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I heard a story this past week about the famous late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, one of the greatest thinkers and teachers in the world. Apparently he mainly taught one first-year class–to 1700 students. I’ve read comments by him joking that this was a way Harvard could boast that its most illustrious faculty were dedicated to beginning, undergraduate teaching.

Now, as a first-year student, I would have loved to take a class from Gould. That’s not the issue. The issue is in thinking that a great thinker lecturing weekly to 1700 students is somehow more “productive” than the same great thinker working in a difficult seminar with, say, fifteen brilliant biology undergrad or grad students. Gould has noted that, in terms, say, of final contribution, he might have “served” more students in those tiny select seminars, with real one-on-one mentoring than in the 1700 person extravaganzas, basically TED talks for Harvard students. Think about it: does one do more good inspiring a crowd than working hand-in-hand with future leaders in the field? There is no right answer to these questions. Both can be productive. To say one is or is not more productive than the other is simply false. And to assume that only the former–that 1700 person lecture–is productive is garbage. Worse than that. To see productivity in such narrow terms robs the educational system and our students.

The verdict of the good people who put together the Texas study is that “A significant proportion of the faculty is far less productive, with small teaching loads and little external research dollars generated.” That is so intensely and insanely backward. If “productivity” is measured in dollars, why not just put all the courses on line and let the faculty spend all their time raising research money from grants? In fact, Christopher Newfield and others have argued that the whole “outsourcing” of scientific research to universities by corporations that used to invest huge amounts of capital in R and D, is one reason why universities are in such bad shape. The supposed billions that come in from external funding often are earmarked and require buildings, equipment, and other investments that somehow never are part of the balance sheet belonging to those charged with measuring “productivity” but that, nonetheless, add to the 400%+ increase in tuition costs over the last decade at US universities of higher education.

The study doesn’t even make the faintest attempt to break down the multiple ways of learning–teaching a violin, teaching writing, teaching Ruby on Rails (open source programming) requires interactive teaching. That’s really shocking, to think all learning could possibly happen in the same way. What this study proposes is a way to rip off students and tax payers more than ever—this is the WalMart Superstore of education. Cheap? Certainly. A rip off for just about everyone involved, including shoppers deprived of both quality and decent wages paid by local, specialist retailers. You can carry out the analogy.

Everything is lopsided in this study and I fear that the consequences will have an adverse impact on future students. There is no innovation in this model, only the most stale version of an education proposed as mass production masquerading as “productivity.” It is impossible to imagine any corporation judging its outputs in these outmoded terms. If this is proposed as a model that benefits the tax payer and their children, Texas is in very, very bad shape. I hope students and parents across the state object. They should. Their future is what’s being traded away on the notion of a very false and obsolete notion of “productivity.”


To hear the NPR report on the study, go:…

To read the full pdf of the study, go here:…/Faculty_Productivity_UT-Austin… And here’s the report in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the ongoing debate, including different measures, currently being debated in Texas, for measuring faculty productivity:

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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