Saturday, August 06, 2011

well, duh

Dr. Vallicella alerts us to the continuing ruminations over at 100 Reasons NOT to go to Graduate School. Dr. V links us to Reason #65, which is: Teaching is less and less rewarding. Why less and less rewarding? you ask. Here's why:

Anyone who has been at the back of a college lecture hall recently is familiar with the sight of row upon row of glowing screens. Some students are taking notes, but others are perusing Facebook, touching up their vacation photos, and playing games. From a student’s point of view, this can be distracting. From the teacher’s point of view, it is disheartening. Every day, you speak to a room full of people looking at computer screens without any idea of who is actually listening. Not long ago, it was easy for an instructor to tell if someone in her class was not paying attention, and she was not afraid to say something to students who fell asleep or leafed through newspapers in class. But with the proliferation of laptops and smart phones, the will to enforce attentiveness in the classroom has largely evaporated.

Students are spending a substantial portion of their (or their parents') life earnings to pay for the privilege of sitting in your classroom. As University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds has pointed out, they are, in fact, grossly overpaying for the privilege, which is inflating the higher education bubble (see Reason 27). As tuition rates skyrocket, it is perhaps understandable why students increasingly behave like customers to whom you should cater. They have, after all, purchased your services. Of course, in their minds, the important service that you provide is not imparting knowledge, but awarding credit. And they increasingly behave as if they believe that they should be allowed to spend their very expensive time in your classroom in any way they choose.

The problem, in my opinion, is that the above assumes that teaching equals lecturing, and as I've argued before, lecturing is the worst form of teaching. It barely qualifies as teaching at all. Do you want your students attentive? Try this: make your classes task-oriented and student-centered, break the students up into groups, and have them hash out the issues that they've encountered in their reading.

I've been exposed to two types of academic lecturer in my experience as both an undergrad and an MA student: (1) the lecturer who does little more than parrot, and perhaps slightly expand upon, the required reading; and (2) the lecturer who devotes his/her time exclusively to amplification, making little direct reference to the actual texts. Of these two types, I consider the first largely useless and the second marginally better.

It's not as though a teacher has no right to speak at length-- even passionately-- about a given subject. That sort of passion is important to transmit to students, who readily pick up on the fact that a teacher cares. But such speaking-at-length, when it happens, should be an integral part of the larger, student-centered dynamic. When students are in groups and hashing out problems, you won't see any of that Facebook or Photoshopping nonsense: you'll see young minds on task, which is one of the most uplifting sights in the world for any teacher.

As for the claim that the student/education relationship mirrors the consumer/product relationship-- well, we made our bed, didn't we? If we insist on everything being market-driven first-- without understanding that the market should work in service to nobler ideas-- then why should we be surprised when students see themselves as consumers who have the right to demand tailor-made products? I actually think that classes need to be structured more as benevolent dictatorships that reflect the mammalian tendency to self-organize in dominance hierarchies. There should never be any question as to who the boss is in the classroom: even when the teacher is acting merely as a facilitator of student-centered group activities, it should be obvious to all that the teacher is guiding the process.

Which brings us to the opposite of the inveterate lecturer: the teacher who does nothing more than sit in front of a ring of grad students and say, "OK... so what are doing today?" I had one such teacher in grad school. He was horrible. Many of my classmates enjoyed his "laissez-faire" style, claiming that they appreciated the fact that "he gives us the freedom to think." But from where I sat, it seemed the prof also provided no direction at all. A certain amount of undirected exploration is a good and healthy thing, but when class after class features a teacher who does nothing but open the hour to random discussion, you have to wonder whether he couldn't be replaced by a robot capable of doing the same thing.

Surely there exists a happy medium between the speech-loving Führer on one side and the do-nothing Pothead Camp Counselor on the other. Somewhere in that zone are the teachers who don't despair, because they've figured out how to keep their classes lively and their students engaged-- even students in a lecture hall built to hold five hundred.

[Side note: thank Cthulhu for haptic technology. The era of obnoxiously clickety-clacking keyboards will soon be behind us.]

ADDENDUM: I completely agree with this commenter (8/1/11, 4:35PM) here. This comment is immediately followed by a lame "sorry, not buyin' it" rejoinder.


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