Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

business schools get what they ask for

An interesting article in the NY Times (thanks to @steeleracademic70 for sharing) in which business professors bemoan the decreasing quality of students and academic standards in their ever-growing programs. Is there not an obvious correlation here? The more students you have, the less capable, overall the student body is going to be. Now perhaps those underprepared students can be brought up to speed. Perhaps not. The article suggests two interrelated problems. First, that many students do not go to business school to learn (gasp!); they go as a pathway to a job. Second, as a result, they tend to seek easy pathways to a degree, which in turn exert pressures on academics to lower workloads and standards. 

An outsider might wonder why professors can't just hold students to higher standards. There are a couple of reasons. First, if you fail a lot of students you won't get good evaluations and those evaluations are important for keeping your job, especially if you aren't tenured. Second, students who don't do well will leave your major, and this affects the economics of the department. Maybe this seems like a cop out, but ultimately I don't think raising standards is the issue. Of course we can raise standards. No one declares, "Let's lower our standards!" At least not in education. The real issue, from my view, is that fewer students today demonstrate a strong, intrinsic motivation for learning. 

We could point out a number of culprits for this situation. I will point a few:

  • a testing culture that focuses on extrinsic measures and motives to the exclusion of all else (e.g., the purpose of school is to pass a test);
  • an over-emphasis on learning as developing individual human capital, which obscures our ethical obligations to one another as co-learners;
  • America's strong anti-intellectual leanings, which devalues all the practices that are foundational to real learning.

I don't think it is inherently television or video games or the Internet, though certainly such media can transmit the kinds of values I mentioned here. 

Though this article focuses on business schools and business schools may face the brunt of this problem, the challenge really is there for all of us in higher education. The challenge is dealing with a generation of students whose motivations for learning and attitudes/perceptions regarding education have been deeply damaged by a decade of educational "reform" which inexplicably seems to imagine that learning is some kind of objective, rational (and hence measurable) experience. In composition, I think we have long become accustomed to telling our students to leave behind everything they learned about writing in K-12. We accept as matter-of-fact that our students will come to us with a long established antipathy for writing developed in school. We know they will have these largely worthless, often detrimental, mechanical habits of composition that are nearly impossible to break. Sadly, too often, I think composition classes just give in and try to help students become better mechanical writers. No wonder composition instructors can feel so downtrodden. What a miserable job! 

The far more difficult pedagogical task is facilitating students' discovery of intrinsic motivation. It almost feels like a responsiblity that shouldn't be ours. In some ways, it can't be ours. We can only create curricular opportunities for such motivations to arise. We can only explain to students that they can never be successful by just doing what the teacher asks them to do, no matter how challenging the task the teacher gives them. 

One thing I do disagree with in the article is its criticism of group work. The complaint is that group work is too easy. That doesn't make sense to me. Of course group work can be very easy. So can individual assignments. If you give a group of five students an assignment that one student can accomplish, then obviously that's too easy. So, for example, if you can assign a 400-level undergrad class a 15 page researched essay, then maybe you ask four students to work in a group and produce 50 pages. Does that sound easy? I don't think so. In some respects though, maybe this is exactly what is needed. Perhaps we can short-circuit the economics of extrinsic motivation by requiring tasks that far outweigh any extrinsic reward that might be associated with them.

After all, we are all familiar with the classic example of this: the dissertation.


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