Reflections on Twenty Years of College Teaching, Part 2: Pedagogy

The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why?

Things I wish I’d learned my first year of college teaching that would have made me a better teacher:

First, the subject matter you’re teaching is indeed important. I already knew that. But you know what else is important? In fact, just as important to your students’ education as the subject matter itself? The instructor’s answer to the why question: why do I have to take this class?

I’ve spent enough time teaching non-majors that I simply accept the need to sell gen ed classes to my non-major students. Why do first year writing classes matter? Because oral and written communication skills have been among the top ten skills desired by employers in all employer surveys conducted over the last twenty years, usually in the top three. More immediately, because you need the skills you’ll develop in those first year writing courses in your upper division courses.

Why do your literature courses matter? Because you need narrative in everyday life: you need narrative to sell yourself to graduate programs and employers, to sell a product or service to customers, to explain the importance of a treatment to a patient, the guilt or innocence of this person, the history and intent of this contract. And you need character study as well for similar reasons. In addition to the fact that literature is virtually a lab for the study of the diversity of human experiences, feelings, and ideas, literary study teaches you that not everyone is like you. In other words, literary studies approximate real life: you’re observing people’s words and actions without being told what they mean, but you still have to make sense of them. You have to collect and construct evidence into a coherent argument about these very things. Welcome to everyday living in your personal life and in business and professional environments.

More of the why has to do with the purpose of college classes. Now more than ever, students and parents tend to think of college courses as job training, which is an understandable reaction to an environment of economic depression. But they can never completely be that. No college can update its curriculum to keep it current to the minute with the actual practices in any given industry, and if they tried, they’d have a schizophrenic, incoherent curriculum. The best a program of study can do is provide the background needed to make a graduate trainable in the current environment.

But even more than that, college studies develop student cognition. They expand the range and type of thinking available to students, which is vital to critical thinking, problem solving, and future educability. Arts and sciences curriculum especially serves this goal: math and philosophy expands student capability in abstract reasoning (of different kinds); art in visual literacy, creativity, and just helping you to see; music in creativity, audio literacy, and just being able to really hear; history in the construction of narrative out of disparate, incoherent arrays of facts; literature in many of these, often a combination of them, along with creativity. All of these are brought into upper division, more vocationally-oriented studies and into all future vocations no matter what the field.

But moving past the why into nuts and bolts? Just as important as teaching the subject matter is establishing the following connections:

What is being taught –> how you’re being assessed –> why you got that grade.

Yes, a student who has really learned the material knows why they earned the grade they did. Grading, or assessment of any kind, is as important a part of the learning process as the initial presentation of the material. It’s not an annoying institutional afterthought. In a sense, caring about these connections and making them clear is answering another kind of why question: why did I get that grade? Rubrics matter, actually. They narrow and focus the purpose of your assignments and should be used to direct student attention. You really aren’t teaching everything with every assignment. What’s the purpose of this assignment? The more narrowly and specifically you can answer that for each assignment, the better your assignment design is, and the more you can link assignments into coherent course goals, the better your course design is.

How would I sum all of this up? The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why? Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer that question up front.

Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

I’ve received several requests for letters of recommendation over the last few weeks, so I’m posting this blog by way of advice for those seeking letters of recommendation. If you’re going to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school in the humanities, be prepared for the fact that any responsible professor is going to ask you questions about what you want to study and why, and for the fact that a responsible professor will also give you horrible news (check out this more recent Atlantic Monthly article too) about the state of the profession.

You can respond to these questions one of two ways:

1. Like this:

To put it as basically as I can in limited time, I’m heavily influenced by the work of Paulo Freire in literacy studies and pedagogy. But, this transfers over to how I look at works of literature too. I’ve been fascinated for the past few years about the way literacy sponsorship shapes our identities within groups and between groups. In essence, education and literacy is a political act, there is no way to get around that. This is where Freire and identity and democracy always struck me as the most powerful in terms of theory–which I’d like to really study more in my next program, as I haven’t had the chance to dive into the theory and application of these concepts as much as I’d like to. In such a way, it is also very important not to overlook or discourage conflict and dissent in classroom dialogue (which should be the driver of knowledge and learning). It’s important not to just validate but to allow learning through these conflicts of experience–looking at the shape and method of the dialogue as much as what’s being said. In this way, I’d like students in my classroom to come to a sense of identity and voice through learning about literacy, not just how to write for college or whatever genre, but why we write and what that means.

And I realize I’m writing all of this in 2 minutes on my break from grading, so if that sounds like a jumbled rant, I apologize, ha.*

*Text of actual Facebook IM session with a former student of mine in which she answered my questions right off the top of her head.

That student gets a glowing letter of recommendation. The job market is bad right now, and I told her, but she’s up to the risk.

2. Or, answer this way:

Defending the Humanities to Non-Majors

In October of 2010 Prof. Alan Liu (U.C. Santa Barbara) liked a post of mine sent to a Digital Humanities listserve and asked me for permission to publish it on 4Humanities, his website devoted to advocating for the study of the humanities. He titled it “An Instructor’s Ground-Level Defense of the Humanities to Students.” The post describes in brief what I describe in more length elsewhere — that education is not only vocational training. But in doing so I introduce my “Consider the Cow” lecture. Read on…

Graduation Time = Advising Time

As we near the end of the academic year, I’ve been mulling over what college graduates should be thinking about as they consider their future plans. If you’re about to graduate with a four-year degree and your plans include graduate school, here are a few things you should consider.

First, a Master’s degree is always a good thing. Employers understand and appreciate them, and in some fields they are required. But doctoral degrees need to be very carefully considered. Employers might look askance at overqualified candidates.

Your first consideration is the amount of debt that you will need to take on during the course of your study versus your likelihood of employment and your potential income. This consideration is important for any graduate degree, but is vital when considering a Ph.D., as debt for many programs can approach or exceed six figures.  If you’re likely to graduate with $100,000 worth of debt or more, you need to be very careful about the field that you pursue and your employability within it.

I would only consider advanced (doctoral) study in any field, but especially law and the humanities, under four conditions:

  1. Expectation of low debt exiting the program.
  2. Closely tied to the “low debt” condition is time to complete.
  3. Name recognition of the school — sadly, the name brand on your degree is often much more important than the quality or originality of your thought.
  4. Employment opportunities in the field.

Tenure-track positions in humanities fields have been declining for some years now. I would advise against pursuing a Ph.D. in any humanities field unless you can attend a Tier 1 research school, an Ivy League school, or make it through the program with less than $10K to $20K in debt.

What’s been in the news a great deal this year is law school. A recent article provocatively titled “Law School is a Sham” reports dismal employment figures for law school graduates: every year, approximately twice as many law students pass the bar exam as there are jobs available for new lawyers. This article follows on the heels of over a year of reporting on law schools’ misreporting of graduates’ employability and ensuing lawsuits against them, especially in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  Articles such as “Law Schools on the Defensive over Job Placement Data” (October 2011), “Law Professor Gives Law Schools a Failing Grade” (May 2012), “Reinflating the Law School Bubble” (October 2012), and “A Law-School Lesson, Learned the Hard Way” (January 2013) do not paint a flattering picture for law school hopefuls.

This timeliness of this issue has been reinforced by the American Bar Association, which reports which law schools have the highest and lowest employment, underemployment, and unemployment rates for their graduates. The Atlantic usefully reported in “The Jobs Crisis at our Best Law Schools is Much, Much Worse than You Think” (April 2013) that only 56% of law school graduates found employment but many racked up about $100,000 in debt.

So, what should you do?

If you’re interested in law school, I’d recommend either applying only to schools with top employment rates (see the links above), considering a different field, or pursuing that goal wherever you can so long as you keep your debt to a minimum. Keep in mind, though, that tuition and fees and then, afterwards, debt (interest payments on your student loans are also part of the cost of attendance) are only some of the costs of attendance. While you are in school full time you probably won’t be working in jobs that meaningfully contribute to a future career, so lost wages are also part of the cost of your attendance. If all of that doesn’t add up to significantly increased wages soon after graduation, then you’re cutting yourself out of your own retirement and greatly hindering how much you’ll be able to do for your own children later on.

If you’re interested in humanities study, I would recommend attending a school with an M.A./Ph.D. program, getting your M.A. first, and then looking at your prospects, your amount of debt, and the job market before pressing on to a Ph.D. If you get an M.A. within a state system, odds are most or all of your credits will apply to a Ph.D. program within that state system, but they will certainly apply to a Ph.D. program in the same school. If you get any Master’s degree from a private institution, odds are only six to nine credit hours of coursework will transfer to any other institution (one semester), so unless that institution also has a Ph.D. program, you will have to duplicate about two years of coursework or more. I would only pursue an M.A. at a small private school if it has a Ph.D. program that you want to attend, or if you were a mediocre student at the undergraduate level and need to re-establish yourself to move forward, or if you’re pretty sure you want to stop with an M.A.

But no matter what you do, watch your debt. What is particularly sad about this situation is that our system provides disincentives for principled academic advising (such as I’m trying to give here). Every undergraduate institution wants to be able to say that many of their students have gone on to advanced study. Every graduate institution wants to enroll students. They will all say, “You can do it,” or maybe, “It’s what you do with the degree that matters,” and, “I know these three or four graduates who found jobs just fine.” Or, even worse, “I’ve done this and had a great career.” If they graduated with their Ph.D.s before the 2008 crash, they were living in a different world. None this advice is principled as it doesn’t reflect the ways that the deck is already stacked against you. ABA data and MLA jobs data is what you should be following regarding the financial aspects of your decision. Your advisors should be able to tell you about your possibility of success within the program, but you need to know about the scarcity of jobs out there. Remember, schools will admit you, advise you, and recommend you, but you alone will carry your debt into the job market.

In short, you probably shouldn’t consider law school or humanities Ph.D.s, as you will be left with high debt and low employment prospects unless you can get into a top school and graduate with low or no debt in a relatively short amount of time (less than six years for a Ph.D.).

Your best bets for humanities Ph.D. programs right now are rhetoric and composition or digital humanities. Those are hardly guaranteed fields either, but you have much better odds of getting a tenure track position in these fields at least for the time being than you do in other areas of the humanities.

I’m only talking about the financial aspects of study, of course. The personal aspects of advanced study are enormous for those who are both interested and capable in terms of sense of accomplishment, intellectual and creative development, and personal identity. Advanced study is always a good thing. But, someone always has to pay for it. Carefully consider how you plan to pay for it before you start graduate study beyond the M.A.

P.S. I’m only discussing the situation of higher education in the United States. Other nations may fund advanced study differently.

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