Love is a Drug

It’s a variation on a theme that has developed alongside “quit lit”—the notion that the humanities Ph.D. is a multitool, and it will serve its holder well in any number of nonacademic jobs. The idea that frustrated humanities Ph.D.’s should abandon the broken adjunctification of higher education in favor of the alt-ac path is even picking up institutional steam: The American Historical Association recently received a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support its efforts to expand career tracks for history Ph.D.’s.

Encouraging people to think creatively about their career paths is, of course, just fine. And humanities Ph.D.’s can and do find jobs outside of the academy all the time. But we shouldn’t start pretending that that’s what we’ve been training them for all along. Turning a solution that may work for some individuals into a systemic fix isn’t easy—and it’s not necessarily appropriate.

“Alt-Ac Isn’t Always the Answer,” Jacqui Shine.

I suppose it’s a sign of aging or something but I really dislike “Alt-Ac.” It’s one of those ugly instant clichés that obfuscate far more than they reveal. Let’s hope it dies a quick and well deserved death. That said, I think this is a nice piece. My only issue with it is that it– or the writer– seems to have no sense of teaching as a compelling vocation. Perhaps it is simply that she doesn’t want to seem sentimental or soft.

Many of us stick to teaching, not simply because it is what we have trained to do, but because we love it. It’s our great strength as teachers and our great political weakness. The U.S. higher education system works because there are so many of us– the majority– who are willing to fight one difficult uphill battle after the other, again and again, year after year, to pursue what we feel we were born to do.

A New Review of “A Taste for Language”

A growing number of composition theorists (Hooks; Peckham) have noted the relative lack of discussion of social class in our field. James Ray Watkins Jr.’s A Taste for Language: Literacy, Class, and English Studies provides a theory of “middle class” language production for post-WWII education and reformulates a responsible cultural capital in the 21st century world outside the university. Watkins provides a multigenerational family autobiography to construct a revisionist history of composition studies that supports the proposed 21st century forms of cultural capital. To his credit, Watkins also provides a pedagogy to achieve this new cultural capital, although his “writing in the wild” pedagogy may not be as groundbreaking as a theory pressing for new cultural capital would demand. That said, A Taste for Language is a welcome addition to the discussions of social class in composition and the future of English and composition studies.

Book Review: Watkins’ A Taste for Language,” Liberty Kohn, 2014

It’s a nice review, positive but not fawning or anything, and I think his criticisms make a certain amount of sense. It’s worth reading in full.

Stop Making Sense

One widely quoted dropout figure for students in massive open online courses is 90 percent. The number would be staggeringly high for a traditional class and has been used to cast doubt on the promise of MOOCs.
The number is simple to come up with: take the number of users who register for a course and compare it to the number still participating at the end. But is it fair?

Some researchers say MOOC dropout figures being bandied about do little to describe why hundreds of thousands of people across the world are signing up for MOOCs in the first place. All but a few of the courses offered by MOOC providers are free and don’t earn students any college credit. There are also no enforced prerequisites as there are for normal college courses.

That’s why it may not make sense to compare the number who register to the number who finish. The widely cited numbers may be “largely missing the point,” said Andrew Ho, a Harvard University assistant professor of education who is involved in some MOOC-related research.

Measuring the MOOC Dropout Rate,” Ry Rivard

I suppose that MOOC hyperbole has a predictable half-life; after a certain amount of time, the claims decay down to the point where we might consider them realistic. The first MOOC claims were rooted in the huge numbers of students signing up for them, a set of numbers used to sell the idea of the MOOC to an increasing number of schools. It was instant karma at work, a quick fix that must have made these schools feel both generous and modern.

I think there might be real research potential in these courses, simply because their sheer size and the resources behind them allow for some interesting experiments and for large-scale data collection. Or, rather, they could facilitate this sort of research if they were able to keep more than 10% of their students in the classroom for the duration of the class. If they cannot, well, MOOC’s may turn out to more (expensive) fad than intellectual meme.

Topsy Turvy Teaching

New data from a long-term study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College suggest that some of the students most often targeted in online learning’s access mission are less likely than their peers to benefit from — and may in fact be hurt by — digital as opposed to face-to-face instruction.

Who Benefits From Online Ed?” Doug Lederman

One of the first things I learned about college is that the academic pecking order is upside down. It’s especially dramatic in an English department, where the students who need the most work and help– the college freshman– tend to get the lowest paid teachers, that is, adjuncts and graduate students. The students who need the least help– junior and senior English majors– get the best paid, most experienced tenured professors.

Traditionally, English professors (each a literary specialist) taught freshman, if they did at all, only as a part of a kind of hazing ritual. Once you earned tenure you got the small classes with the (self-selected, experienced) best students. This has changed as Rhetoric and Composition nears a kind of numerical equality with Literary Studies. The more Rhetoric and Composition matures, however, the further it seems to go from those freshman.

Online education has tended to duplicate these patterns in curious ways, by focusing on those very students who seem least likely to do well in an online setting. Here, as elsewhere in academia, those students who most need the sorts of help you can only get in the traditional classroom– and in small classes– seem to be the main target audience for online education. And online education has even fewer full-time tenured professors.

Butts and Jobs

On a national radio program Tuesday morning, [North Carolina Governor, Patrick] McCrory, who goes by Pat, said he would push legislation to base funding for the state’s public colleges and universities on post-graduate employment rather than enrollment.

“I’m looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges,” McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

The Republican governor also called into question the value of publicly supporting liberal arts majors after the host made a joke about gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told the radio host. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Another Liberal Arts Critic,” Kevin Kiley

The right-wing political agenda for U.S. higher education makes a certain amount of sense. It’s rooted in facilitating profits– usually for the largest corporations– and in a kind of irrational market religion that is almost laughably self-serving. That is, it serves the selves that have the money, and dam the rest of us if we cannot keep up. It’s a game with rigged rules.

In other ways, the right-wing’s agenda is a little mysterious, if not cryptic. Even if we accept the (overly simple) notion that the right always champions individualism (and the left collectivism), it seems strange that the right endorses standardized testing. What could be less individualized? Of course, the mystery is largely solved when you consider that standardized tests can be so easily mass-marketed and sold at great profit rates.

Individual instruction, of course, is a different matter, rooted less in modern production and more in older craft models. (Don’t even think about the unions that arose out of the crafts.) Even more mysterious, in some ways, is the right’s homophobia and sexism. It’s easy to understand McCrory’s dislike if not hatred of universities: he thinks academia is a communist stronghold, and more importantly, far too interdependent of the discipline of the market.

There are profits, in other words, trapped in those public schools. Why does he see gender studies as the epitome of useless humanities research areas? Nothing could be sillier, in his view, than trying to understand gender; except, maybe, trying to teach students your understanding of gender (read: women and queers). Somehow, underneath the macho market talk of “buts that can find jobs” is a very basic kind of sexual insecurity and anxiety.

Textbo-tainment

Textbook publishers argue that their newest digital products shouldn’t even be called “textbooks.” They’re really software programs built to deliver a mix of text, videos, and homework assignments. But delivering them is just the beginning. No old-school textbook was able to be customized for each student in the classroom. The books never graded the homework. And while they contain sample exam questions, they couldn’t administer the test themselves.

One publisher calls its products “personalized learning experiences,” another “courseware,” and one insists on using its own brand name, “MindTap.” For now, this new product could be called “the object formerly known as the textbook.”

The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook,” Jeffrey R. Young

Universities are full of people who either know how to design software or want to know how to design software. We could have spent the last 30 years building an infrastructure of these people and ended up with a public software sector– an entire ecosystem of people and technologies–that made education cheaper and more accessible. It wouldn’t have stopped the commercial sector, but it might have pushed it to do more for less money.

This is the way research and development used to work before “buying from the lowest bidder” (if there was a competitive bidding system at all) was the only model. We got what we paid for, of course. Commercial software has helped to make online and traditional education more rather than less expensive and, arguably, slowed down the development of new communication technologies. We got a system that serves billionaires instead of the public.

Now it’s happening again as we move out of the age of paper-based textbooks. Once again we have the chance to create a public system of open source textbooks rooted in the huge numbers of education professionals who know how to create multi-media textbooks (writers and designers as well as scientific and humanities researchers) and the huge pool of people who want to learn how to do these things. We need a public textbook infrastructure.