Friday, December 4, 2009
Hub of Mediocrity: Inviting the Playground into Our Classrooms
This is my latest Roundtable briefing and commentary. I am afraid it is highly critical and I apologize to my colleagues on the Roundtable who have worked so hard to produce a document that meets both the approval of the Arts & Sciences Council members and the expectations of the Administration that funded it and has closely supervised and encouraged its progress to this point. I offer my comments as constructive criticism.
The A&S College Extended Roundtable Implementation Committee (RTIC) met for three hours on the morning of Wednesday, December 2nd in the old BOT conference room, where we discussed the merits of the “Progress Report Circulation Draft.” This document was distributed to all A&S Council members via Email on December 1st. Members in attendance included: N. McClelland, L. Anderson-Huang, C. Beatty-Medina, C. Gilbert, D. Nemeth, D. Stierman, L. Rouillard, B. Pryor, J. Benjamin, D. Tucker, P. Lindquist, M. Denham, C. Habrecht, J. Barlow, R. Heberle.
Dean McClelland opened the meeting with an enthusiastic endorsement of the document, at one point calling it “worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.” She added that the document nevertheless might be improved by strategically inserting some more “key” or “power” words (those used currently in A&S College transformational discourse statewide in Ohio): “integrative,” “innovative,” “communicative,” and -- most important --”efficiencies.” My word search of the entire document however failed to discover anywhere the phrase “aspire to academic excellence.” This seemed strange to me since Dean McClelland in previous meetings had stressed that the final Roundtable Implementation Report would recommend a list of “action items” that could with confidence lock-in our future trajectory toward a “top-tier” ranking among A&S Colleges nationwide.
Ensuing discussion around the table revealed that the five themes comprising the “Progress Report” synthesis (curriculum, scholarship, teaching/learning modalities, graduate study, and space) had so far resulted in a draft document that emphasized in large part implementing transformational change in the A&S College by systematically improving the lower division undergraduate learning experience, thereby measurably improving retention rates of at-risk students. I have asked repeatedly to our group why UT is interested in recruiting and then retaining (at great cost in dollars and reputation) academically-unmotivated students rather than recruiting on-record high-performing academically-motivated students? Are we after a top-tier quantity ranking or top-tier quality ranking? These questions have so far gone unanswered.
Details of the transformational plan outlined in the Report further reveal that a perfect storm of 1) extreme student centeredness, 2) collaborative learning technologies, and 3) unspecified but ominous “efficiencies” are converging on the A&S College that will flood its classrooms with casual and entertaining educational activities, many featuring hand-held electronic devices. Question: Will this flood meanwhile serve to sweep our remaining tenured professoriate, long dedicated to preserving a disciplined regime of academic excellence in the A&S College, from the center of the undergraduate classroom experience, to its periphery, and eventually out the door?
This Roundtable Implementation Report in its present incarnation seems satisfied to aspire to achieve only academic mediocrity for our College of Arts and Sciences. Many of its recommendations involving the undergraduate leaning experience appear to be inviting the playground into our classrooms. If so, this initiative seems counter-productive and especially unfair to the expectations of the academically-motivated A&S College student high-achievers we have recruited. We have in fact promised them an excellent liberal arts education and satisfying academic experience on this campus.
The floodgates are already opening up: the discipline problems and anti-academic attitudes that have already trashed the academic aspirations of our urban public primary and secondary schools are apparently soon to be invited, accommodated and formally implemented into our own A&S College curriculum, scholarship, teaching/learning modalities, space and graduate studies . The huge internal contradiction and false claim in this Roundtable Report is that it claims to be taking the High Road to Top-Tier Ranking while it is obviously mapping out instead in this Roundtable Implementation Report a Low Road to Mediocrity -- or worse.