Edu-Dump

From the New York Times:

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “

In line with Dean Hogge’s observation are Professor Greenberger’s test results. Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

What else is there really than the effort you put in? Well… you know, there’s the finished product. The one thing that I, the educator, actually see? But that’s inconsequential, right?

Here’s the bad news – I originally wrote a pretty detailed response to this article, including both my outraged reaction as an adjunct who has experienced this sort of behavior, and a more thoughtful response on how race and gender play into student entitlement. But I found I couldn’t write it without divulging details about past jobs. So no commentary for you!

Instead, here’s an education-themed tab dump (it’s been a fertile week at NYT):

The humanities continue to have to justify their existence to college administrators. The best justification, in my opinion: the humanities explore what it means to be a human being. It’s true that you don’t need to go to college to do that, but college would be a pretty barren place without it.

18 students have been suspended from NYU following a sit-in. The students were demanding, among other things, an annual reporting of the university’s operating budget and the right of TAs to organize. Oh, the horror.

Speaking of university labor and operating budgets, coaches, star faculty members, and administrators can make millions of dollars a year while adjuncts and TAs – you know, the people doing the actual teaching? – subsist on salaries as low as $4,000. (That last part’s not in the article – it’s the salary I received my first year as a TA, after tuition was deducted.)

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

A Recession Story

MLA (the Modern Language Association – where English professors go to party) just released a report on academic employment. Overall, the number of full-time jobs in academia has more or less stayed the same, while the number of part-time jobs has jumped due to increased student enrollment. The number of full-time jobs in English decreased by 10% in ten years. Across the board, part-time jobs are held mainly by women. Funny how the more white women and people of color attend and teach college, the less we pay the people working in the classroom.* What a coincidence. Isn’t that interesting.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was giving up on academia and searching for a nonprofit job. I’ll be honest – I didn’t work that hard at the job search. I sent out maybe five resumes, had one interview. If I really set my mind to it, I could probably have found something in a few months. But due to the nature of part-time work, which forces you to constantly cycle through job after job (most of us TAs and adjuncts pick up side jobs like private tutoring whenever we find out that a section has been cut or an offer has fallen through), I’d already spent the past year and a half sending out resumes on a semi-regular basis, and I was tired. Plus, a funny thing happened when I emailed the department chair at my other campus to tell him I couldn’t keep the class I was teaching: he offered me another one.

I sat on the offer for a few days. Another class meant $1,300 a month instead of $650. It meant I could make rent and buy groceries. I emailed him to accept it, and then slumped in my chair and cried for an hour.

Not because of the job itself. Composition is tough – especially since most instructors have little or no training in teaching composition – and isn’t what I entered academia to do. But it can also be really rewarding to work with students on producing something memorable, to expose them to essays you love and ideas that excite you, to figure out which assignments are going to yield heartfelt, honest writing. Getting a sentence to click is a wonderful thing, whether you’re at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or the local JC. And the problems that teaching present are problems I enjoy working through.

I cried because I was resigning myself to at least four more months of unequal pay for equal work, instability (remember that we’re classified as temporary part-time, which means we can be dropped with zero notice if the school wants to save a buck), and almost no health insurance. I cried because I know I can be more than an interchangeable grade-dispenser. Because I have so many ideas on how to make college what it should be, how to create more effective and worthwhile courses, how to take a nationwide system that only values credits and degrees and change it into a system that values analysis and action. Here’s an idea: for those of you with recent experience in academia, notice how, at community colleges, almost every single English class is a composition class? Putting aside, for now, the sheer fucked-upness of a system in which students take 2, 3, or even 4 semesters of composition before they’re allowed to actually study something, notice how many composition classes strive to be “content-free” – meaning that we’re supposed to teach writing without a subject, writing without thinking? The average composition textbook contains a mishmash of essays about any ol’ thing; students are supposed to study rhetorical modes like comparing/contrasting and proposal claims without engaging in actual ideas. My husband and the other TAs in his department have actually been told not to teach readings they’re interested in, for fear that subject matter will somehow contaminate the students’ work on citations and paraphrasing. Fuck that. Why not let instructors teach topics courses (that is, writing courses that center around a subject)? While I’m teaching my compare/contrast lesson and correcting their semicolon use, could I please also expose them to women’s social justice movements or 20th century American Jewish thought? May I please give students the option of choosing a composition course based on which themes look interesting, rather than making them scroll through thirty identical sections of a boring required class? Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

Some schools are already teaching topics courses (although they’re still not paying their part-timers anything resembling reasonable salaries). UC Irvine, for example, has a program called Humanities Core, in which students learn rhetoric and composition through the lens of philosophy, literature, art history, and even urban planning and music. Even UCI’s regular composition program (for students who aren’t humanities majors) offers a few general themes like Empire, Frontiers, and Heroism, and lets TAs choose their own readings (like actual novels and stuff!) instead of working from standardized textbooks.

Hell, let’s take it even further – why not try to integrate composition into other courses? Why not learn about citations in your freshman literature class, or process analysis in biology? Crazy, I know. And yes, remedial writing would still be an issue; there are some problems that do need a semester’s worth of intensive work. But perhaps we could address deficiencies in K-12 education instead of trying to solve serious literacy problems in a semester or two.

I know there’s a wider debate about topics courses versus content-free courses, and I’m not saying there are no good arguments for content-free writing instruction. But when part-timers are treated as second-class educators and are excluded from curriculum design and decision making, we’re barred from taking part in that debate – even though we’re the ones at the center of it! And when community college students sit through semester after semester of courses like Critical Thinking and College English Skills and Fundamentals of Composition, with textbook after textbook like From Inquiry to Academic Writing and Perspectives on Contemporary Issues while their richer (white) counterparts at the Ivies are reading Toni Morrison (no, the irony isn’t lost on me), the whole idea of “higher” education loses its meaning.

Why not employ us full-time? Then maybe we’d have the time and resources to make these courses better.

Because next semester, I’m going to walk into those classrooms with the same textbook, and we’ll have the same scattered, non-contiguous discussions about whatever subject is in the essay that happened to be on the syllabus. (I know I just talked shit about it, but From Inquiry to Academic Writing does have a bell hooks essay, which is pretty cool. But we’ll talk about it for 40 minutes – 20 of which will be devoted to thesis statements and transitions – and that’ll be it.) I’ll take home the same just-enough paycheck each month; I’ll keep fearing illness because a hospital visit is out of the question.

This isn’t what college is supposed to be. This isn’t what academia is supposed to stand for. But for the students and educators without the connections or the funds to be at a $40K-a-year school – that is, for white women and people of color – this is what it’s become. It’s impossible to change the system when we’re more concerned with whether we’ll still have work in four months.

At the community college that laid me off, almost every single section of the remedial writing course is taught by a woman. Filled with testosterone? It’s literature for you – get out that copy of Heart of Darkness! Got boobs? Here’s a grammar workbook!

And this type of discrimination is routine.

Next May, I’ll consider taking up the job search again. But for now, with the economy free-falling and half a million jobs gone in one month, I couldn’t bring myself to cut off my only source of income. The thought of approaching February with no paycheck on the way was too frightening. I just couldn’t do it. I know I’m not the only one who’s frustrated, scared, and rapidly losing hope – in academia or otherwise. I’m not the only one who’s always battling the feeling that my income determines my worth – that if my boss is making $100,000 and I’m making $10,000, then he must be ten times as useful a person as I am. I’m not the only one who knows that the structure around me is eating itself up, but feels powerless to stop it.

And the time we spend scrambling to get ahead in this system – a process that always necessitates stepping on someone else – is time that we’re not organizing and fighting it. And that’s not an accident.

Enjoy your recession, everyone.

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)
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*Sources: Education Portal and American Council on Education. Pages 26 and 27 of the MLA report have breakdowns by gender. While most fields are increasingly dominated by part-timers, fields like engineering and physical sciences – which are still mostly male – have much higher percentages of full-time positions.

Finally… Black People Can Experience Prejudice

From the AP wire:

Teacher sorry for binding girls in slavery lesson

By JIM FITZGERALD

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – A white social studies teacher attempted to enliven a seventh-grade discussion of slavery by binding the hands and feet of two black girls, prompting outrage from one girl’s mother and the local chapter of the NAACP. After the mother complained to Haverstraw Middle School, the superintendent said he was having “conversations with our staff on how to deliver effective lessons.”

“If a student was upset, then it was a bad idea,” said Superintendent Brian Monahan of the North Rockland School District in New York City’s northern suburbs.

The teacher apologized to the mother who complained and her 13-year-old daughter during a meeting Thursday that also included a representative of the local NAACP. But the mother, Christine Shand of Haverstraw, said Friday she thinks the teacher should be removed from the class.

“I think the teacher should have gotten some discipline,” Shand said. “I know if that was me, I would be uncomfortable going back to that class. Why should my daughter have to switch?”

Monahan refused to say what, if any, measures were taken against the teacher, Eileen Bernstein, who was still working on Friday. The school district said she was not available for comment.

“We encourage our teachers to deliver the curriculum in a variety of ways, to go beyond just reading the textbook,” the superintendent said. “We don’t want to discourage creativity. But this obviously went wrong because the student was upset.”

On Nov. 18, Bernstein was discussing the conditions under which African captives were taken to America in slave ships. She bound the two students’ hands and feet with tape and had them crawl under a desk to simulate the experience, Monahan and Shand said. Monahan said the girls were not the only blacks in the class.

I don’t think the teacher or other school officials are bad people, but the fact that no one in this situation can figure out why what they did was wrong (note the language they’re using to describe the situation: “if the student was upset then it was a bad idea;” “this obviously went wrong because the student was upset”) is pretty telling. Why not bind volunteers? Why not bind yourself? Why was it so crucial that the bound students be black and female? So that everyone can see how well black women fit into the role of slave?

Vocabulary Day: “Informational” and “Bright”

So I’ve had a backlog of posts building up for about a week now, but I haven’t had much time or energy to devote to writing. One of the colleges I teach at decided to cut 50% of its sections, and I was laid off.

Oh… wait, I’m sorry. Since I and my colleagues are all classified as temporary part-time, there’s no such thing as a layoff in higher education. Rather, my spring sections have been cut.

Except, darn it, that’s not quite right, either. They only cut one of my sections, which cut my salary in half and made the forty-minute commute infeasible, so I was forced to withdraw from the other section. So, as you can see, it’s my fault completely that I will be underemployed come January. My employers had nothing to do with it.

See, here’s the reasoning for the “temporary part-time” classification: non-tenure-track college faculty, like so many other types of workers, are expected to exist in an “informational” mode. This means that, like data on a computer screen, we’re meant to start existing at the moment that we’re needed, and then stop existing as soon as administrators are done with us. You don’t bargain with information. You don’t work out a deal with it so that both your needs (affordable, reliable labor) and its needs (stability and reasonable compensation) are addressed. It’s not human. It doesn’t have needs. As soon as you run into problems and need to protect your own salary by cutting sections – blip! It’s gone. The informational mode saves you not only severance package bucks, but also the trouble of planning ahead so that you don’t have to abruptly cut sections in the first place. (For more information on the concept of informational labor, see How the University Works.)

I’ve been criticized, in the past, for trying to masquerade as a common worker. This type of thinking is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s incredibly naive to assume that systems of exploitation stop at the poverty line. If Agriprocessors perfected the art of exploiting their workers, why in the world would you assume that college administrators can’t figure it out, too? Why would you assume that your own employer won’t come up with the same idea? Secondly, thinking that white-collar workers and professionals, including us pointy-headed brainiacs teaching freshman composition, are “above” exploitation not only prevents solidarity among our movements, but is a classist and racist way of looking at blue-collar workers and the working poor.

In any case, smell ya later, academia. I’m going to quit my other temporary part-time position, too; I’m now looking for something full-time in another field. (In an economic crisis. With a humanities degree. Sigh.)

I’m writing this not to vent – well, okay, to vent a little – but to emphasize the fact that US higher education is in serious trouble. There is a major brain drain going on among current and future college faculty. I should know; I’m part of it.

I’m also writing this to get some opinions on something. When I emailed my department chair to ask if his decision had anything to do with my teaching ability (he said it didn’t), he assured me that I’m a “very bright person.” It took me a while to figure out why the remark felt so backhanded. Then it hit me: isn’t “bright” the adjective you usually use with children?

I could be wrong on this, but I can’t remember the last time I heard someone call an adult man “bright.” If a man is intelligent and hardworking, you say he’s intelligent and hardworking. If a woman or child is intelligent and hardworking, you say they’re bright. If employers see me as childlike (Maybe it has something to do with being overly polite? Does that make women seem less mature? Funny, since being too collegial makes us seem presumptuous or even ball-busting), then I and my female colleagues are kind of screwed. In other news, water is wet and the sky is blue.

Like I said, though, I’m not sure about this one.

(Cross-posted at Alas, a Blog.)

The SAT: Still Useless

Last time the blogosphere heard from me – before I succumbed to a wave of final exams and Fall class prep – I only taught at one community college. The good news is I’ve picked up more work for the fall, and the better news is that I can quit my job as a private SAT tutor.

Oh, how I hate you, SAT.

About a month ago, Wake Forest University and Smith College announced that they’ll no longer be including the SAT among their application requirements. My alma mater made the same announcement a couple of years ago, and many other colleges have followed suit. This is very good news. SAT scores are pretty notorious for correlating more with income than with intelligence or scholastic achievement; a student who gets a 2350 is more likely to come from a middle to upper class family, and an A student from an impoverished or working class family will probably score lower. There are a few reasons for this disparity – non-college-track curricula at lower income schools, different dialects in different classes – and most liberals are at least vaguely aware that wealthier students have an unfair advantage. I didn’t realize how stark the disparity is, though, until I spent a year teaching upper-middle-class students strategies and tricks.

See, the SAT has nothing to do with academics. The SAT, as one of the trainers in my tutoring job informed us, tests you on how well you know the SAT.

Sure, they revamped it a few years ago, replacing the analogies with grammar questions and an essay. But the Educational Testing Service is a for-profit corporation, and their main objective is to make money. The more times students take the SAT, and the more copies of the official study guide they buy, the more money ETS makes. (NOTE: Karen tells me in the comments that ETS is actually a nonprofit. I was going by what I was told by my company, but I should have fact-checked it. Sorry about that.) This means that they write the questions in such a way that you often have to know ahead of time what traps to watch out for and what kind of answers they want. There are many questions that students are very unlikely to answer correctly if they can’t afford the $800 for a class, the $2-3000 for tutoring, or even the $20 for the study guide.

Take, for example, this Identifying Sentence Errors question:

Nearly all (A) of the editors of the magazine agree (B) that of the two articles to be published (C), Fujimura’s is the more exciting (D).

Students have choose the word or phrase that contains an error. If the sentence is fine as is, then the answer is E – No Error. Now, many of you probably know what the answer is above, but that’s because many of you are adults. Do seventeen-year-olds – even AP and private school students – know the correct answer to this question? Not until I show up at their house and give them extra grammar lessons. Most of my students choose D, because the wording sounds weird. We don’t normally say “the more exciting” – we say either “more exciting” or “the most exciting.” But you can only say “most” if there are three or more things being compared. Since there are only two articles, the correct answer is E.

How about this one:

The new system, which uses (A) remote cameras in the catching of (B) speeding motorboats (C), may undermine (D) the police department’s authority.

Students sometimes pause at “in the catching of,” but chances are they’ve heard that construction before. They’re used to academic English sounding fancier and more complicated than normal English, so they assume it’s correct. However, it’s an idiomatic error. The proper construction is “to catch.” The answer is B.

What really drives me crazy, though, are the pronoun questions:

When (A) a government agency encouraged the use of high-grade recycled office paper, they (B) helped increase the availability of (C) writing paper and envelopes made from (D) recycled paper.

Again, many of you probably caught the error immediately… but high school students often don’t know that when the subject of a sentence – in this case, the agency – is singular, then all pronouns pertaining to it must also be singular, even if the subject is a conglomeration of many other subjects. The answer is B; “they” should be “it.”

The tutoring company I work for has a money-back guarantee if students’ scores don’t go up at least a hundred points. They can do this because students’ scores usually go up about 400 points after ten weeks of private tutoring. We’re teaching them rules they’re not learning in school.

You’d think the essay would be a more accurate way to gauge a student’s ability, but even that’s not always the case. When I was in high school, I took the SAT II, which contained the essay section before they stuck it into the SAT. The prompt asked me if the individual is more important than society. (Or something like that.) I responded – quite eloquently, I think – by saying that, because society is made up of individuals, the individual and society are equally important. And I bombed. The graders are told to make sure essays argue one side or the other; any other response should result in a lower score. I got an A in my AP English class and went to a college known for its writing program, but according to my SAT II score, I was a terrible writer – because I didn’t have a tutor to tell me what exactly I was being tested on.

This is why lower income students get lower scores on the SAT – they just aren’t getting the extra help necessary to learn what the test wants. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible to get a good score without extra help. But the statistics are pretty telling.

So I’m glad that Wake Forest and Smith are discontinuing the requirement. The problem, though, is that the schools that are discontinuing it are, for the most part, expensive private schools. This means that the students who are applying there are usually the students who could afford SAT coaching anyway. To really level the playing field, all schools must drop their SAT requirements – especially state universities, which are the most affordable. Admissions committees are learning nothing from standardized test scores that they don’t learn from transcripts, sample essays, interviews, and personal statements.

While we wait for that to happen, though, lower income students need more access to outside help. There are some organizations, like 826 Valencia, that offer free SAT prep courses when qualified volunteers are available, but the more the merrier, right? So I’m ending this post with an invitation: leave a comment if you live in the Los Angeles or Orange County area and are interested in – or are already – teaching SAT prep. I’m not officially starting anything here – I just want to see how much interest there is, or if there are any groups I and others could join.

(cross-posted at Alas, a Blog)

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