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Ding, Dong…

with 11 comments

Okay, I wasn’t intending to write a post today, or at least not this early in the morning.  That’s because I’m sitting in a classroom that has a very good Internet connection, but that’s about all.  The teacher’s desk is very high and meant to be used with one of those chairs that can have its height adjusted.  Unfortunately, all such chairs have wheels on them, and me in a chair with wheels is a disaster wating to happen.  So I’m sitting in a chair without them and having to throw my neck all the way back to see the screen.

In spite of all that, I’m doing this–because there is nothing else to do.  It’s the very last day of the term I am waiting for students to bring in copies of their final exams and talk about their grades.  Most of them will opt out of the exam, since taking it is optional, so I’m not even going to have a lot of correcting to do.  All my paperwork is done.  Once the last student has come in, I can take off, stop at the pharmacy, and try to chill before I do my talk tomorrow night.

So, a few notes.

There was some merit in having a term with such a light teaching load.  I didn’t have all that much to complain about, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by sheer hassle, and advanced level students meant a lot less of the stuff that drives me crazy.

At the same time, I am ever more convinced of the following:

1) That we need to separate vocational education from the rest of “college,” because real college is drowning under it.  I wish public universities and community colleges would offer the option of a liberal education, instead of trying to shoehorn a few liberal arts courses into essentially vocational curricula.  It is rapidly becoming the case that a real university education is available only to the exceptionally talented or the already rich,  because so many of the public colleges and universities no longer offer it. 

2) We need a vocational education sector that is nothing but and unashamed of it.  Here, I think the best option is going to be the new private for-profits.  The downside of the for-profits is that the underlying imperative–keep the paying customers in the seats–tends to compromise academic standards.  You’re not going to keep butts in th seats if they keep flunking out.   The upside, though, is also due to that underlying imperative.  It means they have to listen to their customers and provide what those customers want–training for nursing, training for whatever. 

3) We really, really, really need to reform the high schools so that they’re actually providing a high school educati0n.  The biggest barrier to doing that is emotional–but we’ll flunk out so many people!  we’ll have a 30% graduation rate!

But here’s the thing–we have a 30% graduation rate now.  We just pretend we don’t by handing out diplomas to people who have really only completed about a 7th grade skill level and declaring them “graduated.”  It would be more efficient to start judging our success or failure rate not by who graduates, but by who has reached defined skill levels, and to offer those levels in high school classes. 

Maybe we could make some accommodation for older students, people who dropped out, or who take six or seven years to finish what other students might finish in four. 

But what I want us to do is to offer an actual high school education in high schools, which do not charge out of pocket.  Now, you can always get what I got in high school, but for too many students, it’s expensive as hell. And my kids–even my advanced kids–don’t have any.

4) No matter how much I may groan about the relative preparation and ignorance of my students, I do have to say that I am impressed as hell with many of them.  They’ve got no money.  They work fifty or sixty hours a week.  Some of them have been thrown out of their homes.  I’m fairly sure a couple this semester were living in their cars.  And a lot of them fall by the wayside.

But you’d be surprised at how many don’t.  And how many are willing to take a course, fail it, take it again, fail it again, three or four times until they make it happen.   And, all the while, finding the money to pay for it.

Which is another good reason to make sure high schools actually provide high school educations, and we put an end to this “everybody has to have a degree to get a job” nonsense.

We only think everybody has to have a degree because nobody has a high school education before.

Then there are the talks I keep getting asked to give.

That started maybe a couple of years ago, and I really like doing them.  Did I ever tell you I love libraries?   I love libraries.  Bookstores may not know how to sell books to their customers, but libraries know how to find books for their members.   I spoke at South Windsor Monday night.  I’m speaking in Guilford tomorrow.  I go knowing that there will be actual people there, many of whom have read my books, and a fair number of whom will buy some. 

One thing that worries me a little is the age of the crowd, which seems to consist mostly of people over forty.

That may just be because I’m me, and those are the people who like what I do, but I have a sinking feeling that library membership, like a lot of other things I love, is aging out. 

I am not a Luddite.  I’ve never been afraid of change per se.  But I do think something is lost when there’s nowhere to go to just look through the books and read a line or two and decide if it’s what you want.

We had an interesting discussion in South Windsor, about why people read the books they read, and specifically why people read the mysteries they read.  I was told that if I’m not cozy, I’m at least “genteel,” which I found rather astonishing.   I’ve had people in play by play sex scenes, dogs eviscerated on lawns, I don’t know what else.  For some reason, it just doesn’t come across as “graphic,” no matter how graphic it really is.

It reminds me of what an editor said to Bill’s agent, after reading the partial for Cronus, which included its first fifty pages, in which graphic torture and graphic death result in a body count better suited to a natural disaster.  “Of course, everything Bill writes is hilarious…”

At any rate, I’ve got another hour and forty minutes to go, because I know the last little clutch of people will rush in in the final four minutes.

I’m going to finish the Peter Kreeft book and go home to Harlan Coben.

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2011 at 9:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses to 'Ding, Dong…'

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  1. “The downside of the for-profits is that the underlying imperative–keep the paying customers in the seats–tends to compromise academic standards. You’re not going to keep butts in th seats if they keep flunking out.”

    That problem is addressed by making the primary evaluation numbers tracked for an instructor being retention. Not post-school success, not the number of students who (in the case of the CST program here) go on to user their school provided vouchers and actually pass the A+ exam — but explicitly the number of butts s/he keeps in the seats. Oh, and whether or not student critiques of the teacher are positive in the “we like her/him” kind.

    The goal number for each instructor? 90% retention. For each campus the corporate goal is 78%. To keep accreditation requires only 67%. The instructor gets 7 days for a brand new student in her first module to decide whether or not to try and drop the student — and against intense pressure not to. Past that time if the student drops for any reason it counts against the instructors retention. They may make exceptions for students that move away or get sent to jail (neither an uncommon problem with the demographic we serve).

    The only countervailing pressure on the school is that as it has accreditation from a vocational accrediting agency it does have to meet some placement numbers (again, 67%) for its grads. But there’s one hell of a lot of flexibility in what counts as a placement ‘in field’ — and the student only needs to be there 30 days for it to count – and unless someone is a complete train wreck, it takes at least that long most places to accumulate enough bad karma to get fired.

    Just FYI.

    michaelwfisher@cox.net

    11 May 11 at 12:20 pm

  2. You need a way to convince people to hire non-high school graduates. Right now, requiring a high school diploma is used simply to reduce the number of applications for jobs that do not require a high school education to complete. That means you need another way to rank assorted applicants, almost all of whom are capable of the work and don’t have a criminal record or other obvious disadvantage.

    If I remember correctly, the original aim of the community college system which we adopted from the US was to create purely vocational institutions, and they mostly still are here.

    I’m very iffy about the private version, based on my local observations. They tend to go bankrupt, have very limited resources (libraries and equipment), pay their teachers badly, and charge far more in tuition than the equivalent public program. I’m not sure that they target the local employer population any more than the public institution does. Maybe much less, because they’re smaller and don’t offer, for example, the extremely popular technology courses that require the purchase of extremely expensive equipment.

    Cheryl

    11 May 11 at 12:57 pm

  3. I teach in a Community College in the Midwest. In my state we used to have vocational/technical colleges that were separate with completely different student populations and requirements. The creep started with the decision by the Techs that their students needed basic writing and communicating skills, which they had apparently not acquired in their high school education. At first, they simply contracted those classes out to the CCs – sometimes sending their students in a cohort up to our campus to take a class, sometimes asking the faculty member to come down to their campus to teach on site. (One of the worst teaching experiences of my career was attempting to teach an Interpersonal Communication course to 30 young men who were learning to be auto mechanics.)

    Eventually, the Techs decided that they could simply offer the Liberal Arts courses on their own and began hiring faculty to teach them. Over time, these technical colleges began offering Liberal Arts degrees in addition to their vocational degrees and calling themselves “a Community and Technical College.”

    Even at my CC, the overwhelming administrative ethos is corporate. We are consistently reminded that we are to provide our students with ‘skills’ that will make them ‘employable.’ The emphasis is less on educating, producing thinkers who can analyze and synthesize, and more on training, producing workers who can get jobs. For example, at our administratively organized ‘duty day’ this coming Friday, we are to choose from 12 sessions to participate in. Of the 12, the majority focus on retention, recruitment, programs and activities. Only 2 sessions address issues that could be considered remotely academic – and even those are approached from the perspective of assessing student preparedness and advising them into appropriate remedial courses.

    So, no matter how much those of us in the Liberal Arts try to convince our administration that our role (from our inception) is to provide the first 2 years of the undergraduate education (at a reduced cost, not at a reduced level or standard) we are forced into the discussion of the ‘corporate’ outcome – employability — and judged by that standard.

    judy

    11 May 11 at 2:26 pm

  4. Hi. A couple of things, just to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

    Cheryl is from Canada, and every time I talk about for-profit vs non-profit colleges and universities, she talks about “private” vs “public” ones.

    But for those of you who don’t know–

    Almost all the really famous universities in the US are private, not public.

    Harvard is private. So are Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Duke, Rice, MIT, Vassar, Wellesley, Brown, Vanderbilt, Emory, Dartmouth, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan, Oberlin, Princeton, Reed…

    And on and on.

    In general, private universities and colleges in the US are far older than US public universities, and also far better funded. Harvard and Yale both have endowments in the hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe over a billion dollars by now.

    But private is not the same as for-profit.

    All the schools above are private, but not for profit. Legally, they have the same status as charitable foundations.

    For-profits here are called for-profits, not private. They’re things like the University of Phoenix or DeVry. Some of them are large, well funded and reliable, others are not.

    As to Mike’s take–the one small for-profit we have in our area is obsessed with retention, yes, but not in that way. It mostly seems to be concerned with keeping students from dropping out altogether.

    I don’t know how the larger for-profits work.

    But as to keeping students–in a way, it’s a throwback to the Medieval University, where the University admitted a scholar to the faculty and provided him with a room to teach in, but did not pay him. Instead, he collected individual fees from individual students who wanted to attend his lectures.

    That system was still with us in at least some places all the way down to the First World War. And students then, as now, often made judgments we’d regard as perverse.

    Einstein was one of the teachers who had trouble getting students, and therefore trouble making a living under that system.

    As in Judy’s area, the CCs up here became “community and technical” colleges when nobody was looking, and now give “degrees” in things like auto mechanics, requiring a lot of “liberal arts” courses that aren’t really quite what they say they are.

    I’m the world’s biggest advocate for liberal education. I think everybody on the planet ought to be introduced to the Great Tradition.

    But it seems to me, at the same time, to be perverse to require it of kids who just want to be auto mechanics or radiologists, and to force it on them in the form of watered-down courses that are in no way structured to provide an actual liberal education.

    The demand that teachers perform well on student evaluations–we like her! she’s weird!–seems to be universal these days, at least at the lowest end of the academic scale.

    A lot of that is, I think, the result of the fact that we have, over the last twenty or thirty years, expanded student capacity in our colleges and universities to record levels, without regard to whether or not an actual prepared and motivated constituency actually existed.

    Then we turned around and found out that we had this immense infrastructive and top-heavy administrative apparatus and not enough students to justify it all.

    But I’ll say what I said before. With the conversion of so many public colleges and universities to vocational training schools, we’ve actually made it less possible for poorer students to get what used to be universally acknowledged as a “college education.”

    And that’s worse than too bad.

    janeh

    11 May 11 at 3:38 pm

  5. I fully agree that the problem has to be fixed no later than the high school diploma–but I think it starts earlier. We’re getting people with 8th grade educations–officially–who can’t read and write. The high school is at fault for graduating them, but it wasn’t their job to teach the kids their letters.
    What I suspect is happening is that elementary school teachers have been permitted to abandon effective but dull instructional methods for ones they find more congenial–but which let some students get through without adequate reading skills. Fix that, and you could get a decent HS graduation rate without compromising standards. Then we could work out the college/university program.

    Please note that the HS diploma has some value, just as a measure of self-discipline and persistence. The Army consistently finds that holders of a GED on average, are problems in ways that high school graduates are not.

    If you want the course credit and not the knowledge, and the course is “pass/fail” all the incentive is to the least possible to pass. We need to attack that from both ends, offering students knowledge they need and not just a diploma, and colleges a reason not to settle for the minimum.

    If there is only accredited vs not, there will be a constant pressure on a business to offer the cheapest instruction that doesn’t actually get the accreditation pulled. But even though we expect all our vacuum cleaners to be approved by Underwriters’ Labs, we don’t get just one level of barely acceptable vacuum cleaner because we have and list other criteria.

    I think if we did a better job of publicly ranking programs by the overall skills of the graduates as well as the minimum required of them–and rank by major, not just by school–the students could choose better, and the schools–especially the for-profits–would have an incentive to be known for a quality reliable graduate.

    And if a high schol diploma were meaningful, some jobs could stop demanding generic (no particular major) college graduates. If students took courses because they needed of wanted the knowledge and not just “a degree” you might see some remarkable shifts in course selection and attitude.

    robert_piepenbrink

    11 May 11 at 3:42 pm

  6. I don’t tend to interview people who haven’t graduated from college simply because the high schools are graduating people with abysmal writing skills. Having a college degree doesn’t guarantee decent writing, but they odds are much better than with high school graduates.

    I had lunch with some co-workers today. One of them has a son who will be a freshman in high school next year, and they recently attended orientation at the school. They met with a counselor who, in the course of their discussion, told Mark that one of the biggest reasons why high school kids are not getting into college any more is because they don’t write. They use those stupid abbreviations that arise out of texting on their cell phones.

    My first reaction was that the school is failing to educate the students if these kids think that using text-speak constitutes English writing. My second was that the kids themselves must be some kind of idiot – surely you’d notice that your textbooks aren’t packed full of LOL dude, c-ya 2-morrow!

    I can’t even imagine this. Honestly, I was stunned.

    MaryF

    11 May 11 at 6:19 pm

  7. Jane, I know your system is really different, but we’re not discussing non-profits like Yale, we’re discussing the sort of places that once offered trades courses and which are now, apparently, in the US offering university degrees in fixing cars, or something.

    Our ‘colleges’ came from the same roots as yours, but they seem to be developing differently. Our big split is public/private, and neither of them issues bachelor’s degrees, or appears to want to. I’m mildly interested in the differences.

    And (1) the non-university, non-liberal arts post-secondary institutions are a very recent phenomenon intended to regularize and modernize the older versions of apprenticeships, and (2) in Canada at least none of them are non-profit exactly (the financial relationship between the government and the local example is rather odd, but they’re supposed to sort of break even. If they’re private, they’re supposed to make money, although they often don’t.

    Cheryl

    11 May 11 at 7:16 pm

  8. My son tested out of the basic composition course requirement based on placement testing, and he was stunned. I wasn’t. He was well known in high school as the kid who texted with correct spelling and grammar. LOL!

    You probably wouldn’t be surprised to see the poor level of writing we see in (some) new graduate students.

    Have you seen this?
    http://www.salon.com/life/education/index.html?story=/mwt/feature/2011/05/10/death_to_high_school_english

    CAFiorello

    11 May 11 at 10:22 pm

  9. I just read the article Cathy linked to. I can’t comment on teaching writing but I was horrified to read

    “a longtime writing tutor and composition professor who now directs support services at a university in Hawaii.

    “I hate that fucking question,” she replies. “I hear it all the time and I hate it. No one asks this question about calculus, but who uses calculus besides math majors?”

    A director of support services doesn’t know that every engineering or science major uses calculus?

    jd

    12 May 11 at 12:39 am

  10. Quoth a science major!!!!

    Her point is still valid. I never used calculus once in my entire life to date after leaving school, yet I tore my hair out by the roots daily trying to teach grown men and women to understand that their careers depended on their ability to communicate, no matter how good a pilot or navigator they were.

    I despair every time I see people who are effectively illiterate struggling to write a comprehensible message longer than half a dozen words.

    Mique

    12 May 11 at 2:26 am

  11. Every physics course I took both as undergraduate and grad school used calculus. And I suspect the same could be said about the various engineering fields. It would certainly be true for electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

    jd

    12 May 11 at 3:23 am

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