Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Do Not Agree, GRE

I read Stanley Aronowitz's book The Knowledge Factory as a renegade auditor in Stephanie Hammer's Metafiction class last year at UCR, and had many of my suspicions about the problems in Higher Ed confirmed. More importantly, Aronowitz taught me a clearer philosophy of education against which to measure current trends. One of the biggest problems of college admissions, which Aronowitz discusses and I have done a lot of yelling about lately, is the increasing evidence that standardized tests like the SAT and GRE simply don't have enough predictive validity, and in many cases are a barrier to education, for people who are not affluent, white, and male. I know that I'm not one of the real victims of systemic prejudice here. If you want to read about this issue with regard to the GRE, I suggest visiting FairTest.org.
I do take another very serious issue with the GRE. I disagree with the notion that graduate school applications should include any "hoops." Everyone I've expressed my disdain to, whether they've taken the GRE for grad school or not, has said something along the lines of "you just have to get it done. It's just one of those things."
It's not.
Well, in America it is. And this is what makes me so angry. I agree with an extensive application package that includes a Statement of Purpose, transcripts, other writing samples or essays, interviews, and so on. I think people should consider the decision to do graduate work very carefully, and departments accepting students should be able to have some reasonable idea about how those students will fare in an archive, a lab, a classroom, under pressure. Tests like the GRE do not predict these things. They are used to weed out applicants from a pile that is simply too large for admissions committees to deal with. I do not blame the universities for this practice. I blame a culture that thinks of education as a privilege.
When studying for the GRE Subject test in English Lit, I realized that I was going to score lower on it than a recently graduated English BA. Let's be conservative and say that at 30 years old, with an MFA and a few years teaching and editing experience, I've done roughly 2,000 more pages of reading per year than someone with an English degree who is 21. That's something like 18,000 pages. Let's be conservative again and say that I've written 50 pages per year more. That's 4,500. One more time. Let's say I've had 5 hours per week, or 260 more hours per year of discussion of literature. I admit that a recently graduated English BA student may have less fuzzy memories of the differences between the Structuralists and the Formalists, or might have new ideas that I simply don't have because I'm a different person. But on the whole, I'd still contend, conservatively, that the GRE Lit in English test is not going to fairly represent my knowledge base vs. hers.
Maybe that argument is stale to everyone. I concede. It's the next step that really goads.
"So what?" someone close to me said. "Everyone else has the same problem. Everyone hates the GRE. Admissions committees know it doesn't mean that much. It's just something you've got to do to prove that you're serious."
In fact, I think admissions committees, while they may not unfairly weigh the GRE against more predictive pieces of the application like transcripts, DO notice GRE scores. They notice because GRE scores often matter very much to funding decisions. (In part because faculty recommendations for funding are not fully trusted?) They notice because a really high score is still a boon. They may consciously reject the notion that GRE scores are important, but with such an "objective" measurement of a student's aptitude (even if it's just test-taking aptitude), I argue that there is little anyone can do to counteract the very entrenched belief that the scores mean SOMETHING. And studying for the test may not be that big of a deal for students moving directly from a Bachelor's into graduate school, but for someone like me, it required many many hours of preparation, money spent on materials, a relearning of multiple-choice strategies, etc.
And, what of this idea that everyone hates it? Like I said earlier, America has put barriers between students and higher education. Education is a privilege, not an opportunity for those who want to take it. This is because education is subject to the laws of capitalism. This is the strongest and most terrifying reality revealed in Aronowitz's book, and I think is nowhere more ugly than in admissions practices like the GRE.
Why do I want a PhD? To write great books, to teach great classes. Sure, I selfishly want to be smarter. I want to have access to journals, want to have conversations with more accomplished people in my field, want to enter a community of writers and researchers I respect. But ultimately, I will die, and I'll die leaving behind some great books and some inspired students, or not. It is a benefit to my society if I am successful. It is absolutely illogical for there to be access barriers for people who want to work as hard as I do. Like I said, I'm perfectly willing to prove my seriousness in essays, by showing transcripts, by baring my past, my current work, my plans. It's important that I enter a program and a department where I will work best, and where I will offer the most. But none of that is tantamount to hoops to jump through--that's about a very sophisticated game of matchmaking. If higher ed were funded properly, the exchange of education for work would be so much simpler.
Under a capitalistic understanding of education, students accept painful conditions and a divorcing from their product that is unthinkable for a socialist. Why doesn't it bother anyone that the Literature in English GRE is 3 hours long with no break for drinking water or peeing? It's just one of those things? It's hard enough to think well, to write well, to continuously commit to work. I don't approve of extra-special sadistic hoops to jump through. Especially when those hoops cost hundreds of dollars.
I know I'm not alone in my disdain here. One of the programs I'm applying to has a very clear "NO EXCEPTIONS" clause on their GRE requirement, I imagine because they've received many letters making similar points to mine. I'm still in the application process, and I am still jumping through the hoops, which, at this point in my career, feels a bit dirty. The plan is to one day have a higher soapbox to yell from because of those efforts, and that's how I prevent myself slipping into depression about my hypocrisy. (This in addition to the fact that the faculty I want to work with are not the ones who require the GRE, and at least one of them is in the fight against the standardization of education.) Remember, I don't think essays, interviews, etc. qualify as "hoops." I love working on those.
I'm not entering a PhD in education, and I honestly don't know the solution to the issue of testing and student assessment. My main concern is the problem of living in a culture that regards education, and particularly education in the arts and humanities, to be a luxury. I don't think it is helpful to anyone if we all just continue to shrug that off.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Goldilocks and the Five Washer Bears

I work at night, I live in East Hollywood, and I park on the street. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for six weeks now. At 3AM on Saturday mornings I walk through either Korea Town or Melrose Hill for five to ten minutes to get from car to apartment. Sometimes I run into a guy I’ve named “Richard,” who has a grocery cart, an Oakland A’s baseball hat, and a few things to say about the way the world works, but usually, I am alone.

This week, I saw my first neighborhood raccoons. Scuttling across the street to my right was one of those really fat guys who’s too big to be a cat, too nimble to be a dog, and therefore, for the second before I realized what he was, I was terrified. He ran onto the curb, then stopped, turned around, and stared. His eyes glowed, and his huge tail hovered an inch over the sidewalk. I don’t know if raccoons pounce. I only know this one seemed ready to. I got few steps further through the intersection, and then there was an alien commotion to my left, just around the corner. Three more raccoons shuffled into the storm drain. Another stayed behind. I crossed the street, then turned back to check on them. Raccoons #1 and #5 were still there, dead still, on either side of the block, watching me.

Okay, I thought. Five raccoons. Two of which appear to own this neighborhood. This seems weird. Is this weird? Or is it just me who’s weird, being out at this time of night, and they have lived here for years, perfectly normally?

The three of us stood there for at least ten seconds before a white truck with two boys inside who cared more about where I was going than why I might be standing still on the corner finally ended the stalemate. I waved the truck onward and watched a few grey and black stripes slip down the drain.

As it turns out, raccoons don’t usually run in packs. When they do, people aren’t sure why. Their paws, which are hypersensitive, seem to lose no sensitivity after long submersions in cold water or exposure to urban elements, which we also can’t explain. However, considering their current social status as “varmint,” I was surprised at how much research has been done on raccoons. Maybe the reason is: they are one of the few animals native to North America that has successfully adapted to city life. Maybe the reason is that they can carry rabies. They have played an important role in Native American mythology, colonial trade, plantation cuisine (for both slaves and white folk), and the vanity industry of the 1920s upper class (as both exotic pet and car coat). Now, most people ignore them, except for my grandma up in Oakland who fed a few particular raccoons wet cat food on a nightly basis. In other words, raccoons have traveled from the realm of the sacred, through every social class, into the invisible world of late-night scrounging and living in the storm draims. I wondered if my raccoons knew Richard.

Linnaeus called them “washer bears” and perpetuated the misunderstanding that they washed their food fastidiously in water because otherwise they could not swallow it. We now know that “washing” is a captive raccoon activity that has no real correlative in the wild, and that raccoons just like to touch everything a lot because that is their most highly developed sense. They are rambunctious and curious, and tend to disobey commands, even though studies have shown that they can remember how to solve puzzles and open locks for up to 3 years. In a Menomonee folk tale, the Raccoon is a crafty deceiver who uses practical jokes to teach people lessons about staying patient with each other, not getting unduly suspicious, and communicating better.

I like to think of my neighborhood raccoons meeting up in the storm drain after our encounter.

“Who was that?” says R1.

“She’s new,” says R5.

“People scary!” say R2, R3, and R4.

“I don’t like her,” says R1. “Did you see all that makeup she had on?”

“Don’t judge,” says R5, “she wanted to talk to us. No one around here’s wanted to do that for a long, long time.”