Will My Students Learn Better if I am a Monkey Wrench in the System or a Cog?

by Kent Oswald

Does anyone know, and will they share, the purpose of higher education, both the learning and teaching parts? I’ve experienced big and small, private and public, research- and teaching-focused college and graduate school. Any general agreement on pedagogic methods and goals remains a mystery. While hoping I am a cog in the learning machine, I wonder if I might be a monkey wrench.

As far as can be examined from within my bubble, I am part of a system that is devoid of consistency and struggles with flexibility. For every “expert” declaration of what education requires or serves — and since everyone is educated it seems everyone believes her/himself an expert — students and institutions seem ill-served by the idea of either the “one-size-fits-all” or “we must cater to every student” pronouncement. No child is left behind, but it seems pretty hit and miss whether we bring every student forward.

While I ask students to find their intelligence(s) among those outlined by Howard Gardiner as a way to help them do their best studying and maximize their learning, I do not have a way to grade based on that. As a result, it is not just grading that is haphazard, but all our assessments of student potential and achievement. Socio-economic factors, and certain personality assessment tests may be as predictive of learning outcomes as standardized test scores, but when we use education as a tool to rank it is hard to get beyond the bug that all appraisals have serendipitous or subjective aspects.

My journey to cogdom began many years ago with the assumption I was moving from high school to Grades 13 to 17, the next and likely final laps of the education course on which my parents set me. It’s distant enough that I don’t feel badly that I don’t remember what I expected; I do regret not recognizing college and high school were supposed to be different learning experiences. As an undergrad I first attended a “prestigious,” small, private college, then a public community college, and, finally, a major research institution, which confirmed and released me. Each school offered different philosophies about what an undergrad should know.

Paradoxically, given the specifics and details stressed as necessary on required work at each school, there was no clarity on what qualified professors to profess. All college catalogs (this was back in the day, before all pitches moved online) talked up the learning aspect of student attendance. Yet, it what qualified professors to profess remained shrouded in mystery. However, graduate school led to believe it was their proficiency in writing to the satisfaction of their peers rather than the critical thinking they inspired in their classrooms. Unless the faculty member was an adjunct (hidden among the tenured and tenure-track) who, it turns out, were hired for their willingness to not embarrass the school while working for lower caste wages and benefits.

This is not to say that I did not experience academic and life lessons that still inspire. I did. However, the teaching quality and approaches of my faculty members did not just vary by school, but by whomever happened to stand behind the lectern.

I experienced teaching and learning in their disparate ways throughout graduate school. Scholars took both “here’s what I do, show me what you think” as well as a “read this, not that” approaches. One professor rolled in, as if it were a cocktail party gathering of peers, sat down and chatted in general terms about the subject. Another quizzed us on assignments and supervised group work sessions as if monitoring untrustworthy seventh graders. Did a higher pedagogic deity assign each a different mission statement? If that were the plan, then perhaps I misread the answer to the scholastic ontological question, or cannot comprehend how these multiple tiles make up one gorgeous scholastic mosaic?

Now a teacher at a large, public university, I know why (to learn? to earn?) higher education should inform my work with students. Nonetheless, it appears  that all public agreements to learning outcomes notwithstanding, the administration and faculty have differences about educational norms. Personal and social media communication over contract “demands” and institutional policies during two-plus years of out-of-contract negotiations lay bare how many ways faculty divide in their approaches to their work, and what administration thinks of its mission. Profs. are teachers, researchers, and administrators to degrees that vary by department and professional status; admin folks are employees of a university in the education business vertical, with stakeholders ranging from students to lawmakers, and goals ranging from public policy-making and community service to enforcing educational benchmarks.

On my speck of dust in this universe of conflicting missions, should I hold students to my own arbitrary standard of what is the proper mix of subject knowledge and ability to communicate it? After all, every grader creates a different rubric for assessments, and individualized rubrics are open to interpretations that may even vary within a particular class by student. If I don’t find my students are prepared, might that be because all or some who previously graded them let them float upwards instead of inhibiting their academic ascension? Who am I to impede such a process? To the best of my knowledge, no student has ever caused a stir over the faculty member who gave a grade higher than the student thought s/he deserved.

As a long-time, highly partial observer of my children’s interactions with education, and as someone who sat for a few years on the curriculum council of a suburban school district, I am aware that it is not just higher education that is challenged with definition of purpose. Where once education was used to maintain ruling classes, or socialize all of society’s stratum, or  establish basic literacy skills needed for as an agrarian- morphed-into-an-industrialized society, there has been mission creep. Now, education must do all that and more. Some schools need to feed and sometimes even clothe students; some need to provide healthcare, legal protection and other social services; schools need to prepare students along both academic and vocational tracks; courses must inspire critical thinking about issues of today and tomorrow while also teaching students how to get the highest grades on tests based on edicts of today and yesterday.

Literally and figuratively, education at all levels is now asked to help the blind see, the mute speak, the deaf hear, the non-ambulatory to walk … a saddling of responsibilities that comes with financial, time, and power limits. At least that’s how I experience my job as a professor.

I am not trying to solve all the problems. All I want to know is what to do when I next face my class, and what to take from that experience into the class after that. I assume my mission is to help students learn, but learn what? And do I demand they learn if it is at the cost of a future based on something (i.e., a good grade) I can easily provide whether or not they comprehend what I want them to? I know I am a step toward what they will earn, but how do I guide them to either the most, or the most fulfilling earnings?

Should my goals be their goals? Are my goals the same as other faculty? Are our goals in line with the larger framework in which we all struggle?

Again, what’s the purpose of higher education? Can one person at a time raise a strong, silent hand with the correct answer. Anyone? …. Bueller? Bueller?

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