Don’t Criticize–Retire!

One of the most disturbing traits of our era is what I would call “age nationalism”–a belief that if you do not support the more recent innovations, whatever they may be, you are out of step with the times and should go away.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Conn, a professor at Ohio State University, criticizes colleges’ current tendency to hold students’ hands and tell them exactly what they need to do to get that A. He cites the “writing rubric” and the endless “learning objectives” as examples of this trend.

I support his viewpoint. The pros and cons of rubrics aside, I was struck by the snide tone of many of the comments on Conn’s article. Their attitude was, “Rubrics are what we do now, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be teaching.”

Here’s a quote from one such comment:

It’s not exactly clear why he went into teaching. –Sounds more like he wanted to get paid for reading his favorite books and discussing them with students who can process those books unassisted. The (educationally) rich just get richer.

Dear me. So a professor who expects students to come to class prepared–who expects them to be able to read and write and study–must be elitist and spoiled?

Here’s another comment (quoted in full):

I found myself, by the end of the article, hoping you would retire soon from teaching.

A rubric sets guidelines and documents expectations. It’s not an “outline” nor is it there to promote grade inflation. What you confuse as helicopter teaching is sound practices. A rubric provides the student with an assurance that you are organized.

If you were employed outside your safe ivory tower, and in the real world, you would see that the rubric you so disdainfully snub as making soft students is really management by objectives (MBO). It’s how people retain their employment.

What is this? A professor who doesn’t think in business terms (e.g., “management by objectives,” or MBO) is supposed to retire from teaching? Who will question the jargon, then? Apparently no one–for in this person’s view, the “real world,” or his version of it, has the final say.

There are many more in a similar spirit–and others that are more courteous, and still others that corroborate the author’s points. But what stands out is these commenters’ insistence that someone who questions the current trend should not be teaching at all. The reasoning, apparently, is as follows: “Teaching is X; Professor Conn does not seem to exemplify X; therefore, Professor Conn should not be teaching.” They do not stop to ask whether teaching really is uniformly X, and whether they can judge, on the basis of an op-ed, whether or not Professor Conn exemplifies X.

Long before rubrics entered higher education, there was a difference between small liberal arts colleges, which prided themselves on their nurturing atmosphere, and large universities, which emphasized scholarship. Many institutions sought and found a middle ground: a research institution with support systems for the students, or a college that fostered outstanding research.

When I was a high school student considering colleges, I wanted anything but a college that would coddle me. I applied to two universities, early action (Harvard and Yale); got into both; and chose Yale on the basis of visits, course syllabi, conversations, and instinct. I stumbled at various points in college–but that was part of growing up, intellectually and emotionally. Those were not grade-crazy days; getting a C on a college paper was considered a worthwhile experience.

Today we hear a lot about “grit” and the “importance of failure”–but students also hear that a B in high school–or any kind of lopsidedness–will limit their college prospects. They are told to take risks, but–as a recent fifth-grade test passage put it–to learn to be “smart” risk-takers, weighing the pros and cons of the risk in advance. One can try to avoid senseless, ill-conceived risks–but there’s really no such thing as smart risk-taking. It’s a contradiction in terms. A true risk involves the unknown, sometimes a lot of it. I remember, about 18 years ago, when a friend was going to Bulgaria for the summer. At a sendoff dinner, someone asked him what he hoped to get out of his trip. He replied, “I don’t know. That’s why I’m going.”

One has to have seen a different era to recognize that many students today are afraid of being on their own, afraid of anything less than an A, afraid of not knowing exactly what is expected of them. Not everyone is afraid; I see some students forge ahead with less concern about their grades than about what they learn. But they come under continual pressure to think and act on others’ terms.

The comments quoted above show hostility to intellectual independence–both that of the professor, who is putting forth a legitimate view, and that of the students. I do not mean that that any objection to his view is hostile. It is possible to defend rubrics without telling him to retire, or without insinuating that he is out of touch with the “real world” and clinging to some fading dream.

The “real world” is not what any particular group decides it is. It is continually tested and approximated. Those who put forth unpopular views, or who question current trends, are themselves affecting the real world by stretching the bounds of the possible.

 

Note: I previously referred to the professor as Steve Conn–but see that his byline is actually Steven Conn. The error is now fixed.

What David Brooks Doesn’t Get

In his New York Times op-ed “Testing the Teachers” (April 19), David Brooks warns that “an atmosphere of grand fragility” hangs over America’s colleges. The grandeur, he says, comes from the colleges’ increased application rates, new facilities, and international reputation; the fragility, from increased tuition combined with uncertain results. What must we do? Hold colleges accountable for results—through value-added testing. That’ll show who’s teaching and who isn’t!

Brooks is wrong. Accountability systems would drag down our colleges. The best would be made mediocre, and the worst would rise to mediocrity at most.

Having put forth the idea, Brooks waxes dreamy about it. “There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t,” he muses. “There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.”

What Brooks doesn’t understand is the difference between accountability and responsibility. It is the latter, not the former, that will help and sustain colleges.

Responsibility is an internal sense of duty; accountability, an external show. The professor who who puts full thought into lesson preparation, corrects student work, holds office hours, challenges students in class, and takes them, day by day, into the subject—this professor has a deep sense of responsibility but may or may not “produce” test score gains. A professor who focuses on showing results to outsiders (an accountable professor) may be less immersed in the subject, less concerned about navigating tricky points—but may raise test scores. If schools must foster the latter sort of teaching, they will glide into a monotone.

But why should accountability and responsibility be at odds? They are not always opposed, but there’s ongoing friction between them. To honor one’s best thinking and conscience is not the same as to do what others want and recognize. The best instruction does not absolutely and consistently produce test score results.

For one thing, course content may not match the content of standardized tests (and it would be dreary if it did). Second, if students take especially difficult courses, they may go an entire semester without showing visible progress. A grade of “C” may be honorable in such cases. Third, each subject has its language, structure, and logic; these are not always easy to convey to those outside the field. In their presentation “Assessment on Our Own Terms,” delivered at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, Mark Wait and Samuel Hope draw attention to the difficulty of translating “musical logic” into “speech logic.”  Fourth, the higher the level of study, the more complex the assessment becomes. (That’s not to say that assessing kindergarteners is a straightforward matter.)

This leads to another flaw in Brooks’s suggestion. He assumes that it is the colleges’ duty to “produce” visible signs of learning. But even today, with the tuition hikes, many students go to college to be challenged, to explore many subjects, to dedicate themselves to a major, and to work on something of beauty. Getting top grades isn’t necessarily their first priority. Some would rather take more courses, or more difficult courses, at the risk of lower grades than take easy courses and get all A’s. Some find themselves immersed in a particular course or subject and let the other ones slide a bit. Some follow an idea or a project only to discover that they are on the wrong track. This is their prerogative, and they must take the consequences.

True, not all students are so serious–many  skip class repeatedly, go to party after party, and fret over relationships. If they slip too far, a good hard “F” can shake them up. Deans and advisors should watch for students in danger of failing, but students must learn to make choices and take responsibility for them. It does not help students—especially college and graduate students—to make someone else responsible for their performance.

Now, of course I am assuming a liberal arts college or school of art (or music or drama), and a high-level one at that. I am not referring here to colleges where most of the students need remedial courses. Nor am I talking about vocational and technical schools, whose mission is to prepare students for a concrete profession or trade. These are colleges with specific, standardized goals—and they should make good on their promises, provided the students do their part.

But it is not nostalgic, romantic, or naive to insist that college also be about something else: about pursuing interests, enjoying a life of the mind, making and learning from mistakes, being around intensely knowledgeable and interesting people, studying a subject at a high level, and yes, allowing for imbalances between receiving and giving. Education is a gift in a troubling sense, a sense that recalls Robert Frost’s lines about a star, “It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height.” This is no trivial demand. Students, receiving a fine education, do not immediately show the height required. Sometimes this takes years, even decades. Sometimes we think back on something learned long ago and see how it honed our thinking and our lives. That’s a result worth defending to the end. We must not treat such learning as a lie.