General Ephemera: Post-Christmas Scraps, Tidbits, Recos, Trinkets, Footnotes, Scattershots, and Noble Rags

Somewhere deep in his Letters, Wallace Stevens admits that he never liked Christmas much because the holiday never lives up to advance billing. Being of a similar mind, I’m glad the man is not alive to see that Samsung commercial where this minor actor named Dax Shepard (yes, sentient human parents named him Dax) and his pregnant wife decorate their awful Silver Lake hill cube. (Google it if you want to rot inside a little.) And for a variety of boring reasons I’m not drinking this go-round, which makes the season even more tedious, so to stave off boredom-induced madness, I’ve scrawled some things on the digital wall . Get out your knife and fork and dig in.

  • Eliza Griswold is a wonderful young American poet. Like most poets, her readership is appallingly limited. This is her page at the Poetry (magazine) Foundation. You can buy her debut volume, Wideawake Field, here.
  • Turns out Twitter isn’t just for beefing about sports and harassing female journalists. Some writers have started experimenting with it as a platform for bursts that are worth reading closely, and right now the best Twitter scrivener going is Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet). Here is a link to his aptly titled “A Twitter Essay about Twitter Essays.” Writes Heer: “These are essays in the classical French sense of the word: essaying a topic: an attempt, a provisional thought, a notebook entry.” Imagine if Montaigne had an iPhone!
  • Denis Johnson has a new book out. Set in post-9/11 Africa, it is called The Laughing Monsters. Just ordered my copy. It will be very good. Do you know how I know that? Because Denis Johnson wrote it.
  • Sickened by all the Christmas saccharinalia on the radio? Here is TGR favorite Dwight Yoakam covering a Tom Jones song:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson has turned Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice into what looks like a pretty good movie. But you should still read the book. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow–it won’t kill you, unlike GR, which is much duller than its fame suggests. Want to read a huge Pynchon? Pick up Mason & Dixon.
  • Oh hey, David Lynch is rebooting Twin Peaks. Guess who has two thumbs and doesn’t care? *raises and tilts both thumbs* This guy! The show was leaden and lethargic the first time, but I had to pretend to like it during college and grad school, because all my friends said they adored it. Spoiler alert: Audrey died of meta-boredom.
  • After putting off Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) for years, I’m finally thigh-deep in its cold currents. Theory as to at least part of Greene’s genius: no novelist is better–though a few are just as good–at subtly using his characters’ psychological states to form the epistemological tenor of the narrative universe, without employing first-person narration or hammy metaphors. For stretches of his best books, a mind shades a world that is still far more than that single mind. This is not Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy: the encompassing world remains ontologically other, it is just that we access it through such masterful filtrations. In other words, Greene takes free indirect style to the VIP level.
  • Before Tinder and OK Cupid and the less libidinous social-media platforms arose to try and distract us from our natural state of crawling loneliness, some mad souls kept the lights on by writing stuff like Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky’s idealist jilted and horrified by the impossibility of perfecting mankind) and In Memoriam A.H.H., Lord Tennyson’s at-times-unbearable cry of anguish over the early death of his best friend. While some associate professors might disagree regarding the latter, neither text is sexual or romantic; both speak to and from within the marrow-grade loneliness one feels when sitting in front of a Mark Rothko painting or listening to Astral Weeks. If you can get through In Memoriam without weeping a couple times, get thee to a doctor.
  • You’ll weep for the sins–the ongoing sins–of America if you read “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay that announced Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of the language’s great young essayists. Erudite, methodical, heart-stopping.
  • Check out my former colleague Robert Samuels’s eminently readable Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (2013). Samuels’s core thesis is that instead of funneling billions into colleges and universities via federal loans, grants, and byzantine tax breaks which individual students then use to pay tuition, the money could be given directly to schools, who would in turn offer tuition-free education. Sounds bracingly simple, right? But then creditors, including the federal government, would lose that deep, swift stream of interest payments on all those loans, loans that, unlike every other form of consumer debt, cannot be refinanced or discharged in bankruptcy. (My own from graduate school are locked in at 6.8 percent, more than double the prime rate as reported by the Wall Street Journal.) If you die, your next of kin are on the hook for the balance. And that’s why Samuels’s book, smart and humane as it is, will never affect education policy in the current American political economy.
  • The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has the best journalist name, and his book Rise of the Warrior Cop will scare the bejesus out of you. It is a chilling chronicle of the United States’ ongoing decline into a threadbare security state where carbines, tear gas, and razor wire protect the ruling ten percent from the rest of us when we aren’t busy fighting over Black Friday sales.
  • Finally, here is a thing that is funny, one of the best sight/editing gags from The Simpsons

May the new year leave you in peace, dear general readers.


The One Where I Disagree (Slightly) with Rebecca Schuman

It’s a well-known true fact (see, students, see how bad that sounds?) that we here at TGR are fans of Rebecca Schuman. She’s a big reason why people are talking more about the labor problem in higher education, which for too long was a kind of open secret kept from graduate students until they felt like it was too late to bail out. For her advocacy on this front, we cannot thank her enough.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we never disagree with Dr. Schuman. I understand her arguments in favor of grade inflation, but I’m not persuaded by them. Inflating grades just contributes to our culture of credentialism where merely starting something is seen as practically finishing it. I may be fighting a futile battle, but I think being totally honest with students matters. Grades are one way of doing that. But again, I take Schuman’s point and understand why someone in a more contingent position than me (I exist in a middle space between adjuncts and tenure-track folks) might inflate grades “Because Screw It.”

Earlier this week Schuman wrote another piece that I think is a little wrong-headed. If you read this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of the White House’s new plan to rate colleges like we rate blenders. Schuman does a great job of describing and pointing out some flaws in the plan, but her general defense of it boils down to this: “Colleges are run by corrupt administrators. These corrupt administrators are mad about what President Obama and HIS team of corrupt administrators are doing. The plan is therefore worth supporting in spite of its flaws because it pisses off the people I dislike more.” It’s “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, which again, I get. But in the case of the specific metrics the White House is pushing, this new rating system has the chance to make an already twisted system even worse.

As Schuman rightly notes:

Another important concern I share with the critics of the system is tying aid to attrition rates, which are often higher in schools that serve more first-generation and minority college students—the very students deserving of more aid. The White House should recognize that without some serious caveats, tying aid to retention would not encourage better student support, so much as coerce faculty to pass all students, no matter what. I should know—my first teaching job ever was for a for-profit school in New Jersey. On my first day of work, the dean told me, point blank: “Everybody has to pass. Otherwise we don’t get their government money.”

This is frankly my biggest fear with this rating system, but the problem goes beyond simply fetishizing graduation rates. The front end of this problem is privileging “accessibility.” People define this term differently, but the bottom line is that we do not have a college accessibility problem in this country. We have debt problems, funding problems, labor problems, administrative problems, and many other problems, but what we don’t have is too few colleges (as of 2011, there were over 4,500 colleges in the United States) or, thanks to the predatory loan system run by the federal government, a lack of funds to pay for tuition up front. If we continue to focus on expanding access and credentialing people, it will allow the federal and state governments to avoid doing what actually needs to be done: radically reform K-12 education so that most people don’t need to go to college.

President Obama’s plan makes sense in light of his “winning the future” rhetoric that equates college education for all with a booming American marketplace. But the strength or weakness of the American economy has very little to do with how many people have college degrees. We can give everyone a STEM degree today (which we might as well if we basically destroy college standards) and nothing will change. What would fundamentally change our economy is making a high school degree matter again by implementing the kinds of traditional educational methods (small classes, engaged and autonomous teachers, difficult curricula) of posh private schools at public schools, particularly those in poor areas. This would mean concessions by state governments, federal officials, and teachers’ unions, but given how much we spend on education compared to a place like, I don’t know, Finland, it’s clear we can and must do a lot better for our money. More testing, technology, Common Core, and rejiggering college rankings aren’t the answers. We know what works, but unfortunately there isn’t a huge lobbying group for old-school humanism these days. If we want to actually fix education in this country though, making a college degree easier to get is precisely the wrong way to go about it.

What You Write When You Teach Writing

Within my institution’s* hierarchy, I’m a Lecturer, which means that I’m a full-time faculty member who just teaches. (Teaches writing, in my case.) This is expressed in my material surroundings (e.g., I always share an office with at least one another PhD), just as it is existentially codified within most academic disciplines, including English, which I used to call home and now avoid for reasons I’d be happy to tell anyone about over a drink or five. That is, if you manage to get onto the tenure track, your teaching performance has little to no bearing on whether or not you advance from Assistant Professor to tenured Associate Professor, or from Associate to the magic Full, or earn raises after that. In fact, “too much” focus on undergraduates will often hurt one’s tenure case. And if you’re trying to get into the TT hunger games in the first place, it is a disadvantage to have spent most of your professional time on instruction as an adjunct, teaching fellow, Visiting Assistant Professor, one-year appointment (that’s me), instructor, or whatever name your employer bestows upon various types of contingent brain labor, because that means you had less time to spend doing Very Important Scholarship. Search committees frown quietly upon PhDs who aren’t “focused on” or “serious about” their research profiles.

As a rhetorical motif, “publish or perish” is beyond stale (and nobody reads most scholarship anyway), but it remains the law of the Titanic’s deck.

In the years before the post-employment economy I might have hung around to make Professor, but now I go by “Dr. Boyd” when I’m on campus hangin’ with the kids, since I would rather students not call me “Professor,” because their tuition isn’t being spent on many professors, just stadiums and bougainvillea. Besides, schools aren’t paying the actual tenure-stream profs much either. And the situation is much worse for adjuncts who must jerry-build a financial existence out of abusive part-time contracts. At least my job includes health insurance.

There are three problems with that “just teaches” paradigm. First, it is not a good idea to implicitly or explicitly wedge “just” in front of anything about teaching. A sizable portion of humanity’s next half-century is sitting in a classroom somewhere right now. Second, the professional life of every lecturer I know includes heavy labor outside of the classroom. We’re all writers—some scholarly, others nonacademic, others doing a mix. Third, teaching is intellectually and emotionally exhausting work, especially if you teach classes that involve lots of writing, and especially if, like many contingent faculty, you teach introductory/freshman/first-year/lower-division/[pick your adjective] Writing. No “just” about that noise.

If you are a competent teacher in my field, you make students write a great deal in class and out. You force them to plan their work, produce rough drafts, explore multi-tiered revision strategies, then submit the polished versions of their work. Repeat as necessary.

This means that an instructor produces a Pleistocene flood of words, too. There is no other way to form productive, sustained connections with students. Conferences and office-hours chats are helpful, but writing instruction ultimately consists of multiple exchanges of written text.

Exhausting work for anyone who tries it, but particularly enervating for writers. I am not kidding when I estimate that 75-90% of my potential daily writing energy goes into work for my classes, most but hardly all of it spent in providing detailed feedback on my students’ writing. At the university where I work, lecturers teach eight courses—most of them fully enrolled at 25 students or very close to that—over the school year, which is divided into three ten-week terms. (Every lecturer gets two terms that each comprise 3 classes, or about 65-75 students total, and another “light” term that usually works out to 45-50 young scholars.) If you take on summer courses, which most of the lecturers I know do, because the Department of Education wants loan payments every month, you work with 25-50 more students during even slimmer academic time frames.

Think about the slog of reading this entails. Writers are heavy readers: without a routine intake of colorful language, of other writers’s work, one’s skills decline. Your ear gets out of practice.

Teaching entails a laborious form of reading. You are working with apprentices, many of them bright and eager. But they tend to do what apprentices do: Mess up while they’re developing. A teacher encounters much prose that is peppered with, and sometimes wholly devoted to, muddy phrasing, clichés, solecisms, unexamined opinions, and harried appeals to such repositories of knowledge as and Wikipedia, even when the writer is ultimately working towards something smart and engaging. This doesn’t mean that students are dumb, it means they are apprentices. That’s how education works. With her limited time, a comp teacher does what she can to introduce them to complex, effective rhetorical practices and revision habits.

And when you’ve hauled your parched, scratched brain through twenty or thirty or sixty papers by writers who are mostly in their late teens or early twenties, then composed thoughtful responses (because that is your job), you aren’t much in the mood to read Roberto Bolaño or Harper’s. Ironically, the skills that make an effective writing teacher are depleted by teaching writing effectively.

This is one reason that schools need to commit to smaller classes and humane courseloads for faculty. Burnout happens too quickly otherwise. This in turn degrades the quality of instruction that undergraduates receive, no matter how dedicated an individual teacher is. Would you rather have your root canal done by a dentist who has worked on four patients already that day, or a dozen?

I do not mean to suggest that faculty from other disciplines don’t work as hard as writing teachers. Check out this depressing time-use study from Boise State if you want to see how much labor the academic life entails. Further, this is part of a bigger trend in the United States: American workers are expending more energy for less money in order to help their employers become more profitable, because, hey, the free market figures things out. I just happen to know my field and its demands best. Academics or not, most of us owe our souls to the company store, as the man says.

So I’ve got this list here. I’ve tried to catalog every type of teaching-oriented writing I could think of. The list does not include “service” work (the quasi-administrative duties of faculty) or anything having to do with a teacher’s writing life outside of class.

  • Paper feedback. The big gorilla. For example, part of my current courseload includes two sections of introductory writing, or a total of 48 students. Rather than marking heavily on a text itself, I prefer to respond to student work with typed end comments in the form of a brief letter. On a five-page assignment in an intro class, I typically write 250-300 words of feedback. So, thinking conservatively, that’s 250 words x 48 papers, or 12,000 words. In the ten-week structure of the course, I do this three or four times. That’s at least 36,000 words for part of my job. In an upper-division seminar (I also have one of those every term), my end-comments consist on average of 400-600 words on at least two major assignments, sometimes three. Oh, and all of this had better be grammatical, readable prose.
  • Every message written to keep the class as a whole updated about whatever.
  • Every e-mail written in response to various queries from individual students. Profs, you know how abundant those are, especially when an assignment is coming due. Content aside, these e-mail responses serve as models of professional, clear prose.
  • Like all of the lecturers in my program, I draft my own curricular materials: all the syllabi, assignment prompts (which can run multiple pages for complicated assignments), peer-review worksheets, reading-question guides, rubrics, and a plethora of other documents on everything from comma splices to strategies for writing a conclusion. One typically revises these materials every time one teaches; sometimes you end up completely overhauling them, because that’s part of one’s professional growth. You learn from what worked, or didn’t work, in previous iterations of a course.
  • All messages and posts to the course website. All descriptions and copyright information for visual materials posted to the site (e.g., a YouTube interview with an author or a series of photos from a magazine).
  • Recommendation letters. So many! Especially in the spring, when everybody is scrambling for jobs, internships, grad-school apps, and what not. It takes hours to draft a helpful recommendation letter.
  • Run into any plagiarism? Get ready to spend hours documenting and writing up the case before you pass it on to the relevant authorities.
  • Various e-mails to associated instructors and staff, such as the wonderful librarians who introduce my students to the library’s research tools and archives.
  • Any bibliographic information for the photocopies assembled into a course reader. (I don’t use textbooks.) The Table of Contents for each reader.
  • Students will often ask for advice about things like personal statements for scholarship applications. I try to help if the student has been a committed member of whatever class they took with me. So I write some more comments.
  • Compiling and maintaining Excel spreadsheets for grades. These often include notes-to-self about particular assignment grades.
  • Request forms (often surprisingly detailed) for computer-lab space, library orientations, guest speakers, reader printings from the copy shop, book orders if you do those. For upper-div seminars, I might include some books along with the reader.
  • Notes on assigned readings. You have to read or re-read whatever you make the students dig through.
  • Class plans. I write mine by hand on a legal pad.
  • Texts, e-mails, and Tweets to other teachers, complaining about work. Blog posts about work.

Hey, writing teachers. Hey, you chalkboard vets. What did I miss? Let me know and I will add it to the catalog of toil.

*Note: At the time I wrote this, I was working at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What’s Old Is New

A few summers back, I taught a course on representations of the “American Dream” in novels after 1980. As is the case with most summer classes taught by grad students, the syllabus was a slapdash affair dreamed up while I was finishing my dissertation and stressing about what would happen when the school cut off my funding and health insurance in a few months. So yeah, I readily concede that my reading list (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, John Rechy’s The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad) wasn’t some comprehensive journey through Reaganomics, Clinton’s sexual neoliberalism, and the Bushes’, well, Bushness. It wasn’t meant to be. Mostly, I was just hoping to get some kids living exclusively in their swimsuits in Isla Vista for the summer to read a few books and to think about how we’ve all been set up in this country to have massive expectations that rarely match up with the lives we lead. I wanted them to think about how disappointment, denial, selling out, addiction, and making do are inherent in the American Dream, so that they might, to borrow a bit from Faulkner’s grandest drunk, Father Compson, “forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of [their] breath trying to conquer it.” If literature really is, as Kenneth Burke claims, “equipment for living,” I was trying to give them some matches to burn down the houses they’ll never be able to afford anyway.

But then many of them didn’t bother to read a damn word of any of the books. So much for productive arson. There were, of course, a few kids who kept up with the reading, and I remember a couple even coming to my office hours every now and then to talk about what whether Rechy is a racist and/or a sexist (no), if they are allowed to laugh at Survivor (of course), and what DeLillo was trying to say (figure it out for yourself). I was already long past the point where I took students not reading personally. I mean, how can postmodern American literature possibly compete with this?

In the second-to-last week of the class, I had to leave town for a couple days to attend a wedding in New York. I had planned to show a movie, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, during the periods I would miss, and since it’s a little long, I anticipated being back in time to watch the end with them. The wedding was great, and my trip to New York turned out to be a memorable one when Hurricane Irene decided to strafe Manhattan and turn the place into a weird party ghost town. It was some serious I Am Legend shit walking through the deserted canyons of the city the morning after the storm. Lingering gusts would pick up the occasional chair and throw it across the street, but that seemed like a reasonable price to pay for a New York minute most would never experience. One problem: my flight back to California was cancelled. This meant that I would miss the end of the film, and given how packed the rest of the summer session would be, I figured I wouldn’t get a chance to talk to the students about how Slacker fit into the story our course syllabus was trying to tell.

Much to my surprise, my students forced the issue and demanded that we talk about the movie. Some hated it and wanted to vent. Others, though, were furious at these kids, and explained why it not only fit into the course, but was a really important movie. One girl who hadn’t said anything throughout the semester was particularly moved by the film, and said that it made her feel awful about all the time she’d wasted not trying to make art. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d hoped the novels in the course would inspire someone to say, but I wasn’t expecting that a plotless 20-year-old film about stoners, nerds, and other assorted weirdos in Austin, TX would speak to them. I put it on the syllabus because it was a movie I loved, and because I needed to show a film.

I now realize that I should have seen this coming. Students (yes, even English majors) routinely tell me that they “don’t have time to read,” and we live in an increasingly visual culture. Hell, even the respected business reporter Felix Salmon recently declared himself “post-text.” He writes:

Text has had an amazing run, online, not least because it’s easy and cheap to produce. When it comes to digital storytelling, however, the possibilities — at least if you have the kind of resources that Fusion has — are much, much greater. I want to do immersive digital stuff, I want to make animations, I want to use video, I want to experiment with new ways of communicating in a new medium. I can do all of that at Fusion.

My summer class was a few years back, but this kind of thing was already shaping my students’ minds. Text is just so boring and, well, textual. Still, I was stunned that a film as loose as Slacker made some of them think about anything other than what they might need to remember to pass my reading quizzes, which one student called “the bain (sic) of my existence” in a course evaluation. I am particularly proud of that one.


About a year ago, I wrote that Steven Soderbergh may go down as the most important mainstream filmmaker of his generation. I stand by this statement, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coens or Wes Anderson are in the conversation too. And after watching the trailer for Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, I kind of wish I’d mentioned Linklater in the same breath as Soderbergh. I can’t help thinking of one and not the other. Like Soderbergh, the diversity of Linklater’s projects sets him apart from other directors. While Anderson’s films have a stylistic consistency, there isn’t a “Richard Linklater look” (other than the fact that the guy himself is in his 50s, but looks about 35). He’s made rotoscoped movies, slick Hollywood comedies, a real-time dramatic adaptation, a gonzo travel show, and, for my money, one of the best and most consistent (from film to film) trilogies ever shot. And this list doesn’t include Dazed and Confused, the best movie about high school and salmon-colored pants ever made.

Linklater’s latest film is perhaps his most experimental. Boyhood tells a simple story about a kid between the ages of six and eighteen, but it has taken twelve years to finish shooting. This isn’t due to some power struggle with a studio, as was the case with Kenneth Lonergan’s excellent movie, Margaret. No, this was by design, as the film uses the same child actor, Ellar Coltrane, throughout. Filmed for a few weeks each summer, Boyhood features Linklater’s frequent collaborator, Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette as Coltrane’s divorced parents. Hawke’s role in the movie is particularly interesting, as it means he was involved in two long-term projects with Linklater, including two installments of the Before Trilogy (Before Sunset and Before Midnight) over the course of shooting Boyhood.

As the world becomes more “post-text,” Linklater may be the mainstream filmmaker best positioned to bring the virtues of the novel into film. Hollywood movies have been eschewing long takes in favor of MTV-style quick cuts (Soderbergh is the master of this) for decades now, but Linklater’s process, and his products like Waking Life and the Before Trilogy (which may get even more installments in the future) reveal a commitment to the idea that the fullness of time is integral to understanding relationships between people and ideas. Tweets and shorts are great, but the bildungsroman has been the most durable narrative form because we’re all fascinated by the idea that moments within the thousands of days we’ve lived have determined where we are, and that unknown moments will determine where we will go. The moments need context in order to resonate, and context is what Linklater depicts through dialogue, visual metaphor, and implied scope better than any director today. Watch the trailer for Boyhood to see what I mean.

The Commencement Speech Obama Should Give, But Probably Won’t

In a rearguard action titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum contends that a humanist education helps one learn to “judge political leaders critically, but with an informed and realistic sense of the possibilities available to them” (26). This critical radar isn’t the province of history and philosophy alone, either. One can develop the capacity for simultaneous skepticism and empathy by reading literature, and I don’t just mean texts like Julius Caesar or All the King’s Men, whose plots entail overtly political entanglements. Witnessing the psychological, sexual, and then legal bind that Dmitri Karamazov gets himself into will also give you a vivid sense of how “making the Right Choice” is sometimes impossible.

Last week, UC Irvine announced that Barack Obama would give this June’s commencement speech. UCI estimates that the logistical complexity of a presidential visit will add around $1 million to the event’s costs; and if you live in northern Orange County, have fun with your weekend driving! That said, I admit that it is pretty cool to get the President for your graduation ceremony instead of some actor or a retired senator.

But if you have spent much time on the General Reader, you know that the editors do not support Mr. Obama’s education policies, particularly his administration’s daft conception of how higher learning (i.e. College) works in theory or in American historical practice. You can read some of our grumblings here and here and here and here.

To be fair, President Obama inherited an education system that, from the pre-K level up to graduate programs, has been terribly damaged by the same forces that are eating away at our whole democracy. His administration didn’t create the preference of state legislatures for spending more on prisons than schools and food stamps; or the metastasis of a sumptuously compensated managerial class that isn’t very good at managing; or the cynical neoliberal reliance on part-time contract labor; or the strange popular faith that a form of magic called Technology will solve all forms of human suffering and lack; or the indifference of citizens who would rather be babysat by their screens than read anything about how their nation operates, because, hey, Candy Crush; or the shifting of financial risks and burdens onto individuals (like the students who acquire debt that will accrue interest at more than twice the Fed prime rate); or the creepy, spreading belief—nourished by a scum-tide of corporate money—that since radically defunded public institutions have a hard time functioning, then we must privatize them and trust that the market will take care of us.

Further, Mr. Obama has had to confront the hysterical wreckage of the Republican Party, an “opposition” that is little more than a proudly irrational mob with an awesome media team. When your opponents’ reaction to literally everything you say or do is UMMDURRRR NAW NO WAY BADMAN, it is difficult to accomplish much. In many respects all the President can do is talk intelligently and patiently.

Luckily, commencements are all about talking. Most speakers go in for pious abstractions about The Value of an Education/Hard Work/Economic Competitiveness. Is it too much to ask that Obama, a man lauded for his eloquence, reject the standard rhetorical fare? After all, most of the the students he is addressing voted for him.

A President’s capacity to persuade the public is limited; if the bully pulpit were still bully, then the Affordable Care Act would have a 90% approval rating and we’d be taxing carbon. But were Mr. Obama to start speaking honestly and in concrete terms about why American higher ed is such a mess, surely the debate over what to do will grow at least slightly more intelligent. His rhetorical support alone would make more room for education reformers who are actually teachers and students, not standardized-testing corporations, textbook publishers, Silicon Valley tech pimps, cornball privateers, or New York Times columnists.

With that in mind, here are some notes to help the President draft his speech. Mr. Obama, if you need more advice, hit me up on Twitter.

  • Since you are speaking at a branch of the greatest public-university system ever built, tell us about the people and ideologies threatening to destroy it. Instead of merely scolding colleges and universities for their tuition rates, you could call out the state legislatures that have spent forty years abdicating their commitment to citizens and thereby driving up those rates. The UC’s present woes did not result from geological forces that nobody could resist; they are the result of actual decisions made by actual people under the influence of a privatization fetish that remains ascendant in the United States. As such these decisions and people can be countered by other decisions and other people who aren’t so dim. Treating “fiscal crises” and “budget cuts” like tectonic shift does nothing but disguise existing problems and create new ones. Just be honest.
  • Many of the students you are addressing have taken on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for their education. The people in the audience who just finished their PhDs? Oh, they have debt, too. This is a great time to demonstrate that you have the stones to support Elizabeth Warren’s proposition that we cut student-loan interest rates in half. And if you really want to show us some Change we can Believe in, announce that you would like to see all student loans become interest-free. People who earned BAs and graduate degrees want to pay off their debts, but artificially elevated interest rates make it hard to do so, especially for those of us who did what you are always asking young people to do, and went into public service. Just be honest.
  • Explain how a return to robust public funding of state universities would ensure that any student able to handle college-level brain work can get an education as good as the ones you and the First Lady received at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. It is fine that you attended private school, but you should commit to ensuring that the public/private distinction has nothing to do with baseline educational quality. Just be honest.
  • Smaller classes, smaller classes, smaller classes. Also, smaller classes. This is what works. You know that, having been educated in small classes at excellent schools. You will send your daughters to colleges that prize small classes. Schools that do not rely primarily on courses with fewer than 25 students should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal. No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • You are speaking to an audience from a university that, like almost all American universities, relies heavily on teachers who have little job security. This is bad for the teachers (duh) and their students. Even intimate seminars cannot accomplish much if they are not taught by people who have advanced degrees in their subjects and the material security to develop their pedagogical skills. For the millionth damn time: We cannot depend on adjuncts. America cannot educate its children using temps, no matter how good the temps are; and we are very good. Schools that do not primarily employ full-time, tenure-track teachers should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal.  (As with the bullet point above, a model based on this commitment has already been formulated by Robert Samuels, who teaches in the UC and leads its biggest faculty union. You could totally call him up.) No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • Point out that American schools spend too much money on amenities like sports programs (especially basketball and football programs) and elegant dorms. These financial habits are killing them. Yeah, I had fun filling out my NCAA bracket, too. But if colleges are cheating and stupefying their students by offering them new fitness centers so they won’t care too much about taking classes in overcrowded, crumbling rooms, then fuck our brackets. Just be honest.
  • Remind the administrators in attendance that “retention” targets and quantitative enrollment goals can never be more important than maintaining (or re-establishing) academic rigor. If college classes are not demanding, if they do not ask their participants to read, think, and write a great deal, then GPAs swell up while intellects languish. This hobbles a democracy. Just be honest.
  • You should praise UC upper-management for recently (finally) signing a humane labor deal with the union that represents the system’s poorest employees, and emphasize that income inequality, which you have declared “the defining challenge of our time,” will only lessen if we encourage new unionization and support existing labor groups. For fuck’s sake, don’t crow about trade deals, stock markets, or mortgage-based tax breaks that mainly help rich people. Just be honest.
  • Don’t say anything about T/technology. Everyone knows T/technology, whatever it is, is great. Half the audience is texting right now. T/technology can go an hour without being petted. Just be honest.
  • You don’t need to tell the audience about how education helps people get jobs. They know. Since kindergarten most of the graduating seniors have heard about little besides the instrumental value of a degree. In fact, by now too many of them see the past four or five years as job training that involved parties but had damn well better to lead to a healthy bank balance, end of story. Why don’t you take the time to broach other topics, like the Jeffersonian business about education preparing the entire self to be a reflective citizen? Not too much, mind you, because you must avoid windy abstractions, especially when a sizable chunk of your audience is hungover, but if you keep it short, reminding your listeners that college does more than equip a person to earn money couldn’t hurt. History classes, pianos, poetry readings, overheated front-stoop squabbles over politics, and art museums really aren’t that bad. Just be honest.
  • OK, so maybe you leave the granular, street-by-street humanities-defending to people like Martha Nussbaum. (I know you dislike art history, until you don’t dislike it because disliking it makes people dislike you.) Perhaps you could talk about a larger cognitive practice, one that facilitates individual growth as well as aggregate material expansion in a post-industrial economy where organizations must be able to articulate, exchange, and evaluate complex ideas. I don’t mean science and math, which, like most politicians, you frequently commend. (As you should, because science and math are beautiful.) I mean that other support-beam of civilization: writing. Mr. President, your facility with language is the basis of your success. Were it not for that keynote address you gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention, you aren’t President in 2014; if the English language, a glory when handled with love and concentration, did not suffuse your entire being, you wouldn’t have been able to write that speech in the first place. Science, math, and writing (and its twin, reading) are meaningless without one another. But rarely does a public figure speak up for writing. Maybe you could. Tell the people how you got here. Just be honest.

Mr. Obama, you are one of the most articulate, cerebral men who has ever held the White House. Your presidency provides some evidence that mass democracy doesn’t always reward scoundrels and grifters. So come June, walk onto the stage in Anaheim and tell the people some concrete, grown-up truths.

Just be honest. A democratic nation that gives up on its public schools is no longer a democracy, or even a nation.

We’re All Neoliberals Now

Yesterday, I came across a tweet proclaiming that this year’s freshman admits to UCSB have an average high school GPA of 4.15. Think about that for a second. On a 4.0-scale, the kids who have been let in to the fourth or fifth-best public university in the state of California don’t just have above-average grades, but above-perfect grades. Imagine the grades of the students admitted to Cal or UCLA!

“But, Dan,” you say, “how is it possible for students to be more than perfect?”

Well, it’s not. That gaudy GPA is just another example of why the current trends in higher education make a lot of sense given what has been going on for years at the K-12 level. The College Board is a nominally-not-for-profit organization that, among other things, administers “Advanced Placement” high school classes culminating in high-stakes standardized tests. Some high schools and many college admissions boards give students a GPA-bump for taking an AP course, thus making a 3.0 (B) student look like a 4.0 (A) student, or a 3.33 (B+) student look like a 4.33 (A++++++++++++++++++++++++) student. And did I mention that students pay $89 per AP exam? No? Well, they do.

In theory, AP classes are supposed to be college-level courses, but as most of my students have told me, very little of the writing that goes on in any of the humanities AP courses (English literature, US History, English Language, etc.) prepares them for the writing they do in college. Most of the essays assigned in these courses are timed, short, in-class affairs designed to help them beat the test at the end of the term. Individual teachers can assign other kinds of essays, but given that students are paying to take the AP exams, it makes sense that these courses often become semester-long test prep. Call it the Kaplanification of high school.

Now, I love UCSB students. I taught hundreds of them in my time there. But touting this inflated GPA does nothing but make the difference between what the College Board claims as college-level work and and actual college courses more difficult for students to accept. Many, and this is true of students at all schools where I’ve taught, feel lied to. They wonder why they paid for these classes that stressed them out but didn’t really prepare them for college. I can see the value in some of the higher AP math courses offered, but many AP classes are just content-dumps that can’t teach critical thinking and clear writing, two skills a student needs to be successful in and after college. And please understand: none of this is the fault of the teachers leading these classes. They’re doing the best they can to give kids a decent education in a system that is constantly being tweaked by administrators and private interests.

Meanwhile, as LAUSD continues on with its disastrous (and possibly illegal) “iPads for Everyone!” plan, Finland quietly builds a functional public education system by de-emphasizing drill and kill testing which, as this intrepid young American reminds us around the 2:40 mark, doesn’t actually lead to knowledge retention. Please note that nowhere in this Atlantic interview does Krista Kiuru,  the Finnish minister of education and science, mention classroom technology, partnering with private corporations, or using analytics to assess teacher and student performance. No, she uses crazy words like “equality,” “trust,” and “support.”

So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.

This shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, but we’re trending in the exact opposite direction in the US at both the K-12 and college levels. A few weeks back, I criticized Duke’s Cathy Davidson’s “Remake Higher Education from the Ground Up” MOOC, as well as The Chronicle for giving one of her students a platform to rag on Stanley Fish. Well, the MOOC is done, and Davidson has now written her own piece about the experience. She says that going into the class, she had “so many reservations about MOOCs as pedagogy and as business model that [she] wanted to learn more about how they worked and didn’t work for [her], away from the obsessive MOOC hype and hysteria.” Fair enough. It continues in a good direction when she says that “as presently conceived, MOOCs are not a ‘solution’ to the problem of rising costs at American universities today.” Well, thank you, Dr. Davidson, for acknowledging what many of us “hysterics” have been saying for some time. Might we be on the same page? I doubt it.

The following paragraph is the most important in the piece:

Nor are MOOCs the cause of all problems facing American universities today. MOOCs did not create our adjunct crisis, our overstuffed lecture halls, or our crushing faculty workloads. The distress in higher education is a product of 50 years of neoliberalism, both the actual defunding of public higher education by state legislatures and the magical thinking that corporate administrators can run universities more cost-effectively than faculty members. They don’t. The major push to “corporatize” higher education has coincided with a rise, not a decrease, in costs. The greedy, corporate brutality of far too many contemporary universities is reminiscent of medieval monasteries of old. Let’s call it “turf and serf”: real-estate land grabs, exploitation of faculty labor, and burdening of students with crushing debt. MOOCs may be a manifestation of the problem, but they are hardly its cause. We addressed those harsh, overarching economic realities directly in “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”

As far as I know, no one has argued that MOOCs caused our crisis in higher ed. That would be silly. However, this distinction between MOOCs as a manifestation of the problems of neoliberalism and the cause allows Davidson to gush for several paragraphs about how her MOOC could be the start of a “movement.” And she may be right, if by “movement” she means a movement toward more MOOCs and less funding for public education. By working within the logic of neoliberalism, Davidson’s MOOC does neoliberalism’s bidding. Her project isn’t radical, like the simultaneously conservative and socialist Finnish education system. It’s using the master’s tools to build up his house while telling yourself you’re tearing it down. Anya Kamenetz makes the same mistake when she assumes that the ideas in her “$10K BA” won’t be used as an excuse to kill public education once and for all by cutting funding to the bone. While I have to assume good will on the parts of both Davidson and Kamenetz, the fact that they seem more interested in exploring “stirring, rich” MOOC environments than fighting for smaller class sizes, increased teacher autonomy and compensation, fewer standardized tests, and student and parent accountability is disheartening. Neoliberalism is winning, folks. Most Americans are losing.

Ed Links Addendum

As ever, Ryan has told it like it is. Teaching at the college level (or at any level, frankly) is not something any schmuck off the street can do, but it is something you can learn to do if you are willing to put in the time to understand all that it entails. It also helps if you ignore most things that “education experts” say. Whether they’re in the private sector or running the “Education” programs at most universities,  the odds are good that these folks either haven’t ever taught or haven’t taught a full load of demanding classes (both for the teacher and the students) in a long, long time. Learning how to teach involves observing great teachers, talking to them about how they approach their jobs, mastering the subject matter you will be teaching, staying abreast of developments in both your field and in pop culture (trust me, it’s important), and, above all, being able to take both praise and criticism from more experienced practitioners. Like Ryan, I too am confident in my abilities as a teacher. To paraphrase my colleague, Mike Bunn, I can justifying everything I do in the classroom pedagogically. But in ten years, I won’t be the teacher I am today. I will be better.

But if geniuses like Cathy Davidson at Duke have their way, I may have been replaced by a MOOC and a lab technician by then. I don’t blame the student writing this for the fact that it might be the best (totally unintentional) case yet against techno-fetishism. He’s 21 and has no idea that asking a student who has virtually no understanding of how education and the education system (huge distinction, by the way) work to design “higher education from scratch” is irresponsible. It results in students saying things like this about people who have taught for decades:

When you think about it, burying your head in the sand takes a lot more effort than lifting yourself out of it. It is just that we know what the sand smells, feels, tastes, and looks like. Sameness is comforting. As we approach Week 4 of the MOOC, however, we are asking ourselves to lean into discomfort and aim even higher.

The lack of humility that is clearly being encouraged in this class astounds. Why doesn’t it surprise me that this course is itself a MOOC? Here’s another gem:

We have an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to collectively rethink how we can use our resources to design new ways of learning about and systematizing (or not) education. Through crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer learning, online modules, flipped classrooms, and anything else imaginable, we are working not only to reshape how we learn but, even more important, to re-examine why we educate ourselves in the first place.

It’s funny to me how the folks who always seem to be most interested in “disrupting” higher ed are the ones who stand to gain the most when their prestigious degrees look even more AMAZING compared to the “BAs” that Reshaped State U will churn out (again, watch this Harvard grad interview this Yale grad about how we need to improve “access” to public higher ed by essentially getting rid of anything that doesn’t resemble Facebook).

If The Chronicle really cares about higher ed, they will stop publishing this stuff. Encouraging the “creative destruction” of the university should be the job of Silicon Valley. We all know what works best in higher ed: small classes, incredibly high standards, teachers whose focus is teaching, and above all BEING THERE, in every literal and philosophical sense of the phrase. Cathy Davidson knows this (again, she teaches at Duke), yet instead of working to figure out how to make traditional education better and more affordable (it can be done), she’s helping kids diss Stanley Fish. To quote Rushmore:


Monday Education Links: Everybody’s Got Ideas

If you don’t yet have time for the long Auden post below, or if you’ve already finished it, here are links to a couple of fantastic texts. Besides advancing sensible points, they’re models of concise, tart rhetoric. It turns out that having experience as a teacher is the main criterion for making credible claims about education. Yes, plenty of non-teacher input is fine, even helpful, as long as it defers to the training and experience of actual educators. Otherwise you are just kibitzing and need to go away now.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Jonathan Senchyne braved The New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference, and now we have his field report. The takeaway? As we at the Reader have long been pointing out, most of the players with grand plans for leveraging Technology and other very innovative things to “disrupt” or remake (for today’s modern society!) American education have never been teachers. Often they’ve been students at elite institutions, but that’s it. Do these people lecture their dentists on how to numb a gum, or push the mechanic out of the way once their sedan is on the lift? The infuriating, absurd details from Senchyne’s piece are its best attribute. You’ll meet insane charlatans from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, as well as former politicians turned corporate-ed pimps, all of them marching in “a parade of highly polished representatives from government, finance, education administration, The New York Times, nonprofit policy tanks, and private-sector business,” all of them “on stage in various combinations to deliver pitches.” And why, yes, Arne Duncan (Harvard, Class of ’87) was there to rep our privately educated (as usual) President’s terrible ideas about mass education.

“But I was a student for a really long time! I know what it takes to teach well.” One hears this on the reg, sometimes candidly, more often as the implicit supposition behind whatever someone is burbling about teacher pay, grading standards, a class being “irrelevant,” or what have you. As Sarah Blaine emphasizes on her blog parentingthecore, this is horseshit. Teaching is an extremely complex, difficult, taxing job at any school level, and most people could never hack it; she herself eventually “copped out” (her words) and became a lawyer, and this led her to conclude something that the Schools for Tomorrow brigade would do well to confront:

The people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.

All of you former students who are not teachers and not lawyers, you have no more idea of what it is to teach than you do of what it is to practice law.

All of you former students: you did not design curricula, plan lessons, attend faculty meetings, assess papers, design rubrics, create exams, prepare report cards, and monitor attendance. You did not tutor students, review rough drafts, and create study questions. You did not assign homework. You did not write daily lesson objectives on the white board. You did not write poems of the week on the white board. You did not write homework on the white board. You did not learn to write legibly on the white board while simultaneously making sure that none of your students threw a chair out a window.

You did not design lessons that succeeded. You did not design lessons that failed. [. . .]

You did not. And you don’t know. You observed. Maybe you learned. But you didn’t teach.

The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do. And they don’t. So they prescribe solutions, and they develop public policy, and they editorialize, and they politicize.

Blaine taught at a rural high school, but most of what she says applies to college teaching, trust me.

She is not claiming that teaching is a mystical calling that some people are just “born” knowing how to do. Few actual teachers think that way, even if that is how it works in movies. Blaine calls teaching “a profession” because, as with policework or medicine or chemical engineering, “only years of practicing my skills and honing my skills would have rendered me a true professional. An expert.” She’s right. I am already an effective teacher (no big deal, folks) but I am nowhere close to the educator I could be if I manage to stay in the game another few decades. I learn constantly from more experienced colleagues and from my time in the classroom with my students, most of whom are good kids that, if they are willing to work, deserve to get more from college than debt you cannot even discharge in bankruptcy.

This is why decent academic programs try to cultivate a stable core of faculty, where teachers learn explicitly and implicitly, directly and indirectly, in the short run and over the years, from one another.

And thus we have yet another reason why the adjunctification of the professoriate is a goddamn rolling disaster.