Reading Over Writing

Sometimes when I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition in the mornings I get very frustrated. It’s a neo-commercial format, for one thing, rather than a true public service. (Another gift of Reaganomics.) The “sponsorships” (aka commercials) bug me most days; other days, its the weirdly self-congratulatory begging called “fund raising.” We are great! We are running out of money! You have to help!

In my case, it’s particularly galling that the University of Illinois, an organization with a budget in the hundreds of millions, has historically refused to fund its own public radio station. I find it galling when such an organization asks me, as a “member of the community” to give them money. This too is part of the routine irritations and ironies of our conservative age. Failure is success.

The real problem, though, is that they are a Jack of all Trades, Master of None sort of show. That means that when you hear a story about something you know about you often feel they missed the point entirely. This morning’s piece on recent research into college education, “A Lack Of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ In College,” was a very welcome exception.

It’s an exception becuase it emphasized two of the dirty little secrets of college: students are not being challenged to learn to think critically, mostly becuase they are not asked to write much, and their educations are undermined by the use of consumer surveys (usually called student evaluations) in teacher assessment. Students do not have to do much work because you can’t upset your customers.

A more informed reporter would have also asked about the exploitation of teachers, which has done profound damage. I also think that these problems are rooted in the perennial focus on ‘the basics’ which is inevitably framed in terms of reading rather than writing. That’s easy to explain: writing and critical thinking can’t be taught on the cheap or graded with multiple choice tests.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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