“Cultural” Problems and Structural Roots

Thomas Benton’s recent post on the Chronicle post on the hostility toward professors currently flowing through the media had a link back to a previous article about anti-intellectualism in the U.S. more broadly.  In this article, he reviews the arguments of many writers on the topic, from Richard Hofstader to Susan Jacoby and reflects on the symptoms of anti-intellectualism that seem to pervade his classroom:

As someone involved in education, I take the concerns of all of those writers quite seriously: The abilities and attitudes of students affect my life on a daily basis. It is my job, as I see it, to combat ignorance and foster the skills and knowledge needed to produce intelligent, ethical, and productive citizens. I see too many students who are:

  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their “feelings” — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.
  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.
  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.
  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)
  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.
  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).
  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.
  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while “needing” to receive very high grades.
  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.
  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

About half of the concerns I’ve listed — punctuation, plagiarism, argumentation, evaluation of evidence — can be effectively addressed in the classroom. But the other half make it increasingly difficult to do so without considerable institutional support: small classes, high standards, and full-time faculty members who are backed by the administration.

His assessment is avowedly subjective, though there are many items on that list that I think most college instructors would recognize in their own students.  He also does an excellent job of connecting the pedagogical solutions to these problems to larger structural problems within the university:  the increasing reliance on contingent labor and enormous class sizes even in freshman comp classes, to name a couple.

But Benton still commits a problematic fallacy that is ever so common in discussions of educational reform:  the assignment of blame to broad cultural forces rather than to specific problems in the way education is dispensed in this country.  The issues he identifies–lack of intellectual curiosity, unwillingness to perform effective research, inability to evaluate sources, and inability to produce effective, premeditated argument–could, in fact, be a product of the anti-intellectualism of the Bush era or the advancement of social media.  But as Tenured Radical so brilliantly argued a few weeks ago, there is peril in mislabeling problems as “cultural” when doing so effectively dismisses the issue as someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem:

In a college or university setting, however, when someone starts talking about “culture” it is too frequently the end of the discussion, an explanation for why things must be as they are and/or a way of distancing from something nettlesome. You will most frequently hear the notion of culture being invoked by administrators and faculty when what is being addressed is a problem, or set of problems, that either no one wants to name or can name — at least, not without opening a can of worms that general consensus dictates ought not to be opened.

Benton is, in fact, repeating a complaint so often heard among those who teach college freshman, some of whom suffer from a lack of exposure to college-level research and writing than a blanket contempt for learning.  So the real target for these sorts of complaints is actually high schools, who have failed to prepare their graduates for the kind of work they’ll be expected to do in a college classroom, presumably relieving the prof who teaches them of the burden of having to cover “fundamentals.”  The problem isn’t so much the fact that students are so goddamn anti-intellectual and lack the attention span God gave a goldfish as the fact that many students–particularly those from the poorly funded high schools where an enormous chunk of class time is spent teaching to standardized tests–sometimes aren’t as prepared as we would like them to be.

And the issue isn’t really about teachers, though I would love to see more incentives for public school English teachers to earn Masters degrees in Rhet/Comp and related fields.  Rather, teachers seem to be hamstrung by an educational system that favors standardized tests as the essential component of assessment rather than the research essays they’ll be expected to produce in college.  These are timed essays (students are usually given 45 minutes) in which students must simply bounce off the prompt and provide some sort of argument without having a chance to search for authoritative sources or really do much else but provide a gut-level response to the problem.  And this isn’t just the case in state-level proficiency exams.  This is what happens in the AP and SAT tests as well.  My first few weeks in any freshman comp class is usually spent deprogramming the types of skills they’ve honed in order to perform well on those tests:  the ability to instantly formulate a response to a question and spit out a 5-paragraph first draft that they will never look at again.

It doesn’t help that this is also the assessment model favored in many college lecture courses in the form of the short answer essay test.  While those essays are presumably informed by a semester’s worth of material, these tests do not teach the skills of research, source evaluation, and revision that produces good writing out in the real world.  As Benton says, this may simply be an artifact of ridiculously huge class sizes brought on by insufficient staffing, but I have to scratch my head when I see (and these do exist) profs who use these sorts of tests and then complain about the poor quality of freshman writing, when they themselves have offered no meaningful opportunities for students to reflect on and respond to feedback, much less revise their essays. Furthermore, there is a serious problem when a 3 or 4 on the AP test is taken as prima facie evidence of a student’s competence, when, for all of the reasons listed above, it does no such thing.  Yet students who earn such a score are frequently exempt from freshman composition classes or discouraged from taking them.

So we need reform at the high school level, obviously, but I would also like to see a better conversation among college instructors about precisely what sort of instruction students are getting in English classrooms in high school and what implications those conditions have for the way we conduct ourselves with today’s freshmen.  Rather than writing them off as lazy and high school English teachers as mere Ed majors who can never understand the nuances and complexities of our field, we would do better to simply understand the conditions under which both teachers and students are laboring and respond to them.  That doesn’t necessarily mean “lowering standards” (though these contentless, non-specific references to “higher standards” are another big problem in debates about education).  It means recognizing that these are skills that need to be taught and reinforced over and over again whenever we have the opportunity.  Teaching the fundamentals of writing and argumentation is the job of a college professor, whether any particular prof wants it to be or not.

But I would also like to see a better conversation take place among college and high school instructors.  I had the opportunity to be part of a ground-breaking program that paired college-level rhetoric courses with AP English classes in under-performing high schools.  The college students mentored the high school kids online and during campus visits, and I worked with the high school teacher to provide rigorous instruction in the fundamentals of argumentation, including evaluation of sources.  The high school kids ultimately produced two essays:  a rhetorical analysis and a researched position paper.  On paper, this sort of curriculum sounds like a dream, but in practice, we learned that there are some ridiculous logistical complications.  It is very difficult to get “buy-in” from both college and high school administrators on this sort of thing, especially in a recession, and any instruction that might be relevant to this program had to inevitably give way to the school’s testing schedule, which, I discovered, took up an enormous amount of time.  My final visit to the high school class had to be canceled thanks to changes in the testing schedule, and some other collaborations completely fell apart because the high school teacher could not give students enough in-class time to work on their projects. Nevertheless, that experience radically changed the way I teach college freshmen.

It’s comforting to think that problems with student writing these days can be traced to their generation’s inherent laziness or recalcitrance or their inability to communicate anything in over 140 characters, when their are structural problems behind those deficiencies that really aren’t their fault.  Furthermore, there are actual things that can be done to remedy these problems in the classroom, even if conditions aren’t completely ideal.

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One thought on ““Cultural” Problems and Structural Roots

  1. I loved this post! Today I overheard students in a class that I am assisting with complaining that the professor asked said student to revise an essay (if the student wanted a chance to increase their grade), and then cited this “problem” as having mainly to do with the fact that the prof is “too young to try to teach anyone.” I was feeling really down about this until I read your post, which is also a bit depressing, but includes suggestions that might actually be *useful* for changing attitudes. 🙂

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