What are students? Admittedly, I haven’t been in the classroom, meeting with students, for several years now. But I’m inspired to think about them as I work on my troubling teaching portfolio and as I encounter articles, blog posts, Facebook status updates, and tweets about students-as-problems. Here are a few of the articles that I’ve encountered about students in my current format-of-choice, the list:
This morning, while scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across several articles lamenting the current state of education, including:
- Marilynne Robinson’s plea to Save our public universities.
- Patricia Cohen’s overview of the Rising call to promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding
- Kevin Kiley’s description of Another Liberal Arts Critic
- Valerie Strauss’ warning to college profs from a high school teacher
In my latest writing project, I want to include some context for my troubling (and troubled) feelings about education. These articles provide some useful information and ideas:
What is the value of a public university?:
The assumption now current, that the test of a university is its success in vaulting graduates into the upper tiers of wealth and status, obscures the fact that the United States is an enormous country, and that many of its best and brightest may prefer a modest life in Maine or South Dakota. Or in Iowa, as I find myself obliged to say from time to time. It obscures the fact that there is a vast educational culture in this country, unlike anything else in the world. It emerged from a glorious sense of the possible and explored and enhanced the possible through the spread of learning. If it seems to be failing now, that may be because we have forgotten what the university is for, why the libraries are built like cathedrals and surrounded by meadows and flowers. They are a tribute and an invitation to the young, who can and should make the world new, out of the unmapped and unbounded resource of their minds (Robinson, “Save our Public Universities).
What is a university for? A tribute to “a glorious sense of the possible” and an invitation to those “who can and should make the world new….”
How do we assess that value?
- How many graduates have jobs?
“I’m looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges,” McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs” (Kiley, citing North Carolina Governor, Patrick McCrory
- How much money do they earn?
The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation (Cohen).
- How competitive are they in global marketplace?
The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy of the future. This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some quarters and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to use to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose profit or benefit we are never told. There is no suggestion that the gifts young Americans might bring to the world as individuals stimulated by broad access to knowledge might have a place or value in this future, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training (Robinson).
- How well do they do on tests?
No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools (Strauss).
The “Uselessness” of the Humanities
What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory belittled gender studies (Cohen).
Since Plato at least, the arts have been under attack on the grounds that they have no useful role in society. They are under attack at present. We have convinced ourselves that the role of the middle ranks of our population is to be useful to the economy — more precisely, to the future economy, of which we know nothing for certain but can imagine to be as unlike the present situation as the present is unlike the order that prevailed a few decades ago (Robinson).
Jess Row’s latest book, Your Face in Mine, is about a white man who travels to China to undergo racial reassignment. He comes back to Baltimore as a black man. In an interview, after recounting how his former editor told him not to write this novel because he wouldn’t “want the kind of trouble that book is going to cause [him],” he said the following about writing into trouble:
I wanted to write into trouble as much as I could. There’s a really important difference between writing into trouble and writing to be provocative. I think that’s a crucial distinction for anyone that’s writing about race. It’s a distinction that’s lost on a lot of white writers. When you write yourself into trouble, you’re writing about your own vulnerabilities. You’re willing to risk a kind of raw emotional honesty, being reflective and honest and opening up.
Writing to be provocative is writing from a defensive position. You’re basically saying, “I’m going to say something hurtful or offensive, because that’s the only kind of honesty I can have.” You know what I mean? To be provocative is to create a scenario where your own body is not in question. That was the opposite of what I was trying to do. That’s why I wanted to put the white body first in the novel. Instead of just focusing on the black body, I wanted to make Martin’s white body vulnerable.
I really appreciate the distinction between writing into trouble as becoming/being vulnerable and writing to make trouble as being defensive/evasive/provocative.
At the beginning of January, I wrote about my daily habit of waking up early and scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds in order to get into “a critically reflective (troubling/troubled) space.” I’m calling this practice, “the troubling hour.” I’m still doing this almost every day, but I haven’t been posting about it.
I’d like to do a better job of documenting this habit. But how? I’m not sure yet; for now, I’ll just offer up a few past ideas, articles, and quotations that have made me curious and critically reflective.
25 January 2016
On January 25th, I found Fear of Screens by Nathan Jurgenson. He offers a great critique of Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation. I read/skimmed her book not too long ago and tried to write about it, but I felt such an overwhelming sense that it was riling me up in unhelpful ways, that I abandoned my post—it’s festering as a draft on the dashboard of this blog as I write these words.
Speaking of drafts, I found the following quotation from Jurgenson’s article in another draft post:
This oversimplification pre-empts her critique, so that she asks not what technology (including language itself) affords or discourages, and how and under what circumstances, but “what do we forget when we talk through machines?” This slanted question elides the issue of how communication is always mediated by power, space, bodies, language, architecture, and other factors as well as by the particular medium through which it occurs. To prescribe one form of media — to privilege speaking over writing over texting — would require deep description and analysis of the context: who is speaking, to what ends, and why. Turkle too often assumes screen-mediated communication comes in only one flavor, which cannot grasp the complexities of our always augmented sociality, to say nothing of how screens are differently used by those with different abilities.
Yes! I’m so glad that Jurgenson wrote this…especially so I didn’t have to. This above quotation articulates a lot of why I am bothered by Turkle. And so does this passage that challenges the privileging of IRL (in real life) conversations:
Each time we say “IRL,” “face-to-face,” or “in person” to mean connection without screens, we frame what is “real” or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness — variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. “Face to face” should mean more than breathing the same air.
And this passage that troubles our need to be mindful of how/when we are connected:
The false sense that your health and humanity are at stake in when and how you look at your screen suggests that we are already too “mindful” about how we are connected. We have too many self-conscious rituals of disconnection. If being mindful means being preoccupied with a phony sense of balance and moderation, anchoring oneself to a fictitious “real” identity, and judging constantly who is normal and who is broken, then we may need something more mindless.
I want to spend some more time with this idea of being too mindful of our practices and of over-scrutinizing them. Even as I promote documenting habits and paying attention to/critically reflecting on them, I’m aware of how unhealthy over-scrutiny can be. I’ve experienced it in my own life and I’m currently bearing witness to its painful effects on my daughter.
9 February 2016
Yesterday, I read The Self-Obliterating Professor by Doug Anderson. In it, Anderson argues that the best teachers train and inspire students in ways that make them (the teacher) no longer necessary. Early on in the essay, Anderson quotes Thomas Davidson who once famously remarked:
The sooner a teacher makes himself useless the better. It is a great fault with some teachers that they may remain always necessary. I do not wish to count among these, but hope to be obliterated.
I like this idea of inspiring/training students to not need the teacher (it’s a nice contrast to Mark Bauerlein’s arrogant argument for students as disciplines in What’s the Point of a Professor?), but I’m extremely wary of calling for the obliteration of the professor.
Obliterate? To remove or destroy all traces. To efface. Expunge. This violent language may be useful for combatting the arrogance of some professors, especially those who fit Lorde’s mythical norm—white, male, tenured, heterosexual, Christian—and who are guaranteed status because of their ability to fit that norm, but what does obliteration do to many (now the majority?) professors whose status (and authority in the classroom and job security in the academy) is tenuous?
I have more to say about these questions. Perhaps I’ll incorporate my thoughts into my undisciplined teaching portfolio?
Tonight I decided to scroll through my tumblr site, Staying in Trouble. I haven’t posted on it for years. Maybe I’ll start again? Anyway, I found an image that I reblogged 3 years ago and was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s article that I posted about a few days ago. She writes:
Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.