It happens every time. I start teaching the concepts of McDonaldization and mass production to my students and it sends me into a mini-crisis. I keep thinking of the video for “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd. It’s the one where students are being manufactured on an assembly line: face-less, and almost mechanical.
There seem to be at least four forces which rationalize and ease the move toward mass production in higher education.
1. The institutions: With financial uncertainty and the increased dependence on tuition for an institution’s well-being, admitting greater numbers of students is a more attractive option. As enrollments increase, at the same time that institutions are unable and/or unwilling to hire more faculty, our class sizes increase.
2. Textbooks and their publishers: Test banks, lecture outlines, power point presentations, video clips—you name it, they have it all figured out for us! Why start from scratch? We can save a lot of browsing through colleagues’ syllabi, and reading the latest research in the field, by using instead one of these pre-packaged bundles of knowledge. When I was a graduate student and thrown into teaching a large class on a topic that I had never taught before, my first and sometimes my last stop was a textbook. This is not to say that you can’t teach a great course using a textbook or that there aren’t times when it is necessary. But textbooks, especially when used in the social sciences or the humanities, standardize knowledge and make students into “efficient” readers—with their boxes, bold print definitions, chapter summaries, keywords—though not necessarily more engaged ones. But if you want your students to struggle and realize that knowledge is complicated and open to interpretation, textbooks may not be the best tool for that kind of instruction.
3. The professors/instructors: With increasing class sizes, we are often forced to make decisions about our courses that have everything to do with efficiency and how best to evaluate large numbers of students, and nothing to do with our pedagogical ideals. We may know the flaws of standardized testing, but when faced with a large class, are weekly journal assignments a feasible option? It is precisely because of these fears of the mass production of education and of students themselves, that I’ve taken (and have been fortunate enough to take) certain steps when designing my courses. I’ve avoided textbooks entirely since leaving graduate school (and I acknowledge that my field and my institution afford me that privilege), I’ve never given multiple choice exams, and there are no page limits on my assignments. Every detail, every stitch, on every one of my courses has been put there by me personally. But this semester I taught two large introductory sections as two of my three classes, and I saw the seams, those stitches that I myself had sewn, starting to come undone. Out went the weekly writing assignments; out went the papers with no page limits.
4. And lastly, the students: Yes, even the students, who really are the ones who lose the most in all this—they pay a lot of money to be in huge classes which require them to buy expensive textbooks—they too play a role in the march towards standardization and the mass production of education. The complacency with which many students have accepted their fates is sometimes astonishing. When was the last time students protested their class sizes or the methods of evaluation employed in large classes? Of course, the fault is not entirely theirs. Their passivity is a reflection of how accustomed they are to being on the assembly line. And it’s a testament to how effective our institutions are in producing docile bodies. But what have we, as teachers, taught them to expect from their education? On the first day of classes this semester, I asked my students to get up from their seats and follow me around the building, single-file, no talking. They did. I meandered down the hallways and then returned to class. Not one student questioned me or asked me why we had just done that. What was the point of the exercise? As I told my students later on, it was to encourage them to reject the assembly line model of higher education, to question, to wonder, to be engaged
I often start off the semester with this exercise and not a single student has ever asked about the purpose of the exercise. It’s no wonder I can’t get that Pink Floyd video out of my mind.
Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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