With respect to the issue of “concurrent enrollment” discussed below (and apologies to Susan Sontag), I thought I’d report an interesting conversation I had yesterday during my last class meeting with my senior research seminar students. (All History majors at Baa Ram U. are required to take a one-semester course in which they write a primary-source based research paper. This is our “capstone” course–I’m sure a number of you are familiar with the concept.) In order to wrap things up on a reflective note (and do more than just pass out course evaluations), I asked them in advance of class to come ready to talk about the most interesting thing they had learned in my class and/or in the course of researching their papers. Many of them had surprisingly thoughtful things to say about their college educations and experiences as History majors in general.
I was amazed by the level of reflection on their educations as a whole at Baa Ram U. and in my department in particular. My students said things like, “I learned how to read books as a history major,” and “I learned that I had really learned something in college in the course of researching my paper.” They commented that they learned to see history differently than they had before, and that they saw real value in their work here. One man who is a double major in business and History said that his work as history major seemed more “real” and “hands-on” than his business courses, because the book learning he did as a business major felt incomplete without being out in the working world and having an opportunity to try our different ideas. Another student said that he learned what footnotes were and how useful they could be, when before he had just seen them as “filler.” Many students commented that they learned valuable skills for using libraries, which as it turns out are still more useful than the Google for higher-level historical research.
One of these seminar students came to my office after class to let me know that I had turned her college career around 18 months ago in my women’s history class. Apparently back then I asked her if she really wanted to be a history major, because it seemed like she wasn’t applying herself although she was clearly a perfectly bright person. (I have no memory of this conversation with her—this is from her recollection. I’m afraid I say this to a large number of my students!) She said that people had been saying that to her through her whole education, but that it wasn’t until that moment with me that she decided to listen and apply herself more to her studies. She’s now on her way to writing a very fine final paper and graduating this spring.
I’m not writing abou this to preen and brag. I don’t think that what I do is special compared to my colleagues, who are for the most part much harder-working and more dedicated teachers than I am. My point is just this: what we do is something very valuable and very different from what teachers at other levels of the curriculum do. That’s what I heard yesterday from my senior seminar students. By this I mean no disrespect to other teachers. I simply mean that meeting with students who are enrolled at Baa Ram U. in our classrooms and offices is a very different experience than on-line courses or concurrent enrollment can possibly offer. We would be foolish to think that what we do here can be replicated adequately off-site, by other teachers, and/or by on-line courses. I don’t envision myself having these conversations with students in on-line courses, nor do I think we would be nearly as influential or effective in our work if we understand it as “delivering a product” off-site or remotely.
But, I don’t teach at a tony SLAC or a rich and prestigious private university. I teach at a large public uni, which puts me on the front lines of dealing with requests to authorize high school classes as comparable to university history classes. I’m certainly not defending the way we teach large survey classes here: 100 to 123 students in a class with just one grader. That’s nothing that my colleagues and I would have dreamed up as an ideal format for our teaching. (This format is the result of choices of administrators at my uni going back 50-60 years, administrators who agree that history is one of those “important” disciplines that all Baa Ram U. students should be exposed to, but it’s not so important that they need to be exposed to it in the manner of students at Wellesley, Hampshire, or Oberlin Colleges.) Even in this fracked up system, in every semester I teach my survey class, there are 30 to 40 students who sit in the first few rows, show up on a regular basis, and look like they’re following along with interest. These students tend to do much better than those in the back rows whose attendance and attention to their reading and writing assignments is sketchier. Then over the next two or three years, some of them turn up in my upper-level classes as History majors.
Cooperating with schemes like concurrent enrollment will only put historians of the future out of the kind of jobs we enjoy now, and (more importantly) deprive students of the future of the kind of experiences our students can have as history majors here, on-site at BRU. We the faculty must be willing to explain and defend the value of our work, and the difference between on-line or off-site courses taught in high schools. High school courses are a necessary preparation for college work, not a substitute for it. There’s an interesting commentary by Nancy Rosenbach and Peter Katopes today at Inside Higher Ed that argues along the same lines against the “speed-up” of high school and college education:
The emphasis in recent years, however, has been on rapid credential attainment and “seamless transitions” rather than on actual learning. For evidence of this, simply review some of the marketing claims — even from prestigious colleges and universities — which hawk convenience and speed of completion rather than the actual process of education.
. . . . . .
[A[s we have become richer, more reliant on technology, and more populist in our relationship to intellect, we have rushed to produce more graduates and forgotten to help those graduates learn to honestly value their achievement. One often-unacknowledged irony regarding this trend is that many of its exponents — that is, those same policy experts who push for speedier graduation and more degrees — seem to have little hesitation in spending upwards of $50,000 per year to send their own children to America’s elite institutions, where traditional educational values remain a significant element of the core mission.
The American ruling class isn’t sending their kids off to “concurrent enrollment” and urging them to finish in three years. They’re not taking on-line courses. They’re still going to Wellesley, Hampshire, and Oberlin, and Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, and they’re doing it the old-fashioned way. Why isn’t that good enough for everyone else?