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Gussie Fink-Nottle Harris Tweed Wednesday. . .

As above. . .

So below.

Don't fret, ladies and gentlemen!  I tamed that pocket square with a mind of its own and stuffed it back down in my pocket just after snapping these photos early this last Wednesday morning.

Woody Allen remarked in a 1977 New York Times article, "Showing up is 80 percent of life."  

Someone, anyone, please inform those numerous undergraduate neer'do'wells I have each semester, who, despite having all of this information on the syllabus from Day One -- and keep in mind we talk incessantly about these assignments in my courses in the run up to paper due dates (Shame on me!  It's the way my courses are designed) -- somehow cannot manage to develop, polish, and turn in on time (if at all) four 3-4 page, double-spaced papers.  

Keep in mind, there isn't even a research component to these four assignments, due at four-week intervals.  Students must simply formulate carefully focused, reasoned, thesis-based discussions using evidence from a single text or film (they may choose between two), depending on the course.  Sure.  15-20% of students in each course take the assignments seriously, rise to the challenge, develop well-crafted work, and manage to avoid falling back on a litany of bizarre excuses about why they somehow don't have their work finished.  Alien abduction anyone?  Yes, I have a policy on the course syllabi regarding late work.  How mean of me.

And as for the quality of the work from most of the rest of the undergrads I see each semester?  Clearly, formulating a short discussion that features focus, clarity, and evidence of something more than the most superficial grocery list of thoughts, or just pure plot summary, eludes them.  Yes, yes.  I can almost hear the chorus of indignant protests now.  "Why don't you teach them then and stop moaning about it?"  Ok.  Here ya go.

One, these aren't remedial courses we're talking about.  Two, by the time I get them (freshmen through seniors mind you), students have already completed the first year writing requirements at some point.  Three, all of my courses nevertheless feature a writing component, so in fact we do spend quite a bit of time discussing the actual writing process over and above the specific course content.  Four, thanks to graduate school training (student-centered teaching), teaching experience since the mid-1999s, and more recent reading and research, I am well aware of and utilize current pedagogical thought in my teaching, and constantly adjust my practices in the classroom as a result in the eternal search of that elusive magical key that will unlock the door and somehow help ALL of my students to perform at the high end of the grading scale.  In other words, what transpires in my classrooms ain't the old school, sink or swim, lecture. . .  lecture. . .  lecture.  Perhaps most important, to learn, students must actually be open to the possibility of learning.  It's a two-way street, something that many people, from students and their parents to educational commentators of all stripes, conveniently forget.   

Alas, there is the rate of diminishing returns to consider with regard to how many figurative handstands, forward rolls, tightrope walks, complex springboard leaps, and high-flying trapeze tricks I can do as an instructor (lesson planning and the variety classroom activities)When you think about it too much, it's enough to drive one to drink.  Or you become even more of a filthy elitist than I am already.  You start to think that maybe, just maybe we ought to make public, post-secondary education much more competitive than it has become, and we drastically reduce the number of incoming freshman across the country each year to ONLY the best and brightest.  Young people who demonstrate genuine intellectual talent, or who exhibit particular skills that can be channeled into preparing them to be the leaders of tomorrow in their respective fields instead of a bunch of (barely) credentialed worker bees, who can't seem to string together a coherent thought about much of anything, much less to think critically about what they see and hear.  

Now before anyone screams foul, I've run into students from all walks of life who demonstrate real ability where the ol' gray matter is concerned.  At the same time, perhaps we should consider making the college admissions process here in the U.S. more rigorous and selective.  What??!  Shock!  Horror!  Gasp!  Light your torches!  Organize a lynch mob!  There.  I said it.  Relax though.  It seems highly unlikely that will ever happen in a country where we are doing our utmost to throw open the doors to everyone with even the vaguest notion of why they think they need a college or university degree.  You can just march me out into the quad and stone me to death now for having the brass cajones to voice my dark thoughts, but we have done it to ourselves.  This is what we have come to, and we should be extremely worried (the tongue in cheek nature of much of this post notwithstanding).  

The lack of seriousness and intellectual preparedness for a four- or five-year undergraduate course of study is not just the fault though of our K-12 system, so often the preferred whipping boy every time the shortcomings of our education system in the United States come under scrutiny.  We have become, it seems, incapable of looking at ourselves more closely as a society.  Teachers can only work with what they are given.  I'll be so bold as to say that the problem of (higher) education begins, as so much else does, at home.  Let's look instead at the family of origin.  If children do not come from homes where basic curiosity, the importance of learning and education, or, for that matter, self-improvement through normal legal channels are stressed -- or at the very least Mom, Dad, or whoever do not tell the kids to settle down, shape up at school, and do their damn homework -- then of course they will not be open to learning new things and will underperform as young adults once they take up space on a college or university campus somewhere. 

Changes need to happen at home before more children and young adults can begin to take education as a whole more seriously and value it to a much greater degree than too many people seem to within the United States of the the 21st century.  We are incredibly spoiled as a society and take far too much for granted.  Education here is no longer seen as a wonderful opportunity and huge privilege that many elsewhere in the world still do not enjoy.  Instead, it has been reduced to being a credential pure and simple.  A series of hoops you must jump through before you get that piece coveted of paper.  Nothing more.  If even the pretense of education interferes with our collective fascination with our own terminally and perpetually wired belly-buttons -- that is when we aren't keeping up with Honey Boo-Boo, the Duck Dynasty people, the Khardashians, or the idea of getting something for nothing -- then a substantial portion of  the population isn't interested.  How terribly sad.

My own uninformed opinion on the matter -- Because, of course, how in the world would I know what I am talking about in our post-truth era? -- is that too many incoming freshmen arrive on campus each fall with their minds already made up about the world and thus closed to new information about it and the (intellectual) experience of it.  Too many of them, and their parents, view college and university as little more than vocational training and a way to extend adolescence without any sort of commitment to anything.  Sure, there are some young minds -- and again, I see them from MANY of the  socioeconomic backgrounds that make up our variegated patchwork of a society -- who are ready for all that college or university lecture halls, classrooms, and labs have to offer.  They work hard to expand and add to their knowledge base and perfect their related skills.  Sadly, however, these students are in the minority.

So, I've gotten tricky.  I have begun issuing eight-page (EIGHT PAGES for three-four page assignments!!!) assignment packets that are posted online two weeks before an assignment is due.  In short, students get a specific paper prompt, extremely detailed and explicit  instructions on the writing process, suggestions for clarifying their work and adding additional details to it, pointers on how to polish their work, which includes seeing a trained graduate student tutor in our Writing Center (before scheduled peer review days in class, and a checklist of things to address before delivering that final (hopefully polished copy of said paper as well as a copy of the grading rubric that will be used by me to assess the papers.  All in one packet.  

Finally, at the rear of that same packet are two additional pieces of information.  One, there is a list of a dozen questions to help student write a single-page reflective and self-evaluative letter to themselves on how they have gone about the writing process, what grade they might objectively assign their work, and an explanation of why.  Last, there is also an anonymous sample of solid student work written for the very same assignments one year ago in the same courses, so current and future students can see what a well-developed written discussion looks like for the paper in question.  Not necessarily perfect examples, but thoughtful, reasoned, informed discussions that are presented well.  These types of papers are what set a few students each semester apart from the rest of their fellows.  In other words, those who don't get it, don't care, or whine incessantly yet remain unwilling to apply the mental elbow grease required to earn better grades.  Returning to Mr. Allen's observation above, high grades in a college or university course result from more than simply showing up.

And before you ask, yes.  I've had various curricular development experts on campus and fellow professors assist me with the development of this assignment packet project, so it is not written or presented in a way that will confuse the intended undergrad audience.  Let's see if it helps more of the little darlings to succeed?   Oh, yes.  I know.  What a mean, rigid, and unreasonable professor I am!  Totally uncommitted to helping the vast bulk of my students at a state university succeed.  You're absolutely right.  I should be horsewhipped to within an inch of my life.  Of course, students have got to be willing to come to the metaphorical table in the first place, and I am pretty firmly convinced, after two decades at the front of the classroom, that only a small percentage of undergraduates are willing to do so given our long established anti-intellectual climate here in the United States.  

To the 15-20% of my students who get it, bless you.  You make my job easy, at times even fun, and you remind me daily of what I most enjoy about the life I have chosen for myself and have worked hard to attain.  Working with young minds.  Not to shape them in my image necessarily, but to help them think for themselves, about the world, and about their place or future role in it.  And occasionally I learn from those same young minds too.  Learning, you see, never stops.

For everyone else, here are some hard words of advice you might not want to hear.  Hit the damn books!  Get serious.  Show up prepared.  Do the reading.  Take notes while you read and during class.  Think about things from more than one side and beyond a superficial level.  Look alive.  Get off your asses.  Ask questions.  Don't be afraid to disagree or challenge, but have a well-formulated, thoughtful alternate approach worked out rather than a superficial knee-jerk reactionBe able to walk us clearly through your thought process Put up, or shut up in other words.  If you're enrolled in the course, make it your business to try harder, work more efficiently, stop your incessant multitasking, focus, concentrate, and  -- Surprise! -- you will do better where your assignments and the related grades are concerned.  See my remarks from a few years ago about how to do well in college or university courses

In sum, demonstrate that you are engaged in what is going on in the classroom around you and do not simply take up space as you check your text messages under the table of deskDon't whine about a mediocre grade later because it challenges how you have been led to see yourself and your abilities by overly involved and indulgent helicopter parents, who have stuffed you with empty praise up to this point.  Life involves much more than simply putting on clean underpants each morning, playing with your Iphone while ignoring the world around you, or simply showing up.  You need to do more than that to make an appreciable mark on the world.  Now where's that bottle of Thunderbird?

-- Heinz-Ulrich


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