Sunday, June 14, 2009

A little conversation

As I noted in my last post, I recently received a very thoughtful e-mail from an old student of mine, Sedgwick, who will soon be studied public policy in the graduate school at the University of Minnesota. His letter concerned a number of points I'd made in earlier Change of Basis posts, regarding everything from my (recent) initial response to Don Tapscott's Grown up digital to my views on the UNC Asheville Integrative Liberal Studies (ILS) program. I'd like to make of this post an open letter in reply to Sedgwick, playing off of his ideas and elaborating further my own, where appropriate.

(Note: He's given me permission to quote his e-mail freely.)

Let's just go in order. Sedgwick begins:

In regards to your Learning Circle book, it's a small world...a few weeks ago I heard Don Tapscott talk for a while on a weekly technology show. Much like you, I found a few of his observations on leveraging technology in the classroom useful, but not particularly distinct from the suggestions that any 'wired' person could make about improving academia. Given how conservative educational institutions can be in many respects, it is not a particularly challenging feat to poke fun at, say, the traditional lecture format.

We're in complete agreement: I've yet to find anything truly revolutionary in Tapscott's book. Of course, I'm not reading it in order to find therein a recipe for a 21st-century classroom, but certainly I expect various prescriptions and proscriptions to appear. Let's continue with Sedgwick's letter:

That said, as the conversation progressed, Tapscott proposed some solutions which I found...interesting. For example, UNCA is rather keen on the need for interdisciplinary thinking and the liberal arts, but Tapscott's solution to an increasingly complex world is to dump the liberal arts altogether and start giving college students specialized training at the undegraduate level (e.g. law school and med school training from freshman year onwards). However, these suggestions are just for professions requiring some specific training, as Tapscott suggests that instead of 'wasting' four years at university, high school students should instead focus on some marketable technical skill or 'passion' and go 'do their own thing,' for lack of a better term. As Tapscott's hypothesis goes, once kids catch on to the fact that anyone can be as successful as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs by striking out on their own, universities will fade away by mid-century. While I can see how Tapscott is attempting to speak to people who perhaps did not get much out of college, proposing that the solution lies in obviating academia altogether just seems too flippant a suggestion to take seriously. Anyway, not to prejudge your book discussion, but did I want to concur that Tapscott's analyses seemed rather aloof from reality, and that he
did get me a bit miffed.

I find it very hard to reply to this portion of Sedgwick's letter, as I can't be sure of the sort of universities Tapscott has in mind. In some ways, the institutions Tapscott's speaking of already exist: technical and trade schools, and a number of community colleges, for instance, already place their emphasis on technical skills and specialized training, asking students to complete only a bare minimum of coursework in "irrelevant" areas. Likewise, students at more research-oriented universities (including "institutes of technology) often pursue courses of study designed to prepare them for graduate study in one or two particular areas, to the detriment of their engagement with other fields. Furthest from the form suggested above are the liberal arts institutions, in which students are required to engage a broad course of study that incorporates classes from highly divergent disciplines, and to synthesize what they've learned into a coherent whole.

I can't know to which sort of institution Tapscott (through Sedgwick) is referring, but in its broadest sense the claim that universities will "fade away by mid-century" seems prideful and cocky. Of course, to insist that the university system as we know it is timeless and eternal and will persist unchangingly as long as the human race lives upon the surface of the Earth is an equally hubristic claim, but I would be very surprised if the evolution of the university follows any course other than gradual change, morphing smoothly from one sort of institution into another, different but only subtly distinguishable from the last, morphing subtly again, and again, and again, its eventual manifestation starkly different from its present form, but only noticeably so by direct juxtaposition.

Let me offer a defense of the liberal arts institution in particular.

What seems to be missing from Tapscott's presumed argument (not having seen the program to which Sedgwick refers, I can't claim to place this argument squarely in Tapscott's mouth) is a certain measure of humanity; for the proponent of the above argument education seems to be cast as little more than a means to an end, and that end is a purely chthonic one, concerned only with the attainment of a job and the wealth that attends to that job. (Come to think of it...I've seen very little mention of art and literature so far in Tapscott's book...) Little regard is given to other learning goals achieved through a liberal education, including an appreciation for art both for the sake of art and for the unique knowledge it can offer us, an understanding of the interaction between all areas of intellectual inquiry (whether they're catalogued under the "natural sciences," the "social sciences," or the "humanities"), and an understanding of the humanist thread that binds together all of our race's endeavors.

Must a medical doctor be able to quote Chaucer in order to perform a successful heart transplant? Assuredly, no. But should we insist that she know a bit about the history of medicine, and the place medicine occupied in that history alongside the various other disciplines from which it grew and with which it intertwined?

Will the learning goals above be met in the universities of 2050 as they're met in universities now? Almost certainly not: just as our universities today in no way look like Harvard of 1900, Oxford of 1500, or Plato's Academy over two thousand years ago, the schools in which the adolescents of today instruct the adolescents of tomorrow will be profoundly different institutions. But I doubt they'll look anything like the schools proposed in the argument put forth in Sedgwick's letter.

Speaking of which, let's get back to that letter. At this point, Sedgwick offers a few bullet points in order to summarize his response to an earlier post I wrote on the ILS program at UNC Asheville, in which I was quite critical of the cluster component of ILS. Here's the first:

Get data on the real-world benefits of UNCA's ILS program. Over the years, I saw both ILS and the Humanities requirements take a lot of flack from my peers, but given the (admittedly few) conversations I've had with people after the fact, it seems they ended up enjoying the breadth offered by a cluster. Now that graduates from the ILS program are beginning to enter the real world, perhaps some alumni surveys are in order about how that breadth helped them. I think that by combining the existing data about the comparatively better performance of liberal arts graduates with data specific to UNCA, one could make a compelling argument for attracting serious students to campus.

I won't say so much about this suggestion, besides pointing out that I'd be more interested in getting data on the long-term perception of the other components of the ILS program (the intensives, for instance). The idea has its merits, and honestly I can't be sure that UNC Asheville's not already performing or planning to perform surveys as described above; it wouldn't be a difficult matter to ask a few questions about the ILS program on an alumni survey (much like the ones I recently filled out for Vanderbilt).

Sedgwick's next bullet point:

Better integrate the cluster system into the curriculum itself. While I appreciate the ILS program's relative boldness amongst generic college curricula, I think part of the criticism by students is that it appears 'bolted on' to the normal college requirements. Although I was a GenEd student, it seemed from the outside that many cluster classes appeared to be just 'normal' departmental classes. Perhaps cluster coordinators could work on 'harmonizing' some of the classes to lessen the appearance of patchwork? Actually, I bet this is already happening to a good extent, and that given the budget cutbacks, additional tailoring would be be difficult if not impossible.

(Note: "GenEd" was the general education system in place before the phasing in of ILS; it differed from ILS in a number of aspects, but its ultimate purpose was more or less the same. Sedgwick was likely in the last class of students to whom the old system applied.) I fully agree with Sedgwick's perception of students' complaints about clusters, and I agree that the way to adjust the clusters in order to effectively respond to those complaints is to do as he suggests, harmonizing the classes in some meaningful fashion.

However, I'm not so sanguine about the extent to which this is being done: to my knowledge only a small percentage of the clusters' faculty meet regularly to coordinate their coursework. Sadly, there's little little incentive for faculty to put much effort into aligning their cluster courses with their fellows in whatever clusters they occupy: there's generally no release time, there's no monetary reimbursement. The only real motivation is intrinsic: the knowledge that you're providing an optimal experience to the students in your cluster. Would that this were enough incentive, but considering that even moderately diligent faculty members already spend dozens of hours a week in teaching, grading, class preparation, committee work, research, work for professional organizations, et's unrealistic to expect most faculty to devote any more unreimbursed time on cluster coordination than is absolutely necessary.

And, as Sedgwick suggests, budget cuts don't help.

The last bullet point:

Tweak the cluster system to make its relevance more apparent. As a merely personal example, I feel that, for all the knowledge I acquired at UNCA, I graduated without much in the way of marketable skills. All the jobs I've applied for in the past year were entry-level. Now I may be an outlier in that my degree was relatively specific and there are few environment-related organizations where I live, but I think the point remains that a certain proportion of graduates wish they had the opportunity to develop one or more specific skills as part of their liberal arts curriculum. Perhaps the cluster system could require the development of two distinct skills? In particular, I think of your effort to combine math and writing, but any combination could leave graduates with both a personalized and marketable skillset. I think UNCA, as a small and tightly-knit campus, is well suited toward this type of skill cross-pollination. Given how often people change careers nowadays, I think UNCA could market the 'have your bases covered' need very effectively. Of course, skill meshing isn't just about career resiliency but also the potential development of new approaches that can revolutionize existing careers or create new ones.

Agreed! Ideally.

There's nothing in this last point that I can find fault with, and it could be that UNC Asheville's ILS program is on a trajectory that will eventually take it to this ideal. As yet, however, it is merely an ideal, and will remain so until the faculty who will implement the program are granted release time or remuneration they'll need to motivate them to design the program and put it into action.

Might we move further beyond cluster courses, implementing team-taught courses in which two or more faculty provide truly integrative real-time instruction on a daily basis? This sort of instruction exists elsewhere...hell, if I received this sort of instruction as an undergraduate at a much larger institution nearly fifteen years ago, what's to stop UNC Asheville from moving in that direction? It's hardly lethargy or laziness (see my comments about being overworked above), and though one might try to finger financing for this fault, why not spend the money currently spent on implementing cluster courses on the faculty development and resources that would be needed to support team-taught courses?

It might simply be that at UNC Asheville, as at many other institutions, it's unstated disciplinary territoriality and parochialism that's to blame for the reluctance to implement such innovative course offerings.

There's much more to be said at a later time. For now, I've been typing too long, and my eyes are demanding that I take a break and enjoy the rest of my Sunday evening.

My sincerest thanks go out to Sedgwick for allowing me to share his e-mail on this blog. I hope he's provided my readers with some rich food for thought, and I hope he'll find my responses to his letter to be worthwhile ones.

No comments: