One of the most tired — and, let’s be honest, self-righteous — cliches in higher-ed discourse is the all too common lament about how students today are consumers — nay, customers. They whine for high grades, they read less than ever and they enter and exit college presuming they are entitled to a job afterwards. While we’re at it, they are also responsible for the decline of higher education and, of course, Western civilization today. Grade grubbing aside, this is bonkers.
If you look into the history of higher ed — most people, including most professors, don’t, but what can you do? — students used to directly pay their professors, not all that differently from the way we tip today after we tap the credit card reader. In fact, Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, in the opening of his all too influential essay “Scholarship as a Vocation,” noted this as one of the defining differences between early 20th century American and German academia. The young German lecturer, or “Privatdozent,” “receives no salary … his only income is in lecture fees paid by his students, and he can teach whatever subjects he chooses within his discipline.”
I bring up this distinction because for all the annoying cliches about how the modern university is too commercialized and transactional, we lose more and more of the sense of freedom and empowerment that shaping one’s education by choosing and paying one’s teachers used to help provide — and before you ask, yes, tips are accepted, but only in the form of gift cards.
This column began because of my surprise, frustration, anger and disappointment with the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of what was once called “shopping period” and which now goes by the ungainly moniker of “add/drop.” Long long ago, like two years ago, students had about two weeks during which they could shop classes and join or leave them. Now, changed with minimal fanfare, students have less than a week to add/drop courses. I think — and I know I’m not the only one — that this is pathetic and bathetic.
This column will be a short polemic, a jeremiad to use the traditional term, because, quite frankly, we don’t have enough jeremiads in education today, unless it relates to hot button political issues. Nor will I indulge in the faux “asking for a friend” or “pardon my rant” qualifications which disfigure so many conversations today. It’s good to have a position, state a view and have ideas and feelings about those ideas. While the rest of this column will be a short list of grievances which students and other faculty members have expressed to me over the past week, I want to get to the theory first. What can I say, I went to University of Chicago for undergrad. We take ideas seriously. I love Yale, but that’s dangerous to do here, sadly.
The shrinkage of shopping period is anti-intellectual. Students need to play with the products we are hawking. They need to be customers and connoisseurs. They should be shoplifting our ideas! They need to experiment. They need to fail. And they need to know it’s okay to fail. It’s good to fail. It’s even salutary, especially at this stage. The whole point of college in one way is to find out how to fail properly.
Let me put it even more strongly: The destruction of shopping period is positively anti-human. Does that sound like I’m putting it way too strongly? Good. Passion in defense of one’s views is no vice, even if it seems gauche and melodramatic in our play-it-safe institutional life. One can’t really determine what a course is like only from the syllabus or the readings. The course depends on the teacher; it depends on how they’ll teach and think and interact with others. It depends on how the other students behave and react and participate — or don’t. It depends on the atmosphere fostered and the questions proffered. If the teachers, the classroom, the setting, were not essential, we’d all be in Zoom pods reading the excerpts or doing the problem sets or performing the experiments by ourselves.
Nor is it an accident that those clunky platforms like Canvas with their annoying standardized rubrics have proliferated at the same time as shopping period has diminished. Now, I know there are good reasons that certain courses, especially the growing computer science courses, may need to solidify their numbers in order to hire enough technical teaching assistants, but that’s not an issue that needs to be addressed at the expense of other considerations.
Okay, to some of the nitty gritty. I’ll keep this short for now, but, as you can probably tell, I could go on and on.
- Add/drop period was not a week this semester, it was only four days. If you wanted to check out what a class that you were interested in which met on Friday was like, too bad! There were no Friday classes during add/drop.
- Online waitlists were dropped. Directors of Undergraduate Studies — DUSes — were informed that since fewer than three percent of students make it off the waitlist, it was decided that they’re not necessary. Not only can many professors give you examples of students making it off the waitlist — the three percent number is itself suspect — what admission to a course may mean to a student can vary enormously, and their admission should not be denied because people besides the student or instructor decided they didn’t count. This is an educational institution, not an accounting firm!
- Out of the 10 faculty members I spoke to about this new shorter add/drop period, all except one were surprised and roundly annoyed. Not one student I spoke to liked it, and many felt very ill served by it. Repeated mentions were made by those who were not first years of deeply preferring the old system.
There are many ways I’ve been thinking about how to end this mini-essay. One involves an anecdote about the dangers of too much advance planning, another involves an exploration of the virtues of course hopping and shopping, but let me end this column on a larger, deeper, scarier, yet hopefully more encouraging note.
There has been, for a while now, a general disempowerment in educational decision making among both students and faculty. One of the resulting attitudes that has been cultivated is an overall sense of, “Well, that’s a good point, but somebody else should speak up,” “We don’t think they would go for it,” “It’s pointless to complain,” “I don’t want to get into trouble,” “I’m just too busy.” Pick your least favorite, since I know some of them have surely been used on you, dear reader. But if we’re going to have the educational institutions we want, never the mind the society we hope for, we are going to have to play the role of democratic gadflies, to be as annoying and involved and pushy and unafraid and thick skinned as Socrates once was — nay, more so.
So let’s get to it!
MORDECHAI LEVY-EICHEL is a lecturer in the department of political science and the humanities program. He is the inaugural winner of the Lux et Veritas Faculty teaching prize, and is also a member of the Yale Faculty Senate (on whose behalf he does not speak). His column, The Professor’s Perch, will appear approximately once every two weeks. Contact him at email@example.com