Thursday, March 28, 2013

Selling Teaching: A Modest Proposal

This week my family has been anxiously awaiting the decision letters and e-mails from the universities to which my oldest daughter applied this spring.  For the past year we have been touring campuses, browsing websites and reading promotional materials, and dreaming about where she will find herself in the fall of 2013.  That process has been an illuminating one for me to observe as a faculty member and as someone who writes about higher education, since I have learned about plenty of interesting initiatives and programs happening on other campuses.

But what has struck me most deeply throughout this process has been the light attention paid by the admissions guides and published materials to what probably strikes most faculty members as the central activities of the college or university: teaching and learning. Most of the college tours we took spent time walking us through sample dorm rooms and spoke extensively about life on campus; only a few of our tour guides took us into classrooms or laboratories, and spoke in any detail about their experiences in the classroom.  What does that convey to the prospective student, and to the parents who pay our bills, about our priorities?

I'm not surprised to find my daughter training her eyes on the living quarters or social lives of the schools she plans to attend; she's 17, after all, and those issues loom understandably large in her perspective.  And I understand perfectly well that colleges have to tailor their marketing campaigns to late adolescents, and so an emphasis on the quality of the dining hall food or the weekend social scene makes good business sense.  But it seems to me like the education we provide to our students should perhaps begin before they ever arrive on campus, if we can help shape the way they think about their college experience.  It seems to me, in other words, like we can probably do a better job of educating prospective students and their parents about what matters most deeply around here, and about why they should care about it.

I want to make a very modest proposal to admissions offices about one way in which they could begin to shift this balance of emphasis more toward the heart of the college and university enterprise, where I think it belongs.

At the beginning of the year, ask your student tour guides to think about the three most powerfully charged learning experiences they have had on campus.  Have them write those experiences down, and practice narrating them.  Work with the guides to ensure that they understood what made those experiences so powerful, and how those learning experiences were--or were not--connected to the good work of an educator on campus.  Then ask those tour guides to make sure that their tours include stops at three locations which will allow them to tell those three learning stories, and offer the kind of passionate statement about learning on campus that will inspire prospective students to think a little more clearly about what they will be doing in college.

An initiative like this one could have a ripple effect into the college, as it inspires the tour guides to think more carefully and deeply about their own learning, and that may inspire other students to do so as well.  It could also end up providing a rich set of materials for the institution to draw upon in their promotional materials, as well as helping to identify faculty and staff on campus who are making the biggest difference in the lives of their students.

Touring another campus as both a parent and a faculty member, I know where to train my eyes in order to get a sense of the teaching and learning environment on campus.  Most parents will not have the same experience in dissecting a college campus, and could use our help in gaining a clear picture of what their sons and daughters will experience in the classroom.  We should be doing a better job of giving them that help.


Monday, March 4, 2013

An Open Letter to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Dear Profs. Hacker and Dreifus:

As preparation for a magazine article I am writing about the costs of a college education today, I have been reading your book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids--And What We Can Do About It.  I was quite looking forward to this book; the provocative title and the impressive set of endorsements in the opening pages held out the promise of a fascinating read.

In the opening pages of your first chapter, you tell a story designed to illustrate your thesis--which is spelled out pretty clearly in the title of your book, so I won't rehearse it again here in my own words.  The story recounts an incident that happened a "few years back" in the political science department at Queens College.  A job candidate for a position in political science, as you describe it, sat down for an interview with the department chair and asked a series of outlandish questions indicating that he expected to teach as little as possible, spend most of his time on research, and take frequent sabbaticals. This story serves as a stand-in for the ways in which contemporary academia has lost its soul, focusing more on research and faculty perks than educating students.

Like all good storytellers, you fill out your narrative with details--including, in this case, the title of the job seeker's dissertation.  You give the following title to his "trendy" thesis: An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures.  It sounds trendy!

Fascinated to learn whether this self-centered political scientist ever landed that plum research job he was seeking, I Googled the dissertation title you gave.  Strangely, the only results came from your book.  It seems highly unlikely to me that a dissertation written a "few years back" would have absolutely no presence on the internet.  I double-checked the language of your story, and the notes from your book, none of which indicates that this is a fictional story.  So I have written this open letter in the hopes that you will be able to provide me with more information on this job candidate or his dissertation.

I confess I would not find this question quite as pressing if it did not seem to me part of a constant and disturbing trend in your book of citing undocumented "anecdotes" in support of massive claims about the wastefulness of higher education, or of manipulating statistics, to the same purpose, in some really obvious ways.

Just an example or two.

1) You reserve some of your most damning complaints for professors and their light teaching loads. You rightly anticipate the objection that for every hour we spend in the classroom, we spend many more hours preparing for class and evaluating student work.  You claim to be skeptical about this, and cite this story in support or your skepticism:

"A tale is told of a classroom where all the students were busily scribbling as the professor droned on.  All,that is, but one, a young woman in the back row, who wrote down nary a word.  How so?  She had with her the notes that her mother had taken with that professor during her own student days."

I would love to learn more about where this story took place.  Unfortunately, the language you use to introduce the story--"A tale is told"--seems to imply that this is an urban legend.  Urban legends are fun, but generally, as I like to explain to my students in English Composition, we should not cite them as evidence in arguments.

2) In a chapter which tries to explain why colleges cost so much, you claim that "a big slice of the tuition pie ends up with lawyers and their clients.  After hospitals, colleges may be our society's most sued institutions."

Putting aside the slippery nature of adjectives like "big," it seems to me like information about our society's most sued institutions "may be" available to someone who does their research.  It strikes me as curious why you would not want to track down this actual fact.  Instead of providing any documentation for this statement, you cite five eye-catching lawsuits in which colleges had to pay legal fees.  Five lawsuits, over a two-year period, against more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States!  If those figures are correct, we may in fact be the least sued institution in our society.

I suspect the number is more than five, but I don't really know.  The point here seems to be neither do you--but that didn't stop you from making a sweeping claim about it in your book.

3) In that same chapter, you claim that "football can be the biggest budget buster of them all," implying that expenditures on football are driving up tuition costs.  Two paragraphs later you point out that the "profitable sports program at the University of Texas brings in $100 million each year."

Can you help me out here?  I'm prepared to debate the merits of big-time college football programs, which I think bring both goods and ills to our campuses, but I just can't make any sense of the difference between your sweeping statements and the specific evidence you cite.

I supposed I should add to this open letter the editors at St. Martin's Griffin, which published this book, and the host of folks who endorsed it. As a writer of a few books myself, I know how well-scrutinized my manuscripts are before they appear in print.  As an occasional reviewer of books, I know how important it can be to check a few facts in a book like this one before endorsing or reviewing it.  How did examples like this--and the many dozens of others I could cite--slip by so many people?

But I will let that question go, and return to my original one.  I'm really just looking for the author of An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures.  If you wouldn't mind sending me his e-mail address, or pointing me to his research, I would much appreciate it.

Jim Lang