by degrees

All degrees are remnants of the past — at best indicators of abilities which may be applied to the future.  The full weight of the problem does not rest therein (though I wonder how much a problem weighs — a problem truly), but more often the filtering which takes place is justified within the course’s outlook solely.  Skills may be practised in the classroom and by these an arbitrary grading scale is determined — fine enough, but how is the feedback to be applied?

In case you fail to recognise the symptoms, at present I ‘m grading papers.  The long term applications of this work are minimal, yet this is the part that has to be done correctly — I can’t afford to assign a mark falsely only to have it overturned.  What a waste that should prove!  Both teacher and student strain the neck preparing for the blow to fall — not to fall unexpectedly, better to be proactive.  I should wish this would n’t affect my marking, but it does.  At best my marking is judiciously subjective — and in places justified, but there are surely places where I have been injudicious and shall be again.

So what is to be made of this all?  I mean to suggest that subjective is n’t a bad thing — so long as the word is spoken in the daylight its most sinister machinations fail to harm much.  It is when the guise of objectivity can be wielded with full naiveté that real damage may occur — for the student and teacher might well benefit from the other’s perspective.  We should do better.  Students should no more fulfill assignments than we should mark them complete — instead we should together build projects which draw on the other’s strengths.

In short teaching should grow with both student and teacher alike — it will need to prove itself as truly inter-active.


Towards an Orderly Mis-Education

[Rejecting Perfection

Alright, well that ‘s done.  That is, until I have to undergo another teacher observation or experience one of those awkward moments where I really feel I ought to be able to show exactly how my teaching is best.

Honestly (can you ever be sure in this blog?) I learned how to grow without a set ideal long ago — perhaps many still need them, but I hope not for long.  Of course improving is about setting goals, getting close enough to see how close you came and whether it was worth the effort… and resetting new goals.  The ‘perfect teacher’ is a way to keep the confidence deficient below ground and, more often, a self-justificating mechanism for the teacher-centred teacher.

[Shifting the Core

“We need to be provoked….It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are indeed so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever?”

— H.D. Thoreau, Walden “Reading”

I hope not.

I see the primary goal of the teacher to be un-educating the students (and they often need this).  This is no less true in my English skills classes than in maths courses.  Why?  Simply, knowledge is a moving target.  To mis-purpose a borrowed metaphor from Peter Elbow, writing (which is a means of communicating and re-purposing knowledge anyway) is like trying to hold onto Proteus in the midst of his shifting.

Having cleared, or actually perpetually clearing and finally teaching the students to clear away for themselves, the teacher ought to present opportunities for students to reach out and learn.  Creating experiences which are as near as possible to those truly encountered is my primary teaching goal (although I reserve the right to change this later).

[Who’s responsible?

Oh right, and if student-centred learning is to be the way, students have to be made responsible for their learning.  Thoreau let loose an image which still breathes in my mind: students do n’t care about school because it was already built for them.  Instead they need to take part in the building of the school.

In fact, a school should be perpetually built (one could argue that this is the case due to entropy and narcissism anyway, or in many cases elitism).  If knowledge is ever changing, should n’t its pursuers shift with it?  As such, it certainly can’t invest in merely a few teachers, but learners ought to congregate.  Hence we may have our villages at last — but we may be fewer than hoped.

Academic Pursuit

According to my favorite etymology website, the Latin prosequi or ‘follow up’ in the English word pursue/uit is also attached to such familiar terms as prosecute and persecute.  Not all followings are positive for the followed, eh?


I ‘ve gone and joined  In hopes of attaining what end specifically, I do n’t know.  I do know it reminds me how few marketable skills I can honestly put on my C.V. (Curriculum Vitae or academic résumé).  No positions held.  No peer-reviewed publications.  No lectures or talks given.  One conference attended purely as a spectator.  One Masters of Arts degree (which will have a few transferable skills).  Much reading yet to do.  Much writing yet to attempt.  Many secondary skills in need of considerable sharpening (if not something akin to generation).  Oh right, and there ‘s much networking yet to even begin.   


It is a considerable struggle not to desire such items (or their betters – in terms of location/timing most likely) for the sake of prestige, easy to forget the lesson of the undergraduate: that you know exceedingly little compared to the senior members of academia.  It is easier to forget the lesson of the graduate student: that senior members also know exceedingly little (at least outside their special lens within their field).  Of course, the latter does not truly abolish the former.  But on the path to becoming an initiate, or a recognized member of the academy, there is considerable temptation to grasp for knowledge-credentials rather than knowledge itself.


So if this blog comprises the majority of my minimal credentials (lending credence only for those who both find my work intriguing and proceed to apply it in ways that reach back into that dialectic I attempt to participate in), should I radically change my approach?  I ‘m not yet ready to give up judging my location by the searching for some unattained object which is yet my pursuit.

Perhaps it is too much to assume that one day soon I shall be past lacking these base credentials.  Maybe some day later I shall even enjoy modest success (currently defined as a place in which I can continue pursuing these objects and assist others in their intersecting pursuits), but that is a concern for another time.  For now I am only concerned to recall that the C.V. could be littered with items unrelated to the pursuits for which I consider academia to offer any value for me.  In other words, I can’t accept the title ‘Dr’ without having written out some slivers of the inner book.


What I see is that I also must acknowledge truly that I must start from some point.  In truth, I am at some point.  But I must find a means of locating my voice for the moment so that another one or two might meaningfully respond and so drag me a few steps forward.  Such a pursuit feels to me like an invitation to prosecution, to being rejected for the unknowing choices that lead to me being hereand not there.  But I cannot accept this.  Even to be rejected is to be affirmed as having a location worth requisitioning.  I should remember not to glibly mis-locate others permanently to one sphere of discourse.  Such is a real fear for me, but one I cannot accept bowing under.  Located I must be, though stepping lightly I shall yet attempt.


So, as to where I am, or at least what this location is: this is an attempt to gain an accent, to try out various intonations in communicating within a discourse.  True, that discourse allows me considerable freedom and may demand much of my reader.  Texts may be chosen at will and need only participate in some skepticism or some sphere of language by which I might attempt to reach out and appropriate a value.  This is a ground of play in which to learn skills that I hope to wield better, and more carefully, when a soberer maturity is attained.  For now it is best that I laugh.  Perhaps later that shall diminish to a chuckle and elicit looks of wondering disdain by those unfortunate enough to be termed colleagues.  But in truth, I feel all shall be well enough if I can yet help others to laugh; for maturity is not the negation of play.


I guess what I ‘m saying is: while I do n’t expect to be here always, I want to learn things while here that will help me be a better person when I ‘m no longer looking through the fence at the older kids who get to play baseball till the twilight.  I want to be as much that person who does things, not because someone else would like to do the same, but because as far as I know I ‘ve made an honest attempt to do them the right way.  Until then (but most hopefully then as well), I ‘m learning as much as I can.

Brief Excursus on Graduate Studies and Jobs

It seems that, ever since the real possibility of attending graduate school presented itself, I have met with many counter-voices seeking to pop the bubble as it were.  A good example is Rob Jenkins’ article: ‘On Hiring’ published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Particularly concerned with the myth that ‘I can always teach at community college’, Jenkins counterposits that in his experience, hiring committees often won’t hire those without significant teaching experience.  I ‘ve highlighted this, as Jenkins has underlined by treating the subject in more depth, because this may be a neglected part of the graduate experience.

Whether I return to this topic in particular, it is easily demonstrable that the job market for higher education requires more than completion of the core curriculum.  Members of a hiring committee must either like your teaching experience, your publications and references, or other relevant skills/experiences.  And that ‘s the minimum.  No, not the minimum to teach at a university, it is likely required for you to teach at a community college.

I insert here the caveat that exceptions occur – but the core claim that a completed degree in which the applicant achieved proficiency is of itself inadequate to secure a job in this market will hold for most cases.


The results I wish to draw from this are twofold: one, academic advising should mean a lot more than providing students with the information necessary to graduate, and two, graduate programs should offer students with more opportunities to adapt their studies to meet their future employment goals.

My experience of academic advising at the community, private, and graduate school levels was largely unhelpful.  The advisers, to be fair, had to be knowledgeable of that which was required to meet retroactive standards according to the offered schedule of classes.  This alone was a difficult process, but one I was able to navigate largely without their help.  I say largely because I still had to have their signatures to alter my major at the private college and drop my concentration at the graduate school.  However, in neither case was an adviser able to meaningfully assist me in gaining a picture of that which would be necessary to attain a job in my chosen field.  Their job priority was to help me graduate by making sure I was n’t taking too many courses outside of the bounds required for my degree, in both cases.

But the fact that publishing, teaching, or other relevant experience would be required after graduation to secure a job, not a good job, but a job, was not communicated.  I agree with Jenkins here:

“In fact, I would argue that they [graduate programs] need to do more than just present students with their options. They need to make sure they understand what each option might require of them and then provide opportunities for students to meet those requirements.”

This is my experience in a nutshell: competent advisers know how to almost painlessly plug your previous coursework into your amended program [‘so you don’t want to be an engineer? ok, well if you want computer programming drop this course, add statistics…etc’].  I.e., they know how to shift from one core curriculum to another (at least that should be the minimal skill required); to change your coursework to match your new goal within their offered degree programs.

I realized some of this in my final years of undergrad and began taking courses in hopes of broadening my interests.  It took an unbelievable amount of effort to explain why I wanted to study abroad as I already had the credit hours accounted for that I needed.  My pursuits included but were also outside the bounds of the degree.  I was n’t so interested in checking the boxes off the list (and I found I could do this with less hassle myself) and was pleased with the resulting effects on my learning.  While some things prepared me for the study abroad, nothing had as great or as focused of an effect on me; nothing incited me to learn at a higher level like that study.  While an adviser should dissuade some from taking such measures, in my case it was thoroughly needed.  In short, my adviser knew my degree but not my purpose or what was required to get there.  If they had, they could have offered more helpful steps to achieving that goal.  Instead I was left largely to my own devices (and thankfully to the counsel of caring professors who were willing to share their concerns and advise courses of pursuit).


Jenkins supplies a means by which graduate schools might offer assistance: adaptations.  He suggests offering a ‘research’ track in which little teaching transpires and a ‘teaching’ track in which research is minimized.  In either case, the core goal of the student is met.  A core curriculum is still met, but the skill set practiced is ultimately what is of value not only in securing a job but executing it.  This reminds me of a struggles I had with the head of my department where I asked for some flexibility in the interest of teaching or researching instead of satisfying a system ill suited to sharpening my core skills.

In graduate school I was met with a system which promised to be more flexible, but which offered few opportunities.  Where we as students would have been better served with a division wherein courses could be taken either with a research focus aimed at academic discourse or a teaching section of the course and finally a mixed option.  And I mean for these to be offered at the masters level, for my courses were far too crowded with students never having encountered a given subject before, whether in personal or formal study.  So a course in Ethics would have the following offerings: Ethics- Research Focus, Ethics- Teaching Focus, Ethics in Practice, and Introduction to Ethics.  The same could be constructed for Philosophy, Religious Studies, Literature, and Language offerings.

Further adaptations could be offered; the result would be students better practiced in the core skills required for their profession.  And, for those who are by nature interdisciplinary, the possibilities still exist for them to be stretched through challenging coursework.


A fuller picture requires input not only from students content with receiving their degree; those who already think outside of the bounds of the degree need to be afforded opportunities to practice those skills which will allow them to offer something to their respective fields.  Otherwise, they are forced to the periphery if they are unable to find the proper networking outside of the institution whereas the institution should be not only aware of such difficulties but adapted to fit the real needs of the paying underlings (whether directly or indirectly) who comprise the student body.

Mis-Education: Foreseeable Outcomes of a ‘Post-Campus America’

I mean to here respond specifically to Megan McArdle’s Envisioning a Post-Campus America.  In order to do so, I shall consider her projected outcomes critically:

First, education will be dominated by huge brands.  I believe I agree from the standpoint that certain companies with a decent product, some consistency, and a few wealthy benefactors are able to develop a sizable market share which then cycles.  Certain names are likely to remain dominant for long periods because they can afford to employ the best and offer more nuance in their program offerings.

I don’t understand how that fits her following statement about the “benefit to having learned stuff the same way as the people around you” because I don’t see how the experience at MIT equates to MITx, much less how it then compares to Ricex or U. of Delawarex.  Isn’t online education a way of multiplying educational experiences, not standardizing them?  She specifically cites the nature of grading scales as they differ from one business school to another.  Grading can only be standardized within one system, can it not?  I’ve seen how grading differs not only from one school to another, but from one professor to another.

My honest take is that online education will lend itself to less adaptability and student-teacher interaction.  I base this assertion on several online classes I have completed – in only one of them was my work critiqued to a standard matching an in-class offering (it actually exceeded quite a few of them).


Second, the liberal arts degree will die out.  As a former engineering student with degrees in theology, I have some insight into the differences in educational philosophy in math & science programs from those in the liberal arts.  Teaching someone to think and respond critically is very different from instilling mathematics fundamentals and the use of formulas.  Some skills cross over, it’s a lot easier to demonstrate success in math or the physical sciences (your formulae are correct or not) than to consistently critique papers.  I agree with McArdle here: grading papers is labor intensive and this alone makes it an uphill battle to save the liberal arts degree.


Next, McArdle asserts that teaching will be prioritized over research.  I think it’s far worse – image wins the day.  I’ve had teachers with various distracting elements (cross-eyed, missing a few fingers, stuttering, etc) who proved excellent because they had a lot to offer.  Can you imagine the well-qualified teacher who commands a classroom well, but is poorly apportioned, blotchy, or worse – whose personability is limited to the physical classroom?


This naturally leads us to most professors (she estimates 95%) losing their jobs.  That’s especially disturbing for those of us already disillusioned with the job prospects left to we pursuers of higher education.  If you don’t pass the eyeball test and don’t get absurdly lucky to be in position to join the 5%, how will you apply your skills?  The few schools lucky enough to cement their foothold in these markets will grow richer in media technology, administration, and advertising while it will become tougher for good teachers to keep their jobs.


Going back to the prior point, where do the researchers then go?  Maybe medical/pharmaceutical degrees will escape some of this, but it’s difficult to see how the research markets don’t fold eventually under the strain of no longer being rewarded for their efforts.  Truly this would signal the end of universities as research centers.  I agree with McArdle on this point.  What the rich deem relevant to research will be deemed relevant because there won’t be money to research much else.  Liberal Arts professors and underlings, again, will have to adapt.


In order, more unpaid internships, etc. will result.  Yep.  Graduate studies will change drastically, and the Ph.D. especially – I think these need revisited but not dismantled.  I don’t see a smooth transition here.  Community/Networking experiences – ‘collegiality’ – will have to be fostered another way.  I see this as less of a problem, but then I was pretty anti-social throughout most of my schooling.  

Upward mobility won’t flow the same way through higher education.  This may be a good thing.  Perhaps it stabilizes some communities so that their young talent finds applications for their abilities locally.  Affordability would be nice…but why wouldn’t Yalex and MITx’s products be as exclusive as ever?  Their branding is built on a certain level of exclusivity and schools will still want to capitalize on wealthy graduates or pioneering minds.  Will a marketable degree really be more affordable and easier to achieve?  I hope it results in less debt for our youth, but I wonder if exclusivity won’t proliferate.

Tutoring will boom.  I completely agree and clearly see the inevitable cheating problems which will arise.  I’m foreseeing a considerable rise in test centers, even while the cheating industry booms (and with it the counter-cheating industry). Cheating is all too rampant and if the diagnostics are what matters for future careers, isn’t it worth the risk?  To compensate for this, schools become martial about drilling anti-cheating mantras and enforcing standards rather than show why the standards matter (or determining whether they really do – that is for another discussion).


Concluding statements – if a good portion of the aforementioned items result, is the result both convenient and beneficial overall?  Are the resulting skills truly more beneficial for the students and society?  Honestly, I think there will be less room for innovation and more standardization because it’s easier to draw a profit and to find teachers who will enforce standards serving a set in stone curriculum.  Overall, I think the educational system in America is broken, but the market won’t be able to fix it by means of the internet.  It will only come when standards can be put in place which enrich the students as members of communities – how that is to be accomplished through a screen I can’t picture.