Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Professors Aren't Robots

Two great recent essays appeared in Inside Higher Ed in the past weeks that articulate the purposes and benefits of a college education, and also outline the major challenges to higher ed that no one is talking about. 

The first essay, by Scott L. Newstok, eloquently describes the work that college professors do. He calls it "close learning."

"To state the obvious: there’s a living, human element to education. We who cherish in-person instruction would benefit from a pithy phrase to defend and promote this millennia-tested practice. I propose that we begin calling it "close learning." "Close learning" evokes the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student. "Close learning" exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs, and its haste to reduce dynamism, responsiveness, presence."

I like the contrast with "distance learning," and Newstok's formulation recalls a colleague's assertion that SLACs are the "slow food movement" of higher education. 

In the second essay, the author, Matthew Pratt Guterl, ardently defends the ceaseless student-professor interactions that take place in the classroom, the hallway, the office, and in the margins of student essays. As our public universities receive less and less public funding, and are more and more reliant on cutting costs, departments are pressured to offer large intro courses without suitable staffing or critical administrative support. This eats into the time and opportunities that professors have to teach skills and habits of mind, as opposed to offering content.

"But this "honors-style" dream was chipped away slowly by the annual news reports of state budget cuts. We were pressed to create bigger courses, to put "fannies in the seats." We ended our enhanced foreign language requirement because it kept our major count down. We were encouraged to open up our enrollments, to create a big survey course at the front end of the major, a course that became so large that we had to trim off the writing requirement and give multiple-choice exams. We spent hours on assessment data, all required by the state higher education board, and less and less, as a consequence on students."

Both writers point to the fact that teaching isn't scalable, and that the people who do it are, in fact, professionals. Additionally, Guterl links the de-funding of higher education to increasing costs--especially the costs of covering health care premiums for employees. I wonder why university presidents and administrators didn't lobby hard for a single-payer system a few years ago, as it would have done a lot to neutralize rapidly rising tuition costs. But go and read both essays for yourself. They're great.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Dispatches from the Cam: "Medieval" = Awesome

The most recent issue of my Cambridge alumni magazine [sub. req'd.] has a great interview with Professor Helen Cooper about how the Middle Ages needs to be rescued from the ash-heap of history. She eloquently describes the effect of calling anything backwards, grim, or unpleasant "medieval," while attributing to the Renaissance all manner of wonderful things.

"No historical period simply finishes at one given moment....The influence of the medieval is pervasive and shaping right through to the middle of the 17th century and beyond. What I want to do is consciousness raising--so that people see what's too close up to them to notice." 

Like: the invention of universities, double-entry book-keeping, mechanical clocks, the emergence of iconic fashion, and a representative democracy coupled with a parliament. 

Preach it, Professor Cooper!