Shooting Fish in a Barrel–And Still Missing

The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported on billionaire Peter Theil’s alternative-to-college fellowship now that it’s been up and running several years. Essentially, the program selects twenty students at the top universities and gives them each $100,000 in start-up funds to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs. Apparently Theil’s explanation for the very real challenges facing higher ed is not that slashed state and federal budgets are responsible for astronomical tuition rates that make students and families second-guess the value of college, but because college is depriving students of the benefits of entrepreneurship.

I suggest Theil take a basic college writing course to learn something about making evidence-based arguments, because I know that is simply not the case. It turns out that the results of the experiment are less than stellar. Of the nine original participants who agreed to talk, few have much to show for their $100,000 venture. Some have gone back to college; most have scrapped their original ideas.

Now I certainly don’t begrudge their failures–that’s just life and happens to all of us. However, it does say something about Theil’s anti-college position–that is shared by many pundits–when you can take some of the most privileged young people in the world, give them $100,000 to make something incredible, and get only mediocre results at best. This doesn’t mean that college is perfect or the path for everyone. But it does show that a college education is not necessarily an impediment in the way that Theil has framed it. Nor does it show that entrepreneurship is some kind of panacea for the current economy with its flat wages and uncertain job market.

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Teaching Notes

Just dropping by to note a new approach to my first day of first-year composition this semester. (One of these days I’ll set up a proper professional blog; in the meanwhile, here goes.)

In the past I’ve done my best to engage students on the first day of class with a little visual analysis, using that as a “teaser” for all the super-cool things we’ll be doing–analyzing texts, learning the basics of academic research, composing thesis statements, and everything else that excites me far more than it (often) does them.

This winter I participated in a discussion group that read the book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. From those discussions (and others), I took away the idea that instead of trying to “sell” students on the awesomeness of critical thinking on the first day of class, I should instead emphasize what this class can do for them by demonstrating its relationship to future writing courses they will take. Framing the course this way challenges the typical compartmentalized expectation that many students bring to college where they assume courses and subjects have very little to do with each other.

So here’s what I did. First, I asked students to write down the letter grade they expected to earn in this course. Then I asked them what skills they would need to use in order to earn that grade. The answers ranged from “organization/time management” to “spell check.”

Next, I handed them a 3 1/2 page research paper assignment from a colleague’s advanced gen ed course. I asked them to read it, and then work in small groups to list the skills they would need to complete the assignment.

Here the lists were a bit more detailed. They noticed the need for valid sources (10!), an annotated bibliography (whatever that is), and background information (lectures, class discussions) to name a few.

I affirmed the importance of all their lists, and then showed them a few more such as analyzing a text (and what exactly does analyze mean?), comparatively analyzing two texts, considering multiple interpretations, finding and evaluating sources, using a specific citation style, and developing an evidence-based argument. All these items are things we will be learning this semester.

I promised the students that every assignment, every informal writing exercise that we will do in this class is designed to equip them for the much more challenging assignments they will encounter in future courses.

Finally, we wrapped up the session with short literacy narratives that will serve as both diagnostic essays and way for me to learn more about each student and what each person is bringing to the course.

In the past, I’ve emphasized the connection between the course content and the broader world; this time I’m emphasizing the connections between the course and students’ future academic success. I’m demonstrating for them that curriculum design is not a randomized process, but that the courses they are taking are strategically networked with other courses across the college. Time will tell, but I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that they’ll get it.