Friday, October 16, 2009

Teaching and Learning: The Extensive and Intensive Margins

While my university may be slower than many others in determining the magnitude of budget cut it will have to manage, there is much anticipation that cuts are pending. One set of obvious adjustments that will be made on the instructional side - average teaching loads will go up, there will be fewer non-tenure track instructors and among those who are tenured already there will be greater variation in teaching load, depending on what other contributions the faculty member is making. High-powered researchers will teach less. Those with a more modest research portfolio will teach more. This necessary adjustment will begin to codify what has been implicit until now. Teaching and research are substitutes from the faculty member's perspective, especially when viewed from the vantage of how to allocate faculty time. The promotional videos that campuses like mine have put out for years for viewing at the half-time of basketball and football games create the image of a strong connection between research and teaching. That there is some connection I would agree. If that connection were strong, however, we'd witness teaching loads increasing across the board as the way to manage the budget cuts, unlike what I ventured above. We'll see. In one way I look forward to this change. It will, I hope, make the conversation about teaching and learning more realistic. That would be welcome.

The sort of changes I mention above will be imposed from the top, because that is where the budget issues will be managed. Lower to the ground, I don't believe it has sunk in that substantive change on campus needs to occur. Rather it seems to be business as usual. Yesterday I was talking with a colleague who mentioned his department might be adding an additional course to the major. He didn't elaborate on the reasons, but it is easy enough to conjecture that in most fields, this particular one included, knowledge is expanding at a pretty rapid clip. So students need to be exposed to more of what the field has to offer in order to claim competency in "the major." There is a logic to this sort of argument. But the consequence in the aggregate is to see an ever expanding set of courses on the books. I believe we've witnessed exactly that. And my guess is that it is the same elsewhere. Majors have become more demanding. Students either take more credit hours overall before they graduate, or they take fewer electives. But the offerings of those electives persists.

A couple of years ago following the ELI conference I wrote a couple of posts, one that critiqued what I had heard at the conference, the other offering a vision of an alternative. Part of that I called "Humanism Across the Curriculum." I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is a correct direction for us, though it is far from what we are doing now. Indeed, we are trapped in what we are doing now so that we can't get there from here unless we undo a substantial part of our current activity. I'll circle back to that point in a bit.

I'm teaching an Honors Seminar at present. Some of the students are taking it for Advanced Composition credit, which embraces the Writing Across the Curriculum approach that I critiqued in that earlier post. The critique was based on the resource demands of WAC, not the pedagogy. My class now has 17 students. (It was capped at 18; one student dropped.) Even the non-WAC students in my class are doing a fair amount of writing via weekly reflections that they blog. Midway into the semester the class is beginning to gel, as the students are commenting on the posts of their peers and in so doing they are showing support and awareness of the contributions of their classmates. In other words, we're producing the requisite sense of community and feeling of intensity that is conducive to deep learning.

I do want to note here that motivation is much less of an issue in this class than it might be elsewhere, because of who the students are. They want to find meaning from the class as much as I do. If all students were like these Honors students, then what I say next might be much easier to achieve.

I am wondering if the intensity and sense of community in the class could be maintained, if the enrollment had been capped at 30 or even 35, or if that increase in size would so put a damper on what we are doing that all would be lost. My belief is that it could be done. Let me elaborate.

I've put quite a bit of effort into this class, but much of that is because on both the subject matter and on the approach this is new to me. Some of this effort, however, I believe needs to be retained were there to be repeat offerings of the course. I've written a fair amount myself for the course, partly to model for the students, partly to provide commentary on how the class is going, and also to demonstrate my personal commitment. That, I believe, must be retained. The first several weeks I not only read all the student posts, but I also commented on them. These comments are individualistic, not some canned response. To generate them the post must be read and there must be some analysis of it in order to respond. This is time consuming, but I believe necessary. Thereafter I said I'd comment on about a third of the posts, but I've done more than that. There would have to more discipline on which posts to comment on, with a shorter duration at the beginning where all students would comment. And there would have to be greater urging for the students to comment and indeed to post about what other students have written. This part is do-able too.

The live class session, currently conducted mostly as an ensemble discussion, would probably require breaking the students up into small groups for a good part of the session, so they can voice their own views. That requires more orchestration ahead of time. That would be some work. We'd also need a mechanism for those groups to report out and discuss their conclusions. Developing that would also be work. But it seems possible.

We took an experimental approach to the course sessions and after the first week started to evaluate those via a survey in Google Docs. I posted about that in early September. I think the experimental approach is also critical, though the particular method of evaluation perhaps can be improved. In any event, students who see that their opinions matter in how the course is conducted are much more inclined to participate vigorously. The post processing of those surveys is not hard. (A summary of the multiple choice questions is produced. That is converted to PDF and posted. The responses from the paragraph questions have to be re-ordered to anonymity can be maintained. Then those can be posted too.) This needs to be done until the class function seems satisfactory for both students and instructor. Once that results appears close, students will stop participating in the surveys, because they won't see the value. Indeed, a fall off in participation is a good indicator that expectations have stabilized.

So I do think it possible to expand enrollments in the way outlined above, in which case one could teach this sort of course more frequently and get a much larger number of students involved. There is a different matter of whether instructors around Campus could find their way to teach their current undergraduate courses in a Humanism Across the Curriculum manner. That's an issue for a different post. Here let's just assume they can do this.

Now we can turn to the sort of back of the envelope calculations that are great to do on a slow Sunday morning. We have about 2000 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. If each taught one of these intensive, Humanism Across the Curriculum courses, and each of these courses had a cap of 35 students, which for the sake of argument was binding in every case, than that would produced 70,000 enrollments in such classes. But we have on order of 30,000 undergraduate students (actually more) and if they take 4 or 5 courses a semester then that demand requires somewhere between 120,000 and 150,000 enrollments.

While there might be a substantial enrollment taught in the HAC way, there is a sizable enrollment gap that somehow must be managed. Further, in the above calculation we've already allocated to the faculty their undergraduate teaching obligation. So if the gap is made up via supply, that must be done with adjuncts and/or graduate students teaching, some of which clearly will happen via large class instruction.

How much of the student experience should be via large class instruction?. Can we credibly affirm the benefit of large class instruction when we are making such a big deal about HAC? Why not reduce demand instead? This is the conclusion that seems irresistible to me. Students should be taking fewer courses over their experience in college. The courses that remain should be more intensive. Other courses need to be removed from the experience.

It is on this point where we we must undo. We are headed in the wrong direction on the number of courses front. We are moving toward expansion when we should be moving toward reduction. How can we get there?

If the number of credit hours necessary for graduation remains unaltered, then a bunch of current courses that have x credit hours need to be converted to have x + 1 or x + 2 credit hours, so the students can acquire the same number of credit hours with fewer courses, or students need to be able to earn course credit from practicum and other experiences that they do in lieu of courses they are now taking. We probably need some of both of this type of approach.

I don't see this sort of reform on anyone's radar right now. I wonder what it will take to get other faculty and administrators to think this way. My sense is that instead, we'll do less on the intensive margin, because that sort of activity will be viewed as too expensive. That will be a mistake, but it sure seems likely based on where we are currently headed.

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