Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

I recently went in to my department on campus to turn in a copy of my gradebook. While I was there, I checked my department mailbox. I found a copy (nice copy—plastic spiral-bound with cardstock covers) of a report from a conference attended by our (now former) head of department. Apparently, the powers that be want completely uniform classes for uniform, measurable results, and we're all expected to jump on the bandwagon with them by redesigning our courses.

Good luck with that. Trying to get all of the professors—especially in the humanities—to agree on curriculum for the big, core class sections (i.e., freshman/sophomore level survey classes, and composition classes) is like herding cats: impossible.

It's been attempted before, but my department's inhabitants in particular jealously guard their right to choose their own textbooks and readers, particularly for the composition classes. And I suspect that, if consensus were forced, the one with the fewest teaching skills, grading skills, and desire to teach that particular class (but who is able to talk about nothing until the rest of us wind up nodding and agreeing just to shut him the hell up) will be the one who gets to set curriculum and textbook.

I won't lower my standards to that. I wrote my own textbook, have created my own assignments, and make my students do more graded writing than anyone else in the department. I don't edit their papers for them (like one colleague), don't hold with grade inflation (like most of my colleagues), and (unlike a colleague also in the adjunct office) actually grade their work whether they mark it "confidential" or not.

I will admit that one thing in that eighty-page handout made sense: many of my colleagues in the humanities take the basic, entry-level, freshman survey courses, and teach their own pet ideas without regards for what the course is supposed to convey. And I will admit that composition is vulnerable to that—one of my new colleagues (hired since I had the imp) suggested that, since composition classes don't have "content," it's up to us to make the class meaningful, so he makes the students study and write about the Harry Potter series.

Umm…that kind of turns a composition class—one where learning how to structure the paper IS the content—into a literature class. When the focus leaves the skills set—paper organization (and thesis statements), development at the paragraph level, sentence structure, and grammar and editing—because of a perceived lack of course content (which is supposed to be the teaching of course skills), of course we wind up with course drift.

The problem isn't the courses. The problem isn't the curriculum objectives. The problem isn't the administration's perceptions. The problem is the professors who don't want to teach what they were hired to teach. And the problem with the whole concept of course redesign is the reliance on education theorists, theory buzzwords that mean absolutely nothing, and administrative nincompoops who see the problem, but have no clue how to fix it*.

In any case, I think it's an effort doomed to failure by the sheer size of the task, the lack of clear objectives set by administration, and the obstinate foot-dragging I foresee from the ones that actually teach the classes.

*Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach come up with theories to justify their existence in teaching the teachers. And those who can't do that go into administration.


  1. Curious......

    When I registered to go to San Jose State many moons ago, I remember taking a 'writing skills test' and if you didn't "pass" the test, you were 'doomed' to what was then called BONE HEAD ENGLISH, with no credit.

    Is this still done?

  2. Yeah, there's a huge push to "standardize" the GenEd classes here. To the point where we have things like attendance policies foisted upon us whether we want them or not.

    (With the enforced attendance policy, attendance in my class is NO BETTER than it was before. But now, I have to not only take daily attendance, but deal with the students wanting "excused absences" for crazy crap, and people who come in tardy demanding to be marked "present" and such. In the past, it was simple: people who skipped a lot earned Fs. Now, it's pretty much the same, but I have a lot more logistical stuff to deal with).

    There was also at one time a push to "standardize" higher level classes across all state universities, but fortunately that died when someone pointed out to the Regents that there's a world of difference between the Major Flagship State University and the Small Regional Schools in terms of the background and preparedness of the students.

  3. OCM: yeah, we have bonehead English. The teachers are forbidden to give the students Ds or Fs. They come to us just as bad as they went into the remedial classes. I try to take them where they are and help them get as close to where they should be when I get them.

    Ricki, oddly enough, my students at the big division I school where I earned my MA were *nowhere near* as smart, hardworking, and well prepared as the students I've had at the little university that doesn't have its own grad program.

  4. Fortunately for me, I have been creative writing since my aunt (a newspaper reporter at the time) gave me a ROYAL typewriter 60 years ago!

    And cheers to you for using blogging as a tool to learn (or at least try) how to express one's self with the written word---will they allow you to do this with the 'new rules"?

  5. Actually, since I'm using technology to teach writing, they're thrilled. They wouldn't even care if it didn't work (thank God it does).

    About the only bunch that isn't happy with a comp teacher using blogging is the journalism department, and they're just jealous they didn't think of it first.

  6. Interesting that one of the Denver universities has dismantled the
    JOURNALISM DEPT.---it is now part of the English Dept.