Monthly Archives: June 2013

More College Failure?

Yet another complaint from “employers”–as though “employers” are some coherent group–about recent college graduates lacking job skills:

“When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving,” the report said.

Well, okay. But let’s take “college” out of the picture here and just focus on 22-year-olds. Nostalgia would insist that 22-year-olds of ye olden days were perfectly skilled in written and oral communication, managing priorities, and making decisions and problem solving–but clearer-sighted neurobiology would insist that 22-year olds’ brains simply aren’t fully developed.

In my experience tutoring middle school students, I came to believe that certain school skills–like organization, record-keeping, and neatness–are correlated with brain development. Certain children develop the ability to perform these higher level, executive skills at different times.

Bemoaning colleges’ failure to teach amorphous, unteachable skills like “making decisions” rather than accepting that recent college graduates, even smart ones, are still in the process of becoming adults–well, that’s is just another way of making our educational systems into convenient whipping boys to blame for shortcomings that college was never meant to remedy.

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Why study the humanities?

Apropos of today’s report on the state of the humanities comes this quotation from a Slate article about the kind of people who get hired as tech gurus:

Working in tech plays tricks on your mind. The quality of coding and other technical skills can be assessed far more objectively than other measures of intelligence or job performance, and it can split your worldview into the same objective, extremely meritocratic terms: People are smart or dumb … ideas are right or wrong, morals are black and white. You start thinking you know what’s best for people.

Goodness knows that the humanities aren’t perfect in the kinds of people they turn out. (Anyone who’s ever experienced the peculiar awfulness of some humanities grad students will understand.) But one of the points of a good humanities education is exactly to erase, or at least call into question, the kind of black and white thinking that this article outlines.

Of course this so-called “fuzzy” rejection of strict dichotomies engenders a lot of complaining about the humanities’ soft skills. But what’s “soft” about having the moral and ethical capacity to think in complex, subtle ways about complex, subtle issues? Isn’t that the very definition of “hard”? 

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IB or Spelling Bee?

There’s a short piece in the Wall Street Journal about public schools adopting the IB curriculum to raise performance even in inner-city schools, apparently with good success.

As with any educational reform, some people–like mother-of-two Kelly Mann, a parole officer in Waco, TX–are unhappy about it. “It’s frustrating to see that instead of doing spelling bees or history reports, they are spending about six weeks of time focusing on poverty or saving white tigers,” she says.

It seems a little unfair to attack this poor women, but let’s throw out some ideas about what one could learn by focusing on, say, white tigers:

  • Geography. Where are white tigers found?
  • History. What’s the history of Western European countries in relation to the countries where so-called exotic animals are found?
  • Science. What causes white tigers’ coloration?
  • Social Studies. What is Orientalism, and how does it relate to our fascination with white tigers?
  • Language arts. How can students use digital and analog tools to find out more about white tigers? What format would be best for recording and developing their ideas? What avenues of communication can they use to share the results of their research?
  • Math. How have the populations of white tigers changed over time? When was the greatest increase or decline in their numbers? What percentages do these changes involve?

When you put it like that, it is a shame that students aren’t doing spelling bees. Instead of engaging in interdisciplinary, question-based education, they could be rote-learning lists of words completely divorced from context. Yep, that would definitely be better. 

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Two former Condé Nast interns are suing for unpaid wages, and good for them. In the summer of 2002, I spent an unpaid ten or so weeks interning at a fancy Condé Nast magazine, supported in that–as in so many things–by the generosity of my grandfather, the child of immigrants whose Depression-Era frugality allowed him to parlay a consistently meager professor’s salary into private college educations for his four grandchildren.

I was thrilled. This was my dream job, my ticket into Manhattan’s literary elite–except that it wasn’t. In fact, the whole experience was soul-crushingly awful. Part of that summer’s utter failure was the assistant in the department I worked in; at first I thought she simply hated me, for some unaccountable reason, but in fact–as I learned from someone else who later interned at the same department–I think she just hated everyone. The bigger problem, however, was that I did almost nothing, I learned less, and by the end I was crying the stairwell most days.

At this point, I can’t even say why exactly I was crying. I think on some level I realized that I wasn’t going to make it, or that “making it” wasn’t going to take the shape that I’d anticipated. Talent, luck and hard work–a combination of which actually got me the internship in the first place, when while interning (paid) for a literary agent connected with the magazine, I spotted a typo in the proofs of an essay headed to publication–simply weren’t enough. I needed money and connections, and I had neither. Landing the internship was supposed to make up for lack of the former by offering me the latter, but instead I realized, from overhearing conversations among other well-connected interns and their departments, that, as with the money, I was supposed to come pre-equipped.

That wasn’t my last internship. When the school year started again, I used my connection from the first internship to find a paid internship for the next summer, one that taught valuable skills and offered coordinated training with interns from other departments, all far more valuable than the $8.25/ hr the internship paid–although that, of course, was most welcome. (And from the company’s end, I suspect, the stakes are higher to make a worthwhile investment in training paid interns.)

Were those ten weeks wasted? On the one hand, that line looked good on my resume–for a while. (The sheen does wear off after a few years.) On the other hand, there was no effort to make the experience useful or even interesting; there was no training, no mentorship, and no kindness. Like the interns suing, I’m more than willing to work hard and put in the time and pay my dues–but dues, of course, are supposed to buy one membership in a club. Without that, the contract–whether official or unofficial–is worthless.

Condé Nast interns sue

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Does Main Street Matter?

Benjamin Moore is running a new ad campaign slash contest based around the slogan “Main Street Matters”; the idea is that we the people get to vote for our favorite main street, which Benjamin Moore will then repaint, because main streets make us who we are, and apparently we deserve to be shiny and colorful.

This is an ad campaign and as such is certainly not bound by logic or sense. It operates through appeals to emotion, particularly nostalgia, and nostalgia can be a comforting, pleasurable emotion. (Thankfully not fatal, as previous eras have thought it.) But ad campaigns can still be deeply problematic, and this one is indeed. Benjamin Moore’s vision of main street rests primarily on a soothing voiceover of appealing vignettes of trees carved with your grandparents’ names, stores where everybody knows your name, and drug stores that still make ice cream with milk. Just offhand, however, one notices that these vignettes deliberately exclude, for example, the vital role immigrants–of all colors–have played in America’s development. Their grandparents’ names are on no Main Street trees; are they not part of themselves? Do they have no history? Do they not matter?

In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that Main Street doesn’t matter, both because the salient American myth isn’t that our origins lie in small-town communalism but rather in frontier independence, and because the driving economic and cultural engines today are located almost exclusively in cities. If it’s doubtful that Main Street made us what we were, it’s even more doubtful that it’s making us who we’ll be.

This may all be a lot of quibbling when it comes to paint, but it’s a lot more important when it comes to politics–and Benjamin Moore’s ad uses a hazy and emotional evocation of a mythic past that’s almost entirely indistinguishable from, if much less dangerous than, a certain type of political advertisement. Misguided nostalgia is exactly the wishful thinking that bases policy decisions on an imagined past rather than a really existing one, peeling paint and all. Frankly, some institutions simply don’t deserve to be refurbished.

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Arne Duncan’s “High School Redesign” Wednesday, June 12, 2013

There’s furor brewing about Arne Duncan’s “High School Redesign” competition, which will provide millions of dollars in grant money to school districts with winning proposals to overhaul and redesign their programs. On the surface, this seems like a fine idea. Fixing things takes money (even trashing things takes money), and the public high school system across the nation is demonstrably broken–although one suspects that its problems arise as much from a haphazard go at “fixing” it as much as from anything else. In the Huffington Post write-up of June 7th, though, we read that this “High School Redesign” “would have school districts partner up with other institutions, such as colleges, non-profits, businesses and government agencies.”

In the words of yet another beleaguered public institution, which of these things is not like the others?

Colleges, non-profits, and government agencies are all markedly different institutions with different goals, structures, aims, and values. Sure–but none of them are for-profit. Yes, they have budget constraints and stakeholders and sometimes-questionable founders and they exist in a market-oriented society. As varies as their purposes are, however, their founding principle is not to turn a continually increasing profit. This raises a question: what possible reason would a business have to partner with a public school district? Among many possibilities, two spring to mind:

  1. To design curriculum that relies on a product that the business purveys
  2. To churn out workers educated to serve the needs of a particular business rather than to be productive and engaged citizens

The less said about #1 the better, but plenty of voices would argue that #2 is an improvement on the public high school system’s current product of unemployable workers.

If that’s the best vision we have for public education, however, then $300 million isn’t nearly enough to fix what’s wrong.

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Anne Macdonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting

Anne L. Macdonald has certainly done her research. No Idle Hands brims with the voices of women–and men–from the past four centuries of American life. But her chatty voice and anecdote-rich chapters bely the fact that this book is, unfortunately, a bit of a slog, at heart a compendium rather than a history. She’s essentially telling a story of continual nostalgia, that knitting, in all but its earliest days, was always perceived as a return to some sort of essential femininity that modern women were in danger of losing. Even that minimal overarching narrative, however, is missing from the book, making its 350 pages an endless repetition of the same story: women like to knit, especially during war, except when they don’t.

This lack of narrative is one way in which the book seems to be a historical relic as much as a history. Although published in 1988, it’s situated in a theoretical world of several decades earlier.  Aside from some tenuous conclusions in the very last paragraph of the book–essentially, that knitter has become a creative pleasure rather than a tiresome duty–Macdonald leaves untouched a host of unexplored and uninterrogated assumptions around women, work, and domesticity. (Another reason to look forward to reading Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound.)

More troubling, perhaps, is Macdonald’s absolute silence on the black slaves whose voices are notably absent from her chapter on Confederate knitters. “Negro” women pop up occasionally in the chapter, but only in nostalgic invocation of white women about their “faithful” slaves who kept on knitting for the Confederacy; she even drops a regret that Southern knitters were unable to organize with their Northern sisters’ efficacy. This deafening silence (if not tone deafness) also places the book in an earlier historical moment. 

Devoted knitters–of which I’m one–will find a lot to like about this book, especially in its enthusiastic mention of latter-day knitting saints such as Elizabeth Zimmerman. Those looking for a “social history,” however, will have to keep reading. 

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No Learning Without Analyzing

Claire Needell Hollander begins her critique of the Common Core with a touching anecdote about a student’s emotional connection to a Langston Hughes poem as a way of criticizing the Common Core standards for their apparently misguided lack of attention to “emotional risk.” This anecdote, however, suggests that she misunderstands the act of close reading that the Common Core standards in Literature promote.

I think that at the core, we agree: reading literature should be risky, should feel dangerous, should even–dare I say it–change lives. Most of us who pursue literary studies begin from a place of deep feeling, a visceral response to the immersive worlds of childhood reading, but the key distinction is that we don’t end there. When, in my years as a graduate student in English at UCLA, I chose texts for courses of my own design, I did try to choose texts that would provoke an emotional response in students. The emotional response, however, was always the entry rather than the goal. 

That confusion between the entry and goal reveals a flaw in Hollander’s understanding of the Core. She objects that we are not having meaningful discussions about what children read in classrooms, and that complex works of art will be “too disruptive,” but she fails to realize that close reading is by nature disruptive, and that digging into such questions as “how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure … contributes to its meaning” is–or, in the hands of a good teacher, can be–a deeply political act. She says, for example, that there are “no agnostic texts” on college campuses, as though any text were agnostic, and as though the point of contemporary close reading is not to demonstrate precisely that. Hollander’s mostly unstated point seems to be that we should teach high school English more like college English, a conclusion with which I wholeheartedly agree. In my current position developing curriculum, I’ve had ample time to study the Common Core skills, and it seems to me that they more or less forward precisely the skills of critical reading and thinking that most literature professors would say they aim to help their students develop–which no doubt partly explains the conservative attack on them.

Yes, students would be poorly served if Ford manuals formed their literature curriculum. They are also poorly served if they believe the sole purpose of reading and writing is to elicit an emotional response. Being able to move beyond the emotional response to investigate the means by which that response is produced, and the possible reason for it, is–in our textually rich age–more important than ever. 

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