Hildegarde

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Time Travel

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Let’s start with John, who says he had  a compostion course in 1954, and the he learned to hate Milton and Hardy in it.

What he actually had was something we’d now called “Lit and Comp”–essentially a standard intro to Literature course with a writing compoment, meant to teach students to write about fiction, poetry and drama.  You can still find “Freshman Comp” courses of that same kind at first-tier colleges and universities (where they can assume that most freshmen will come in knowing how to write), and a similar course is often offered at less prestigious places as a second English requirement.

But  Composition as it now exists as a freshman course in most of the colleges and universities below the first tier in America is nothing at all like that.   There is no Milton, and no Hardy.  There is no Shakespeare.   There is no Donne.

If any imaginative literature is assigned at all, it’s done in a single week or two at the end, and it’s restricted to short stories.  The two favorite ones are Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.”

Mostly, though, composition students these days don’t get even that much fiction.  What they get instead is a steady stream of nonfiction, contemporary essays meant to illustrate specific essay forms like “the persuasive essay” and “the compare and contrast essay” and “the process analysis essay.”

In case you’re wondering about that last one, the process analysis essay is a “how-to,” except we can’t call it a “how to” essay any more, because–I don’t know why because.

And we’ve recently seen a shift in the landscape in another way, too, because universities below the top tier are incresingly reluctant to hire people with PhDs in literature, since they teach virtually no literature.  Instead, we’ve got new programs offering PhDs in writing and composition, that is, PhDs designed specifically for people who will spend their careers in “communications” departments rather than English departments.

Robert says I shouldn’t underestimate just how badly educated people with bachelors degrees in the fuzzy sciences can be, but in the systems I’m dealing with there are no graduates in the fuzzy sciences. 

In the place where my program runs, it is not possible to major in English, or sociology, or chemistry, or history.   There is a course offered here and there in these subjects, but no major.  Majors are things like criminal justice, marketing, recreational management, nursing, even automotive mechanics.  

Cheryl says she’s unhappy with the idea that the proprietary schools are treating their employees so much worse than public schools and nonprofits, but they’re not.  The reality in the Humanities these days is this:  every department will have a very small number (single digits) of full time faculty.  The rest of what the department is called upon to teach will be taught by part-timers who make virtually no money (one place out here pays $1900 per course), get no benefits, and are hired on a course by course term by term contract basis, meaning they also have no job security. 

All the proprietary schools do is reduce the number of full timers to one per discipline, and actually expect that one to teach.   The higher up you get in institutional prestige, the less likely it’s going to be that your full time faculty teach much of anything, especially to undergraduates.  They write books and papers, do research, go to conferences, and never see the inside of an undergraduate classroom if they can help it. 

Mary thinks that the colleges are going to be going more and more in the direction I’ve been noting, and  Rober thinks it’s  a good thing.

I’m a little ambivalent.  I agree that most colleges and u niversities below the first tier will go the way I’ve been outlining here.  They pretty much have to, since nobody involved in them wants anything else.  

And I don’t think it would be a bad thing if we reduced the number of real colleges and universities, and reduced the number of people attending them, from where they are now.  I’d reduce them a lot more than this drift to vocationalism is likely to do.

I only object to two things.

The first is that we’re teaching this stuff on the “college” level at all.   Most of it belongs in high school, or even earlier.  I’m all for providing second and third chances for people who screw up as teenagers, but I want people who don’t screw up to be able to get an actual high school education in high school.  The entire concept of “college algebra” ought to make us all cringe.

Because most high schools do not offer the average student the chance to develop high school level skills, we waste a ton of his time and money forcing him to acquire them in tuition-paying higher educational institutions.

(Note to Cheryl and others from Canada,  Australia, and other places:  in the US, even public universities charge tuition and except students to buy their own books.)

The other thing I object to is the complete removal of all opportunity for those same average students to get a liberal (meaning real) education if they want one.  It is increasingly the case that if a student doesn’t qualify for Harvard, Yale, Vassar or Johns Hopkins, he can’t join the Great Coversation at all, because the schools he will be allowed access to don’t teach it.

As practical as the plan for the Land Grant colleges was, they did, from the beginning, take pride in their ability to turn out engineers and Aggies who knew Plato and Homer and Milton and Donne, on the assmption that the liberal arts were “liberal” in the old sense of the word–they were “liberal” because they liberated the mind from provincialism and lack of intellectual rigor, and (to get back to Thomas Jefferson here) were therefore the form of education most important to the lives of free men.

We get all caught up in particulars, in what constitutes the  Canon and what parts of it to teach, in the mess that’s been made of the Humanities in the modern universsity, and we forget that the course of study deemed fundamental in Western civilization has been with us since the end of the sixteenth century wars of religion.  

It’s not a question of whether or not you read Milton or Hardy or Shakespeare or  Plato or Aristotle or Liebnitz.  It’s a question of whether or not you understand that you’re part of a centuries long–millennia long–quest to understand and explain the human condition, and that it is the story of and the fact of the quest itself, not the right or wrong answers to particular questions you might find inside it, that is the point.

Written by janeh

May 21st, 2009 at 6:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Time Travel'

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  1. We have sessionals here, but I’m not sure what proportion they are of the faculty. Virtually all faculty I had were full-time as far as I can recall. I’ve taken sessional and other short-term contracts as support staff. Not fun. I’ll settle for less money per hour and a year-long contract in place of more money and periods of unemployment 2-3 times a year.

    Our public universities require students to pay tuition (although I think generally at much lower levels than in the US) and buy books. I’m not even sure we have private universities in the US sense. I think the most prestigious and biggest – say, Toronto & McGill – are public. One or two of the smaller Nova Scotia ones might be private (NS has an astonishing number of universities for its size). Our first Premier attempted at one time many years ago to have Free Tuition!!! but it lasted a brief time and only IIRC at what was then called the Trades College.

    So, I’m in total agreement with students getting a solid and thorough basic education in K-12. I think it’s still possible here, but clearly there are many students who escape Grade 12 without being able to read and write well, and with alarming lapses in numeracy and science. I suggested before arrangements which might help – external exams, etc. Of course, in the US, you have all the problems inherent in local control of schools. Yes, Jane, I do know that system has some strengths, too, but if you want to provide a good education for as many students as possible, it helps if ‘local’ is defined largely enough to include both rich and poor neighbourhoods (to even out funding disparities) and also include enough different schools so that they can be compared. If you have only one high school, it may be of a poor standard and it won’t be as obvious as it will if there are two serving the same area. I don’t think big is necessarily better in education.

    But one big problem remains. How do you convince parents – especially parents who may not have much education themselves, but who want their children to have the education that promises good jobs – that your (and probably my) kind of education is the best, when it will undoubtedly result in lower achievement (or, rather, lower grades) for some students?

    cperkins

    21 May 09 at 6:52 am

  2. Cheryl said:
    “But one big problem remains. How do you convince parents – especially parents who may not have much education themselves, but who want their children to have the education that promises good jobs – that your (and probably my) kind of education is the best, when it will undoubtedly result in lower achievement (or, rather, lower grades) for some students?”

    That is exactly what the colleges are faced with. Parents – even educated ones – find it more important for their kids to be employable, and that’s what they expect the universities to provide.

    How can the universities survive if they don’t provide what the parents and students are looking for?

    MaryF

    21 May 09 at 10:02 am

  3. It sounds like the blurring of the distinction between universities and trades schools, to use the old term, isn’t helping. People are often crying out for skilled tradesmen to hire, but parents (and students) are attracted by the idea of university (maybe the status; maybe the idea that it’s a gateway to jobs with both higher status and generally higher pay, like doctor, lawyer, engineer). Squeezing the two institutions into one by having people do up to half their university programs in a college is sure to confuse the two while not achieving the original goals of either.

    But I think it has to be faced: there’s not much support out there for education in the more traditional sense of the word. Maybe there’s never been. It would be interesting to find out what proportion of various populations was actually involved in such things as the original Sunday Schools and the various Victorian efforts at self-improvement through the workmen’s or mechanic’s institutes.

    cperkins

    21 May 09 at 11:52 am

  4. I will have to take Jane’s word for “Lit and Comp”. 1954 is too far away and I never kept a diary! All I remember is Hardy and Milton’s Paradise Lost

    But Jane refers to “The reality in the Humanities these days is this: every department will have a very small number (single digits) of full time faculty. The rest of what the department is called upon to teach will be taught by part-timers who make virtually no money (one place out here pays $1900 per course), get no benefits”. That sounds remarkably like the grad students who taught many of our undergraduate courses. Either the whole course or a tutorial in a course with 2 lectures and 1 tutorial a week. The lectures given by a famous name who faced 300 students and never met them. The tutorials given by grad students who had 3 tutorials a week with 20 students in each.

    We called grad students “slave labor”. They got free tuition and a small salary to cover food and housing.

    My experience is that its pointless to send someone to a university because famous person X is on the faculty. X will never talk to an undergrad.

    On a completely different topic, does NY State still have state wide Regents exams at the end of high school classes? For example, regents exam in Algebra or Chemistry or French. In my day, they gave meaning to a high school “Regents” diploma.

    jd

    21 May 09 at 2:02 pm

  5. On the other hand. I graduated from Oakland University, a smaller state U in Michigan, in 1990. They had a policy then, and still do, that the department head or other senior professor teaches the intro courses in any discipline. The theory was that the best teachers would introduce the subject, and thus have the best chance of recruiting students into that major.

    Worked for me in the Linguistics program. Graduate students sometimes taught labs or study sections of science courses, but generally it was professors or associate profs, employed full time. On the other hand, when I was briefly at the U of Michigan, graduate students were everywhere, we saw professors only distantly at the front of the 400 seat lecture hall.

    And, FWIW, the computer work I learned in getting my degree kept me employed much more than my degree ever did. Though I remember my Art History classes fondly to this day.

    Lymaree

    21 May 09 at 3:45 pm

  6. Lymaree, I never had a formal course in computing. But I learned to program for my thesis work in Physics and made a career as a programmer.

    On the subject of learning to write, I came across a short autobiographical essay by Robert Heinlein. He was a cadet at Annapolis and said the most useful course turned out to be a course in “Order Writing”.

    The instructor would outline a military situation and the cadet would go to the blackboard and write an order to deal with it. Then the other cadets would try to find ways to misinterpret it. Pass meant everyone clearly understood the order. Fail meant that someone found a way to misread it.

    The question of whether it was a good solution to the military problem was not relevent. Only clarity and lack of ambiquity mattered.

    jd

    21 May 09 at 4:09 pm

  7. “The other thing I object to is the complete removal of all opportunity for those same average students to get a liberal (meaning real) education if they want one. It is increasingly the case that if a student doesn’t qualify for Harvard, Yale, Vassar or Johns Hopkins, he can’t join the Great Coversation at all, because the schools he will be allowed access to don’t teach it.”

    Can’t say that many of the teachers and departments I ran into by way of “distribution” requirements demonstrated much interest in bringing me into the Great Conversation. Though some of them were VERY interested in propagandizing for some cause or other, the Great Conversation was never the cause. I wouldn’t see their demise as much of an opportunity cost. I repeat, I don’t see them going away any time soon. I also don’t see them becoming any more useful.

    Fortunately, we have entry points to the Great Conversation all over the English-speaking world, open to anyone who wishes to take part. They’re called libraries. Try to count the college-level teachers you knew who could be compared to open stacks and a card catalog.

    Incidentally, my last encounter with an English Department–Indiana/Purdue Universities, Consolidated Fort Wayne Extension c. 1970 was exactly what’s being called “lit & comp”–excruciatingly dull literature mixed with writing assignments. It’s listed on the transcript as “Elementary Composition 1.”

    robert_piepenbrink

    21 May 09 at 4:30 pm

  8. Robert, thanks for the date of 1970. You are a generation younger than I am but we have very similar tastes – military history and science fiction.

    You are absolutely right about libraries. I don’t know about the present time but recall that William and Ariel Durant had a very popular series of books “The Story of Civilization”, Bertrand Russel had a popular “History of Western Philosophy” and Winston Churchill’s History of World War 2 was also widely popular.

    All those date to the 1930 – 1970 period. Is anything similar being written now?

    jd

    21 May 09 at 6:02 pm

  9. As liberal arts grads of decades ago, my husband and I still value our education in how to experience lifelong learning. Now we have two young adult children who have similar liberal arts brainwashing and their lives are full and beautiful, as ours have been. Yes, we added additional study; but, the basis for values, appreciation, growth all came from those first four years post high school. Grinnell College, Bates College, Franklin and Marshall College, Dickinson College are the four personal experiences, and there definitely are others that measure up.

    Libraries, even with severe budget cuts, still provide avenues for everyone – for free! Advocate!!

    mbf

    22 May 09 at 12:46 am

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