Saturday, May 24, 2008

A slap in the face, the tyranny of content, and a hell-bound train

I. "A massive slap in the face about education"

In a comment he left today on this post, Articulate Dad wrote,

What I can say is, though I love to teach, and though I believe students deserve committed teachers (and more of them), I honestly believe that our society needs a massive slap in the face about education.

In my dreams, every teacher in the country would go on strike tomorrow, and not come to the negotiating table until the first concession was made to double the number of teachers (from kindergarten through grad school) without any reduction in current salaries and benefits.


II. "The tyranny of content"

Yesterday I went to hear a distinguished professor in the sciences speak on how he uses new technologies in an attempt to provide students in his very large classes with an experience that feels more intimate.

He talked, in short, of interactivity, of getting students excited about learning. About small-group discussion. Clickers. Podcasts. Enriched content. Thoughtful and exciting videos that really made students think and wonder.

In the room sat about 20 science faculty from across the disciplines. Many of them I know to be some of the most caring, thoughtful faculty on campus. Yet most of the people in the room were referring to small-group discussion as a "new" and "innovative" way of teaching. They were excited about these methods, which is great. But they were focused on them as being more about keeping--as we put it when I worked for a symphony orchestra--butts in seats. There wasn't much talk (yet) of these as sound pedagogies.

They also were talking about these methods as "alternative" rather than as mainstream.

At this point I had to raise my hand and comment.

See, I sat through a lot of lectures as an undergrad, but they were always--always--interspersed by activities provided by the professor or truly thoughtful questions posed by the professor, which we were asked to answer verbally or in writing. Even in science courses.

And when I came to this institution, I had the good fortune to teach my own small courses and to TA for "large" (100 student) lecture courses in the humanities. In these courses, the professors also asked questions of the students and provided enriching multimedia experiences beyond PowerPoint outlines.

But when I began to work in our teaching resources center, I found myself with an office in the basement of a classroom building--a basement that included three large (120-250 person) lecture halls, as well as classrooms that seat 20 to 40 students.

Tens of thousands of people come through this building every day. And yet I rarely hear student voices, except during passing periods between classes. The talking emanates mostly from foreign-language classes, where students are hunched over textbooks or workbooks, mumbling through exercises or conversing haltingly with their classmates.

I was naive. I was shocked to learn that people from across the disciplines still lecture all. the. time. And I pointed this out to the science faculty at the talk--that they had it backward. That lecturing should be considered the "alternative" method, and interactivity and active learning should constitute our modus operandi.

Of course, the scientists were worried that they need to cover a certain amount of material during each quarter. I pointed out that they're being fearful, that they've fallen prey to what more progressive practitioners have called "the tyranny of content." That they need to be teaching students to learn, not stuffing their brains full of facts that they'll promptly forget immediately after the third "midterm."

I tried to be gentle and conversational, but I'm afraid I came across to those who wanted to read between the lines as saying "WTF have you been DOING to your students?"

Yes, some of the blame lies with students who lack curiosity, who aren't thirsting for knowledge even though they're at one of the best scientific institutions in the nation (and in some disciplines, the world).

I think that's why my teaching discipline, American studies, has so many science students getting double majors and minors. Sure, there are always the "hard core" science students who believe we're making up all this humanities crap, but even more of these students seem to enjoy the opportunity to learn to think critically about culture--including about the culture of science.

Unless we make a U-turn now on class size, faculty development, and the sizable contingent of students who are next to apathetic about their courses, my institution is in profound trouble, as is the state and the nation. The "small" humanities majors may not offer as clear a career path as do some of the sciences and they may draw in less grant money and fewer students--but they do offer something that many science classes apparently do not: the opportunity to consider their fellow human beings, and the opportunity to be treated by their professors like human beings with unique and interesting passions.

I don't mean to indict the sciences everywhere--clearly there are places where the sciences are being taught very well, just as there are science classrooms on my campus where faculty (in my observations, usually lecturers or senior, tenured faculty) are innovating the teaching of science. But we're on a bad track.

III. "A hell-bound train"

I mentioned the professor who spoke yesterday has "very large classes."

He has 780 students registered for his fall course.

The largest lecture hall on campus seats 500.

The course will be tag-team-taught, with another professor. Because there are 500 seats in each "section," it's likely the university will open the course up to 1,000 students.

Fucking unbelievable.

Even worse, as he pointed out, only 25 to 30 percent of the students enrolled in this course actually show up to class on non-exam days.

The professor, the colleague who invited him to speak, and I had an intense little chat following his talk. During our conversation, the distinguished professor said that science teaching at our university is "a hell-bound train."

I want to get t-shirts made with that image and slogan. It would make a nice logo for our teaching resources center, no?


susan said...

1000 people in a lecture? That is wrong, wrong, wrong.

And what is even sadder about all this is that students don't ever seem to complain. As a director of an academic program and now dept chair, I have been struck by the occasional student complaint about an outlandish teaching situation (not so common, but once every 3-5 years it seems we have a faculty member who bugs out in some way, like stops coming to class on time halfway through the term, or waits until mid-Novemeber to return work that was due in September and needs to be revised for a portfolio due the next week), and students wait until the last minute, or sometimes past the last minute, to complain. I want to say to them sometimes, "you deserve better. Complain sooner, and then I could help you."

Anonymous said...

I was naive. I was shocked to learn that people from across the disciplines still lecture all. the. time.

Me too, me too! At my former SLAC (not where I attended, where I taught), where they prided themselves on their small classes and great teaching and interactivity! And they lecture ALL the TIME! How did I make it through 8 years of teaching in grad school and 8 years of teaching at other schools and not realize everyone just LECTURES??

Scrivener said...

In 1989, I was a freshman at Georgia Tech with a declared major in Aerospace Engineering with a minor in Bio-medical Engineering. After one and a half quarters, I had decided that I hated science and math classes at the undergraduate level because I wasn't allowed to do any thinking at all: my job was nothing more than to memorize as much information as I could and then spit it back on the test and forget about it. So I took all history and English classes my last quarter and loved them. I got a lot of grief from my friends because I was there on a big scholarship and had "failed" or "wussed out" and quit engineering but I said again and again that I was switching because I wanted to actually be challenged and to learn something in my college classes. I don't think any of them believed me.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was only a problem at Berkeley! I never would have made it hear in the sciences.


Anonymous said...

...or here, for that matter!