Monday, April 11, 2011

Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis by James E. Cote and Anton L. Allahar

Cote, James E., and Anton L. Allahar. Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. Buffalo, NY: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.

This book could come across as a rant about the loss of the good old days in higher education by two old and grumpy professors, except the authors present copious evidence that colleges and universities have lost their way a bit in the past few decades and the current problems besieging higher education (the recent arguments that students don’t learn anything, the complaints about the costs of tuition rising faster than inflation, the lawsuits from graduates having trouble finding jobs, and so forth) will only persist and worsen as the trends lamented by the authors continue. Overall, the authors argue that North American society has emphasized the importance of a college degree so much that an “arms race” in amassing degrees has taken place with unintended consequences of student disengagement, grade inflation, and the watering down of the value of a degree. The authors diagnose these problems and others, and present some potential solutions, but since this blog focuses on writing instruction, I will confine my review to how these issues affect student writing.

The problems the authors note explain much of the problems instructors see with student writing. Many times, I have witnessed a student get a paper returned, look at the grade, ignore the comments, and toss the paper in the trash can (or at best the recycling bin) when leaving class (I am sure I am not alone in witnessing this scenario as well; if you think this doesn’t happen in your classes, look in the trash after you return papers next time). The student who tosses a paper in the trash clearly not only doesn’t value her or his own writing, but also doesn’t value anything the instructor has to say about it. With such an approach, this student will never improve her or his writing much. Such a student is a model of what Cote and Allahar call “The Disengaged Student” (16). This student has been trained by the pre-college educational system to expect high grades for low work. To such a student, the work itself has little to no value on its own; it is just the latest in a series of hoops that he or she has resigned herself or himself to jump through in order to get credentialed so that he or she can get a higher-paying job after graduation. To such a student, a professor is just a gatekeeper to a middle-class lifestyle, merely an obstacle to be overcome, like the guard of a treasure vault to be disposed of by the hero in an action movie. Little wonder then that such a student doesn’t view college as transformational, or value learning for its own sake, or even see it as a means to develop skills that might be valuable down the road (and it takes very little forethought and enlightened self-interest to take the third approach). In the past, the authors claim, such students would have been drummed out of college quickly or would not even have entered it in the first place.

Today, they graduate.

What has happened to higher education?

Cote and Allahar are careful not to blame such a student entirely, as to a certain extent he or she is responding rationally to the environment he or she lives in. They do note that such students are short-sighted, but they place most of the blame on the conditions that allow such students to . . . well, “flourish” isn’t the right word, perhaps “subsist” fits better. They note a variety of causes including the emphasis on self-esteem as opposed to self-efficacy (70), “credentialism” (25), the high cost of college leading to students working which takes away from time available for studying (108), systems of faculty promotion that consider student evaluations (35), the use of “pre-digested” textbooks instead of primary materials (136-37), viewing a college education in economic terms rather than educational terms (127), and the overreliance on adjunct instructors (91), all of which converge to make writing an essay in college, for most students, “a detached experience with little meaning and transformative potential beyond meeting another deadline” (136).

About the only good news that the book offers is that at Ursuline we already do incorporate many of the solutions the authors recommend such as emphasizing analytical essays, having students do verbal presentations, offering career counseling, focusing on identity formation, and providing a mission and educational philosophy, among others (93-101). However, we still have many of the problems the authors describe, for the reason they state, “the causes ultimately lie with the wider society.” They encourage those of us in higher education to raise awareness of these issues in the public sphere and encourage society not to view a university education as the path for all. They write: "In short, university teaching of the liberal arts is about the dissemination of knowledge and the preparation of well-rounded citizens, and we are concerned that this is in jeopardy as more and more students have been told to use the liberal arts degree as a status symbol to gain access to white collar occupations. While some of these students clearly benefit and go on to combine their liberal education with some sort of vocational or professional training, as we have argued, it appears that the liberal education side of this equation has increasingly been given short shrift. The fault lies with policies and practices that 'sell' the undergraduate degree as something amorphously 'good' for labour-force [sic] entry or as a qualification for professional schools, and is manifested in the growing numbers of disengaged and partially engaged students enrolling in courses that should be demanding a fuller commitment to deep learning. These policies and practices simply encourage large numbers of students to look at some obscure future horizon without appreciating the opportunities at hand in the present to transform and enrich themselves. Giving them 'soft' (inflated) grades in return for their tuition money simply bypasses the philosophy of the liberal education and undermines the fiduciary duty that the university system has had to both preserve and advance civilization" (185). The authors suggest that without taking steps to reverse these trends more than a student essay might end up in the trash.

The book is available through OhioLINK.

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