The University and the “Quality Question”

This month the Chronicle of Higher Education–a sort of Wall Street Journal for those of us who work at colleges and universities–began a series on the question of quality in higher education.  What is quality in that context, how is pursued, and how is it measured? Those are the issues the CHE seeks to explore.  I wish them and every one of those involved in the project God speed.  I’ll read every word they print on the subject, but I’ll be surprised if any new insights or breakthroughs in the making of a quality education will come of it.  It’s not so much that I’m cynical or jaded, but I do have some notion that the Chronicle has taken a bite of something that has choked a lot of people over a lot of years.

After all, trying to get to the bottom of what quality is (or isn’t) has driven more than one person nuts. The example who comes most readily to mind is Robert Persig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Lila (1991), its sequel.  The main character of both novels refers to himself in the third person as Phaedrus, an allusion to a figure in several of Plato’s dialogs.  In Zen, Phaedrus was the shadowy former self of the first-person narrator before electrotherapy restored the narrator’s sanity.  He had driven himself insane while teaching at a state college in Montana as he dug deeper and deeper into the question of Quality–always spelled by Persig with a capital Q.  For him, Quality is a noun, not an adjective.  It is something tangible rather than being a word with which other things are described or characterized.  Seemingly sane at the beginning of the cross-country ride that forms the background for Zen, the narrator descends again into insanity and, by the end of the novel, is forced back by his relentless thinking about Quality during the trip.  Pirsig picks up the theme again in the sequel Lila, but has dropped both the first-person narrative and the pretense of sanity.  Though this is a matter capable of debate, as far as I’m concerned Pirsig got no closer to even a working definition of Quality in Lila than he had in Zen.  He gets an “A” for effort, but that’s it.

My own forays into the question of quality began more than thirty years ago. To put myself through graduate school, I spent a handful of years as a quality-control engineer for an upper-atmosphere physics research laboratory.  We did most of our work for the Air Force, but some also for NASA and a few other research agencies.  I had spent some time before graduate school as a quality-control technician in the electronics industry, also working mostly on military contracts.  For both NASA and the military, “quality control” and “quality assurance” were imperatives, though sometimes only pro forma.   For neither the government agencies nor for the private-sector industrial-electronics firms we worked for was the word “quality” equated with “goodness.”  In fact, it was theoretically possible that something could pass quality assurance and be no good at all.  It happened all the time that what we produced was not as “good” as we could have made it.  Generally, in manufacturing quality does not mean good, it means conformance to specified requirements.

Consequently, the question of “goodness” is not the province of quality-control technicians and their procedures.  It’s the province of engineering and of management: they are the ones who specify the requirements (and therefore the “goodness” to be built into the product in question).  By the way, if you think the “quality” of manufactured goods in on the decline, don’t blame the “American Worker” for poor workmanship.  He’s not allowed to exercise his own judgment in such matters, and anyway he just tends the machinery that does the actual work.  Quality is literally out of his hands.

“But,” you pounce, “Quality is not out of the hands of college and university professors.  They have direct control over both the specification of requirements and the process of assuring those requirements have been met.”  To this, I can only say “you’re are correct, but not on point” (what a dirty professorial thing to say, eh?).  It is true that in higher education (at least at four-year institutions), it’s the teaching faculty who come up with the requirements for majors, degrees, and most obviously the individual courses each of them teach.  It’s also undeniably true that the same faculty designs and uses the assessment mechanisms (exams, etc.) that will determine grades, scholarships, entrance into graduate or professional schools, and the like. What is mostly lacking, though, is the question of Goodness–what it is and how it can be assured.

Aside from the question of Goodness, much of the time we do not even know our students have learned what we want them to learn.  If they have, then exactly what?  Do examinations really assess student learning, or do they merely test the function of their short-term memory?  It’s depressingly common to hear a student complain, “but that was last term” (or even the beginning of the current term) when a professor is disappointed by the inability of the student to recall.  “Last term, then, I suppose you learned nothing” is what the seething prof thinks but dares not say.  It would lead to the filing of a complaint.

One of the psychological problems many college and university teachers face is the lack of much in the way of “accomplishment feedback” from their work.  From their research and publishing activities they get a fairly concrete sense of accomplishment: a book, an article, a conference paper, and the like.  These are tangible, touchable things.  A professor can say, “I spent the last three years writing my latest book” and he can hold it (or at least the manuscript of it) in his hand.  Such a concrete sense of accomplishment is not so easy to come by from teaching.  Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of Political Science at Queens College, has been teaching for more than fifty years and has won numerous student-generated awards for doing so.  Still he can assert: “I couldn’t say objectively or reliably what I do for students” (from “Why Teaching is not Priority No. 1,” CHE, Sept. 10th, 2010, p. 6).  There’s no way he can open up the heads of his students to see what they’ve really learned or what effect that learning will have.

Without knowing what learning really takes place among college and university students, how can the question of Quality be addressed with any precision or even with any sense?  How do professors know they are accomplishing anything at all?  It’s not surprising, then, that they resort to the merely “objective” and lean on specified requirements in the hope of touching something real. So, in advising a student hopeful of graduating soon, a member of the faculty takes mental (or actual) clipboard and checklist in hand and checks off each requirement, as long as it was completed with the specified minimum grade or grade-point average.  “Yes,” he says with pleasure or relief, “you’ve satisfied requirements.”  The student is pleased, because in the largest number of cases that’s all he set out to do in the first place–fulfill requirements.  His parents and other benefactors (some public, some private) are pleased because they want the best for the students, and because the expense of fulfilling all those requirements is at an end.  All breath easier.  “Thank God . . . no more requirements.” But who is really satisfied? Not the teachers, at least not this teacher–I can tell you that.

So, this teacher, at least, awaits the news from the Chronicle of Higher Education on how to achieve and measure Quality at the university, and on faith alone he believes, in the interim, he isn’t just wasting everybody’s time, including his own.