WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE (probably not from Ebola, though)

Opening--Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

Spreading Disease, Hollywood Style

Around 2 million people die every year in the US. About 38,000 will overdose on drugs, 33,000 will die in a car accident, 31,000 will get shot (on accident or by choice), and a little over 26,000 will fall down and not get up.

In any given year, 3,000 to 49,000 other people will die from the flu or complications from respiratory disease linked to the flu.

The rest of us will hang around for about 78.9 years until various body parts fail or our cells betray us. I don’t often wish I was 18 again, but sometimes I miss that sense of immortality endemic to youth.

Shortly after I started teaching literature, I had a student ask if all “great” literature (his air quotes, not mine) were about death.

Of course not, I told him, but death and taxes are the elemental constants of human existence. Taxes you can avoid if own a multi-national corporation with off shore offices or you have a Congressional patron allowing you to shirk your duty to America and mooch off your fellow Americans.

Death not so much.

You, I continued, are sitting in this 8:00 am class, listening to me prattle on so you can earn 3-hours of credit, so you can get a college degree, so you can get a good job, so you can buy a house, so you can subscribe to a good cable package, so you can stock a little mini-fridge full of beer and yet, before it’s all said and one, you’re going to die.

Death isn’t a question of if. Just when and how. Don’t get excited, though, if you don’t snort some coke, throw back some shots, and then drive 100 mph waving a gun around the car, you’ll probably be around for the midterm. Please study.

By the way, thanks for spending what might be your final moments with me. I hope you get your money’s worth.

Of course, I should have also said if an airline pilot, beaten by a rogue, genius gorilla trained in James Franco’s attic takes an international flight after a nose bleed, then WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.

From the simian flue. Or the SARS. Or the HIV. Or the bird flu. Or the Ebola. Or whatever turned everyone into zombies in the Walking Dead. 

Feel free to skip the final is that happens. 

Sell your stocks. Stockpile tomato sauce, pickles, and fruit cocktail. Bury your gold. Use your book as a fire starter. Literature matters, but when the apes take over, knowing how to find Shakespearean allusions in Sons of Anarchy won’t help you survive.

He never asked another question in class.

I’ve written before about the 24-hour news cycle and the impact social media has on public perception of information. If aliens landed in America (and any of them weren’t shot or put in deportation centers near the border), they would assume America was in the midst of an Ebola pandemic.

Ban travel, Republicans say. Appoint an Ebola Czar, the President says. It’s a conspiracy, my crazy cousin says. “Obama is from Africa. Ebola is from Africa. I’m just sayin’.” Blame the Center for Disease Control, blame Budget Cuts, just be sure to blame some one before we all die!

It’s enough to make me wish Justin Bieber would punch someone so the headlines would change. Maybe President Obama will do us all a favor and hold a latte while he salutes the Marines to give the folks at Fox News something else to talk about.

Honestly, I don’t want to downplay the danger of Ebola (or any other infectious disease) and I understand that by definition something infectious can spread without warning. Around 4,500 people have died in Africa, and we have a moral obligation to help countries not as fortunate as us contain the disease. We also have a vested interest in working to solve world-wide medical crises. This disease can be isolated and contained.

But our political leaders also have an ethical responsibility to calm down just a tad. I realize that American politicians seem to have the emotional stability of a teenager on prom night, but can we at least pretend to care about the facts?

ONE person has died in America from Ebola.

One.

I’m no math major, but that seems like a relatively small number.

So far in America, there have been two infections. Two is really just another way of saying a couple, which is still not many. I haven’t even had to use all the fingers on one hand, yet.

We also know that Senegal and Nigeria have been declared Ebola free, and the Spanish nurse who contracted the disease has tested negative.

I’m not really one for big, sweeping declarations, but even though we’ve cut the CDC budget by almost 50% since 2006, and, as Judy Stone points out in her Scientific American article, we’ve politicized science funding to the detriment of our preparedness, we still have the best medical facilities and infrastructure in the world.

America is uniquely capable and prepared to stymie infectious disease outbreaks.

If we can keep our wits about us and let science work.

No offense Senator Cruz, but until I see the MD after your name let the experts do their jobs.

Like many of you, I’m growing increasingly weary when politicians turn things like Ebola outbreaks in Africa into an opportunity to score political points at home. When Rick Perry had to stand as the voice of reason in your political party, you know things are going off the rails.

Travel bans weren’t a good idea under President Bush (because they don’t work), and they won’t work any better under President Obama. ISIS is not gathering at the US/Mexico Border with vials of Ebola ready to infect Americans with rapid fire sneezing. We don’t need an Ebola Czar to coordinate our Ebola response because a private hospital in Dallas didn’t follow protocols. How much is this guy going to get paid to tell hospitals to follow protocol and why can’t I apply for that job?

What we really need is someone to reassure us tell us that yes, we are all going to die (but probably not from Ebola) and probably not today.

Celebrate the Small Victories

I’ve often thought we should treat academics a little more like athletics and last night watching the National League Playoffs reinforced that idea. I’ve been conferencing with my first year composition students on their second essays. Three days of repeating concepts I’ve been discussing for 2 months makes me question my teaching ability (and my sanity), but I like to meet with the students to individualize the comments. Here, I might say, is a spot you need to work on. We can talk through a process that might work for each student.

Meeting one on one, though, also lets me point to small successes (and sometimes they are very small, mind you), but these little victories are easy for students to overlook when they get focused on the final result. We’ve trained them, it seems, to focus on the end result at the expense of the small tasks that get us to the finish line.

As the Giants stormed the field after Travis Ishikawa’s walk off home run last night, we could see the unbridled enthusiasm of a job well done, but we saw that same excitement throughout the game. Every time a player performed the crowd celebrated in the moment. The tension was palpable even in my living room 2000 miles away and every single play mattered. Imagine, I thought to myself, if my first year composition students could generate such enthusiasm every time they wrote an insightful thesis sentence or a well-developed paragraph instead of being obsessed with the final grade.

We see this celebration week after week in sports. Football players chest bump after a hard hit, soccer players high five after a great pass, baseball players tip their caps after a diving catch–Imagine how different sports might be if we waited until the end of the season to celebrate these moments. Last night’s crowd would only cheer after the game when we found out if that diving catch in the second inning helped the Giants win. Instead, we celebrate in the moment not months later after we have a chance to average out the plays to see if they players made progress, find out if they were consistent, or see if they can perform some routine plays in a high stakes tryout. Sure, we might say to Adam Wainwright, you threw strikes all year, but we need to test you one more time to make sure the previous 25 starts weren’t a fluke.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this idea before, and Bill James, in his Slate article “Verlander and Shakespeare” makes a similar argument, wondering why we are so good at producing athletes yet so bad at producing writers. He argues we should begin identifying writing talent earlier and creating opportunities for those kids to earn money and receive recognition quicker. Doing so would create competitive advantages for kids and, he implies, help us see writing as something worth developing. In essence, we should, James argues, begin treating elite writers the way we treat elite athletes.

There’s a lot to like about James’ argument and I’m always amazed how shy we are in our schools about celebrating superior writing and other academic achievements. Understand that I’m not talking about overall, long term academic achievement. We have dean’s lists and honor societies. Schools have banquets at the end of the year celebrating top 10 percent students and other academic achievements. These are often formal, sophisticated affairs where we treat academic achievement with a kind of gravitas we think lends it importance. Polite clapping isn’t exactly infectious enthusiasm.

Grades and academics are, we seem to say, above emotion, as if somehow and for some reason intellectual achievement is devoid of passion. More importantly, as James points out, we celebrate academic achievement after the fact with end of the year awards or recognition at graduation. Delayed gratification that leads to apathetic dissatisfaction.

I recognize the larger cultural context and the stereotypes. I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people assume a smart kid is athletically inferior or an elite athlete lacks intelligence. Athletes and their supporters who mock non-athletes with superior (and often threatening) comments annoy me to no end, but I’m just as frustrated by intellectuals who refuse to recognize the value of athletics within the larger cultural pantheon of human identity. Sports matter and I have little patience for those who dismiss athletics (and athletes) as irrelevant simply because we celebrate their success more than we deify great writers or brilliant mathematicians. Intelligence and athletic ability aren’t mutually exclusive.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewarding long-term achievement and consistent academic excellence is great. Straight A students have proven they value the life of the mind and they have the discipline to work for excellence. They are the little mini-Derek Jeters of the academic world and we owe them our respect and sometimes understated, sophisticated humility befits the serious life of the mind.

But, we also need to let our bacchanal tendencies out of their cage a little more often in the classroom. It’s time for us to stop shying away from their daily intellectual successes and begin celebrating more like athletes.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I’m talking about pen flips after we turn a phrase, fist pumps when students ace that test, and even end zone dances when you know you’ve nailed that lecture on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

“Booyah! The l=2w + 3, biotch! Come back when you have some real algebra questions.” Spike the pencil to the ground and strut out of the room.

“I got your rhetorical devices right here! Let me know when you have topic where I have to be critical and think, cuz right now you’re just embarrassing yourself.” Flip the pen and high five the class as you go out the door.

I’m not talking about a Tiger Woods fist pump for turning in papers or putting names on the paper. We don’t chest bump just because the off road bike rider follows the trail to the end or when the volleyball player stays in the proper rotation. We celebrate beating the time trial for that section or earning the point that serve.

Passionately recognizing success isn’t about rewarding people for doing the ordinary. Do average work, and you don’t get the victory hug.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to start spiking the chalk after an insightful comment and pumping our fists when the numbers all fall into place during class. After all, if it’s okay for the baseball player, it should be okay for the scientist too.

Cousin Eddy and the Union Blues

Clark's_Rant

Clark Griswald’s Rant–Christmas Vacation (Click to view)

Around the beginning of December each year, my family and I nestle on the couch and celebrate the coming holiday season by watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Chevy Chase’s slapstick-driven look at family holiday gatherings always seems to strike just the right chord between cynical and sweet. Chase plays Clark Griswald, a man whose expectations and desires to celebrate the holidays with kith and kin collide with the realities of family squabbles, ageing relatives, annoying in-laws, yuppie neighbors, and squirrels running amok in the house. Easy to dismiss as an anti-Christmas movie, Christmas Vacation lampoons cultural representations of families with a smile on their face and a song in their heart during the holidays. The movie offers, instead, a comedic look at the tensions holidays create while still valuing the core need to gather with our families around the hearth at certain times of the year.

But the movie is about more than cousin Eddy holding out for a management position or Clark enduring Uncle Lewis’ smelly cigar.

Chase’s movie is also a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attack on the soulless corporate world that puts the bottom line before the worker. Mr. Shirley, Griswald’s boss, is a man who values efficient production and investor profits over employees. Enrollment in the Jelly of the Month Club (see the video) might be the gift that keeps on giving, but such a gift is a scant reward for company loyalty and dedication.

At least Christmas Vacation ends happy. The American middle class, folks like Clark Griswald, might not be so lucky as they witness their power–both politically and economically–shrink each year.

Or, to put it more accurately perhaps, the wealthiest American’s are increasing their wealth, the poorest American’s are falling farther and farther behind, and the unlucky saps in the middle are hanging on for dear life. Most of us know this intuitively when we pay bills each month, but if you want evidence check out Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s slide show, look at the charts from the World Income database, consider that those of you earning $68,000 make more than 75% of the population, and realize those of you making $160,000 are richer than 95% of your friends and neighbors. Anyone earning $300,000 feel super-rich? You should because you are in the top 1% of all wager earners.

In the meantime, Clark Griswald’s boss, the man who changed cash bonuses into a Jelly of the Month Club membership, earns 350 times more than the average worker and his salary increases while Clark’s remains flat.

Criticism and distrust of American corporations is nothing new, of course. Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” ends with the narrator lamenting his own inhumanity when the bottom line conflicts with his ability to serve as his brother’s keeper. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street takes a scathing look at greed and American culture, and Mike Judge’s 1999 Office Space satirizes the de-humanizing impact of cubicles and management drones.

This tension and interplay between worker and owner (or the bourgeois and proletariat) created labor unions, workers who banded together for fair labor practices, safe working conditions, and a living wage. Profits were shared among the workers and management. If pay and work conditions became untenable, unions joined together to strike, demonstrating the power of the working class.Unions and their corporate counterparts worked throughout the years to create a vibrant and powerful American economy. In our golden age, wages were more important than stock value for anonymous shareholders.

Until now.

At the risk of confusing correlation and causation again (see my post from last week), I can’t help but notice that American workers have lost wages and power in equal proportion to the collapse of labor unions.  Edward McClelland, over at Salon.com, offers some basic facts. In 1965, McClelland tells us, $2.35 (starting salary for shoveling taconite) was enough to pay rent and buy a car. That $2.35 would equal $17.17 in today’s wages, almost $10 higher than minimum wage.

I don’t think anyone would argue someone could pay rent and buy a car on $7.25 an hour.

Labor unions, at their heart, offer workers collective bargaining, recognizing that the value of any company is determined not by the person in the corner office sitting in a leather chair, but by the worker shoveling coal, writing reports, and interacting with customers. When profits are shared fairly, America’s economic boat rises in equal proportion.

Somehow, though, American voters and politicians turned union into a dirty word. President Reagan, friend to almost no one who didn’t live in a gated community, convinced too many workers to turn their backs on their own best interests. In a show of solidarity with the corporate owners, he broke the air traffic controllers union, proving that government really was part of the problem not the solution. Ironically, we named an airport after him but that’s a different blog.

As importantly, President Reagan obfuscated the conversation by emphasizing social issues over sound economic policy. We became obsessed with the welfare queen who might be getting an extra $40 more food stamps while the corporate executive was finagling another 30% more in tax cuts.

Meanwhile, union membership dropped dramatically and Republican politicians, buoyed by redistricting and corporate donations in the 1990s, trumpeted the free market, off shoring, and corporate welfare.

Wages froze. The middle class shrunk. And Walmart took over the world.

Even now, as the economy recovers and unemployment drops, wages are stagnant. Fast food workers are demanding a living wage and prices for gas, utilities, and other essential goods and services are rising faster than our paychecks.

Yet, we are all single voices raised in competition with each other, fighting over limited resources regulated by owners who control both the mode of production and the product.

In Clark Griswald’s world, cousin Eddy, a big, bulging man in a blue polyester suit, has to kidnap Mr. Shirley to remind him that “Sometimes things look good on paper, but lose their luster when you see how it affects real folks. I guess a healthy bottom line doesn’t mean much if to get it, you have to hurt the ones you depend on. It’s people that make the difference. Little people like you.”

The rest of us don’t really have to rely on kidnapping (or blue leisure suits). We just have to remember that divided we fall. United we stand.

Correlation Isn’t Causation But Sometimes It’s Close

The recent report from the SAT folks comes as no surprise to those of us teaching first year courses at American public universities. The quality of student writing has plummeted over the last 15 years. Gone are the days when my class grades resemble anything close to a bell curve. Of 51 essays this semester, 26 earned Ds or Fs. Understand that I’m not some unreasonable jerk when I grade papers. I have a clear set of guidelines and reasonable expectations for first year college student writing based on skill sets students will need to succeed both at the university level and after college. Despite what my current students think, there was a time when I recorded double digit As and Bs in English 1301.

The problem with the essays isn’t necessarily critical thinking skills. Eighteen year old thinking hasn’t changed all that dramatically over the course of time. Much like I was back in the day, 18 year olds are vague, focused on being the hero of their own narrative, and they have a difficult time thinking about the world outside of the limited sphere of their experiences. There might be more to the world than is contained in their philosophies, but damned if most of them are much interested in exploring that planet. Such things are reserved for older, more mature people like professors and parents.

Instead, what has changed dramatically are the number of students who struggle to write complete sentences, follow any logical grammatical structure, or recognize the way words work. Language, as I’ve written before, helps us organize the world. Grammar serves as a shared system allowing us to communicate and, hopefully, understand content and intent. “Rules” can change over the course of time, but that change comes slowly and represents cultural shifts in the way we think and communicate. In essence, things like commas serve a purpose beyond indicating the moment you ran out of breath while reading the sentence. If not, smokers, asthmatics, and distance runners would never understand each other’s writing, and lord knows how the slow-breathing yoga instructor might write.

I realize I sound like a grumpy old fart who is arguing that back in my day, kids where smarter (and stay off my lawn you whippersnapper). We are seeing, though, evidence that this trend isn’t just my imagination.

Terrence Stutz, writing for the Dallas Morning News, tells us “Students across the U.S. saw their scores in math drop slightly. But the long-standing achievement gap between Texas and the nation grew significantly this year.”  In fact, as you dig deeper into the numbers (provided in a chart at the bottom of Stutz’s article) you can see Texas SAT scores consistently below the U.S. average with increasingly precipitous drops in recent years.

The falling SAT scores mirror declining scores on the ACT reported last year. 

I admit that test scores only tell part of the story, but we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore that part of the story. Test scores like the SAT and ACT do provide us with long-term comparisons since the exams remain largely the same over the course of time. Hence, generational shifts in performance indicate trends worth noting.

In many ways, though, what’s notable about the declining test scores isn’t the slow but steady drop in performance over the last 9 years.

Instead, we are afforded an opportunity to review the failure of political philosophy writ large on our educational landscape. Texas, as you see from Stutz’s article, is under performing in relatively dramatic ways. We are, it seems, racing our way to the bottom. Texas consistently ranks nearly last or in the bottom half of almost all educational rankings, including spending per pupil.

We are, it seems, getting what we pay for each and every year.

While our state leaders attribute the declining scores in Texas to an increase in students (in particular low performing students) taking the exams, Stutz shows us that California (yes, Governor Perry, California) is outperforming Texas, even though our test takers have a similar demographic make-up. In other words, when you control for increased test takers and ethnicity, California is out performing our students. I wish our Governor was as eager to compete educationally as he is when he tries to lure new businesses to Texas.

If we can’t take the easy way out and blame minority students, perhaps we can at least recognize the correlation between Republican educational policy and academic achievement.

The current class of students taking the SAT and ACT tests were born in the mid-1990s. Despite a slight rise in math scores a few years ago, test scores have been steadily and consistently trending downward.

George Bush became Governor in 1988. Republicans seized control control of Texas politics with their gerrymandered districts after the 1990 census. In the last 24 years, every major political office in the state has been controlled by a Republican. School funding has been cut per pupil every legislative session. Our small government Republicans have demanded increased “accountability” and emphasized a desire to create “efficiencies.” We’ve been requiring minimum skills testing (TAKS, STARR, etc) at astronomical rates because, in many ways, our state leaders have almost no faith in school teachers to do their jobs, and we have a Texas Board of Education that has grown increasingly politicized and exerted greater and greater control over text book and curricular decisions, spending hours upon hours demanding science classes teach creation theory (a religious belief that by definition depends on faith) instead of teaching actual science.

Can we finally recognize those are failed policies and ideas? We have test scores from a generation of students who were educated under our Republican state leadership (and No Child Left Behind–President Bush’s signature education reform based on his policies as Governor of Texas). The results aren’t pretty.

Education is a messy and difficult process. Teaching requires patience, time, and an ability to recognize standardization reaches the middle. More importantly, when we rush the process, we skip the essential and fundamental skills students need to organize and articulate ideas. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers, loss of autonomy, and the politicization of education under our Republican leaders has left my students unprepared and with false expectations. Just as importantly, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest see returning to the classroom as a viable career choice. In essence, we have less well prepared students taught by increasingly incapable teachers.

I fully understand that correlation isn’t causation; however, correlation does matter.

Our Republican leaders in Texas are more than happy to take credit for unbridled growth in incomes among our wealthiest citizens and for our better than perfect business climate. It’s only fair, I say, they shoulder the blame for the consistent drop in the quality of our students as they move into the university.

Educational achievement is complicated and we can rarely attribute success or failure to one single moment in time, and I don’t pretend that I have the solution to what ails us.

But, I do feel pretty confident I can tell what doesn’t work when I start grading papers each semester.

Putting in Your Oar (and hoping it doesn’t break)

I started blogging a couple of years ago after interviewing Jeffrey Lyons during the Holland Symposium on American Values here at Angelo State University. Lyons was in town promoting his newest book, a collection of news articles his father wrote for the New York Post from the mid 1930s to the early 1970s. His father, Leonard Lyons, wrote about the New York night life, capturing the famous and infamous as they cavorted through the clubs and bars of the Big Apple. The stories capture an age when we could idolize the rich and famous without being overwhelmed by the scandalous and tawdry. Stars still held a kind of mythic and heroic quality we longed to admire from afar instead of eviscerate on the knife edge of social media.

Lyons, a movie critic and author himself, told our audience that his father wrote 1000 words a day, six days a week. His book, Stories My Father Told Me, Notes from the Lyon’s Den, pulls together many of those articles, serving as both a nostalgic journey and a tribute to his father’s insights into the world.

Of all the interesting things Lyons offered during the interview, the sheer volume of his father’s writing fascinated me the most. A thousand words a day, 6 days a week, on a typewriter without the benefit of spell check or other green squiggly lines warning him about various grammatical and mechanical mistakes struck me (still strikes me actually) as tremendous.

So, naturally, I decided to find out if I could do something similar–because why not engage in a tortuous exercise simply to prove a point. The first couple of months, I matched him word for word.

If you look at the dates of my last few posts, though, you’ll see I have fallen off the pace, if, in fact, two posts a month can even be considered a pace.

In my defense (or, at least, in my rationalization), my day job, unlike Mr. Lyons, doesn’t require that I go to bars and then write about those adventures. Instead, I spend time grading freshman essays wishing I was in a bar.

I also spend time writing memos, going to meetings, preparing for classes, watching my son play baseball, binge-watching Breaking Bad, and writing blog posts in my head.

Trust me–I’ve written some really good ones. Some of them are the best ideas I’ve ever heard are rattling around between the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and occipital lobe with a few still stuck over in the corpus callosum.

Finding the time and energy to get those ideas from the inside of my head to my fingers, however, has proven a bit more difficult.

Writing, I tell my students every semester, is a difficult and complex process. The words we choose and the manner with which we present them offers our readers insight into our selves, something we usually don’t know as well as we might think. More importantly, though, writing exposes both our strengths and weaknesses to an audience with whom we might not feel comfortable. When we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), our ideas become part of a public act open to acceptance or derision, something Kenneth Burke, in The Philosophy of Literary Form, describes as an opportunity to “put your oar” into the river of conversations surrounding us. (Insert joke here about our first year students being up the river without that proverbial paddle.)

Yet, writing the blog, even as unevenly as I’ve done here of late, allows me to feel some greater sympathy for my students. Those conversations Burke describes seem so tranquil in his description. He tells us to “Imagine that you have entered a parlor.” Eventually, you catch the “tenor of the argument” and put down that oar. “The hour grows late; you must depart,” Burke writes, “with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

What’s a parlor, my students ask, and why in the world would I leave just because it gets late?

If writing is an articulation of our ideas and a way to organize the world through language, what happens when the world seems increasingly disorganized and we have a decreased facility with language? The river of conversations, it seems, has turned into rapids, fraught with boulders of confusion. Battling through those sounds, finding your place in the conversation in Burke’s mythical parlor, becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming.

Admittedly, many of the confusions and distractions littering the river of conversations around us are of our own invitation but such has become the parlor of our daily lives.

Yet, I tell my students, when we  enter that parlor and join the conversation, the world becomes that much clearer. Likewise, when we lower the oar and set the canoe on a straight path, we create order in the midst of that chaos. Sure, we might stumble walking into the room or our muscles might get sore from all that rowing, but those are small prices to pay for the reward.

Plus, sore muscles are a sign of growth if we work them out again soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inflatable Education

I rambled my way through a discussion of grade inflation in my last post. Spurred by an article in the San Antonio Express News that argued our “consumer-based” culture has turned university classrooms into the proverbial easy A, I spent about 1000 words almost making a point. The issue, I argued, wasn’t necessarily economic so much as a pervasive cultural rhetoric where grades are so de-valued in favor of standardized testing that we might as well hand out A’s and avoid the hassle of upset students.

At least, that’s what I think I wanted to say.

As we hurtle toward another school year and I consider what I want my students to learn this semester, I necessarily have to think about how I will measure their success (or failure) by December. Grading, for better or worse, is always on my mind and I want to beat this dead horse one more time.

The data shows that grade inflation exists at the university level, although it is far worse at elite, private schools with high admission standards. Universities with lower admission standards and community colleges tend to show a slower grade creep, although we are seeing some inflation. My guess, and I haven’t delved into the data, is that we see grade inflation at the lower end of the scale at these schools. In other words, even in my own classes, I zealously guard the A, but I’ve probably loosened the reigns on the B and C some.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m an outlier, and my guess is we will start to see grade inflation increase (get bigger? blow up?) at public universities in the coming years with an increasingly high number of students receiving higher and higher GPAs. In many ways, the cultural trends I mentioned before will help fuel this grade inflation, but there are some other driving forces.

1. High school expectations will continue to make life difficult for college professors. Accountability and assessment have forced public school teachers to create rubrics, learning outcomes, and, in many ways, to oversimplify the skills and thinking we expect from students. I maintain that accreditation is the greatest threat to academic freedom we will see at any educational level, but the drive to create transparent grading expectations for students over-simplifies our ability to measure what students learn. My students arrive with a pre-conceived notion that an effective essay (a 3 or 4 on a state test) needs to include items that fit on a table/rubric. We’ve turned learning into a checklist of skills that discounts intangible, difficult to measure thinking and development. Common core goals, competency measures, and standardized learning treat intelligence as if it’s simply a dot on the data sheet. In much the same way that these efficiency measures rob teachers of opportunities to create and develop ideas, they encourage our students to see learning as something devoid of creativity and, in many ways, humanity. We might all have individual talents in this world, but, we seem to tell students, you better make sure your talents align with what everyone else can do.

2. Business and political leaders continue to push for college readiness for all high school students. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen an increasing number of students who, for all intents and purposes, see college as an extension of high school. College, what we once referred to as higher education, is a right, something that they think should be publicly funded and with the academic support that will ensure they both graduate and get a job in four years. Businesses that require a college degree for jobs that really don’t need such a degree or who demand a BA or BS for promotions drive this idea. Our growing cultural disdain for manual labor and skills-based “dirty” jobs doesn’t help. Too many high schools have eliminated Industrial Arts and Trade Programs in favor of Student Leadership and other such nonsense classes such that we not only push kids toward college, we create a culture of shame for those who don’t really want to spend four more years reading history books. Simply put, business leaders should begin creating paid internships and training programs instead of relying on colleges to help raise the next generation of workers.

3. I’ve written before about the trophy culture. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind giving every kid a ribbon if we also give those who perform at a higher level the biggest ribbon. But, there is no denying that our emphasis on rewards has re-defined excellence in American culture. Many of my students see a C as a failing grade. You can scale up from there. Essentially, failure is not an option or, in some respects, even a real concept for many students. They have never not known success in school. If they failed an exam or an essay, they had extra credit, revision, or a make up opportunity. Failure isn’t a challenge to improve; it’s a commentary, for many of them, on failed instruction or expectations.

4. Every time a college student fails, a faculty member gets raked over the coals by a politician. College completion rates have remained steady over the years but we are seeing more and more states tie funding to graduation and retention rates. The net result, of course, is that universities will become so focused on graduation rates and learning outcomes they will begin to deny access and opportunity to larger and larger segments of the population. Worse yet, the political discourse rarely holds students accountable for failure and they create a monetary reason to lower standards and increase pass rates.

Certainly, I’ve oversimplified the issue and I’m guilty of a reductive logic that might earn my students a C, but I do think that when we couple the four things above with a pervasive political hostility toward higher education, we create a generation of students who see college as a right and passing grades as something they deserve.

And, at the end of the semester, I’m not sure they will get what they deserve, but I do think they will start to get what they want more often than not.

Give Everyone an “A” and No One Gets Hurt

My second year of teaching as a graduate student, I had a student march to the front of the room after I returned their first essay of the semester. “You can’t,” he said with a barely masked measure of contempt in his voice, “give me this grade.” He held the essay toward my chest and lightly shook the paper. “I’ve never made a C in my life. My high school English teacher read this before I turned it in and she thought it was as good as anything I’ve written before.”

At the time, I was still full of idealistic good will. I offered to reconsider the grade. Perhaps, I told him, I read your essay late at night and missed some of the finer nuances of your style. I imagined that I was defusing the situation and also reinforcing the idea that the class was a place to share ideas, reconsider our initial thoughts, and recognize rhetoric was, in fact, a potential area of confusion and mis-communication.

Thank god I outgrew such naivete. Twenty-something years later, my first comment when a student accuses me of giving him a grade is to talk about the difference between earning grades and receiving them.

I did not, all those years ago, change the student’s grade. After re-reading the paper, I quickly realized that any areas of confusion and mis-communication were a direct result of the mish-mash of words and ideas he typed on the page. I also had strong doubts about either his high school English teacher’s competence or his honesty regarding her response to his essay.

The student complained to my supervisor, his mother called my office and the department chair, and, all in all, I spent more time on that one paper than I spent grading every other essay that semester. Combined.

The student, by the way, dropped my class.

Either way, I was, in many ways, fortunate when I started teaching. Our supervising professor and the director of first year writing classes was a man who steadfastly refused to let us inflate grades. Certainly, he would tell us, it’s possible 50% of your students are writing A essays, but it’s also possible 50% of you will all get rich as English professors. Learn the difference between possible and probable quickly, he said.

He held us to a fair standard and insisted that we do the same for our students. We must, he would tell us, maintain expectations of excellence and insist those earning a college degree meet those expectations. If not, we should sell diplomas in the back of magazines or on the street corner like counterfeit watches.

Despite his best efforts, though, grade inflation is “rampant” in America’s educational system according to Catherine Rampell (“Grade Inflation Rampant”). Rampell echoes data and information from Stuart Rojstaczer over at Grade Inflation.com, a scholar who notes that grade inflation is pervasive at private schools with high admission standards but not public universities with lower admissions standards.

As usual, such a distinction is important and begs us to ask Rampell if grade inflation is rampant at all universities or just the Ivy League schools, schools that only make up .4% of the undergraduate population in America but, it seems, 90% of the news related to higher education.

But enough about the chip on my shoulder when critics of higher education assume what goes on at Harvard goes on at Angelo State.

Either way, Rampell concludes, agreeing with Rojstaczer, that our “consumer-based culture” has helped fuel these rising grades. Essentially, as tuition has risen, students expect more bang for their buck and, in their minds, they are paying for high grades. Learning is secondary to the endeavor, and grades, Rampell says, have become currency in higher ed.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t dispute the data, and fully recognize that grades are inflated even at public universities with lower admission standards. I feel certain that average GPAs, especially in certain disciplines, are higher today than 25 (or 50) years ago, but I’m not necessarily buying the conclusion that our consumer-based culture is driving this increase. For the most part, student’s relative, real-time costs are stable because financial aid and student loans are also increasing. In other words, while the gross cost of tuition is up, the net cost remains the same.

To be fair to Rojstaczer and Rampart, both do recognize that the issue is complex, but like most criticisms of higher ed, neither includes the political and business climates that also impact students’ relationships with higher education.

In particular, we have seen a consistent barrage of criticism and a belittling of educators and teachers over the last 25 years. Our politicians decry the state of public education, throw money at charter schools, meddle in teacher training programs, and under-fund public schools. More important, the partisan disaster that is Washington has leaked onto our school boards and State Education Agencies such that we elect members to the State Board of Education based on their political affiliation and stance on abortion not their understanding of pedagogy or learning.

Students spend twelve years in schools where teachers feel increasingly excluded from the decision making process. Worse yet, accreditation and accountability requirements have created common course and discipline-wide teaching requirements that turn teachers into automatons parroting common-core goals and lessons. Teachers have simply become middle managers who exist to help students move from one standardized test to the next. Grades, those tools teachers use to measure student performance, matter less and less at the pre-college level because they have become meaningless.

In other words, our desire for efficiency and accountability has robbed teachers of spontaneity, creativity, and power.

Students, however, enter colleges empowered, pushed to become active learners, and, quite frankly, comfortable in their own intellectual superiority. They live in a world where we feel compelled to test them every year and trust the scantron instead of the teacher’s grade book. You don’t have to a valedictorian to realize where society places its values and upon whom our trust rests. If, a student might ask, I’m passing my standardized test, who are you to give me a low grade?

After all, my student from 20 years ago might say, “You can’t give me a C on this paper. I’ve never made below a 4 on my state mandated writing sample and my Facebook friends read the paper. They thought it was the best thing I had ever written.”

This time, though, I might just give him the “A” and grade the other essays.

College Guide

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