Monthly Archives: October 2014

“People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.”

So it seems that everyone is talking about the “fake class scandal” at UNC. And because I have have something to say and an internet connection, I’m going to add to the pile of internet outlets covering the story.*

I won’t rehash the details; if you don’t know them already, click on the above links. I’m much more interested in proposing a solution. A radical solution. One that, in all likelihood, would never, ever be implemented. And that’s too bad, because I think this is a great idea:

Allow students to major in sports.

I don’t mean allowing students to major in sports-related fields. I mean, allow them to major in sports.

One of the problems with college athletics (and yes, I recognize there are many problems) is the notion that the student-athlete must justify his/her existence at the university by taking “real” classes, pursuing a “traditional” major, and by pretending to be Just Another Student. The reason why this is a problem is that student athletes – especially scholarship athletes in Division I programs – are not in any way treated like other students. In some cases, there are significant privileges that come with being a successful college athlete; in other cases, student athletes have demands placed on them that are not placed on other students. Student-athletes are treated differently by the universities, by the media, by the authorities, by everyone. And then the world pretends outrage when it’s discovered that – GASP! – they get special treatment by faculty? That’s nonsense. So let’s cut the bullshit and start treating them like other students. Let’s recognize that student athletes can exist at the college without having to pretend to be majoring in something other than their chosen sport.

One of the best things about the modern university is that it can be many things to many people. It can be a place to engage in the arts, learn about the world (as well as a platform for traveling), or train for a career. And there are so many careers one can train for. Is there any reason why one of those careers cannot be in professional athletics? Wait, did you just say that many student-athletes are preparing for a career in professional athletics? Right you are! There are students who go to college to prepare for a career in the arts; they learn about the arts, develop technical skills, make professional contacts, and then upon graduation they try to pursue their careers. Students interested in a career in business have a similar path. As do those who – perhaps stupidly, given the job market – desire a career in academia. But those who wish to pursue a career in professional athletics must not only devote their time to training for their chosen careers, but also pretend to be devoting their time to another career, a career many of them aren’t terribly interested in, and one for which they are – according to the recent scandal at UNC – quite likely being poorly trained for. So why continue the charade? Why should we demand that scholarship athletes essentially pursue a double major, whereby their second major – the one they have little to no interest in – provides a false – yet somehow comforting – justification for their primary major?**

Why don’t we just allow scholarship athletes to pursue “Sports” as their major?*** As linked to above, many student athletes are devoting a great deal of time to the pursuit of a career as a professional athlete. Surely, the problem cannot be that there are not enough potential credit hours. In fact, is there any reason why we cannot assign credit hours to the work done by athletes? They spend time taking notes, learning plays, studying film, practicing their craft, and improving their skills. These skills are tested on a regular basis (and in come cases, more regularly than academic students are tested on their skills), and failure to keep up with their work and improve their performance can lead to being dropped from their “major.”

Of course, it’s not like we have to completely reinvent the wheel here. Honestly, I don’t see this as being terribly different from students pursuing degrees in the arts. I teach at an arts university, home to the Crane School of Music. Let’s take a look at the required curriculum for, as an example, Vocal Performance Majors. Note how many courses in skills, technique, or performance are required. Is this any different from the kind of work done by athletes in their skills training and performance work? I mean, ignore the fact that one kind of skills-training and performance work carries academic credits and course numbers. Add some course numbers and credits to the hours spent studying film and time on the field, and don’t we have a program of study? Further, students who want to study at Crane must pass an audition; is this terribly different from recruiting athletes? In both cases, students must be selected from among a large group of prospective students, each of whom is hoping to be accepted into his/her first choice program.

I can hear more objections, starting with: most college athletes will not turn pro, so they should have a back-up plan. Agreed. But we don’t apply such thinking to other majors, do we? If we forced all students to pick up a double major because of the lack of jobs in their professional field, we’d be pushing all of our Classics majors into Business programs, wouldn’t we?**** The future job market doesn’t seem to be a justification for any other major – ever hear of the Starving Artist? – so why should it be one for athletes? And let’s not forget, shall we, the current problems in the academic job market. Or maybe you want to complain about the abuse of power exercised by college athletics programs? I would link you to stories about professors abusing their power over students, but there were so many hits on Google that I almost broke my computer. There are problems with the NCAA? Of course there are. And before I come up with a witty retort, let me remind you that it’s not too late to register for the MLA annual conference.

I’m not saying this is a perfect idea, or one without potential problems. But one thing we can and should absolutely do is stop pretending that college can’t be a place where future athletes go to study, train, and prepare for a future in professional athletics. We can also stop pretending that this is not a goal worthy of pursuit.^

I short, if we want to pretend that the scholarship student-athlete is Just Another Student, let’s just stop pretending. Let’s accept that student-athletes are studying something, something both useful and lucrative, something that society values.

*Side note: I am particularly intrigued by the fact that this is being covered by sports blogs and philosophy blogs alike.

**To give a hyperbolic analogy, let’s institute a new rule: all non-student-athletes must now, in addition to whatever they are studying, pick up a major in, say, Archaeology. How you find the time to do the additional course work and field work is not our problem. Just do it. Oh, and you only have 4 years of eligibility, so you’ll likely be carrying twice the course load you were before. Have fun.

***Yes, I know that many such athletes are legitimately pursuing an academic major. Many aren’t interested in a career in professional athletics, at least as an athlete. And that’s great. But does this mean that we should pretend that all student-athletes should be such students?

****What few of them still remain, that is. SUNY is doing its best to stop teaching Classics, so maybe they’ll all find their way to Business anyway.

^But if you want to go back to a discussion of the job market, can you point to another field that has contractually-guaranteed minimum salaries over 6 figures?

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“No more half measures”; or, Breaking Bad…habits

Earlier today I was discussing student writing with a friend of mine. We were lamenting the fact that so many of our students come into our classes with poor writing skills. This, of course, is a common complaint among many who teach at the college level (and particularly those who teach in English departments). It’s become easy to blame No Child Left Behind. Don’t get me wrong; I blame NCLB too. But in reality, NCLB is more than likely a symptom and not the cause.

One of the problems I have noticed in my many years as a teacher is that precious few seem to want to teach writing, and those who do want to are so over-burdened that it’s very, very difficult to do it correctly. One reason I have a problem blaming NCLB is that it takes everyone else off the hook; if teaching writing is someone else’s problem, then it’s not our problem. And many, many people I know – including those who teach courses whose explicit purpose is the teaching of writing – want someone else to teach writing. I know this, in part, because for many years I was one such person. Let’s face it; teaching writing is difficult, detail-oriented work that most students will not thank you for (at least not right away). And while I have a great many thoughts on this subject, I’ll use this post to elaborate on one in particular.

Last week I had a student come to me and tell me something I hear often, though he certainly wins bonus points for hyperbole. I often meet students who want to go to graduate school, either for creative writing or for literary study. Often, these students want to to eventually teach at the college level. These students always want to succeed. This particular student told me he wanted to be “the best.” Not “the best he could be,” but “the best.” Ah, youth. I really do admire it. He mentioned this is the context of a conversation about his first paper, and a grade he was shocked to receive. In the course of the discussion, he revealed that he does not work with multiple drafts (though he does “think about” his work before writing and turning in his first draft) and does not edit his writing once it’s on the page. Then, while explaining his work ethic, noted that he began his paper 3 days before it was due. The way he delivered this information suggested that he wanted to impress me with how early he started work (presumably in contrast to those who waited until the night before).

This anecdote isn’t newsworthy; it is merely the most recent in a long string of such examples I could draw from. However, I have been thinking about this conversation repeatedly since it occurred, mostly because this student wants to be “the best.” And as I pointed out to him in our subsequent conversation, he was not helping himself to achieve that goal. I don’t believe the student is lazy, or that he is insincere. No, I suspect that he has – over the course of his academic career – adopted a number of bad habits, and has only just learned this about himself. And that he has only just learned that these are bad habits.

I know how things are going to play out with this student: he will work with me more closely, improve his writing, and earn grades closer to what he expects. He will recognize that the success he wants comes with changing his habits regarding writing, and ideally, he will see the benefits of this effort elsewhere in his remaining years of study.

Great, but that’s just one student. Improving his work is, truth be told, pretty easy. The formula is simple, and it always works. But it does nothing to address the systemic problem.

In 1992 I graduated from Brockton High School in Brockton, MA. It was a unique place in that it had some of the highest-performing students in the state, sitting in classes with some of the lowest-performing students in the state. My graduating class saw multiple students go on to Ivy-league universities, and even more drop out. I got a great education there, but many of my classmates did not. In particular, BHS was – with a handful of exceptions in the AP programs – one of the worst-performing schools in the state in terms of reading comprehension and writing skills. Years after I graduated, Dr. Szachowicz* turned that around.

One question she asked often of her students – and that she is quoted of asking a colleague in the story above – is “Is this the best we can be?” It’s a question that has stayed with me. I have often asked myself that question while working on some project, often when I find myself wanting to cut corners. And in particular, I find myself asking this question with respect to writing instruction.

I know for a fact that I am not doing the best job I could be doing teaching writing. I rationalize this by reminding myself that I generally teach over 100 students every semester, have general education requirements I must address with those students (and sadly, writing instruction is not one of them), and already spend more than 40 hours a week on my job and would like very much to cut that back. That said, I still find myself wondering what we could do.

And I keep coming back to the BHS solution: make writing instruction part of every class. Even gym.

It worked for BHS. (No, seriously, read the story I linked to.)

I know that there would be serious objections to this, particularly on my campus. What about public speaking? What about math? What about all of the other skills that are incorporated into the general education program?

Well, for starters, I don’t care. I really don’t. That may be very a very unpopular opinion, but I don’t. (OK, maybe a care a little bit. But not today; not while I’m writing this post.) There are plenty of examples online regarding the importance of writing skills, and why even those who do not write for a living should possess them.

Additionally, I hear people complaining about this all the time. These complaints come from my colleagues teaching in English. And from people teaching in other humanities fields. And from people teaching math. And the sciences. And coaching staff. And administrators. And parents. And other students. This is such a common complaint that everyone joins in on the fun.

So if everyone agrees that this is a problem, a serious problem, one that affects a variety of other areas of our students’ work and lives, shouldn’t we do what we can to fix it?

In other words, “is this the best we can be?”

I would like to see writing instruction included throughout the curriculum because many courses assign and grade writing as a means of assessing learning. There are students at my university writing papers for classes in Literature and History, Sociology and Anthropology, Music and Community Health. If these programs are going to routinely assign and grade writing as a means of assessing student learning, they should be teaching it as well. These students all aspire to a variety of careers, many of which will expect their employees to possess strong skills in written communication.** (That is, of course, on of the reasons why many employers insist on hiring applicants with college degrees.)

And truth be told, I bet I’m not alone in this desire. I know many faculty who would gladly include writing instruction in their courses, if they only knew how best to do so. This, of course, is the easy part. Universities have experts in writing instruction; some universities have several such faculty. These faculty members teach writing, direct writing centers, work as professional writers outside the university, etc. Are we – is higher education – using these faculty to their fullest potential? (Note: I am not asking universities to overburden these faculty. No, these faculty should be given the release time needed to train their colleagues, to help incorporate writing instruction with other pedagogical methods and goals. Run workshops. Visit classrooms. Help train faculty in proper instruction and assessment.)

Now just so I’m clear, I’m not asking that that every university course include writing as a means of assessment (though I am, of course, suggesting that as well). I’m asking that every university course – every single one of them – teach students how to write. Much of this instruction can be in the form of teaching students how to write for the various professions these programs train students for.*** There is no reason why students should be getting the same instruction from all their courses. Hell, I’m pretty sure that students would benefit a great deal from learning to write within a variety of discourse communities. In fact, this could only benefit students, many of whom come to college thinking they know how to write because they have mastered the five paragraph essay, the hamburger method, or some other system that they were asked to demonstrate earlier in their education.

So, yeah, let’s teach writing in every course in the curriculum. All of them.

What say you all?

*Full disclosure: I have more respect for “Dr. Szach” than I do for most educators I have met. I was lucky enough to take two classes with her when I attended BHS (before she moved into administration). She was a brilliant teacher, a compassionate person, and the first person I ever met who was in the middle of a PhD program. She shared with us bits of what she was learning at the time, and teased us with the suggestion that there is more out there to study. Although I did not follow her footsteps by studying history, I have never lost the passion for the subject that she shared with us.

**When I was a student at Northeastern University, I attended a lecture given by one of the chief executives at Raytheon (a company that had just entered into a partnership with the university). This executive told the audience – which included a large number of students in engineering and the sciences – that one of the best things they could do while in college is work on their writing. Strong writing, he told them, will absolutely advance their careers. Strong writing skills, he told us, are always appreciated, regardless of the position.

***This approach to writing instruction is one reason why Northeastern University’s writing program is so successful. I remember being a student there when the program was developing its courses in writing for the professions; students, faculty, and local businesses loved this idea. It was incredibly successful.

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