31.5.07

WASTEFUL AND DUPLICATIVE COMPETITION.

A University Diaries post suggesting there is excess capacity in higher education points to an extended lament on the follies of access-assessment-remediation-retention thinking in higher education. The lament starts, as many stories do, with an individual, Bill Maxwell of the St. Petersburg Times, motivated by idealism.
A year before coming to Stillman [College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama], I had written a commentary for the St. Petersburg Times arguing that Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, remain viable. I further argued that given the increasing reliance on standardized tests to determine college admission and given the nation's conservative turn, HBCUs are needed more than ever to provide an opportunity for many young blacks who otherwise never would be able to attend college because of factors such as low standardized test scores and criminal records.
What the writer ends up discovering is that those scores and records might be indicative of something else, such as a failure either of parents or the common schools to inculcate the habits of the middle class or of the children to develop proper life-management skills. First comes the reality that kills the morale of many an idealistic faculty member.
Those of us who were teaching the required general education courses - all of us from the nation's respected universities, such as the University of Chicago, Indiana University, the University of Florida and Princeton - had to face a harsh reality. We primarily were practicing remediation.
The fault does not rest entirely with the students.
By the beginning of my second year, I would find myself alienated from most of the senior administrators and most of the longtime staff members who were responsible for the day-to-day operations of the institution.

My alienation, a colleague told me, was the result of a disease found at most HBCUs: professional jealousy. The college president hired me as the "scholar in residence" on a 10-month contract for a modest salary. Some professors resented the arrangement because they had been there for several years and were earning the same or less.
That failing is not necessarily confined to the backwaters of academe. If one aspires to be better, one ought work at attracting colleagues who are better. That's not to hold the students harmless.
Most students had book vouchers as part of their financial aid, so I told those without books to walk with me to the bookstore, a distance of about three football fields. Some did not follow me, and I tried to remember who they were.

At the store I watched students wander around, obviously trying to avoid buying the book. Only about eight wound up buying one.

I became angry that I had to deal with such a self-destructive, juvenile problem. I saw the refusal to buy the text as a collective act of defiance. I knew that if I lost this battle, I would not have any control in this class and no respect.

The next Monday, I went to class dreading a showdown. While calling the roll, I asked the students to show me their texts. Eighteen still did not have them. One said he had bought the book but left it in his dorm room "by mistake." I told him to go get it. He gathered his belongings and left. He never came to class again.

As promised, I recorded an F for all students who did not bring their texts. The last two young men from in front of King Hall walked out. I saw myself as having failed them as a professor, but I was relieved they were gone.

I also decided to take away students' excuses for not having access to the texts. I personally bought two copies of each book and put them on reserve in the library. From time to time, I would check to see who had used them. During the entire semester, the books were used only six times.
(Blackboard is useful for such keeping-track. It's very easy to see who is looking at supplementary material.)

The article notes that if the historically black schools might have at one time been viewed as equal, if separate, their status is anything but equal in the wake of civil rights reforms. The author is old enough to remember de jure segregation.
I also had caring professors who introduced the life of the mind to this kid reared as a migrant farm worker in labor camps up and down the eastern United States. My professors were intellectuals, and I wanted to be just like them. Our professors - whether we liked them or hated them - were gods, and we were to learn all we could from them.

For many of us, Wiley was the only opportunity to earn a four-year degree. Jim Crow barred us from most colleges and universities in the South, and our low ACT and SAT scores disqualified us from attending most other campuses nationwide. Wiley was our lifeline to professional success. And we knew it.
The lifeline to professional success is different today.
Stillman was typical of the overwhelming majority of other HBCUs, where white professors outnumber black professors, a trend pejoratively referred to as the "whitening" of the HBCU faculty. A major reason for this phenomenon is that mainline universities seeking ethnic diversity on their faculties heavily recruit new black Ph.D.s and specialists. Another reason is that many black Ph.D.s see teaching at the HBCU as being "drudge work" - a step down, not a step up.
Put another way, "separate but equal" was a fiction. Given what the writer discovers as the semester wears on, perhaps it is time to confront the next fiction, which is the access-assessment-remediation-retention hell Stillman becomes for him.
My colleagues and I were witnessing the result of low admission standards. Were we expecting too much of young people who scored poorly on the SAT, who were rarely challenged to excel in high school, who were not motivated to take advantage of opportunities to learn, who could not imagine where a sound education could take them?
Rather than take the difficult but proper course of raising standards, the administration becomes complicit in the students' failure.
During faculty meetings, we regularly were encouraged to treat our students as if they were our own children. We were responsible for saving them all. This was familiar terrain; a generation earlier my professors had nurtured me at two historically black colleges, Wiley in Marshall, Texas, and Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach. Some of them even had given me a few breaks I may not have deserved.
Such breaks are not unknown, even at institutions where greater social distance is the norm.
The bottom line was the same as it is at most HBCUs. Professors who had the best success connecting with students, especially below-average male students, emphasized friendly, personal and supportive involvement in their lives. For example, Stephen Jackson, who taught sports writing, was an effective professor because he understood the importance of winning students' trust. He even ate lunch in the cafeteria with students each day.

This style of teaching, which I grudgingly adopted, was unlike anything I had used during my previous 18 years of teaching on traditional campuses such as those of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northern Illinois University. On those campuses, professors were respected for their achievements and position. Subject matter usually was taught without developing strong personal relationships between students and professors, and professors may not have cared if students liked them.

At Stillman, being professional but impersonal created frustration for the student and the professor. Students, especially males, liked and respected the flexible professor, and they learned when they respected the professor.
I suppose it's churlish to point out that sports writing might be a popular course, whether or not the professor makes an effort to be more accessible. For most students, that flexibility accomplishes nothing.
We treated the students, even those who disappointed us, as if they were our children. I often wondered if we were doing more harm than good with our generosity.
Mr Maxwell had his regular job to return to, which he did, with some gratitude.
In time, I realized that my standards were too high for the quality of student I had to teach. Most simply were not prepared for college-level work, and I was not professionally trained for the intense remediation they needed and deserved.
Despite the clear evidence of excess capacity in higher education, he is not ready to give up on the historically black institutions completely.
A researcher for the Education Trust, an independent policy group, said in 2005: "Instead of a certain kind of student dragging down some institutions, we could just as easily argue that some institutions are dragging down a certain kind of student."

I found that to be true. I had a handful of excellent journalism students at Stillman who all had SAT scores below 1, 000. Ebony Horton, for example, was a natural-born reporter. She had an eye for a good story, knew how to find the right sources and was a better-than-average writer. She did not, however, have classmates who shared her enthusiasm and gift for reporting. As a result, she bowed to peer pressure: She often cut corners, handed in flawed copy and missed deadlines more times than I liked.

Because she had natural skills, Ebony interned at the Tuscaloosa News and after graduation landed a full-time job with the Dothan Eagle as a general assignment reporter. Although Ebony found a good job, I am certain that we ill-served her at Stillman because we lacked a critical mass of motivated, competent students and the right facilities that would have enhanced her skills.

The same was true of Cedric Baker. Even before he graduated, the Tuscaloosa News hired him as a part-time sports reporter, where he had a byline, sometimes two, each week. Ironically, he is on Stillman's public relations staff today. I regret that we did not have an environment that could inspire Cedric to produce his best work.

Three of my other promising students withdrew after only one semester. One of them, a young man from Mississippi who was a talented reporter and photographer, said: "I can't stand it here, Mr. Maxwell. Nobody's serious. The students don't study. They just bullshit all the time, and the administration doesn't care. It's all messed up."
Let that be the epitaph for the access-assessment-remediation-retention model of higher education.

I checked some Northern Illinois archives in preparing this post. Mr Maxwell was here a long time ago I don't recall encountering him or reading of his efforts in the mid-1980s when I arrived.

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