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Monday, May 5, 2014

Monday, May 5, 2014

Imagining the Educational Upgrade: Deltopia in Review Part 3

For me, the tragic irony of the phony Deltopia "student riot" narrative (Part 2), and of ye olde collective slander of UCSB students as partying too hard to keep up with UCLA, UCSD, UCI, etc. (Part 1), was that I had been spending winter and spring quarters immersed in brilliant UCSB student ideas about how to upgrade their faltering Public U undergrad educations. 

That is my winter senior seminar on the left.  This particular course was called "English Majoring After College."  The idea was for these students to link their current content knowledge and skills to the job sector that most interested them.  They had to inventory their specific capabilities as upper-division college students, describe their possible future sector (non-fiction writing, editing, education, law, screenwriting, documentary filmmaking, historical research, etc.), identify the knowledge and skills that were missing, and then use the course to fill in as many of the gaps as they could, using smaller "research and writing groups" to share their work and its findings.

The UCSB students had to do this in conjunction with our two partner courses. One was called "Histories and Futures of Humanistic Education," taught by Comp Lit professor David Palumbo-Liu at Stanford. The other was Cathy Davidson's "Histories and Futures of (Mostly) Higher Education" at Duke. The collaboration was Prof. Davidson's idea, and she orchestrated our co-located course with her Coursera MOOC with the same title; her class members also blogged the course at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The three courses used Google Hangout to meet four times during our ten-week quarter to discuss the central reading for the day, which in those cases was a book authored by one of the main course professors.  

There are all sorts of things to say about this collaboration, but I'll only note here that the premise, borrowed from Prof. Davidson's courses, was "reinventing higher education from the bottom up. " This was of course an invitation for UCSB undergrads to reflect on and then redesign the current University of California B.A. delivery system.

Pretty much all of us agreed that current instruction leaves much to be desired.  Stanford and Duke have much higher per-student resources than does UCSB.  (See that grey chair in the foreground? That, plus a piece of red duct tape and a detachable laptop camera, was our only group link to the other two classes.)  But we shared concerns that learning at all of our institutions still occurs in rigid forms that induce the passive learning that no longer delivers either workplace skills or, more fundamentally,  student bildung-- individual development--as the more lasting goal of higher education. Here are a few premises in bullet-point form.

  • Davidson: the digital economy wants "creative thinking, at all levels," but our universities were designed to offer passive learning for the bygone factory age.
  • Newfield: we need mass creativity to solve the world's enormous problems.  This requires public universities as good as private universities, which is the opposite of what politicians are doing.
  • Palumbo-Liu: world solutions are haunted by our failed approaches to alterity and otherness.  Literary reading helps us imagine new narratives of alterity, and new human relations.
There were also lessons from other works:
  • Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad): the creative industries our students want to enter are set up to reject and exploit talent, not curate it.  So curate yourself before or outside of them.
  • Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs: Jobs put art and design on equal footing with engineering--and leveraged massive public investment in electronic and information technology.
And so on.  We shared a sense that higher education needs to shift from passive to active learning and needs to do this on a large scale.   (This was 2013's idealistic interpretation of the potential of MOOCs, before pedagogical reality sank in.)  We also wanted the upgrades to be designed by students rather than by the politicians, executives, and consultants who in recent years have made a hobby of telling everyone in education what's good for them. 

Fast forward to the last day of class. OK I said, we've read, discussed, collaborated, and researched all quarter.  Now we have three hours to reinvent higher education from the ground up.  I'll take notes.

The reinvention took more like one hour.  Here's the outline.

0.  Don't teach to the dollar.  The best way to block learning is to let slip a teaching activity's commercial goals.  When students decide that they are being used in a marketing activity, they cease, that instant, to be students.

1. Offer individualized majors.  Current majors reflect administrative structure and to a lesser extent historical research areas.  Undergrads handle this by adding minors and/or double or even triple-majoring. This adds additional material and obligations to a foundation that may not be serving their personal intellectual interests.  Public universities are now obsessed with enforcing caps on total units and charging non-resident tuition for "excess" units--which are often run up in the pursuit of ambitious academic programs. What about the excess units for major requirements that aren't serving individual student goals?  Although majors would be customized--through a supervised process described below--they would not become narrowly vocational. Individualized majors would reflect the bildung process that is different for each individual, and would mitigate the factory production model neither students nor faculty want.

2. Turn General Education Requirements into customized distributed learning.  G.E.s were born at post-Civil War Harvard as part of president Charles William Eliot's revolutionary "electives system" that dislodged an antiquated standardized curriculum.  It was a great leap forward, but got us only halfway to what we now need: integrated course structures in which the learning in each course consciously complements that of others.  G.E.s would become the foundation for cross-training, in which, for example, one of the many many English majors who wants to be part of web-based publishing would have systematic training in data visualization.

3. Establish individual student advising.  Currently, most public university undergrads have no faculty advisor.  They weave their way through four years of courses with the help of non-faculty staff. Since the latter are usually expected to handle 300, 500, or 1000 majors on their own, they can do little more than assess formal compliance with a checklist of required courses.  Faculty are generally unaware of this issue. I certainly was until I became a Study Center Director of UC's Education Abroad programs in France, where student advising was a central duty.  I had expected the job to be plugging courses from French universities into the structure of the student's major at their UC campus.  But there was no UC structure to plug the overseas courses into--just more or less incomplete checklists of possible courses. I began to ask students to define the "intellectual interest" that could give shape to the courses they'd taken and help chose the most relevant courses in the future (for more on this see my essay, "Humanities Creativity in the Age of Online").  Public universities will truly help all their students develop "creative capabilities" only when we help them identify personal intellectual goals around which they can orchestrate their masses of college material.

4. Finance these things as public goods (1-3 without 0). This topic was over the horizon of the course, but has been a primary issue on this blog.  Public universities uncover and develop the individual brilliance of what I think of as ordinary smart people, those millions whose large but generally underdeveloped talents created, for example, the "golden age" post-war economy once they were at least partially cultivated through the public university boom after World War II.  Now is not the time to scale back mass bildung and return it to the ivory towers of our elite private universities that do excellent work in miniature.   We need the thousand-foot mural art of public universities.  This is going to require getting people to pay taxes for higher education again--next year or in ten years or in fifty years; you can stall as long as you want, but  the solution isn't going to change.

These points have taken me longer to write out than it took the seminar students to come up with them. I've omitted their many passionate and detailed descriptions of experiences in which the system couldn't given them the educational goods they needed.  And I haven't even mentioned a similar exercise that I was part of in Avery Gordon's sociology course that met a few days after Deltopia, where about forty UCSB students, divided into seven working groups, also took an hour to invent a better university than the ones any of us teach or study in now. 

Once the critique was in place at the end of my seminar, we decided to do something about it.  Seven of us started an independent study course this quarter with the specific task of designing one of the college-to- bridge courses that is missing from the UCSB curriculum.  We're calling the course "Comparative Writing Professions."  Each week, one member researches courses at other universities about a particular writing sector, compiles them for the group, leads a discussion of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and identifies material we want to keep for the collective course-writing exercise that will come at the end of spring term.   

For me, the obvious lesson is that UCSB students have a collective brilliance that has been underserved during years of budget cuts, mission creep, and management confusion about what 21st century higher education needs to do.  Most UCSB students have areas where they are clearly underskilled: fixing this is a main purpose of going to college, and it would be easier and far more fun to address these skills deficiencies as part of a program in which mass bildung and general intellectual pleasure were the overall, conscious aims.

Which brings me back to Deltopia.  The bogus riot narrative has diverted everyone from the big educational upgrade that we need to implement now.  It makes UCSB students too humble to demand more educational resources.  It justifies landlords running I.V. as a real estate colony, with no obligation to invest in the preconditions of intellectual life, like a desk of one's own.  It gives state and local residents another excuse not to care about student welfare.  It allows UCOP not to take their Santa Barbara campus seriously, and to continue to shortchange UCSB on per-student tuition and state general fund allocations (no, "rebenching" has not and will not fix this.)  It supports the county's political disenfranchisement of students.  The riot narrative also keeps faculty away from undergraduates, and casts them as competitors for faculty research time and money, rather than as partners in a research-learning enterprise that would break UCSB out of the pack.

Interestingly enough, some post mortems described Isla Vista as educational partner for UCSB.  Alumna Roozbeth Kaboli wrote that "the sense of work-life balance and soft skills we alumni have attained are key differentiators of the UCSB/Isla Vista experience." Alumnus Matt Kettman expanded on this theme.  Graduate student Patrick Mooney made a strong statement about UCSB's need "to involve students in making educational decisions that affect them."  And I'd add to this the dozens of student ideas for greater educational quality that I've hinted at through the description of the students our three-university seminar.  

The fact is that students have a pretty good idea of where higher education needs to go. When are the managers of their universities going to catch up?


Phil Horlacher Jr. said...

Great Part III. I couldn't help but continue to think about the stereotypical tendency of many UCSB students to distinguish themselves from all of the other reckless and Animal House-esque partiers. The Deltopia "riot" story totally spat in the face of that intellectual effort to form a sense of community that isn't completely rooted in cliche college partyisms.

Tristan D. said...

Great points about public university education as public goods. However, I feel like I have some reservation. Many people, myself included, get nervous in putting trust in something as nebulous as public good or individual development. It avoids the comforting cause and effect of money in, degree out implicit in the current degree mill model of education. In this model, I was given to understand, you end up with a degree for your (or your parent's, or FAFSA's) money and you achieve personal development as a byproduct of exposure to the college environment. The degree is a foot in the door of economic opportunity, and your enriching experiences from the academic milieu come along with you as your intangible legacy of personal development. I don't think this is the right model for higher education, especially since it almost invalidates learning by treating it as a stumbling block to a degree. These are tricky habits of thought to break, though; the easy progression of college->degree->future prosperity is far more comforting than facing up to the need for a shifting of paradigms and opening of wallets. How do you convince the people that need convincing that the established way is the wrong one?

Anonymous said...

"This is going to require getting people to pay taxes for higher education again--next year or in ten years or in fifty years; you can stall as long as you want, but the solution isn't going to change."

You can talk about public funding all you want (and this blog does it a lot) but the answer is not going to change.

Chris Newfield said...

Tristan - excellent point and a difficult question. I will think more about this. Phil - I. like the metaphor . Anon - naw. Even Jerry Brown and Dick Blum can't live another 50 years. At some point California will go back to building things again--with or without UC.

Shawn Warren said...

I strongly agree with 1-3, but dispute the 4th claim that, "This is going to require getting people to pay taxes for higher education again--next year or in ten years or in fifty years; you can stall as long as you want, but the solution isn't going to change."

There is another solution that requires fewer tax dollars than are presently spent on higher education - I know, an almost inconceivable notion in the current intellectual and political climate.

Here is what I suggest: http://bit.ly/1iWdCEU

It is time to start thinking outside the institutional box...

Chris Newfield said...

Shawn, your model is important and fascinating. As I understand it, it uses professional societies to cut out the university middleman. I'm still trying to get public universities back to their core functions, but barring that, we may wind up moving toward your more radical model. My concern would be to keep the educational practice in the hands of researcher-instructors (with administrative help), in order to avoid something like the HMO-managerial takeover of medical practices in the 1980s and the university analogy more recently.

Shawn Warren said...


The model I develop (PSA) achieves your aim of getting higher education back to its core functions - notice I do not use the term 'universities'. In part it does this by eliminating almost all administration/managerial functions of higher education institutions (HEIs) and subordinates the remainder to those sourced for the operations of professional association and practice.

This goes a long way to precluding the administrative and managerial takeover of higher education (HE) that is now well-entrenched.

Do you want to save HEIs or HE - keeping in mind that these are not synonymous terms?

PSA does precisely what you want, keeping the education practice in the hands of researcher-instructors (with administrative help). As the founders and practicing members of the professional association academics would be free to define society and practice educational functions, including important determining factors of HE such as those you identify in 1-3.

And it achieves this without having to wage the austerity battle, while 500,000 plus Californians sit on waiting lists outside the HEIs that have neither the funding nor capacity to accommodate them.

Given this and the fact that administration/management has already taken over HE - in part because the current model places HEIs as principal service providers - it seems like a weak concern that PSA might devolve into just another HE or HMO-managerial takeover. And consider just these two points of disanalogy:

1) Delivery of most HE service is not like the service found in modern medicine, which arguably is far more expensive and better delivered through hospitals with the requisite modern equipment and facilities (that presumably do need management).

2) The HMO concern you raise is now an historical lesson from which we can devise policies/practices that prevent yet another administration/managerial take over of HE.

I don't know if what I have said allays your concern, but consider this last point.

If HEIs are important to you, then PSA need not eliminate them but in fact can supplement them in ways that are beneficial to universities and colleges (http://bit.ly/1t52kEn), not to mention the state of California (http://bit.ly/1egMlZw).


Chris Newfield said...

Shawn, points well taken. I agree too that the HMOization of HE is in the past and present rather than the future. I do think we need to convert a lot of administrative personnel to core educational personnel, but I'm not an administration abolitionist. Student services have been crucial to attainment increases for a wide range of students, research needs support staff, etc. I'll continue to research this an am glad to have your work on it.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Warren… I may be mistaken, but your plan looks like what I know about some STEM disciplines in Hong Kong. In the end the Professional Societies and Professors form a sort of mutual admiration society, and fall in quality. The pressure of the research imperative in US research universities does seem to buoy the quality of the knowledge of US faculty, although the transmittal of that information is not always graceful on the education side of US research universities. What provides the upward pressure toward excellence in your system that seems lacking in Hong Kong?

Shawn Warren said...

Thank you for the line on a possible Hong Kong analog for the alternative model I develop (PSA). I have looked far and wide for such a thing.

The question of quality has worried me as well. One thing to note, as you do, is that the issue of (poor) quality is one the current model also faces - and in my opinion fails, especially at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level things are a little better and I believe this is partly due to the usual requirement for objective evaluation of at least some student work. While the undergraduate level remains a purely subjective affair, performed largely by adjuncts who have every incentive to be generous in their evaluation of students (e.g., precarious job security) - in this sense both parties are complicit in the reduction of quality.

Briefly, with this in mind I have decided that two things need to be in place to ensure quality under PSA: 1) all evaluation must be objective (undergraduate and graduate) and 2) the results of evaluation must be made public (though with student anonymity).

[See http://bit.ly/1dbzS84 for greater detail.]

As to the first I believe the growing and proven practice of crowd-sourcing is recommended. Crowd-evaluation would involve the secure posting of student work for academic members of the profession to evaluate - performing a function required as a condition of membership. To avoid any conflicts of interest (etc.) such evaluation would be blind, where the identity of the members performing the evaluation are not known to the students or the academics whose students are being evaluated. The final grade would (perhaps) be an average of all assigned marks.

So, each member might be required to perform X amount of this evaluation of other members' students, while the professional society would keep confidential record of all the identities in this crowd transaction - to ensure, among other things, that members meet the quota of evaluation required by membership. Incidentally, this crowd-evaluation could be quite rich, including an assessment of the difficulty and appropriateness of the evaluation material prepared by academics.

As the the second, in its capacity as official record-keeper the professional society would publish both the results of student performance (with anonymity) and the identity of the academic who was the instructor. Notice how under this formula there is incentive for the academic to provide proper evaluation material and instruction services to students. Evaluation becomes an affair that matters to both students and academics. The reason for this should be obvious. Under PSA any academic practice that has a poor public record of preparing evaluation material and students will not be able to attract students to their service as an instructor. They will then be forced out of practice or into professional development.

There is more, but that is a start.

In closing it might occur to you that the incentive is now for professional academics to teach the test (as occurs in K-12). In fact with this in mind the two conditions I identify might seem an ineffective extravagance. This is true.

Of course at this juncture both PSA and the current model are on par where evaluation is concerned, and PSA might simply continue the current practice of subjective evaluation at the undergraduate level. Then what would tip the scales in favour of PSA are its other substantial advantages over the current model: 1) more economical; 2) more equitable treatment of labour; 3) improved access; and more. [See http://bit.ly/1iWdCEU for greater detail.]


Chris Newfield said...

Shawn now I think you're going backwards. Undergrad quality depends in large part on relationships between students and faculty, which of course crowd sourcing destroys, even if it's actually more objective which I doubt. I think Charles Blow has it right in his column this week http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/opinion/blow-in-college-nurturing-matters.html?_r=0

Students need to co-author these new schemes. I'd like to know more about what they think about this

Michael Meranze said...

@Shawn Warren
Shawn, thank you for provoking this conversation. You are right that these are serious issues and that we have to learn to rethink a lot. And your suggestions are very important for clarifying issues.

But as you have developed your points both here and in your longer essay I have to say I have become less and less persuaded by your assumptions and the model. The problem for me is the underlying political economy of what you propose. Although in the first instance you want to escape over-administration the real crucial opposition seems to be public or state funding and what you call unions. To put it directly, I think that your model has an almost libertarian assumption that markets are rational and equitable allocators of resources and I just don’t see how that is a sustainable proposition historically.

In addition, the model of professional societies that you allude to has, if anything, a worse history in terms of access than does public higher education. Can you think of any profession where quality of service and access isn’t determined by wealth and in which outcomes are not unequally distributed? Law? Medicine? Accounting? Looked at historically and not as an asserted model, I really don’t see any evidence that you could support your commitment to a universal right to education without some sort of public system underlying it.

I think as a provocation your outline is really productive. But I don’t think that you can really ground the claims for access and quality and equity that you make—at least not historically.

Shawn Warren said...


You are welcome and thank you very much for participating.

It is hard to argue against the certain reality of the past, but perhaps even harder to argue against the uncertain reality of the future.

I do operate on a libertarian level, but I hope I am not naïve regarding rationality and equity in the market or in allocation of resources. I am certainly aware of the history of the existing professions, to the present.

I have provided some response to these concerns of yours I an earlier reply to Chris. But to elaborate…

What I am proposing is a new social contract for higher education, the clauses of which have yet to be finalized. There is an existing social contract between higher education institutions and society. That contract is clearly being strained. Further, what strains it now will always be present, namely the vicissitudes of politics and economics – as evinced most recently in the 2008 depression and “recovery.”

My point is that while fault can be found with the existing professions and their social contracts, the same can be done for the current higher education institution contract. The question is whether the formulation of a NEW (professional) social contract for higher education will necessarily and unavoidably fall prey to the problems you identify in the existing professions. I think the answer is no, while I take it you think the answer is yes.

Intro the “some sort of public system [to] underlying it.” I agree. Any professional social contract that is struck for the provision of higher education service will have to involve public (government) oversight, not only because the public will be funding students to pursue their education (as it now does in a very expensive model) but because higher education is a primary social good – perhaps more basic than even legal representation or healthcare and certainly more basic than accounting services. It is a public good that must be protected and nurtured.

Having said this, do you insist that the current higher education social contract does this well or that it does it better than any future professional contract that might be formulated (to replace or supplement the existing one)?


Shawn Warren said...

Hey Chris,

I think I might be misunderstood. First, what I suggest by way of the act of evaluation (alone) has been solely devised by me, without the benefit of contribution from others (academics and students), which I have been trying to rally for some time. I desperately seek such input, such critical contribution. I do not suppose I have anything like a final version in place with regard to the model or its evaluation aspects, though I am firm in the belief evaluation be done objectively, not subjectively (defined below).

In contrast to the current circumstance imagine the education relationship that would be formed between student and teacher were the following true:

1) The teacher’s reputation for forming such relationships is made public and
2) The teacher’s livelihood is directly dependant on fostering an effective education relationship (by whatever methods work for teacher and student).

As distinguished from evaluation of student performance, the course pedagogy and content used in any given professional academic practice will vary, as academic freedom now demands. But ultimately under something like PSA there will be public record of those pedagogical practices and content, which is freely chosen by individual professional academics either with or without consultation of students, as professional prerogative allows.

Now I understand you would recommend with consultation. I would too. And the Gallup/Purdue partnership is a wonderful addition to higher education that can help us provide proper education (of the whole person).

But perhaps you think that such Gallup input could not occur in the professional model? It can. And given (1) and (2) above there is every reason to think that academics (and their professional society) would use such information to build better professional practices. I have my doubts that there is such incentive in the current system, relying as it does on subjective evaluation and the complicity shared by teachers and students.

Another point on which I believe I am being misunderstood is the core notion of “objective crowd-evaluation.”

First, what I propose is most definitely “objective” in the sense that maters here. That is, unlike the current practice where I (or some proxy under my authority) actually evaluates/marks the work of my own undergraduate students - which I refer to as subjective - PSA proposes I not be allowed to perform such a function. The current subjective practice has always struck me as absurd quality control riddled with conflicts of interest, and is precisely why it is not done at the graduate level. I do not introduce something new in objective evaluation but merely extend the existing practice found at the graduate level in the current model.

As to “crowd-evaluation” I do not see how it destroys the teacher/student education relationship. In fact I have indicated here (and on my blog) how it would improve the relationship considerably when contrasted with the existing circumstance found in HEIs. The crowd here does not educate, it evaluates. That is, it executes the evaluation as prescribed by the particular academic (in or out of consultation with students). These are quite separate functions.

As I have indicated the crowd can provide assessment without the interferences and conflicts of interest that subjective assessment introduces, while in no way precluding the possibility of teacher/student collaboration on the construction of evaluation material or even how that material is to be objectively evaluated in terms of weighting, etc. In fact, as I indicate the crowd could also contribute to the construction of better course content and evaluation material. Also thus far the composition of the crowd has not been determined and so might very well include individuals from PhDs to students, including those in the very course be crowd-evaluated.

Chris, I too am very interested in what others have to say about my model. Thank you for this exchange. I hope it continues.


Michael Meranze said...

@Shawn Warren


I think that your last question is an important one but i think it is misstated. Do i think that there is no way to do higher ed better than it is being done now? Of course not. Chris and i have been making those arguments (as have others) for a while.

The question is whether there is any good reason to think that a model predicated on faith in the market and borrowed from the professions is likely to do better in terms not only of quality but of equity and access and there i think the answer is no. Again you are basing your model on two forms that as far as i can tell have never priduced all the things you are claiming they will do here.

A fairer question it seems to me would be to say did the model of public higher education before the ascendency of the very ideology of market rationality that you are presuming do a better job in terms of access and equity than the professional systems did? And on that question i think the answer is yes. I am skeptical of taking a system that, in its prior iterations, was unequal in access and services and simply assert that it will work better in this context.

Hope this helps.

Shawn Warren said...


It does help, thank you.

How would you feel if I presented PSA as follows:

Keep the service of higher education a predominantly public affair (oversight and finance) and keep the institutions (universities and colleges) but change the means by which that service is provided by changing the relationship between institutions and academics.

Keeping in mind the crucial fact that higher education institutions and higher education should never be identified with one another, we agree there are other ways to provide the service. PSA is merely another means that I argue has advantages over the current institutional means, not the least of which is its economy.

Have you read http://bit.ly/1t52kEn or http://bit.ly/1mXUBCb where I propose that the relationship between higher education institutions and academics be altered, but universities and colleges remain as entities that more properly are seen to provide support/facilitation for independently practicing academics (rather than as employers of academics)?

Through its financial and legislative powers the state can maintain checks and controls over provision of the service in the PSA. This cannot be disputed so long as one accepts that the state can do the same for the current model.

The key question that remains is whether or not the economy of PSA (and the identified benefits this entails) is enough to tip the scales in its favour.

Hope this helps.

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