Too many d00dly nutsacks: I want out.

I’m thinking about running away!

Meanwhile, for those of you who just can’t bear a pure “fluff” post with a pretty young woman instead of a smelly ballsack or a contaminating application of menstrual blood, here’s some food for thought.  Via reader and commenter Susan, Adam F. Falk, President of Williams College, writes “In Defense of the Living, Breathing Professor:”

Most of us in higher education take the long view about the value of what we do. Sure, students graduate with plenty of facts in their heads. But the transmission of information is merely the starting point, a critical tool through which we engage the higher faculties of the mind.

What really matters is the set of deeper abilities—to write effectively, argue persuasively, solve problems creatively, adapt and learn independently—that students develop while in college and use for the rest of their lives.

At Williams College, where I work, we’ve analyzed which educational inputs best predict progress in these deeper aspects of student learning. The answer is unambiguous: By far, the factor that correlates most highly with gains in these skills is the amount of personal contact a student has with professors. Not virtual contact, but interaction with real, live human beings, whether in the classroom, or in faculty offices, or in the dining halls. Nothing else—not the details of the curriculum, not the choice of major, not the student’s GPA—predicts self-reported gains in these critical capacities nearly as well as how much time a student spent with professors.

What follows from this finding is obvious, but apparently in need of saying these days: What we do is expensive—and worth it—because these rich, human interactions can’t be replaced by any magical application of technology.

Yeah, but you can’t infinitely scale up faculty contact hours without hiring more faculty, so I’m guessing that Falk’s ideas are not in danger of becoming the latest trend in higher edutainment.  It’s harder to skim the cream to feed fat administrative salaries if the faculty are making a living and aren’t balkanized into regular and “special,” or divided into F2F and online teachers.

I’m glad Falk wrote this, although it reminds me of that old Fawlty Towers line about the Bleeding Obvious.  I’m also reminded of that old joke about divorce:

Q.  Why are divorces so expensive?

A.  Because they’re worth it! 

Falk’s argument seems to boil down the same way:  Why are Liberal Arts educations so expensive?  Because they’re worth it.  (Confidential to Mr. Falk:  are you accepting job applications?  If not, can I be the founding member of your fan club anyway?)

14 thoughts on “Too many d00dly nutsacks: I want out.

  1. I agree with everything Falk said *except* that the kind of education he describes cannot be accomplished online. It can (at least for some disciplines; admittedly, as a writing teacher, I’m probably in an ideal position to make it work), but it’s at least as time-consuming, and therefore expensive, if not more, as the face-to-face version. So no, it won’t be the wave of the future, at least as long as the current crop of administrators (and legislators) are in charge. But I do wish people, including Falk, would stop dismissing online education entirely, or assuming all online classes work the same way. The net effect, I fear, is that there won’t be a discussion about what high-quality online education would look like (which will undoubtedly, as noted above, vary by discipline, and may be impossible or difficult or limited in some disciplines)among faculty who do have some power, and the whole enterprise will be run by administrators supervising non-tenure-track faculty with little to no voice or power.

    It’s also worth noting that Falk is talking about Williams, which I suspect has almost entirely residential students, and probably offers decent financial aid, allowing those students to spend most of their time on campus. By contrast, I work on a campus where some residential students commute from their dorms/campus apartments to their 20-, 30-, or 40-hour a week jobs off-campus. It may well be that there’s no good reason to institute online education at Williams; that doesn’t mean online education isn’t a viable option, wisely exercised, elsewhere.

    But he’s right about one thing: the living, breathing professor in charge of the course that (s)he created, and updates regularly in response to what (s)he has observed while actively teaching the class (i.e. interacting with individual students, not just lecturing at them), is key. Some of us just live and breathe in front of computer screens on occasion.


  2. I would like to see Falk’s data for the claim that student contact with Proffies alone make the difference. It’s not that I doubt him, but I’d just like to see how that broke down according to where the contact happened (In office hours, seminars, or in a large lecture hall? Talking over lunch or coffee?) Because I’m assuming that not all contact is truly equally valuable.

    I take your point, CC, that online learning can work in some specific instances. However, I found Falk’s spirited defense of F2F teaching a bracing remedy to all of the riding towards online ed to the sound of the hounds that we’re subjected to.


  3. I’m a bit torn on this one. I did my first undergrad degree as a new mum and I would not have been able to complete it had there been much requirement for attending classes or meetings in person. Mind you, that was back in the days when ‘distance learning’ meant doing things by post and paper, so there was still a lot of individual contact with the prof even if it wasn’t face-to-face. Now that I’m starting to do some teaching myself, though, I definitely prefer the face-to-face model. I agree with Cassandra that well-designed online learning can work very well, particularly in certain subject areas, but that doesn’t come cheap. I think the real problem isn’t the trade-off between face-to-face and online, but the trend from some quarters to treat teaching as a commodity that just needs to be ‘delivered’ to another bunch of commodities previously known as ‘students’ in the cheapest (oops, sorry, “most efficient”) way possible.


  4. Cassandra – I graduated from Williams a few years ago, and it is over 90% residential (residence was *required* for everyone but a minority of seniors), almost entirely populated by 18-21 year olds, and has really, really excellent need-based financial aid. So yes, what is expected of students at Williams in terms of on campus attendance would not be reasonable for older, more distant students or students with full-time employment.

    On the other hand, I think because it is so easy to serve the student body with F2F teaching, and because (at least while I was there) the college has a large endowment and few adjuncts, Williams probably doesn’t face the threats to faculty employment/value that many schools serving more diverse populations do. So it’s easy, for Falk to say. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important, because the structural shift to undervaluing teaching is very much underway.


  5. As a non “liberal arts” teacher I feel excluded from a discussion I have something to say about from my perspective. First, we always knew that we teach skills. A lot of what we teach is either foundation or material that will be dated soon. We want the students to be able to understand and use material that will show up later.

    Writing improves with writing. Critic of a written document can be done in writing. We are not involved in arguing at all. Solve problems is what we teach. Most people’s creativity level is low and is extremely difficult to improve. (Have no idea where Falk saw teaching of creativity.) Adapt and learn independently is exactly what skills do for you.

    Bottom line: Falk’s statement starts a discussion, but it has to be vastly changed as the discussion continues.


  6. Falk’s argument is about the kind of education that Williams offers. I don’t think there’s a problem in saying that online courses are inferior in some fields or disciplines, whereas they may be workable in others.

    In spite of CC’s claims, I am dubious of the value of online ed in a lib arts education. I can see some cases in which a blended class (some in-class contact, some online only work) might work, but is the undergraduate education I’d want for my younger family members online? Hell no! If they decide to pursue a certificate or a master’s program online, then that’s their business–but a rigorous, solid undergrad education should be F2F, in person, and in the flesh.

    I have no doubt that Contingent Cassandra is doing a great job within the broken system she must work. But how much better would she be as a teacher if she were Tenure Track Cassandra, in a real classroom with real, live students?


  7. There’s no doubt that as a(nother) Williams grad, I’m apt to endorse Falk’s vision. Under the leadership of Frank Oakley, Williams instituted an Oxford-style tutorial program in which 2 students meet with a faculty member once a week, one student writes a paper, the other serves as a discussant. It was a small program that has been significantly enlarged over the years, and even back in ze olden days, it was a formative experience. There’s not much that can replace discussing and defending ideas in such a small setting, just as there’s little that can replace a faculty member telling a seminar that he will always be in the campus snack bar after class to continue discussions or shoot the sh*t.

    It’s a very particular model of higher education that isn’t right for every student or every goal. Someone who wants to be a phlebotomist or mechanic or whatever may require technical training that needs to occur in a lab setting but other information can be conveyed adequately in large classes, in commuter sessions, and even online. Maybe accountants or actuaries can learn the necessary skills online or in large classes. But one hopes that simply skill-driven professions might also value creative thinking, problem solving, persuasive writing, and an ability to interact as humans, and those are less well developed online or in 300-person lectures. To wit, it’s not that learning can’t occur online, it’s that that type of learning is radically different in form, goals, and outcomes.

    But if learning, education for democracy/citizenship, and thinking are privileged (in all senses of the word), there’s a lot to be said for the SLAC model, and I’m glad to see Adam Falk like Morty Schapiro before him (a physicist and an economist, respectively) defend it.


  8. Thanks, Older Eph. This is right on:

    To wit, it’s not that learning can’t occur online, it’s that that type of learning is radically different in form, goals, and outcomes.

    And it’s not just OK for proffies like me to make invidious distinctions. It’s really up to us entirely if we want to preserve even a shred of this for students who can’t afford or otherwise will never make the pilgrimage to Williamstown.


  9. A part of me would love, per Contingent Cassandra, to acknowledge at least in the abstract that some kinds of learning could appropriately happen on-line, given the right institutional commitments (a huge given) and given the evolution of a philosophical framework of the kind that might emerge from the “discussion” that she (and koshembos) hope to protect. The ultimate “distance learners,” after all, were the astronomers of Galilleo’s generation and after, were they not? But the larger part of me is cynical enough to think that the “distance borg” in the adminisphere is enough like the current Republican Party that any gestures toward broad-minded dialogue would quickly get one stamped as the pedagogical equivalent of “Another Democrat for Green Coal Energy.” And that one would thereby become another lubricant in the pipeline toward more “disruptive transformation,” because after all, “the cloud is our friend.” I think that the attack on the actual campus-defined university has a wide political agenda, one that goes well beyond the bounds of “Excellence Without Money.” And from that kind of a future I want out, so I’ll just stay with the old zero-sum essentialism that currently defines the “debate,” however regrettably.


  10. Well, just to add another scientist as a counterpoint to koshem. I don’t know what his field is. Mine is biology, and distance ed is fairly useless.

    Yes, there are vast books’ full of facts to learn. But nobody except students of enormous aptitude manage to learn those facts well on their own. The context where they belong just doesn’t gel in most people’s minds without the guided handholding of a prof who can spot where the student’s problems lie.

    Yes, there’s a great deal of skill involved. Pipetting, dissection, distinguishing a nerve from a strand of connective tissue, I can’t think of any skills used in biology that can be learned virtually. That’s why it’s a lab science.

    Yes, solving problems is an important component, but I beg to differ that there is no creativity involved in that. I also differ in that it can’t be taught. Maybe not literally, but there is a great deal of ability students have that they don’t know they have. A teacher can help them to discover it if the teacher is on the spot to clear away mental obstacles as they show themselves.

    For me, the bottom line is that non-teachers need to stop telling teachers how to do their jobs, whether online or off. It’s way more skilled than plumbing, and yet nobody argues with him about how to fix the faucet.


  11. I went to Williams and can only endorse the model of the SLAC, especially when it’s as well-funded as Williams is. But even at Williams, things are changing–a friend pointed out to me a year ago that more and more teaching there is being done not by tenure-track profs but by visiting profs, who I hope are being better treated than “pure” adjuncts, but are still the kind of contingent labor that a school like Williams (well, all colleges, but especially a school as rich and devoted to teaching as William is) should avoid. Here is the list of new faculty for 12-13, and VAPs seem to far outnumber (I assume tenure-track) Assistant Professors:


  12. @anothereph, interesting point. I have a friend who’s just started a year-long VAP at my SLAC alma mater, Carleton. I’ll have to ask if she’s among other VAPs. I don’t remember being taught by any contingent faculty (late 80s), other than one distinguished guest professor.


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