David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Good Things Can Come in Threes

May 14, 2011: Good Things Can Come in Threes

What is it with academia?  A number of news stories from higher education this last week suggest small pockets of educational reform coming from the inside, as opposed to being forced from the outside.

1)  Re-evaluating the accreditation process:  It takes awhile for this Inside Higher Ed article to make its point, but it is good news to hear that a National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation has been formed to tackle the issues of accreditation before outside agencies do that for us. 

Granted, many of us will sit back, cynically, waiting to see if this task force morphs into multiple task forces and sub-committees and talks its way into inertia.  In addition, given that this week I was part of a meeting with eleven very opinionated and talkative people, I can't even imagine the morass that could result from this twenty-five member task force.  (And I won't even make a joke about whether adding a twenty-sixth member would lead to morass.  Oops, maybe I did.)  

Nevertheless, since this is a first step, and since the pressure is mounting from the outside, I'm going to assume this is a good beginning.

2) De-obfuscating academic langauge:  Emory University is asking their graduate students to convert the typically unwieldy language of their dissertations into a brief summary that can be understood by people outside of their field (or, frankly, people inside their field).  

Of course, only 24 out of 225 dissertation writers took Emory up on its offer to translate their own work.  That means that just from Emory alone, there are 201 Ph.D. graduates (I will assume that all the dissertations are approved and the degrees are granted) who are joining the masses of faculty around the country speaking in language that can be so dense and impenetrable that it is virtually impossible to challenge their central points.  It's academia's version of camouflage.

On NPR this morning, there was a brief, semi-facetious, story about whether we should require our political candidates to use Twitter for messages--forcing them into short, meaningful messages that are memorable.  Perhaps the same should be done for summaries of academic research.

As with item one above, small steps.  Small steps.

3) Problem-solving over lecturing:  Have to love the first sentence of this Science article which basically tells a percentage of the journal's audience that this article may not be for them. Wonder how many lecture-centered faculty really did move onto another article. 
One would have thought that the sciences would have adapted more quickly to interactive classrooms versus lecture-based ones.  Perhaps this is because there has always been the clean break between the lecture and the lab in science, presenting the mirage of interactive learning.

Cognitive science and learning theory occupy the center of an educational philosophical shift that has slowly gained traction over the last two decades.  The problem is that while most everything else moves at lightning speed in today's world, pedagogical shifts occur much more slowly.

Still, some reasons for optimism from last week's headlines.