Tuesday, November 17, 2015

When Time Passes You By

I walk slowly these days. Things appear different that way.  On Friday morning I went to a talk at the Library School given by Richard Levin, President Emeritus of Yale.  It was the second of the Prioritizing Undergraduate Education Talks.  Here's the blurb for it.  Later in this piece I'll say a few things about that talk and the Q&A that followed, because that got me thinking.  But let me continue my story about walking first.  I didn't stick around for the reception that followed since I had a meeting scheduled with my mentee and we had to push that forward since something else came up for her at noon.

When that meeting concluded I walked back from the Espresso Royale on Daniel to BIF.  It was near the lunch hour so a lot of other people were out then as well.  Very soon I became aware that people were passing me by.  I was going at roughly half their pace.  So before long I would fall way behind them.  I was still moving forward, but relatively speaking I was moving backward.   This happened repeatedly and became an image I couldn't get out of my mind.  I am going to use that image now in articulating my head scratching about undergraduate education.

Let me return to Levin's talk.  He championed general education, two full years of it, but now with an additional wrinkle beyond the usual critical thinking goal attained by reading and debating great works in a common curriculum.  This other goal was to produce cross cultural competency, mainly via developing a sense of empathy rather than by learning specific facts about peoples elsewhere.  Much of the tone and substance of this talk appealed to me.

Yet it was extraordinarily normative, with the focus on the Yale model as it manifests at a version of Yale in Singapore.  As I've been struggling with the class I've been teaching this semester, I asked myself whether my students were ready for or inclined to participate in the kind of general education that Levin depicted.  My answer was a resounding no.  Here is my forward movement with this head scratching.  It is to ask, what might be done to get these students ready and so inclined?  It seems a necessary question to pose.

But before taking it on, let me pose another first.  Is what I'm seeing in my current students typical of the general student population or not?  During the Q&A the discussion followed along the lines of whether some variant of the Yale model might be possible at Illinois.  One requirement of the Yale model is small classes to facilitate a seminar approach instead of a lecture. An English professor offered up that she is increasingly teaching small classes, so if the students are looking for that experience it is not hard to find on our campus.  Apparently, not too many are looking or, if they are, they want it only in their majors and not in English.  This is certainly not a full sampling of the student body, but it does provide at least a bit of corroborating evidence that what I'm seeing is not so aberrant.

During Levin's presentation he talked about Lincoln extensively, noting that even during the Civil War, with its massive claim on the nation's GDP, Lincoln still had his eye on the nation's future and the need to to make the proper investments to keep the country growing strongly.  Specifically mentioned in this context were the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which brought us the transcontinental railroad, and the first Morrill Act, which established the land-grant colleges, Illinois included, also enacted in that year.  Part of Levin's argument is that we need to be making 21st century investments of the same type, college education being one of the primary areas where such investment is needed.

Lincoln himself serves as an interesting example of the learner, as he ended up such a visionary thinker and leader, yet he did so with very little formal education.  Instead, he was largely self-taught.  Lincoln's example should get us to consider self-teaching and it's role today, though Lincoln was clearly an outlier among the citizenry in this regard.   Below is the first paragraph from an essay by Saul Bellow from the NY Times series, Writers on Writing, to demonstrate the point.

When I was a boy "discovering literature," I used to think how wonderful it would be if every other person on the street were familiar with Proust and Joyce or T. E. Lawrence or Pasternak and Kafka. Later I learned how refractory to high culture the democratic masses were. Lincoln as a young frontiersman read Plutarch, Shakespeare and the Bible. But then he was Lincoln. 

I marvel at the phrase "refractory to high culture" in the sentence highlighted above.  There is such economy in word usage while at the same time the phrase perfectly illuminates the issue.  And now, given that issue, let me begin on the walking backward part of my head scratching.  Usually that involves me reflecting on my own college experience.  Because I did my first year and a half in college at MIT, I got essentially none of the humanistic part of general education, the part I believe Levin feels is the core of the experience.  Further, I was and still am largely refractory to high culture, if choices in pleasure reading are any indication.  I've never read Shakespeare just for the fun of it, nor Plutarch at all.  Proust is still on my imagined to do reading list, but there is no urgency whatsoever in my getting to that.  Partly that's because there are some great works that I've tried but couldn't get through; Gravity's Rainbow was my first such experience.  And the only thing I know about T.E. Lawrence is from the movies, ditto for Pasternak.

Yet I do believe I did quite a lot of self-teaching in college, before college too, and have done so throughout my life.  I discussed this at length in a post many years ago called PLAs Please, where I posed the following question. What is it that school did for me that I couldn’t have done on my own?  Note the bias in this question.  My assumption is that the burden for learning is not on school.  The burden for learning is on oneself.  School should only fill in those parts where you can't learn on your own, though perhaps there should be some overlap between the two.  (At the time of writing that post, there was a lot of attention within the learning technology community about something called Personal Learning Environments, PLEs, so with my title I was making a play on words, coming up with the acronym PLAs, Personal Learning Agendas, to represent the self-teaching part of learning, though I was careful enough to say there really is very little planning with that.  The key is simply to engage with the self-teaching on an ongoing basis.)

At the heart of self-teaching is reading, the type of reading that challenges the reader to think about matters in a different way, or to inform the reader about issues that engage the reader but where ahead of time the reader was largely ignorant.  In other words, there is something transformative that happens to the reader simply as a consequence of reading and reflecting on what has been read.  And it is the individual learner who directs this activity, in large part by making the choice of what to read.

After I transferred to Cornell, particularly starting in my junior year, two other outside-of-courses experiences supplemented the reading.  One was seeing foreign films with subtitles.  I did that quite quite a lot and continued to do so in graduate school (though not the first year at Northwestern where there wasn't time for this leisure activity.)  At Cornell there was a lot of Truffaut and Fellini, and I have a distinct memory of seeing Closely Watched Trains.  Mostly I did this on my own, so only rarely talked about these films with friends.  The real virtue of this film viewing was the variety of stories and different points of view one could get exposed to in a comparatively short period of time. 

I did have rather intense conversations with housemates on issues in the news.  (Nixon resigned during the summer before my junior year in college.  Ford's pardon of Nixon was something we talked about an awful lot.)  Those conversations really helped me to make sense of things.  And they satisfied a hunger for good discussion that ably served me 20 years later when I started as a learning technology administrator by talking with faculty around campus about their teaching and about how they might utilize the Internet to improve learning in their classes.

Levin noted in his talk that the subject matter of courses changes from time to time to reflect new developments and to abandon more traditional approaches that no longer seem as relevant as they once were.  That makes sense.  It probably makes sense for something similar to happen with individual self-teaching activities.  Does this include diminishing the role that reading plays in self-teaching?  Or does it only mean that the sort of non-course reading college students do today should be different from the type of reading I did back in the middle 1970s, which centered on a daily go through the NY Times?

These questions did not come up during the Q&A after Levin's talk, where the focus was on how we faculty should conduct general education, not on how students should ready themselves for that.  I confess that I did not have these questions framed in my head then.  All I had was my sense of struggle teaching this semester and I didn't know how to ask a question about that without seeming to whine, so I didn't raise my hand at all.

For the last 20 years or so, not just this semester, I've had the feeling that our students don't read nearly enough.  I used to joke with Dick Brazee about this, since he and I agreed that many of our students couldn't make good meaning out of a piece on economics found in the NY Times.  Yet most faculty discussions about undergraduate education that I've been part of don't include this issue of limited reading comprehension in many of our students.  And among both instructional support and learning technology staff, it is taken on faith that an appropriate intervention can promote deep learning, though there does seem some disagreement as to whether it's entirely a matter of the right pedagogy or if effective use of learning technology also matters.

That student reading outside of school doesn't often get discussed may be because there is not much we can do about it.  This morning a friend alerted me to a piece in the Chronicle entitled Higher Ed Has Always Been A Mess.  (You need to subscribe to the Chronicle to have access.  People at Illinois have access if they are on the campus network.)  Apparently my predecessors among the faculty from 150 years ago were complaining about similar matters.  Perhaps that is illuminating, though I don't find it comforting at all.

Here is one more look at the matter and then I'll close.  I recall that Frank Mayadas, who then worked for the Sloan Foundation administering their ALN (online learning) grants, referred to Lincoln as a 6-sigma person, though precisely what the random variable he had in mind was never specified. (Perhaps it was intelligence or the ability to self-actualize. )  In any event, on academic performance in school most faculty at Illinois and comparable institutions are probably 2-sigma or 3-sigma people, which puts them in the 98th or 99th percentiles in these measures.  One might guess that if academic performance is not explained by raw intelligence, then it is explained by expertise at being a student, which itself develops from certain types of habitual behavior, the acquisition of which begins well before college.  (Reading may be one of those habits, learning to make quick penetration into an idea others find difficult another.)  The college students we teach, in contrast, are mainly one-sigma people.  Their habits are different.  The program to remake our students in our own image is likely doomed for failure, for this very reason.

Yet I, for one, keep on trying.  It seems to me what we should be doing, even if the likelihood of success is extremely low.  If that doesn't make me a dinosaur, what else will?

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