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.

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Presidential Links

We have Austrian guests staying with us right now, and when they asked me about the meaning of Presidents’ Day, I realized that I’d never thought about how bizarre it actually is. At least Washington’s Birthday had a kind of mythical ring to it. But Presidents’ Day now means we’re just celebrating the zenith of our awful bought-and-paid-for political system. Might as well call it Ivy League Worship Day. Still, in honor of the fact that many of you are freed from the shackles of work today (sorry, Adam Ted Jacobson), here is some reading material to make your time off more embiggening.

  • Ryan was rightly appalled to hear that I was reading something on Politico the other day. But the chance to read bits of Richard Nixon’s love letters was simply too compelling. I often find myself embarrassed that the lone president the Los Angeles area has given the country is the most reviled one in history. And he’s rightly hated, as the “Southern strategy” his campaigns employed is a big part of the reason our politics are still so racially divided. His letters make him seem pathetic and insecure at times, which makes sense given the paranoia he displayed while in office. But like all people, Nixon contained multitudes, and one of the Nixons buried within him was a maudlin romantic who was obsessed with his wife, Pat. So on this Presidents’ Day, give old Tricky Dick a new reading. It won’t change your opinion of him as a president, but it’s a good reminder that what we know of our leaders even now is incredibly limited.
  • Don’t look now, but us writing teachers have some competition. Not really, but I am sure Anya Kamenetz (with whom I had a slightly heated debate on Twitter a couple weeks back) would love to find a way to replace us with “Hemingway.” No, not the writer, but an app that analyzes prose for “boldness and clarity.” The app is obviously kind of a joke, as some of Hemingway’s best prose  (Ian Crouch’s New Yorker piece uses an excerpt from “The End of Something”) is deemed not bold or clear enough. Still, this is the kind of thing that Silicon Valley “education experts” would no doubt love to see replace actual classroom instruction, particularly in the humanities. It doesn’t matter that the app has no way of analyzing the content of one’s prose or the logic of one’s assertions. It gives us analytics that can be crunched and quantified!
  • Speaking of The New Yorker, I’m not telling anyone reading this site something they don’t already know when I say that James Wood is one of the best contemporary literary critics. His prose is lucid and his references are always appropriate. He is exactly the kind of public intellectual Nicholas Kristof is right to say we need more of these days. Kristof writes: “A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.” While Kristof’s take isn’t original (like most Times op-eds, this one casts something folks have been saying for years as a new and profound insight), it is worth repeating: academic prose is mostly awful, the subjects many academics study are unimportant and narrow to the point of comedy, and the tenure system doesn’t reward people for doing work that real people (not other academics) enjoy. James Wood is an exception to this unfortunate rule, and his latest essay in the London Review of Books is a good example of what all academics in the humanities should be trying to do. Woods is a better prose stylist than most novelists, so I don’t expect professors to match him on that front, but his unabashed love of storytelling (as opposed to politics, -isms, and theory) makes his work something that “regular” people can engage with. If we want to have any kind of real reading culture (of, hell, even a smart digital media culture) going forward, we need academics to work for the masses, not for each other.

End of the Week Links

Hello, everyone. This evening, as always, the Internet holds forth its treasures, and TGR is gathering some in a big net. May they stimulate you intensely.

  • Why did God systematically ruin a decent, faithful man’s life after someone dared him to? This is the inflammatory question raised by the Book of Job, and as Joan Acocella demonstrates in the New Yorker, Judeo-Christian commentators have spent millennia trying to explain how a benevolent deity could also have a sadistic streak. Spoiler alert: Nobody has done much better than David Hume’s common-sense observation that God sounds like an asshole. Makes sense. Guy did let his only kid get crucified.
  • Whether you’re talking kindergarten or college, teachers who are good at their jobs believe fervently in the existential importance of education for its own sake—whatever economic benefits it also carries. Teachers are some of the last real humanists. But can any occupation that exists in the actual world be considered a manifestation of a radiant, quasi-spiritual impulse? Many teachers would snort at that. In a post called “Hanging Up on a Calling,” Rebecca Schuman explains that the “joy of teaching/I’d do it for free!” narrative has long been a way to justify paying teachers as though their high-skill jobs weren’t extremely complicated and difficult. Teaching is an enjoyable, salutary occupation; I’m good at it; and I hope I can keep doing it until I’m old. But fuck any calling that doesn’t come with decent wages. Educators live right where everybody else does, and you can’t pay medical bills and student-loan invoices with a Love of Knowledge. The day I can’t earn middle-class money working full-time as a teacher is the day I stop being one.
  • The premise of Bad Lip Reading shouldn’t be funny for more than 15 seconds; the actual practice of BLR, in the right hands, is sometimes transcendent. The weirdly articulate quality of the nonsensical “readings” is what cracks this blogger so consistently up. Here, after another shitty whimsical GEICO ad, is a tour of the contemporary National Football League and its gladiators. “Kill Dracula at once, that’s what I would do immediately.”
  • About 90% of the content on Jezebel strikes me as lazy, tedious, and brittle (JUDGMENT BY MALE ALERT), but this anti-profile of the perpetually slim and greasy Adam Levine, whom the author compares to “an outspoken yoga enthusiast who won’t stop trying to talk you into anal,” is vital to our culture.
  • Every now and then, the novelist/blogger/sports pundit/pseudo-advice columnist Drew Magary guest-edits Jezebel for like a day, but usually (thankfully) he does most of his web work for Deadspin, and his weekly “NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo” is fantastic. This week’s edition, “On Softness,” offers a representative mix of half-ironic quippery about football, masculine panic, television, fecal matters, children, and Gregg Easterbrook’s undying pomposity. Hot takes, highly recommended.
  • As a cultural staph infection, the, uh, rapper Macklemore is making cold hard cash (from braindead teenagers and undergraduates) and some vicious enemies (among humans who have liked hip-hop for more than six months). Given the former, I’m not sure how much Macklemore cares about the latter, but Jack Hamilton’s cruel, brilliant assessment of Seattle’s most famous white MC is required reading. Some Alexander Pope-grade knife work going on here.

Shall we end with some music? Sort of. See the next post, y’all. A YouTube video link would look wonky on this page. Preview: This week’s jam involves sex-themed R&B.

Sunday Links

Sorry it’s been a little while since I last posted. The eating and lazing about of the holidays were really taxing. If you’re still recovering from that kind of exertion, you can at least exercise your brain by reading some of the following pieces:

  • Many of the pundits on my Twitter feed are still discussing/making fun of David Brooks’ editorial about how his teenage pot use made him wary of the successful movements in Colorado and Washington to at least decriminalize the possession of a plant. This comes not too long after another Brooks piece caused Twitter to get all twitterpated because he frankly trounced Tom Scocca in the snark/smarm debate. His pot piece is evocative, but it’s also nicely illustrative of the blind spot many middle-class white Americans have about weed laws: for one segment of society, marijuana possession has been de facto legal for a long, long time. They take for granted that the worst results of smoking dope are productivity losses and “moral decay” (clutch your pearls, America), ignoring that the poor and non-whites have to worry about doing hard time for getting high. David Brooks is the voice of the people whose biggest concern is embarrassing themselves during a class presentation, and putting that perspective on display is a useful reminder that paternalism is the default political mode of both the rich right and left.
  • Noah Millman, the liberal art and culture critic on the staff of The American Conservative, has done something fun for the start of the new year. Instead of giving us “25 Movies to Look Forward to in 2014,” as so many other publications have done, he’s asking us to look back, and not just at 2013, which was an amazing year for film. His list of films to see again is almost all gems, but more importantly it accords with how most of us consume media now. The new is often too expensive, especially when so much of the old is available at the press of a button and for pennies a view. And art changes as we age. Every year I read The Great Gatsby to understand what my values and priorities are and how they are shifting. It’s a slightly new book each time, because I am a slightly new man with each passing year. One film I intend to revisit this year is Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, which I probably haven’t seen in 10 years. I’ve always been a huge Woody Allen fan, but I remember simultaneously enjoying and not totally understanding this move when I saw it at 21. Maybe now’s the time. What movies will you re-watch in 2014? Tell us in the comments section, or on Twitter!
  • Ryan and I have probably expended too much virtual ink on the subject of what’s wrong with higher ed, but a couple recent pieces are worth noting, as they both compare the bleak future of university education to mass retail culture. Timothy Pratt’s Atlantic article on the ways in which credentialism is fundamentally changing the bachelor’s degree isn’t terribly original, but it contains a money quote from Boston College’s Karen Arnold: “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate.” Not to be outdone, Gabriel Kahn at Slate dubs Southern New Hampshire University “the Amazon of higher education,” where students are customers, and where online degree students prop up what was once a failing brick and mortar college. If you’ve been reading TGR for the past few months, you know what my rather un-PC prescription is for this ailment: we need to radically overhaul K-12 to make it much more rigorous so that going to college isn’t necessary for people who have no interest in doing so. At 18, you should be able to go out in to the “business world” and get a job that will eventually lead you to a comfortable life if you work hard. You shouldn’t have to take online or in-person classes that you don’t care about in order to be middle class. It’s a waste of your money and time, and it takes away resources from people who actually do want to be in college. In a saner, more egalitarian economy, we’d have many fewer colleges, many fewer college professors, many fewer grad students and adjuncts, and many fewer college graduates, because people would have the freedom to pursue what actually interests them. I’m aware that none of this will happen, but I’m sick of watching Silicon Valley, Washington DC, Wall Street, state governments, and university administrators like the guy at SNHU (though he’s hardly unique) destroy traditional education and drive young people deeper and deeper into debt and despair for degrees that aren’t worth the virtual paper they’re not written on.
  • Finally, a bit of shameless plugging. I wrote a review of James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for Southern Spaces. Read it if you like. I am also currently working on a review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave for the same publication, so stay tuned!

Humanities for Everyone! (Whose Parents Have the Capital)

This is your semi-daily reminder that if you want to see what works best in schools, look at what people arrange for their children when money is no object. Over at his Just Visiting blog, John Warner notes the curious gap between the prep-school education that Bill Gates and his children enjoy (small classes taught by well-paid experts who emphasize serious books and lots of writing) and the kind of education that Bill Gates would like most everyone else’s children to enjoy (corporatized curriculum production, online classes, standardized testing, more standardized testing). Unfortunately, unlike most people with extremely stupid ideas about how teaching human beings actually works, Mr. Gates has many billions of dollars to pour into America’s ongoing effort to dismantle the remnants of its public-education system.

The same holds true at the college level. The Obama girls are not going to Ohio State or NOVA; they will matriculate at Stanford or Amherst or someplace comparable. Thomas Friedman might love MOOCs, but his daughters attended Yale and Williams, respectively.

There is a deep scumminess to how American economic and cultural elites (including many left-leaners like Gates, Obama, and Friedman) expend enormous amounts of capital on maintaining intimate, bucolic academies where the students read Dostoevsky and ponder Hume alongside tenured professors who make a decent salary, then turn around and assure the rest of us that twenty-first-century America has no time for small classes or the humanities, not if we are going to Win the Future, to quote Mr. Obama.

UPDATE: A better title for this post might be “Small Classes for Everyone! (Whose Parents Have the Capital).” As a humanities partisan, my instinct was to emphasize that side of the issue, but you could easily extend this to science and math classes. To reiterate, look at what elites procure for their children from preschool through college: small classes in schools where teachers have the freedom to design challenging, rigorous, creative, reading- and writing-intensive curriculum for their students. It works. Few if any affluent education “reformers” would send their kids to institutions that do otherwise. Reform is only reform if it is committed to small classes for every child.

Tales From the Industrial University

Adam Weinstein posted a gripping essay on Deadspin today. The title is sort of clunky (“Jameis Winston Isn’t [t]he Only Problem Here: An FSU Teacher’s Lament”), but it does encapsulate Weinstein’s main idea, which is that upper-echelon “college” football, as institutionally structured in the contemporary United States, does terrible things to colleges, especially to student-athletes and the people who teach them.

We love football, and we really love winning, and while we might be pseudo-intellectuals who idolize tweedy, critical theory-spouting professors, we hate it when they denigrate the game’s presence on campus. We want to do right by these players. One of mine was from a sugarfield shantytown best known as the AIDS capital of the state. I hope he never goes back. “You’re like, ‘Fucking A, man, this is awesome,'” my co-worker Derek says of teaching big-name players. “You’re part mentor and part fanboy.” (The names of the FSU instructors in this story have been changed to protect their identities and the identities of their students.)

But we’re increasingly flummoxed by the football culture surrounding Tallahassee, one that’s grown malignant with the wins and the scrutiny, like a traditional Islamic country turned radical and defensive, its craziest pilgrims whirling around Doak Campbell Stadium, the black cube at the center of their Mecca. It’s a culture that tells these adolescents that their highest calling is to sacrifice their bodies in the grassy shrine, that all else is distraction. It’s the same culture that’s now undergoing paroxysms of wild paranoia to spin Benghazi- and Trayvon-style conspiracy theories that might explain these obviously baseless allegations against Jameis Winston, the teenager whose prophetic power can reduce old white men to joyful sobbing.

As a football fan who teaches college, I found Weinstein’s narrative chilling, though not very surprising.

I should note that my experience teaching NCAA athletes has been much different, although granted I teach at a school that doesn’t have a football program and isn’t particularly sports-crazy despite being generally obsessed with fitness. The athletes whom I’ve taught have displayed the same wide range of talent, civility, interests, and work ethic as the overall student population; often I don’t even realize who plays sports. That is probably a good thing.

OOPS, Sorry!

Having proselytized aggressively and lucratively for privatized online education (as it were), California supergenius and headset aficionado Sebastian Thrun is now engaged in a quietly massive rhetorical walking-back of those efforts. In one respect, good on him: It would be gratifying to see Wall Street execs do the same now that the Great Recession is limping off into the distance. On the other hand, the way bigger hand, Thrun’s maneuver is infuriatingly meek and selfish. As Rebecca Schuman, fan-object of this blog, points out on Slate, his position boils down to: My shitty product was shitty mainly because its potential consumers were shitty, not because it was a shambling, pointless, greedy waste of human capital. Seriously now, just look at the photo atop the Fast Company story. As many a person on many a bar stool would say, Fuckin’ guy . . . .

Still, if nothing else, the hyperlink wormhole which ensued after I read Schuman’s piece led me to Tech In Translation, which turns out to be the witty, sane work of Amanda Krauss, whom you might know from her former blog-incarnation as Worst Professor Ever, which she wrote after telling the Classics department at Vanderbilt, where she was on the tenure track, to go fuck itself.

Anyway, back to waiting to see how Dr. Thrun gets that horse back into the barn.