Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Writing as discovery

For my sins, I read David Brooks's column as many times a week as it appears (and for Cosimo's sins, I often read them aloud). Usually they're not worth the energy of mocking publicly, but today is an exception, because today's column opens with Brooks telling us how to write. Worse, he's telling us how he tells his students to write:

I tell college students that by the time they sit down at the keyboard to write their essays, they should be at least 80 percent done. That's because "writing" is mostly gathering and structuring ideas.

Obscured within this idiotic and irresponsible statement are two important ideas. The first is the useful reminder that "writing" involves an awful lot of thinking (and reading and researching) that goes on apart from the time spent at the computer or with pen in hand. The second is that the structure of a piece of writing is as important as the ideas it expresses.

But for most people, writing, developing ideas, and deciding on structure are mutually constitutive and not easily separable into distinct stages. Brooks seems to believe he's giving his students the same advice as John McPhee, whose elaborate and idiosyncratic approach to structure is the subject of a long New Yorker essay from last winter. But even a casual read reveals that McPhee does a tremendous amount of writing even as he's still figuring out an article's structure. Personally, I know writers who do extensive preliminary outlining and who spend days or weeks ordering their ideas in their heads and on notecards (or dry-erase boards, or whatever), but only a small number then find the subsequent writing an efficient and straightforward process. If this is true of Brooks, then that's terrific--but it isn't really what McPhee describes and it certainly isn't true of most writers. Indeed, I've found that for less-experienced writers, a preliminary outline often winds up foreclosing possibilities: students are anxious when their ideas start to go in directions that don't fit the script, and so they decline to pursue those ideas--or they keep them, but in a structure that no longer makes any sense.

Because I actually teach students writing semester in and semester out, and because I know how inclined they are to cling for dear life to whatever pronouncements previous instructors have made or whatever frameworks they've provided (DIE, FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY, DIE), I don't say stupid shit like, "80 percent of your writing happens before you write" or "writing is just structuring ideas." Writing is how most of us have ideas, not simply the end result of them.

For my part, I teach students that structure is vitally important, but that the right structure isn't always apparent until later. It might make sense to start with an outline, but whether or not they start with one, they should take a hard look at the structure of their essay once it seems done and see what might need rearranging or reconsidering. (I tell them that I often outline my own essays only after I've written a good, coherent draft, in order to better see what the component parts are and to understand the larger logic at work; it's a way of stepping back to see the big picture.)

Writing is hard. Teaching writing is harder. But everyone who does both knows that there isn't a single right way to write--the right way is the way that works for you. We benefit from hearing about other people's processes and strategies and trying them on to see which might be helpful, but no method should be presented as definitive. John McPhee doesn't do that in his essay, and I'd thank David Brooks not to do it either.

And with that rant, I close out 2013. Catch ya on the flip side.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Irons in the fire

Among the things I planned to accomplish in the first semester of my sabbatical was a draft of one chapter of my second book. That could still happen--RU's classes don't resume until the 27th, and according to the Flavian Calendar I have until then to complete all tasks assigned to the fall semester--but right now I'm finding myself doing both more and less than focusing on that particular chapter.

In the past two weeks, I've done the following:

Continued working my way through Donne's sermons

Re-read old notes on Donne's polemical prose

Read a couple of articles on Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler

Read a couple of articles on early modern science and manuscript culture

Made some revisions to an essay on Merchant of Venice

Thought about Foxe's Acts and Monuments

Thought about All's Well that Ends Well and Jacob and Esau

Looked through some notes on Browne's Religio Medici

Read the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

In case it's not clear, most of those things aren't related to one another. I find myself working on five or six discrete projects, but none in a sustained way. It's possible that this is just procrastination from the primary task I intended to focus on--that Donne chapter--but I'm also finding, for the first time in my life, that I'm enjoying doing a million things at once.

As I've mentioned before, I prefer to be a monotasker, especially when it comes to my scholarship: I like to focus on a single project until it's done (or, at any rate, until I reach some logical or necessary stopping point). Short-term projects can interrupt, but when they do, I focus on that project until it's done, and then return to Project A. The idea of having a whole bunch of half-written articles--or conference papers that I hadn't yet developed into articles, or extensive research that hadn't even graduated to the point of being a conference paper--has always seemed about as appealing as having a bunch of cars up on blocks on my front lawn.

But here I am, having fun. I'm not sure if this is just the result of being on sabbatical and having more freedom to dabble and draw connections across disparate texts and subfields (because it turns out? most of the things I've been doing secretly DO relate to each other!) or if this, too, is a way my temperament has been shaped and changed by academia. Scholarly time is slow and long, and maybe if we're to be sustained by this life--after the monomaniacal focus on What Comes Next that determines one's progress through grad school and tenure--we need lots of disparate projects, pleasures, distractions.

I'm just theorizing, and who knows whether I'll continue to feel this way. But it's good to realize that the world won't stop spinning if I take my eye off it, and to know that I'll probably even finish most of the projects I've started. . . eventually.

Friday, December 27, 2013

College as a luxury good (now half price!)

Over Christmas there was an interesting article in the Times about tuition pricing at private colleges--specifically, whether lowering the sticker price actually makes a college more appealing to its prospective applicants, or whether it makes more sense to retain a high official price (say, $35-45K) that in practice almost no one pays. It's an especially interesting read today, as we're bombarded with ads for after-Christmas sales promising us deep, deep discounts on goods that otherwise pass themselves off as luxury items.

Since I've only taught at public institutions and I don't have college-bound children, I haven't thought much about private-college pricing; I know it's high, obviously, and I've read that even those high prices don't fully cover costs, but I did not know that very few students actually pay sticker price, especially at less-selective colleges. According to David L. Warren, of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, "About a quarter of students at independent colleges are full-pay, and at institutions with small endowments and small name recognition, it's single-digit" [as the article makes clear elsewhere "single digit" refers to the actual number of students--not the percentage of students--paying full tuition]. Financial aid at such schools is definitely not limited to students with financial need, or even those of exceptional academic achievement. In other words, the price tag at many schools is a made-up number designed to convince parents and students that a college with only a very local reputation is actually extremely selective and prestigious.

I get some of this logic; growing up, I had a friend whose dad owned an antique shop. Whenever he had trouble selling an item, he raised its price. It's easy to see why people would assume that the no-name private school that charges Ivy League rates must be providing a high-quality product; and if that's their assumption, of course they'd thrill to any discount. According to the article, a majority of the prospective families surveyed by Roger Williams University in Rhode Island reported being more interested in a college that officially charged $36,000/year but offered students an average of $13,000 in aid rather than one that charged $23,000/year.

But although everyone loves a deal, not all discounts on artificially marked-up products are equally appealing; you first have to believe in the product's intrinsic value before you care about how good a deal you're getting. If I find something I love at T. J. Maxx or Nordstrom Rack and I pay a quarter of the (alleged) retail price, then sure, I'll crow about the deal. But I care more about finding something I like, at a price I can pay, rather than any specific savings. And if even your state's most selective, public flagship university is cheaper than a small private college, it seems harder to assert that there's an easy correlation between price and value.

I also wonder how off-putting a high official price tag might be: do all your prospective students and their families know that aid is available, and how much? $23,000/year may already be too high a price tag for many students, but I imagine there are families that figure they could swing that cost, with loans and work-study, who wouldn't pursue an application at a school they believed to cost $36,000. Put another way, I'm probably not going to go into the Hermès store, on the assumption that I'd never be able to afford anything there--even on sale.

But maybe that's the point: a certain kind of college wants the kind of student who will nose around the the Hermès store, hoping for a luxury good at a discount price, rather than the one who's content buying something put out by the Macy's store brand.

Readers: do you have any experience with artificial pricing in the college market--or any thoughts about how it works and whom it appeals to?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Outsiders and natives

RU is auditioning provosts. Since I'm away from campus, I can't attend the auditions in person--but since I'm on sabbatical, I actually have the time to read through the finalists' vitae and application materials and watch the videos of their Town Hall meetings.

And I have. Watched them all.

(Listen. It's cold and it's snowy and the cats sleep a lot.)

Obviously, I'm not privy to the real meetings and interviews, and so much of what one sees in a Town-Hall style interview depends on not-strictly-relevant performance skills. I've dutifully given my feedback to the search committee, but I don't imagine that I see the full picture or that I'm the best judge. That said, watching all four of the finalists in short succession and hearing them talk about their various initiatives or the way their current institutions have handled such things as Gen Ed requirements, accreditation, or assessment, has clarified why it's valuable to hire from the outside--and why administrative turnover isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Now, anyone who's worked in a college or university knows why it's frequently a bad thing. There's a type of upper-administrator who parachutes in only to be airlifted back out a few years later; he arrives talking about "vision" and "mission," excites the trustees, starts an institute or erects a few buildings, and then--C.V. sufficiently enriched--moves on to the next job. These are what a friend refers to as "tourists at the top": people with only the shallowest interest in or understanding of their new institution, how it works, and what it might really need.

But it's certainly possible to hire a smart and talented outsider: someone who's genuinely interested in and attentive to the needs of the place that hires him, and who intends to stay long enough to see whether his ideas pan out. He needn't stay forever (there are problems with that, too), but he doesn't see himself as just passing through.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is not that administrators parachute in from outside, but that so few of the other people charged with helping the university run come from outside. Unless you're at an R1, most of your tenure-line faculty and lower administrators have probably spent the bulk of their careers at your institution. That's not a bad thing--it means stability, institutional memory, and a shared understanding of the college's identity and mission--but it limits their hands-on experience with systems other than their own. RU rarely hires at the associate or full level, and though most members of my department have worked elsewhere (either on the tenure track or off), it's not usually for very long. That means little if any service on university-wide committees, and certainly no longitudinal perspective on how certain approaches, policies, or curricula might have played out elsewhere.

Sure, we all have friends who teach elsewhere. And sure, we all do research when a change is proposed: what's the norm for colleges or departments like ours? How have other institutions handled these challenges? That goes a long way. But when all your upper administrators come from outside and very few of your lower-administrators (or committee chairs, task force members, faculty senators, and so on) do, there's likely to be friction or suspicion.

When someone parachutes in and starts talking to the natives? Both parties are quick to declare the other the ignoramus.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Students value what they're told is valuable

The first semester of my Italian class ended on Friday (and my missing group member reappeared! mirabile dictu!). In the grand tradition of intro classes everywhere, it was a bit of a party, spent watching each others' more or less inspired and more or less ridiculous presentations and chomping on homemade sweets.

Two of my classmates are graduating in December and therefore not continuing with us next semester; we congratulated them and wished them luck. Then our instructor started nudging those who aren't graduating but who hadn't signed up for the spring course on why they weren't registered. There were three or four of them, and though their exact reasons for not continuing varied, the gist in all cases was that they didn't need another semester. Most of them had never intended to take the spring course and none seemed to be reconsidering.

Now, I'm not going to beat up on these particular students for their approach to language study, even though it's hard for me to imagine what use a single semester of a foreign language could be to anyone. This is a commuter campus which serves mostly first-generation college students. Some are just doing what they have to do to earn a degree that they hope will improve their and their family's financial and social circumstances. And if they're not planning on working abroad or in international business, it can be hard to imagine a reason for advanced language study. I know these students have enjoyed the class: many of the non-continuers have been vocal in their appreciation for la professoressa. It's just not. . . relevant, you know? And they're trying to get through college efficiently and graduate sooner rather than later, and if they're not required to take another semester, why spend the time and money?

What strikes me, when I hear these explanations, is that they so closely replicate the arguments made by boards of trustees or local and state politicians. Foreign language study--or the arts, the humanities or even the social sciences--are nice for those who have the leisure for them, but our students need JOBS! And PRACTICAL SKILLS! (Note the classism masquerading as concern.) As a result, the messages are conflicting and incoherent: every institution these days claims to be preparing its students to be global citizens, but they're gutting foreign language requirements. If I'm reading the Gen Ed documents for this institution correctly, a student who has taken two years of a single foreign language in high school does not need to study a foreign language in college; all others need one year of college-level instruction. RU's foreign language expectations set a somewhat higher bar, but not by a lot.

So it's no good wondering why students "don't want" to take X or Y. When you structure your curriculum so it devalues something, you shouldn't be surprised when students don't seem to value it. Sure, student have their own passions and are capable of being set afire by this or that subject and changing their entire course of study as a result--but that subject has to exist and be visible on your campus (hardly the case when there are six or eight tenure-line faculty in the entire Modern Languages department and most of a students' peers aren't studying a foreign language). And students need to have a sense of the worth and desirability of a subject or a skill, and that usually comes from somewhere outside of them.

I don't actually think that first-generation college students (or minority college students, or working-class college students, or however you prefer to define the non-elite) are any more focused on the bottom line than supposedly traditional college students. It's just that the bottom line differs by student population: in some populations, it's considered uncool or embarrassingly ignorant not to have some familiarity with foreign cultures--or the fine arts, or whatever. It's not magic and it's not a mystery: whatever life students can envision themselves inhabiting, they'll take the courses they think they need to get there.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Two out of three ain't bad

Another authentic college experience I've had this semester: working on a major group project and having one member promptly disappear from the face of the earth.

Interstellar email also appears to be unreliable.