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.


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.


[My] Broken Path to Enjoying Reading

The very reason I desire so strongly to argue with Alan Jacobs’ article…is because I greatly suspect his assertions to be correct.  I fear that a culture of enjoying reading, reading for its own joys, is unsustainable.  Put it in these terms: over the last 150 years, the trend has switched in the U.S. such that illiterates are in the minority.  Nearly anyone can read (one can’t drive unless one is able to approximate at least) – and many do!  Surely this reverse is a good thing, but there is a further distinction to be made; for most reading is first and foremost a pragmatic activity (she reads in order to).

But…our colleges are supposed to teach a deeper pragmatism in their liberal arts curricula, and this requires that students learn indirectly through more exhaustive readings.  By imposing hefty requirements, students learn (hopefully) how to skim well, how to research well (by learning what ends not to follow), and, perhaps, how to represent another’s thoughts well in dialogue with a greater conversation.  All such skills can be learned with a great deal of effort.  But…but, do such activities teach one to enjoy the activity herself (or do they merely reinforce the ‘pragmatism first’ approach to reading)?


My own story matches and differs from Jacobs; perhaps readers are born (meaning the proclivity to enjoy, not the ability to enjoy).  I loved losing myself in many sorts of tales and dedicated myself as a wee one to getting past whatever Spot was doing in order to find more intriguing stories.  Certainly I was overfed (and my interests waxed and waned) but for the most part I could find works I enjoyed.  As I made my way into middle and high school, there were more activities elsewhere deserving attention and less books worthy of pursuit.  Reading was an activity I would begin on a whim, but the only works I would complete were required readings.  Even though my last two years before college involved a Great Books curriculum, I still only truly found enjoyment in the activity if I had nothing else to do.

Beginning an Engineering (or other intensive) degree was a good way to kill any free time (to remove the possibility or ‘leisure’ space) needed for such activities.  By the end of my second year I barely read anything of interest at all.  If I found spare time it was to be spent escaping the exertions and exhaustion of my degree or what little social life I maintained (yes, introverts really do tend to wear out in social settings…searching for recharge station…) – but such escape was not to be found amongst books (no, I don’t think reading is mere escapism either).

So, in my case, education provided a stressor which did not introduce me to enjoying reading, but instead drove me from it.  When I decided to switch schools it was because I did n’t want to win the prize of entering my profession.  Once determined, there was no returning by that way – though the way before me was.  I had little idea what was in store…


I received a surprising phone call: some professor of English at my new school was inviting me to join the newly formed ‘Honors program’.  Clearly she had n’t read anything I had written to date.  I ultimately caved and agreed to join her class.  ‘Film and Culture’ with Dr. Janice Gable quickly became an outlet for so much of what had been pent up in my frustrating two prior years of study.  Sarcasm is encouraged here?  We shall have to see for how long!  Truly, that class and that group of people restored a confidence I had lost…I even discover’d that if I could only find a worthwhile subject to study that I could execute a meaningful paper.

The joy of reading for its own sake I did n’t discover again until the next Summer (’06).  I had learned that some things surprisingly came naturally to me: quickly understanding the means by which one dissects an argument, a love for languages, and the joys of a great discussion.  That class was well timed (as were many other things).  Reading for enjoyment was still something other smart people did – ’till I stumbled across C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces…and at last that light was relit (if dimly at first).




*~dedicated to the memory of Janice Gable; may you find rest at His side (and not ask too many impertinent questions)~