Friday, February 20, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 3 - Team Teaching by High Level Administrators

Discord and dialectic may typify real social systems.  This is something I know at an intellectual level from my study of social science.  Yet that hobgoblin, consistency, bedevils me on occasion.  (The math modeling part of me wants the world to actually be very much like the model.  That would certainly make understanding what's going on a lot easier.)

In this case the discord is with regard to how we on campus talk about teaching and learning, where "we'" means faculty and support staff when having conversations about the issues, versus how the marketing arm of the university promotes teaching and learning to the general public for the purpose of recruiting students, and to alumni for the purpose of fund raising.  The message in those promotions is all about how wonderful things are and what a great experience for students the university offers.  After all, the general public's first connection with the university is likely to be via football or men's basketball, while watching a game on TV.  How else would you expect the university to promote itself during those commercials aired at halftime?  Marketing is marketing, isn't it?

Yet there is a concept called truth in advertising, which in my way of thinking should go beyond disclaimers, such as those at the end of commercials for highly marketed drugs.  Truth in advertising should educate the public about the product being sold.  One would think this would be especially important when the seller is a not-for-profit that professes to adhere to the free exchange of ideas.  And the issue is becoming more prominent for the university as of late, because of the increasing importance tuition plays on the revenue side of the university's budget and because the hyperinflation in tuition over the last 30+ years that has resulted in having current in-state tuition at Illinois (a public university) higher in real terms than what tuition was at major private universities (I'm thinking about Cornell, where I got my undergraduate degree, and Northwestern, where I got my doctorate) back when I went to college.  So many people are asking: is college still worth it?

The education of the public that I mentioned above should not answer that question in the affirmative simply as a matter of course (nor should it answer the question in the negative).  Instead, it should provide those factors one must consider to make a reasonable determination on the matter.  And in so doing, it should make the obvious point that tuition and fees and related costs to students and their families are fairly straightforward to calculate, the type of things you can plug into a spreadsheet.  In contrast, the benefits from the education, real though they may be, are far less tangible.  For example, Frank Bruni has been on a tear as of late linking the benefit of college to learning poetry.

One can be far more practical in approach than Bruni and still argue that the benefits from college education are not very tangible and are hard to monetize, particularly before the fact.  I teach my students that they care about GPA so much because it is virtually impossible to measure a person's human capital without working siding by side with that person for some extended period of time.  So the market looks for proxies to address this measurement issue, especially for starting positions.  But over one's career, actual human capital should matter for earnings.  The proxy can't sustain forever if it isn't highly correlated with the real thing.  Yet many of the students don't know what the real thing looks like and so put their efforts into making the best proxy they can make.  This myopia is a big part of the issue with college learning.

On Wednesday I went to a faculty development session on campus entitled, Just Tell Me the Answer:  Moving from Passive Students to Active Learners.  The session was well attended.  And my fellow attendees seemed of one mind on this.  Too many students are far too instrumental about their learning and not sufficiently invested in the activity.  I take that to be the view of most faculty on campus who would say they care about teaching.  (Among such faculty, many would say they have colleagues who care only about research.  While caring only about research might still be prevalent now, it becomes unsustainable in a world where tuition is the prime revenue driver of the university.  So let's ignore that view in the rest of the piece as accounting for it doesn't help in making the argument.)

Finding defect in the students is not very good marketing as a recruiting tool, to say the least, especially if it is articulated in a blunt way that makes it appear a permanent problem.  It possibly could be turned into a marketing strength, if the college experience could be shown to transform students from being very instrumental about their learning to being much more engaged and self-directed in their classes, and in their learning outside of class as well.  And if this sort of personal transformation was fairly common among the students, the faculty might then have more empathy for entering students and take more pride in the accomplishments of students as they near graduation.

At present this is a hope only, not a reality.  The faculty, most of whom are not at all involved in revenue generation in support of teaching, voice their opinions based on the current situation as they see it from the perch of teachers in the classes they do teach.  The folks who do marketing, in contrast, feel that only by showing the university in the best possible light can they be successful in the work they do.  There are very few people on campus who straddle both worlds.  The high level administrators I mentioned in my title (think about the Chancellor, the Provost, the Deans, and others too who have important administrative responsibility) constitute the group that does have this dual view. 

Most of this group were previously active and successful faculty members.  Their academic history is a big part of their bona fides, which is what gives them credibility when interacting with faculty as administrators.  But, because fund raising has become an increasingly important part of the job, they have a good chance of becoming captured by their advisory councils and other well-to-do donors they court. Further, as Daniel Kahneman teaches us about WYSIATI in Thinking Fast and Slow, this capture encourages these high powered administrators to embrace the fiction in the marketing view of the university.  The team teaching that is suggested in my title is there mainly so these administrators see for themselves the learning issues that the faculty who care about teaching are talking about.  It is insufficient to maintain that since these administrators were once regular faculty they understand the teaching issues implicitly.  Out of sight is out of mind.

However, simply having the administrators teach is not enough.  For example, when I had my campus level position I did teach on occasion, mainly to students in the Campus Honors Program.  While some concerns about student learning might be revealed from teaching such a course, in the main teaching only honors students shields the instructor from the larger issues that are of concern here.  So, while the course team taught by administrators should be a small, high touch offering, as should all the courses we will be discussing in the Everybody Teaches series, at a minimum it should be open to all.  Better still, there would be invitations issued ahead of time to students whose profiles predicted they were drones or sluggos, but not to students whose profiles suggested they were eager beavers.  (These categories are explained in my previous post.)  Only if the slots in the class couldn't be filled by those receiving invites would it be made open to the general student population. 

To illustrate what might be possible, let's imagine that the Chancellor and Provost co-teach a course on Leadership in Higher Education, intended for students taking the Leadership Minor.  (I will abstract entirely from whether they do this under an existing rubric and course number or if there is a specially designated rubric and number for each of the team taught courses by high level campus administrators.  I don't want to get hung up on administrivia. Obviously, that and many other details need to be resolved at the appropriate time.)  The course will be done in the high touch style - a seminar format in class and weekly writing out of class.  These administrators buy into the approach and the time commitment it involves.  (Below, we'll reconsider both the buy in and the time commitment.)

What do we expect the administrators to get from the experience?  The most substantial learning comes from being surprised, where expectations are confounded and as a consequence the learner is forced to reconsider what those expectations had been based on and what alternative theory might better explain what was observed.  I would hope that some of the surprise would be of the delightful kind, a sense of uplift from seeing students who are challenged struggle to overcome that challenge and then witness that they do make real progress.  As an example of this, I will offer up a post from one of my students last semester, who writes under a class-assigned alias.  This student attended class diligently but never said a word in class discussion.  The student also struggled with the writing early on.  The second paragraph of the essay is especially poignant.

But many of the surprises will be disappointments, such as when a bright student acts like a classroom lawyer via-à-vis the syllabus rather than behave in accord with the spirit of the class.  (See the comments that follow this post.)  And many of these disappointments will result from ordinary behavior of the students carried over from their other classes that trumps that in this class the instructors are VIPs.  Some students will skip class.  Others will provide evidence in the class discussion that they haven't done the assigned readings.  Still others will miss assignments or turn them in after the deadline.  In other words, the students won't seem to be bringing their "A game."  The takeaway will be - these students can do better for themselves and we, the university, should do better by the students to encourage them to up their own performance. 

What then?  I should note here first that the reason for the co-teaching is for the administrators to assure themselves that their impressions are accurate.  So envision that while walking to and from class the Chancellor and Provost have discussion throughout the semester, not just about the current class session but about the larger lessons they are getting from teaching the course.  It is possible they may differ in interpretation about the performance of a single student in a particular instance.  But in aggregate they must come to some agreement about what has been going on in class and come to some preliminary conclusion about why they've observed the class to perform in this way.

Then envision that other high level administrators who also team teach their own classes come to similar conclusions.  Collectively they discuss their impression at their regular committee meetings.  Over time they come to the conclusion that their is a serious problem that requires a systematic approach to address properly.  What that systematic approach is I won't speculate on here, though since I am writing this series of posts called Everybody Teaches, it should be evident that I'd like to see that articulation of ideas as a big part of the solution. 

I want to now go several steps beyond this in considering Campus governance and Campus decision making.  There is a lack of trust in both among many of the faculty.  The argument is that we're too top down.  Further there is a cold war going on between the STEM disciplines, on the one hand, and the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, on the other.  There is a need to end this cold war and re-establish the trust.  A push on undergraduate education that would address the issues raised above might very well be the right vehicle to achieve these ends.  It would require substantial effort from across Campus to change the normal patterns and modify the culture in ways conducive to foster deeper student learning.  The Campus needs an all hands on deck approach, which in turn requires a substantial and real problem to solve.  In my view, this one is it.

As I write this, it is clear that most people have their attention turned elsewhere.  For administrators and many worried faculty and staff, their minds are on the pending budget cuts.  That likely will necessitate retrenchment, which in turn encourages a hunker down mentality.   Further, specifically regarding teaching innovation, the current push on Campus is in the MOOCs arena.  From some dedicated faculty I've talked to recently, I know that is where they are focusing their efforts.  It is something new for them to try.  They enjoy the challenge of experimenting with next generation learning.  You can't stop progress. 

So we won't get there today, nor tomorrow, nor next week, nor even next month.  I don't know when we will get there but I hope it is soon because as we flail in the search for new revenues to replace state funds that will no longer be forthcoming, it should begin to occur to some that ongoing revenue from tuition is not guaranteed at all and that we need to be proactive to protect that revenue source.  This will become increasingly more difficult to do if the labor market for new graduates remains soft.  Protecting the revenue source provides the self-interested motive for the university to make this push on undergraduate education.

Yet there are other significant impediments in the way apart from lack of focus.  These include: denial that there is a problem, admitting that there is a problem but believing it is limited to certain disciplines only (e.g., it is a big issue in the social sciences but not an issue at all in STEM disciplines), agreeing that there is a problem but thinking it is too hard to solve especially given the limited resources that can be brought to bear to address the problem, and finally that nobody has any time to do something about it because everybody is on a rapidly spinning treadmill.  This last one has been present at least since the last round of budget cuts five years ago. 

My hope is that some prescient and brave souls at the Associate Provost level see their way past these impediments and are the first to try the team teaching approach.  They then use that initial experience as a way to encourage others at their level and above to likewise try it for themselves.  Then the idea snowballs.

If one thinks back a few years to when MOOCs first started, those ideas originated outside our campus.  Faculty may have become aware of those ideas by what they read in the Chronicle or in Inside Higher Ed.  Administrators may have been given a harder sell.  (On our campus that would have come from those starting up Coursera.)  The type of innovation discussed in this essay requires no commercial entity to promulgate it.  But it should be realized that if it makes sense on our campus, it will also make sense on other like campuses.  The underlying issues about undergraduate education are not unique to Illinois.  Those issues are present at all public R1s nationally. 

One advantage for me in coming up with this Everybody Teaches plan is that as a retiree I'm no longer caught up in the job of sustaining what is currently going on around campus, so it makes it easier to consider how we would redesign what we are doing if were to start from scratch.   Since I still teach, I garner the learning issues mainly from that, though also from listening to other instructors.  Yet, since I'm an economist, I'm mindful of the resource constraints that must be respected in doing any possible alternative.

I'm ready to admit there may be some wishful thinking in the above, especially about high level administrators somehow finding the time for this team teaching activity, without giving them advice on what they currently are doing that they should drop.  That problem also needs to be solved, but I'm not the one to offer a solution.  Those prescient Associate Provosts I mentioned must see there way to some solution of this problem.  Otherwise, the whole thing goes nowhere.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they can find a realistic answer. 

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