Thursday, June 30, 2011

Accountable to Whom? The Un-measurable in Education

I don't think I need to go back over for any readers of this blog the push in education, both K-12 and higher education, towards standardization, concrete learning outcomes, and return-on-investment. One has to look no further than what is currently going on in Texas to see that what we do as professors/instructors/educators is under some heavy fire. Increasingly, my job is about counting and measuring. 

I am not saying that we shouldn't be held accountable, but I wonder to whom we should be accountable to? And if we change who we are accountable to, then we also need to change how we "measure" or evaluate the job we have done. 

As public institutions, we are accountable to the public at large that supports our work. I have some trouble with that assertion if only because the "public" has largely abandoned public higher education. If we look at California, we can readily see the impact of severely reduced public monies going to the university; the list of universities that have had the highest net increase in tuition overwhelmingly come from California. I invite you to check out the work that Remaking the University has been doing to expose the erosion of public support for higher education in California. 

But even if we still looked at the university as serving the public good, much of what the university does do (or, at least, could do) goes "un-measured" by the typical metrics. If all we measure are students taught, graduation rates, and post-graduation salaries, we are missing the rich and complex work that professors do in the university. In fact, I would argue, that it is not in the greater public's good to limit our judgement on a university's (or professor's) success based exclusively on raw numbers; it actively discourages academics from actually engaging the larger community that they are a part of. When the "public good" is defined as test scores, then you can be sure that that is the only good the public will receive. 

But as the students' burden of paying for their education increases, so, too, then, should we see the individual student as the person we are ultimately accountable to. This, of course, is problematic. There are many ways we are, as educators, already at the mercy of our students', thus accountable to them. We are, if Academically Adrift is to be believed, simplifying the curriculum, at students' demand. We are entertaining them at best, enabling them at worst, rather than educating them in order to prop up our evaluations. But these sort of accountability measures don't actually serve the students, but the administrative (or governmental) dictates of retention and completion rates. In fact, the student is not the one who is holding us accountable. 

When I look at the recent post from the educators at the University of Venus, commenting on the best part of their job, it universally comes down to the relationship we all have with individual students. In a moving defense of the humanities, a professor defends how a liberal arts education enriches the individual, making the world at large a better place. But I want to take his argument a step further and show how self-perpetuating arguments against "impractical" education have become.

Liberal arts degrees are seen as worthless because they don't provide students with any sort of "hard" skills. But they do provide students with the soft skills necessary to make good choices, both in their professional and personal life. But, why aren't they then? Why are more and more people acting badly (insert whatever definition of "bad" you'd like; the argument works no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on)? 

Could it be because less and less students are, in fact, pursuing or even have access to this kind of enriching education? 

I teach at a rural state institution, filled with non-traditional, first-generation college students. Our completion rates are, admittedly low. Not for-profit institution low, but low nonetheless. When I see my developmental students, I know the odds are stacked against them. In my mind, I am accountable to them by trying to teach them as much as I can in 15 weeks to attempt to make them not just a better college student, but a better person, period. I teach writing, critical thinking, and, even in this age of narcissism, confidence. Even if my students never complete their degree, or even their freshman year, I act as though my course will serve them outside of university.

They will come out of my class as better writers and more aware of the importance of literacy. Maybe they'll write a better cover letter, or earn a promotion because of their improved writing and literacy skills. Maybe they'll come back later to complete a degree because they demonstrated progress in my class. Maybe they will consume media a bit more wisely, carefully, and critically. Maybe they'll read to their kids, stock their dwellings with books, and take regular trips to the library, increasing the chances that their kids will succeed where they did not. 

These are the un-measurable parts of my job. This is how I am accountable to my students. Are they better people having taken my class? That is one of my most important goals when teaching. No one measures that. I don't even know if we could. But I see it as my responsibility as a teacher, to my students and to the public, whoever they may be. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The D Word: Diversity in the Classroom

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

I'll admit, it was a bit startling to me when I walked into my classroom on the first day of classes this semester and was greeted by a sea of white faces. I've never taught at a university where 99% of my students were white. I always took diversity for granted. And because I took it for granted, I wasn't a huge defender of it.

Now, with the majority of my students coming from similar backgrounds, mostly from the same small geographic area, I really understand the importance of diversity: diversity of ideas and opinions, diversity of experience, diversity of perspective according to race, class, sex, age, and gender identification. But, how does a rural school, or a rural institution, create a diverse experience?

When talking about education reform, one of my students spoke in defense of big schools because they were more likely to provide diversity. But, I countered, you could make a school as large as you wanted, but if the demographics aren't diverse to begin with, the school will continue to reflect the people it draws from. Kentucky is 90% white. The regions where most of our students come from (and which we are tasked to serve) is probably a higher percentage, as well as representing some of the poorest regions in the state, if not the country. How, then, are we supposed to provide students at any level with a "diverse" experience when the demographics tend towards a homogeneous population?

This is something that rural colleges, especially, deal with. One way to provide students with a diverse experience is to provide them and expose them to a diverse faculty. But recruiting and retaining a minority or "queer" faculty in an isolated community is challenging, to say the least. We are also typically responsible for educating the teachers who will go out into the more rural communities, making it doubly important to try to expose them to a more diverse education.

But what about the student body itself? How does a public university, tasked with primarily serving a specific region, build a more diverse "class"? Much like recruiting a diverse faculty, how do you attract minority students to an area that is typically seen as "redneck country" (admit it, you think that about Kentucky)? And in the age of dwindling resources, is spending money of recruiting trips far outside of our service area the best use of funds?

There are no easy answers to that question. One of the ways the institution has addressed the issues is to bring in a diverse array of guest speakers, artists, and intellectuals. Last year, for example, bell hooks came to speak on campus. I also think that exposing students to the wealth of materials that are available, for free, online can broaden their intellectual perspectives. Why aren't we using Skype more in our schools, K-12 and in higher education, to connect with people from all walks of life?

It's easy to talk about diversity, champion diversity, and even vilify the cult of diversity that some claim has been created. I don't take diversity for granted, but we all need to work, urban and rural, together if we want to ensure that students are exposed to diversity.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Non-Academic Interests (or Having a Life)

Before I begin this post, I want to draw your attention to what's happened to Rumana Monzur. She's my age. She's a wife, a mother, an academic, just like me. I feel incredibly privileged that I can sit here and blog about gender issues here and elsewhere, without fear of physical reprisal. It is for her and the women like her who are too afraid or too oppressed to even attempt to go to university that I write these Bad Female Academic posts for. At the end of the day, in our own ways, we are all Bad Female Academics. If we ever want equality, that has to change. 

Tenured Radical recently commented that "The Only Good Professor is a Dead Professor" in response to a study that notes that academics are at particular risk for stress-related illness. We don't take good care of ourselves physically and are under a tremendous amount of stress mentally. In fact, as Eileen in the comments points out, we are socialized to neglect all other aspects of ourselves in the name of...Academics? Tenure? Teaching more and more classes as an adjunct to make ends meet? 
I'm still in grad school, so I don't know about the job part of it, but part of the problem from where I am is that in addition to being socialized as scholars, graduate students are also socialized to standards of personal care. Don't look tired enough? Talk too much about going to they gym? You're probably not serious enough about the program. It's not overt, but at least at my uni there's a culture of "you have time for that later" but it may just be creating new faculty who believe they can't take care of themselves to get ahead.
 I've heard and read advice that says that you shouldn't "Friend" your senior colleagues on Facebook lest they read your status updates and see that you aren't spending every moment of every day on academic matters, thus threatening your position. As a wife and mother, these two roles are seen as incompatible with being an academic because they are a "distraction" from the task at hand (which, again, is what?). While the rest of the world seems to have this image of us as being lazy, it's almost as if within the Ivory Tower, we want to prove the exact opposite by over-asserting our devotion and seriousness.

After four years of my PhD, my husband was accepted to do his own PhD in Southern California. My supervisor told me to get out and go with him. I luckily had a dissertation fellowship so the time off on my C.V. was justified, but truth be told, I was burnt out. I had been miserable in my program, a sentiment that I often read and hear online and in person from others in graduate school. My life got infinitely better when two things happened: I met my husband and I decided to join the Masters swim team on campus. I didn't care anymore if people thought I was unserious or unfocused or frivolous, I needed something outside of my studies to sustain me.

Our first year in SoCal, I took a much needed break from everything having to do with my academic work. And, I started to coach swimming again. No year off to find myself in some exotic location, no volunteering for a worthy cause, no, I coached swimming again. When I started teaching again, I still coached. After having my daughter, I still taught and coached (I would wear her while coaching). Swimming was the one thing that I had for myself (my husband can't even swim). I adored watching a swimmer's stroke on tape and breaking down what was wrong with it and working with them to try and improve it. I love to get in the water myself and just swim back and forth, back and forth. If you ever want to really see me geek out, ask me about swimming.

I will not apologize for this, nor do I hide that I love swimming. Or science fiction. Or Disney movies. Or any number of things that have absolutely nothing to do with my academic work, or have much culturally or socially redeeming qualities. When did we decide that academics (or mothers, for that matter) aren't allowed to have interests and a life outside of the institution? There are other jobs as stressful and demanding as academia, but I can think of no other job (again, other than motherhood) that demands complete and total subjugation of every other facet of your being.

You want proof that I am a dedicated academic? I could have become a coach, but I chose to become an academic. But, alas, I am a Bad Female Academic.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Academic Publishing, Money, and Legitimacy

I attended World Views Conference on the Media and Higher Education in Toronto last week (#WV2011 on Twitter). I will leave it to my friend, @qui_oui (whom I finally met face to face, along with @Mary_Churchill) to comment about how higher education is portrayed in the media. What I want to talk about is the question of legitimacy in both the media and academic publishing. It's something else both fields have in common.

I was struck during the conference how many members of both the university and traditional media spoke about social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. One panelist spat the word Twitter like it was poison, while another dismissed social media as fleeting tools for the young, all while lamenting that no one reads/funds/pays for newspapers anymore. When one speaker commented that there may, indeed, perhaps, exist "legitimate bloggers" out there, I had had enough. What makes a blogger legitimate? Who decides? And why, if the model is failing, are we still holding on to it for dear life?

We see the same thing happening in the world of publishing in higher education. Traditional university/academic publishers are closing down and losing money, as are traditional journals. More and more paywalls are going up while library budgets are going down. Scholarship, however, is increasingly using multi-media techniques, as illustrated by the presentation at the 2011 Digital Humanities conference. The old systems are failing, and we are slow to embrace new means of sharing our research while still maintaining the "legitimacy" required for hiring, tenure, and promotions.

Why can't a cultural anthropologist receive credit for carefully making a documentary? Part of the reason, one can imagine, is because filmmaking is seen as a commercial enterprise. Making money is a definite no-no in academia, especially in the humanities. Blogging is seen as a bit of a waste of time, as well as effort not only because it is not legitimate, but also because, as Dr. Davis at Teaching College English discovered, some still see it as a commercial enterprise. Even if it was, is it such a bad thing? Why shouldn't an academic make money with their writing?

There are two very powerful forces at work when it comes to your writing and research, whether you're an academic or "journalist" - the idea of the public good and the ability to pay your bills and keep a roof over your head. Does the Huffington Post, who is about to make a ton of money off of their sale to AOL, owe it to the hundreds of bloggers (this one included) who contributed material for free? What about Big Media's request for volunteers to go through all of Sarah Palin's emails, for free as well? I'm all for crowdsourcing, but when does it cross over into exploitation?

As an academic, I do blog here about teaching and general issues in higher education and about my research on another blog. I applaud new initiatives that seek to make research more open, available, interactive, and dynamic. I am very excited by the announcement, made today, about PressForward, an effort to create and support "legitimate" online publishing opportunities and ventures. The more we start including things like blogging on our C.V's, the more people will become aware of the value of the activities, and thus become more legitimate. Why can't I receive credit for co-creating and moderating the #FYCchat on Twitter?

This summer, I have been really obsessing over the question of legitimacy, in our publications, our writing, and the way we write. Heck, I'm even thinking about it for my (traditional) academic article I'm writing. But one issues I haven't seen addressed (nor have I really addressed it myself) is the question of money. If 75% of us are off the tenure-track, then how we make ends meet with the work we produce is the elephant in the room.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who Will Be Our Future Professors?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

A video has made the rounds online recently, a hysterical and painfully accurate description of the future that awaits a student who is interested in getting a PhD in English. Another -- less popular, no less hysterical -- concerns the probable future of a student wanting to get a PhD in Political Science. On The Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas H. Benson has written about how students looking to do a PhD in the Humanities shouldn't bother, unless:
  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
In the face of all of this negative rhetoric surrounding getting a PhD and aspiring to become a professor, I ask, who will be teaching my children (currently aged 3.5 years and 21 months) when they are ready to go to university (if they chose to go)? Who will be teaching any of our children? What if, as the advice tell us, we opt out?

This is particularly troubling when we start to think of the situation in terms of minority or non-traditional students. The number of undergraduate students who fall into those categories is increasing, but it doesn't look like that the number of people representing those groups in the professoriate will be increasing at a comparable rate. And, as studies have shown (at least in STEM fields), race matters. And if we truly value diversity, what does it say to our students when the professors teaching them come from an incredibly small (and, one would imagine, fairly homogeneous) part of the population?

But it also matters because of the message we're sending the best and the brightest minds: don't aspire to become a professor. If you have a passion for the humanities or social sciences, either channel it in a different direction or try to find another one. Do we not want the best and the brightest teaching in our institutions of higher learning? Who do we want teaching our children: those with privilege or those with passion? The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but nonetheless, it would seem that the small number of the former would lead an even smaller number in the latter.

This impacts every level of education. It is our universities that train and educate future K-12 teachers, administrators, and, more importantly, future elected officials, leaders, and CEOs. Who so we want educating our leaders, decision makers, and policy shapers? Do we allow the dangerous image of the spoiled and pampered university professor to continue unabated? Do we participate in the active discouragement of an entire generation of young people who may serve to inspire and innovate, shape and motivate through the universities?

We cannot give up working to change higher education. I refuse to see an entire lost generation of potential (and passionate) academics.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Motherhood

It has been almost impossible for me to "hide" the fact that I am mother during my academic career. When I moved to the States and began my first job as an adjunct instructor, I was quite visibly pregnant. It was a strange and wonderful experience to discuss the book Manliness while 7 months pregnant, talking about gender roles. When I was looking for tenure-track jobs, I had my husband and infant daughter in toe for the MLA interviews, made noise about being able to bring her for on-campus interviews, requested time for pumping, and always asked about on-campus childcare options. When I started my tenure-track position, I was once again pregnant, and had to take maternity leave at the beginning of only my second semester. And in my current position, I have often had to wear my son on my back while teaching because there was no one else to look after him. 

I am an admitted mother-hen when I teach. But I am also quite clearly still a mother while I teach. We live less than a block from campus, so often the kids will come to campus to visit. I teach in a small town, so I almost always run into my students while I am out with the kids. My kids become over-simplified examples for class (how my daughter's former love of all things Elmo, including canned beans, is no different than Katy Perry shilling ProActive). But, especially with the students I teach (non-traditional), my kids seem to humanize me and bridges the gap between us. Many of my students are from large, close-knit families, where they have plenty of young cousins, nieces, nephews, or young kids themselves. For many of my students, talking about my kids before class shows that I am a human being outside of the classroom.

Too bad that feeling isn't universal throughout academia. I still remember the stark difference between the reactions to me at the regional state university campus where I taught and the small, highly-competitive liberal arts college where I coached swimming to my visible pregnancy. At the liberal arts college, female students and faculty would visibly recoil upon seeing me, while at the state school, most girls would ask me my due date and if they could touch my belly. Academia tends to see pregnancy and motherhood as the small liberal-arts college looked at me: as something freakish, something to be feared and avoided. If one becomes a mother, then one also cuts herself off from many, many professional opportunities. 

The double-standard for male and female academics when it comes to parenthood is also a constant source of frustration. My husband also has had to bring our son to meetings on campus because of the lack of child-care options; he is viewed as a loving and doting father, not to mention devoted husband for "allowing" me to continue my career. But when I bring my kids to school, I am seen as unprofessional for bringing my role of mother into the classroom or a wife who has been asked to sacrifice too much in the name of her husband's career. I cannot be who I am not, and I am a mother who is an academic, an academic who is a mother. Why those things remain seemingly incompatible is beyond me. 

Just be to clear, I have never tried to use my position as a mother to "get ahead" (I took six weeks off when my second was born, had no mat leave support for my first, just the summer "off"), nor is it all that I talk about in class. I'm also not a Tiger Mother or a mother who thinks that my role is part of a larger, full-contact sport. I take my role as a mother seriously, but I am also a serious academic. A confession: last month, when I went, by myself, to a conference, I was thrilled. Not only because of the wonderfully stimulating conversations that were taking place within my field, but because I got a break.

Yeah, a break.

I went back to work in part because I had to for financial reasons, but also because I wanted to. No, that's not accurate; I needed to. Good Female Academics choose: be a good mother or be a good academic. I didn't. Or, I did temporarily, by giving up my tenure-track job. But I won't apologize for loving my job as an academic, on or off the tenure-track. Not to mention those parts of my identity that have nothing to do with my kids, my husband, or my job. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How Universities Are Like Newspapers

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

I was on the phone with a reporter who was trying to track down my brother for a story the other day. Nothing bad; she was a Montreal reporter looking to talk to fans who had made the trip to Edmonton for the Grey Cup (the Canadian Super Bowl). At the end of our conversation, she thanked me for all of my help and wished that all of her leads were as helpful as I was. I am sympathetic, I said, I originally wanted to be a journalist. Really, she asked, what did you end up doing? I'm a professor, I answered. She laughed, saying, "that sounds like a much better idea."

Sigh. Not really, unfortunately.

When I started out as an undergraduate, the Internet was still in it's infancy. But the newspaper industry was already losing money, shedding full-time writers, and increasingly relying on freelance reporters and wire stories. At least, it was in a shrinking English market in Montreal, a city in a predominantly French province. My program was ahead of it's time, offering classes in web publishing, such as it was at the time. But the idea of getting into a dying industry wasn't very appealing to me. I have a few friends who have "made it" as journalists, but they work in really isolated locations and often do so much more than writing stories; they are editors, formatters, and web designers.

So I choose to enter a field where I, too, will be paid little while I pay my dues, in an industry that is under heavy fire and on the brink of, perhaps, dying. There are fewer and fewer full-time positions, and the people in those positions are being asked to perform increasing duties within the institution. If you are lucky enough to get a full-time positions, it is often, once again, in a small, isolated location. The biggest difference? Instead of starting my career as a fresh-faced 23-year-old with a brand-new BA, I am starting it ten years and many tens of thousands of dollars of extra debt later.

In both industries, the wild Web is radically changing how we do our jobs and deliver our content. We are both increasingly using low paid (or free) labor who are more than willing to undervalue themselves in the name of exposure or experience. Newspapers, and thus aspiring journalists, are about ten years ahead of universities in term of their downward trajectory. If universities, and aspiring professors, want to know what things are going to look like in another decade? Look at newspapers, for better or for worse.

(I'm not sure how the resiliency and durability of magazines fit into this little analogy. The highly specialized liberal arts college?)

Journalism schools and aspiring journalists have had to adapt. PhD programs will have to adapt as well. There is a new hashtag making the rounds on Twitter, #NewPhD, in the hopes of fostering a exactly that, new types of PhDs to meet the demands (or lack thereof) of the new university and economy. Just as journalism students quickly realized that they wouldn't make a living working for a newspaper, so too are we realizing that we will not make a living as a university professor, as we have historically understood it. So what will we do?

Some of us, like me, will move to the middle of nowhere in order to be able to work as a professor (ok, full time instructor, but it's still better than adjuncting). Others, however, will re-imagine what it means to be successful in or out of higher education. And we all need to fight to play a role in whatever form higher education takes in the future.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Education: It'll Probably Make You Cry

I was talking on Twitter last week about how the competitors are often reduced to tears during their rehearsals but then come to celebrate the growth they've achieved. As one of my Tweeps points out: Any goal I've achieved is fraught w/ tears, exhaustion, happiness. If it's easy, it wasn't worth it.

A few nights later, I was watching a documentary called Run Run Revolution. A trainer takes 10 ordinary high school students and trains them to run 10km at the Boston Marathon. It's a fascinating look at how much you need to sacrifice and be willing to do in order to achieve a goal. As the trainer tells the kids on one of their first practices: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Why is it that we embrace pushing ourselves (or others) physically, but shy away from pushing ourselves intellectually? I was taken to task on Twitter for, in one person's mind, encouraging teachers to make their students cry. I don't want to humiliate, belittle, or insult my students, but I do want to make them as uncomfortable as possible. And sometimes, challenging students leads to tears.

The harder we work, the more satisfied we are with the results. But we also learn more, achieve more, and grow. I'm not saying that if we don't cry then we haven't worked hard enough. But we need to engage our minds in our educations the same way dancers push themselves to become better or runners push themselves to become faster. As a graduate student, I wrote on the most challenging works we read in class, to push myself. I recently wrote an essay on a novel that I've struggled with for years. It bugged me that I didn't get it and I looked for a reason to finally sit down and figure it out (I think I did). And it felt fantastic.

I'm all for making learning engaging. And, yes, it should be ultimately enjoyable. But that education should always be fun every step of the way I think is ultimately false and dangerous; as soon as it stops being fun, students will give up. In the moment, it will be hard, it will be uncomfortable, and not a lot of fun. In the end, it will be fantastic. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bad Female Academic: On Being a Wife

When my husband and I got engaged, I figured out that we were 256 times more likely to get divorced. More likely than whom? Two people whose parents didn't get divorced, didn't live together before marriage, and didn't have a whole pile of advanced degrees, and who didn't intend on becoming professors. You know, "average" people. I kept reading these stats that said that people who had divorced parents were twice as likely to get divorced themselves. Or people who lived together before marriage were twice as likely to get divorced as well. Basically, I found enough "twice as likely" stats to figure 256 times (two to the power of eight).

Math people, lay off. It was a joke.

Or was it? I knew that my husband and I had the odds stacked against us. I also knew a lot of academic couples who lived far away from one another, and I vowed that that wouldn't be me, wouldn't be us. I was getting married because I wanted to spend my life with my spouse. I can't say it's been easy, but I don't regret giving up my tenure-track position, even though I am ambitious. But I think it's unfortunate that I now have to deal with the gendered expectations that come with my choice.

I am far from being a Good Faculty Wife; I'm not a good cook, I hate housework, and while I am a fabulous companion at university events, I don't demurely take a back seat to my husband's (and his colleague's) opinions. There is also an assumption that because I have willing moved to the middle of nowhere for my husband's job that I have given up on my own. My husband is expected to be able to go to conferences or last-minute meetings because I'll be there to cover for his duties at home. Or, worse, the assumption that he has no duties at home because he has a Wife.

At the same time, I refuse to hide the fact that I am married and that my husband is a professor at the same institution where I teach. It's a small town and a small school, and I'm even using his last name. Let them think what they want about how I got my job; my C.V. speaks for itself. My mom told me it's not who you know, but how you use them, and I am not above using my husband's position as leverage in order to improve my own. But even before we started working together, I never shied away from the fact that I was married, part of a package. I would always carry a copy of his C.V. to on-campus interviews and ask the dean/provost (when it came time) what, if anything, they might have available for him. I refuse to conform to the expectation that one cannot be a dedicated academic and wife.

And that's just how I am treated as a wife. As an academic, people think I have given up. I can't be ambitious and be a wife at the same time. It's not true, however, that taking a step back from the full academic grind means that I'm cut off forever from it. Or at least, I hope not. Many people, though, hear of my choice to follow my husband as a tacit admission to having abandoned my academic career. I'm "just" an instructor.

I resent that I am seen now as mostly a wife and just an instructor. There's a lot more to me. Including my role as mother. But more on that next week. Because if there's one thing worse than being an wife in academia, it's being a mother.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Why High School Sucks"

This post originally appeared at So Educated.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am talking about education reform with my advanced writing students at the rural state college I teach at. At the beginning of the semester, while going over the syllabus, when I mentioned that we would be talking about education reform, I felt the air go out of the room, saw eyes glazing over, and realized I was quickly losing my class on the first day. What was I going to do? Rebrand the section of the course. We were going to talk about why high school sucks (academically), and what could be done about it.

When we came to the unit on education, I started with a free write asking them the first part of that question, reminding them to focus on the academic parts of their high school experience. And, if their high school didn't suck academically, explain why. Most of my students wrote more in that free write than the entire semester thus far put together. I received spontaneous and passionate reflections on their experiences, many filled with anger, frustration, and regret.

A few themes emerged from their work. The curriculum was too easy and too repetitive, not to mention irrelevant. Teachers weren't demanding enough of the students and inconsistent in how they distributed grades. For example, if you were on the football team, you got good grades regardless. Teachers didn't know their material or weren't engaging (human tape recorders, as one student put it). Students were taught to the test and nothing else. In other words, the students were forced to memorize, but never shown how to contextualize or apply the information. There was too little choice, too few opportunities for students to learn about what they were interested in. And, most significantly, they arrived at college wholly unprepared and ill-equipped academically.

Over and over, I read the words "pointless," "a joke," and "boring." Many of my students probably only realized this once they reached college. Looking back now, they remember most fondly those teachers who pushed them to be their best, and not just on a standardized test.  Out of the forty or so students I had answer this question, only three came back with positive experiences. Each of them had gone to private or magnate school with high academic expectations and excellent teachers. Each one of them also attended school in or near an urban area.

When we talk about school choice, what is forgotten are the large numbers of students for whom the only choice is the local school that serves the entire county or region. The teachers often attended the school themselves, left for a few years to get a teaching degree, then returned home. Because of the decreasing number of students, lack of resources, and lack of expertise, these schools can't offer students very many academically challenging courses or optional courses. Some of these schools are in areas where there isn't even high-speed Internet access. When talking about education technology, one of my students pointed to a preschool teacher using a CD player that she had recently seen. For some, the CD player and VCR are the only education technology available.

None of what my students said will sound particularly groundbreaking or revealing to those seeking to reform and transform the way we educate students. The challenge becomes how to solve these problems in rural areas. How do we offer these students choices and variety, or ensure that they have excellent teachers? How can we relate and contextualize the curriculum to the world around them, both preparing them for college but also relating it to the only reality they know? If these schools are ultimately "punished" through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, where are the students going to go?

Many have already (rightly) criticized the film Waiting for Superman along with the image it presents (one hero to swoop in and save us all). For rural students and schools, it is even more telling: Superman left the farm to go and save the city. For these students and schools, the message seems to be clear: you are on your own. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Administrative Ambition

There is a pernicious belief in higher education, perhaps even more dangerous than believing that if you are a good researcher than you can't be a good teacher and vice-versa. That belief is that good academics don't want to be administrators or can't be good administrators. Especially for those on the tenure-track, administrative responsibility is often the kiss of death, because of the politics. Being a position to make decisions very quickly can made friends into enemies. And once you get tenure? Well, why bother? 

Another reason that administrative ambition is met with distaste is that faculty are increasingly disillusioned by the university administration and administrators. As an increasing number of classes are being taught by part-time, underpaid adjuncts who are off the tenure-track, the number of full-time administrators is growing even more, and beginning to outnumber the faculty. And the relationship, through budget cuts and skyrocketing administrative salaries, is causing an increasingly adversarial relationship between the faculty and administration. A good academic doesn't want to do anything with the increasing corporatization of the university.

When I was a PhD student, because of various organizational difficulties, I decided to become president of the Graduate Students' Association. And, I loved it. Maybe it's because I was lucky enough to be at a university where the students (both undergraduate and graduate) were respected and an integral part of the decision-making process. Maybe it's because I was in Canada, where presidents are academics and not from corporations and we don't have high-profile/high-money sports. And I know that I was following a long line of serious, highly effective GSA presidents who set up a wonderful set of expectations for me to fulfill. Regardless of the reason, I came away from the experience motivated to move up the academic ranks with the goal of eventually going into administration in order to work to try to make the university better.

But even before my PhD, I would get involved, usually through student government. I was taught that if you didn't like how things were going, you figured out how best to make them better. So, I did. And I always liked it. I figured that academia would be a great opportunity for me to do research, teach, an administrator.

Yes, I am a bad female academic.

My dirty little secret. I have ambition, and that ambition involves moving up the administrative ladder. This, as I have outlined above, can be a dangerous thing to admit. Between the idea that true academics shouldn't aspire to administrative positions and the idea that, as a woman, it could be seen as threatening to express any sort of ambition, I'm pretty much waving the white flag. I'm either going to be taken advantage of on the lower rungs, make too many enemies, or burn out. Or maybe, just maybe, prove that you can be a good faculty member and a good administrator.

The major roadblock to my plan? I'm not on the tenure-track. By choice. But that will be for next time.

The Academic Essay: Twitter has ruined me

I finished the article I was working on, the one I had put aside because I had missed the deadline. Turns out I  was able to submit the paper late. So I've been trying to drag the article out of my brain, kicking and screaming for the past four days. I've been thinking and reading and researching and outlining the paper for a few months now, but the writing this time around has been the most difficult part. Much more difficult than I am used to. And part of the reason is Twitter.

Part of the reason I had so much trouble is because I could expand, in fact my brain actively resisted and rebelled against expanding, a fairly simply concept (history has been unkind and unfair to Black women) into 2-5 pages of theoretical whatever that I know I need to have to make it an acceptable academic essay. It was so hard. Why, my brain kept insisting, do we have to do this? Why? Is anyone really going to argue with you on this point? I didn't realize that was my problem until I tweeted that I was having a problem. I thought it was because I was having trouble dealing with the non-linear structure of the narrative. Nope, I was able to tweet out exactly what each part should be and in what order. The problem was I was more comfortable tweeting it out in 140 characters than expanding it to 20-25 pages.

I'm pretty sure Mark Bauerlein would point to this and say "I told you so," along with a number of other luddites (my husband included). But I have to ask the question, is this really a bad thing? I mean, sure, it's terrible for my career because you don't get tenure based on tweets. But looking at the larger picture, is this not an example of thinking differently about how we share our research? Why is the research paper the gold standard? Reducing years of research to a handful of tweets might be a bit extreme, but I really wish sometimes that there were other outlets for my research that were recognized by academia. Outlets that were more accessible and more reasonable in their demands.

I think, however, that Bauerlein might agree with me that the explosion of research publications has made it almost impossible to "keep up" and write a reasonable five pages as an intro or theoretical grounding for your essay. It has lead to the use of a small handful of theorists in everyone's work, lest we appear we know what we're talking about (I'm writing on postcolonialism, I quote Spivak). Part of my difficulty also came from the fact that I was completely unsure I had done enough "research" for the opening section, but I knew I knew enough for Twitter. I couldn't get into the writing because I could give up on the researching and reading.

We keep putting more and research out there and keep demanding more and more research still. It's beginning to get inhuman. Maybe at the end of the day, that's what my brain was railing against.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

On Deadlines: I'm as bad as my students

I had a deadline yesterday. It was a call for submissions that I came across a few months ago, on otherness and historical fiction. I immediately thought of The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson. It is a book that has following me around for a while now, and this would be the perfect opportunity to finally try and figure out what is going on. I was thinking about how Hopkinson was re-writing or re-inserting the histories of Black women into History. It was due yesterday.

And, I didn't get it done. I debated asking for an extension, but at the end of the day (actually, it was half-way through the day) I realized that taking the weekend wouldn't even help this paper be as good as it needed to be. I had almost ten pages and was barely a third of the way through what I wanted to say. The ideas and analysis were finally starting to come together, but it wouldn't get done on time. So, I gave up, went grocery shopping, and decided that I would take the few days before leaving for Montreal to finish it up.

I'm almost always like this when it comes to submitting papers and answering CFPs: last possible minute, and usually asking for an extension. I've talked about deadlines before when it comes to undergraduates, and we know all about how desperately undergraduates plead with us for extensions. Why can't our students get organized and get their work in on time, we lament. Well, why can't most of the academics I know do the same?

One of the biggest differences between when our students ask for more time and when we as academics ask for more time is that academics tend to actually use the time to make the paper better. One of the other differences, of course, are the stakes. Most of the time, academics are submitting their work voluntarily; we choose where and what we want to submit, apply for, or participate in. Undergrads choose to come to school, but they don't choose their deadlines and assignments. One might argue about the stakes as well: which of the two groups face the higher stakes? Undergrads fear failure, lower GPAs, and everything that comes with it. Academics face not meeting tenure requirements. I don't, but that's a different story.

I guess, for me, I don't have the pressure on me. I'm not being graded, I'm not up for tenure, and I know that even though I've missed this deadline, I can finish the essay and submit it elsewhere. Now, if this was a book manuscript, it would be entirely different; I was late once with my book manuscript and then had to wait three extra years for its publication. In this case, the stakes are higher if only because other people are dependent on my ability to complete my work on time. That not only makes their jobs more difficult if I'm late, but also could impact my ability to get published in the future (do publishers talk amongst themselves about academics who are incapable of meeting deadlines, naming names?).

But I am also all to aware of all of the pressures academics face, all of the demands on their time, each one professing that it is THE most important deadlines. Between students who expect their work handed back to them instantaneously and administrators who keep coming up with new and bizarre reports and measures that need to be filed and reported yesterday, the pit-falls for professors on the tenure-track are perilous. Even off the tenure-track, I find myself pushing my writing down the list of priorities because other "more important" deadlines keep popping up.

But, I am also a procrastinator par excellence. This isn't to say that I'm not working; on the contrary, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to write before finally sitting down to write it. But I wait until the last possible minute to start actually writing. Actually, I find that I am starting to write a few seconds past the last possible minute now. I am still learning how it takes me to write something now. You'd think that after an MA and a PhD, a long(ish) list of articles, a book, and a number of book reviews, I'd know how long it takes me to write. But, apparently, I don't.

As I said in the title, I'm as bad as my students.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Who Speaks for Rural Education?

On Fridays this summer, I'm going to be reposting my writing that has appeared elsewhere on the web. This post originally appeared on So Educated.

In my upper division writing classes, we are talking about the current debates surrounding education reform, as well as dissecting the rhetoric curretly being used in the popular media to shape these debates. In class, we watched trailers for the documentaries Waiting for Superman (see below)Race to Nowhere, and Schooling the World. My students, while interested, saw little of themselves in the situations described by the first two trailers. The third, dealing with the exporting of Western schooling internationally, particularly in poor, rural areas, resonated with them in a way they didn't really understand.

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