I will get to the point in ... three... two... one...

Get a group of academics together to plan a course and odds are they will quickly begin to argue the question of which books, experts or ideas ought to be taught.  You almost never hear them ask, "Um, how much time do we have?"

Yet more and more I find myself convinced that time is the essential variable in education.  The course design question isn't what needs to be taught but what can be taught in the amount of time we're given.  And by teach I mean leading the students through a series of experiences that create a changed way of thinking about a subject, the world or even themselves.  After all, cognitive scientists have long known that mental models change slowly.

Nevertheless, time continues to be meted out in the standard 16 or eight-week units at most colleges and universities. Daytime classes at my institution, for example, come in two varieties: three-days a week for 50 minutes, or twice a week for 80 minutes. Whatever a course has to accomplish must be introduced, learned and given its final assessment in this discrete, finite allotment.  But why shouldn't a student's achievement be assessed over a year or two or 10? What if there were developmental benchmarks along the way and it didn't matter in which time box they occurred, only that they occurred?

Maybe time is on my mind because I've spent the last few days re-configuring a two-day a week first-year seminar into three days a week.  And  it's not as easy as you might think. For one thing, the three-day a week model is actually a net loss of 10 minutes per week (or an entire week over the full semester). More importantly, there are some strategies (i.e., in-class writing) that work better in the 80 minute period. It just seems that I can get a bit deeper into an idea or a discussion with more than 50 minute blocks.  And yet I can't teach all of my classes on the two-day a week plan.  I'd go mad.

Compounding the time problem is the sped up whir of information today.  Just look at on-line ads. They now come with tiny countdown clocks specifying when you will get the content (or even when you are allowed to skip past the ad).  Each time we encounter these ads, we're doing a quiet mental calculation. Is the information payoff worth 20 seconds of my attention? My students are doing a version of this calculation in my classes at nearly every moment. 

Even so, we professors still teach as if our jobs operate on the economic principle of scarcity. We think the students need us because we alone possess and can grant access to the prized expertise and knowledge. But scarcity and access are hardly problems in an information economy.  Let's face it: nearly all of what we teach can be found elsewhere and often for free.  

Indeed, certain theorists like Richard Lanham have argued the so-called information economy is misnamed. He suggests we ought to think in terms of an attention economy because it's human attention that's scarce, not information or access.  What the students are paying for these days is my ability to distill, to edit and to package ideas and information into 50 or 80 minute units. Just as importantly, they're paying me to do this in a way that is worthy of an increasingly precious commodity: their attention. 

I have a few ideas on how I might begin to do this better, but maybe I should save it for another post. In the age of Twitter, long blog posts usually earn the dreaded TL;DR.

Comments

Frida said…
i was thinking about this in another context - that is, the self-educated person who eschews book learnin'
i have known such individuals and thought, well, and does this mean you will do your own major surgery? you can just 'figure it out', right? why trust a so-called expert?

what does this have to do with your post? time. educating oneself takes a lot of time. i can lead students to seminal works, sources, info and save them LOTS of time. what happens after that is, i think, what your post is about.
Anti-Dada said…
TL;DR ... interesting concept. If, say, this post is TL;DR then how can you possibly expect students to be attentive for 50 minutes--let alone 80! How could eight paragraphs be too long for anyone to read? Even in second grade I was reading passages three or four times longer on a regular basis! But you're right about time and Lanham is right about attention. Sadly, it seems very few have developed the ability to concentrate for any length of time. One point your letter didn't make is how thought development adds to the richness of the experience of living. Having the capability to be intensely attentive for hours allows thought to become increasingly complex and, in my experience, the greater the complexity--in relation to coherence--the greater the chances that I will experience thoughts and emotions in ways I never had previously and it is this experience of hard-earned discovery that provides seminal moments and opportunities for transformation.

Back to TL;DR. After a three year hiatus blogging I started again last week. I noticed an uptick in page views. I checked to see which post was generating the most traffic and it was a post titled "Self Portrait." It is a fairly short post but, more importantly, it is the only post I have ever made that has an image embedded. It's a photo of me in a costume at a Halloween party years ago. I've been thinking that whenever the traffic runs low on my blog I'll just recycle that post and, voila, the masses will coming running for a quick sugar rush!
Professor Quest said…
Interesting thing... I do little to promote this sucky old blog, yet it has had over 40,000 hits. Most were search engine hits. The posts with the highest hit counts are almost always due to the images (a cliff, an ancient cell phone). The next highest are due to topics that get Googled with some frequency: arguments against the liberal arts and an analysis of F. Scott's Fitzgerald's adverbs. One early post I write about grading attendance was linked by someone in the comments section of a Chronicle of Education article and that boosted its hit count. It's nice to be read, but I write because I get the itch to work something out in my head and writing is the way I do that. The fact there is an audience, however small, keeps me honest. It also tends to shew away the self-laceration that so often permeates my personal journal.
Anti-Dada said…
I understand what you mean. Your hit count dwarfs mine (true, I've been negligent for three years), but it's really about having a forum to express myself. I can experiment, try different styles of writing, write about stuff that no one else in the world but me cares about, and just have a jolly good time. I admit to feeling pleased that someone has read what I've written, but it's not why I write on the blog. I do find that merely publishing it online makes me more motivated to keep writing than if files of my writing sit inaccessible and unread on my hard drive. Anyway, it's good to be back. I like your new blog layout, too.

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