Monday, March 22, 2010

Adopting a Scholar's Perspective

The whole point of writing an academic research essay in 201 might be to discover a scholar's voice and learn to write as an academic.  That might also be the most difficult part of it.  One thing I did not anticipate in teaching a course on "College!" is how the subject matter of the course might make it especially difficult for students to step outside of their perspectives as "students" and adopt a more academic or scholarly perspective.  You are "students" after all.  You see like students.  So it is a big adjustment to start seeing like academics -- though, arguably, it is the most important step you have to make to succeed at college.

Students need to step outside their student-eye-views and overcoming that narrow vision in order to succeed with their final projects.  After all, one thing I am asking you to do for the course is to identify a scholarly debate (a debate among academics), regarding some question related to higher education, and to join that debate as a scholar yourself.  But when I look at the blog postings describing the "debates" you plan to write about, I generally get instead what I would call "conflicts" or "alternatives" or "opposing choices" affecting individual students. Let me give you an example from a student blog to illustrate:
"The debate I have identified is between the [students] who are attending college and paying for [it] in loans and putting themselves in debt. The other side is the [students] who decide to forgo college and work straight out of high school avoiding debt."
This statement makes it sound like the people "debating" whether or not college is "worth it" from a purely economic point of view are high school graduates going to college and high school graduates choosing to go straight into the workforce. I don't think that way of framing the problem is going to be so productive, however, since these people do not actually debate each other.  In fact, they don't even often talk to each other.  And the reasons individual students choose go to college and other individuals do not have more to do with socio-economic background and school performance than with rational economic decision making.  If students are not debating this issue (or even thinking about it rationally), who is debating it and thinking about it? 

This writer's problem has to do with the way he is imagining the idea of a "debate" on the issue.  When I say I want you to "enter a debate," I mean a scholarly debate among academics / scholars who study and theorize about these choices -- a debate, in this case, among people in economics, higher education, government or banking who have researched the economics of paying for college in this age of higher debt burdens and bleak economic outlooks for college grads and non-grads alike.  Academics or scholars are the people most likely to debate these issues and to publish their findings.  And they are the people most likely to offer you an unbiased answer to the question.  

Academics answer the question and people in power can use the answer not just to make an individual choice for themselves but to make policy decisions that could impact the lives of many people.  The answer to the question of whether or not college is a smart choice from a purely economic perspective could be quite useful for policymakers.  It is useful to college administrators debating whether or not it is possible to raise tuition in these tough economic times.  It is useful to governors cutting funding to colleges knowing they will have to raise tuition and wondering how much the market might bear.  It is useful to people in government who want to create more incentives for college attendance in the population.

Take another example, which I have illustrated in the image at the top of this page (see above): the question of using computers and other technology in the classroom.  Using computers in the classroom directly impacts both teachers and students -- and in different, sometimes quite opposed, ways.  Teachers may see computers as a distraction (fearing that students are surfing the web or checking e-mail rather than really listening to lecture), while some might see them as a great tool for collaborative learning.  Some students might not like the expense or the novelty of classroom computing.  But the potential conflicts among teachers and students are not so important to the larger question of whether or not promoting the use of laptops in lecture halls (for example) is a good or bad thing.  

Students and teachers might have different views on the matter of using laptops in lecture, but only scholars can offer an informed perspective that can actually help to decide whether or not those laptops are valuable, and perhaps valuable enough to make them a universal requirement.  

Scholarly research can impact policy.  Based on academic research, policymakers might require all students to buy a laptop -- or provide them as a built-in cost of tuition (lowering the cost by arranging a bulk deal with the manufacturer).  Administrators might institute training for lecturers in how to put that added computing power to use in the classroom to keep students engaged and reduce the potential distraction they might represent.  Large scale decisions might be made that impact many students, so that it is no longer a question of whether or not a single student should bring his or her laptop to class but whether or not all students should have one.

Students who remain at the level where they only see issues from a student perspective will ultimately not be able to write the most promising and engaged research papers, because they do not imagine how their research might impact policy.  I call this the problem of "student perspectivalism."

I first noticed the problem of "student perspectivalism" in the Analytic Essay, where a number of you tried to defend the partying, anti-academic culture of "student life" as somehow equally important to the academic requirements of college.  Several papers were premised on the idea that you actually learn more from socializing at school than you learn from your classes -- leaving aside or even trampling over Rebekah Nathan's critique of that commonly held student notion ("Don't students come to college to learn?" she asks at one point).  The ultimate example of student perspectivalism came from a paper I shared in class with you, where the student wrote:
When you think about what college really is it breaks down into two part: the learning and education of students and the college lifestyle.  The students are playing for their part, the 'college lifestyle,' which involves having fun in the dorms, learning through experience and becoming more mature young adults and readying them for the real world.  ...  College is more than just class and learning.  It is about learning how to be on your own and be your own individual person while you gain the knowledge necessary to be a working member of society. ... This is the part of college that students are paying for...
What that student argues, essentially, is that the State, alumni, corporate donors, and the federal government pay for the educational aspects of college (because they want students to learn something that will benefit society) while students are paying for the fun part (presumably because they don't give a damn about anything else).  Leaving aside the fact that most students actually are not themselves paying for their educations -- their parents are -- this is an incredibly audacious claim and one that runs roughshod over the views of Nathan and others.  

Interestingly, Nathan is quoted extensively by the writer, but only to reference other students to validate his argument.  Quite ironic: even though Nathan is out to critique the culture of mediocrity, by pointing to it, her work is used as an index of the very issue she is trying to argue against.

I showed this paper to another director in folder review and she said, "well, if he thinks he's just paying for the parties, he's going to get what he pays for." She also said he would be much better off moving to a fun city and finding a job -- maybe as a ski instructor or lifeguard.  From a purely economic point of view, she is absolutely right, since students who party their way through college tend not to get the economic benefits of it.  So they might as well just get a job.

Consider a second example of student perspectivalism from the blogs:
"The debate that i have found is that community colleges are good in the sense that they save you money by allowing you to take the classes that you would be taking at any other school for the first two years. Community colleges give you time to figure out what you want to do with your life and what you want to major in before waisting all your money at a place that doesn't offer what you want. The other side of this argument is that it is harder for students to succeed in four year instituions when coming from a community college because there preparation and background knowledge is not the same. Students seem to struggle in courses that are required such as expositroy writing 101 which demonstrates that although you saved money it may not be helping you in the future because you may have to stay extra time to finish credits and may not get the degree in the amount of time that you would like. Another problem is that not all credits from community colleges transfer to four year institutions which was a waste of your time and money for taking classes that will only hurt you in the long run."
Here is a student writing about the viability of the "stepping stone theory" of community college, where two-year schools are used to allow more students access to a four-year degree.  That "stepping stone theory" has informed the policy of many states, including New Jersey, and affects many people.  But the student is writing about it purely from the perspective of an individual student (the presumed "you" addressed throughout, as in "community colleges give you time to figure out what you want to do with your life").  Though individual students might be making the choice between going directly to a four-year school and going first to a two-year school, it is policy-makers and academics who are debating these issues, and this student needs to engage with that debate.  After all, if the State wants more students to go to college, policies have to be put in place to make college more affordable.  Using community colleges as a stepping stone is one way, since they help to lower the tuition over four years.  That was the idea that created the articulation agreements between two-year and four-year colleges in New Jersey.  The big question is not "is community college a good choice for me or you?" but "is the stepping stone theory of community college really working to create more access to higher education and more graduates?"  The answer to the first question might lead to a single decision.  The answer to the second question could affect thousands.

Here are some things you can do to make sure you are writing from a scholarly perspective:
  • Step back from the issue. Look at it from above. Examine it as an outsider -- as an academic.
  • Remain objective.  Represent both sides fairly even when picking a side.
  • Consider the paradigm (such as the "stepping stone theory" cited above) by which decisions are made and look for academics debating those issues.
  • Look for facts, data, or statistics to back up your view. 
  • Ask yourself "how many people will be affected by the answer to this question?"  If the answer is "one person," then you are not asking the right question.

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