Is College Worth It?

In “America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree,” Marty Nemko argues, “College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it.” Looking at my plagiarism rate from last semester and considering the number of students at George Mason University who fail the mandatory History 100 survey simply because they do not show up or turn in their work, I have to admit that he has a point. He argues that high school students in the bottom half of their class should think twice before entering a four-year college. A two-year college or non-degree program might be more appropriate. He bases this advice on the following disheartening finding: “Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.” And they were piling up debt.
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A Christmas Short Film from 1898

The British Film Institute has a YouTube channel that offers a lot of historic films. Here is “Santa Claus’ by G. A. Smith in 1898. Apparently the special effects were quite a feat 110 years ago.

For something longer and more in tune with this blog’s recurring theme of war and society, see “Christmas Under Fire” (1941), which looks at Britain at war on Christmas Eve. This film from the Ministry of Information has an American narrator for an American audience. It was made before Pearl Harbor, when the American public had no stomach for going to war in Europe.

I originally posted this piece on Clio and Me (now closed) on this date.

Atrocities in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870–71

An essay on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) that I wrote last year appeared in print this fall in a book about war atrocities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.1 The essay focuses on German soldiers and French civilians using the example of the Bavarians. It examines why soldiers sometimes departed from generally accepted standards in Europe about sparing civilians the effects of war as much as possible.
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A New Personal Record in Plagiarism Cases

I had a new personal record in plagiarism cases this semester: eight. With ninety-seven students total on my rolls at the end of the semester, that makes a little over 8%. To be absolutely clear, I am talking about open-and-shut cases. The burden of proof is on the professor, as it should be, so I never report any honor system violations based merely on my suspicions, no matter how strong they might be.
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Language Study Tip: Daily Practice

The following piece originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on this date under a slightly different title.

When learning a foreign language, it is important to practice daily or even more frequently than that. Many readers will say, “But I don’t have time for that!” Sure you do! Really. You just have to let go of the habit of doing a lot of homework and studying all in one long weekly session. Do many short sessions instead. If you only have two hours a week to devote to learning a new language, you could break part of that time up into shorter chunks. You could, for example, take one hour for a long study session. And then you could divide the other hour into four 15-minute sessions. That would give you a total of five sessions in a week. Add to that the class you are probably taking, and you are up to six sessions per week. That will give you the repetition you need to make new words, grammar, and habits of thought sink in. This little amount of time is not ideal. More studying is desirable, but it will bring you a better return on your investment than one long session per week.

Of course, once you get into the habit of these short study sessions, you will find that you can schedule more. What about the five or ten minutes you spend waiting for a bus or train? What about the time you spend on the train? What about when you’re walking? You can’t look at your books then, but you could look at flash cards with idioms, confusing words, or irregular verbs. You could also simply try thinking in the language you are learning. In this way, the two hours you spend learning the language will grow substantially without actually costing you extra time. And because you are studying frequently and regularly, your brain and mouth and ears will grow accustomed to the language more quickly.

And you know what? It can be fun. It takes your mind off your daily troubles and lets you accomplish something in a short period of time. Pretty soon you will notice that you can feel good about this activity, which gives you one more reason to feel good about yourself. These positive feelings will spark you to keep up and even expand this new study habit.

Online Forums: Blackboard and Wikispaces

My Western Civ courses last winter and spring had some mandatory discussion components. Students had to visit the Holocaust Museum and talk about their experience online. I had them do the same with two old movies as well. (They chose from a list I had given them.) Both assignments went pretty well, except for a couple students who thought they only needed to copy and paste someone’s words from an online movie review. The other downside to the assignment was assessment. Blackboard gives precise statistics for each user, so it is possible to combine one’s impression of the students’ quality of effort with numbers. Wikispaces, which I like, did not offer these statistics. (It might for its Private Label version, but my school doesn’t have that. I had to set up my own Wikispaces account.)

What was really interesting about the Wikispaces experience, however, was that students started using the discussion feature in other parts of the course. It wasn’t mandatory, though I had told students I’d keep it in mind when doing their class participation grade. I’ve said the same thing to classes where I have used Blackboard, but without such positive results. The difference was related both to Wikispaces and the number of students involved.
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Lessons from the Classroom

Last winter and spring I had my students write Wikipedia articles and then monitor those articles to see what edits other people made. The point was to give them a firmer appreciation of how this online resource works, so that they would understand its strengths and limitations. The Wikipedia projects were of varying quality, but I wasn’t unhappy with them. The student feedback at the end of the semester also showed that most of them learned the lesson, though a few were excited to be exposed to this resource for the first time. To be sure, the latter kind of comment made me feel dirty, though I’m sure the students would have found Wikipedia sometime, at the very latest through Google searches, which is how I discovered it some years ago.
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The Vocabulary of Grammar

Looking back, I am surprised at how easy it was for me to get through high school and many college courses without knowing a lot of basic vocabulary related to English grammar. I knew English grammar intuitively, and I could write, but I could not talk about grammar. I am lucky I knew enough intuitively, for this weakness could have become a real handicap for me in my studies.

In fact, it did become a weakness in one subject: Russian. We had to take a foreign language at Dartmouth College, and I fulfilled the requirement with Russian. But I was horrible. I do not believe that I ever rose above a C+. Part of the problem was study habits and discipline, but much of it related to my lack of appreciation of the nature of grammar. The professors used terms like genitive case, dative case, direct object, personal pronoun, possessive pronoun, conjugate, and decline, and it seemed like I had to devote too much energy to understanding that vocabulary and the things it indicated instead of learning Russian. Or I missed points entirely because I did not recognize their significance.

I only appreciated this dilemma later, after I took a break from Dartmouth and came back. During my time away I was in the army and stationed in Germany, where I learned to get by with rudimentary German. Upon returning to Dartmouth I decided I would like to learn German properly. My experience was enhanced considerably by a practical little book by Cecile Zorach entitled English Grammar for Students of German. It explained the way English grammar worked for certain situations and then compared it to German. It was through these comparisons that I began to gain an appreciation of the mechanics of English grammar and a vocabulary with which to talk about it. This knowledge later served me well when I found myself in Munich teaching English to Germans. Of course, the learning process never ended.

This piece originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on this date. Photo added later.