The Best Choice Might Be No Choice

Earlier today, I had a grandfather stop by the office on a reconnaissance mission for his grandson. He was here, he said, because his grandson is undecided on a major, isn’t a very goo'Students who major in these subjects have a 7% less chance of moving back in with their parents after graduation.'d student, but he needs to get started with classes this summer. “We told him,” grandpa said, “if we’re spending $100,000 on your college degree, you need to get going.”

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud grandpa’s willingness to be actively involved in his grandson’s college education, but I can’t help but wonder if little junior didn’t wish granddad had a different hobby.

I also want to know who manages his retirement portfolio if he’s got that kind of bank to spend on his grandson.

Grandpa was particularly concerned that junior doesn’t know what he wants to major in when he starts college. Like so many folks who talk about educational indecision, though, he followed his concern by telling me “Not that I knew what I wanted to do at 18.”

Neither do most college freshman, I told him. Anywhere from 20-50% of entering freshman are undecided about a career path. Close to 75% of college students change majors at some point in their college career. You can’t hit a faculty member on most college campuses who didn’t change majors at least twice.

Like grandpa at 18, most students don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. For many students, their decision about that first major is made based on peer pressure, parents’ expectations, social media, or fear of being indecisive. As importantly, high schools can’t expose students to all the possibilities that exist, and heaven help students from low income, disadvantaged schools. We know those limitations inhibit their understanding of where they can go to college and of the possible fields of study.

I don’t blame them for not knowing. Here in Texas, we’ve decided that students should choose a graduation path that forces students to choose one of five Endorsements. As 9th graders. Because we all know what great judgement 15 year olds have. These kids can’t decide how much body spray is appropriate, and we want them to decide between a STEM path or a Public Services path. In the name of efficiency, though, we want to be sure there no children left behind and there are no wasted classes. What happens, inevitably, is that students choose the endorsements that make the most sense based on the world in which they exist. Forget the tyranny of low expectations. We’re facing the an educational fascism in the name of efficiency.

Heaven forbid some student accidentally find out there’s more to heaven and earth than contained in his parent’s or his neighborhood’s philosophy.

Understand that I’m not completely against efficiency, although I think more people need to remember what it’s like to be 15 (or 18). More importantly, we also need to keep in mind that education is a messy process filled with discovery and failure. The goal of education isn’t to see who finishes the fastest.

Anyone with kids (or who’s been around kids) knows that given a chance their interests change over time. We also know that our teenage aspirations don’t always match our abilities. There’s plenty of data out there showing that college students change majors because they realize their abilities don’t match what their parents, friends, or grandparents wanted them to do with their lives. If you can’t pass College Algebra, you aren’t likely to be a doctor no matter what dad wants. By the same token, if you are a math wizard, maybe you should consider Physics, even if you’ve never met anyone with a Physics degree or mom wants you to be an English teacher. Or, as I recommended to grandpa, maybe if the thought of sitting in a classroom four hours a day sounds about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, you might consider some sort of skilled trade. Last time I checked, apprenticeships don’t cost $100,000.

Most importantly, though, I reassured grandpa that he won’t be wasting money if little junior shows up on our doorstep without a clear career path. In fact, there are some interesting data sets out there showing that students who choose a major after their first semester persist at higher rates than those who chose a major before starting college. This is particularly true at universities who treat the first year as an exploratory opportunity. The path to degree, in fact, might be more efficient if we let students take some classes to find out both what they enjoy and what they do well before we demand they pick a career. (After all, not many kids tell you they love the classes they failed.)

Taking this approach, though, would require that we stop pushing students to make decisions about what “path” they want to pursue before they’re ready. Sometimes, after all, no choice is better than any choice.

 

 

 

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Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Listen to Country Music and other random thoughts today

Some days the easiest blog is one that requires the least amount of thinking.

  1. Michael J. Petrilli over at Education Next writes in “Common Confusion” about the disconnect in parent’s ideas beliefs about their children’s academic performance and the reality of college-readiness. He argues that we must do a better job of providing realistic and honest feedback about academic performance. Too often, students go through school being told they are doing fine by teachers and getting good grades on report cards. While standardized tests could provide a wake-up call, too many parents dismiss those reports as unfair, arguing little Johnny isn’t a good test taker. Even more important, there’s no real information those mandated tests that tie the score to long-term academic performance, even though those scores often provide us with a pretty solid sense about how a student will do in the future. I can’t really argue with Petrilli’s idea that we need to be more open and honest about the gap between college aspirations and college readiness. We can start by reminding everyone, parents included, that a C equals average and average doesn’t equal failure. Most of us have strengths and most of us have some areas where we’re average. Being okay isn’t the end of the world. For most teachers, though, handing out Cs (or Ds and Fs) often leads to angry phone calls from parents that are often not worth the hassle of handing out failing grades. What I do like about Petrilli’s argument is the idea that defining the gap between college aspirations and college readiness might (and that’s a big might) spur parents to push for resources that will help unprepared students close the gap. However, I think Petrilli falls into the same trap that too many of us slide into, though, by ignoring that no matter what we do every child doesn’t need to go to college. Perhaps, instead of only identifying the gap between college aspirations and college readiness we should also use those standardized tests to reshape some aspirations and encourage kids from an early age to focus on skilled trades, military, or entrepreneurial opportunities that don’t need a college degree.
  2.  For a mere $425, you can buy jeans caked in fake dirt from Nordstrom’s. At the risk of sounding reductionist and immature, that’s the dumbest damn thing I’ve heard all day (and I work with college freshman). For my money (or someone else’s because I like to get my jeans dirty the old fashioned way), this is a bit like buying a Cadillac truck. If you want a truck, buy something you’re going to use. What’s next, a hammer pre-nicked, sold with fake bruised thumbnails and a list of cuss words to read in public? Of course, the jokes probably on all of us folks giving Nordstrom’s free publicity.
  3. Phillip Levine’s “Only a Misunderstanding of What College Really Costs Could Have Produced New York’s Flawed Plan for Free Tuition” is so much cleaner than my blog from the other day about the flaws in free tuition. The reality is that while college is expensive, actual tuition costs at many universities across the country aren’t nearly as exorbitant as most people think. Like the gap between college aspiration and college readiness, we have a perception gap for college students. College isn’t necessarily a place to go party, live on your own for 4 years, and rack up college debt. If you can’t afford $425 jeans with fake caked mud, don’t buy them. If you can’t afford $48,000 a year in tuition, pick a different college, live at home, and work part time to pay your bills. I understand the desire to move off, live on your own, and party with your dorm mates. Those are all valuable experiences, but flying to Paris and staying in a 5-star hotel is a valuable experience, too. Unfortunately, not all of us can afford such extravagance. Pick a college within your means (like Angelo State!). You’ll get a great education at an affordable price that ends with a college degree. Isn’t the degree the point anyway?
  4. Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to listen to Country Music, unless you want them to learn all about how much fun it is to smoke pot. You read it right: Rock and roll might want your kids to rebel and fight the man, but Willie wants them to get rolled and stoned. Far be it from me to point out the contradictory nature of a genre that pretends to focus on family values and patriotic fervor (unless your an all woman band who offers political commentary). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since so much of contemporary country music is really pop-light anyway. Either way, mom and dad, dust off those Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Brahms albums. Those guys might have been radical, but at least they didn’t ruin any songs with bad lyrics or drug-references.

If You Learn, You Earn

CollegeMany states, in response to a demand for more college graduates at a lower cost, are pushing, proposing, and implementing free tuition for students in their states. The state of New York entered the fray recently, promising free tuition to students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. The most notable caveat to their plan is a requirement that anyone who gets that tuition break has to work in New York for a certain amount of time or pay back the benefit: nothing like a little 21st century indentured servitude to remind us how difficult economic mobility is this day and age.

I’m not going to pretend that free college tuition doesn’t have it’s appeal. As a college professor and dean, I recognize and believe in the value of higher education, and I’d have to be obtuse not to see that rising costs are problematic for students and parents. In fact, various surveys tell us that incoming college students and their parents see finances as the biggest impediment to earning a degree. Declining federal and state aid forces students to choose between working more hours or accepting student loans. Worse yet, federal financial aid formulas (FAFSA) that determine non-loan aid amounts and eligibility are often ridiculously out of touch with the actual reality of most family’s pocket books.

Realistically, we can’t, despite what too many politicians argue, create efficiencies that significantly reduce the cost of higher education. Certainly, we could eliminate all college sports, multi-cultural centers, weight rooms, climbing walls, Tutor Centers, and other “wasteful” amenities to offer a bare bones educational opportunity. Doing so would save students money, but at the risk of stating the obvious, people’s loyalty to the University of Michigan, Texas A&M, and other major universities isn’t because of their English departments. 102,000 people don’t show up to cheer a great performance in the physics lab. The reality is that students often choose which schools to attend based on the very things that are inefficient and costly. I’ll also remind everyone that there are hundreds of colleges that aren’t UT, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. The rest of us are scraping by, scrimping and saving, with faculty and staff regularly working overloads. Not many of us are making six-figures and working 30 hours a week. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certain any organization can find ways to cut costs, but there’s not as much fat at most universities as people imagine.

It’s also worth noting that there already exist low-cost educational opportunities. Students can attend community colleges for two years and then chose four-year universities with lower costs. Some might even choose an online university like Western Governor’s University, although last time I checked WGU’s tuition and fees are not that radically different from tuition and fees and many public, regional universities. Technology doesn’t necessarily equal lower costs. Students who are trying to pinch pennies can live at home, assuming, of course, that there is a college within driving distance of their home.

Free-tuition, though, isn’t the solution. At the risk of stating the obvious and insulting anyone’s intelligence, “free” tuition isn’t really free. Much like all those free-use parks in towns across America, someone is picking up the tab. We just aren’t charging you every time you go down the slide.

While I don’t necessarily prescribe to the idea that you get what you pay for, I do think that paying for things adds value. As importantly, earning a degree or certificate benefits both the state and the individual. Paying for college is an investment and last time I checked no one was voluntarily dumping money in my 403B retirement account, giving me free housing, or picking up the tab for lunch. Because they cost me, they have value above. More importantly, I have to work to earn those things.

The first step to our college cost problem, though, has nothing to do with students. We must, as some point, return funding levels from federal and state governments to their 1980 levels. When I went off to college in 1987, government funding for higher ed equaled around 80%. Students had some skin in the game, but anteing up wasn’t cost prohibitive. Various figures and agencies tell us that for every dollar we invest in education, we get a $5.00 return. I’m no financial analyst, but long term a five to one return seems pretty solid.

Notably, though, the return on that investment only occurs if students graduate from college, though. Regardless of degree, college graduates have a lower unemployment rate and have higher lifetime earnings.

Since, from the state’s perspective, graduation is the end game, I’d like to see us develop a funding model that reflects and rewards students as they get closer to graduation. In some ways, I think we can follow the way many athletic programs award scholarships. The lowest scholarship amounts occur the first two years. As you show you can perform, we start raising your funding and lowering your bill. After all, we only get a return on our investment if you actually graduate. Additionally, as courses get more difficult, labs longer, hours in the library basement researching esoteric and difficult ideas increase, students need more time working on college than flipping burgers. Essentially, we’re going to increase your up front cost, but we’re also going to reward you for performance and reduce your back end costs once you prove you will be successful. I realize some students might have to delay the start of college to earn a little money or they might have to work their first two semesters, but for my money completion is more important than easy access.

Any scholarship and grant model has to be predicated on elected officials funding higher education at acceptable levels, recognizing that students who graduate with degrees (or certifications demonstrating mastery of skills that help them get employed) are beneficial to the larger social good. If we continue to defund higher education, we’ll see higher student loan debt and continue with stagnant graduate rates. In today’s dollars, funding from the feds and the states hovers around 35%, pushing the other 65% on to the backs of students and their parents. Let’s start by flipping those numbers, charging students tuition their first two years and then slowing phasing out their costs the closer they get to graduation. We can reward those who demonstrate the ability to learn with the potential to earn.

At that point, I suspect we can let those New Yorkers move anywhere they want. Heck, we’ll even let them move down here to Texas. Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

Random Thoughts about Things I Read Today

I was going to spend today writing about dual credit, but I got bored and spent my time reading various articles online.

  1. Justin Peters gives the Bill O’Reilly story the “no-spin” explanation it deserves in “The All-Spin Zone: Bill O’Reilly’s long career of transforming B.S. into “common Read Tweetssense.” Like so many other things lately, too many of us underestimate the appeal of Fox News and it’s television hosts, Peters says. O’Reilly speaks to an aged viewership who appreciates strong opinions and paternalistic “straight talk:” Correctness is less important than certainty and, Peters argues, gives rise to Trump’s successful presidential election. I agree. As the world gets more complex, people want to believe the solutions are simple and easy. “Elites” like Obama and Clinton bloviated, spun, and obfuscated. O’Reilly, for his faithful viewers, cut through all that BS for common sense solutions. Watching O’Reilly, for me, was always a bit like watching a talking WWE episode, but I’m thankful for O’Reilly’s career because he gave us the Colbert Report.   Interestingly, commentators like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have an out-sized influence based on the actual number of viewers and listeners. (FYI–if you don’t follow ratings, the NBC Nightly News has about 10 million viewers a day.) Any post about O’Reilly also needs a shout-out to the advertisers who pulled their ads as a way to stop supporting a many accused of such abusive behavior. Of course, I’m sure the sting of unemployment is soothed by his $25 million pay out.
  2. After spending time reading about Bill O’Reilly this morning and then sitting in an hour and a half meeting, I read (with a great deal of longing) Forbes “The Best Places to Retire in 2017.” The mind and body are willing, the 403B isn’t. I’m looking forward to reading about Forbes best places to retire in 2037. That’s painful to write. I’ve reached a point in life, though, were retirement becomes this actual thing instead of some abstract concept in the long-away future. I particularly like that the list seems to privilege college towns and lower cost housing. Retirement isn’t just about money (thank goodness). Keeping costs down, having easy access to medical services, and living someplace with low cost entertainment matters.
  3. The Texas Senate has advanced a bill to gut the top 10% rule. These types of bills pop up every couple of years. For those of you outside the great state of Texas, years ago the state mandated that state institutions automatically admit any student who finished in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. The idea was to create diversity at public institutions without requiring race-based admissions. Using high school standing takes into account the impact race and economics has on ACT/SAT performance and rewards good students from bad high schools with automatic admission to a state institution. Of course, both the U of Texas and Texas A&M have waivers. For those of us at mid-sized regional universities, gutting the top 10% rule would help as those students who weren’t admitted to UT or A&M would be forced to go with plan B and attend less expensive, high quality regional universities. Works for me. I’m weary of our state representatives writing bills and higher ed policies based on what works at UT and A&M and forgetting the other colleges in the state. The current budget proposed anywhere from 4% to a 10% cut for higher ed, cuts that some of smaller schools can’t absorb. In 2001, the state portion of higher ed funding was 65% and students paid 35%. Today, those numbers are reversed, even as our legislators tell us they want more graduates. We’ve done more with less for so long, I fear we’re about to do less with almost nothing.
  4. If you have a chance, read Adrianne Jeffries’ “How Google Eats A Business Whole.” After, try not to get worried that we’re giving our entire lives over to machines that will control knowledge and truth. Reminisce about the good old days when Bill O’Reilly was around to tell you what to think. If you haven’t read Dave Eggers’ The Circle (read a great review here and an old blog of mine here), check it out. His novel (spoiler alert!) is about how social media has infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life. (Hopefully, the movie will live up to the novel.) Jeffries’ dos a nice job, unintentionally, of showing exactly why it’s so difficult to teach research skills to students these days. Who are the experts? How do you trust data? Where is truth (or truthiness for any Colbert fans out there)? As importantly, we probably need to start paying more attention to the way social media, information aggregate sites, and invasive data purveyors shape ideas and impact business. In the meantime, I wonder what google has to say about dual credit?

 

 

 

 

Declare Those Pennies on Your Eyes

IRSWriting about taxes on tax day seems so intellectually lazy. Complaining about our complex, confusing, largely unequal, and definitely incomprehensible tax system simply doubles down on the cliche. After all, American’s don’t agree on much, but I think it’s pretty universal that the systems by which we collect money at the local, state, and federal level have become so bloated and outrageous that the only people satisfied are politicians sucking at the public teat and tax accountants who try to guide the rest of us lost souls through the process. Apologies to tax accountants for tethering you to politicians.

Yet, here I sit the morning after our college-age son had to pay 10% of his pretty meager “income” to Uncle Sam after filing his taxes last night. Both our boys worked hard and earned generous academic scholarships. Instead of forking over tuition dollars, I’ve been able to buy a big screen t.v.  (Who says reading to your kids doesn’t pay off!) Last night, though, as my younger son completed his taxes, we found out that scholarship money above and beyond tuition, fees, and required books counts as taxable income.

Really? Somehow, some hair-brained numbskull in our nation’s capital decided that we really need to go after all that extra money full-time college students are pulling down in their spare time between classes. Can’t let those crazy kids live too high on the hog, after all. Better declare those pennies on your eyes, as George Harrison says.

I’m not trying to express some sort of Unabomber outrage. I’ll willingly admit that I do think people need to pay their fair share in taxes. For my money, our taxes give us access to goods and services that make America great, and we need to share those costs. At the risk of oversimplification, it’s much less expense if we share the cost of military protection among the all 300 million of us than if we all form our own isolated feudal compounds and hire our own protection. Public schools, public roads, consumer protections, and thousands of other “goods” work much better when centralized and when costs are shared. Having healthy debates about what those shared costs should be is worthwhile (and, in theory, something we do every election cycle when we vote for candidates based on their debates about the issues–ha, ha, ha!).

As such, I don’t mind taxes on goods and services, property taxes, or other taxes associated with my choice to consume various goods and services. I think it’s worth reminding everyone that rich and poor, citizen and alien, old and young all pay taxes into the system simply by living and consuming in America. Likewise, I have no issues with federal taxes on income, capital gains, inheritance income, and I fully support requiring that all workers pay into the federal system, even if that amount is as small as 1% of earned income. There’s nothing wrong with ensuring everyone has a little skin in the game. I’ll even admit that I’m a fan of a progressive flat tax system with limited deductions to avoid letting the government pick winners and losers based on who hires the best lobbyists.

Full-time students should have access to that limited set of deductions. My son pays taxes when he buys his books, pays for food, and pays rent. He, like any full-time student moving toward graduation, has limited earning possibilities, though, if he’s going to take enough classes each semester to graduate in four years. Those students who work, like my older son who covered his living expenses as a student, pay taxes every paycheck, but they (usually) get a refund at the end of the year because they don’t earn much.

For students who earn scholarship money above and beyond the cost of tuition, though, the tax bill hits even if the amount above and beyond is the same as their colleagues who work. My son last night paid 10% of his scholarship to Uncle Sam. I’m sure if there’s a CPA reading this blog you can tell me there was IRS Form 666 or something we could have filed, but my son shouldn’t have to do do. Likewise, my older son, once he marks full-time student on his W-2 should be exempt from having money withdrawn. He shouldn’t have to wait for a refund. Let’s put money in the pockets of those citizens who need it the most, especially those who are working to improve their futures (and future earnings).

Like so many other things, we can’t trumpet the value of an education and then actively work to make earning that degree difficult. Students who earn scholarships are being paid to do well in school. That money isn’t income; it’s a long-term investment. After, Uncle Sam’s going to get his eventually, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of the Industrial

A few weeks ago, my wife asked our sons if they wanted to move to Denver for the summer. Jobs, she said, are plentiful if you’re willing to swing a hammer, climb on a roof, or lay some bricks.

It’s no secret that we’re facing a shortage of construction workers across America. Tradesman International points out that nearly 80% of construction businesses are having a hard time finding workers. Most major cities are experiencing construction slowdowns simply because there aren’t enough skilled (or even unskilled) workers willing to take the jobs available. Home buyers and business feel the impact as construction costs rise, buildings take longer to frame and finish out, and builders can’t maximize profits because they are forced to take on fewer jobs.

And heaven help home owners searching for a contractor to perform relatively small remodel jobs. While I’m sure Home Depot and Lowes appreciate a skilled worker shortage that forces home owners to attempt various DIY projects (and then re-do the DIY project after the tile is crooked, the door falls off its hinges, or the sink sprays water to the ceiling), it seems to me we’re reaching a critical point where we don’t quite appreciate the art of the industrial.

Understand that I don’t think the emphasis on a college-degree or college-ready high school programs and skilled trades are mutually exclusive. There’s no reason we can’t have philosophers who can weld (or welders who are philosophers for that matter).

I realize that the shortage of workers is caused by some complex factors. We know, for instance, that many potential construction workers will choose oil field work over framing houses. I suspect, and this is a subject for another day, that the demise and demonization of unions has had a negative impact on skilled workers’ earning potential. It’s also fair to recognize the cultural shift that’s taken place over time. Many parents who did hard, grueling blue-collar construction jobs did so hoping to create more white-collar opportunities for their children. For an entire generation, sending your kids to school was a way to show you and yours were as good as anyone else. Those issues and ideas are no small things. The lure of indoor work and air conditioning aren’t to be dismissed lightly.

Stand by Me

Click and go to 1:17: “We’ll be in the shop courses with the rest of the retards making ash trays and bird houses.”

But I think it’s also fair to say that we’ve done a pretty fair job of hiding the value of the industrial arts. There’s no doubt that 30 years ago, “shop” classes were often viewed by school administrators as a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t “college material,” a kind of code filled with racial, economic, gender, and other covert biases. You didn’t often find the bank president’s son or daughter learning how to be a mechanic.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case in education, we decided to throw the baby out with the bath water and phase out industrial arts classes, shop classes, and other trade specific programs.

And here we sit. Builders can’t find bricklayers and the rest of us have to wait a three months for a contractor to bid on a kitchen remodel (and six months for her to finish the job).

At the risk of sounding naive or offering a simplistic solution to a complex problem, I wonder why we don’t reinvest in industrial arts classes and make those classes a mandatory part of the curriculum in junior high and high school. Doing so would show our students that we value the skills learned and, most importantly, expose entire generations, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, to basic skills that complement reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students who want to work with their hands would have a viable path toward a career choice just like those students who want to study finance, education,  medicine, or the liberal arts. As importantly, students who might never consider the craft of drafting, the importance of wood grain, or the dangers of acetylene would have a chance to understand the complexity of skill required to build something. Algebra is complicated and hard, but so is framing windows for a house.

Plus, every parent, grandparent, or guardian in America would have at least one homemade footstool to display proudly.

These two educational paths aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no reason a student who excels in industrial arts shouldn’t take calculus, college-level writing classes, or physics. In fact, I’d love for my plumber to be a math whiz who can communicate well because he’ll be more likely to understand the slope required for the refuse to get from the toilet to the sewer line. At the same time, how nice would it be if my loan officer also had at least a passing understanding about how much skill was required to put that sewer line in the ground correctly?

Too often, though, we devalue one of those skills in favor of the other, arguing that everyone needs a college education to succeed. Don’t get me wrong. As a dean at a public, four-year university, I love having students choose college, but I also know that we have a sizable chunk of students whose skill levels and talents lie in other directions. I applaud those universities and community colleges who are finding ways to provide skilled trade programs while also teaching the traditional core curriculum. Students shouldn’t have to wait until college, though. Instead, maybe it’s time we open those paths sooner. Or, at the least, stop pretending like it’s not worthwhile path to follow.

 

 

I Need Help With My Commas

commasAnyone who has put pen to paper (or fingers to plastic in this day and age) will admit that writing isn’t always a joyful experience, and those of us who read student writing for a living will happily tell you that reading ain’t no walk in the park either.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, writing’s difficulty stems from the tension between the author’s intent and the reader’s expectations. Typing a blog entry to an unnamed, faceless audience is different than emailing words of wisdom to my son later today. While both may go unread (especially the email), we know that familiarity changes our expectations. My son has been hearing and reading me for 22 years. We have a shared linguistic system that allows for short cuts, unconventional phrases, and allusions that are largely incomprehensible to people outside our family. When I write to him, I can anticipate exactly when he’ll roll his eyes or sigh loudly enough for his co-workers to wonder if that spreadsheet he’s reviewing is really that boring. When we blog, however, that shared history disappears, creating a far different experience. The “wisdom” I pass along to my son might be annoying advice to him but to strangers those same words might be pedantic simplicity.

Student writers experience this same issue. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, I think, to say that kids today don’t read and write. In fact, one might argue that they read and write far more than past generations. Between texting, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and whatever cool, groovy social media app went viral this week, these darn kids are reading and writing more than ever. Like every generation, they’ve also adapted language to the medium and the audience, creating new rules and discarding old ones in favor of communicating an idea quickly and efficiently. (Of course, if you’re over 45 you might argue with my use of the word “idea” to describe what’s being communicated.) They’ve taken slang, something us old folks like to complain about all the time, into the written word as opposed to speaking on the street corners or into the telephone. The problem, perhaps, isn’t that they don’t read or write, but that they don’t read and write the “right” things or the “right” way.

Unfortunately for students, I’m starting to think the tension between audience and author grows increasingly difficult to maneuver, precisely because they are writing more and reading more. When a student shows up to my office and asks for help with his commas, he’s worried he can’t fit his ideas into this archaic system we call standard written English. As professors, we know our students need access to the language of power and that they wd b wel srvd learning how to wrt using all the letters, commas, & capital lttrs some stodgy, old manager expects. We also know that grammar helps organize thoughts but we are loathe to admit that sometimes those commas and other punctuation marks arent as important to meaning as we might think. Can we really make the case anymore that understanding how commas works is always essential to meaning?

Our students have been communicating via the written word since their thumbs were coordinated enough to text, retweet, or chat. Don’t get me wrong. As the little cartoon above shows, sometimes we need commas to avoid sounding like cannibals, but perhaps we should also admit that all commas aren’t created equal and maybe our students need less help with commas and more help with context.

 

 

 

 

 

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)