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Ask the Administrator: Doesn’t Time Matter in Itself?

A correspondent asks about music instruction and the movement away from the credit hour.

May 29, 2013

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

One question occurs to me when I read your posts on alternatives to the credit hour:

How might these reforms apply when predefined competencies aren't necessarily the purpose of college study?  I'm speaking of music, which is my field, though the question might apply to others too.  It's common for a music major to choose a university to spend four years studying with a particular professor, not to achieve Competencies A through Z. ("Competency A" might read "student can perform [x] repertoire with correct pitch and rhythm, good intonation, and expressive dynamics.")

Music schools accept students where they are, coaching them through years of progress in the direction they want to go.  One freshman might outperform seniors, while another might be just starting to read music. If a music degree is a list of competencies, and if a freshman can already play (or sing) 75% of the requirements, the school might say "you graduate in one year."  In some fields, this might look like a solution to Baumol's cost disease.  In my field, the student would be robbed of three years of faculty guidance refining her craft.  Other students would lose the educational experience of playing in ensembles with high-performing peers.

Sometimes learning really does correlate to time.  No one can pack 14 hours of rehearsal into one day and expect to retain anything, but 2 hours on 7 consecutive days gets you somewhere.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely agree that music degrees need baseline competencies. Otherwise unscrupulous institutions can sell credit for playing around. (Literally!)  But competencies aren't the whole story. A music degree doesn't only mean "I can play [x] repertoire" and "I can analyze [x] chords."  A child prodigy might already meet those standards, but prodigies aren't always prepared for challenges requiring steady effort over time.  To me, a music degree means:  "I put in the time."  It means:  "I don't just have innate talent, I have a proven work ethic."  I've even heard of employers favoring graduates who double-majored in music for this reason.

How do you turn those outcomes into testable competencies?  How would doing so improve productivity?

We hear from administrators that one-on-one instruction is cost-prohibitive.  Music schools need instruments, concert halls, and recording equipment, plus staff to maintain all of the above.  We use FTE from 300-seat music appreciation lectures to subsidize private lessons.  We can break even, but we can't get ahead without sacrificing a fundamental purpose.  Any school that shortens "seat time" in the name of productivity will find the talented students going somewhere else.

If you view productivity as "man-hours for a student to earn a degree," are fields based on individual instruction doomed to drag us all down? Is there a place for music in the emerging higher education landscape?

I like this question a lot, because it really gets at the heart of the matter.  It’s one thing to talk about competencies when the subject matter is relatively cut-and-dried: either the student can add fractions or she can’t. But what about subtle refinement over time?  A fourth-year flute major may not be doing anything a second-year flute major isn’t doing -- I honestly don’t know -- but is supposed to be doing it at a higher level. Baumol originally applied his “cost disease” analysis to a string quartet performance, noting that there’s really no way to speed it up without fundamentally changing the music.  Music isn’t alone; if we judged, say, philosophy on a competency basis, things could get weird quickly.  (“Student will be able to prove/disprove the existence of God.”)

On my own campus, the on-the-ground variation of this discussion happened a couple of years ago when we brought back a January intersession.  Intersession is quite short, so we had to decide which classes made sense to offer in that format and which didn’t.  (Intersession offers fewer and longer days, closely packed together.)  Through a combination of thoughtful discussion and, yes, some trial and error, it became clear quickly that some courses thrived in the shorter, more intense format, and others just didn’t make sense.  For example, some of the lab classes were spectacularly successful in the compressed format, because the longer class days meant that professors could run more ambitious lab projects and actually have time to do them.  (They also lost a smaller proportion of time to setup and takedown.)  Some 100-level math classes also thrived, since the students were so immersed that they didn’t have time to lose track of the logic.  But nobody could figure out how to run composition classes in that format; the writing, rewriting, and grading just didn’t lend themselves.  

At this point, intersession is a huge success for us, but it’s successful as a part of a larger whole.  That larger whole includes full-semester courses as well.

My guess with competencies is that we’re in the very early stages, still trying to figure out which courses require only minor tweaking and which areas of study would have to be approached in different ways.  

The issue about the value of time itself may come down to the extent to which we see degrees as relevant mostly for showing content and ability, or relevant largely for showing persistence.  If it’s the former, then I don’t think that students should be locked into relatively rigid schedules.  If it’s the latter, then maybe they should.  The work world contains both “just get it done” and “be here from 8 to 5” roles, often in the same job.  

If we want to stick with the time-bound measure, though, then we’ll have to resign ourselves to an upward cost spiral.  That could play itself out straightforwardly, through higher spending, or perversely, by sustained budget cutting.  (The turn to adjuncts is not a refutation of Baumol’s disease; it’s a symptom.)  

If we insist on treating competencies or outcomes as add-ons to the traditional calendar, then that’s all they’ll be.  Taken seriously, they could upend the calendar.  At that point, we need to decide which is more important.  I’m inclined to err on the side of experimentation, but that’s me.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a place for time-bound measures in the new educational landscape?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Matt Reed

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