Monday, April 01, 2013

Teach Students How Universities Work

I recently met Melonie Fullick and I've been reading her blog: Speculative Diction. Melonie is a graduate student at York University in Toronto (Canada). Her main interest is universities and how they work.

I highly recommend her blog and I'm going to highlight a few of her posts. The first is Mixed Messages where she talks about what students know about universities and what they should know. Here's how she begins ...
A central part of my research project is the way organizations communicate, and the organizations I focus on are universities. So when it comes to undergraduate education and university experience, an important question I think we need to ask is this: what’s the message that students receive from universities? I’ve been thinking about this lately, and was discussing it again last week with students in one of my tutorials. Here are a few of the thoughts that came out of that discussion.
You should read her entire post but here's the bottom line ...
So what’s the message that students receive from universities? From asking undergraduates, it sounds like oftentimes it’s an incoherent, authoritative, and monologic one. This tone and delivery in and of itself can be off-putting enough that students might feel uncomfortable seeking help. For example, being told “that information was/is available to you” (i.e., “you should have known better”) is not a helpful approach when students may be confused and in the middle of a crisis, seeking support. One thing that’s missing is the understanding that rather than just providing students with lists of available services, we need to de-mystify the university itself; instead of trying to create the perfect bureaucratic system (which is impossible in any case), we could show students how systems work. This is also part of the “tacit” knowledge that students gain from being in university; to help students understand the institution, we need to make that knowledge explicit–to communicate it.
I've often thought that we must not be doing a good job of education if we are graduating students with a bachelor's degree who don't understand the basics of how a university works. These are the students who will go on to decide the future of universities even if it's only because they vote. How do we "de-mystify" the university?

This reminds me of a Forbes article published last January by Susan Adams [The Least Stressful Jobs Of 2013]. You may recall that there was a bit of a kerfluffle about it in the blogosphere (e.g. I Have the Least Stressful Job!!!]. Melonie Fullick also wrote about it in More (higher ed) media madness!. Let me remind you of what Susan Adams said in her article ...
University professors have a lot less stress than most of us. Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.
In an ideal world, every single university graduate should know that this is ridiculous. They should know what professors really do because they have spent four years at university and they learned how the system works. How is it possible that we are graduating students who would believe something like this?


  1. I think part of it is that uni courses have been reduced to massive auditorium-style lectures with little chance for signification 1-on-1 (or even 1-on-12) prof-student interaction. This means that a lot of things like how uni's work, or what a scientists day-job actually looks like, is not taught. I know I never learned this as a formal lecture topic, and instead it was something you got through the more informal "discussion" type courses we had in 3rd/4th year (which had 12-20 students).

    Today, when even 4th year courses have 40-60 individuals, the sorts of things that we used to learn through open-discussions no longer is taught. Meaning, those of us who teach in unis maybe need to start incorporating this into our primary lecture material instead of hoping it gets picked up somewhere along the line.

  2. I don't work at a university but I frequently do guest lectures.
    One could say curmudgeonly things about the caliber of students these days, perhaps they don't measure up to what we were like in some fundamental ways but there's a different thing I'd focus on. They are so very polite. And deferential. Almost subservient. I hate it.

    How can anybody learn anything useful if they just listen to what you tell them? It's almost enough to make one go Socratic.

    1. I agree that this is a problem. It seems to me that today's students are much more passive than those of the 1980s. I think that students were much more outspoken in the 1960s but that's just anecdotal.

      Assuming what we say is true, who do we blame? I blame the system, not the students. The people mainly responsible for the system is us (professors). If we want students to take an active role in learning then we have to set up a system of education where that ideal is promoted from day one. And, like it or not, we have to have a mechanism for rewarding students who rise to the challenge and penalizing those who don't.

    2. Students an active role in learning? That means fewer students per professor than 50 to 1. University administration will hate that: less income, more outlay.

    3. That means fewer students per professor than 50 to 1

      We have about 3000 professors at the University of Toronto and 70,000 undergraduates. Do the math.