Sunday, December 15, 2013

The “Anyway” Argument

The academic internet has been abuzz about Rebecca Schuman’s essay against essays.  Schuman, who has made quite a splash with her “pan kisses kafka” blog, takes her usual advocacy a step farther here.  Instead of advocating for more room at the inn for prospective faculty, here she takes on what happens at the inn.  In short, she argues that students hate writing essays and therefore do half-baked jobs of it; professors hate grading essays and therefore become bitter and surly; and the outside world cares not at all about essays.  Therefore, she suggests, let’s do away with essays as general requirements, and keep them only in the specialized fields in which they actually matter.

You can decide for yourself how literally you want to take her argument.  Plenty of people seem to read it as either Swiftian satire or an exercise in cathartic venting, and there’s warrant for either.  I see it as a variation on what I’ll call the “Anyway Argument,” which has been gaining ground lately in other parts of the academy.

The Anyway Argument goes like this: requirement X is widely loathed, and causes all manner of angst among both students and faculty.  Outside of a few specialized fields, most students will never need the skills built by requirement X anyway.  So why not just drop it?

The Anyway Argument is at the core of the Statway project, for example.  In the community college world, developmental math is increasingly seen as a sort of quicksand from which few students escape.  Most developmental math sequences are built on the assumption that students move through algebra to pre-calculus and calculus.  That makes perfect sense for students who want to go on in fields that require calculus, including most STEM disciplines.  But most students don’t do that.  Most of them go into fields in which they’ll never use much advanced algebra, let alone calculus.  

The Statway project, and others like it, take as the starting point the idea that if the algebra track is a major attrition generator and largely irrelevant anyway, why keep it?  Instead, why not channel non-STEM majors into Statistics (or something similar), and streamline the remediation to cover only the stuff they need for that class?  If the rest is just frustrating and wasteful, why require it?  You may need calculus to be an engineer, and that’s fine.  But if you don’t need it to study, say, history, then why sacrifice a degree to it?

The Anyway Argument has the great virtue of recognizing efficiency as a valid goal.  If a requirement can’t justify itself in any coherent way other than tradition, and it comes at an increasingly obvious and distasteful cost, it seems fair to call it into question.  In the case of Statway (and similar projects), it’s fair to ask why a prospective commercial artist needs to be able to calculate second derivatives.  In the case of Schuman’s argument, one may well ask whether a prospective business major really needs to be able to delve into a nuanced subject for ten pages with MLA citation format.  Most businesses don’t require that; in fact, I’m always a little surprised at the unedited prose of powerful people.  Let’s just say that for many, it appears not to have been a priority.

Of course, efficiency cuts two ways.  It’s easy to imagine a soulless administrator using Schuman’s argument as a way to reduce drastically the size of an English department.  At the community college level, most of what English departments teach falls under the umbrella of either developmental reading/writing or freshman comp.  Yes, there are some literature electives, but not many, and they often run small; it wouldn’t require many faculty to cover them.  And the credits freed up by dropping the composition requirement could be used for other things, whether it’s public speaking, personal finance, more credits in the major, or even shorter paths to degrees.  Think of the savings!

The problem with the Anyway Argument, I think, is that it works best in hindsight.  If you know from the outset what you want to do, and you’re right, then it’s possible to identify requirements that seem extraneous.  (My alma mater made every student pass a swim test as a graduation requirement.  Your guess is as good as mine.)  Looking back, I can see some academic choices I made as having been blind alleys.  Had I known that at the time, I would have chosen differently.

But I didn’t know that at the time.  Realistically, I couldn’t have.  They weren’t blind alleys for everybody, and I couldn’t know which camp I’d fall into until it was too late.

Many of us can tell tales of a sort of academic serendipity.  They tend to go like this: I wandered with some vague sense of needing direction, and then something clicked in a random and unforeseeable moment in a class from which I didn’t expect much.  It’s a sort of vision quest, but usually without the self-awareness.  Weber captured it nicely by saying that you can’t decide to have an accident, exactly, but you can make yourself accident-prone.  You do that by putting yourself in situations in which lightning is likelier to strike.  

That’s the justification for unpopular, across-the-board requirements.  As a college, or as a sector, we’ve made a judgment that students just don’t know themselves, or the academic world, or both, well enough yet to rule out certain options from day one.  You can make the “conservative” version of that argument by appeal to tradition, or the “liberal” version by noting that “preferences” taken as “given” are often, in fact, artifacts of constrained circumstances.  (The strongest ethical argument I’ve heard against the Statway model is that the students likeliest to self-identify as “bad at math” will come from economically segregated schools.  If we let them cut down the future to the size of the present, we’ll miss real potential.)  Either way, though, allowing students to bypass any sort of sustained writing rules out a host of options for them, and relies on 18 year olds to self-identify accurately.  That flies in the face of what most experienced educators know.

The Anyway Argument has a certain visceral appeal, and I enjoyed Schuman’s version of it tremendously.  But any argument that relies on applying hindsight upfront strikes me as shaky.  And I’d hate to reduce what colleges do to what 18 year olds can envision.  On my better days, I like to think that expanding their vision is kind of the point in the first place.