VIA Reality-Based Community: A Report on the Politics of Teaching Quality from UC/Berkeley

“Quality and Politics”

Michael O’Hare, a Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley, has an interesting post about the UC system’s self-defeating response to repeated budget cuts. He writes,

As is well known, the California legislature is slashing state support for higher education, forcing us to raise tuition again and again.  One response at Cal has been a consulting project from Bain and Co., called Operational Excellence (perhaps because the words quality and excellence hardly occur in any of their product, which is about saving money and doing almost as much almost as good work).

The project had a big show-and-tell event on campus today, with posters and folks answering questions about this and that initiative.  I came away pretty discouraged, because I think our leadership has got the politics of this wrong and we will keep getting our nose bloodied if we think our problems are all in the administrative zone.  There is low-hanging fruit here. For example, we don’t charge units for their energy consumption so we have no incentive to fix our windows (we have to pay for stuff like that) or even turn the lights off.  But our problems are bigger, and more at the core of our business.

My take – anecdotal at least in part, YMMV – is best characterized by remarks at least one colleague and I have heard more than once from our wonderful public policy minor students: “This is the first course I’ve had at Cal in which  I really had to think/I raised my hand in class!” To hear that from a junior is frankly heartbreaking.  I know my students are strongly socialized to flatter my ego, to try to guess “the answer” I have in my head, and not so much oriented to teaching each other, and it takes some serious effort every semester to get them in a mode where real learning is possible.

O’Hare thinks that part of the problem is the profound isolation of higher education professors (“we never see each other work and never talk about what we do in this area”), and suggests a far more collaborative environment with far greater opportunities for peer observation and review. I think that’s a great idea, and a much better use of our time as faculty than most accountability initiatives we hear about.  Best of all is O’Hare’s description of the intellectual challenges of improving one’s own and one’s peers’ teaching:

Teaching is intellectually challenging, complicated, and fun to get better at.  Learning is really complex and hard to understand; many things we know about it are not true.   Intellectually challenging, complex, demanding, refuting errors…that’s catnip for this work force!  We would start to learn that the naches provided by actually increasing student learning per hour, per course, and per degree awarded is actually much more rewarding than the ego trip we get from hearing ourselves say the most interesting things we know to a room full of students writing it down so they can try to say it back to us on the final.  We would start having fun and feeling smart and competent; nothing wrong with that.

No, nothing wrong that I can see.

DM

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