Tag Archives: education

Once more, after the breach

“I’m going to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon in three movies. And then some text.”   Source: How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind

Salty language in that article, but David Wong hits on a number of important themes that will need to be addressed after Nov. 7, regardless of who wins the election.

Actually, if Hillary wins, I think these become even more important.

You might assume that the Cracked article is just another rant at rednecks and “mouth-breathers” on the alt-right who wave around white supremacy code at Trump rallies….. but it isn’t. Wong grew up in rural America, and he knows that folks in the rural areas are caught in a devastating wave of poverty and unemployment.

Unless our local, state, and national leaders work to address the grinding poverty of rural America, the tsunami of hate and ugliness that drove so much of Trump’s voting block will crash on us all over again. The rural struggle is real, and we nee to be listening.

See, rural jobs used to be based around one big local business — a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies. Where I grew up, it was an oil refinery closing that did us in. I was raised in the hollowed-out shell of what the town had once been. The roof of our high school leaked when it rained. Cities can make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs with service jobs — small towns cannot. That model doesn’t work below a certain population density.

If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” …

In a city, you can plausibly aspire to start a band, or become an actor, or get a medical degree. You can actually have dreams. In a small town, there may be no venues for performing arts aside from country music bars and churches. There may only be two doctors in town — aspiring to that job means waiting for one of them to retire or die. You open the classifieds and all of the job listings will be for fast food or convenience stores. The “downtown” is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart’s blast crater, the “suburbs” are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic.

I’m telling you, the hopelessness eats you alive.

And if you dare complain, some liberal elite will pull out their iPad and type up a rant about your racist white privilege. Already, someone has replied to this with a comment saying, “You should try living in a ghetto as a minority!” Exactly. To them, it seems like the plight of poor minorities is only used as a club to bat away white cries for help. Meanwhile, the rate of rural white suicides and overdoses skyrockets. Shit, at least politicians act like they care about the inner cities.

I live in South Carolina, in the suburbs of a small city. Within 10 minutes, I can be driving a country road passing trailer parks, abandoned textile mills, and patch towns where no core business exists. People talk about trying to pull in industry to SC to provide jobs, and several governors have had success at this — BMW, Fuji, Boeing, Michelin, Bosch and many others drive a manufacturing economy that employs thousands and scrapes to find enough technically skilled workers to man their factory floors. You can build the shiny factories, but that doesn’t put those jobs in reach of someone living in a town of 1,000 people 70 minutes away.

America is doing a poor job of funding worker education, adult education and retraining, and relocation programs to help people get established in a new town where jobs exist.

This breach between rural and urban will continue to drive American politics until we can develop ways to address the deep, underlying problems. Unless we resign ourselves to going once more, into the breach of ugly political division.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

We teach who we are.

Teaching isn’t as much about the what as it is about the who – who you are as a teacher is communicated more thoroughly than any ‘content’ in the lesson plan.

Source: Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

This is a great read. Had to share.


Martin Gladwell on Higher Ed

I was stunned recently by three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, ReVisionist History, pertaining to higher education. He rips into rich colleges for leaving the poor behind. That’s gotta sting…..

Gladwell’s episodes present only his point of view, a potential downside to any podcast,  but their strength is in their novelty. Few public voices are willing to say “out loud” that the nuclear arms race in “amenities” within higher education may be immoral – genuinely, truly against the morals of a system that ought to care about the people who live in it. And while no systemic change comes from a dreamer yelling and shaking his fist at the sky — which is kind of how Gladwell comes across — systemic change will not happen unless someone first points out the problems. And it helps if the person doing the pointing is hella famous with a really big megaphone.

Episode Notes
1. “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” — Stunning storytelling gives this episode outsized impact. It’s a carrier for the message that there are 36K “poor smart kids” in the US *each year* who do not make it into college but  have the academic chops to do it. Aside from a moral argument about capitalism eating poor people because it can do that, this episode sets up an economic argument for helping poor kids reach their full potential — as a nation, we need all the capable, smart people we can get.

This episode fights against the myth that poor people have the same level of access that non-poor people do. Truth is,  as exemplified by  Carlos, they don’t. They’re held back by the ancillary effects of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of not having the social capital to know how to navigate the system. Lots of evidence out there that poor kids apply to far fewer colleges, rarely try attending good ones even if they get in, do not understand the financial aid process, and drop out of good colleges in higher numbers because of family disruptions or even just feeling massively out of place living with a bunch of rich kids. Campuses rarely address the cross-cultural disorientation of someone poor or working-class on a campus with kids who aren’t.

2. “Food Fight” — I would disagree with Gladwell’s assertion that private colleges are more at fault than public ones for leaving poor kids in the lurch. That said, the episode uses the quality of cafeteria food as a proxy for an institution’s financial priorities, acknowledging the dangerous waters of a consumer-driven higher education market. Give the people what they want, or they won’t come. Fine, but what if the “people” want you to spend money immorally? Should we consider investing in filet mignon instead of scholarships for poor kids an immoral choice? This is the question Gladwell presents as he compares Vassar to Bowdoin college. Vassar has chosen to buck the designer-college / rich kid college trend, so the cafeteria food is pretty bad. But a lot more poor kids are going to Vassar now…. and the leadership thinks it’s worth endangering their brand to do so.

I have a two gripes with this episode.

First, Gladwell is right to focus on private colleges, but that’s too easy of a target. I don’t think public and private institutions should be judged by such different standards here –not since states have slashed public funding for colleges so drastically that many public institutions rely on tuition revenue. Not when South Carolina (and Georgia and several other states) use lottery money or other public revenue as direct funding to students, who then select in-state colleges. Yes, private colleges in SC receive huge portions of their budget from SC Life and Hope scholarship money carried to them by the students they pursue, but state schools like Clemson also receive a vast sum of money from the same scholarship funds. While Clemson also gets millions more directly from the state — and I agree that our state colleges SHOULD be funded with a view toward improving education for SC residents — its focus isn’t on fixing SC education. Clemson wants to be rich and famous. Our flagship state institutions are fighting for prestige just like the top-tier private colleges.

Just like Bowdoin. It looks different when you’re talking about cafeteria food, but it’s the same disease.

In SC, the colleges on the front lines of education to the underserved are the state campuses of USC in rural areas, the HBCU schools, and the tech schools. Everyone else is going after the smart kid who has money to pay tuition. And the 2-yr colleges, as Gladwell pointed out, are horrifically underfunded.

[I recall Obama trying to bring light to the plight of community college funding early in his presidency and getting nowhere. Maybe it isn’t a federal problem to fix. But SC can’t even muster the political will to fix its damn roads, so there’s not much hope in my mind that the SC legislature will raise revenue to support Tri-Couty Tech either.]

Second – Who’s responsible for the amenities arms race in higher ed? Obviously it’s a joint problem. Parents let their kids buy a $25K/yr education and borrow the money for it. Colleges panic and are afraid to do what Vassar is doing – see financial aid as a moral issue, and force the colleges in their region to talk about it.

I’d like to think that as a society we would collectively agree to address this issue, but realistically, people with power (=money) rarely give up that power willingly, and especially when that would mean denying their own offspring a leg up in the world. Because that’s what money buys in higher education – if you have the money to get into the Ivys or top tier colleges, you’re going to take advantage of that because of the range of opportunities it will open for you later: networking, job promotions, rubbing shoulders with top academics and famous names (like Gladwell). Even in SC, going to Clemson (which will probably cost you at least $5K out of pocket these days unless you’re a Palmetto Scholar, and the net price cost is actually $16K) means you join a huge network of alumni who essentially run the Upstate, especially in business, engineering, and architecture.

So I don’t think we people are going to “fix” this ourselves. It will continue, and get worse, apart from external intervention. I don’t know what that intervention should be, but we can’t say Gladwell didn’t try to point out the harm this thinking does to many students who never get into college, and the loss that represents to their communities.

3. “My Little Hundred Million” – the episode in which Gladwell is flabbergasted by the president of Stanford. It’s pretty hilarious, actually. I appreciate that Gladwell isn’t trying to be a neutral observer here. His central theme is that decisions about money and funding are, at their core, moral choices when we’re in the realm of education.  So what does Stanford need with another hundred million?! Why are they still pursuing funding??

Gladwell demonstrates that a decent investment of philanthropy from someone of means into a middle-sized college in an “average” area can spark landmark improvements, far beyond the raw value of that money by itself. But at a Stanford or Princeton, it just gets thrown into the enormous endowment pile.

Gladwell’s Stanford point. A college with an endowment in the BILLIONS is not hampered IN ANY WAY from doing any research it wants to do.  But the effects of even a modest $10m gift to a medium or small school is huuuuuuge — Stanford is already helping pretty much every one it’s going to help. Glassboro State in New Jersey, the focus of this episode, is now helping hundreds more people in its region get credentials for engineering fields.

Some have criticized Gladwell’s argument here in noting that well-meaning but ill-informed donors do a lot of damage by giving big piles of money to colleges and tying their hands, forcing those colleges to start programs the region doesn’t need, or linking the money to a narrow cause which isn’t future-proof. But the donor at the heart of this episode funded a college in a highly populated area to start programs that are sorely needed both in NY/NJ/PA and across the nation. Win-win.

Imagine a rich Saudi prince gave Lander University, a small school in a small SC city away from the corridors of power, twenty million dollars to open an Islamic Studies department. Some might see this as donor meddling, the poster child for philanthropy gone wrong. But let’s consider that for a moment. Assuming the college officials weren’t stupid and set up expectations that the Saudi donor doesn’t control anything about the programming, what benefits might come of it?

Well, SC knows almost nothing about foreign cultures. It’s one of the biggest problems of the state. The Upstate does ok in the urban areas because of Michelin, BMW, etc, but that has zero effect on the rural areas. So there’s the possibility of greater human diversity within Greenwood Co, a perk in itself.

Are there jobs out there for people with knowledge of the Middle East? Um, yes! That would be a brilliant move for a small SC college — to anchor a program in a growing field. The State Department, the military branches, the CIA, and global business are all going to be looking for people with a rich understanding of Islamic culture. It’s not going to change anytime in the next century.

Now, if someone simply gave Lander money to start a program, it would probably be better for the state as a whole if Lander also got to pick the field, and select something more immediately beneficial to SC. Health care is obvious; advanced innovative manufacturing would be good too.

But Gladwell’s point is this: $100mil invested in SC’s education system would actually change lives. At Stanford or Princeton, it doesn’t. No more than Stanford is already doing cutting-edge work.

In short, I thought this was a brilliant trio of podcasts. Not perfect by any means. But brilliant.

If i were to poke at Gladwell …

– He glosses over the fact that every poor kid who gets into school is going to need a whole village of support behind him, or it’s a pyrrhic victory.
– He gets preachy. I generally agree with him, but moral outrage isn’t going to lay the groundwork for solving the problem by itself. (However, we’ve got to start somewhere, and too few people are even bothered by the moral travesty of feeding rich kids lobster while many other kids will never get close to the educational or social advantages of college.)
– He isn’t addressing what I think is the actual problem: the assumption that every intelligent person needs to go to college, that there are no viable alternatives for intelligent kids to gain personal enrichment and broadening experiences except by going to college. We don’t fund gap year programs; we don’t send poorer kids to Europe or even to other parts of the state. Generational poverty eats lives and traps them, stripping people of even the ability to imagine a better life for themselves.

All that aside, I hope Gladwell continues to prick our consciences with ReVisionist History. Go check out the podcast series.

College writing: do we still need the essay?

With apologies to the writers of this essay, I think they’re on the wrong track.  Take a minute to read their full article.

We hate grading them; they hate writing them. But if we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for academe to put more energy and resources into the project of better writing instruction, argue Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman.

Source: Colleges should invest more in teaching students how to write (essay)

The problem is this:

You can’t fix weak, disorganized, thoughtless writing without addressing the thinking that underlies it.  It’s the discipline of understanding ideas, organizing ideas, entering into dialogue with a much bigger conversation around your essay that’s the hard part.

I’ve taught writing for a long time now, to students ranging in age from 11 to 22. It’s hard work, but it isn’t inscrutable: shoddy thinking underlies shoddy writing.

Yes, students can and do pile on grammatical mistakes, bad syntax, and weak writing style. But if your focus as a writing instructor (or professor in any course) is merely to fix the surface-level mechanics of the English language, you’re missing the point.

In fact, pushing students to continue producing examples of a relatively outdated and irrelevant academic format of writing probably hurts them more than it helps them. Sure, the students headed into grad school will not escape the academic essay for a few more years, but only the tiny percentage of career academics and nonfiction essay writers benefit from repeated drilling of the essay format.

Am I arguing that writing is unimportant? Absolutely not.

I’m arguing that good thinking is important, and alongside it, strong communication skills: a simple, clear, crisp writing style and a grasp of fundamental grammatical usage.

But the communication skills break down when the underlying ideas do.

Points to consider:

  • The bulk of college students will not spend their lives in academic careers. Higher ed tenure track positions are becoming a thing of the past. At some point, the adjunctification of higher ed will be complete, and the few slots remaining for paid scholarship will be full for a long time. We don’t do students a service by assuming that educating them in history or English or whatever means teaching them to write like an academic expert in that discipline. Students should learn to model disciplinary thinking and understand the jargon, but multiple options for communicating ideas would prepare students better for the world they will work in.
  • Cognitive habits and abilities must be taught and practiced like any other skill set. Unless teachers in K-12 and higher education are proactively, intentionally, and directly teaching students to ask better questions, organize thinking, draw models of processes, and labor until their understanding is clear, students will not become “better writers” because we spend X amount of time on “writing instruction.”
  • New forms of literacy – and “multiliteracies” – have moved to the forefront. Have you watched YouTube lately? Participated in a discussion over on Medium? Picked up a textbook printed in the past 5 years? The way we process text+image+layout has changed the way we understand ideas, and that’s not a bad thing. [For more on multiliteracies, I recommend this research article by Cope & Kalantzis]
  • Writing instruction as a discipline needs to move forward into new approaches. Process writing at least gave us a start, but even that pedagogical basic seems lacking from most undergraduate writing assignment guidelines. Below I will mention a new DT approach I find intriguing.
  • We act as if college assignments exist to teach students to become professional writers. That’s not their purpose – not unless the student is aiming to make a living through writing. And even then, professional writers and journalists work with editors and collaborators to help them write the best possible novel/essay/article.  Only in the classroom do we expect students to handle the whole process by themselves, achieving mastery of each individual component. No one works that way.  Few are that skilled – nor should we expect that.

So what could make college-level writing better? Perhaps….

  1. Reframe writing assignments as wicked problems to be solved using creative methods and Design Thinking approaches. I got this idea from Carrie Leverenz and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Here’s her article, “Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Teaching Writing” (link opens PDF)
  2. Place students more in the center of the college classroom, offering them genuine responsibility to shape assignment structure, questions, and content. This idea scares many professors; I do understand the fear (remember, I’ve taught middle schoolers!). But without agency, students are merely cogs in a machine over which they have no control and thus no investment. Everything about our assessment-drunk educational system right now produces compliant, thoughtless students – not rigorous, challenging thinkers. As long as students feel like they’re playing a high-stakes game of pleasing the professor in order to earn a decent grade, they aren’t going to learn to write. And that’s our fault more than theirs. (We’re in charge of the grades.)
  3. Acknowledge 21st century communication shifts by requiring a variety of products for assessment. Want to assign an essay? Fine. But use other forms of communication and tools along the way — a sticky note “tree” to work out logical arrangement of ideas; a process map; a Prezi organizer for research; an oral presentation to the whole class of the core argument with opportunity for critique and feedback. Make your assignment – as a whole – multimodal and multigenre.
  4. Explain to students what you’re asking them to do, why the skills are important, and how the assignment fits into the overall structure of the course. Dr. Mary-Ann Winkles at UNLV is doing some amazing things with her Transparency in Teaching and Learning initiative. A very simple rubric asking faculty to clarify assignment purpose, goals, and assessment standards for any course assignment has made a huge difference at UNLV.
  5. Focus your instructional and grading attention on the underlying ideas from a student, less on grammar and style. Before a student has ironed out her ideas, it doesn’t really matter how many comma splices you find. Because the broken ideas are a worse problem than the bad grammar.  Students can get help pretty easily with grammar – the college writing lab should be staffed with people who can help. But really, the only person who can help a student fix her broken ideas is YOU, the professor. It’s your class, your subject area. Help students realize what they need to learn, point them to good sources, and hold the expectation that you won’t accept papers constructed with shoddy ideas.  And that means loosening your class structure so that you’ve got enough time to both assess where students are in their ideas and adjust your large-group instruction (modeling, lectures, discussions) to address the problems you’re seeing in this particular class.

Honestly, if students never wrote another academic essay, I wouldn’t care. But I would be sad if collectively the college classroom experience continued to polish the brass knobs on student writing while ignoring the catastrophic inability of students to understand and organize ideas.

Good reads worth your time (Education)

Scraped from around the Interwebs in October mostly in the areas of education and technology/communication are my favorite short reads ….. I’ll divide this list between two posts this week, so look for part 2 on Thursday.

Today: Great articles in the field of Education

Absolutely the best thing I read all month is this piece by George Saunders about his writing education. The power of a good teacher cannot be underestimated.

My Writing Education: A Time Line (The New Yorker)

Educators are writing a lot more these days about “student agency.” The discussion centers on how much power / authority a student should have individually over what he/she writes or reads or studies. Recognizing that internal motives are far more effective than external pressure or rewards, educators who push for student agency argue that students will gain much more from the process if teachers invite them into a learning partnership instead of seeing education as dispensing education or drilling skills.

As with all human-related questions, it’s a complex topic. But this essay written by a college student at Davidson makes a strong point:

“Student Agency” is not something you give or take

The University of Michigan is doing some amazing work to revamp how they train new teachers. I was so encouraged by this article. I also recommend checking out the UofM “19 skills” that every teacher must master (link is in the article).

What core skills do teachers need to be effective? (Mind/Shift)

If your education career doesn’t pan out, you can always become an artisanal wood maker. 😉

And while you’re reading all these articles, don’t miss this fascinating piece by The Atlantic detailing the shift in America away from creative uses of leftovers as we got more wealthy.  (I have to admit, I really really don’t enjoy leftovers. I usually eat them out of guilt rather than desire. Except for taking something to work for lunch the next day. Somehow that’s a redemptive use of leftovers.)

An Economic History of Leftovers – The Atlantic