When Assembly-Line Teaching Is Unacceptable

Written with Michael Brown

Mary: Five years ago, I chose administration over teaching. At that time, I had been teaching four sections of a course per semester and my chair encouraged me to find ways to make my teaching routine, to mechanize it, to streamline it to create time for my research. This talk of assembly-line production hit far too close to home. My father had worked on the line in a GM factory and I had vowed to do my life differently. I found that I could not teach my courses the way I wanted to teach them in the time I had available. I have never been the “sage on the stage” type of teacher and I always thought of myself as learning through my teaching. For me, this was best done through a Socratic facilitation of discussion which involved a substantial degree of back and forth and a commitment on my part to connect with each of my students.

We’ve been inspired by responses to our series of posts on grading and this is the first in our next series, focused on teaching as learning.

Mike: If the problem with moving beyond the sort of teaching designed to give students the wherewithal to pass tests and achieve gpa’s that can allow others to rank them is that it would take too much time, would require smaller classes, etc., then we are lost before we begin.

Faculties are not in a position to influence decisions about average class size and do not have time to do everything else that they have to do and to teach in the way you describe your own teaching. If I am right — if we are limited in what we can do to reform the institutional limitations on education — then the question is: How can we teach under those conditions in a way that is neither mechanistic nor tied to imposed standards that have little to do with education.

Mary: Mike, I was unable to do find a way to do just that. To give my chair credit, he was trying to help me find a way to meet the obligation of my teaching load, find time for my research, and still have time for my six-month old baby. He didn’t have a solution, and every idea we came up with required that I compromise my values around teaching. I was unwilling to do so. I know from my experience in administration that professors face a continuing struggle trying to maintain the type of teaching they value in the midst of an increasing workload.

Mike: I feel that we should teach in a way that allows students not only to benefit from the “Socratic” method but to adopt it as a way of relating to others in their daily lives beyond the classroom. Is it necessary to be dissatisfied with anything but a one-to-one relationship with a student, or a one-to-few relationship? Or is it possible to adopt the Socratic form of dialogue in a class of 50 or more, even though very few students will actually be able to speak in the context of what you call a “back and forth” exchange? What ideas about teaching and learning would we have to consider if the answer to that question is “yes?”

For example: is “back and forth” a sufficient description of what such teaching needs to be? And what do we really want students to take away from their courses? One thing we need to think about is what you said about “learning through my teaching.”

Mary: I’m interested to see how readers might start to answer some of the questions you’ve posed. I hope that we will be able to talk through some of the ways in which teachers can retain their sense of exploration through teaching while being asked to teach more students, more sections, and with less time.

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8 Responses to “When Assembly-Line Teaching Is Unacceptable”

  1. sherbygirl says:

    This post has been sitting in my browser, unread, because it is just too depressing. I am facing the same issue, as our president has found one study that says that larger class sizes don’t decrease quality and is now shoving it down out throats. We are also facing pressure to increase retention and graduation rates. I am in English, and thus we teach those courses that provide some of the foundational skills for college success, and we are being told to try to help more and more students in our classes who have some of the lowest skill levels. And there is a total disregard for our quality-of-life as professors/instructors. What we are being asked to do is basically invest all of our waking hours on teaching, while maintaining a better research portfolio.

    I feel for my students. Class preparation isn’t a problem for me anymore, but it is the time that is needed in order to help the students become better writers that I am lacking. I can’t really give meaningful feedback on their papers or sit with them one-on-one to go over their writing with the attention it needs and deserves.

    One method that I am trying is having writing less “original” work, but revising the same piece of (shorter) writing over and over (and over). Students get to see the progress in their writing as well as the power of revision (something because of the pressure of time students often don’t do or have the opportunity to do). It gave me time and opportunity to focus on different elements on every draft, rather than trying to get everything done at once. I don’t know how to adapt this to upper-division courses.

    Then again, the factory line mentality is something that has infected our students as well. I find myself giving my students advice how to best use their time for maximum efficiency. They are distracted, but have legitimate pull on their time and attention. High-achieving students have been lead to believe that they need to have a stellar Resume, and thus participate in everything. The students that I teach, more often that not from the other end of the socio-economic scale, have to work and take care of family on top of their studies. For them, my classes are a refreshing change because I expect quality but not necessarily quantity.

    I wonder if we, as professors, sometimes try to do “too much” in our courses. I’m not calling for a dumbing down of curriculum, but for us to ask, what is the purpose of this course? Skills? Knowledge? Are we really serving our students by trying to teach them all of anything in 10 or 15 weeks? We often have sacrificed depth in the name of breadth, sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. It’s a question I think needs to asked. I expect I’ll be crucified asking this question, but allow me to do so anyway. Did the expansion of the “canon” in any subject actually contribute to the problem of time? Note how students are often the happiest when they get to slow down with a topic, book, or concept? Is it possible to achieve the same pedagogical goals while requiring less?

    Maybe not. I just re-read that question and I can feel the knives coming out to slice it open. So be it. I’m not calling to go back to the echo chamber of higher education. But is there a “third way?”

  2. sharonmurphy says:

    One way, that would never be acceptable to the number crunchers, is to return to the notion that college or university is not pre-school, and students are there to learn, not be spoon fed and cuddled. And people who are not ready should NOT be admitted. Learning is hard work and demands not just entertaining presentations by professors but reading and preparation by the students.

    That could mean that each student, upon entering the course, signs a contract agreeing to do ALL the assigned reading, complete ALL the assigned responses, and participate in ALL class sessions, as in, turn off all distracting technologies, pay attention, and have something to say when called upon. It would mean giving students “THE REAL WORLD” WHICH THEY ALL SAY THEY WANT: accountability for meeting deadlines, being ready to discuss, coming to class or facing the consequences of missing something important, and realistic grades that reflect what they have done. It would mean an end to the whining about too much work, not getting the grades they think they are entitled to because “I don’t get C’s” or “I need to keep a B average to maintain my scholarship.” Are administrations really committed to excellence, or to enrollments & budgets?

  3. beulah says:

    I also teach writing — up to three sections each semester, plus an additional section of literature (when I’m not re-assigned to other duties). One thing that has helped me is to remember that not all assignments need to be graded assignments. While I continue to give my students formal writing/research assignments that require multiple drafts, I also ask my students to post a series of discussion board posts over the course of the semester. These are essentially summary-response essays that ask students to read carefully and respond to that reading in a meaningful way, but I do not grade them in the same way I do their formal essays. This way, students still do a lot of writing, but the time I spend grading is not increased.

  4. tappat says:

    The single most important matter, and I think we typically look for single most important matter, even when the problem and its solution are complex, is to have low-stakes. Stanford has been doing good thinking in this area for years, but it seems that few want to take cognizance of it.

  5. david_brown says:

    For many courses in the sciences, I wish that we could move much of the “information delivery” to an online module so that I could focus on real discussion and engagement in class. Historically that has been accomplished by assigning readings. But it is nearly impossible to get students to read materials before class (I’ve tried short pre-tests, etc… but it becomes cumbersome with 60+ students). Given the necessary resources, it wouldn’t be that hard to create interactive online materials that required students to complete readings and answer basic questions prior to class. But for all the talk of hybrid classes, for the most part we don’t have access to the necessary support if we aren’t offering a pure distance class. At least this is the situation at a 2nd tier land grant university.

  6. pacifica888 says:

    The “assembly-line” headline caught my eye. I have been teaching writing and researching professional writing for years, and an earlier research project on writing in workplace settings sent me in the direction of performance appraisals in the workplace. The vast majority of them are predicated on early twentieth-century assembly-line principles (think: standardization) and fail to appraise a worker’s many culturally-embedded and collaboratively-enabled performances. We need performance appraisal that sheds early twentieth-century principles for twenty-first century principles that factor in these other elements, including technology as it can enable self-actualization in addition to routinizing processes.

    Alas: higher education run as a business eyeing the bottom line has adopted the very worst of those twentieth-century principles through its push to do more with less and create knowledge workers whose knowledge then resembles those early twentieth century principles in too many ways. The bizarre infatuation with “learning outcomes” is just one example of how such principles take hold to enact a social efficiency model of curricula, when what we REALLY need are curricula that acknowledge that the people who are in the room and how they go about thinking about problems—whether in writing, science research, creative arts—are the vital core or curricula rather than “outcomes” that can be demonstrated on hermetically sealed exams.

    Those colleges and universities that understand this key paradox will be able to lead the rest of the laggards away from assembly lines and toward the cloud in ways that acknowledge teachers and the knowledge they have compiled over a lifetime of thinking as key to producing new knowledge workers for the twenty-first century.

  7. philosophy says:

    David_Brown said:”Given the necessary resources, it wouldn’t be that hard to create interactive online materials that required students to complete readings and answer basic questions prior to class.”

    This seems overly optimistic, unless maybe by “necessary resources” you mean something roughly equivalent to a large federal grant.

  8. david_brown says:

    Philosophy said: “This seems overly optimistic, unless maybe by “necessary resources” you mean something roughly equivalent to a large federal grant.”

    Think about the cost in faculty time to teach each class. Now take into account that most of these classes are taught at hundreds of institutions of higher ed. Designing free-standing online courses is fairly tough, but simply compiling information with the ability to track student activity and insert some questions wouldn’t be that difficult relative to the cost of regular classroom instruction.