Education’s Lost Citizenship (Repost from the New Existentialists)

This blog by Louis Hoffman, PhD, was originally published on the New Existentialists website: https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/04-27-12/. It is reposted here in its entirety.

Anyone in higher education today knows that the field is drastically changing. Nervous academics and administrators are engaging in intense debate regarding the causes of the problems and scrambling to find solutions before they become imposed upon the academy by accreditation bodies. It is evident that a myriad of factors contributed to the current state of education. I will focus on a few important contributing factors and their role in one of the most substantial sacrifices being made in higher education today: the preparation for citizenship.

Historically, education was about much more than preparing the student for successful employment. Education was about preparing students to be good citizens of their country, the world, and their professional community. With all the public debate about education today, rarely does the idea of citizenship enter the conversation. I worry that if we prepare individuals to be successful in their careers without preparing them to be successful in their roles as citizens that we are moving toward a period of moral and ethical crisis.

Reasons for the Loss of Citizenship

I would like to begin with a brief analysis of some of what prompted the changes in education. First, the economic recession has played an important role in focusing education on a cost-benefit analysis of education defined in purely economic terms. Listening to students share their fears about their ever-increasing debt, I am quite sympathetic with this issue. Institutions of higher education need to be responsible and accountable for the product they are offering, especially with the rising costs of education. My concern is that this reality has caused a shift toward focusing solely on the economic aspects of education while forgetting citizenship.

Second, the changing landscape of higher education with the emergence of the for-profit schools has led to a cry for greater accountability. While not all for-profit schools are bad, it is evident that a significant number of them have been exploiting students and the education system. The media has focused on a number of issues with these for-profit institutions including high tuition rates, high levels of attrition, high default rates on student loans, poor placement rates, and a poor quality of education. However, a number of other issues are often ignored. For instance, the for-profit schools often spend an exorbitant amount of money on advertising. Traditional schools, in response, have needed to spend more money on advertising to compete with the very aggressive marketing and recruitment techniques of these for-profit schools. Many higher education institutions are increasing marketing budgets and personnel while decreasing funding spent on academics, faculty salaries, and faculty development. Faculty struggle with increased workloads, decreased professional development funds, decreased job security, and decreasing support staff and resources while having higher expectations placed upon them. Obviously, this is not a context that helps faculty thrive at teaching and mentoring.

Third, I would be remiss not to mention the impingement of capitalism into education, which also has been influenced by the for-profit model becoming more prominent. When education becomes another cog in a capitalist machine, a degree becomes a product that is purchased. Students become consumers, and the ethos of the institutions becomes one of customer service. This sounds nice until we consider the implications. The customer support model values students because they are important for the financial security of the institution and job security, not because they are fellow citizens being mentored into a professional community. Faculty and administrators want to keep students happy and satisfied because of what they offer to the institution economically, not because they are respected as human beings. A degree is a product bought, not a privilege earned. In the end, the intrusion of capitalism into education often turns students into objects and degrees into products, both of which leave little room for the idea of citizenship.

Fourth, many changes in accreditation have been implemented with the threat of more coming. Two important factors are particularly relevant here. First, the exploitations of certain for-profit schools, sometimes labeled as the “bad players,” has led to pressure on accrediting institutions to call for greater accountability. Second, the emergence of online education has changed how education is implemented, even when the primary medium is the traditional classroom. Accrediting bodies now must consider what this means for education. As accrediting bodies respond to the challenges of the “bad players” while considering the dire job market and increasing levels of student loans, they have focused in on career advancement and increased salaries, leaving out citizenship.

Fifth, in many fields, the breadth of what is needed to be a generalist is ever-expanding, restricting any room for the liberal arts and critical thinking. Educators are under increasing pressure to make sure students accumulate a breadth of knowledge without consideration of their ability to think about this knowledge or use it in a responsible manner. As a graduate instructor, I am frequently amazed at the stories students share about how they have been discouraged from critical thinking or even integrating their own ideas. For instance, often students are discouraged from integrating their ideas into scholarly papers and, instead, are pushed to make sure that they focus on the ideas of “appropriately vetted scholars.” The implicit message is that students with their fresh perspectives do not have anything of substance to offer, at least not until they have been appropriately cultured to think like everyone else.

Similarly, a role of the liberal arts and humanities was to place knowledge in the context of citizenship, or who we are beyond our professional identities. The liberal arts connected us to the meaning level of existence and to social ethics. Too often, this is reduced with learning an ethics code in today’s educational system.

Citizenship and Psychology

The field of psychology ought be particularly concerned as these forces uniquely impact it. The accreditation requirements of the American Psychological Association (APA) for doctoral programs in psychology and internships are increasingly full, allowing for little room for variation. As part of this, students have little room to pursue their own interests until after they graduate. APA justifies this saying its accreditation is for generalists, and their requirements are the knowledge needed to be a generalist psychologist. Yet, in reality a significant percentage of psychologists do not utilize many of APA’s requirements because they are not relevant to what they are doing professionally. Similarly, this restrictive understanding of what it means to be a generalist does not meet the needs of the consumers of mental health who come from various backgrounds with a diverse set of values and expectations of what they want when seeking assistance from mental health professionals. APA, through its narrow focus in training, is essentially dictating what consumers ought to want from mental health professionals, not preparing psychologists to meet the diverse values and needs of the citizens who come to them.

Professional psychology is also the field that, at the doctorate level, is being heavily influenced by for-profit institutions. While, again, not all for-profit institutions are bad, this has a negative influence on the reputation of professional psychology and potentially may have a negative impact on the quality of education students are receiving. Mental health has always had a precarious relationship within the broader health field and does not need additional reasons to question its credibility.

Conclusion

Existential psychology is interested in a holistic understanding of the individual in the context of community. Furthermore, existential psychology has always had an interest in the ethical dimensions of being human. In today’s educational system, there is a great need for an existential critique, but it must not stop here. We need to have a voice in identifying solutions and addressing the current problems in a constructive manner. Right now, most critically, we need to provide a voice advocating for the protection and restoration of citizenship in education.

Higher education is moving in a direction that removes the person from educational process. Instead, people are being trained to function much like machines in a complex system—without critical thought, without creativity, without soul. People are being trained to be professionals without preparations to be citizens in the world in which they serve as professionals. This is a dangerous reality. The fight to restore citizenship in education is really a fight to restore humanity in education.


Online Classroom Discussions and Scholarly Papers

It is common for students to think of online classroom discussions as being busywork. Some professors, too, see these as not very important and something to check off. Yet, online discussions can be important in various ways, including preparing for class papers. Yet, not all professors approach online discussions the same and some professors have never given much thought to the purpose of online discussions. Thus, it is important to remember that the approach I discuss here may not fit all courses.

Approach to Online Discussions

I view online discussions as similar to live discussions in the classroom. They serve a different purpose from essays and scholarly papers. When I am teaching in the classroom, my goal is to create a safe space where students can explore ideas. The same is true for online discussions. My hope is that students will play with ideas that they are not even sure they agree with. This is the exploration phase of developing one’s scholarly position. When it becomes too structured, then it limits the ability to freely explore ideas.

The online discussions are a place to receive feedback and compare one’s own view with other viewpoints that may not agree. For this to occur at optimal levels, it is important to maintain a dialogue approach rather than a debate approach. While it can be good to compare and even critique ideas in this forum, the overall goal is exploratory and developing one’s ideas. If it becomes about determining who is right, then the purpose has shifted and it limits the ability to attain the exploratory purpose of the online discussions.

Common Mistakes

In my experience, there are three common mistakes that I see frequently in classroom discussions:

1. Not Understanding the Professor’s Purpose. In my courses I often clarify the purpose of online discussions in the syllabus, the online discussion forum, and a video for the course, yet it is still common for students to not understand the purpose behind how I design the online discussions. This typically is a failure to read the syllabus and course materials! Yet, it can also be a function of following the expectations of previous professors. Always be sure to read the professors guidelines! If you do not understand the purpose after doing this, ask!

2. Summarizing. Summarizing is the most common error I experience. I have read the course readings and (hopefully) so have the other students. It is not very engaging or productive for anyone to read numerous summaries of the required reading. While I expect students to demonstrate they have done the reading, this can be done without summarizing. This can be done by engaging the required reading through critically thinking about the material, applying concepts to the real world, and comparing the ideas in the required reading to other theories and concepts.

3. Writing an Essay. Writing a short essay is different than what I expect from an online course discussion. An essay is more structured and should cite sources. In my courses, these will also be clearly labeled as an essay assignment! With online discussions, the dialogue should be freer. For example, in an essay referencing Rollo May’s The City for Myth, I would expect a citation in APA style with name and date in the text along with a reference section at the end. In an online discussion, my preference would be to note the idea was from May, but no citation with date or reference section is needed. In a live classroom discussion, it would not be necessary to try to verbally cite your sources in APA style! Yet, it is best to let people know where you are drawing your information from.

The Developmental Purpose

With a scholarly paper or an essay, it is important to engage the scholarly literature, support your assertions, and think through your ideas before presenting them. With the online discussions, you are playing with ideas, seeing what fits, and seeing what is important to you. When this is done well, it supports the development of later scholarly writing.

As a scholar, researcher, and writer, most of the ideas that I write about for conference papers, journal articles, and books  were first explored in dialogues with colleagues. Through these discussions I prepared the ideas and thought through them. Much of what I explored with my colleagues was not included in the final product because it did not fit with my thinking as I developed my ideas further. Yet, there are important aspects of the paper that originated in these dialogues and were refined through the conversations. Good scholarship does not occur in isolation–it occurs in a context and a community that supports the development of ideas. My hope is that the classroom discussions–whether online or in person–serve a similar purpose. They help us refine and develop the ideas that will become part of our later scholarship.


The Relationship in Academia

Tags :

Category : Teaching

Several years ago I wrote an article titled, “The Relationship in Academia” for the New Existentialists Blog. Of the blogs I have written, this is one of my favorites. I continue to be disheartened that, in the world of academia, recognition of the importance of the relationship continues to decrease. It is what has kept me in academia. Few blogs I have written have received as  strong a response as this one. I had a number of people contact me voicing their appreciation of the article. This included faculty members at various universities who shared their despondence at the lack of time they have for building good relationships with students. It also included the person who was, at that time, the provost at the university where I was teaching. He shared his appreciation for the article and his own recognition of the need as an administrator to help protect time and support for faculty-student relationships.

Here’s an excerpt from the article followed by a link to the full article.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on May 6, 2014 reported on recent research suggesting that a connection with a caring professor may be an important contributing factor to college success (Carlson, 2014). For existential psychologists, this is not surprising. There is a preponderance of evidence suggesting that it is the relationship that heals in therapy (Elkins, 2009; Wampold, 2001). It is not surprising that the same is true in academia.

Yet, this is not as simple as just telling professors to be kind and caring. The article states, “College graduates… had double the changes of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams” (¶ 1). This suggests that the relationship is also about shared interest and a goodness of fit.

While I think this research is very important, I worry that colleges and universities could quickly try to implement this without really understanding what it entails to cultivate an academic environment where these relationships are common. Some colleges will likely translate this into being nice or “providing good customer service.” But a true, caring relationship is about more than just being nice or saying the right words; it is about cultivating the right type of relationship. In this blog, I’d like to discuss what building this environment really means.

Read the full article here: https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/05-12-14/


Why Emphasize Writing in Psychology Programs?

Students frequently ask why good writing is emphasized instead of comprehension of the ideas. There are many answers to this, and the answers vary with one’s career trajectory. I teach mostly in graduate programs in psychology, which informs my answer to this question. I will first address why it is important for all students of psychology to learn to write. Next, I will consider APA style I will conclude addressing graduate students more specifically.

Why Writing in Important for All Psychology Students

If you are seeking a degree in psychology, it is likely that communication with others will play a prominent role in your career if you are planning to use your psychology degree. While some people communicate effectively orally while struggling with communication in written form, improving your communication in written form will positively impact your ability to communicate orally as well. Furthermore, academic writing influences the way you think about knowledge. Learning to support your assertions and avoid over-stating your arguments will help you improve your thinking skills. When considering many prominent issues in the world today, it is readily apparent why this is an important skill to develop.

Additionally, nearly every career path related to psychology is going to require some writing. If you are planning to go to graduate school, it is imperative to learn to write well. If you are planning to go straight into the workforce, then you will likely be required to begin using your writing skills right away. Many intelligent and talented individuals struggle in succeeding and progressing in their field because of their limitations with writing.

Last, learning to write well is a good way to show respect to your professors. Much of my time is spent grading papers. When the writing is poor, it is stressful and takes more time. There are many reasons why it is good to not cause additional stress to your professors! For one, they may writing your letters of recommendation someday. When writing these letters, you do not want them reflecting upon how stressful it was to read you papers.

Why APA Style?

Many students become frustrated learning APA style and often even develop good critiques of APA style. Yet, if you are going to be in the field of psychology it is best to master the professional writing style of your profession. I have worked with many students who have lost countless hours to corrections because of their resistance to learning APA style. Furthermore, there are aspects of APA style that impact how the reader interprets your sentence. For example, there are variations in the use of commas in different professional styles of writing. In APA style, you place a comma before “and” in strings of three or more. If you do not do this, it can change the meaning of the sentence. At other times, it may confuse your reader causing them to spend more time trying to understand what you are saying.

When papers are not written in good APA style, it takes longer to read and grade the papers. When reference citations are inaccurately placed, the professor may have to spend more time to determine if you are adequately supporting your assertions. When your punctuation is incorrect, the professor may have to read sentences a few times to make sure they accurately understand what you are stating. When you do not use headings correctly (or not at all) the professor may have to spend more time understanding how you are organizing your ideas. Not writing in good APA style can easily double the amount of time a professor spends grading your paper. Also, when the professor is distracted by the APA style errors, they may have more difficultly understanding the content you are trying to convey. Good writing helps your content stand out.

While APA style is not perfect, it does help individuals in professions that use APA style communicate with each other more clearly. If you are in one of those fields, it is in your best interest to take the time to learn APA style. While some students think, “I’ll have an editor do that” or “I’ll just use a program that does it for me,” in my experience, these add much more time and stress in the long run than just learning APA style. The programs that help individuals put their papers in APA style often create errors. The use of editors is expensive and is still time consuming. Learning APA style may take more time at the beginning, but saves you time and possibly money in the long run.

Why Good Writing is Essential in Graduate School

If you are in graduate school in psychology, you most likely are going to be required to write a thesis or a dissertation. If you have not mastered good writing by time you get to these tasks, they can be very painful experiences. I know of students who have spent several days just correcting APA style and similar writing errors on their dissertation. Additionally, if your writing is poor, professors may be hesitant to agree to serve on your thesis or dissertation committee.

When your writing is not strong, professors may spend more time focusing on providing feedback on the mechanics of  your writing, which distracts from providing feedback on the content of your paper. Students often will not receive as comprehensive of feedback on their papers when their writing is poor and requires attention from the professors. Students, too, will be spending more time focusing on the mechanics of writing instead of focusing on the content of their papers and the course.

When students enter graduate school, I strongly encourage them to prioritize mastering scholarly writing, including APA style, early in the program. The more one is able to accomplish this, the more they are able to focus on learning the content, mastering skills, and preparing for the more exciting aspects of their future profession.

Conclusion

Regardless of the path you are choosing in psychology, it is fairly certain that writing will be part of your professional life. Furthermore, your writing is a reflection upon you. In my career, I know that my writing abilities have helped create opportunities for me. Similarly, I know of talented professionals who have been held back in many ways because of their struggles with writing.

No one’s writing is perfect, and people often struggle in editing their own work. Personally, I am much more effective at copy-editing the writing of others as compared to copy-editing my own work. Professors and other scholars who review your writing most likely will have their own strengths and weaknesses in writing, and will be tolerant of the occasional error. This is different than writing in a way that shows you do not understand the mechanics of good writing and APA style, or writing that suggest you have not made an effort to proof-read your paper.

To conclude, even if you do not envision writing being a major part of your professional future, it is in your best interest to learn to write well.


Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.

— Albert Einstein