Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Supporting "Potential Completers"

Today’s issue of Inside Higher Education has an article by Paul Fain, “Within Striking Distance,” that looks at the 31 million Americans who have attended college but who have not completed a college degree.
            Of this group, about a third—10 million—stopped out after the first semester.  Another 17.5 million stopped before reaching the third year, and 4 million had moved past the two-year mark.  He calls the last group “potential completers.”  Fain notes:

The most common type of potential completer is 24 to 29 years old and has been out of higher education for two to six years, the report found. About 600,000 women and slightly fewer than 500,000 men fit this description.

More than one in four potential completers enrolled in college continuously or intermittently for seven years or longer. And the study found that about 36 percent spread their enrollments over four to six years.

            These students are often the core target for continuing and distance education programs.  However, this is not just a marketing challenge.  It is not enough to attract these students back to higher education.  Experience shows that, if a returning student is not successful the second time around, chances are great that they will not return for a third try. There are many reasons beyond academic preparation why a student would need to drop out or stop out of college: financial problems, family crises, health, changes in one’s personal goals, etc.  Returning students often must continue to deal with these issues and, in addition, may bring with them new challenges, such as the need to maintain a full-time job while taking classes and to balance study with their roles as spouses and parents.  Quite often, these non-academic life issues are the major barrier that adult learners face when they return to finish their degree.
            Marketing is not enough.  Institutions that are serious about helping returning students succeed must invest in advising and counseling staff who can help these students integrate learning into their adult lives.  This is essential to the long-term success of these “potential completers.”  Whether the institution is public, private, or for-profit, we also have an obligation to the broader society—taxpayers who often help fund these students through state and federal scholarships and loans--to provide compassionate pre-enrollment counseling and academic and personal advising to help returning adult learners find the best program for them and to succeed once they return.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Climate Change: The Future is Now

In the opening pages of her book Field Notes from a Catastrophe (New York: Bloomsbury Press), Elizabeth Kolbert addresses head-on the big question:  Are we causing climate change?  Her answer: absolutely.  She notes, as early as page ten, that “The National Academy of Sciences undertook its first major study of global warming in 1979.”  Their results alarmed President Carter, who called together an ad hoc committee who looked for flaws in published climate studies pointing toward a human cause, but found none.  Their conclusion was that human activity that added carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would throw the planet out of “energy balance” and that the only way for the planet to respond was to heat up. “If carbon dioxide continues to increase,” Kolbert quotes the report, “the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.”  Alarmingly, the report also noted, “We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable.”

Kolbert was writing 25 years after that report was given to President Carter.  Furthermore, she was writing in 2006, making it now 33 years since we were warned. reports that 13 of the 14 hottest years on record happened in the 21stcentury.  Just to be clear:  every year of this century has been one of the 14 hottest years in recorded history. 

We can take that as the kind of warning that President Carter’s study group predicted back in 1979—a generation ago.  

In 2007, Kolbert was interviewed for the PBS series POV.  When asked about the prospects for major climate change, here is what she said:

It's very hard to say what life will be like in 2050. In part that's because we don't know whether any action will be taken to reduce emissions, and in part it's because regional climate predictions are hard to make. Definitely, we know the world as a whole will be warmer and sea levels will be higher. In many places, it will probably also be much drier. Drought is probably the first really dangerous global warming impact that many people will experience.

I have young grandchildren.  In 2050, they will be in their early 40s, probably with children of their own.  I fear for what may lie ahead for them.  By the way, I checked: California is now in its second year of drought; 2013 was the driest year in California for 119 years. 

So, why do people continue to disbelieve the evidence before them?   Often, religion is given as a reason.  Too many people, it is argued, take the Judeo-Christian-Islamic creation myth so literally that they cannot accept scientific evidence.  Behind that desire to believe, though, lies another reason:  the fossil fuel industry—and the web of companies and individuals who profit from it one way or the other—does not want to be restricted in any way and has consistently—and successfully—tried to shape public opinion.  Too many politicians seem to owe their allegiance to the corporations that give them money than to the citizens whose interests they have sworn to protect.   Corporations are not citizens, regardless of what this Supreme Court has said—at least not in the same sense that we, the people are citizens. 

Greed and religion, then, are two reasons why we are not doing enough to slow down the climate change that is already underway.   What can be done?   It may be too late for a truly bottom-up solution to work in time to stop the worse effects of climate change—the changes in heat, drought, and rising oceans that will wreak havoc on our children and their children.  We need quicker top-down solutions that may hurt us a bit—that may restrict how we travel or make ourselves comfortable in the world—but that will reduce the problem for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  It is time for us to begin problem-solving for them, to make a few sacrifices so that they can live in a reasonably safe world.  For us, if we care about our grandchildren, the future is now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"You've Got Mail" -- A Boomer Classic

The other night I was treated to a surprise airing of what I suspect is my favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail.  That same day, I had been to Schlow Library here in State College and had borrowed Delia Ephron’s book, SisterMotherHusbandDog,which begins with a chapter about her sister, Nora Ephron, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Delia.  It stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—both of whom are at the top of their game in this film.  Jean Stapleton, who played Edith Bunker on All in the Family, has an important supporting role.  

 You’ve Got Mail will, I believe, stand as a classic film--perhaps the defining romantic comedy of its generation--and is certainly in contention for Best Romantic Comedy Ever Made.  The story is not new.  The script is an update of a 1930s play, Parfumerie, by Miklos Lazslo, that was first adapted for the screen as The Shop Around the Corner in 1940 and remade as a musical, In the Good Old Summer Time, in 1949.   You’ve Got Mail was made in 1998 and is still fresh 15 years later.  While everyone contributed to it, Nora Ephron deserves the greatest credit for pulling it all together and adding two most important elements:  the neighborhoods of New York City and, most important of all, the great soundtrack.  Harry Nillson’s “Remember” and “I Guess the Lord Must Live in New York City”—along with the Cranberries “Dreams”—set the emotional stage for the action.  Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and Randy Newman’s “Lonely at the Top” punctuate the plot with great energy and humor.

Nora Ephron gave us a lot of memorable films over the years, including another Hanks/Ryan hit Sleepless in Seattle and her last film, Julie and Julia (2009).   Delia Ephron’s memoir of her sister comes as a wonderful and compassionate reminder of a great artist whose work will be with us for many years.  Thanks to both of them, especially, for You’ve Got Mail.

Delia Ephron on Writing

Here is what Delia Ephron says about writing in her new book, Sister Mother Husband Dog:

Our job as writers, as we begin that journey, is to figure out what we can do.  Only do what you can do.  It’s a rule I live by.  Among other things, it means I can have novels heavier on dialog than description.  But more important, if you only do what you can do, you never have to worry that someone else is doing it.  It keeps you from competing.  It keeps you looking inside for what’s true rather than outside for what’s popular.  Ideally.  Your writing is your fingerprint.”  She adds in the next paragraph, “It’s our job in life to come to some understanding of our own identity, and being a writer makes that easier.” (p. 13).

             I read it on a beautiful morning, as I struggled with some of my own writing.  “Only do what you can do” is a good writing mantra.  Write to become yourself, not to imitate someone else. 
            Thanks, Delia.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Lesson From Annie Dillard: A Good Life versus a Life of Good Days

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by.  A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough.  The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more.  The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.  Who would call a day spent reading a good day?  But a life spent reading – that is a good life. 

            She is, of course, talking about the routine of the creative life—the need for consistency and habits of work through which the writer can create works of astonishing power.  It made me reflect on the difference between being a tourist—living a life of good days experienced through the senses—versus residing in a place and coming to know and participate in its true spirit.  It is what has driven us to vacation every year in the same small town in Maine and, after retirement, to remain in the community where I had been a student, a professional, a husband, a parent, and a grandparent.  A community, as Wendell Berry points out, is a set of local inter-relationships. 
            But—perhaps because of my own habits—her words also made me reflect on what we do in higher education.  So much of our undergraduate curriculum, it seems, is tourism.  We visit history era by era.  We read the modern American writers, then move on to the English writers of the 18th century and travel on to the American Romantics, stopping by Mark Twain along the way.  We take a river tour of chemistry, physics, and biology without leaving the boat.  We read about sociology.  We read about psychology.  We get through math.  At the end, we return home from a journey of good days and find that nothing has changed, but that the mailbox is full of bills to pay.
            The challenge for college and university educators is how to help students turn a journey of good days into a good life.   Education—especially the general education core—cannot be just about gathering knowledge like so many mementos.  It must be about helping students learn to integrate knowledge into their lives as members of a community.  This is especially an issue as we move further into the Information Revolution.  In response to the Industrial Revolution, higher education transformed the classical liberal arts curriculum—which focused on “the discipline and furniture of the mind” (according to the Yale faculty back in the 1820s)—by greatly expanding the subjects studied, adding the social sciences and laboratory sciences, for instance.  However, there was still a focus on “the canon” in most disciplines.  A generation into the Information Revolution, we now can easily see that our students are confronted with a maze of information.  The challenge is to help students develop the skills of finding information, evaluating that information, turning it into useful knowledge, and then applying that to the problems facing them and their communities.   One can argue that this has always been the end goal of general education, but, in an Information Society, these are essential life skills, not the by-products of education.   The test of a modern general education curriculum must be that we produce good citizens, not just experienced tourists.