Saturday, March 27, 2010

Quantifying, Part II

Yesterday's faculty meeting where we wasted several hours trying to quantify things that by their nature cannot be quantified allowed me to think about the reasons why we are forced to participate in these frustrating quantification exercises.

The current system of higher education is, of course, heavily invested into destroying the erstwhile prestige of the so-called "impractical" disciplines. Departments that teach Humanities and theoretical ("pure") sciences are asked to demonstrate which practical skills they teach their students. There is a list of these practical skills that I was given, and now I will have to prove in writing how each of my courses fosters these skills in students. I wonder how I will be able to do that for the graduate seminar on Spanish Golden Age poetry that I will be teaching next semester.

This obssession with practicality stems from the administration's fear that instead of "fostering marketable skills" we will foster independent critical thinking in students. A teacher who is not dedicating 100% of class time to teaching these practical skills might actually take some time to guide students towards thinking for themselves. Oooh, scary.

For the last two semesters I have been teaching a course on Hispanic Civilization. We cover a lot of material, do many difficult readings, write several papers, and address some very complex issues. The most difficult thing for me as a teacher, however, has been explaining to the students the concept of an analytical essay. When the students hear the word "essay", their first impulse is to go online or to the library, find tons of data, and regurgitate this information in an essay format. Getting them to realize that all I want is to see their own opinions on the subject has been a losing battle. "So you mean all I have to do is write what I think?" a student asked me in utter disbelief. "No, that can't be right. Nobody ever asked me to do this before. Are you sure this is what you want?" She is in her junior year in college and she never had a chance to express her opinions before. Of course, now she hardly even knows how to go about expressing them. As for practical skills (finding tons of information online, classifying it, and passing it off as your own), my students possess them in excess.

The push for quantification made the emphasis on fostering practical skills as the main goal of education even more ridiculous than it is already. There is a certain number of skills each course has to foster in order to be successful. So during the midpoint review, we sit there counting the skills we fostered, trying desperately to hit the required number.

Apart from serving the system by destroying all independent thought, quantification also responds to some deep-seated psychological characteristics of our college administrations. These idiotic practices are promoted by the college administrators and their assistants. As everybody knows, people who go for administrative positions in academia are failed academics. When you realize that your research is not going very well, going into the administrative work is a way to avoid doing research while boosting your salary considerably at the same time. Of course, such people will be driven in their work by the need to remove any trace of prestige from the very pursuits that defeated them. Lately, certain colleges have taken to hiring people with MBAs to work as administrators. Once again, these administrators treat with dislike and suspicion anybody who does not conform to the profit-driven model they were taught as the only valid conception of the universe.

[To be continued...]


Anonymous said...

I don't get your beef with marketable skills. Don't you want your students to do good in the workplace?

Clarissa said...

Depends on how you define "do good" and how you define "workplace." If doing good in the workplace means being an obedient little slave who lives in the cubicle, works overtime with no extra pay unquestioningly, and is ready to do anything to please the employer, then no, I don't want that for my students.

Professor X. said...

I agree with what you say, Clarissa, but there seem to be no viable alternatives to this state of affairs. Would you be willing to become an administrator at your institution? I guess not. Well, neither would I. As a result of the real academics dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge being unwilling to wate time on administrating jobs, we are left with the poor choices we have now.

Clarissa said...

The only wait out of this situation is not to wait for other kinds of people to come into the administration. It is to reduce the power that the administration has over us. They have to limit themselves to ensuring the smooth running of the university. However, they don't even try to do that any more. Instead, they butt into things they know nothing about. I can't make them give me a classroom big enough to accomodate all my students because they are too busy messing with my syllabus. Arrrgh!!

V said...

Couple of points:
First, the driving force for business-like model of education is not only the administration. Very large percentage of students and their parents also treat the university just as a service institution whose only purpose is to make the graduates competitive on the job market, and able to command high salaries. Esoteric things such as independent thinking are not included into their worldview.

Second - why wouldn't you refuse to cooperate? Why spend hours quantifying unquantifiable, while you could spend the same hours with much more fun, exercising your creative thinking and writing something to the administration? :)
I understand such initiative should not come from an non-tenured person, but don't you have anybody brave enough there among the older people?

Recently our engineers came up with the extremely bright idea of course-based Master's program in subject XYZ. Course-based graduate degrees in sciences and engineering are bullshit in general, but in this particular discipline that would be bullshit squared. Administration was of course happy. Despite their arrogance, the engineers had an understanding that if they establish such a program alone, it will not look good. So they approached the departments of physics and chemistry... And we refused to cooperate. There were no lengthy meetings. Everyone related to subject XYZ just wrote an e-mail to the chair containing their frank opinion on the subject, and the chair produced a polite "not interested" response. :) :)

Clarissa said...

This topic turned out to be of interest to many people. We had a record number of visitors to the blog yesterday - 870.

V.: I don't have a feeling that anybody shares my frustration with the quantification thing. For now, we are collectively resisting the silly push to offer for-credit language courses over the Internet. Anybody who has ever learned a language (or has been in the same room with anybody who learned a language) wouldn't have a ny trouble realizing how silly the idea is. But in response we get messages about how other schools have adopted this practice and the demand is high. This is so ridiculous. Of course, the demand will be high, if students - who have no idea about what it means to learn a language - are told they can learn in this way.

Of course, we are resisting it but for college administrators the most important thing is to see high enrollment numbers. If they have to offer courses on how to perform heart surgery over the Internet to raise enrollment, they would happily do it.

NancyP said...

Some basic practice could be accomplished in part by computerized language labs. For the purposes of distance learning, I could imagine a hybrid course with one face to face meeting per week, one live conference call/week (given proper technology), and substantial computer language lab practice.

Students are often risk-averse.

"Practical skills": Writing is "a" skill. In order to multiply the skills, assign different approaches to each assignment: 1. survey essay (the default essay of your students), including some evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses / gaps of standard narratives (most like not included by your students), written for A. scholarly or B. general interest audiences. 2. For a text that the individual student likes or hates, describe and defend their own opinion. 3. Compare assigned text to some text from another culture or language or to some other art form from the same culture and time period. Yadayadayada. Naturally you can shake them up by setting variable essay lengths, 250 to 10K words.

In other words, mix in the usual expository writing 101 course with your topic. Then tell the admin. bozos that the ability to communicate in a clear fashion is the most important job-related skill.