First, the good news: My undergraduate students here at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are quite literate, contrary to all the bad press and fears. Every week I give them a 20-minute writing assignment in class, the sole preparation for which is having done the week’s homework. Turns out they write pretty well; arguably, in some cases, better than with at-home papers, which may cause them more stress. This despite the fact that whenever I enter the room at the beginning of class, most of them are on their iPhones or otherwise engaged with electronic devices.
Now the bad news: For about the past week I’ve been taking note of the announcements that come to me via email from the university. These relate predominantly to events in my particular areas of interest : Latin American studies; languages and literatures; women’s studies – now renamed, like most such programs throughout the country, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, which at least makes their focus clear, in case anyone was wondering. But I also receive occasional emails about university-wide special events, as well as Five-College events (since UMass Amherst is part of the Five College Consortium), though these latter are often related to the above fields.
Below is a listing of the typical items that appeared in my email in the past week or so –representative of the majority of announcements I receive week after week.
- The Chancellor of UMass Amherst announces that the newly-created post of Assistant Provost for Diversity has been filled.
- The Center for Latin America, Caribbean and Latino Studies announces a conference later this month on the “Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Nation in Colombia, Brazil and Cuba.” (I received seven separate announcements of this event over the past couple of days)
- A Five College Multicultural Theater Conference is taking place, which will address issues of representation, diversity and inclusion in multicultural theater today.
- The Five College Women’s Studies Research Center announces a faculty seminar and public talk on Race and Science, offered by a visiting professor of English.
- The Center for Public Policy and Administration in conjunction with the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute and a few other departments at UMass are sponsoring a panel discussion by experts from the non-Western Muslim world about the line between free speech and hate speech. The event is called “Charlie Hebdo Attacks: Is Your Free Speech My Hate Speech?”
- The CLACLS (see # 2 above) is sponsoring a lecture and workshop on “The Politics of Cultura [sic] in a Minority Latino/a [sic] Community: What We Can Learn from Public Pedagogies of Food, Fun, and Fiestas,” as part of their year-long series “Re-imagining Latin@[sic] Studies in Higher Education.”
- A talk by a feminist and reproductive rights activist, called “Abortion in our hands: Clandestine Abortion Doulas’s Network in Argentina” – sponsored by WGSS, CLACLS, Social Thought and Political Economy (these at UMass), and the Third World Studies Program at Hampshire College
- The Center for Teaching & Faculty Development announces two remaining events in its Diversity & Teaching Series: “Teaching Difference: A Faculty Panel,” and “Strategies to Engage And Sustain the Diverse Classroom”
- Finally – surprise! — Charles Krauthammer will be giving a talk here in about ten days, sponsored by the UMass College Republicans.
What rarely crosses my path are announcements designed to actually help students with their academic work as final exams/papers approach, or to appeal to their imagination and intellect in areas not related to the overarching agenda of “social justice” and “diversity.” There are, however, many end-of- semester events designed for one or another identity group. I’ve been noticing that these don’t clarify if they’re open to the public, or only to the particular identities being celebrated.
As for the actual work going on in many humanities courses, despite my pleasure in noting that many of my students can write decently, I also know that our academic standards have declined in terms of what is expected and demanded of our students (a problem that begins well before they arrive at the university, as evidenced by the striking fragility of their general level of knowledge). Do literature courses these days assign students eight or so novels to read over the semester, as we certainly used to do? My own experience is that students do watch films (an ever greater part of our curricula), yes, but are less likely to do assigned readings, though these rarely amount to more than perhaps a few dozen pages per week.
The university provides us with an online resource, Moodle, on which we can place assignments, readings, create discussion groups, post grades, and so on. It also allows faculty to see which students are actually accessing the assigned materials. Of course, we can’t tell how much time they actually spend on the materials, only the date and time that they have clicked on them. I tell my students that their professors can do this, so that they can be aware of the far greater surveillance they may be subjected to, compared to the past. Despite this, some of them choose to skip much of the material for my course. If I assign several short readings, some students will only bother with one or two of them. This is how I know they at least initially access and perhaps actually watch films. The difference between their activities reports on readings versus on films is marked.
The faculty groans and moans about the ever-decreasing level of work we can realistically expect of our students; it’s a persistent theme, but we more or less conform. It seems impossible not to. I can’t comment on what’s going on in non-humanities courses, where I do not have first-hand experience.
Furthermore, it is a fact that at UMass our semesters have become shorter and shorter (right now we’re at 13 weeks of actual instruction per semester). And – another sign of the times — many General Education courses have been converted from three to four credits, without a proportional increase in classroom time. Obviously, the result is fewer courses per college career, though the pretense is that these 4-credit courses are more intense and demanding. When, a few years ago, I was on a Faculty Senate sub-committee discussing what we should require of professors seeking to make this change, I inquired: “Why don’t we just demand that our students actually do the work we already assign?” That comment didn’t carry the day.
Still, my sketch of the current scene in my part of the university should in no way be taken as chiming in with the common complaint that we fail to prepare students for employment. I actually believe an undergraduate liberal arts education is valuable in and of itself, and that the university’s main function is not to be a job-training school. But if – despite the efforts of individual professors — we don’t even offer a genuinely high quality education, one that goes beyond the current shibboleths for which students actually don’t need to go to college, what can be said to justify our existence? If we’re instead focused on rhetoric displays related to ersatz politics and the university’s supposed commitment to right the world’s wrongs, well, then, we’re not even doing the job we can reasonably be expected to do, and for which students are paying exorbitantly high prices. Not to mention that of course we cannot even agree on how to go about improving the world, any more than do politicians who devote their full attention to this! Instead, pathetically, the university routinely engages in verbal magic –still obsessed with identity politics as indicated by the ceaseless emphasis on terms such as diversity, inclusion, and outreach.
What does all this signify if not a depressing loss of confidence that education is itself of value and doesn’t need transmogrification into something else? No wonder so many students seem to want above all to get through college with as little effort as possible, rather than taking advantage of the extraordinary riches that ought to be available at any university.