Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Basic Academic Skills

I am not an APA or MLA "policeman" with an unwavering requirement that student papers be perfect examples of academic formatting. They need to be close, but I tell students I don't grade someone lower for using APA 5th Edition instead of APA 6th Edition. Making a minor MLA error is going to happen, so close is often good enough. As long as a student demonstrates respect for citing and acknowledging past scholarship, I can be lenient — within reason.

Ideas and critical thinking skills are more important than perfect formatting. I weight my grading accordingly. My experience, however, is that students attentive to formatting and style issues are also more likely to submit carefully outlined and reasoned papers. This is why software that judges writing ("robo-grading") can be accurate: badly written papers are often, but not always, badly reasoned. Even non-native speakers demonstrate the divide between careful and careless students; the students attempting to format a paper properly tend to exhibit good reasoning skills no matter their English skills.

This blog post isn't going to win many friends, and I realize it could be taken as a critique of my colleagues, but the students in my courses are not demonstrating basic formatting skills. I am teaching a capstone course, the fifth class in a series that includes two writing and two communication courses. Many of the students in my class are transfer students, so what I am observing is not representative of any one institution's students. I repeat: this seems to be a widespread problem. I am wondering why it has become an issue when compared to my past teaching experiences.

Before the first formal paper I requite, in my course's online shell I provided sample papers, links to the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab), and numerous other resources. In class, I demonstrated how to use an APA template with Microsoft Word. If the students watched, I showed the cover page, headers, numbering, and bibliography basics within an hour review. All this material should have been review, after all, since this is the capstone course.

Sadly, not even a third of my students submitted papers close to APA formatting. Some papers lacked such basics as the student's name and page numbers.

Again, I'm not claiming a failure of any one course or institution, since these students come from several institutions. Transfer students often waive the earlier requirements based on grades earned (or awarded, at least) by other institutions. Still, the majority of students are from our institution, though many of those are in special "accelerated" (eight-week) courses — which includes the course I am teaching.

How in the world can you be in your third or fourth year at the university level and fail to include your name on a paper? How can you attend class and have access to online resources, yet fail to at least approximate an APA or MLA bibliography? Missing page numbers? Not the least effort to cite outside sources?

I've discussed the problem of poor skills (or poor self-discipline) with my deans. The challenge is, how do you reinforce proper academic skills as students are in their last two years of degree programs? It is frustrating and I cannot be alone among my colleagues.

My university requires an academic handbook of all students. The students have a guide to APA and MLA formatting. I asked my class, "Did anyone look at the handbook?" There was silence.

Have we failed these students or have they chosen to be so inattentive to standards? I argue that grades are earned, not awarded, but the students did well enough in their previous coursework to enroll in a capstone course. Our institution has a portfolio requirement… but it seems to have slipped away, especially among transfer and accelerated students. Did the students compose better papers in the past? I have no way to know, since I have no examples of their previous works.

My colleagues must be trying to teach the benefits of citations and bibliographies, especially in academic writing. But, the students don't seem to have learned the lessons.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Only the Comfortable Have Time to Ponder

The only people free to ponder great ideas are the comfortable people, a student said during a discussion last week. She mentioned the Greek writings that suggest "free men" had time to think, since slaves and craftsmen did the "work" of their society. Her question to the class was if anyone has time to invest in a traditional liberal arts education when most graduates are going to be slaves to their debts.

Calling students "slaves" is a rhetorical move, one that suggests the person has no choice. Of course, Nietzsche and plenty of other philosophers have suggested the "slave mentality" is a choice to surrender freedom. But, students aren't necessarily mature enough to recognize the longterm implications of student loans or why pursing a purely vocational education shortchanges them later in life. Therefore, the "system" seems to relying on the fact students are ignorant — and the system (society) has emphasized credentials over learning.

Rhetoric, speech, and other communication skills courses tend to be trimmed from core curriculum requirements when space is needed for the latest and greatest vocational trends. Universities that once required five or six communications courses have reduced the number to two or three. There are still holdouts, but when students and their parents demand to know the vocational value of classwork we offer only vague assurances that communication skills are vocational.

I explained to my class that choosing a university reflects a choice to accept either the vocational model or the liberal arts model of education. Where a professor works reflects either core values or values the professor eventually embodies. Everyone in the system makes choices; most of us do embrace the vocational model.

Higher education wasn't a vocational pursuit until the Land Grant universities rose to prominence. The "Ag and Mining" (A&M) engineering schools also made vocation their clear, unapologetic focus. "Technical Institutes" represent a further emphasis on vocational skills. Pursuing a career (earning money) became the reason to attend a university, as opposed to attending to become a better citizen and community leader.

Our political leaders still come from the universities known for educating leaders. The elite institutions have resisted becoming too vocational, trying to maintain a humanistic undergraduate core. You could argue that "leadership" is a vocation, with Harvard and Yale preparing lawyers with clear paths towards public service. But, generally, these institutions have traditional liberal art undergraduate programs; it is their graduate programs that we might consider "vocational."

My students observed that only a tiny fraction of people have the opportunity to attend either a liberal arts college or an elite institution. Higher education is a gatekeeper, a "sorting hat" one student said, that determines if you will be in the "One Percent" or the "99 Percent" later in life. The future One Percent will be allowed to ponder the big questions at their elite schools, while the rest are trying get a diploma to get a job.

I'd like to resist such simplistic (and statistically accurate) assumptions. Why can't we spend time pondering philosophy, art, history, and language? Why must every class on a checklist aim towards raw skills and memorized knowledge? What about nurturing the ability to discuss and explore big ideas?

"Yeah, that's a great dream, but I have loans to repay."

I need a way to convince young people that they aren't trapped. They can broaden their educations in a variety of ways, many within the flawed system we have. Why not double-major across disciplines? What about trying at least a minor in the humanities? Students can schedule courses that will encourage them to ponder the big ideas.

"Slavery" to material concerns can shortchange your eventual material "success" in our society. The most emotionally successful people are know, those who took the time to consider and ponder big ideas, are also the most financially successful. By resisting the lure of a purely vocational education, these individuals stumbled into the best vocational training available: the classic humanities core.

The best computer programmer I know studied Classics and is fluent in Greek and Latin. The best lawyers I know studied rhetoric or "liberal arts" as undergraduates. The best doctor I've met studied art alongside biology; he said learning to "really see" the body helped him as a diagnostician. I can attest: he saw things before I mentioned them. My wife has engineering degrees and a communication degree. Having a broad educational foundation promotes success.

Sadly, my students are convinced they need to obtain (not necessarily earn) degrees linked to careers. Only the comfortable have time to ponder, my students argued, and they did cite good evidence for this claim. At least that's a good sign: they were pondering big questions during the discussion. Maybe they will come to appreciate such discussions in their mandatory communication courses.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Whoppers of 2012, Final Edition

I am encouraging my students to reflect on the following pages:
FactCheck: Whoppers of 2012, Final Edition
PolitiFact: Biggest falsehoods of the presidential campaign
What do these pages reveal? How bad was this campaign? Historically, it actually wasn't anywhere near the worst of campaigns, but it wasn't a hopeful sign of what is ahead of us for the next four years.