Sunday, May 16, 2010

Everyday is the weekend...

In my second semester of grad school, a young assistant prof (who was pretty cool, in retrospect, and is well admired within policy circles today) told us "Being an academic means that everyday is the weekend, but you work every weekend." So true, even more true this weekend. But I like working on my own stuff (sometimes) on the weekend. In full disclosure, my weekend usually begins on Thursday, so I can thrash about at my desk and self flagellate as I attempt to organize my ideas and thoughts. It's been one of those weekends.

OK, this outfit is lackluster but I felt I can share what I wear when I am trying to be brilliant. I'll rework it into something more presentable soon. (I would never wear the shorts to teach, but they are sitting butt in chair friendly).

I am taking a page from In Professorial Fashion's awesome blog and starting a new segment, called "Fashions in Higher Ed." While not about sartorial style, this section will feature new possible trends in how one consider my industry, the college and university system. (Since many of my modest universe of readers are current/former graduate/undergraduate students or faculty, perhaps it will be of interest. Let me know if it is radically boring).

- Fashion number one, from FireDogLake, discusses a recent book called REwired, by Larry Rosen, which makes the argument that these Web 2.0/SMS/Smartphone generation of young 'uns (I count my baby sis in this cohort) aka "Digital Natives," have a different approach to knowledge, communication, and access, and higher ed's antiquated ways need to step the heck up. The whole education system needs to get with their "plugged-in" attitudes and demands for knowledge and accessibility, and use technology more (This means I should not sigh when I get 11PM, "Professah, what was the assignment," emails? I just need to get with it?)

Part of me thinks that EVERY generation has been painted with a broad brush that we're so different, so irreverent, so non-traditional compared to the last, but how unique is the "digital revolution generation" of students? Are emails, blogs, SMS, Twitter changing their approach? Is it true, what the grammar Chicken Littles say, that digital literacy kills traditional ones? However, not being on the receiving end of the higher ed system, I wonder if adopting certain technologies would really make a difference.

- Emerging Higher Ed fashion number two: In the NY Times, an articled called "Plan B: Skip College," spoke about a very nascent movement by economists and rogue education policy folks who were arguing that our policies for dealing with skills and employment problems by the wholesale pushing of higher education can be misguided, as many folks don't use or need their degrees, but end up with a lot of debt. On the other hand, there is a significant wage premium to getting a degree (even to having "some college") in the US, and with stagnant real wages since in the 1970s, that's nothing to shake your fist at. This is especially thought provoking for me since I teach and "urban" student profile- meaning that 85% of so of the student max out on government grants, work 30 hours or more a week, and come from lower income families. Many are first generation college goers or first generation Americans. Don't get me wrong, I have many many brilliant students who rival the best students I've taught at the U of Minnesota, a "top tier" public university, but many of my best students are returning students, who have returned to college after several years on the job, going part time, and thus are committed and take it seriously. Part of me thinks that for some, going to work and coming back is works well, but part of me thinks the benefits of a liberal arts education should be available to everyone, regardless of their preparedness or even if they appreciate it.

Thanks for allowing me this non-research interlude. Thoughts?

Shirt: Rodarte for Target
Shorts: JCrew, thrifted
House slippers: Target
cranky face: courtesy of the research "agenda"


  1. Ooo! So many thoughts! And my bum is in my seat! These are topics that I often discuss with my colleagues, but which have been especially relevant of late because our university is hiring a new VP Academic and I went to the candidates' talks, which resulted in long and intense conversations in the department hallway with colleagues.

    Both candidates noted the prevalence of new technologies as a "reality" that we need to keep up with. One of the candidates even made reference to podcast lectures that could be "fast-forwarded" at the students' convenience. WTF? If anything, my students need to listen more carefully and closely to my lectures, not fast-forward through them. Is he suggesting that not all of every lecture is relevant? One of my colleagues, who is a film and media specialist, also made the very good point that students *think* they are media-savvy, but in fact are not. She assigns a number of excellent assignments for her students, one of which is to keep a "media journal" that clocks all of their time on various media. She found that her students are, in fact, entirely ignorant about much of their media use and are almost incapable of thinking about it critically. Her point is that this generation of "digital natives" claims a certain savvy around technology, but use and understanding are two different animals.

    Also, it sounds to me like our institutions have a similar demographic of students. I teach at a smaller institution, without a grad programme in English, and most of my students work 30+ hours a week, are from in-province (which is a "have-not" province, this is often how it is described in the media) and pay the highest tuition in the country. The university also accept students with lower GPAs than many other institutions, including the larger research institution just down the road. I find that a lot of my students don't know what they are doing in my classes, especially because the university requires all students to take an Intro Lit class, regardless of major or faculty (at 60+ students, it is not a composition class). I wish my students knew what they were doing in university, even if they knew it was a space for them to explore what they want to do. I find, however, that many students take a fiscal approach to their education; i.e. they have to go to university so they might as well take something "practical" like business. This is decimating arts enrollments, but a government that encourages university education, does not support the humanities in the same way. I have a very bright student who is in business so she will get a job but she is moving around all of her business courses next term because she really wants to take my Chaucer class. Not "practical". Except for the part where she learns to think critically, write coherently and understand something about literary history outside of immediate fiscal concerns. I may be biased, but I think reading Chaucer will make her a boon to the business world.

    But I would say that.

  2. Love the stripes! That is a cute outfit in which to be brilliant, on the working academic weekends (which I know too well).

    I read the NY Times piece this week, and do agree with the need for more value (in terms of social/cultural capital or another measurement of non-financial status, in addition to salary) should be placed on learning and pursuing the skilled trades. The one (to a liberal arts education) suits all is unsustainable and unfair. And it has paved the way unfortunately for for-profit markets to lure people unable to be accepted to traditional, accredited programs (because of poor grades/test scores or because of lengthy wait lists at over-crowded community/junior colleges).

    Regarding technology and the changing landscape of higher ed: this is a subject I think about (and teach about) a great deal because my field is communication, and I focus increasingly on emerging media. Technologies have altered classroom decorum, learning methods, professor/student accessibility, and so many other factors that have changed the expectations (and unfortunately, entitlements) that undergraduates exhibit in the course of their programs of study.

    Whenever I find myself lamenting this altered landscape, I also remind myself of how much I've benefited as a graduate student (and soon to be assistant prof) by being able to email professors, being able to research away from the physical space of my department while still keeping in contact with my advisor, being able to type and easily revise my dissertation and manuscripts, and being able to access digital archives of materials otherwise expensive and difficult to visit. I guess what I am trying to say is whenever I notice myself venturing into Andy Rooney-style "KIDS TODAY" ranting territory, I also must acknowledge the significant amount of good that has come with the less than good.

  3. ugh the litany of typos above!... please disregard and excuse the fact that it is 1am and I decided to utilize new media to communicate which meant my guard and my grammar were both lax. :)

  4. DMed: Ugh, fast forwarding lecturing? I don't like the podcast lectures idea at all. I mean, basically "tech savvy" is often a slippery slope towards all electronic classes (not that I am a big slippery slope argument person), but if we are so enthralled with making things on demand to our impatient and easily bored students, then the university itself is jeopardizing its own existence (maybe). I am old skool, and I believe that face to face contact is important for learning (I mean, my attempts to use podcasts to continue learning German fails compared to courses).
    As for the idea that there is value and utility to lib arts degrees, I totally agree. Many students, even in more prestigious institutions, take an instrumental approach to higher ed and who can blame them? Isn't college marketed towards them as an "investment" for higher income returns? As a result, I justify EVERYTHING to my students. I stress the importance of the different skills that we are learning in each assignment, which gets tedious, but I get less complaints. I also read too much about "getting a job" in the Times. Like when a student complains about group work, I say, "Employers overwhelming fire workers not because of incompetence but rather because these workers can't get along with others. Learn to how to play nice." It makes me feel sleazy, but I can't be a one woman fight against pushing liberal arts as a value in and of itself.
    Jesspgh: I agree that there are benefits, like email and distance research, but are our current undergrads not able to get anything out of tradition class room teaching because of their "tech native" status? I guess it's the sensationalism of books like rewired that make me suspicious.
    Is the solution to your problem with one-size-fits-all liberal arts education greater regulation of online colleges? I guess my beef is the dominant narrative of "success" in the US that forces young people to only consider a bachelor's degree, when they are probably young and restless for that (with the exception of nerdy types).
    (p.s. I am the queen of typos. No worries)

  5. This messageboard I frequent was discussing the ethical bankruptcy of the emerging for-profit college market, designed to serve students convinced (because of the unreasonable amount of cultural value and hype) they need college degrees but unable to enroll in accredited, traditional, in-classroom programs. It's worth reading if you are interested in the subject. I'm terrified of what the for-profit emergence will mean for the future of higher ed.

  6. Cool, thanks Jesspgh! I'll check it out between classes.

  7. I had to comment on this because- I have a BA in English I went to a small liberal arts college... I had a great, no, fantastic education. (I graduated in 06) But, I am now so much in debt with student loans (my college was over 40 thousand a year) But with my broad degree and lack of work experience upon graduation - let's just say finding a job to pay off the loans was- and is hard. I have managed to get where I am because of my computer skills. Blogging for non-profits setting up email marketing stuff etc. I am hoping to go to Grad school- but I need to pay down the loans first. I envy my family members and friends that instead of oing to expensive colleges went to large state schools. They have far less debt and with degrees in accounting, engineering etc. They make a much better living. It's sad that graduating with a degree in the humanities doesn't get you very far in the workplace- unless you continue on in school.

    In my experience anyway, and in the experience of my fellow English BA holder friends as well.

  8. Thanks, La Fille d'or. I think that this is a good point. (It's less of a concern for DM's students because Canada doesn't have private schools and the tuition is cheaper than US state schools). While I know folks with English degrees who got jobs in 2002 working as management consultants and political science BAs who did financial services, this was part luck, and part aggressive marketing. I'm an all Big Ten educated woman myself so my school debt is low, but definitely learning how to take skills learned at the college level to employment is something most college/universities aren't good at. Sorry to hear that it was difficult and about your debt, LFDO. Student debt is a real problem.

  9. Re: digital natives: To me it seems that there is a profound lack of concentration and judgement in the minds of "the digi generation" vis-a-vis media and information, and as a result, what is considered information seems more fragmented than before. I do worry about the standards of what counts as knowledge, and how young people's poor information&media-reading skills are going to influence the future of knowledge.

    Something good will certainly come out of acknowledging new technology, but to entertain a profound change in education on the basis of new (essentially social) practices would be a bit much. There is a profound need to weed out what actually counts and what doesn't. The rise of "personal narrative as knowledge" is a huge can of worms, and even though it has its merits, some types of standards are required anyway. At the end of the day, I don't believe for a second that tweets should be considered serious knowledge.

    On the topic of skipping college, I am one of those who hasn't gotten much out of my university education in terms of careers, although for me it has been a personal choice. Just from the standpoint of intellectual skills I would recommend university to everyone regardless of their career choice, but my guess is that more people would benefit from studies later in life just as an intellectual exercise. I still think university should be about thinking, not about making money. Perhaps growing up in a country where university is free helps. :)

  10. More comments : ) "learning how to take skills learned at the college level to employment is something most college/universities aren't good at." THis is a huge problem, just as it is huge problem that most highschools do not prepare students to make wise choices about higher education.

    I'm doing well with the loan debt. I did get assistance and a part scholarship - so no I do not have to pay 160,000 dollars ( though some students do!)

    I am hoping to go to grad school in the few years. I do like my work in non-profits and I would love to be able to manage marketing for a large organization.

    This may be a personal question, but how did you decide what field of study to pursue?

  11. I am going to chime in again (belatedly) because I firmly believe that a liberal arts university education is not about skills that are directly transferable to a workplace, though transferable skills are still a valuable product of a liberal arts education. If a student wants skills that are directly transferable to a workplace then that student should go to trade school or community college--which is very smart indeed, but perhaps not for everybody. And, despite what the current government of Canada seems to be suggesting, a university education isn't for everybody either, nor should it be. (I think the distinction between college and university is different in the US, but in Canada a university grants baccalaureates and advanced degrees and colleges grant diplomas and tend to be more practical than theoretical in their training--this includes trades but also arts programmes such as drama, music, art, etc. and in high school, at least when I was in high school, a student is "streamed" into classes that allow them to qualify for university or college, i.e. students take university-prep classes or college-prep classes, and some schools offer AP programmes). I think along with the increasing corporatisation of the university there comes the companion belief that the student is a customer of the university, which is extremely detrimental for a number of reasons (I won't address them all here because I will become filled with rage and be unable to sleep).

    It is not my job to tell students what they should do with their university education or how they can transfer the skills they are learning in my classroom (though that would be my job at a community college, where I would not be required to have a PhD but I would be expected to have industry experience). I expect them to be able to figure that out for themselves, because they are adults and should take ownership of their own education. I am not a career counsellor (though many universities have those) unless a student wants advice on becoming an academic in my narrow field. In my classroom, I demand that my students think for themselves, and that they think critically, that they question authority, that they behave ethically, that they can build an airtight argument and articulate it orally and in print, and that their prose is lucid and persuasive. These skills are transferable to any number of professions. I find my students need to be forced to do all of these things, which I am happy to do, but I refuse to tell them what to think, or what is the "right" answer on an exam. I tell them what I think and I require them to challenge me on my opinions though often they seem to feel that as "customers" they are not getting what they paid for. I disagree. I train them in developing the skills to think critically and to articulate those thoughts coherently, and I make them practice this a lot. To do so, they need to do the work. But "customers" do not work and "customers are always right". There is no place for this kind of approach in my classroom, nor should there be in the university.

    Though I see this changing, and it is extremely worrying.

  12. Oh, and LFD, I'm sorry that you feel unfulfilled in the workplace with your English degree, though you must be using those skills in your work with non-profits, though not with a great financial reward.

    As for what to study in grad school? I had a very clear idea before I even applied to grad school of the project I wanted to work on (which changes, of course, but not the core area, though for some it does) and I think you need to know why you're going to grad school (and why you're going to a specific school and who you want to work with at that school) and you need to really want to work on the project. I don't think that a graduate degree in English is necessarily going to net you a better or more lucrative job, unless you are looking to work in academia, which is a great job (demanding), though one that can be elusive. I loved (and hated) my years in grad school but grad school is not for the faint of heart, at least not in my experience.

    It sounds like you are interested in marketing. What about a secondary degree in that? Or maybe law school. A number of my friends with degrees in English from undergrad went to law school and are now doing way, way better financially than I am, even though we work essentially the same insane number of hours.

    Not to dissuade you at all from grad school, just know that if you're not absolutely sure what you are there for, it may be a frustrating time for you. And you should definitely make sure that you get financial assistance from your institution, which I'm sure you will. Grad school should not put you into debt (though I say this from the land of no private universities).

    Good luck with it all. I know it can be tough to navigate life after undergrad.

  13. I have a few comments on the ‘digital natives’ thing (I’m 24 and finished undergrad - in Australia - last year):

    I also tend to be sceptical of the generational generalisations thing whether positive or negative. I think that most younger people are better at using technology but while it sounds like the Rewired book is probably overselling the more ‘savvy’ aspect, I’d require a lot of convincing to believe that middle-aged and elderly people in general are any better at critical thinking. Also, people in the same generation interact with the technology differently - while I learnt to argue on the internet and am therefore quite at home in online forums, a friend of mine did a course (English) which used a class message-board and absolutely hated it.

    Having said that, I think technology could be used a lot better in university teaching and when done well can greatly enrich a classroom experience. I had an advanced Chinese class in a computer room where I could have the text (digital version provided by lecturer) open in one window of Wenlin (language application with scroll-over dictionary), the Chinese notes on the text open in another, google in the background to look up obscure fruits (or whatever) and a word processor document to type up the translation as we went. Benefits of the latter include: I type faster than I write, I don’t have to write in tiny tiny letters in the margins, and it’s easier to edit if we make changes as we go. All of this was in a fairly small class in a physical classroom, so we got all the benefits of that, as well.

    Downloadable lecture recordings are pretty standard in Australia, sort of as the successor to the old-school cassette tapes you could go and listen to in the library. Most students work, so it’s important to have alternative access for when work hours are inflexible. It’s hard to fast-forward, though, because you don’t know when to come back in (not having the visual cues as you would with a movie or something). They really need bookmarks so that you can - when revising, natch! - skip to the bit you want to hear. As to relevance, I think no, not every part of every lecture is relevant to every student. I vividly remember suffering through a twenty minute explanation of the term ‘unilinear evolution’ in excruciating, repetitive detail (‘uni-’! ‘means one’! :headdesk:) and wishing I’d skipped the lecture and downloaded the damn thing. But the fact is, even though I knew the meaning of the term perfectly well before I walked in the room, there were probably plenty of students there who did need it carefully explained (if not for quite that long . . .). I’m sure none of you are that bad at giving lectures but even so, there are going to be differences in ability and background knowledge in any classroom and I don’t see how any lecturer can avoid spending a certain amount of time on stuff that’s going to be irrelevant for the better students.

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect replies to work-related emails outside of normal working hours (as in, M-F 9-5), regardless of when the email is sent.