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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Blogger John L said...

My experience with the systems is that switching back and forth is very, very hard, at least personally. I recently taught several Quarter-size courses at WWU after spending almost all my career at Michigan, where there's a Semester system.

I was never able to get the right amount of information in the course; either I tried to pack a whole Semester in a Quarter, or I left out things by necessity and got stranded because they were needed after all to tackle the next topic.

If you're switching, be sure you've got the time under control, is my advice.

As to the rest, I'm sure OSU doesn't "put students first while focusing on faculty success" any more or less than Michigan does, which is to say zero. So what else is new?

12:13 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

John L, I am retired now but did go through the process you describe. I partially dealt with the problem by writing out very detailed syllabi. Even with such planning I would find that I could get through material too quickly or too slowly. I made it worse when I provided (at some expense to the department) photocopies of my class notes to students. Latter I put them on the web so students could print them out. I wanted them to have these things in advance of my lecture so they could listen to what I was saying rather than taking notes themselves. One can't both listen and write at the same time. That meant that I had to put still more content into my classes since the kids already knew much of what I was going to say.

7:51 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

Good! You've posted something. I check your blog all the time looking for a new post. Finally!

I don't have a strong opinion on the issue of quarters verses semesters.

I was most fascinated by your final paragraph about cognitive gestation. Do you think this is something similar to intuition or knowledge that comes to us intuitively? A lot of activity and a certain kind of thinking takes place in the brain behind the scenes that is out of reach of the conscious mind. You can know something is true, but find it difficult, as you indicated, to bring to the conscious mind the reasons why you know it is true.

11:40 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

SusieQ, I mean this gestation process to involve some kind of rational, even if not conscious, learning process in which facts are sorted out in much the way they might be while fully conscious. I went to bed one night not understanding the concept of a limit in calculus. I woke up understanding it. Dunno why.

I'm not really sure what intuition is unless it is simply making judgments as to what is true or what might happen where one cannot explicitly defend the perceptions. The idea that women have some special intuitive powers strikes me as highly problematic. Ditto for men.

7:45 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

I see what you mean by cognitive gestation. I've experienced that at times although I am sure I could sleep on it a thousand nights and never come to understand calculas.

As far as my own experiences with cognitive gestation, I can be struggling to find an answer to a problem. I'm convinced one exists. I've discovered that I can't force it to come forward to my conscious mind very easily and that I will have better luck if I will quit thinking about it and do something physical such as sweep the floor which has a similar affect as sleeping on it. Before long a light goes on in my mind and I have the answer.

Intuition is probably best known as a gut feeling you can get about a person(s), a place, or a situation after picking up cues so subtle that you can't put your finger on them in order to identify them. I have read that police officers often have to rely on their intuition (their gut feelings) when they are confronted with a crime scene or the criminal element and have to act fast.

It may be possible that women have a slight edge on men when it comes to intuition. I say this because of a study that was done with newborns in which it was discovered that female infants were attracted to the human face whereas male infants were attracted more to things like mobiles. I am assuming that this attraction to the human face continues in the female. The face provides many social cues which can be subtle. Maybe women are able to read these cues a little better than men. If this is true, I think it could be due to evolution.

You've probably had the feeling at one time or another that you did not like a particular person or trust that person, but that, in all honesty, you could not put your finger on the reasons why. Maybe you were reading social cues that were subtle and escaped your conscious mind. This is intuition don't you think.

10:42 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I worry about endorsing any of these gut feeling or intuition-derived attitudes for they replace judgments based on articulatable assumptions that are subject to criticism. They have a role in guiding thinking but not in replacing it. So, if a cop thinks some witness is lying, that may be a worthy intuition, but it has no probative value. It has to be replaced by evidence of lying. Ditto any other intuition or gut feeling.

If I were a woman and some guy who was hitting on me seemed a bit "creepy" I would get the hell away from him. In that sort of case, trying to find solid evidence of his "creepiness" would not be a good plan.

6:50 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

For sure you are right about the limited role that intuition should play in our lives. Hunches come in handy in dark alleys and might saves lives if followed. But it would be very wrong for instance to rely on intuition in deciding the guilt or innocence of someone on trial.

8:28 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a natural skeptic that always requires proof but I have learned to trust those subtle realizations that occasionally come to me and for which I have no good reasons. I think intuition is a part of intelligence and can produce some of our greatest insites when we listen to it. I can't prove that but it feels correct to me. Who can say how much thought goes on below our awareness. None of us really know how the brain does what it does.

4:46 PM


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