Caveat: Venter

Think about all of the things that make your brain itch. These are mine.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Placement Tests

It occurs to me that there is an inherent problem in the way community colleges evaluate students for placement in English courses. The tests are, at least in my experience, monolithic beasts that generate aggregate figures. Based on these figures, students are placed in developmental or college-level courses, but the problem is that while many students placed in developmental courses belong there, they should not necessarily have to take every class along the way to college-level composition courses. Similarly, far too many unqualified students make it into college-level courses because they reach some threshold in scoring.

Students are often lacking in fundamentals these days, rarely able to define, much less write, complete sentences. Even these students, however, are frequently able to structure essays with some competence, and between that ability and some knowledge of punctuation they may pass into college-level courses for which they are ill-prepared. Similarly, many students who miss the threshold are competent in certain areas but will be required to repeat those levels because their placement starts them below material they know (and into courses that address areas of weakness).

To be fair, testing takes time and money, and schools are understandably hesitant to make changes without a great deal of evidence suggesting that the change will provide a real benefit. Still, I propose we evaluate students in four areas, testing each upon entry: technical skill (grammar, punctuation, spelling, and mechanics), sentence structure, paragraph building, and essay development. All of these are essential for eventual student success, but are we saving money—and I mean here both in terms of the institution and the students—when we make a student with one problem area take two or three remedial courses instead of the one that would bring the student up to par?

If we create a system in which entry to college-level composition courses (English 100, 101, 1A, or whatever a given school may call such a course) is based upon qualification in a number of areas, we would reduce the number of students not passing these courses, initially reducing the need for as many sections as are usually offered now. Simultaneously, we can offer more targeted assistance to students while offering, for many, a faster track to degree or program completion.

Under such a system, the developmental courses will retain a hierarchy for those students who require more than one, but they would allow students who do not have strengths and weaknesses well suited to the traditional track to get that help they need and move on in a timely fashion, without filling seats in classes that other students need.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Celluloid Triumvirate

I recently got a voice mail from a close friend who had to cancel something, but in the message he also noted that he had seen a film I had mentioned in a discussion two weeks prior (and probably other times before that). He went on to say that he was pretty sure he and I would disagree about the film in question. Sadly, such an outcome has become almost predicatable, but I have a few ideas for finding out why.

Let me begin with a distinction that I developed more than a decade ago, a distinction that suggests the title of this post. In Cinema (with a capital C) there are three products, no one inherently better than the other, and each covering its own territory with few skirmishes over possible overlap: Flicks, Movies, and Films. Note that, even as I go through these I recognize that what I place in one category, others may place in a different one (believe me, I know this).

Flicks are those targeted production that look for specific audiences, scripts be damned if it can get the horror fans in or make the 18 to 24 female crowd bring boyfriends. These will usually make their budgets back and have narrow appeal, and you can find them all over. How many are coming for release around Valentine's Day, I wonder. You can find many of these films by looking at the recent careers of the likes of Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore, and Matthew McConnaughey.

Movies are another story. These works tend to target a larger audience, seeking broad appeal with big story lines. This does not always lead to quality, but with millions more in the production budget than would be normal in either of the other categories, and often with all but guaranteed paydays for those with points, few care. Production tends toward the slick end of the scale, with quality explosions and improbably sweeping pan shots designed to make people think, "Wow!" while ignoring what may well be a marked lack of quality in other areas. This is not to say that Movies are of low quality, only that they are mass-market vehicles with production values that reflect that status. Pick a summer release with a half-page (or larger) ad in a major-market newspaper, and you've probably found a Movie.

Films are another story altogether. These are those pieces in which story, production values, and acting matter. If you can't, as one filmmaker discovered, get the right special effects in post, drill holes in your cameras to tweak the film as you are shooting; if that's what it takes, that what you do. Big names will often show up in Films, but just as often the credits will be overflowing with accomplished character actors. These are production that are, because of budget, often completed more by force of will than anything else, though some are completed with huge budgets, too (every now and then the studios get it right). These are more often identified by their directors, Kubrik, Scorcese, and Aronofsky (the man with the drill) being fine examples whose work has run the gamut of budgets (and more often than not landed in this category).

All of this leads my back to my friend's voice mail. It seems to me that much of the disagreement he and I feel on so many movies (lowercase "M") stems from disagreements over what qualifies for each category and from how much we value these differences. I'm looking at ways to identify these differences better so we can make more successful recommendations to one another. We shall see how it goes, I guess.