31 May 2015

On Chyme, K - 12, and the Liberal Arts

"It takes a great deal of conformity to be a happy K-12 teacher these days." says Fie Upon This Quiet Life, in a thoughtful riff on "The number one problem with K-12 education -- the loss of academic freedom."  

The K-12 problem is also a postsecondary education problem: college instructors find themselves not just teaching students the subject material but also acculturating them to an entirely different conception of "education" than the one they bring with them to college.  Students want to be led to predetermined right answers and to be rewarded for demonstrating their ability to repeat them.  It's on us, then to get them comfortable with the idea that getting it right can involve first getting it very, very wrong and that the "right" answer may mean "the answer that most effectively explains the phenomenon, where the definition of 'most effective' may be subject to interpretation."  
Anna Fischer-Dückelmann,
via Wikimedia Commons

A few years back I contemplated a decisive break with academia.  My new career path, however, required me to return to school, so I found myself in a 100-level nutrition class at my institution.  The facts about nutrition that I learned were largely a more fine-grained and detailed version of things I already knew.  The eye-opener was the class itself: Powerpoint slides supplied in advance with key words omitted, so students would have to listen to the lecture to fill in the blanks.  Study guides ahead of each quiz or exam.  Opportunities for student questions that mostly consisted of students asking to have certain missing words repeated or variations of "will this be on the test?"  I sat there and realized that while I had been in graduate school and teaching classes myself, college education had changed beyond all recognition.  The old term, "spoon feeding," no longer seemed adequate, but I did learn a new metaphor for what I was experiencing. This was chyme-feeding (chyme is the mass of partially digested matter that passes from the stomach to the small intestine).  

But who was I to judge?  I was surrounded by earnest and hardworking students.  Well, there was that guy a few rows down from me who spent every lecture surfing the Louis Vuitton website, but mostly they were taking a summer class to speed up their path to careers in health services, they wanted to learn the material quickly and efficiently, and the graduate instructor teaching the class knew how to deliver it in a way that would get them to the best possible grades on the quizzes and multiple choice exams that made up the bulk of the course.  

"I don't believe any of this stuff we're learning," I heard one buff student say to the lass he was flirting with over the break on day.  "Scientists change their minds all the time.  They don't know."  He went on to describe at some length his own nutrition and fitness regimen.  He clearly cared about the subject matter, but saw no possible connection between the things that might be conveyed in this class and his own health concerns.  Though an isolated assignments asked us to keep our own food diaries and chart our nutrition while reflecting on our choices, and another asked us to analyze the nutritional claims of a consumer product, but there was nothing in the design of the course that would encourage this student to see such exercises as anything but hoops to jump through on the way to a credential.

That summer I became viscerally aware that the kind of liberal arts education I had known myself as a student and that I tried to recreate in my own classes could change lives.  Could.  But I also realized why communicating complex humanistic subject matter to students was so damn hard--they had no tools for recognizing complexity and struggle in learning as a good thing.

The liberal arts need to be in solidarity with K-12 educators and to see their struggles against test-driven curricula as part of our own struggle to maintain norms of academic freedom and shared governance within increasingly corporatized higher education.


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