May
4th 2010
Notes on class

Posted under: American history, class, local news, students

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?

16 Comments »

16 Responses to “Notes on class”

  1. Western Dave on 04 May 2010 at 8:31 am #

    I teach at one of those tony private schools. I would say that in our current freshman class, about one-quarter of our kids will have taken one of these offerings or something like it, before they graduate.

    http://www.cty.jhu.edu/ctyonline

    Johns Hopkins is a leader in offering quality content to high school students. Some of those courses offer college credit, some don’t. My students who have taken the courses (in Math, Chinese, and Economics) say the quality of instruction is very high.

    My argument all along has been that this is the way the ritzy private schools are going. I think colleges that are early adopters of the model and provide a quality product. It’s a pretty good bet that some of the kids at Swarthmore who are trying to balance doing a degree via external exams with study abroad are trying to figure out how to Skype into their honors seminars.

  2. Matt L on 04 May 2010 at 8:46 am #

    I have an idea, why don’t high schools, not tony prep schools, but normal high schools actually teach what they are supposed to. Based on what I see every fall in my intro-level Western Civ survey, at a state university, students are struggling with basic competency in reading and writing.

    I am in the middle of reading final exams. The vast majority of my students are freshman and sophomores. Anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 write a remedial level.Yet they all graduated from reputable high schools without being able to write a grammatically correct sentence or structure a paragraph.

    What is the matter with asking the High school teachers to focus on doing their job of instead of doing mine?

  3. Historiann on 04 May 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Matt–I’m assuming that most high school teachers are trying their best. But your point is still valid: if there’s either need or demand for more challenging history courses, then teach them but for H.S. and not college credit.

    There are a lot of students who still need help with their reading, writing, and mastery of basic historical facts–why all of the emphasis on the students who are at the higher end of H.S. achievement? What about those who won’t go to college? Why don’t they deserve some resources and TLC, too?

  4. Roxie on 04 May 2010 at 9:11 am #

    “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.”

    With you one hundred eleventy percent on this one, as you know, Historiann. I guess the frustrating thing is knowing that faculty are willing to explain and defend — and, in fact, are doing so, eloquently and passionately, in books, blogs, and columns in the Chronicle and, ahem, IHE, every single day — but the message never seems to get through. Do we need to stop and ask to whom we need to be explaining and defending and how we might go about that more effectively? I have been mystified for, like, a quarter of a century now at how it is that such smart, articulate people do such a rotten job of advocating for what they do. The messages I see in the books and blogs are so much more compelling than the administrative pablum that serves as the official communication of most institutions — You know, “Step right up and get Excellence Without Money, right here at Cash-Strapped Big State U!” We’ve got another, better message, but to whom should faculty be speaking, and how do we reach them?

  5. Notorious Ph.D. on 04 May 2010 at 10:24 am #

    Thank you for that final statement. In addition, I’d like to ask: what is the value of finishing school more quickly? What does that say about what we expect students to get out of education? If “getting done” has become the ultimate goal, then education itself has become an unpleasant chore.

  6. Matt L on 04 May 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Hey Historiann, I do not mean to sound down on High School teachers. I have several in my extended family and several of my favorite students went on to teach high school and middle school social studies. I know that they work hard and do their best with the resources they have and the place where their students are starting at.

    A agree with you about making sure the majority of students get some attention, especially with fundamentals like math, science, readings and writing, whether or not they go to college. They majority of students are not well served by the current high school system. Many of them are not challenged at a level appropriate to their skills and abilities.

    As your post points out and Western Dave’s comment illustrated: The wealthier kids, they get theirs no matter what. And as best I can tell, programs like AP, concurrent enrollment, and in Minnesota Post Secondary Option Education (PSOE where high school students take college courses, the school district pays the tuition and students receive both high school and college credit!) mainly benefit the children of the wealthy and well connected.

    So lets take some money from these programs and direct it towards students from the middle of the grade curve in High School and the middle income bracket. Lets teach them them how to read, write, and do calculus in high school.

    I had a student that struggled with the essay portion of the midterm this semester. She/he came to see me in office hours to talk about the essay so he/she could do better for the final. The student complained that at his/her school ‘up north’ the teachers did not prepare their graduates for either college level writing or college level math. It was only after reaching college did he/she realize how much was missing from his/her high school education. The student was upset, because the adults in the school had let him/her down.

  7. Comrade PhysioProf on 04 May 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Why isn’t that good enough for everyone else?

    I think you’re very confused, Historiann. These are the offspring of the Galtian ubermenschen you are talking about. These people rightfully occupy the upper stratum of our social and economic world because of their superior intelligence, drive, and productivity. The kinds of education appropriate for the children of the less productive and vibrant members of society simply would not be suitable for them.

  8. thefrogprincess on 04 May 2010 at 11:42 am #

    I think the issue of the quality of high school education inevitably gets to the testing question. I’ll admit that I can be very hard on the high school teachers who are unqualified and who don’t care. But I also had enough high school teachers who were excellent and many of those who might not necessarily have “rocked my world” still took their jobs seriously and competently got through the curriculum. Yeah there might not have been any bells and whistles in my 9th grade English class but my teacher got us through the material effectively and he taught us MLA citation format. (It did not escape my notice when I was in my college freshman writing course how many of my classmates had never learned any kind of citation at their fancy prep schools.)

    But the sense that I’ve been getting lately is that teachers and curricula are suffering at the hand of all of this end-of-year testing, which privileges math, science, and reading over history and writing. Should we be surprised that students come to us without a solid command of grammar and basic paragraph structure when the most important method of assessment is multiple-choice tests? I have a friend who’s almost ten years older than me. She remembers grammar being an integral part of her schooling. My high school years were the beginning of the testing craze in my test and I can count on one hand the number of weeks spent on grammar in high school.

    I’m sorry if this is a bit off topic but I wonder if we’re not running up against some other noxious trends in this conversation.

    (And yes, I’m with Notorious in wondering why finishing quickly is such a virtue.)

  9. Canuck Down South on 04 May 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    ““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.”

    With you one hundred eleventy percent on this one, as you know, Historiann. I guess the frustrating thing is knowing that faculty are willing to explain and defend — and, in fact, are doing so, eloquently and passionately, in books, blogs, and columns in the Chronicle and, ahem, IHE, every single day — but the message never seems to get through. Do we need to stop and ask to whom we need to be explaining and defending and how we might go about that more effectively?”

    I think the “to whom” question might be the biggest part of Roxie’s post–do all the columns in the Chronicle, IHE, etc. just lead to more preaching to the choir, and if so, how do we (as academics) reach a larger audience to show how big these problems are? Does it mean somehow finding time to talk to high schools, local media, etc.? It sounds like most of us know what the solutions to these problems are, but the academic community as a whole hasn’t figured out a way to publicize them in such a way as to get support for positive changes. Basically, does anyone know how to articulate the problems plaguing higher education to a larger audience in such a way as to incite the support for the changes that are needed?

  10. Mamie on 04 May 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    “why all of the emphasis on the students who are at the higher end of H.S. achievement? What about those who won’t go to college? Why don’t they deserve some resources and TLC, too?”

    Ahh, but Historiann, at least one of the districts offering concurrent enrollment credit in HS is intent on creating an “AP culture”–meaning ALL students will take AP courses.

    It is undemocratic of you to suggest that some students won’t go to college, just as it was undemocratic of me to insist that to teach history at the college level, one ought to have studied history. (Heck, I’d say that to teach history at the HS level, one ought to have studied history–but that ship has sailed.)

  11. Historiann on 05 May 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Sorry to have checked out yesterday, folks. I think Roxie and Canuck Down South ask great questions: given that we’re all right on the issues at stake (not to mention brilliantly persuasive), why isn’t anyone listening? Who should we be talking to?

    I’m afraid I don’t have any terribly original or bright ideas on this. But, it seems to me that we can learn from a very wise bumper sticker I saw once, which said, “Think Globally/Act Locally.”

    Faculty need to raise these issues with their Deans and Provosts on a regular basis. As we all know, there’s a lot of turnover in administration, and new administrators have new agendas and introduce new ideas and pressures into the mix of concerns for other administrators. I think being consistent defenders of the work we do and its value to our students is something we can’t just do with one letter or one speech and then forget about it because we’re over it. I think those of us with tenure especially have to be unafraid of claiming the high ground and defending it boldly against these attempts to suck on the teat of public higher education for free, and without having passed the most basic requirements for admission.

    There’s no one else who will do it for us, and administrators (even those with the best of intentions) can’t be expected to do this without direction and support from the faculty. Quite frankly, I don’t see what’s in cooperation with concurrent enrollment schemes for my college any more than for my department, but the Dean can’t be expected to do all of this thinking and strategizing without some sense of where the faculty are.

    So, go ahead: be a broken record, a bee in someone’s bonnet. Embrace old crankdom. I wish there were more of us, but until there are, we have to stand and fight.

  12. takingitoutside on 05 May 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    In a weird way, I think the push to take college courses in high school has to do with the relative importance/stature that college has. Everyone knows that the pre-collegiate school system isn’t exactly great, so taking college courses must be better, no matter how it’s done, right? It’s still alright to spend lots of time in the best colleges – the Ivies, some of the Seven Sisters, et cetera.

    I think that spreads to high schools as well, to some extent. My parents got me out of a bad middle school as quickly as they could, but then made me spend all five years at a good middle school and one of the best high schools in the nation (I wanted to skip a few grades). I ended up taking seven AP courses in high school and a number of non-AP courses that were generally considered to be as rigorous as the AP’s. However, “AP” and “college-level” really meant “not pathetically easy”. I didn’t get college credit for any of them. We always regarded them as not so much a replacement for college courses as an interesting/challenging set of high school courses. Maybe the answer to people trying to push college into high schools is to push for higher high school standards.

  13. Sincere Sally on 12 May 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Hello, all –
    This may be an overly simplistic observation, but it seems to me that, if the level of education supplied by the high school in question has been a sufficient preparative measure for the individual, then there should be no reason why they can’t take courses at a higher level. Though I may be getting at a concept slightly dissimilar to that which Historiann discusses, I think that as long as the student hasn’t been subjected to the will of an adult who projects their personal goals for the pupil’s accomplishment onto someone who shouldn’t have to bear that expectation, then there is not much reason to debate the matter. A bit of this I take from my own experience, it is true; as a high school student, I hope to partake of a concurrent enrollment option this coming schoolyear at CSU in the Languages department, having already been the recipient of many years of language education. I am (therefore) of the opinion that, as long as the class builds on a basis of established knowledge, concurrent enrollment in both high school and college classes can be enormously beneficial.
    -S.S.
    (Ending on a different note, as a small aside to Historiann, I hope that you are doing well!)

  14. Historiann on 13 May 2010 at 5:56 am #

    Sincere Sally–in cases like yours, why shouldn’t you just come to campus? That would be a genuine college experience. Those of us on campus wonder about what would really be happening in classrooms that aren’t ours. And as many of the comments here testify, it seems like students aren’t well served by concurrent enrollment programs, because they aren’t truly college level courses.

    Failing that–and recognizing that getting to campus would pose a big interruption in the rest of your school day–your school could offer advanced courses for advanced H.S. credit. All of the college professors here are all for students taking more challenging courses–but we’re skeptical of the real value of H.S. classes taken for college credit.

  15. Sincere Sally on 13 May 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    To Historiann –
    Please excuse me; I think that I may have had a different concept in mind when I read “concurrent enrollment.” Though I admit to being unfamiliar with the system under which students take classes that aren’t, in actuality, college classes, and may fail to meet the standards of the traditional college system, my impression was that, when participating in concurrent enrollment, the student would be able to participate (physically) in both high school and college classes. In my circumstances, my high school doesn’t offer any further education in language, other than the same level class under the IB instead of the AP program. This being so, I have dropped the language from a high school perspective and hope to study this coming year at CSU (for two days each week, after school) under either of two wonderful professors that I have been acquainted with for some time. And though I’m a little nervous about being put in a very different learning environment from the one that I’m used to, I definitely look forward to my first encounter with college; from the sound of it, there are a great variety of extremely interesting areas to study, as well as a good life experience to be gained.

  16. We haz mad skillz : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 21 May 2010 at 8:37 am #

    [...] of Brooks’s column, but I can’t let this dig at history majors slide by.  I’ve already described the value my senior seminar students found in being a history major at ….  How would you add to that?  (We might expand that to humanities majors in general, rather than [...]

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