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Agonies of Academe


 

The current issue of the Atlantic is  good, with nice articles on Obama, Easterbrook on space catastrophe, and a looong piece by James Fallows on China. But the most interesting one was “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” by “Professor X”, an English instructor at some D-list community college in in the US.

It’s a deftly written piece. Prof X lays out some unpleasant realities of higher education and the modern economy, the most pressing one being that there are lots of people going to university who should not be there. Semester after semester, he deals with students who either need or want an English 1010 credit, but who have no real interest in the material, lack the necessary smarts and intellectual curiosity, and — worst of all -are functionally illiterate and should never have passed high school.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that is not unfamiliar to anyone who has taught in the university system in the US or Canada for any length of time.

Prof X blames the usual suspects. The high schools, which churn out illiterates. The colleges, which have become businesses and so have every interest in taking tuition money from anyone who wants to sign up. And if those students fail? Well, the school will take their money again. Then there is the economy as a whole, which has decided that everyone from the bank teller to the federal marshall should be college educated.

Indeed, Professor X blames everyone except himself. Toward the end of the piece, he laments the fact that he’s academia’s messenger of doom, the pointy end of the stick, the “man who has to lower the hammer.” He even gives it a literary flourish: “We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct instructors, but we are academic button men. I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, ‘a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries.'”

Very pretty. But a load of BS.

Prof. X’s problem is that he actually believes that English lit actually matters, offering the preposterous justification that having read Hardy or Joyce is good for you, and that America is better off if its cops and child-welfare workers and hospital billings staff are acquainted with boring old novels. “Although I may be biased,” says Prof. X, “I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and ultimately good for you.”

The special pleading at work here is nauseating. Here’s the thing: Cops and nurses and bank tellers are required to have Lit 101 not because anyone cares whether they understand the theme of Animal Farm. Lit 101 is a credential, a proxy that indicates that the person who passed the course has other abilities (committment, dedication, basic reasoning skills) that employers value. That’s it.

The failure of academia, and of the humanities in particular, to recognize that they are in the business not of providing moral education but credentials is a scandal. It does not seems to have occurred to Prof X that when his or her students start fidgeting and their eyes glaze over when they talk about “Araby”, that the problem is with the teacher and the curriculum and not with the students. Prof X seems to think that lowering the hammer on these people is a necessary but unpleasant part of the job, but it isn’t. What he is doing is immoral — something he doesn’t appear to realize, despite a lifetime spent reading the classics.


 

Agonies of Academe

  1. While I do agree with you that university have become credential farms, I think it should still be allowed to think that this is a bad thing.

    I will be reading the article, although I hope it isn’t too similar to the recent article in the walrus about student not being able to fail.

    Again I hope your point isn’t that the current state of affairs shouldn’t be criticized. Thats the way it reads to me.

  2. I remember being compelled to take Computer Science 100 in my first year at university as an arts student. The textbook literally had a diagram to show students what a “mouse” was. It was laughably simplistic but the most challenging course I had. Why you say? Because it demanded dedication, personal strenght and commitment to the most mundane – that’s a life skill. The catch of the course was that you had to use an Apple computer in the computer lab on campus. So, no takehome assignments were allowed. You had to book time in the lab to do it (max. 1hr intervals) in addition to the lecture time of 3hrs a week. It was not uncommon to have to book time between 4-5am on Saturday morning in order to complete your assignment for Tuesday at 1pm.

    Computer Science 100 made me even more ignorant of computer software and hardware but, it did challenge me to plan my workload, be efficient with my 1hr of computer time, be dedicated enough to either jump on the first available timeslot or stick it out at the lab in the wee hours of the morning.

    One would think it was a bird course but, it did provide some life lessons.

  3. Surely the question is whether literature should be used as a credentialing tool or whether that demeans everyone involved.

    Our universities are a scandal of cynicism.

  4. @Jack: Yes, that’s exactly the question I was trying to raise. Sort of ran out of time writing the post, but this is exactly it. Lit 101 is a credential tool, not moral training, and Prof X does not seem to get it.

    One of the best writers on this is James Twitchell, who understands better than most the way higher ed is a consumer good. the sooner the people doing the teaching realise that, the better.

  5. @justin: No, of course the currrent state of affairs should be criticised –see above comment. My main criticism is with a system that uses the teaching of obsolete cultural creations as a credentialing instrument.

  6. Andrew,

    I think you are missing Prof X’s point. He agrees with you that his English Lit class should not be used as a credentialing instrument. This is precisely the reason that he is upset — that society in general seems to think it is necessary for everyone to take an English-Lit class and to send everyone to University.

    Just because he believes there is some value in reading classic English Literature doesn’t mean he believes that it is a necessary “moral education” for everyone. Quite the contrary — he ONLY wants people who are interested to take the course. Is that so crazy?

    Your comments have me confused about what you actually want.

    In your first comment you say that “higher ed is a consumer good. the sooner the people doing the teaching realise that, the better.” But in your second comment you say that your “main criticism is with a system that uses the teaching of obsolete cultural creations as a credentialing instrument.”

    So you WANT University to be a generalized credentialing instrument for society as a whole (presumably to measure “committment [sic — perhaps you missed English 101: Introductory Spelling?], dedication, basic reasoning skills”, etc.), but you don’t want English-Lit to be part of the equation. I assume this means you want more “relevant”, “practical” subject matter to be taught instead.

    Fair enough, but don’t we already have millions of credentialing instruments that have more “applied” skills — community colleges, technical institutes, etc.? Isn’t Prof X simply arguing that we should funnel more students through these programs and leave the English-Lit for those who have some interest in the material? In other words, to not use English-Lit, or University in general, as the most important generalized credentialing instrument for society?

  7. Are you going to use your knowledge of Hardy, Joyce, and Orwell in the work world? Likely not. Similarly, you are unlikely to use your knowledge of trigonometry taught in high-school, or even your knowledge of the various portions of written english.

    As you point out, they are to show that the student has learned other qualities. How to apply definitions and rules to create order in unordered situations, how to approach concrete problems in an abstract manner so as to be able to apply known solutions from other concrete problems to them, and how to contextualize information and identify deeper themes and familiarities, thus allowing easier problem solving and identification.

    Your point seems to be that “Well they should just teach that directly and apply the credential to that” but the difficult question is how, exactly, should they do that? How do we teach character traits and modes of thinking without providing examples?

    Arguing for more relevant examples isn’t very useful, because ensuring that the examples remain relevant and having related experts in the field available to teach these relevant examples is not going to be cheap.. especially because experts in fields that are currently relevant are experts who are going to be in high demand from the private sector. So unless we’re willing to committ a *lot* more to education, we’re quickly going to find ourselves in the exact situation we’re in today, where the subject material being used to teach these modes of thinking are no longer relevant to the society of the day.

    Fortunately, since the real goal isn’t a knowledge of Orwell, Joyce, trigonometry, or noun-verb conjugation, we seem to be able to get along fine as it is.. well.. other than for people complaining how education isn’t relevant.

  8. I don’t think the humanities should have a responsibility to be relevant.

    Professors who complain about credentialism and falling standards, something which every generation of professors complains about, miss the point when they say university is about moral education or developing a philosophy of life, or churning out civic minded individuals.

    They bend over backwards to argue that the irrelevant is relevant, when the only value studying English can be expected to have is that it is interesting to those who are interested in it.

    Only someone with an inflated ego would think that they can teach students to be “moral.”

  9. The value of English Lit has nothing to do with getting a job or being moral. It has to do with our culture. Everything anyone means when they say “Canada” “America” “the West” is encapsulated in the literary cannon, and if it were taught in high school like it’s supposed to be (and like it used to be) none of this would be an issue. And everyone should take a basic lit class, whether you want a job in the humanities, the sciences, or a trade. Or anything else. And that goes for basic math and science too, but that’s another post.

  10. The failure of academia, and of the humanities in particular, to recognize that they are in the business not of providing moral education but credentials is a scandal. It does not seems to have occurred to Prof X that when his or her students start fidgeting and their eyes glaze over when they talk about “Araby”, that the problem is with the teacher and the curriculum and not with the students. Prof X seems to think that lowering the hammer on these people is a necessary but unpleasant part of the job, but it isn’t. What he is doing is immoral — something he doesn’t appear to realize, despite a lifetime spent reading the classics.

    A person who has spent a large chunk of his life becoming highly educated in a valued field, who then wanted to teach it to others, and found a place where society ostensibly says that is the goal, is now immoral because he fails students according to the established criteria for failing?

    This is not only ridiculous, and insulting to Professor X and the thousands of other English professors who honestly do want to teach English, but it is inconsistent. You say, “Lit 101 is a credential, a proxy that indicates that the person who passed the course has other abilities” and then complain that X fails students “immorally”. Either you have failed to proofread or your reasoning is deeply flawed.

    Not only are adjunct professors handed down the criteria for the subject matter of their courses from on high, they also do not participate in the selection and admittance processes of universities, in general. Prof X and his colleagues are supposedly charged with the task of taking people from the point of high school graduation (i.e., so goes the party line, actually passing courses) to where they have a useful handle on some of the basic ideas in English literature.

    In reality, as he writes, they are not people who actually should have graduated from high school; often, if anything, they should be in some sort of remedial literacy program. And professors in that situation quickly give up on the idea of making all of their students familiar with Orwell and Joyce and whoever — instead they end up just hoping they can impart some sort of basic functionality.

    He may not be the best English professor in the world, but he and his fellow teachers are not the problem here.

  11. As a just-finished secondary student and a soon-to-be university student student, can I just say that the problem with high school literature classes is that quite a few of the kids are just waiting until they’re old enough to drop out, most of the others are high or horny, so the teacher spends her time babysitting a classroom full of hormonal 16 year olds, several of whom are drunk. As or the rest of us who actually want to learn and who spend their Wednsday nights reading this site to teach themselves foreign languages, we’re lost in the crowd and sit quietly at our desks doing busywork. It’s not the students fault, the teachers or the universities: it’s the fact that rural schools are chronically understaffed and have classes of upwards of 40 kids, although *technically* thats not allowed. The result? Those students who the professor was complaining about, who don’t understand whats being taught because they were never given the groundwork. Fix secondary schools, and everything else will come into place.

  12. Let’s see here. Three quotes from this piece:

    1) “there are lots of people going to university who should not be there”;
    2) “The colleges, which have become businesses and so have every interest in taking tuition money from anyone who wants to sign up.”

    And your opinion:
    3) “Lit 101 is a credential, a proxy that indicates that the person who passed the course has other abilities (committment, dedication, basic reasoning skills) that employers value. That’s it.”

    Gee. Want to guess how many North Americans’ belief in #3 leads directly to #1 and #2?

    High school is supposed to be about showing basic credentials; beyond that, maybe some trade schools or basic/remedial skills courses. Higher education is supposed to be, well, higher. It isn’t, anymore. So now the universities are full of flunkies and fratboys whose only goals are to get credentials and get high that night–four more years of high school–and anyone looking for higher education is pushed into graduate school.

    And thus, the mediocritization of everything continues.

  13. Fair enough, but don’t we already have millions of credentialing instruments that have more “applied” skills — community colleges, technical institutes, etc.? Isn’t Prof X simply arguing that we should funnel more students through these programs and leave the English-Lit for those who have some interest in the material?

    Except that Prof X teaches at a community college not at a University. Which means people should be funneled into one of his programs not out of it.

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