Teaching (to the) Tests

I was a little appalled to find out last week that my son is spending multiple days taking PSSA standardized tests in his school, a ritual that he shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes at, a teenager’s damning assessment that says wordlessly that this-is-just-one-more-stupid-thing-adults-make-me-do-for-my-own-good.

Teenage boys are notoriously bored with school and sneer at book-learning.  Think Huckleberry Finn as only one great American example.  So I think my son’s attitude about school is not particularly new.  But whereas Twain’s hero, in a great romantic tradition, saw books themselves as corrupt and the learning they provided as a corrupter of virtuous instincts, nothing is further from the truth for  my son.  He reads ravenously, much more than I did at his age, which is saying quite a bit.  And the level and range of his interests astonish me, from jazz poetry and history, to hindu mysticism, to the thickest of contemporary literary novels like Delillo’s Mao II and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  When he bought Wallace’s Infinite Jest he was nearly giddy with delight.  “It’s like a giant two-fisted hamburger” he said laughing, holding it up to his open mouth. “Something you can eat up.”  This same boy who sees learning as a feast when left to the devices of books and their authors and his own imagination, seems to experience school as an emotional and intellectual Waste Land, a place he finds dull and dulling.

I can’t blame his teachers.  They are talented and caring.  But I can’t help wondering with a chorus of others, whether something has gone badly wrong with our approaches to schooling, approaches that trap teachers as surely as they enervate students, or at least many male students.

I tend to agree with this blog from Diane Ravitch, who I find to be one of our most interesting commentators on education, if only because she has become so unpredictable and yet so incisive in her analyses. From the NYRB, “Flunking Arne Duncan”

Will Duncan’s policies improve public education?

No. Under pressure to teach to tests—which assess only English and math skills—many districts are reducing the time available for teaching the arts, history, civics, foreign languages, physical education, and other non-tested subjects. (Other districts are spending scarce dollars to create new tests for the arts, physical education, and those other subjects so they can evaluate all their teachers, not just those who teach reading and mathematics.) Reducing the time available for the arts, history, and other subjects will not improve education. Putting more time and money into testing reduces the time and money available for instruction. None of this promotes good education. None of this supports love of learning or good character or any other ideals for education. Such a mechanistic, anti-intellectual approach would not be tolerated for President Obama’s children, who attend an excellent private school. It should not be tolerated for the nation’s children, 90 percent of whom attend public schools. Grade: F.

Of course, I care about this for my son, and I am thankful to God that he is getting through his high school education before the ax has cleaved away programs in the arts and diminished offering in other areas.  But I also care about this as an educator and administrator in a college.  In the first place, it is impossible to imagine that we will have students who are effective writers if they have no historical sense, no understanding of the arts, less exposure to the civic virtues, and fewer opportunities to read and think in languages other than their own.  It is impossible to imagine that such students–even scoring better on a writing or a math exam–are better prepared for college than students from a generation ago, before we started worrying about their being left behind.  It is impossible to imagine that we are getting a better student simply because they can do a math problem successfully when they have never had to struggle to draw a picture or understand a symphony or reach in to the past to engage the worlds of the ancients before them.
If this is the education we are giving them, we are producing neither saints or scholars.  We may be producing a generation of students (perhaps boys especially) who are bored mindless and who will look for their learning in more likely places, like the cover of a book for which no one will think to devise a test.

Living in an e-plus world: Students now prefer digital texts when given a choice

A recent blog by Nick DeSantis in the Chronicle points to a survey by the Pearson Foundation that suggests Tablet ownership is on the rise.  That’s not surprising, but more significant is the fact that among tablet users there’s a clear preference for digital texts over the traditional paper codex, something we haven’t seen before even among college students of this wired generation:

One-fourth of the college students surveyed said they owned a tablet, compared with just 7 percent last year. Sixty-three percent of college students believe tablets will replace textbooks in the next five years—a 15 percent increase over last year’s survey. More than a third said they intended to buy a tablet sometime in the next six months.

This year’s poll also found that the respondents preferred digital books over printed ones. It’s a reversal of last year’s results and goes against findings of other recent studies, which concluded that students tend to choose printed textbooks. The new survey found that nearly six in 10 students preferred digital books when reading for class, compared with one-third who said they preferred printed textbooks.

I find this unsurprising as it matches up pretty well with my own experience.  5 years ago I could never imagine doing any significant reading on a tablet.  Now I do all my reading of scholarly journals and long form journalism–i.e The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, The Chronicle Review–on my iPad.  And while I still tend to prefer the codex for the reading of novels and other book length works, the truth is that preference is slowly eroding as well.  As I become more familiar with the forms of e-reading, the notions of its inherent inferiority, like the notions of any unreflective prejudice, gradually fade in the face of familiarity.

And yet I greet the news of this survey with a certain level of panic, not panic that it should happen at all, but panic that the pace of change is quickening and we are hardly prepared, by we I mean we in the humanities here in small colleges and elsewhere.  I’ve blogged on more than one occasion about my doubts about e-books and yet my sense of their inevitable ascendancy.  For instance here on the question of whether e-books are being foisted on students by a cabal of publishers and administrators like myself out to save a buck (or make a buck as the case may be), and here on the nostalgic but still real feeling that I have that print codex forms of books have an irreplaceable individuality and physicality that the mere presence of text in a myriad of e-forms does not suffice to replace.

But though I’ve felt the ascendancy of e-books was inevitable, I think I imagined a 15 or 20 year time span in which print and e-books would mostly live side by side.  Our own librarians here at Messiah College talk about a “print-plus” model for libraries, as if e-book will remain primarily an add on for some time to come.  I wonder.  Just as computing power increases exponentially, it seems to me that the half-life of print books is rapidly diminishing.  I now wonder whether we will have five years before students will expect their books to be in print–all their books, not just their hefty tomes for CHEM 101 that can be more nicely illustrated with iBook Author–but also their books for English and History classes as well.  This is an “e-plus”  world  where print will increasingly not be the norm, but the supplement to fill whatever gaps e-books have not yet bridged, whatever textual landscapes have not yet been digitized.

Despite warnings, we aren’t yet ready for an e-plus world.  Not only do we not know how to operate the apps that make these books available, we don’t even know how to critically study books in tablet form.  Yet learning what forms of critical engagement are possible and necessary will be required.  I suspect, frankly, that our current methods developed out of a what was made possible by the forms that texts took, rather than forms following our methodological urgencies.  This means that the look of critical study in the classroom will change radically in the next ten years.  What will it look like?

Crime and Punishment, The Soundtrack

This article from Julie Bosman at the New York Times convinces me again that the future of books will be as multi-media, multi-layered artifacts rather than script-exclusive texts. Says Bosman:

In the film versions of “Pride and Prejudice” the music jumps and swells at all the right moments, heightening the tension and romance of that classic Jane Austen novel.

Will it do the same in the e-book edition?

Booktrack, a start-up in New York, is planning to release e-books with soundtracks that play throughout the books, an experimental technology that its founders hope will change the way many novels are read.

Its first book featuring a soundtrack is “The Power of Six,” a young-adult novel published by HarperCollins, soon to be followed by “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Jane Eyre,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Three Musketeers.”

In September and October, Booktrack will release editions of the short stories “In the South,” by Salman Rushdie, and “Solace,” by Jay McInerney.

“It makes a new and engaging way to read and really enhances the experience and enhances your imagination and keeps you in the story longer,” Paul Cameron, Booktrack’s 35-year-old co-founder and chief executive, said in an interview. “And it makes it fun to read again. If you’re not reading all the time, it might help you rediscover reading.”

Elsewhere in the article Bosman points out that this is an extension of the increasingly common expectation that e-books will have embedded images and even videos, and perhaps come with addition documentary footage like DVDs. The linking of text and image and sound is ancient, of course. Think illuminated manuscripts and chanted psalms. To say nothing of the fact that the Homeric odes were probably originally sung. Still, I find myself wondering about our cultures inability to tolerate silence. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as Eliot said a hundred years ago. I think he may have imagined poetry as a cure. He could not have known that someone somewhere was going to enhance our experience Burnt Norton with mood music.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that my colleagues and I at Messiah College and elsewhere who teach students to write had better get used to the fact that we will have to train not only their linguistic sensibilities, but their aural and visual sensibilities as well.

Now, what sound track should we put to Burnt Norton?

We’re really getting desperate now

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a man walked into an English class at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis Tennessee and robbed 18 students at gunpoint.

Do thieves really have nothing better to do with their time than to rob a bunch of people who are learning how to read and write.  More, these folks will never make any money anyway, as amply demonstrated by their being English majors?

A theoretical side-note.  In my literary theory classes at Duke, I remember fellow students attempting to refute deconstruction by asking, “If someone held you at gunpoint, would you really sit there and deconstruct the gun?”  We may never know, but these students really have the opportunity!  I think the prof should take advantage.  This is one of those infamous “teachable moments,”  by which teachers usually mean “something uncomfortable and really unfortunate just happened, but let’s just turn it in to language!”

“How, John, did you see the gun–as a phenomenon in the moment of its appearance or as sign and symbol of our oppressive political dialectics…No thoughts?…Jane?…Jim…anyone?”