Abominations in the Halls of Academia

It’s not what you think. It’s not that poor, hapless students with few defense mechanisms are being offended by other students who talk about race issues, or want to talk at all. Something far worse is happening, something that will erode the heart of education. ONLINE CLASSROOMS. Yes, a great idea on some levels. You can live in Alaska and be educated by a prestigious university without leaving your house. That is the wonderful contribution of technology.

But four people have been talking with me about this new online education: one a high school teacher, one a college professor and two students. So I figured it must be time for another Picayune article.

All of these four students long for the old days of education, which looked like this – you attended class surrounded by other students. Some share in the discussion – the ones who have something to say that day. You like what one said, and suggest coffee during a mutual break in the schedule. Or – once in a while you yourself have something to say, brought on by the shared class readings. Being polite, you don’t want to hog all the discussion, so you speak once in a while. Or – you are the professor (as I once was). Being wise to how different people are from each other, you know that some students are shy, or actually don’t have anything to say. They study hard and make “A’s” on your difficult tests, and get an “A” in the class because they deserve it. They never once participated in the class discussions.

Enter ONLINE CLASSROOMS. Every student is required to chat with all or some other students online and the grade is based on how well and how often they chat on a daily basis. The professors have to read all this stuff – how many emails might that be? It’s literally exponential. A mathematician could find an algorithm to tell us based on the number in the class.

What is wrong with this picture?

1) Fledgling professors do not have the “staff” under them to field this morass of emailed information. In the old days they had office hours. You, the polite student, did not want to hog too much of their time because you knew they were contemplating the cosmos and not contemplating you. You visited once or twice during a term or maybe not at all and you still made an “A.” THE PROFESSOR IS NOT YOUR PAL, who can be reached by you, night and day, through the miracle of technology. I guess we could say that seasoned professors hire assistants to field all this crap and it provides jobs.

2) Many students have nothing to say. Maybe ever. But they are forced by this insane system to manufacture something to say. One acquaintance who will never do online courses again, said “It’s like doing a weekly book report.” Could anything be more boring?

3) A corollary to this – not every reading is worthy of being commented upon. Now everything is watered down to the lowest common denominator. Dumbed down by people forced to write about every little thing. What if it IS a little thing and not worth commenting about? It’s supposed to be HIGHER education, not LOWERED education.

4) Sorry, but the person I want to hear from, by and large, is the professor. He has spent a lifetime pondering this subject. He has the wisdom. That’s what we pay him for. A new student doesn’t. Education is not egalitarian, as this implies. (They must think, “We are all teaching each other.”) Unfortunately, it’s Authoritarian, but that’s what makes it delicious. I remember my classes being so wonderful that I would’ve attended if I had non-contagious pneumonia. The professors made it wonderful.

Imagine physicists having to do this rot. Just because we are in the humanities, full of verbiage, doesn’t mean we should stoop to this level. Would a physics student write about how he felt about a certain differential equation? Never. He’s too busy actually studying for the test.

5) The overabundance of technology is a form of bureaucracy, but they don’t know it. Thomas Cahill wrote that excessive bureaucracy was what caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Great, now we are instituting it in the classroom. Classrooms are supposed to be the wellsprings of creativity for the culture at large. Not the wellsprings of increased bureaucracy.

Like all bureaucracies they are bogged down in the “how to,” leaving the juice of education on the wayside. I have a sad story. One of my bright friends wanted to go to college at age 73. She just dropped out over this online dumbing down. More than half of her time was spent on the emails and on “relating” to other class members online. One time the technology malfunctioned and the entire class spent two days righting it.

She actually loved studying, loved the material. In other words she LOVED HIGHER EDUCATION, as one should, but, because she was working fulltime as well, and HER TIME WAS EXTREMELY VALUABLE, she had to drop out.

6) How many people in a classroom do you want to meet and talk to? One? Two? Maybe three? BUT THE ENTIRE CLASS? Relate you must, or your grade will be lowered. WHO DESIGNED THIS COCKAMAMY THING ANYWAY? I hope it was some party girl and not a psychologist. I would be ashamed of my profession.

The classroom should be the last stronghold in the battle against bureaucracy.

One sacred function of bureaucracy is to stifle creativity. When you are forced to write a boring “book report” on read material every week, you cannot possibly be creative. As my friend who just dropped out said, “I like to mull over material.”

Sometimes something creative emerges from within. Sometimes not. It takes time and silence. Under this system what student has time? Who can hear herself think amidst the babble?

The party girl engineering this doesn’t have a creative bone in her body. Much of this rigid stuff is designed by people who do not have deep experiences of the educational material. But now there is fake proof of activity in the emailed verbiage. Such noise drowns out silence and peace.

CHANGE THE RULES – Don’t make it mandatory. If you have something deep to say, email all of us. Your grade shouldn’t depend on your emails. Or, if you need this, or are lonely, say so and we will create an online social group for you that others can read or not read. The professor will not be reading it. Or he will read it during office hours from 2-4 on Wednesdays…unless a human being shows up in the flesh.