Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Project-Based Education? A Response to Mark Taylor

Several alert readers sent me links to this column in the New York Times by Mark Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia. Professor Taylor makes a series of claims about how to improve higher education in America, most of which revolve around getting rid of the traditional department/tenure structure in favor of project-based constellations of scholars that come together for finite periods.

It's a frustrating piece, since it moves quickly from 'insightful' to 'crackpot' and back again.

I'll start with some glaring blind spots that made it hard for me to take the piece seriously. As is often true of faculty who have never worked in administration, Prof. Taylor takes existing institutions for granted, even as he claims to move past them. For example, if colleges redid their curricula every seven years or so – his suggested lifetime for the project-based constellations he favors – that would involve every seventh year putting entire new programs through the shared governance process, coming up with entirely new job descriptions, hiring committees, student learning outcomes, assessment mechanisms, articulation agreements, catalog copy, advisor training, and the rest. Who, exactly, would do all this in the absence of departments or permanent faculty goes unmentioned. Lest this seem like an unfair summary:

 Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Alrighty then. Who would evaluate them? Who would define them? (And don't tell me 'the faculty in the program.' They would be hired based on the answers to those questions, not the other way around.) Who would make the decisions to 'abolish, continue, or significantly change' them? Who gets to stay after the sun sets? In the absence of continuity, how would standards develop? Who would define them? What happens to a student who enrolls during, say, the fifth year of a seven year program? Would credits from other programs articulate? If not, would students be unable to transfer from one college to another?

These may sound picky, but they're fundamental.

Yes, the common currency of 'credit hours' is reductive, and I've gone on record saying that until we move away from seat-time-based measures, the upward cost spiral won't go away. But you don't replace something with nothing. If we do away with recognizably transferable credits, what do we replace them with? You might be able to get away from it at the toniest of SLAC's, but the residential-students-with-no-attrition model describes only a very narrow niche of higher education in America.

Then, obviously, there's the matter of graduate training. I agree with Taylor that grad school in the humanities and most of the social sciences is a pyramid scheme. I also agree that mandatory retirement ages and a renewable-contract system for faculty would be vast improvements over the landed aristocracy we currently support at the adjuncts' expense. But I'm at a loss to explain where all these interdisciplinary experts will get their disciplinary expertise. Yes, a significant part of grad school involves exploring new questions. But another significant part – the part he skips – involves getting grounding in the history of a given line of inquiry. Call it a canon or a discipline or a tradition, but it's part of the toolkit scholars bring to bear on new questions. Abandoning the toolkit in favor of, well, ad hoc autodidacticism doesn't really solve the problem. If anything, it makes existing grads even less employable than they already are. I need to hire someone to teach Intro to Sociology. Is a graduate of a program in “Body” or “Water” capable? How the hell do I know? (And even if I think I do, can I convince an accrediting agency?) Am I taking the chance? In this market? Uh, that would be 'no.'

(His proposed solution of extending the change to undergraduate programs actually makes it worse. “Sorry, 'water' grad, that expired last year. We're into 'money' now. Your graduate work is so last year.” In the absence of disciplines, we'd have nothing but fads.)

So we'd have faculty hired by nobody in particular, based on ever-shifting job descriptions written by nobody in particular. They would teach, uh, whatever, to students who happen to start at the right time, and who never drop out or transfer. (“Sorry, kid, we aren't accepting new students this year. Try again next year, when the theme will be cyborgs and we'll have all new faculty to teach it.”) And the graduate students would have to hope that whatever theme they studied in grad school would happen to roll around at the teaching colleges to which they'd apply for work. Unless they didn't. Which is fine, since there's no hotter ticket on the job market than an unemployed, esoteric Ph.D.


Yes, the existing structures are clunky and overtaxed and frequently asinine. They survive because they address certain problems. The way around them is not to wish those problems away or to postulate a world in which every college is modeled on a graduate seminar at Columbia. It's to come up with alternatives that solve those problems better. Prof. Taylor's model could be a lot of fun on a very small scale, like a think tank. But as a blueprint for higher ed across America, it's a farce.

The reality of higher ed in America is mobility. People move from one institution to another all the time. We've developed an admittedly frustrating common language to make that kind of movement possible. Replacing that common language with a babel of tongues is not a serious answer, and replacing what little common knowledge that clusters of scholars share – canons or classics or traditions – with whatever seems convenient at the time would only make matters worse. Disciplines are arbitrary and flawed, but random fads are even worse. And incompatible random fads at different institutions would be disastrous.

I have a recurring dream that someday, somehow, the New York Times will hire a columnist on higher education who actually understands what s/he is talking about. Maybe we could start a graduate program on 'dreams'! Let's see, upon graduation, students will be able to...