Wednesday, October 06, 2010

21st Century Education: SUNY Albany Edition

cross-posted at Dagblog

Earlier this week, I blogged about SUNY ALbany's plan to fulfill its "world-wide" mission by cutting almost all of its European language programs and declaring its intention to fire the full-time tenured faculty who teach French, Russian, Italian, and the classics. At the same time, Albany cut its theater major.

I'd like to walk through the logic behind these particular cuts, because they're a striking example of how American universities are changing, and an illustration of the changes most critics of "hidebound" and "old-fashioned" universities would like to enact. Why did the President of SUNY Albany pick these programs for cutting?

The kneejerk response is that all of those programs were somehow "impractical." We all know how impractical the humanities are, right? But a few moments' thought suggests that this is wrong. There are a number of majors, in the humanities or out, that are probably less practical as employment training than the programs that have been cut. I won't single out any for disrespect, but SUNY is retaining some humanities programs that are less obvious preparation for a specific career than a BA in French is. It also has a number of social-sciences and natural-sciences majors which, to put it delicately, are perhaps more specialized than a sound undergraduate degree would be, and which certainly don't constitute a professional credential in their fields. (If you need a graduate degree in a field to get a job, and graduate students in that field have typically majored in biology or chemistry or economics first, the existence of the undergrad major strikes me more as marketing than education.) After all, foreign-language majors can easily take their skills to other industries, but at the very least they're preparing for a possible career as high-school teachers. Cutting the BA and MA in French isn't about getting rid of frivolous or impractical majors, unless New York high schools are no longer hiring French teachers.

Theater, which also sounds like a flaky liberal-arts major, is also a clearly pre-professional program, which trains directors and theatrical designers as well as actors. There are actual jobs for lighting designers, set designers, and costume designers, about 150 miles from Albany, and having solid professional training in those fields is a serious help. SUNY Albany, which is three or four hours away from both Broadway and Montreal, just cut its theater major and its French major. Real-world value was not the issue.

The reason that these programs were cut is not because they were flaky or worthless. It is because they were expensive. Every one of those fields demands labor-intensive instruction by highly trained specialists. There is no way to put any of these fields on a mass-instruction basis.

You learn Russian, if you're actually going to learn Russian, by taking a number of small, labor-intensive classes over a few years. There's no way to turn Russian class into a large lecture, where three hundred kids sit and look at Power Points about how to decline nouns. No one can even propose that with a straight face. (In fact, secondary-school language teaching is already badly hampered by trying to fit the usual high-school class size. Classes of twenty-five or thirty teenagers, forty-five minutes a day, will achieve basic language proficiency in an average of seven thousand years.)

Nor can you turn the instruction over to technology ... Rosetta Stone isn't exactly filling America with linguists. You can send undergraduates to the language lab for extra drill instruction, but you can't have just the language lab and not the classes. What you're stuck with, as a university, is a set of courses that require a low and therefore expensive student-to-teacher ratio, one faculty member in a room with ten or twelve sophomores. And the teacher's expertise obviously determines how much the students can learn; if you put someone who's not entirely fluent in the target language or someone who has a funky accent into the classroom, the students don't learn properly. So you need teachers with specialized skills, but you can only charge a limited number of student-credit-hours for each one of those teachers.

(All of this also goes for most theater classes. You can't teach acting, directing, or costume design to large lecture groups. You need small hands-on courses where a teacher with serious professional expertise observes and guides the students' efforts.)

The only way to economize on language teaching at all is to turn it over to poorly-paid "part-time" faculty, lowering the overhead for each course. French 101 and 102 get taught by people without actual salaries or benefits, for a per-course fee. But you can't run a major or offer most serious advanced courses that way. You can hire people on the cheap to teach basic grammar and vocabulary, but students won't become fluent unless you're paying for an actual department. C'est la vie. Same thing goes for theater; you can pay someone a scandal wage to teach the introductory classes, and that will go fine. But you can't teach the advanced stuff without faculty who are further along in their careers. If you want to produce graduates who can get jobs in lighting design off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway, you need faculty who have already succeeded as lighting designers off- or on Broadway themselves.

So, let's be very clear about what SUNY Albany is doing. They are going to keep introductory-level language courses, taught by ill-paid and overworked adjunct instructors. But they will cut the advanced courses in French, Russian, Italian, and the classics and cut the faculty whose responsibility it was to make sure that instruction in those languages stayed up to standard. Few or no students will actually learn enough of those languages to be useful, but they will manage to fulfill language requirements. It's cheaper to give people credit for filling requirements than it is to teach them things. In theater, I suppose, there will be no more advanced classes, but likely they will retain some introductory courses as "fun" electives, which students can treat as a diversion instead of work, and which will not lead to any more demanding or instructive studies. This will all be inexpensive; it will probably actually show a bottom-line profit which can be used to underwrite other programs. The only cost will be that the students will realize that the courses don't actually teach them anything, and decide that a university education is about checking off boxes instead of learning. That attitude will carry over into their other classrooms.

But have no fear: SUNY Albany will keep its "spectacular" Performing Arts Center, even if they're not educating performing artists anymore. And they will continue to boast of their "nearly 500 study abroad programs," including programs in France, Italy, and Russia. How is that possible? For many of those programs, there is "NO previous study required" (caps in the original), as SUNY Albany would like you to know. Study-abroad programs, unlike teaching languages, are a cash cow for universities, with a high profit margin.

So, when you hear people talking about how the American university needs to be "transformed" and how outdated models need to be swept away, or how universities should be run "more like a business," remember that this is what is being proposed: a shift to the lowest-cost instruction available, and an emphasis on "productivity" in terms of easily measurable units, such as credit hours and credentials, rather than on difficult-to-quantify questions like student learning. Teaching students to speak another language is expensive. Certifying that they sat through a language class can be very cheap indeed.

The operation of the free market, which will supposedly make universities innovative and forward-thinking, actually produces more old fashioned big lectures, in which a single faculty member can be paid to teach several hundred students at once. That format is enormously inefficient in terms of student learning; big lectures are clearly less effective than small-group teaching in every field, but when the lecturer is teaching history or economics schools can call the results good enough. This is about economics, rather than teaching economics.

A freer, more economically "rational" market does not produce higher-quality goods in this example, or lower prices. Rather, it leads to lower-quality instruction for increasing prices, with a few flashy deluxe items, such a spring semester in Milano for monolinguists, which exact a hefty price premium for the shopping experience. Welcome to the 21st century.

1 comment:

Suburbanized Urbanite said...

Thank you for writing this. Your analysis reflects much of what I have seen as a counselor for urban college students. I am figuring out very quickly that rather than, say, having students learn how to form a cogent argument, write coherently, and/or communicate in a language other than English, they are being taught watered-down material that I previously thought were of a middle school level.

A college degree has become essential to a "successful" career (and one could argue, a successful life), and yet it has been watered down to the point of becoming a stupid piece of paper. But I suppose that's what happens when students are regarded as customers and not as students.