google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Imagining the Educational Upgrade: Deltopia in Review Part 3

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 do 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?

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