Yelp with Care, Candy from the mouth of babes, Chris Cornell, & other random thoughts today

Academic standing posted at Angelo State yesterday. Like anyone else tasked with talking to students who earn their way onto academic suspension, I was yelled at, hung up on, and, I’m sure, called all kinds of mean, nasty, and ugly things behind my back. At least no parents have called me yet this semester. I try my best to be calm and understanding with students. They are, I silently tell myself, still 18 and 19 years old and being suspended is an ominous and an outward (and kind of aggressive but well-earned) condemnation of their academic behavior. To paraphrase a Keb Mo’ song: everyone likes to party, but no one likes to clean. Behavior has consequences for the students, and if they party too much, someone has to clean up the mess. At ASU, we’ve simply decided there’s a point at which we can’t keep taking a student’s money if he can’t pass any classes. There’s something flat-out dirty about letting a student rack up thousands and thousands of dollars in debt when she can’t pass classes. For some of our students, though, being suspended seems like the end of the road. When they call, if they don’t hang up on me first, we discuss options. There are, after all, plenty of other jobs in the sea, other universities to attend, and plenty of people live worthwhile and happy lives without a college degree. Sometimes, I tell them, relationships don’t work. This is one of them, but the world is a big place full of opportunity if we can learn from our mistakes and fall forward. We’ll still be here, I say as nicely as possible, if you ever get ready to read those books and do that math.

Day two after academic standing is usually less about anger and more about deal making. Everyone in this world, including college students, wants justice until they decide they really want mercy.

Fortunately, the internet is always around to provide relief in between sob stories. A few random thoughts about some stuff I read today:

  1. Be careful what you Yelp. I’m sure you’ve seen the article about the Yale Dean whose insensitive Yelp reviews have left her boss “grieving” and “unable to envision a way forward.” First off–grieving? Geez. How about mad? Angry? Disappointed? Don’t get me wrong, I fully support Dr. Chu’s First Amendment right to be as insulting and insensitive as she wants. If I were a betting man, I would guess Dr. Chu will send us a press release apologizing and telling the world she was trying to be humorous. Heck, if that excuse is good enough for the president, should be good enough for a Dean from Yale. First Amendment or not, though, words have consequences and if you work in a profession entrusted with educating young minds, you don’t get to tweet racist, classist, and other stereotypical comments that insult the very students you are supposed to educate. Simply put, as college leaders we have to be better than that and I get so frustrated with colleagues who can’t, or won’t, recognize that everything we write (including things like this blog) reflects on the university where we work. That doesn’t mean we can’t write about complex and difficult subjects. I have every right in the world to blog about Donald Trump, Fox News, Barack Obama, race, abortion, Elvis-sightings and any number of other controversial issues, but I have a responsibility to do so with a keen eye on the public nature of the writing and with a clear sense that our role as educators is to conduct ourselves in a manner that represents the values of truth, intelligence, and ideas. I might think Donald Trump is a horrible president and I might think he’s dumb as a box of rocks, but I can’t tweet that Trump should hang or call him a moron without offering some intelligent reasons why. Our job, in the classroom and in public forums, is to model behavior. You might think Seth Abramson is a crazy person, but he’s not threatening the president, and, by all accounts, he keeps his political thoughts out of the classroom. Most importantly, he believes in something and he’s developing an argument, not posting threatening tweets or insulting Yelp reviews. I would never accept an essay from a student that posited simplistic and immature ideas. I demand they make an assertion, develop, and defend with evidence. Most importantly, I tell them we need to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold everyone else. That goes especially for those of us in academia. So. I’m not grieving for Dr. Chu. I’m upset that she’s not savvy enough to recognize that calling people white trash and morons in Yelp reviews is inappropriate and makes the rest of us hard working college professors look like elitist, uncaring dorks.
  2. If you missed out on Girl Scout cookies this year, I think you can blame the person in this mug shot. A friend of ours sent us the link. Forget the story, though. Read the comments on twitter. Sometimes my faith in humanity is restored when people get clever without being mean and degrading. She stole 6,000 boxes of girl scout cookies. The jokes almost write themselves.
  3. I was never a huge Audioslave or Soundgarden fan, but I hate that we’ve lost another huge voice from the music world of my youth. Chris Cornell helped define the grunge movement and tapped into an angst those of us in the mid-80s felt about the world. Musically, those bands fought against the increasingly global record chains and fused punk, rock, and any other kind of music they wanted into songs filled with emotion and rage against the man. Indie music lovers of the world need to thank them everyday. They fought the good fight. Eddie Veder and Kurt Cobain sang with a raw emotion, but for my money Cornell was the guy with a voice. Don’t believe me? Take a listen to his rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and you decide.

 

 

 

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I don’t think that word means what you think it means

inconceivable

From the Princess Bride–one of the great movies of all time

In the world of higher education, twitter has been abuzz the last few days. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) released its 51st annual “American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016” survey. The survey of over 130,000 college freshman provides “data on incoming college students’ background characteristics, high school experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations for college.” For those of us tasked with understanding how to help students persist toward a degree, the report provides both a valuable snapshot in time and an important way to measure consistency over time.

The report is chock full of great data, but the big story engaging news agencies is the apparent political “polarization” of incoming first year students. Only about 42 percent of students self-identify as middle of the road. According to the report, a higher percentage of female students self-identify as far left and more male students self-identify as far right. Visualize much hand ringing and angst as people envision a giant schism between the genders.

Except maybe not.

At the risk of oversimplification, we probably need to take a deep breath and not hit the panic button just yet. As much as I value the information in the HERI survey, we are reading self-reported survey data gathered from 17-18 year old incoming college students who have grown up in a world where the very terms “liberal” and “conservative” are largely undefined, confused, and have become divisive and synonymous with certain hot button social issues.

Heck, I’m not even sure our two major political parties could adequately define those two terms anymore. Are all Republicans conservative? Are all Democrats liberals? And where in the world does President Trump fall on the political spectrum?

More importantly for the survey data, what exactly does conservative or liberal political views mean to an 19 year old recent high school graduate? If not raising taxes on the wealthy is a conservative issue, the HERI report notes that 73.1 % of female students and 67.7 % of male students think we should raise taxes on that cohort. If dealing with climate change is a liberal issue, 82.4 % of female students and 77.6 % of male students want federal policy to address climate change.

Of course, while both cohorts want the rich to pay more in taxes (damn liberal kids), only 36.7% (female) and 39.5 % (male) want us to raise taxes to reduce the deficit (stingy conservative brats).

Unless you’re wealthy. of course. Then we’ll raise your taxes. But only if it reduces the deficit. (Dang wishy washy teenagers.)

Therein, I think, lies the problem with self-reported data from incoming college students. Understand that I’m not doubting the sincerity or intellectual ability of 17 and 18 year olds. I am, though, casting some doubt about their understanding of complex political terms.

Words like liberal and conservative are far more difficult to define than we might pretend. In my first year composition classes, I used to begin our semester by asking students to identify their place on the political spectrum. As a public regional university in west Texas, a not surprising number of my students self-identified as Republican or conservative. In their short essay, they had to tell me why that was their political affiliation. Part two of the assignment required that students take the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.”

What we found was that defining political ideology is a little more complicated than picking left versus right. Most of my students, in fact, are for smaller government until they want the government to pay for a bigger chunk of their tuition bill. Many of my conservative students were shocked that their liberal, deer hunting classmates want to protect the 2nd Amendment. My liberal students were surprised the conservative students wanted the government to leave homosexuals alone. And just about everyone is ready for legal marijuana. (That might not be very surprising. Stoners!)

The point, I tell my students, isn’t to turn you into a bunch of liberal, pinko communists or far right fascists. Language and words matter. Calling yourself something stakes a claim and creates identity–something that is a little more important than bubbling in a circle on a survey or blindly following your Uncle Frank’s Facebook rants. It takes more than a 140 characters to understand and adopt a political view.

As I read the reactions to the HERI report, I can’t help but think that knowing the political “polarization” of incoming freshman is about as useful as knowing how elementary school students feel about growing political unrest in southeast Asia. It’s conceivable that we need to be sure they actually know what the terms mean before we ask them to place themselves in one camp or the other.

The problem, of course, isn’t that HERI asked the question. Snapshots in time are important and useful but emphasizing how polarized we seem to be only reinforces people’s polarized ideas.

And let’s face it: the last thing we need is to focus on more ways we can’t communicate or agree on things in this world.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

NYT > Politics

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.)