Adrift Already

Last week, to kick start the summer reading program, I ordered two books from Amazon.  They arrived in the same box, which miraculously did not burst into flame.

The first one, Academically Adrift, Limited Learning on College Campuses, is the focus of a faculty discussion group this summer that I joined because it seemed like a good idea at the time.  The second is Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, a Terry Pratchett rarity in the U.S.  Guess which one I want to read?

But I dutifully sat down with Academically Adrift, and 31 pages in, I am already so irritated I can’t see straight.  First of all, and this is the minor rant, why do academics write so badly?  Somewhere graduate students absorb the idea that academic research needs to be a black hole of decent prose — the subject matter is so weighty, only the passive voice and jargon can escape.  Everything else, every other ounce of style or glimmer of humanity, is sucked into the gravitas and flattened.

After 31 pages of this, it feels like the intellectual equivalent of a dessicant.  And this leads to my second, and major, rant.  Somewhere, in an esoteric backwater of a major research university, there’s some poor body who doesn’t know that colleges have lost intellectual ground in the last fifty years.  The rest of us are aware that teaching is undervalued, students are under-prepared and unmotivated, and that higher education has become an expensive credentialling system for the middle class.

I’ve got to get through 144 pages of Arum and Roksa telling me what I already know, and worse, doing it in a way that makes me want to chew off my own leg, or, thinking more clearly, one of their legs.  I’m supposed to be — what?  — impressed? — shocked?  by their research findings, but I’m too annoyed by the presentation.  Okay, you quantified what we all know.  Now  what? 

Arum and Roksa — here the outrage in my system builds to critical levels — are saying EXACTLY what bell hooks said both in Teaching Critical Thinking (2010), and in Teaching to Transgress (1994), only they’re saying it in sociologist-speak, in case we’re prepared to be impressed.  Their exhaustive bibliography shows no awareness of hooks, and I’m guessing it’s because she’s too readable to be taken seriously, and possibly too black and maybe even too Marxist.

I’m going to have to go read Janovy some more to calm down; the irony is just crushing.  It’s imperative that we think critically, but if we think critically about Academically Adrift, we immediately realize that Arum and Roksa haven’t really got anything new to say.  What they have is a tool for assessing student learning, and it demonstrated that students aren’t learning as much as they should be, however that’s defined. 

And at the end of June, I’m going to have to sit in a group of academics, who might be heavy enough to collapse of their own weight, and have a serious discussion of this book.  I am so freaking tempted to send them all a copy of Teaching to Transgress.  Either that, or I’m going to have to wear a muzzle.


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