Thursday, March 27, 2014

How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees (Part 2)

This part in particular is pretty long, so if you read the whole thing, you win internet happiness points from me.  I tried to keep it brief, but it all felt equally important.

Academic Freedom is Non-Existent
All, and I mean ALL decisions regarding curriculum, textbooks, even grading are made on the corporate level.  When I first started, teachers had some freedom to determine student grades, weights, and assignments.  By the time I left, that was expressly forbidden.  At the beginning of each quarter, each instructor would get a packet that included his or her syllabus, quizzes, tests, and project assigments.  Many were even given power point presentations for each lesson.  Deviation from the provided material was not allowed.  Grades were weighted for teachers, which helped make sure that students could pass simply by showing up.  Instructors had very limited freedom to add in material they thought might help students in the real job world, and they certainly weren't allowed to test or given any grades relating to materials not strictly covered in the materials.

Teachers Are Saddled with Out of Date and Faulty Materials
Not only did the standardized curriculum mean that the teachers weren't able to adjust any course material or choose to focus on a particular aspect of teaching that they felt most applied to their students, it also meant that they were forced to use standardized materials that were often, well, sub-standard.  

In some cases, curriculum was being developed as the quarter progressed, meaning the instructors would get their lesson plans and materials on a week to week basis, giving them no time to prepare.  Student labs, which the school pushed hard in its marketing as hands-on learning, more than often didn't work.  It would take half a quarter for students to even be able to attempt their labs, which meant large quantities of information weren't covered.

Teachers had no control over this, but took all of the blame.  If a student complained and the teacher told them that the problems with textbooks, labs, or curriculum were caused by corporate headquarters, as opposed to taking personal responsibility, the teacher would be reprimanded by administration.

Finally, the custom textbooks used by the school (usually made up of watered-down material from "real" textbooks) frequently came late and, when they did arrive, were full of errors and misprintings.  No one on a campus level had control over these issues.  The best we could do was tell students that we had submitted the problem for review by corporate headquarters.  I worked closely with the curriculum, syllabi, and textbooks, and the mistakes and issues submitted were not addressed.

I want to stress that NONE of these issues were the fault of our instructors.  We had, for the most part, an amazing group of instructors (almost all adjunct) who cared about students and, despite the fact that they were paid next to nothing, put in long hours working with our students on both academic and personal issues.

Faculty Are Required to Focus on Hand-Holding Rather Than Teaching
I've mentioned several times that the target demographic at for profit schools is uneducated, unschooled, and poor - students who haven't attended or succeeded at a traditional college for a reason.  Many of the students have been out of a school setting for years.  One of our selling points was a non-traditional approach to helping students succeed by getting involved with them one-on-one.  In theory, this is a great idea, but it didn't play out as well in practice. 

First, instructors were expected to call every student who didn't come to class before they left campus for the night - preferably before the first scheduled break, eating into course instruction time.  At the end of the night, close to 11, instructors had to log every student "contact" (conversation or interaction) into the student reporting system.  This could only be done from the campus, which meant instructors were either required to stay late or end their classes early to finish their reports.  I'll let you guess which happened most frequently.

In addition to calling students who couldn't come to class, instructors were strongly encouraged to give students their cell phone numbers and add them to social media sites such as Facebook.  They were also held responsible for assisting students in resolving personal problems that would keep them from attending class. If a student had childcare issues or transportation issues, it was up to the instructor to help the student find a solution.  If these personal situations weren't resolved, the student could be dropped, and the instructor's success rate and engagement rate (measuring how many students attended class) would suffer.  Again, any of these type of interactions had to be entered on the instructor's own time in the student database system on campus.  

What this wound up meaning is that adjunct instructors with a four hour/week teaching load (for which they are already underpaid) could wind up spending 10-12 hours/week or more per class in actual work time.  They had to prepare material for class, conduct the class, monitor attendance, report their student contacts, grade papers, tutor any students falling behind, and assist students during off hours with personal problems.

Many teachers I was friends with regularly received calls from students late at night or on weekends with problems ranging from being incarcerated to drug abuse issues to actual school-related problems.  While there was no written requirement that they handle these problems, failure to do so could result in low student success or student engagement rates, which put the instructor's job in jeopardy.    

And these are just the requirements for adjunct faculty, most of whom had day jobs in the field.  Our full time program chairs were required to teach up to five classes per week (20 hours of teaching time), maintaining all of the above requirements, while also monitoring attendance and success of every student in their program and consistently providing the school with "re-entries".  In addition to calling any student who missed class, the program chairs called every student who had been absent from any class for more than two consecutive class meetings.  

By the time I quit, I was no longer making re-entry calls, but for several years I helped with these.  I had to call students who had been incarcerated, just to see if they had been released yet.  I had to call students who had left to attend other schools, to try to persuade them that our school was better.  I spent hours calling numbers I knew were disconnected, just to check.  It was a requirement and an enormous time waste, and my job wasn't dependent on its success.  Program Chairs were required to spend hours on this each week, and if they didn't make the numbers, they could lose their jobs.  

We were also required to call every student after any holiday or break in class schedule to remind them to come back to class.  We treated our students like they were absolutely incapable of coming to school on their own, and then were shocked when they were unable to maintain jobs in the real world, where employers don't call you after Christmas to remind you to come back to work.

Rather than spending their time developing curriculum, determining best practices for working with non-traditional students, or delving deeper into subject matter that could help students get jobs, faculty members were forced to hand-hold students through every step of the education process.  It created a school full of entitled students who refused to be held responsible for any aspect of their own education and, at least on my part, faculty who resented the students' constant complaints over issues that we couldn't control or personal problems we had no way of resolving.

How For Profit Schools Hurt Communities

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Vintage by Susan Gloss

From Goodreads:
At Hourglass Vintage in Madison, Wisconsin, every item in the boutique has a story to tell...and so do the women who are drawn there.

Yellow Samsonite suitcase with ivory, quilted lining, 1950s...
Violet Turner had always dreamed of owning a shop like Hourglass Vintage. Though she knows the personal history behind each precious item she sells, Violet refuses to acknowledge her own past. When she is faced with the possibility of losing the store, she realizes that, as much as she wants to, she cannot save it alone.

Taffeta tea length wedding gown with scooped neckline and cap sleeves, 1952...
Eighteen-year-old April Morgan is nearly five months along in an unplanned pregnancy when her hasty engagement is broken. When she returns the perfect 1950s wedding dress, she discovers unexpected possibilities and friends who won't let her give up on her dreams.

Orange sari made from silk dupioni with gold paisley design, 1968...
Betrayed by her husband, Amithi Singh begins selling off her old clothes, remnants of her past life. After decades of housekeeping and parenting a daughter who rejects her traditional ways, she fears she has nothing more ahead for her.

An engaging story that beautifully captures the essence of women's friendship and love, Vintage is a charming tale of possibility, of finding renewal and hope when we least expect it.
Solidly middle of the road.  It's her first book, and I think that shows.  It's also chick lit/women's lit, and in some ways it lives up to the cliches.  The characters can be shallow and they're ultimately not dynamic.  But the plot is fun, but lacked urgency.  I wasn't compelled to keep reading and find out what would happen to the characters.  I was also totally unsurprised by any of the outcomes or resolutions - it's pretty easy to guess from the beginning where things are headed.  That said, it's readable and all of the characters are likable.

Entertainment Value
Again, and for many reasons listed above, it's middle of the road.  I wasn't sucked in and unable to look away, but I did enjoy myself while reading.  It was lighthearted and easy and the reading went by quickly.  It's something you can easily finish in one to two sittings.

I really hate to say it, but my overall opinion is that this is going to fall into the category of "forgotten" books by the end of the year.  It's something that I read and enjoyed reading, but not something I'm going to be recommending left and right to all my friends.  I didn't hate it, I didn't love it, I have no strong feelings either way.  It's a decent beach read, but I think there's better out there.  If you're determined to try it, you won't be disappointed?  I feel like I'm damning it with faint praise, but there you have it.

Thank you to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see the full list of tour stops.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley

From Goodreads:
Diagnosed with XP, a rare medical condition which makes him lethally sensitive to light, Tyler is a thirteen-year-old who desperately wants just one thing: to be normal. His mother Eve also wants just one thing: to protect her son. As Tyler begins roaming their cul-de-sac at night, cloaked in the safety of the darkness, he peers into the lives of the other families on the street-looking in on the things they most want hidden. Then, the young daughter of a neighbor suddenly vanishes, and Tyler may be the only one who can make sense of her disappearance…but what will happen when everyone's secrets are exposed to the light?
I think it's important to clarify what category this book falls into before I really review the writing.  Knowing what a book is and what the author is trying to accomplish makes a difference to me when I'm reviewing.  I think saying "It's good for what it is" sounds super condescending, but in some cases I'm hard pressed to think of another way to say it.  This isn't literary fiction.  It's also not a suspense/thriller.  It's a Jodi Picoult-type extreme situation posing a moral dilemma book.  Go ahead and coin that as a genre.

The thing is, while I feel like with this kind of book you absolutely must reference Picoult, I think Buckley may have her beat.  While I think the plot may have veered a bit towards the formulaic (just read my newly invented genre name for a plot summary), the characters were well developed.  There were subplots that held my interest and made the characters feel more like real people, despite the crazy circumstances they were in.

Entertainment Value
I love moral dilemma books, and this one was exceptionally entertaining because it kept me guessing.  Despite the fact that the plot followed something of a generic formula, I didn't "figure out" the ending.  It kept me guessing and didn't fall prey to the "what's the craziest thing that could happen" issue that I think both Picoult and Lifetime movies suffer from.  Oooooh, speaking of, this would make an amazing Lifetime Original Movie and I'd totally DVR it.  Let's try to make that happen.

I ate it up.  I even texted my reading clone Jacki and told her to put it on her list halfway through.  There's not a better recommendation than that.  It kept me interested and intrigued me and I found myself carrying it around with me so I could read it at odd moments.

Thanks to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see the other stops on the tour.

Monday, March 24, 2014

How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees

My Story, Part 1
My Story, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 2

Before I start in on the issues employees in for profit schools are faced with, I want to make sure that I'm totally clear on one thing: I don't think that working at a for profit schools makes you a bad person.  Obviously.  I worked at one for five years, and while I struggled with the ethical aspects of working there, I think it was ultimately the burnout caused by that struggle that led me to quit.  I certainly didn't stomp out in indignation at the first indication of ethical issues.  The majority of employees at my school truly cared about students, even if their hands were tied by corporate policy in regards to their ability to educate those students effectively.  I hope to show in this series that the problems for employees are caused by this corporate mind-set and red tape, put in place on an institutional level in order to increase profits.

Reality is that the job market in Chattanooga (as in other places, I'm sure) is terrible.  I was incredibly blessed to be in a position where Luke could cover both our finances and health insurance without my income.  Lots of people aren't in that position and are supporting not only themselves but families.  So please, please, please do not take this series as a condemnation of campus-level employees.  For the most part, in my experience, they're doing the best they can for each student with what they've been given.  My indictments are of corporate policies, put in place by businessmen with no classroom experience, that damage everyone, including the people who work at the schools.

For Profit Schools Are a Blight on Your Resume
I took the job as Library Assistant at my school thinking it would be a foot in the door for higher education.  I didn't necessarily want to work in a for profit, but there were so many opportunities for learning the ropes of librarianship that I was eager to accept it, thinking that when I had the basics down and had the experience on my resume, I'd easily move into another position at a larger, more traditional school.  And I did learn quite a few things.  But those things meant absolutely nothing in comparison to the fact that I was working at a for profit school.  For profits are the red-headed step-child of higher education.  Remember how I said that a degree from a for profit school might not be considered legitimate in the real world?  The same is true for experience working at a for profit school.  It took me three years of looking and applying including two months of unemployment, to find another job in a library. 

Departments Are Pitted Against Each Other
One of the things that baffled me most (until I considered it from a corporate/financial standpoint) about my school's operation was the way that departments were pitted against each other.  We had two main departments at the school: Recruitment/Financial Aid and Academics.  Recruitment and Financial Aid were responsible for enrolling as many students as possible, regardless of their academic or social ability to complete their education.  Recruitment got a hard time for being cut-throat and ruthless with each other and with Academics, but the truth is that they were just doing their jobs.  If they didn't enroll a certain number of students each quarter, they would lose their jobs - and they had kids and families just like everyone else.  

Because they had to meet their numbers, they would enroll anyone they could.  Homelessness, criminal history, even sexual harassment of female employees during the tour weren't reason enough to exclude students from enrollment.  Least of all their considerations was whether or not the students had the capacity to complete his or her schooling.  We enrolled students who barely spoke English, students who couldn't sign their names, and students who couldn't tell you the name of the county they lived in.  

Academics, then, would be responsible for keeping those students in school.  They were help responsible for teaching functionally illiterate students, non-English speakers, and those who just weren't capable of keeping up, along with students who were aggressive, both physically, verbally, and sexually.  This caused constant tension between the two departments.  If Academics were unable to keep those students in school, they could lose their jobs.  It was a constant struggle to keep students enrolled because we constantly enrolled students who were just not capable of success.

Employees Aren't Safe
I'm going to be generous here and admit that this could have been a problem only at my campus.  Maybe no one else faces this at other campuses.  But at the campus where I worked, I was frequently afraid.  We enrolled students with drug and alcohol abuse issues and addictions, students with criminal histories, and students who were mentally unstable.  In my five years at the school, I was screamed at, cursed at, sexually harassed, and threatened on more than one occasion.  I repeatedly asked for more security at school and the problem was denied, despite the fact that I wasn't the only one complaining.  Here are just a few things that happened to me personally:
  • A student who was told that he had to fill out paperwork to receive his cap and gown grew irate and told me that he knew which car was mine and where I parked in the parking lot and that I "couldn't always park near the door."  
  • A student who was asked to complete an end of the quarter summary got inches from my face and screamed at me in front of a classroom full of students while the instructor watched.  I filed a report, but no action was taken.  The student had a known serious drug problem that was not addressed during his time at school. 
  • I was called in on multiple occasions when students were threatening suicide.  On one occasion the student was on the sidewalk in front of the school, crying, threatening suicide, and hitting his head on the brick exterior of the school.  I brought him inside as another coworker called 911.  The police came and the student was taken to the emergency room.  I was reprimanded for involving the school and told that since he was technically "off campus", I had no reason to get involved.
  • One more than one occasion I broke up fights in the parking lot or in the school itself.  Police had to be called on more than one occasion, but no student was ever expelled for fighting.
  • I had an angry male students use his arms to corner me into my desk on one occasion.  I filed a report and his program chair, a friend of mine, reprimanded him, but the administration took no action.
  • Continual sexual harassment, ranging from being asked blatant questions about my sex life to having to establish basic personal space issues.  I frequently had to ask men not to touch me, not to hug me, or not to stand so close.  Derogatory talk about women and their roles as sex objects was a daily issue.  Porn use in the library was also rampant and I was expected to handle it on my own without help from administration.  The attitude from administration was one of "boys will be boys", not one of supporting female staff.  I was told on at least one occasion that I was young and pretty and should get used to being harassed or should consider it a compliment.
  • I've put this under the heading of employee safety, but the truth is that female students faced the same issues.  I had numerous female students report to me that they felt harassed or unsafe or even stalked by male students.  Every incident was reported, and on two occasions class schedules were changed to separate students, but no one was ever disciplined or removed from the school.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How For Profit Schools Hurt Students (Part 2)

 Enrollment Processes are Predatory

1)  The very biggest aspect of enrollment that I found to be predatory is that the students don't understand student loans.  They are signing them up for tens of thousands of dollars in debt (two years at the school I worked at school cost approximately $48,000) without giving them any idea of what a student loan means, what kind of interest they will be paying, or when they will be required to pay it back.  

I can't even tell you how many times I heard students in the library discussing payment and saying they had no idea how much school was costing them.  Several specifically mentioned intending to default on their loans. I realize that it's not a legal requirement that a for profit school educate the general publict on issues regarding personal finance.  But we went out of our way to make sure uneducated students stayed that way.  Don't want to fill out your FAFSA?  Don't even know what a FAFSA is?  Don't worry, an employee will fill it out for you.  Just sign on the dotted line and provide your SSN. 

2)  This leads to an incredibly high default rate, which I'll go into more in my post on why these schools hurt education and communities.  But the enormous debts were also a motivation for students to stay enrolled.  Once a student dropped out (or graduated) he or she would have six months before being required to start repaying their loans.  I sat in countless meetings where we were reminded of the importance of getting "re-entries" (students who re-enroll after having dropped out) and told that one way to convince a student to re-enroll is to emphasize that they'll have to start paying their loans soon - unless they re-enroll and take out another loan.  The same pressure was used to encourage graduates to sign up for another degree. We were counseled to keep them coming to school by using the fear of having to pay their loans, even though re-enrolling meant taking out even more.

3)  Students are pressured to sign up the day they tour the campus.  There are definite practices that are illegal, and, to be fair, I never saw my school break any of those laws.  Employees aren't, for example, allowed to tell students they will make X amount of money when they graduate.  Potential students are, however, strongly encouraged to go ahead and make their financial aid appointment (to take out loans) the day of the tour.  

If a student asks for time to think about it, there are several "encouraging" phrases that a rep can use, along the lines of "Don't you want to do what's best for your family? or "You don't have time to wait for your future to begin".  When a student arrived on campus for a tour, he or she would fill out a questionnaire with contact info, but also with some personal questions about values and life circumstances.  The rep would then use that information to pressure students during the sales pitch.  If you mark that your family is important to you, the rep will focus on how you'll be letting your family down if you don't move forward with your education.  This isn't necessarily illegal, especially if you're sitting on a used car lot.  But in an education setting, it's often not seen as a sales tactic.  It's assumed that employees are giving advice on what's best for students in regard to education, not selling a degree. 

4)  Just like teachers' jobs depend on how many students they pass, student reps' (salespeople) jobs depend on how many students they enroll and how many of those students show up for class at least once (they are only charged if they show up for at least one class).  It doesn't make a difference for the rep whether or not a student succeeds or is even capable of success, just that the student enroll.  So you'd never hear a rep tell a student that maybe it's not the right time for him or her to come to school or that they should put their family first financially.  They would say whatever it took (within legal bounds) to convince a student to sign up right that minute.  

If a student indicated any interest in the school or their contact information was provided by a current student (who would be awarded for his or her "reference"), the rep's job was to continue to contact them until they showed up.  Telemarketing at its worst, to the point that I dreaded answering the phone at the front desk because we were always getting angry calls from people demanding to be taken off our list.  We never complied.

5) Again, I have to bring up the fact that for profit schools have an appeal to a certain demographic.  High achieving high school students aren't dreaming of the day they get to enroll at a for profit.  The targeted demographic consists of those who are at the end of the line in terms of education.  With the exception of a handful of students over the course of my times at the school, students enrolled because they were either incapable of passing an admission exam at any other school or because their social skills/situation kept them from enrolling at another school.  (This is NOT an indication of every for profit school student, but it is true of the majority).  

To be blunt, our target demographic was uneducated and poor.  These were not the kind of people who would be reading the fine print (or really any print).  Many of them were, in my opinion, unable to distinguish between what our school offered and the various forms of government assistance they relied on in all other areas of their lives.  They truly did not understand that we existed for the purpose of making money and they weren't educated enough to see otherwise.

The worst, and most shameful example of predatory enrolling happened with homeless and mentally ill students.  During my five years at the school we enrolled three homeless students that I had knowledge of and at least one recognizably mentally ill student (by mental illness, I don't mean depression, I mean serious, incapacitating mental illness - the student had to be removed by ambulance from the school on one occasion).  At least one of those students did not come to the school for a tour - he came in to ask for a drink of water.  While he was in the lobby, he was approached to enroll.  In this specific instance, I exchanged words with our director over the ethical implications of soliciting a students we knew was homeless.  In the end, I was unable to prove that the rep had solicited the student and was overruled.  The student remained enrolled until he overdosed on something and passed out in the library.  You might think the school kicked him out at that point, but we were still more than willing to continue taking his money.  He just never returned to class.  If I had to pick one of my most guilt-inducing moments from my time at the school, it would be the enrollment of homeless students.

Degrees Often Mean Next to Nothing

1) Because my school was nationally accredited, as opposed to regionally accredited, most credits would not transfer to other schools.  Legally, we were not allowed to tell students they would transfer and, as far as I saw, we never violated that rule.  But it's certainly not information we passed along willingly.  Unless a student specifically asked, it was never stated.  This meant that after you graduated, if you couldn't get a job, your associate's degree wouldn't count at another school.  Forget transferring to a state school to continue your education, more than likely you'd be unable to transfer to the community college down the street.  

2) Lots of companies don't recognize degrees from for profit schools.  One of the largest companies in my area is the TVA.  On more than one occasion I saw their job postings listed on our career board, despite the fact that TVA doesn't recognize our degrees.  They just don't hold up in the real world against degrees from state or community colleges.  And the fact is that there is a good reason.  As we graduated students and worked to form alliances with companies in the area, we were continually burning our own bridges.  We churned out graduates who had degrees and were unable to keep up in the workplace or were socially unable to hold a job (due to addictions, inability to show up for work, lack of respect for authority, etc).  Word gets around, and companies start looking to hire from more dependable schools.

3) Quite a few of the degrees offered do not mean anything in a real life setting.  Getting an Associate's Degree in Criminal Justice is not going to get you any job that you couldn't get with a high school diploma.  Just a few of the unrealistic career expectations I heard from students pursuing AAS degrees in Criminal Justice: lawyer, judge, crime scene investigator, profiler.  No one had bothered telling them that they'd need a career from a completely different college in order to get into grad school for most of those jobs.  The school where I worked even changed its Criminal Justice degree name from Criminal Justice to Criminal and Forensic Technology in order to make it sound more like a television show, even though none of the core courses were changed.

4) Although my school advertised the Career Services benefits to all students, even after graduation, the largest emphasis was placed on putting upcoming graduates in jobs.  In order to maintain accreditation, a certain percentage of each graduating class had to have a job in their field upon graduating.  This sounds like it would work out to benefit students, but students were frequently placed in temporary jobs in order to bypass this rule.  Rather than starting a career, you might be placed in a temporary contracted position, only to find yourself jobless two months after graduation. By then Career Services would be focused on finding jobs for the next graduating class.  There were also many, many graduates who were placed in jobs that were vaguely related to their chosen field, but required nothing more than a GED.  For example, IT grads were placed in temp jobs running computer cables through new construction buildings.  Manual unskilled labor, but because they were dealing with computer cables, they could be marked off as success stories.

Keep Reading:
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

From Goodreads:
Jodi and Todd are at a bad place in their marriage. Much is at stake, including the affluent life they lead in their beautiful waterfront condo in Chicago, as she, the killer, and he, the victim, rush haplessly toward the main event. He is a committed cheater. She lives and breathes denial. He exists in dual worlds. She likes to settle scores. He decides to play for keeps. She has nothing left to lose. Told in alternating voices, The Silent Wife is about a marriage in the throes of dissolution, a couple headed for catastrophe, concessions that can’t be made, and promises that won’t be kept. 
I was all set to write a glowing review of the writing in this book.  I particularly wanted (and still want) to defend it from the accusations that it's slow and boring and that it's not Gone Girl.  You're right, it's not Gone Girl.  The publisher pushes that in their description, but I really don't know why.  You've got unlikable characters, both of whom are a bit unhinged, but that's where the similarities ended for me.  This is a literary work, not a thriller and it's character-driven, not plot-driven.  So if you go into it expecting Gone Girl 2.0, you will be disappointed.  That said, I loved the book and thought the characterizations were excellent.

So why do I say I only wanted to defend it from a writing perspective?  Because as I sat down to write this review I realized I cannot for the life of me remember how the book ends.  I gave it four stars on Goodreads, so obviously I enjoyed my reading of it, but I have no idea how it turned out.  And I only read it a month ago.   It's a lot hard to defend the literary merits of a book where I can't remember what happened, even though I only read it a month ago.

Entertainment Value
Despite having forgotten the ending completely, I do remember that I thoroughly enjoyed my reading of the book.  I like unlikable characters and unreliable narrators, and there were plenty of both to go around.  I liked the slow building suspense and the way the book was more about the characters and their relationship to each other than it was about the murder itself.  I was hooked and stayed up late to finish it.

I still give this one a thumbs up, although a slightly more reserved thumbs up than I originally intended to give it.  I loved reading.  I just wish that I could remember the ending.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How For Profit Schools Hurt Students

My Story, Part One
My Story, Part Two.

My next few posts on the subject are going to focus on how the industry hurts students, its own employees, and higher education as a whole.  These are all based on my personal experiences, as well as the things I saw happen and the information I was given during my five years in the industry.  I'm not going to use the name of my specific school, or the names of any past or current employees or students.  I'm also going to do my best not to use information pertaining to students' personal lives and focus only on what I saw happening in the administration and operation of the school itself.  These are based on the experiences I had at a particular campus of a particular school and in conjunction with the corporation itself, so they aren't necessarily universal (although current news reports and studies suggest many are).

For the purposes of context and just in case you didn't know: when I say for profit education, I am referring to the sector of higher education that is made up of schools that are managed and operated by private corporations for the purpose of making money.  Some examples of for profit colleges include: University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, ITT Technical Institute, DeVry University, Virginia College, and Webster University.

I think best in lists, and I think that will be the easiest way for blog readers to take in the information.  It will also keep me from getting carried away and posting blocks of text.  Here we go:

Students aren't provided with a quality education.  
There are eleventy billion reasons for this, but I'll try to highlight the most significant.

1) The school's top priority is meeting accreditation standards in order to keep the doors open.  Close behind is the goal of keeping students in seats in order to make money.  Keeping a student enrolled is of utmost importance in meeting both of these goals.  

At the school where I worked, one of the standards a teacher had to meet in order to stay employed was a minimum percentage of student success, determined by students who passed divided by students who enrolled in the course.  If you failed enough students, you lost your job.  Period.  

Let's say you're given a small class of 6 students.  One student never shows up to class, which puts you at an automatic 83% success rate, even before papers are graded.  If another student drops the class at any point during the semester, you're down to 67% success rate.  In order to make your numbers, every other student in that class must pass. If your numbers are too low two quarters in a row, your job is on the line.  So while no one may explicitly say "pass students who don't deserve it", you will be called in to meet with your superiors and they will tell you to do what it takes to get your numbers up.  

The result is that students pass classes whether or not they've mastered the material.  And they know it.  I overheard one student telling another that he had turned in his end of semester paper, worth the majority of his grade, and that the last page wasn't even words, he just typed gibberish.  He was given a 90.  He was telling the next student not to bother doing the work because he'd be passed anyway.  

2) Standards fell to meet the lowest common denominator.  For the first four years, we had a very, very simplistic admissions test (one question asked students to name the fourth month of the year).  During my last year, we did away with any admission requirements other than a GED or high school diploma.  Many of our students couldn't read or write above an elementary school level.  We had some who were functionally illiterate.  All of them were passed along, including in composition courses, with little to no improvement.  The school provided no remedial courses to assist those who couldn't keep up.  They could ask for tutoring assistance, often provided by the course instructor, but were passed along regardless of their mastery of the subject matter.

3) The lowest common denominator approach limited students who were capable of handling the course material.  Enrolling in courses as the school where I worked wasn't like enrolling at a typical college.  You were assigned the courses you were required to take in a specific order for your entire time at the school.  You had no choice in what you were assigned and everyone in the same program took the exact same courses.  While this was a good way to streamline the program for students who needed their degrees quickly and who had outside commitments, it also meant that there was little to no room for deviation from the plan.  

Students who knew how to use computers were still required to sit in (and pay for) a course in basic computer operation.  Also, the pre-determined course schedule put even more pressure on instructors to pass students.  If a student failed a course, he or she might have to wait one or more quarters for that course to be offered again, which meant one or more quarters we weren't getting paid.

4)  Graduation numbers were just as important as "student success" numbers.  If we weren't graduating an appropriate amount of students in each program compared to the number of students enrolled, we could lose our accreditation for that program.  It provided administration with quite a bit of motivation to help teachers "understand" the importance of giving students in higher level classes a passing grade.

Please feel free to leave any feedback or questions you have.  I want to tailor the series to appeal to my readership, so if I'm going into too much detail, let me know!

Keep Reading:
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part Two
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison

From Goodreads:
Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.

Yet Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also beguiling, fiery, intelligent—and on a quest of her own. She is looking for her biological father, a search that a certain DNA expert might be able to help her with. Don's Wife Project takes a back burner to the Father Project and an unlikely relationship blooms, forcing the scientifically minded geneticist to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that love is not always what looks good on paper.
Cute and quirky, but not much to report in terms of quality.  Simison does a fine job and I think the story and characters are fairly unique, although I found the beginning to be much more original than the ending.  Pretty standard chick lit fare.

Entertainment Value
It's a pleasant diversion.  If you're into chick lit or if you're into the Asperger's is cute and funny thing that seems so popular right now, you'll really enjoy it.  It's perfect for fans of The Big Bang Theory and maybe for those looking for something a bit more mature than the typical "single gal in her 20's who loves to shop searches for love in the big city" plot line that seems to make up much of chick lit.

If you love The Big Bang Theory, I feel like this is probably a must read.  It's also good as a light, easy read with romance and humor and will appeal to fans of chick lit, although maybe with a somewhat more adult (not in the sex way, in the maturity way) bent.

Monday, March 17, 2014

For Profit Education: My Story (Part 2)

My Story, Part 1

Here's a quick summary of what happened in Part 1: I was working as a library assistant at a for profit education institution and was relatively happy.  I liked my boss, I liked what I was doing, and I felt like everyone there cared about the students.  My best friend was the administrative assistant and we got to hang out at work.  It seemed perfect and I was blissfully ignoring all negative mentions of for profit education in the media.

About two and a half years after I started, several turning points occurred.   We had our first graduation, which meant our first opportunity to see the students we'd been working with succeed.  Around the same time, my boss left.  When she left, we were left with only three full time academic staff members, including myself.  I took over a large portion of her duties while we looked for someone to fill her position.  I had also started work on my MLS, anticipating the promotion and raise I had been led to believe I would receive.

At this point, I really started to notice our employee turnover rates.  The idealistic people I had started out working with, the ones who cared about the students and got involved in their lives, had all moved on to other jobs.  Within two years of opening, almost every single full time staff member had been replaced at least once.  We had a new director, new student reps, two new registrars, and a rotating pool of adjunct instructors.

Sometime after that first graduation I began to see that we weren't really helping students.  Our graduates weren't getting jobs.  And their credits didn't transfer to other schools.  Their only options were to take jobs they could have gotten with high school degrees or to take out more loans and come back for more classes.  A few started over at community college, but by that point they were in enormous debt.

Participating in the accreditation process and taking over some of the dean's duties also opened my eyes to the way the school operated.  We had a new director who had a background in business, not education.  He toed the company line and pushed numbers, numbers, numbers.  Meet your numbers or your job is on the line (I'll talk more about numbers later).  Instead of caring about the students, faculty and staff had to put their own performance (and by performance I mean meeting corporate standards) over challenging students and providing quality education.

I was in a unique position because I was one of the employees who had been with the company longest.  I had been involved in the accreditation process from the beginning, and I knew company policy as well as anyone there.  Honestly, in some aspects, I knew company policy better than our director and was frequently called in to advise on policy and documentation.  But I was also in one of the very few job positions that was not measured in statistics.  I had no numbers to meet, which is probably one reason I lasted as long as I did.

But it wasn't just the way corporate policies tied our hands in providing an education.  The students we were recruiting were also a problem.  Again, I'll go into this more when I talk about why for profit education hurts its own employees, but we would enroll literally anyone (anyone who could get a loan, that is).  Because of that, I learned how to work with the lowest common denominator.

In some ways, this made me a better person.  I feel like I learned lessons about generational poverty and the poor that changed me for the better.  I became less judgmental and more sympathetic.  I learned why college isn't an option for some people and saw how the for profit sector had potential to help them.  And I felt like I had the opportunity to be Christ to people who had no one else in their lives to love them or listen to them.

But I also saw scary stuff happen.  We enrolled students with very serious drug and alcohol problems (I had to call an ambulance to remove a student who overdosed and passed out in the library), we enrolled students with serious criminal histories (including convicted sex offenders), and we enrolled students who regularly committed crimes (the Busted paper was frequently passed around the office with our students' mug shots circled).

I broke up fights between grown men in the parking lot, I called the police on more than one occasion, I petitioned for security (that we never got), and I was physically and sexually threatened on more than one occasion.  I bought mace for my key chain and found students I trusted to walk me out to my car at night.  Despite the fact that we had a car jacking in our parking lot, and despite our frequent requests for security, we were often campus without management until anywhere between 9 and 11 PM.  The female managers were required to close regularly, which meant being alone at the school even later, sometimes with students.  Every female employee I knew had experiences where she was afraid for her safety while in the building.

All of these changes took place very slowly.  It wasn't like one day a student walked in and busted out with a rape threat.  Or like my boss brought in a memo that said "Start lying to students now."  It was like being the frog in a slowly heating pot of water.  At some point it became normal to me to have students cursing at me.  One day, after a particularly difficult student event, a student thanked me and I was so grateful that I cried.  And it seemed normal.

Policies started changing too, as for profit schools came under legal scrutiny, but it happened slowly and without much information being given to employees.  The most important thing for us to do was keep students happy.  That meant overlooking things like blatant disrespect, rude comments about women, cursing, etc.  Any attempt to enforce any kind of discipline would result in being undermined by the higher-ups.  I had friends at work, but everyone, and I mean everyone, hated their job as much as I did.  I can't name a single person who had worked there for over six months who expressed happiness in their career or support for the company as a whole.

So what happened to make me quit?  First my best friend joined the military.  Then our second dean left.  She was one of the few people left who supported the academic staff.  She truly cared about students and encouraged us to do the same.  Our next dean came with the same corporate mindset that I'd grown to hate and an utter lack of respect for his employees. I knew my time was up.  I was tired of feeling guilty for the way we treated students, embarrassed to say where I worked, and afraid of the situations I was placed in.

Over the course of my last year at the school, a lot of things started to fall into place to make me realize just how bad things had become.  I realized that since working there I had gained 80 pounds.  In an attempt to render myself as invisible to the male student eye as possible I had stopped wearing nice clothes or makeup. I hated every aspect of the job.  I had no energy and no drive.  I felt like everything I did was meaningless, unappreciated, and unrecognized.  In the event that I'd accomplish something of significance (which was increasingly rare), a superior would take credit for it.  I had no respect for the company or for the administrative side of the school as a whole. Even my doctor told me I needed to make a change for the sake of my health.

But the thing that was most significant was how I started to feel about the students.  I had stayed with the job for five years and told myself I was doing it because there were students there who needed me.  Students who didn't have a single person in their life who they felt cared about them other than me.  In my mind it justified my working there when I didn't like what the corporation was doing and when I saw what I felt were blatantly unethical practices.  But by the fifth year there, I had grown to hate our students.   I didn't care about them, in fact I disliked almost every single student I had (I see this as a sign of burnout, not a sign of every student being unlikable).

So I turned in my notice and freaked out.  I was terrified of the unknown and afraid that with a for profit school on my resume I would never find another job in "real" education.  It turns out, God had a plan for me.  I got a job very quickly at a community college.  It's not Harvard, but it's a "real" school.  Our students get "real" degrees.  We can legally call ourselves a college.  We are regionally accredited.  Our students go out with degrees and credits that get them jobs and help them transfer to bigger schools.

And the students!  I haven't been cursed at, propositioned, offered drugs, or even spoken rudely to.  On a daily basis I have students thank me for my help, ask intelligent questions, and respect my authority.  It's been eight months or so, but I feel like I'm just now fully coming to terms with how very unhealthy things were at the for profit school.

But this is just my story.  I want to tell you in objective terms, without relying on anecdotes (although you know I'll throw in a few) about why for profit education hurts students, hurts its own employees, and hurts education as a whole.  So those will be my next three posts in the series.  Hope you'll stick around for the rest!

Also, I'd love to answer any specific questions any of you have about for profit schools, their practices, or my experience specifically.  If anyone has any questions, leave them in the comments and if I get enough I'll do a Q&A post as part of the series.

Keep Reading:
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1

Friday, March 14, 2014

For Profit Education: My Story (Part 1)

Hello Reader Friends, let me introduce you to Julie of the Past, happy, innocent, and about to start her very first "real" job after college (and ridiculously thin).  When I graduated, I spent my first year as a fresh off the farm, English degree-wielding know-it-all being humbled through a variety of less than traditional jobs.  Because I got a flipping English degree.  (Helpful hint: get a degree in something you can actually use).

I was a nanny, a freelance technical writer for various companies, and a receptionist for a dentist (shout out to Dr. Rollins, still the best dentist I've ever known).  I moved from Little Rock to Chattanooga and lived with my parents.  Then I moved back to Little Rock and lived with friends (Hi, Ken and Jan!).  Then I moved back to Chattanooga again.  Like I said, humility was learned.

On my second attempt at living in Chattanooga, I finally found a job in a field I could see myself working in long-term.  (Nope, not for-profit organization yet.)  This job was writing ad copy for a marketing firm.  I was somewhat suspicious after my interviews, where I never a clear answer about what I'd be marketing, but I was young and naive and I was excited to have a real career-type job.  My first day I found out that I'd be writing ad copy for payday loan websites.

I knew payday loans were not something I was cool with, but only in a general sense.  I spent the next two weeks researching how exactly they operate and what effect they have on the people who use them in my free time.  I was learning a lot about SEO and marketing and loved that aspect, but the more I learned about payday loans, the more I hated what I'd be doing.  When the company revealed their new plan to target immigrants who wouldn't know better than to use the loan services, I quit.  I lasted a grand total of three weeks, but I felt confident that I was doing the right thing.

(Subtopic: if any of you have any questions about payday loans, ask me because in just three weeks I learned a ton about how underhanded their marketing is.) (Sub-subtopic: That company was recently shut down by the state).

I felt like that decision was confirmed when I got a call the very next week with a job offer from a local for-profit college.  I won't be naming names here, but this was the Chattanooga branch of a nation-wide school that has locations all across the country.  It was just opening up and I'd be a part of getting it off the ground.  I would be the library assistant (I had yet to get my MLS, but I was promised a promotion to librarian if I would get it).  I'd get to form the library from scratch.

My boss seemed passionate about education and the school seemed really focused on providing a place for non-traditional students to better themselves.  Everyone else at this campus was as new and fresh as I was and seemed eager to provide quality education to those who might not succeed in a traditional college.  Yes, I had heard people say that for profit schools are degree mills and that they don't do students favors, but I wasn't hearing that from anyone who had worked in one or had experience attending one.  Everyone I saw at the school really and truly cared about students.  I still believe that.  It didn't occur to me that they were just as young, new, and idealistic as I was.

The first year and a half I was there I loved my job.  I was building a library and playing with books all day.  My boss gave me loads of freedom to do whatever I wanted.  I also worked on faculty development and training and student activities.  We were small enough that I knew all of our students well and got to spend lots of time helping them with classes and even getting involved with them personally.  I felt like I was contributing to their success and I loved planning parties and student appreciation activities.

When it came time for our accrediting body to visit, I was heavily involved in the accreditation process.  This was my first chance to see some of the issues that would become even more apparent over the course of the five and a half years I spent at the school (more on that later).  I still believed in what we were doing - that I was helping people who didn't have another option and that their lives would be different upon graduating.  About two and a half years after we opened, I started planning our first graduation.  Around the same time, my boss left for another school.  This is the first time I started to feel realize that things weren't all they had originally seemed...

Keep Reading:
My Story Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Students, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 1
How For Profit Schools Hurt Their Own Employees, Part 2
How For Profit Schools Hurt Communities
Wrap Up

(PS: If you find this at all interesting (or if you're not interested at all), would you mind letting me know?  I'm planning a five part series on my experiences and if you're all bored out of your minds, I can go back to just posting reviews)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

From Goodreads:
Sinister forces draw together a cast of desperate characters in this eerie and absorbing novel from Yoko Ogawa.

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Years later, the writer’s stepson reflects upon his stepmother and the strange stories she used to tell him. Meanwhile, a surgeon’s lover vows to kill him if he does not leave his wife. Before she can follow-through on her crime of passion, though, the surgeon will cross paths with another remarkable woman, a cabaret singer whose heart beats delicately outside of her body. But when the surgeon promises to repair her condition, he sparks the jealousy of another man who would like to preserve the heart in a custom tailored bag. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in a darkly beautiful web that they are each powerless to escape.

Macabre, fiendishly clever, and with a touch of the supernatural, Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge creates a haunting tapestry of death—and the afterlife of the living.
I was quite impressed with the quality of Ogawa's writing.  She's an author who had never even crossed my radar until I stumbled across this collection (I think from NPR's year end list?).  She has a decent back catalog, all of which I've added to my TBR list based on the quality of writing from these stories.  Each story is linked to the next, but in tiny ways.  I found myself searching each story for the connection, but the stories can stand by themselves as well.  My personal favorite was "Sewing for the Heart," which features a handbag-maker who becomes possessed by envy.

Entertainment Value
The supernatural plays a very minimal role in these stories.  Honestly, I'd be much more likely to describe them as darkly surreal than supernatural.  They reminded me (in an excellent way) of George Saunders' stories with a decidedly dark twist.  Not oppressively dark, though.  There's not gore or explicit descriptions of violence (despite one of the short stories being about a Museum of Torture).  They're just eerie and deliciously creepy.

I loved this collection and will be looking for a copy to add to my home collection.  If you like eerie, twisted, macabre, this collection is for you.  Don't be automatically turned off by the "dark" descriptions though - there's an almost fairy tale like quality that cuts through the darkness and makes them a delight to read.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spoilerific Book Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

From Goodreads:
Prentisstown isn't like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee -- whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not -- stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden -- a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?
I have rarely had the type of one-dimensional, visceral hatred for a book as I have for this one.  I had read it before and not liked it, but decided to give it a second chance when it was the choice for the FYA Bookclub.  Instead of my usual breakdown, I'm going to give you the short version of my bullet list of things I hated about this book.  Spoilers abound, so beware!

  • Use of dialect.  I realize this is a personal preference but it's one that gets me every time.  I just don't like dialect/intentional misspellings.  On a less personal note, I found the author's use of dialect to be largely inconsistent.  Our main character misspells/misspeaks the word "your" but he uses words like "bounteous" with no problem.
  • Speaking of inconsistencies, here are a few more: We're told that Todd can't read very well, and this is shown to us when Todd struggles to read the phrase "must warn them".  At the end of the book, however, Todd is suddenly able to read the phrase "abandon all hope" with no problem.  In another scene we see a group of men crossing a bridge.  The bridge is burned and several men on it fall into a river.  A few pages later, a character announces that they shouldn't have burned the bridge because no one was crossing it.
  • Stream of consciousness style.  Again, a personal preference.  I'm just not a fan of this style.
  • Major plot holes.  I mean MAJOR.  This thing is like a sieve.  For example: at the beginning of the book, Todd stumbles across an area of silence.  Spoiler alert, the silence is caused by the presence of a girl.  But for the rest of the book, the silence she creates is never mentioned again and the male characters thoughts are still heard in her presence.  
  • Also, one of our plot twists is that all men in Prentisstown killed the women and have been exiled from everyone else on the planet because of it.  However, once Mayor Prentiss starts hunting for Todd, suddenly he is able to convince everyone everywhere to join his army.  Despite the fact that they are supposed to be universally hated and even killed on sight for leaving their town.  I realize this is explained in the next books, but it wasn't in this book.  Which means that the whole basis for the entire book doesn't make sense.  It can't stand on its own.
  • Finally, one of my biggest pet peeves in a suspense novel: the use of "secrets" to create suspense.  We are in Todd's mind for the entire book.  We are supposed to hear his every thought - that's a MAJOR  plot point.  But in order to create suspense, Todd hides things from the reader.  He'll hint that there's a big secret he knows, but will just decide not to think about it.  It means the reader knows a plot twist exists but we're just teased with it for the first three quarters of the book.  The "I Know Something You Don't Know" method of suspense feels cheap to me.  
So there it is, my abbreviated list of things I hated.  That's right, I've got another page worth of nit-picky issues.  These were just the big ones.  It's a big fat do not recommend from me.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bobcat and Other Stories

Rebecca Lee, one of our most gifted and original short story writers, guides readers into a range of landscapes, both foreign and domestic, crafting stories as rich as novels. A student plagiarizes a paper and holds fast to her alibi until she finds herself complicit in the resurrection of one professor's shadowy past. A dinner party becomes the occasion for the dissolution of more than one marriage. A woman is hired to find a wife for the one true soulmate she's ever found. 
In all, Rebecca Lee traverses the terrain of infidelity, obligation, sacrifice, jealousy, and yet finally, optimism. Showing people at their most vulnerable, Lee creates characters so wonderfully flawed, so driven by their desire, so compelled to make sense of their human condition, that it's impossible not to feel for them when their fragile belief in romantic love, domestic bliss, or academic seclusion fails to provide them with the sort of force field they'd expected.
I've been extra-interested in short stories lately, and when I saw this collection on NPR's best of list for 2013 I knew I had to read it.  I'm so glad I found it through FLP because it is stunningly beautiful.  It's very different from the other collections I've read recently (surreal stories in the vein George Saunders and Karen Russell), but it reminded me of why I love more realistic short stories as well.

My favorite by far was "The Banks of the Vistula", which perfectly captures the early college experience.  It's about a student who plagiarizes a paper and finds herself inextricably caught up in the lie.  The certainty she feels that she is right, that she has the upper hand, that she's getting away with something rang so true for me.  I can clearly remember feeling in college like I knew it all.  It also explores the idea of reading something at a young age and thinking it's amazing and brilliant before you really know better, then going back to it later and wondering why you ever found it genius to begin with.  Just gorgeous.

Entertainment Value
This is definitely geared more towards fans of literary fiction.  I think if you like Alice Munro, you'll probably also enjoy these.  They're snippets from ordinary life that pack a huge punch, but they don't have the same entertainment value that the more off-kilter short story collections have.  Definitely still worth reading in my opinion, however.

Friday, March 7, 2014

What I Read in February

Not much to report in our home for the month of February.  We had more snow, which meant more snow days, and the crazy thing is that I totally missed my job while I was at home.  I guess that's the major development this month: I am falling in love with my job.  My boss is amazing and supportive and wants to teach me new skills; I love what I'm doing and feel like I'm really developing my skill set; and I get to play with books.  Bonus: I have not one single time been cursed at, hit on, or had to break up a fight between students.  They are respectful and polite.  It's like living in an alternate world.  I think I'm going to come up with a whole post later about the differences and also maybe something about why I chose to leave for profit education.  Would anyone be interested in that?

Here's what I read in February:

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison

Sex In The South: Unbuckling The Bible Belt by Suzi Parker

Five Days At Memorial by Sheri Fink
Obviously, I'm ridiculously behind on my reviews.  

Books read in February: 10
Pages read in February: 3171

What did you read in February?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Review: The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

From Goodreads:
The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries magical visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs, with the devastating violence of prison life.

Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest, and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners' pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honor and corruption-ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.
 Magical realism plus a cover with horses?  You know I'm in.  I was really impressed with the quality of the writing.  It's quite poetic, but not flowery or effusive.  I'd describe it as spare, but I mean that in the best sense of the word.  Nothing over the top or excessive, but at the same time, you get an achingly clear picture.

Entertainment Value
I appreciated this one for the quality of the writing more than I would say I was entertained by it.  Although I enjoyed the story and found myself captivated by it, it's a very difficult story to read.  There's so much violence represented throughout the pages.  Nothing gory or even terribly graphic, but it touches every single person.  Not a single person's life has been untouched by some sort of horrible violence.  There's not much hope to be found in the prison, although rays do shine through.  It was hard to read, but worth it, if you can grab on to those little bursts of hope in the midst of the despair.

It's very literary in quality and not something that I think is an easy read, due to the heaviness of the content.  That said, I think it definitely has value as a work of literature and that those who enjoy the darker side of literary fiction will appreciate it.  It does contain descriptions of violence, including sexual violence, as you would expect in dealing with a prison population, but also in terms of character's histories.  I'd say read it with caution, but definitely give it a try if you can handle the content and like lit fic.

Thanks to TLC for letting me participate in the tour.  Click here to see the rest of the tour stops.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: A Short Guide to a Long Life by David B. Agus, MD

From Goodreads:
A Short Guide to a Long Life is divided into three sections (What to Do, What to Avoid, and Doctor's Orders) that provide the definitive answers to many common and not-so-common questions: Who should take a baby aspirin daily? Are flu shots safe? What constitutes healthy foods? Why is it important to protect your senses? Are airport scanners hazardous? Dr. Agus will help you develop new patterns of personal health care using inexpensive and widely accessible tools that are based on the latest and most reliable science. Now go live life!
The writing is completely straightforward and easy to understand.  I think it perfectly captures what the author was trying to convey - medical advice and information for the average citizen.  He doesn't go too in-depth, doesn't use complicated medical jargon, and doesn't spend too much time on any one topic.  This is a very basic overview of his general health philosophy and he encourages the reader to do further research on any one topic of interest.

Entertainment Value
I think I may have enjoyed this one more in print than on audio.  That's not to say it wasn't informative and helpful, or that it was difficult to understand or unpleasant listening.  I just think the illustrations included in the print version and the ability to flip through from topic to topic would have enhanced my experience with it.

As far as the content was concerned, I found it to be helpful and engaging, written in language that was easily understood and with ideas and recommendations I felt I could easily put into practice in my day to day life to make myself more healthy. I also appreciated that Agus acknowledges that some of his ideas are controversial and that each individual has to decide for him/herself, along with his or her own physicians, what is the best course of action.  He really focuses on empowering the individual and on researching health and wellness choices and being proactive in your own medical treatment.

No complaints, but no raves either.  Standard.  I mean, it's straightforward medical information, so there's not much any narrator could have done to blow it out of the park.  It was completely fine and that was exactly what was called for in this book.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for providing me with a copy of this to listen to on audio.