Monday, December 21, 2015

The Cost of Learning

Having demolished the final stack of student research papers for the semester, all of the patient articles long waiting in my web browser are slowly ambling up to be read.  They’re having to complete with other long-delayed affairs—laundry, vacuuming, and making apple pie—but the articles are patient; they know just when to strike.

The article on “Four tough things universities should do to rein in costs” has wisely struck not too long after grading was completed: late enough that I’m no longer merely outraged by it, but early enough that I’m sufficiently outraged to feel like lodging a quiet protest.

The claim being made by the author, Steven Pearlstein, is at least partly true: “Universities in the United States are the best in the world, but the cost of attending them is rising faster than the cost of almost anything else.”  I would like to believe the first half of that statement; the second half, based on my own admittedly anecdotal experience, seems plausible.  And it is a serious problem for students, as Pearlstein says.

Pearlstein’s reaction is to call for universities to make “the fundamental restructuring that nearly every other sector has done to reduce costs and improve quality,” which will require “changing the traditions, rhythms and prerogatives of academic life.”  Understandably, the prospect of making sweeping changes is distressing to those within the university (of whom I, admittedly, am one).  But the question should not be whether university faculties, boards, and administrators consider Pearlstein’s suggestions for change objectionable, but whether or not they are actually good for students.

For solutions one through three—depending on exactly how they are executed—I think the answer is “They probably won’t hurt.”  The fourth suggestion, that general education classes take place online, may not matter very deeply in the long run, but it is a change for the worse for students, in ways that Pearlstein does not seems to grasp.

Pearlstein is, in essence, asking for more MOOCs.  Over the last few years MOOCs have come to represent a sort of Holy Grail: they will solve the universities problems, at the expense of costing all but the purest and best of candidates their future jobs.  As graduate students, my peers and I were taught to fear the MOOC, but to recognize its advent (trumpeted by the likes of Pearlstein) as being as inevitable as Armageddon, and slightly easier to predict.  A few of us hoped that, like the annually revised predictions of global warming, the MOOCs might stay forever one step away.  But we knew in our hearts that we were self-deceived.  The Massive Online Open Course (does not the very adjective, massive, send shivers down your spine?) would swallow us all.  Perhaps, on second thoughts, it resembled less the Holy Grail and had deeper affinities with the Giant of Mont Saint Michel.

The obvious objections to certain flavors of MOOC—that it will give already checked-out students more latitude to, well, check-out—are forestalled by Pearlstein’s description.  He’s

not talking about simply videotaping lectures. I’m talking about combining great talks by one or more professors and outside experts with video clips, animation, quizzes, games and interactive exercises—then supplementing that online material with weekly in-person sessions for discussions, problem solving or other forms of ‘active learning.’ And having ‘labs’ open day and night that use tutors and interactive software to provide individualized instruction in math and writing until the desired competency is achieved.

Resisting my instinctive recoil from this hodge-podge of suggestions (perhaps it is not so much the Giant as the Questing Beast which Pearlstein here seeks), I will point out two flaws in this picture.

First, notice that Pearlstein is suggesting supplementing these lectures with “weekly in-person sessions for discussions” and labs involving “tutors”.  If you’re actually going to provide normal (i.e., not very studious) students with the human interactions necessary to learn material well, you are going to need to hire nearly as many discussion facilitators and tutors as you would have hired professors, adjuncts, and grad students.  You will have about the same personnel working about the same hours for (presumably) about the same pay.  If anything, it might be necessary to raise adjuncts pay slightly

And since Pearlstein mentioned the idea of teaching mathematics and writing by computer program, let’s make something clear: with writing at least, that is impossible.  There are two things needed to make students into good writers.  The first is that they should read as much as possible, preferably as early as possible.  For most students, by the time they reach college, that boat has already sailed.  The second way to teach them writing is to make them write as much as possible, providing feedback on their work.  It’s possible that some forms of feedback, like MS Office’s spell check, could help teach students things like, well, spelling.  It is not going to teach students the niceties of word choice, how to rhetorically direct their work to a certain audience, how to write a complex sentence, or anything else belonging to the skillset of a “good writer” (which means simply a writer that we can read without cringing).

To reiterate my point then: if all the students are actually coming to these labs and discussion sessions—in other words, if all the students are in the class with good reason, and are observing their obligations diligently—the university running a Pearlstein-shaped MOOC will need to pay for more or less the same number of man hours as it would have done to teach these courses in small classrooms.

But that’s assuming all the students actually come.  It may be that these sessions and labs could operate with fewer people simply because fewer students will show up to them—certainly, if they are optional, only the students who deeply care about their work will be there.

Or make that—only students who don’t have a project from another class due tomorrow.

Or—only students who aren’t burnout from three prior classes that day.

Or—only students who realize that “optional” actually means “any serious person will be here.”


There are a thousand reasons for not doing an optional thing.  I should know: I wanted to study Shakespeare and, realizing that I wouldn’t ever make the time for it on my own, I enrolled in graduate school.  I am now writing a dissertation on Shakespeare—in other words, getting to do exactly what I should have been able to make myself do on my own.  I wanted it rather badly.  But I only have gotten to the point of doing it by enrolling myself in a program, and putting myself in a situation where there is a modicum of pressure from external deadlines, and people whom I respect.  (This extends to all sorts of other areas of life—who makes progress spiritually without a regular confessor? kicks an addiction without an accountability buddy? trains for a competition alone?  Those same happy few are probably the same happy few who will avail themselves of the resources they need to learn from a MOOC.)

But the point about students using or not using resources obscures the larger issue.  The larger issue is about the kinds of things which can be taught in a pre-recorded lecture, as opposed to the kinds of things that can be taught in a classroom.  Information is information.  You can memorize it diligently from a MOOCture, knowing that you will fail the course if you fail too many of the “quizzes, games and interactive exercises.”  (Although, speaking for experience with my own students, some of them are surprisingly bad at distilling video information into a form which enables them to answer such quizzes correctly.)  But let’s be clear what the MOOCture is: it is not education.  It is absorption, absorption of the sort of rote facts that the students should have absorbed in high school.  Strike that—in grade school.  

Kindergarten, they tell me, is the best time for this.
I'm not sure he's in kindergarten, but ...

This is not, by the way, intended as a slam against rote memorization, or learning facts—I wish more of that happened in American high schools.  But there is absolutely no point in coming to college for this, for facts, for information.  Take an online course independently, if you want information.  Or go to a trade school, where the information will be more practically useful.  College is (or should be) for students who want to think about ideas, making connections among them on their own.  In other words, college is for students who know that they want (in some extended sense of the word) to philosophize, or at least to reason.  It’s a somewhat unusual desire.

I do realize that if all universities seriously embraced this attitude, there would be even fewer jobs for myself and my peers than in Pearlstein’s vision of the university; so I suppose, from a selfish standpoint, I ought not to trumpet the dubious superiority of my vision.  But on the other hand, it is important to realize that the sort of university which Pearlstein has in mind is selling itself to students as the same as “my” university (for I have only appropriated an ancient vision), when in fact the divide between the knowledge of one and the liberal education of the other is profound.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Saint's Insides, Part 3

In the first post of this series, I argued that “within the context of evangelization my problem, as a literary artist, is whether and how it is possible to create a Hero, and indeed a Saint, who is neither a rogue, nor a na├»ve, nor a bore.”  My second post suggested that “The literary artist desirous of portraying perfection is left, then, with two kinds of conflict in the soul of the noble man: sorrow at the sins of others, and intellectual doubts.”  A reader of the last post suggested a third: sorrow for one’s past sins.  That all three of these interior tendencies are fertile ground for the literary artist is the thesis of this post.

The third mentioned tendency of the good man—to regret his own past sins—is similar too, though not identical with, the interior conflicts experienced by the typically conflicted hero.  The fact that the good man himself was also the sinner—that it is his moral flaw with which we are mutually perturbed—makes this tendency interesting.  And the reality is that the better the person, usually the more certain they are of their past sins; this kind of interest, in other words, has the advantage of being prevalent among the saintly, according to their own testimony, in real life.  But from the point of view of this exercise, focusing on this kind of interior conflict would seem to be cheating by the terms of the problem as originally set.  This conflict is rooted in a moral imperfection of the hero—albeit a past imperfection; it belongs to the hero-as-flawed rather than the hero-as-heroic.  Ultimately, this kind of conflict still depends on the hero’s bad actions, or at the least bad impulses, for its interest—though it is an advance over the merely conflicted hero.

The second tendency of the good man—to sorrow at the sins of others—contains potential that I think has been underrated.  It is easy—too easy, for those of us who are tempted to pride (that is to say, for everyone)—to show a superior man looking down on other people; and it is incredibly difficult to present his sorrow at their sins as being anything but snobbish and ultimately self-justifying.  Fanny Price is exhibit A here: however Austen may have intended her, generations of readers and critics, with a few notable exceptions, have found her distress at the sins of Julia, Maria, and the Bertrams less moving than irritating.  The fact that Austen could not quite achieve the feat of making Fanny’s moral horror appealing is a sign of just how difficult it would be to create this kind of interior conflict.  But difficulty, surely, is not the same as impossibility.

The first tendency of the good man—to intellectually doubt concerning what is the right course of action—while a genuine experience, lacks the emotional heft of sorrow at sins (one’s own or another’s).  It is (as one of my critics justly insists) a problem of the Sherlock Holmes type: a mind rather than a heart matter.  And yet, when combined with sorrow for sins as the motivating force, the stakes on the intellectual question of how to act prudently may lead to a significant degree of emotional interest in the reader.

In my own experience, I can affirm that doubt as to prudent action, while distinct from the doubt proceeding from my own moral debility, is genuinely distressing.  I can vividly remember one occasion when a long-standing slight was suddenly resolved, spiritually speaking.  I had nursed a grudge (not unreasonably—most grudges are, by human standards, quite reasonable) while simultaneously praying not to carry the grudge (also no unreasonably—most grudges cannot be overcome simply by human effort).  While carrying the grudge, I was in genuine doubt as to how to think about my offender, but the doubt proceeded from my inability, or my unwillingness, to overlook the offense.  Once the grudge was removed, I still retained doubt about my offender, but the doubt no longer proceeded from the problem of what (in my mind) I was owed, but rather from what would in fact be good for them.  The difference between the two viewpoints was a clear as night and day; and there is no doubt that the latter one was preferable.  Still, the latter state (though certainly supernaturally influenced) involved a degree of interior doubt on my part that was perfectly consistent with ordinary human experience—and quite as distressing, though in a different way.

Distress of this kind is something that we rarely feel; but it is, I am convinced, common enough in truly good and noble people.  Like all varieties of conflict, this distress proceeds from an inadequacy.  But the inadequacy at the root of the saint’s conflict comes not from a flawed notion of God-as-Judge (cf. Fish’s Milton), nor from the saint’s own sinfulness (at least, we have ruled that out for a challenge), but from a knowledge of his own human incapacity.  Adam himself before he fell might well have worried about how to handle the Eve’s transgression, and doubted his own ability to resolve the problem.  (Milton instead has him doubt God’s, which is a capital error.)

And if Adam, with clear intellect, might conclude that solving Eve’s problem was beyond him, how much more do we, with our fallen intellects, have reason to wonder?  This darkened intellect is a flaw on the part of the saint, but no moral one—or so I believe.  We are used to hearing of the darkening caused by sin; but it seems to me that there is something else which occurs in fallen intellects as well: an debility which, though it touches on the will, does not jaundice it in the way that deliberate sin can do.

A good analogy in this case would be of bodily illness.  Just as some bodily illnesses are attacks from the outside, whereas others are brought about largely through the choices and actions of the sufferer, so to there are negative dispositions of the will which are the result of sinful choices—past or present—and negative dispositions of the will which arise in a person through no fault of their own.  The dark night of the soul would be the prime example of the latter; but any misfortune can lead to a negative disposition, even without the consent of the person suffering.  Consider a mother on the loss of her son: even Our Lady, confronted with the body of the Lord, is grieved, and right to be grieved, though she does not at the same time cease acknowledge the justice, mercy, and wisdom of God.

 There is, then, a degree of distress that is compatible not only with sinlessness, but also with submission to and trust in God.  It is possible to be at once holy, and pierced in the heart.  And it is further my contention that this connection between sorrow and sinlessness, between pain and hope, does not erase the saint’s interior conflict, any more than a confidence in a doctor’s knife dulls the pain of surgery.

To take another example, closer to home: Love itself, of any sort, is willing to sacrifice, but it does not make the sacrifices not hurt.  My husband’s socks still smell, no matter how much I love him; being tortured by a totalitarian government will hurt, no matter how much the dissident believes in the humanity of his cause.  We may say—and indeed, we must say, if we truly love—that love makes everything from socks to agonizing death bearable.  We would even say, for a Hero and a Saint, that he or she takes on the socks and the torture gladly.  We must not to dare to say, except in hyperbole, that love makes the suffering any less.

As in the body, so in the mind.  When it comes to intellectual suffering and conflict, the saint’s confidence in God’s Providence echoes the words heard by Julian of Norwich—All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well—but that does not mean that our particular agony of choice, before or after the choosing, is any less.  We want to do our best, to help the works go, and not gum them up; and the knowledge that God can and will proceed with perfect ease in his plans, and forgive us blithely for our stupidity (so long as it was well meant) does not and should not make us any less anxious (on some level) to get things right.

This, at any rate, is my imaginary idea—subject to wiser spiritual guides and theologians—about how we ought to proceed, and how Saints do proceed, in the process of making a choice and monitoring its success or failure.  And I think, if the literary artist could portray this process well, we might have both better literature and, by the reading of it, more saints.  But whether the challenge of producing such art is one to which only a saint could rise—and whether any saint would care, like a man returning to the cave, to write fiction for that purpose—is another question altogether, and one which I will not now attempt to solve.