What Makes a College Education Valuable?

Over the weekend, I saw the documentary, Ivory Tower, and was prepared to be completely depressed.

Going in, I knew the documentary was about student loan debt; the trailer for the film revealed that the amount of student loan debt in the United States is now higher than credit card debt. This is a terrifying fact, of course, and one that has led news pundits, columnists, students, parents, and even scholars to ask, “Is a college education worth a lifetime of financial struggle?” What is the “value” of a college education?

As a college-educated, PhD-pursuing individual, I often recoil from questions like these. Of course a liberal arts education is valuable. Of course we’d all be better off if we had the kind of education that would make us effective communicators, critical thinkers, and stronger problem solvers. College is of course the place to do that. Where else do students have a safe and protected space to experiment with ideas and be in a community of supportive individuals who have devoted their lives to scholarly pursuits?

The more I think about my initial reactions, however, the more defensive I realize I can be. My bias is clear: I’ve invested my 20s in staying within an academic institution. I love the work I do and I want others to see the value that I think is to be gained from writing in a formal setting, in reading literature that’s challenging (and new), and learning how to read with an understanding of historical contexts, theoretical frameworks, and audience differences. I think school is a great place to do that because – well – that’s where I learned to do that. As a college student, I was lucky enough to have fantastic mentors.

I can still remember sitting in the office of one of my college mentors, crying after I was rejected from a fiction workshop I applied for. He was sympathetic without pandering to my needs; he offered to read my fiction for me the next time I applied for a workshop and later, even suggested that I try something new: poetry. Having a mentor to help guide my choices, to steer me in productive directions, and to help me move forward from failures was, in no hyperbolic terms, life-changing. I felt empowered by a mentor like this; I saw that I could change directions in my work and find new opportunities for success.

Throughout my college education, I was lucky enough to attend classes (at a large public research institution!) that frequently had fewer than twenty students enrolled. This might have been a result of the fact that I majored in English – a relatively small degree program – but it was within the context of those small seminars with faculty who I knew were invested in my education and writing that in many ways inspired me to go into academia. Of course, I can’t ignore the influence supervising a large writing center and conducting my own research had on my choices either, but the point is that I think the formal community I was a part of and the encouragement I received within that protected community gave me greater confidence in my skills and affirmed within me my interest (and I hope talent?) as an astute reader, writer, teacher, and researcher.

I think these kinds of institutions and structures are still important; where else can learning for the sake of learning be protected from diverging interests?

When I walked out of the theater, however, the thought that loomed for me was: “We need better college teaching.” I know that my college education wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable for me had it not been for the professors I had who were not only fantastic researchers, but were above all, mentors and educators. A student going into massive amounts of debt for their college education gets little out of the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall and passively absorbing a “sage on the stage’s” experience.

As a PhD student, I’ve received very little teacher training. Before I was a TA as a first-year graduate student, I attended one three-hour workshop on “teaching” that wound up mostly being about how to report student plagiarism and what to do if students get hostile or violent. While I’m glad I was prepared for an emergency situation, I learned very little about pedagogy until I took a writing pedagogy course in the last quarter of my first year. While that course was useful, I know that I could have used more training about classroom management, lesson planning, and mentoring from the day I stepped on to Davis’s campus. I was not totally unprepared to teach since I had received ample training as a writing center tutor and supervisor, but without that experience, I would have been completely lost.

Nothing can replace individualized education, and the whole reason we have institutions of higher learning is for people to connect, interact, and collaborate. Without that connection, there is no reason to fork up thousands of dollars. Sure, universities can offer networking opportunities and resources for professional development, but what I remember most from college are the small interactions I had and the opportunities to learn within smaller groups and  directly from faculty.

As someone who has designed and taught in hybrid (i.e. partially online) learning environments, I also see potential for capitalizing more on this technology and allowing students greater “flipped” learning experiences. But I think that this doesn’t replace good teacher training and opportunities for professors and professors-in-training to know what it takes to engage and motivate students to push themselves and their thinking even more. Working in groups and communicating is key no matter what profession students enter into, and college can be a place to cultivate those skills in a safe space.

With that said, these kinds of interactions are not for everyone, and I also think that high school students could receive greater guidance on whether college is even the right choice for them and their ambitions. Every student should have the right to an education, but every student should also be educated on whether higher education is right for them. Greater financial literacy and an understanding of the effects of loans and debts on a student would be incredibly valuable.

Scholars could be a part of this conversation to educate college students. Much of the “humanities crisis” has revolved around the question of articulating the worth of our studies. However, I think scholars from every discipline could do more to articulate in concrete terms what their studies provide and communicating the value of their work to a broader prospective audience. I’ll admit that I occasionally still struggle to articulate clearly and concretely why my work matters; this is something I hope to get better at in the years that follow.

So, I still don’t if a college education is worth financial burden for every single student. What I do know is that as educators, we can make a college education worthwhile for our students if we continue to value our students, their contributions, and their learning. The more respect we maintain for our students, the more we can work with them to help them grow and make their experience meaningful.

The #alt-ac Conversation I Wish We Could Have

“You know, what you really want to do is create a personal brand,” the career counselor announced, a PowerPoint display glowing behind her with the image of a man in a suit shaking hands with a woman in power heels. I looked at the audience members around me, and I saw eye rolls, wry smiles, and head shakes. I heard groans, whispering. We were an audience of humanities PhD students, attending an event on non-academic career paths, a hot topic given the changing academic job market and its move towards privatization and “adjunctification.” In this moment, looking around the room, it was clear to me what the problem was: this counselor did not know her audience.

After all, this was an audience intensely critical of corporate models and language; we’re inclined to critique and unpack phrases like “personal brand” and its neoliberal implications. We’re also an audience that has a “personal brand” already; we’re scholars and instructors. That’s how we’ve identified for years. We didn’t want to be in power heels and suits. That wasn’t the point of getting a PhD.

And yet here we all were, wondering whether we were looking into a future of hand-shaking in power suits. Certainly not all “alt-ac” conversations are about branding and marketing, but I’m increasingly aware of how many seem to elide what seems to be a central issue: how does a group of people whose identities are so enveloped in their work, change their work, and consequently how they identify themselves?

So, I want to propose some points of conversation that I wish #alt-ac communities could have. Personally, I’m excited that there’s so much open conversation about pursuing alternatives to academia with PhD, and I feel comforted knowing that it is possible to pursue stimulating work using the immensely valuable skills I’ve developed in graduate school. With that said, I still have questions…

  • How do I prepare myself for multiple careers without going crazy? There’s a large part of me that thrives off of doing a several things at once. I currently manage a UC Davis undergraduate student blog, teach, and consult with graduate student writers while – you know – preparing to write a dissertation. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier; I love everything that I’m doing and in a perfect world, I think I probably would want my “ideal job” to be something that combines all of these interests. With that said, I don’t quite know how to be a “perfect” academic alongside all of these other interests too. How do I churn out articles, attend conferences, and network in several industries at the same time? Is it possible? Somehow, I feel like that’s what I’m expected to do, and I’m not sure if I can actually meet those expectations. I’d love to hear if anyone else had insight on this.
  • What industries value the PhD in the humanities? Where can I go to avoid “PhD stigma?” I find myself continually troubled by the stigma I experience when I tell people I’m getting a PhD in the humanities. I’ve been shocked by a lot of the backlash I’ve received when I’ve explained my choice to people; responses range from mocking derision (a smirk and a statement like, “Good luck with that”), to confusion (“What are you going to do with that?”) to dismissal (“Oh, so you’re going to become a teacher. Great.”). I know these attitudes are pervasive and, like all stereotypes, they are rooted in some truth. That said, I have no regrets about going to graduate school. I know that I’m a better project manager, communicator, and collaborative worker than I ever was as an undergraduate. My perspective on communicating with different audiences, of refining my writing for different purposes, and of working in teams has deepened considerably. That’s not to mention how positive my work environment has been; I’m constantly inspired and motivated by mentors and colleagues who are engaged, positive, and thoughtful. So, where can I go in the future, who can I talk to about these immense skills I’ve gained, and perhaps most importantly, who will actually listen?
  • How do I find ways to re-identify? I’ve always thought of myself as a student and writer. My work has always been really enveloped in my values. There’s not much I enjoy more than hashing out ideas with another writer, working together to clarify their thoughts and deepen their insights. Though I know that I am more than my work, my work – as an instructor and as a learner – is largely how I self-identify. So, choosing a career beyond academia seems challenging in some ways because it forces me not just to look for new forms of income, but also to identify myself differently. So, how do we shift our expectations? How can we find some ways to maintain that core of who we (think we) are while still being able to – well – eat and pay rent?
  • How do I remain part of an academic community even if I’m no longer in academia? I’ve found that I really enjoy being a part of academic communities; I feel like I’ve found “my people” in many ways. I know that I always want to surround myself with people who value academic thought in the ways that I do. Are there ways to identify without feeling like an outsider or a fraud?

So, I’m aware of the number of resources out there, but it’s worth unpacking questions about identity and work and how we – well – can view work positively without being delusional. There’s a goal!

Life in the Cube

For the first time in my life, I have a punch card.

That’s right: my hours inside an office are tracked.

Punch in. Punch out. Present. Absent. Working. Not working.

Shifting from a life of complete flexibility and fluidity to one with rules and set hours is jarring. But this kind of experience – a life where work is at work and coming home means actually being at home and no longer thinking about work – is something I’ve always kind of longed to experience. It’s funny; there’s a part of me that had this glorified vision of what it would mean to work an office. I’ve perhaps seen one too many films where nicely-dressed women in crisply-pressed suits flounce into desk chairs, receive incredible praise for writing memos and reports, and then earning oodles of cash at the end of the day. I somehow imagined that I could be this kind of “career woman,” one with professionalism, grace, and intelligence!

Of course, I chose a life of academia, one where I don’t ever wear crisply-pressed suits (and if I did, I’d likely garner more than a few strange looks) and one where my professionalism is not reflected through the ways I interact with my co-workers, but through the intellectual labor that I produce. So, to have this opportunity to live another life, to be another “Jenae” who negotiates office politics, who sits at a cubicle, and who does work that is not concerned with literacy, literature, or abstract theories, is one that’s important for me (if for no other reason than to dispel myself of that office life myth).

As it turns out, working in an office is kind of like working anywhere else, except that you don’t get to see too much sunshine during the day (though I have scouted out a prime lunch spot overlooking a canyon). Oh, and you’re also in front of computers a lot. That’s hard. But my tolerance for screens has improved, so that’s a plus?

In spite of the fact that this internship is very much a way for me to do some career exploration, a week on this job has inevitably informed my academic interests. My mind can’t help but veer to digital literacy concerns!

Help documentation, as it turns out, is still something very much rooted in a logic of the print age: I spent two of my four days on the job simply combing through pre-existing help information in the form of “QuickStart” guides (which are basically step-by-step directions for how to complete certain functions within the software this company sells), “TechNotes” (which tend to give suggestions for “efficient workflow” processes using said software), and more traditional online “Help” supplements (remember Clippy? Like that, but not as invasive).

The company has tried implementing some Online Tutorials, too, which are Flash-powered slideshows with moving screenshots of different functions in the software, but even these cater to a logic that seems somehow incongruous with an experience working on a computer. All of these help guides suggest that there is one very particular way to go about completing certain tasks and using this software.

Now, again, as a newb on the job, perhaps I’m making a certain amount of unfair assumptions: indeed, it may be true that these kinds of linear, step-by-step manuals are the best way to teach people how to use software. However, given the fact that I’ve been so invested in pedagogy for the past… several years, I cannot help but scoff at the idea that this kind of passive learning could be effective.

Let me get this straight: the manuals are incredibly well-written and detailed. They contain so much valuable information for a new user. But is a user who relies upon this kind of help actually going to learn the ins and outs of the software? It seems to me that tinkering, toying, and getting your hands dirty in the process is the only way to truly – well – LEARN.

But how does one really learn tasks that are almost entirely reliant upon memorization and experience? After all, I’m used to helping people learn about writing, a nebulous process enveloped primarily in critical thinking and analytic skills. Using software like the one I’ve been learning does not require critical thinking per se; it just requires a little bit of logic (“So, when you press the ExamType button, you see codes for different exam types. Who knew?”) and some memorization.

I’ve been tasked with making a particular “modality” (i.e. mammography functions) within the software my company represents more “interactive.” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means (without suggesting the extreme intervention of a programmer to make me something awesome). Thus far, much of my time has been spent simply trying to use the pre-existing help myself to learn how to use this software. And you know what? I’ve actually found that a balance between the linear help and my non-linear playing has been the most useful for me. What has really helped me to learn this software is both reading, playing with the program, and re-purposing the information myself from taking notes to categorizing the software functions to imagining myself in different user roles using the program.

The only role I can’t seem to escape is one of a “digital native;” I’m unafraid to press buttons, to see what certain links do and do not do. I can imagine that many of the people using this software (i.e. radiologists transferring from print records to electronic) may not feel the same way. This, however, is the audience I have to remember as I consider re-purposing this work.

As I continue to punch in and punch out each day for the following five weeks, I’m hoping I’ll experience increasing clarity about how to best spend that time punched in, and keep myself even more “punched in” to thinking in an entirely new way.

The Shortcut Divide

“Wait, wait, what is it that you highlighted? Do I click here?”

“Do I need to get the YouTube BEFORE I make the post?”

“Hold on: what are you doing exactly? What button did you press?”

These are questions I hadn’t thought about.

“Oh, um, you just highlight the URL. You know, the long series of words that are in this bar – yes, this one.”

“It’s the button with the music note and the camera. You see that? There?”

“So, I just clicked the ‘video’ button. Yeah, where it says ‘video.'”

It’s easy to take for granted the processes online that feel so natural to those of us who have used computers for as long as we can remember.

Yesterday, I attended the last portion of a WordPress workshop for middle school and high school history teachers led by UC Davis Digital History developer Phillip Barron. I was asked to give a small presentation on the functional literacy project I developed for UWP 270 as well as any tips or experiences I had about working with WordPress.

Frankly, I’m not sure I had too much to offer (I still have so much to learn myself!). The main piece of advice I gave was not to have fear. Looking out at the group, mostly absorbed in their laptops, I couldn’t help but remember that feeling I get almost every time I sit in front of a computer and start a new project. For the most part, when I sit with my hands upon the keys, trying to figure out how to tweak the code of a webpage, I alternate between fear, frustration, and impatience. I know that it is within my control to change whatever it is that I want to change, but I do not intuitively know how to manipulate space on a screen. It takes me a long time to figure out how to do something new.

I felt really impressed with the group that was there because I know how challenging it is to change the way that we think about our work. Learning is fun. Learning is exhilarating. But much of the time, learning is also really, really hard.

So, there was a part of me that felt like a huge hypocrite standing at the front of the room, speaking about pushing past fears as if it was something I had already done. But after I gave my “talk,” I helped individual teachers work on their webpages, and I realized that I did have something to offer: patience. If there’s something that teaching has taught me, it is the patience to help people when they’re struggling, to listen through struggles, and to find solutions.

I realized that even as I struggle and complain about my own technical incompetency, I still have the major advantage of being young, of growing up knowing how to copy and paste, of understanding what a hyperlink and a URL is, of opening up millions of tabs on my screen and being able to effortlessly click among them. The concept I found I helped the participants with the most was just that: copying, pasting, choosing the right buttons to do certain actions.

For many of the things participants wanted to do, I had already found shortcuts. And that, I realized, was the source of the divide between my experience with computers and many of these workshop participants’ experience with computers: I felt comfortable enough with the fluid processes of using a computer and browsing the Web that I wasn’t afraid to take shortcuts and cut corners. The workshop participants, however, wanted every step laid out in sequential order; they wanted to know exactly what to press and when to press it.

There’s clearly no wrong way to use a computer, but the desire for linearity, for seeing all of the steps, for making the process of using a computer transparent surprised me a little bit. It shouldn’t have, of course. After all, what have I been reading about all year? The inherent discomfort in our postmodern tendencies to shake up the order of our lives, to see our lives and experiences as disconnected and fragmented. The shortcuts might seem easier, but for someone entering a new world and a new way of thinking, they can simply be baffling.

If nothing else, yesterday was a good reminder of why I’m so fascinated with and interested in the intersections between literacy technology: the way we use the devices so central to our lives changes the ways that we think about leading our lives. I think after yesterday, I’m even more motivated now to think closely this summer about how I’m going to adapt to teaching in a computer classroom and how I might consider integrating 21st century literacies into my formal writing class.

New Quarter Technology Goals!

I had the enormous pleasure of spending the past week (i.e. my spring break) in San Diego and Los Angeles, taking plenty of time away from the computer and gazing at beaches (and even seals!)

Alas, a new quarter has begun and I’m back to reality and gazing instead at that familiar soft glow of the computer screen.

Each quarter, I like to take some time to reflect and consider what I could improve upon both as an instructor and as a student. To be honest, most of these goals have more to do with my personal development in the tech world than it does with my role as an instructor. This imbalance in goal-making is somewhat out of necessity; as a T.A., I don’t have a lot of flexibility about the use of learning management systems or implementing particular technological requirements. My role is primarily one of support. I don’t say this to devalue my role as a T.A.; rather, I have a feeling that I’ll be more interested in setting more pedagogically-based goals once I have full rein over my own classroom!

TL;DR? Mostly professional goals here, not pedagogical goals. Here we go:

1. Continue work with Code Year 

I know, I know. This blog was supposed to be a space to work through my programming lessons. It’s been about six weeks (!!) since I’ve even opened the page for Codeacademy. In order to make the coding work less onerous, I think I just need to set smaller goals for myself. Earlier this year, I intended to finish a lesson at a time and not take a break until I finished each lesson. Alas, each lesson probably takes anywhere between 3-4 hours to complete, which, as a graduate student, is a significant amount of time to be spending at the computer doing work that is not grading, reading, or writing. With that said, I need to assure myself that it’s OK if I only complete one activity in a lesson per day! As long as I’m DOING the work and maintaining the programming vocabulary, I’ll be in good shape. Besides, I’d like to take advantage of some of the social networking integration and share my progress on Facebook to receive some digital pats on the back. No shame.

2. Port this blog to my own domain 

For my UWP 270 class last quarter, our final assignment was to create a webtext. I purchased a domain name for that project, but would like to use it as my website for all of my professional work (including this blog!). I loved the flexibility of WordPress’s software (as opposed to what’s available for use as part of their free domain) and would appreciate the ability to edit the CSS on this blog and tweak the design more to my liking.

Therefore, I need to take the time to figure out how to move the content from my project to another space and link this blog to my own domain name. I’m sure I’ll just need to tinker around to figure this out, but if anyone has any advice on this, I’d greatly appreciate it!

3. Keep up with technology news 

Everyone has their regular rotation of web browsing, I believe. My “regular rotation” primarily includes e-mail, UC Davis’s learning management site, Facebook, Twitter, and a few choice blogs. I’d like to integrate more technology news sites into my rotation, however, to keep myself current on issues that may be relevant to my research and pedagogy later. My short list of sites to start browsing more regularly are the Huffington Post’s Technology page and TechCrunch. Any other suggestions?

4. Maintain theoretical/thematic connections between seemingly unrelated coursework and digital literacy concerns 

OK, this may sound like an obtuse goal, but hear me out. As an English student, it is occasionally difficult to explain the intersections between digital literacy education, educational technology, and the study of literature. The connections are clearly there; digital literacy is shaping the ways in which literature is read. How could it not? However, as much of my coursework will primarily include engagement in critical theory and – well – fiction, I’d like to work towards creating final projects that more closely link my interests, so that I continue to develop my interests in the lens that interests me. I feel pretty confident at this point that I want my research to be ultimately very engaged with digitality in some way; I just don’t know how exactly yet. This is my job as a student now!

5. Keep this blog current! 

Not to get super meta or anything, but I think it’s crucial that I maintain my presence here in order to continue engagement with current digital literacy concerns. I’m somewhat notorious for starting blogs and abandoning them, contributing to the Internet’s considerable amount of cyberjunk and noise. I’d rather not throw more garbage to the ether. It takes discipline to maintain a writing schedule every day, but I intend to post something at least once a week, even if it’s just a link to an article I find or a quick reflection on something I learned in class that’s relevant to the intersections between technology and the humanities.

Cheers! To a new quarter!

Extra! Extra! On Rhetorical Newspaper Analyses

Have I mentioned here before that I work an additional job as a freelance (ghost) editor for a college and career counselor?

Well, I’m mentioning it now and for one reason in particular: the ubiquitous “newspaper rhetoric” assignment.

You know the one: choose three newspaper articles and analyze whether they “effectively” convey their purpose or not. (Something that follows these kinds of standards).

I’ve always had some trouble accepting this assignment and it primarily hinges upon the word, “effective.” Effective to whom? Effective for what? Effective to what ends? This seems to be a key piece missing in the explication of the assignment.

Anyway, as a freelance (ghost) editor, I basically revise whatever my boss sends me to revise. I’m completely invisible to the student; I make line edits in Microsoft Word, send those line edits and documents back to my boss, and he sends my line edits to the students. I don’t think the students know where these magical edits come from. I don’t think these students care.

All of that background aside, I’ve seen a surprising number of these newspaper rhetoric essays recently and, indeed, students seem to respond to them in roughly the same way, citing “objectivity” and “clarity” as signs of “effectiveness.”

Yet interestingly, they often choose newspaper articles that are neither “objective” nor particularly “clear.” Indeed, it seems that in every rhetoric assignment I’ve read thus far, students have been drawn to assessing articles composed as blogs rather than true-to-form “articles.”

My hunch is that students are not choosing blogs because they enjoy reading them; I imagine the student sits in front of the computer, opens the browser, goes to Google, types in the name of a current event, and voila! Blogs from major newspapers emerge as top hits. Students then go on to assume that these blogs serve the same function as “articles.” Boom, assignment completed.

To me, this is a fascinating phenomena for a few reasons:

1. Blogs are appearing as more frequent hits in search engines.

2. The tone of blogs are seemingly indistinct from those of news stories that high school students and college freshmen are familiar with.

3. On major newspaper websites, blog content seems privileged over regularly circulating news content.

Now, point1 gets us into a discussion of search engine optimization and other stuff I don’t really feel like thinking about. But points 2 and 3? Now those, to me, are worth discussing.

I don’t find it particularly troublesome that blogs themselves are privileged as news content. Indeed, we could get abstract here and assert, “What is objectivity, anyway?”

What troubles me is – well – students’ seeming lack of awareness over the ability to distinguish between these two genres. I could be assuming too much about these students; perhaps they DO recognize the blog is a blog (and not an article), but do not have the motivation to keep digging through the Internet to find an article and figure a blog will fulfill the assignment. Either way, apathy is at play. Isn’t that a touch distressing?

I think the solution to this problem comes with greater critical awareness of what it means to use a search engine, of what it means to find different kinds of articles and, perhaps most importantly, what it means to search carefully and discriminatingly.

Perhaps the most important question I have is: where should this kind of work be done? To me, if instructors are giving out these kinds of assignments, it should probably be done in the writing classroom. But, of course, how do high school teachers, for example, balance these kinds of concerns with those of curricular standards? I imagine that these kinds of rhetoric assignments are part of a common curriculum; how do teachers adapt? How do administrators adapt to make sure students are developing healthy browsing habits?