GIGO University

BY AARON BARLOW

Yesterday, for April Fools Day, I posted Gig University, an only slightly satiric look at where some people would like higher education to head. It presents a reductivist vision of humanity and human possibilities. We—or, at least, the masses of us—become nothing more than material to be processed or cogs to fit into extant machinery. This is true, in such a vision, for students, faculty and workers—for everyone, in fact, outside of a small elite. Only a minimum is needed so only a minimum should be expected—or even allowed.

That this vision leads to a sterile, stagnant society should be clear to everyone. Unfortunately, it is not: Many people actually believe that education exists only to fill existing needs, a vision of the future constrained by what is, not what could be. Knowledge that students gain is only knowledge by prior definition—not by possibility.

Education by Student Learning Outcomes is what we are being reduced to. These SLOs are designed by committee, of course, and are extremely bland and often quite meaningless. To offset that, we develop new tools of quantitative assessment—so that we can count student progress, making it real, specific and, some would have us believe, meaningful. Unfortunately, the meaning lies only in the difference in number, not in student lives, lasting knowledge or future application.

And that’s at its best. Reliance on quantification also opens the door for fraud of all sorts, as we see when things like test scores, graduation percentages and teacher ratings become the bases for evaluation.

Real evaluation of education takes a lifetime. But we are in too much of a hurry for that.

In addition to SLOs, we also are prescribing pathways to education, often in perverted extensions of what should be the base concept of a ‘general education’ that covers all sorts of topics and possibilities. When I was an undergraduate, requirements were kept to a minimum so that students could explore—but it was a guided exploration. We didn’t set off blindly but worked with faculty to create entranceways into our own particular unknowns. Today, this has been reduced to listings like those on a prix-fixe menu: One chooses an appetizer, a beverage, a main course and a dessert—but there needn’t be any sort of connection between. Students, quite naturally, are likely to choose those they are most familiar with or have liked before—especially in a high-stakes milieu where each grade confines (or enhances) one’s possibilities.

In all of education, we have stopped trusting the judgment of individuals, wanting assurance that everyone is going to get the same thing with no deviation caused by personality. We hover over our teachers, making sure they adhere to established lesson plans or, in higher education, to discipline-specific ‘information.’ We’re not willing to see either student or teacher as able to contribute to the planning of an individual educational program but, rather than setting generalized goals and trusting that the teacher and student will together work toward them, feel we (as the overseers of education) have to be involved in every single decision—even though that “we” has very little experience in education. Yes, there are bad teachers, but the way to counteract that is to keep teachers working together and to make sure that students are exposed to a variety of teachers.

That variety is important in other ways. Individual students learn in individual ways. Some respond well to one methodology and not to another. Some find inspiration in one teacher while another leaves them cold. No methodology and no teacher is universally successful with all students. Both learning and teaching are arts; the paint-by-numbers approach of SLOs and universal student pathways is only a pallid recreation of the artwork of the past. It has no vibrancy, no life of its own. It ain’t art. Often, it’s not even learning. Usually, it removes teaching from the equation altogether.

In schools for the elite, be they k-12 or higher ed, students receive personal attention from their instructors and, if the established pattern is not working for them, alternatives are crafted. Furthermore, the so-called ‘master teachers’ at these schools are working with students from solid foundations at home. That is, the parents have been involved with the learning of their children since infancy. Frankly, the teachers don’t have to work very hard with most of these students. They simply need to point them in possibly fruitful directions and help them adjust their plans from time to time—which is why, of course, it was such a hoot when MOOCs were such a hot topic a few years ago. The idea was that, if all students could be exposed to the ‘master teachers’ of Harvard and Stanford, all students would succeed. Few such teachers know what the real work of teaching is at all.

Real teaching is something else again. It takes time, patience and attention to the individual needs and possibilities of the student, especially when the student enters the classroom with minimal preparation. It takes consideration of the particular student’s strengths and weaknesses and to cultural circumstances that can constrain possibilities—or even open them up.

At a real college—and this is more to the point of my earlier post—the faculty are the center of the institution because they are the ones who can provide the real teaching. Students, because they come and go, are not quite as important individually from an institutional standpoint (though, from a teaching standpoint, they most certainly are). A faculty that can provide each student with a viable path to meeting degree requirements makes the institution itself viable. The role of the administration should be to support the faculty and to facilitate its activities—not to dictate to it and not to reduce it to cogs in a factory model of education.

What we will have, if the model I described yesterday comes to fruition, is a cynical parody of institutions of higher education, a GIGO model of garbage in, garbage out. The enthusiasts for it see students simply as raw material to be processed and not as individual learners. What they don’t understand is that the process they advocate does nothing to change the student. It simply allows them to graduate in the same state they were in before, simply dressed up a bit for false comparison. These controllers of education see most students as garbage anyway, necessary garbage, sure, but only in need of processing, not improvement. So they don’t care to do more.

Real educators, of course, never see students that way. Nor do real institutions of higher education.

3 thoughts on “GIGO University

  1. And now the antidote to our poisoned system—“the role of the administration should be to support the faculty and to facilitate its activities”–you are not only a prophet, but a sage leader, Aaron Barlow. I am posting your companion pieces together to everybody I know. Thank you!

  2. Perhaps the opening lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy starting “To be or not to be… would be worthy of study here. Today we have a faculty being encouraged, here, to “teach” but whose tenuous position is predicated on “publish/perish” and other elements. Additionally, there is a shift in student population from the eager faces sitting attentively or meeting in versions of the “Dead Poets Society” to students whose financial burdens to attend have them increasingly focused on how to repay those non-forgivable student loans, or to even know that they can become gainfully employed while taking a “course” from Ph.D. who also sees no future on a tenure track.

    Perhaps the ideal of everyone obtaining a post secondary education in a variance of that so wished for by Cardinal Newman is a construct of a past that never was except selectively in medallion institutions catering to a selective population while the remaining, like Marie Antoinette suggests, should consume the equivalent of cake when they crave roast beef.

    If one scans the foresight literature, there is a consensus, not of the demise of the “university” but a significant disruption with emergent alternatives, none of which posit the “straw man” of turning the institution into a vocational institution on steroids but rather suggesting that the monolithic vision will be fragmented, in forms emergent but not fully recognizable at present. While there is recognition, internationally, for the need of post secondary education, it does not suggest that there is a homogenous path, nor is there the idea of the long discredited “separate but equal” used in the US. There are elements that can be teased out but not with certainty with the exception that the idyllic vision of “old main” with students and faculty in deep intellectual embrace was just that, a vision.

    In the 60’s and 70’s, in the US there were radical experiments along the lines suggested in Aaron’s piece, faculty were willing to step out from their traditional academic robes and students were willing to also experiment. Even governments underwrote new public institutions. That spirit has gone and academics write eloquent eulogies, between publishing for tenure and students seek to populate their transcripts to drop on the desks of recruiters. But none, like Indian Jones in the Last Crusade, have faith enough to step off the edge onto that invisible bridge to the vaunted goblet.

    • Unfortunately, the radical experiments fifty years ago were aimed for and populated by elite Americans. They posited a sort of student unlike most outside of the 1% and faculty who, quite frankly, had outside means of support. They were doomed the moment higher education became something (putatively) for everyone. Experimental colleges like Friends World College once was could only attract students willing to fund their time at campuses across five continents and who did not have to rely on skills from particular majors after graduation.

      Experimentation today needs to go along other lines. For me, it begins in classrooms like those of CUNY, of community colleges and public non-residential institutions across the country. It requires willingness to approach students not as empty vessels we can fill (a la Paulo Freire) through standardized systems of instruction but as individual human beings. I know this sounds idealistic, but it is also quite difficult. A single class meeting, today, leaves me exhausted in ways I have never before experienced, for I am focused on the students and not on the content. When there are 20 or 30 in a class, this takes quite a lot of doing and is never completely successful. And no amount of preparation makes me ready for the unfolding of any class session.

      The only way we are going to succeed in changing higher education is by working on the personal level, of stepping off that ledge onto our own personal bridge, of taking our own unheralded risks. Philip K. Dick eventually decided that the apocalypse is never generalized but personal. So is revolution. Success comes from how we act day to day–and there are plenty out there engaged in their own revolutionary activity on this basis.

      As the personal revolutions begin to take hold, we start to reach out, finding kindred souls also involved in their personal quests for change. Right now, I think, we are at the point where thousands of us are working individually and are almost at the point where our personal actions will begin to be seen as collective–and will start having an impact on our institutions.

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