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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Cheaters Never Win, but They Do Go To Harvard

The big news coming out of Harvard this week is that their incoming group of first year students is more interested in cheating than having sex. What’s the point of cheating on homework if you don’t use the extra free-time doing something fun? Youth is wasted on the young.

Those of us who have spent time in higher ed are in no way surprised that our current generation of students plays fast and loose with their classroom responsibilities. We’ve known for years that more and more students arrive in our hallowed halls willing to cheat.

We might, in our older and grumpier moments, simply blame technology. The influx of computers and the internet has certainly made cutting and pasting much easier. Students have access to vast amounts of information. Chances are there isn’t an algebra problem known to man (and woman) that google hasn’t already considered.

While some critics of higher ed are more than willing to point their judgmental fingers at colleges and professors, arguing that universities are prone to fibbing to get higher rankings and our students are simply modeling our behavior, the Harvard survey shows the students are arriving on campus already willing to cheat.

But it’s also worth offering up a slight defense of our incoming class of ne’er do wells. We should acknowledge that cheaters (and their pants) have been around as long as liars (and their burning pants). In other words, the 21st century doesn’t hold a monopoly on unethical behavior.

Certainly, the data shows that cheating in universities today is far worse than it was in the 1940s.  Over the last 60 years or so, the number of self-reported acts of dishonesty have increased.  Of course, comparing the campus climate in 2013 to the 1940s is about as useful as comparing driving habits from the same time periods. I’m going to go out on a limb and claim the goals, purpose, and pressures at the pre-World War II, pre-Korea, pre-Vietnam university were a tad bit different than they might be today.

I definitely don’t want to excuse dishonesty, but I do want us (as educators, parents, and citizens) to recognize that as the social pressure to “get an education” increases, we see a corresponding willingness to cheat. We should also note that the pressure to succeed at the university is brought to bear not just by universities and parents. Employers are increasingly requiring college degrees for positions that, quite frankly, not need college degrees.

Why, we might, ask do students cheat? Because the cost of failure has become so high. Scores on standardized tests, too often, have become gateways to a better (or worse) world. Simply put, culturally we have turned education into a task one must complete that may or may not be useful. The degree has become more important than the journey itself. We have equated not completing college to failure, even though the majority of Americans don’t have college degrees and they are quite often successful.

When I first started teaching English Composition, our first essay assignment was always about the purpose of higher education. Is our goal, I asked, to provide training and skills or are we here to engage in the epistemological journey of self-discovery? Increasingly, my students resent classes that don’t “apply” to their major, but who can blame them. We bombard them with learning objectives and focus on assessments and accountability. We have reduced the number of hours required to get a degree from 130 to 120 and we focus on pathways to completion and competency-based education. They are, in fact, modeling our cultural values regarding education.

Yet, we also know that thinking critically isn’t measured by filling in the blanks. Classical education concerns itself with hows and whys. Answers are often fluid. Truth, meaning, and even language are fields of play where complexity reigns. Not knowing is an important part of understanding.

But none of those things are practical. Or fast. Or measurable. Or multiple choice.

And too often, culturally, not important. Instead, we spend our money and our time on standardized tests that pretend to measure a student’s intellectual ability. We tie that score, the bubbles filled in correctly, to Ivory Tower access and we reward students who master the practical. All you have to do is eliminate 75% of the choices and your future awaits.

I don’t intend to hold students blameless. My own classes include strict academic honesty policies, but I’ve also come to realize I must spend time teaching academic integrity and reminding students that learning at an institution of higher learning involves more than simply demonstrating a specific skill. We can, and must, teach both the hows and the whys, but we must also remind our students the why (or the why not) is the more important of the two.

But it’s an uphill battle. After all, those kids who cheated did get into Harvard.

The Quiet Contemplation of Inactivity

Genevieve_Bell_The_Value_of_BoredomIf you are of a certain age, or perhaps above a certain age, there was a time when we didn’t carry computers on our hips. When we watched t.v., there was snow and fuzzy reception. Antennas had to be twisted after a storm or to pick-up certain stations. Instant replay wasn’t invented so we could admire the artistry of the swing or replay the magical putt from 45 feet. Replay was born out of desperation: We needed to see everything twice to make up for the blurry image the cathode tube produced. HD television means never having to ask “did his feet land in bounds?”

And if you wanted a crystal clear image of nature, you had to go outside.

If you are of that certain age, you spent a good bit of your time outside because sitting inside for too long often resulted in holding the stupid end of the broom or spending your Saturday up to your elbows in chemicals cleaning the toilet.

Heaven help you if you told someone you were bored. Nothing’s worse, really, than a parent’s miserable attempts at sarcasm when they ask if you want to fill up your time by mowing the grass. I used to ask my kids what kind of board they were. Sympathy was never real high on my list of emotions. (Neither was humor if you ask our boys.) Those were days when kids shouldn’t be seen or heard.

Those were also the days, as Bell points out, where boredom reigned and no one cared. As kids we could come up with 16 ways to put our lives on the line using the jungle gym in ways no designer ever intended. They were days when we simply looked at clouds and imagined animals (or teachers or, for the juvenile delinquents, body parts) hiding in the puffy expanse of the heavens.

No one tapped into the 3G network to find out if we were looking at cumulus, sirrus, or stratus. If little Johnny spouted any educational nonsense that might make us think, we made sure he stayed home with the mop next time. We were bored, but no one was ever bored enough to learn something.

Except it appears, according to recent research, that boredom is good for the brain. Evidently, boredom switches our brain’s little buttons and the synapses and neurons start firing on more cylinders, pushing us to creativity and intellectual growth.

You just thought your parents where being insensitive when they told you to go be bored someplace else.

Understand that I’m no luddite. I willingly admit that I like my marginally intelligent phone. As someone who only knows which way is east twice a day, I grow increasingly dependent on pre-loaded maps. I like being able to look up John Kruk’s lifetime batting average anytime I want, and I love that I can slip out of the office to watch baseball and still be working virtually.

In the classroom, I like asking my students to look up facts, use their pocket brains to add numbers, or update calendars (with an alarm reminder!) on the spot. In the next 5 years, tablets and phones have the potential to transform some classroom behaviors, allowing teachers to focus on critical thinking and less on data transfer.  Why spend 50 minutes defining a term when they can find 50 other people online defining it in an mp3 format?

But, I also can’t help but wonder whether we should also consider introducing (or re-introducing) boredom into the classroom and our daily lives. I remember visiting my oldest son’s first grade classroom. There were bean bags, a tree house for reading, paints, cubby-holes, and various other spaces so the kids “won’t get bored. Learning should be fun,” his teacher emphasized.

Who am I to argue? If I had 25 seven year-olds, I would probably want to avoid letting them get bored, too. There’s not enough wine to handle that much whine.

Yet, if we listen to Bell closely, boredom does a body good. It is time, it would appear, to require that we unplug and disconnect. Put the paints away, slide the book on the shelf, and create zones of nothingness for our kids. (Yes, I get the irony of mandated or scheduled boredom.)

Not being stimulated forces us to create or, perhaps even more importantly, asks us to grow comfortable in the quiet contemplation of our inactivity. Clouds become objects, sticks become snakes, bushes become houses, but most importantly, we rely on our self to pass the time. We lose contact with agendas and requirements and mandates and, almost counter-intuitively, become more receptive to learning and understanding because we must become active participants in our day or revel in our own boredom.

And the best part is that next time someone tells you they are bored, tell them it’s good for them.

There’s More to Eating (and Learning) Than Filling Up and Getting Full

cookingOne of the few things my wife and I always agree on is the necessity of feeding our guests well. While it may seem a bit old school, when we have company we plan meals, buy special ingredients, and put in the time to make supper an occasion to remember. Instead of spending our time sightseeing, shopping, or going out, we tend to spend our time visiting while we chop, grill, and, unfortunately, clean up our mess. Of course, we do some of the other things, but we don’t allow these visits to pass outside the house. In so many ways, the work involved is pleasantly exhausting.

My wife’s parents are visiting this weekend.  Last night for instance, we had fried shrimp po-boys (with homemade remoulade sauce, rice, black beans, beer, and some leftover German Chocolate Cake from earlier in the week). Tonight, we are grilling up some steaks, cheesy jalapeno sausage, mashing some potatoes, tossing a salad, and eating some There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Chocolate Pie. We’ll have french bread (rising as I type) and wine as an added bonus. No one ever goes home hungry.

During the week, our meals are a bit less elaborate and more practical. With two teenage boys, our kitchen is rarely closed. In either case, we rarely eat out. During the week, even when we are tired from working all day and the prospect of cleaning the kitchen is about as appealing as cleaning the kitchen after frying chicken, we still cook. It’s not just because taking two teenagers out to eat is cost prohibitive: there’s also something important about putting a meal on the table and having home cooked food. In many ways, that effort demonstrates our willingness to do the necessary work to fulfill the elemental needs of our children. Simply put–food matters to us.

Cooking when we have company is, in many ways, just as important as cooking for our family. Food and the dinner experience is, as so many others have noted, one of those communal events that bring us together. When my wife’s parents are here, they always offer to take us out to eat and we always refuse. Cooking might look hard and we might look busy, but it’s pleasant work. To a certain extent, we imagine that the meals we offer our guests are, in the parlance of our day, a value-added experience.

Interestingly enough, as I read yesterday that ACE (the American Council of Education) approved 4 Coursera courses for college credit and that the University of Texas announced 4 MOOCs in the works, I thought about our meals and having company. The reality is that my university will never be involved in the MOOC movement. Certainly, we might have to decide if we are going to accept credit from Coursera or UT, but when UT added (in small print) that producing a quality MOOC costs around $20,000 per course, I think I can say with some certainty that we don’t have that kind of money hidden in the couch cushions.

More importantly, though, I hope my school resists the MOOC movement and, instead, trumpets the value added elements of human contact. I have no doubt that a MOOC, with the advanced analytics that measure student competence, can walk (march?) students through the mechanics of just about any subject. I’m currently teaching an online sophomore American Literature course. The class is designed to introduce students to trends in American literature since 1860. Specifically, we focus on defining specific terms related to genres and American literature, analyzing individual works of literature for meaning, and understanding the diverse intellectual and cultural tradition of American mythology. My students, those who do all the work, will be able to do each of these things by the end of the semester. Some, those who earn A’s, will do these things much more effectively than those who earn F’s. There is something positive about those skills. Each, in its own way, is an important part of learning to think critically. Each is, in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, another brick in the wall. (Yes. I’m aware of the irony of my comparison.)

No matter how many instructor videos, blogs, emails, skype video conferences, tweets, or student video blogs we have in the class, though, what I can’t offer my students in the online environment is passion and a sense of the humanity involved in the learning experience. Certainly, my instructor videos can show me as excited, funny, and engaged. I can, easily enough, show my students that I am interested in the subject and they can show me a mastery of definition and an ability to analyze. Much of their work can be graded mechanically by the computer.

But learning isn’t just about mastery of a skill and the mission of higher education (and education in general) shouldn’t be focused solely on acquisition of skills. One of our stated missions at my university is to help students develop the necessary critical thinking skills to be productive citizens. While an online class with the advanced analytics possible in this day and age can measure a student’s knowledge of the Constitution, memorizing the Bill of Rights doesn’t make one a good citizen any more than quoting the 10 commandments makes someone a good christian.

A steak from my backyard might, objectively, taste just as good as one from Outback or even The Palm, but our fondest memories of food rarely center on just the seasonings sprinkled over the meat. When we look back to those favorite moments, we see smiling faces, hear familiar voices, and recall the setting and experience. These are the value added elements that create memories. Educationally, we need to recognize the importance of those human elements. We can all learn the basics of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” quantum theory, and Advanced Plant Biotechnology and we might even be able to develop an online format for helping us apply some techniques. That’s certainly one kind of learning.

But, there’s something important in seeing, hearing, and feeling how others react and understand ideas. Education, like eating, is about more than just filling up and getting full. Learning involves the nuances of human interaction that add value to the knowledge and we can’t measure such things with analytics or in massively available classes anymore than we can judge the value of a meal based on how full we get. I’m sure MOOCs have value, but like a family dinner, it also seems pretty obvious there’s greater value when everyone can fit around one table on occasion.

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.)