Saturday, October 16, 2010


When last I blogged, I had been reflecting upon the observation that clearly not all students seem entirely prepared for college - and that both the kind and range of the challenges that students face (and a result, the challenges that students themselves then pose to faculty, staff, and administrators in academia and higher ed) leave me, as an anthropology professor, feeling rather unprepared to manage.

Exactly how am I supposed to "teach" students who are in no psychological, social, and / or even academic condition to "learn"?

Also, I confess, it is not only that I feel unprepared: I admit also that I feel somewhat unwilling to break what I understand as the "rules" of college b/c to do so then empties it all of meaning. Not just the class the student is taking, but also the student's purpose in college, his or her degree, and not insignificantly, the career to which I have committed myself as an anthropologist, who teaches... I mean if I had wished to be a psychiatrist / social worker / life coach / guru - not to mention a high school teacher - then that is what I would have become.

(BTW, there is a larger discussion that could be had here about rules making meaning, but that is too lofty for me... At least right at this moment, when I am procrastinating from grading exams while StraightMan and Beanie and Bubbie nap upstairs.)

As a cultural anthropologist, I think attending to meaning matters a lot - and should matter more to a lot more people - in the current discourse on college, esp. in this era of encouraging college-for-all. This is a point made in an article that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of American Educator (which the American Federation of Teachers publishes): "Beyond One-Size-Fits-All College Dreams: Alternative Pathways to Desirable Careers."

The issue had lain forgotten in a stack of to-be-read magazines that I reached for in a fit of despair last night - a Friday night spent reading exams - and I think the cover story is well worth reading. It opens with the observation that while the majority of high school seniors today plan to go to college, the truth is that less than half will graduate from college - a rate that drops to less than 20 percent for low-achieving students, who often must start their college careers with remedial courses for which they receive no college credit. "Meanwhile, they have wasted precious time and money that could have been spent on career-focused certificates or associate's degrees that have better outcomes than are generally recognized," note the article's authors, James Rosenbaum, Jennifer Stephan, and Janet Rosenbaum.

The outcomes include AAs in radiography earning salaries in the $80K range. Which I might add seems unfathomably high: It is considerably higher than what I earn with a PhD from an institution that the National Research Council recently ranked as one of the top programs in anthropology.

Here is where the question of meaning become critical in academia / higher education:

In everyday language and in formal policy discussions, the word "college" is used as a synonym for "bachelor's degree." Colleges have much more to offer than just four-year degrees - and recognizing that fact would go a long way toward rescuing the college-for-all-movement.

A friend commented to me on Facebook that "college will never be for everyone": I think what we both mean is that the pursuit of the four-year / bachelor's degree is not for everyone. Not to mention an education in the liberal arts, which I think traditionally has defined the four-year / bachelor's degree.

Another point about meaning: "Students are understandably surprised to learn that 'high school competency" does not indicate 'college readiness.'" Huh. In my experience, I have learned that this is true in fact, but I am surprised to learn that this is true in intent, too.

An especially interesting observation in the article is their comment that too many students in high school tend not to be especially well informed "about" college: They know they "ought" to go, but they do not know that fewer than half will graduate. The authors suggest that students enter college with unrealistic expectations - which themselves make it even less likely that they will succeed - because adults are withholding information and as result misleading them. In part, this might be because some adults, like parents, might or might not have attended college and have the experience to share with their children. Or at a time when the ratio of high school guidance counselors to students is 1 to 284+, the advice is fairly general, with not much detail shared, let alone individual counseling.

Even more significant, I think, is that the rah-rah routine to cheer students into college appears to be part of a larger cultural or social value placed on, well, rah rah routines in general - especially when as they concern adults promoting and / or protecting children's well being.

We are mystified by what we are increasingly seeing as idealism that prevent optimal outcomes across youth-related fields. We think our society's tendency to advocate BAs for all is a good example of this problem. Somehow, across fields, we must find a way of being honest with our youth without crushing their dreams. Short term, the truth about college might be disheartening. Long term, knowing the truth is the only way to accomplish one's goals.

For another time: How to talk to talented undergraduate students about (sigh) graduate school.

No comments:

Post a Comment