Reductionism and College Education

Dr. Z

I am in the process of wrapping up a short, three-week, online class: a mini-mester.  Ideally, in less than a third of the time, students cover the same materials in three weeks that they would in a traditional 16 week semester.

Although I benefit from the overload, I have always been ambivalent about the classes–even as I have continued to teach them on a regular basis.

My reservations about the courses have been difficult to articulate.  The students are expected to meet the course outcomes. But perhaps that is part of my discomfort.

The focus on clearly defined, defining, outcomes seems to be a form of reductionism.

This reductionism seems tied to the emphasis on career preparation and testing.  Education has been reduced to interaction with tests, outcomes, and degree plans, an extended, expensive form of training.  The goal of a college degree is to obtain a job.  I am not sure that is the same as an education.

Mark Bauerlein in “What’s the Point of a Professor?” warns that it is up to the professors to challenge students, to engage them to move beyond simply evaluating assignments.  He concludes if we fail to do so we are nothing more than accreditors.  “We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration.”

The reasoning is simple; part of the dedication to our disciplines is an attentiveness beyond the enforcement and defense of a grade.

Looking at a fresh new set of essays awaiting my comments and grades, I question my own tenacity.

Cheers, Priests, and Gas Charges

Dr. Z
A Seminary Story
Professionally, the last few years have required several changes in direction–chair, faculty, interim jobs, and children leaving home for college.  At times, those shifts have left me disoriented, as well as carless.

It’s not that I expect such changes to be easy.  Just, on some level, I assume, or more accurately hope, that my experience will enlighten me when the plans I have made and shared become obstacles to overcome.

My last year in the seminary was a rough one–much of it my own making. Continue reading Cheers, Priests, and Gas Charges

Scoundrel Fantasy and eReaders

Dr. Z
I have been on a grit fantasy or scoundrel fantasy tear.  It started with Martin’s Games of Thrones.  But having gained momentum and found other engaging works–and it is a force unto itself–it has led me to Lawrence, Abercrombie, Sapkowski, and Scull.

The works, as a whole, are original and fresh.  Some of the plots do echo one another, but for the most part, the works focus on the struggles of morally ambiguous characters.  The approach, in some ways, regenerates the genre, breaking away from the traditional focus on an apocalyptic battle between good and evil.

The works are character studies.  And I have been devouring them on my iPad.  Which prompted a strange and uneasy revelation.

I read better on an electronic device–a Kindle, my iPad, this MacBook Air.   Perhaps it is eye strain.  Perhaps the devices are better suited to my attention span (that of a kitten).  Whatever it is, I am reading more and enjoying my reading more.

With all of that said, I am troubled.  I miss my hard copies. This Books not eReaderssounds vulgar, base.  But it is almost as if I have not read the work if I do not have a hard copy to show for it.  (I did not even recognize Martin’s works at a book shelf in Hastings.)

And with that in mind I have been scouring Half Priced, Bookmans,
and Amazon for tattered used copies of the works to fill my space, my home.

They are souvenirs of the journeys.

Bicycles and Innovation

Dr. Z
Bicycling today,  I thought about a lit class I am teaching this summer.  I had planned to build the class around a series of group presentations on various aspects of class readings: historical criticism, biographic criticism, new criticism, feminist criticism.  Different views. Different approaches.  But I had begun to back away from that idea.  And I wondered why.

Why was I unwilling to try something new?   If the new approach did not work, I could adapt, change, or simply endure.  My administration encourages innovation.  I enjoy a certain autonomy in my classes.  Nobody would question the changes.  So why was I?

pathAll the while, I was bicycling though the master planned community where I live.  The bubble is about forty years old.  The original developer worked to maintain the feel of the forest that was torn down to make way for the homes.  Paths wind away from roads across golf courses along streams and back to the roads.

When we first moved here from The Panhandle, I tried to bike in the same way I had in the north. There, I would head out on long, uninterrupted rides on country farm roads.  Wind, cold, even snow, added to the joy of the rides.  I would return home exhausted and triumphant.  The solitude invigorated me.

Here, though, lights, traffic, and developments seemed to hem me in curtailing my rides.  I could not get out of the city; Houston stretches up, swallowing everything from College Station to Galveston.

It took me ten years to learn how to enjoy riding here.  I had to give up the sexy Italian racing bike Fuji CyclocrossI had bought with the raise and replace it with a cross, a gravel bike of sorts.  The turning point came about a year ago when I finally bought a bell–something I would have never deigned to do in the open plains.  I had to let go.

Now, I enjoy wandering the trails, sidewalks, paths greenbelts–whatever they are.  I enjoy becoming lost and turning back on myself, seeing new neighborhoods, coming across a snapping turtle, or cruising down the fake riverwalk.

I have started riding again.  But to do so, I had to let go of some of my preconceptions, some of my  pretensions, and some of my assumptions.

I am going to go ahead with the group projects for the summer.

Yaks and Sherpas

Last week, I was in Miami picking up one of the offspring from college. A native Texan, I have trouble settling into the cool, frantic culture of south Florida.

Sitting on a deserted patio of the student union sipping an iced coffee, I finally relaxed. The quiet of the campus calmed me. I had time to slow and consider. The school has been good to my son and my family. I have seen him change and grow as he pursues his bliss (stealing Campbell’s turn of phrase).

Comforted, I opened Yik Yak to snoop.

For those unfamiliar with the program—and that includes most of us who are not undergrads—it is a social media app that limits open messaging to a location or, more recently, a home base. “A live feed of what everyone’s saying around you.” Continue reading Yaks and Sherpas

Penance, Adjuncts, and College Culture

A Seminary Story
Dr. Z
During my second year of the seminary, I went to Father Marcus for my Lenten confessions.  He was my friend and confidant: an easy mark.  He listened, guffawed, and then assigned a penance other than some set number of rosaries.  A penance that required me to address the issue and find a resolution. (I am not quite comfortable sharing the confession or the penance decades later.)  I left the confessional frustrated and bewildered.  Simply acknowledging the failure had always sufficed in the past.

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Education, an adjunct writes a troubling, painful description of her role in the classroom and evaluating students.  The article is entitled “Defending My Grades.” 

Almost all instructors have found themselves in a similar situation–having to reverse their stance on a grade or a practice.  (TAMU Galveston comes to mind.)  For adjuncts, though, the experience is radically different.

The article is not particularly original or breaking news.  It captures the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of many of the adjuncts I have known over the years.  And that is the point.  This is not an isolated event.  It is ubiquitous.

The article in The Chronicle serves as an old school Catholic confession-penance.  The academy has said the necessary Hail Marys, and now the issue can be ignored again until the guilt kicks in, prompting the publication of another similar article.