College teaching works the same way. It's not how much material you cover, but how well you pick the material to cover. Student "disengagement" might be a rational response to an encyclopedic plan with several hundred key concepts and several thousand definitions.
But we should not misconstrue that data as tantamount to disengagement, nor should we assign fewer readings, simply imply because there are data that show many students do not complete reading assignments. This recommendation – of assigning less reading and teaching it in greater depth – was one of the suggestions made by José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked, in his dynamic and imaginative keynote address at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.A number of economists have looked at the folly of attempting to prepare freshmen or sophomores for Ph.D. candidacy exams in one semester. Their colleagues nod politely and keep doing it, and textbook editors err on the side of including more concepts, more sidebars, more diagrams, more definitions.
This enthusiasm is not a recipe for assigning Plato in every class, although that is an idea that most definitely would generate discussion. That written, I believe that we should reconsider how we administrators and educators think about student engagement. It is more than knowledge about civics and current events. It is bigger and deeper than service learning, or a passion to work in one’s community.Indeed.
Provide students with a compelling text and a professor who knows how to raise thought-provoking questions, and students will ponder, debate and imagine the world in new and different ways. They will learn how to think critically and creatively. Cultivating that form of student engagement is no easy task, but it begins by exposing students to great texts and great ideas. Engagement is more than a form of political participation. It is the core of the liberal arts.
Some suggestions for economists. Trading for mutual gain. Opportunity Cost. Specialization by comparative advantage. Transaction Costs. Substitution. Leave the formulas and the crowded diagrams out.