Blog Post

Time and the Modern University

I am honored to be joining the Cornell University seminar on "Time" this year at the Society for the Humanities.  Here's my description for "Time and the Modern University."

“Credit hours. The semester.  The quarter. Class time. Academic calendars. Class schedules. Contact hours. Required attendance. Office hours. Make-up classes. Snow days. Fall and Spring break. Credit hours required for general education.  Credit hours required for a minor. Credit hours required for the major. Exam schedules. The timed exam.  The Carnegie Unit.  Student hours.  Seat time.  These are just some of the features of the Industrial Age standardization of the university that are now taken for granted but that were very much part of the late 19th century’s standardizing of, simultaneously, faculty workload, student accreditation, and knowledge professionalization and specialization.   Emanating from Harvard and the Carnegie Foundation, these features were justified by Taylorist production models of efficiency and twentieth-century modernization.  While looking back historically, Professor Cathy N. Davidson will also be challenging us during her visit to deconstruct the higher education punch clock and to think about what learning might look like if all vestiges of “seat time” were eliminated. If we were to liberate learning from the the assembly line, Taylorism, and the tyranny of the punch clock, what might the new university be?” 


Keep in mind, I do not mean to replace "seat time" with what has been called "competency-based learning."  I actually find the concept of "competency-based learning" efficient--so sometimes an approvement over redundancy and bureaucracy in some forms of learning.  But it cannot be a full alternative.  At its base, in its underlying premises, it is way too cynical and too much of a low bar.  Competence?  Is that what higher education is for?  Really? I don't want competency to be the goal.  That implies there is a specific bucket of content and, once it's filled, you are done.  I would rather have goal-based or  mission-driven learning and, instead of some competencies you check off a list, certain aspirational goals, including tasks, activities, translations of one's knowledge into activities and activism and contribution in the world.  

I mean, why take a mechanized, standardized, overly-specialized and narrow system of apprenticeship (passing on the peer-reviewed status quo generation to genereation) and simply translate its outcomes into competencies and think that is making a learning change? 

It isn't. 

That just standardizes what is already standardized.  I want us to rethink what real learning might look like if the punch-clock were not the basic unit of measure, the assembly line and efficiency not the intellectual model of output and productivity, the one best answer item-response test the assessment model, and the degree or credential the output goal of attaiment. 

What if we asked who is the student?  What can we do to ensure that student learns and contributes in all ways possible and to make the best life possible--not just the best grade possible? 

What if the goal were a better life and a better society beyond school?  



1 comment

Asking who is the student resonated with me, because the student -- every class will have many students, and they (we) are all going to be different from each other in myriad ways. Our prior knowledge will be different and our goals will be different, so how could the exact same standardized thing meet all our needs?