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Universities: Teaching the Textbook

I was recently speaking with a university student who commented that he may not attend any of his classes this term. This student is in the top 5% of his class. The reasoning behind it was quite solid. Apparently, all of his classes are based entirely on a textbook and his marks are generated predominantly through a series of tests and a final multiple choice exam (which is, of course, is marked by a computer). Assignments and group work have been cut back due to the marking load they create. He would much rather attend and be challenged. But he sees little point in bothering to attend classes when the professors will, for the most part, simply be talking heads...

The cost of this term is approximately $2500 (half a year of tuition) plus textbooks - not to mention other related expenses.

Why not just have students buy the textbooks, have them pay a fee to take the tests and be done with it? At least that way costs can be significantly reduced.

Yet a far more significant issue is obvious. Why even bother with university if this is the kind of treatment students are getting? Undoubtedly, at least I like to think, this is not the norm in undergraduate studies. If it is, students are clearly receiving an education of a dubious quality at best, while any hope for learning is remote.

If professors are more interested in promoting the best-seller textbook than they are designing useful learning experiences for students, our society has already gone insane. I wonder if making your own textbook mandatory in your own classes is considered a conflict of interest?

At the same time, it is clearly not the professors fault since they are simply trying to find their way in a system of "higher" education that is in a death-spiral.

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HI Christycain (that will separate the two),

I was looking at the description of project models ( I then had a look at the more detailed description at:

To be honest, I struggle with narrow conceptions of learning like these and the idea of linking "consistent content" to "the same kinds of learning experience" is baffling. It's a level of abstraction that seems quite removed.

I read, "Consistent content coverage means that all students have the same kinds of learning experiences, resulting in significant improvements in course coherence and quality control." To me, this kind of thinking brings a very narrow definition of learning into play.

There is mention of the notion of "active learning" that implies there can be something called "inactive learning" or at least "less than active learning." This I think is more a retrieval of something that was perhaps lost or forgotten, than it does an innovation.

In any case, it is nice to see some thought being given to how a greater sense of variation can be utilized in an educational setting. And I can definitely see how this would help relieve the burden of lectures.

Interesting article in the NY Times (
I have had experiences with large education porjects in different parts of the world that gave every student a laptop. There are some significant advantages to this. At the same time, I found that for the most part the laptops became a direct extension of the exisiting curricular and instructional practices. In other words, the basic character of the education environment did not signficantly change even though the tools in it had been altered.


Just to let you know, I am a her. I noticed you have another Chris on the list, so from now on I’ll be christycain.

To answer two questions:

Why do we place professors in bureaucratic cages that only serve to stunt everyone's experiences?
And who, exactly, are the people creating these cages in the first place, and why should we pay so much attention to them?

The practice of requiring service and research at the university started after the civil war. Service was added so that the country could rebuild. Faculty would assist business and agriculture by providing knowledge. Research, originally called the work of investigation, started at John Hopkins in their attempt to emulate German universities. Research started in the hard sciences, and then moved into the humanities and social sciences. [Scholarship Assessed, Glassick, et. al 1997. pg 7]

As to who perpetuates this system? Difficult to say, but Research universities, as defined by the Carnegie Foundation, receive different [read more] funding from state governments than say Doctoral universities. Plus, they can reap research money, prestige and top students if they do participate in research.

Research universities are not necessarily bad, and Doctoral and Liberal Arts universities are not necessarily good. They serve similar, yet different objectives of the greater good.

Carol Twigg is doing some great work that helps faculty who teach in the large lecture style classrooms make their courses more engaging. []

Here is a NY Times article on Large Classroom Design:

It really comes down to the individual instructor. There are good ones, ones who want to be good but can’t figure out how, ones that want to be good, but have external pressures and ones that are bad.

Hi Chris,

Many thanks for these insights. I appreciate your honesty in saying "because that is the way it has always been done."

It is, of course, a positive thing that faculty are required to publish. In my own personal experience, I have read a number of my own professors books and articles and they always helped me to gain further insight. A graduate professor I had was once writing two books simultaneuously and he would share key questions and lines of thought he following in graduate seminars. This, I found, very engaging.

At the same time, what confounds me are the limitations places upon professors. From my perspective, it seems that they are needlessly confined by pre-determined and imposed demands - the environment you describe sounds very corporate (in a top-down sense) in which the professors are the employees. Not only is this a shame, it's wrong.

It sounds like there are some initiatives in progress that may help - and I hope they do. But I wonder why there would be a separation, actually a gaping void, between research and teaching. It seems like one of those dualities that serves to misinform our thinking.

And it seems obvious that not giving tenure, have no voting rights, and pay equity to "Professors of Practice" is simply an insult. While I can see that there is something positive here, the way it is framed denigrates there professors into second-class citizens. There is no other way to describe this - it's a big mistake that results from shallow thinking.

Cannot research practices and processes be seamlessly integrated into vibrant unified practice? I believe they can and have seen it done. I wonder if we should consider the possibility that teaching and research are integrated in vital ways. In a sense, it is not the texbook that provides the intellectual foundation for the a class/lecture, but the professor sharing the thoughts and processes they are currently pursuing, and inviting students into those thinking processes in ways that allow them to pursue and develop their own interests.

It seems to me that the vibrancy of the university system orignates in professors that are concurrently engaged in research and teaching. These are people whose minds are on fire with ideas and have a passion for sharing them with their students. I really don't believe that professors want to stand in front of large groups of students and merely paraphrase from a textbook. And I know there are many of these professors out there.

Why do we place professors in bureaucratic cages that only serve to stunt everyone's experiences?

And who, exactly, are the people creating these cages in the first place, and why should we pay so much attention to them?

Thank you for the references to Carnegie and Duke, I will follow up.

I will try to answer your questions and speak to your concerns, but many of my replies will be because that is the way it has always been done. For instance, why do faculty lecture? Because that is the way it has always been done back to the time when books were only available to religious orders. They lectured on what the book said.

Yes, there is a wide variety of requirements. One main requirement is for articles to be published in peer reviewed journals. Many times, faculty are not given credit if they write about teaching, unless they are educators. The requirement to publish is balanced by the requirements for teaching and service to the university. These requirements vary from university to university, and even within the colleges, schools and departments.

Universities are indeed classified by the Carnegie Foundation. Universities are grouped in major headings such as Research, Doctoral, Liberal Arts, and then in smaller groups. The reasoning is that it allows one university to compare itself to a comparable university. Carnegie is in the midst of changing the classifications this year. Here is their web page on the progress:

There are movements a foot to alter the system. I think that Duke has taken a big step when they implemented a new category of faculty called the Professors of the Practice. These individuals do not have to do research, but rather focus on teaching .They cannot receive tenure, and get to discuss departmental issues, but not vote on them. They can receive multi-year contracts, but their pay is lower than that of the tenured professor.

Ps. I find your blog both insightful and thoughtful. Keep up the good work.

Hi Chris,

Thanks for adding these insights. They are appreciated.

It seems unfortunate that professors are put in the position you describe. Much of it seems to center on achieving tenure, which is of course a desired goal, yet it seems too closely linked with the pursuit of knowledge. In a way, tenure serves to bias teaching. If I am reading your comments correctly, one of the main purposes of a professor writing is to secure his/her future. I suspect that the nature of this writing, then, must have a wide range of limitations and confinements placed upon it so that it meets imposed criteria. In other words, if the writing doesn't gain the approval of a certain body of people and rules, then it is unlikely to be acceptable and unlikely to lead to tenure. I can imagine that some very wonderful writing would fall by the way side in a system like this.

Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but if this is the case, then this appears not to be unlike the problems in the school system in general. That is, when the imposition and mass communication of knowledge and skills is predetermined and aimed at specific golas that may or may not connect deeply with individual students. This, to my thinking, creates an unnecessary sense of confinment in the whole process that is extremely hierarchical and bureaucratic in orientation. In a sense, teaching really originates out of a funding model more than anything else.

It would be interesting to see some kind of break-down of universities according to the types you mention (maybe it already exists and I am unaware of it). The individual I mentioned in the original post does plan on being a T.A. next year and has a very good chance of securing that position. This is a significant benefit to his own education, not just financially but intellectually as well. I started teaching very early on in my undergraduate studies and it was a very significant influence on me.

I think what bothers me the most is the number of talented and insghtful professors that must feel somewhat trapped by the system. I can recall a professor of mine in my graduate studies that didn't really teach courses, but invited us into the flow of his thinking around various areas he was involved in, and allowed us to explore and expand upon them in ways that gave us a healthy degree of choice. He refused to be lead by a pre-determined curriculum and, thankfully, put his thoughts on the table in really interesting ways. Some students struggled under the authenticity (and what they incorrectly thought of as a lack of structure) of his classes while others became inspired. And, yes, he already had tenure and frankly his level of thought was such that those that might be his "judges" were always quite cautious around him.

I wonder why the work that professors do and they teaching that they provide have become so separated and removed from one another (and I sense that this separation is not really their own doing). It seems to me that the "course" is not really a bunch of stated aims and goals with a reading list on a piece of paper, but the course is the professor him or herself - what they bring to their students and life in general.

Perhaps there's a more effective way of re-connecting the pursuit of scholarship and the delivery of teaching? I'm reminded here of Hermann Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game."

I'd like to add some comments that, while not solving the problem, might explain some things.

In North Carolina an author cannot receive royalties from books they have written and then require the student to purchase. The only royalties they receive are when the books are required by other faculty.

So, then, why would a faculty member write a text book? The reason comes from the enormous pressure on faculty to publish in order to gain tenure, and then be successful in post tenure reviews.

The pressure to publish varies from campus to campus and even department to department, as in our case that is where the decision for tenure is made. There appears to be greater pressure on the Colleges of Arts and Sciences.

There is also a difference between the types of Universities. If you elect to attend a research university, there is much more of an emphasis on research, and there is lots of funding for graduate students to teach. In a doctoral university, the focus is more on teaching, and you will have a much better chance of getting instructors who are professors.

Coincidently, it is in Arts and Sciences where you will see the most stadium seating lecturing going on. Again, this, in North Carolina, partially stems from the funding model for the student credit hour. Departments are funded depending on their major. An Engineering student generates more money than a student taking Chemistry. This is because of the difference in the cost to provide the instruction. So, in order to generate the same amount of cash flow, Chemistry must pack the students in.

An excellent book on the priorities of the professoriate is “Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate” by Ernest Boyer and published by the Carnegie Foundation. This book provides a strong case for the ability of faculty to be judged based on their scholarship rather than their research or community work.

Duke University has a specialized faculty position called the Professor of the Practice. These individuals concentrate on teaching. While they do receive higher pay and longer term contracts than adjunct faculty, they are not eligible for tenure.

Hi Rob,

It seems, sadly, perfectly logical for students to wonder why the lecture isn't video streamed. Given the circumstances, yes, why not.

Isn't it really odd that our institutions of higher learning, in the face of an ever growing higher technology, are in fact retrieving methods that should already be obsolete?

And to your point, neither the profs or the students are getting what they need. This in fact was something mentioned to me by the student in the entry. He was actually wondering why people with so much talent had their hands tied behind their backs. In other words, he wasn't really blaming the profs but seemed to sense they were puppets too.

Hi Jeremy,

Agreed. So I wonder why they don't just admit it. If a university is a credential factory, then they should say so. It would save everyone a lot of time and money.

I also wonder why there is absolutely no coverage of this in the media. I suspect a news story about cost vs. benefit in the university experience might be quite revealing. For example, I wonder how much of the tuition funds for a particular course of study actually go into it.

What is a real shame is that I know there are many professors out there who do care about their students and their learning, but find themselves hopelessly confined in a system that just doesn't seem to care too much.

Hi Chris,

I nearly stopped myself from posting this message since, as you point out, the real question is what do we do about it. But I was plain annoyed.

Unfortunately, this student, although he can see tremendous potential in these professors that does indeed respect, he has mostly resigned himself to using university as a means to get a job.

But isn't the job market now significantly different? Job security is where? But worse I see the dreadful pattern setting in again: a) we go to public/private school to prepare for higher education; b) we go to higher education to get the credentials for a job; c) we enter the job market to find out what a desparate and desolate place it can be. And then one day we wake up from our busyness and the world looks completely unfamiliar and we wonder what we have done.

I have some thoughts (definitely not answers) on breaking the mercurial cycle that you mention and they need a separate entry. I know these thoughts will turn back on a constant theme of mine - the trinity of curriculum, instruction and evaluation must be completely redesigned. A lot of people have commented on this and many people have pursed wonderful options, yet we largely remain mired in the status quo. But it doesn't need to remain that way, at least, that is my hope.

Robert Paterson on Universities: Teaching the Textbook | 18.01.05 | Comment Permalink

I was on a project at York last year. I regret that this trend is powerful

One Dean told me that most of her classes were 200-300 students and that all she could do is to talk at them for 40 minutes. All the close in work, if there was any was done by the TA's.

A student told me - Why don't they just video the lecture and stream it on the web?

Neither the profs or the students are getting what they need.

Now York with 55,000 students is an extreme but they are all going there. I have been shocked by even the idea of a text book.

At Oxford in the 1960's, We would be given a question - How did the Industrial revolution occur and told to come back in a week and read aloud our considered opinion. It was up to us what we found in the library We were treated like grown ups

Now students pay a fortune for little more than a credential

It's almost as if some universities have completely given up on learning, and simply acknowledging that they're in the business of offering students credentials. Christopher's point about most students getting degrees to land a good job is totally correct...if they aren't much interested in the learning, either, it's no wonder learning has fallen off the agenda in universities.

Christopher Bailey on Universities: Teaching the Textbook | 18.01.05 | Comment Permalink

Brian, perhaps the student ought to consider transferring to another school. I had the good fortune to select a small liberal arts school and I don't believe I ever took a multiple choice exam at any point. As a matter of fact, when I sat for the GREs shortly after graduation, I almost forgot how to fill in the circles properly :)

My college (Guilford College in North Carolina) placed an emphasis on classroom education rather than professorial research. But when I talked with a couple of my professors about going the History Ph.D. route, they cautioned me that most universities cared more about getting their faculty published than they did about improving the quality of student learning.

As you suggest, the problem is systemic. Not only is the university and their professors at fault, but society at large bears some responsibility. Why do students go to college? Learning? No, to get a good paying job. Our kids, starting at age five, are drilled with achievement tests and other nefarious wastes of time all in order to prove they can be productive workers when they turn 18. It's all about output, little about learning. Sad, but we still think we're in the industrial age.

Hmmmm. Looks like your rant inspired my rant. But, the next question is: what will we do to break the systemic cycle of education as productivity and recycle it as education as learning?

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