Joss Whedon on how your Body Wants to be Mulch — and other Wisdom

Joss Whedon returns to his alma mater to give the commencement speech.

If this had been my commencement speech, I might have remembered something about it. It’s nice to see someone with a tragic (in the old sense) view of life.

As it was, my commencement  speaker was some history or poli sci professor from somewhere . . . I don’t remember a single thing about it. I can remember what I wore that day (Reed College did not do gowns), and that is about all.

Other classes before mine had it better. One year the Æsthetes were in charge of the committee, and they brought in Anaïs Nin, in flowing garments — speaking about Beauty, I suppose — while young Æsthetes swooned at her feet. Paperback copies of her diary were not uncommon on campus.

The next year the jocks-with-brains were in charge, and they hired Heywood Hale Broun. A sportscaster!

But it was my girlfriend’s graduation, so I went, and my expectations were upended. This guy whom I had seen on TV blathering about football and racehorses while wearing loud plaid sport coats ended up giving a straight-up-the-middle talk about the eternal verities of the liberal arts. As I recall, he actually used the phrase “eternal verities,” making it both sincere and simultaneously ironic. I learned something that day.

As for my class, I knew we arrived at a rough time for the college — how rough, I learned only later. Maybe we should just have been happy that there was still a college to gradate from four years down the road.

Some Snapshots of the Shifts in Higher Ed

A cluster of related articles on higher education.

1. From Washington Monthly: why states are funding higher ed less.

State support comes out of taxes. When the economy goes bad, states collect less money in taxes. States, however, are legally required to fund certain things. Pension plans, for instance, are usually not things the governor can simply reduce or cut one year. He has to pay for them. To a certain extent this makes sense, but it can be devastating for other items in the state budget.

2. A longer Washington Monthly piece on how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are seeking to make money off higher education, if they can just find the right key.

So the VC guys and the start-ups look at K-12 and higher education, which between them cost over $1 trillion per year in America, and much more around the world. They see businesses that are organized around communication between people and the exchange of information [like Facebook], two things that are increasingly happening over the Internet. Right now, nearly all of that communication and exchange happens on physical platforms—schools and colleges—that were built a long time ago. A huge amount of money is tied up in labor and business arrangements that depend on things staying that way. How likely are they to stay that way, in the long term? Sure, there are a ton of regulatory protections and political complications tied up in the fact that most education is funded by the taxpayer. As always, the timing would be difficult, and there is as much risk in being too early as too late.

Still, $1 trillion, just sitting there. And how much does it cost for a firm like Learn Capital to invest in a few people sitting around a table with their MacBook Airs? That’s a cheap lottery ticket with a huge potential jackpot waiting for whomever backs the winning education platform.

3. Meanwhile, the Community College Dean, of the blog with the same name, thinks about the “Big Sort,” where educated people from top-tier schools marry each other and cluster in certain places, and the “two-body problem” in academia. But mostly he wonders what the future role of community colleges will be.

 Community colleges, by dint of the “community” part, are tied to particular places.  As those places become more polarized, and as instruction becomes more removed from those places, some of the baseline assumptions of the colleges come into question.

Rhetoric: It’s “Classical” Because It Works

“Back to the basics” works if you chose the right basics. (We could debate that.)

The Writing Revolution,” an article in The Atlantic, argues that attention to basic rhetorical principles — as opposed to expressing your feelings or writing in order to become a better person— helps disadvantaged high school students to succeed.

And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well.

The Potential Strength of a Liberal Arts Degree

I have written here before about the Higher Education Bubble. Related to that perception, you hear a lot of people devaluing education in the humanities and arts. High-profile news stories about graduates with degrees in, for example, film studies and a big debt load did not help.

But here is an article from a business publication saying that liberal arts grads are being hired—if they can demonstrate what are essentially good research and rhetorical skills. And by “rhetorical” I mean the ability to analyze and argue a given problem or situation. Quintilian, call your office.

From an article titled “Revenge of the Liberal Arts Major,”

More interesting, at least for those of us who got some parental grief over our college choice, was the apparent love being shown for liberal arts majors. Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

“The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. “They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.”

Contrary to what the “expert on Generation Y” says, however, a liberal arts degree is no guarantee of communication skills, however. I see plenty of Facebook and blog posts from professor friends’ complaining of their students’ poor writing, inadequate research, and inability to think beyond checking the right answer on a multiple-choice test.

You have to work at it.

 

“Higher Ed Bubble” Goes Mainstream

Another article on the “higher education bubble” (think housing bubble, but with college degrees) from that screaming right-wing rag The Christian Science Monitor. (That was meant as sarcasm.)

A college degree once looked to be the path to prosperity. In an article for TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy writes, “Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe.”

“Administrative bloat” is real. At many big universities, the administrators now outnumber the teaching faculty.

At the other end of the spectrum, the small liberal-arts college that I attended has about the same number of students than it did a few years ago, but it now seems to require more deans and assistant deans to operate.

At least Reed College has not wasted money on big football stadiums full of empty seats like so many universities.

Universities keep raising tuition. Students get easy, taxpayer-guaranteed loans to pay that tuition, because a college degree is a Good Thing.

Can’t pay off the loan? Too bad. Not even personal bankruptcy will make it go away—the banks saw to it that the law was written that way. And no one can foreclose on your bachelor’s or master’s degree.

So what if people stop climbing on this particular merry-go-ground? What happens to all those assistant deans and the big, empty football stadium then? What happens to all my friends trying to get teaching jobs? What happens to me hoping that someone will adopt my book as a class text? What happens to my publisher?

The linked Tech Crunch article is even more hard-hitting.

Next thing, National Public Radio will discover this issue.

The Higher-Ed Bubble

Talk of the “higher-education bubble” seems to be increasing. This short article from a North Carolina-based think tank  pretty well sums it up:

Like the nation’s housing bubble, which eventually burst, the college bubble is caused by a number of factors. But the biggest force is, as my colleague George Leef has often pointed out, the overselling of higher education. The housing bubble was created, at least in part, by the conviction that everyone ought to own a home; the college bubble is occurring because so many peoplebelieve that everyone ought to attend college.

It’s depressing because so many people whom I know are employed in higher education, want to be so employed, or are connected with it, such as through academic publishing.

Speaking of the United States, what is the figure for entering freshmen who actually complete a bachelor’s degree in a generous six years? Under 50 percent, right?

Yet every high-school guidance counselor tells kids that even if they take on a pile of debt to get a degree, they will earn it all back and more. Not always true.

I don’t think making university education dramatically cheaper is the answer either. Some countries do — and then they end up with large numbers of young people who are now “above” working with their hands.

So they get jobs in bloated government bureaucracies, sit around drinking tea and soliciting bribes — or they emigrate.

(I’ve heard enough horror stories from the international students, of whom my university has quite a few.)

After decades of growth, starting post-World War Two when university education was subsidized for returning servicemen, then when the Baby Boom went to college (1960s-1970s), and then the “bubble” years following those,  it is really hard to think that higher education might be contracting.

But it might. And we have to have some response to that, right?

Gallimaufry with Graphs

• The writing process, graphed, from Boing Boing.

• The “great conversation” lives on: University students discovering ideas that their so-called teachers kept from them because they were not “relevant” or something.

•  Why did Borders crash? Here is one view. Too much space given to music. for one thing, says the writer.

Support for a “gap year” before university grows in the U.S. I could have used one.

‘Academically Adrift’

It is probably no surprise to a lot of us in higher education that “45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

(Lest I be accused of America-bashing, in talking with international students, I got an even worse impression of universities in some other countries, e.g. Italy and France.)

Not much is asked of students, either. Half did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.

An awful lot of students in university classrooms simply should not be there. They are not prepared—academically, psychologically, or both.

(“Psychologically unprepared” would have applied to me as a freshman too. I struggled along and “woke up” midway through my second year.)

These students are there because they are told to “get a college degree,” whereupon they will be magic somehow.

Now we hear more and more about a higher education bubble on the point of bursting, just like the real estate market.

Get a degree, have thousands of dollars in student-loan debt, and work at Starbucks. It’s not a viable model of higher education if the cost keeps rising but the benefits of paying them do not seem to be there.

If this realization reaches a tipping point, it won’t be good for academic employment for us professors.

The fiscal conservative in me says, “Go ahead, shut down a few state schools. All but about three states are running budget deficits and need to save money.”

And then I wonder if any of my academic friends would lose jobs or be unable to find jobs if that happened. But it might happen anyway.

Erin O’Connor comments too and has a more clever headline.

And Vanity Fair delivers the snark.

Wendy Griffin Named Cherry Hill Dean

Cherry Hill Seminary has named Wendy Griffin of California State University, LWendy Griffinong Beach as its new academic dean.

They made a good choice.

I have worked with Wendy for several years on  the American Academy of Religion’s Contemporary Pagan Studies steering committee, which she co-chaired from 2005-10.

She and I also worked as co-editors of the Pagan Studies book series when it was at Rowman & Littlefield, before CSULB made her chair of women’s studies and she felt that she had too much on her plate.

She is not only a scholar and mentor, but she knows the “business” of academia—how to get things done. I would not have accepted the position of Pagan Studies co-chair this year had she not agreed to remain “of counsel,” as the lawyers say, and tell me and Jone Salomonsen how to work the system.

From the Cherry Hill news release:

“I am thrilled, simply thrilled, that Wendy is coming aboard as our new Academic Dean!  I cannot think of a better person to lead Cherry Hill Seminary towards accreditation,” said Aline O’Brien, chair of the board of directors.  “At precisely the right time in the Seminary’s growth, Wendy brings her unique combination of academic rigor and priestesshood to serve our maturing Pagan movement.”

Wendy Griffin, Ph.D., is an academic by profession, and a sociologist by training, with a Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary social sciences. She is professor emerita and chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, where she has taught for 26 years.

Perhaps the first American academic to be openly Pagan, Wendy has published numerous academic articles on Pagan women’s groups and is the editor of Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of Healing, Identity and Empowerment, a 13-essay survey of contemporary Feminist Witchcraft and Goddess Spirituality by British and American writers.  She is a founding co-chair of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group in the American Academy of Religion, and serves on the editorial board of Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies.

Griffin said of her appointment, “I am excited about being part of Cherry Hill Seminary and making a contribution to the growing reputation and professionalization of the Seminary. When I entered the academic world as a brand new Ph.D. 26 years ago, I had no idea I would be able to end my career helping to build an institution that would serve such a diverse and committed international community.”

As academic dean, Griffin will guide and direct the academic life of Cherry Hill Seminary, including work towards eventual accreditation of the institution.  “Wendy’s lifelong career experience will be invaluable as Cherry Hill Seminary continues to build and strengthen our program,” said Holli Emore, executive director.

Don’t Teach My Kid Greek Mythology

From a report on the school-board meeting from our county’s weekly newspaper:

Sheri Shreve was upset that fourth graders were learning Greek mythology and seeing pictures she felt were inappropriate for children.

Yes, your fourth-grader might end up at a liberal arts college like Bryn Mawr and join the Pagan Club.