RE: [xmca] University & Conformity

From: Peter Smagorinsky <smago who-is-at>
Date: Wed May 28 2008 - 03:46:17 PDT

Just a few brief thoughts on this strand....First, I think that we need to
be careful about how broadly we generalize from the sorts of problems
identified thus far. I say this as a graduate of a small liberal arts
college (Kenyon College in Gambier, OH--1,500 students total, no graduate
programs). At such places small classes and personal attention are the norm.
I remember taking classes as a first-year student that had fewer than 10
people enrolled. So the problems enumerated are more endemic to large state
universities, and perhaps the research-oriented institutions that most xmca
subscribers are affiliated with, where faculty teaching loads are
deliberately small to provide research time. Less teaching means more large
lecture-hall classes taught by teaching assistants, especially in the first
2 years; it's a matter of economics.

So, surely economics helped me attend a small college, although my parents
both started out quite poor and eventually practiced what my dad called
"financial discipline" to afford college for 5 kids. And no doubt the fact
that the US is spending $720 million a day in Iraq is making investment in
education at every level more difficult--although the investment didn't seem
much less before the Bush administration. The problem of lecture-hall
learning is just one symptom as administrators reduce costs at the expense
of educational quality--UGA is just one of many universities where faculty
lines are not being filled when people retire or leave, which in turn
squeezes faculty time yet further; where travel money is down; etc. Economic
pressures have always determined what we can offer, but when Iraq drains the
US economy so severely and politicians are fearful of raising taxes to
generate revenue, it gets worse.

So far people have identified trivialized assessment and impersonal
faculty-student relationships as a major problem of using large classrooms
for instruction and substituting podcasts and recordings of content-oriented
lectures for the discussion and interpersonal relationships available in
smaller classrooms, which are often available in senior-year specialization
and graduate classes. I'd like to add a problem that I've seen when working
with student-athletes, who are often an at-risk population because they are
admitted because of their contributions to a sport (my own involvement has
been with football players). These kids are quite smart (the dumb jock image
is out of touch with the complexity of college football and the mental
acuity it takes to play at a high level). But they're often from small high
schools, or schools with little tradition of sending graduates to college,
or "skated" through classes because they were athletic celebrities in high
school. So in addition to the problem of being away from home for the first
time, going from a school of 500 students to one of 32,000 students and
single classes of 300+ students, competing at very high levels athletically
and spending a minimum of 20 hours per week practicing, and adjusting in
many other ways, these kids have to survive in large and impersonal classes
in which knowledge is commodified for simplified assessment. Student-athlete
GPAs are scrutinized heavily in the press as though they represent something
important, but the grades are based on students' ability to glean factoids
from textbooks and lectures, rather than on the highly complex and
sophisticated knowledge they need to play their sport (and in football,
mistakes are punished swiftly and violently). They need to learn very
specific ways of reading textbooks, which may well enculturate them to
reading superficially and make higher-level reading more difficult.

So there's quite a cost to students in running a large state university
according to a bottom-line mentality. The only solution I can think of is
lots more money--of the sort that politicians commit without blinking to war
but claim is not feasible for education, in universities or schooling at any
other level.

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Received on Wed May 28 03:47 PDT 2008

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