BREAKING THE SPIRIT

I usually don't let the day-to-day aspects of my job get me down. Academia, yes. That gets me down sometimes. But it's rare that I walk out of the classroom feeling bad about what I do for a living. Yet this semester (we are currently in finals), grading research papers has kinda broken me. Not completely, of course – I'm not out on the ledge or typing up my resignation letter – but I'm second guessing myself even more than usual and not feeling particularly good about it right now. Perhaps my fellow educators out there can appreciate reaching the end of a semester or year and dealing with the nagging feeling that your students did not actually learn a damn thing.

These papers, nearly 90 in all, are among the worst things I've ever graded. A few are outstanding. Some are pretty good. Some are decent. But most of them are terrible. I feel bad about this for two different reasons. First, I tend to blame myself first and foremost when things vaguely within my control are not successful. Of the students who approached me for help in advance of the due date – you know, the good students who were responsible enough to take some initiative and put a little effort into it – I feel like I did not do a good enough job of helping them. If they're working with me and the final product has flaws, that is at least partly my fault. I failed them and I failed myself, but I can live with it because I know that I'm not a perfect teacher and it's a useful reminder that I need to continue improving. It knocks me down a peg. That's a good thing.

Second, I feel bad because sometimes these end-of-semester assignments have a way of making me feel like I was wasting my time.
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You know that one student who asks when the final exam is even though you mentioned it in class 15 times and the date/time are on the syllabus? He makes you feel like you're wasting your time talking because he's not paying the slightest bit of attention to you. Now imagine that he's half of your class. Maybe even more than half. I must have gone over the basics of this assignment a dozen times. I walked through example after example. And it's really obvious that some of these people did not hear a single word of it. They might be in class, but they're staring at their laptops and I'm ultimately background noise. Consequently I can't help but question the value of what I do. It feels like there is none, bluntly. We could stick a board with a painted-on smiley face at the front of the room and play audio recordings of the Oliver North hearings and it would not change the amount that many of these students learn in their classes. I feel about as useful as a travel agent sometimes.

It's hard to feel good when I am forced to realize that A) there are things I didn't do well enough, B) an appreciable portion of these students lack even adequate high school-level writing skills, and C) not many of them are putting effort into their classes, paying any attention to me when I teach, or both. Oh, and it's even harder to feel good when you read "charter schools and home schooling are more effective because the pace of instruction is not slowed because of minority and disabled students" in a paper.

That's not the kind of thing one overcomes to have a good day.

Usually I have a half-decent and not-too-cheesy answer to the "Why do we do this?" question that educators so often ask themselves and one another. Today I don't. Today I'm unsure what, if anything, that 17 weeks of hard work accomplished.

SUCKERS WANTED

Sometimes I write about the difficulties and annoyances involved in teaching at the college level, and certainly there are many. Nonetheless I like to remind myself, as many of my colleagues do, that we have it easy in some respects. More accurately, we realize that things could be worse. We could be high school or grade school teachers.

Don't misunderstand; I am not belittling people who are. My opinion is that they should get medals of some sort. Whatever they make, it isn't enough. It might be the most thankless job in an economy that is lousy with thankless jobs. There are few other jobs with a worse ratio of compensation and status relative to the workload and challenges. In recent years, the job has the added bonus of being the most popular punching bag for right wing politicians and AM radio addicts.

My job has a few advantages. I have less classroom time, with the trade-off of expectations of high research output that K-12 teachers do not have to worry about. Second, my students are adults – legally if not mentally. I can speak relatively freely to them. There are no limits on the topics I can introduce in class. I do not have to tolerate disruptive behavior or coddle them when they are lazy. Lastly, there are no parents to deal with. Helicopter parents do contact me with some regularity, but I can end all such conversations before they begin. "Sorry, FERPA. Your child is an adult and has rights that I have to respect. Bye."

For the K-12 folks, there is no such luck. Mom and Dad are on them like flies on a shit picnic.

This commentary from an award-winning K-12 principal occasionally veers into whining, but overall it is an excellent snapshot of the real problems facing the educational system. Parents act as defense attorneys for their children (or increasingly hire real attorneys to bring to parent-teacher conferences). When teachers tell parents "Billy is a disruptive little bastard" the first reaction is to argue with the teacher. They defend their child – and, of course, by implication they're defending themselves from the charge of bad parenting. Some parents would rather try to get a teacher fired or file lawsuits against the school than accept the fact that, you know, maybe Billy isn't a brilliant, perfect, and special little snowflake.

This all takes place against the backdrop of a job with mediocre compensation and a new wave of politicians attempting to eliminate job security, benefits, and what little discretion teachers have by instituting testing-based, mandatory curricula. Where do I sign?

Seriously, who do we expect to do this job? What is the sales pitch supposed to be? "Become a teacher today, and tomorrow you can be screamed at by soccer moms while Glenn Beck tells his listeners to lynch you and the state legislature requires you to teach creationism!" True, I still see college undergraduates majoring in education in droves, possibly for lack of better alternatives in other professions. Is that what this is all about – making every alternative in the economy so distasteful that people will meekly accept whatever their employment situation throws at them?

The sad part is that the most common reaction among teachers is resigned cynicism. Just give everyone an A so I don't have to listen to the parents bitch – the parents are always "right" in the end anyway. Don't worry about the fact that the kids aren't learning anything – just play along, teach to the state tests, and try not to get fired. Don't show any initiative, because initiative can only be punished.

And then we wonder why teachers aren't doing a better job. Why aren't they magical alchemists who can turn these ingredients – severe budget cuts, uninterested students, aggressive Pageant Moms, and constant political and rhetorical efforts to make public school teachers villains – into gold?

TECH WIZARDS

Today I had three different students send me nearly identical emails: "My TA in your class is ______. I didn't write down his email address on the first day of class. How do I get in touch with him?"

Granted, these are freshmen. I assume most of them are 18 or 19. But here's the thing. If one visits the university homepage, the first thing at the top page is the name and logo of the school. Immediately to the right of that is a large white box that says "FIND PEOPLE" with a blank line and a search button. The explanation cannot be laziness, can it? Certainly it took more time to email me (and await a response) than to open the most obvious website for finding this information, putting the TA's name into a search box, and hitting enter.

I have this kind of interaction with undergraduates constantly. Constantly. Often people question my honesty when I tell stories of some of the requests for information students make. For example, last fall at least 1/4 of my 325 intro American Politics students emailed me or asked me in person, "Where do I vote?" Exasperated, I went to class on Election Day, opened a browser on the projection screen, and typed "Where do I vote?" into Google. One-fiftieth of a second later, Google produced a line to enter one's address and then, another fraction of a second later, a detailed map of one's polling location.

These anecdotal findings are supported by a new study at five Illinois colleges of students' ability to find information and do research on the internet. The headline sums up the results: College Students Stumped by Search Engines. I'll go one step farther and say that not only are they stumped by search engines, they're stumped merely by the need for information. The idea of using a search engine to find it doesn't even occur to most of them. I have been asked the following questions in my teaching career:

  • Is there a website where I can read the Constitution?
  • How do I attach something to email?
  • Where can I order the textbook from?
  • How do I find articles about ________? (x1000)
  • I simply cannot comprehend how college students can attain this level of information illiteracy. Search engines are designed so that a child can use them successfully; you type a word in a box and it gives you websites about that thing, be it "Constitution", the name of a textbook, or literally any fathomable topic. Somehow about half of the students I encounter at a decent university cannot do this. More accurately, it doesn't even dawn on them to try to find the information they need. They just ask someone, or they remain silent and go without it.

    How can this be? These are "The Millennials", the generation raised on the internet. I see them every day, glued to their laptops and mobile devices. They probably spend anywhere from six to twelve hours every day online. And we are constantly subjected to cloying articles and news stories about how the U.S. has a generation of little tech wizards on the way. Unfortunately their talents with this hand-held mobile wireless technology appear to be limited to sending text messages and staring at Facebook. Maybe some of them shop online too.

    Yet even that much should be sufficient to give them basic facility with search engines. To find someone on Facebook, you put a name in the search box. To find Katy Perry's latest masterwork on Amazon, you search "Katy Perry." What is the disconnect here? How is it that they can find Joe Blow on Facebook or use the search function on a retail website but when they need to find out who wrote Federalist 10 they can't connect the dots? When they need to write a paper on the 1994 election, why doesn't it seem logical to start with a search term like "1994 election" and go from there?

    The basic skills and comprehension of how websites work appear to be present. The part that baffles me is why they seem so unable to find out things they need to know. Whatever the explanation, I feel confident that the relationship between Millennials and technology is being misrepresented considerably.

    UPWARD SPIRAL

    Arizona State University is often the butt of jokes – to this day every time I hear someone described as promiscuous I think "She's easier to get into than ASU!" – on account of its supposedly lax academic/admissions standards and bargain-basement cost. In-state tuition in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not even $2000. Between 1999 and 2010, the cost of tuition increased 300%, from just under $3000 to $8900. Tuition at the University of California-Riverside increased 29.7% in a single year from 2009 to 2010. Since 1980 the average public university tuition, adjusted for inflation, has increased almost 400%. Why is college tuition getting so much more expensive? The Chronicle of Higher Education has a neat interactive tool that you can use to find any institution if you're curious.

    I question the knee-jerk response from those of us on the left, that state budget cuts are responsible for passing a greater share of the costs onto students. There is undoubtedly merit in this argument. State budget cuts are hard on universities, especially as enrollments skyrocket. But in aggregate, state allocations to universities have been rising almost as quickly as tuitions since 1980. It's not equal to the penny and that isn't the point here; instead, let's focus on the fact that everything about it is getting more expensive. The rising costs lead to one of two outcomes, and not the one most commonly used as a boogeyman:

    1. Mom and Dad shell out the cash and get angrier / more reactionary about how much they have to pay. Teabagging ensues. Everyone involved feels entitlement, reinforcing the parents'/students' sense that they are paying a ton and they're paying a ton for an A and a degree.

    2. Students accumulate more debt. This, not the straw man of "Poor people won't be able to afford college!", is the depressing result. Anyone who can fill out a FAFSA can find someone to offer them the loans, guaranteeing that people of all socioeconomic classes can graduate with a barely useful BA and a ball-crushing load of debt that will ensure their enduring servility in the workforce.

    But I digress. Where's all this extra money going? How are both students and taxpayers pouring more money into public universities with no end in sight to get essentially the same service? It sure as hell isn't going to professor salaries. It sure as hell isn't going to teaching overall, what with the growing use of $12k/yr grad students and adjuncts. It sure as hell isn't going to research (the growth of which is relying mostly on external grants and the private sector). So, what? Let me propose two culprits we don't often hear about.

    First, massive investments in infrastructure – particularly non-academic infrastructure – that aren't doing much to enhance the academic experience. Anyone who was on a college campus between, say, 1992 and 2008, knows that the sight of cranes and construction was unavoidable. Higher education went absolutely Big Shiny Building loco. Why? Growth for the future and anticipated growth in enrollment explains part of it, for sure. We needed more space. But so much of it was aimed at marketing the school to potential "customers". Students (and parents) have a tremendous amount of choice in higher education, from the local commuter 2-year school to high end private 4-years. No university wanted to give gaggles of high school seniors (with parents awkwardly in tow) the Campus Tour without being able to show them a bunch of Big Shiny Buildings. Mom and Dad aren't gonna be very impressed unless they can see "hi-tech" classrooms full of the latest gadgets. Big Shiny Buildings don't impress the kids much, though – gyms do. "Student centers" do. Student unions that look like shopping malls / amusement parks do. The big rock climbing wall and other MTV-esque crap does. None of this stuff is educational. It is strictly there to entertain students and lure in potential students. Everyone tells you they'll give you an education, so the important thing is which school offers you the most "fun". Which one has the most cool shit? Which one looks most like the campuses on TV shows?

    Second, the growth in administration has been unchecked and exponential. Most public schools now have an administrative-to-educational employment ratio of 3:1 to 4:1. Or worse. Layers upon layers of extremely highly paid, dubiously useful administrators. Some of the growth has come from the addition of useful offices in recent years – for example, I'd argue for the value of the Offices of Women's Affairs that most schools have added since 1990. But good god, the average school literally has a dozen or more buildings chock full of people of no discernible utility. Everyone complains about bureaucracy; on campus it's more valid than in most settings. The Assistant Vice-Provost for External Affairs and his staff of 28 aren't working for free. The 500 deans on most campuses aren't doing any more than 100 did 30 years ago (except for fund raising; most of them spend 90% of their time on that, academic planning be damned). There is no more nuanced way to put it – universities are now top heavy with six-figure-salaried stuffed suits with no marketable skills and no apparent purpose except to make more difficult everything a university is supposed to do.

    The cost of higher education, either for students or state legislatures, isn't going to go down until they stop putting politically expedient Band-Aids on their problems (furloughs, larger classes, pay/hiring freezes, more temp labor in the classroom) and decide to focus on what is supposedly their core mission: educating people. The new $100 million MultiTainment Complex and the Orrin Hatch Learning and Instructional Center are expensive frills. Athletic programs are money-losing albatrosses. Administrators exist mostly to perpetuate the need for administrators. Teaching and research should be 99% of what we do. But mention that on the Campus Tour and watch the eyes start to glaze over…

    HONOR SYSTEM

    Several weeks ago I caught three students cheating on an exam. In a mandatory, arena-sized Intro class of 325 students it is not entirely unexpected. Many freshmen who will not be in college for very long pass through such classes as do all kinds of students more interested in partying than anything academic. Unfortunately for them, auditorium classrooms are well designed to catch cheaters. Because the students' seats are elevated it is quite easy to use the angle to observe students looking at one another's papers, looking at concealed notes, or passing information back and forth.

    I will spare you the details but the sharing of information by these three gentlemen was blatant, a technique they no doubt considered very clever and learned from their elders at the frat house. After watching them clumsily cheat I asked four different TAs to watch them and verify that I was not imagining things. All four agreed that they were attempting to cheat.

    Upon informing the students that they would receive an F for the course due to academic misconduct, I assumed the matter was closed. Anyone who teaches for more than a short while deals with this. No big deal. Soon I was contacted by a university administrator and informed that professors at this school are not allowed to fail students for cheating or plagiarism. We have to report them to an academic affairs office and go through an administrative process. OK, I thought. Irritating but ultimately irrelevant.

    I was then told that the first step in this process is "mediation", wherein the professor and students meet with an administrator who would…do something, I guess. This irked me. I did not appreciate having to waste an hour of my life on these sad excuses for students. The meeting consisted of an endless legalistic preamble about students' rights and an admonition that we "come to an agreement" about what happened and what consequences would result. What was supposed to take an hour took about 30 seconds. I informed them that I have no intention of negotiating with students and seeking their permission to fail them for cheating, and even less enthusiasm for negotiating a lesser slap-on-wrist punishment. We can skip this and go directly to the next stage of the process if the students insist, I said.

    The admin was decidedly upset by this. It became apparent that the entire point of this process was to mildly scare the students until they Learn Their Lesson and then let them off the hook with some sort of minor punishment. In my case, the admin didn't even want to go that far. Despite written statements from five people – me and four teaching assistants – she was aggressively implying that this could be a big misunderstanding. Are you sure that you actually saw them cheating? Why don't you have any proof? (to which I responded "What would you like, surveillance camera footage?") Can't we come to some kind of agreement to put this behind us?

    No, we can't. This isn't kindergarten.

    We now move to some sort of quasi-judicial procedure with a five-member panel that will make the decision. The outcome is obviously going to favor the students. It's clear what the university is doing but not why. I honestly can't figure out their motives here. Are they afraid of lawsuits? Worried about the school's reputation? Pandering to parents? More "the customer is always right; he paid for an A, give him an A" nonsense?

    What I do know is that it makes absolutely no sense for a student at this school not to cheat. A rational person who understands how this process works – certainly word gets around – realizes that he has nothing to lose by trying to cheat. If this is the university's position, faculty might as well leave the room during exams and put everyone on the honor system. The worst part about this state of affairs is how it reinforces the paranoid "Let's tear down the ivory tower" view of academia most often found on the political right. I mean, it appears that your angry uncle and loudmouthed coworker are right. Between rampant grade inflation and lax attitudes toward enforcing the most basic rules of conduct, every student really does get a trophy just for showing up.

    THE OLD GUARD

    A hypothetical scenario for a college professor.

    Bob is a graduate student. One semester he gets seriously depressed and misses several weeks of class. For reasons beyond anyone's comprehension, I, the professor, cannot simply talk to Bob and come to an agreement about how to handle the work he missed and his grade. The obvious choice would be to give him a grade of Incomplete and require him to make up the work later, but I determine that the course is just too important and he has fallen irredeemably behind his cohort – which means he should be withdrawn from the class and required to take it again. Instead I decide to email the entire cohort of graduate students to poll them on what should be done with Bob. I say, "One of your classmates has depression and missed a bunch of class. Should I give him an A, B, or C? Should he get the grade he had at the time he stopped attending? Should he be given zeroes for his missed grades and given a final grade accordingly? Help me out here!"

    Look at that story. It's like a game: circle all of the things that are illegal, against university policy, or just plain inappropriate. I revealed personal information about one of the students to his classmates, information that is likely to embarrass him. Of course they all know who has been absent, so efforts to "anonymize" the situation are silly at best. I decided to poll students about a grading decision that I should make based on established university policy – after all, it is not likely that this is the first time as student has ever missed classes for personal reasons.

    The only thing that could make this more inappropriate – with the potential exception of the phrase "One of your classmates has a burning chancre on his penis" – would be for the professor to discuss the details of this situation with the whole grad cohort in class. With Bob in the room.

    While this is not the most realistic hypothetical, if you replace "depression" with "pregnant" and "Bob" with a female this is essentially what happened in a graduate program at UC-Davis. A pregnant female student had her personal situation and grade opened up for discussion by a male professor who, despite being fully tenured and with many years of experience, has apparently never had a pregnant woman in his class. Or perhaps even met one.

    There are several problems here, not the least of which is an ancient, tenured asshole who probably longs for the days when a male professor could tell female students "This is a man's field. Go study anthropology" without consequences and with the unanimous approval of his colleagues. The bigger problem is the extent to which academics (and other people in highly competitive fields in the non-academic world) are not-so-subtly dissuaded from having any sort of life outside of academia. While I'm sure that many departments are good about the issue, female graduate students are usually informed in indirect but certain terms that having a baby in grad school – heck, any time before tenure! – is not a good idea. It is an inconvenience during grad school and a burden on the job market. After all, who wants to hire a woman who will constantly be taking breaks to breastfeed and leaving at 5:00 to spend time with her children? That's valuable research time! (Male academics who have children, on the other hand, are simply expected to ignore them. Mommy can take care of them. You can stay in the office.)

    Academia expects us to have no life whatsoever outside of the campus, although professions like teaching, law, medicine, and nursing (to name a few) are similarly difficult on people during the typical marriage-and-kids years of one's life. That the professor's actions here were inappropriate and probably illegal goes without saying. That graduate programs and attitudes toward young faculty try to shame and punish people who dare to, you know, have a child before it's biologically too late is more disturbing. The message is clear: your job is the most important thing in your life and everything is secondary to the demands of your employer. You know this is wrong and that you should prioritize your family and life over your job. That said, the fact that employees in this country have no power whatsoever (especially in a lousy job market) has a strange tendency to subsume any holistic sense of self-interest and promote one that is defined solely as the need to do whatever is necessary to keep one's job.

    Sure, universities could push back against these pressures in our society…but given that the upper tiers of the profession are composed of people who were educated in the 1960s Old Boys' Clubs there is little interest in doing so. Have fun working at Borders after we deny your tenure, Missy. Hope those kids were worth it!

    INMATES RUNNING ASYLUMS

    This item made its way around the interwebs on Tuesday, revealing the shocking assertion that American college students aren't learning much during their four to seven years of undergraduate binge drinking. A new book entitled Academically Adrift asserts that college students in their sample (approximately 2000) show little to no improvement in knowledge and critical thinking skills after two and four years. As these brief news items do not say much about the methodology of this study I can't say how seriously these findings should be taken. Nonetheless this conclusion seems like it has been common knowledge for quite some time now – especially among those of us on the Inside – and we may be safe assuming that there is some kernel of truth to it.

    Look, this is not a revelation. We know that American universities are plagued with grade inflation, pitifully low standards, rampant senses of entitlement among the students, and a general lack of interest in scholarly activity on campus. We know that students want to do as little work as possible and whine for higher grades. We know that some meaningful portion of academics give out high grades and demand almost nothing of students in pursuit of higher student evaluations and teaching awards. We know that demands from parents, state legislators, and taxpayers play a role as well. We know that a lot of people in college right now are nowhere near ready to do college-level work. We know that the economic state of higher education means that less experienced, lower paid people are doing the majority of the teaching in many places. None of this is news and to discuss it here would be to repeat ourselves at great length to no effect.

    Of the many news sites that carried this story on Tuesday, the Gawker link ended up being the most interesting to me. Not because the hack of a writer did a good job summarizing the book (he didn't) but because of the comment thread. While it is lengthy, it is interesting to thumb through. As usual when the state of academia is opened up for debate, current or recent undergraduates gravitate toward institutional factors as sources of blame, e.g.:

    My Genetics degree was tough to get but I didn't have the time to fuck around and not study. But I also recall the first two years of my college being mostly fluff courses that we were required to take in order to make us 'well rounded'. Stuff like fulfilling certain multicultural, western, eastern, foreign language and history courses, regardless of major.

    As an instructor of a giant, state legislatively mandated Intro to American Government course in which students generally have not one shred of interest, I encounter this attitude often. I am only here because the state is forcing me to be here. I do not want to take (math / English / foreign languages / history / politics / etc). I only want to take the courses in my major (which is inevitably journalism, business, or something equally full of people who think they know everything). Because why would a journalist or someone in "business" need to know anything about how American government works?

    What it reveals, I believe, is the disturbing trend of treating students as customers in universities run like businesses, and we know that the customer is always right. They come into college with the attitude that they will tell us what they want to be taught, not the other way around. Despite the fact that colleges already offer students a substantial amount of discretion in choosing their course of study, they are increasingly vocal in their anger toward the minimal trappings of a well rounded, liberal arts education that most states have in place.

    I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this is not how the system is intended to work. You do not walk into college, 18 years old and brimming with all the worldly knowledge concomitant with that age, and tell us what we should be teaching you. If the students already know what knowledge and skills they need, then why are they in college? Ah. At last we reach the heart of the matter – they fundamentally believe that the educational aspect of college is little more than a tedious requirement. We are just gatekeepers standing between them and the fabulous, high-paying careers that await them on the other side. "I don't give a crap about Literature or history or the rules of grammar; just give me my B so I can start making $500,000 per year in advertising or writing Golden Globes fashion articles for Vogue."

    You see, college isn't about learning anything. It's merely a multiyear party with a bunch of hoops to jump through, a set of obstacles between each Special Snowflake and the Good Life. And the more they whine about states' efforts to impose some semblance of a well-rounded education, the more we change things to accommodate them. The customer is always right. I am not the world's strongest proponent of "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" education, but the idea that students aren't learning because we're boring them by subjecting them to math, English, history, foreign languages, and political science is beyond the pale. If anything, a far stronger argument could be made that students learn so little in college because their curricula are composed so heavily of narrow elective courses lacking in breadth and of dubious educational value. We know you want to spend all of your time taking elective crap and "business" classes, kids. But here's the thing: you can't. Our job, at least for now, is to develop your critical thinking skills and expose you to a broad range of ideas and intellectual traditions. But fear not; over time I'm sure that state legislatures will turn college into the four year drunken vocational school our customers so desperately want.

    BOWING TO PRESSURE

    As any academic or college student (past or present) knows all too well, the textbook industry is quite a racket. Every semester students are required to buy textbooks with triple-digit prices and publishers rush to release "new editions" that rarely amount to more than cosmetic changes. Political science is one of the few fields in which a regular update is necessary (due to biannual elections, new Supreme Court rulings, new issues, and so on) but even so, publishers are now eager to release annual new editions for the biggest moneymakers – Intro to American Government textbooks. In most fields, even though an update every five years or so would do just fine publishers are desperately trying to make one last killing off of paper textbooks before the entire industry (presumably) goes electronic at some point in the next decade or two. But I digress.

    The courses that attract huge, steady enrollments – American Govt., macroeconomics, English 101, etc. – offer instructors a dizzying array of choices. The ability of publishers and authors to repackage and rearrange essentially the same information to create dozens of "different" textbooks is impressive. How many ways can you explain how a bill becomes a law? Lots, apparently, because there are probably 40-some AmGov textbooks on the market right now, each of which claims to have a unique way of presenting essentially identical information.

    As the kind of grunt who does the 325 student Intro class lecture every semester, publishers are constantly sending me new (or "new") textbooks to consider. One course adoption pays for itself many times over, even if the publisher had to mail out 200 free textbooks to various professors to get one commitment. Accordingly I see the different tricks used to differentiate the textbooks, not only in terms of content but in presentation as well. The trend over the last ten years has been unmistakable to anyone paying attention: publishers are catering to a rapidly shrinking attention span, be it real or imagined.

    This trend appears to have reached a peak with this book, Think from Pearson Education. This book, which finds its way into the mailbox of every professor who has ever thought about teaching Intro, is essentially a large magazine. That's it's selling point. It looks like a magazine. The layout appears to have been copied from Sports Illustrated. Each chapter is broken into "articles" of shorter length. Paragraphs rarely exceed a few sentences. The font is big and bold. There are pictures everywhere. A sidebar graphic of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert seems to be on every third or fourth page (although in fairness, this is true of almost every Intro book nowadays). In short, this textbook does everything possible to cater to a generation that, in the apparent opinion of the publishing industry, has an attention span of about 30 seconds.

    It might as well have "Government for Idiots" stamped on the cover, but I don't hold anything against the author for writing a book in this style. There is a market for it. And even the big, dignified textbooks from the big, stately publishing houses that would never stoop to such cheap tactics are stooping to the same cheap tactics. This raises two interrelated questions: Do undergraduates really have such poor attention spans? If so, is it right to cater to it or should we attempt to push back?

    While there have always been textbooks aimed at different, ahem, "markets" (top-20 schools vs. community colleges, for example) the tendency of all textbooks to cater to short attention spans has increased dramatically in a short period of time. For the average attention span to have fallen so quickly in the last decade would lend credence to the common refrain that constant internet access, social networking, texting, Twitter, and all of the other Signs of the Apocalypse for human communication have done everything critics have claimed – they've turned us into a nation unwilling to or incapable of reading anything longer than 200 characters. New textbooks are to old textbooks what CNN Headline News is to CNN; the same basic material stripped down, plastered with flashing graphics, and delivered in 30 seconds or less. I am not sure I buy this premise, but let us run with it for a moment.

    If this is the case, why is academia essentially throwing up its hands and accepting that we have to make teaching more like Tweeting? The emphasis on dumbed-down textbooks, online assignments, PowerPoint lectures (no more than 20 words per slide, say the experts!), and the like indicate that we do not intend to put up much of a fight. Is it not appropriate for professors to say, "Look, I am assigning a real book and you will read it, because sometimes in order to understand something you have to sit down and read a damn book about it"? If everything else is conspiring to shorten their attention spans and make their desire for instant gratification all-encompassing, it hardly seems appropriate for the ivy halls of learning to shrug and start turning education into a series of 15 second commercials and Instant Messages. Someone needs to suggest the correct habits even if the students choose to ignore the advice.

    Real learning, or at least real understanding, cannot be reached with shortcuts in most cases. There is no 30-second version of what the Constitution is about. There is no colorful 3/4-page text box with pictures of angry protesters that can convey the complexity of the 1st Amendment. How to write persuasively, why the Protestant Reformation was a historical turning point, how the money supply works…none of these are questions that can be answered in Twitter-sized chunks. Understanding issues like these demands that students do what colleges have made students do for 250 years: read something, think about it, and express their command of the material in writing. To pretend that any other method will result in real, meaningful learning is, in my view, delusional.

    I hate to think what this profession is going to look like in 20 years. I already need a full arsenal of anecdotes, visual aids, and straight-up comedy to keep (a portion of) the students awake for a (gasp!) 50 minute lecture. At this rate, by the time I'm 40 I will need a fireworks show, two clowns, and a live alien autopsy to hold their attention for more than a minute or two. The truth is that the more we play along, the more the students will expect us to cater to their technology-induced ADD. And the more we enable and encourage bad habits, the harder it will be for us to do our jobs because no amount of editorial sleight-of-hand is going to successfully boil the Federalist Papers down to a 30 word or 30 second explanation.

    ONLINE EDUCATION IS THE FUTURE, OR: ANOTHER REASON THE FUTURE WILL SUCK

    Over time I have come to believe that there are only two facts that are inviolate in the context of discussing social, political, or economic issues. First, the preface "Now, I'm not a racist, but…" invariably indicates that an individual is about to say something staggeringly racist. Second, when free market enthusiasts attempt to sell an idea with the promise that it will "democratize" something – bringing broader access to a previously exclusive good, service, or market – two things are about to happen. A small group of people are going to get obscenely wealthy, and they are likely to do so as a direct result of a much larger and less exclusive group of people getting bent over and unceremoniously screwed. I'm tempted to paraphrase Hermann Goring's quote about culture ("When I hear the word culture, I reach for my Browning") but in reality I do nothing so aggressive when the siren song of democratization is sounded. Instead I try to figure out who is about to be ground up in the wheels of techno-libertarian "progress." In the case of the shining promise of online (ahem, "non-traditional") classes democratizing higher education, the mill grist happens to be me, people like me, and the students we teach.

    When I first read DIY U, with its "Are you shitting me? Jesus, you're serious, aren't you?" subtitle Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, I knew nothing of author Anya Kamenetz but I was willing to put my life savings on her being affiliated with either Cato or Fast Company. Sure enough she turned out to be a Fast Company Imagineer or whatever they call their practitioners of this brand of sycophantic free market leg humping:

    The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore.

    That is an actual quote. Is it not self-evident that once we are all learning from "open-source content" (like Wikipedia!) the educational experience will be improved? This kind of bluster is par for the course for the magazine that spent the nineties promising us that the unregulated market would bring us to economic nirvana. Life was going to be one long technogasm laden with "innovation" and unfettered prosperity for all; we would all be wealthy once The Internets let every Tom, Dick, and Harry buy mutual funds. But I digress.

    Being at the bottom of the academic hierarchy offers me unfair perspective on the changes that are sweeping higher education, and the reader will of course note that I bring some bitterness to the conversation given that most of these democratizations involve me getting paid $1000 per course for 16 weeks of work without benefits or any commitment beyond semester-to-semester temp labor. Would that this transition in academia from stable, albeit not particularly highly paid, tenured employment to the just-in-time Labor Ready model that is replacing real faculty with adjuncts/part timers be forced upon us without the patronizing mantra about how this is all for the good of the students.

    Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students "cobbling" together a self-guided degree consisting of "course materials readily available online," I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.

    The real benefit, though, is that it will let more people go to college because everything will be cheaper. The adjuncting wave of the early 1990s was supposed to make education cheaper. It didn't. Now online courses are supposed to be making education cheaper (price being conflated with accessibility in this line of argument). Despite spreading like wildfire in the last decade – from dedicated online schools like University of Phoenix to the best (and worst) brick-and-mortar schools – the price of higher education only increases. So who benefits from replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts if not the students? If students aren't getting cheaper or better education from online courses, why are colleges so eager to establish them?

    The answer, as anyone on this side of the looking glass knows, is that it's cheaper – for the university. Adjuncts are cheap, desperate temp labor who don't complain. Online courses have essentially no overhead and are taught in the vast majority of cases by – you guessed it – adjuncts or graduate students who, if they finish the long trek toward a Ph.D., can look forward to taking a paycut to hop on the adjunct treadmill. These changes are not in the interest of students. Nobody sincerely believes that. They do not make education cheaper or better because that is not their intent. The goal is simply to make education more profitable. Universities like that. State legislatures (when the schools in question are public) like it even more.

    Online education or the kind of choose-your-own-adventure college experience described in this book has a place. This role has been filled historically by community colleges, the primary clientele of which has always been adults who need work-related training. If, as a result of creeping credentialism, some low-level county government bureaucrat or State Trooper needs a 3-credit course in such-and-such to qualify for the next step up on the pay scale, then online classes are clearly a good option. They make sense because no one cares what is or is not learned in this instance. Passing the course is merely a means to a very specific end in the career path.

    Over time, though, universities noted the profit margins inherent to this kind of business model. What was good for community colleges could be good for Big Ten U. or Private East Coast College. Like adjuncting, online courses have become a pandemic, especially at poorly funded, lower tier public institutions (Eastern State U., etc). Online courses are moneymakers, and thus of great interest to institutions that are chronically short on money. The proliferation of "Online MBA programs" you see on billboards and TV commercials represents nothing more than financially strapped and savvy institutions reacting logically by combining a highly profitable program in which no real learning takes place anyway – unless one counts Jack Welch books and management platitudes as learning, which I do not – with the lowest-cost delivery method. If anything colleges do can be described as profit-maximizing, this is it.

    These changes are coming, and higher education in a decade or two will probably look quite similar to what Kamenetz and her supporters envision. I have neither doubts nor illusions about this. But I insist that we call it what it is. It is a lot of highfalutin language being thrown around by administrators to justify cutting costs – and not the costs to students. It is the replacement of tenured faculty with a permanent Ph.D.-holding underclass barely cracking the poverty line and undeserving of pesky expenses like benefits or offices. It is a way for state legislatures to continually slash higher education funding while rationalizing it as a good, or at least value-neutral, deed. It is a way to make changes that promise short term rewards to a group of decision-makers who will be long gone before the true costs – cohort after cohort of "college graduates" with even fewer useful skills and less useful knowledge than the already substandard ones churned out today – become painfully clear. It is a way, like everything else the think-tank conservatives and market acolytes sell to the public as a means of reducing costs or democratizing something, to make it more profitable. Not better, not cheaper, and not more accessible. Only a mind that conflates "better" and "more profitable" can continue to promise the former with a straight face.

    (Read about the spread of adjuncting, including a copious literature review and arguments for and against, in this paper, appropriately entitled "Does Cheaper Mean Better?").

    GENERATION NEGOTIATION

    I am totally unqualified to pass judgment on specific acts of parenting. If I ever have kids, I'll probably be feeding them margaritas to get them to stop crying or something equally abhorrent that I would currently criticize with great indignation. So I try not to wag my finger at parents, excepting the most flagrant abuses of the "I tattooed my 2nd grader" variety. That said, I am not hesitant to criticize parenting fads, the kinds of things that saturate the non-fiction bestseller list and are more likely than not to come out of the mouths of a Dr. Phil or a Joy Behar.

    When social commentators paint the current generation of college students – do they still call them "millennials"? – they focus on the Special Snowflake phenomenon, that overpowering sense of entitlement that is the product of well intentioned but empty-headed emphasis on self-esteem building. Self-esteem is a good thing. So is having a grasp on one's own abilities and accomplishments that is at least partially grounded in reality. But this the generation of "everyone gets a medal" and "everyone's a winner." Gawker recently published an email from a would-be intern to a potential "employer" (to the extent that interning is employment) that sets the Special Snowflake problem in high relief. I am important, I am special, I am fantastic, I am desirable. That's what these kids have been told for 20 years before we graduate them into a grist mill of unemployment, unpaid internships, and $10/hr office work with no benefits.

    Enough has been said about that, though. The parenting fad of the 90s that causes educators more grief than any other is the idea that children should always be given choices. Don't give them rules or orders (That's so 1950s!). Give them options and let them learn about making choices and dealing with consequences. So Billy didn't have a bedtime, Billy negotiated his bedtime.
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    Susie's mom didn't turn off the TV, she said "You can either watch another 15 minutes of TV or (whatever), but not both." Let them choose, the talking heads of the day hypothesized, rather than making them feel like they are always being ordered around.

    That's great except for the fact that nothing in the real world actually works this way. I notice this problem acutely in two situations.

    First – and it's not surprising that I mention this immediately after the spring semester when final grades are handed out – today's college students believe that receiving a grade is a multistage process of which the grade they earned is merely a starting point for negotiations. In the short time (six years?) I've been doing this, this is the single most irritating part of the job. I tell them, I am not Monty Hall and this is not Let's Make a Deal. Unfortunately they were born in 1989 so that means nothing to them. Grade negotiation isn't new, I assume, but I have to think it's getting worse. In the past three days I have received numerous emails to the effect of, "I know I failed your class but I really need a C to graduate. What can I do?" You can't do anything, Shooter. If you need a C to graduate then I guess you're fucked.

    Every student launches into the Negotiating Bedtime mode in these situations. They offer to do extra work (which will be as slipshod as their previous efforts, of course). They offer to re-take exams. They simply try to negotiate upward based on dubious logic of some sort – "This is why I deserve a higher grade" or similar nonsense. I have been offered large sums of money to change grades. I have been offered sexual favors for the same. I've been threatened (Not the scary kind – the sad, self-important kind on display in the Gawker link). Some of these kids, for as much as they suck at formal education, would be dynamite as used car salesmen.

    Second, they want to negotiate their post-graduation lives when they have no leverage beyond their conviction that they are special. A student recently told me about getting into Elite Law School X but being unhappy with their offer in terms of financial aid. He described the scenario to me in a way that suggested he imagined himself like Lebron James on the free agent market – he'd state his demands and watch a bidding war for his services ensue. As gently as possible I explained that Elite U. doesn't give a rat's ass about him and if he doesn't take their offer they have 10,000 other applicants with nearly identical qualifications who will. Students also talk regularly about "job offers", as in, "I'll wait to see what kind of offers I get before I blah blah blah." They don't grasp how little they are worth in times like these. Most of them, talented or bright as they may be, will be unemployed or marginally employed for a few years at minimum. Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists can make demands. Social science majors can't. This does not occur to them.

    We're quick to point out how counterproductive it has been to fill generations of kids with the idea that they are special, important, and entitled to success and happiness. We recognize that their self-image departs radically from the current reality. Maybe with time we will come to a similar recognition of how useless it has been to teach them to negotiate and to couch everything in the language of choices. This is every bit as impractical given the noticeable absence of choices and leverage to negotiate in the job markets of the new millennium.