Tag Archives: Higher Education

ASU May Merge with a Private Business School

Left and right, things that have been funded by, built by, and supported by the government in the name of the public good have been ushered behind the closed doors of private corporations through the privatization of roads, parks, schools, and of course – universities, which does hell on the public good. The opposite of that (nationalization? eminent domain? socialism?) doesn’t happen much in these United States, but it might be happening in Arizona higher education. ASU and the Thunderbird School of Global Management have announced an impending merger.

Now, before we move forwards, I should say that I’m probably jumping the gun in saying this is the opposite of privatization – so let me issue a disclaimer that I am actually highly skeptical, as usual, of the latest move by ASU. Now:

Arizona State University and the Thunderbird School of Global Management have announced that they’re merging, with Thunderbird coming under the control of ASU (and the Arizona Board of Regents). The Glendale business management school has been facing financial woes and even considered a joint venture with a for-profit university, but the deal fell through.

As a result, ASU and Thunderbird will merge and the financial problems will (hopefully) be resolved, Thunderbird will gain more resources from joining a large university, ASU’s business programs will expand to include Thunderbird’s many international executive programs, and Thunderbird’s staff will join ASU. The information that’s lacking so far is how exactly this merger will be carried out, so keep an eye out.

ASU was in the news last year for the opposite of this – that is, privatization – happening at another professional school. As early as 2010, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU has been playing with the idea of privatization, arguing that state funds have reduced but also arguing “why not?” Here’s an article quoting Paul Berman, Dean of the Law School:

Berman, however, believes higher tuition can be justified.

As his yardstick, he uses what in-state students pay at the Top 40 law schools as rated by “U.S. News and World Report.” ASU is No. 28.

“If you look at all 40 of them, our in-state tuition is lower than all but four,” he said. And even the tuition for those who are not state residents is below the half-way mark.

Berman said the school already has requested that the Board of Regents allow tuition for Arizona residents to go up by $1,500 for next year. “We’re not talking about large increases,” he said. Berman said that, even with that, attending ASU will remain lower than what is being charged at those other Top 40 schools.

And here’s Vice President of Public Affairs Virgil Renzulli:

“It has been shown at other universities that there are certain very popular graduate and professional programs that can do well, even thrive, charging higher rates… The idea is to move to a tuition level that would be more market-driven than state-subsidized.”

The decision to privatize, expand class size, and raise tuition for the hell of it hasn’t moved forwards a ton – but it hasn’t stopped either. ASU will soon be breaking ground on a new downtown campus for the law school, a move which doesn’t necessarily further privatization, but the larger building is within the vision outlined above of increasing admissions. So, with ASU simultaneously privatizing one professional school while using another to take over a private institution, I will continue to say that ASU is a university to watch. You know, in case you weren’t already reading about Starbucks partnerships or police abuse of a WOC professor.

 

Arizona State University of Starbucks

On Monday, Starbucks announced that it was launching a new program through which it will help many of its employees pay for undergraduate education at Arizona State University’s ASU Online program. Here are some of the details of how it would work:

Tuition for an online degree at ASU is about $10,000 a year, roughly the same for its traditional educational programs. For the freshmen and sophomore years, Starbucks and Arizona State say they will put around $6,500 on average toward the estimated $20,000 in total tuition.

To cover the remaining $13,500, workers would apply for financial aid. Since Starbucks workers don’t earn a lot of money, many would likely qualify for a Pell grant, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of EdVisors.com, a website about paying for college. If a worker qualified for a full Pell grant of $5,730 a year — or $11,460 over the two years — he or she would theoretically be left with about $2,040 to pay out of pocket.

The program would work similarly for the junior and senior years, except that Starbucks would reimburse any money workers end up having to pay out of pocket. Starbucks said most of its workers have already started school, so could potentially finish off their degrees at no cost if they applied for the program.

At first, it piqued my interest to hear that ASU was involved in such a project. ASU has long been involved in efforts that purport to expand access to quality university education, but has also engaged in moves that collapse schools and programs (which eliminates jobs and takes power away from faculty), demote staff to the status of at-will employees, and continually raise tuition.

But agreeing to pay for employees’ education is a good move, even if it does nothing to salvage the crisis of public education. And yet there are hidden aspects of this deal that are important to shed light on. Firstly, the program hopes to offer a diverse education to Starbucks employees, but having the selection of majors offered at one university’s online wing is actually quite narrow. As this piece finds, even the students featured in an NYT article about the program may not actually be able to study what they want.

In addition, online-only education is not a tried-and-true provider of education, especially for working students who have not been exposed to higher education before. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, linked to this 2011 study [pdf] on online education and its effectiveness for low-income and underprepared students by Shanna Smith Jaggers. In short, online classes saw more low-income and underprepared students withdraw, and many of these students were less likely to return to continue their education. Learning online is as much of a learned skill as learning in the classroom, only online degrees and courses often come with less support for students. I took at least four online classes while at ASU, and only one was as rigorous as in-person courses and provided similar levels of support.

But the more important point here is that Starbucks employees are not being offered free education at Arizona State University, my alma mater and an arguably decent school from which to earn a Bachelor’s. The Starbucks program funnels workers through ASU Online, a joint-venture between ASU and Pearson, the for-profit publishing and ed tech company. The venture overcharges online students, students who may be receiving less support and less freedom in their studies and cost the university less money, but who pay roughly the same tuition as on-campus students. As one article mentions:

Arizona State University Online, a revenue-sharing relationship between Pearson, a for-profit company best known as a publisher, and Arizona State University (ASU), yielded $6 million in profit in 2011 for ASU. Projections are that it will yield $200 million in profit by 2020. Many other non-profit colleges with large online programs tout the substantial profits generated by online programs that are re-invested in on-ground facilities. Thus, online students are being substantially overcharged to generate profits that subsidize face-to-face learners, faculty and administrators.

This type of revenue-sharing happens a lot at universities between departments (the humanities often subsidize the sciences), but the inclusion of a for-profit company makes this deal smell of something far worse. Pearson has long-been a part of the ed reform movement, standardizing and assessing real education into oblivion. That it operates as a “partner” in ASU Online is a shame and a sign of how the top echelons at ASU view education.

This agreement between ASU and Starbucks is supposed to be about providing free education to lower class workers. But according to Starbucks CEO, about 70% of Starbucks workers are current in college or aspire to go. These students, working at Starbucks across the country, will now have to transfer to ASU Online if they want to take advantage of their employers’ benefits – and Starbucks is eliminating its tuition reimbursement program for the City University of Seattle and Stayer University next year in order to commit to the ASU Online endeavor.

As Melissa Byrne points out, this is mostly as PR stunt for Starbucks, whose executives have come straight out and said that they hope this will attract a better class of workers. And ASU hopes to continue to expand its growing online presence and push President Michael Crow’s “New American University” vision one step further. For many of Starbucks’ workers, this program will expand access, but access to what? And what will happen when they fail to finish because they were pushed into a program that was ill-suited for them?

Update: Be sure to check out Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on this, in which she links ASU-Starbucks endeavor to what for-profit universities have been doing for decades.

Content Notes on Course Syllabi

A lot of people have been writing about (not) including content notes/trigger warnings on their class syllabi. An inordinately large number of writers have come out against the idea, and the issue has reached headlines as student groups have pushed for their use and administrations grapple with whether or not to implement such guidelines. This hubbub, and the pushback, was surprising to me – especially given how small the request is. I’m amenable to their use, and I see no reason to not use them – they don’t have to impinge on academic freedom, change course material, or feature prominently – but they could help students deal with sensitive material.

That’s why I was very happy to see Angus Johnston’s piece in Inside Higher Ed address how he plans to use content notes in his courses from now on. I appreciated not only his direct demonstration of how he planned to use them, but his effort to move beyond merely avoiding triggering post-traumatic episodes and towards creating a safer space for learning – something all educators should want to do. He writes:

These warnings prepare the reader for what’s coming, so their attention isn’t hijacked when it arrives. Even a pleasant surprise can be distracting, and if the surprise is unpleasant the distraction will be that much more severe.

Shortly after reading this, I wrote on social media about my own miniature experience with this type of warning. When I was student teaching a few years ago, I showed my students Atomic Cafe, a documentary about the nuclear age. It includes a scene showing footage of victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, and I had forgotten how graphic it was. Some students in my first class were caught off-guard by the footage, and I don’t think they got much out of the rest of the film. I gave my subsequent classes notice, both at the beginning of the video and right before the scene, and I think that helped prepare them.

This is a small example, but is exactly the kind of thing that can help make students aware of the course material without constraining the curriculum at all. Be sure to read all of Johnston’s piece, as I think it’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate, as well this follow-up post from his friend on disability and access in education.

Yale Tries to Sneak Kissinger on Campus

Yale’s Jackson Institute of International Affairs is hosting Henry Kissinger on campus Friday for a ‘private,’ ‘invite-only’ address. Students in select departments received invitations via email that explicitly stated that the event would not be publicized and asked that the invitees keep the event confidential. (I was not invited, c’est la vie).

Kissinger is, of course, everyone’s favorite combination Nobel Peace Prize laureate and war criminal. His presence in campus is itself all sorts of disappointing. No institution that seeks to improve the world should be giving such a person a platform from which to speak. But it is even more disappointing that the event is to be exclusive and therefore limit any sort of protest or honest dialog about Kissinger’s record.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a sudden misstep of Yale’s. The monstrosity that is the Jackson Institute is the current employer of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man behind JSOC during much of the GWOT. So, really, this is just more Yale being Yale.

Are Grad Students “Doing What They Love”?

A few weeks ago I was in a room in which people were debating the pros and cons of forming a graduate student union. News of NYU’s victory vote was still fairly fresh, and many Yale students were eager to step up the push for union recognition. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale has been spending recent months on laying the groundwork: recruiting more graduate student members, promoting the idea of a union as a worthy goal, etc. but hasn’t gone much into what it will do with such status.

I’m for a graduate student union. Scores of public universities have them, and private universities should have them too. Obviously, Yale is one of the more better off universities when it comes to graduate student wages and working conditions, but there’s always room for improvement. On a more fundamental level, it would be great if graduate student labor was acknowledged as labor – especially since graduate students teach the discussion sections, writing-intensive sections, and some full courses as well as conduct research and undertake all sorts of other projects as a part of their time at the university.

But the conversation I heard wasn’t even about the nitty-gritty stuff. Some had mentioned questions about tax issues that arise from calling grad student work “work.” Others had talked about the importance of a union for bargaining, while others were skeptical of what a union could do that student government or department-level organizing could not. All fine points, I suppose. But one person asked how similar a graduate student contract would be to the unions already operating on campus (technical and clerical workers, for example), and whether that was a good thing or not. Another fair point, but then the speaker ended it with this:

Presumably I’m a graduate student and I love what I do, and would be doing it regardless of the money if financially possible, while a janitor is not really interested in his job.

I was struck by such a framing. I was struck even more by the response, which was circuitous and ended with:

I would say that that maybe that custodian does love his work.

What.

Labor is labor. There’s not really any way around it, but work in the classroom is work in the factory is work in the call center. There are different types of labor, but they are still labor. The idea that loving your work means that that work is suddenly priceless in some way just doesn’t make sense. If you love your work, you fight for your work. You protect it for all it’s worth – demanding that its worth be acknowledged. At the same time, judging what you love based on what the market says it’s worth gets at a whole other issue. Either way, I couldn’t believe my ears when both the critic and the proponent of unionization decided to couch labor in terms of loving what you do.

It just so happened that Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra had just been published a couple of weeks prior to this discussion. In it, Tokumitsu explains that such a motto creates a divide between “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” She turns her pen to academia, writing that:

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL ['Do What You Love'] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

There might be a debate to be had over unionization. But that debate shouldn’t be about how much we love our discipline versus how much others love their jobs. It should be about how, if we love our work, we’ll fight for it. The adjunctification of higher education, the shrinking budgets of colleges, and the eagerness of universities to push out graduate students demand more of emerging scholars. Those scholars should demand more in return.

Who is Funding African Studies Research?

Aili Mari Tripp, political scientist and former president of the African Studies Association, has drafted a report on funding challenges and opportunities in African Studies research. In the report she sheds on the recent changes that international (and specifically African) research support has encountered as sources of funding shift. She starts by looking at the nearly nonexistent support for international research by private foundations (which used to provide large amounts of support) and the drastic reduction in funding from the federal government. Title VI and Fulbright-Hayes were both cut nearly in half, which has and will continue to completely reshape area studies as a field. Tripp quotes one report that found that cuts in 2011 led to

 a reduction or cancellation of over 400 less commonly-taught language and area studies classes, affecting over 6,300 students; reductions in international business programs with 10,000 fewer business professionals trained; and reductions in language resources and research, which has resulted in over 5,900 fewer language teachers trained, involving 29 languages.  It is not clear that the universities are stepping in to fill the gaps.

Indeed, most are either unable to unwilling to. When I looked into Yale’s African Studies program it was made clear that federal budget cuts played a central role in the program’s downsizing, but that the university was also either failing to step in or was proactively tightening belts in anticipation of more cuts (or in the interest of shuttling money towards other focuses). But that’s just one case – across the country international and area studies are shrinking at an alarming rate as they lose financial and academic support. As current ASA President James A. Pritchett, anthropologist at Michigan State and director of that school’s African Studies Center, has said that funding cuts are “are unraveling, brick-by-brick, the national African studies edifice that it took 50 years to build up.”

The biggest shift we’re seeing today as Department of Education funds dry up is the arrival of State and Defense Departments’ renewed (and fairly robust) interest in international and area studies. Things like the Critical Languages program and the Minerva Project aim to train scholars to do work that supports and reinforces U.S. goals abroad. Although Tripp says some Africa-focused scholars involved with Minerva say that they feel independent in their work, I know Southeast Asia-focused work at Arizona State was centered on Muslim discourse and identifying “good” Muslims in the region to spread moderate Islam over extremism (yes, I’m simplifying).

This shift isn’t an accident. DoE’s Title VI foreign language funding is being reduced while DoD’s language programs and institutes get bigger and bigger.  As Pritchett says, “The Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California receives nearly $345 million annually, over four times the funding provided to the 125 Title VI Centers combined.” Study of the world around us is becoming increasingly directed by the military, and this is something scholars should be aware or and worried about.

It’s important to note (and Tripp gives it a passing mention) that the ASA has long stood against DoD funding, passing several resolutions against it in the past.  These resolutions were passed specifically to reject U.S. policy in Africa, which supported apartheid and oppressed revolutionaries in decolonization struggles at the time. Today, U.S. policy in Africa centers on counter-terrorism efforts that have resulted in militarization and Islamophobia across the continent. I wrote a little about that African Studies’ refusal to work with the military here, but I think David Wiley’s recent work [gated, ASR] addresses the biggest worry:

In this time of austerity, especially at public universities, there is a growing sense that civilian agency funding is collapsing and military and intelligence funding increasingly is the “only game in town.” As a result, two university African centers and linguists in two other universities that have Title VI Africa centers (with the dissent of their African center faculty), have taken funding for African language instruction programs from the DOD’s NSEP [National Security Education Program].

The other increase in funding is from the State Department, concentrated mostly on aid and development or the promotion of democracy and human rights. These also come with lots of baggage, although probably less so than military funding.

The bright side of the story is Tripp’s focus on private foundation funding for African higher education through grants, scholarships, fellowships, and collaborations with universities. This is much-needed, greatly impacting news for higher education across Africa.

Both Tripp’s and Pritchett’s posts are worth reading in full. The takeaway is that area studies in general is losing big. Both of them offer ways forwards, engaging with Africa directly, departing from government support in favor of foundation or corporation support, etc. The key will be to continue forwards with a heightened consciousness. There are a lot of ways forwards, we just need to ensure that we navigate properly as Africanists.

Arizona Universities Increased In-State Tuition More Than Any Other State

Remember this post I wrote in March about Arizona universities and their recent trend of tuition hikes? A decade a go tuition at all three four-year universities in Arizona hovered around $3,000, but since then it has risen dramatically – I was paying around $5,000 from 2007-2011, and this year’s freshmen class are paying $10,000.

I was upset by the trend that Arizona universities were following, but I had no idea that they far out-paced the rest of the country’s public universities. An article in the State Press highlighted a recent report from College Board, stating:

Arizona’s four-year public universities had the nation’s largest in-state tuition and fees increase over the past five years, according the nonprofit organization that oversees the SAT.

The College Board’s report said in-state tuition and fees in Arizona increased 70 percent when adjusted for inflation from academic year 2008-09 to 2013-14. The national average was 27 percent.

Out-of-state tuition and fees in Arizona increased 28 percent during the same period, 11th highest in the nation. Louisiana, which had a 69 percent increase, was highest. The national average was 19 percent.

When the state gutted public funding to the state universities, the burden of funding education fell on Arizonans – people whose families had already contributed to the universities through taxes. And, as usually happens when I comment on Arizona’s tuition woes, I want to remind everyone that the state constitution says that higher education is supposed to be as free as possible.  Just this week, friends of the blog Aaron Bady and Angus Johnston both wrote about the prospect of free higher education. This shouldn’t be a fantasy – higher education was once affordable to most, and it can be again.

Arizona Universities Keep Hiking Tuition

On Friday I saw two pieces of jarring news: that tuition at Arizona universities had gone up 96% since 2007, the year I started my undergrad at ASU; also, that tuition has increased in 18 of the last 20 years. Tuition hikes were a frequent and terrible thing while I was a Sun Devil – in short span the state government cut the $1 billion higher ed budget in half. I was privileged enough that my parents had agreed to help me with my tuition, but I knew a lot of people who worked all semester long in order to pay for the next semester – and each year that got harder.

And yet, I never stopped to think about how rapid the change between 2007 and 2011 was compared to years prior. Anne Ryman, who covers higher education for the Arizona Republic, sent me this link [pdf] on tuition over the last 20 years. The shift in the scale of tuition hikes is pretty dramatic, so I decided to graph it out. The result is not a happy one:

azbor tuition

And I’m not 100% sure if this data includes university-imposed fees – which fall outside of what the Arizona Board of Regents approves. when I started high school in 2003 the tuition hikes had just begun in earnest – they stood at $3,593, and when I started at ASU it was a few dollars shy of $5000. When I finished my student teaching and graduated in 2011 it was $9,716 for the seniors that I had taught. And subsequent freshmen continue to pay more and more.

On Friday, the university presidents issued their proposals for next year’s tuition. Arizona State is proposing a 3% increase which will bring it within a stone’s throw of $10,000 – touting the small increase as the lowest in the past decade. The University of Arizona proposed the same percentage (they’re already above $10,000), and Northern Arizona University asked for 5%. If these are all approved, the three universities in Arizona will be over or dangerously close to $10,000 tuition a year. With that in mind, if you take a glance at Article 11, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution, you will see the words: “The university and all other state educational institutions… shall be as nearly free as possible.”

Fixing What Should Be Broken: Grade Reform at Yale

This month, an ad hoc committee on grading at Yale issued its preliminary findings (pdf). The committee’s findings have stirred up some conversation about how exactly to fix what the committee finds is gross grade inflation for undergraduates across the university. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon – almost all schools inflate grades to some extent these days. When I did my student teaching at a high school in the suburbs of Phoenix, it was implicit that students did not fail. Some teachers joked that students must marvel at how their grades went up towards the end of the semester without any additional work on their part. What was happening was obvious. Failing students reflected either failure on the part of the teacher or failure on the part of the school as a whole – and nobody wanted either. Even more importantly, in an age of standardized testing and frequent measurement of “progress,” school funding and reputation, and teachers’ jobs, were always on the line. And so you did what you had to. We even set aside a whole day at the end of the school year for students who were behind to come in and do make-up work while everyone else stayed home. That’s probably the thing I love most about teaching: sitting in a room on the last day of school so the student who did the worst/least could give me a reason to give them a C.

But that’s a story for a separate post, because Yale is Yale. The money and reputation are here no matter what. And most of the students here are incredibly intelligent – even the legacy admissions might not be top tier, but probably still attended private schools with small class sizes and exceptional teachers. So what, exactly, is the fuss about? The report summarizes its findings pretty nicely here:

For many departments now there are in effect only three grades used: A, A-, and B+. For the less generous departments, B is added to this group. Yale is approaching the point, at least in some departments, in which the only grades are A and A-, which is close to having no grading.

This is the finding, and this has been labeled a problem by the committee. A problem which needs to be solved by grading students honestly, doling out Cs, Ds, and Fs, to prove that it’s fair. What I don’t fully get, though, is why grade at all? The only problem with being so “close to having no grading” is that there is still an attempt to grade. The university is so close to not having a grading system, and this report is calling for reforms to bring us back from the brink. But the committee is pushing in the wrong direction – we need to push the grading system over the cliff and never look back. Abolishing grades is really the only way forwards for students, but also for faculty - same as it ever was.

Instead, the committee makes a couple of recommendations.

Change from a letter system to a number/percentage system. The committee says “If, say, only three grades are used, A, A-, and B+, the choice between an A and an A- or an A- and a B+ is of considerable consequence, which is not true if one can use many numbers. The consequences of the unavoidable randomness that occurs in any grading system are less serious with more grading choices.” But that doesn’t solve the perceived problem. The problem isn’t that Yale only has A, A-, and B+ grades – it’s that Yale professors fail to use grades B through F. Changing from letter to number grading doesn’t do anything but lead to a preponderance of Yalies receiving 97s in all of their classes. Am I missing something in this solution?

Suggest distributed grading. This part is hilarious. The report says that distributions may violate some department’s policies and that the committee doesn’t want to impose on professors’ discretion, not to mention the inherent unfairness of grading on a distribution. And yet, it issues “guidelines” to departments that include 4-5% in the 60-69 range and 0-1% in the 59 (fail) range. As a former teacher to middle class youth headed to state school, I’m trying to imagine the outcry if every class of 30 Yale students had 1 or 2 close to failing, and it hurts my brain.

The clear solution, to me, is get rid of grading. Presumably, students at Yale are doing plenty of learning and doing plenty of work. The problem is just that they’re all receiving As for it. Rather than fight to maintain an ineffective grading system and hand out a few token Cs to verify the fairness, why not do away with it? The listed bad effects of grade inflation – cheapening of the grade, more difficult to interpret grades, etc. – all vanish with the grading system. If nobody is getting a worthless letter or number on their transcript, nobody will care what it’s supposed to mean. If you hire competent staff and foster a strong learning environment, you can be sure most of your students are “passing” – then just let the teachers teach and let the students work.

This is especially possible at Yale, where the classes are small, manageable, and demanding. Grades are, after all, a mechanism that makes measuring students’ abilities easier to do. But when classes are mostly seminar-sized, a professor that is involved in the class and aware of her surroundings could easily surmise who is struggling and who is succeeding. If she has students that are struggling, she can help them as much as is deemed necessary. Boom, no grades needed. Instead, there’s a system now where professors condense 13 weeks of conversations and one or two research essays into one of five letters. I really don’t see the point. If the grading system is so ineffective that there may as well be no grading, then let’s do it. Abolish the grading system, and we’ll be able to move on like nothing ever happened.

Being in the Classroom

There exists on the Internet a long discussion about MOOCs (mass open online courses) and their role in the university system. As schools turn towards MOOCs to reduce costs (even though that’s not what will happen) and destroy education (it seems pretty clear that will happen), many are discussing what a shift to the online will mean. Reading the latest addition to the debate, by Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry, I really loved his depiction of why a classroom is necessary:

In a well-run seminar, students must disagree with each other respectfully, must try to persuade, argue using facts rather than polemic, and face the people with whom they disagree. They have to find points of agreement within their disagreements—or I strive to find it for them, anyway—and it’s by finding ways to explain to each other what they disagree about that the class makes progress. And this is what distinguishes the classes I count a success from the classes where I feel like I failed: while a bad class remains split between active teacher and passive/reactive teach-ees, a good class is one in which the group develops its own vocabulary, its own history, its own personality, when unresolved discussions in week one and two structure the kinds of unresolved discussions we have in week three and four, and so forth. You only understand your own position, I think, if you understand why others don’t share it (and why they believe what they do).

In short, my story of a good class is not a narrative of conformity and control: it’s a narrative of socialized disagreement, of a group of people that can respect and work productively through and around and about everything that divides them. I find it easy to picture doing this in a classroom space. I find it hard to imagine doing this in chat-rooms, discussion boards, comment threads, and emails.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Years in a classroom as an educator have given me strong opinions about why my classes fail and why my classes succeed. The sooner you learn your students’ names—and the sooner they get comfortable with using each others’ names—the more successfully they will engage with each other as people, rather than as props for their own monologues and performance. Managing time is an art, but it’s an art that depends on reacting to sub-verbal cues: knowing that you can sustain a discussion on character for only about 40 minutes before they get bored, for example, and how to mix discussion with in-class writing to keep a two hour class from going stale, and knowing when and where you need to drop the discussion you’d planned to teach in favor of the discussion they clearly walked into the classroom wanting to have… all of these decisions must pivot on something as small as the look on a student’s face, the character of a silence, and the reactions of students whose intellectual personalities you’ve come to know intimately. Try to do that on a discussion board. Seriously, try it.

Moreover, there are always a handful of hyper-eloquent students who need to be persuaded—sometimes nudged, or even pushed—to step back, and to listen to other voices in the room. There are also, always, at least a handful of students that will not talk at all, unless you cultivate them with more skill than I sometimes have. It’s only by reading a student’s face that you can ascertain that she has an unexpressed idea burning in her brain, that all you have to do is ask her to speak up, and she will. And that then she’ll speak up again. And again. But this only happens when you’ve established a relationship of trust; when students are comfortable with you and with their classmates, you can see their minds working even when their mouths are closed. When they are not, you can’t; they come to class with a mask on, and they speak as they think they are expected to, performing a pose of what they think intellectual engagement is supposed to look like, the artifice rather than the substance.

I vigorously agree with what Bady is describing about what happens in a classroom because that is both how I want to teach (and how I tried to teach when I was doing my student teaching) and very much how I learn. Especially as a graduate student, I’m seeing how the seminar-style structure of a course really allows students to explore the topic and find out what everything means. Even in this structure, though, there are wide variations of how that plays out.

At Arizona State I really only had the occasion to take seminar classes a few times. It would have been twice, but my favorite professor continually forced his lecture classes to become seminars, requiring a lot of table shifting before class started and sometimes slow debates in a seminar with a lecture class’ worth of students. And yet, those seminar classes are probably the ones in which I learned the most. I am most confident talking about international justice and human rights, and I have a comfortable understanding of France in WWII and memory after atrocity. It was in those classes and others that I spent most of the time engaged in a long discussion about ideas and events, conversations that spanned weeks and informed my final paper from a number of perspectives. It was in those classrooms that I learned.

But I would hesitate to even tell you some of the courses I took online, lest you think I know about those topics, because I didn’t really learn much about the Vietnam War, piracy in the Caribbean, or special education policies in the classroom. In each of those classes, I was merely given a reading list and a discussion board (respond to the question by Wednesday, respond to two student responses by Friday!) and then some essays. And so, like virtually all of my classmates, Wednesday evening and Friday evening saw a flurry of posts – and Friday’s was almost always somebody opening five tabs, skimming, and responding to the two easiest or most interesting. Nobody would ever go back to engage in actual discussion on the discussion board. Why would you? It’s just an online class.

The only time I really saw people engaging with each other was when the professor of the piracy class asked us to reflect on the characteristics of pirate activity (looting, killing civilians, etc.) with President Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And you can imagine how that discussion went even if you’ve never taken an online class, so long as you’ve been on the Internet. I say that because it looked like any internet message board discussing a touchy topic – people typing over each other, some sass and sarcasm, some ALL CAPS. There was no facilitation of debate, just a kind of provocative question let loose upon Blackboard. Needless to say, I don’t think anybody learned.

When I was teaching, I was never really able to facilitate a seminar very well. My classes were all made up of almost 40 high school students in a very crowded classroom, and I was usually planning things relatively last minute, so I didn’t have the greatest opportunities to really plan out discussion topics. But I knew my students and they knew me, and most of us trusted each other to do this whole “school” thing. I was able – the same way Bady describes – to really discern what was going on in the room and nurture some of my students’ thoughts. It was great watching students gradually open up and say what they had been pondering all hour long, and it was great to really watch a debate unfold when we talked about the more contentious issues. It was also a lot of fun playing devil’s advocate, because sixteen-year-olds don’t often get asked what they think about politics and they don’t often have people rebutting their opinions on immigration or tax policy. There are a number of times that I really think the class was able to move forward together and grow together. That type of learning really doesn’t happen in online classrooms where many students generally aren’t as engaged. There are some independent learners who excel at online classes, students who just need a reading list and maybe some power points. But there are also a lot who, like me, will learn enough online to get a passing grade, but not really enough to learn.

And yet schools everywhere are pushing towards online. ASU has a huge number of online courses offered, and one school district in the Phoenix area is talking about requiring two online courses for all high school students so that they are “better prepared” for online courses in colleges and for online training in the workplace. Colleges are funneling students into online courses for a lot of introductory classes now, making the foundational knowledge on which the rest of your education a shaky one. Online classes can be done right, and there are students that could benefit. But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is students being forced, either by requirements or by the simply math of more students than there are seats in the remaining classrooms, to take courses that have been created first and foremost to change education for the worse – to make it cheaper, to make it easier to grade, to make it quicker. We need to preserve what’s left of the classroom, and we need to fight to rebuild what’s been lost. Online classes are a dark, looming future, and they’re not the way forwards. Online classes are a move backwards. A step away from education, and a step we shouldn’t keep taking.