Reflections on 20 Years of College Teaching

least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

It recently occurred to me that this semester starts my twentieth year of college teaching, all told — from my first freshman composition class as a grad student to my current teaching assignments.

If you do the math, my first semester of teaching was the Fall 2001 semester. I was teaching at a small, private college in a small New Jersey town with a train station direct to Penn Station in New York City. So yes, 9-11 occurred during my first semester teaching. On top of that, I had assigned essays by Salman Rushdie and Edward Said — two Muslim authors — for our reading the first class meeting after 9-11. I had planned this weeks before. On top of that, our reading by Edward Said was from his book Orientalism, which describes how western cultures misrepresent “oriental” cultures (a term that covers the Middle East to the farthest point in Asia), and how those misrepresentations serve western economic and political ends. And on top of that, some of my students had relatives who had died or were missing after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

From anywhere on campus we could see the smoke rising from the tower site for weeks after the attack. Literally weeks.

So, talk about walking a tightrope. My students were shocked and traumatized. We all were. I sat down at the front of the class and asked them to talk. I let them talk. Then, somehow, we moved on. I covered the reading as carefully as I could. I didn’t register any particularly negative reactions at the time.

This is teaching. It’s what we do as college teachers. College is the real world: somewhat insulated, at least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

Since that first course during that first semester teaching I’ve moved on to teach at other institutions. I’ve served as Program Chair three times at two different institutions and designed dozens of courses from the freshman to the graduate level. I’ve designed undergraduate and master’s level curriculum. I’m the guy who designed the program that trained your kid’s high school English teacher. I found I could picture an entire curriculum in my head, seeing how the courses work together, putting all the pieces in place for students who worked through it, designing the program of study to meet their most likely professional goals for the program. I’ve also published creative and scholarly works since then. I have five books out and two under contract and a number of poems, book reviews, short stories, creative non-fiction works and, while they’re not publications, almost 30 conference presentations.

I did this with almost zero institutional support. In 20 years of teaching, I’ve had one sabbatical that lasted one semester. Two of my terms as Chair were under a 4/4 load with ongoing publications and conferences, usually three conference presentations a year. One term was under a 3/3 load, but I was working on two books simultaneously at the time, plus conferences and other publications.

I’ve been busy.

What I’m going to say next is advice for college bound students and their parents. It may also be useful for graduate students.

First, most small, private, liberal arts colleges are far overpriced. Their faculty mostly lack meaningful accomplishments (they could never get jobs at state universities). They say that they’re so dedicated to teaching that they don’t have time to publish, but the truth is they can’t write and don’t have anything to say. I’ve only met one such faculty member who actually dedicated himself to the study of teaching instead of publishing, and he did in fact have a book. Just one, but he did it. I’ve spent most of my career being evaluated by people who haven’t published, some of whom were less educated than me. What does that tell you about how much these colleges value education? What educational quality are you or your child going to get from that institution?

Furthermore, most small private colleges are functionally racist, including their English departments. By functional racism I mean that the institution is more focused on an image than on its function as an educational and research institution. Small private colleges tend to fall into three categories: sports camp, vacation Bible school, or resort for rich kids. There’s another grouping, the business and professional private college, but they’re to be considered separately. In all of the first three cases, their educational mission is completely subordinate to their other identities, and faculty are expected to accommodate these secondary identities and, additionally, to conform to the image expected of college faculty by their student demographic. These expectations produce a fundamentally anti-diversity mindset that they justify in job searches with the word “fit.” This functional racism isn’t a “white only” kind of racism, but a “certain kinds of colors in certain places” kind of racism. So the department might hire one African American faculty member, but that person will always eventually leave for a state university. They won’t be comfortable there long term, very rarely. They’ll hire Asian and Indian faculty because they’re “whitenorities,” but only one each at most, and they generally won’t hire hispanics, because they’re “the help.” Hispanics clean their homes, not teach their college students.

There’s one more detail I need to add about teaching after 9-11. I was observed that day by the director of composition. It was that person’s job to observe me teach the class, give me feedback, and mentor me as a possible future college teacher. She told me after that class session that she wasn’t going to write up the class session and then never observed me again. Looking back, after serving as Chair a few times, I know why. It wasn’t because I didn’t do a good job or wouldn’t benefit from the feedback. She had no interest in helping to advance my future college career, and she had no interest because I didn’t fit the profile. Choosing not to write up that class session is understandable. Circumstances were unusual. But never scheduling another observation again? There are no good reasons for that.

I’ve done many class observations, been on many hiring committees, and led hiring committees. I’m very familiar with faculty observation. It’s usually clear what’s really going on. I had one member of a hiring committee advise against even interviewing a candidate because of the spelling of her last name. Yes — this faculty member just looked at the candidate’s last name and assumed she wouldn’t be able to speak English well. Racist much? She was yet another faculty member with no accomplishments but was deeply ingrained in the institution. She grew up around there. She fit the profile.

So my first advice is to send your children to state colleges and universities. Faculty are typically held to more objective standards for hiring and promotion and the institution usually has to pay more than lip service to diversity. The race issue matters. Every racist educational institution is anti-educational. It’s doing the opposite of educating students. It is hindering them. We are not living in a world where we can afford racism.

But, a caveat. Are all private colleges the same? No. Were my experiences entirely negative? No. I had some great faculty members who did support and advise me, and I’m grateful for them. But I have accurately described broadly observable patterns across the private college spectrum.

I have to further complicate matters. College teachers teach to the middle. They teach to the perceived middle of their student population in terms of academic ability. So it’s not true that college classes are the same everywhere. A highly ranked institution with a low acceptance rate has high performing students, so the middle is going to be at a higher bar than a lower ranked institution with lower performing students.

That means as future college students and their parents you should be concerned about the ranking of the college. Sorry, it’s true. Especially the college’s acceptance rate. Students need to get into the best colleges they can. They want to be somewhere that they’ll be in the middle or toward the top. If they’re too far beyond their peers, they’ll be undereducated. They should go to a better institution. The class valedictorian at a low ranked private college made a poor college choice. That person should have transferred to the flagship state college. They wouldn’t be valedictorian, but they’d get a much better education.

And here’s where we return to thinking about small private colleges. If the small private college is ranked in the top 100, seriously consider it. But be sure to consider the financial decision you’re making: look at the real cost of attendance after scholarships. Return on investment matters. You don’t want to pay $40,000 a year in tuition to get a degree in Education. Or even $20,000 a year in tuition. Do you want to graduate with $50,000 in student loan debt and then only get a job that pays $30,000 a year? Or even $40,000-$45,000? It’s much smarter to get your ed degree from a state university that only charges $8,000 a year in tuition. We need educators, badly, but high debt for a low paying job is a poor decision no matter what the field.

I have more to say. My next post will be about teaching.

Thinking Through Degree Choices

I’ve blogged a few times about the topic of choosing a college and degree over the past three years (on April 13 twice and Nov. 3 of 2013; Sept. 9, 2014), but I’m going to try to reframe the topic here in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific college or major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major or college matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a college or major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a college or major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fairly fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs that they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of B.B.A. and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.

    So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 1% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university.

    Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much.

Interview: Classroom to Boardroom

LJN Radio CoverageTim Muma recently interviewed me for an LJN Radio podcast, “Classroom to Boardroom: Why Are Students Inadequately Prepared for the Workforce?” The podcast is now available online through the LJN Radio Network website. It should be up on iTunes by mid January.

Tim had previously read on this blog the article “What Employers Expect from College Students” and makes reference to it a number of times during the interview.

I’d like to thank Tim and LJN Radio for a good experience and for their professionalism.

Some Tough Questions about Picking a Major

10062011_Harvard1_articleBeth Braverman’s “Controversial College Rankings a Huge Influence,” recently published in The Fiscal Times, asserts what is becoming the new conventional wisdom about getting a college degree: a college education needs to be understood as an economic investment, and the most common ranking measures don’t take that into account. The main concern here is “return on investment,” often abbreviated as ROI, which is a comparison of the cost of your college degree to your degree’s future earning power.  For example, spending $175,000 on a degree that will only gain you employment in fields that may never pay more than about $65,000 or $70,000 per year at the end of your career may not be a wise idea: if your degree carries with it lower income potential, then you want to avoid high debt in attaining it.

I think these are good insights and need to factor in to student decision making about college attendance. However, reasoning about this subject tends to miss a few vital questions that I think are necessary to advance the discussion. Braverman’s article closes with the following: “‘A petroleum engineering major is going to make a lot more money than a psych major without a graduate degree, no matter what school you go to,’ Carnevale says.” Carnevale chose petroleum engineering as an example of a high paying degree for a reason: it’s listed as the number one paying major by ThinkAdvisor. In fact, among the highest paying majors, thirteen of the top sixteen majors, and all of the top eleven, have the word “engineering” in it. Of the top twenty majors in terms of income potential, engineering dominates the list.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that as of 2009-2010 only about 1% of all bachelor degrees conferred were in engineering. What are most college students pursuing? According to the NCES, “Of the 1,650,000 bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2009–10, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of business (358,000); social sciences and history (173,000); health professions and related programs (130,000); and education (101,000).” Of course the high pay in engineering fields very likely reflects in part an underproduction of graduates in these fields: if there were more engineering graduates than engineering jobs, then average pay would go down, and if there were more engineering graduates than jobs persistently for year after year, pay would eventually bottom out.

But now we get to the really hard question: how many of those business, social science, health profession, and education majors are both interested in and able to become engineers? Telling everyone that it’s smarter financially to go into engineering than to go into social work is almost too obvious to need saying, but how many people interested in social work have the disposition and ability to become engineers?  You could ask the question the other way too: how many engineers have the disposition and ability to become effective social workers or high school teachers?

Telling people to pick a higher paying major isn’t enough. If you’re not the type of person who can or will go into engineering or computer science, how do you make a living with your bachelor’s degree? Which and what kind of graduate degrees pay best is another question to pursue, but it generally follows the same patterns. The reality is not that some jobs are inherently better or worth more than others. The reality is that — by mere accidents of history — some skill and interest sets come with more consistent financial rewards than others.  Any skill or interest set could conceivably lead someone to make millions (look at the number of successful actors, directors, and producers who were English majors), but the question at hand here is the statistically most consistent likelihood of a financial return on your college degree. If you happen to be the engineering type, as things are working out now, you’re in good shape.

The next claim made by the new conventional wisdom is that the name brand of the degree doesn’t matter as much as what field the degree is in, but again, I think this claim stops one step short of fully thinking through the problem. If you have a degree in petroleum engineering, you won’t be competing with Harvard English majors for jobs. You’ll be competing with other petroleum engineering majors. Does name brand on the degree matter among petroleum majors? Are there schools that have better reputations and land their graduates more jobs than other schools within this specific field? If 22% of all graduates in 2009-2010 were Business majors, what influences employers to pick one business school graduate over another?

Braverman’s article cites internships and work experience after choice of major as the most important factors, but if an employer has narrowed down a job search to ten candidates with the same kind of degree and equally compelling experience, what do you think will matter next? Suppose the employer then narrowed his or her choice down to the top three who were the best fit and gave the best interviews? What matters next? It’s a bit ridiculous, I think, to say that name brand on a degree does not matter. I think the question is about when and where and how a college’s name recognition matters.

So here is my advice to those of you currently in the process of choosing a college: don’t think about what college you want to attend first. Think about what major you want to pursue, or perhaps what group of majors you might want to pursue. Among those majors, compare the cost of attaining the degree to your likely income, and then select

  • the highest ranked college
  • in that area of study
  • that you can afford with minimal debt

What if you’re undecided, as most of us are upon graduating high school? What if you really have no idea what major you want to pursue? If you’re a strong student, then get into the best college (generally) that you can afford with minimal debt. If you’re a weak to average student, you might want to consider a good community college, especially if you plan to transfer those credits in-state. Attending a community college will keep your costs down and give you a range of course options and institutional support that will help you choose a major.

It might help for you to get to know yourself a little bit too.

Understanding Four- vs. Six-Year College Graduation Rates

If you’ve been shopping for colleges you might have read about four and six year graduation rates. These rates are indicators of what percentage of entering freshmen finish college four years after starting and what percentage finish six years after starting. Graduation rates beyond six years aren’t followed very closely, as most students finish within six years or not at all, and from the numbers I’ve seen, five and six year graduation rates tend to be very similar.

Time-to-Graduation too Often Overlooked” by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos addresses the issue of time to graduation as a significant concern for students considering a college. They are concerned about the added costs involved in graduating six years after starting rather than four. Akers and Chingos provide a lot of useful data indicating that four and six year graduation rates can vary widely among institutions regardless of the institution’s quality on other measures, including the strength of incoming students’ ACT or SAT scores. Apparently, there’s no clear correlation among student scores, institutional quality, and differences between four- and six-year graduation rates:

One might assume that general metrics of college quality are good proxies for all sorts of outcomes, including time-to-degree. For example, perhaps institutions with good six-year graduation rates also have good four-year graduation rates so it doesn’t really matter which one students use.  But it turns out that this is not the case.  The average time-to-degree varies widely, even within institutions that seem to be of similar quality based on other measures.

What I would like to do here is help students think through why graduation rates might differ from school to school and how to evaluate those differences.

First, I agree with the basic point of both articles: students need to do all that they can to graduate in four years, because by doing so they’re saving money. These cost savings take the form of not paying for two years of additional tuition, room, board, and fees, and also in the form of two fewer years of lost income. The sooner you start work after college, the sooner your investment in college starts paying you back.

But it’s very important that we understand the range of possible reasons for these differences. Time to graduation is always just a matter of basic math: any four-year college that requires 120 credit hours to graduate requires 30 credits per year, or 15 credits (typically five classes) per semester. If a student passes five classes per semester every semester they will graduate in four years, period. So if 15-20% of a college’s students need an additional two years to graduate that’s not because of the degree structure or the college itself unless significantly more than 120 credits are required for graduation.

Typical reasons that cause students to take more than four years to graduate include:

1. Failing or dropping classes — do this four or five times and you’ve added a semester to your completion time.
2. Sports injuries, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
3. Serious family issues or illnesses, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
4. Switching majors during or after your third year.
5. Adding minors, especially multiple minors.
6. Double majors.

At the end of this current semester of teaching, I have students who fit most if not all of the above categories.

Institutional reasons include:

7. Credit-intensive majors. The college usually can’t do anything about these requirements, as they are field-specific and are usually designed to meet state or federal requirements. For example, education majors at my current institution are all required to do coursework about equivalent to a double major. Those requirements are imposed by the state. Just know what you’re getting into if you select one of these majors.
8. The school doesn’t accept many or any transfer credits or students (i.e., most students start as freshmen), which raises the likelihood of more than four years to graduation. Transfer students will finish in two or three years, and if they graduate in four, they may have done it in four years at that institution but have taken much more than four years to get their degree.

Since my original draft, readers have suggested the following reasons for increased time to graduation.

9. One reader suggested that time to graduation may be increased if an institution has a significant population of non-traditional students, such as working adults. Working adults are often unable to attend full time so take longer to complete. My own alma mater, Rollins College, has an undergraduate evening program called the Hamilton Holt School that is largely populated by non-traditional students along with graduate programs with a similar student population. I suspect this school contributes to the 15% increase in six year graduation rates over four year graduation rates at Rollins College. I was one of these students. It took me nine years to complete my B.A. at three different institutions. I just happened to finish at Rollins College.
10. A college with a high population of remedial students will have longer time to graduation, as these courses often do not count for credit toward graduation. If a student has to take four remedial classes in two or three different subjects, that’s a semester added to their time to graduation. This problem may not be a negative if the college serves its remedial students well.
11. Are the college’s general education courses filled to overflowing? Do they offer too few sections for the students who need them? This problem is institutional and can extend time to graduation.
12. Does the college serve many veterans or those in the military? They often have to take a semester or more off for service. It’s a good thing that the college does so, but serving this population will affect a college’s stats on time to graduation.

So even if you see that there’s a big disconnect between four- and six-year graduation rates, you still don’t know what that means. If it’s because many students fail their classes, that means the school has meaningful academic standards but a weak student population, which is a mixed signal (bad in that students are weak, good in that at least the school has academic standards). If there’s a big difference between four- and six-year graduation rates because many students take credit-intensive majors or double majors, that’s a sign that the school has a high population of very motivated students, or very strong programs in credit-intensive majors, so that’s a good sign. Schools with a high four-year graduation rates may have low academic standards, and faculty may be pressured to just pass everyone through, in which case a high four-year graduation rate can be a sign of a bad school. If the school has an evening program populated by working adults, then differences in four- and six-year graduation rates don’t tell you anything at all.

So finding out why these differences exist is what matters. The best thing to do is to consider this measure alongside many others, and compare your potential college’s graduation rates to national averages and other potential colleges. If they’re above the national average for their cohort, you’re on safe ground.

In general, four-year private non-profit institutions have the best four- to six-year graduation rates, and for-profit institutions have the worst, running at about half the rate of public and private non-profit institutions.

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