Friday, March 13, 2009

Academic Jibber Jabber

Ohio State University just voted to move from a 10 week quarter system (3 quarters per academic year plus an additional summer quarter) to a semester system, the specifics of which will be identified later. Absolutely no serious academic reason for doing this was given. Most prominent among the reasons for doing this is that it would enable students more easily to transfer credits to and out of Ohio State. That is not an academic reason.

The real reason was political
“We need to think really hard about turning our backs on the chancellor, governor and the legislature,” Faculty Council Chairman Dick Gunther, a political-science professor, told the group.
One Timothy Gerber, a music professor and chairman of the semester-conversion committee recommended this change, claiming
“We’re talking about a calendar that lets us do creative things and put students first while focusing on faculty success,” he said.
This is the sort of gibberish that gives academics a bad name. What in living hell are these "creative things" we will be able to do in a semester system that cannot be done in a quarter system. There very well may be some but Dr. Gerber doesn't -- maybe can't -- come up with one. I can see why the fraidy cats in the administration chose this man to lead the conversion effort. He would be easily influenced to "do the right thing" and cave to the politicians.

There is to me a certain dissonance to "creative things." "Creative" evokes a variety of notions of genuine importance such as "thinking" and "innovation" and "ideas" and "art" whereas "thing" is the dumbest word in English. But the real gibberish is
put students first while focusing on faculty success
I would think that putting students first would entail focusing, not on the faculty, but the students. It is also a lie that the university is going to put students first. Getting research money is way too important to the finances of the university for the administration to make that mistake. Moreover, it is in the self-interest of faculty to spend more time on research than on teaching except when preparing new courses. This isn't to say that the faculty doesn't care about teaching students. It is just not their main concern. The administration silently endorses this attitude by rewarding those who do research, especially those who bring in lots of money, for a good bit of this is legitimately raked off by the university to cover overhead.

The fact is that the quarter system allows for a much greater diversity in the education of students and theoretically even more contact hours between the faculty and students in undergraduate lecture courses. If in a quarter system of 10 weeks, undergraduate lecture courses were taught five days a week, as was common when I first arrived on the campus, there would be 50 contact hours between the faculty and his or her students. In a semester system of 16 weeks with 3 contact hours a week, there would be just 48 contact hours a week. However, if one believes, as I do, that learning requires cognitive gestation and that takes time, then there is reason to go to a semester system for it gives students 16 weeks to engage in this process. Moreover, writing good papers in more advanced undergraduate, to say nothing of graduate, courses is more productive in a semester system for the same reason.

The notion of "cognitive gestation" is vague and I can't make it more explicit but I do know from personal experience that there is "thinking" going on in learning that we are not explicitly aware of. When I was writing my dissertation, I had to face head on a problem I had not been able to solve in some 4 or 5 years of thinking about it (not all the time of course). At one point, with a Chicago Bears football game going on in the background, I had an "eureka" moment. Three facts passed through my consciousness at a "speed" I couldn't keep up with consciously but I knew that there were three facts that provided the solution to my problem that I somehow "knew" but just hadn't put together before. The trouble is that I didn't know exactly what these facts were. After 30 minutes of serious thinking I was able to bring these facts to full consciousness and see how they provided the solution to my problem. This was the result of thinking by me at a level I wasn't explicitly aware of. I have had many other instances of this and seen it in my students. Once, a student at the University of Illinois who had taken a syntax course from me a month or two ago passed by me some 30 yards away who yelled out, 'Professor Geis, I finally get it." It was a bit late for her grade but I was happy about it and she seemed to be too.

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