Category: Teachers

More Comments on What We Should Teach at University

My colleague Todd Taylor weighs in—and thinks he also might be the source for my “formula.”  Here, from Todd’s textbook is his version of the three-pronged statement about what we should, as teachers, be aiming to enable our students to do.

  1. To gather the most relevant and persuasive evidence.
  2. To identify a pattern among that evidence.
  3. To articulate a perspective supported by your analysis of the evidence.

And here are Todd’s further thoughts:

“I might have been a source for the ‘neat formula’ you mention, since I’ve been preaching that three-step process as “The Essential Skill for the Information Age” for over a decade now.  I might have added the formula to the Tar Heel Writing Guide.  I am attaching a scan of my textbook Becoming a College Writer where I distill the formula to its simplest form.  I have longer talks on the formula, with notable points being that step #1 sometimes includes generating information beyond just locating someone else’s data.  And step #3, articulating a perspective for others to follow (or call to action or application), is the fulcrum where “content-consumption, passive pedagogy” breaks down and “knowledge-production, active learning” takes off.

The high-point of my experience preaching this formula was when a senior ENGL 142 student shared with me the news of a job interview that ended successfully at the moment when she recited the three steps in response to the question ‘What is your problem solving process?’

In my textbook, I also have a potentially provocative definition of a “discipline” as “a method (for gathering evidence) applied to a subject,” which is my soft attempt to introduce epistemology to GenEd students.  What gets interesting for us rhet/discourse types is to consider how a “discipline” goes beyond steps #1 and #2 and includes step #3 so that a complete definition of “discipline” also includes the ways of articulating/communicating that which emerges from the application of a method to a subject.  I will forever hold onto to my beloved linguistic determinism.  Of course, this idea is nothing new to critical theorists, especially from Foucault.  What might be new(ish) is to try to explain/integrate such ideas within the institution(s) of GenEd requirements and higher ed.  I expect if I studied Dewey again, I could trace the ideas there, just as I expect other folks have other versions of the ‘neat formula.'”

Todd also raised another issue with me that is (at least to me) of great interest.  The humanities are wedded, we agreed, to “interpretation.”  And it makes sense to think of interpretation as a “method” or “approach” that is distinct from the qualitative/quantitative divide in the social sciences.  Back to Dilthey.  Explanation versus meaning.  Analysis versus the hermeneutic.  But perhaps even more than that, since quantitative/qualitative can be descriptors applied to the data itself, whereas interpretation is about how you understand the data.  So no science, even with all its numbers, without some sort of interpretation.  In other words, quantitative/qualitative doesn’t cover the whole field.  There is much more to be said about how we process information than simply saying sometimes we do it via numbers and sometimes via other means.

Comments on the Last Post

Two colleagues had responses to my post on the curriculum reform currently in proces at UNC.

First, from Chris Lundberg, in the Communications Department, who thinks he may be the source for my (stolen) list of the primary goals of university education in our information saturated age:

“I think I might be the unattributed source for the formula!

The only thing that I’d add to what you already wrote here is to disassociate capacities from skills. Here’s an abbreviated version of my schtick (though you’ve heard it before).

The university is subject to disruption for a number of reasons: folks don’t understand the mission; the content we teach is not responsive to the needs that students have beyond Carolina, and lots of folks have a legitimate argument to teach information and skills.

One of the ways we talked about this in the conversation we had awhile back was to ask “what are the things that can’t be outsourced?”—either to another mode of learning information or skills, or, in the case of the job market, to someone behind a computer screen somewhere else. So the formulation that we’d talked about was something like If you can learn content remotely, the vocation organized around that content that is highly likely to be outsourced.

So the case for the university also has to be a case about what is unique about the mode of instruction. That’s the thing about capacities. They aren’t just about something that you learn as content, they are also the kinds of things that you have to do and receive feedback on in the presence of other folks. Writing, Speaking, reasoning together, framing arguments, etc.

The information/content part of education doesn’t make a case for the uniqueness of the university—the Internet is real good at delivering information. You don’t need a library card anymore to access the repository of the world’s information. What you need is to learn how to effectively search, pick, and put together a case for what that information is useful. The capacity for sorting and seeing connections in information is the thing. (see the “neat formula”)

Skills (or as the folks in the corporate sector call them now, competencies) are defined by the ability to know how to perform a given task in a given context. Their usefulness is bounded measuring (typically a behavior_) against the demands of that context. A capacity, OTOH is a trans-contextual ability (set of habits of inquiry and thought, ways of deliberating, etc.) that works across multiple contexts. For example, the biology text my dad used was horribly misinformed about genetic expression (they didn’t know about epigenetics, micro RNA, etc.). What was valuable about his biology class (dad was a biotech entrepreneur) was that he learned how to engage the content: what was a legitimate scientific argument; what made a study good; how to do observational research; a facility for the vocabulary, etc. That set of capacities for thinking about science benefitted him even if the content did not. A capacity is something like the condition of possibility for learning content—think Aristotle on dunamis here—not unlike a faculty in its function, but unlike a faculty because it is the result of learning a specific style or mode of thought and engagement. Where faculties are arguably innate, capacities are teachable (constrained by the innate presence of faculties). That, by the way, is what makes it hard to outsource capacity based learning either in terms of the mode of learning (harder to do lab research online) and in terms of the vocation (you can’t acquire it as effectively as you might in the context of a face-to-face learning community).

So, a big part of the sell, at least in my opinion, should be about framing capacities as the socially, politically, and economically impactful “middle” ground between information and skills—and therefore justifying both the university and Gen Ed as an element of a liberal arts curriculum.”

Second, from my colleague in the English Department, Jane Danielewicz, who puts some flesh on the bones of “active learning” and weighs in issues of assessment:

“If we relinquish our grip on teaching primarily content, then we must also develop new methods of assessment.  Our standard tests are content focused.  To assess competencies, students must be asked to demonstrate those competencies.  Our methods of assessment will need to evaluate students’ performances rather than their ability to regurgitate content knowledge.

We should be asking students to write in genres that are recognizable to audiences in various real world settings.  We should also strive to provide real occasions where a student can demonstrate their competencies to an audience, starting with an audience of their peers and moving out from there.  For example, students can present posters or conference papers at a min-conference (held during the exam period).

Assessment can be tied to the genre is question.  E.g. for the conference presentation (and we all know what makes a good or bad conference presentation–and should work to convey that knowledge to students), students can be assessed on how well they performed the research, made an argument, supplied evidence, and communicated (orally and visually).

Yes, classes will need to be redesigned to encourage active learning, immersive classroom environments, process-based instruction, problem-oriented class content, and appropriate assessment methods.  Many faculty are already moving in these directions, teaching in ways that develop students’ competencies.  Faculty organizations such as the Center for Faculty Excellence are (and have been) providing instruction and support for active learning, experiential learning, and collaborative learning practices.  Some of our students have built web-sites, started non-profit organizations (grounded in research about an issue), written family histories, presented at national conferences, and published in peer-reviewed journals.  We will be sorely disappointing our very action-oriented student body if we retrench and insist on a coverage model of GenEd.”

 

 

What Should—and Can—the University Teach?

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is currently attempting to develop a substantially new “general education” curriculum.  GenEd, as it is known at Carolina, is the broad “liberal arts” part of a student’s college career; it is a set of requirements separate from the more specialized course of study that is the “major.”

Anyone even remotely connected to universities knows that changing the curriculum always insures lots of Sturm and Drang, gnashing of teeth, and ferocious denunciations.  Much of this is driven by self-interest; any change, necessarily, will benefit some people more than others.  At a time when students are abandoning the humanities (particularly) and the social sciences (to some extent) as “majors,” the health of those departments depends, more than in the past, on enrollment in their “GenEd” classes.  Thus, any curricular change that seems to funnel fewer students toward those classes is viewed as a threat.  Of course, an oppositional stance taken on that ground pushes the (presumably) primary responsibility of the university to serve the educational needs of its students to the back seat, displaced by internal turf battles.

But there is a legitimate, larger issue here—and that’s what I would like to address.  What does a student in 2019 need to know?  And how does our current understanding of how to answer that question relate to the “liberal arts” as traditionally understood?  At a time when respect for the liberal arts in the wider culture seems at an all-time low, how can their continued centrality to university education not only be protected, but (more importantly) justified or even expanded?

My sense is that practitioners of the liberal arts are having a hard time making the shift from a “coverage” model to one that focuses on “skills” or “capacities.”  Yes, all the proponents of the liberal arts can talk the talk about how they teach students to “think critically” and “to communicate effectively.”  So, all of us in the humanities (at least) have, to that extent, adopted skills talk—even where we fear that it turns our departments into training grounds for would-be administrators of the neoliberal world out there.  But, in our heart of hearts, many of us are really committed to the “content” of our classes, not to the skills that, as by-products, study of that content might transmit.

But, please, think of our poor students! The vast universe of knowledge that the modern research university has created means, as any conscientious scholar knows, that one can spend a lifetime studying Milton and his 17th century context without ever getting to the bottom.  Great work if you can get it.  And isn’t it wonderful that universities (and, by extension, our society) sees fit to fund someone to be a life-long Milton devotee?  But it is futile to think our undergrads, in two short years before they assume a major, are going to master Etruscan pottery, Yoruba mythology, EU politics, the demographics of drug addiction, the works of James Joyce, and the principles of relativity.  The standard way of approaching (ducking?) this conundrum has been “survey courses.”  The “if this is Tuesday, it must by John Donne” approach.

Any teacher who has ever read the set of exams written by students at the end of those survey classes knows what the research also tells us.  They are close to useless.  They are simply disorienting—and fly through the material at a speed that does not generate anything remotely like real comprehension.  The way people learn—and, again, the research is completely clear on this point—is by taking time with something, by getting down and dirty with the details, followed by synthesizing what is learned by doing something with it.  Active learning it is called—and, not to put too fine a point on it, faculty who despise it as some fashionable buzz-word are equivalent to climate change deniers.  They are resolutely, despite their claim to be scholars and researchers, refusing to credit the best research out there on how people learn.

Back to our poor student.  Not only has she been subjected to survey classes, but she has been pushed (by curricular requirements) to take a smorgasbord of them, with no effort to make the various dishes relate or talk to one another.  Each course (not to mention each department) is its own fiefdom, existing in splendid isolation from all the rest.  The end result: students have a smattering of ill-digested knowledge about a bunch of different things, with no sense of why they should know these things as opposed to other possible ones, and with no overarching sense of how this all fits together, or a clear sense of what their education has actually given them.  If we wanted to create confusion, if that was our intended outcome, we could hardly have done better.

The “content” approach in my view, then, leads to confusion for the students and tokenism in the curriculum.  We simply cannot deliver a meaningful encounter with the content of our multiple disciplines during GenEd. So the question becomes: what can we do that is meaningful in the GenEd curriculum?  After all, we could scrap GenEd altogether and do as the Brits do: just have students take courses in their chosen majors during their college years.  Like most American educators, I think the British model a bad mistake.  But that does mean I have to offer a coherent and compelling account of what GenEd can do—and the best way to insure it does what it aims for.

The answer, I believe, is to define what we want our students to be able to do as thinkers and writers.  Here’s a neat formula I stole from someone (unfortunately, I cannot remember my source).  We want a student in 2019 to 1) learn how to access information; 2) learn how to assess the information she has accessed; and 3) know how to use that information to solve specific problems and to make a presentation about it to various audiences in order to communicate various things to those audiences.  I take number 3 very expansively to include (crucially) understanding (through having some experience of) the fact that members of your audience come from very different backgrounds, with very different assumptions about what matters. Thus, effective communication relies heavily on being able (to adapt Kant’s formula) “empathize with the viewpoint of the other,” while effective problem solving relies on being able to work with others. Assessing information (#2 on my list) involves understanding that there are various methods of assessment/evaluation.  Judging the features of a text or a lab experiment in terms of its technical components and the success with which they have been deployed is different than judging its ethical implications.

I think we can, if careful and self-conscious, make significant progress toward achieving the three goals stated above during the first two years of college.  I think success requires that we de-fetishize content; that we design our classes to develop the identified skills; and that we re-design our classes to make sure we are achieving them.  Assessment will come in many different varieties, each geared to evaluating students’ performances of the competencies rather than to regurgitation of content knowledge. We should be asking students to “perform” their skills, which involves (partly) the presentation of knowledge acquired through reading, research and hands-on experience, in a variety of genres for different kinds of audiences.  The quality of their performances will be the first indication of whether or not we are being pedagogically successful.

I will confess real impatience with teacher/scholars who resist all “assessment” as a dirty word.  Somehow we are supposed to magically know that we are actually teaching our students something, when (in the old curriculum) all we really knew was that the students had checked off the requisite boxes, gotten a grade, and been passed on.  It is no secret that universities have neglected the arts and sciences of pedagogy over the years—and there is no excuse for it.  If we claim to be teaching our students, we need 1) to state clearly and precisely what it is we claim to be teaching them; 2) to do the work necessary to ascertain that we are actually succeeding; and 3) revise our methods when they are not getting the job done.

Necessarily, courses will still have “content”—and that content matters a lot!  The capacities will be taught through a semester-long engagement with some specific subject matter.  In my ideal university, the person we hire to teach medieval literature, or the history and beliefs of Buddhism, or astronomy, is someone who, in their heart of hearts, believes life is less worth living if you don’t know about their subject of expertise.  They convey that enthusiasm and conviction when they teach their classes—and gain a reputation on campus that attracts students because it is known that Professor X makes Subject Y come alive.  But Professor X also has to know, on another level, that the vast majority of her students are not going to make Subject Y their life work and that even a vaster majority of the human race will lead worthy lives knowing nothing whatsoever of Subject Y.  So we are asking our professor to also—and consciously—design her class to develop some specified capacity.  In other words, her class should model a way of thinking, and require students to put that model into practice.

The proposed new curriculum at Chapel Hill moves from the “coverage” model to one focused on skills or capacities.  I think that means we are moving from something we cannot possibly achieve to something we can, perhaps, do.  I also think the new curriculum has the distinct advantage of trying to specify those skills and capacities.  And it challenges our faculty to craft their classes with care in order to inculcate those capacities in our students.  It is a feature, not a bug, in my eyes that many of our classes will need to be modified.  The point of change is change.  Doing the same old same old is not an improvement—and I, for one, think the need for improvement is evident.

Is the new curriculum perfect?  Of course not.  We cannot know with any certainty exactly how it will play out.  The definition of the capacities and the most effective ways of transmitting them to students will have to be honed and reformed through the crucible of practice.  Any successful institution needs to fight calcification tooth and nail, continually revising itself at it moves along, with an eye firmly on the goals that motivate its practices. The tendency of institutions to stagnate, to do something because that’s the way it has always been done and how it currently distributes its resources and rewards, is all too familiar—and depressing. Change is upsetting and, as I said at the outset, some will benefit more than others from change.

In fact, I think the proposed curriculum protects the arts, humanities, and social sciences at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. I also think the liberal arts will suffer if they stick resolutely to old models that do not respond to larger cultural shifts.  We cannot resist or even speak to those shifts if we don’t find a way of meeting our students—who come to college now with a set of needs and objectives that represent their own response to new societal pressures—at least halfway.  We also must recognize that students will, inevitably (within the “elective” system that dates back to the 1880s) make their own decisions about what courses to take.  Thus we must articulate clear rationales for them to take the various courses that will be available within the GenEd curriculum.  What I like about the new curriculum is the way that it calls us to our task as educators, asking us to identify what we believe passionately our students need to learn, and placing the responsibility that our students get there in our hands.

Meretricious

Here’s a passage from Jonathan Coe’s excellent 2004 novel, The Closed Circle.

“. . . the young couple, who had arrived just behind Paul in a white stretch limo were enjoying the attention of a crowd of journalists and photographers.  This couple, whom Paul had not recognized, had last year been two of the contestants on Britain’s most popular primetime reality TV show.  For weeks they had kept the public guessing as to whether or not they were going to have sex with each other on camera.  The tabloid papers had devoted hundreds of column inches to the subject.  Neither of them had talent, or wisdom, or education, or even much personality to speak of.  But they were young and good-looking, and they dressed well, and they had been on television, and that was enough.  And so the photographers kept taking pictures, and the journalists kept trying to make them say something quotable or amusing (which was difficult , because they had no wit, either).  Meanwhile, Doug could not help noticing, right next to them, waiting for his wife to emerge from the ladies’, the figure of Professor John Copland, Britain’s leading geneticist, one of its best-selling science authors, and regularly mentioned as potential Nobel prizewinner.  But no one was taking his photograph, or asking him to say anything.  He could have been a cab driver, waiting to drive one of the guests home, as far as anybody was concerned.  And for Doug this situation encapsulated so perfectly everything he wanted to say about Britain in 2002—the obscene weightlessness of its cultural life, the grotesque triumph of sheen over substance, all the clichés which were only clichés, as it happened, because they were true—that he was, perversely, pleased to be witnessing it” (275-76).

Not a good passage; usually Coe avoids editorializing like this in his novel.  But I wanted to comment on it because 1) I usually, by absenting myself completely from it, avoid “weightless” culture while 2) fighting shy of the clichéd lament about its “obscenity” (laments that echo through the two hundred plus years of despair over the mediocrity of bourgeois, democratic, non-noble mores).  It is interesting to see Coe feeling compelled to both make the clichéd complaint and to chide himself for making it in almost the same breath.  At some level, we elites are not allowed to sound like Flaubert anymore, not allowed to express our distaste—and, yes, our contempt—for what gets dished out on reality TV shows.  Perhaps Milan Kundera was the last fully self-righteous and completely un-self-aware critic of kitsch.  Even as his notion of weightlessness (“the unbearable lightness of being,” such a portentous but still fantastic title/phrase) winds up being little more than the fact that men find it unbearable to be faithful to just one woman.  Kundera’s petulance and (ultimately) silliness put the last stake through the heart of “high” culture’s contempt for low.

But, still.  I have seen Fox news only three or four times in my life; read People  magazine the same number of times, and have never seen a reality TV show.  When I do encounter such things, I am (I admit) flabbergasted as well as bored.  That such trash fills the channels of communication is a mystery as unfathomable to me as the idea that people buy $10,000 watches.  Who would do such a thing—and for what earthly reason?  I don’t even have a condescending explanation to offer.  Fascination/obsession with the British royal family fits into the same category for me.

Meanwhile—and I don’t think Coe sees this—his ignored professor is a “best-selling” author and likely to win a Noble prize–so hardly universally treated like a “cab driver.”  Yeats and W. B. Auden are just two among the great early 20th century poets who lived in fairly dire poverty.  Even the post World War II poets—Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz and the like—were spared that kind of poverty by having moved into sinecures in the beefed-up post-war universities.  Twenty-first century poets will complain bitterly about how few books they sell, but they are lionized within the tight confines of the “poetry world,” giving readings to robust audiences, and never threatened with the kind of poverty that Yeats took for granted.  We live in a world of niches now, so that no poet today can command a nation’s attention the way Yeats did (of course, he had the advantage of writing for a very small nation, about four million people strong, half the size of today’s New York City or London), even though no poet today can be as poor as Yeats.  The niches, in other words, reward well—have cultural capital in both its forms (financial and reputational) available for distribution.

All of this has to do, in very large part, with the ways that the post-war universities have become the patrons for the arts in our time.  Outside of the university it is very hard to make a living by the sweat of your pen.  The Grub St man of letters, writing his reviews for the papers and the weeklies, no longer exists—while no poet and very few novelists can make a living apart from teaching creative writing.  But the universities do provide a structure that insures rewards.

What everyone keeps lamenting these days (instead of lambasting the meretricious glob of TV and the tabloids) is the utter lack of contact between the niches.  The “culture” we teach in school is utterly divorced from the “culture” our students access outside of school.  They know nothing, and care less, for the material to which we introduce them—except for the very small minority we convert over to what by now should be called “school” culture, not “high” culture.

School culture does get a boost from all those middle to upper middle class parents who, for various reasons, see fit to give their children violin, ballet, singing, and (less frequently) art and acting lessons in lieu of (or in addition to) having them play little league or soccer or join a swim team.  The arts/athletics divide in American child rearing practices deserves sociological study.  Both for characterizing the parents who give their children different kinds of lessons—and in a longitudinal study of what effect those lessons have on later choices in life (chances of going to art museums or to the symphony; kinds of career paths taken).  And how does deep involvement in youth sports culture track to an obsession with celebrities or TV world?  Not any obvious connection there.

These schisms no doubt always existed in American culture.  But they didn’t used to track so directly to different political allegiances/views.  My colleague Jonathan Weiler thinks he can tell your political affiliating after asking only four questions, one of which is your emotional response to Priuses.  I have fear he is right.

And, as usual, most perplexing–and disheartening–to me is the deep hostility that such divides now generate.  Just as I really cannot understand why the uber-rich are so discontented, so determined to increase the financial insecurity of their employees, I cannot understand why our cultural warriors are out to destroy the universities.  Yes, its partly their war against all things public.  UNC is in the cross-hairs in a way that Duke will never be.  But it is more than that.  They have some leverage over UNC; they’d go after Duke as well if they could.  The need to punish one’s enemies as well as look to one’s own well-being is what I don’t get.  Peaceful co-existence of the various niches, the indifference of tolerance, is off the table it seems.  I keep referring back (in my mind) to a comment Gary Wills made years ago about the Republican nominating convention (of 1992 or 1996; I don’t remember what year).  He reported that over 30% of the delegates were millionaires, yet they seethed with discontent and rage.  What objective reason did they have to be so agitated? Life in the US had treated them damn well.  The same, of course, can be said of Donald Trump in spades.  What is the source of all his anger?  Pretty obviously the fact that he does not feel respected by the cultural elites.  So he wishes to destroy them, to cause them maximum pain.

A final question: does meretricious popular culture, all that weightless trash, always have this kind of aggression against dissenters to that culture packed within it?  In other words, I am back to thinking, yet again, about resentment–about its sources and about the cultural/societal locations in which it lurks.

Holding Professors Accountable in the Midst of Political Attacks on the University

I was a participant in a roundtable on public higher education last Friday that included two UNC faculty members, a senior associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, two current students, a state legislator (Republican), a business man who is also a big donor to UNC, a former member of the UNC board of trustees (from the financial world), and the executive directors of two right wing think tanks in the state, including the notorious Pope Foundation (which has recently changed its name to the Martin Institute.)  The Pope Foundation, as well as the John Locke Foundation (the other group represented), has been consistently critical of UNC courses in women’s and sexuality studies, requesting syllabi and then criticizing specific professors and courses in the public media.  More generally, they have both been scornful of the language of “diversity.”

The context for the conversation was a forthcoming book by our ex-Chancellor and the founder of our undergraduate program in entrepreneurship in which they argue 1) that universities cannot and should not be run like corporations, and 2) that the basic social contract that generated support for public higher education from 1950 to 1990 is now badly strained, if not completely broken.  Their book sets out to find a way to repair that broken compact.  So the goal of the round-table, which was filmed, was to discover if there was any common ground on which to build in the effort to heal the rift.

Substantively, not much was accomplished.  Everyone was on their best behavior, perhaps because being filmed.  Our right wing guests didn’t have much to say; they mostly listened.  Everyone affirmed the idea of a liberal arts education; everyone seemed to sign off on the notion of “access,” another key theme.  Similarly, there was no push-back against the idea that the universities of North Carolina were an economic driver—and a major reason why we were not Mississippi.

Our businessman philanthropist was the one who said we, as a society, were failing to invest in our future—and that tax cuts had gone too far.  No one really took up that point, although the state legislator was willing to say that tax cuts needed to stop—and that “maybe” we had gone too far in that direction.  When asked about the legislature’s thinking about higher education, he denied there was any hostility to it.  The legislature simply faced a number of competing demands when it came to budgeting—and all of those demands were legitimate, good things to support.  He made it sound all ideology-free, just a matter of making do with the available resources.

It didn’t help that our dean told the group that North Carolina was still the 4th best state in the nation in terms of its support of its higher education system. (NC started out in 2008 as one of the best–and the pace of cuts here in NC was similar to the pace across the whole country, so we did not fall in this particular ranking.) That fed an unjustified complacency in the room—unjustified because it allowed everyone to ignore the ways recent actions have hurt instruction on our campuses and limited access.  The egregious mandate from the Board of Governors (which rules over the whole system, as distinct from the Board of Trustees for each individual campus) that only 25% of tuition increases can be used to fund need-based aid never came up.  (I have seen that number reported as 15% in the UNC Alumni magazine; I was pretty sure it was 25%, but could be wrong.)  Thus, as the BoG approves tuition hikes, it makes sure the most vulnerable are hurt by them.  Their rationale was that more affluent students should not be “taxed” to supplement the fees of less affluent students.

I have a friend who attends BoG meetings regularly.  He confirms that they hate Chapel Hill in ways that they don’t hate NC State or the other schools in the system.  There is no consistency either to their hatred or to their ways they would like to transform UNC, Chapel Hill.  He characterizes the BoG members as the wealthiest people from their rural communities—who have witnessed the precipitous decline of those communities after the death of tobacco and textiles and the furniture business (the three pillars of the NC general economy prior to 1990.)  NC was never a rich state, but it was one that functioned for all of its citizens.  Now we have a very prosperous middle of the state—with per capita incomes that rival Connecticut’s—yoked to a depopulated east (except for the booming ocean front resorts) and an Appalachian west where the poverty levels match those of Mississippi.  Governing a state that is both Connecticut and Mississippi is well-nigh impossible.  But the legislative power rests in the hands of the white Mississippians.

Those rural legislators—and the supporters that they have appointed to our Board of Governors—have no remedies.  They don’t know any better than anyone else how to revive the dead economies of the places where they grew up and where they still live.  They look at Chapel Hill and see an elitist, rich, and complacent institution that takes thousands of kids from the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs, while taking one or two top students from the rural high schools, turning up their noses at the rest.  So they (Chapel Hill) sneer at us (white Southerners), while stealing away our best and brightest—who they turn into Democrats and snobs, people who are never going to come back to the dying towns they grew up in.  And while they are turning down our kids as not good enough, they (in the name of diversity) are giving slots to all those blacks, Latinos, and Asians who have crowded into the outer suburbs and inner cities of our state.

When it comes to solutions, these guys (again, I am going on the reports of my friend) swing wildly and incoherently between free market fundamentalism and socialism.  They can move from praise of the market to suggesting all kinds of state interventions on the turn of a dime.  They don’t know what to do, but they know who the enemy is, and they want to lash out and do some hurting.

None of that came to the surface in our polite conversation.  The right-wingers in the room would, I assume, distance themselves from the no-nothings.  But the real conflict is that these educated, smooth right wingers (Paul Ryan types) are against public education.  They are Milton Friedman acolytes.  Education is a private investment that families make in their future—and schools get lazy, complacent, and inefficient when not subjected to competition and the resultant market discipline.

I am not as hostile to these arguments as most faculty members are.  And maybe when I expressed my version of anti-complacency, I was guilty of trying to placate the right-wingers in the room.  (Note that all of this is implied; they did not articulate any such arguments in our conversation.)

Here’s how I make the case.  I was in a room with some financial world people—hedge fund managers, and folks at Goldman Sachs—just shortly after the election in November 2008.  The financial guys (and they were all guys, about 10 of them in a mixed crowd of about 25 total where the other 15 were not financial types) all agreed that the Democrats (Nancy Pelosi was their particular bête noir; I guess because dissing a woman was better in their eyes than dissing a black man) were going to screw the nation’s economy horribly with their urge for regulations and taxes.  Nothing about the financial collapse seemed to have altered one iota these guy’s confidence that they knew what they were doing—and about how to best organize the nation’s economic well-being.  Sure there had been some mistakes, but they knew how to fix them.  Just keep those no-nothing politicians from messing things up.

My reaction was predictable.  These guys need to be accountable; there needs to be watch-dogs, and there needs to be consequences for bad results.  And my argument is that it works no differently for teachers.  We should be accountable for outcomes.  We claim we are teaching these students—and should hardly expect the public we claim to serve to be satisfied when we assure them: “Don’t worry.  We know what we are doing and we know your kids are learning lots and lots.”

That’s not good enough.  To take just one example: there is now tons and tons of research that shows that presenting information (in no matter what format: a book, a lecture, a power point presentation) has very little impact.  People do not learn things by being told them.  Active learning produces vastly better results for the retention of information and the fuller comprehension of that information (as demonstrated by the ability to put it to use in different contexts).  Yet many of my professorial colleagues resist that finding.  Lectures and reading books worked well for them—with no thought about the fact that they are outliers or for finding ways to promote learning for the majority of their students, not just a talented minority.

Even more basic.  We are now required to state the course’s objectives on our syllabi—and are encouraged to think about how our pedagogical strategies and our assignments (what students are asked to read, write, do projects or reports on etc.) might lend themselves to achieving those objectives.  Again, many of my colleagues think of this as philistinism, as creeping corporatization.  The nerve of asking that we define “outcomes.”  I have no patience for such responses.  We (the professors) are the anti-intellectuals we claim to abhor when we refuse to a) take seriously the research about what enhances learning and what does not, and b) refuse to self-consciously and critically think about our own goals and strategies in the courses we teach.

In short, the public has as much right to ask teachers to justify their practices and to reform them when results are not particularly good as they have the right to insist that bankers be regulated by external watch-dogs.

The measures are the hard part.  Numerically based assessments of learning outcomes are crude at best, and worthless at worst.  But stricter assessment of outcomes is coming—and it is in the interest of professors to be deeply involved in the establishment of the metrics.  I am reasonably confident that qualitative assessment will be our friend, not our enemy.  My bet is that such assessments will prove, rather conclusively, that education does not scale well.  There are not many efficiencies that will actually produce better results.  As teachers, we should stand staunchly and unequivocally for getting the best results for all of our students—and such results are not going to be achieved (in most cases) by on-line courses or 350 pupil lecture courses.  In some select instances, on-line instruction may prove effective—and we (the professors) should embrace such cases.  Any money saved can be used to promote more hands-on teaching in places where that is required.

In short, just as we would be appalled at doctors who did not make use of data about results to influence treatment of future patients, we as professional educators should be eager to discover what works well and what does not—and have it guide our future practice.  To run away from such self-study, screaming “corporatization,” is irresponsible and, in my view, indefensible.  It also suggests we are terrified by what we might discover—which belies our publicly displayed confidence that we know what we are doing.

We are rightfully resentful of—and resistant to—a knee-jerk hostility to universities as elitist and left-wing, and to the professors as under-worked and over-paid sycophants.  But that doesn’t entitle us to a free ride and a total refusal to change our ways.  I am going to allow myself a gross overgeneralization: I have seldom met any group more conservative (in the sense of clinging to the established ways of doing things) than a faculty that prides itself on being progressive, even revolutionary.

Roland Flint

I have been indulging myself lately, writing a day book for this year of 2018.  Writing something each day, ranging from what is happening now to dwellings on various past events/feelings/friends.  Today I was writing about my in-built aversion to father-figures.  I never had one and don’t think I ever wanted one.  But that made me wonder about teachers I have admired and loved over the years, people who taught me many things.  My sense was that I adopted my ways of being in the world more from friends than from teachers.  I learned from my teachers, but was never inclined to imitate them.  That kind of stealing I saved for my friends.  Maybe because I felt some kind of barrier—one of age or of non- intimacy—that kept teachers from being fully real to me.

But these thoughts of teachers sent me to Google.  And Roland Flint has a fairly significant web presence.  Here’s the best site, complete with some poems and a fairly full biography.

I only know so much about Roland because he wore his heart on his sleeve in his poetry.  We never talked of these things—although I was a student in his Faulkner seminar (the only class I ever took with him) that horrible fall when his six year old son was killed by a car.  It was about four weeks into the semester; he was then gone for another month at least, with various guest teachers carrying on for him.  Before he came back to teach, he was at a Georgetown football game in the rain.  There was a crowd of about 50 people (at most) watching in the downpour.  I was there because I was covering the game for the student newspaper.  Roland had a flask and was pretty drunk, and we stood together (it was too wet to sit down) for some time (was it ten minutes, twenty, thirty? It seemed an eternity in its awkwardness). I don’t think I drank from the flask, although he offered it to me.  But, perhaps, I took one swallow out of politeness.  Whiskey has never been my thing.  I may have said fifteen words the whole time, and was fixated on whether I should express my sorrow about his son’s death.  I couldn’t find the courage to mention the death—and felt both an idiot for not doing so and certain that was the right course as he told related anecdotes of his time in graduate school in Minnesota.  Tales of poets: Alan Tate and John Berryman.

Some years later, when his collection Stubborn, was published, I wrote to him to tell him of that day.  Why?  Because the stubbornness that his poems are built around is the relentless grief for that lost life—a grief that still haunted his every day some twenty years on.  I thought he would welcome another window into that horrible time that he clearly dwelt on much of the time in his thoughts and imagination.  I got back a short letter, one almost cold in its brevity, and its main point was that I must have mis-remembered because he would never have taken alcohol in the presence of a student and certainly wouldn’t have offered alcohol to one.  An odd memory lapse about the looser atmosphere of the early 70s, because I also remember distinctly the bottles of Almaden wine lined up on the table at the end of semester class party he sponsored for that Faulkner seminar.

My college girlfriend took Roland’s poetry writing classes and I went to several of the poetry readings that he sponsored—most memorably the one with James Wright.  Because of Roland, I memorized a number of classic English poems that second year in college, bits of which I still retain.  Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” most ambitiously Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.”  And I went to see him on trips back to DC over the years, certainly in 1979, just before taking up my first academic job at the University of Michigan, when after that I do not know, but 1979 was not the last time I saw him.

Did I see him after that exchange of letters (which would have been in 1992 or 1993)?  I don’t know. But I think not.  Certainly we never talked about it if we did meet.

I read recently an essay by Richard Ellmann in which he says every life has a turning point.  I suspect a biographer has to believe that, has to believe that a life has (assumes) a definite shape.  How else could you write a coherent biography?  I can’t identify a turning point in my life—or can identify at least ten of them.  And I am proud to think my life too various, its incidents and relationships too many, to be reduced to some single plot line.  But a catastrophe like the death of a child would, it seems to me, puts its stamp on everything, blot out so much else.

Here’s one of Roland’s poems about that turning point in his life—and the way it remained with him.

 

WHAT I HAVE TRIED TO SAY TO YOU

That there are ways to love the life you haven’t had,
ways to forgive the one you have.
That while your brother wasn’t killed
to test anyone, his death is,
somehow, allowed by the mystery
requiring our lives to have this
permanent pull at the middle.
Our lives are what they have been: unrevisable,
changed only in our responses,
if we are still ready, somehow,
for the next day, the next
person, poem, chance, even prepared,
however unready, for the next death.
Can we permanently grieve the boy
without hating what has become of him?
What has become of him?
He has returned to mystery,
the same one that is our life,
mine and yours this morning,
the continuing shapes we never see
up there, this afternoon, tomorrow:
so he is already, ahead of time,
in everything we do. I feel it, often,
that I am living my life in part for him,
not permanently dead in us, but telling
how we’d rather he had lived than not.
Remember our game of listening in the park
to hear the woods fill up with sounds,
birds, mostly, from farther and farther away
the longer we listened. He seems now
especially to have listened,
raptly, eyes closed, as if to singing,
as if he were entering the song,
and like the way he usually walked
far ahead of us or far behind –
already gone to his own music.
When I think how long it is
since he has entered all silence,
it takes me by the heart to think
those sounds like light have stayed
in whatever we are left to be.
That songs we heard those days
are from the place he’s gone away to,
a singing in the mysteries connecting us,
if we can stop and be quiet and listen.

(Easy, LSU Press, 1999)