The community college dean is thinking about what it takes to get students to retain what we teach them. It’s not a trivial or simple question. Clearly covering all the material in the world is a colossal waste of time if no students retain it. Maybe still if only a few do.

Classes in the major at least enjoy a certain minimal buy-in from most students. Gen Ed courses, as the dean reflects, may be the only time those students ever get a whiff of our discipline.

Given that not everybody will become an expert in your subject, what do you want them to take away from it?

I’ll admit that it took a couple years of teaching for me to start thinking in those terms. Early on, I made the rookie mistake of trying to ‘cover’ everything. When I got back bizarrely disjointed versions of the material in papers, I gradually realized the error and started trying to focus more on the big picture. After a while, I decided that what I really wanted the students to develop was a combination of aggressive curiosity and some sense of how to frame questions. If they got that, I figured they were capable of following up on their own. Less ‘covering,’ more ‘uncovering.’

Same here. However, it’s worth noting that actually teaching and learning is only a small fraction of what education is for. There’s reproduction of elites to take care of, legitimating the ‘open’ society, creating habits of resentful deference to one’s educational ‘betters’, sorting people into occupational hierarchies, managing child care and surplus labor, producing disciplined, docile bodies for the workaday grind, and so on, none of which are incompatible with failing to teach the students the least thing they’ll remember later.



  1. Geeze Carl! How could you possibly forget “employing bureaucrats” and “attempting to eliminate original thinking”!!!! (GRIN)

    On the (somewhat) more serious side, there is a real flaw in the assumption that retention comes only from the supply side of the equation (i.e. teaching). The students have a responsibility to retain what they want/need out of it (wry grin). So, when we are thinking about retention, one of the better ways to frame that thinking is in terms of a demand side draw – i.e. what do the students want to get out of it.

  2. LOL – which most of them can’t read (GRIN).

    No, point taken and it’s a good one. But, if that was all they wanted, there are cheaper options available (“For only $29.95 you can earn a BA, MA or PhD!…..”).

  3. Ha Kvond!

    Carl, love the cynicism of your additional factors here. One of my most frustrating experiences as a graduate student revolved around landing a teaching fellowship. As a part of that fellowship I had to attend a series of courses talking about pedagogy. Inevitably I found that those conducting these courses spent a lot of time talking about the “vaunted” aims of liberal arts education in creating “free and ethical humans” capable of thinking critically and carrying on the tradition. While I certainly value these aims, for some reason I had an allergic reaction to the myopia of this way of characterizing education (perhaps my allergies to this idealized way of talking began here). What was ignored in this way of framing education– to my thinking –was the manner in which education functions to (re)produce certain conditions of production within the social system. If I responded with so much hostility, then this is because, on the one hand, I felt that there was an outright disavowal of the role that academics play in (re)producing a certain social structure. Not only does the university seek to (re)produce, well, academics of a certain sort, but it also (re)produces good workers in certain classes outside the academy. Moreover, this isn’t simply a function of the content of education, but of a certain socio-economic form. Students loans, for example, create good docile little workers that must enter the work-force to pay off those loans rather than agitating or traveling the world or doing art or whatever. Student loans might be an accidental feature of education (in the Scholastic sense of “accident”), but they have certain structural consequences for the social system as a whole. Thus what we get is a sort of sorting machine that helps to (re)produce the stratification of society. It is not that a number of the goals of education aren’t laudable and politically revolutionary, but rather that there seems to be a constitutive disconnect among many academics where they idealize what they’re doing rather than examining how their institutional practice feeds into certain forms of social stratification.

    All that aside, I do think it’s somewhat misguided to expect students to retain content in their intro courses. In my intro philosophy courses the aim isn’t for students to be able to remember all the details of Spinoza, Lucretius, Plato, Leibniz, Hume, etc., but rather to learn a particular way of thinking, reasoning, and arguing. I won’t be disappointed if my students, ten years from now, can remember hardly anything about Plato’s Republic. I would be disappointed if they didn’t retain, by then, a particular way of posing questions, recognizing that questions and problems should be posed, and recognizing that claims require reasons. Content strikes me as something restricted to those that go on to major in a particular subject.

  4. What’s this? I step out to powder my nose for a second and a salon breaks out?

    Kvond, I’m still waiting for a freudian to show up and complete our little wordplay. Meanwhile, I was swept away by that Thales reference you floated.

    I appreciate all the help with my cynicism. Marc, bureaucracy and brain-death are redundant, aren’t they? I like your shift of attention to the demand side. My students do report that they’re mostly interested in Slawkenbergius’ famous “piece of paper,” at which point I don’t so much ask them if they can read it, but if they would really want to work for any employer stupid enough to pay them a higher salary just because they have one. How long will that company be in business?

    Levi, I know we share a fondness for Bourdieu so he’s in both our subtexts on these issues. It’s hard to imagine the education industry getting to where we chew up as much time and resources as we do without performing significant reproduction and legitimation services to earn our keep. Reproduction being the first priority of any assemblage worthy of the name, after all. The vicious circle is that all of our criticisms just vanish without a trace into that second column: look, see, we’re an open society, we not only tolerate but actively support legions of eggheads who want to smash the state. It’s true that so many of our colleagues are opaque to this irony. I comfort myself that when states get smashed, people like us are generally among the first to get led out into the fields and shot.

    Claims require reasons, YES. And some awareness that what counts as a reason depends on fundamental yet contingent premises.

    In some fields content even in the major is nearly obsolete by the time they graduate, and employers expect to train on the job anyway. So they want evidence that you’re a quick and effective study. Interesting perspective on that from my lawyer ex-wife: the top-rated law schools that send their graduates to Supreme Court clerkships and big corporate firms have lousy pass-rates on the Bar exam in comparison to lower-ranked schools who accordingly advertise their high pass-rates. Why is this? Well, the Bar exam is a test of elementary legal practice. The fancy schools teach legal theory, research and reasoning on the theory that any chimp can pick up the details relevant to a case on the fly; the others focus on teaching the details to the chimps.

  5. Hi Carl,

    Marc, bureaucracy and brain-death are redundant, aren’t they?

    Normally I would agree but, given some of the people I have been dealing with recently…….

    I really like your wife’s law school example :-).

  6. Yeah, Marc, the Bar thing is sort of a macro-example of the ‘teaching to the test’ swindle – the marketing is that you’re giving everyone access to the high-range skills and knowledge, when in fact you’ve just slid in a de-skilled menial layer, dressed up in the trappings of accomplishment, at the bottom of the pyramid.

    On bureaucracy, I ask my students how they would like it if they had to know someone to get their driver’s license. Of course the only ones who like that idea do, in fact, know someone.

  7. I think the standardized test issue– which is increasingly creeping into universites –is a good example of why it can be disastrous to ignore these sorts of Bourdieuean questions about the extra-academic. I’ve sat on the committees dealing with these issues, and the creep of these practices into the university level is frightening. Much of this stuff is well below the radar of many faculty around the country because we sit smugly in our assumptions as to what “higher education” is, assuming that it is obvious to everyone. What we don’t notice is that increasingly university administration has come to be packed with career administrators that have never themselves taught in the classroom in any significant way, nor done significant research of their own. This has very real consequences for the future of university education. Having been trained as administrators based on models that derive from the running of corporations, they approach how universities should be organized, what classes should offer, and what universities should aim for with a very different set of concerns and aims. Meanwhile, state legislatures deal daily with lobbyists singing the seductive siren song of “accountability”, making claims that performance among students has dropped in recent years (conveniently leaving out that we also cater to a broader and larger demographic than ever before), and peddling their wares of standardized tests, computer assisted learning, etc., as a solution to this problem. Of course, lurking in the background here is not just the standardization of tests, but the standardization of curriculum (with these companies dictating that curriculum). And, of course, as these companies sing their siren song to legislaters, they also sweeten that song with handsome campaign contributions. On the other side, state university administrators scramble to get whatever crumbs they can from these same legislatures, requiring them, of course, to make a number of concessions to the legislature so said legislature can, when re-election comes back around, present himself to the voting public as being “tough on accountability so as to improve education”. All the while, the academics, who are often very loosely organized and too caught up in their research to think any of this is important (how could their model of education possibly change?… until it does), sit back speaking their vaunted rhetoric about the value of the liberal arts, inquiry, creating free humans, and all the rest, having little clue as to the forces swarming about them and threatening these institutions in terms of power relations, economic pressures, and an underinformed voting public that things everything functions best if organized according to the principles of a business.

    This last year I actually reviewed proposals by an “academic business” that planned to record lectures from talented professors so that they might be offered through internet for credit to teach future courses. Some will recall the episode of the Simpsons where the cartoon voice artist that did the sound for the Road Runner was bilked out of her contribution, having the “beep” recorded once and then simply repeated on each show as “beep beep”. This is what this business is talking about. The outcome would lie in cutting the professors giving the lecture out of the loop, hiring low pay test grading experts to grade material based on these classes, and reorganizing education based on such iterable recorded material. I am not, of course, suggesting that this is happening, only that well funded businesses such as this are the ones who have the ear of our legisters… Such proposals look increasingly attractive during times of academic downturn when legislatures are looking for ways to cut their budgets so as to divert money elsewhere. Just as prisons are now private businesses where “rehabilitation” functions as a nice rhetoric to hide a very lucrative business, education is increasingly moving in this direction.

  8. Levi, agreed. But the thing is, once we started catering to “a broader and larger demographic than ever before,” that is, once higher education went mass market, there was a rupture in the logic of elite reproduction through higher education – a university degree ceased to be immediately meaningful as a marker of status. Rather than college bringing the masses up, the masses brought college down; or rather, a new technical intelligentsia of functionaries was created along with the schools to re/produce them, including me and I assume you as mass educators of the masses, and slotted in below the elites.

    The actual demand for dedicated critical intellectuals is quite low and well-supplied by the usual suspects at the very top of higher education. Those are the people who can ‘afford’ liberty in the abstract. Everyone else has to make a living, so what counts as critical thinking for schools like ours is some version of ‘thinking outside the box’ to flexibilize the workforce. The rest we do under the radar and around the edges, in absolute confidence that if it really made any structural difference it would immediately be snuffed out. In this sense the periodic charges that the professoriate are ‘irresponsible’ are all too true.

    Given that re/producing a disciplined, flexible middle management is our primary mission, it’s entirely sensible to record lectures and iterate them. In fact, I’d say that any teacher whose primary teaching style is lecture invites this, because it’s not at all clear why you’d want to pay a thousand mediocre lecturers rather than one really good one iterated a thousand times. This is all why, in a previous series of posts on the lumpenbourgeoisie, I argued so strenuously that as a guild we need to do everything possible to preserve the aura of status still (wrongly) enjoyed by even lower-tier higher ed. Without a secondary mission as charismatic status-conferrers, there’s really no reason for philosophy or history departments at our schools.

  9. But on what basis can we oppose this development? An appeal to the Humanistic Ideal of the Liberal Arts? That won’t work, for at least two reasons. First, academics have spent the last several decades exposing the very real oppressions and prejudices that underlie this ideal, and it would be nothing if not craven and self-serving if they suddenly decided it was a-OK.

    Second, the students don’t care. The university now serves primarily as a vendor of diplomas, in the same way that high schools do; any liberal arts education that actually takes place is purely incidental. That’s not even an especially cynical point of view. They used to say that a college degree would let you earn $1 million (or some such number) more over the course of your career, but this is now achieved at the cost of eliminating jobs that don’t require a college degree. Credential inflation means students are essentially required to attend college, whether or not they want to become “well-rounded individuals.”

    Professors are in most cases addressing an audience that exists only in their minds. Fifty years ago, maybe, it would have been possible to see academia on the medieval model, where every student could potentially become an intellectual peer. To continue thinking this way today is an exercise in narcissistic self-delusion–taking one’s dead voles for a summum bonum. The humane alternative here would be to enable students to acquire the pieces of paper they need to participate in the economy while exposing them to a minimum of irrelevant material that they will never retain anyway. In the olden days, engineers were given a classical education; once it became clear in the nineteenth century that this served absolutely no purpose, this practice stopped, and good riddance.

    As the last major profession organized on the medieval guild model (masters, journeymen, apprentices), academia is now going through an Industrial Revolution of its own. In the 17th-18th century, the guild system fell apart completely because the proliferation of journeymen meant that few would ever become masters, although the system was based on the assumption that they would. The result was the proletarianization of the journeyman class and the disappearance of the independent masters. This is precisely what’s happening in academia now. Any distaste we may have for this process is just a form of misplaced bourgeois aspirationism.

  10. Sorry about crowding the thread, but I just wanted to say that this is why I get angry at blogs like Rate Your Students, which inevitably make the assumption that the student has freely chosen to play the professor’s game, but is not doing it well, and therefore deserves to be attacked and mocked. This is false consciousness. If you feel oppressed by the institutional bureaucracy, you should know that your students are victims of the same system. For the students, it is a question of forcing oneself to sit through four years of boring twaddle in order to be able to even roughly equal one’s parents’ standard of living. Why should it be surprising that so many of them shoot for the bare minimum, or that so many fail? Imagine living through a four-year mandatory workplace safety and ergonomics training course, and you’ll see what I mean.

    (Oh, and in my guild analogy I meant the journeymen to represent the new PhDs who are unable to find tenure-track employment. I guess that was probably obvious, though.)

  11. No worries, Greg, you’re on a roll. And I’m playing hooky from grading papers which are exercises in that ‘thinking outside the box’ we’re talking about.

    I think your point about our industrial revolution is right on, and much more cogently put than I managed on my older thread.

    For me, the sneaky mission is showing the students they can do cool stuff with their brains they didn’t know they could. If I manage to sell that right, the workout is fun for them as human development. What comes of it later I don’t worry about, although I think where humanistic education actually ends up is in the absurd and I don’t expect everyone to share my appreciation for the labors of Sisyphus.

  12. I mean, that’s the thing, isn’t it? If you haven’t ground them down into miniatures Sartres and Foucaults, then you haven’t done your job! You should be happy that their retention isn’t perfect, or you’d have an S&M/suicide epidemic on your hands.

  13. Lol. Well, faute de mieux it’s not the worst thing to have a little humility and try to treat each other a little better while we’re at whatever we’re at. And be sure to get lots of fiber.

  14. Btw, speaking of narcissistic self-delusion, sometimes I tell ’em that the reason I teach is so that the world will have more people in it who I enjoy talking with, and who get my jokes.

  15. What’s this? I step out to powder my nose for a second and a salon breaks out?

    Oh boy, I step out to read a book or two and here’s a whole interesting discussion that I have nothing to add to because my comment is like number 21, crap…

  16. Professors are in most cases addressing an audience that exists only in their minds.

    Oy, [to rhyme with the above “Oh boy”] this is so true it made my teeth ache a little, but not for very long as I remembered that I need to go get ready for my lectures tomorrow, in my mind it’s going to be a glorious pedagogical adventure with clever remarks, eager hands in the air, all kinds of excited leaning forward, thoughtful nods and discussions way into the break…

  17. Mikhail, I wrote the bad teaching post just now so you’d have a new thread to jump right into. Hurry, hurry! I am even now imagining your clever remarks, eager hands flying over the keyboard, excitedly leaning forward…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s