utopia or good ideas?

In the 7 principles article, we learn about all the utopic ideas for making higher education work. The first thing that leapt to my mind was my experience when I worked for Bridgestone Tire. I was a Process Engineer in the tire in LaVergne, TN. I worked on passenger car tires on something called uniformity. The idea is not only to make every time the same (uniformity), but to make it well, and most importantly, to make the tires uniformly well. I only worked there for a year but it was a terribly frustrating year. I often felt like banging my head against the wall. The whole purpose of my job (along with the rest of the uniformity team of 3 people) was to make the tires better so they would be acceptable to the 1. car manufacturers to install on the new cars at their factories, 2. aftermarket tire shops, like the Firestone stores, and 3. discount club shops, like BJs and Costco. The tires with the best uniformity went to the new car factories. The tires not making the grade for that went to the aftermarket shops. Discount clubs had their own lines of tires. The tires not good enough for the aftermarket shops were scrapped before they ever left the factory and the raw materials were recycled. As you might imagine, the tires sold to the factories fetched a higher price than the ones going to the aftermarket shops. This is where my team helped. If we can make more tires acceptable to the new car factories, our factory will be more profitable. That sounds great! It’s all about making high quality tires. The production departments had other ideas though. There were supposed to produce about 12000 tires per 12 hour shift. Coincidentally, the tire builders, press operators, inspectors, and warehouse personnel all answered to the production department managers, not to the uniformity team.

So now you’ve learned more about the tire business than you ever wanted to know. Why? Because the conflicts are the same. If we can motivate students to learn, professors to teach, and not worry about how much money the university makes, then the degree conferred upon graduates will have value. If it becomes about minimum standards, teaching to the tests, and herding as many students through the school as possible to generate revenue, then the bean counters will have won another battle. In addition, top administrators spend a lot of time pressing the flesh of dignified alumni and local philanthropists to generate donation. Upon my entrance to the professoriate, I will be armed with this philosophy that the students must learn the material and demonstrate a high level of competency with it then that means I can be part of the solution to fix higher education. There’s only one small problem with that. I’m likely to be the only one in my department with that priority.

I agree that these 7 principles are accurate. In a perfect world, we would be able to apply these principles are the results would improve. I disagree with the notion that any suitably motivated faculty would implement these principles. Perhaps I could be labeled as a pessimist or an obstructionist. I view myself as more of a pragmatist. Change must be driven from the top. Until the old guard has smelled this breath of fresh air, the old ways will persist. This is not to say I reject all of them on the basis of some of them being unrealistic. I can certainly improve the communication I share with students and provide prompt feedback. Those are two highly valuable and easily implemented principles.  In fact, I find most of them to be realistic. It’s the last 2 principles with which I take issue.

I remember reading that we can all learn from everyone we meet. Everyone is an example, even if it’s an example of what NOT to do. This was intended as humor in the context in which I read it, but it really does hold some truth. This is week 4 of classes. Yesterday I received the second graded homework back from a professor. I had point deducted for the same thing I missed point on the first assignment. I should have learned my lesson, right? Not so fast! The second homework was due the same day we got the first homework assignment back, so it really wasn’t possible to incorporate the feedback from homework 1 into homework 2. I had a similar event last semester. Homework was due a few days before an exam. The exam covered a lot of material, including that which was on the homework. I had about 3 hours to review my homework before taking the exam and learn from my mistakes. This just should not happen. Neither of these professors are bad. They are both highly competent in their respective fields and I think it’s safe to say they both have high standards regarding what their student learn in their classes. They adhere to principle number 6 in this way. 

So where does this leave us? Should we drive forward and apply the principles we can and forget about the rest? Forget them all? Implement the ones we can and build a case to change the environment for the ones we can’t implement today? Yes, I like that solution, but being careful to pick the time and place for your battles. Strike while the iron is hot!

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About luftakt

VCU grad student in biomedical engineering
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4 Responses to utopia or good ideas?

  1. bwatwood says:

    I hear the pragmatist in you, but I have a slightly differing view. You were involved in the quality of tires. That resonates with me, as I was in the quality movement for years. I got to meet Deming in the late 80’s and was a Baldrige examiner in Georgia. So I understand your frustrations. But years ago I decided that while I might not be able to single handedly change higher education, I could use both my quality training and Chickering’s principle of high expectations to set the bar high in my section of the world – my class. I like to flip the standard “consumer” model by telling my students that I am the customer and they are the supplier…and I expect top quality (in papers, projects, assignments) from my suppliers.

  2. luftakt says:

    Wow, Deming? That was one of the first quality books I read as I was preparing to transition from the Army to industry.

    I didn’t realize you had spent time in Georgia. I grew up in Atlanta, went to Georgia Southern University 1994-97, and was stationed at Ft Stewart, GA 1998-2001.
    I envy your ability to look at things from an alternative perspective like that. Most people just sound cheesy when they try to do that, but when done effectively, it’s amazing. I knew a Chaplain in the Army who could do that. Motivational to say the least.

  3. bwatwood says:

    Small world. I too was born and raised in Atlanta. Left in 1968 when I joined the Navy, but returned in 1999 for 7 years while at Gwinnett Technical College. My dad was in the National Guard, so I grew up hearing stories about Ft Stewart.

  4. Pingback: techne » Blog Archive » No guarantees… - Just another blog about education, technology and learning

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