Thursday, September 15, 2011

Efficiency =/= Innovation =/= Quality

I'm going off my blogging schedule. This might turn into a longer, more developed post for uvenus or elsewhere, but I need to write this and put this out there right now. While I'm angry. And reeling. 

Today on Inside Higher Ed, there was yet another post about disrupting higher education. Earlier today, I ran into a colleague who had spent the morning in another department, collaborating. "It's the theme of my semester" she exclaimed excitedly. I sighed. I would love to be more collaborative, more innovative in my teaching. But, I don't have the time. 

Professors are currently being (excuse my language) shit on for being luddites, inefficient, and unwilling to change. I represent the most "efficient" part of higher education; the non-TT instructor who teaches a lot of sections of a large course (not as large as some, but still pretty big considering I'm supposed to be teaching writing). I have limited professional development opportunities/funding (which is better than none at all, which is what many people in my position have access to). I teach five classes. 

I'm efficient. I've figured out how to efficiently grade 100-150 papers, multiple times a semester. That also means that I have to sacrifice quality. This is, obviously, a dangerous thing to admit. We're told we need to be more collaborative. But, when? All the free time that I have when I'm not teaching, preparing to teach, or grading? I've innovated one of my classes this semester, and I have to admit, my other classes have suffered as a result; they are more standard, more "canned" than I would like. Why? Because I don't have as much time to devote to them. But I'm efficient (even if the technology isn't). I'm just not very innovative and I know the quality isn't what it could be.

I want to use technology, but when I do, I find that it fails because the institution doesn't invest in the support needed to help me and my students. Pens and paper never fail. Last week, I couldn't do an activity with the students because the computers in the lab didn't have FlashPlayer (seriously) and wouldn't let anyone install it. "Innovation" is thrown about as a buzz word, and there are software packages being purchased and then "introduced" to us every day. But when do we have the time to learn about them and integrate them into our classes? For example, we upgraded to a new Blackboard version this year. When was it available? A week before the semester started. 

This semester, I haven't had time to breathe. If this semester has taught me anything, it's don't try to change what works because it's exhausting, thankless, and ultimately difficult to measure (which is of course what everyone wants). The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But, what if you decide to change what works? I was a good teacher before, why am I reinventing the wheel? There are few incentives, but also few rewards for changing how we teach. There's no time to slow down and think. 

I want to cry. I'm the model that apparently everyone in higher education wants to recreated: large classes, lots of section, canned delivery. Why? Why do we want to do that? I don't even want to do that. I don't want to be the model that higher education re-creates en masse, like McDonald's. Trillions served the same unhealthy meal, the same way. Sure, we all get to eat for cheap, but at what cost? 

What the hell are education reformers thinking? Innovation is expensive and time consuming. You fail more often than you succeed. But in this world, there is no room for failure. Efficiency is only good if quality doesn't decline. But what if the quality isn't where it could be? We're stuck in a death spiral when it comes to talking about education reform. I'm sick of it. So should you. 


  1. Agreed wholeheartedly -- and by the way, why the hell is IHE taking advice from the CEO of a for-profit edu-company, the sort that happens to benefit most from the perception that traditional ed is "inefficient"? Hmmmmmm? Critical thinking here, anyone?

    Bah humbug.

  2. I hear your pain and appreciate your dedication. All I can say is I believe higher education is going to undergo a transformation into what you want it to be. A place where learning is the most important thing, not schedules and quotas. Hang in there and remember, revolution happens from the bottom, not the top. You will get your chance!

  3. I'm sorry, but I think you are missing the point. There is a fundamental disconnect between 3 truisms right now:

    - COLLEGE FOR ALL: Everyone needs to go to college and it is almost a fundamental right that they do so, regardless of preparation or aptitude.

    - THOSE THAT CANNOT DO, TEACH: Teaching is not a valuable skill, so we shouldn't pay a lot for it, if anything at all. A person can learn from access to the right materials without the assistance of a teacher.

    - CREDENTIAL INFLATION: College isn't about learning to think. Its about a credential so that you can get a job. Anything that prevents a student from getting the credential (whether they learn or not) is bad.

    The result is that culturally we DON'T value good teaching. Innovation is aimed primarily at either efficiency (teach more students for the same instructional costs) or getting students who wouldn't otherwise pass to do so. We give lip service to helping students learn better, but in fact what we mean is helping the ones that are failing to pass so they get their credential as well.

    That triumvirate of forces is meeting now to force radical change to how the university system works, for better or worse.

  4. p.s. When I say "we" I mean american's in general. Those of us in higher ed hate all of these things, but we are fighting a losing battle. The broader society sees college as having an economic goal, and teaching as an optional item.

    Heck, look at the K-12 system. We talk endlessly about how students are getting worse, and at the same time we see states griping about a teacher making $50k/year and complaining about the quality of teachers they get. Why would a really smart college student go into teaching when they know it means sacrificing their income for most of their life. Why not take those smarts and make twice or MORE as much in private industry?

    Our culture continues to demand more and more for less and less, and doesn't realize that eventually there comes a point where that stops working.

  5. Just saying, McDonald's actually isn't that cheap. It's actually kind of expensive nowadays.

  6. This post reminded me of a sad fact: At both colleges I've worked for (I'm tenured and was previously on tenure-track), faculty are not granted any release time for curriculum updating, renovation, etc. It's considered "part of the job." I agree that vastly changing our methodology takes thoughtful planning, research, and reflection--and this all requires time. It also cannot happen for more than one class at once. This is why I hope, Lee, that you will celebrate the incredible path of the classes you've been blogging about. It's completely inspiring... and I'm sure utterly exhausting! Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof

  7. Chattyprof, welcome to the world of the adjunct- we are paid by the class. We don't get "release time" for anything. We don't get time for research. Heck, we usually don't even get an office. We teach full loads of classes without the benefits, and at half (or even a quarter) of what a "full-timer" makes. Our local college went from 10% adjunct to 80% adjunct for course teaching, and still put the tuition up. None of those adjuncts got raises. Where is the money going? And is the model we really want for our students?

  8. Protoscholar: seriously? College is just about a credential? People can learn what they need to know by accessing knowledge anywhere? Teachers are losers?

    Under what conditions are you interested in a self-taught dentist, nurse, police officer, President, investment banker, electrician.....

    I mean,what a douchey comment.

    Great post here --

  9. I suspect that protoscholar meant truism as something like trope, political talking point. That these views are common (outside education) and influencing policy for the worse. Seen that way, protoscholar's got good points. I'm in a similar position as CRW and teaching loads of students is very important in getting my contract renewed, regardless of whatever pedagogical innovations (as CRW and many of us think of the phrase) we incorporate in our teaching.

    And yes, I love my job (that's why I keep doing it), but I also wonder how much money I could be making screwing around with numbers in the private sector.


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