B. Radical

For a couple of years now, the question of fixing our creaking Arts degree has been floating round, and there is to be another round of “review” this year.  Based on previous experience of reforms and new programmes, I think it is an impossible task, and we are better off starting with a clean sheet and designing a new degree from scratch, and rolling it out in parallel to the old BA degree.  I think the old BA will continue to draw students for quite a few years, but I would love the chance to teach in a radically new kind of degree, with an interdisciplinary core, full credit accumulation and no lectures. If I had a blank sheet, here are some of the things I would have in a 21st Century degree:

No subjects in first year – a fully interdisciplinary course dealing with major themes and issues, and with a strong skills component. Our system, at every level, puts things in  rigid little boxes. Some students see across the fences, but most don’t. There are big questions – emigration, globalisation, energy – on which every discipline can shine light. If you take themes like the “Irish Disapora” or “Democracy and nation building”, it is easy to see how history, geography, sociology, politics, economics and literature in every language has something to contribute to understanding topics like those. I defy you to come up with a grand question which excludes any major discipline in our Arts Faculties.

Showcasing the contribution of many disciplines offers a much greater hope of maintaining the range of disciplines in our universities.

An interdisciplinary first year also allows time to address the growing crisis of student literacy and improve digital literacy among our undergraduates. Even before we get to the self-directed learning skills so vital for survival in the knowledge economy, many of our students are incapable of writing clear paragraphs. In part, this is because they can’t actually read anything beyond the simplest textbooks. The cuts in teacher numbers of the next few years means that this will get worse over the next decade. We either refuse to admit those students, fail them out after first year or accept that we must make space for a demanding programme which teaches reading, analysis and writing in the digital age. That needs to set a standard which guarantees that students who pass first year are good enough to be worth the taxpayers money in later years of the degree.

I would keep an interdisciplinary “core” in the later years, but have a more traditional disciplinary model with a clear major subject.

A significant change would be a full credit accumulation and semesterisation of the programme. This isn’t rocket science – it is normal in US universities and has been for years. Semesterisation is easy – every course taught in a term is examined during that term, and once term is over, it’s done.   The current practice, where you might have lectures in October that don’t get examined till June, has to end. What has to end is the rigid “year” model where we treat our students like batches of tinned beans on a production line, where everyone goes from first year to second year in rigid step. As it stands, you can’t proceed from “second year” to “third year” until you pass all the second year credits. In practice, there is no reason why someone who is short 5 credits of 2000 level courses cannot make up those credits while starting on 3000 level courses if they satisfy the pre-requisities . That opens the way to a whole host of options for part-time study, for changing majors and others which open the way to improved access, higher completion rates and the possibility that more students will end up with degrees they may use, rather than the subjects they rashly chose on the first day because their mates were going for them.

The other major change I would make is to fundamentally change what we call teaching, and abolish lectures, replacing them with small group seminar style classes, with a heavy emphasis on reading and discussion, both in class and online. The research that shows lecturing is a wasteful form of teaching is plentiful;  commonsense and experience tells us that in many disciplines, it is a waste of the students time and the taxpayers money.   It may seem hard to an outsider, but lecturing is not only the most wasteful, but also the easiest form of teaching. You go in and talk at 400 students for 50 minutes, you spout 10,000 words, they scribble down 1,500 mostly illegible words, and most of them will never look at those notes ever again unless they think they are “on the exam”.

By contrast, any reading and discussion based class, in which you expect the students to take some responsibility for their own learning, requires more preparation and has a higher risk of failing because our undergrads have been indoctrinated to sit back, shut up and be spoon-fed. That is the mentality we need to break, and thankfully, more and more academics have moved away from it, but there is an enormous resistance to change. So if I could design a new degree, I would make a rule that there are no lectures, and no exams, and what you do depends on your work, and  is assessed from week to week – this is how programmes in the US work, and they work.

You could not do this with a big programme. Only a limited number of academics would be willing to go as far away as possible from the current, rather Nineteenth century model, and it would pose challenges for university administrations. Doing it with a limited intake would work, and would minimise the risk of a major switch over to a new model. With a limited intake, it would be possible to offer a completely new Humanities/Social Sciences degree with about 20 academics offering 1 or 2 courses each. There is  real possibility of getting than number of academics to agree on a new programme,something that would be impossible with a major change to an existing arts degree in any Irish university.

So that is my top three, on a post which has gone through too many rewrites, and may not make a lot of sense to people unfamiliar with the esoteric language of university administration

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