It is a bit of a public secret, acknowledged but unspoken, that if you are interested in learning, universities are, at the moment, possibly the worst places to go. From my dual position as the subject and object of the tertiary system (the inflictor and the sufferer of education), it seems reasonable to say that universities, right now, are in a position not dissimilar to that of newspapers. Going downhill fast. While the standards of what’s reasonably going on are deteriorating year by year (if not day by day), things will need to get much worse before any concern builds up. Before any impetus for improvement can build up. Before, even, anyone can be made to care.
Some very reasonable assumptions about what the teaching and learning process are supposed to entail seem to have gone out the window. For example: I remember subjects that knew they were teaching things from A to F. It was clear at which point the students were expected to know A, what A comprised of, at what point we moved to B and at what point B was mastered, and so forth. Currently, nobody knows what their students know at any given moment. A friend, who shall remain nameless, is finding out that her course in Postmodern Literature has failed to teach her students anything. “They don’t seem to have read anything past Harry Potter,” she complained the other day. “and here they are grappling with theory that even confuses me. They should have done some 19th-century realism first. Then maybe modernism. Then this course would have a chance of making sense to them.” She is also finding out that they don’t have the basics of grammar down. “It’s hard to know what they’ve understood, because they’re so bad at expressing themselves.” With the end of semester, and piles of essays to go through, I don’t envy her.
On the other hand, as a student, I can understand their confusion. A subject that teaches you all you’re expected to know, and assesses what it has taught, is so rare that when you find one, you praise it widely and recommend profusely. I still remember a subject I took three years ago: at the end of Week 4, we had to hand in an essay comparing the similarities between the only two types of theory we had studied up to that point. The lecturer’s assessment of our writing comprised of telling us we had overlooked all sorts of prejudice shared. Yes, true, but these prejudices were only clear in the light of the theory we started studying in Week 5. Here it was, a basic failure of a subject to understand that A-B-C-D-E-F sequence from the paragraph above. Half the class flunked, in absolute terms. But of course, due to the need to mark every assessment on a bell curve, 10% were given high distinctions regardless.
Another problem is that the expectations placed on a student are completely murky. Since the lecturers seem afraid to check what their students know, and have only limited powers of teaching things that are beyond the scope of their subject (my friend has no time to spend teaching grammar, or modernism), everyone lives in a confused dread of the final assignment day. Some of this has to do with their education prior to tertiary, some to a complete dearth of sequential teaching, at least as far as humanities go (sciences don’t seem to be much better): whereas I remember having to do medieval history of Japan before anyone would let me get anywhere near its modern history, let alone its modern literature, right now one can skate from pornography in manga to greek tragedy, dipping in and out at pleasure. Or, conversely, one can spend three years regurgitating feminist readings of Hitchcock and, say, landscape painting. Thank God that professions like architecture have kept some sort of entrance barrier, otherwise our buildings would be getting built by people who can draw a window, but not a door.
However, after 12 weeks of tutorials, practicals or seminars in which nothing gets done, nobody is assessed, and no discussion ever develops (because students don’t read, don’t talk, and anyway don’t seem to be able to process much of what they’re bring taught), suddenly one is assessed in composition. The undergraduate essay must be the worst possible way of marking a student. Not only in the light of my friend’s complaints, but also because the expectations a student is responding to are often a complete quandary to them. They often don’t know what the subject was supposed to teach them (other than the flosculae of “thinking critically” and “expressing ideas in writing”), don’t know how much of it they’re supposed to have understood (considering that deadly lack of discussion, and/or feedback), and if they happen to know anything more than they were taught, if they were by any chance bored, they end up guessing blindly what knowledge they may be expected to show. If, however, they are still using the subject as a pretext for independent learning, they’re in deep shit by this point, because the sort of hunt for information that learning consists of is completely incompatible with the need to present one very simple idea in 2500 words (which is the upper limit these days, down from the retrospectively-quite-generous-4000 when I started my degree).
So, if you have understood one little crumb of the 12 weeks’ worth of teaching, you are in the best possible place for doing your composition. You can dig into your little nugget (just not too much). The student who understood everything, or nothing at all, or much but vaguely, is truly fucked.
It’s all fine, in a sense: we have replaced this outmoded learning thingy with a much more swish academic role-playing. The students write like they know what they’re talking about, like they know what they’re supposed to do, and the markers mark them like they’ve done better than they have. Nobody can be failed, and changing the parameters of a subject (let alone the teaching strategies) is next to impossible. At the end of each subject, 10% of essays are still proclaimed excellent.
I would love to see the return of the verbal exam. Not only is it the best possible way to assess how much a student know, it is also an extraordinary thing to study for. It forces the student to learn. It establishes a connection between the lecturer and his students that’s worth more than all the staff-to-student ratio statistics we are bombarded with. It would also have a very welcome side-effect of training students to verbally articulate their thoughts, which is a priceless life skill, and would doubtlessly make all those tutorial discussions actually happen. But everyone in the teaching will tell you: it’s too costly. This coming from a system that spends millions of dollars on buildings we don’t need, advertising that in no way benefits either the sector or the students, multiple computers per capita, and technology nobody knows how to operate.
It strikes me that the system is failing students in a very serious way. But I am also in a completely basic, primitive awe that the system still holds together, that it somehow continues to operate. I imagine it will eventually crash like the US of A. And that may just be a spectacle.
In any case, Theatre Studies is an exemplary case of a teaching department in which nobody knows either what’s getting taught, nor what’s being learnt. If you are interested in theatre, I strongly recommend doing anything, anything else.