Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: August 2012

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Success or Failure in Higher Education: A Case Study

Hello All!
    New student orientation began yesterday at the GSAS... I hope it is all going well! New students, share your thoughts on the blog about how it is going and what your thoughts/ first impressions are!
   So, I just sat down to read the latest digital issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (ooh, note to self, I actually have to renew that subscription... I think it was my last one!) and I was struck by the Point of View article entitled "The Struggle to Make Sure Learning Takes Place," by Katherine Gekker. (It's on the last page of the issue -- check it out!) It's an anecdotal tale about one of Gekker's experiences as an adjunct professor teaching a Composition class in a large community college. Gekker explains that the course takes place at 6:30 AM and that it is a lab course in which "individualized tutorial" is built into the class. She also explains that many of her students are not native English speakers and that students get placed in this course because of a "deficien[cy] in writing" as deemed by the college.
    FIRST OF ALL, can we discuss briefly (and then more in depth later) the fact that this course is offered at 6:30 am. in the morning?? I almost cried when I read that, imagining the type of grit and determination and maybe even desperation it must take for these students to need a 6:30 am class. They are probably going to work after class, full-time, and then having to come home from that full day of work to do homework. Now, I know I am a graduate student writing her dissertation and also working at another day-job unaffiliated with my program, and also teaching one course a semester -- so yeah, pretty fully loaded myself -- but I still got emotional when I thought about the 6:30 show-up time for College Comp I. I really respect and admire these students.
    Gekker's article wants to ask the question, how can a professor ensure learning takes place? To do this, she tells the story of Helen, a student who hands in a paper that seems way beyond the skills she has shown in the classroom. Gekker confronts Helen about this paper; Helen finally admits she had help from a friend. Gekker fails her, and then Helen attempts to lay down the law, saying Gekker is way too strict, and to threaten Gekker with the prospect of bad ratings on, which will lead to no one signing up for her class, which will lead to no job in the future...
    WHAT IS THIS??? It seems like something made up on The Daily Show or something... "You'll never get a hot pepper from ME or ANYONE!!!!!!!!"
    The dean recognized this as a threat, and gave Gekker the go-ahead to reprimand Helen, and the threats stopped...
    And even though Helen had started to put some good quality effort in mid-semester, with one-on-one tutorials with Gekker and probably some revisions and do-overs, the whole story ends with Helen failing the class because she stops showing up with 5 weeks to go. She ultimately had to re-take College Comp and now has an F on her record. Gekker hopes she taught some people English, and will sign up again to teach Comp, despite the exortion attempt.
    So, what is the real moral of this anecdote? I mean, what is the take-away, for graduate student teachers or anyone teaching as a professor in a college setting? I am still trying to figure it out. To me, it is a highly frustrating story by all accounts... It almost seems like everyone failed.
    First, it is frustrating that this course took place at 6:30am. I'm sorry; I can't get over that. I already feel like that is too much to ask of students AND the professor. I know some people are early birds but I just can't imagine the expectation that everyone shows up at each class ready to go and ready to learn. It is already a losing battle, to me. Maybe it is the only option for some people who are choosing to get an education, but that is exactly what is sad and frustrating to me. What has America become?? Why is life here such a desperate struggle for some people? Do you think this kind of schedule exists in Europe?? They would go out of their minds to learn that some people enroll in 6:30 am classes out of necessity here. It is bonkers to me that life has gotten this way here. I KNOW students are doing that because they want to get ahead and have to go to great extremes to do so, and that saddens me. My income and work situation isn't the greatest either, and so I empathize with and admire these students and this professor who are working with what they are given and have made these choices in order to better themselves.
     Second -- and I guess this point is really at the heart of why I think this whole story amounts to one big frustrating failure -- is that how is giving an F to someone who got help from a friend a good educational move? I have helped friends before on papers, and I'm SURE that friend has learned something while I was helping them. Why is getting help with something an automatic F? I understand that college is supposed to develop your skills and critical thinking, but why can't that include learning that is generated by peers and not strictly by the professor? It seems to me that the professor thinking that she is the only one who can guide Helen in her essay writing is self-defeating and not efficient. I am not saying that students should buy their papers or let other people do their homework FOR them, but if a student gets outside help with a paper, is that automatically cheating? Is the only path to success getting help from your professor? What if the person had a tutor and the tutor helped them? Why is that bad? Isn't that learning, too?
      What are your thoughts about this article and these issues? Please help me sort this out -- I'd love a discussion here about teaching methods, ethics, and the philosophy behind learning in a college setting. Thanks to all the readers who have been checking in this summer. Please share your thoughts! Until next time, Liza Z.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dissertation Day: Exploring My Writing Process

 Hello Readers!
     Happy Monday morning; time for another Grad.Life blog post! I hope everyone had a nice weekend and is looking forward to a productive week. Today will be a big dissertation writing day for me because I am off from my other job. It feels good to have a whole day ahead to use for my dissertation -- on the other hand, sometimes on a day like today I get overwhelmed by the pressure to accomplish a huge amount of work. It is like being in a small boat in the vast ocean, knowing you have to row yourself to the opposite shore; by the end of the day, you still can't even see your destination. In fact, the starting point behind you seems closer than the end-point. Maybe I should just turn around and lie on the beach....
     The thing about writing a dissertation is that you do have to treat it like a work task rather than a creative work springing forth from your brain and fingertips. I have fantasies of sitting down and magically producing page after page of my current chapter, my fingertips flying gracefully over the keyboard as elegant sentences and arguments flow into my Word document as easily as wine into a glass at a summer rooftop party. (You may, indeed, use my analogies to induce what I'd rather be doing right now.) But I've learned over the last few years that those kind of days rarely happen for me. In fact they only happen, at least for me, at the very beginning of a draft. After I get the basic thoughts down into something that is chapter length, the real work begins. It involves tedious, pain-staking, paragraph-by-paragraph, sometimes sentence-by-sentence revision. Sometimes revision is not enough a strong enough word.
   As I've begun new chapters, I've tried to change this style of writing; I've tried to go from my research and notetaking stage to the drafting stage in a more graceful way, a way that would eliminate this pain-staking revision stage that I have found myself in time after time; but so far, it hasn't worked out. It seems my process is that after a period of research (usually having generated only a percentage of what I will eventually need to complete the chapter), I feel compelled, like a surfer being caught by the swell of a wave, to create a document and begin the "Draft File." This is often what I enjoy the most; blocks of time disappear as I type, getting lost in the "work." But as enjoyable as this stage is for me, I am never doing my future self any favors. This draft is usually a piece of junk.
    I guess my problem has been not being able to fight that compulsion to begin writing. My adviser always says that I shouldn't fight it -- that if I am being compelled to write it is because I need to think through my material and argument through the act of writing. In other words, the resulting crappy draft is not the point of the exercise; it is the thinking that occurs while writing the crappy draft. In fact, I could probably just delete the whole thing after I write it and I'd be no worse for wear.
But then, of course, once all that writing is down into the file, I CAN'T BEAR TO DELETE IT. I can't even bear to ignore it. It has become something that I will mold, and re-shape, and nurture, maybe until it is completely unrecognizable, but never completely part with. I wish I could exorcise this always-too-early compulsion to draft from my writing process, but for now, I've resorted to it every time.
    After this current chapter, I will challenge myself once again to discover a different, perhaps more efficient, process... but for now, I am stuck with what I have -- which is a big messy 80 page document that will take me the next few weeks to craft into something readable and valuable.
     I am interested in learning about your writing processes -- and if you have any advice for this disseration writer! Please share your thoughts, gripes, and processes here!
Until next time, yours, Liza

Monday, August 6, 2012

Upcoming August GSAS dates; Thoughts on Penn State punishment

Hello Readers!
Welcome to August! We are in the home stretch of the "summer" -- Fall classes begin in less than a month! I hope everyone had a good summer session, whether teaching or taking a course. A couple of tidbits for you to chew on this week:
  • For all students in the GSAS, incoming and returning, the annual Welcome Back Rooftop Social will be held on August 28th. Click here for the Facebook Event invitation, and click "Join"! I have always enjoyed the Welcome Back Social -- a time to reconnect with everyone and gear up for another tough semester. It's nice to be in the library with other people instead of buried at a solitary desk under a pile of books amongst the stacks. Come one, come all! Put these events on your calendar -- this summer is going fast, and these dates will be here before you know it.
  • In university news around the nation, a big story that hit the airwaves several weeks ago was the Penn State punishment for its role in concealing the sex crimes committed by former coach Sandusky. (Check out The New York Times report on the story here.) Since then, there has been plenty of opinions and discussion about the severity of the punishment -- some editorials have come out saying the punishment is too lenient; others point out that the punihsment does nothing to put right the wrongs against the victims. Two days ago, President Obama spoke out on the subject in a radio interview in Ohio, asserting that the punishment fit the crime appropriately. Personally, I agree that the punishment should be harsh for the institution as whole -- this kind of thing must NEVER happen again -- but many Penn State graduates/ alumni fiercely oppose the punishment, outraged that the penalties hurt too many of the current and future students. As I read the coverage about the reactions from alumni and current students, I tried to put myself in their places -- if an institution with which I was or had been affiliated had committed such crimes of concealment, how would I feel? How would that change my own view of my held or pending degree, and how would it change the view of my degree by prospective employers or publishers? What do you think about the punishment? Leave your comments below.
Thanks for checking in! Until next time, Liza Z.