Friday, January 2, 2009

Educational Philosophy

I am back in Germany, after the usual airline problems. This version: weather delays in Rochester, missed connection at Dulles, and a broken printer at Dulles that resulted in my arriving in Frankfort without a boarding pass for the flight to Leipzig ("No boarding pass? How did you get past Security with no boarding pass?") You'd think United Airlines could at least keep its printers in repair. But here I am. Finally.

Classes resume Monday, and I have been entering the grades in my grade book (which stayed here) for the papers I corrected over Christmas (which did not). Doing this, I discovered that six students out of 35 in my SF Lit class had neglected to email me their papers. German university students may drop a course at any time without penalty, so they sometimes sign up for a large number of courses, choosing everything that looks interesting. Then, if the work load becomes overwhelming, they drop one or more courses. That may have happened here -- which brings me to two different philosophies of university education, both of which were being debated as long ago as when I first started teaching college thirty years ago.

One philosophy -- call it the Educational Contract -- says that student and professor enter into a contract. I will deliver this (instruction) and you will deliver this (required reading, attendance, written work, exams, whatever the contract says). We will both strive to deliver interesting and reliable products, with the end goal that learning takes place. If either of us fails to deliver, that party is penalized, whether it's the professor (poor evaluation, trouble with Department Head, denial of tenure) or the student (poor grade). This is, pretty much, how American universities work.

The other model we'll call the Hamburger Stand Philosophy. It says: The student has purchased a product (instruction), whether you define "purchased" as costing money, good grades in high school, or a grant or scholarship. Having purchased this product, he is free to do with it as he likes: use it, ignore it, drop it, use part of it and then ignore it. It's his choice, without penalty -- nobody penalizes you if you don't eat your McDonald's hamburger. It's your hamburger.

Which of these works best to foster actual learning? In my opinion, it doesn't really matter. A student who wants to learn about SF -- in or out of college -- will do so. I hope that my classes make that learning more interesting and provocative and effective (otherwise, there's little point). But those qualities are not what grades measure, anyway. So I will teach as best I can, and hope my students are learning as best they can. No more is possible for the best instructor who ever taught anything.


Chris Köhler said...

Hello Nancy,

I wish you a happy new year.

Just to warn you: Classes will resume on January 6. You can check this webpage for Leipzig University Dates:

Have a nice weekend!


Joe Iriarte said...

That's pretty much what I did all through college (here in the US). I'd sign up for eighteen hours pretty much every semester (and for six hours every summer semester) taking anything that sounded interesting, and then, at the drop deadline*, drop anything I wasn't enjoying or anything I didn't think I could get an A in. I kept plenty, though. I still finished in four years with 138 credits (out of 120), two majors, and two minors.

I guess I would have argued that if the professors weren't holding up their end of the bargain, ending the contract was a much more effective way of correcting the situation than writing a nasty evaluation later. Of course, it wasn't always about the professor though.

((In all honesty, though, I never found professors were denied tenure for their lack of skill in the classroom. Very few professors in my experience were denied it, and for those that were, it was usually about not publishing enough. So the contract you describe is rather one-sided, because the student bears the more substantial penalties. Being able to drop the class helps balance that.))

* Yeah, I see that the existence of a drop deadline is the difference. We had staggered deadlines. A week for it to drop with no consequence whatsoever. Then a while for it to drop with a W, and then longer for a WP or WF, if I recall correctly. And eventually I guess it would be an F. But I didn't mind getting a W on my transcript, since it didn't affect my GPA, so I had pretty much a third of the semester to decide.

Nancy Kress said...

Thank you, Chris. You're right -- and I wouldn't have known it otherwise. Damn!