Blogging Pedagogy & Academically Adrift

Today is the final day of my summer Expository Writing class. I build all of my classes around themes; this semester was dedicated to blogging. Mxrk, Ryan P. Weber, and I will be putting together an article dedicated to the class in August (did you know that Ryan? Mrxk and I will bang out a draft and send it to you once he gets here). I constructed a pretty rigorous course site for the blogging class, with almost daily notes. One of my colleagues, Carl Herndl, will use my site and syllabus to teach Expository Writing later this summer; I think that will be a great test for the pedagogy since Carl is an admitted techno-novice and has never taught blogging before.

On a side note, I required us to read two books during the course: Nussbaum's Not For Profit and Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift. I'm writing an article responding to Nussbaum, so I'll hold off commenting on that one here.

Arum and Roksa's book is a worthy read for anyone working in higher education. It is by and large and empirical study documenting just how little the majority (80%) of today's college students are learning. They use a comprehensive and (by my limited judgement) reliable qualitative test to measure students' gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking during their freshman and sophomore years. They acknowledge that many students might be learning other things, particularly things geared toward their majors. They openly acknowledge in several places that the importance of their study lies in the reader prioritizing writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking as central to University learning (and they show that the professional sector is calling for increases in these abilities, so there's a rhetorical element to this prioritization).

One point: many of us working in rhetoric and literature would not identify what they call "critical thinking" as critical thinking. For instance, one of the qualitative assessment tests asks students to read ten documents dealing with a specific kind of plane and its likelihood of crashing and then write a memo to their boss arguing whether s/he should buy the plane.

Arum and Roksa spread blame for the lack of learning on students, faculty, and administration:

  • Students simply are not studying enough. The average student studies around 12 hours a week, with much of their remaining time going to socializing activities (data collected via self-reporting).
  • Faculty are too committed to research. Less than 60% of students at selective and less selective schools reported having to read more than 40 pages a week for a class, and less than 50% reported having to write more than 20 pages for a course over an entire semester (the numbers were 75% and 95% at highly selective institutions, respectively).
  • Faculty, however, aren't solely to blame for their focus on research and slighting of teaching. Arum and Roksa note that administrators--increasingly drawn from outside of academic ranks to focus on recruiting, branding, investment, and publicity--have increasingly edged tenure requirements toward publication and away from the classroom. I think a naive reading of Academically Adrift would frame it as an argument against tenure. I do not think this is the case. Rather, I believe they advocate for the transformation of tenure to place a greater emphasis on teaching. This argument deserves more time than I can give it this morning--but, recognizing how much of our research goes unnoticed or uncited (90% of Humanities scholarship),, I don't have a problem with such a move (I address this directly in my response essay on Levinas, metaphysics, and D. Diane Davis' Inessential Solidarity, currently in process with JAC, but there I argue for institutional recognition for inhabiting dialogical spaces rather than solely for individual publication). This is not to say that research and scholarship aren't important. But it is not the only important thing. Whether it is the most important thing is a question I am honestly not ready to answer today.

To reiterate, this is a book worth your time, and probably your students' time. I anticipated that my class would be a bit hostile to the book. But they weren't. And when I started to talk about how my blogging class stems from a recognition of many of the book's arguments, they were not only receptive but (dare I say) appreciative. There's always going to be the bottom 20% students who are unprepared, unmotivated, and unteachable. But, following Arum and Roksa's advice (the way to get students more invested is simply to raise expectations and assign more work), I think we can all acknowledge that we aren't teaching as much as we could (...should?), and we can do better.

P.S., my summer blogging course asks students to write 550 words a day (not counting in class writing) and a final 10 page paper. That's about 55 pages of writing in 6 weeks. So, while I'm always failing at something, at least I can tell myself I'm assigning a lot of writing. Now if only I could get a teaching assistant to grade it all...

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