Thursday, September 30, 2010
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
I am beginning to get involved in a project to move some high enrollment Gen Ed course to blended format or totally online. A grant proposal to an outside Foundation is being prepared and I'm helping with the conceptualization of what should be in the proposal. As I've been thinking about this the last couple of days, I've found that I can't separate the question – what is the benefit from moving a course in good part or totally to online? – from the other question – what are the big picture goals of the course or set of courses? Then I ask myself whether I know something about the answers to these questions based on personal experience. Here I start to scratch my head.
My undergraduate education was odd in that I can only remember a very small number of courses that I took because "they were required." My first semester at MIT I took two math classes, chemistry, and physics. There was a humanities/social science distribution requirement. I took a course with a title like: Men, man, and machine. There was some interesting stuff in the course but I wasn't ready or disposed to give the subject its due. And the school signaled it was less important than the other courses, which were 4 credit hours (transposing MITs system of assigning credits which imputes the out of class time). This social science course was only 3 credit hours. That course continued into the second semester. As a sophomore I took a course on Plato and Aristotle. It wasn't the first course in Philosophy but MIT was willing to waive prerequisites, which for my own learning has been my view right along. (We tend to enforce prerequisites here at Illinois.)
When I transferred to Cornell, I found I was quite far along toward the math major, so I stuck with that because it was a milestone within reach and it gave me maximum flexibility to take other courses as I saw fit. I had to fulfill the language requirement. Either the rest of the general education requirements were waived as a result of my transfer or I satisfied them via courses I wanted to take anyway. I had a desire to take political science classes – where I believe I learned quite a bit – and dabble with philosophy - where I couldn't penetrate it or it couldn't penetrate me, with the possible exception of a philosophy of law course I took as a senior.
That first semester after I transferred I took a course on Women and Politics. Werner Dannhauser was the professor and I believe I took the course because of him. Among other readings we read Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, Goethe, Elective Affinities, and Simone de Beuvoir, The Second Sex. This was a tonic for me. The next year I took a course on American Politics and another on American Political Thought. In that latter we read Croly's, The Promise of American Life, which was an eye opener. I remember the feeling of personal awakening more than the content of the book, something I next felt again more than 20 years later when I read Democracy and Education, which I was then predisposed toward having thought a good deal about ALN at that time. I do recall the big question with Croly was why we so revere Abraham Lincoln and what was his lasting legacy. Further, Croly was writing around 1900 when the Progressives needed a rallying cry. In that same course we discussed Heimert's book on evangelical origins of the American Revolution. I can't say I penetrated that very well. But it again opened my eyes to a different way of thinking. Taxation without representation didn't make sense as a cause – for the poor farmer who did most of the fighting. For the signers of the Declaration of Independence, sure, but they were rich landowners. For the majority of the people, the revolution wasn't about economics. It was about the tyranny of the Church of England. (Recently I read a biography of Roger Williams that made a similar point and indicated that the idea of separation of Church and State stemmed from this cause.) In the American Politics course I recall reading a variety of Bobbs-Merill abstracts that were journal article reprints, my first exposure to scholarly publication in that form. I don't recall the particular pieces but among the authors were Seymour Martin Lipset which I thought was great stuff and we read some things by Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, though I don't believe the complete Beyond The Melting Pot. The course was full of ideas that were either entirely new to me or that challenged things I had been taught in High School or earlier. I loved that stuff.
Along with this formal social science education I had had wonderful out of the classroom learning, both with my housemates at 509 Wyckoff Road discussing politics of the day and variety of other topics and by attending a film series at Old Rusty. I watched a lot of Truffaut, some films of Jan Kadar, and oneoffs like Closely Watched Trains and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. It was a way to get interesting ideas from a variety of perspectives, quite different from the American point of view. This viewing was a good chunk of my PLA (personal learning agenda) which I often did on my own, because I felt the need and inclination. (Going to the movies alone is a weird thing to do, as a social activity, because obviously it isn't. But as an intellectual activity akin to reading a book it is perfectly natural.)
Back to my head scratching. I'm wondering what's the difference between the course type of learning that is the basis of General Education and the PLA type of learning that I'd hope most of us do because we are inquisitive human beings. Does one lead to another? Or are they entirely different animals? As my earlier post on PLA indicated, I had a good bit of that already before college. What about students who don't. (Increasingly I believe even the good students are so over programmed that they end up doing many things for the credential rather than to pursue their own intellectual interest.) I wanted the coursework because I'd get insight and exposure to ideas that I likely couldn't produce on my own. And perhaps the political science interest was a sensible precursor for the economics I was to study in graduate school, though I'm less certain of that connection. What about students who don't have the inclination for social science?
It is tempting to respond with the Dorothy Parker quote, about when she was asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence. But that would be unfair to the students. Not knowing what would be fair, I will instead give an aspirational response. Whether it is realistic to expect students to meet these aspirations is a different matter.
Most of what students learn as undergrads have value not so much as things in themselves but as pathways into the larger meta skills, the biggest of which is learning to learn. In turn learning to learn requires being open to new ideas, so not being a closed book. General Education then is a guarding against our own provincialism. However, as I indicated in the opening quote by Eric Hoffer to my Inside Higher Ed piece, there is a natural tendency to be fearful of the new. Quite possibly, the new could hurt us. So General Education must be about overcoming that fear or, at least, coming to grips with it, by which I mean not a complete cave in. Once so exposed there is then the added dimension of how one internalizes the new and takes some of it for one's own while rejecting other parts of it entirely. General Education needs to help with the internalization processes and with the development of a sense of taste about what should be internalized. And quite often it is not that the new makes a wholesale replacement of the old. It is rather that they both coexist, distinct but related. General Education has to be about seeing gray when beforehand everything seemed black and white.
When most educators get queried about what college education should produce, both general education and the major, the response is usually laced full of reference to "critical thinking" and the ability to communicate, to the extent that both have become bromides essentially devoid of meaning. So let me use some other terms that don't get discussed that often. One is sitzfleisch. The word perseverance may come to mind, but they are not synonyms. With sitzfleisch, the persistence results by force of personality. With perseverance, the persistence can emerge from a variety of causes. Tom Friedman had an interesting column on this last Sunday. But he uses the expression, "deferred gratification," which I don't like because it conveys the wrong meaning. With deferred gratification the object of attention changes but what we really want lingers in the background. Sitzfleisch means that no other objects even comes to mind until the particular situation reaches a complete resolution.
Another term is reading comprehension. Mainly it is assumed that students have that capacity upon entering the university, though many do not. It is not just making out the meaning of individual sentences. It requires the ability to suspend judgment on an idea while retaining skepticism as to its truth. It also means having methods of testing and corroboration that make the idea appear increasingly credible when it is true, but otherwise not. And it means not applying one's own spin to what is happening in the piece when so doing distorts the meaning that others would make of it. My fear is that reading comprehension is mainly about reading – there is learning by doing – and many students don't read enough. We end up sorting those who do from the rest. General Education should be about getting the rest to read more and more deeply.
Let me make a little aside before getting to a third term. A few nights ago I saw Dersu Uzala, which I had recorded on the DVR. It's with subtitles, which I used to think would be off putting on TV. But now we have a reasonably large flat screen in the bedroom on which to watch, so the text was large and quite readable and appeared below the movie, which was in letterbox. After a few minutes of viewing where I was quite conscious of reading the substitles, I lost all sense of that and simply got into the story. It is a wonderful and charming film. I had thought it was a Russian movie, but Kurosowa was the director. The story takes place in between 1902 and 1910 in Siberia. It is a story of an accidental but deep friendship that develops between a Russian Military captain, who leads a party to survey the territory and a native Goldi "mountain man" Dersu, who becomes a guide and advisor. The picture is about the nature of the wilderness and the gentle and respectful tone the two develop for each other. Dersu, primitive as he is, values his fellow man, irrespective of race, and his humanity as well as his skill in navigating the wilderness is what so impresses the captain.
During the time period of this film, the Russians fought the Japanese in a brutal war. My grandfather left Russia for America then, to avoid the fighting. There is no mention of this conflict across nations in the film. And I really don't know if Kurosowa intended this movie as a social commentary. But I took it so, and in that way the theme is similar to the theme of The Visitor, which also has characters that are exceptionally gentle, though trapped in a world that is otherwise not. In Kurosowa's movie, the captain is Caucasian. Dersu is Asian. Overcoming their racial difference matters for the story.
So my third term is warmth, human warmth, the type begat by gentleness, and denied by militancy. I really don't know if it is teachable or not. If it is, then it should be a primary goal. Compassion and empathy stem from it, but human warmth is a precondition and not one and the same with these others. It can be found in silly interactions and other exchanges that are of no consequence. It is not reserved only for the profound moments. Above all, it shows some comprehension of the human condition.
If the foundation is not already there, my hope would be that General Education would push students to develop in each of these dimensions and to develop a lifelong desire to continue to improve this way. Does anyone else conceive of General Education this way?
I can't answer that. I know that in thinking about teaching intermediate microeconomics next spring (it is not a gen ed course here) I've been thinking a lot about what will motivate the students and get them interested in the economics. I've been reading Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers and I think I will use it as a parallel reading for the students so they can get the history of economic ideas and see them exposited in a captivating way. I had read it as an undergrad in introductory macroeconomics, but it didn't stick with me then. So why I should expect it to stick with my students next semester is a mystery I will have to work through. But I can say that I'm enjoying it quite a bit now, in large part because the historical circumstances under which the economic ideas were invented are largely paralleled today. The relevance is immediate to me. And I hope that taps into student motivation.
Near the conclusion of Heilbroner's chapter on Keynes, he offers up a bit by Keynes writing about his old teacher, Alfred Marshall. It seems fitting so I will close with it.
The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.It must take an economist to presume that the purpose of General Education is to produce other economists.
Thursday, September 09, 2010
Is under siege.
There's no latter day Robin Hood
To redistribute income for the good.
The Republicans in Congress crave lower tax rates.
While efforts to extend UI, they do frustrate.
So it seems the modern day political creed
Is to let the rich indulge their greed.
Alas, it is almost as crass
To pander to the middle class.
Friday, September 03, 2010
Yesterday evening I was looking to veg out, sleep deprived from the night before. I'm not sure why, since I've eliminated much of the day to day job stress from my existence. I suppose other worries endure and I have a hard time letting go. Having surfed the various channels on the satellite for something that might grab me and coming up empty, I checked the DVR for possibilities. There I found Copying Beethoven, which grabbed me right away. It is a fantasy situated in the life of Beethoven at around the time he composed The 9th Symphony and the events that followed (he died three years later) and his further explorations in composition as epitomized by The Great Fugue. Yet Beethoven, convincingly played by Ed Harris (I thought of his acting in Pollock, which seemed good preparation for this role) is the supporting actor in this story. The protagonist is the fictionalized Anna Holtz, a very good student of music composition, who has the fortune, both good and bad, to become Beethoven's copiest, copying Beethoven's later works for publication.
Their relationship, somewhere in the realm of master-apprentice, superstar and acolyte, patient and nurse, is almost immediately symbiotic. She wants to learn what it means to really write music. Where does it come from? How does it take shape? He is mostly deaf and knows he can't function solely on his own. He is very proud, extraordinarily demanding, and with huge ambition for his work. With that he is a boor, intimidating ordinary people with his demanding and impulsive behavior. At the same time he is weak and dependent. He needs to rely on someone else, somebody he can trust because that person has taste about the music. Anna Holtz is that someone. Considering his music as the expression of God and his deafness as evidence of God's cruelty, he presumes she has been sent by God so he can continue his work.
Their exchanges are fascinating. Trust is built almost immediately. In her first round copying she spots an error in the work and makes a correction. (Some of the individual reviewers who can't tolerate the Beethoven story being altered for this fictionalized account were really upset with this plot device.) He reviews what she has done, is mildly abusive to her, and it's unclear whether he's angry with her or appreciates what she did. He goes out to the pub for his dinner while she continues to copy, whereupon his interchanges at the pub make clear he has admiration for the work she did. Thereafter she is his trusted confidant and assistant and, with one marked exception, she devotedly has his back. She wants to be a composer of her own accord. In the middle of the film she shows him some of her work. He belittles it in a way that creates great offense and she leaves him. He is lost and is immediately remorseful. He finds her and apologizes, offering to work with her on her composition. The relationship picks up where it left off, with its full intensity.
If one ignores the Beethoven story entirely and thinks of it as the exchange between the demanding teacher and the gifted pupil, the film offers a captivating story. He is violently opposed to pedantry. The creator can't be a slave to convention. The music will be found by listening inwardly. One needs to be unencumbered to let that happen. She appreciates that. His vulgarities are not the expression of the devil himself, but acts of frustration owing to his physical limitations or mere trifles because he is impatient to focus on the important things in life.
It is the impatience that I suppose we would not accept in an instructor today, though I wonder. Do we do a disservice to others when we are nice to them though we don't like the work they produced? I am not Beethoven and I don't want to make any pretensions to the contrary. But these issues are ones I've written about, in my post a while back Killing The Puppy, and more recently in a column I wrote for Inside Higher Ed.
A movie or some other work of art seemingly takes on more importance when it portrays themes you've discovered quite independently. The feeling emerges that the piece was designed to speak to you.
* * * * *
I've been having lots of discussions with colleagues, many on my campus, some elsewhere. People are worried. An expression keeps coming up – race to the bottom. That's what it feels like now, with everyone scrambling for revenues to keep things going. Here's the latest.
With state governments across the land pulling their support for "Public Universities" in an effort to keep the fiscal house under control, it is clear that in the future more of the university budget will be funded by tuition. Summer school tuition is treated differently on many campuses. The offering units get a greater share of the tuition revenue and enrollments start to look like $$$. Many students look to fill General Education requirements in the summer. And quite frequently those appear to be hurdles to get under, through, around, over, or by with little concern for any lasting benefit that might accrue from taking the course. Students enrolled at a particular institution during the regular school year have some incentive to take the summer courses from the home institution, because they know it will articulate with the rest of the curriculum. But convenience and level of difficulty are also factors. If you are math phobic but need to fill the quantitative reasoning requirement, you are looking for a gut, not a challenging course. And if the course is offered online and is in the main or totally asynchronous, that maximizes the convenience benefit.
The conditions are ripe for the Digital Diploma Mills argument that David Noble warned us about a long time ago, and now not from upstarts or for-profit institutions but rather from traditional places that you'd think would offer a decent quality education. This seems to be happening at some places right now. If the trend continues, might not it spill over in to the rest of the school year as well?
Before proceeding further with the rest of my argument, let me go outside the educational context to see the point I'm trying to make. David Brooks had an interesting column today, a kind of refutation of his colleague Paul Krugman, with whom I agree that there hasn't been enough stimulus. But Krugman tends only to look at overall spending, not its composition. Brooks argues we need a kind of tough love spending, like what was done with the U.S. auto makers – structural reform and spending increases in one fell swoop. Instead we got spending increases that seemingly rewarded Democratic party loyalty, but no tough love. (I made a kind of Brooks argument in my post Lessons for Higher Ed from the NBA, where I argued that we need a salary cap for all of Higher Ed and that individual campuses can't really solve the problem.)
But instead of sensible and thoughtful structural reform, what we seem to be getting is knee-jerk reactions in the name of accountability, witness this piece from the Chronicle yesterday, which says that instructors at Texas A&M will be evaluated on their teaching by how much tuition revenue (number of students) they are generating. This sure seems like it is setting in place the race to the bottom forces that we should be quite nervous about. The problem, you see, is that when looking at the issue this way, the entire focus is on what economists would term the extensive margin. There the focus is on volume. Quality is treated as a residual. When attention is on volume incentives get in line for quality to deteriorate.
Now let me make a different sort of segue, this one as a parent who witnesses the homework his teen aged son is getting in High School. Actually, he gets quite a lot of math homework, but it is not graded. If the kid (any kid in the class, not just my son) is struggling on some point and needs some help, how does that obtain? The responsibility is on the kid (or the kid's parents) more than I'd like to see in this instance. I'm sure the teachers are quite heavily burdened. But somewhere or somehow we need to find a way where meaningful assessment can be had other than in tests. Tests are summative assessment and if the results are not good, that can be bruising on the ego for the students. Let the early failures happen in a lower stakes setting and let the kid learn from his mistakes. For that to happen, he needs meaningful feedback on the homework. In his chapter of the book Declining By Degrees, Murray Sperber makes essentially the same point about evaluating student writing in Higher Ed.
And here is one last departure, this one an observation from the College of Business, where I worked for the past four years. I wouldn't have learned about this had I not been exploring the benefits of purchasing scheduling software for the College as it was planning for the utilization of the new Business Instructional Facility. So to do my homework I went to the Campus Timetable and took all College courses for one semester and plotted them in a spreadsheet, by classroom and time of day. I learned some interesting stuff about classroom utilization that way. But I then made a surprising discovery. Two of the three departments in the College offer their courses with 3 contact hours. Accountancy, however, offered its courses with 4 contact hours and occasionally there was a "lab" period on top of that. Teaching loads for faculty are almost always communicated as course loads, not contact hour loads. So what explains the difference across departments? One might envision that some courses are more difficult than others, so would have more contact hours. But it is hard to believe that all the difficult courses are offered by one department. I would attribute the difference to "culture" based on the Project Discovery curriculum in Accounting, which has been buttressed over the years that the Accounting program at Illinois has been remarkably successful as a feeder for incoming staff at the Big 4 accounting firms.
The type of tough love structural reform I envision for Higher Ed involves a refocusing onto the educative value of the activities students and instructors engage in. Courses need to be taught more intensively – more credit hours, more work that the students are accountable for, more contact between students and instructor both about the subject matter in general and about the work students are completing as well. (On the last of these, see my post Rethinking Office Hours.) This means incentives for faculty need to be severely realigned to reflect these goals. My point in emphasizing the Accounting Department example is to show that is possible as long as there is sufficient commitment to the goal.
But in another sense, Accounting doesn't have to make tough choices this way because of the 150-hour requirement for sitting for the CPA exam. A systematic approach to making teaching more intensive (we have many excellent examples of individual instructors doing this, but systematically the incentives are in the opposite direction) would seem to raise cost. We are, however, operating in an environment where costs must be brought down. How can that be done?
The only way this is possible is for students to take fewer courses overall and for the institution to reduce its offerings. Therein lies where the tough choices need to be made. Many students have very few free electives as it is. If they are to take fewer courses overall that means there have to be fewer required courses. This means reconsidering the General Education requirements and reconsidering the major, both of which must be pared down. Then, of course, the accreditors have got to come to the realization that this change is good for all interested parties.
Now let's look at this from a different angle. The current system favors the elite student. They get to take honors classes that are small seminars; they get to do research with a faculty member; they get to be president of the student organization where they are a member. Cream rises, even with a race to the bottom. Some of the students undoubtedly do very well with the current approach.
But too many do not. The tough love solution that we need must provide more of the students with a high caliber education. Rather than cut corners but otherwise try to preserve the status quo, which seems to be the agenda at present, we need to make the instruction more intensive.
An emphasis on the intensive margin seems opposite to the direction we are headed at present. Perhaps if there were more calls for the sort of change I suggest, some counter force could be built up so that we don't make undo damage to our institutions as we pursue the cost cutting measures that are necessary at present.
Faculty, even the well-meaning ones, are likely to push back at suggestions to make instruction more intensive. The students, after all, are mainly not Anna Holtzes. These faculty will have a point. But for any of the students to transcend the limits imposed by their prior education, they need great teachers. We should be in the business of moving that from the exception to the rule.