Wednesday, August 12, 2015

August 12: I may add a supplement to this one...

The problem is that it's hard to write every day about a newspaper that is trivial and almost empty of either thought or information. So I might add a follow up to a recent commentary by the president of Mount Allison U. on education.

Front page news is that a local woman has submitted a donut for a competition sponsored by a    coffee chain, and has been accepted for the next round of the contest. A4 has a story that's a free ad for a new shoe store. And, of course, we have the usual who-gives-a-damn stories from the court house.

The editorial is another thought-provoking piece about how we should welcome tourists by smiling at them. Or, even better, we could pull our pants down and flash them.

Norbert Cunningham opines that Donald Trump is so crude and boorish and so empty of policy that he will soon fade in the polls. That's a common opinion; but I'm not sure it's true. When a man as crude and ignorant as Trump can lead the pack, even in this early stage, it suggests something profoundly sick about American society. Here is a nation that has been raised to believe in a mythical  history and a God-driven mission to rule the world. It has been propagandized and brain-washed for generations by its news and entertaintment media.  It has been trained to hate and fear  as the patriotic things to do. And it is suffering social breakdown through its intense racism, its brutality, its failure to govern for the good of the people, its blatant takeover by millionaires and billionaires, the collapse of its democracy, its declining prosperity and physical health (never reported in our news media), and its class privilege so severe it reminds one of medieval Europe.

The put it bluntly, the whole nation is suffering from greed, unreasoning hatreds, fears, and hardships. And such societies often choose a Donald Trump as they once chose a Hitler or a Mussolini.

Norbert also perceives plenty of old-time, more moderate and intelligent Repbulicans who are ready to take over. What are you talking about , Norbert? Another Bush? A John McCain? Norbert even refers to the late Barry Goldwater as a deep thinker. (In fact, he represented one of the darker moments in always dark Republican leadership. )

All candidates, Republican and Democrat, believe in "American Exceptionalism" - in which the U.S. is the only country in the world with the right to invade and kill without answering to any law.  Many, very many, believe this is the will of God - for the U.S. to rule the world. As for deep thought being necessary, Obama won his  first term with just the phrase - "We can do it." Do what? He never said.

The U.S. is in a dreadful moral and social collapse. Donald Trump is a natural result of that. So are all the likely nominees for both parties. It's a sick society. And it cannot produce a leader that will be of any help. And no matter who wins, the U.S. will be ruled as it has been for many years by the billionaires.

If there were any thoughtful minds in either party, they wouldn't both be calling for more killing, and for risking a nuclear war.

Brian Cormier has a real commentary The guest column is an excellent one on Guaranteed Annual Income. And, contrary to its sound, it's actually a money-saving idea.

Alec Bruce has a column about Trump that says even less than Norbert does.
Nor are Canadian political leaders  blazing any trail to deep thinking. On B1, the lead story is "Trudeau pushes Senate cleanup, Harper touts anti-drug policy." Well, the Senate should be cleaned up. But it was designed in the first place as a chamber to block anything the rich didn't like. It's been doing that for close to a hundred and fifty years, and its been filled with blockheads and thieves for all that time. Justin  - it just ain't a really crucial issue right now. As for Harper, he's anti-drugs. Quick, can anybody name me a party that's running on a pro-drug programme? Mulcair, though not in the headline, was in the story as much as the other two - and without a whole lot to say on policy.

The real issue in any election is where a party stands on the question of what the party thinks a society is, and what the role of government is in that society. But it is very, very rare to hear that.

B1 also has a story on the passenger plane shot down over Ukraine. Examiners say it might have been brought down by a Russian-made missile - but they don't know. That still leaves me  curious about the lines of machine bullets on that plane that I saw in the photo in the Irving press.

B2 has a big story on what Donald Trump says about his putdowns of people. Who could possibly care? This is a paper with only 6 pages of Canada&World news ( 4 pages if you deduct the ads). To waste a major part of that on why Donald Trump is rude is pretty incompetent.

The only story on the brutality and horror being inflicted on refugees is about the crisis those refugees are facing as they escape to a Europe that doesn't want them. And, at that, they amount to only 1% or so of the suffering in those wars. There is not a word about the massive suffering in Syria or Yemen or Libya. Nor have we yet been told why these wars are being fought - or how the U.S. has been helping both sides in most of those wars. However, it is not helping the worst off - the millions of Yemenis who face starvation and death (children first) as a result of Saudi aircraft, troops, food blockade and  U.S.  bombs (no doubt blessed by those same clergy who believe God wants the U.S. to rule the world.)

It is not possible for a news editor to accidentally miss so many important stories. Well, to be kind, it is possible if he's the village idiot.

And that's it for today's paper.

That gives me time to take up a topic which interests me because I have two children in university. How can we improve the quality of university teaching? And how can we make it cheaper?

Let's start with what the universities are now.

These are institutions designed for research. Prestige lies in research. Promotion lies in research. Egos are caught up in the relationship to research. (University teachers have some real, ego problems. It's a product of the highly competitive nature of grad school and of acceptance within university circles.)

Research is expensive. It means a library much, much larger than undergraduate students need. And, apart from the purchase price, it costs big money just to keep a book on the shelves.

It's expensive, too, because it means very, very few hours can be given to teaching.  Usually, tops is about nine hours a week. In the years I was department chair, and responsible for assigning hours, I commonly had professors furious with me for assigning five hours a week. One took the issue to the university president because he didn't feel he should have to teach at all.

Among other things, it means many, perhaps most, devote little time to seeing students, and opt for examination and grading purposes on systems (like fill in the blanks or checkmark the right answers) which are quick and easy to mark, but of no educational value, whatever. Most also insist on the university hiring students to do the grading, and even some of the teaching.

And, in forty years of university teaching, I never once heard a conversation about the 'how' of teaching.

This is a very expensive and educationally very useless system of education.

Typically, the first  year courses are what are called 'surveys'.  These are extremely broad courses covering, say, Canada from 1500 to now, or, everything about psychology crammed into one book. The result is a course which simply has to be memorized. There's no other way to do it. And information that is memorized is forgotten soon after the exam. (The only exception is when one  has a lifetime use for the information. And that's rare.) To this day, I know nothing and remember nothing about psychology, philosophy, science - and most of my history courses. I also had a course in the poetry of Chaucer, a course in which the whole term was spent reading around the room so we could learn how to pronounce the words. I passed. But I have forgotten how to pronounce most of the words. Nor do I have any wish to pronounce them.

(What makes it worse is that most university teachers are not very skilled speakers.)

Luckily, I taught in the public schools before my university days. So I realized early there was something wrong with all this. I thought we should be teaching thinking, not memorizing. Thinking is something we don't forget. And thinkers is what this world needs. So I tried an experiment.

I set a reading and writing project on a narrow topic chosen from an historical journal. One, I remember, was the nature of the aboriginal game of lacrosse as a part of social life, war training, and spiritual life.

First, I told them to read it. Then we discussed it in class. This was a part of the thinking process. First, one has to learn how to read with understanding.  Once they had a grip on exactly what the article said, we discussed it in the number of paragraphs needed to outline the article. (I always specified two or three paragraphs so they would learn what a paragraph is.).

After a few days, we discussed how to make judgements about the article. What were the author's sources? How do we know if these are credible sources? (In the case of lacrosse, for example, all the  sources were misionaries or explorers. In other words, they come after, sometimes long after) European contact. So how do we know whether lacrosse was, before that contact, similar to what the sources reported?

Then they were assigned to write one paragraph judging the sources, starting and ending with a clear judgement of the worth of the article.

In this whole process, I emphasized the use of simple language.

Then I assigned the whole assignment - with very rigid terms. 1. A brief introduction giving the topic of the article, the name of the author, the name of the publication. Two sentences - tops.
2. It was to be followed by three (depending on the article)  paragraphs of summary..3. there was to be one paragraph of criticism. 4. And on paragraph of no more than two sentences to sum up what the article was about, and whether it was any good.

Unless I  had been assigned an unusually good marker, I marked these myself - and they counted heavily for the final grade.

It wasn't important that the students learn all about lacrosse or whatever the topic was. It was important to learn how to think - to read with understanding, to summarize the major  points, to learn how to make judgements , and to sum up the whole, complicated process with just two sentences.

There's certainly a lot more to be done. I wish I had gone much further. But it was a start on putting the emphasis on learning how to think rather than how recite.

If I were to teach again, it would be to abandon the whole concept of teaching history in a context of Canada from Beginning to End or History of the Roman Empire. Those can only turn into memorization  derbies. I would choose much more compact material, and organize it around the processes of learning to think.

As well, I would hire the majority of teachers to teach, not to do research. And I would assign them much longer teaching hours. (Anyone who has read any professional journals knows that we would miss nothing if we had fewer researchers.)

I would still hire some researchers with few teaching hours, and limit their teaching to very advanced courses because they are too likely to do damage to students in courses that are not advanced.

I would insist on mandatory training in teaching for university teachers. This cannot be done with an extra year of grad school. Nor can it be done using existing profs. The answer probably lies in regular conferences with traveling speakers on how to plan and  to teach courses at university level. And with a major effort by university administrations to bring some greater education to their curriculae.

The system, as it is today, is probably worse than it was a thousand years ago. As it is today, it is too expensive and, in educational terms, dreadfully unimaginative.

1 comment:

  1. A university education is also too often useless. We have too many university graduates $20,000+ in debt with no hope of ever getting a job in their field. Universities should be working hand in hand with industries to provide students with a working skills to go along with all that knowledge. Tuition invoices should all come with a disclaimer - participation in this learning exercise wont guarantee you a job. Also we make students jump through a lot more hoops than they really need to. take the aquaculture technician job and what used to be the truro Agricultural College. It used to be a 2 year, mostly hands on technical diploma - that more often would get you a job, with minimal student debt. Now its a four year degree program, why would a job as repetitive as this require a university degree? Truth is it doesn't, the system is just milking these students for as much money as they can get before they can start a real job and its a crying shame. there seems to be a lack of checks and balances in the system so there is little that can be done about it either.

    I wish I had you as a professor!