Friday, September 03, 2010

Expand Teaching Efforts Along The Intensive Margin

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.

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