Higher Education

more inside higher ed troll bait

At Inside HigherEd the strategy is to turn trolls into staff writers and publish invective for the fun of it. Certainly that’s the case with this recent article questioning the value of small classes and having full time professors teach classes. Yawn. Oh yes, that makes me so angry. Let me jump up.

I say that if you think an institution with giant lecture halls and a curriculum delivered by part-time faculty is so great then go ahead and make one. Is it really all about price point? Tuition and books for a year at Cortland is $6250 in-state. That turns out to be $25K for four years. Most people pay more for a car they’ll drive for the same amount of time (a car which will be worth a few grand as a trade in). Meanwhile, the degree is worth a couple hundred grand in income over a lifetime.

So overall it seems like a decent investment. It’s also about a quality of life. College degrees open doors to certain kinds of careers. Of course corporations could just go back to hiring HS grads and training them themselves. But we don’t see that happening, do we? If anything, we see a tendency to more college, graduate school and so on.

The invective argument always seems to fall upon the notion of assessment, of "proving" that students learn and that the costs associated with small classes and/or tenure are worth it. The problem though is 1) measuring learning and 2) determining how the learning happened. Think of an analogy with weight loss. You can take diet pills or go on a fad diet or get lipo or exercise daily and eat healthfully. You might get faster results from the first three, but will they stick? Probably not. I’m not saying that this applies directly to different pedagogic approaches. I’m just saying that measuring students at the end of semester or even the end of a degree may not tell you much about what long-term impact their experience has had. And isn’t it the long-term impact that we are concerned with?

Besides what are the learning goals of a college degree anyway? Can learning even be defined in terms of goals? For example, I took two Shakespeare survey classes as an undergrad. During those semesters I could identify significant speeches and tell you who said them and when. Obviously I can’t do that now. I probably couldn’t have passed the final in those courses six months down the road. So what did I learn?

As a matter of fact, I can barely tell you the names of the courses I took, let alone the texts we read or what was said about those texts. If the learning goals of college were to instill that knowledge in me, then it was worthless. But of course that’s not the purpose. The purpose of college, as I see it, is to mature intellectually, to develop analytical and problem-solving skills, to grasp greater complexity and subtlety in the world around you, to learn to communicate more effectively, and to discover things about yourself.

I don’t think you can put a number on such things. That said, they can be evaluated more holistically, and that’s what we do as faculty. Or at least it’s one of things we do.

The bottom line problem here is that folks who write this kind of invective don’t trust faculty. There is a fundamental problem of professional ethos here. I believe the mistrust of faculty began forty years ago when professors explicitly politicized their profession during the Vietnam war. Honestly I’m not sure how many professors were that actively involved in those matters, but faculty remain largely liberal (though I recall blogging in the past about a study indicating that this has shifted generationally). Obviously conservatives view educational institutions as just another body of liberals to libel and undermine. Maybe you don’t think this is a partisan issue but I would be interested in seeing a survey of Americans to see who is concerned about such matters. Obviously everyone with kids is concerned about the cost of education. I’m concerned about it. But as for articulating the issue in this particular way? I think that’s a partisan ploy.

We already have Christian colleges where you can study creationism. Maybe we’ll have conservative colleges where American history is about the greatness of our nation, poli sci is about how bad liberal policies are, and all the literary figures are white and male. They’ll be taught in giant lecture halls by part time faculty reciting centrally-controlled curriculum that will be evaluated by standardized tests. Maybe this will be part of the "big sort" that Bill Bishop speaks of. Of course, college will still be expensive because it will be all market-driven and for-profit. And there will be little financial aid so you won’t see any working-class people there.

Yeah, good luck with that.