Tag Archives: Higher Education

Slow Learner

Or unmotivated, or an under-achiever, or “not interested in school.” I was all those things. I am pretty certain I did not know what the SAT was until I became a college professor and that I did not understand its gate-keeping and corporate-enriching function until I became the parent of a high school student. I certainly never took it. I did not even realize until later that I barely graduated from high school. Some of my family insisted I go to my high school graduation because they expected it would be my last.

I showed them.


You can call me Doctor.

And here’s the thing: I was precisely the sort of student who Dr. Jill Biden would have helped. People like Dr. Jill Biden motivated me to make my way through school, to find my calling, to succeed. And I needed that. I needed it when at Ventura College. At Cal State. Even at Syracuse, where I earned my Ph. D. It was not a solo effort. I needed a lot of help.

Because it turns out that when you do not do well in high school, don’t take the SAT, and don’t build relationships with the people who might write for you letters of recommendation, lots of doors close. You will have to work harder than your peers who were either more privileged or more adept at making important life decisions while teenagers. And sometimes you can with remarkable ease dig yourself a hole from which it is very difficult to escape.

One door that remained open for me was the junior college less than a mile from my folks’ house. I am pretty sure the school took anyone who applied, and I could walk there. It was cheaper than the four year college. I could have learned a trade there, had I wished. I could knock off some of the required courses needed should I choose to transfer to the Cal State system. Most importantly, I could learn what it meant to be student, to take learning seriously, and how to succeed. That did not happen by itself. It was because of the people I encountered at that school

I can name more of the teachers from whom I took courses at Ventura College than I can for my undergraduate years at Cal State Long Beach, where I ultimately transferred. I can remember more distinct moments in the classroom from VC than I can from CSULB. None of the teachers I had at the junior college had Ph.D. degrees. None of them had the Ed.D degree that so many of Dr. Biden’s creepy and sexist critics have maligned. As far as I can tell, they all had Master’s degrees and none of them every wrote a book or published any path-breaking research. And while I was there as a student? I can guarantee you that I never thought for one second, “I wonder what degree my teacher has and from where they got it.” Never dawned on me at that time that this was something that mattered.

Those teachers, by helping me learn how to think, and teaching me that learning was, among many things a discipline, changed my life.

In my reasonably affluent neighborhood, I see so many cars with college stickers on the back window. Parents take pride in their kids attending Yale, Duke, Northwestern, or Cornell. I often see stickers for my own college, which for years has been thought of as something akin to the poor man’s Swarthmore. I do not see stickers for the “less prestigious'” universities and for community colleges. That is unfortunate.

One quick glance at the leadership of the Republican Party, for instance, will teach you that legions of idiots and jackasses have flourished in and graduated from Ivy League colleges. While some will tell you that the United States has the best system of higher education in the world, it would be foolish to deny that it is expensive, elitist, and frequently out of reach for too many people. The cost of college continues to sky rocket. Even at the public schools I attended as an undergraduate and beginning graduate student, dwindling state support for higher education has caused the cost of attendance to soar.

My first teaching job was at Montana State University-Billings. When I was there in the mid-1990s, the average age of the students was slightly above 27 years. I was teaching my peers. The school served many “non-traditional” students who in Montana and many parts of the country are hardly non-traditional at all. My students commuted from the Crow Reservation, or they were coming back to school after raising a family or a divorce or after a business failure or an at-work injury. Some had done their time in the armed forces and were looking for what came next. Some had careened from one misfortune to another but finally seemed ready to make a move. Some had not cared about school but now, finally, had decided to go. I miss teaching older students.

Many of these students, according to the logic upon which we still too often rely, were not “well-prepared” for college. They had “deficiencies” that needed “remediation” and sometimes support services. Many of these students flunked courses, or they came for a semester before taking the next semester off. Almost none of them graduated in four years. I am embarrassed to say that, starting out, fresh out of Syracuse, I sometimes lamented that these students did not seem to have any background knowledge. I was wrong to think that way. You see in higher education we too often blame the victims: we are college professors, after all, and we have no obligation to teach those who cannot be taught. If the student, for whatever reason, does not have the skills to succeed in college, they are out of luck. Some college students just are not good enough and they will flunk out. It is almost seen as inevitable. My wife and her friends, inner-city elementary school teachers all, laugh at what they see as our snobbishness. If only we had the option of choosing our students, they say, and viewing the difficult ones as unfortunate and expendable. They have to teach everyone who walks or crawls in the door.

What, like, it's hard?” | Legally Blonde (2001) – FictionMachine
The guy on the right writes for THE NATIONAL REVIEW

The attacks on Dr. Biden are so distasteful. They are sexist and elitist, of course. They are the sort of thing the dude who Elle dumped in “Legally Blonde” would say. But more than that, in their sneering contempt for public higher education and, most of all, community colleges, they cast the teachers who teach there and the students who study there as unworthy, as people whose educations count for less than theirs. No empathy. No sense that different people follow different paths, and that not everyone has it so easy. If only they could spend some time on these campuses. If they were honest they would see that the work of thousands of educators like Dr. Biden is so much more valuable and important than their stupid, key-jangling opinion pieces.

A Lot of People Writing About Higher Education Know Nothing About Higher Education

Like many professors, I have learned a lot this past Pandemic Spring teaching at my small, under-funded, public liberal arts college in Western New York State.  Most of all, I have learned much about the strength and resilience of my battered students.  I have been amazed by their ability to complete their work in the face of significant disruptions in their lives and, in a few cases, horrifying stories of personal tragedy and grief.  I have had students email me their papers from their cars, sitting outside a McDonald’s with its free wi-fi.

            I have also learned that so many “thought leaders” and “change agents” writing about the future of higher education seem to have very little sense of what it is that we college professors do in the classroom. Many of them seem to write from the Ivy League.  They appear to have no familiarity with the sorts of colleges and universities most American college students attend.

            Whether we are talking about Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ suggestion that professors wall themselves off from their classes with a prophylactic plexiglass shield, or others’ suggestions that our Zoom lectures can be packaged, marketed, and reused to create economies of scale in academia, the fact of the matter is that few of us lecture any longer.  The “sage on the stage” model is old and less effective than other methods in reaching today’s students.  This is not a lament about “kids these days.”  It is, rather, exciting, a development that brings a vibrancy to the classroom that makes the learning experience more rewarding and impactful for all.

Mitch Daniels has proposed placing professors behind plastic, plexiglass shields.

            We are neither talking heads nor orators bound to a lectern. Our classes are not one-way streets, with faculty speaking and students listening. We move around the room. Our students do, too.  In my history and humanities courses, I try to talk with, rather than at, students.  True, some instructors lecture very effectively and engagingly with their students, but too often this mode of instruction renders students passive.  They absorb “course content” which is often supplemented by massive, expensive textbooks (True Story: No college professor reads a textbook for enjoyment or out of interest, yet too many of us expect our students to do so). Students in these courses take notes, periodically regurgitate what they think is important, but otherwise play little active role in their own education. It is rote and it is terribly dull, but a lot of people think it is what we do.

            It is not.  College classrooms look much different today than they did when I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s.

            We know it is better to have students learn by doing.  Students in the liberal arts and humanities learn by asking questions, and by listening, conversing, and engaging in discussion and debate.  They collect evidence, read critically, and analyze.  We work hard to create critical thinkers and writers. In my classes, we discuss the sources to assess their strengths and weaknesses, their biases and prejudices, and to see what sorts of information this source might yield. We urge students to consider their own preconceptions that might color how they interpret the past.  And together we engage in urgent Socratic dialogue which exposes the weaknesses in our reasoning and forces us to confront long-held assumptions.  Or job is to help students learn, and that is something so much more than merely distributing to them over video selected course content.

            The content of our courses, after all, can change dramatically over time. History is not a static collection of names, dates, and places.  Rather, it is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  History is not a science, but it is a discipline, as we set out to answer the questions that present themselves to us in a deliberate, systematic, and rigorous manner.  The questions we seek to answer can change with the world around us.  Not only does new scholarship force us to rethink old assumptions, but the world itself insistently raises questions about the way things are and the way things ought to be. 

            There are of course many different ways to teach effectively. Different academic disciplines lend themselves better to some teaching methodologies than to others. But we must dispense with the outdated notion that college professors provide rote course content by lecturing in ways that can be packaged and replicated semester after semester.  So much student learning takes place in libraries and in the archives, in faculty offices and in the hallways outside the room before and after class.  Students learn through internships and through working closely with faculty mentors on research projects.

            There has been so much loss over the course of the past three months.  The inconvenience and financial blows colleges and universities are experiencing may pale in comparison to the needless suffering of so many families across the country.  If, however, higher education is deemed in need of reform, I would urge these advocates to reflect upon the best learning experiences they had themselves in college.  It likely was not something that took place as they sat in a massive lecture hall, or watched a video, or labored through a chunky textbook.  To help higher education, let’s look towards adequately funding public colleges and universities, reversing the long-standing trend towards a highly continent teaching faculty. It is a smart, long-term, investment.  Let’s equip faculty to provide students with the resources to provide students with the high-impact learning experiences that can awaken in them a new sense of the possible and that can change their lives.   

What If I Don’t Like Chipotle? Jerry Brown and Higher Education

Jerry Brown, the governor of my home state, recently aired some complaints about college professors and higher education.

“What I like about Chipotle,” he told a meeting of the California Chamber of Commerce, “is the limited menu. You stand in the line, get either brown rice or white rice, black beans or pinto beans,” Brown said. “You put a little cheese, a little this, a little that, and you’re out of there. I think that’s a model some of our universities need to follow.”  Brown was especially critical of the California State University system, which in his view needs to improve its four-year graduation rates.

I have some thoughts about this.  For two years I attended Ventura College, one of California’s many community colleges. It was a short walk from my house.  Then I earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in history from Cal State Long Beach.  It has been a while, but I have some experience with the system.  And now I teach at an institution that in many ways is analogous to Cal State, the State University of New York College at Geneseo.

I do not know the current graduation rates in the Cal State system, nor whether they have declined dramatically or whether programs are so badly impacted that students struggle to find the courses they need to graduate. Certainly Governor Brown thinks so. And the fault lies with the professors.

“They have so damn many courses because all these professors want to teach one of their pet little projects, but then you get thousands and thousands of courses, and then the basic courses aren’t available. It takes kids six years instead of four years,” Brown said.

“I know that’s not politically correct, or intellectually correct, because there’s so much to learn,” he added. “But you don’t learn it all in college. You learn most of it after you leave. So, get a good basic education in whatever field you try to do it in and get out of there.”

I can only speak to history departments, of course.  Certainly there are professors who are intensely specialized and narrowly focused, who teach nothing but what is in their tightly bound field of interest. But some of these courses, I would argue, provide students with a powerful educational experience.  Governor Brown is right, in the sense that you learn much after you leave college, but there are skills that students obtain and experiences students have in these narrowly focused courses that can be life-changing.  Sometimes narrowly focused faculty are a problem. But in my experience not only are they a minority, but they are viewed as a problem in their department. Far more common are professors who work hard, run themselves ragged teaching courses that cover a vast chronological or geographic range, sometimes far outside their research areas.  And I would point out to Governor Brown that I can count the number of historians who have complained about this reality on one hand, and I have been at this for nearly a quarter-century.

At Geneseo, I teach six courses a year.  Of those, two are what we call service courses, taught for the purpose of fulfilling my department’s commitment to helping students complete their general education requirements.  I teach a Humanities course that covers the great works in the western tradition from Classical Athens to Shakespeare, or a freshman writing seminar known as INTD 105.  I teach two survey courses, one in Native American History and one on American Indian Law and Public Policy, both of which fulfill general education requirements in a number of categories that students need in order to graduate, and 2 other courses in the department of History. Of the six courses I teach every year, at most two of those are specialized courses directed toward the interests of history majors.

My point is that I think Governor Brown has diagnosed the problem improperly. It is important to help students succeed. It is important to  ensure that they have access to the courses they need to graduate on time.  When I attended Cal State Long Beach, the vast, vast majority of students were commuters. I never knew anyone who did not work part time. I knew many “non-traditional” students–veterans, people coming back after a couple of years, people who bounced around from college to college and found themselves in Long Beach.  Some of them were ill-prepared for college, and needed remedial help, which was available. Although Geneseo’s student population is overwhelmingly white and between the ages of 18 and 22, there are schools in the SUNY system with more diversity, both in terms of ethnicity, race, ability and experience.  Sometimes students do not have the financial means to make it through school in four years.  Things happen. Problems arise.  When I attended Cal State, it cost me around 400 dollars a semester.  I could work and easily pay my bills.  It is not like that anymore.  Students may have trouble finding the classes they need, then, because economic necessity might require that they work when classes are offered.  And meanwhile, faculty lines go unfilled.

There are many problems afflicting higher education, most of them caused by a steady decline in funding.  Governor Brown, I know, is humane and interested enough to recognize the value of the liberal arts, of how liberating a college education can be.  But if we want our states to offer world class educations, we have to be willing to pay for it.  We cannot expect increasingly indebted students to foot the bill.  Indeed, it is a good investment for citizens and legislators.  You fund the colleges.  More students can attend.  More classes are available for them.  They graduate, earn higher paying jobs than they would if they did not go to college and, voila, they pay more in taxes over the course of their careers than if they did not attend college.  Return on investment, right?  The current leadership of the GOP, and many Democratic leaders who seemingly want to sound like Republicans on matters of higher education, want to view colleges as elite institution.  The truth about state institutions like SUNY and CSU, in my experience, is that they are nothing of the sort: if adequately funded they can become engines of democracy, equality, and opportunity.

Betsy DeVos Needs to go to School

What a dark and frightening world it is that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sees awaiting the young people attending the nation’s colleges and universities. “The faculty,” DeVos warned an audience some time back at the Conservative Political Action Conference, “from adjunct professors to deans, tell you want to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”
Oh, Secretary DeVos, you have it all so wrong.
I have attended colleges and universities, public and private, as a student in California and New York. I have taught at colleges and universities in Montana, Texas, and New York. I have spent more than three decades, as student and a professor of American history, on college campuses.
My colleagues and I have, I will admit, told students to do their assigned work. We have told them that they need to communicate clearly and effectively with evidence to support their reasoning. Sometimes we complain that they do not work hard enough or think with enough discipline. But we do not tell our students what to think. Indeed, there would be no better way to lose an audience of 18-22 year old young people.
I have no idea how much time Betsy DeVos spends in college classrooms, but I can say that higher education as it actually is practiced bears little resemblance to the dystopian vision she outlined last week and that is echoed so often in the right-wing media.
In history and the liberal arts, we pose big questions over which great minds around the world from many cultures have wrestled with for millennia. We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures. We urge students to be curious and hard-working, critical but kind. But we do not tell students what to think. We ask them to use their imagination and their reason. We expect them to argue—to investigate problems, gather evidence, consider the scholarship, and advance a thesis with confidence and clarity. We urge them to question everything, to challenge assumptions, to demand evidence, and to be intellectually fearless. We demand that they think.
Are there incompetent professors? Or ideologues in the university classroom? Sure, there are a few, and as many on the right as on the left in my experience. But they are a tiny minority, as they are in any line of work. There are, after all, incompetent and close-minded politicians, plumbers, and cabinet secretaries, as well, and “the faculty” is generally a group of fiercely independent and open-minded thinkers.
And that is what we want for our students. When I teach my college’s required course in the Western Humanities, my students read Sophocles and Thucydides, Plato and Cicero, the Bible and Augustine, Aquinas and Thomas More. That is a reading list that Conservatives a couple of decades ago would have loved. My students debate questions of immense importance: what are the components of human nature, what is the source of evil, how does one define

Yours Truly, Telling students that they should not kill the Melians

justice, and the relationship between law, power, and liberty, to name a few. The students’ opinions cross the ideological spectrum, but all understand that they must explain why they believe what they believe, and the evidence and experience that led them to those beliefs. And they must consider the ideas of great thinkers along the way, some of whom will challenge all that they believe to be true. Education can be an unsettling experience. Students who really want to be educated will be challenged.
Betsy DeVos seems to look on all of this with dread. She wants college students to join in “the fight against the education establishment,” to root out those phantoms “who say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you are a threat to the university community.” She believes that conservative students are under siege, assaulted by a college community that pays little heed to their First Amendment rights.
Nonsense. And the few exceptions she might trot prove no rule. Professors are as much a threat to free thought on college campuses as Grizzly Bears are a threat to children in elementary schools.

Education is essential for the functioning and survival of a republic. STEM education is important. We all know that. But a thriving democracy requires informed and questioning citizens, capable of thinking for themselves, assessing evidence, and dismantling the cant of demagogues and press secretaries. This is precisely what education in the liberal arts provides: students who can write, who can reason, and who can debate; students who can cut to the quick of an argument and insist on seeing the evidence and demand answers. These are the sorts of people, judging by Secretary DeVos’s demeanor at her confirmation hearing, that she worries about the most.
Spend some time on a college campus. Listen to what students talk about when they talk about their classes. Read what they write and what their professors write. Look at what they learn. Do so broadly, and with an open mind. You will see, then, that Secretary DeVos needs to go to school.