Why do they come? Thirty-seven smiling young faces in a classroom look up at me, oozing confidence that I will teach them successfully and help them pass the course. I confide in them: the course should really have 24 students for an optimum presentation. Nobody moves. And the smiles stay fixed.
I tell them that everything I teach is available online, and the jokes there are probably funnier than the ones I use. They sit still. As they do in the classes of almost two million other faculty members.
They will continue to come, the 14 or 15 million students who can’t or won’t learn by themselves. Yes, there are two million or so students who can master difficult material on their own, and there are mature individuals whose life circumstances makes it necessary to learn essentials, to pass a course, and to move on.
But for the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
And so they come….
Now picture a full colored photo on glossy paper of college students, gathered happily at graduation. Idyllic, but misleading. Look closely, very closely at the picture and find that the picture isn’t a picture at all, but an assemblage of thousands of individual dots. Separate, and often strikingly different from each other. Now take away the color and a further grim graininess appears.
That’s the real-world picture a faculty member sees in the classes s/he teaches. A group of individuals, each with different life experience, family circumstance, personal growth pattern, goals, and course selections.
Pretty pictures are for people who look at higher education from the far periphery; it is they who dare make general statements, universal predictions and global pronouncements about what will take place in college. I know better. I know that every one of the 2200 or so minutes I will be with this particular group of individuals will present its own challenges, its own opportunities for teaching and learning, and its own possibilities for failure.
I am alert to the pressures and influences that divert so many young people, and am no longer surprised at the number of hours many of them spend online. Nor do I express disappointment at the number of students who expect to be taught, who expect to know – but who will not do the work involved in learning. They are, after all, the children who learned the alphabet painlessly on Sesame Street, and grew up one click away from the world’s store of knowledge.
For the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
My students need hand-holding, human-hand-holding, to become engaged, and focus on the depth of material rather than on obtaining a quick, superficial answer. They live in a digital world, but remain analog beings and must learn to acquire and assimilate great bodies of knowledge, comprehensive, continuous, and coherent.
Fortunately, they don’t face this task alone. Together with their 30-odd peers, they begin to form a class. Even though this class will not reach the level of a community of scholars, the collective plays its role. Students begin to share notes, discuss homework, assist each other in understanding difficult material, and interact during class. There is argument, shared humor and collective disappointment; a sudden scurry when an exam is announced, a flurry of conversation just before the exam takes place, and consultation right after it ends. Every one of these interactions enhances student engagement.
There is something about the structure of the classroom that contributes to the learning process, perhaps akin to a group of musicians whose joint effort is so much more effective than it would be were they to play their instrument at a separate location with an expert mixing the sounds. People do interact and college students better than most.
Fortunately, too, there is the faculty member who knows that teaching is more than presenting information and that learning is a very complex process, difficult and unusual for most people. A whole range of strategies is needed to keep students striving and stretching for a whole period, let alone a whole term. Students must be induced, sometimes with humor, to concentrate. There must be challenge, repetition, surprise and praise.
A successful teacher can offer spontaneity, immediacy, and instant, interactive feedback. He/she knows that a question is not just a request for information. A question can signal to the teacher that something is wrong with the presentation. Often, it can enable a teacher to involve all the others in the class, becoming part of a different, sometimes unanticipated learning experience.
Teachers learn to walk the aisles, to watch faces, to orchestrate discussion and stimulate questions. Eye contact and a smile – or lack of it – can guide the next part of the discussion, and one student’s difficulties can be used to address those who can’t even formulate their lack of understanding.
Some teachers know how to seize on a recent event and weave it into the discussion, or look at a student’s notebook to determine whether the student was following properly or not.
Depending on the course and the class, a faculty member will help students overcome anxiety, shyness and diffidence. College teachers will use connection and analogies to get a point across. And alert students will follow as a scholar approaches a new problem or situation to understand how an expert thinks.
Listening, correcting, suggesting, modeling, prodding, affirming, critiquing, reflecting, admitting, weighing, arguing, and guiding are but some of the other strategies faculty will use to move students along on a trajectory of learning.
For many there is nothing as effective as face-to-face teaching, and the five-minute explanation at the chalkboard after class has rescued many a student.
There is so much more. Experienced instructors know how to address the blank stare, and are able to evoke expression from students who seat themselves at the back of the room. Reinforcement, encouragement, constructive argumentation all help develop patterns of thinking and behavior which will long outlast the specific topic being taught.
A traditional college education usually comprises 40 or so separate courses offered by as many different faculty members, each of whom will bring to bear those qualities and strategies appropriate to the subject, reflecting his/her character and talents. Students will be brought into discussions where they will venture opinions – and defend them without anger. Most will learn to evaluate disagreeable perspectives and remain friends with both proponents and opponents.
They will learn how to change their minds, to deal with mistakes, and to respect the rights of others.
Faculty members know how to jostle students into active learning. As often as not they are enthusiastic advocates as well as practitioners of the subject at hand, and students will experience the passion as well as the process of a presentation.
Learning from a scholar enables a student to acquire knowledge in an organized framework from someone who has assimilated so much, and knows how to provide a roadmap that is uniquely effective for each particular group.
A scholar knows how to form connections with other courses and plant ideas and insights that will bear fruit in a subsequent course, or later in life. Students must be taught how to approach the unknown, the impossible, the unanticipated and the future. It is the competent, confident scholar/faculty member who will see the need for this kind of learning and have the ability to present it.
Only after the usual 1,800 hours (over 100,000 minutes in the classroom) and the hoped-for 3,600 hours of after class assignments have been completed is it possible to compose the glossy, colored picture. Only then do the thousands of interactions, lessons, topics, and learnings combine to make the graduate and the graduating class.
Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and a former accreditor.
Last week, Nicholas Kristof revived the old canard that academics have removed themselves from the public sphere through obscure prose and interests. Among the problems we might identify in Kristof’s essay -- thereare, obviously, many -- is the irony of a writer with the resources of The New York Times supporting him chiding the rest of us for not writing in outlets such as The New York Times.
But who gets to write in The New York Times -- and to whom is The New York Times accessible? If we’re talking about accessibility and insularity, it’s worth looking at The New York Times’s own content generation cycle and the relationship between press junkets and patronage.
So, instead of confusing intellectual meritocracy with access to outlets, let’s look at how The New York Times itself generates content about something that matters greatly to professors: higher education.
What I learned there -- besides how weird corporate-sponsored conferences are, right down to commercials they looped on screens between talks -- is that there is a system of content generation that feeds thinkpieces and thinkfluencers with greater speed and sound bite concision than most professors can offer.
It’s important to note that the only professors on stage at this conference on the future of higher education had left teaching and research as faculty for academic upper administration or to launch their own MOOC companies. While Kristof might see this lack of platform as more evidence of academic self-cloistering, I see it for the closed system that it is: “influence” comes mainly from those who might be in the position to take out full-page ads in the Times.
I saw the Schools for Tomorrow conference advertised in the Times’ Sunday Magazine, and looked into registration online. It cost $795 for a one-day event. For reference, I just registered for a four-day conference in my humanities field for $150.
I wrote to the Schools for Tomorrow registration office and asked if they could lower the cost for actual professors, bringing it in line with typical registration fees between $75 and $200. They said they could bring it down to $495. I found some institutional money for online teaching development and paid the “reduced” fee.
The $495 did not, however, guarantee me a seat when I got to the conference. The mid-three figures is a lot for humanities faculty and their limited (if existent) travel support, but in this world it just got me through the first door. It turned out that the plenary talk by Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) on globalizing access to education was overbooked, so while corporate sponsors like Bank of America and Blackberry enjoyed reserved seats in the auditorium, a lot of self- or university-sponsored folks like myself ended up watching on screens in the basement.
This was the first lesson in sponsored access to influence and content creation. Since Khan’s talk led into the panel discussion “Has the University as an Institution Had Its Day?” a lot of professors sat out the Q&A in the cheap seats. Not even, really. We were in a different arena altogether.
These weren’t conversations; these weren’t arguments. Mainly, these were rehearsed pitches for products, policies, and industries in which presenters had considerable financial or political stake. Some featured speakers, like former Senator Bob Kerrey, had a foot in several categories: he was in the Senate, he had been president of the New School, and he is now starting a for-profit university.
At various points it became clear that the speakers were used to talking to one another “on the circuit” as one said to another, suggesting that they’d been on the online education junket a lot together that year. And some cycle back through the Times meetings. Having missed Sal Khan at the education conference, I could have caught him the next month at the DealBook business conference.
The third lesson of the conference, however, came when I picked up my New York Times at home. The November 1 "Education Life" section titled “The Disrupters” is almost entirely drawn from or inspired by the conference. One conference reviewer quipped that “so many Times newsroom staff members are participating in the conference, they might not be able to put out the paper on Wednesday.”
To the contrary, such events seem to be built into their content generation strategy. “The Disrupters’ ” lead article, "Innovation Imperative: Change Everything, Online Education as an Agent of Transformation" was written by Michael Horn and Clayton M. Christensen. Both hail from the non-university-affiliated Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. The latter is a business professor at Harvard and the former was a panelist at the conference. Here's Horn’s bio from the conference webpage. He did a 25-minute one-on-one with David Leonhardt, the Times'sWashington bureau chief, advocating “The Disruption of Higher Education.”
According to his bio, Horn studied for an M.B.A. at Harvard (presumably with his co-author Christensen), then gained a platform as an educational innovation consultant at Arizona State, the editorship of a “journal of opinion and research about education policy,” and invitations to testify on issues relating to education. He does so not from a university, but from an institute that operates in the world between academia and lobbying. He does not balance his time between teaching, service, and peer-reviewed research and publishing. Yet he is a recognized authority on higher education according to the Times’s invitation. And then his work is immediately funneled into and amplified by featured space in the Sunday Times.
Even if the Times itself might be forgiven for seeking out breathless think tankers over professors who lack their own Center for Thinkfluencer Excellence, we might be more critical of the blurry line between content and advertisement.
Elsewhere in the issue you’ll find Bob Kerrey’s Minerva University, a for-profit liberal arts venture, featured prominently. It is mentioned in the Horn article, and is the focus of this article on “affordable elitism.” And then there’s major conference sponsor, Capella University. Their “credit for competencies, not credit hours” model is the subject of this article. It was also a major topic of conversation at the conference, discussed at length by Capella University's president, Scott Kinney. Days before the conference, every registrant received an email promoting Capella and bearing their logo.
How much money did Capella pay for this multiplatform marketing strategy? And where did their marketing end and the ideas at the conference begin? They were in the email of all registrants. Their logo was all over the conference and in full color on the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine. Policy changes crucial to their success were discussed favorably at a conference with Education Secretary Arne Duncan in attendance, and they got an article focusing on them in the Times just below an editorial praising their sort of educational “disruption.”
When Kristof's article began raising questions about professors’ ideas and public influence, I was reminded of the way influence moved from the $795/$495 per person corporate-sponsored conference to the pages of the newspaper of record.
Professors, we need you! Who, then, is the “we”? As lots of people have pointed out, if the “we” is the American public, then you’ve already got us as teachers, popular and specialist writers, activists and more.
If the “we” is pageview ad-metric revenue-hungry online content providers and writers, then that’s another question. Do you really want us? And if we come to you, how much will it cost to get in?
Jonathan Senchyne is an assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A version of this essay originally appeared on Avidly.