

How Universities Promote the “Coming Apart” of America

Coming Apart.JPGEvery decade or so, Charles Murray writes a blockbuster book captivating America. First came Losing Ground, focusing attention on our dysfunctional system of public assistance, and, along with Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve, a controversial but rigorous examination of the role played by cognitive endowments in American life. I suspect his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, will be another mega hit. Based on a quick read, Murray demonstrates the growing gaps between affluent upper-middle-class Americans and their blue-collar, lower-income counterparts. He confines his analysis to whites to avoid all sorts of unrelated side issues, including the tendency to see the growing gap between Americans as primarily a problem of race, ethnicity or bias.

Murray’s thesis is simple: a powerful new class has emerged in America, based on cognitive and educational homogamy–the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics. Colleges and universities have played a key role–particularly the elite institutions, which attract almost no one outside the top ten percent of the nation’s cognitive talent. (Fifty years ago, only three percent of Americans graduated from college, and the elite institutions tended to attract the well-connected and the economically successful, not necessarily the brightest.) These institutions now function as sorting mechanisms. The exceptionally bright now tend to meet and then marry similarly bright partners. In addition to building a culture vastly different from that of mainstream America, they perpetuate the advantages that high levels of cognitive skills offer. As a result, Murray concludes, “Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.” As the new class pulls away from mainstream America, so does the discouraged underclass–now made up of all ethnicities–giving up on work, family and community.

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Best Books of 2011

crazy_u.jpgWhat were the best books of the year on higher education? A
panel of ten prominent people in the field, invited to vote by Minding the
Campus, picked as their top two choices, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning
on College Campuses”
by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa; and “Crazy U: One Dad’s
Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College”
by Andrew Ferguson.

Both books take a largely negative view of today’s colleges
and universities. Arum and Roksa, both sociologists, take a straightforward
approach to surveys and analysis of the limited learning on our campuses, while
Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a well-known conservative
writer, is darkly humorous about the results of his consistently impressive reportage.

“Academically Adrift” was a top choice of 9 of the 10 voting
members of the panel, all asked to name from one to five books… “Crazy U.” was
picked by six voters. Four books drew three votes: “In the Basement of the
Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic”
by Professor X; “The Fall
of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It
Matters”
by Benjamin Ginsberg; “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You
Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For”
by Naomi Schaefer Riley; and “The
Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out”

by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring.

Continue reading Best Books of 2011

What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

The influential website Campusbooks displays a roster of “Popular Classics Textbooks” in fiction. The list offers an aperture into the minds of University English departments:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  4. The Rum Diary by Hunter S.Thompson
  5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  8. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  10.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  11.  Maus by Art Spiegelman
  12.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  13.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R.Tolkien
  14. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Continue reading What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

Greatly Exaggerated Death of the Novel

Thomas C. Foster’s book is three years old, but it still holds the gold medal for Turnoff Title of the New Millennium: How to Read Novels Like a Professor. The author, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, attempts to sanitize his work with the subtitle, A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. But the damage is done. His title conjures up too many blackboard demands: “In Remembrance of Things Past is Marcel Proust saying farewell to high society, or suggesting that social milieus are a kaleidoscope of change? Discuss.”; “In Moby-Dick, the vessel that rescues Ishmael is called the Rachel. What is the significance of that Biblical name?” etc., etc., ad infinitum.

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The Decline of the Novel and the Fate of English

English departments have diversified.  Forty years ago, just about every faculty member defined himself or herself in literary historical terms.  One was a Medievalist, one a Shakespearean, one a Romantic scholar, one a philologist.  Large departments might have someone who does film plus a creative writer-in-residence.  Today, click on any faculty roster and the expertises amble far into social and psychological areas–critical race theory, cultural criticism, gender and sexuality, imperialism, etc.

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The Perils of the “Common Reading” Assignment

Of the criticisms directed toward the contemporary academy, the charge of “indoctrination” strikes me as the most overhyped. The phenomenon certainly occurs; the most obvious recent example came in the “dispositions” controversy, when education students around the country could choose between agreeing with their professors’ political opinions and finding another career path. But it’s relatively rare to see professors browbeating students, in class, regarding overtly political matters.

Far more common–and pernicious–is the attempt (especially in the humanities and social sciences) to exclude topics on grounds of their “traditional” approach. Or the efforts, documented by FIRE, to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of association, and due process on campus. Or the financial impact of sprawling college bureaucracies, most notably those devoted to student life or to promoting certain types of “diversity.

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The Fiske Guide Turns 30

It seems only yesterday that a few colleagues and I gathered every night in the back of the newsroom of New York Times, then on West 43rd Street, to create the first edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It’s hard to believe that the appearance of the 2012 edition this month marks the 30th anniversary!

Today’s Fiske Guide is a lot different than the first edition. It’s a lot bigger – with write-ups of more than 300 of the “best and most interesting” colleges in the country. There is an electronic version, and, most exciting of all, there’s a new iPad app with lots of bells and whistles to streamline the college search process. Once you have identified schools that sound like a good bet, you can use the iPad version of the Fiske Guide to plan your college tour, email admissions departments directly, browse each college’s website and check out competing schools. Unfortunately, you still have to brew your own coffee.

And – get this – there’s even a complete new Mandarin edition for Chinese students who have set their sights on a U.S. college. It’s kind of fun seeing your name in Chinese characters (or at least I think that’s my name).

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Professors Should Dress Like Professionals

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Judged by the recent avalanche of autopsy-like books, American higher education appears troubled. Alleged evil-doers abound, but one culprit escapes unnoticed–the horrific sartorial habits of many of today’s professors. Don’t laugh. As Oscar Wilde brilliantly observed, only shallow people do not judge by appearances. Indeed, I would argue that much of what plagues today’s academy can be traced to an almost total collapse of sartorial standards. When I began my professorial career in 1969 the tweed sport coat and tie was more or less standard. Today, with all too few exceptions, “academic casual,” even jeans and tee-shirts is de rigueur. This slide has not been kind to life of the mind.

Many of the academy’s ills are traceable to diminished professorial authority. We often feel like “I don’t get any respect” Rodney Dangerfield: students day dream, ignore assignments, barely show up, cheat, gossip during class, and send text messages among other contemptuous behaviors. And not even entertaining lectures, grade inflation and dumbed-down syllabi seem able to restore the loss of respect.      

To appreciate the connection between respect for authority and outward appearances, consider the one setting obsessed with maintaining authority –courts. Judges always dress the part though sartorial details vary. Severe black robes are standard while some wear special hats, even wigs and all sit high above the court proceedings. To drive home respect, judges are addressed with “your honor” or “may it please the court” and lawyers must ask permission to “approach to the court” for private conservation. Discussions are all judge-controlled and disrespect is punishable by contempt of court. All rise when the judge enters and nobody would dare catch up on e-mails during a trial. This is the physical aspect of respect for rule of law. Professors should be so lucky.

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That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

Last year, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus published Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–And What We Can Do About It, a resounding broadside against campus policies and practices.  They berated the system for producing useless research, creating cushy working conditions, neglecting undergraduates, and reproducing elitism.

Hacker and Dreyfus sometimes swung their club wildly, it is true, but one had to appreciate their concern.  They had no conservative or liberal axe to grind, and no anti-academic or anti-intellectual attitudes in place.  They deeply believe that higher education has lost its way, its civic virtue, and they launched a polemic to correct it.

One might argue with their evidence and question their assumptions, of course.  Here, however, is how a recent reviewer in The New York Review of Books characterizes them: 

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The New Yorker Takes on the US News College Rankings

college-cover.jpgMalcolm Gladwell has written his share of interesting and penetrating essays in The New Yorker in recent years. He has also authored such best-selling books as Blink, which is about rapid cognition and intuition, and The Tipping Point, which addresses the factors that contribute to unexpected change. The relevance of Tipping Point has received another big boost by the recent happenings in Egypt. Among Gladwell’s attributes is his ability to question and challenge conventional wisdom.
The virtues of Gladwell’s scalpel are on display in his New Yorker essay (February 14 and 21 issue) attacking U.S. News and World Report’s famous (or notorious) national “Best Colleges” ranking guide. Even though U.S. News is now defunct, the Guide survives and is used by millions of families. “The rankings have taken on a life of their own,” as Gladwell writes. Given the difficulty and complexity—often the sheer mystery—of knowing how schools compare, the Guide’s assignment of numerical rankings appears to have been a blessing, as it simplifies the task of evaluation for millions of students and parents. But what if it amounts to a false promise?
The Guide has been questioned by some empirical researchers, including Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan and Jeffrey Stake of Indiana University, as well as by schools that feel unjustly slighted by its determinations. But seldom has it found itself in the sights of a national magazine like the New Yorker. Gladwell’s critique provides convincing evidence that consumers should take the Guide with a big spoon of salt.
The heart of the problem lies in the use and abuse of measurement. Gladwell tellingly begins his piece by comparing the Guide’s logic and methodology to Car and Driver’s recent comparison test of three sports cars: Chevy’s Corvette, the Porsche Cayman S, and the Lotus Evora. (Porsche won, followed by Corvette and Lotus). Car and Driver’s report is unreliable, Gladwell avers, because it applies the same twenty-one criteria to sports cars that it applies to all vehicles, thereby ignoring special concerns that sports car buyers have, such as the way the car looks. Nor did the test give much weight to cost, which matters a lot to consumers. Car and Driver attempts to have its cake and eat it, too, but “it’s an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be both comprehensive and heterogeneous at the same time.”

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Edmundson on Students and Derrida on Tradition

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has a penetrating, but saddening article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It’s called “Narcissus Regards a Book”, and it laments a terrible outcome of the academic culture wars of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Edmunson recalls the infamous chant of students at Stanford—in his rendition, “Hey-ho, hey-ho, Western culture’s got to go”—but focuses not on the impudence of the marchers but on the response of the professors. The youthful ones and their grown-up supporters posed a serious question, Edmundson says. Why read Blake or study Picasso? Why not teach The Simpsons and Stephen King instead, especially as those are so much more relevant to the worlds of 1990s students?
Edmundson’s comment is worth repeating in full:

I’m not sure that teachers and scholars ever offered a good answer. The conservatives, protected by tenure, immersed in the minutiae of their fields, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing. Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march. They were much in demand in the news media—figures of great interest. The Washington Post was calling; the Times was on the other line. Was it true? Were the professors actually repudiating the works that they had purportedly been retained to preserve?
It was true—and there was more, the rebels yelled. They thought they would have the microphones in their hand all day and all of the night. They imagined that teaching Milton with an earring in one ear would never cease to fascinate the world.
But it did. The media—most inconstant of lovers—came and the media went, and the academy was left with its cultural authority in tatters. How could it be otherwise? The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness.

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Students ‘Adrift’? Don’t Blame Them

inside-college-classroom.jpgI haven’t read Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, and frankly, I’m not sure that I want to. Having had high expectations of other widely touted books on higher education—most recently, Hacker and Dreifus’s Higher Education?, Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus—and having been sadly disappointed after reading them, I’m afraid that reading this book will be an instance of history repeating itself. Besides, after listening to a great deal of the chatter that it’s generated, I keep asking myself, “What’s new?”

In his fascinating book, Weapons of Mass Instruction (2009), John Taylor Gatto cites a 2006 study conducted by the University of Connecticut that affirmed that college students weren’t learning the things they were supposed to be learning. Having surveyed 14,000 students at fifty intuitions in five academic areas, the study showed that at sixteen of the fifty schools—including Yale, Brown, and Georgetown—negative intellectual growth (meaning that seniors knew less than freshman) had actually occurred among undergraduates. In thirty-four of the fifty schools, no discernable change occurred. This prompted Gatto to write: “after spending an average of six years in search of a BA degree or its equivalent, and spending an average of a quarter million in cash and loans, a great many young people had nothing or even less than nothing to show for the investment.”

In the American Scholar (Summer 2008), former Yale professor William Deresiewicz already warned us that even the elite institutions, which used to be the bastions of higher education, have been slouching “toward a glorified form of vocational training” and increasingly graduating more educated ignoramuses. Will another book on the failings of higher education deter students from going to ivy-league schools, even though they will be no better off after graduating than the 35 percent of first-year community college students who don’t return for their second year, or the 33 percent of students at four-year institutions who don’t complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, or even those who never step foot in an ivory tower? (Source: A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, 2006.)

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Cut the Sniping—It’s a Great Book

The sniping has begun about Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s great new book Academically Adrift. Predictably, people are saying the test instruments used (especially the Collegiate Learning Assessment or CLA but also the National Survey of Student Engagement or NSSE) are imperfect, they look at only a small number of relatively anonymous schools, etc. These complaints on the survey have some validity, but the reality is the higher education community has not collected the data or developed the test instruments that could allow for a broader wider test. Why, for example, don’t we have a test of general knowledge, something of an extension of the Adult Civic Literacy Test developed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, that is administered widely at the beginning and end of the college careers of students at any institutions receiving (or whose students receive) federal grant or loan money? Why aren’t the NSSE results published for the hundreds of schools using it? Or, why not at least administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam given to 17 year olds again to 21 or 22 year olds near the end of their college career? Higher education has fought transparency and accountability, so researchers have to use the limited information available.

Basically, Arum and Roksa argue that students work little in college and consequently learn little. Most of us who have been in higher education for decades know that this is true, even when we don’t want to admit it. But why? You don’t have to read very far in Academically Adrift to find the answers. Below are a series of quotes either from the authors or from sources they cite, one from each of the first 10 pages of the book:

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The Book That Shook the Campuses

9780226028569.jpgNeither liberals nor conservatives take the education part of higher education very seriously. Instead, college gets used as an arena for special interest promotion and ideological dispute. The right publishes lists of “The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” while fulminating about post-modernism and the hedonist student culture. The left pours endless billions of taxpayer dollars into student financial aid programs without holding anyone accountable (or at least not traditional non-profit colleges) for how that money is spent. Everyone is simultaneously horrified and entertained by college sports.
This happens in large part because everyone assumes that the core business of higher education doesn’t require much scrutiny. Our K-12 schools may be mediocre, but we all know our colleges are the best in the world. Just ask them!
Now Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s landmark study, Academically Adrift, has blown a gaping hole in the wall of assumed competence that has long shielded colleges and universities from criticism. The warranty that accompanies the college degree–that students have undergone a rigorous course of study and emerged ready to tackle the challenges of the workplace and further education–turns out to be, in many cases, a fraud.
During their four years of college, 36 percent of students studied made no progress at all on the most widely-used measure of collegiate critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and written communication skills. The average gain was less than half of one standard deviation. Results for minority students and those from academically disadvantaged backgrounds were even worse.
The list of culprits is long: Poor preparation, lax accreditation standards, faculty incentives that privilege scholarship over teaching, a low equilibrium of mutual expectation where professors ask students to do little and provide little in exchange. The modern university has evolved haphazardly over time to accommodate a huge variety of interests, functions, and concerns. Somewhere along the way, the core business of educating undergraduates faded from view.
But this learning-deficient ecosystem only persists because there is little or no outside pressure to become otherwise. Contrast this with the vigorous national conversation about elementary and secondary education. A whole constellation of organizations from across the ideological spectrum exist to analyze, criticize, and improve schooling for children. Many disagree, often stridently, about the necessary means, with perspectives ranging from big government regulation to wholesale privatization and many points in between. But they all begin from the same underlying premise: too many American K-12 students are failing to learn.

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Ian McEwan’s Take on the Larry Summers Saga

mcewan.jpgWhen Ian McEwan talks about his writing, he sounds like an impressionist painter entranced by water lilies. He speaks of images and scenes, the feelings they elicit and how they prompt him to begin new books. That’s his power: He’s a writer who has strong ideas, doesn’t shy away from contrarianism and tackles modern political problems, but he isn’t an Ayn Rand packaging political philosophy as fiction. He’s a writer whose respect for and mastery of the written word allows him to play with ideas unpopular in academia without reaping the wrath of critics.

His latest novel, Solar, not only lampoons the state of the modern anti-global warming movement (the head of a climate institute goes to the North Pole, where his penis falls off). The book also mocks academia at every turn.

Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who has done nothing of note since winning the world’s most prestigious prize, is the anti-hero of Solar. (Spoiler alert.) He holds a post at an unnamed university in Geneva, but does no teaching. He doesn’t particularly care about global warming, or anything else that doesn’t yield immediate pleasure. He heads a center to reverse the damage being done to the planet, mostly because the work is undemanding and pays decently. A young man who works for him (who is also sleeping with his wife) comes up with a brilliant plan to utilize solar energy to replace fossil fuels. Beard steals the idea when the man dies accidentally and frames another one of his wife’s lovers for his murder. Suddenly Beard is the world’s hero.

Beard is asked to be the “titular head of a government scheme to promote physics in schools and universities” and grudgingly accepts. He sits with a committee, mostly physicists (all male) and one woman (a social anthropologist) whose work focuses on proving that genes are “socially constructed.”

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Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

The National Science Foundation has just issued an Info Brief on trends in the awarding of doctorates in different fields for the year 2009. (See here) The report contains data going back to 2009 and breaks the numbers down by Science, Engineering, and “Non-science and engineering,” the latter including Education, Health, Humanities, and Professional Fields. For all fields, doctorates jumped from 41,098 in 1999 to 49,562 in 2009, the vast majority of the increase falling to science (20,601 to 25,836) and engineering (5,330 to 7,634). The “non-sciences and engineering” gained only 925 doctorates, most of that gain due to professional fields (2,172 to 2,800).
The humanities at large, in fact, went down, dropping from 5,036 doctorates in 1999 to 4,667 doctorates in 2009. History went up slightly (960 to 989), but foreign languages slid from 626 doctorates in 1999 to 602 in 2009, while “Letters” (which includes English, Classics, Folklore, Comparative Literature, and Speech) dropped from 1,516 to 1,414. That makes for a four percent decline for foreign languages and a seven percent decline for English et al.
How is that possible, though, given that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the total enrollment of students in degree-granting institutions rose from 14.8 million in 1999 to 18.2 million (estimated) in 2008, a gain of 23 percent? With more students going to college, one would expect more graduates proceeding into PhD programs.
There is another odd trend in place. More undergraduates should mean that colleges and universities would hire more teachers, but here, too, the number of slots for recent PhDs runs in the opposite direction. Each year the Modern Language Association publishes its Job Information List, which provides the fullest listing of openings in the field. Recent doctorates look for tenure-track assistant professor positions in the Job List and apply to those that match their specialty.
For each of the last five years, around 1,400 fresh Letters PhDs and 600 fresh foreign language PhDs have completed school and sought a regular position. In the Letters fields of English and American language and literature, the output averages in the mid-900s. What has the job market looked like to them?
Hyper-competitive. According to the MLA’s “Midyear Report on the 2009-10 MLA Job Information List” (here), from 2005 to 2008 the number of tenure-track assistant professor positions in foreign language ranged from 231 to 267, while assistant profs posts in English ranged from 299 to 474. (English reached a high of 606 in 2000, foreign languages a high of 396 in 2001.)

Continue reading Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

Prof. Bayoumi’s Lament

I recently posted on the peculiar strategy employed by defenders of a Brooklyn College committee’s selecting Moustafa Bayoumi’s book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, as mandatory reading for all first-year and transfer students at the college. As I noted at the time, Bayoumi and his defenders present straw-men arguments, suggest that the only figures criticizing them are on the far-right fringe, or portray themselves (from their positions as tenured or tenure-track professors) as helpless victims. Bayoumi has taken the dodge-and-victimization strategy to a new level, in an essay just published in the Chronicle Review.
“On closer inspection,” Bayoumi mused in his column, “it became clear to me that my detractors”—note that he didn’t qualify his statement to suggest “some” of his detractors—“hadn’t actually read the book.” This interpretation, of course, allows Bayoumi to ignore the kind of devastating criticism offered by people like my Brooklyn colleague Robert Cherry. And while Prof. Bayoumi might not like what I have to say, even he presumably would concede that I have read his book.
“Next I realized how insulting those objections [of critics] were to our students, suggesting that they are unable to form independent judgments of what they read.” By this rationale, no one could criticize a Biology Department that assigned a creationist textbook, since such criticism would be “insulting” to the students forced to read the inappropriately selected text. Of course, the main criticism in this matter was directed not against BC students’ cognitive abilities, but the judgment of a faculty committee that would mandate all incoming BC students read one and only one book—a book whose sole section open to fact-checking (the afterword) contains numerous strained or outright erroneous interpretations.

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Sound and Fury—The Bayoumi Uproar

bayoumi.bmpHow Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America—the controversial book assigned for freshman reading at Brooklyn College—is, in my opinion, an important but seriously flawed work, and one that should be read, but not as a sole required text for incoming English students.
In the book Brooklyn College English professor Moustafa Bayoumi decries what he sees as the pervasive bigotry that Muslim youth have faced since 9/11. After citing past groups that have been singled out for discrimination, including Japanese Americans during World War II, in an interview Professor Bayoumi concluded, “You would have thought that this would never happen again.” A number of New York City newspapers condemned its selection as the required reading for all Brooklyn College freshmen. By contrast, the New York Times claimed that the condemnations were fomented primarily by outsiders and allowed Professor Bayoumi to respond to his critics. In this essay, I will discuss: the inappropriateness of its selection, the inaccuracy of many of Professor Bayoumi’s generalizations, and the motivation for the position taken by the New York Times. An accurate assessment will find that Muslim Americans have been treated remarkably well by the American public and that Muslim Americans have a very positive view of their personal situation and experiences, undermining the victimization narrative that Professor Bayoumi promotes.

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Don’t Pay Sticker Price, Part 2—the National Universities

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Read Part 1 here.
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In examining the gulf between sticker price and real cost, let’s consider the top 10 national universities as defined by U.S. News & World Report in its most recent rankings. Using U. S. Department of Education data, I compiled the average net prices that students from different family income groups would pay at the top 10 national universities combined.
Despite total sticker prices averaging more than $50,000 a year at these top 10 universities, net prices range from a low of $4,652, paid by students from poorest family income group, to a high of more than $35,000 paid by students from the richest category of family income.
These averages, however, mask the significant differences in net prices paid by poor and rich students at the individual institution. At Harvard, students from families in all income categories fare significantly better in terms of net price than they might at Harvard’s competitors. Harvard’s poorest students, whose parents earned $30,000 or less, paid net prices averaging just $2,170, significantly less than the average net price charged low-income students at all the Top 10 national universities.

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