So Much for Individual Attention!
by guest commentator Dr. Mark Shapiro (e-mail: mshapiro@irascibleprofessor.com) [November 10th, 2003]

"Megaclasses: This is the classic formula for institutional failure, stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap."... ...Larry Cartwright - Physics Teacher, Charlotte, Michigan.

California has a three-tier system of public higher education. Under the state's master plan for higher education, the campuses of the University of California system were conceived as research universities that focussed on basic and applied research and graduate education through the doctoral level. Their undergraduate programs were intended to be highly competitive and were open only to the most able of California's high school population. The California State University campuses occupied the second or middle tier under the master plan. Their primary mission was comprehensive undergraduate education, and their secondary mission was career oriented graduate work at the master's and credential level. Admission to the CSU, while still competitive, was (and still is) significantly less selective than admission to UC campuses. Community colleges open to all high school graduates comprised the third tier.


“Where once the most of [California] undergraduate classes were taught by full-time, tenured and tenure track teacher-scholars, the majority of these classes now are taught by poorly paid part-time faculty members.”

In the early days following the adoption of the "master plan" faculty members in the California State University system searched for ways to distinguish themselves and their campuses from the more prestigious University of California campuses. Eventually CSU professors adopted a teacher-scholar model to describe what they did. Unlike the UC faculty members, who concentrated on research and a bit of teaching at the graduate level, CSU faculty members took a more balanced approach. Teaching undergraduates was an important part of their daily life. But, at the same time, research and scholarship were deemed important to ensure that a faculty member kept current in his or her discipline over a career that typically would span 30 or more years.

The teacher-scholar model worked pretty well for us. We distinguished ourselves from our UC counterparts by focussing our energies on our undergraduates. We were proud of the fact that our undergraduate students got to see us close up, not from the back of a 400-student lecture hall as was common on the UC campuses. The vast majority of our class sections were small -- typically 20 to 40 students, and they were taught by tenured or tenure track faculty members who held Ph.D.'s in their disciplines, not by inexperienced graduate teaching assistants like it was done on the UC campuses. With the luxury of small classes we could get to know our students, and they could get to know us.

It was comfortable environment for students. They could ask questions both in class and out; and, in many cases we could make them a part of our research and scholarly activities. In a sense our students had the best of both worlds -- reasonably small classes that were typical of the much more expensive private colleges that were taught faculty members who were active scholars like the UC professors. These were men and women who, while not as famous as their UC counterparts, nevertheless had carved out significant scholarly niches. Their papers and monographs often included undergraduate coauthors. The CSU campuses became known as the place for undergraduate students to go to get the individual attention that was lacking on the UC campuses. They were the ideal place for the student who was bright but perhaps a little unsure of himself or herself. They also were great campuses for students who were diamonds in the rough, those who needed more nurturing to truly shine.

However, with the decline of funding for public higher education in California, the teacher-scholar model that had shown so much promise for undergraduate education is falling into disrepair. Where once the most of our undergraduate classes were taught by full-time, tenured and tenure track teacher-scholars, the majority of these classes now are taught by poorly paid part-time faculty members. While most of these part-timers are committed teachers, few of them have the time to engage in serious scholarship. Many eke out a living by teaching one or two courses on several different CSU and community college campuses. Often they spend so many hours traveling between campuses during a typical week that they barely can keep up with the immediate demands of class preparation and lecturing. Seldom do they have the time to meet individually with students who may need a bit of extra help, let alone do they have time to maintain an active program of research or scholarship.

The latest evidence for the continued erosion in the quality of undergraduate education in the California State University system comes from our southernmost campus -- San Diego State. The administrators there, working in cahoots with their "instructional design" faculty have come up with a 520 seat "smart" lecture hall that, according to a recent article by Lisa Petrillo, in the San Diego UnionTribune will allow a dozen San Diego State faculty members to teach some 7,000 students per semester. This giant lecture hall has all the technological "bells and whistles" that allow students even in the back of the room to see and hear the faculty member. It even has devices that allow the instructor to poll the class on various questions.

All of this probably helps to assuage the consciences of the administrators and faculty members who dreamed up this abomination. However, in their hearts they must know that they have succumbed to the mindless rhetoric that emanates from the Chancellor's Office in Long Beach. The Chancellor and his minions are not concerned with the quality of education that we provide to our students. They care only about maintaining the pretense that we are educating them. They speak not of educated students, but of "throughput". Their goal is to produce the greatest number of graduates with degrees at the lowest possible cost. Their model is not the teacher-scholar model. Their model is the widget model! Students are just widgets to be processed through the system.

Resource

  • San-Diego Union Tribune: New SDSU classroom can seat 520 students
  • California State University: Official Site
  • Google News: 'education' and 'class size'
  • The Irascible Professor: Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

    Click here to return to our Issues Section