Professor’s Perspective: The American Education System

Back Row: Suzanne Black, Roger Hecht, Gwen Crane, George Hovis, Jonathan Sadow Front Row: Akira Yatsuhashi, Department Chair Dan Payne, Amie Doughty, Kathryn Finin, Konstantina Karageorgos Missing from picture: Susan Bernardin, Richard Lee, and Mark Ferrara

Interviewer: Cheyenne Dorsagno, Editor-in-Chief |
Interviewee: Gwen Crane |


In order to include a professor’s perspective on the American education system and on the student-teacher relationship in general, The State Times reached out to a SUNY Oneonta English Department Professor, Gwen Crane. Crane has been teaching for 30 years. She has a B.A. from UCLA and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. She is currently teaching Shakespeare and English Literature: Beginnings to Renaissance, the content of which partly includes a history of British values and approaches to education.

Q: Why did you want to be a teacher? What do you enjoy about it? What are your goals as a professor?

A: I did not originally plan to teach.  I thought I would use my Ph.D. as an editor or librarian.  But Princeton required us to teach in order to complete our degree work, and it was [so] much more fun than I expected that I decided to try that as a career.  I enjoy the variety of subject matter, and the freedom to revise my courses each term.  My goals are first to do no damage, second to ensure that students have benefited from my classes, and finally to avoid becoming bored.

Q: Have you learned anything from your students? How are you still a student in life?

A: Students bring new ideas every term in every class, interpreting texts in new ways and noticing things I’ve never noticed on my own.  We all are still learning new things all the time, not just because we are trying to master new texts or new terminology or new technology, which is an ongoing process for all instructors, but also because the students are always in flux, positioned as they are on the frontlines of cultural evolution.  In addition, as you will all discover, we all change over time so that we need to rearrange our own lives each decade.  I am currently learning how to navigate my days as a 63-year-old—there are new joys and annoyances every year.

Q: What do you want students to get out of your classes?

A: First, some fundamental information about the world in general; second, some skills in reading—understanding and interpreting not only literary works, but non-literary compositions such as political documents, legal documents, historical texts, news reports, health reports, globally significant tweets, etc.

Q: What makes a good student?

A: Curiosity and commitment.

Q: Some say that America’s education system is not teaching students’ skills and information that they will need.  Having talked about the trivium and the well-rounded Renaissance man, what do you think students should aspire to learn?

A: How to be citizens of the world, preserving the wisdom, achievements, and errors of the past for the edification and enjoyment of future generations.  This requires open-mindedness, attention, and effort, along with some basic information about global events and some communication/reading skills. One can only hope that each new generation of students will find creative ways to enrich their own lives, those of their fellow global citizens, and those of the next generation.

Q: I often hear people say that, over time, students have become less respectful, obedient, and appreciatory of their professors. Have you noticed a difference in students’ attitudes toward teachers and education over the years?

A: Students have never been as respectful as we would like to remember them being, really.  The people who succeed in academics remember how THEY behaved and how THEIR FRIENDS behaved as students (generally quite well, or the people with doctorates wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did in academia).  Most of today’s instructors would never have come to class drunk or high, nor would they have played with their phones all the way through class, nor would they have deliberately insulted their professors, expressing their disdain for academia by childishly, rudely whispering while others in the class are discussing something relevant to the course subject.  But I remember sitting, as an undergraduate, in the back of large lecture halls at UCLA where students casually, rudely read newspapers throughout the lecture.  I just didn’t do that myself, and so I have difficulty identifying with students who do similar things in my own classes.  But when we read academic novels from the 19th-20th centuries, we hear stories of students behaving childishly, horridly, and certainly those medieval instructors who beat students with thorny sticks must have thought their own students were behaving like alien monsters.  Every generation thinks the next is behaving horribly.  There are two very real differences today, however:  first, our students are arriving without adequate preparation for college-level studies. Ten-year-olds were writing elegantly edited essays in the 19th-century which make the essays written by 21st-century college freshmen seem shamefully illiterate (to be clear, at the fault of the education system for not better teaching them, not due to some incapability to write well on the student’s part), and a comparison of those earlier and later texts shows that this conclusion is not the result of the reader’s subjective memory. So, until elementary and middle-school curricula can be amended, we are required to teach elementary writing and reading skills at the college level, across the country.  Second, we are now looking at higher education degrees less as an honor granted to those with demonstrated academic skills than as the end result of providing a service to those who pay their tuition.  Disrespectful students, poorly performing students, absentee students, etc., used to be flunked more often than they are today.  In the 21st century, the goal is less to cull undeserving, unproductive, drug-addled or sleepy students (flunking them, despite the money their parents paid for them to be here), and more towards assisting students in completing their college studies—somehow.  I have some mixed feelings about this development.

Q: Out of every developed country in the world, the U.S. education system is lagging behind in the rankings. What do you think is the most effective teaching style? Is there something that the U.S. is missing in its education system?

A: Small seminar classes are the best beginning for effective teaching, where there is an opportunity for each student to participate verbally in each class meeting.  This will require enormous amounts of capital investment which I do not see in the offing.

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