We need to blow up the strong boxes of teaching, scholarship and service

I woke up last night and couldn’t go back to sleep because my mind was on fire. I was in that state because of four days spent at an extraordinary conference, though few would have expected that. It wasn’t so much the conference as the people who were there. It is a rewarding experience to be surrounded with very bright people, all of whom want the enterprise to be successful. And so it will be.

Like the Titanic, higher education is sinking, though to most of the stakeholders, it is business as usual.  But make no mistake: The Titanic was doomed once it hit the iceberg.  The iceberg of higher education is the digital revolution.  Like the Titanic, higher education is such a large vessel that it may take a while to sink, but nonetheless, it is mortally wounded.


In ten or twenty years, students will not be coming to our schools because we offer CHEM 101 or ECON 201.  Those will be commodity courses, obtainable any number of ways.  They will come to our schools only because we offer a vibrant, compelling intellectual community where they can explore questions that matter.  If we don’t, they won’t come.

– paraphrase from Carol Long

The key question for schools isn’t “Should we be offering MOOCs?” or “To what extent should our courses be online?”  These questions are too small and they are fundamentally the wrong questions which serve to marginalize people in academia who do these things.  The fundamental questions are: “How will student learning be different in a world of digital resources and digital communications?” and “How can teaching be different in that world?”  The question isn’t should we be teaching online or face-to-face, but rather how should we change what we’re doing whatever the venue or medium (I dislike the term mode-of-delivery) to utilize what we now know about digital knowledge?

– inspired by Gardner Campbell.

There are a chorus of voices telling institutions of higher that they need to think about being more efficient, and I agree.  But efficiency doesn’t have to mean lower cost.  It means better value, which can be reached by providing a better service, a more valuable experience, as well as by doing it more cheaply.  As Alfred Marshall, one of the economic greats, said, “Which blade of the scissors cuts the paper?”  I suspect that by thinking of these questions, we may be able to lower costs, but we will certainly be able to provide better, more valuable education.

Increasingly, faculty are spending their time on things which don’t fit nicely into the categories of teaching, scholarship and service.  Which category should hold supervision of undergraduate research, for example?  A great deal of effort has been spend on figuring out how to shoehorn these types of activities into the “correct” box.  If there is no clear box, these things are “appreciated, but not valued.” (The phrase is due to Phil Hall.)

The problem is that faculty, like most people, respond to incentives.  As a consequence, if things are not valued, they tend not to get done.  There is something in the nature of a positive externality here where the benefit to society exceeds the benefit to the individual who needs to do them.  And yet, increasingly we believe they should be valued.

The solution is to blow up the boxes.  These boxes are the flip side of the credit/course system for student learning.  Both of these are analogous to the tenure system.  Tenure is sometime described by insiders as “velvet handcuffs,” because once you have tenure, it’s difficult to leave.  How can we add supervision of undergraduate research to our professional responsibilities, when we have no time to add anything?  How can we give credit for undergraduate research, when students already have courses to take?  Sure, we could eliminate some course requirements, but only the courses that don’t matter, and none of my courses.  So if we’re going to support undergraduate research, we need to shoehorn it into the curriculum and into our professional workload.

Unless we blow up the boxes.  Suppose we were to start from a strong and clear understanding of what we wanted our students to accomplish, to know and be able to do in our program.  Then suppose we thought of the best ways to accomplish those goals.  In my discipline, the ultimate goal would be to be able to analyze issues and problems like an economist.  The most complete way to demonstrate that is to complete an original research project.  Suppose that was our capstone experience.  Can that be done within the context of a course (or courses) and credits?  Perhaps it could, but is that the best way, or is it simply shoehorning another thing into the strongbox.  What would students need to learn first to be able to complete an original research project?  What would be the best ways to organize teaching and learning of those experiences?  What other activities should add to the undergraduate economics experience?  If we built our program around these questions, we would have a far better way of teaching what we have to offer.  And who knows, it may well be more efficient too.  Perhaps it would only take 3 years to complete.  Or perhaps students would get more out of it.   It would be more difficult to administer, to be sure.  How would we know when a student was done, if we didn’t have credits to add up?

Imagine if a faculty member’s full time work load were negotiated between the needs of the department and his or her interests and abilities.  Perhaps a faculty member’s full time load might be to spend half time supervising undergraduate research projects and half time advising first year students and majors.  (If you think one couldn’t put enough time and effort into those types of activities to amount to full time work, perhaps you’re marginalizing the import of those activities because you’ve never put full effort into them.)  Another faculty member might spend all of their time teaching courses.  Another might spend ¾ of their time completing a significant research project of their own, while teaching ¼ time.  These things are all possible, though not without plenty of cultural hurdles.  But first, we would need to blow up the strong boxes. 

Who has the dynamite?

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3 Responses to We need to blow up the strong boxes of teaching, scholarship and service

  1. Melanie S says:

    Love this idea of blowing up boxes. It would reduce redundancy and (hopefully) allow more people to do what they actually like about being a professor.

    I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but when tv was invented, they also said colleges would become out-of-date because everyone could learn from videos. That didn’t happen- there will always be value in face-to-face education.

  2. I suspect our boxes might get blown up for us. For instance, consider the widespread public attitude that only one of those containers really matters for most faculty and learners: teaching. Service is invisible to most legislatures, and mocked when it appears. Research… I suspect we’ll see research calving away from teaching to a deeper extent than it already is. Remember Mark Bauerline’s study about citations?

  3. Pingback: 2012 ELI Post Mortem – Where do we go from here? | Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

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