College Math

I sat next to a fresh faced Seattle teen and her dad on the flight back from New York City. They were perusing a Columbia University brochure. “Shopping colleges” I asked and the father was off and running never mind that I really needed some sleep.

His story is deserving of a separate post, for our purposes today, he said a year at Columbia costs $73,000. The dad makes bank and the daughter is the best 16 year old archer in the country, but last I checked, archery scholarships weren’t too generous. Meaning the fam has to come up with at least $325,000 given projected tuition inflation, air travel, and NYC incidentals. A fan of dark humor apparently, he said, “And then they need a masters to get a job.”

She wants to “be a doc for professional athletes” so rather than a masters, she’ll have four years of med school tuition.

Compared to a degree from the University of Washington, will a Columbia degree (or Stanford or UCLA* or Berkeley where she’s also applied), increase the odds of her achieving her career objective, which of course, she’s likely to tweak if not completely change? Her older sis pays $11,000 a year to study public health at “UDub”, one of the top programs in the world.

If I was the dad, I’d make Younger Daughter a proposition. Follow in Older Sister’s footsteps and I’ll give you the money saved from Columbia that you can then use to travel the world and fund medical school, and/or start a business, or to buy a large luxe house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Here’s the final tally:

$325,000 – $50,000= $275,000 + 4 years earning 3% compounded annually = $309,515

What should she do, cash the check for $275,000 and allow it to grow to $309,515 by graduation, or take a very expensive bite out of the Big Apple?

*in this one case, the obvious answer is; yes, definitely

 

How Not To Indoctrinate Students

Excellent advice from David Gooblar’s Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “What is ‘Indoctrination’? And How Do We Avoid It in Class?

His answer. . . by modeling open-mindedness and intellectual humility.

Gooblar thinks we can guard against closed-mindedness if we:

“. . . admit when we’re wrong, discuss our failures, and let students know when we’re unsure about something.”

When researching my doctoral dissertation, I spent two months closely studying a master high school teacher with a PhD in Mesopotamian history. Most PhD’s in Mesopotamian history would fall FLAT on their face if required to teach high school, but not this one because he never flaunted his intellect. One time, I recall, he started a story about something he had recently read about Egyptian pyramids. “I recently read in a book, but I don’t know if it’s true, . . . ” With one simple phrase, he demystified textual authority. The take-away, reader beware, authors are flawed.

However, there’s more to the “indoctrination story” than Gooblar reveals. A year ago, I was teaching an interdisciplinary International Honors course to a dozen whip smart juniors and seniors at my liberal arts university. One session, when discussing economics, a winsome but exasperated senior said, “I’ve never had a single professor here say anything positive about capitalism.” And on a scale of “1 to 10” in terms of liberal, liberal arts campus cultures, I’d rate my university a 4.

I thought long and hard about that statement, but also the student’s seeming resistance to critically question obvious, albeit unintended, negative consequences of unfettered free-market capitalism. As a conservative surrounded mostly by liberal faculty and peers, did he feel compelled to overcompensate? “I’m planting my flag on the hill of free-market capitalism come hell or high water!”

No, I don’t think that’s what was happening. I also taught the same student writing four years earlier in a seminar where we got to know one another well. I was reminded in the Honors course of how close he was to his mother whom he talked about affectionately. When I probed a little about how he came to his pro-capitalism views, he talked about his mother’s passion for it and their numerous conversations about it from when he was little. His hesitance to question capitalism as an economic system didn’t have anything to do with peer relationships, it had everything to do with his love for his mother. To even question capitalism, let alone reject it like an increasing number of his peers, would’ve required him to reject his mother. Far too high a cost to pay.

When teaching anything remotely political, that is the educator’s dilemma—how to honor each student’s familial context while also challenging them to expand their worldview. Or more specifically, given our example, how to celebrate the beauty of a loving child-parent relationship, while simultaneously cultivating critical thinking about closely held, unquestioned assumptions learned from birth.

How do educators challenge students to thoughtfully confront their families ideological blindspots knowing their intellectual awakening will disrupt those cherished relationships?

 

College Professors’ Iffy Pedagogy—Take 2

The tendency to assign more academic texts than students can realistically read closely isn’t the only, or even primary difference, between many higher education faculty and the best K-12 teachers.

The single greatest difference is most college professors expect their students to adapt to their teaching methods. In contrast, the most effective K-12 teachers learn early on to adapt their teaching methods to the various ways their students learn. As a result, accomplished K-12 teachers have many more methodological arrows in their quivers.

In elementary, middle, and high schools, the onus of adaptability is on the teachers to “differentiate instruction”. In higher education, the onus of adaptability is almost always on the students.

This is some far-fetched shit*, but imagine if the chairs of academic departments in colleges and universities across the country invited a handful of the most excellent K-12 educators from their communities to talk to their faculty about the myriad, student-centered ways, they promote genuine learning.

University students everywhere would be indebted to those enlightened chairs.

*just trying to sound Presidential

 

Wednesday Assorted Links

1. How Much Snow It Typically Takes to Cancel School in the U.S. Or how soft are you and yours? Specific Northwest, middle of the road (pun intended).

2. Speaking of maps. A Road Map for Reviving the Midwest.

“So the states of the Great Lakes region appear to be faced with a stark choice. It can . . . harness the modernizing forces of universities and immigration, setting itself up for revival. Or it can give in to the seductive impulses of nativism and hostility to higher education, and settle in for more decades of bitter, grinding decline.”

3. MoviePass Adds a Million Subscribers. Including a 25-year old Chicagoan who is digging it. You go gerl’, stretch those dollars.

4. Solar’s Bright Future is Further Away Than it Seems. In related news, in the upper lefthand corner, we’ve had more sun this winter than in any time in recent memory. Almost feels like Denver. To quote Kurt Warner after his SupBowl victory, “Thank you Jesus!”

5. Millennials are screwed. Not the 13 seniors in my January seminar. They’re going to thrive, by which I mean change the world for the better. #skilled #hardworking #sociallyconscious

6. Special Education funding is a priority this session. Shout out to Jeanette Byrnes who is an ace committee assistant this session. Working her butt off wrestling very large copying machines and providing sundry support for two committees. And gaining new respect for working men and women everywhere. Tangent: Jamie Pedersen used to swim at the Olympia Y during session. Bizarre open turns that I’m not even sure I could demonstrate.

Sign of the Apocalypse—Higher Education Edition

This is an email I received recently. I have changed the name of the college based upon the ratio of full and part time faculty.

Dear Dr. Byrnes,

Academic Keys, LLC is conducting an executive search for the position of Interim Dean of Education at Adjunct College.

As part of our search strategy, we are seeking recommendations for colleagues who may be interested in this opportunity.

If this position isn’t right for you, but you would like to receive opportunities in your discipline, please subscribe to Academic Keys e-Fliers where you may choose your discipline and specific fields of interest.

This is a rare opportunity for an experienced administrative leader to serve as Interim Dean of the School of Education at Adjunct College. Working closely with the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Interim Dean will provide program review, assessment and recommendations while providing vision, leadership, and dedication to quality higher education. Specific focus will be placed on maintaining accreditation with external regulators and providing recommendations to senior leadership for the direction for the school.

Adjunct College is a private, non-profit college. Serving approximately 1000 students, the School of Education, the largest of the three schools, employs:

  • 1 Department Head
  • 7 part time Program Coordinators
  • 3 full time faculty
  • 150 part time faculty

This is a full-time Senior Level Administrator position, and the person appointed to this position will be a member of the Deans’ Council Team. The position reports to the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs of Adjunct College.

My Complicity in Civilization’s Decline

I like to think my teaching makes a small positive difference in the world. That my students learn new things they deem meaningful, that they become a bit more curious about the world, and incrementally more caring towards others. Most enjoy my decidedly informal approach towards teaching which has been shaped by Quaker education principles and Ira Shor’s teaching (Critical Teaching and Every Day Life and When Students Have Power).

That aside, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, has me rethinking my three decades as an educator. In a New York Times essay titled “U Can’t Talk to UR Professor Like This” she argues that the teacher-student relationship depends on a

“special kind of inequality” and that insisting on traditional etiquette is . . . simply good pedagogy.”

In the end, she impugns professors like me for being on a first-name basis with students who are all adults.

Worthen:

“The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning.”

Worthen leans on a math professor friend who argues,

“More and more, students view the process of going to college as a business transaction.”

The suggestion being my type of classroom informality is the reason students. . .

“see themselves as customers, and they view knowledge as a physical thing where they pay money and I hand them the knowledge, so if they don’t do well on a test, they think I haven’t kept up my side of the business agreement.”

A pretty heavy trip to lay at the foot of classrooms like mine.

“Values of higher education,” Worthen explains, “are not the values of the commercial, capitalist paradigm.”

So faculty like me are to blame for the corporatization of higher education, but that’s not the worst of my offenses. Worthen also states that professors should take the time to teach students how to relate to authority figures not just as preparation for a job.

“The real point,” she explains, “is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.”

I never realized it, but ultimately I guess, by encouraging my students to use my first name, I’m complicit in civilization’s decline.

I don’t begrudge Worthen her formality, but I don’t understand her stridency. Who knows why she can’t accept the fact that teaching excellence takes many forms. Tucked in the middle of her essay is one paragraph that resonated with me:

“Alexis Delgado, a sophomore at the University of Rochester, is skeptical of professors who make a point of insisting on their title. ‘I always think it’s a power move,’ she told me. ‘Just because someone gave you a piece of paper that says you’re smart doesn’t mean you can communicate those ideas to me. I reserve the right to judge if you’re a good professor.’”

Worthen writes about “esteem for learning” without acknowledging what most undermines that, unrelenting grade grubbing. I believe the more formal faculty are, the more likely students are to “give them what they want”. Passivity is so engrained in students by college, any hope for a genuine questioning of authority, especially the professor’s, requires an intentional informality. Forget the guardian of civilization bullshit, I just want students to speak and write more authentically. Passing on using my formal title is a means towards that end. It isn’t a panacea for heightened student authenticity, but it’s not the root of all problems in higher education or Western Civilization either.

Liberal Arts Lamentations

I teach at a smallish, private liberal arts university that’s $5m in debt. Our president has “resigned”. A special faculty committee has been formed to determine which programs and tenure-track or tenured faculty should be eliminated. The guess is 20-60 faculty will be let go in one year’s time.

I’m skeptical of our newest religion, data analytics, because I reject data’s omniscience. I’m partial to stories. Numbers can tell stories, but the emotionally rich stories that resonant most deeply with me are told with words, photographs, video, film, dialogue, music, and acting.

My university’s ability to turn things around is complicated by the resistance of Religion, Language, Music, Philosophy, Art, and English faculty to change. My militant liberal artist friends are struggling mightily to accept their declining influence. Here are just a few recent signs of their struggle:

• At Faculty Assembly, a faculty member stands and says, “Many people don’t realize it, but some departments aren’t nearly as productive as they once were.” A religion professor turns to his colleague, makes air quotes, and quietly and derisively mocks the speaker by repeating, “productive”.

• A faculty leader from the Religion department writes a letter to the Board informing them that they should hire an interim-President for two years, not the planned for one, so that the campus can spend two years on the search for the next president. Humanities faculty dominate the growing list of signatories.

• Following an administrator’s decision to cut one liberal arts department’s budget, the chair says, “Are we going to become a trade school?”

We are not going to become a trade school, but we are not immune to the disruption that’s riddling wide swaths of the economy. At the price families are paying, it’s understandable that they want a “return on their investment”. And yet, business phrases like “return on investment”, and “productive”, and “market forces”, really anything related to the business model, set my militant liberal artists friends’ heads spinning.

The MLA’s (pun-intended) are trusting that our University’s mission will save their bacon. And I’m confident the most economically successful departments will continue to subsidize some especially mission-critical academic majors and programs. But not nearly as many as in the past and not nearly as many as the MLA’s are hoping.