During my five years or so of teaching, a nagging thought has kept resurfacing — namely, that the traditional course format is remarkably unforgiving. This was especially clear when I taught on the quarter system, where a moderately serious illness could very easily lead a student to miss 10% of the class sessions. Yet semesters have their own drawbacks, as they can sometimes feel like a marathon. In fact, a semester is just long enough to have multiple spells of sickness, which tend to hit first-year students particularly hard.
And all these issues could even happen under the best-case scenario of a full-time, residential student with no significant work commitments and no serious family crises during the semester. Once you start throwing actual reality into the equation, things quickly become more complicated. Work schedules tend to accomodate class time itself, but not prep time — and often students will schedule the maximum amount of work time possible for their normal weekly workload, leaving them no additional time to work on longer-term priorities such as papers.
In short, it seems like the format was devised for a particular kind of privileged student, and it isn’t even very forgiving for those people. I might be okay with this if there was some kind of positive pedagogical justification for the format, but I’m not sure there really is.
Let’s look at the format objectively. You take an arbitrary period of X number of weeks, you meet (usually) multiple times per week, and you have a certain amount of reading spread out over that time. On top of that, you will normally have writing assignments requiring substantial outside work. All of this is supposed to be unified by a single topic, normally defined by the disciplinary boundaries of the modern research university. Everything is in this format, and once you do a certain number of them in a certain combination, you get a college degree. You have been educated.
That’s a huge, constant demand on students’ time. It requires them to juggle a lot of schedules and deadlines in ways that don’t seem to me to be immediately connected to intellectual pursuits. It also has a tendency to generate stupid behaviors like “all-nighters,” insofar as all the work is due at the end of the semester and no actual human being has the logistical capacity to spread the work out evenly throughout the entire semester — particularly because starting a paper early often implies getting reading done significantly early, etc. At a certain point, it’s hard not to regard it as a kind of academic hazing ritual, with no lasting benefit.
This structure seems to be the one non-negotiable element in American higher ed. Every proposed change, from the MOOC to the flipped classroom, presupposes that we want to maintain the structure of the course. Indeed, something like the flipped classroom strikes me as a way of justifying the time spent in the classroom — with the assumption that of course education consists of spending X number of hours over a period of X weeks sitting in classrooms.
Now I say this as someone who really enjoys constructing courses. Few things give me the pleasure of a completed syllabus, with all the readings perfectly balanced and all the bases covered. The problems only arise when this Platonic ideal has to confront the reality that we’re dealing with human beings who won’t always have time to read attentively, for example. I don’t schedule in periods of lighter reading or a simple change of pace for 8 weeks in, when I know that the students and I will all be tired. And even though I work at an implausibly small school where I can easily deduce which classes my students might be taking at the same time as mine, I still usually schedule it as though mine is the only course they will be taking.
The question is what we’d do differently. On that, I don’t really have an answer, because of course I’ve been deeply formed by the American educational system and haven’t experienced much outside of the semester-course format (other than the Oxford tutorial system). Yet surely we can’t continue to treat the semester-course format as the non-negotiable one-size-fits-all formula when it increasingly seems to be one-size-fits-none. Clearly the demand for online courses shows that students want flexibility — and I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot to the extent that we are insisting, more or less unreflectively and by default, that in-person education can only mean the intensive, inflexible semester-course model that we are apparently doing through sheer inertia with no positive justification.
But what do you think, dear readers?