6.12.12

THE FUNDAMENTALS MATTER.

I've often characterized college professoring as acting: the real teaching goes on in middle school.  That noted, the actor must still love his craft.  In the absence of such acting, canned online college seems to have some advantages.
If most professors still think that teaching means standing before their classes and reading lectures from notes or PowerPoint, it only makes sense to post them online or let students read them for themselves instead of subjecting them to such tedium in a lecture hall. When they simply give students True/False, Multiple Choice, or Fill-In-The Blank exams, it's more efficient--and cost effective--to have students take their exams online (or someplace other than on a campus) and to have computers grade them.
I'm not sure where the author gets "most professors" from, although its funny to get the latest missives from faculty "development" types who are on one hand pushing active learning and getting away from chalk and talk and engaging in wordnoise about facilitating learning, and on the other hand offering Blackboard programming tips and secrets of successful online courses. Where the professor becomes an appendage of the machine, you look for cheaper places to locate the machine.
Writers like Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) and Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind andDrive) have forcefully argued over the past decade that when work becomes routine it can be automated or outsourced. We've already seen this happening in such fields as accounting, law, and computer programming, where "workers essentially run the algorithm, figure out the correct answer, and deliver it instantaneously from their computer to someone six thousand miles away," writes Pink. Even the medical profession, he adds, "has become standardized" and "reduced to a set of repeatable formulas for diagnosing and treating various ailments." Some physicians call this "cookbook medicine."
You boost the productivity you measure, but patient care diminishes. Measure something other than patient visits per hour, the cost-cutting, quality-diminishing imperatives change. So let it be with higher education.
When professors resort to "cookbook teaching," there's no reason why their profession shouldn't be outsourced too.
Teaching has much in common with farming, in that the field conditions and the climate vary from year to year, and methods that work well with one class fall flat with another, impounding intellectual horsepower and engagement in ceteris paribus. Professors -- and middle school teachers doing the really heavy lifting -- get it.
They also work with students to help them become better thinkers, readers, and writers. How?

Through personal attention (such as tutorials) and classroom interaction (such as discussions and the guided close reading of texts). By constantly testing their students' minds against theirs, forcing them to ask the hard questions and to explain them with significant answers. And by giving them appropriate personalized feedback.
Exam week is coming, and I really shouldn't be procrastinating at Cold Spring Shops with some personalized feedback yet to deliver.  Fifty people, each deserving of the attention I'd like to be able to provide to one person on a full-time basis, and the Orange Bowl hoopla going on ...
The result of this kind of attention and interactivity is they get to know their students and can empathize with them--understanding their longings, their genuine abilities and interests, their true needs. These aren't merely ineffable qualities of teaching and learning; they are real, significant, and personally meaningful attributes to anyone who has ever experienced them from his or her teacher.
Indeed.  And the students will notice: on more than one occasion someone has gratefully noted my effort to learn everyone's names.  You'll make more of an impression on a student you had as freshman or sophomore if you say hello by name to that person as a junior or senior ... even if that student might not have been completely happy with your grading.

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