Universities are fatally flawed. They are required to neglect half of their core mission, or face elimination. The biggest casualty of this flaw is teaching and student learning. If you understand this basic fact of the university, you will be way ahead of the pack in being equipped to accomplish something during college. Let’s start with a metaphor.
- Celebrity Chef. You might think that the purpose of a fancy restaurant is to make and sell food. The best restaurants have respected chefs who are truly artists in the kitchen. However, imagine that these chefs are severely punished for doing any actual cooking. Imagine that they are rewarded for creating cook books, winning reality TV cooking shows, and writing for foodie magazines and internet blogs. If they have a lot of followers on their food blog and their cookbook sells well, they can charge higher prices and their restaurants will have throngs of customers making reservations and waiting hours to be seated. If they cook food, their empty restaurants will quickly go out of business. What would they do? They’d hire a horde of minimum wage workers to spoon food out of heating trays, microwave bags of pre-cooked portions, and arrange produce in fancy salad bowls. They’d spend all their time at photo shoots for their upcoming cook book, inventing creative recipes for their blog, researching food lore for interesting articles in magazines, and practicing speed drills for their next appearance on cooking contest shows. They would absolutely not cook food. They would rationalize this by reasoning that they were mentoring the chefs in training and had designed the menu (e.g. “locally sourced organic greens…).
- Professor. It didn’t take me long to figure out that every minute spent teaching was wasted, with respect to getting hired, staying employed, and getting promoted. For faculty, all the incentives in the university are for research. You will not get hired for the highly coveted tenure-track faculty position without a successful program of research. If you are a slacker in the lab, your best bet is an overworked underpaid temporary faculty job. At worst you might work part time for three or four colleges making less than a high school teacher. With no benefits. Therefore, research is king. All our energy goes into planning, conducting, and writing research. Presenting at conferences, submitting grant proposals, and publishing or perishing is the name of the game. The most successful professors teach very little.
- Student complicity. If you think college is school, you’d be wrong. But it’s understandable because hungry restaurant patrons think the chef might cook them dinner. They come with money for food, and that’s what they think they are paying for at the restaurant. Not true. Some high school student is squeezing out their reheated portion-controlled baggie of protein onto the plate and someone else is tossing on the side-dish from a vat (metaphorically speaking). So although restaurants are supported 100% by dining revenue, they can’t exist without the celebrity chef’s narcissistic pursuit of food culture (in this metaphor). Many universities are supported about 90% by student tuition, but not so many resources go into instruction. Before you get indignant, admit that you are complicit in this problem. Although some students yearn for knowledge and gobble down long lectures for the pure joy of learning, this is unusual. Only the intellectually elitist are this devoted to scholarship. Most students are engaged in the simple transaction; money for credential, on the way to a job. Attendance in class is not strong. How many required readings did you…read? The official policy is that you’ve read the text before coming to class and are prepared to fully participate. That just doesn’t happen. College has become more accessible and is moving toward being more about the accoutrements (e.g., fitness center, dorm life, student organizations) than the coursework. You would not attend a university with excellent teaching but no reputation and no respected faculty (remember-they are only respected for research).
- Margins. OK, my essay is somewhat oversold. There are devoted professors who love teaching and there are eager students wanting to learn. I’m not a bad instructor when I (rarely) teach a course, but this is a choice I made even though it costs me. Many other faculty are on the right side of this ethical dilemma, and a lot of students faithfully attend class and do all the readings. There are chefs who personally create your dining masterpiece. But these are often in the margins, around the edges, and in between the cracks. They are not the norm and not how the university thrives. This makes the solutions obvious.
- Solutions. The problem is intractable and unsolvable. You cannot reform the university’s teaching mission any more than you can ask it to abandon all sports. That is, athletics usually loses money but you almost can’t have a Division 1 university with no athletic department—it would devolve into a looking like a community college or for-profit online “university” and students would flee. In the same sense, there may be no realistic reforms right now for the teaching/research paradox. But smart students hack the system by finding the margins. There are enough opportunities to piece together experiences that truly educate. Take teachers not courses. Recruit a mentor who is personally invested in your success. Go to events. Attend professional development workshops. Work in the research lab or do an internship. Do the right online courses—like MOOCs and specialty things that are high quality and self-motivated. Learn how to use google and the library to learn virtually anything you need to know in a few hours of self-directed inquiry. Engage wisely in student organizations and activities. Yes, check all the boxes to get your credential, but along the way “the world is your oyster” (if you don’t know what that means, and the origin of the expression, you have your first google assignment). You can become incredibly educated in college, but in the classroom you pretend to learn and I’ll pretend to teach.