Why do we do courses?

During my five years or so of teaching, a nagging thought has kept resurfacing — namely, that the traditional course format is remarkably unforgiving. This was especially clear when I taught on the quarter system, where a moderately serious illness could very easily lead a student to miss 10% of the class sessions. Yet semesters have their own drawbacks, as they can sometimes feel like a marathon. In fact, a semester is just long enough to have multiple spells of sickness, which tend to hit first-year students particularly hard.

And all these issues could even happen under the best-case scenario of a full-time, residential student with no significant work commitments and no serious family crises during the semester. Once you start throwing actual reality into the equation, things quickly become more complicated. Work schedules tend to accomodate class time itself, but not prep time — and often students will schedule the maximum amount of work time possible for their normal weekly workload, leaving them no additional time to work on longer-term priorities such as papers.

In short, it seems like the format was devised for a particular kind of privileged student, and it isn’t even very forgiving for those people. I might be okay with this if there was some kind of positive pedagogical justification for the format, but I’m not sure there really is.

Let’s look at the format objectively. You take an arbitrary period of X number of weeks, you meet (usually) multiple times per week, and you have a certain amount of reading spread out over that time. On top of that, you will normally have writing assignments requiring substantial outside work. All of this is supposed to be unified by a single topic, normally defined by the disciplinary boundaries of the modern research university. Everything is in this format, and once you do a certain number of them in a certain combination, you get a college degree. You have been educated.

That’s a huge, constant demand on students’ time. It requires them to juggle a lot of schedules and deadlines in ways that don’t seem to me to be immediately connected to intellectual pursuits. It also has a tendency to generate stupid behaviors like “all-nighters,” insofar as all the work is due at the end of the semester and no actual human being has the logistical capacity to spread the work out evenly throughout the entire semester — particularly because starting a paper early often implies getting reading done significantly early, etc. At a certain point, it’s hard not to regard it as a kind of academic hazing ritual, with no lasting benefit.

This structure seems to be the one non-negotiable element in American higher ed. Every proposed change, from the MOOC to the flipped classroom, presupposes that we want to maintain the structure of the course. Indeed, something like the flipped classroom strikes me as a way of justifying the time spent in the classroom — with the assumption that of course education consists of spending X number of hours over a period of X weeks sitting in classrooms.

Now I say this as someone who really enjoys constructing courses. Few things give me the pleasure of a completed syllabus, with all the readings perfectly balanced and all the bases covered. The problems only arise when this Platonic ideal has to confront the reality that we’re dealing with human beings who won’t always have time to read attentively, for example. I don’t schedule in periods of lighter reading or a simple change of pace for 8 weeks in, when I know that the students and I will all be tired. And even though I work at an implausibly small school where I can easily deduce which classes my students might be taking at the same time as mine, I still usually schedule it as though mine is the only course they will be taking.

The question is what we’d do differently. On that, I don’t really have an answer, because of course I’ve been deeply formed by the American educational system and haven’t experienced much outside of the semester-course format (other than the Oxford tutorial system). Yet surely we can’t continue to treat the semester-course format as the non-negotiable one-size-fits-all formula when it increasingly seems to be one-size-fits-none. Clearly the demand for online courses shows that students want flexibility — and I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot to the extent that we are insisting, more or less unreflectively and by default, that in-person education can only mean the intensive, inflexible semester-course model that we are apparently doing through sheer inertia with no positive justification.

But what do you think, dear readers?

8 thoughts on “Why do we do courses?

  1. When you raised this topic on Twitter, I was going to mention the Oxbridge system as an alternative. It has its own problems: the heavy exam focus means illness can be even more catastrophic, and Oxford and Cambridge only have the resources their system requires because of the gross elitism of UK higher education, which is compounded by the system not having much structure in place for students whose secondary education didn’t prepare them well for independent university level study. However, the idea of giving students a broad reading list and a community of academics who are required to spend time talking to them, and saying “get back to us at the end of the year and tell us what you’ve learned”, has a certain attraction.

  2. A friend of mine who did some study at Gottingen in Germany said they had a whole other time, like another semester, set apart to work on their papers for the classes they’d taken the semester before. While I don’t know that I’d want a whole other semester to write, I definitely think something like a month at the end of the semester set aside to write would be better for professors and students. Students will, having gotten through courses, be able to write papers on more than 4 hours of sleep and probably tie ideas together better because they won’t have class time competing with paper writing time. Professors will probably be able to do more of a rolling final paper deadline and balancing grading because some students may finish earlier than others and so there won’t be a torrent of papers at the end.

    I dunno, just some things I’ve been thinking about too.

  3. I have often felt the same way about courses as has been described in the blog post. More, I am concerned that much of lecturing done in the typical course format is a waste, because it often entails a useless recapitulation of material that was already supposed to be read for class. I don’t have much, in the ways of a well thought out alternative, but some possible routes could employ making better use of web interfaces (and asynchrony afforded by those modes). The general and vague idea I have would place more responsibility upon students through pre-lecture discussions, which would enable lecture/in-class discussion be more about tying concepts together, rather than recapitulating pre-read material. Usually, I am not a big fan of the “technology will make things better” mentality, but this could be a case in which it does.

  4. Another way to say what I hear might be that a course in which there is a single instructor and 20 (or 50) students is set up to offload both the risks of disruption and costs of coordination from the instructor to the students. It’s a pretty common way institutions operate; think about corporations and freelance contractors, or even employers and employees as such.

    Any individual student or teacher would probably be much happier in a situation with open-ended studies, and almost certainly any teacher–student interaction would be improved. But any single teacher juggling twenty open-ended students would be hard-pressed to keep them from overlapping and interfering with one another… not just because of the tempting simplification that would come from having everybody in the same place in the same time, but also because of the Honor Code.

    I’ve always hated the myth if Individual Merit—because or since I’ve shown so little merit, personally. But in this case I’m going to guess that the Humanist values embodied in “show your own work” and “don’t copy” and “originality, character and skill will determine your grade” factor in much more strongly than just the burden of social coordination.

    In other words, I think one source of the pain you-all (students and professors, of which I’m neither) express comes not just from being synchronized in your work, but from being synchronized and prohibited from collaborating.

    My wife, who’s more thoughtful than I am, pointed out just now that a related reason to have everybody in one room at the same time is so they can learn from one another. Even in a traditional class, people interact and watch and pick up tricks and note traps. In a class with critique or discussion of any sort, students hear one another thinking.

    A step towards what I’d rather see, which would basically involve classes becoming project teams, collaborating and more-or-less self-directing. Not gonna happen in the current world, alas.

  5. Wow, that first ¶ suffers from Bottle Of Wine With Dinner Syndrome:

    “I think that the academic standard—classes with a single instructor and 20 (or 50) students—is “designed” to offload the risks of disruption and costs of coordination from the instructor to the students. This is a pretty common way institutions offload risks (and abject the recipients); compare to the way corporations relate to freelance contractors, or how employers relate to their employees.”

  6. I was just talking about some of this this morning! FWIW I think the Oxbridge system is — for the humanities at least — absolutely AWFUL. They have hundreds of brilliant academics (including obviously a few brilliant teachers) & attract some of the best students, so clearly they’re going to do superbly well no matter what. That’s the baseline. But given that baseline, I suspect they are punching severely below weight. & part of the issue is the inefficient and pedagogy-lite (or pedagogy-very-variable) approach of “let’s put them together one-on-one, or one-on-two, and just hope something rubs off. (Oh & let’s have lots of lectures on all kinds of different things, which may or may not be related to what students are doing at any given moment, & you can just shop around & maybe cobble something together).” I think it’s very easy for students to fall through the cracks. By which I mean, more or less, “fail to realise their potential”. & I also might speculate (as voyou suggests) that there’s quite a lot of integration with the habits and expectations developed during a public school education, which perhaps translates to a greater or lesser risk of falling through the cracks according to social class.

    But I’m talking about ten to fifteen years ago — maybe things have changed? Anyway, I am intrigued by the dissolution of THE COURSE as the non-negotiable interface of administration and pedagogy, but I would certainly be very wary of the Oxbridge model, & especially of interpreting the higher degree of devolution of syllabus design to the students themselves as a component of those institutions’ success …

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