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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010


I think I am more proud of my success in funding our doctoral students than I am of anything else I accomplished during my half century career, with the possible exception of USSAS. It was a constant scramble, the desperate nature of which I concealed as best I could from my colleagues. All they knew was that each year, old Bob provided. But I would sit at dinner, moaning to Susie that I did not know where I was going to find enough money to cover everyone the next year, and she would assure me that somehow I would manage. I have never been quite sure whether my colleagues understood how crucial to the success of our doctoral program this funding really was. As I have indicated, the funding was never lavish. Other universities, I knew, offered students five year funding commitments of as much as $25,000 a year in addition to tuition waivers. But I held firm to the principle of equal sharing, and so there never developed that A-List/B-List split that caused so much trouble in the UMass Philosophy Department. This funding principle, which of course, all the students were well aware of, was our way of expressing our commitment to them in hard cash.

Needless to say, the Nellie Mae wanted evidence that the program was a success, so I built into the initial proposal several quantitative and qualitative measures that could provide some indication that our program was having the desired effect. My long-term hope was that some of the students we enrolled in the Scholars program would end up pursuing professional and academic careers, but we would not know about that for many years to come. The immediate measures were two: Their first year academic performance, as measured by grades, and -- most important of all -- the "one year retention rate." This latter is a very commonly used measure of the academic performance of a group of students. It is simply the proportion of Freshmen who make it through the first year and show up to enroll for their Sophomore courses. UMass has masses of statistics on the "one year retention rates" of all Freshmen, of men, of women, of African American students, of Latino students, of Asian American students, of science majors, humanities majors, business majors, engineering majors -- no matter how you slice and dice a class of undergraduates, the UMass Office of Institutional Research can tell you how likely they are to make it to the Sophomore year. The gold standard of this sort of measure is the "six year graduation rate," a statistic that has built into it the expectation that many students will take time off on their way to the degree, but by the time we would have numbers of that sort, our grant would have run out.

Almost immediately, it became clear that the program I had designed was succeeding in raising significantly the one year retention rate for the minority students in Scholars. Indeed, in the first few years, we lost almost no students at all, despite the fact that I had deliberately recruited students with sub-par SAT scores. I was very pleased, needless to say, and I flaunted the numbers wherever I could, virtually buttonholing administrators to tell them how successful our program was. Once again, I got lucky. It turned out that the particular bee in Charlena Seymour's bonnet was mentoring. She was focused principally on the mentoring of graduate students in the sciences, and mentoring of junior faculty on their way to the tenure decision. Nevertheless, there I was, building a program for minority undergraduates around mentoring, and she loved it.

Although I was delighted at our success, I cannot say I was especially surprised. It really seemed to me to be a no-brainer. If you take a group of students who have been thrown onto an enormous, impersonal, rather forbidding university campus, where they can quite easily make it through four years of undergraduate study without ever actually getting to know a single one of their instructors, how surprising is it that they do better if you pay attention to them, talk to them, and give them some individual instruction?

I would give each of my graduate student mentors a list of their five students before the first meeting of class in September. When those five students walked into the classroom on their very first day, their instructor already knew their names. I trained the graduate students to serve as much more than just instructors. They learned where on campus a student could go for help with writing, with math, with housing problems, with roommate conflicts, with health issues. My Tutor/Mentors were expected to learn what other courses their five students were taking, and to find out right away if there were problems. In a school as large as UMass, the first sign that a student is having trouble is a series of failing grades at the end of the semester. By then, it is often too late to do anything about it, and the student gets discouraged and drops out. But we were like canaries in a mine shaft. We could spot trouble when it cropped up on the first quiz or short paper.

The Mentors served two other functions, one of which I had planned for, the other of which, I confess, I did not at first anticipate. These were minority students of one category or another, being taught mostly, but not only, by minority doctoral students, all of whom were visibly academically successful. Their mere presence in the room as Instructors told our Freshmen that academic success was possible for them and that the demands we placed upon them were well within their capabilities. I had fully expected that this would be one of the benefits of using the Afro-American Studies doctoral students as Tutor/Mentors. But these Freshmen were also students of color on an overwhelmingly white campus. In many of their other courses, they were a tiny minority of Black or Latino or Asian-American students in a sea of White students. Almost all of our Freshmen had come from high schools with very large minority populations. Give the residential segregation that is as common in Massachusetts as it is elsewhere in America, some of them had come from virtually non-White high schools. They were frightened and intimidated by being thrust into a mostly White campus. The weekly meetings in their small Scholars class was an opportunity not only to study the Minority Experience in America but also to talk personally about their experiences as minorities at UMass. When Nellie Mae hired an outside firm several years later to do a systematic examination of the successes and failures of the Scholars program, that benefit of the structure of the program surfaced again and again in the replies of former students to the questions posed by the evaluators.

It was also clear from the responses of those interviewed that the Spring semester research paper was an unqualified success as a program element. Many students reported that this was the first time anyone had ever asked them to undertake an academic project of that magnitude [a devastating comment on the quality of the secondary education they had received from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts]. I was especially heartened by the many students who said that having completed one such project, they now felt confident that they could do it again, when it was required of them in more advanced courses.

Our doctoral students performed splendidly as Mentors, to my great relief and delight. I think they all liked being responsible for so small a group of students, and they enjoyed the opportunity to shape the curriculum to their particular interests. I knew that it would be valuable to them to be able to list their service as Instructors and mentors on their vitae when the time came for them to go on the job market. When I was starting out, in the late 50's of the last century, departments recruiting Assistant Professors looked long and hard at the disciplinary specialties of applicants, but they tended to pay little attention to evidence of teaching experience. By the 90's, however, budgetary pressures were forcing departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences to ramp up enrollments as a hedge against cuts to their professorial rolls. Hiring departments had started asking for graduate student teaching evaluations and other evidences of teaching ability. On campus finalist interviews now routinely included the teaching of a class with members of the recruitment committee sitting in the back row of the classroom. I knew that my ability to write detailed letters about the performance of my Mentors would serve them well in the job market.

Inevitably, some of the grad students were better mentors than others, although I always insisted that, like the children in Lake Woebegone, they were all above average. Jennifer Jensen-Wallach seemed to have the ability to form unbreakable bonds with her students. When the year was up, they would ask whether they could return to study with her as Sophomores. One year, there was a mix up in the scheduling of the first meeting of the course in the Fall -- the meeting at which I would match up each Mentor with a group of five students. Two rooms were listed, and I was terrified that some of our students would get lost and never resurface [I tend to worry, as Susie points out to me on occasion.] I sent Jennifer to the room originally listed, in case a few students had not received word of the room change. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes into the hour, she showed up with a little band of strays who had gone to the wrong room. When the time came to sort the students into their groups, one young woman got very upset. It seems she had bonded with Jennifer on the walk over from the other room, and now would not hear of having anyone but Jennifer as her Mentor. After that, I took to calling her "my Velcro Mentor."

The Scholars program was so successful that Nellie Mae extended our funding while UMass arranged to take ownership of it in an expanded and revised format. There was no way that the university could fund a program that put only five students in a class with a TA, so Charlena told me that I had to expand the class size to twenty. I pleaded and cried, and cried and pleaded, knowing that the essence of the program, and our great success, would be lost if we were forced to expand each group in that way. In the end, I was allowed to limit the groups to ten, at least in a transitional phase. The other change she insisted on was that I draw half of my Mentors from other departments. There was no way that she could lay that much bread on Afro-Am alone. I ran the expanded program, with some wonderful graduate students from Anthropology, English, and several other departments. One of our Afro-Am doctoral students, Cristina Tondeur, instituted several very successful supplementary programmatic features, most notably a fabulously successful day bus trip to New York that included a tour of Harlem, a visit to the Schomburg Museum, and a matinee performance of The Color Purple.


Anonymous said...

Learning makes life sweet.

Anonymous said...

Off the topic at hand, but Emmanuel Kant is mentioned in this NY Times.

Thought it might be of interest to you.

David Pilavin said...

About the NYT link above: I am simply dismayed at the low level of argumentation this guy presents.

How did such a one become a Professor at JHU?

What would Quine and Russel et al. say if they saw what have become of Anglo-American Philosophy...

Excuse my tantrum...