Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Conceit of the Liberal Arts College

Maynard from Creative Destruction has decided to call out SteveG and I on the issue of putting more resources toward improving teaching. He asks pointed questions to test our "implied" hypothesis that students benefit more from good teaching than being around great minds (see my post and Steve G's post). Then, Maynard offers up the following thought experiment:

Let’s do a thought experiment. In the Economics Department, we teach about 54 sections of classes per year. We do this (starting in 2008) with 9 full-time, tenure track faculty teaching 3-2 loads (assuming one of our ten faculty members is on sabbatical each year), with nine sections filled by visitors and adjuncts. Suppose we took the 20 introductory-level courses we teach (average class size 20-30) and consolidated them into 4 big lectures with 100+ students in each. Suppose we reduced by one the number of sections we offer of our intermediate theory courses and statistics courses by upping the enrollment cap from 30 to 45 or 50. Bang, now we’re teaching 35 sections instead of 54, of which 26 are taught by tenure-track faculty. This would allow us to move to a 2-1 teaching load. Suppose we did this in all departments, then upped the research expectations accordingly, attracting if not the greatest minds, at least greater minds than we currently have. From the student’s perspective, you’re now taking your introductory courses and some 200-level courses in large lectures, but you get basically the same experience in upper-level courses that you have now. Would we see a decline in applications? Would students get a worse education than they currently do?

I have a few off-the-cuff reactions. First of all, why continue to call ourselves a LAC if this is the plan? Secondly, why assume that "great minds" actually have the ability to rub off some of their greatness on students? I had quite a few brilliant faculty in grad school who couldn't teach to save their lives. I was only able to appreciate their greatness, because the less great minds (like myself) helped give me the tools to be able to figure out what their contributions were to the field. I doubt that many students will benefit from being around smart people, especially in large sections, if such smarties cannot communicate. Thirdly, will you be well prepared for the upper division courses coming from large sections in the 100 and 200 level? Why not just eliminate those courses all together, give the students a list or readings, power point slides or DVD lectures to teach themselves the material?

What do you think?