Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Sat, 19 Feb 1994
What a strange walk this morning. The temperature this morning was a balmy 55! While huge parts of the country lay buried in feet of snow, there I was, walking in my spring grubbies of shorts and torn short sleeve shirt. There was just enough chill that wisps of air prickled my skin. A heavy ground fog blanketed my route. As I walked, bushes and trees and lamp posts eerily emerged from the thick mist like a ghostly parade of Flying Dutchmans. It was an overwhelming scene. Yet, I wasn't in the rhythm of things this morning. I couldn't walk, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, gentle in this good morning because I just couldn't stifle a quiet anger and fear that has been building for some time inside me.
It has been eight months since my campus graduated from a college to a university. With the school's "coming of age" have come inflated administrative egos, inflated faculty egos, inflated communal egos, and, worst of all, inflated class sizes. There are the never-ending public boasts by the administration that the leap to university status has resulted in an increased student enrollment of 10% for 1993-94, a 25% increase in applications, and a projected minimum additional 10% increase for 1994-5. Loud talk is being trumpeted around for all to hear that we are aiming for a student body of 10,000 in the very immediate future. Around here at VSU it seems that an institution of higher learning is beginning to mean an institution with higher enrollment figures.
This growth, however, is loaded with disturbing contradictions. Our recruitment brochures continue to brag of small classes in which instruction is individualized. Administrative statements assure the public that the "average" size of classes has not increased. The public is assured that our newly acquired status will not endanger our reputation as an institution at which "all students retain their identity and don't get lost." Administrative statements pour out that say we have statistically only increased classes by one student per class. That may be true when they factor in such courses as individual directed study or directed thesis or goodness knows what else. Yet, the pressures are building that we figuratively bust out the walls of our classrooms and literally pack our classrooms wall to wall with students as if we were laying a human carpet. My freshman classes have jumped already in size by 33 % from 45 to 60, and the administration has tried to exert pressure to increase the size of intro classes by another 33%. Only the physical limits imposed by the current classrooms and labs are preventing the administration from pressing to have its way. The administration asserts forcefully that any faculty member's resistance to an increase in the size of his/her class can only be construed as an act of selfishness and proof that he or she is not "a team player," and it has let it be known that it will not tolerate anyone interfering with administrative enrollment policies. It ignores the fact that enrollment and the size of future classes are as much academic issues as administrative ones.
We co-sponsor national conferences on excellence in college teaching, support on-campus workshops run by expensive consultants to develop faculty portfolios for the improvement of classroom teaching, and draw up departmental classroom teaching assessment statements. Yet, we push up class sizes that increasingly undermine the quality of educational programs and make effective, personalized teaching practically impossible.
The President quite rightly talks of how important the first quarter is for insuring first year student retention. Yet, we throw these students into ever-depersonalized classes that studies tell us are less able to attend to student needs, and thus increase the risk that students will be packing their bags by the end of the first quarter.
Yet, I see or hear so little meaningful vocal and public opposition coming from the faculty. Individual muttering? Oh, yes. Private grumbling? To be sure. Quiet conversations? Certainly. I was in one of those hidden gripe sessions yesterday morning in the Student Union. These were student-oriented professors whom I highly respect. They were talking about cutting back on written assignments, class discussions, and essay exams; about instituting more lectures, replacing essay questions with less time consuming and so-called objective tests, along with computer generated and graded, short-answer questions.
"With more students in our classes, we just can't do it. If that's what the administration wants, that's what they'll get," a friend angrily threatened.
"This doesn't make sense," I said.
The conversation continued in the same vein and ended when one of them sighed with depressed resignation, as the others looked down at the table and nodded in a supportive act of submission, "What can we do?"
"That's it?" I said to myself. "What can we do?" Then, we all got up to go to class.
I kept saying that final sentence to myself over and over again as I walked to class and strolled among the sixty students in each of my two intro classes. Thankfully, it was weekly quiz day. I wasn't into it. They noticed that I was miles away. I couldn't get that haunting sentence out of my mind. It scared the hell out of me, and I raged.
I raged at a weakening of courage, a fading of vision, a compromising of integrity, a declining of values in those people who would have me ignore my conscience and sacrifice the students' education as we blindly follow other institutions down that abysmal path of instructional mass production.
I see much silence, much cowering, much excusing, much finger pointing, and much rationalizing. But, I see so little admitted culpability. I see some shaking their heads in dismay as people sorrowfully utter a "tsch, tsch, tsch," and then go on as if they had done their moral duty merely by recognizing the immorality of the developing situation. But, there is so much passivity, resignation, submission, and apparent surrender.
I am scared. Pressures are building that I, like my resigned colleagues, undergo a reverse Darwinism that would transform me from a beautiful butterfly of a mentor into an ugly worm of a uncaring talking head. I will not, I cannot idly stand by and let all that I am be drained away from my being for the sake of expediency and ego. We must acknowledge, tap, and encourage the wondrous diversity and mixture of experiences, of talents, of expressions students bring with them onto our campuses. The pressures are building, however, that would mix this human pallet of rich, distinctive colors into a bucket of drab putrid green, that would make this human symphony of distinctive instruments play a single off-key note. No, others may submit. But, on this issue I cannot go gentle into the good night. I rage at the dimming of the educational light.
I have experienced, seen and heard about the destination of the path we are walking on this campus. The class sizes on my campus pale compared to those on many other university campuses. Two hundred students in a class! Four hundred students in a class!! Eight hundred students in a class!!! Twelve hundred students in one class!!!! And we think "distance learning" is something new. No, it's been around here a long time in those large classes. Oh, it hasn't been involved with optic fibers, cameras, computers or monitors; or with far-flung, off-campus classes scattered here, there and everywhere. This distance learning in the classroom reduces students and professors to specks in each other's mind, heart and eye. It so separates the professor, tethered to podium microphone, psychologically from the students that the two may as well be physically miles from each other. In classes of those proportions students acquire an anonymity and cease to become individuals. The idea of a human relationship in education is trivialized. It is almost impossible for either student or professor to be alive, to be aware and be aware of, to touch and be touched, to be moved and move, to be changed and to change, to see and be seen, to listen and be heard, to teach and be taught. What passes for teaching is more often than not a mere presentation that is sugar coated with technique into performance. The truth, however, is that professors, whatever gimmicks and theatrics they may use in standing before such crowds, are no longer educators or teachers. They're at best performers, lecturers, professional speakers. They do more entertaining than teaching, offering more show than substance.
Now I know the howl that will arise as professors of such large classes defensively trot out their philosophies, attitudes, techniques, TAs, and their student evaluations. I already know colleagues for whom such bravado is their chief defense. It's like someone who, when they start having chest pains, gets down on the floor and does push-ups to prove to him/herself and others that nothing is wrong.
I think we're over-representing our resources and abilities and how well we're able to cope in these huge classes. We present it as if we had everything in hand and there aren't any big problems with big classes. No, we don't quite have it all in hand as much as we say. I'm feeling those same rationalizations creeping into my attitude towards my ability and it's frightening. I say that I can handle a class up to 75 without any adverse impact on my methods. But, that is merely self-deluding cushion. My "blueberries" are being pushed to the limit! I don't have a class of 60 students in hand as much as I had in a class of 40 students. I am not as effective. The students benefit less. I know that some students will always "fall through the cracks," but, I am less able to fill in those cracks and I think more students than I want to admit are falling through. That prospect is giving me a flat, stiff, sick, empty kind of feeling. I am scared, and I rage that I can't do much alone to fend off the impending deluge of bodies into my classes. Yet, we don't really want to talk about it. Maybe it's our way of making it not real. You know, if we don't say anything, somehow it's not really happening. But, if we're honest with ourselves, we know.
I was talking with a well-respected professor at a conference. He is renown for his teaching. During a conversation he told me how he taught a class of 400 students and how well the students received the class.
"How do you know if they understand the material?" I asked
"Well, they are more afraid to admit they don't understand something in such a large class. I have a system. I place a green and red card in front of each seat. When I ask if they understand the material, those who understand hold a green card to their forehead and those who don't hold up a red one."
"How many would you say usually hold up a green card?"
"Heck, you've only earned a 'C' grade on your effectiveness, maybe less. What about those who admit they don't understand?"
"I tell them to come to my office and discuss their confusions."
"That's 100 students! You have enough office hours that allow you to talk with 100 students a day?"
"Do you really think that a class of that size is on firm educational grounds?"
I think caring is good, effective education. Caring for a student, having them understand that the professor really wants the best for them, opens up whole vistas. In these large classes you cannot have connectedness; you cannot deal with the spirit. It's not enough to be competent in your field. You have to pay attention to the underlying relationship with the student; it's imperative to have that understanding, that skill. The large classes take that caring out of the educational equation. I don't think most of us want that to happen or like the situation or think it is educationally sound. Large classes are sterile and callous. They're like a concentration camp or a jail or a place that was created to mass service a need. They beat out of the professor a lot of compassion and empathy, and a lot of willingness and ability to understand the student. Everyone talks about student-load overload. The pedantic portion of their teaching is beating them up. In the course of a week, for just two intro classes of 60 students each, I read 120 individual journals, read and comment upon 120 individual self-evaluations, read and comment upon 40 triad written weekly assignments, read and comment upon 120 daily triad written assignments, prepare weekly quizzes, read the daily discussion assignment, prepare myself daily for whatever discussions might pop up in class, mentor students for untold hours. And this does not include the work for my senior class or time involved with department and university committee work. I am a great respecter of defenses. I have a hunch of what a lot of professors are going through in those huge classes. I really understand from whence they're coming. When they get into the classroom, they may develop the attitude that the student is the enemy. Or, as a colleague told me, "they're necessary nuisances." THEY waste our hard-earned expertise. THEY distract us from more important professional activities of research and publication. THEY take our scholarly renown and dash it on the rocks of anonymity. It's little wonder that these courses are palmed off on TAs who are there only because their fellowship says they must and who are mostly interested more in their own research and course work than in the students; or these courses are taught by professors who so often denigrated them as "combat pay"; or the courses are viewed in departments as service courses, "bread and butter courses" we call them, needed to provide the necessary class contact hours which would allow for the funding of smaller and more meaningful senior or graduate classes.
Universities should be places created for the service of students. We should be student-centered. We ought to deliver education as best we can within a very clear value system. I think we forget that. We become too busy, too concerned about other needs like budgets, financial aid, access and a host of other distractions that we are all fighting. We spend a lot of time not satisfying students.
If you are going to be in the care-giver, mentor role, you must pay attention to the underlying relationship with your student. Is it any wonder that students don't take these classes seriously? As soon as they hit campus, whether they're motivated or not, they're told by word, deed, manner that they don't count, that the courses they are taking, forced to take, don't really count. It is little wonder that students feel cast adrift, lost, demeaned
In our coffee conversation, I told a colleague that we should work on the principle that it's better to have students loom large in little classes than to diminish them in big classes. "Get real, Louis," was his quick retort. "Those large classes are cost effective. The administration gets more professor for the buck."
"--And we get less student," I replied with a sneer on my face, "while the students get less professor!"
Maybe that's what it's really all about. Not people, but money! Sad! If that is the case, then at least let's be totally honest. It is also about a contempt for and dismissal of students. It is also about a demeaning of ourselves as educators. It is also about an abandonment of our educational mission. It is unfortunate that we cannot gather the educational equivalent of Somalia-like photographs to create a moral outrage.
Now, we can argue that it is something called the educational establishment that has let these students down. But, let's be honest. With all of our self-proclaimed expert posturing, we, who should know better, have let the students down the most. Now, if you want blame that ethereal entity called society or something more substantial like the state legislature, the Board of Trustees, the state regents, the administration, each other, and goodness knows who or what else, please feel free to do so. But, in the process of pointing fingers of blame let's blame ourselves for letting it happen. No, on this one, with so few exceptions, we all have gone too long and far too gentle into the good night.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____