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.

Offline File Sharing?

This is more of an artistic statement than anything else, but I love the idea of transplating USB ports into places “offline.’ The vision behind this project – dubbed Dead Drops – is perhaps a touch anarchistic. After all, it seems as though the prime motivation to share files in an “offline” setting is to make the sharing of pirated videos and music “safer.”

With that said, it amazes me that the artists (is that what we should call them?) behind this project seem to take for granted the way in which they see their digital lives as inextricably connected to their non-digital lives. Why shouldn’t we cement USB ports into walls? After all, if we’re carrying our laptops everywhere we go, what’s so strange about finding files in a wall, just as you might find a note left in the cracked cement of a bathroom stall?

Dear Diary

I have always been somewhat of a sporadic “diary writer.” Family and friends used to gift me with blank notebooks when they learned that I enjoyed writing, yet I would only write a few entries here and there in each new blank book I received. For whatever reason, I was not compelled to write to myself, unmotivated to write down my thoughts simply for me.

I’ve only begun thinking about journals and journaling again as I’m reading Anita Loos’ novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the class that I’m TAing this quarter. And yes, I, too, did not realize that the Marilyn Monroe film was actually based upon a novel!

The novel, as it turns out, is written is written in a simple epistolary form as “the illuminating diary of a professional lady.” Lorelei, our purported “authoress,” claims she’s a woman with “brains,” but she has no patience for books and little interest in the world outside of commerce. She feigns interest in art, but immediately demands a shopping trip after an exhausting day at the museum.

In any case, the novel is a wry satire of materialist American culture, but I think what struck me most was the fact that a novel like this one would not entirely be relevant with a modern rewriting. Sure, there are abundant stories and films about gold-digging, attractive women like Lorelei, but it seems to me that the “book as diary” has become outmoded.

After all, who keeps a diary anymore when blogs are such a prevalent part of our cultural consciousness?

Of course, at its core, there is one distinct difference between a diary and a blog: one is private while the other is public. However, it seems that many blog writers are unafraid to compose private thoughts in a public space and, indeed, seem to receive a lot of positive reinforcement and feedback to do so via comments and post sharing.

Of course, it is wise as a blog writer to gauge what’s appropriate to share in a public space (and what would protect our identity and whatnot), but I know that when I write personal thoughts online, there’s something that feels remarkably accepting about it. When I write here, for example, I don’t fear judgment even though I know that someone other than me is going to read this entry.

Interestingly enough, when I wrote privately, I am perhaps more self-conscious of my writing than I am now, for when I write to only myself, I am aware that my own judging self may return to those words years later and wonder why I was so foolish/selfish. I think there was a part of me that was sometimes afraid of facing my innermost thoughts; devoting them to paper made them real.

For better or for worse, writing in a public space has liberated me from some of these anxieties. Of course, I’m not necessarily writing my “inner-most” thoughts here, but I am getting some thoughts on paper, making that effort to express myself in some tangible way. After all, as Lorelei writes, “a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.” It may be frightening to commit any thoughts to writing, especially ones that are personal, but I think an online space has made that process easier, perhaps because of the very fact that it is public and that I am aware of a readership that (in theory) cares a little bit about what I might say.

I-TwitterBot

Sure, I have a Twitter account. I used to follow taco trucks in L.A. via Twitter regularly. Alas, taco trucks are a (sadly) nonexistent entity in the great wilds of Davis and I’ve found little use for it otherwise.

Yet understanding Twitter seems to be an essential component to understanding not only contemporary pop culture, but also changing literacy practices. I happen to like the idea of micro-blogging; to restrict one’s thoughts to 140 characters is an amazing exercise in discipline and creativity, much like six-word memoirs.

Aside from guilt at not yet starting a Twitter account, this is a short post to share the following video:

First: Escape and Control is a really cool channel on YouTube started by journalist Jon Ronson.  Each video within the channel is a “micro-documentary” including an interview with someone who “controls the Internet” in even the most minute way. Fascinating stuff, I think!

This particular (and most recent) interview especially captured my interest. Ronson interviews Tim Hwang, a web analyst with The Web Ecology Project about the creation of “TwitterBots.” Hwang and some of his colleagues made fake Twitter accounts, entirely run by robots, and determined which bots earned (supposedly) human followers and which ones tanked. Through the bots, Hwang and his colleagues were attempting to determine what attracted Twitter users to others and how people make connections online.

Seeing how people respond to the bots really makes me question what it is that “makes us human” in online spaces. How do we know that the written qualities that we deem as quintessentially human – e.g. wit, intellectualism, creativity –  cannot, in fact, be reduced to a program? How do we determine authorship in cyberspace and in what ways do increasingly sophisticated bots complicate our struggle to distinguish human from digital rhetoric?