Please audit me.

Kevin Carey says that college educators are failing to teach students much of anything and concealing the information that would prove it. He’s basically right. But he might be surprised to how supportive college professors might be of efforts to do somethign about it.

Kevin Carey  has written a great article for Democracy about college teaching–no, not an oxymoron, but too close for comfort.  His basic thesis is that colleges would rather jack up prices and compete on prestige than teach their students even basic skills–and that government subsidies to poor students are largely wasted as a result.  He makes a very good case.  Particularly shocking, and new to me, was the fact that high quality (he claims), essay-based entry and exit tests for college students actually exist.  But not only are they voluntary; the higher-education lobby has furiously and successfully lobbied to keep them secret so that students, the ones most affected, can’t discover where the education is any good.  This must be a very good secret: I hadn’t heard of them.

I’d add only two observations, one minor, one major.  The first is that tuition inflation isn’t merely prestige-chasing.  It also reflects Baumol’s cost disease.  Sectors of the economy that use lots of technology can benefit from productivity improvements, while those that rely on human interactions can’t.  I say this is minor because we have a long way to go before this is the rate-determining step.  Much of what universities do is prestige-chasing–we heavily subsidize gyms and athletic teams–and most responsible college teachers would cheer if it stopped.  (Kudos to Mike for taking up the cudgel at Berkeley.)  That’s true, at any rate, at big state universities.  At community colleges, it’s probably less true, and there Baumol might kick in more quickly.  Yes, there are big potential efficiency gains from technology in areas like math.  For what I do, which involves  discussing ideas and correcting papers line-by-line, not so much.  We could, of course, outsource some instruction.  But while that might not be a bad idea, I doubt it would work well beyond the most basic courses.

The bigger observation is that the idea that “faculty don’t want to change” must be broken down.  This is a huge collective action problem.   Think about what would have to happen at UCLA (yes, even we have some students who graduate without the right skills) to ensure that our graduates learn, for instance, how to write.  Resources–that’s academese for “money,” such a crass word–that are currently spent on people like me would have to go instead to people who teach writing-intensive courses for forty hours a week.  These wouldn’t have to be Ph.D.’s: unemployed journalists might even do it better.

To dramatize this, imagine that a department with twenty faculty members were required, when the next person retired, to replace that person with a writing instructor, not a research professor.  There would be two reasons I’d oppose such a move by any department that I taught in.  First, it would make us look bad.  (“Why does UCLA have to hire writing tutors?  Are its students so much worse than everybody else’s?”)  Second, it would reduce our competitive advantage for both faculty and students.  Professors want interesting colleagues, not ones who only teach basic things that they already know.  And students might not be able to perceive that the writing help would get them better jobs in the future, but would perceive that famous professor X, whom we could have hired, is now at USC.

Both these objections would evaporate very quickly, though, if every department, at every university, were forced to make similar hires—or accomplish the same goals in other ways—by adminstrators facing incentives to make damn sure students passed the national essay tests on pain of losing well-informed students or federal subsidies. At that point, I’d positively welcome the move.  Suddenly, I’d have students who could all write, and could concentrate on teaching them what I really care about.  That would be more than worth the lost academic slot.

Please stop us before we fail to teach again.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

13 thoughts on “Please audit me.”

  1. This is an interesting discussion point for me and my husband because of our experiences at both UC and Cal State schools. We both attended a UC, but he graduated with his BS and MS in Computer Science from one. I went on to finish my BS in Business at a Cal State. Based on both of our experiences we've come to the conclusion that a UC's interest seems to be more just to channel students towards a graduate program but the Cal States actually realize that you have to go out in the world with basic skills. The fundamentals and teaching are much more sound and difficult to get around at a Cal State. Plus, as a hiring manager in primarily technical companies, my husband has found that by and large the candidate engineers he's considering out of a Cal State tend to be more practically versed than those coming out of UC schools and even some private big name institutes. Theory is just more heavily stressed than practicals at the prestige institutions.

    Beyond that though, one of the arguments I heard quite often from college English profs was that students were coming into college writing ill prepared from high school. I think you'd have a hard time convincing many of those departments that it was their responsibility to fix the problem. There's a strong feeling that its not a problem to be fixed at their level.

  2. After 20 years (give or take) as an editor of academic and industrial research types, I have to take issue with the notion that academics uniformly know how to write clear prose. Some do, others really don't, and yet others take pride in writing papers that are barely comprehensible even to other specialists in their own sub-subfield. If such positions were staffed in a principled way (rather than, say, cobbling together enough adjunct hours to churn an appropriately-colored pencil-equivalent through essay submissions on subjects that mean even less to the students than they do to the "tutors") you might see some salutary results for faculty as well as students.

    Of course, the same academic attitude (not universal) that views good teaching as a sign of research incompetence would utterly scorn the idea of professorships aimed at teaching clear communication. So yes, you would need either some outside force insisting on the change or else adoption byone or more universities whose prestige is beyond reproach.

  3. I took one of those essay tests my senior year of college, and my personal experience was extreme disappointment, and I'm glad no one pays attention to the results. My concerns:

    1) We were expected to take the test at 8:30. This is normal hours for me now, but in college, I never took a class that started before 10:00. By senior year, I had upped that requirement to 11:00 as I found the 10:00 am classes were giving me too hard of a time.

    2) There were no reference materials. It was just one simple question that we were to answer as well as we could. So, what if the question happens to be in an area that some students are extremely familiar with relative to other students? Wouldn't that bias the results? Well, they had a way to get around this problem.

    3) The question was designed to be as completely pointless, simple, and uninteresting as possible. I could answer the question in one sentence. In other words, they were testing our ability to bull****. Of course freshmen are going to be better at that. Exceedingly few high school English teachers count off for it, and many reward it. A good college teaches you not to bull****.

    4) I took the test my senior year, but core classes are normally taken during the first two years of college. Since my field of study did not require a lot of writing, I was two years removed from serious training in this area. A better comparison would come from testing students at the end of their sophomore year with students who just graduated high school.

    There are many things I like and don't like about my college, but that essay revealed nothing about the school's quality.

  4. . . . unemployed journalists might even do it better.

    Nothing I have seen in the last twenty years since graduating from college would lead me to believe that journalists know the first damn thing about writing.

  5. Boy, David C, you really pushed yourself in college, didn't you? I'm sure your one essay test was something for the ages, too. Here's another essay question for you as a member of the reality-based community: "A member of the more recent Bush Administration derided a member of the so-called 'Reality-based Community' because he maintained that we (America, I guess) make our own 'reality' now. Is this a legitimate way to look at the world? Explain your answer."

  6. Is a cure for the college woes bringing the sort of "No Child Left Behind" standardized testing to the university level? To me one of the joys of college was that I really got a liberal education; I took courses from physics to philosophy, chemistry to calculus, management to meteorology, and I learned to think for myself. Evaluating universities and publishing that information is noble in concept, but if this leads to some standardization of the curricula in order for universities to maximize their scores, I'd say we ought to be very careful in going there.

  7. Andrew: "That’s true, at any rate, at big state universities. At community colleges, it’s probably less true, and there Baumol might kick in more quickly. Yes, there are big potential efficiency gains from technology in areas like math. For what I do, which involves discussing ideas and correcting papers line-by-line, not so much. We could, of course, outsource some instruction. But while that might not be a bad idea, I doubt it would work well beyond the most basic courses."

    First, you have a english major's view of math – it's not becoming a human adding machine. The concepts are difficult.

    Second, read the blog 'Confessions of a Community College Dean' (name from memory). When discussing budget issues, he points out that math and english (and history, poli sci, etc.) are the cheap courses. A liberal arts MS or Ph.D. standing in front of a class is cheap. The expensive courses are those with major lab/facilities requirements, and people who come at higher rates.

  8. KLG, I was talking about the entry/exit essay tests mentioned in the post. That wasn't the only essay-based test I took my senior year of college, and it had nothing at all to do with my college work.

  9. Carey frames his essay as if higher ed. institutions are doing something wrong with the students they have, but doesn't address the efficacy of trying to teach students who come in unprepared. UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute finds that 2/3 of the variance in graduation rate is due to student preparation. (PDF link here:

    You're exactly right, teaching basic writing is considered boring, unrewarding and low-prestige, and it is resource-intensive. The lower you go in student preparation, the more resource-intensive it is. It is in administration's interest pretend there isn't a problem. In fact the standard response to instructor concerns is to claim there would be no problem if those who teach content were to do more "writing across the curriculum" (and of course, to be "more engaging" while we're at it).

    Wonder who's graduating those individuals who can't fill out a job application or calculate the interest rate of a payday loan? My open-admissions four-year institution, for one. Yes, someone please audit us!

  10. Barry, while I'm far from having all the answers, one thing I don't have is "an english major's view of math." I was captain of the math team in high school, and went to college thinking I wanted to be a physicist (until I found out real physics, beyond high school, was really hard and not about glamorous cosmic stuff). It's true I never did any higher math, but the last math course I did take before realizing I wanted to learn about human beings was coordinate-free multivariable calculus and linear algebra for physics majors–probably higher than most community and state college students get–and I got an A.

    So I don't at all deny that this material is hard. And of course you're right that first-year math and English classes are currently cheap to teach. But I draw a different conclusion from yours: they're cheap to teach because lecturing at 400 students from the front of a classroom is a terrible way to teach hard material, and lots of students flunk out in their first year because they fail basic courses like calculus and Econ 101. Click through my links and you'll see some of the remedies: carefully selected streamed lectures and other ways of presenting the main ideas; lots of interactive computer modules; and plenty of assistants at all hours to answer questions and constantly tutor. Could this work for introductory English classes, as well as math? Sure, more than we realize. For instance, it might be an excellent way to teach basic grammar, which California schools no longer cover. The assistants could work on writing. In both math and liberal arts, we would still need real professors to teach material beyond the basics; that's what I meant by material that will have to be taught much as it is now. My comparative advantage is, not surprisingly, teaching political theory–not basic English composition.

    I was making two separate points that cut in different directions. First, we teach students badly, and the remedy for that is force a shift of resources into unglamorous and labor-intensive instruction. Second, doing this will, at least at first, cost money rather than saving it. And for that reason a lot of that instruction may, alas, have to be outsourced—in the interests of students, not instructors.

  11. I dunno about this stuff. I teach government at a community college. Far too many of my students cannot construct a sentence, with a subject and a verb. Some of these students had passed English Composition! Some of them were due to graduate! I discovered that my students could not write when I asked them to do a research paper. Very few knew how to make subject and verb agree. I am sorry, but I think it should be mandatory for students to know how to construct a sentence before awarding them with an associate's or a bachelor's degree.

  12. I teach economics and finance to graduate students in public policy and/or planning, in highly selective programs. In one of my courses students write 6 policy memos during the semester, and in that class I teach them professional writing. I was unable to tell whether students were deliberately obfuscating out of fear of being wrong or whether the writing was unintentionally bad. It turns out it was the latter. I grade hard on grammar, organization, and style in addition to content and I give extensive, detailed feedback. It triples the amount of time I spend on grading, but grades show a pronounced improvement over the semester. I've had students give me unsolicited feedback years after graduation: "I don't use public finance in my job, but I really know how to write policy memos." "My boss regularly complements me on the clarity of my writing."

    My students were mostly social science or liberal arts majors as undergrads. They did not learn to write yet were granted bachelor's degrees in majors that I presume involved a lot of writing. If they don't take my class with the writing component, they also graduate with master's degrees without having learned how to write.

  13. Thanks, Glenn. I think I will do what you do next semester. In addition to having someone from the Writing Center come in to talk to the students about stuff like in-text citations and plagiarism, I will have them do several drafts and provide them with feedback along the way. Thanks for the tips!

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