Walden III

A Scholarly Novel About College Reform

by Donald McCrary (Author)
©2019 Monographs XVI, 250 Pages


Walden III: A Scholarly Novel About College Reform is a hybrid text about college reform that marries fiction with academic scholarship. In this book, Peter Simms, an associate professor of social psychology at fictional Marsden College in Ohio, visits Walden III College in order to learn how the experimental Brooklyn college achieves high retention and graduation rates of poor and unprepared students. The president of Walden III is the rich and mysterious Bryce Davis, the freshman-year college roommate of Simms. Visiting Walden III for a week, Simms learns about the innovative approaches that Walden III takes to college issues, such as curriculum, student housing, developmental education, and governance. Each chapter includes scholarly research on issues important to college reform.
College completion among poor and unprepared students is an issue of global concern. Walden III’s integration of fiction and scholarly research to address this issue gives the book a wide reach, appealing to administrators and the public alike. The book can also be used in English composition and literature classes, as well as in a variety of undergraduate and graduate education courses, particularly courses that examine education policy, curriculum, or administration.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Walden III: Introduction
  • Chapter One: Say My Name
  • Chapter Two: Into the Breach
  • Chapter Three: Through the Looking Glass
  • Chapter Four: Smoke and Mirrors
  • Chapter Five: In the Weeds
  • Chapter Six: Recap
  • Chapter Seven: Going to Meet the Man
  • Index

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I want to thank Eupha Jeanne Daramola, my daughter, whose greatness inspires me every day. I want to thank Gulnara (Julia) Medeubekova, Doreen Davis, Gale Shipp, and Thomas Lawrence, dear friends all, for constantly supporting my writing. I want to thank Sarah E. Bode, Sara McBride, Luke McCord, and Megan Madden, my Peter Lang editors, for their continued guidance and patience. All these great people encouraged me to complete the book.

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Walden III: Introduction

I have been a college teacher of developmental writing for thirty years and have published articles in the area of out-of-school literacies such as black English/hybrid discourse, African-American sermons, and African-American religion. For most of my career, I explored pedagogies that would help other-literate students, particularly African-Americans, acquire standard English because I thought mastering standard English was essential for them to enjoy college success. Although I was well aware of the disadvantages under which poor and unprepared developmental students suffer, I nonetheless held on to the belief that sound writing pedagogy and standard English acquisition could lead to academic achievement for them. However, my belief changed when my daughter began her freshman year at Northwestern University, and I started to compare her academic progress to my developmental writing students. I remember a particular student in my class at the time. On the first day of class, I gave the in-class diagnostic exam, and he tested out of my class but didn’t leave because he liked the curriculum, which was based on African-American street novels. He attended every class and read every book and article but never submitted any written work. From numerous discussions with him about the matter, I discovered that he was essentially homeless, going from one couch to another until he could find more permanent housing. I suggested that he write his papers in the school library, but he had work and other commitments and ← xi | xii → often felt too tired and unsettled to write. Reading, however, relaxed him, so read he did, and quite well. Like so many developmental writers who fail my classes, this student could and should have passed the course. However, his life circumstances were such that focusing on his school work was very difficult. Considering this student and others who were in similar circumstances and comparing them to my daughter’s academic situation forced me to uncover some disturbing but illuminating truths.

My daughter worked very hard at school, very hard, and I’m not trying to diminish her academic accomplishments because she more than earned them. But she had advantages that supported her academic success while my developmental students have disadvantages that make their academic success much more difficult. For example, my daughter’s parents carried the financial burden of her college education. Many developmental students carry the financial burden of their schooling entirely themselves. My daughter’s parents closely monitored and guided her education throughout her life, telling and showing her why education was vital to her future. Many developmental students do not receive educational guidance or have a concept of the future and how education might impact it. My daughter’s parents made excelling at school her only chore, with the caveat that if she worked hard in school they would provide her with whatever she needed and many things she wanted. Many developmental students are expected to contribute to the household after high school and have few other options but to join the military or work low-paying jobs while still living at home. My daughter’s parents have PhDs, secure homes, and disposable incomes. Many developmental students have parents who are undereducated, insecurely housed, and underemployed. In short, my daughter had many advantages that almost guaranteed her academic success. Many of my developmental students suffer disadvantages that make academic success an incredible, almost insurmountable struggle.

I ask myself why it took me so long to come to the realization that good writing pedagogy isn’t enough to help many developmental students enjoy college success. After all, I am acquainted with the kinds of obstacles my students endure. I am one of nine children from a working-class Boston family and wasn’t raised to attend college. In fact, I went to work in the receiving room at a Sears after high school and might very well be there or some other blue-collar job if not that society, through the Pell Grant, told a guy like me that he could attend college. And even though I had the opportunity to go to college, I squandered it, and I kept squandering educational opportunities for the next seven years. It wasn’t until I was twenty-five years old that college finally made sense to me, that I developed a concept of the future and saw that education could play a role in that future for ← xii | xiii → me. I finally got it, and while living in a rooming house in downtown Boston, I graduated from community college and subsequently from a state university. Throughout those years, I worked various graveyard shift jobs and attended classes immediately after work. I fought sleep during my 10:00 a.m. classes, tired, with burning eyes, and lived on a very strict budget. Although I was ultimately successful in securing two degrees, the journey was fairly miserable, and I would have welcomed some support. With my own disruptive college experience and first-hand knowledge of the desperate lives many developmental students lead, why did I believe that good writing pedagogy was enough to help them enjoy college success? The answer—I was a true believer.

A true believer usually has a conversion experience, and although my conversion was slow, circuitous, and challenging, once it happened, I was bound. My awakening came after reading Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts in graduate school. Here was a book that spoke to my desire to help developmental writers. Although the developmental students I was teaching at the time seemed less skilled than the students represented in the book, I nonetheless believed that reading, discussing, and writing about a variety of texts in a variety of ways, including writing complete essays, could work for my students. Although it would be several years until I taught at a school that embraced the Bartholomae/Petrosky approach, I was converted after reading their book, even if I had to wait to put its insights into practice.

I got a job teaching at a university that has a unified writing program based on intensive reading and writing about texts, utilizing the process approach and multiple versions of critical essays. In private, I sometimes called it the West Point approach—to become a warrior one must be warred upon—and I heartily approved. Because my first language is black English and I received scant formal practice and instruction in reading and writing after the eighth grade, I knew from my own experience that extensive reading and writing and feedback were crucial to help other-literate students acquire the skills of standard English. Thus, if I helped developmental students to read, discuss, and write about literature, critical and creative, and provided them thoughtful response, they would become good readers and writers and do well in school. To accomplish that goal, I took advantage of their own literacies, of their own powers to communicate, and out-of-school literacies became a major focus of my research and pedagogy. In fact, I was so fixated on my mission that I didn’t see, not really, what was in front of me. I didn’t see that good writing pedagogy isn’t enough to surmount the difficulties many developmental students face every day of their lives, difficulties that they bring to the classroom, difficulties that weigh on them almost to the point of suffocation. I was stuck in a theoretical and pedagogical loop, trusting in my conversion beliefs to ← xiii | xiv → the point of blindness. But that changed for me when I compared my daughter’s academic progress to some of my developmental writing students.

Even when I had the revelation, the new conversion experience, I struggled with what to do with it. How could I, a developmental writing instructor, improve my students’ lives so that they could focus on school and succeed? After several years of deliberation, I realized, finally, that I couldn’t. I realized that the job was too big for one person, or even a group of people. I realized that the institutional structure had to change dramatically to help developmental students succeed. I realized that colleges might need to provide poor, unprepared students the kind of social, economic, and academic support that many wealthier, successful students enjoy. This revelation led me to write the book you are reading.

Like most books, Walden III springs from a particular historical time. President Obama and his Department of Education helped energize efforts to address the low college completion rates of students, particularly poor and/or unprepared students, with politicians, strategic funders, nonprofits, and other stakeholders applying pressure to college presidents, administrators, and instructors to make measurable strides in improving graduation rates among American students. However, in their completion mania, these stakeholders were often misguided. They wanted to see more students graduate college more quickly, primarily because college is so expensive. But rather than focus on college costs, they focused on getting students more quickly through college by proposing and implementing wrongheaded strategies such as core curriculum reduction, think tank and nonprofit funding, and narrow careerism. None of these strategies actually address the cost of college. And even strategies such as wraparound advising and more tutorial, which they also championed, were inadequate to help poor and unprepared students burdened with social, economic, and academic difficulties. Rather than devoting so much expense to strategies and programs that, frankly, benefited middle-class professionals more than poor students, higher-education stakeholders might have provided more funding directly to students; at the very least poor students would be less financially burdened. Sadly, the Obama presidency ended with a focus on gathering data and improving completion without changing the dismal graduation rates among poor and unprepared students.

Presently, we are in the Trump years, where the education focus, if we watch Secretary Devos’s swift dismantling of Obama-era education rules, will probably be promoting for-profit colleges and careerism. As for what is occurring among other education stakeholders, there has been a resurgence of the tuition-free movement in many states, although some of the efforts such as New York’s Excelsior Program benefit wealthier people rather than the poor. Furthermore, there is ← xiv | xv → an even greater focus on core curriculum reduction. The New York SUNY and CUNY systems reduced core curriculum drastically, again in the service of college completion. What we haven’t seen is a real effort to help poor students succeed in college because neither core curriculum reduction, free tuition, nor a host of other measures really address their central needs.

The rush to completion doesn’t help poor students, or any other students for that matter, because we live in a world of perpetual education, upskilling, in the parlance of industry, which forces people continually to acquire new information and skills. Ironically, we live in a time when an extensive core education is more necessary than ever because broad knowledge is at a premium. And what are college graduates rushing to do anyway? Most of them cannot secure employment to support themselves and have to live the dorm life with three or four people in an apartment after college graduation. And even if a college graduate secures viable employment, he or she will be lucky to keep the job five years, no matter the job performance. The truth is that we live in an employment world ruled by ever-advancing technology and global competition, attempts at narrow nationalism and careerism aside. We should be producing a society of perpetual learners, not rushing so many to completion and nowhere.

As for poor students, they need not only a broad education but comprehensive support to secure it. Tuition-free programs don’t help them, because unless they attend fairly expensive schools, they aren’t paying much tuition anyway. Many poor students matriculate at community colleges, which have lower tuitions that federal and state grants and financial aid cover. What they need is housing, more viable employment, and better academic support. They don’t need to be rushed through a curriculum that won’t prepare them for the future, even if they do manage to graduate. The reality of what burdens poor students led me to reimagine college as a place that actually supported and encouraged their academic success. Imagined is an important word because, to my knowledge, the place doesn’t exist. Yet I have tried to bring it into being through Walden III.

Although the book might seem a polemic, my goal is not to criticize, indict, or condemn the education system. I believe that many stakeholders in higher education are sincere in intent and actions. I hope that this book elicits a conversation, a rethinking of the education system, particularly regarding poor students. I think we can and should do more to help them succeed academically. I know that the ideas and suggestions in the book aren’t new or foolproof, but, as a system of ideas, they might provide a different way of thinking about delivering education to poor students. I present the book in a hybrid form, a marriage of fiction and research, which also isn’t new by any means, but was a convenient way to support my imaginings ← xv | xvi → with scholarly conversation. I also imagine a hybrid form of college, a marriage of the for-profit and the nonprofit as a way for colleges to support better not only students but also surrounding neighborhoods. Some might dismiss the idea of a thoughtful, conscientious for-profit school, but some for-profit companies deliver value to their customers, and my idea is aimed at people who are serious about providing good education to poor students. Ultimately, I want the book to help us admit that we have to do better for poor and unprepared college students and that we might have to make what may seem like some radical changes in education to accomplish that goal.

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XVI, 250
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVI, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Donald McCrary (Author)

Donald McCrary earned a PhD in English education from New York University and is an associate professor of English at Long Island University Brooklyn. His specialties are developmental writing and sociolinguistics, and he has published in College Composition and Communication and the Journal of Basic Writing.


Title: Walden III
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268 pages