This is the season for final exams, but maybe we should drop the pencils, paper and keyboards and start talking instead.
The thought is scary at first. If Chidera Onyeoziri had known that her introductory sociology course required oral exams, “I’m not sure I would have taken the class,” she told me. She was a sophomore at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.; she had never taken an oral exam before.
“I remember putting in a lot of work, spending a lot more time on the course than I otherwise would have,” she said. During the first exam of the semester, she coped with her nerves by getting out of her chair and pacing. Her professor, normally so friendly, stared impassively and interrupted her with questions.
Looking back on the class after a few years, “I can definitely say that’s the course that I remember the most of, and that may be a function of the oral exams,” said Ms. Onyeoziri, today a student at Harvard Law School. Now that she’s planning to be a lawyer, she added, “public speaking is something I really can’t do without, so the oral exams were probably, in the long run, more helpful to me than written exams.”
As finals loom for most college students across America, it’s worth revisiting oral exams. The phrase brings to mind stone-faced interrogation intended to expose a trembling student’s “skull full of mush,” in the words of Professor Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase.” But if done right, oral exams can be more humane than written assessments. They are a useful tool in grappling with many problems in higher education: the difficulties of teaching critical thinking; students’ struggles with anxiety; everyone’s Covid-era rustiness at screen-free interaction — even the problem of student self-censorship in class discussion.
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Image credit: Matt Chase
If you want to be a leader confident in your deepest values and your role in the universe, go to business school. At least, that’s what business schools say. In recent years, they have branded themselves as places where students learn to stay “true to your mission” and undertake a “truly life-changing experience” that values “health, happiness, and purpose” as well as “authenticity and renewed passion.”
Marketing teams across higher education are fond of quasi-spiritual tag lines, so it might be unfair to pick on business schools. But in the M.B.A. world, the latest, breathless versions of these slogans signal more than the generic American vocation to make money and live your best life now. What is remarkable is this: After decades of emphasis on financial markets and shareholder returns, business schools are trying to take on deeper philosophical problems — including, maybe, tentative questions about the means and ends of capitalism itself.
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Image credit: Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch
Why should universities guarantee jobs to a bunch of elitists who study esoteric subjects and brainwash students with left-wing politics? This critique of tenure in higher education is as old as tenure itself, and it’s gaining ground. In recent years, governing boards and legislators in several states have attempted to ban tenure or curtail its power — sometimes succeeding, as in Wisconsin. In the American labor market, where employers have unusually wide latitude to hire and fire at will, it’s not hard for politicians to channel popular resentment toward a small class of workers with relatively strong protections.
That class is getting even smaller. The proportion of American faculty members on the tenure track has been falling since the 1970s, and today just a third of college professors have tenure or are on track to receive it. Every year more and more teachers join the ranks of contingent faculty members, surviving contract to contract with little hope that these debates will ever apply to them.
Over the years, tenure’s defenders have offered up noble pleas for the system. It does not grant a teacher a job for life but simply protection from arbitrary firing and retribution; it safeguards academic freedom; it decreases turnover and creates a more stable learning environment for students; it’s more cost-effective than critics suggest, especially when compared with how much universities spend on new administrative positions and lavish student facilities.
All these arguments are basically right. But they will never persuade tenure skeptics outside the university. That’s because the fight over tenure is not really about tenure. It’s a proxy for a larger debate about the meaning of academic freedom and the priorities of higher education. These are intractable battles in the culture wars, but universities are not helpless to confront them — as long as they grapple with the real problems in the tenure system and academic culture.
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Over the past year, ordinary medical research nearly ground to a halt as researchers focused on coronavirus vaccine trials and treatments. Single-mindedness paid off. Drugmakers developed lifesaving vaccines in record time, and now a third of Americans are at least partially vaccinated.
But ultimately, the pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis that may force health professionals and medical schools to look beyond the traditional tools of modern medicine and think more broadly about how we train doctors to grapple with public health catastrophes.
There were signs of a reckoning at the very start of the pandemic. When Covid-19 hit the Northeast, the Yale School of Medicine moved classes online and pulled many students off clinical rotations. “The dean sent an email that said, go home, take this time to study,” Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako, a Yale medical student, told me. “I thought, oh my God, I can’t imagine studying for an exam right now.” Mr. Tiako and a small number of the faculty and students worked together to create new courses that students could take instead, including an intriguing elective called “Covid-19: A History of the Present.”
Image credit: Soomin Jung
When my daughter started remote kindergarten last month, the schedule sent to parents included more than reading, math, art and other traditional subjects. She’ll also have sessions devoted to “social and emotional learning.” Themes range from listening skills and reading nonverbal cues to how to spot and defuse bullying.
As millions of students start the school year at home, staring at glowing tablets, families worry that they will miss out on the intangible lessons in mutual understanding that come with spending hours a day with kids and adults outside their own household. We want children to grasp perspectives of people different from themselves. Yet in recent years, empathy — whether we can achieve it; whether it does the good we think — has become a vexed topic.
While teachers attempt to teach empathy through screens, the national context has become complicated in the months since the police killing of George Floyd. “Because our white leaders lack compassion and empathy, Black people continue to die,” wrote a columnist in The Chicago Sun-Times. When Joe Biden posted a video declaring that “the pain is too intense for one community to bear alone,” journalists called the message an effort to “project empathy” — while activists said empathy was not enough.
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According to some critics of higher education, as college students around the country head back to class, they will search in vain for classroom debate where all opinions are welcome.
Conservative watchdog groups paint a dark, repressive picture. “The Evil Empire on Campus,” an online resource published by the organization Campus Reform, urges students to be on guard against socialist professors and administrators committed to “leftist indoctrination,” who “weed out applicants who appear to be conservative” and “prohibit the expression of conservative thought by students in class.”
“The Evil Empire” offers no footnotes or examples. Its allegations are laughably overblown. But reasonable people should think about the issues these groups raise — because they are based, however tenuously, on a grain of truth and because hysterical caricatures have power. For too long, they have set the terms of public debate about ideological diversity and free speech in higher education. Their claims have inspired aggressive interventions by politicians and donors, who sometimes run roughshod over academic freedom and university self-governance. There are better ways to promote diversity of thought on campus, but they require a more accurate diagnosis of the problem — and a willingness to experiment.
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By Molly Worthen
Contributing Opinion Writer
I teach at a big state university, and I often receive emails from software companies offering to help me do a basic part of my job: figuring out what my students have learned.
If you thought this task required only low-tech materials like a pile of final exams and a red pen, you’re stuck in the 20th century. In 2018, more and more university administrators want campuswide, quantifiable data that reveal what skills students are learning. Their desire has fed a bureaucratic behemoth known as learning outcomes assessment. This elaborate, expensive, supposedly data-driven analysis seeks to translate the subtleties of the classroom into PowerPoint slides packed with statistics — in the hope of deflecting the charge that students pay too much for degrees that mean too little.
It’s true that old-fashioned course grades, skewed by grade inflation and inconsistency among schools and disciplines, can’t tell us everything about what students have learned. But the ballooning assessment industry — including the tech companies and consulting firms that profit from assessment — is a symptom of higher education’s crisis, not a solution to it. It preys especially on less prestigious schools and contributes to the system’s deepening divide into a narrow tier of elite institutions primarily serving the rich and a vast landscape of glorified trade schools for everyone else.
Without thoughtful reconsideration, learning assessment will continue to devour a lot of money for meager results. The movement’s focus on quantifying classroom experience makes it easy to shift blame for student failure wholly onto universities, ignoring deeper socio-economic reasons that cause many students to struggle with college-level work. Worse, when the effort to reduce learning to a list of job-ready skills goes too far, it misses the point of a university education.
Image credit: Joan Wong/NYT
By Molly Worthen
Contributing Opinion Writer
LATE one night this spring, Justin Snider, an assistant dean at Columbia University, was riding the uptown No. 2 in Manhattan when the train ground to a halt. After about 15 minutes — with little information about the delay and no cell service — everyone in the car was getting restless. Suddenly, inspiration struck. “I asked neighboring passengers if they wanted to hear some Shakespeare, and no one objected,” Mr. Snider told me.
He had memorized Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech more than 15 years earlier, to pass the time on a cross-country bike trip. “I was definitely nervous because I’d never performed publicly before,” he said. Although his jaded audience neglected to clap when he finished — they did applaud when the train started to move again — Mr. Snider was pleased that he didn’t forget a line.
The soliloquy was fixed in the architecture of his brain, ready to serve in a moment of boredom or underground anxiety. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Snider has asked students to memorize poetry many times in his career in education.
Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline — to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.
Yet poetry memorization has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents — not to mention students — consider too boring, mindless and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?
In fact, the value of learning literature by heart — particularly poetry — has only grown. All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.
Image credit: Anthony Gerace/NYT