Category Archives: Teaching

Do We Ask the Right Questions? A Brief Review of Education in Connectciut

This article in The Connecticut Mirror by Jaqueline Rabe Thomas covers some of the flurry of legislation pertaining to Higher Ed in Connecticut. I must say that SB40 and other bills came at us fast and many faculty and staff at my college were deeply involved, to the degree that access was provided to legislators and the legislative process, in the discussion.

Some issues bear comment. The writer, for example, provides this quote. The context is Senator Beth Bye’s opinion on “remediation” as an element in a causal chain:

“As we slow them down, they are less likely to graduate,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

Here Bye’s logic appears to be tracing this course: (cause) students are placed into “remedial” courses (note that at the college we call these “developmental” courses, as we don’t see ourselves applying a “fix” or remedy) (effect) therefore, they are less likely to graduate. The effect of a student’s likeliness is the “course.”

The problem with this logic is that very little evidence exists to support it. It may be true, indeed, but we really don’t know if it is true. For example, most teachers in college know students who have been placed into developmental courses. I’ve advised students about their placement into developmental courses, and their reactions are negative. They want to take credit bearing courses. Everyone does. But in this sense, the logic changes: cause: resentment :: effect: dropout. In another case, a student may come into a developmental course and flub the thing because they can never get over their anger, resentment, or apathy at being there in the first place. This kind of analysis, of course, might call for research on the complexity of attitude on success in any endeavor, which we, indeed, know a lot about. The real problem with Bye’s logic is that it is correlative not causal. I have had students who were living out of their cars in my courses and we able to pull it out. I’ve had students who were successful in dev courses and who did just fine. I’ve had students who tested into and flubbed.

Most college teachers know students who have been misplaced into developmental. They also know students who, if allowed into college-level courses, would more than likely be bewildered by the content because they are underprepared, some severely so. We’ve had students who were prepared but who did not function successfully because they simply did not care to do so. The complexities of preparation and maturity are not treated in Senator Bye’s statement.

Next, Thomas writes and includes this:

Bye and many other legislators have referred to these remedial courses as the colleges’ Bermuda Triangle: Just 13.6 percent of the full-time students who take them actually earn an associate’s degree in four years, twice the time it should take, reports the Board of Regents.

“That status quo is not working. There is a fundamental problem… It needs to change,” said Mike Meotti, a top official at the state’s Board of Regents for Higher Education, whose colleges enroll 15,000 new students a year.

There are all kinds of oddities in the first and second paragraphs. The metaphor doesn’t work but is a success at applying fallacy as appeal. Of course, Meotti’s is what I call “trigger statement.” Things that people say in passing without evidentiary requirement. The numbers reference by the Board of Regents is misleading. Perhaps 50 percent completed in 5 years. Maybe small numbers of students who did not take developmental courses earned their degrees in 4 years, too. Look at Complete College America’s front page graph. It complicated things, doesn’t it?

My readers should consider a basic idea. Let’s illustrate with a simple arithmetic question.

Let’s say 100 students enter college and 10 percent of those students graduate within four years. That means that 90 students failed to complete within 4 years. Let’s also assume that 5% of the graduates worked hard and that 5% had a pretty easy time of it. Continue: 70% percent of the second cadre (the 90 who didn’t complete) didn’t work hard or had personal problems or whatever other circumstances prevented graduation.

The basic question is this: does this represent a problem? Or, does this hypothetical illustrate human reality in a social construct?

In my 20 years teaching in higher education I’ve wrestled with my own basic questions. One of them is this: can all students in a writing course do well enough to meet passing requirements? “In” is a significant word here, as the students “in” a course got there via any number of methods: they met a prerequisite. They did okay on SATs or Accuplacer. Every semester and every course I teach provides a laboratory and a caseload of anecdotal evidence. And the question changes when asked of 100 level and 200 level courses.

Consider my recent Creative Writing: Fiction course, which started in the teens and ended with low single digits. Many students did not complete the source. (It is important to distinguish “did not” versus “could not.”) The prerequisite for the course is any literature offering, which presupposes a year of straight writing courses, successful achievement in all. This means that the students should have been prepared for the course. But there are a few givens, which some of my readers will grasp. Writing fiction, number 1, is not easy. Story writing concepts are not easy to grasp and demonstrate. The underlying pedagogy is not easy to keep up with. The formal demands of the pedagogy put lots of intellectual pressures on students. And, finally, students need to do lots of work to show that they know how to develop a character, write dialogue, and establish a coherent narrative. This is true of most college courses. Since I have taken creative writing courses and chemistry courses, I have a good sense of comparative difficulty. Guess what: you can’t compare them. I studied harder for creative writing than I did for chemistry. Hours out of the day devoted to writing. A few moments to Chemistry, as, at the time, I was disinterested.

So, my basic question comes back: is being unsuccessful in the course an example of a problem, let alone requiring legislation? What pass rate constitutes a successful benchmark in any college course? What if the answer were 100%? If I pass everyone, someone will cry foul. But why?

I would be reluctant to establish a benchmark. Rather, we look to our anecdotes for “stories.” How many students “should” typically do well enough in any number of courses? Every teacher has an answer to this question: the answer is: those that pass. There is no benchmark.

But there are average benchmarks for those students who pass as scored divisibles. Typically, the majority of students in a course with a pass rate fall at the top of a bell curve. Very few students perform with excellent achievement, but they do well enough. Most people expect a range of performance and a range of achievement explanations. And most people know that as students approach a professional standard, the numbers change dramatically with expectation. In my graduate program, for example, a C would have been considered a failing score in any course. This assumes an “ecology” of economies of scale across professions requiring graduate degrees.

The point of the above is that the issue of college success, college entrance, and learning in institutions is a complicated affair. The Connecticut legislature can do what it wishes to accomplish what it choses. But in my estimation, it’s judgement of the question of college entrance is at best a red herring.

Concept Problems
Consider this bit in Thomas’s article:

Before the vote in the House late Friday, Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she plans to support the bill because, “Remedial coursework is too much a barrier to earning a degree.”

And this barrier disproportionately affects black and Hispanic students, reports Complete College, a national nonprofit organization funded by the Gates Foundation and others. Seventy-two percent of black freshman are sent to remediation compared with 56 percent of white students, the organization reports. Graduation rates are similarly uneven.

Here is where I would call Thomas to task in not contextualizing or parsing these numbers. These numbers are uneven across the board, as exposed in Connecticut’s achievement gap, hence this amounts to conflation. CT Mirror has reported on this:

In West Hartford, test scores are rising. But the difference in the percentages of low-income students and their more affluent peers who achieve proficiency has been stuck at around 20 percent despite years of reforms. Although Connecticut is typically praised for its schools, disparities in the performance of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds–which are often referred to as the “achievement gap”–reveal that, in truth, the state has significant inequities in its educational system.

Maybe Rep. Mushinsky is correct to claim that “Remedial coursework is too much of a barrier to earning a degree.” Again, the problem is that this statement amounts to belief not factually based analysis. It also introduces a balance problem for legislators. We could, for example, list the five most significant barriers to “earning a degree” and then go about addressing them. What solution, for example, would work well enough so that students taking entrance exams would all pass and be admitted with smiles into college-level courses? This is a vexing issue, to be fair to the advancers of SB 40. But, it invokes an old-time paradox: if everyone is excellent then everyone is mediocre.

Teachers will not determine who can and cannot learn. They should not make judgements about this. Indeed, an underlying principle in learning is that all humans can do it. My understanding of cognition amounts to this conclusion: the brain is made for learning. But learning in school is a manufactured context. Mass education in institutions is a relatively new idea in human history. But mass learning in an socio-ecological sense is not. Everyone, for example, learns how to eat, with some exceptions, say in the case of brain injury. Every culture provides for contextual learning. What’s even newer now is a concept of mass higher education.

I would argue that mass education, K-12, higher ed, has presented an economical quandary for most industrialized nations, a set of problems we have yet to solve. In the United States, we have yet to totally commit to it. To educate a public takes an enormous amount of resources, but our country refuses to scale it to reasonable proportions, just as it refuses to scale other resources, like law enforcement and public transit, preferring to meet a standard of “just barely get it to work” and then “listen to the complaints.” And much of the arguments about “developmental education” are about money. Thomas provides some information about this in her article:

The 100,000-student college system has had its state funding cut by nearly $30 million this year.

But Bye isn’t buying that argument.

“There are community colleges in the state who are making money on these courses. They need to figure something else out,” she said, noting that she suspects the pushback is because significantly less faculty will be needed. “What we’ve done with this bill is we’ve drawn a line in the sand. We had to say to them, ‘Look we’re the parents here. No more of this.'”

One of the issues we’ll be talking about at the college is how to spread our recourses around to meet Connecticut’s legislative mandate. We’re also scratching our heads wondering how diminishing developmental courses will save money, as the numbers of students to be served will not diminish and will likely rise, given the intent of the legislation: to reduce barriers to access and to increase the numbers of degrees conferred. The last I checked 100% subtracted by zero equals 100%. Minus, of course, $30 million.

Let me finish with my own riddle. What has three wheels, four doors and an engine? Hint: it’s not a bicycle.

Another question: thousands of people will be graduating from college this and in the next several years. What are they going to do?

Workload and Compensation for Teaching Faculty

This article by David C. Levy is strangled by personal opinion. To cal something a myth is a pretty big charge, like claiming that it’s a myth that bats fly at night. A piece of evidence for this might be that bats fly at night is a myth because observers are sleeping. I like this logic:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom.

This arithmetic reads like a hammer. I could write that a 22oz bottle of beer is definitely bigger than a 12 oz. bottle because I measured it and because the labels confirm it also. Unfortunately, the context of the arithmetic matters. Levy knows full well that classroom hours form a fraction of faculty work. He also knows the definition of executive. So this is a cheep shot. He could simply claim that the work that goes into teaching isn’t all that important. At least that would be honest.

He could also apply his arithmetic to household economics.

End of Semester Review: the Story Continues

It’s that time of year for an end of semester review. Spring 2011 and a few prior to that were dispiriting times in my career. Just after I was hired at the college full time in 1998, I had my first experience of walking into a writing classroom with about seven or so people in it on “paper due” day, wondering where all the students were. Turns out all other students had either dropped or stopped attending (I’ve entered classrooms where one or two students were there, with absolutely no plan B). This was a class of 24 students to start and it hit me that something had changed about the ethos of that particular classroom. It’s became habitual for writing classes to dwindle after about the fifth week from full to half, give or take a few people. Spring 2011 was no different. I even thought that it might be time to quit.

I took on a summer course and changed a few things. I provided students with what I call practice lessons in paragraph copying, grammar, and analysis work, real by the numbers stuff: do this, do it again, do it again, now do it again. By analysis I refer to the act of applying evidence and reasoning standards and interpreting ideas for significance. This gave the summer students more intensive work, but more students completed the course–and I responded with a “hm.” I tried the same this semester, but finding practice for students to do beyond paper development was difficult in the extended semester (so much space in between things), which I now consider too long. We should move to eight week semesters.

This semester, I developed fairly straight-forward assignments and have more completers, this despite Storm What’shisname, and the intensified load. Yet, I find the end-game grading more difficult, not because of the pressure of getting them done, but because the matter for grading is becoming stranger: as in what I read as “final drafts” often doesn’t reflect a semester’s worth of specific learning technique. Most of the students in our classes are moving to college with the baggage of NCLB around their necks and were little more than toddlers when G.W. Bush became president. Their centers of gravity are very different from students I saw in the early nineties and early twenties. Their frames of reference are difficult for me to understand, as I don’t necessarily know what they interpret when I say things like “context,” “conclusion,” “analysis,” and “deadline.” In many ways this reflects no difference between a college freshman experience of any other representative time. But, then again, years ago, the audience hadn’t yet been split into its several cultural fragments.

One element I must cope with in the future is the question of requirements and standards and being mindful of the purpose of the college classroom. At the college, I’m an interdiscipline person, a generalist, with a principle interest in new media I hope that’s not a contradiction). But the notion of an academic discipline is still severely important in the context of knowledge interpretation, development, and creative problem solving, and from a discipline perspective, the college classroom is in many respects bent on expressing a coherent and precise history of a discipline, providing a framework for its genre of questions, and opening doors for supplementation. We can never know enough about any one thing.

My job isn’t all that hard, and my subject matter is graspable by majorities. But I often wonder as I read student work whether the subject matter to them has become peculiar, frustrating, and strangely disaffecting. It’s no longer a question of “why should I know this” but “what is this stuff you’re talking about?” Sometimes I wonder if certain student have a notion or a conception of the subject at hand given their histories, their backgrounds, and their habits, and this is a remarkable turn of events.

The Common Questions
Students come to my office with grave concerns and sincere questions. Even this video which as seen its rounds misses something keen in the elastic relationships of teacher/student. That the student is, indeed, sincere in their concern about grade. Moreover, the discipline required to demonstrate honest learning may be absent in the students’ methods and process. I see too many students who simply don’t understand that what is said in the classroom requires practice outside the classroom to engender development of mind. I see too many students who simply think that they can memorize on the spot and transfer later. I don’t doubt that this is a sincere “belief” because I haven’t the evidence to think differently. But I can, from my conversations, conclude that many of the people I work with have very little exposure to the debates and ideas of the day and don’t really involve themselves in them.

Throughout the semester, students expressed real shock at their early scores on our colleges standards of evaluation, which are meant to be low to give students means of improvement. They visited my office and informed me that they’d always received Bs or As and so what was up with me and my grading. This was always supplied in a tone of accusation. The student couldn’t comprehend that they were accusing me–offering fault–of being unfair as they sought answers for their own underperformance against the standards. I told them: “study and you’ll improve.” Theory: people improve when they study in method courses.

Grades are indeed a means of judging. But grades in college are institutional symbols; they’re an exposed stitch in an otherwise ambiguous universe of hidden twingles, knots, and shadowy patterns. In a perfect world, students would read an evaluation and then retire to the cloister and improve where they were asked to improve, trusting that there was some rhyme to the stanza, which is simply one of a rather long and dense poem, whose deeper parts will unravel later in life. I often find that these conversations lead to mutual frustration. I seek the language of explanation, encouragement, and development. The student wants assurance that their GPA will be okay in the end, that they won’t ultimately be harmed (which is symbolic harm); but they rarely express concern about subject matter knowledge. We’re not, in the end, understanding each other. Neither of us is, perhaps, at fault.

But many of my students learned something. Many of them inspired me. Many will be not be happy, and my colleagues and I have a lot still to talk about:

1. Intensifying a semester often filled with too much space
2. Diminishing the pressure of grades
3. Prepping for students who will be coming with yet stranger habits and expectations
4. Figuring how to tap into talent and new talents

I like the studio art method where grades are withheld till the end but learning is asked for throughout. I also like the proposition of gradeless completion and let the market hash out competence. Isn’t this what portfolios are for? If there are portfolios, why do we need grades? Note that grades and evaluative standards are not the same thing.

Why and What College?

Luis Menand on the idea of college. Via Mark Bernstein. Menand writes

When he is not taking on trends in modern thought, Professor X is shrewd about the reasons it’s hard to teach underprepared students how to write. “I have come to think,” he says, “that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.” This makes sense. If you read a lot of sentences, then you start to think in sentences, and if you think in sentences, then you can write sentences, because you know what a sentence sounds like. Someone who has reached the age of eighteen or twenty and has never been a reader is not going to become a writer in fifteen weeks. On the other hand, it’s not a bad thing for such a person to see what caring about “things that probably aren’t that exciting to most people” looks like. A lot of teaching is modelling.

Post-semester Impressions and Questions

It’s that time again for a semester review.

I come out of this semester with certain typical impressions of my courses and the people in them. I also come out with lots of questions.

Firstly, every semester is interesting and different. There are some things that are always the same. I always meet interesting people, and they’re always different. The students in my courses always impress me with their individual stories, struggles, and successes. In this vein, I’m particularly proud of certain students who met minimum requirements after struggles and, on the other end of the spectrum, people who kept to a habit of excellence, the kind of excellence that would be judged so at any college in the country. Some of my students, who are very good, maintained a certain inconsistency in their work that I hope they will try to overcome: it comes with discipline and concentration on the matter at hand (yes, I think weddings should be put off till after the work is done). Sometimes this can be difficult at a college where people are often seeking to get the gen eds out of the way and don’t feel challenged by a specialty.

Secondly, the question of bad habits is more interesting than good habits when it comes to thinking about necessary adjustments for the future. In many cases this semester I was left scratching my head at behaviors that seem more inherent to childhood than to college contexts. Most noticeable was the problem of attendance and the cliche email request: “Did I miss anything important?” I had students who missed a month’s worth of classroom sessions, where, yes, much of importance happened. Unfortunately, once something is missed it’s almost impossible to gain back. In addition, bad attendance records mar in-class work, as I depend upon a frisky crowd to get the juices going. A college classroom is a place where people are supposed to gather to engage the world; this engagement is the most important part of college, in my view. The other paradigm is the Einstein one, where an absent student might indeed pass a course by submitting a portfolio of writing that does meet the requirements. But in this model, Einstein was engaging the world intensely. I often found this semester that because of in-attendance, I simply could not conduct several class sessions because content was unavailable or students had not prepared.

Another issue has to do with the myth of hard work. Some people in my courses still think that simply working through the problem is enough. The question here has to do with “how much is learned through the work.” One thing that people learn in college is their threshold for difficulty and that time and work are subjective. Some people might need several months to grasp a concept or to demonstrate their understanding of relationship between argument and paragraph, while others will be able to develop their concepts only to worry about the strength of their understanding and the depth of their knowledge.

College is difficult. But it’s not difficult just because. Here’s an example. Most humans are storytellers and storymakers. Much of our relations throughout the day demonstrate the depth of storytelling as a means of framing our presence to others. “What did you do today?” and “Why do you want that?” are basic schema. But, this doesn’t mean that people grasp storytelling elements objectively with any ease. Some people may feel that articulating an argument is easy. But, I would argue that this is the equivalent of saying: “Sure, just point and shoot and you’ll have a fabulous photograph.” No, to do something well takes much time and effort. And if everyone is an excellent photographer, as a friend of mine once said, then every photographer is average.

I try to stress to my students that degrees of learning come with degrees of responsibility and awareness of ethics. We can see this today in the Mississippi basin region where learning has been applied and continues to impact everyone. Blowing the levee requires a great deal of knowledge. Not everyone needs to have that specific knowledge, though, but those who do have a tremendous responsibility. Is the control of water sound, ethical, and wise? That’s being debated. In literature, we would call this a theme. We must know what a theme is, find them, and then understand them not just in literature but in the work of engineering corps.

Humans have derived massive systems and technologies. Are they hard? They are complex, and understanding this complexity requires lots of work. So, yes, college should be hard. I have a story that illustrates my view on the question authority:

When the doctor needs expert advice on what to grill, he asks Joe the Butcher. But who does Joe the Butcher ask for advice when he cuts his thumb off with the meat slicer? They are, in my mind, dependent on each other.

As an ability-based thinker, I consider how my examinations, paper assignments, and classroom pedagogy shape what people think about in their efforts to learn. I’ve learned a lot about this in my efforts at the guitar. I’ve been practicing the instrument for a few weeks over a year and am still mystified by the mechanics, the structure of music, and the shape of my body. It’s been lots of hard work but I still can’t really play the guitar and song that I started playing many months ago still give me headaches. I ask several questions: shouldn’t I be better by know? Shouldn’t I be able to press a simple C note easier with my 1st finger? These are complex questions. I don’t have good answers. I keep practicing because I want to learn to play the guitar not because someone else wants me to. But I do know that I will never be as adept as many of my students and friends who play. That’s not the point. One thing I know is that this doesn’t make me less of a human being (though I may feel that way).

This is a significant lesson that has nothing to with grades. It goes to the notion of determinism and the system of ethics we work with in institutions that are “deterministic” in nature. Consider A, who is a student in new media. Let’s also consider B, also a student in new media. B, after several weeks, drops the course because this or that concept is difficult to grasp. Maybe he’s new to the media arts. Why doesn’t really matter. In culture, B would be judged as “dumb” versus A, who turns in her stuff and it works just fine. Why “dumb?” Let’s change the context and go back to 5th grade, where I remember a certain student, B, having to do the 5th grade again, requiring an entire year of retake (did he need the whole year again; yes, according to the cause/effect rules). As kids, we thought B was “dumb.” We might not have known that B was building a timemachine in his backyard and thus had no time to learn spelling. Maybe B had to take care of a sick parent. We, of course, only saw B through the institutional (our view of childhood was partly shaped by school) lens. Every time a student leaps to their death because of bad grades or whatever reason, they are working in an established system not outside of it. I’ve learned over the years that rebels exist just as much as believers do inside existing systems. What defines, for example, an atheist?

Culturally and socially, we struggle with human character and ability and have a habit of judgement that is unnecessary to creative solutions to problems. Some students may be disinclined to the kinds of things college covers in its complex spectra. Some students may require more or less time to learn. But our system is fixed and inflexible where it does not need to be so. In our search for ordered passage up the ladder to “jobs” and “careers,” we’ve perhaps not thought hard enough about how other kinds of creativity can be fostered. We will be reading more on the graduation bubble.

I wish my students luck, especially those who are struggling with the requirements. Now I have to think about certain adjustments. The thinking continues.

How Should Students do Research Then?

On certain rounds this morning, I followed a ProfHacker post to The Full Wiki, a site that tells people:

Students, we find sources for your essay,
so you don’t have to.

Additional explanation goes:

We find similar sentences to those in Wikipedia, complete with their citations for you to paste into your essay. It’s the easy way to branch off to find authoritative sources and relevant quotes to deepen your research.

I don’t know what these mean. “We find sources” and “We find similar sentences” is confusing. Why not “We find similar paragraphs or phrases”?

I did some digging on the site and quickly found myself trapped by its method of using links, going from directories (search results) to domain switches, such as quiz. . . and then being harassed by popups. The site aims to parse Wikipedia articles by source. Again, I have a hard time understanding what this means, as it would seem to over-complicate the process of research and make the structure of Wikipedia content ambiguous. To be fair, I watched a video explanation of the site and it was useful in understanding the functionality and intent of The Full Wiki. But this only served to make the front page information somewhat misleading.

I followed through to the Narcolepsy example. I moved the mouse over the second sentence highlight and a list of “citable” links to articles appeared. I clicked on the first listing and encountered this message at the destination: “We are sorry but the article you are looking for cannot be found.” The second link took me to a definition of rabies. In addition, I placed the current Narcolepsy article at Wikipedia against that produced by The Full Wiki and the side by side didn’t match.

The Full Wiki is still in beta so perhaps some of this “intelligent” sourcing will be fixed.

Such a service illustrates something about teaching and doing research in an academic context. I think Wikipedia is a tremendous resource. Articles at Wikipedia point to good references and provide general interest information. The problem with Wikipedia for student researchers is that Wikipedia articles are not intended to play the role of a source, as Wikipedia articles are meant to be altered, edited, and continually reviewed, hence citing an article will likely lead to holes, as citations in research are meant to be traceable and show how ideas are augmented, supported, or related. They are also supposed to show the “legacy” of ideas, providing authoritative grounding to the writer.

Research methods courses teach students about the publishing ecosystem. This is not an easy thing to do. I have a terrible time introducing methods to students in composition courses as the expectations of these courses exceed student training, a problem I don’t understand as most students come to college with high school degrees. These degrees, however, are structurally inadequate. By structural I mean that high school content no longer prepares students for college. This would imply that high school pedagogical frameworks find college expectations out of reach.

Then again, the methods of a composition course aren’t rocket science. Student ability to learn how to search a research database makes interesting and appropriate content reasonably available. What to do with content is the hard part and forms the core pedagogy of writing courses.

On Enjambment and Other Horrors

My students are having horrible troubles with the notion of enjambment. Well, not really, but they think they are. It’s important for students of writing to understand the techniques of any given form not so much for the use of those techniques but to understand how meaning is made possible and how language can be shaped. Most technique is transparent. In film, editing techniques are often meant not to be noticed.

Here’s a section of Anna Barbauld’s The Epiphany

Deep in Sabea’s fragrant groves retired,
Long had the Eastern Sages studious dwelt,
By love sublime of sacred science fired:
Long had they trained the’ inquiring youth,
With liberal hand the bread of wisdom dealt,
And sung in solemn verse mysterious truth.

That first line is significant. It provides us language about place, which is a typical routine of the phrase. It provides context. But I doubt the poet is offering that first line as a complete unit of meaning, hence we can say the line is part of an enjambed unit. The punctuation doesn’t matter. The reader is meant to follow the next several lines to the noun and verb: sages and dwelt. Of course, it’s important that the sages have had a lot of time invested in Sabea’s groves. They’ve been in there a long time, which is suggested by the words “deep” and “retired” in line 1.

Enjambment as a poetic technique can be interpreted in many ways because of the way poetic lines can be conceived. If cummings could write “i thank You God for most this amazing / day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees” we have to be able to infer that he worried about the meaning of the line break and avoided placing the word “day” beside “amazing.” The metrical unit doesn’t need to matter, nor does the foot pattern, as in disyllabic (iamb) or trisyllabic (anapest). But it can matter, also, depending on the sense of lines, as in Barbauld’s poem above. In the cummings example, the speaker says “i thank you God . . . ” This, of course, is a clause, but it isn’t the unit of meaning of significance in the sense of a poetic line, though it might be fine as a church utterance. If the significant unit of meaning crosses lines, then we have enjambed examples.

In the history of poetry, the identification of the technique, calling it by name as a technique, might not really matter but then again it might, as techniques need abstraction. It depends on language, too. One of the things I don’t talk about in English Literature course are things like the greek ictus, which is the first beat or first syllable of a metrical foot. In the classic dactylic hexameter, which can be difficult to understand, because metrical types can be interchanged ( a spondee for a trochee–I think I’m recalling that right), the ictus is incredibly important. I would also suggest that the phenomenon is important to cummings and other poets who care about entering lines with something sharp and progressive (which I’m finding significant in music, but in the way of lines) but also as a means of distinguishing lines and making images with them.

When Frost writes in Mending Wall “The work of hunters is another thing:” he’s using critical method to control what the reader does with the lines that came before.

What is a Sensible Education Policy?

Reading the paper this morning was somewhat frustrating and dismaying. This year, Connecticut will see perhaps some of the deepest cuts to public education in a long while. Some people see this as either sensible or just the way things must be.

I disagree. Schools will shrink; higher education institutions will be required to cut services and programs; many graduates in education will be unable to fill those spaces left by retirees.

The opposite should be the case. If the current system of education remains (this is a qualifier) then more recourses should be provided to schools; programs and services of higher education should be expanded, and, not only should retiree positions be filled, current gaps in teaching resources should grow to meet demand. This all sounds counterintuitive, of course. There’s a budget crisis, after all; the economy has tanked; thousands of people can’t find work.

However, will diminishing the system solve the above problems? Will, as Brian Clemow argues in this article, cutting union bargaining power solve the problems that tax payers face (assuming that government employees are not tax payers), which is the language of divide and conquer? Unfortunately, we won’t know this from reading the article, which amounts to little more than a complaint that union members just happen to be energetic voters.

Private sector unions are active in politics, too. However, their influence is much less, in part because only about one in 10 workers belong to a union, while all but a handful of state and local government employees in Connecticut are unionized.

More important, private sector employees don’t have a say in who becomes the CEO or board chairman of their company. Public sector employees do, in effect, and this has resulted in their obtaining benefits that the average taxpayer can only dream about.

Interesting enough, Clemow never steps back and asks whether private sector workers should have a voice in “who becomes the CEO.” That 50,000 workers control who “becomes CEO” is strained logic for obvious, arithmetic reasons. In addition, the author provides zero evidence to prove a cause and effect relationship between control of elected officials and benefits. He may want to believe this, but wanting doesn’t make it so. It’s also unclear from the article from whence the unions will get “billions in wages and benefits to avoid layoffs . . .” Which brings me back to my original point.

It is indeed possible to find the saving Clemow wants. A more progressive tax code might be a start, as I’ve argued before, or some acknowledgment of the housing bubble and healthcare costs. Another scenario might be to simple divorce control of educational services from government’s role. Yes, the government might simply legislate the responsibility of educating the citizenry from its responsibility, just as it might legislate away the requirement of a balanced budget or taxes on yoga.

Come Fall 2011, no schools. Thus no burden on the taxpayer.

Of course, people will say: “Come on. That’s extreme. That’s not what we mean.”

My question will be, “Well, what do you mean then?”

It may be that the entrepreneurs will show up ready to purchase all the buildings and the neglected equipment and open up shop, hiring out-of-work ex-government employees and many faculty and staff from private schools and colleges (most people don’t have the time to do this and teaching human beings the art of learning is not easy, as most parents and fiction writers know). What they will quickly find is that their business plans don’t add up and that the per-pupil cost of education at the moment is actually an understatement not just of dreams and fantasies but of “reality.” We could always try this and assess whether the forecasts were honest accountings.

Rather, I would suggest that if solid education is the goal then we should strive to do the best job possible not the job we currently do, which is working for high ideals on a fraying shoe string. This would require, however, some rethinking:

1. Sufficient staffing and resources
2. Raising the expectations of teaching degrees
3. Rethinking the “grade system”
4. Integrating schools into the hum and beat of their communities so that they are less schoolish and more bent toward creative problem solving and learning
5. Rethink managerial elitism, expertise, and hierarchies

I may be wrong, but my theory is that the more robust the learning (rather than technical schooling), the more beneficial the system is to society. But maybe I’m wrong.

My Fight Against Critical Thinking

As an explicit ability that is. At the college we’re still going around in our determination of what constitutes an educated human being, at least as defined by a community college where we’re referred to typically as a two year college. This isn’t always accurate but the “time-definition” does provide a framework for a stage of appropriateness. But it may be wise to consider that “schooling” in learning might take a few hours for one person and a few years in another.

That aside, it might also be wise to assert a definition of critical thinking as an abstraction for things like methods of reasoning and judgement, particular kinds of mindedness or mindfulness and awareness, recognitions of phenomena and their contexts, and the application and interpretation of systems. I’m reminded, for example, of a place in Plato’s Republic where Socrates reasons through wisdom as depending on a kind of knowledge because wisdom itself can’t depend on ignorance. This is an example of critical thinking but in the abstract. More precisely, it’s Plato using generalized deductive reasoning.

Let’s say we say something like this: students at college will graduate with good critical thinking skills. Let’s assume the above to be true as a given and then assert the dimensions of critical thinking instead of the broader abstraction, such as interpreting the relevance of numerical information in a variety of contexts. We could jack the requirements up by writing this: the student interprets the relevance and value of numerical information in a variety of contexts using a variety of tools.

Of course, students could use lots of methods to show or demonstrate the above.

Claiming that Einstein was a good critical thinker just doesn’t seem to capture the essence.

Ironies of the Education Crisis: Stop Selling Hope

Angry Bear guest poster RJS has a sobering list of news on education budget crises responses across the nation. It’s very much worth reader attention. The writer notes the irony:

while there are those in congress who pretend to be worried about leaving debt for the next generation, they are leaving the next generation without the tools to compete in an increasingly challenging future…

There’s another side to the problem of any disrupted school year or block of school time. College admissions seasons are dependent on graduating classes from high schools. In other words, graduating classes set the tone for the two and four year schools, as freshman classes are a block, excluding transfers, that form an institutional narrative. Not all freshman will actually make it through to graduation at least in four years and six is a more typical average. Off the top of my head it’s probably less than a quarter of students who will finish a degree in four years and that’s probably a conservative number.

The problem, however, has to do with that representative student who enters grade school, then moves on to high school without having a mastery of the fundamentals (whatever this may mean. I have a good idea of what it means in my own experience, who started off as a good speller, then fell off that wagon in and about the fifth grade when I took it upon myself to stand on my chair during class and fell from the good graces of the school gods). That student and his or her class will go to college carrying non-mastery with them. A few bad years of grade school, for whatever reason, let’s say it’s cuts to music (and this student has talent for music) will carry through to freshman experience. I see this every day in my own teaching. And I see how difficult it is for students to develop a skill without prior reinforcement. Certain cognitive experiences cut across disciplines. (One item I won’t cover in this post is the relentless push for student to go to college in the first place, which is, I think, a problem as state learning standards don’t map well to the college expectation.)

This translates to generational damage that can’t really be repaired. It’s my own estimation that a “schooling/learning generation” is about seven to ten years: a senior in high school doesn’t have a lot in common with a fifth grader, in other words. Worse, a student can never have their fifth grade opportunities back. Once they’re gone they’re gone. Put in other terms, if a senior in high school doesn’t read Plato’s Republic, their experience of that text as a senior is gone “forever” once they graduate.

Cuts to school programming now will always prove a deficit for higher education in the future. People who don’t teach might suspect that classrooms filled with students who are just trying catch up is a more difficult teaching job. Good college teaching is about encouraging students to learn independently of guidance; if students have difficulty learning independently, they will certainly not be of much assistance to the team, to the boss, or to company, or to the lab, or to the non-profit. Opportunities for learning at school cannot be made up. If a class size goes from 20 to 40 for next year’s kids this effectively degrades learning opportunity and prohibits the effectiveness of teachers, whose decisions have already been hamstrung by testing culture. I’ve pretty much come to the decision that those things students learn in high school don’t prepare them for college work.

One mistake RJS makes in his conclusion is this question of the “challenging future,” which is a problem of logic. Let’s articulate a thesis: is any future more challenging than the futures of the past if people are given an honest opportunity to prepare for their daily lives (think Benjamin Franklin here)? Americans in 1860 certainly faced a challenging future, just as those Europeans who turned 1 in 1899 and would soon go to war.

We have years to guide us. I can’t say that any future will be more challenging than the next. I can stress to the people I know that if we take away opportunities now, those opportunities are gone and will never come back. This is what Lancaster as “Moonlight” Graham meant when he said that once it’s gone it’s gone, but at least he had other possibilities. We seem to be forgetting this in our endless memory loss.

I’ve been arguing that we have a learning crisis in the United States. This crisis has nothing to do with math scores. The crisis can be articulated in ironic terms: we want an educated population but we want it on a shoestring. If the counterargument to my claim is that we really really don’t have the money for competent public education, then my answer is this: stop selling hope and definitely stop selling practicality.