Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Part 6—Pedagogical Betrayals of Trust

This is part 6 in a series of blog postings on what prospective students should look for in a film school and how they can tell a good school from a less good one so that they can know which ones to apply to and which ones to avoid. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 appear on previous blog pages.—Ray Carney

Part 6—Pedagogical Betrayals of Trust 
Assessing Film Course Offerings

"Trust, Shenanigans, and Brain Surgery
Shallow and Deep Teaching...."

[Continued from Part 5] ... The heart and soul of the educational process at the college and university level is trust—trust on the part of the young people attempting to obtain an education, and going deeply into debt to get it, that the adults in whose hands they are putting themselves have their interests at heart and are uncompromisingly devoted to educating each and every one of them to the limits of their ability. Unfortunately, that trust is frequently betrayed. I’ve seen it betrayed over and over again in my own college and department, and heard stories about various small and large betrayals at other universities. The student is denied the education he or she deserves and is paying handsomely to obtain; the faculty member is ultimately not truly devoted to serving the needs of the student, but more interested in easing his or her work load, furthering his or her career, and in playing a bureaucratic game to impress his or her supervisors than in rising to the genuine challenge of educating the young people in his or her charge.
The problem is potentially much worse, and the abuse of a student’s educational good faith far more frequent, in an arts curriculum than in the hard sciences or social sciences. Established academic fields have bodies of essential knowledge and methods of inquiry that more or less everyone agrees can and should be taught, but film is such a recent field of academic inquiry that there are enormous differences in how it is taught. This is on top of the fact that the study of the arts in general, even of established arts like painting and music, appears to be so “subjective” and “personal” (conceptual errors, but common ones) that more or less anything goes. Everyone thinks they are entitled to an opinion or a vote. (Another conceptual fallacy.) The result is that the individual faculty member has a lot of intellectual and pedagogical leeway, and the outcome is often unfortunate. It is all too easy for the chase to keep up with the latest intellectual fads and fashions, and whatever flaky idea happens to be intellectually or cinematically “popular” at the moment, to eclipse the dispassionate, objective pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself. It takes a lot of courage for a faculty member in the arts to do what is pedagogically right rather than merely go along with whatever is intellectually (or artistically) “hot” and “trendy” at the moment. What students don’t realize is that intellectual fashions in the arts change as fast as styles on Paris runways. Film is such an immature, adolescent art that the academic study of it is particularly susceptible to the seductions of the intellectual fashion system. The only problem with that is that anything that is in style one decade is guaranteed to be out of style the next. Students listen to a lecture and think they are being educated for life, and don’t realize that they are only hearing a report from the style system that is obsolete before it has been transmitted. (Since teachers teach many of the same subjects and critical approaches they themselves learned in grad school, it’s a truism to observe that the academic style-system is in a permanent time warp several decades behind the actual times. As often as not, the late-breaking, hot-off-the-press news these fashion-slave teachers pass on to their students turns out to be the echo of an echo of a bad idea or silly bit of terminology David Bordwell, Jacques Derrida, or Jacques Lacan popularized thirty or forty years ago. Welcome to the academic Wayback Machine!)
University administrators who are more interested in income than the learning process exacerbate the situation by pressuring faculty to keep up their course enrollments (in academia, fannies are dollars after all). Every film faculty member knows the names of faculty members who pander to student interests and values—and increase their enrollments—by teaching junky Hollywood movies (a guaranteed enrollment booster), rather than asking their students to grow up intellectually and emotionally (something that is almost always resisted—that's the nature of all growth: "no pain no gain" as my track coach put it). Every film faculty member knows the names of faculty members at the graduate level who teach shortcuts to understanding devoted to simplifying what cannot be simplified. These faculty members attach intellectual handles to works of art so they can be picked up—and, emotionally and humanly speaking, tossed in the intellectual recycling bin. They translate the most complex forms of human expression that exist (which is what works of art are) into bite-sized, easily digestible formal, historical, cultural, and semiotic “systems,” “structures,” and “theories” of expression. Voila! Watch the pedagogical magician turn the complex into the simple. What was hard and puzzling and strange (and is meant to be and to remain hard and puzzling and strange) is now magically explained and accounted for! Every film faculty member knows the names of faculty members who increase the enrollments of their courses by offering courses on trendy subjects and issues rather than asking their students to break free of the fashion system. Every faculty member knows the names of faculty members who lower their intellectual standards, cut back on course requirements, and inflate their grades to obtain favorable student evaluations and impress their Dean and Chairman. 

It goes without saying that such forms of intellectual and personal corruption (why not call a spade a spade?) can’t flourish unless administrators approve of them—or turn a blind eye to them, which amounts to the same thing. In my own college and department, senior administrators (my Dean, Tom Fiedler, and Chairman, Paul Schneider, are perfect examples) actively encourage the whole pedagogical dumbing-down process by placing enormous pressure on faculty to boost enrollments and obtain as close as possible to unanimously favorable student evaluations. In their business understanding of the function of a professor, the customer is always right; the customer must be kept happy. The "customers," in the view of these businessmen, are, of course, the students. A student made uncomfortable by the intellectual demands of a course, a student unable to rise to the challenges of new intellectual perspectives, a student who complains that a course was too hard—or too something else—on the course evaluation form is, in the minds of these administrators, a reason for the instructor’s evaluations and pay to take a hit (rather than being evidence of the opposite—of the fact that the instructor has intellectual standards and artistic values that are not obvious, automatic, and easily achieved). If a faculty member wants a pay raise, he makes sure there are no "customer complaints."

      The result is that instructors who pitch camp in the most familiar intellectual territory, who require the fewest hours of class attendance at the most popular course times, who make the least demands on students in terms of work, and who, in the end, award the most absurdly inflated grades to students are rewarded financially at the end of the year (rather than being fired as they should be). Instructors in my own department compete for high enrollments and glowing student evaluations by attempting to secure the most popular class meeting times for their courses (8 or 9AM or late Friday afternoon and early Friday evening classes are definitely out if you want students to enroll and say good things about you and your course—and conversely are the times to give a faculty member you want to eliminate from being enrollment "competition" with you—yes, sad to say, it really gets that personal and that vindictive in my college for faculty "enemies" who are viewed as possibly cutting into your own course enrollments if too many students decide take their courses rather than yours—and if you don't believe it, ask me about my own class schedule sometime... and how many years it has continued despite my requests for a change). Some faculty members use “contract-grading” (where students are told in the first class that they are guaranteed an A or B if they simply show up to class and turn in their work) to assure even undeserving students that they will automatically get high grades—and in order to persuade them to enroll in their courses, and not those of some other faculty member. And still other faculty members (or the same ones) cut back the number of hours, or days, a course meets to the bone (more about this below) to scrape the bottom of the enrollment barrel and secure the largest possible number of fannies in seats—by offering courses where students get credit for doing almost nothing beyond sitting in the dark watching a movie every week. [See the earlier blog page "Part 1—Academic Horror Stories," for student stories about instructors who hardly bother showing up for their own classes.

      Needless to say, faculty can't get away with these and other pedagogical shenanigans without the knowledge and implicit approval of administrators over them. The Dean of my college and my department Chair have to allow these kinds of devious pedagogical practices. The Dean and department Chair have to collaborate in this pedagogical race to the bottom. And they are glad to do it—which only adds to the degree of institutional responsibility for the wholesale betrayal of students' trust.

The pressure on instructors to get unanimously favorable student evaluations is also why faculty members in my department routinely cheat on their student course evaluations to inflate their numerical ratings. The cynical—but completely understandable—conclusion on the part of faculty members seems to be that if teaching is reduced to being nothing more than an intellectual beauty contest, with the best teacher being defined, a la American Idol methodology, as whoever gets the most favorable votes in any way possible, what’s wrong with working the system for all its worth? What kind of fool wouldn't rig the voting process when his or her pay raises depend on it—as they clearly do? 
The real problem—both with the pressure to secure favorable ratings and with the playing-to-the-crowd teaching, scheduling, and subject matter that ensures popularity—is that students are simply not in a position to be able to tell which instructors have their interests at heart and which don’t. People in their teens and early twenties just don’t know enough to be able to tell when they are intellectually being pandered to and being “played” for high enrollments and favorable evaluations. It is the rare student who can tell the difference between a teacher who gives them an intellectual bag of tricks to pull fake rabbits out of cinematic hats, and a teacher who asks them to function in a much more complex (and potentially much more confusing and demanding) way to grapple with the real complexities works of art present.
* * *
In the preceding sections on this topic, as much as possible I’ve tried to appeal to factually testable criteria as a way of telling good from less good schools, and I’ll again begin by referring to a few factual matters that can be tested. On the blog page that follows this one (Part 7Intellectual Fads and Fashions—Easy and Challenging Ways of Knowing), I’ll segue into a consideration of less quantifiable factors. To start with, as simple matters of fact, I’d suggest an applicant to a program pay attention to three basic facts: First, does the institution care enough about the educational process to create courses that adjust their approaches to the demonstrably different educational levels and ranges of different abilities of different levels of students? Second, do the teachers of those courses care enough about the educational process to put the time into teaching them in terms of the number of contact hours? Third, are the teachers qualified to teach what they are teaching? 

* * *
 When it comes to evaluating the quality of the course offerings at any university you are considering applying to, I’d recommend doing something I would never even have thought to tell a prospective graduate student to do until I joined Boston University—since it has never happened at any of the other universities at which I served as a faculty member. Namely, be sure to verify whether grad students actually have a chance to take graduate-level courses. Real graduate-level courses, not fake, pretend ones.
Grad students in the program I teach in are, without exception, simply thrown into pre-existing undergraduate courses and fraudulently given a graduate-level course registration number and graduate-level credit for listening to presentations to and for undergraduates (including Freshmen and Sophomores five, ten, or fifteen years younger than they are) who are getting undergraduate credit for taking the same course with an undergraduate course number assigned to it. The undergrads, most of whom aren't even pursuing film studies as their major area of study, always outnumber the grad students in the classroom. (There are generally one, two, or three grad students sitting in the back row of a given undergrad course, and ten or more times that number of undergrads in front of them, listening to the exact same lectures, participating in the exact same discussions, completing the exact same assignments.) 
It only compounds the felony and adds to the pedagogical dishonesty that the program Director and faculty members do everything in their power to conceal what lies ahead in terms of their courses from prospective grad students at Open House, Visiting Day, and other on-campus events. Administrators and teachers scrupulously hide the facts from them until they show up on campus—specifically, the fact that they won’t be taking actual graduate-level courses! The students discover the hard truth on their first day in class—after it is too late to change their mind (and weeks after they have sent in their tuition deposits, which is of course the point of not telling them the truth sooner).
It should be obvious that this state of affairs penalizes undergrads as much as grad students—when teachers in the undergrad courses have to take time away from the undergraduates to deal with graduate-level questions and intellectual concerns (most of which are meaningless to undergrads) in the course of the semester. I’ll leave that side of the educational shell-game to your imagination. Suffice it to say, everyone at every level is getting cheated, including the teacher (if he or she has any intellectual values and principles). 
To make the situation even worse, many of the undergraduate courses the grad students are thrown into are taught by teachers without Ph.D.s, or by adjuncts who not only lack the Ph.D. but have no significant high-level prior academic training or experience at all. But the problem is even worse than that. Since the courses the grad students are siting in on are plain-vanilla undergraduate-level courses deceptively re-numbered to grant magical graduate-level credit to the grad students taking them, many of the teachers assigned to teach these nominally undergraduate courses are simply not qualified to teach graduate-level material to grad students. They might be acceptable as teachers in all-Freshmen or -Sophomore courses (I said "might be," not "are"), but, intellectually speaking, they have no business being allowed to teach at a graduate level. They just don’t know enough—and haven’t been educated at a high enough level—to be doing it. What’s the saying? “Those who can’t do, teach.” BU administrators seem to have heard it but reversed the meaning to "those who can't teach, do"--and at all levels! 
I’m not sure whether most of the graduate students even realize that some of their teachers don’t have Ph.D.s, since that too is concealed from them and continues to be concealed from them even after they are on campus. Faculty degrees (or their absence) are never mentioned or listed in course descriptions. And it is even less likely that the grad students realize that they are being taught by teachers who demonstrably lack the intellectual ability to teach graduate students. That fact, for obvious reasons, is also never mentioned.
I’ve spoken up at meeting after meeting, and written memo after memo, saying how unfair this is to both grad and undergrad students—and how, in the case of grad students in particular, it amounts to picking their pockets—taking money they are paying to be educated at a grad student level, but giving them just more of the same undergraduate courses (courses with Freshmen in them!) and approaches they thought they had moved beyond when they entered graduate school.  
You can imagine how my objections to this state of affairs have endeared me to my colleagues—none of whom apparently sees any problem with the way things are done as long as they continue to get their annual pay raises—or how they have been received by my Dean, Tom Fiedler, whose entire adult work experience is in the world of business, and who has never held a full-time academic job prior to being appointed to administer an entire College, and control the hiring, promotion, and pay of its faculty. He's not the exception. I am. I am the weird one who thinks there is something wrong, deeply and profoundly wrong, with this picture. It’s BU's standard administrative policy: To hire a businessman from outside academia to manage the academics and keep them in line. The consequences—the result of putting someone who has never been a teacher or researcher in charge of supervising and evaluating faculty teaching and research—are predictable. For Dean Fiedler and other BU administrators whose work experience is from outside academia, my principled statements defending the educational needs of students are just one more reason to lower my annual evaluations and cut or freeze my pay, for failing to be a “team player.” That's the world he comes from. Follow the leader. A world of go along and get along. 

* * *

Another extremely important thing to look at is the class-meeting schedule. How many hours a week do classes meet, and how many times a week? I mean the real teaching hours, when teaching actually takes place, not the hours published in the university schedule. (More about this below.) What you’re trying to suss out is how serious the teachers and their supervisors, the university administrators, really are about educating you, or whether, as I describe at the start of this page, they are just going through the motions and trying to flatter and please students by making the least demands on them.

Class schedules are the best way to tell if your teachers are really serious about the educational process. Over the past ten years, courses in my own department have gotten shorter and shorter, and even worse than that, many of them have moved from meeting two or three days a week in multiple shorter sessions, to being held one day a week in a single session. You might not think that there is a difference if the same total time is logged, but every teacher knows there is all the difference in the world. New ideas, new approaches, new methods, new ways of thinking and feeling and seeing—the goal of all good teaching—take time to sink in. They have to be attempted over and over again over long periods of time. They can’t be communicated in a flash bulletin like an idea or thought. They are the product of practice, practice, practice—they are acquired gradually and slowly and hesitantly, not all at once. So when courses move from meeting two or three times a week to once a week, there is an immeasurable loss. New approaches, new ways of thinking, just can’t sink in as deeply; the teacher can’t get inside the students’ hearts and minds if the course consists of sessions spread out once a week. You need more contact hours, and more frequent contact hours to do that. If the teacher only sees his charges once a week, he can't "get into students' heads" to the same depth. The encounter stays too superficial. A teacher doesn't have a scalpel; he or she has to use words and emotions to get in the students' heads. This kind of brain-surgery (brain-surgery through the eye and ear, brain surgery with words and feelings) takes patience, takes depth, takes slow and continuous exposure over a long, long period of time. Malcolm Gladwell's ten thousand hours is not too far off the mark. You can't do it half-heartedly, part-time, or once-a week. It takes commitment. It takes immersion. Foreign-language teachers understand that. You have to be up to your eyes and ears in something to get anywhere really deep, anywhere really important. Every teacher who operates at the level I do (the level every deep-teaching teacher operates at) knows that's the only way life-changing, brain-changing education takes place.

And don’t believe any teacher who tells you otherwise—who tells you it can be done on the cheap, on the quick and dirty. They are part of the problem—of the skim of superficiality, glibness, and quickness that is everywhere in American culture (and in our art too). And they know it—or, given their positions, should know it. They are either lying to you, or they simply don't aspire to do anything very ambitious with their teaching. They don't really want to change your mind in the only way that mattersto change the structure of your brain and the wiring of your synapses; they just want to add an idea or two, or else they are simply imperceptive about the nature of deep teaching and learning (and many are that, of course). The only reason a teacher schedules a class to meet only once a week is for their own convenience (in plain language, because they don’t care enough about teaching you, changing you, to meet with you more often). You’ll hear a thousand rationalizations to deny this, of course. Teachers will tell you that the course work in their course, unlike every other course ever taught, doesn’t divide easily into shorter sections, or some other rubbish about there being a special, unique reason that their courses and only their courses have to meet in one session once a week; but they’re just making excuses for their bad attitude toward coming into the classroom more often. Think of a personal trainer who was working with you to build your skills and muscles (and that’s what teaching is, with the only difference that it’s about building intellectual skills and muscles) who told you he or she could only come to your house to work with you once a week, when another trainer, for the same amount of money (your tuition dollars in this case) was willing to come to work out with you two or three times each and every week, week in and week out. Which trainer will have the biggest effect on you? Which one takes his duties more seriously? Which one has your development at heart and is not just thinking of his schedule? Which one is doing it just for the money?

I know dozens of students (I hear them talking in the halls and stairways when I am going to and from my—multiple-meeting-day—classes) who act like they’ve won the lottery when they learn that they have been admitted to one of these slacker courses and will only have to attend class once a week; they are overjoyed; but that’s just evidence that they are too young to understand their own self-interest. It’s just another reason why a college’s teachers and administrators have to look out for the students and do what is best for them even when they themselves don’t realize it.

At least in my own department, the published class meeting times can also be extremely misleading. If you visit the campus you can’t just trust the published schedule to be true; you have to check with a few students (away from the public meetings) and find out if announced class hours represent real contact hours between you and the professors, or are (as is the case with many courses over the years in my own department) just “on the books” and the actual teaching time is much shorter.

To start with, classes in my own department often begin significantly after or end before the scheduled time, meaning that the class is actually much shorter than its announced time. A given class may show four or five hours of class meetings a week on the published schedule, but the teacher actually announces in the first class, and makes it a formal policy, that one or both days classes don’t actually start until a half-hour (or more) after the listed start time, or will end a half-hour (or more) before the listed end time. In many other film classes, the teacher calls off classes for weeks at a time and the students do projects on their own. And on top of all that (and much worse and much more misleading) many film classes in my department include screenings of entire feature-length films each and every week (that's two to two-and-a-half, to up to three hours, or even more, of "non-teaching-time," of screening time with the room dark and a movie being projected on the screen with the teacher generally not even in the room automatically subtracted from each week's scheduled class meeting time), preceded, followed, or punctuated by long “breaks” where students run to the bathroom, check their messages, or go down the street to get lunch or supper. The result is that, no matter what their listed start and stop times on the schedule, these classes actually only “meet” as college classes—i.e., the teacher is only teaching and interacting with students—for forty, fifty, or sixty minutes in all—once a week! And I have heard of many examples even more extreme than this, where there are only twenty or thirty minutes of actual educational contact hours per weekor even less than that. (Some classes are virtually nothing but movie screenings.) The rest of "class time" (a misnomer of course), the students are sitting in the dark watching a movie, a junky movie at that, as often as not, but the quality of the movie hardly matters. Watching a movie should not be the basis for getting a college degree—that is to say if the students are actually still sitting in the classroom at all, since once the lights go down it’s all too tempting for them to run out to do something else (the getting a snack down the street and checking up on stuff that I already mentioned). What makes it even more tempting is that, in many cases, the instructor himself is often not even in the room during the screening. He has gone down the street with his TA to have a beer, or gone up to his office to check email or make phone calls. Talk about the teacher "phoning it in." No wonder the students think it's OK to do it too. 

Do I have to spell out that there are larger consequences than the fact that a number of weak or meaningless courses are offered and taken? What do you think happens to courses that try to hold the line by meeting more than once a week? To courses that move their film screenings outside of class time, so that the entire scheduled meeting time, every minute of it, can actually be used for teaching and interaction? (Full disclosure: this is something I have done in almost all of my courses.) What happens when real, demanding, time-consuming courses—courses that actually use the announced number of hours for teaching; courses that meet more than one day a week; courses that involve more than sitting in the dark watching a movieare put in competition for student enrollment with the other kind of courses? Take a wild guess. At least with a certain number of students (the back-row boys and othersyou know, the ones who sit in the back and hold their phones out of sight next to their knees checking their messages during class time), the real courses go begging. (Though, thank goodness, there are always exceptions; there are always a certain number of students, small as it may be, who embrace challenges and love intellectual adventures.) Why would someone take a course that demands ten times the intellectual and emotional commitment and ten times the amount of work (not to mention the days and hours of additional class time actually interacting with a teacher rather than watching a movie) when they can get course credit for doing so much less? Gresham's Law applies. The scam courses devalue the entire educational enterprise.

The weird thing (from my perspective) is how seldom students complain to an administrator that they are being cheated (though some of the best students have on occasion come to my office hours and complained in words to the effect of “If Professor X was in class an hour all semester, I’d be surprised.”) [See “Part 1—Academic Horror Stories” for a few recent student anecdotes about their classroom experiences.] I’ve even heard a few of the back-row boys commenting about how great it was “not to have to listen to boring lectures,” and that Prof. X’s course, a course where the professor hardly was there, was “the best course they ever took” (i.e., because it involved the least work and least time in class). And I'm sure my Chairman and my Dean will fall for it, if they hear something like that. What’s not for those students to like about getting credit for watching movies all semester—especially if it’s a once-a-week evening course and you can nod off if you stayed up too late the night before—no one can see you in the dark, and the professor is not there anyway to notice. What’s not to like about having a class that meets only once a week, for forty or fifty minutes of actual teaching time? (If it's as much as forty or fifty minutes, once all of the other fiddle-faddle, taking attendance, running down the street, and watching-a-movie time is subtracted.) 
Is that the point of college? Is that the goal of education? Is it as corrupt as many other aspects of business culture? Is the goal for the teacher to scam the system as much as he can by not really teaching anything? And for the student to scam the system as much as he can by not really learning anything? Is watching movies the reason you came to college? Is your life of that little value? I assume those questions answer themselves. 
The people who should be answering these questions are not the students (who are trusting and don’t realize how they are being cheated because, in most cases, they have nothing to compare the educational experience with; they have not seen how different their education could be at another college or with another kind of teacher who took his or her task more seriously and cared more about his or her students), but the administrators who allow this stuff to go on (or who play dumb about knowing that it is going on). They are the ones who are ultimately responsible for defrauding students of the deep, challenging, transformative educations they might be receiving. 

The consideration of courses and teaching at the university level will be continued on the next blog page: " Part 7Intellectual Fads and Fashions—Easy and Challenging Ways of Knowing."  — Ray Carney