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.


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.



Now He’s a Philosophizer, or the Autobiography of the Human Soul

Nicholas Kristoff used his Feb. 15 Sunday Review op-ed piece to offer a clarion call to college professors to stop cloistering themselves like medieval monks, because we need you! Kristoff’s argument, simply put, is that too many academics have abandoned the public arena in favor of specialized fields and “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” 

Kristoff admits that American anti-intellectualism plays a role in marginalizing some of our sharpest minds. Everyone from Rick Santorum to White Goodman willingly, and at times aggressively, looks down on those who go around “philosophizing.” Heck, drive down almost any highway in the state of Texas and you will see at least one bumper sticker telling you “My son beat up your honor student.” One of my own blog posts about writing was once dismissed as “academic,” and, presumably, a waste of that reader’s precious time. I’m guessing he didn’t become a faithful follower. 

But, Kristoff tells us, the real problem is within the academy itself. Sociology is “dominated by the left” and “dismissed by the right.” Too many fields, he tells us, have abandoned “area studies” in favor of specialists “who know little that is practical about the world.” For example, he lets us know, scholars were the most oblivious to the rising waters of the Arab Spring. Presumably, Kristoff is claiming they are a bunch of eggheads who spent all their time relying on quantitative numbers and theoretical constructs and forgot the Arab world is full of actual human beings. Of course, their research was probably funded by grants from organizations or politicians looking for data and best practices.

I’ll willingly admit that I have some sympathy for Kristoff’s argument. Too many college professors, the best minds of many generations, do lock themselves in the ivory tower and avoid the public spotlight. Many of them, dare I say most of them, restrict their intellectual conversations to the classroom while studiously avoiding “casting pearls through Facebook and Twitter.”

Even though we all know Facebook is the ideal place to engage in philosophical discussions: just ask my friend who went crazy bonkers protecting the Duck Commanders’ right to hate on the gays and blacks. Twitter provides an even better venue for complex conversations about power structures and human behavior. If we focus on the political disc (oops. That’s 140 characters. Did I shape any behavior?)

In what might be considered irony by some of those cloistered monks, the Sunday Editorial article, “The New College Campus,” points out that administrative employees on American college campuses are growing at the same rate as adjunct professors.

Essentially, according to the Sunday New York Times, the only things not growing on college campuses are full-time professors and the public influence of the few who are left.

What Kristoff also fails to mention, of course, is that our last bastion of publicly funded intellectuals is dying a slow, painful death.

Or, at least, being attacked on a daily basis.

Education and teaching has increasingly become about efficiency, learning outcomes, assessment, and other quantifiable numbers and theoretical constructs. Even our egghead in chief, President Obama (a law professor, no less as Kristoff notes) is seeking an educational accountability funding bill that will do everything it can to reduce colleges to factories that output products. For schools that can’t produce them fast enough, whether the consumer wants to graduate or not, we’ll cut them from the small public teat still exists.

In the meantime, Governors across America are creating $10,000 degrees, moving classes into the online environment, and pushing programs to measure competence (because, really, we should all be striving for competence as our highest level of achievement, right?). Kristoff himself points to the avenues open to us to spread our message more efficiently.

All the while, we cut full-time faculty and hire administrators to count and measure the beans, build climbing walls, and increase class sizes. Boards of Regents (or Boards of Governors depending on where you live) are made of business people with no higher ed experience and Chancellors are increasingly ex-politicians who are as qualified to run a university as Max Baucus is to be ambassador to China.

Too many of these people, not surprisingly, miss the point of educational and intellectual discourse completely.

Last year, retiring Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance told the Texas Tribune that he thinks “all kinds of research is good. But if you’re doing research on Shakespeare’s 13th play, and there’s been 140 research papers written on it, I don’t know if that’s a priority with taxpayers’ taxes.”

We research Shakespeare’s 13th play, Dr. Hance, because we are seeking to understand the autobiography of the human soul. 

Richard D. Altick writes in The Art of Literary Research that “Literature, then, is an eloquent artistic document . . . whatever the practical uses of history may be, one of the marks of civilized man is his absorbed interest in the emotional and intellectual adventures of earlier generations.” We can’t mark that absorbed interest with quantifiable data, pie charts, and practical assessments.

We publish in our own journals because even Dr. Hance, a man tasked with running one of the most underrated college systems in America, doesn’t value that research. Many of us avoid public discourse because our voices are obscured and lost in the cacophony of voices within the maelstrom of ideology dominating social media. It is, quite frankly, hard to get a word in edgewise and not get a sore throat trying.

More important, though, Mr. Kristoff, is that ideas take time, develop slowly, and with a complexity that can’t really exist in a MOOC, a 15 minute video, or a format that encourages clicking on the “Like” button.

They also can’t be pushed out like an advertisement for Lands End or a Nigerian scam artist selling shares of his dead uncle’s estate. 

Ideas and intellectual discourse require give and take, conversation, reflection, and revision. Our philosophizers, those folks purveying the wisdom Mr. Kristoff says he values, are hard at work on college campuses already. Instead of asking them to speak louder, maybe his next call should be for people to start listening more closely.

You Can’t Pursue Happiness if You are Sitting Still

A friend of mine emailed the other day. He’s been teaching Cormac McCarthy’s The Road this week, a novel we’ve both had good success with in the past, but this time around “there were two or three passionate responders in a sea of potted plants.” He’s teaching a general education Humanities course and at times there “seems an active, even aggressive attitude on their part to NOT BE INTERESTED at all costs,” he writes.

He attributes their indifference to a growing sense of entitlement and a laser-like social and cultural emphasis on STEM fields. Let me say first that my colleague is one of the good guys. He’s a fine teacher who willingly creates cross-disciplinary courses, emphasizes critical thinking, and truly helps his students learn. He has an ability to take complicated material and help students understand and, on occasion, even enjoy such things. He is the kind of teacher who normally is able to show students that reading Shakespeare or Homer or even Cormac McCarthy is both worth their time and rewarding. He couples short fiction with popular culture, even showing a “Simpson’s parody to a mirthless audience.” He’s the kind of teacher many of us would like to be and the kind many of us wish we had taken.

While I would agree that we have increasingly raised a generation of students who think showing up is all of the battle (not just half anymore) and too many students who demand passing grades simply for putting forth a minimal effort, I think my friend misses the boat a bit. In many of my general education courses I’ve stopped teaching works that I truly and dearly love because I get frustrated not because the students don’t love the poem/novel/play, but because too many students are almost aggressively apathetic in those classes. They have been so bombarded with an educational ideology that tells them to seek out their passion that they too often refuse to engage with ideas if they don’t feel passionate, treating each class as if it were a side dish at Thanksgiving dinner. Mom makes you take a spoonful, but if you lick the spoon and don’t like the taste, you move the food around on the plate and scrape it in the trash when no one is looking.

They firmly believe they are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but they have forgotten, as one of my professors used to remind us, that pursuing requires effort.

We have, simply put, convinced a generation of students that passion is more important than work. Far too many teachers, educators, and parents have become convinced that school must be fun, entertaining, and teachers must create active learning environments. We have passed along such ideas to our students and they sit idly by waiting for us to engage them. More important, they willingly admit that they only work well if they “like” the assignment or “feel comfortable” with the topic.

Mike Rowe, in his S.W.E.A.T Pledge at profoundly disconnected, tells us that Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo and his list of Pledges includes a reminder that “I do not ‘follow my passion.’ I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.” I might, were I so bold, change “can be done” with “should be done.” Jobs, essays, readings, and anything else worth doing should be done with passion and enthusiasm regardless of your desire.

But it’s more than just this misplaced emphasis on passion. Far too many of our students in these classes lack a larger sense of self. We see this increasingly, I think, in our students’ inability (or unwillingness) to laugh. There is, in many ways, some measure of irony in this “mirthless” generation. School, for years now, has been fun, filled with pep rallies, crazy clothes weeks, and school lunches that are a diabetic 12 year old’s wet dream.

Yet, I think, we have too many students who just don’t get humor that doesn’t involve body parts, flatulence, or violence. There’s more to humor than crazy grandpas and jack asses.

You have to have some brains to understand parody, satire, and sarcasm and we have developed too many pedantic, humorless students. They go to high schools where parody and satire are dangerous (and too often offensive) and where their English teachers teach, I’m convinced, scared. It’s one of the reasons so many high school reading lists are filled with crappy, politically safe books that focus on feeling good and teens struggling with their own identity. We’ve turned reading lists into “After School Specials” and in doing so we perpetuate the myth that the struggle of teenagers is unique, special, and worthy of study. I hate to sound all curmudgeony and such, but who really gives a shit about teenagers who are sensitive and freaked out.

Aren’t they all? Aren’t they supposed to be? They will, history shows us, grow out of it.

Even at the university level we see common read programs that choose books that above all offend no one and are accessible to multiple populations. I’m all for inclusion and I certainly believe we must move beyond the dead, white male reading lists of the 1950s, but we also must demand that our students stop expecting their trials and tribulations sit at the center of our daily studies. Education is about pushing ourselves beyond what we know comfortably and willingly, and I might argue even aggressively, finding a way to be happy and engaged.

Even when the material, or the professor, seems dull.

Writing Without A Net

My older son sent me the first draft of his essay discussing the hyper-protective cooperative principle in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” the other day. If it’s been a while since you studied the hyper-protective cooperative principle (or if you’re like your friendly, neighborhood English professor and can’t always remember these terms at the drop of a hat), the basic concept behind HCPC is that the digressions, nonsense, or irrelevancies in a work of literature are, in fact, worth your attention.

To a certain extent, the HCPC argues that one of the markers of good writing is that everything matters. There is an implicit agreement that the author’s writing will be genuine and the reader’s hard work will be worth the effort.

Anton Chekhov, the 19th century Russian playwright and short story writer, argued, for instance, that if a gun appears on stage in Act 1, someone better get shot before the play ends. To not do so, he might say, would be disingenuous and unfair to your audience.

I’ve written before about Eliot’s poem. “The Waste Land,” and I say this without meaning to sound dramatic, is one of the world’s great poems. It is also a lot of damn work to understand, but the readers’ effort, according to the HCPC (and my son’s paper) is worth the effort. Eliot isn’t being difficult just because he wants to show off and prove he’s smarter than the rest of us.

My son begins his paper, though, not with a discussion about Eliot’s poem but with a reference to the woods near Burkittsville. For all you horror movie fans out there, you probably get the allusion to The Blair Witch Project. What, you ask, does a 1999 horror movie have to do with a 1922 poem? You would have to read the paper to find out, but if my son does his job right, the seemingly irrelevant reference should be vital to understanding his essay about HCPC and Eliot’s poem. It’s both an application and explanation of the concept.

What struck me as most interesting about my son’s paper, though, wasn’t the complexity of the task but the willingness to take a chance. He is, after all, merging a discussion of a contemporary horror film with a work of great literary import.

As someone who has read more than his fair share of student essays, my first thought when I read the paper was that the approach here was outside the norm. (Actually, my first thought was, “I’m going to steal that idea for next time I teach the poem.”) The easy and safe way to approach something like Eliot is via metaphor or irony but the truly simple approach is carefully avoiding anything that might be wrong.

I was reading my son’s essay at the same time I was reading through the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of the Millennials titled “Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” While I’m not a big fan of generational behavioral trait surveys, they do often provide us with a broad, general understanding of age cohorts. Anyone with high school or college-age children should click over and take a look at the study.

Any large generational study will offer interesting contradictions. This generation is happily connected and more than willing to live in the fish bowl of Facebook and Instagram, but 70% also have tattoos hidden from the public and they understand privacy boundaries better than most generations. It’s a generation that is less religious but more socially engaged; they face awful economic and employment opportunities but remain almost blissfully optimistic; they’ve seen divorce rates stabilize yet they marry later than any generation; they’ve grown up in an incredibly permissive culture yet teen pregnancy and drug use are dropping.

And they are the most sheltered generation in history. Forget rubberized playgrounds, this is a generation of “Megan laws . . . [and] Code Adam — you know, some kid is lost at a Wal-Mart. Bam, all the doors shut, no one gets in or out until that one child is found. But we’re very used to this now — throughout our society and culture — this new protection.”

Most important, they do not chafe under the protection; they expect it. They feel special and entitled because we’ve made them, well, special and entitled. In some ways, they are open to change because we have done such a good job of sheltering them that they feel safe. If the change doesn’t work, they know we will be there to bail them out.

Yet, for all that safety, education, and optimism, we are also watching a generation that is almost counter-intuitively unwilling to take chances. Change happens: they don’t necessarily push change. They are, in the words of John Mayer, “waiting on the world to change.”

Academically, I see this in my classes. At the beginning of every semester, I now have to discuss academic rigor. The goal, I tell my students before an exam or assignment is not to avoid being wrong. The goal is to be correct without the fear of being wrong. Academically, we are held to high standards of proof and analysis.

Education and learning is about failure and leaving the shelter. You have to walk across the wire without a safety net. Instead, too often, I read papers or answers that are neither right or wrong. Like too much public commentary, the answers and essays I read play it safe, working very hard to avoid being wrong. Everything begins to read like a Wikipedia post: long on facts, every side represented (regardless of their intellectual merits), with virtually no actual commentary.

What’s the poem mean, we might ask? Well, the student writes, there are many ways of looking at Eliot’s poem.

That’s not an answer. That’s intellectual laziness. This is a student waiting, expecting in some respects, someone to tell them which of those ways is most important, best, and safe to follow.

Note here that I’m not necessarily being critical of either parents or our current generation of young adults. There’s nothing inherently wrong with providing shelter, safety, and raising a generation of confident people.

But we also need to find a better balance between security, self-esteem, and a willingness to write without a net.

My son’s paper doesn’t have the answers to understanding Eliot’s poem. He’s still, despite his willingness to step out on that intellectual limb, an 18 year old writer learning how to put an argument together, but as both his father and a fan of Eliot’s poem, I’m proud he’s willing to let go of that tree trunk and do the hard work necessary to say something worth reading.

Winners Never Cheat (And Cheaters Should Never Win)

About 8 years ago, I was in a conference session discussing academic honesty. The general consensus, as the session began, was that our student’s willingness to cheat was largely our fault as professors and a sign of the general disintegration of America. (That and since it was an educational conference, I’m pretty sure someone blamed George Bush and wikipedia.) ((That was a joke by the way. No one blamed wikipedia.)) (((That was another joke. Everyone blamed wikipedia.))) ((((A few people still blamed George Bush.))))

The guy in the back, you know the one because he’s always in the back and always the expert, made it clear that if we created better assessments and inspired our students they wouldn’t cheat.

“People who assign multiple choice tests or ask students to write an essay on Humor in Huck Finn,” he proclaimed in that condescendingly superior tone, “are just encouraging cheating. If the student can find the answers online, we aren’t asking the write questions. Our job,” he paused for dramatic educational impact, “is to inspire students to value the information so much they don’t want to cheat.” Blah, blah, blah.

Some days I know why higher ed gets criticized so much.

Never one to sit quietly on the sidelines, I pointed out that the assessment shouldn’t matter. There is no reason, I argued, that I can’t expect or even demand that my students behave with integrity and honesty regardless of the assessment technique. “I mean, no offense,” (because that’s what you say when you don’t want to say anything ugly), “but perhaps, we should blame the students for cheating not the person asking the question. After all, we don’t excuse people from speeding just because the car can go 120. Plus, If we stop asking questions found on the internet, we might as well stop asking questions.”

Unfortunately, this conference session and cheating is much on my mind today since one of my students plagiarized his major, out of class essay. In the 15 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only had two semesters without a plagiarist.

Admittedly, I have some sympathy for my students. On the one hand, they could have had the goofball at that conference for a teacher. On the other hand, as public education increasingly emphasizes collaboration and group work, the line between cheating and working together gets increasingly blurry for our students. Additionally, far too few public schools punish students for infractions and when they do, far too many parents race to rescue little Suzy from punishment.

In essence, many students come to college without a clear sense of what academic integrity actually means.

Unlike my colleague, bless his innocent and misguided heart, I find myself teaching in the real world. I’ll give him some credit: in an ideal world all our students would be so inspired by every subject and they would all recognize the inherent value of reading, writing, science, and math to their future brilliant selves they would never consider cheating.

And in that dream world, my teaching would be the light that brightens the dark rooms of their mind. (I would also make a lot of money and be really good looking in that world. I mean, if it’s a dream world . . .)

Meanwhile, on planet earth where I have 45 animal science students, football players, physics majors, and various other students who haven’t quite managed to recognize why knowing Huck Finn is important to their future careers, perhaps we can take an approach that demands integrity and honesty from our students and holds everyone accountable for such things.

That includes faculty. Last year, I had a faculty member call me to ask what he should do after he caught a group of students cheating on a quiz.

“Give them zeros this time. Fail them next time,” I said with a kind of incredulous lilt to my voice.

“That seems harsh. I mean, no one else in my department fails students who cheat so I’m not sure they knew it was wrong to share answers.”


But I don’t want to bash on teachers or professors. My colleagues are working with students confused about issues of integrity and they, including the professor from the conference, are genuinely concerned about student learning. They recognize that zero tolerance policies are often unfair if they punish ignorance as harshly as iniquity. We are often trying to balance our expectations with our student’s abilities and understanding.

I just think sometimes we can over complicate things.

My student failed the course today because he cheated and because I spent valuable class time discussing academic integrity and defining plagiarism. The consequences are clearly outlined on the syllabus, on the essay assignment, and in every discussion of the essay assignment. I warn them that some faculty members won’t hold them accountable for unethical behavior. I’m not that faculty member.

And he still cheated. And, like most of my colleagues, it saddens me.

I’m not upset because he doesn’t find sophomore American literature valuable to his future as an engineer in the oil field. I tell my students that knowing literature and literary terms isn’t a sign that they will be poor surgeons or build bad bridges. I know plenty of people who don’t know an allegory from a parable or a metaphor from a simile. They are still my friends and many of them are pretty successful people.

I know people who have never, gasp, read a novel in their lives. And they are my friends and great workers. I even trust some of them with my children.

Reading literature or writing a paper (or taking the test) isn’t the issue.

The issue is, and here I do pause in my class, what kind of person will you be when you grow up? If you are willing, I tell my students, to cut corners in a class that doesn’t seem to matter, if you are willing to take credit for things you didn’t do, if you are willing to steal other people’s ideas, I pity your co-workers.

I fear for the patients who don’t inspire you.

I worry about the building design you don’t care that much about.

I’m concerned about  the report you will write on days when you are tired.

In simple terms: if you are willing to cut corners now, you will be willing to cut corners later.

And that is dangerous. To me. To others. And to you.

It’s certainly not true that cheaters never win. But, I tell my students, they shouldn’t. And neither should you.

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

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