Free College, Brief Thoughts on

I have a somewhat rocky relationship with the idea of federal or state paid higher education, aka free college. I support the idea fully, but also have some qualifications based on both experience and looking at places where it has been instituted.

In sixteen years of teaching and tutoring at the college level, well, not everyone is cut out for college. And this isn’t a bad thing. Some people, whether a talented auto mechanic or a trust fund baby, just don’t do well with classroom learning and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Likewise, not everyone needs college. Contrary to cultural myths, college is not necessary for a “good” job, assuming we define “good” as paying well. For instance, the average plumber earns more every year than the average college instructor (most of whom are adjunct or “contingent” faculty working for low pay and no benefits).

In the countries where free college (university, in most of them) has been implemented, the percentage of people who attend college is lower than in the U.S. A big reason is that entry exams raise the bar for applications. However, the number of people who attend some from of post-secondary education, ex. trade schools, rises. This is, perhaps, a good thing. After all, society will always have need of plumbers, mechanics, electricians, and related trades, and in the U.S. we’re seeing a shortage in the trades.

I suppose the short version is that I think free post-secondary education or training for anyone and everyone is necessary. Any post-secondary training. Just focusing on college causes problems, like our current overproduction of degree holders at all levels. Also, frankly, focusing on just college is the bad kind of elitist (as opposed to thinking that people should be qualified for their job), and definitely classist.

Marketplace of Ideas: A Poorly Chosen Analogy

The last few days, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the university being a “marketplace of ideas”.  Like many such analogies, or metaphors, I’ve come to think that this one was created by people who don’t understand the university.  Moreover, it is deeply flawed and dangerous as a concept.

Considering the university (or any educational institution) as a marketplace is a false conception.  Comparing the two effectively commodifies ideas and thought.  It introduces, or creates, the idea that we can, or should, simply go shopping for the ideas we like.  This has always been a dangerous idea, but is especially so in the Digital Age.  In an era and culture in which the likes of Alex Jones and Steve Bannon are given the same breadth of audience as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Fareed Zakaria, and in which it is increasingly common to commit character assassination against those with whom one does not agree (ref. the attacks against noted geneticist and food biologist Kevin Folta), conceptualizing thought and ideas as commodities that we can shop for and buy is dangerous.

This concept also creates the false assumption that all ideas are somehow equal and should be given equal weight.

As I tell my students, virtually all theories have potential, but not all theories or ideas are created equal.  The measure of a theory or idea’s strength lies in the evidence that supports it and our ability to test it (and, of course, whether it passes objective testing, often in competition with other ideas and theories).

The university is, and always has been I think, a proving ground for ideas (not a marketplace).  That is, the university is not a place where we shop around for ideas, but a place where we test ideas and theories.  We challenge ideas and try to break them.  Those ideas and theories that fail, we either try to salvage and fix (ex. Linnaean taxonomy), before retesting, or discard if they are unsalvageable (ex. theories of racial supremacy).  Those that survive testing, we keep and teach until such time (if any) that they are supplanted by better supported or more refined theories or ideas.

The misunderstanding of the role of the university is, I think, one reason (of many, and perhaps the most innocuous reason) that universities are criticized so heavily.  Particularly by conservative commentators.  The common refrain from such individuals is a screed again professors “pushing liberal ideology” and “unfairly attacking conservative values” (ex. Creationism).  The reality is that the professors, the university, the proving ground of ideas and theories has considered many conservative ideas and theories, has tested them, and has found that they cracked under the pressure of testing and exposure to competing ideas and theories (ex. natural selection and evolution), therefore they are not taught, because they hold no weight or less weight than their competitors.

Academic Dead End

I’m going to preface this post by saying that I enjoy my job and know that I am helping a lot of people (they tell me this pretty regularly). That said, everything else below is also true.

It seems strange to call a position in collegiate level education “a dead end job”. Culturally, we’re primed to think “dead end job” refers to food service, retail, etc., not positions that require a Masters degree. However, after a great deal of thought, I think the label is appropriate. After all, I’ve spent nine years in just such a position, with the same employer (for certain external reasons, plus assurances were made by said employer and never followed through), at a near poverty annual income. Frankly, people who have six or more years of post-secondary education cannot live on a pittance, really no one can at least not well.

So, why is this a dead end position?

In nine years, there has been no chance of promotion. There has been no opportunity for transitioning to full time (despite assurances of regular internal hiring, which hasn’t happened). There has been no raise, so someone with 10+ years makes the same hourly as the person hired yesterday. In fact, we’ve had a mandatory 20% pay cut, “to cut costs”, while the school created and hired new, six figure salary VPs.  There’s no incentive to do well, as pay remains the same and there’s a cap in hours that apply the same for the best and the worst.

I say all this not to complain, as such.

Rather, I say it to inform people about the model that’s been more or less standardized across higher ed for the last 40 or so years, at least in the U.S., though I hear it’s catching on in Canada & Europe too.

This is an unsustainable model for higher education. Colleges & universities cannot continue to rely on hourly positions, single semester contract positions, low annual pay positions that require a Masters degree and prefer doctorates. In the end, this practice harms undergraduate education, graduate teaching assistants, and doctoral graduates all; not to mention the fact that it shifts full time faculty more and more to administrative duties (shrinking pool of full timers to draw from) rather than teaching and conducting research.

Stereotypes & Assumptions

I’m not a deep thinker or writer, despite my background, education, and training.  This may seem odd from someone with a PhD in an arts/humanities field given the reputations of said fields.  We’re expected to be thinking and writing deep, meaningful, philosophical things.

That’s not me.

Maybe that comes from being the grandkid of working class families.  Maybe it comes from my Polish lineage (though we have Copernicus and John Paul II, so maybe not entirely).

I think this is the big reason I rejected doing literary theory in grad school.  Most of the things we read and discussed were doing pure theory, theory for the sake of theory.  People like Roland Barthes, Toril Moi, and Stanley Fish who were totally divorced from texts, just developing theory to further theory drove me crazy.  Meanwhile, I embraced, halfheartedly because theory was required, New Historicism, in short studying a text’s historical context or the historical context in which it was and is received.  It seemed, and still does, the most practical of the theories out there.

I remember being in a graduate level Shakespeare course, during my MA.  We were reading Othello and a fellow student asked, “Why is Othello so obsessed with his reputation?”  As I recall, a few theories were posited, some “I don’t knows” floated around.  Then I spoke up (and I usually didn’t talk much in class), saying, “Othello’s a mercenary, the commander of a company of mercenaries.  His reputation is literally his life.  It’s how he gets jobs for himself and his men.  That would be important enough, but he’s also a Moor, a Black Muslim, working in Catholic Italy.  That makes his reputation at least twice as important as it is for other mercenary captains.”  To me, this seemed obvious.  From the looks I got, it seemed to be a revelation to many others in the class.  It’s not a deep, philosophical interpretation, but a practical, historically important one, I think.

During a decade as a student in higher ed, I concluded that  students sometimes forget about the practical side of critical thinking and get too caught up in some skewed sense of how they think they should be responding and thinking, trying to “sound college”.  The problem is that “sounding college” is built on a stereotype, maybe an idealization, possibly fueled by pop culture (especially movies), in which the faculty are almost invariably the enemy who need to be appeased and outwitted (often by presenting convoluted responses, answers, and thoughts that really make no sense in the light of day).  Often, we just want a straight response that seems likely (at least I do).

Was Shakespeare using Othello as a commentary on hyper-masculinity?  I don’t know.  Possibly.  It’s perfectly valid for modern audiences to read the character that way.  But, I think, for an audience that was being reminded of the War of the Roses, had survived the Spanish Armada, was dealing with the Succession Question, and had the Vatican & Papists fomenting insurrection . . . I suspect they’d understand Othello’s obsession with reputation as part and parcel of being a mercenary captain and an outsider by faith and appearance.

Maybe that all means I’m not a deep enough or philosophical enough thinker for this field or academia.  I don’t know.  Maybe the stereotype & expectation are just false.

Writer Advice: Getting from A to B, or Transitions

A common issue for early stage writers, although it appears with more experienced people as well, is transitions. These are the sentences and phrases that link paragraphs together. They serve to demonstrate how we are moving from one point to the next; they connect points A and B.

In short, transitions show the chain of logic that the writer is making.

Transitions can be seen akin to middle school algebra.

For example, a teacher writes: X + 5 = 10

Most people say, “X = 5”

Teacher says, “Show your work.”

Most people grumble and groan.

But, the teacher wants to see X + 5 – 5 = 10 -5; X = 5 because it shows the chain of logic. That becomes important when we get 2X + 3Y = Z – 5.

That chain of logic is important for linking evidence to claims and shifting between claims.

This is one reason that I like outlining before writing. With a formal outline, there is a good, visual representation of the main claims. These can be manipulated and moved around to where they best fit, compared to the other claims. It is, in my experience, always best to group claims based on what relationship they have to each other. That is, putting related claims next to each other. With that sort of organization, the transitions tend to be smoother, because the points are more closely related.

The chain of logic, aided by the transitions, or as shown by the transitions, makes the argument easier for the reader to follow. If the reader has a difficult time following the argument, then they aren’t focusing on the content, they’re focusing on the structure and trying to figure out what’s going on. This, obviously, is not good for convincing the reader. Rather, we want to make things easy for the reader to follow, so they don’t have to work so hard trying to figure out structural elements—ex. organization, syntax—and can spend more time chewing on the argument itself. Ultimately, that will produce a more convincing argument, or a more productive discussion.

Personally, I find that one of the easiest ways to create a smooth transition is the use of echoing language.  By echoing, I mean using one or two similar terms (or concepts) in the last sentence of paragraph A and the first sentence of paragraph B.

For example:

Her concern comes after years of knowing Lupin, the clearest exception to the prejudicial stereotype, and at a time far removed from a full moon.

The source of this prejudiced view, and its racial connotations, is nowhere more evident than in the words of Dolores Umbridge . . .

(Note the echoing of “prejudicial” and “prejudiced”.)

Alternately, referring to the next main point can create a smoother transition.

For example:

the medieval construct of sympathetic versus monstrous werewolf forms a lens through which Rowling discusses Lupin’s lessons as well as a historical connection to our literary past.

In Rowling’s work, the primary werewolf—Lupin—serves to directly educate key characters . . .

Here the last sentence of paragraph A links the idea of an old dichotomy to the concept of learning/education, with the first sentence of paragraph B moving straight into education.

 

Writer Advice: Intros and Such (Non-Fic)

Tail end of the semester has started (one week until finals here) and I’ve been focusing my writing time on some fiction/world pieces rather than blog stuff, so I thought I’d take a quick break from story posting to put up some advice.  A lot of the advice I give regarding writing, particularly non-fiction, comes from things I’ve seen crop up often over the last 13 years of teaching and tutoring.

Introductions & Theses

One of the most difficult things for a lot of writers, especially new ones, to do is introductions.

 Each introduction, in a formal non-fiction essay, needs to have three things:

1) Something to get the reader’s attention.

2) A brief outline of the major claims.

3) The thesis.

 There are many ways to get the reader’s attention from telling a joke or an anecdote to inserting a surprising statistic or a rhetorical question. Sometimes the thesis itself gets the reader’s attention.

 Outlining the claims is relatively easy, just a one sentence list (for shorter works) of the main points.

 The thesis can be the really difficult part.

 A thesis is also known as a hypothesis or theory. It is the overarching idea and argument of the paper. Alternatively, we can think of the thesis as the roof of the house—the roof covers the house and is supported by the claims (walls) which are, in turn, supported by the evidence (foundation). A thesis is always a sentence and always answers a question. It is, in effect, a theoretical answer that the writer will attempt to prove with claims and evidence.

 The simplest way to produce a thesis, in my experience, is to figure out what question you’re asking as a writer/researcher. Without the core question, developing a thesis becomes very difficult. With the question in mind, creating a thesis becomes infinitely easier.

 A couple analogies that I use for introductions follow:

 1) Think of the introduction as a movie trailer or TV preview. The two minute version of the movie is designed to get the reader interested, but not give away so much that they refuse to pay for a ticket.

 2) As a researcher, you have 10 articles that you found. Each article is 20 pages long. So, as a writer, ask yourself: would you rather read 200 pages to determine if the articles are useful or would you rather read 10 paragraphs? I’m guessing most people would prefer 10 paragraphs. So the introduction should provide enough information for a casual reader to decide whether the essay should go in the “Useful”, “Not Useful”, or “Maybe” piles of their research.

Yer a Jedi, Harry: Education in Worldbuilding

Hogwarts.

Unseen University.

Sunnydale High School.

Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.

The Jedi Academy.

Illuminati University (IOU).

Most worlds have some sort of education involved, whether mundane, military, paranormal, or something else. These are, for obvious reasons, especially popular in older children’s and YA novels. On one hand, they offer a shared experience with the reader. On another, they present an interesting place ot be explored without the presence of parents.

But, as writers, gamers, and worldbuilders in general, what should we know about educational institutions? What information should we have at our fingertips and/or present to our audience?

The following are some basics. Obviously, more detail can be added, such as traditions, rumors, and superstitions. But, I think this is a good baseline level of info.

Description—First, we should know what the place looks like. Is there one building or many? What do they look like? What is housed in each building? What are the grounds like? Are there any special rooms, ex. Hogwarts’s Room of Requirement? What is the feel of the school, e.g. dark, regimented, loose?

Curriculum—What is taught at the school? Are there formal classes or individual mentorships, or both? How long does completion usually take? Are there required subjects or classes? If so, for how long, e.g. it takes seven years to graduate, but History is only required for three of those years?

Ex. Hogwarts takes seven years to graduate, and some classes are only taken for four years. they teach both magic and history along with some elective subjects.

Who’s in Charge?—Who oversees the school? What title does this person hold, ex. headmaster, chancellor, president? Does this person have an assistant? Is there a group instead? How does one become the head or join the group? Who is this person or are these people?

Ex. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore oversees Hogwarts with a Deputy Headmaster, Minerva McGonagall, both chosen by the board of trustees.

Who runs the place?—Who handles the daily operations of the place? What non-teaching staff are present? Where do they live, do they have offices?

Ex. Argus Filch, Hagrid, and Madam Hooch are in charge of maintenance, groundskeeping, and sports coaching (more or less) respectively. Each has an office and/or living space on the grounds.

Faculty Hierarchy—Are the faculty divided into different groups? If so, how? Are the faculty ranked? If so, how?

Ex. University faculty are generally divided by department (field of expertise) grouped by “College” (ex. Arts & Sciences or Technology). They also have a hierarchy from adjuncts to non-tenure track to assistant professor to associate professor to professor (rarely adding university professor) to emeritus (retired).

Student Requirements—What does a person need to do to be accepted as a student? What age do they have to be? Are there gender, race/species, or skill requirements?

Ex. Hogwarts students can be any gender, but must be 11 years old and wizards/witches (House Elves or Goblins need not apply).

Faculty & Staff Requirements—What does it take to become a member of the faculty or staff? What process does one go through? What background does one need? Is there an age requirement?

Ex. Hogwarts seems to appoint professors based on interviews with the Headmaster (ref. Sybil Trelawney), or the Headmaster’s decision to offer a position (without an interview, ref. Remus Lupin, Horace Slughorn, and “Mad Eye” Moody).

School Rules—What sort of things are forbidden in the school? How are the rules enforced? What punishments can be handed out?

Ex. Hogwarts has relatively few rules—no magic in the halls, no Forbidden Forest, curfew. These are enforced by patrolling faculty, who can hand out detentions and take House Points away from offenders’ Houses.

External Oversight—Is there someone or a body of someones outside the school that provides external oversight? If so, what powers do they have? How does one take up this role? Do they get their authority from somewhere else or just from the school?

Ex. Both the Board of Trustees and the Ministry of Magic have some oversight of Hogwarts. The Board can choose to force resignations of faculty and staff, up to and including the Headmaster. The Ministry’s powers vary, depending on legislation (ref. HP and the Order of the Phoenix, esp. Dolores Umbridge).

Brief History—What has gone on at the school? When was it founded? How many leaders has it had? Was it involved in any major historical events? Was it built all at once or over several decades (or centuries)? Has its role changed over time?

Ex. See Hogwarts: A History; see also the history of the Jedi Temple (SW: The Old Republic, SW episodes 1-3)