Saturday, October 25, 2014


A Parable.

Meet Jane Doe, a second year English and History major at a mid-sized university in Canada. Jane has just turned nineteen and is not sure what she wants to do when she graduates, but she’s thinking of becoming a teacher or maybe a lawyer. 

Like nearly every school in the country, Jane’s university boasts that it offers small classes and excellent teaching, but she went there because it’s in her home town and her high school average of 78 wasn’t strong enough to gain her entrance to a really first-tier university, where the entrance averages are now in the mid-to-high 80s.

Jane’s father works for a contracting firm and her mother is a secretary in a dental office. They had wanted her to major in business and economics, but at the end of her first year of university Jane’s overall average was 63 and was just 58 in Economics. She never was any good at math. This disqualified her from her school’s business program. After first year, she decided to major in English and History because she finished those classes with marks of 64 and 66 respectively, good enough to declare them as a major.  Jane’s sixteen-mark drop between Grade 12 and the end of 1st year university is fairly typical. A few of her friends from high school dropped out after first year, or were required to withdraw because they failed most of their courses. 

Jane lived at home first year but now rents a room in a house with three other female students. Her share of the rent is $400 per month, plus one-fifth of the heat and electricity bill. She also pays $35 per month for an Internet connection and $65 per month for the plan for her iPhone. She owns a used car that she makes payments on, and she also has to cover the cost of her gas and insurance. Her parents put $2,000 per year towards her tuition, leaving her with $4000 to pay on her own, plus another $750 for books. To pay for her education, Jane is taking out student loans and has two jobs, one at a clothing store in the mall on Saturdays and one evening per week, and the other, two nights per week or three when she can get it, in a downtown restaurant. She is looking for volunteer work at local schools to pad her resume in the hopes of getting into teacher’s college.

It is the Tuesday after the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend. Tuesday is Jane’s “heavy” day, with three classes. She chose her courses that way so that she could have one day per week off to study, although she usually ends up taking a shift at work instead.  At 9:30 AM, Jane arrives for her first class, Canadian history, five minutes late. She has a coffee and a muffin she bought for breakfast on her drive in. Prof. Jones always begins class by playing music from the period they’re studying, so Jane knows she won’t miss anything. She sits near the back and opens her laptop and puts her iPhone down beside her. She sends two quick texts and updates her Facebook status.

When the music is done, Prof. Jones says, “I’ll explain that music to you later.” (He actually forgets to do so.) Prof. Jones begins the lecture with a few announcements. He reminds them to keep up in the textbook, because it's testable material for the mid-term, even if he didn't lecture about it in class. Jane started the year well, but is three weeks behind in textbook readings now. She bought the book used for half the cover price. It was in very good condition, with only a little bit of yellow highlighting in the first chapter.   Prof. Jones also announces that the History Club is bringing in a “very, very famous” historian to speak the following week. Jane heard from a friend that one History Club speaker last year was very boring and droned on and on. She writes down the details of the event — hoping Prof. Jones will see her doing this — but has no intention of going. (Jane is not alone in this: more than three hundred students will hear the announcement for the “very, very famous speaker.” Eighteen will attend the talk.)

Prof. Jones launches into his lecture, which is about New France. He uses PowerPoint slides and Youtube clips of historical re-enactments to liven things up.  Even so, Jane finds her attention wandering after about twenty minutes. She is tired and yawns. She worked late at the restaurant the night before, well past closing, and wasn’t home until after midnight.  Then she’d tried to work on an assignment which is overdue for her Human Sexuality course, a critical analysis of an old article by someone named Durkheim.  When Jane opened the article, she found that it was thirty-seven pages long. It was very boring. She read four or five pages (this took her twenty minutes: Jane usually checks e-mail, Facebook, and surfs the web while she’s reading) and she decided that since the assignment was only worth 5%, it could wait another day.

Jane looks around. There are about thirty people in the room, which is about half of the number actually enrolled in the class. A classmate in front of her is watching a replay of a hockey game on his laptop. He has one earbud in. Another is playing World of Warcraft. Other classmates are on Facebook or are texting. During the class, Jane herself receives and answers a dozen text messages, hiding the phone under the long row of tables. A friend from work is complaining about their boss.

In the very front row, eight rows down from Jane, a girl shoots her hand up to ask a question. People roll their eyes. Jane dislikes this girl. She only asks questions to make herself look smart.  Prof. Jones answers the question, speaking to that student alone. Everyone else’s attention begins to fade and chatter starts to rise in the room. After a couple of minutes Prof. Jones resumes lecturing after calling everyone to order. A minute later, though, somebody’s cell phone goes off.  “Sorry! Sorry!” a student cries out. There’s a disruption until she shuts the phone off, its ringtone clearly recognizable to the class.

Prof. Jones says, “No problem. Hey! I know that song! It’s “Toxic” by Britney Spears!” He sings a few bars in a broken voice. This gets a big laugh.

Jane likes Prof. Jones. He is young and full of energy, seems nice and doesn’t mark too hard. When the course is over, she will give him excellent teaching evaluation scores.

Just before class ends, forty-five minutes after it began, Prof. Jones reminds everyone that they have an essay due in two weeks. “Come to see me in my office,” he says. Someone asks where his office is and what his hours are. These are on the course syllabus but Jane makes a note of them anyway and closes her laptop.

Jane has an hour before next class so she heads for the Learning Commons, a new metal and glass building on campus. There are big windows, a coffee shop, flat screen TVs showing the news or “The View”, and plenty of lounge chairs. There are about forty or fifty students around, either standing in line for coffee or sitting with their laptops or phones, surfing the web and texting, or talking with friends. A few are reading. A small group of students is setting up a table. They’re selling tickets to an AIDs-awareness fashion show.

Jane passes by a bulletin board covered in notices for campus events, including the famous History Club speaker that Prof. Jones mentioned before. The title of the talk is "Towards a New Hermeneutics of Discourse Analysis in High Medieval Parish Registers." The Political Science club is planning a trip to see Parliament in session. There’s a pub crawl next Thursday to raise money for a student trip to El Salvador. Women’s self-defense classes are being held in the women’s residence. (In pen somebody has written, “this is sexist” on the poster.) The Justice program is bringing in a refugee from Syria to talk about his experience. The Student Writing Centre has drop-in hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Beside this, somebody put up an unauthorized flier for an Internet service that sells “Example Essays” written by graduate students. There are auditions for a student performance of Twelfth Night. Someone is selling textbooks, cheap.

Jane glances at all this without much interest, then sits and checks her e-mail, her Facebook page, and sends some texts. She has a reading she has to do for her next class. It’s a poem called “Religio Laici” by a writer named John Dryden. She flips through it in her Norton Anthology of English Literature. It’s very long. She puts her feet up and starts reading. Over the next fifteen minutes, she reads about a quarter of the poem, which is very boring, highlights a few passages, and sends three text messages and looks at some pictures from a friend’s party on Facebook, “liking” this and that.  Then a guy from her next class sits down across from her.
         “Did you do the reading?” he asks.
         “Most of it,” Jane says. “It was so long.”
         “I know, I was like, uggh. What the fuck? I didn’t think this class would be so boring.” He asks her if he can borrow her notes from the last class.
Another classmate shows up, with a coffee and a doughnut. She says that she found a summary of the poem on Wikipedia.  They talk for a bit about their other classes and professors. “I heard he’s tough,” Jane’s classmate says about Prof. Jones. 

They talk until class. Jane knows that the instructor, Prof. Gilbert, always covers the poem anyway and there isn’t much discussion so she doesn’t need to have it read.  Prof. Gilbert is one of the older professors in the college. He lectures from paper notes without PowerPoint. He drones on and on and tells jokes that nobody laughs at. A few minutes later, when they get to the classroom door, they find a note saying that Prof. Gilbert is away and that class is cancelled.  

Jane looks at the sign indifferently. If she’d known she would have skipped Jones’s class and slept in until 11. Behind her a student says, “He only does this because he has tenure and can get away with it.” Jane isn’t sure what ten-year is but reflects that this student usually doesn’t go to class anyway. (In fact, Prof. Gilbert had announced he wouldn’t be present the week before, but Jane and about half the class weren’t there that day, either.) 
Maybe now would be a good time to see Prof. Jones about her essay. It is due the following Friday but she hasn’t started. She has decided to write something about women in New France. She heads to Prof. Jones’s office. In the hall, there are professors milling about. She catches snippets of a heated conversation. They seem to be complaining about something to do with the school. When she gets to Prof. Jones’s office, Jane reads the sign next to the door:

Prof. R. Strong, English
Prof. M. Kuffert, Sociology
Prof. A. Jones, History
Prof. A. Xao, Business and Economics
Dr. D. Bryson, English (on Sabbatical Leave)

Jane knocks. There is no answer. A professor emerges from the office next door. “Do you know if Prof. Jones is around?” Jane asks her. The professor doesn’t seem to know who Jones is.  Jane explains that he teaches Canadian history. “Oh!” the professor says. “No, haven’t seen him.”

Jane sits on an old chair at the end of the hall and starts up her laptop.  The professors who were having the heated conversation up the hall retreat into an office and close the door.

Beside Jane is a bulletin board next to the office nearest to her. There are quotations and Far Side comics on it, and a poster for a conference that happened last year. There’s also a recent news story from the campus paper about Prof. Gilbert being inducted into something called the Royal Society of Canada. That reminds Jane.  She e-mails Prof. Gilbert asking if next week they’ll be doing this week’s readings, since class was cancelled, or moving on to next week’s readings. (Gilbert does not reply and Jane will decide for herself that she doesn’t need to do next week’s reading.)   

After twenty minutes of texting and surfing and waiting for Prof. Jones, Jane goes back to the Learning Commons, hoping some friends will be there. There aren’t, so she buys a coffee and cookie for four dollars and then decides to go to the library, maybe to get in some work on her essay. On the library computers, students are checking e-mail and Facebook and a few are printing essays. Jane sits in front of a library computer and logs on. Next to her, a group of three are gathered around a computer, watching a Youtube video of a dog and laughing.

Jane rarely goes to the library. In first year, she tried looking a book up but got intimidated by the rows and rows of shelves and gave up after a few minutes of trying to find it. She seldom goes looking anymore, relying on Google Books or her local public library instead. One time, she even went back to her old high school and got advice for a paper from her favourite high school teacher. The university library offers regular tours and workshops about using the library, but Jane has never taken one. She doesn’t ask the library staff for help because she doesn’t want to seem stupid. 

There is something new on the library webpage now, a search engine that says, “find articles.” Jane spends a few minutes with this, typing in keywords like “women” and “New France.”  She takes the first two articles that appear at random and prints them off. One of them, she will later be told, is a book review, but she won’t understand why that can’t be a source.

It is now nearly noon. Jane has a two hour American history class at 12:30. She buys a slice of pizza and a Diet Coke for seven dollars and sits with some friends in the nearest cafeteria, which is named “Rendezvous.” There are flat screen TV’s showing the news and sports. She talks with her friends about shows they’ve watched on Netflix and they complain about how many assignments they have do. One student complains about Prof. Jones. “Why does he talk about stuff if it’s not going to be on the final exam?” he asks.

At 12:20, Jane heads to her American history class.  In her usual spot near the back, two guys in baseball caps and sweats are sitting and talking hockey. They have almost never been in class. They smell like tobacco smoke and say “fuck” a lot. Jane sits away from them, but still at the back. Today there is a student presentation before the lecture. Jane has to do a presentation in three weeks. She is supposed to talk to Prof. Merrill about her topic, but hasn’t yet. Since Merrill hasn’t e-mailed her, Jane thinks that maybe it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t like doing presentations or participating in discussion because she doesn’t like speaking in front of other people.  Prof. Merrill distributes a form to all the students. As a way of ensuring that everyone is paying attention to the presenter, Prof. Merrill asks everyone to provide a letter grade and some feedback for each presenter.

A student Jane doesn't know gives a ten-minute presentation on a book called The Radicalism of the American Revolution. The student begins: “Okay, like, when I was reading this I was, like, this is so sick because, like...”  Nobody is really listening. People are fooling around on the Internet, texting, or playing games, even though they have a form to fill out. The two guys at the back are talking in low voices. Jane's attention wanders. She checks her e-mail and Facebook and  sends some texts.  When the presentation is over, there is some applause and Prof. Merrill asks, “Are there any questions?”  Nobody moves or says anything. “Any questions?” she asks again. “Okay, well, I guess you did such a good job that there are no questions.” Nobody laughs at this. After a second, Prof. Merrill asks a couple of questions of her own that the student answers in jumbles. When the questions are over, there is more applause. Jane gives the student an "A" and writes, "Great job! This was so interesting.” She sends the handout forward.

Now Merrill begins her own lecture. She announces that the topic of today’s lecture will be the Constitution of 1787.  “You have to know this,” she says. “Or nothing else in the course will make sense.” Jane writes that down. As Merrill lectures, a steady scroll of bulleted PowerPoint points summarizing her speaking points goes on behind her. When the course began, Jane took notes, but now she knows that the PowerPoint slides are on the Internet so she doesn’t really bother.  Now and then, Merrill  says, “And this is important” or “and I want you to know this” and Jane will type it on her laptop. “Sorry, what was that date?” a student asks. “Dates aren’t important - think big picture,” Merrill says. Jane wonders why she mentions dates at all, then. Merrill goes back to lecturing.

By the thirty minute mark in the lecture, Jane’s eyes begin to droop. She is very, very sleepy. The remainder of the lecture goes by in a sort of auditory blur. She snaps back to awareness when Merrill says, “OK, well.  I think that’s good enough for today.” She sounds a bit angry. Jane wonders what’s going on. They have only been in class for a little over an hour, total. People begin to pack up their bags and head for the door. Jane thinks that maybe she should ask Prof. Merrill about her presentation after all, but there’s a lineup to students in front of her already, including the one weird guy – Jane can never remember his name – who is always talking to Merrill about politics. Jane waits a few minutes and then heads out the door.  

It’s 2:15 PM. Jane drives home.  Two of her roommates are watching TV and smoking pot, which Jane has tried but doesn’t really like. They all sit and talk for over an hour. One of her room-mates is thinking of getting back together with her boyfriend. Another is failing most of her courses and is thinking about not coming back next year and “just working instead” or “maybe going to college for something.” Jane goes to her room. She opens her laptop and checks her e-mail. There’s a message from her Human Sexuality professor, who noticed that she didn’t hand in her critical analysis. Jane sends her an e-mail saying that she had computer problems and promises to bring it by during her office hours, tells the professor she is really enjoying the class and learning a lot and that she hopes she won’t lose any marks. 

 Jane has a wipe board above her bed. She has an essay due on Monday that she hasn’t started. She needs to finish that Human Sexuality paper. Tomorrow she is supposed to have read Henry IV, Part Two for her Shakespeare class, but there are no discussions in that class so she doesn’t do the readings. She'll get caught up before the midterm. Jane has a nap for half an hour then gets ready for work. She decides to get Subway for dinner at the mall before her shift.  Later that evening, at work, she gets a text from some friends. They’re going out to the bars. Did she want to meet them after work? Jane thinks about it. Tomorrow’s her light day: just one class and a tutorial. She’ll have plenty of time between them to get that Human Sexuality assignment done and go to the library to get books for Prof. Jones's essay. She says yes.

Jane’s day, her Tuesday, is much like any day she’ll experience in university.   Depending on the time of year, she spends no more than fifteen or twenty hours per week on all aspects of her school-work: attending class, reading, writing essays, and studying. If one were to take into consideration the number of hours she spends in partial attention to the matter at hand, the number of hours spent on actual schoolwork would be smaller still.  But her grades are usually decent and sometimes a little better. She finishes courses with C’s and B’s by producing work that, in a former age, would have been deemed utterly unsatisfactory. If some bold educational reformer (or a coalition of taxpayers) were really rigorously to test her, to demand that she write clearly, speak articulately, and demonstrate mastery over what she has been taught, they would find that Jane, mid-way through her 15th year of publicly-subsidized education,  hasn’t read much (in fact, she dislikes reading altogether), struggles to write clear sentences, gropes for vocabulary when she speaks in class (which is not very often) and doesn’t remember much about what she has been taught for very long. But her professors have learned, through a generation of accumulated experience, not to expect too much, and Jane rewards them by not demanding too much in return. She gets decent grades; professors get good teaching evaluations; politicians get another finished product, another tick on their vast statistical indices which prove that the system is working. And, indeed, the assembly line is very efficient. It keeps moving Jane and thousands of others like her along. Along the way they receive a small cultural deposit before emerging to great fanfare at the all-important moment of graduation.

So, there is Jane, thirty-four months later, coming off the assembly line. She is at commencement, graduating with a major in History and a minor in Sociology — she switched out of English after year two.  It’s a happy day, but there’s a slight tightness in her chest when she thinks about what she’s going to do next. She is twenty-one years old, and graduating with a B- average. She didn’t get into teacher’s college but thinks that maybe she might do a 5th year — what the students call a “Victory Lap” — to pull her marks up a bit, and then maybe re-apply for teacher’s college or perhaps try to get into grad school and “do” her Master’s Degree.  Maybe Prof. Jones would write her a letter of reference? 

The principal, who Jane has never seen before, gives a long and boring speech about how “proud the university community is of its graduates”, how the graduates have “learned how to think and reason and face the many challenges posed by the diverse and rapidly changing economy of today”, but also about the threats to “spirit of higher education” and “the essential mission of producing students who are ethical citizens.”  Jane remembers that in first year she had a philosophy lecture about the difference between morality and ethics. She can’t remember what it was.

Her attention drifts as the principal drones on and on.  A phone rings. It belongs to someone’s parent. The principal’s speech finally ends. A handful of students involved in students’ council begin a standing ovation. Everyone follows. Jane watches as a few of her friends cross the stage to get their degrees. She knows that a few of them are coming back. Others are going to teacher’s college. Her friend Rachel is going to teach English in South Korea. Rachel is graduating with a C+ average.

Jane's name is called. She crosses the stage in a rush, feeling very nervous. Professor Dearness, who Jane had for a course in third year, hoods her and gives her a hug. Jane is handed her degree or, rather, a paper representation of her degree. Her real one will arrive in the mail three weeks later, after she has paid her library fines.

Meet Jane Doe, B.A.  She has $44,000 in student debt, $7,000 more on her credit cards, a BA in History and Sociology, and a job at the mall. Out in the audience, Jane’s mother takes pictures and cries.