HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Arts

June 12

The Nordstrom Philologist

People are always nattering on about skills for the new economy, but apart from some truly unhelpful ideas like “everyone should learn to code”, they are usually pretty vague on specifics about what that means.  But I think I have solved that.

What the economy needs – or more accurately, what enterprises (private and public) need – is more Nordstrom Philologists.

Let me explain.

One of the main consequences of the management revolutions of the last couple of decades has been the decline of middle-management.  But, as we are now learning, one of the key – if unacknowledged – functions of middle-management was to act as a buffer between clients and upper management on the one side, and raw new employees on the other.  By doing so, they could bring said new employees along slowly into the culture of the company, show them the ropes and hold their hands a bit as they gained in confidence and ability in dealing with new and unfamiliar situations.

But that’s gone at many companies now.  New employees are now much more likely to be thrown headfirst into challenging situations.  They are more likely to be dealing with clients directly, which of course means they have greater responsibility for the firm’s reputation and its bottom line.  They are also more likely to have to report directly to upper management, which requires a level of communication skills and overall maturity which many don’t have.

When employers say young hires “lack skills”, this is what they are talking about.  Very few complain that the “hard skills” – technical skills related to the specific job – are missing. Rather, what they are saying is they lack the skills to deal with clients and upper management.  And broadly, what that means is, they can’t communicate well and they can’t figure out how to operate independently without being at the (senior) boss’ door every few minutes asking “what should I do now”?

When it comes to customer service, everyone knows Nordstrom is king.  And a large part of that has to do with its staff and its commitment to customer care.  Communications are at the centre of what Nordstrom does, but it’s not communicating to clients; rather, it’s listening to them.  Really listening, I mean: understanding what clients actually want, rather than just what they ask for.  And then finding ways to make sure they get what they need.  That’s what makes clients and/or citizens feel valued.  And it’s what the best employees know how to provide.

And then there’s philology* – the study of written texts.  We don’t talk much about this discipline anymore in North America since its constituent parts have it’s been partitioned into history, linguistics, religious studies and a tiny little bit into art history (in continental Europe it retains a certain independence and credibility as an independent discipline).  The discipline consists essentially in constructing plausible hypotheses from extremely fragmentary information: who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls?  Are those Hitler diaries real?  And so on.   It’s about understanding cultural contexts, piecing together clues.

Which is an awful lot like day-to-day business.  There’s no possible way to learn how to behave in every situation, particularly when the environment is changing rapidly.  Being effective in the workplace is to a large degree about developing modes of understanding and action based on some simple heuristics and a constant re-evaluation of options as new data becomes available.  And philology, the ultimate “figure it out for yourself” discipline, is excellent training for it (history is a reasonably close second).

That’s pretty much it.  Nordstrom for the really-listening-to-client skills, philology for the figuring-it-out-on-your-own-and-getting-stuff-done skills.  Doesn’t matter what line of business you’re in, these are the competencies employers need.  And similarly, it doesn’t matter what field of study is being taught, these are the elements that need to be slipped into the curriculum.

*(On the off-chance you want to know more about philology, you could do a lot worse than James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities.  Quite a useful piece on the history of thought). 

April 06

Fuzzy Skills

About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts.  I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here.  But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.

At one level, “we need better stories” is always true.  Good communication is always worthwhile.  But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light.   It’s arrogant, frankly.  More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).

Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy.  Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”).  At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful.  Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”.  It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.

Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills,   they are about “fuzzy skills”.    They are about ambiguity.  They are about pattern recognition.  They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut.  Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.  

And you know what?  Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*.  The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”.  They are not.  Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question.  The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense). 

Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing.  But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology-  that allows us to make competent guesses.  Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs.  When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.

I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities.  The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them.  Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed.  No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do.  Design for fuzzy skills.  Incorporate them.  Measure them.

And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality.  That would be real and welcome progress.

December 04

Defending Liberal Arts: Try Using Data

A few weeks back, I wrote about the Liberals Arts/humanities, and some really bad arguments both for and against them.  As usual when I write these, I got a lot of feedback to the effect of: “well, how would you defend the Liberal Arts, smart guy”?  Which, you know, fair enough.  So, here’s my answer.

The humanities, at root, are about pattern recognition in the same way that the sciences and the social sciences are: they just seek patterns in different areas of human affairs – in music, in literature, and in the narrative of history.  And though humanities cannot test hypotheses about patterns using the same kinds of experimental methods as elsewhere, they can nevertheless promote greater understanding of thorough synthesis.  Or, to paraphrase William Cronon’s famous essay, the humanities are about making connections, only connections.  In a networked world, that’s a valuable skill.

None of this, to me, is in doubt.  What is in doubt is whether this promise made by the humanities and Liberal Arts is actually delivered upon.  Other disciplines synthesize and make connections, too.  They promote critical thinking (the idea that other disciplines, disciplines founded on the scientific method, don’t promote critical thinking is the most arrogant and stupid canard promoted by people in the humanities).  What the humanities desperately need is some proof that what they claim is true is, in fact, true.  They need some data.

In this context, it’s worth taking a look at the Wabash National Study on Liberal Arts education.  This was an elaborate, longitudinal, multi-institutional study to look at how students in liberal arts programs develop over time.  Students took a battery of tests – on critical reasoning, intercultural effectiveness, moral character, leadership, etc. – at various points in their academic career to see the effects of Liberal Arts teaching, holding constant the effects of things like gender, age, race, prior GPA, etc.  You can read about the results here – and do read them, because it is an interesting study.

At one level, the results are pretty much what we always thought: students do better if they are in classes where the teaching is clear and well-organized, and they learn more where they are challenged to do things, like applying theories to practical problems in new contexts, or integrating ideas from different courses in a project, or engaging in reflective learning.  And as can be seen here in the summary of results, the biggest positive effects of liberal arts education are on moral reasoning, critical thinking, and leadership skills (academic motivation, unfortunately, actually seems to go down over time).

So: mostly good for Liberal Arts/humanities, right?  Not quite.  Let me quote the most interesting bit: the research found that “even with controls for student pre-college characteristics and academic major, students attending liberal arts colleges (as compared to their peers at research universities and regional institutions) reported significantly higher levels of clarity and organization in the instruction they received, as well as a significantly higher frequency of experiences on all three of the deep-learning scales.”  In other words, the effects of Liberal Arts on students in Liberal Arts colleges are significantly greater than the effects on students studying similar programs in other, larger institutions.  That is to say, it’s the teaching environment and teaching practices, not the subject matter itself, which seems to make more of a difference.

Now, this does not suggest that Liberal Arts/humanities can’t deliver those kinds of benefits at larger universities; it’s just to say that for it to deliver those benefits, the focus needs to be on providing the subject matter using quite specific teaching practices and – not to beat around the bush – keeping class sizes down (which may in turn have implications for teaching loads and research activity, but that’s another story).

There are some good stories for the Liberal Arts in the Wabash data, and some not so good stories.  But the point is, there is data.  There are some actual facts and insights that can be used to improve programs, to make them better at producing well-rounded critical thinkers.  And at the end of the day, the inquiry itself is what’s important.  Humanities’ biggest problem isn’t that it’s got nothing to sell; it’s that too frequently they act like they have nothing to learn.  If more institutions adopted Wabash-like approaches, and acted upon them, my guess is the Liberal Arts would get a lot more respect than they currently do.

November 19

Stories Arts Faculties Tell Themselves

Here at HESA towers, we’ve been doing some work on how students make decisions about choosing a university (if you’re interested: the Student Decisions Project was a multi-wave, qualitative, year-long longitudinal study that tracked several hundred Grade 12 students as they went through the PSE research, application, and enrolment process.  We also took a more targeted qualitative look, specifically at Arts, with the national Prospective Arts Students Survey).  We’ve been trying to do the same for colleges, but it’s a much trickier demographic to survey.

In both studies, one of the questions we asked is what students really want from their education.

Now at one level, this question is kind of trite.  We know from 15 years of surveys from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium that students go to university: i) to get better jobs; ii) because they like learning about a particular field; and also, iii) to make friends, and enjoy the “university experience”.

Where it gets a little trickier, however, is when you break this down by particular fields of study.  With most faculties, there tends to be a positive reason to attend.  However, when it comes to Arts, enrolment is often seen as a fall-back option – it’s something you do if you don’t have concrete goals, or if you can’t do anything else.  Now, Arts faculties tend to take the positive here, and spin this as students wanting to “find themselves”. But in deploying this bit of spin, Arts faculties often end up heading in the wrong direction.

One of the problems here is that the notion of students “finding themselves” (not a term students themselves use) is not as straightforward as many think. Broadly, there are three possible definitions.  The first situates “finding yourself” in academic terms: by exploring a lot of different academic options, a student finds something that interests her/him, and becomes academically engaged.  This is one of the reasons that Arts faculties are built around a smorgasbord model, which lets students “taste” as many things as possible, and hence “discover” themselves.

But that’s not the only possible definition of “finding oneself”.  There is another option, in which students essentially view PSE as a cooling out period where they can “find” what they want to do, in a vocational sense.  Yes, they are taking courses, but since they recognize that Arts courses don’t lead directly to employment, they are more or less marking time while they discover how to make their way in the employment world, and think about how and where they want to live.  Then there is a third, slightly different take, in which students view “finding themselves” as the process by which they acquire transversal skills, and the skills of personal effectiveness needed to be successful adults.  School is something they do while they are learning these skills, often for little reason other than that going to school is something they have always done, and in many cases are expected to do.

Though all of these interpretations of “finding yourself” have some currency among students, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the one about “finding yourself” being a voyage of academic discovery is, in fact, the least frequently mentioned by incoming students.  Now, maybe they come around to this view later on, but it is not high on the list of reasons they attend in the first place.  To the extent that they have specific academic interests as a reason for enrolling in Arts, they tend to be just that: specific – they want to study Drama, or History, or whatever.

Which raises two questions: if this is true, what’s the benefit of Arts faculties maintaining such a wide breadth of requirements?  And second, why aren’t Arts faculties explicitly building-in more transversal skills elements into their programs?  Presumably, there would be a significant advantage in terms of recruitment for doing so.  Someone should give it a whirl.

November 11

Times You Wish There Was a Word Other Than Research

There is something about research in modern languages (or English, as we used to call it) that sets many people’s teeth on edge, but usually for the wrong reasons.

Let’s go back a few months to Congress, specifically to an article Margaret Wente wrote where she teed-off on a paper called “Sexed-up Paratext: The Moral Function of Breasts in 1940s Canadian Pulp Science Fiction”.   Her point mostly was about “whatever happened to the great texts?”  Which, you know: who cares?  The canon is overrated, and the transversal skills that matter can be taught through many different types of materials.

But she hit a nerve by articulating a point about research in the humanities, and why the public feels uneasy about funding them.  Part of it is optics, and what looks to outsiders like childish delight in mildly titillating or “transgressive” titles.  But mostly, it just doesn’t “look like” what most people think of as research.  It’s not advancing our understanding of the universe, and it’s not making people healthier, so what’s it doing other than helping fuel career progression within academia?  And that’s not a judgement at all on what’s in the paper itself (I haven’t read the paper, I can’t imagine Wente did either); even if it were the best paper at Congress, people who defend the humanities wouldn’t likely point to a paper whose title contains the words “the Moral Functions of Breasts” as a way to showcase the value of humanities research.  The title just screams self-indulgence.

And yet – as a twitter colleague pointed out at the time – whoever wrote this piece probably is a great teacher.  With this kind of work, they can show the historical roots of things like sexuality in comics, which is highly relevant to modern issues like Gamergate.  If we want teachers to focus on material that is relevant and can engage students, and if you really want scholarly activity to inform teaching, surely this is exactly the kind of thing that should be encouraged.  As scholarly activity, this is in a completely different – and much, much better – category than, say, the colonoscopic post-modernist theorizing that was so memorably skewered during the Sokal Affair because you can clearly see the benefits for teaching and learning.

But is it “research”?

The academe doesn’t like to talk about this much because, you know, you stick to your discipline and I’ll stick to mine.   You can push the point if you want and claim that all research is similar because, regardless of discipline, research is an exercise in pattern recognition.  There are, however, some fundamental differences between what sciences call research and what humanities call research.   In the sciences, people work to uncover laws of nature; in the social sciences, people (on a good day) are working on laws (or at least patterns) of human behaviour and interaction.  In humanities, especially English/Modern Languages, what’s essentially going on is narrative-building.  That’s not to say that narratives are unimportant, nor that the construction of good narrative is easier than other forms of scholarly work.  But it is not “discovery” in the way that research is in other disciplines. 

And here’s the thing: when the public pays for research, it thinks it’s paying for discovery, not narrative-building.  In this sense, Wente taps into something genuine in the zeitgeist; namely, the public claim that: “we’re being duped into paying for something to which we didn’t agree”.  And as a result, all research comes under suspicion.  This is unfortunate: we’re judging two separate concepts of scholarly work by a single standard, and both end up being found suspect because one of them is mislabeled.

To be clear: I am not at all suggesting that one of these activities is superior to the other.  I am suggesting that they are different in nature and impact.  For one thing, the most advanced scientific research is mostly unintelligible to lower-year undergraduates, whereas some of the best narrative work is actually – much like Sexed-up Paratext – intended precisely to render some key academic concepts more accessible to a broader audience.

It is precisely for this reason that we really ought to have two separate words to describe the two sets of activities.  The problem is finding one that doesn’t create an implicit hierarchy between the two.  I think we might be stuck with the status quo.  But I wish we weren’t.

September 30

Fields of Study: Some International Comparisons

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “We really need to have more STEM grads in this country.  Really, we ought to be more like Germany or Japan – fewer of these ridiculous philosophy degrees, and more of those lovely, lovely engineers and scientists.”

Personally, I’ve heard this one too many times.  So, just for yuks, I decided to take a look at the distribution of degrees awarded by field of study across the G7 countries, plus (since I’m overdue in throwing some love in the direction of the blog’s antipodean readership) New Zealand and Australia.  The data is from the OECD, and is valid for 2012 for all countries except France, where the data is from 2009, and Australia where it is from 2011.

I started with the percentage of degrees that came from the Arts and Humanities.  The result was… surprising.

Figure 1: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities Fields

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Germany leads the pack with just under 21% of all degrees being awarded in humanities, and Canada and Australia bring up the rear with 11.6% and 11.1%, respectively.  So much for the narrative about Canada producing too many philosopher baristas.

But as we all know, humanities are only half the story – there’s also the question of applied humanities, or “Social Sciences” as they are more often known.  The Social Science category includes business and law.  It turns out that if you add the two together, the countries cluster in a relatively narrow band between 47 and 56 percent of all degrees granted.  No matter where you go in the world, what we call “Arts” is basically half the university.  We should also note that Canada’s combined total is essentially identical to those of the great STEM powerhouses of Japan and Germany.

Figure 2: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities and Social Science Fields

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Let’s now look directly at the STEM fields.  Figure 3 shows the percentage of degrees awarded in Science and Engineering across our nine countries of interest.  Here, Germany is in a more familiar place, at the top of the table.  But some of the other places are surprising if you equate STEM graduates with economic prosperity.  France, in second, is usually not thought of as an innovation hub, and Japan’s third place (first, if you only look at engineering) hasn’t prevented it from having a two-decade-long economic slump.  On the other hand, the US, which generally is reckoned to be an innovation centre, has the lowest percentage of graduates coming from STEM fields.  Canada is just below the median.

Figure 3: Percentage of Degrees Awarded from Science and Engineering Fields

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Last, Figure 4 looks at the final group of degrees: namely, those in health and education – fields that, in developed countries, are effectively directed to people who will pursue careers in the public services.  And here we see some really substantial differences between countries.  In New Zealand, over one-third of degrees are in one of these two fields.  But in Germany, Japan, and France – the three STEM “powerhouses” from Figure 3 – very few degrees are awarded in these fields.  This raises a question: are those countries really “good” at STEM, or do they just have underdeveloped education/heath sectors?

Figure 4: Percentage of Degrees Awarded in Health and Education Fields

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So, to go back to our initial story: it’s true that Japan and Germany are heavier on STEM subjects than Canada.  But, first, STEM-centricness isn’t obviously related to economic growth or innovation. And second, STEM-centricness in Germany and Japan doesn’t come at the expense of Arts subjects, it comes a the expense of health and education fields.

September 29

Liberal Arts Deserves Better Arguments

You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running.  This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out.  Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.

First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week.  The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis.  And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science.  So, yay Liberal Arts.

Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.

1)  The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences.  This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”.  Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts.  In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences.  For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”.  I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me.  Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.

2)  The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”.  This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts.  It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).   

3)  The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis.  First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested.  In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on.  Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.

The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces.  The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair.  Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.

Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid.  My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been.  Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here.  Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.

Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Losta goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education.  Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates.  It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).

I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders.  The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing.  But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak.  Time for better arguments.

June 09

STEM and STEAM: The “Two Cultures” and Academic Incentives

About a month ago, I wrote about whether institutions would adjust their program mix if it would help improve economic growth.  Nearly everyone that wrote me implicitly assumed that the “right” mix for economic growth implied a switch to a more STEM-heavy system, before going on to say something like “but what about the humanities?”  I found this kind of amusing, because I actually don’t automatically assume that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees are where it’s at in terms of growth, and there are a couple of quite high-powered papers out that support this view.

The first, Revisiting the STEM Workforcecomes from the National Science Board in the US.  This publication makes a couple of sensible points, the most important being that STEM skills and STEM degrees are not the same thing.   Lots of STEM graduates end up in non-STEM employment; conversely, many STEM-field jobs are held by people who are not themselves STEM graduates (Steve Jobs, famously, went to Reed College and was self-taught as far as computers went).  Basically, the link between higher education credentials and labour market skills is nowhere near as tight as people tend to assume.

The second new STEM report, from the Canadian Council of Academies, makes an even more important point: namely, that STEM skills are a necessary condition for innovation, but not a sufficient one.  The panel that wrote the report (led by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge) did not go quite as far as Don Tapscott did in his plea to replace a focus on STEM degrees with a focus on STEAM degrees (i.e. STEM + Arts).  They did, however, point to a number of other types of skills, such as communication, team work, leadership, creativity, and adaptability, which they felt were at least as important as narrow STEM skills.  The panel also made the point that the best way to meet future human resource challenges is to focus more broadly on skill acquisition from pre-primary to higher education, across a range of subjects – because, frankly, you never know what kind of labour market you’re going to need.

Both reports say we need to get over our obsession with STEM, a conclusion that typically brings cheers from the humanities’ defenders.  But be careful here: even if you buy the “more STEAM” conclusion, it says nothing about the number of Arts degrees that should be produced.  Companies are not dying to hire more Arts grads so they can add that little something of creativity and communication to existing teams of STEM workers.  What they are looking for are individuals who can integrate all of those skills.  It’s a call for more crossover degrees involving both Arts and STEM.  It’s a call to get beyond C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures.

The real problem is that universities genuinely do not know how to deliver programs like this.  Fundamentally, they are designed to focus on degrees rather than skills. Sure, programs can cross departmental lines; however, programs that cross faculty lines are the red-headed step-children of higher education.  As a result, “real” programs – read: prestigious programs – more or less follow disciplinary lines.  Within universities, faculties count success by how many students are “theirs”, but cross-faculty programs exist in a kind of no-man’s-land: they simultaneously belong to everyone and no one.  With no incentives, there’s simply no pressure from below – that is, from faculty – to embark on the arduous journey of creating a curriculum, and working it through the academic approval process.  In other words, STEAM only works for Arts at a resource level (and hence a political level) if it means more Arts degrees; if not, then forget it.

It would all be so much easier if institutions were built around what we wanted students to learn; instead, they are organized by academic disciplines that are necessary guardians of research quality, but in many respects actively hinder the development of balanced graduates who can succeed in work and society.  Finding ways to mitigate this problem is one of the most important questions facing higher education, but we can’t seem to talk about it openly.  That’s a problem that needs solving.

February 05

It’s Not Just Demographics

The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) released an amusingly defensive press release last month, just after the high school applications deadline.  After a glancing acknowledgment that applications to university are down in the province for the second year in a row, we are earnestly told: DEMOGRAPHICS!  APPLICATIONS WAY UP IF YOU USE 2000 AS A BASE YEAR!  JOBS!  DEMOGRAPHICS!  MORE JOBS!  DID WE MENTION DEMOGRAPHICS?

I guess COU views itself as a prophylactic against negative press coverage that secondary school applicants to university are now down more than 5% over the past two years (actual applications are down only 2%, but that’s because students, on average, are applying to more schools than before).  And maybe that’s fair enough, because most of the decrease is due to demographics rather than a fall in the actual application rate.  But this attitude is only semi-productive, because while the overall decline in applications may not reflect a change in the public’s view of universities, the changing application numbers are going to produce some pretty dramatic alterations in the province’s higher ed landscape.

Let’s start first at the institutional level.  The only institution where first-choice applications are definitively above where they were two years ago is Nipissing.  Which, you know, thank God because after the way the province screwed them on funding for Education, they could use a break.  On the other side,  seven institutions in Ontario are looking at declines in first-choice applications from Ontario secondary schools of 10% or more: Brock, Guelph, Laurentian, Western, Ottawa, Lakehead, and Windsor.  Ottawa can perhaps afford this since it’s recently had an offsetting surge in Quebec applications, but elsewhere those declines are going to directly impact the bottom line, and result in cuts.  At Lakehead and Windsor, where application drops are 18% and 19%, respectively, the scope of impending cuts looks positively savage.

The numbers are perhaps even more portentous if you look  on a faculty basis.  In most fields of study, numbers are relatively flat.  Science, Business, and Nursing are all fluctuating within a 2% band.  Fine and Applied Arts are up a little bit over 4%, and Engineering is up by over 13%.  But Arts.  Oh my Lord, Arts: down nearly 16% in two years.

No, that’s not a typo.  Sixteen.  One-six.  In two years.

The implications of this are huge.  In the very short-term it’s good news because class sizes will decrease.  But in the medium-term, institutions simply will not be putting money into units where revenue is falling.  So Arts faculties should expect hiring freezes, loss of positions through attrition, reductions in budgets for sessionals, etc.

And remember, this won’t be because Visigothic neo-liberal governments don’t respect Social Sciences and Humanities; it will be because young people simply aren’t interested in studying in these fields.  And the reason they aren’t interested is because starting wages are down 20% or more over the past six years.  Decry their utilitarian approach to education if you must, but the simple fact is that unless Arts faculties get serious about changing program offerings to respond to students’ shifting interests, there are going to be deep program cuts ahead.

That’s something worth talking about, and soon.  The longer we tell ourselves this is just about demographics, the worse things are going to get.

December 10

The History of the Smorgasbord

One of the things that clouds mutual understanding of higher education systems across the Atlantic is the nature of the Arts curriculum.  And in particular, the degree to which they actually have them in Europe, and don’t over here.

When students enroll in a higher education program in Europe, they have a pretty good idea of the classes they’ll be taking for the next three years.  Electives are rare; when you enter a program, the required classes are in large part already laid out.  Departments simply don’t think very much in terms of individual courses – they think in terms of whole programs, and share the teaching duties required to get students through the necessary sequence of courses.

If you really want to confuse a European-trained prof just starting her/his career in Canada, ask: “what courses do you want to teach?”  This is bewildering to them, as they assume there is a set curriculum, and they’re there to teach part of it.  As often as not, they will answer: “shouldn’t you be telling me what courses to teach”?  But over here, the right to design your own courses, and have absolute sovereignty over what happens within those courses, is the very definition of academic freedom.

And it’s not just professors who have freedom.  Students do too, in that they can choose their courses to an extent absolutely unknown in Europe. Basically, we have a smorgasbord approach to Arts and Sciences (more the former than the latter) – take a bunch of courses that add up to X credits in this area, and we’ll hand you a degree.  This has huge advantages in that it makes programs flexible and infinitely customizable.  It has a disadvantage in that it’s costly and sacrifices an awful lot of – what most people would call – curricular consistency.

So why do we do this?  Because of Harvard.  Go back to the 1870s, when German universities were the envy of the world.  The top American schools were trying to figure out what was so great about them – and one of the things they found really useful was this idea called “academic freedom”.  But at Harvard, they thought they would go one better: they wouldn’t just give it to profs, they’d give it to students, too. This was the birth of the elective system.  And because Harvard did it, it had to be right, so eventually everyone else did it too.

There was a brief attempt at some of the big eastern colleges to try and put a more standard curriculum in place after World War II, so as to train their budding elites for the global leadership roles they were expected to assume.  It was meant to be a kind of Great Books/Western Civ curriculum, but profs basically circumvented these attempts by arguing for what amounted to a system of credit “baskets”.  Where the university wanted a single course on “drama and film in modern communication” (say), profs argued for giving students a choice between four or five courses on roughly that theme.  Thus, the institution could require students to take a drama/film credit, but the profs could continue to teach specialist courses on Norwegian Noir rather than suffer the indignity of having to teach a survey course (not that they made their case this way – “student choice” was the rallying call, natch).

Canadian universities absorbed almost none of this before WWII – until then, our universities were much closer to the European model.  But afterwards, with the need to get our students into American graduate schools, and so many American professors being hired thereafter (where else could we find so many qualified people to teach our burgeoning undergrad population?), Canadian universities gradually fell into line.  By the 1970s, our two systems had coalesced into their present form.

And that, friends, is how Arts faculties got their smorgasbords and, to a large extent, jettisoned a coherent curriculum.

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