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Off to Grad School Again: The Second Essay

The other day I posted the first of the essays I had to write for my application to CSUDH’s Humanities Master of Arts External (HUX) program. As promised, here is the second, longer essay. The prompt asked me to describe two to three events, works, or people which inspired my interest in the humanities. I chose to write about two professors I worked under as a teaching assistant the last time I was in graduate school who made particularly effective use of the Great Books in their courses.

Two professors, Dr. Sean Jasso and Dr. Paul Beehler, did more to inspire my interest in studying and teaching the humanities than anyone else I have met. Ironically, I met both of them not by taking humanities courses, but by being assigned as their teaching assistant in business school. Each of them, however, is serious about integrating the humanities in their undergraduate business classes and expects their assistants to do the same. While working for them I learned more about writing, criticism, and the great authors of the Western canon than I did in my entire undergraduate career.

Dr. Sean Jasso’s background is in hospitality management but his research is in public policy and corporate ethics. For several years he has been fine-tuning a class titled “Business Ethics and Law in Society”. The main text for the course is Michael Sandel’s Justice, which uses real world examples to illustrate the ideas of ethical philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, and Mill. All of these authors were new to me. I nearly panicked the first time a student appeared in my office saying that she “didn’t really understand Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives,” and could I explain it for her. As every teacher knows, however, teaching a subject is the best way to understand it. My own pedagogical style relies heavily on Socratic questions to encourage students to think critically and make connections, so my weekly discussion sections became a shared journey of inquiry with my students as we found new ways to apply the teachings of these philosophers to weekly case studies.

With Dr. Jasso’s help, I soon found ways to apply the philosophy we were teaching to situations in my professional life. One ethical issue that affects everyone in higher education is academic integrity. Catching a student cheating or plagiarizing creates an ethical dilemma for any teacher teacher, especially an overworked graduate assistant. To simply ignore the offense and pass the student is easy, but is a betrayal of one’s duty and, in utilitarian terms, hurts the whole society by lessening the value of a university education for all students. Failing the offender and turning them over for disciplinary action is nearly as easy and can be justified on the grounds that cheating is categorically wrong and that punishing cheaters rewards those students who do not offend. Dr. Jasso believes, however, that because a teacher’s purpose is to educate, a cheating incident needs to be used as an additional opportunity to teach the student. He expects his assistants to call a meeting the student and himself. In this meeting teaching assistant confronts the student, who is given an opportunity to confess. Students who come clean are then prompted to explain why their actions were wrong and allowed to write an essay titled “Why Cheating is Wrong and I Won’t do it Again”, supporting their points with material from the class. If the teaching assistant is satisfied with the essay then they are not referred for disciplinary action (they still have to repeat the course). These “cheater meetings” were emotionally exhausting for the teaching assistant and created extra grading work, but Dr. Jasso convinced me that they were the right thing to do.

Dr. Paul Beehler is an English professor who teaches “Business Writing and Communications” for the School of Business Administration. One of the texts for his course is Machiavelli’s The Prince. As their term project students are required to write a research paper analyzing the strategy of a real corporation in terms of Machiavellian philosophy. When grading papers and exam blue books I found that I usually knew within a few paragraphs whether I was looking at ‘B’ or ‘C’ work (there were very few ‘A’s), but a letter grade is almost useless to a student because it doesn’t tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Dr. Beehler pushed me to become not only an editor, but a critic: deconstructing a student’s work and offering comments on their style, logical reasoning, creativity, and use of semiotics. This was a painful process for me, because Dr. Beehler spot checks his assistants’ grading work and often returns papers to be regraded. I was frequently frustrated when his opinion of a paper differed widely from my own. As time went on, however, I realized that my criticism tended to be fairly shallow and he was teaching me to read at a deeper level– to go beyond mechanics and rhetorical flourishes and assess the sophistication of a student’s thoughts. I soon I realized that I was applying a deeper level of analysis to everything I read, including my own work. I was also able to give much better comments to students who brought in their work in progress to show me during office hours. This made me a better critic and editor which in turn made me a better writer.

Another benefit of teaching the class under Dr. Beehler is that it introduced me to Machiavelli’s work, which I now understand represents a watershed in Western philosophy. Machiavelli stands upon the divide between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and represents one of the first articulations of the basically humanistic path which Western thought has followed for the past five centuries. His decision to embrace republican political philosophy over the traditional divine right of kings not only influenced all of the enlightenment authors who followed him, but eventually led the way to the liberal democracies in which we now live.

Even though I never took a course of theirs, nor did research under them, Dr. Jasso and Dr. Beehler taught me more than any of the professors I knew in professional school. Dr. Jasso introduced me to the great ethical philosophers and showed me how to integrate their theories into my professional life. Dr. Beehler pushed me to a higher level of writing and textual criticism, making me a better writer. Both inspired what I suspect will be a lifelong interest in the Western canon and the humanities in general, and teaching under them was one of the most valuable aspects of my professional school experience.

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Off to Grad School Again

The past year and a half of focusing entirely on my writing has been intensely rewarding, but it’s time to start thinking about my formal education again. This morning I took the first steps in applying to CSUDH’s External MA in Humanities (HUX) program. The program seems flexible yet rigorous and I expect to write a thesis which will form the first draft of a future book.

So, fingers crossed and let’s hope that they will admit a business school guy/hack sci-fi writer like me.

One section of the CSU application asks for a personal statement describing my reasons “for pursuing graduate or postbaccalaureate study.” After looking at my statement I realized that it is pertinent to this blog, particularly my ongoing Great Books project, so I decided to post it here:

    During the first half of my career I mainly saw education as a process of training in skills. I earned three business degrees, took years of engineering coursework, and completed several professional certifications–learning how to do many useful things. As time went on, however, I became aware of what I was missing. True education, as distinct from mere training, should be general and liberal. The vocational degrees and training programs I completed did little to teach me about the culture, history, and language of the society in which I live. All the knowledge I acquired was specific and targeted at getting and succeeding in specific jobs. It did not address larger more general questions of the human condition.

 
As I entered my thirties and began spending an increased portion of my time writing, the gaps in my knowledge were made obvious, especially in the areas of literature, history, and philosophy. In order to function, a writer needs to be able to draw from a broad and deep background of cultural knowledge. But my background was unbalanced and primarily technical. To address the problem, I then spent several years deliberately expanding my reading, especially of the so-called “great books” of the Western Cannon. I was aware from the beginning that this would be a poor substitute for a true liberal education. Autodidacticism, however personally rewarding, is inefficient. I know I can learn about the humanities much more effectively if I have teachers and a program with structure.

 
I am now ready, both financially and intellectually, to dedicate two years of my life to the full time study of the humanities. The external MA program at CSUDH is ideal, both because of the content and because I have always done well with distance learning in the past.

The second stage of the application, which goes to the department itself, requires a longer analytical essay which I will probably also post in a few days when I am finished writing it.

Practitioner Focused Doctorates?

The other day, a post from the University of Phoenix showed up in my news feed, extolling their doctoral programs.  I couldn’t resist firing off a quick comment:

post on University of Phoenix's Facebook Page

I stand by the claim.  The primary factor that affects the perceived quality of a doctoral program is the number of graduates who get assistant professor jobs at top schools.

UOP’s community manager responded to my comment by throwing out a red herring about how the programs are “practitioner focused”, which has nothing to do with what I said. Even if you are working in the private sector, the reputation of the school matters, and the reputation is driven by tenure-track placements.  I was interested, though, to find out that the program has been going on since 2002.  Then again, it isn’t surprising I had never heard of it, since no UOP graduates were teaching at the university where I went to graduate school, or seem to be publishing in any of the journals I read.

University of Phoenix community manager's reply to my comment

Later one of their current doctoral candidates tried to turn the discussion around and make it about me.  Thank you, Jennifer, but I already have a career.  Some of us are interested in the system itself, not just punching our own tickets.

one of University of Phoenix's doctoral candidate's reply to my comment
So, as amusing as it is to troll the University of Phoenix on social media, why am I bringing this up on my blog?  Well, as I thought about it over the weekend, I realized the existence of such a thing as an online “practitioner focused” doctoral degree is symptomatic of a larger educational issue.

First, let’s consider why any practitioner, which I take to mean someone who is not interested in teaching or public sector research, would need a doctoral degree.  I can only think of two reasons:  either they think it will prepare them for some sort of private sector research, or it is purely for prestige–one more certificate on the “I love me” wall of the office.

The first possibility is dubious.  In my own field, it is hard to think of any sort of research one could do with a DBA that they couldn’t do with an MBA.  Really, once you have a handle on statistics, theory of knowledge, and the basic experimental and data gathering methods then the rest is just reviewing the literature and keeping current in your own specialty.  I did all of the above in business school.  Then again, I went to the University of California, not the University of Phoenix.

The second possibility seems more likely, but also disturbing and a bit odious.  If people are getting doctoral degrees purely to get a pay bump or impress consulting clients, and not because of a calling to academia or because they really want to create knowledge, then the product itself, the degree, becomes much harder to differentiate.  The market for doctoral degrees moves away from monopolistic competition towards a purely competitive situation; one doctorate is as good as another, so schools compete on price.  They maximize their profit by pricing a doctorate so that their marginal revenue is equal to their marginal cost, so they have every incentive to push down the marginal cost, so as to push down the price and sell more degrees.  The actual academic content provides very little of the value proposition, and is neglected.  The degree is cheapened.  In other words, the same thing happens to the DBA that is happening to the MBA.

The DBA becomes the new MBA.  The MBA (or some other master’s degree) is already the new BA.  Meanwhile, President Obama is pushing for free community college for most students, which will effectively make the AA the new high school diploma.  The entire educational process becomes stretched out, and for what?  I’m convinced that students don’t learn any more by the time they graduate than they did a generation ago.

The problems in our educational system exist at every level, from kindergarten to postdoc, and I certainly don’t know how to fix them.  But I do believe that the only reason to get a doctoral degree that makes sense is because you want to be an academic, and only if the degree itself still means something.

With apologies and all due respect, University of Phoenix, please do not expect to see an application packet from me any time soon.

This post was published simultaneously on LinkedIn.

The Closing of the American Mind (Book Review)

I ask that you bear with me as I continue my detour of discussing books about Great Books.   Reading the great books to improve myself as a writer is likely to be a pretty long project–probably even more time consuming than the time I decided to watch all 726 Star Trek episodes in chronological order.  Before I get started too far into it, I want to be sure and examine some of the motivations for someone to launch on a Great Books reading program.  Next time I will return to discuss the Odyssey.

The Closing of the American Mind cover picture.

I just finished reading The Closing of the American Mind: How higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) by Allan Bloom.  Allan Bloom was a Great Books veteran, having produced well respected translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, as well as two books on Shakespeare.  The Closing of the American Mind, written a few years before his death, is his magnum opus of popular nonfiction and is one of the last articulate 20th century pleas for greater integration of the Great Books in education.

The book covers quite a bit of ground, since Bloom was trying to trace a complete intellectual history of the purpose of a liberal education in our society.  He brings up quite a few interesting points, any one of which would make a good blog article, but I will try to keep this post brief.

Bloom argues that in a liberal democracy, which by definition has no aristocracy or powerful established religion, the university is the only place where young people have a chance to experience a larger world of ideas and possibilities before going back to the “vulgar bourgeoisie” world of their future careers.  Furthermore, a university is the only place where dissenting or new ideas are allowed to thrive, free from a democracy’s moral consensus.  However, the fact that modern universities exist within a democracy means that they have been under pressure to encourage “openness” to different ideologies, lifestyles, values, etc.  This has caused the academy to fragment into a “Chinese restaurant menu” of different disciplines, depriving students of any commonality of experience or deep exposure to the core ideas that make up our civilization.  Also, the wide acceptance of Neitzeism and other German philosophies has led to a new nihilism in both the academic Right and the academic Left, causing them to abandon teaching about The Good and instead teach a vague sort of value theory where nothing is good or bad and a dangerous relativism where all lifestyles and philosophies are equally valid as long as their proponents exhibit a proper level of commitment, leaving students adrift with no means to evaluate anything in terms beyond simple utility.

Bloom’s solution is a return to the wellsprings of Western Civilization, i.e. “the good old Great Books approach.”  However, he admits that this is unlikely to happen now that the humanities have been stripped of their traditional prestige and allure, the physical sciences have decided they don’t need the other disciplines, and an increasing number of undergraduates are shameless careerists, intent only on getting the prerequisites they need to get into professional programs.  He points out, however, that even if there is no solution to the problem, the problem itself is eminently suitable as a subject for study by philosophers.

I honestly am not sure whether I agree with Bloom.  Many readers have detected overtones of elitism in his argument.  If we were to reset the curriculum to what it was in, say, the Victorian period, it would again create a massive advantage for upper-class, white males.  On the other hand, I would embrace any program that could teach undergraduates to read and think, two things which very few of them now do well.  Also, as a member of Western Civilization, I do think that it is important to protect and cherish our own intellectual and cultural heritage.  On my most recent trip through college I was frequently shocked to learn what little awareness my fellow graduate student had of Western culture, literature and history.  There education had failed in that respect, and there must be a better system.

One section of the book which I found very interesting was Bloom’s discussion about the role of the philosopher in society (pp. 268-293).  The philosopher, Bloom says, is an inherently vulnerable individual because he is different from the rest of the society and his contribution is not measurable in terms that regular people can necessarily understand.  Very seldom has a philosopher been a ruler.  In fact, most of them have lived in poverty. Philosophers are thus subject to all sorts of persecutions, starting with Socrates’ execution.  I was reminded of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community and Galileo’s censure by Catholic church.  Because of vulnerability, philosophers have “engaged in a gentle art of deception” to woo the aristocracy for protection and support:

In sum, the ancient philosophers were to a man proponents of aristocratic politics..They were aristocratic in the vulgar sense, favoring the power of those possessing wealth, because such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it.  Most simply, they have the money for an education and time to take it seriously. (p. 284)

However, by the 17th century, philosophers had come up with an even better scheme:  Enlightenment.  This plan was Machiavellian in the truest since of the word, given that Machiavelli was the one who thought of it.  By simultaneously showing the world the fruits of scientific inquiry while teaching a theory of rights, the philosophers inspired revolutions which led to liberal democracy and allowed the existence of the modern university–an institute dedicated to teaching and protecting philosophy.  Once the rule of Reason was firmly established, the philosophers no longer needed aristocratic patronage and switched to”the party of democracy”.

Now, if we return to Bloom’s main argument, the universities are in a state of decline and philosophy is no longer central to education, yet philosophers are now unable to survive outside the university.  Bloom would like to change the university back to what it once was, if possible.

For my own part, I must ask if it isn’t time for philosophers to come up with a new plan.  If the aristocracy is gone, and universities are now more of a hindrance than a help, perhaps it is time to move on.  To where?  I don’t know; I’m no Machiavelli. It seems, though, that this too is a good question for philosophic inquiry.