Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Boosting Productivity in Higher Education

That sounds strange, almost ungrammatical, doesn't it? "Boosting" "productivity" in higher ed. We've heard no end of moaning these past 20 years over what a left-wing loonybin the American university was becoming. But "productivity"...?

Well yes, when you think about it. Tuition keeps rising and rising, standards keep falling and falling. In a century, we've gone from teaching Greek and Latin in high school to teaching remedial reading in college. If "college is for everyone", then it isn't college anymore. It's 13th grade.

And what are the graduates good for? There used to be a rather witty essay on the net, at some lefty collective e-zine, likening graduate school to a digestive system. Students were enrolled, as "food"; some became low-paid graduate assistants, to metabolize everything; and PhD's were excreted as waste, since only a neglible percentage of them would ever become professors in their chosen fields. In real life, when I'm looking through job applications, I'm struck at how many people have degrees in some soft science, and drifted down and out, through internships and other tangental employment in their field, into the retail world. So many newly minted sociology majors are folding sweaters at The Gap eight years later. (Helpful hint: "If an academic discipline has the word "science" in its title, it isn't a science.")

So what can be done? This is from a journal put out by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, of all things -- Stop Paying More for Less: Ways to Boost Productivity in Higher Education

The quality of students-the knowledge and skills they gain from a university education-should be the primary goal of any institution of higher learning. Just how to increase student quality, however, remains unclear to many faculty. One reason for this lack of clarity is that many faculty, especially those at research institutions, see teaching as a secondary responsibility behind publishing in academic journals and acquiring research grants. Another reason is that most faculty members do not have training in good teaching strategies.

"Good teaching practices include encouraging student/faculty contact, encouraging active learning, encouraging cooperation among students, giving prompt feedback, communicating high expectations, encouraging more time on each task, and respecting diverse talents and ways of learning. An important point is that the passive lecture format that is found in most universities does not account for most of these
practices. Even in smaller teaching-oriented colleges, many of these practices are likely to be absent. Furthermore, the use of student evaluations to judge the quality of faculty may lead some faculty to abandon good teaching practices and augment their evaluations through alternative means, such as leniency on grading, on assignment deadlines and on student absenteeism. "

Your First Things tie-in is a bit of a reach, sorry: a parsing of the flap at Wheaton College over the firing of a Catholic professor. There's less there than met the headline writers' eye, apparently.

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