The Standardization of College Teaching

When administrators tell professors the books they must use, Shari Wilson wonders where the faculty role is headed.

September 12, 2006

As an undergraduate at a state university, I read the schedule of classes long before I had to register. I scanned instructors' names first. Next I considered courses, and finally I would take the action that would decide my class schedule -- I went to the university bookstore and looked at the textbooks each professor required.

Scanning the stacks, I was overwhelmed by the number of textbooks on the bookshelves. Every two or three books represented a semester's worth of learning. And for 16 weeks, I would be married to that book. I looked at how the textbooks were written, the amount of reading necessary, and the different tools offered to help a student understand a concept. I knew myself. I knew my learning style. And after flipping through a few shelves of textbooks at the university bookstore, I was making choices that would give me a better chance -- not only of passing the courses -- but of actually learning and carrying that knowledge with me into later courses.

When I became an instructor myself, I marveled at the autonomy of the job. To some degree I could make my own hours. As long as I aligned my courses with the course objectives set up by my department, I would receive positive peer evaluations and approval by the administration. At these campuses, I chose a textbook from the list provided by the department's textbook committee. At two campuses where I worked, the department chair told me that textbooks not on the list were often approved by the committee chair quickly enough that they could be used that semester.

When I moved to teach at a large urban community college, I faced something that looked like too much freedom. For one freshman composition course, I was given a choice of 59 textbooks to choose from. At the next level of composition, the list of approved textbooks was 104 titles long. Dazed, I contacted trusted colleagues and skimmed their textbooks.

Finally, I reverted to my old undergraduate habits and visited the college bookstore. This time, however, I was making a bigger decision. I now had to commit to a textbook that would serve three sections of a particular composition class. That meant that 99 students of varying academic abilities would have to live with my decision. And even though I could change the text the next semester if I needed to, there would be 16 long weeks with a book that did not serve our needs as well as it should.

Finally I would make my choices -- and start the laborious process of ordering desk copies and passing paperwork on to my department chair. It was exhausting, but tremendously rewarding. After all, I was able to choose a text that, for the most part, aligned with my own beliefs. I would be challenged to teach some new material and learn some new teaching techniques with this choice -- and my students would benefit.

In contrast, this week, at the university where I am on contract to teach full-time, my supervisor told a roomful of composition faculty which textbook they will be using for Fall 2007. To stunned silence, he held up three textbooks that he had chosen for what he called a "one year experiment." One text was to be used for incoming freshman taking composition; the next semester's instructors would have the choice of one of the remaining two textbooks. Refusing any discussion, he indicated that part of the reason for this change was the administration's edict that freshman students be given a "uniform
experience" in our composition courses.

There was not a sound as more than 30 professors left the room. It was not until the next day that I first heard their collective unbridled response. One professor who had worked at this university for over a decade stopped our director in the copy room and said, "So, since you're choosing the textbook, are you going to give us standardized lesson plans, too." When his supervisor did not respond, the professor made one last attempt to communicate his disappointment, "Hey, why don't you just come in and teach my courses for me?"

"It's just the beginning," another professor told me. "This university has bought into the idea that education is a business." Sighing, he said, "The next step will be classes of a thousand with PowerPoint presentations instead of lessons." At the time I thought he was just being sarcastic and reactionary; yet I later wondered if he was on to something.

"Student as consumer" has become a driving force at many colleges. In the last few decades, a number of provosts, presidents, and chancellors have buckled under pressure from students, local businesspeople, and voting citizens to think of education as a simple equation -- quickly deliver the students information, get money. In some cases, accreditation boards have tried to hold the line; in other cases, they seem to be in collusion with this move toward efficiency at all costs. In any case, the art of teaching has been relegated to a much lower status -- or in some cases, completely disregarded.

Slowly and quietly, the freedoms that not only made teaching enjoyable, but effective, are being taken away by an administration that is more interested in uniformity -- as if education was a drive-through fast-food product. Perhaps they've forgotten that even the drive-through provides choices: a hamburger or cheeseburger, a chicken sandwich, a fish sandwich, chicken fingers, fries, curly fries, a few salad choices, a baked potato -- the list may be too big to fit on one menu board. Yet in something as important as education, some are thinking, "the fewer choices, the better."

I'm not sure if they're really thinking primarily of the students. True -- students would be reading the same material across the board. But perhaps this is the answer that receives less resistance from those concerned. Perhaps administrators have other motives as well. It would be less work for their secretaries if they only had to order one book. And standardization often makes it easier to assess students' learning. That means increased claims of success -- and a better shot at funding. And, of course, departments would be easier to manage with fewer variables. Whether they are pressed into service or welcome the chance, administrators need to spend time fund raising, informing the public, creating events that will reflect well in press releases, shaking hands at groundbreaking ceremonies, and attending mayoral functions; why not scale back in an area that already causes them concern?

After all, with the massification of education, universities are serving more "consumers." Many feel it is better to get as many students as they can in and out of the educational system quickly and show our culture that we have "produced" the workers we had promised. Yet in the short seven years I've been teaching, every professor I've come in contact with has expressed concerns: 1) that we are stooping to lowered standards; 2) that many students infer that memorizing facts and spilling them back to a proctor is enough; 3) and that certificates and programs are being created not because of student demand -- but because of pressure from those who fund the campus. These worries, among others, have made many professors aware that the pressure to provide a quality educational experience falls almost solely to them. And when they have an administration that does not support this goal, it becomes almost impossible to attain.

Last semester, administrators at my university told English composition faculty that they are going to implement a standardized syllabus in the near future; perhaps lesson plans will be faculty's own -- yet policies previously set by faculty will soon be dictated by the administration. This semester, my department chair dictated the textbooks that faculty will use in 2007. Will the next move be lesson plans created by administrators? Standardized testing? By removing the creativity and style that individual instructors provide, couldn't we, in effect, move to a system simply supervised by proctors? Some administrators will wince at this suggestion; I guarantee a few will actually gaze up at their office ceilings and think about it -- if only for a moment. And even if administrators do not instigate this kind of plan, moving toward overt control (or even elimination) of faculty can be a piecemeal business.

Yet in many disciplines, the use of standardized materials and lesson plans is already problematic. Because the materials were not developed for a particular course or student population, many students feel detached from the material. In liberal arts, especially, faculty must be in place to personalize the learning experience for students -- otherwise students feel as if their input is worthless. Faculty are of infinite value here; taking away their ability to teach well cannot be a recipe for a successful educational experience.

While writing this, I admit that I am feeling reactionary. In a few weeks or months, I may be less angry -- yet in that time, won't these edicts still be in place at my university? Yes. And my ability to teach in the way that I think works best will be curtailed more and more. I will feel less like an instructor and more like the employee of a corporate machine. I am reminded that I spent a decade in Silicon Valley purchasing semiconductors, and another decade in advertising, writing copy for products and services that I didn't care about. In these positions I felt useless -- and at times, degraded.

I moved to higher education because I believed in the service we provided. And I remembered the choices I was allowed to make as an undergraduate -- not only in major, but also in courses within that major. Those courses were represented by a textbook and, most importantly, a faculty "face" that helped me interpret that textbook and often inspired me to go beyond the classroom.

Perhaps I am an anomaly. I did not go to college under pressure from family or even the society that surrounded me. The pressure was from within. For me, college was not a "product" to be bought -- something to ensure my business future with promotions and 50-cent-an-hour raises. It was a challenge that I needed to meet to find out what I was capable of.

And, of course, I was interested in learning. In a way, not much has changed. I am still interested in learning -- not only my students' learning, but my own. And the freedom to choose my own textbook, create my own assignments, and pace my courses are a form of learning. I am constantly evaluating my teaching methods and pressing for improvement. I make notes on my course outline about each lesson, "good, students applied knowledge from last assignment," "met with little discussion -- rewrite or discard," or "connected to writing topic -- keep." I attend conferences in my discipline and read articles and books in and out of my discipline. I talk to colleagues and post to an online discussion board, constantly rooting around to find different ways to teach the objectives that my department has set out for me to achieve. It's my hope that in an age of diminished expectations, campuses will leave the art of teaching to those best suited to perform this challenging and unwieldy task: faculty.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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