01/30/2012 06:02 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Spring Term

By now virtually all university students and faculty have returned from their holiday breaks. Time away always gives us a vantage from which to reassess the intellectual and institutional climate on our campuses. Students are busy adjusting to their new schedules. Faculty have completed their syllabi, refined their lectures, have met with advisees, and have struggled to make sense of a barrage of administrative memos: class lists, announcements of grant deadlines, university requirements for syllabi and news items about upcoming university events.

Here's an announcement I received from the "Pedagogy for Engagement Committee," which announced a Brown Bag Series, "Interactive Informal Gathering to discuss Teaching Strategies."

Our first topic on February 20th will be "My Best Assignment/Activity Ever." This is an opportunity to share assignments or activities that we've found particularly engaging for students and that have led to higher-level thinking and improved learning in your courses.. .Future topics will include:
"How Do You Know if They've Read the Text? How Do You Get Them to WANT to Read The Text?"
"How Do We Read Students' Work? Purposes, Processes, and Papers."

I probably won't go to any of these events.

I am certainly not against learning new ways to present what I know to students in my classes. Some of the new interactive and technologically sophisticated tools enhance instruction significantly and are important to incorporate in our repertoire of teaching tools. Indeed, next week I plan to attend a training session on how to use SMART Boards.

What I don't like about the Pedagogy of Engagement Committee program is not the desire to connect teaching with higher-level thinking, a very good thing, but rather the set of attitudes that the Brown Bag topics seem to underscore. In my view, the themes make the assumption that our students tend to be irresponsible children who can't be trusted to read their assignments or be challenged to think independently. These topics seem to suggest that clever assignments and innovative technique create the intellectual electricity to turn on the switch that leads to enlightenment.

I fear that when we give priority to technique, no matter how technologically sophisticated it may be, over substance, we engage in misplaced priorities. No technique or strategy can replace a solid foundation of scholarship, the incorporation of new research findings into the classroom, or a passion for the subject that is taught. In my experience, the combination of these integrated factors generates a surfeit of electricity for learning. Even so, on many college and university campuses, which are increasing shaped by corporate assumptions and expectations, the centerpiece of higher education, sustained research and informed instruction, is giving way to the assumption that our students must be entertained.

How do you know they've read the text?

How do you get them to want to read the text?

How do we hold student attention such that we attract them to campus as freshman, and retain them until they graduate in four or five years?

One way is to provide state of the art facilities. On my campus, the new multimillion dollar "72,575 square foot Student Recreation Center will include 'state of the art' features such as an extensive fitness area on two levels, elevated walking/jogging track, two-court gym, multi-activity court, spinning room, aerobic studios, racquetball/squash courts, a three-story climbing wall, social lounges, and a 'hydration station' for refreshments." This facility will enhance student life, and can be used as a tool that probably will increase the number of highly desired matriculated students.

Like any business operating in the market, universities are competing for students and will do whatever is necessary to attract them to and keep them on campus. Student numbers and student retention are vital elements in contemporary higher education. They are, in fact, measures of institutional success, which translates, in part, to more tuition dollars, more private donations, and, for public universities, the maintenance of public funding.

But I wonder if something important has been lost in the mix of campus building projects, recruitment and retention efforts and the barrage of new pedagogical technologies -- all to convince our students to stay and study. Isn't it part of higher education to gently guide the transformation from adolescence to young adulthood? If that is indeed part of our mission, it would make sense to provide education settings that not only teach science, social science and the humanities, but also valuable life lessons that our students take with them into the world of adults. Life in the world of work is usually not that entertaining, not always comfortable, and not always stimulating. Shouldn't we expect a college graduate to know how to deal with a smattering of disappointment, a pinch of loss and a measure of failure?

Our worries should be less about how we get them to read the text, and more about teaching that is passionate, substantive and serious, a classroom atmosphere of mutual respect and expectation in which information is exchanged among adults. This central aspect of higher education, I'm afraid, tends to falls by the wayside on many contemporary campuses, a trend that shortchanges our students and casts a shadow on our social and intellectual future.