Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The (Regulated) Marketplace of Ideas

CS50, Harvard's introductory computer science course, is now the largest undergraduate course at Harvard. That is, it's the largest course in undergraduate enrollments, not even counting its enrollment from the professional schools, nor its Extension School and HarvardX cousins. That news was picked up by Fortune and by Business Insider. When I comment, I try to fight back against the lazy angle that Harvard students are just seeing CS as a way to make a quick buck--because for most students, I don't think that's the rationale at all. It's a very well-taught, fun, and empowering course. And as I said, "[Harvard students] have figured out that in pretty much every area of study, computational methods and computational thinking are going to be important to the future." As I told Business Insider,  the "course enrolls students from other disciplines who realize that computational thinking and skills are valuable in their own discipline, whether that’s economics or biochemistry or music or even the Classics." (I went on to plug the release of the Loeb Classical Library in an online edition, but somehow Business Insider didn't print that part.)

As I told Business Insider for a different story, "most of the people who are majors are converts from other fields, people who are switching over from all disciplines. This course is really kind of a conversion experience for a lot of people." I used the same metaphor in the long piece the Crimson published about CS50: “We are evangelical about our subject. … We want to compete for students. We want to take all the students who thought they couldn’t do computer science. We want them to understand that it’s going to going to be hard and fun. .... We’ve been doing the shenanigans for years.” (See this earlier blog post for the Confi Guide description of an ur-CS50 course I taught in the 1970s, if you think that David Malan invented clowning in CS at Harvard. And I didn't invent it either, I just picked up where Bill Bossert and Chuck Prenner left off.)

Departmental cultures run very deep, I have learned over the years. The idea that professors are supposed to be evangelical about their subjects is not universal. In some departments the attitude seems to be "We will teach, however reluctantly, whoever shows up, and complain about it if they are not intellectual enough"; in others it is, "I want to teach the students I want to teach; why should I teach students who don't want to be in my classes?" I wish I knew how many of the course "lotteries" (in scare quotes because they are often not based on random selection) are secondary admissions processes driven by faculty desires to select among the select. It is as though the limited concentrations, which were officially banned pursuant to Paul Martin's report on concentrations around the time the Core Curriculum came into being, are being recreated piecemeal as a nexus of limited-enrollment courses. Enrollment limits may be inevitable in some cases, but they are far too prevalent now, with no rules of which I am aware about when they are appropriate. Surely the most bizarre lottery story I have heard is that for Humanities 10, a brand new gateway course designed to draw students to Humanities concentrations and reverse the gradual decline in Humanities enrollments. It sounds like an absolutely wonderful course, vaguely resonant with the first term of the old Hum 5 course I took in the mid-1960s. Humanities 10 drew several hundred students--but was capped at 75. I wonder how many of those turned away took Ec 10 or CS50 instead, and will never return to the humanities except to satisfy their unattractively named "Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding" requirement?

I think departmental cultures are actually not Harvard cultures so much as cultures of the various academic guilds. That would make sense--economists draw their norms from economists elsewhere, for example, not from the norms in the English department. One of the consequences of the unwinding of the faculty community at Harvard--I am old enough to remember when lots of us went to the Faculty Club to drink before heading home, something unthinkable today--is that we learn less from each other about how to behave. We learn from our departmental colleagues, and that's it. Given the self-perpetuating nature of departments, and the way junior faculty are groomed within the department before the department awards them tenure, these norms become very ingrown.

The variation in norms really hit home when I attended the Mahindra Humanities Center's event surrounding the publication of William Deresiewicz's book Excellent Sheep. I had published a dialog with Deresiewicz in the Chronicle of Higher Education in August. I was startled when Homi Bhabha, head of the Center, opened his introduction of Deresiewicz by quoting from that dialog. He first claimed that the unnamed author had drawn a cordon sanitaire around his own discipline and cast the social sciences to the wind (or words to that effect). He then began to quote me, identifying me only as an "amiable colleague":
It seems to me that the process of promotion and tenure has had a particularly noxious effect on the humanities. We used to count on the humanities faculty to open students’ eyes to what it means to be human. Now that is not why humanities professors are hired, incentivized, or promoted. Their social conscience, when they feel called to exercise it, is manifested mostly in normative political posturing that is divisive and chilling to discourse on campus, and of no great civic, educational, or maturational value to students. Isn’t the so-called humanities crisis, the declining numbers of students choosing to study the humanities even at the top institutions, really part of the picture you paint in your book—of institutions that provide lots of freedom, and lots of busyness, but little support for self-understanding? 
"With friends like these," Bhabha sonorously rumbled, "who needs enemies?"

Except that Bhabha quoted only the italicized sentence, not the surround, the argument that the tenure process, desiccating everywhere, has bled the soul out of the part of the institution where we should most hope to find it.

I made a similar argument in Excellence Without a Soul, but it seems to have stung more here, perhaps because the humanities faculty feel so much more beleaguered now. In that book I wrote "We have forgotten that we teach the humanities to help students understand what it means to be human," and I quoted a humanities editor as saying "The demands of productivity are leading to the production of much more nonsense." The reference to politics as a proxy for the more traditionally humanistic values was written at a moment when a leading question among humanities scholars was whether their conferences should follow the lead of the American Studies Association in boycotting Israel. Is that really an instructive issue for those ruing the decline in interest in the humanities among undergraduates? 

By contrast, when my colleague Fawwaz Habbal, tried to explain that engineers deal with questions of value all the time--he gave the example of a course in which students have to "solve" the problem of Fukushima, including deciding on a triage protocol when only a limited number of people can be evacuated--Bhabha seemed to draw his own cordon sanitaire, suggesting that the engineers would build the tools but only the humanists dealt with questions of value.

What was amusing about the projectile Bhabha launched in my direction (I am sure he did not realize I was there) was that a few minutes later Deresiewicz accurately quoted me as arguing that not all subjects were equally important to college education, adding, correctly, that I thought that the humanities were more important than Computer Science. The humanities, as he and I understand them, not necessarily the weird humanities courses constructed for the Gen Ed curriculum.

Though I appreciated Deresiewicz quoting me accurately there, I found the whole event pretty disappointing, as a showcase for the humanities or even for the kind of "critical thinking" the humanists keep telling us their teaching trains students to do. When challenged about his habit of sweeping overgeneralization, Deresiewicz had three kinds of responses.

  • Yes, there are exceptions, the students are not all excellent sheep. But it's true generally.
  • Other people have said the same thing, so it must be true.
  • After I said it, a lot of people wrote me to say I was right, or gave me other examples to support my argument.
There is a name for the fallacy behind the last one: Confirmation bias. You say something, a lot of people agree with you, some people disagree with you, you hear more of what the first group has to say, and you conclude that you were right.

Overall, I just don't think Deresiewicz is a nuanced thinker. He seems not to recognize that he has serious Oedipal issues--his book's way-too-much-information confessional about breaking away from his father was embarrassing to read. His Freudian conflicts have now turned patricidal. He is striking a dagger into the heart of the hated academy that gave him breath. The news one learns from the book that his father was a professor just makes the the transference more obvious.

To loop back to where we started. The Harvard curriculum is largely elective. It is not quite elective enough, in my opinion, because the lines between Gen Ed categories were drawn too finely, as a compromise in a complex turf war among disciplines. So some good courses that are "general education" by any normal person's standard get rejected as Gen Ed courses, and some Gen Ed courses are on topics of dubious general value even though they fit the Gen Ed guidelines. Still, students generally have a lot of choice of what courses to take, and they are not eager to make those choices. So they wind up looking for metrics--easiness, grading softness, time of day--that make choices possible with little thought about the underlying educational values.

One of the marvels of CS50 is that nobody would choose it by easiness. Most students choose it because it is fun and it is empowering and it is useful (not as a way to get a job, but to make a better Loeb Library, etc.). But what information do we generally offer students about exercising their freedom of choice? The Q (student evaluation) guide, which is all but worthless as a course selection tool.

So I ask myself: Why shouldn't we have an actual free market competition for enrollments, with some rewards to departments for building their enrollments? Well, one good reason is that faculty would be incentivized to use dishonorable means to build enrollments -- grade inflation, light workload, etc. Well, guess what -- that happens already. A certain ethical reasoning course has gotten extraordinarily popular lately, with everyone from  overstressed seniors writing theses to members of our athletic teams. 

So I don't believe in a totally free market -- the controls on how we teach and how we grade should actually be stronger than they are. But a regulated, competitive market, with rewards for gaining market share, would improve teaching across the board. If the workload and grading were regulated, why shouldn't there be market incentives to teach courses that inspire students, and to lift the enrollment caps on courses like Humanities 10? It would be a way to break through the logjam that my amiable colleague Professor Bhabha blasted me for pointing out, that the nature of humanistic scholarship these days makes teaching such courses very difficult and unrewarding, even when they the faculty would love to carry their enlightenment to a broad swath of undergraduates. The folks who do it, and they certainly exist, are heroes. Helen Vendler. Greg Nagy. Michael Sandel. There are others, too. There is a reason why students adore them, and it's not because their courses are guts. It's because they speak to students' souls.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.