Monday, June 05, 2006

Danger: Academics Gathering

At the end of May, 2006, I attended to one of the career requirements for a future professor and went to a gathering of academics. In some ways, this is like visiting the departmental office, but with a couple of hundred people in the room instead of a dozen. The majority of these people spend time complaining about the usual suspects, and if you dare question their assertions you might as well be.... well... someone like me.

The first day of presentations was, I think, an anti-war rally disguised as a gathering of computer researchers. The standard fare included a denunciation of the money spent on war and anti-terrorism efforts when we all know education spending is being cut across the board. If only this were true, then I would be cheering along with the audience. The truth is, the “war mongers in the White House and Congress” have not cut education spending to fund the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, “education” spending under the current federal administration has skyrocketed 170 percent. Not that I think the money is spent wisely... but it isn’t the amount of federal spendingthat worries me. What concerns me and others is that this spending is being controlled by Washington and not states. I personally do not want the federal government involved because then you end up with mandates and more mandates. Yes, the money is predominantly for K-12 education, but that is also where the greatest need is. I can’t really argue that students enter universities prepared!

Calls to protest immigration policy, gay marriage bans, the military presence on campuses (ROTC), and a handful of other issues were issued during almost every presentation. The fact that anyone might have “conservative” or libertarian (not conservative, but just try to explain the difference to educators!) views is completely discounted at these gatherings. Worse, those of us interested in improving teaching methods find ourselves lost... looking to the handful of presentations related directly to teaching.

I tend to forget that, “All actions are political” and everything I teach sends a message to students. I am terrible because I teach with a traditional emphasis, supporting the oppressive nature of the United States and Western Cultural Imperialism. How can I possibly spend so much time on grammar and writing when what matters is teaching students how to rebel against the system?

Seminars included: advocacy in the classroom, gay men in the writing network, overcoming male dominance, and the risks capitalism presents to education. I could list all the topics, but people might not take me seriously.

Of course the largest target of all was “capitalism,” especially large corporations — like Haliburton and Wal-Mart. Funny how any gathering of academics eventually leads to the evils of capitalism. And we wonder why education is dominated by “liberals” and “progressives” when this is the tone of gatherings?
An entire keynote address was on the dangers capitalism poses to the university. Horror of horrors, businesses have taught students to be consumers, demanding whatever courses and majors they want! 

This is an absurd claim, since the majors “students want” were created as a result of the 1968-76 student movements. No business leaders suggested “queer studies” or “Marxist feminism” as degree objectives. How many universities now offer at least three or four “cultural studies” degrees, from “Latino studies” to “women’s studies,” we have created what students wanted without any regard for what employment opportunities exist in these fields. How can this be the result of corporations controlling curriculum?

However, this is “capitalism” at work if you believe universities cater to supply and demand. Students demand majors in the humanities and majors that are hard to explain in simple terms. My degree in “English literacy” has to be explained to people: “I help students learn to read.” How do you explain “queer studies” to an employer? I suppose you teach and attend academic gatherings.

Grades are Earned

As a teacher, you eventually have to deal with a student pleading for a better grade. I am not sure if I was more flexible in the past or now — since I do admit adding an “extra credit” activity this year. But, when a student with a 79 percent asks why he didn’t receive the “B” he believes he is somehow owed, I am the last person to surrender. In fact, I think it pushes me away from any act of kindness when a student accuses me of not understanding his or her efforts.

Every class is about life skills. Some teachers do adjust grades while others do not. That is, I admit, much how life works. And some students are far better at playing instructors, just as those students will be better at office politics. We cannot control the fact that life is not always fair, but we can try to make our classrooms as fair as possible.

Since I teach composition and rhetoric, I’m already in a subjective domain. No matter how much I count grammar and spelling, my analysis of a paper is largely subjective. The primary “objective” measure I have for a paper is if the student attempted the work. Because I do count things that can be objectively measured, and usually find that these measures correspond to the grades I give in the subjective areas of the course, I seldom doubt my grading.

If you do poorly on simple quizzes and basic homework tasks, you probably do not care about longer papers. If you do not outline a paper, submit drafts, or participate in workshops, it is a reasonable bet that your paper will not be as good as those of students working through the “process” of composition.

So, when a student tells me that my grade was not fair, I can show him or her my grades and ask, “Why didn’t you do well on the quizzes? Why didn’t you participate in peer editing sessions? Why didn’t you care until the last week of class?”

Grades are earned. They are not given.
Yes, I have had students try and fail. That really upsets me, since I can tell when a student is struggling. I make every attempt to help the student out of class, but many are simply not prepared for the university. In those cases, the grades are still based on student works and not “given” based on my own emotional desire to help these individuals.

A 79 in my class can indicate a struggling immigrant worked a lot to succeed or that a gifted writer didn’t try very hard. It is a matter of perspective.