Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Things I Learned at Antioch College

I attended Antioch College from 1991-96 and despite what a number of people have said about Antioch shooting itself in the foot, I learned many important lessons during my time there. The education I got at Antioch was so different from that I see the undergrads here at Big Ag U that it's difficult to cover everything.

In many ways my Antioch education wasn't that different than any liberal arts education, so the accusation that somehow it's Antioch's unconventional education that resulted in it's financial demise is just not true. Yes, there are some things about Antioch that are unconventional, but it's hardly fair to accuse them of not preparing their students for a competitive job market.

Everyone is mentioning the lack of letter grades and the use of narrative evaluations, as if employers hire based on graduates' GPAs. The truth is that my narrative evaluations meant that I had what amounted to numerous glowing recommendations of my academic work when it came time to apply to graduate school. Just as at other alternative schools, such as Evergreen and UCSC, it was possible to request that letter grades be placed on your transcripts.

No one is mentioning the most important aspect of the Antioch experience, the cooperative education program. This program, which started in 1921 requires all students to participate in several paid internship experiences. I expressly chose Antioch because I would get job and travel experiences. Each year at Antioch I spent 3-6 months working full time at a real job. I spent time interning at a major museum in Chicago. I worked as an environmental lobbyist in West Virginia. I tried my hand in a chemistry lab. I even ran the college's community garden, marketing the produce at the Yellow Springs farmers market. (I'm glad I got the organic farming bug out of my system.)

My first year at Antioch I worked as an assistant in the registrar's office. I must have been frustrated by the dilapidated state of the facilities, because the registrar, who had worked there seemingly forever, explained to me the demise of Antioch's endowment. It had nothing to do with Antioch's leftist leanings. During the 70's one of Antioch's presidents spent the endowment opening up satellite campuses all over the country and hiring his buddies to administer them. At some point in the late 70's most of the satellite campuses closed down, leaving the campus with practically no endowment. Since then the college hasn't had enough money to repair it's dilapidated buildings.

The commencement speaker at my graduation was Harvard professor and popular science essayist Steven J. Gould, himself an Antioch graduate. At the time I found his speech both amusing and slightly insulting in that it's thesis was that Antioch was like a bacteria or amoeba, small, adaptable, and difficult to eradicate. Now I hope that Gould was correct, that Antioch will reappear 2012.


donutboy said...

I also believe that the CO-OP experience was the greatest part of Antioch. I know that without it I would have dropped out of some state school and be working in the coal mines of WV.

WE have to keep our ears to the ground and look for an opportunity to turn this around.

wen said...

i did my doctorate at ucsc, and i taught/ta'd there as well.

i am definitely in favor of the narrative evaluation system. it's much more precise than 'grades' and there's no arguing over a point here or there for the sake of a gpa.

hypothetical example:

two students sign up for chinese class.

student 1 is an abc (american born chinese) and grew up speaking the language at home. he rarely turns up to class, never volunteers, spends a lot of time text messaging, but aces all the exams (which he does show up for). he misses 80% of his sections with his ta. he sees this as an easy class because he came in knowing most of the material. his lack of attendance and participation, worth half the grade, when added to his nearly perfect tests, gives him a high "c" average.

student 2 is someone who really wants to learn chinese but has no background in the language. she attends all classes, participates, seeks extra help from the instructor and hires a tutor when her first test is an almost failing mark. she attends every section, and works extra exercises in the workbook to practice. her test grades are not great at the beginning of the quarter, but by the end they show marked improvement and she gets an 'a' on the last test. ultimately, her work averages out to a high "c".

with conventional grades, these two folks look just the same. with narratives, an instructor can say

"john's test scores were excellent, demonstrating a strong understanding of the subject matter. he attended 4 of 30 classes and 2 of 16 section meetings. He did not volunteer in class and sometimes seemed distracted or occupied with non-class activities (such as text messaging), yet when called on, if given a moment to find his place in the exercise, he often knew the correct answer. (etc.)..."

in comparison:

"Susie's performance in this class indicated a strong understanding of the subject matter by the end of the quarter. Her initial test scores were poor, but showed marked improvement as the quarter progressed, with her last test being excellent. Suzie's interest in and enthusiasm for the subject matter was apparent. She attended all 30 classes and 15 of 16 sections. She often did extra exercises (unprompted) and participated frequently in class. Suzie demonstrated a willingness to tackle and master a subject with which she had no previous experience. (etc.)

Notice there's no judgement of them as people, just a recounting of their performance. For translation purposes, you may want to hire John. He's got excellent skills. But if you are looking for someone to take on and rise to a challenge, then I'd go with Susie.

I think narratives are WAY more useful. I wish everyone came with a set of them. :)

I went to Miami U (in Oxford, Ohio) and to OSU (for my MA) so I have experience getting a giving 'traditional' grades as well...

wil said...

Freaky. I have a friend whose son currently attends Antioch. How disappointing to have the college you're attending shut-down around you.

Breena Ronan said...

It will really suck for the students, but hopefully they will be able to transfer without too much trouble. The professors on the other hand must be in dire straights. Most likely they publish rarely and will be in settled living situations, not wanting to uproot their families to start a new tenure track job in a new location.

The New York Crank said...

Right, Breena. The good news is, you've got tenure. The bad new is, you have tenure at an institution that no longer exists. Goodbye, professor, and have a nice life.

There was an irate letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times a few days ago from an Antioch Trustee, copping an attitude and suggesting that a) it wasn't the trustees' fault the college closed but that of falling enrollment and that b) anyway, there are several Antioch offspring campuses so the spirit lives on..

No no no, it was the trustees who take full responsibility. It starts, as you correctly point out, in the 1970s with the college president's (his name was James Payson Dixon) harebrained scheme to blow the endowment dropping little Antioch campuses around the nation the way cockroaches drop eggs.

So there was Antioch San Francisco (gone); Antioch Law School Washington DC (gone); Antioch Putney Vermont (gone); Antioch Columbia Maryland (gone) and God-knows-what-else gone to hell in a handbasket.

But that was only part of the problem. The other part had to do with on-campus (in Yellow Springs) politics. In 1973 some students trashed the campus. Were they rounded up, arrested, and tossed out on their ears? Nah, that wouldn't have been revolutionary enough.

Buildings continued to get trashed through the decades. Graffitti was a rampant eyesore.

Did I mention the two students at some time in the 1970s who armed themselves, barricaded a dormitory, and opened fire on anyone who approached the building?

Later they sued the college for "failing to give them an education."

The trustees' solution to all this radicalized chaos? Well, a couple years ago they figured that the college wasn't "different" enough, so let's craft some kind of radical new syllabus. They did. You remember the old song lyrics from "Gypsy": "Ya gotta have a gimmick, if you wanna get ahead."

Gimmick, schmmmick. Enrollment, from 1970 on, kept dropping, and dropping, and dropping...

The strengths of Antioch College were its co-op program, an excellent liberal arts faculty who themselves had excellent educational backgrounds, and a spirit of democracy and toleration on campus.

The last went away, too, in favor of radicalized, gender-based totalitarianism. But that's another story.

Little by little, interest in applying to the college (and willingness of parents to let their kids apply to this house of horrors) dwindled down to a mere trickle. In a college that lived by tuition income almost entirely alone now that the endowment was shot to hell, that was a stake through the institution's heart.

Now the trustees are imaginging that if they merely spiff up the rooms with cable TV and carpeting,and maybe invent yet another "different" curriculum they can reopen in four years and the world will come.

Yeah? What well-qualified Ph.D will take a chance on them. What bright student looking to a stable future at a stable institution? What college guidance counselor will recommend the place?

Forget it. Antioch College is toast, and as its reputation sinks, so will the reputations of its satellite Antioch in Los Angeles, Yellow Springs and wherever else.

Perhaps people will come after all. But only if the name of the college changes, too, to something like "Baptist Tech Bible College."

Crankily yours,
The New York Crank (Antioch '61)

Breena Ronan said...

Thanks for the info Crank! Personally the graffiti didn't bother me, I think it's a generational thing. The radicalism mostly didn't bother me, but the nihilism was a problem. Students who have mental health problems aren't "radical," they need help. It's too bad because even though they earned some of the lowest salaries in the nation, I think Antioch had some great faculty. Despite all the flaws, I think I got a great education there, partly because I was force to be self reliant, but also because I had caring, talented professors who had time for me.

The New York Crank said...

For more about fear and loathing in Yellow Springs, screwed faculty, Machiavellian trustees, broken promises, incompetent management and the full catastrophe, see what's being reported in the latest Yellow Springs News:

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank