Insert buzzword-filled garbage headline here.

Satire worthy of Jonathan Swift on the future of higher education op-ed generating machines over at The Tattooed Prof (Kevin Gannon)  Go read:

Cutting-edge overgeneralizations culled from evolutionary science tells us that we’re hardwired to meet these existential threats via a combination of fight-or-flight response and provocative thinkpieces. American Higher Education stands at such a moment now, a disruptive juncture to end all disruptive junctures. At the end of the day, it will be the Innovators who preside over the College of the Future. And they will be joined by the Humanities professors who are brave enough to ignore the nattering nabobs of pedagogy and cling tenaciously to What Made Us Great. Both groups will win, or neither will. That’s the nature of Disruption. 

I want especially to pick up on Gannon’s last paragraph, which underlies if not is featured in any breast-beating and wailing and gnashing of teeth about What’s Wrong with Higher Ed today, namely, the nostalgia most of us feel for our college days (mostly because we were young), and the false memory we sometimes have of our own seriousness and studiousness back in the day:

I may be some years removed from my own undergraduate experience, but that won’t stop me from extrapolating from it to make boundless decrees about what today’s undergraduates need. I distinctly recall some of the lectures I attended as a Neophyte Humanist yearning for mentorship and guidance for my delicate, impressionable mind. There was the impressive vastness of the auditorium, the distinct smell of old books and mildewed ceiling tiles, the smooth boards of the front stage, worn down by the tread of many a Demosthenes imparting–nay, entrusting–the Western Tradition to a new generation. And now I was one link in that chain, stretching from the Agora to the Quad, which is where I hung out when I was skipping lectures. I remember everything that happened as if it were unfolding right now–the overhead projector and fuzzy transparencies, the lapel mic fading in and out, the sweet bliss of dozing off just enough where I could still hear the professor’s voice in my dreams.

Exactly!  But these pompous pronouncements never remember college the way they actually experienced it, do they?

I’m mostly embarrassed by my behavior and class attendance record in college.  I remember regularly falling asleep in my 9 a.m. Art History class, which I liked but which put me in a dark, dark room shortly after I had woken up.  I remember skipping just about every single lecture in my two-semester Western Civ  sequence Freshman Year.  You could say I was a slow learner, or at least a very slow developer of a prefrontal cortex.  In short, I was your average above-average idiot with below-average late-teenage decision-making skills until I was probably in my mid-twenties.

But here’s the big difference between me and those op-ed writers:  I’ve been to college nearly every day of my working life since then, too!  And my attendance record and my staying-awake-through-class abilities have improved remarkably.  Of course, as we all know from the discourse on K-12 “reform” that education is too important to be left to the educators.

15 thoughts on “Insert buzzword-filled garbage headline here.

  1. I remember a lot of secondary school antics, a fair number of them involving as much creativity and Imagineering as anything I ever turned in, but not that much from college. The thrill of skipping a class wore off when I realized that I would have to hide out in my room all day for fear that the prof would jump out from behind a bush or accost me in a cafeteria, demanding to know where I had “been” that day. Presumably faculty at my slac weren’t that much more attentive to these things at the granular nature of the individual student than I am in my addled years now, but I really believed (narcissistically) that the whole world was watching every move that I made as a freshman. By the next year, habits had become inured.

    I did see one kid get kicked out of a class by a geology professor for dozing in broad daylight. The kid jumped to his feet, rubbing his eyes, and blurted out the hilariously confessional “I wasn’t sleeping, sir. I was *almost* asleep, but not sleeping.” That still got him the shown-to-the-door prize. I even have the cardiogram-like involuntary pencil spike in the note I was taking (about the flood-prone nature of streams in Utah) when the prof. bellowed “Barrows…. OUT!!!). Which I inscribed as “burrows out,” as the majestic cottonwood tree scoured the bed of the previously dry Utah stream. Poor Barrows. I needed a good chuckle today, but I don’t think he graduated with us.


      • Another sister of the Sisterhood of the Same Mistakes. I went to class but learned nothing (my fault, not theirs) until I transferred to another school in junior year. At that point, the courses got interesting and I started doing some work.

        But I still remember a first-year class so mind-numbingly dull (and held after lunch, in a dark room, with many slides being shown) that I tried holding my breath for ever-longer periods just to stay awake.


      • P. S. I think these experiences are what give us empathy for our own students, though. Been there, done that–yes, indeedy.


    • I was going to excerpt that same quotation. Although I’ve been in the Upper Midwest long enough to believe that I was just an average idiot with below average late teenage decision making skills.

      I think in some ways my students, collectively, are more together than I was when I went to college. The best thing that happened to me was “wasting” two quarters retaking Russian language courses and realizing I was not going to be a Russian studies major. It took me another year to actually sign up to be a history major.


  2. I regularly dozed off in lectures (and my lecture notes have many, many trail-offs to show it), but the real horror was dozing off in seminars where there would be about 10 of us sitting in armchairs in an over-heated room. And unlike Historiann, I seem to have to work just as hard to stay awake now as I ever did as an undergrad. I’ve been in plenty of lectures in the last couple of years where a combination of over-heated room and a droning voice means I’ve been digging fingernails into my hands to try to avoid nodding off (or at least nodding off visibly!)


  3. I really am sick of people arguing for policy changes in higher education today based on their personal experiences from twenty, thirty or forty years ago. I was an idiot then and not terribly self aware. I would not trust the testimony or advice of my twenty-something self. When I look back at my twenty-something self. I am more learned. But I doubt I am “smarter.”

    I am also sick of people telling me that tuition at state school X costs too much and that they worked their way through school in the 1960s. I have to point out to them that the student body at Woebegone State has doubled since 1964, but I would estimate that our total state allocation has only grown enough to keep up with inflation and add on ten percent for special programs and allocations from the Feds. As a result we are serving twice as many students, with new mandates to help those students in particular areas, but without twice as much money from the state, so that means we increase tuition to make up the difference. I am met with the blank stare of incomprehension and the person replies, “Yeah, but when I went to college in the 1960s I could pay for my tuition, housing, and a car by working a summer job.”

    Nostalgia is pernicious in this context.


  4. But the people who remember being able to pay for college ARE right. (And so are you, Matt L.) Our state school students should be able to pay for college with a summer job. And we, the collective taxpayers, should make that happen.

    I was very good about attending all my classes, but I didn’t know how to study, and that really showed! And I didn’t have nearly the responsibilities that many of my students have.


  5. I went to an engineering undergraduate and we were mainly grinds–those of us who got through the first year intact, at least. I gave no great performance in my first year of liberation but I sobered up, both figuratively and literally, just in time to realise how worried I ought to be. That worry stuck with me for a while. “What do all those other people know that I don’t know?” was a big concern and a great motivator. Still, looking back on it, the sink or swim academic approach sucked and I’m glad we don’t do that so much any more.

    Bardiac makes a good point about knowing how to be a learner. I spend a couple of days at the start of each semester just talking with my big lecture section about that. Yo, there is no such thing as a “learning style” in which you come to lectures unprepared, with no notepaper and no pencil. They grow up a lot over the next few years. It’s really excellent to be a part of that. I don’t know what those lecturers who acted as if they were just trying to flunk as many of us as possible thought the point was.


  6. I was also going to recommend the article that Kathie mentions above, which I thought was very interesting. I’ve long thought that the “active learning” lobby was largely talking to itself. Not that there is anything wrong with active learning–properly defined–in a diversified program of learning activities, of which, listening (actively) to sages on stages is a perfectly legitimate component. The world comes at you in all sorts of packages, and the more ways you have of apprehending it, the better you’ll do.


  7. Not such a fan of the Times piece. If lecturing is going to teach all those great skills, faculty are going to have to pause lecture to impart, model, and workshop those skills of attentive listening, finding the argument, and focused notetaking. Simply lecturing isn’t going to achieve the sought after knowledge transfer (oops jargon) and more of us think we deliver a lecture that will leave students on the edge of their seats than do. Lecturing and active learning have their place–often in the same 50 to 110 minute class session.


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