Sunday, March 01, 2009

That Uncomfortable Video

It didn’t win any awards at the academy last week. But Kansas State professor Michael Wesch is to be commended for his creativity in collecting and creatively presenting the thoughts of his undergraduate students about the lives of American college students today. The video is provocative, to say the least. And it is in response to that provocation that these comments from a fellow teacher of undergraduate students halfway across the country are offered.

Wesch’s students are hardly reluctant to critique the process in which they seek to become educated citizens. Early into the video, a handwritten note on the white board declares “The information is up here.” At some level, that is true in perhaps more places in academia than not. In what Brazilian educator Paolo Freire calls “the banking method” of teaching, much college education is marked by information posited by supposed experts at the head of a classroom (or, in this case, the auditorium representing the mass production factory approach many state universities use).Presumed blank slate students in need of such expertise are expected to inscribe the information and then deposit it in their minds only to regurgitate it upon command at test time as a means of demonstrating their “learning.”

Wesch’s students readily reflect the problems with this information driven factory approach to college education. One student notes that the average class size is 115 followed by another who observes that only 18% of her teachers actually know her name. While standardized tests, designed to demonstrate how much memorized information has been retained, have long been used in higher education, the best means of assessing learning is always to observe student behavior. Such is unlikely in auditoriums packed with young faces without names that more resemble Henry Ford’s auto assembly line than Plato’s Academy.

Wesch’s students have this one right - this is a particularly poor way to teach or to attempt to become educated. What a difference small classes where students were known by name and expected to produce written and verbal responses to assigned readings would make! Freire ably lays out the many problems with the banking method in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. But the fundamental problem here is the limited value of information-driven pedagogy.
In Post-Intellectualism and the Decline of Democracy, The Failure of Reason and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century, author and retired professor Donald Wood describes a progression of understanding that takes this form:

Data – (raw bits of thought) ->
Information - (data assembled into comprehensible form) ->
Knowledge – (Information critically assessed, evaluated) ->
Wisdom (Knowledge reflected upon in light of life experience, other perspectives)

It may well be true that “The information is up here.” Any instructor will employ a modicum of effort to make raw data comprehensible. Moreover, the presumption that an instructor will actually have information worth hearing about is certainly reasonable given the qualifications most colleges and universities require of their instructors. And in a standardized test driven world of educational bottom lines, for many students, memorization of that information and the regurgitation of that same information upon command like Pavlov’s dog is all that will be required of them. But there is little possibility of knowledge resulting from mass produced processes which focus primarily on gathering information. And even less wisdom. Little wonder Wesch’s students are cynical about the factory.

The two most striking lines in the entire video are as follows:

1. When I graduate I will have a job that probably doesn’t exist today.

2. I did not create the problems but they are my problems.

Let’s begin with the first. This is an incredibly important insight for any college student today. Many students have approached their college educations as potential worker drones seeking training, work credentials and the resulting security for their place in the professional middle class. How many instructors have had to put up with the response of “This isn’t my major” when confronting a student on their less than stellar performance as if this assertion somehow self-evidently explains why the student is entitled to blow off this class in which they are enrolled?

One hears this same theme in the student’s assertion in the video that “Only 26% (of the assigned readings of which students admit to reading only 49% to begin with) are relevant to my life.” There is an old Yiddish proverb that goes “If you want to make G-d laugh, tell G-d your plans.” How could an 18 year old possibly know what kind of life they will lead? Correspondingly, upon what basis would such a person lacking information about their future life make an assessment of relevancy of assigned readings to that life? Indeed, isn’t that precisely why they have hired instructors to make such assessments based upon their educations and life experience?

Clearly pursuit of a major is a valuable means of focusing one’s education in upper division studies. But the notion that there is nothing valuable to learn outside that major is both incredibly short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating in the very job market Wesch’s students fear. As I often say to my students, “You can live as limited a life as you choose.” Focusing on one’s major to the exclusion of any other learning experience suggests a bottom liner approach that is destined for failure for two reasons.

First, if the student’s observation that the jobs s/he will hold in the future do not yet exist is accurate – and this is a fairly common observation within the academy today - a vocational, major-driven approach to college education can provide only limited valuable skills with very short shelf lives to that future worker. Ironically, it is precisely the very liberal arts lower division education that bottom lining students are blowing off as unimportant that will probably determine how well they fare in that future job market.

A good liberal arts education does not simply supply information or job skills with a limited shelf life. Liberal arts curricula are designed to teach students how to think critically, creatively, synthetically. They are designed to prompt students to become aware of their presumptions and to recognize the limitations of their own cultural backgrounds in an increasingly global work world. Liberal arts curricula are designed to teach students how to express themselves verbally, through writing and art, using technologies. They are designed to teach students how to take positions and support them with evidence and reasoned argument. They are designed to teach basic understandings of math and the sciences. They require transcending one’s own cultural limitations through learning foreign languages and a wide range of cultures immediately and increasingly around them in their own country. In short, a liberal arts curriculum is designed to help students become more aware of the universe, hence the reason many pursue such learning at a place called a university. How well one develops that awareness probably will determine much of their success or failure in the rapidly evolving and largely unpredictable job market the student in the video describes.

And that leads to the second key point above: I did not create these problems but they are my problems.

At some level, this is a true statement. Today’s college students were born into a cultural context of technology as a way of life and consumerism as the primary lens through which Americans view and thus construct their lives. The closing scene from Wesch’s students’ video includes a quote that “Some have suggested that technology alone can save us.” It is immediately followed by two confessions that reveal the problem with this belief: “I facebook through most of my classes…I bring my laptop but I am not working on class stuff.” Clearly, the world of technology into which our current students were born has not proved to be our – or their - salvation. But just as clearly, the actions of these same students reveal that they are a part of the very problems they lament.

You see, college students who by their own admission spend only three hours studying each day are also admitting they are failing to live into their part of the college bargain. Study after study shows that an average of two hours preparation outside each hour spent in class is necessary to successfully learn that which the classes seek to teach. Even if three hours are spent each day of the week, that only adds up to 21 reading/study/preparation hours weekly. Given the 2 hours prep/1 hour class formula, that’s not even equivalent to a full time load of 12 hours. And when the students in the video add up all their various daily activities including spending more time each day online than studying, their total comes to 26.5 hours. That not only suggests very poor time management skills, it also suggests some rather misplaced priorities. Both of those are plainly within the realm of student responsibility.

The “problems” also include paying for classes never attended, paying $100 for textbooks never opened. It includes conscious decisions to spend time reading webpages (2300) and facebook profiles (1281) rather than books (8). It includes the choice to spend time writing voluminous amounts of email (over 500 pages) at the same time only 42 pages are written for classes. None of these conscious choices about time and energy expenditure suggest any sense of responsibility as students much less maturity as young adults. Indeed, the implication from the comments is that these students are somehow victims of the world into which they’ve been thrust and simply play their parts.

And yet, none of this just happens. Time expenditures are always the result of choices. Priorities evidence decisions about the use of time. Which is why the assertion that “I am a multitasker…I have to be” is rather ludicrous. Multitasking generally translates to doing a number of things in a mediocre at best fashion because insufficient attention is being paid to any one of them. If a student feels driven to multitasking, perhaps it is because they have so cluttered their lives with constant distractions from cell phones to facebook to gameboys that they have little time left for their responsibilities as students. One wonders what is so horrible about the self-confessed privileged lives of young people that they must be constantly distracted from conscious presence in them.

At some level, much of the commentary in the video Michael Wesch’s students produced comes across as uncritical in its reasoning, immature in its inordinate and unsupported sense of entitlement, consumerist in its expectations and morally irresponsible in the way the students assess their situation and who is responsible for it. As a college instructor of now 23 years, I find the video troubling even as I recognize the consistency in these comments with those I hear from my own students. At some level, we are all in Michael Wesch’s debt for providing a means for these understandings to be articulated. But confronting the problems it raises will take a lot more than a collaborative video production.

If there is a ray of light in this production, it was the recognition by these students of their own privilege. While one student whines about leaving college with $20,000 debt, as if this investment in his own future was somehow not worth $20,000, the very next student confesses “I am one of the lucky ones” followed by the student who recognizes “One billion people live on less than $1.00 a day.”

What makes me hopeful in this recognition of privilege is the possible insight that the educational process of which clearly few of these students are actually taking full advantage comes with responsibilities to something larger than their own immediate self-interests – a very needy world around them. Perhaps that recognition will spur some students to take their educational process a bit more seriously, to accept responsibility for their participation in that process and the time management it requires, out of the recognition that there is something at stake a little larger than technology and consumerism.

This is the hopeful side of the Generation Y students we are teaching today. It is the side that makes it possible to deal with the myopic tendencies Michael Wesch’s video lays out so well. I thank Professor Wesch for a provocative look at the minds of college students today and I wish him and his students well. Thanks to them, we have fairly well defined many of the problems in higher education and its students today. The question that remains is what will be our - and their - response.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes
Dear (?) Rush......

RE: Rush Limbaugh calls on conservatives to take back nation
[CNN headline, March 1, 2009]


Dear Rush,

1. It doesn’t belong to you. You can't "take back" something that never belonged to you in the first place.

2. Conservatives have already done their best at screwing it up over the past three decades. Recess is over.

3. Rush, why don't you find a new line of work? Clearly your current one isn't working out so well. (see election results, 2008) There is a limited market for witty but vaccuous and sometimes toxic commentary, you know.


The Nation

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.