I’ve just stumbled across the course outline for a political science seminar to be taught this semester by Clifford Orwin at the University of Toronto (and as I was actually there last week, I really wish I’d known about it then so I could have asked him about it). The general heading is ‘Comparative Topics in Jewish and Non-Jewish Political Thought’, the course will compare Herodotus and the Book of Esther, and the outline includes the following statement re teaching methods:
OUR CLASS MOTTO IS THAT OF THE OREGON TRAIL: THE COWARDS NEVER STARTED, THE WEAK DIED ALONG THE WAY
That is rather magnificent, and cannot help but show our own pusillanimous course outlines in a rather poor light; in comparison, as my colleague Chris Bertram puts it, we offer something to the effect of “a painless ramble through ancient history in pursuit of learning objectives; positive student experience guaranteed…”, with reassurances like “don’t worry, this philosophy course isn’t going to challenge your preconceptions or anything nasty like that”. Okay, I exaggerate – but anything like Orwin’s bold declaration of intellectual ambition really is pretty inconceivable in the modern British university. (How common it may be in North America outside Toronto PolSci I have no idea…).
Why is this? The obvious answer, as with more or less all such undergraduate-related questions these days, is the market: the student as consumer means that we don’t want to scare the punters or leave them feeling dissatisfied with what they’ve received. But is that really the whole story? After all, in other markets it’s easy enough to think of examples of products and advertising that effectively dare the potential consumer to consider whether they’re the right person to buy them: beer (Wychwood’s “Scared you might taste something, lager boy?”, to say nothing of the products of BrewDog), cars, extreme holidays – basically, a whole range of luxury goods emphasise their limited appeal as a means of enhancing it in the eyes of their target audience – and of course there’s Marmite… Why couldn’t this work for an academic course? Another North American example (so maybe this is a widespread phenomenon): Maggie Walsh in Buffy series 4, introducing her Psychology course: “I run a hard class, I assign a lot of work, I talk fast and I expect you to keep up. If you’re looking to coast I recommend Geology 101. That’s where the football players are.” Put another way, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough – and think about how great this’ll look on your cv if you do make it through.*
The obvious problem is that, insofar as there is any sort of functioning market in UK undergraduate education (arguable), it operates at the level of the programme rather than the individual course: so, unless an entire degree programme is constructed around the idea of being scarily tough and challenging, there’s little opportunity to attract students through this sort of selective advertising. Further, it’s clear that student decisions between programmes are based only to a limited extent on the actual content of those programmes (insofar as they know anything about it, given our tendency to be slightly evasive on the subject because of the risk that someone might leave and so necessitate a revision of the courses on offer), and anyway I can scarcely imagine a faculty or university signing off a programme proposal that’s intended to be of limited appeal, except in very special circumstances. And on top of this, as I commented a while back (http://bristolclassics.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/autonomy-and-responsibility/), in many cases our students don’t have a lot of opportunity to vote with their feet by switching courses, and so the pressure is always to keep everyone happy. Courses are expected to be as accessible as possible (because a course with enrollment significantly below the maximum becomes an administrative problem), and large numbers of students wanting to leave a course because it’s too hard or not what they wanted represent a black mark against the teacher, rather than being seen as the inevitable result of the fact that students have different abilities and different interests so won’t necessarily mesh with every course.
This isn’t a problem solely for the teachers, denied the opportunity to run the occasional course exactly as they would want to, but also for certain students, denied the opportunity to take such a course because it doesn’t fit the preferences, expectations or abilities of the majority of their fellows. There is a certain implicit drift in departments towards the lowest common denominator; everyone who’s made it over the hurdle of getting accepted onto the course in the first place is then treated more or less as a homogenous mass – or rather the only differentiation is through the assessment process – and so all courses have to be pitched at a level appropriate to the base level of acceptance onto the course, rather than some courses being geared just to a sub-set of this group. This isn’t just or even primarily about academic ability, though it’s easier to explain in those terms; rather, it’s related also to interests, styles of working and the like. Not everyone would fancy, say, a course based on intensive reading of Thucydides through the lens of political theory, let alone a course which advertised itself as being really hard work, regardless of their abilities in academic terms.
Now, I’m certainly not arguing for a free-for-all, in which all teachers are given license to teach exactly as they like, to teach only high-level courses related to their research, and to make completely unreasonable demands in terms of workload. On the contrary, in a more differentiated system there would need to be a range of different kinds of course (in place of the current requirement that all final-year courses should be basically identical in terms of the demands they make on students), and I would point to my commitment to teaching lots of introductory survey and skills courses as evidence that I’m sensitive to the needs of students who don’t share my interests or who need extra support at particular stages of their studies. But it would be nice to have the opportunity, now and again, to do something more challenging, without having to worry about whether certain students will have the time to do all the reading or the interest in doing an intensive reading of Thucydides or the grasp of broader social scientific ideas that would make such a reading worthwhile – it would be nice to teach the (doubtless few) students who would really enjoy such a course, rather than always having to design things around the fact that most students would prefer something less bracing and exhausting. At the moment, however, all the pressures are to ensure that no course is too bracing or too exhausting, no course should expect too much from students, and no teacher should go out of his/her way to discourage any students, in either course design or rubric.
In market terms, it’s not about the absolute lowest common denominator, because the claim of any university is to offer something superior to non-university education, and the claim of a university like Bristol is to offer something superior to certain other universities. So, in beer terms it’s not Foster’s or Carling Black Label, but maybe something like Stella or Marston’s Pedigree – proper beer, certainly, with a certain amount of bitterness and hoppiness, but scarcely pushing the boundaries or frightening the horses. What we lack is the capacity to offer, say, Goose Island IPA or Duvel to the minority who would enjoy such a thing…
[* The disturbing aspect, both of the course rubric and of all the advertising examples I've thought of, is their very masculine, macho approach. How far would the rhetoric of 'only the intellectually strong will make it through this course' limit its appeal (presumably unintentionally) to highly competitive, ambitious and borderline arrogant male students while discouraging female students? I can't think of any obvious reason why the real Oregon trail would have had a higher rate of female mortality than male - probably the opposite - but its motto is very much that of the reckless young man charging straight ahead into a river and drowning, while plenty of the women probably had little choice in embarking on the journey...]