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and is capable of actively participating in the affairs of the polity."—Aronowitz

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Mar. 10, 2012

What Should They Know?

Six Examples of Change Perspectives in Higher Education

Universities, including URI, constantly ask, "What should we be doing?" This implies an internal awareness that something is wrong, or at least that something should be different, which in turn implies better. Here, I look at a few representations of this agitation and briefly comment on the nature of what is being discussed. My sample includes:

Let me also comment briefly on two recent meetings that I attended:

What You (Really) Need to Know

Lawrence Summers was Secretary of the US Treasury (1999-2001), President of Harvard (2001-2006), and Director of the US National Economic Council (2009-2010). Writing in the NYTimes, Summers recognizes the perceptual paradox of higher education as both "the source for the newest thinking and for the generation of new ideas, as society’s cutting edge," even as "undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time."

What Summers weighs to assess change is a set of measures that have more to do with process than substance: number of courses taken in a semester, labels on academic departments and majors, or the form of examinations (blue books and essays). That these measures have changed slowly or not at all, suggests Summers, suggest inertia, which Summers vaguely associates with measures of relative success of US higher education (notions of international status or attractiveness to international students). Then, Summers poses his central thesis: "Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different?" Summers offers a list of six "hopes" for the future:

  1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it." Because technology can convey vastly more information, "factual mastery will become less and less important."
  2. As a similar consequence of technology, "tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration." Just as an increasing fraction of research papers have multiple authors, so the modern workplace values working together. "As greater value is placed on collaboration, surely it should be practiced more in our nation’s classrooms."
  3. Technology will also make it possible to "watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts;" Summers supports this with a report that video-watching medical students were "more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person."
  4. As another sign of changes in "the structure of society," Summers says that "We are not rational calculating machines but collections of modules, each programmed to be adroit at a particular set of tasks. Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way." The solution to this discovery is “active learning classrooms”—which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology—help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences."
  5. Summer's only negative thought is that technology is reducing the need to learn languages, a need which "will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East."
  6. Finally, Summers advocates for improved ability to analyze data, leaving behind such old fashioned things as the learning of trigonometry. "Today, a basic grounding in probability statistics and decision analysis makes far more sense."

In sum, Summers argues that it isn't important what you know ("factual mastery...less important"), but how you process (use information, collaborate, watch videos, arrange the furniture, learn how to bet), and English is the language of processing, so don't worry too much about languages.

The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students' Hands

Scott Carlson writes about learning at Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict, in Minnesota, "sibling colleges founded by monasteries, where self-sufficiency and sustainability were once a central ethic, as outlined in the Rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictine women and men here, along with many of the older alumni, can still remember when they milked cows, plucked chickens, and picked potatoes grown on the monasteries' surrounding land. Bread, furniture, preserved food, ceramics, and other daily necessities were produced by monks, sisters, and students on the campuses. While some remnants of that life still exist, much of it is gone."

Carlson is familiar with the tides of change, arguments that higher education "needs reinvigoration and reinvention to get students out the door and on their own as soon as possible. Lawmakers say colleges need to make students employable and to create jobs. Some critics say colleges should use technology to scale up; others go so far as to bemoan the physical campus as an unnecessary, expensive burden in an online world."

Yet unlike Summers, Carlson sees another critical dimension.

"The problems that today's college-going generation will face in the future are enormous—and the stagnant economy is just the beginning. Climate change, fossil-fuel constraints, rotting infrastructure, collapsing ecosystems, and resource scarcities all loom large. Meeting those challenges will require both abstract and practical knowledge. For example, some scientists have fretted over the world's limited supplies of rock phosphate, which is used in agriculture. Because we live in a country that has more people in prison than in farming, most people could not tell you that phosphorus is one of the three vital nutrients needed to grow food crops, nor could they name the other two, potassium and nitrogen (the latter of which is produced mostly by burning finite fossil fuels). Even if students never work in agriculture, such knowledge could help them as aspiring businessmen, future policy makers, or mere citizens."

Carlson sees an opportunity for a more pragmatic set of educational possibilities. "With some imagination, couldn't these colleges use their campuses and rural settings to train students in valuable hands-on skills?" Carlson offers a set of examples:

Carlson interviewed "Derek Larson, an associate professor of environmental studies and history at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, gets his students to imagine the future by reading techno-utopian and postapocalyptic fiction. James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand, which describes America after an influenza pandemic and an oil shortage, left them shaken."

"I asked each of them, 'What skills would you have that would be applicable in that world?'" Larson says. "And they all said, 'Nothing.' They were actually kind of despairing at this. They said, 'I'd die. What would I be able to do? I would have no valuable skills.'" When the environmental-studies curriculum went through a revision recently, he says, students made one request: Include more practical and hands-on learning."

Carlson has saveral examples of hands-on learning. Perhaps the best is his story of Sam Merritt:

Several years ago, Sam Merrett, a motormouth environmentalist and bona fide grease monkey from Oberlin College, built his first biodiesel reactor with a friend from Hampshire in that shop.

Today he is the sort of entrepreneurial alumnus that any liberal-arts college would love to call its own. His business—Full Circle Fuels, which started in a defunct gas station on the edge of town in Oberlin, Ohio, and recently expanded with another shop in Hudson, N.Y.—converts diesel cars to run on straight vegetable oil. He has won fellowships and grants to start his shop, Merrett has converted cars and trucks for major businesses, and he worked with the state to develop Ohio's first vegetable-oil fuel pump. He was working on a 2003 Volkswagen when I met him on a summer afternoon to talk about how he got started.

Again, it was a marriage of liberal arts with practical skills. Oberlin's environmental-studies program introduced him to the problems of fossil fuels and the notion of alternative fuels. But Merrett, who says he was always eager to get out of the classroom, initially got his practical skills from the college's ragtag bike co-op, where students like him were handling wrenches for the first time, fixing up junker bikes, and welding bike frames together to make floats for town parades. The bike shop gave him the confidence to build biodiesel reactors and eventually tinker with his family's car, and his business took off from there.

Merrett feels that he is a clear example of why a student needs practical arts with liberal arts. "In terms of how I think about the world, how I think about the impact of my work on the world, and why I care about what I am doing, the education was immensely valuable," even if it doesn't help him day to day in a mechanic shop, he says. At a tech school, he would have missed out on that. "The idea of marrying the two is so appealing to me, because I do think that just a liberal-arts education doesn't leave me in a great position, either. It's limiting, just as a tech-school education is limiting."

It was reunion week when I met Merrett in Oberlin, and he said that some of his former peers who were coming back seemed a bit lost. They had spent their college years learning about, say, sustainable agriculture or urban food deserts, and they left college all fired up to tackle those issues.

"But they don't know the first thing about how to screw together wood to build a raised bed," he said. "In some ways, it leaves you in a place where you feel powerless to get involved."

5 Ideas to Support Innovation in Higher Ed

Joshua Kim's short article in Inside Higher Ed was filed under a category, "Technology and Learning." I mention it here as an example of a lighter treatment of "what we must do." Kim's five suggestions were, listing only the headers:

  1. Embrace that the Smartest Person on Campus is the Campus.
  2. Develop a Common Language Around Innovation
  3. Support the Core While Running Lots of Experiments
  4. Practice Collaboration by Difference
  5. Invest in a Continued Conversation

Each heading was explained in a paragraph or two, but the substance never became deep or inspiring. This is typical of bureaucratic thinking, I believe, providing a frame without depth.

Ironically, the article ended with these lines:

"These principles seems [sic] perhaps too generic, too much in danger of slipping into platitudes rather than actionable items.
Can you attach some specific proposals and projects to these ideas?

I interpret the last two lines as residuals from an editor's response that were inadvertently included in the final copy. Good advice....

Institutional Objectives and Student Learning Outcomes...

URI's learnings outcomes draft is, to the best of my current understanding, a framework for reform of the general education program. The document ("UCGE 2/21/12 draft revisions (Aug/Oct/Nov version with sub-committee changes)"—MSWord, here) is an outline with four primary objectives, each with 2-4 secondary goals (a total of 12) which are then augmented with a series of bulleted outcomes, examples, and restrictions. Here is the major outline, without the augmentations:

(boldface in the original)
  1. Build knowledge of diverse peoples and cultures and of the natural and physical world.
    1. Understand the context and significance of the arts and humanities using theoretical, historical, and experiential perspectives.
    2. Understand and apply knowledge, theories, and methods of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) disciplines.
    3. Understand theories and methods of the social and behavioral sciences.
  2. Develop intellectual and practical skills for academic and lifelong learning.
    1. Write effective and precise texts that fulfill their communicative purposes and address various audiences.
    2. Communicate effectively via listening, delivering oral presentations, and actively participating in group work.
    3. Apply the appropriate mathematical, statistical, or computational strategies to problem solving.
    4. Develop information literacy to independently research complex issues.
  3. Exercise individual and social responsibilities.
    1. Develop civic knowledge and engagement.
    2. Develop and exercise global competence.
    3. Develop and exercise multicultural competence.
  4. Integrate and apply these abilities and capacities, adapting them to new settings, questions, and responsibilities to lay the foundation for lifelong learning.
    1. Engage in a progression of at least 3 courses in a designated conversation that builds on a common theme or issue linked to contemporary problems.
    2. Generate a creative or scholarly product that requires broad knowledge, appropriate technical proficiency, information collection, systhesis, interpretation, presentation, and reflection.

I have reservations about #9 (global competence) and I desire to see major reforms in the way all universities (but particularly URI) do general education, but there is no audience for my thoughts at URI. I have expert knowledge of the difficulty and extensive training required to do an adequate job of, for example, teaching writing within the sciences (I have done this since 1987), and I have major reservations about the will of the institution to foster interdisciplinary competence within the faculty. In 2005, I left the College of Biotechnology (or is it still Environment and Life Sciences?) after its administrative tyrants decreed that it was inappropriate to teach a course on writing to the natural sciences at a graduate level; Ken Rahn similarly departed from GSO when Dean Farmer also challenged Ken's course on graduate writing as inappropriate within the School. Worse, I know of no science faculty who have the competence or the desire to teach writing, and I know of only one URI lecturer in communication studies who has the credentials in science to teach a course in environmental communication (a proposal which I heartily endorse). Similarly, there appears to be deep-seated disdain among those who can teach math, statistics, or computation for applied learning, and such teaching outside of the narrow domains of current academic departments appears to me to be anathema at URI.

You need cross-disciplinary training to do the kinds of integration and cross-disciplinary education that the gen-ed reform seems to be calling for, or at least you need such training to do the job well, and our system has systematically suppressed such training for decades, virtually driving cross-disciplinary competence to extinction. Science communications is a vital field of its own, for example, and one we should be promoting vigorously, according to authors like Chris Mooney (Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future). Yet, there is a catch-22 operating at URI which devalues the production or hiring of dual-phds—or at least those holding any two degrees across disciplines—yet there is a super abundance of faculty and administrators who will actively work to prevent the creation of new courses that deliberately cross disciplinary lines because the departments owning one of the cross disciplines objects that the person offering the proposal has no qualifications to do so because they do not possess a doctoral degree certifying competency. There are no dual-phds thinking about cross-disciplinary courses at URI, and virtually none in other universities either! They barely exist and those extraordinarily rare individuals qualified as experts in more than one discipline (as opposed to the too-common faculty who imagine that they are qualified as experts in many fields, but actually aren't) don't want to operate between academic silos because they know how brutal the system is outside of disciplinary cores. So where is all of this critical cross-disciplinary skills expertise (writing, communicating, computing) supposed to come from? Whom are we kidding here?

I am also hearing substantial skepticism about #11, the 3-course extended designated conversation on contemporary problems. Contemporary problems are problems because they are complex, and in their complexity they are invariably cross-disciplinary. Yet I cannot imagine any academic department not jumping onto a bandwagon here, offering up a sophomore, junior, and senior level slice of existing courses that progressively explore a topic, relabeling this as a designated conversation. This language is too vague, and should it be tightened to encourage ventures across disciplines (heaven-forbid that we span departments or bridge the moats surrounding our feudal college turfs), we'll again encounter the deep-seated contemporary academic culture operating against such pedagogical blasphemy. It is so pervasive, here and everywhere.

I think it is fair to question whether we have the discipline to adequately coordinate any given series of three courses, even within departments. Students complain about repeated course material within single (presumably well coordianted) majors. This isn't a misperception by students of the necessary introductory refresher material that slightly overlaps what was taught before. Rather, students complain of major duplication of course content, a possible artifact of faculty lacking time, will, or direction to integrate pedagogy throughout the curriculum. If there are problems within departments, shouldn't we question whether necessary coordination will happen between departments, as would be necessary for the gen-ed reforms to succeed?

The Harrington School

With the arrival of new Director Renee Hobbs in January, the Harrington School of Communication and Media might provide a model for coordination between departments. Stimulated by a $5.1 million donation from URI alumn ('73) and former Thomson Reuters Corporation CEO Richard Harrington, the School provides a uniting administrative link between six departments or programs: Communication Studies, Film Media, Journalism, Library and Information Studies, Public Relations, and Writing & Rhetoric.

The Harrington School and its Director are being viewed with interest in the School's formative year. To strongly influence academic programs by an external donor is an acute experiment deserving of sensitivity to implications and nuances. Non-tenured lecturers and instructors say they are intimidated; faculty are skeptical about loss of departmental sovereignty. Are these normal growing pains, or signs we should be concerned about shared governance? All are watching intently.

Articulation of a unifying vision and mission concept are critical to the success of all organizations. In presenting a draft Vision for the Harrington School at the February 24 meeting, the Director took a vital step to engage faculty, staff, and students, a key to coalescence of the School.

Of the 12 paragraphs in the vision, the first has the best potential (and usual conciseness) to be serve as a consensus statement:

"We are recognized nationally and internationally for excellence in our interdisciplinary and experiential approach to undergraduate and graduate education. Equipped with expanded competencies in digital media literacy, students are empowered to contribute to new developments in the field of communication and media and engage in civic action to help create a just and sustainable world."

It is premature to accept or reject this vision, and the Director was candid about the early stages of development of her offerings. This paragraph carries mandatory mentions of excellence, and hints of future status and prestige: Fine, the School has aspirations. The focus on technology nudges the existing programs toward a new center, responsive to Harrington. "New developments," "field of communication and media," "civic action," and "just and sustainable world," need clarity in subsequent strategic planning documents.

The draft was admittedly long. Five paragraphs under "A Learning-Centered Research University" are promotional, assuring of hallmark prestige without demonstrating anything radically new in communications and appropriate technologies. Three paragraphs under "Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Programs" use stock superlatives: graduate programs are "distinctive" and "interdisciplinary" and attract a qualified global student body; knowledge is "relevant," and "adds value" to society; and graduate students do "innovative interdisciplinary work" with faculty. No program would claim any less; You can not avoid such statements, but they do not contribute great weight to a vision statement. They should be re-purposed into a background paragraph in the strategic plan. Three paragraphs under "Service, Leadership, and Development" belong in a statement of values ("We value and reward service..." and "We rely on the integrity...of the community...to reach our full potential") or strategic programs ("We attract new resources...").

Vision statements establish goals, but there was, nevertheless, a second page of "Goals." Under headings "Visibility and Distinctiveness," "Program and Curriculum Innovation," and "Administration and Development," two dozen action items need to be relocated into the Strategies section of a future plan.

Nine themes presented as "Next Steps" were discussed in breakout sessions. These, too, were action items, grouped under the same headings as "Goals," and these need to be revisited in strategic planning efforts (the next step).

Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems

A March 8 meeting of faculty from Plant Sciences (CELS) and others revisited a rejected proposal for a Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems major. Dean Kirby (CELS) explained that the Council of Deans felt it did not promise adequate majors. Dean Higgins (Business) added that the Deans wanted to reduce the number of courses and programs. The Deans (based on no data and complete ignorance of the future?) felt that the program would produce farmers, for which there is no need in Rhode Island (who needs farmers when you have food in Stop & Shop?). While the faculty was able to describe the many job potentials of future graduates, providing anecdotes about students who were working in international programs in aquaculture or agriculture for a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies, it didn't seem that this case was made in the proposal, or that Deans had asked for any data on job opportunities. The Deans tout 1990s-style butts-in-seats management models, yet they are blind to the ghastly threatening future of the State, Nation, and World. Ignorance of the future facilitates rear-view-mirror management, but profound and willful managerial ignorance is making education at URI irrelevant to the real lives of its graduates, and the bureaucracy remains too self-engrossed to notice the coming tsunami.

What do These Articles and Activities Tell Us?

While these examples all purport to be concerned with needed changes in higher education, there are two radically different perspectives at work. Summers, Kim, URI Gen-Ed, and the Harrington School view change as process (or technology, which is process-oriented in nature). Carlson and the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems group view change as content. One focuses on how to do things; the other on things that must be done. There is a vast difference when it comes to facing the most critical challenges of the 21st century.

Summers doesn't really care what student's learn; how they learn matters more. This is the view from Harvard, whose main products are Presidents, Corporate CEOs, or Wall Street Hedge Fund Titans. Keeping up with myriad information streams matters almost as much as maintaining useful networks in Summer's world. But what is the information and the network being used for?

Kim's is the perspective of the bureaucrat seeking the appearance of leading edge thinking through mastery of buzzwords. Say enough of these phrases—"the Smartest Person on Campus is the Campus," "A Common Language Around Innovation," "Support the Core While Running Lots of Experiments," "Practice Collaboration by Difference," "Invest in a Continued Conversation"—and it is easy to persuade oneself that the words have a magical property of meaning a great deal more than they appear to mean. This is the habit of leaders who lack qualities of precise reflection. But what is their substance?

URI's Gen-Ed outline is all about process. Learn skills and techniques (process). Write, communicate, calculate (more process). But what is the hallmark substance of future URI graduates: What do they know about the world?

Harrington also is about process, uniting sibling departments by expanding small silos into a larger silo bound together by technology (process). But what can Harrington graduates now communicate that matters?

Only Carlson writes about serious efforts to know something of vital importance, because the two programs and several examples of learning that he describes are driven by a recognition of the need for knowledge combined with skills that are necessary for survival as the decline of global climate systems and the disappearance of world fossil fuel reserves accelerates to environmental and economic disaster, with a lethal fervor that will be unalterable by mid-century.

Sadly, the failed Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program lies in marked contrast to similar programs now exciting students in Carlson's article. Faced with mid-century catastrophic threats to food and water, including threats to the survival needs of Rhode Islanders, the bureaucracy worries about credit hours and enrollments, and pretends that it has some genuine knowledge about the need for students trained to meet future agricultural needs (as farmers, consumers, business people, or merely as informed citizens).

I fear that we have a deep core of administrators and faculty who are exhibiting unfathomable ignorance of critical elements of the major forces that are beginning to shape the unprecedented challenges of the 21st Century, and the ignorance is so profound that our leadership is not even aware of the great peril facing our graduates. Process-oriented change, built on a world view appropriate for the last century, is paving a useless road to a future that is truly nowhere, and horrible to contemplate.

This is not a road our students need.

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