Recently two very different and contradictory reports on higher education crossed my desk. The first was a preliminary draft of recommendations by the U.S. Commission on the Future of Higher Education (e-mailed to Dickinsonians by President William G. Durden ’71 on June 28).
The group, charged by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings with a review of our higher-education system, covers many issues. One salient theme of the draft is the need to increase the quality of higher education and, simultaneously, to cut costs. These two goals, presumably, are readily reconciled.
The second report differs in origin, content and implied conclusion. During a campus discussion of grade inflation, I asked Associate Provost Brenda Bretz ’95 to compare course syllabi from the 1970s with current syllabi. My goal was a glimpse, admittedly impressionistic, of how the amount of work we now ask of students matches expectations for earlier generations.
The comparison of syllabi in introductory courses and seminars in biology, English, political science, psychology and religion didn’t yield the anticipated result. Alas, faculty then and now didn’t indicate the page lengths of readings or written assignments in enough detail to measure workload. The study did reveal something of greater importance—how much pedagogy has evolved since the 1970s. Here are some salient changes in the syllabi.
Use of survey textbooks has sharply decreased. Instead, faculty employ more primary-source materials and individually chosen readings targeted to course purposes and topics.
In the 1970s assignments typically were “blue book” exams and final papers. Though still popular, they have been joined by more “active learning” assignments, such as journals, collaborative projects, fieldwork and presentations.
Papers were generally conceived as one-shot efforts, written and submitted. Now papers typically are viewed as a process. Students may be asked to do topic proposals, outlines and then multiple drafts before producing a final version. Many classes also encourage peer editing by fellow students.
Technology has arrived in the classroom. Syllabi commonly refer to electronic access to readings, pre- and post-class e-mailings of questions and comments, PowerPoint presentations and course chat rooms.
What does this inquiry into syllabi—a one-campus, informal, focused study—have to do with the federal commission’s report on the state of higher education?
Nearly every pedagogical innovation in the current syllabi is labor intensive for those teaching the courses. Choosing readings rather than relying on “canned” texts and updating them each year, reviewing multiple drafts of papers and the like all demand additional hours of professors’ attention.
Even technology, often assumed to increase efficiency, in this arena usually doesn’t. E-mail traffic and chat rooms require more, not less, faculty involvement. In sum, enhancing learning means increasing a costly commodity in our budget—the numbers of our faculty, their training and the equipment and other support they require.
Dickinson and its peer colleges have long maintained that quality education is not mass-produced; personalized approaches with direct student-faculty interaction work best. Our innovations since the 1970s reinforce this perspective.
How the Spellings Commission, the federal government and American society will square the circle of quality and cost remains to be seen. At Dickinson, we do seek efficiencies, such as electronic registration. And we manage resources well, as our recent excellent Standard & Poor’s bond rating attests. Yet we know that the best quality education typically means greater investment.
In making that investment, particularly through our current process of expanding the size of the faculty, we rely on another human asset. The Dickinson community of alumni, parents and friends, through generous gifts and endowment, makes it possible for us to square the circle of quality and cost.