• I met with a student yesterday before class who left me feeling at a loss.  I am struggling, yet again, to set realistic expectations when it comes to writing.

    The student came to me wanting to make sure he understood what I was asking in an upcoming essay.  After we had worked together to clarify and develop a strategy to complete the assignment, we had a few minutes to talk.  “Who are you?”  I asked.  “I mean, when you’re not at school, what’s your life like?”

    Like so many at UMass Boston, the student is “non-traditional.” He’s probably in his forties. Emigrated as a teen to Cape Verde from Angola with his parents. Married and had two children in Cape Verde, came to the US, served in the military, brought his wife and kids over, has worked in law enforcement for decades. He puts in 70 hours a week in his job and has one child in a Boston Public “exam” school (competitive entrance) and the other in a private school. He knows five languages; his spoken and written English are rough. Unlike many I teach, he  is an incisive thinker and is unfailingly prepared when he is in class. And he is always in class. When I asked him what “year” he is, he responded by telling me he doesn’t think in terms of “years.” He thinks in terms of courses. He has eight courses left until he earns his undergraduate degree. Taking two courses a semester, he will be on track to graduate in the next couple of years.

    After the student left my office, I began to second-guess myself.  I give lots of feedback to students on even short assignments. I ask them to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, verb tenses, and word choice.  I expect them to proof read, and if they don’t, I ask them to revise and resubmit. I insist students move from summary to abstract analysis, and I ask them to cite with precision. Am I asking too much? How would I fare were I working more than full time, raising children, and commuting to a campus to earn a degree?

    These questions woke me at 4 A.M.  I was filled with a sense of overwhelming shame as I imagined how hard many (but not all) of my students are trying to get ahead. I don’t want to be condescending. I don’t want to lower expectations to the point that students aren’t making genuine progress on writing, either, which I continue to believe essential. Why essential?  If students can’t analyze text, can’t formulate actual thoughts in writing, then how well can they handle bank loans, elections, job applications? Don’t these students deserve to be taught how to express themselves eloquently? Should the ability to craft a sentence belong only to the American elite?

    Teaching writing takes time. Learning to write takes time. What to do when students’ most precious possession is time?

    More questions than answers this morning.

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  • Two well-written and reasoned pieces responding to Marco Rubio’s assertion that we need more welders and “less” philosophers:

    — one by Scott Timberg in Salon

    — one by Farai Chideya in Five Thirty Eight Politics

    Both question assertions about pay as well as the false opposition between liberal arts and vocational educations.  My favorite bit: a reference to Matthew B. Crawford’s short, smart book, Shopcraft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.  Crawford (who earned a Ph.D. in phiosophy) argues for the importance of skilled, thoughtful manual workers.

    I was reminded, yesterday, also, of my favorite plumber, who is one of the best problem solvers I’ve ever known.  The guy can fix almost anything.  But that’s not why he’s so talented.  He thinks elegantly, assesses entire systems, and generates solutions that are so ingenious they sometimes make me laugh.

    Rubio and others out to ding the humanities would impress me a whole lot more were they, themselves, able to express with eloquence and inspire.  But for that, they’d probably need — dare I write this — a first-class liberal arts education.

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  • Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio seems to have distilled his education policy during tonight’s debate. “Welders make more money than philosophers,” declared the Florida senator. “We need more welders and less philosophers.”

    If Rubio is serious about education, he shouldn’t draw an artificial line between welders and philosophers. This country will not get stronger by assuming that workers who “do” don’t think…and that those who think don’t “do.”

    Our next president needs to value an education system that values critical thinking as well as practicality. Workers can’t adjust to markets’ demands if they can’t reason.  Neither can they find employment without practical skills.

    Perhaps Rubio’s handlers can teach him a few grammar lessons (when, for instance, to use “less” and when to use “few”) while they help him generate a more sophisticated approach to education, one that doesn’t pander to the current right-wing penchant for humanities bashing. As journalist Fareed Zakaria has written in The Washington Post, Republicans seem to delight in asserting that “[a] liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.” At the same time, Zakaria writes, “[n]o matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.”

    Here’s to an expectation that all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, affirm students’ rights to speak, read, and write clearly.  And here’s a wish for the coming year, when Americans will be choosing a new president: may candidates work for a world where philosophers get paid welders’ wages and where welders are assumed to think as nimbly as philosophers.

     

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