There is an old Pennsylvania Dutch proverb that goes, “We grow too soon old and too late smart.” Some colleges still have a youthful outlook.
“In the last few years, however, a cottage industry has sprouted up in academe to measure whether students are actually learning and to reform classes that don’t deliver,” Robin Wilson wrote in the September 10, 2010 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Accreditors now press colleges to show that they are teaching what students need to know.”
It’s an uphill battle. “Faculty rewards have nothing to do with the ability to assess student learning,” Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California told Wilson. “I get promoted for writing lots of articles, not for demonstrating learning outcomes.”
Then again, being too demonstrative in academia can be a bad career move. “A tenured professor at Louisiana State University was pulled from the classroom after she gave failing grades to most students in her introductory biology course last spring,” Wilson reported.
She was definitely bucking a trend. “Mindy S. Mark, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Riverside, performed a study that showed college students spend 10 fewer hours a week studying than they did in 1961,” Wilson reported. “Meanwhile, college grades on average have gone up.”
“Unless one is to assume that current students learn much more, much faster than students did 50 years ago, a natural conclusion is that professors are demanding less while giving better grades.”
But what they do demand may have little utility. “I was looking at an English 101 composition class, and the professor was having them read Foucault,” Andrew Hacker, a professor emeritus of political science at the City University of New York’s Queens College remembered. “The kids will memorize it like quadratic equations, but they will forget it right away and never use it again.”
Meanwhile, yet another academic fad promises to increase the chasm between college and the real world. “Self-designed majors generally allow students to choose which courses count toward their majors,” Ilana Kowarski reports in that same issue of The Chronicle.
“Bridget A. Flynn, a junior at Indiana U. at Bloomington, entered college caring deeply about animal rights,” The Chronicle reported. “Her individualized major, in environmental ethics, combines politics, ethics, and science in a study of environmental sustainability.”
But how sustainable will it be after graduation, even in a so-called green economy? Professors and administrators who are pushing this program claim that self-directed college graduates are attractive to employers, but when pressed for details, give hypothetical speculation about how they might be better job candidates.
“If you have a company or nonprofit, you are looking for employees who have an interesting collection of skills and who can shift gears quickly between tasks and individualized majors fit the bill,” Trudy G. Steinfeld, who runs NYU’s Wasserman Center for Career Development, claims. What she is definite about is the number of such firebrands who got into grad school.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia .
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