Video: Christian Brady on Penn State's Honors College and New Media

Christian Brady, dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Pennsylvania State University, interviewed with Inside Academia this week on his leadership role, the difference between an honors college course and a regular course, and the usefulness of new media in higher education.

Click on the video below to watch the 15-minute interview. 

From InsideAcademia.tv:

Key Take-Aways  

  • 2:40 – The “large, impersonal university” as myth (2 mins)
  • 4:33 – On fading core curriculum courses (2 mins)
  • 6:00 – On the worth of holistic, not specialistic, learning (2 mins)
  • 10:20 – Social media in the classroom and communally (1 min)
  • 12:22 – Contra Mark Bauerlein’s “Dumbest Generation (2 mins)
  • 14:14 – New media as enrichment or distraction? (1 min)

Andy's Show Notes

Recently we interviewed Dr. Christian Brady, who is widely regarded as a very popular student-focused dean who oversees a very successful honors college – The Schreyer Honors College at Penn State.  We explored some of the issues plaguing students academically in the modern university, presumably in contrast to an honors college.

The mission of the PSU Schreyer Honors College is to promote:

  • Achieving academic excellence with integrity
  • Building a global perspective, and
  • Creating opportunities for leadership and civic engagement

The point of the discussion was to see how or to what extent we could expand or extend the benefits and intellectual enrichment students presumably attain in an honors college to the rest of their peers.  We wanted to know how the structure and environment for students enrolled in an honors college not only excels the typical college experience in terms of intellectual enrichment, but also how it embodies the classical idea of higher learning in a university.  And how can we use it as the basis for advancing that level of education.

We knew from the outset that one big advantage honors students have is that they live in the same residence halls, typically enjoy smaller classes and are more often taught by professors even at the lower level courses as compared to their peers.  These students also receive academic advisors right from the outset, handled by staff working with faculty, and who take a more hands-on role with these students than their peers.

But Dr. Brady was quick to point out that some of these differences between honors and non-honors students are not very acute – that the university has only a dozen very large classes and that there is a great deal of collaborative efforts among and students and faculty at Penn State across the curriculum benefiting all students.  So we drew upon our previous interviews and guests to identify key problem areas in university academics and education in general.

Academic Proficiency and Core Curriculum:

We mentioned www.whatwilltheylearn.com, a project by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that identifies seven core areas of general education that college graduates ought to have, grading many universities across the nation on whether they require their students to take specific classes in composition, literature, mathematics, science, economics, U.S. history, and foreign language.  PSU only requires 3 out of the 7: composition, foreign language and math.

Brady correctly points out there are lots of constituents and groups claiming to know what should be included in a core curriculum for engineering, business, liberal arts, etc., all tensions pulling in different directions.  Specifically, he says that the requirements at PSU allow the vast majority of students to graduate with a broad base of understanding while allowing them the opportunity to concentrate in the specific areas they’re most interested in.  But this fails to answer or address the issue of students graduating with large gaps in their general knowledge about core subjects that traditionally was not expected of a college graduate.  For example a U.S. Cultures requirement (as opposed to a U.S. history requirement) from which students can pick upwards of hundreds of courses, some of which may be so narrowly focused on the periphery that they end up learning very little if any civics, does not lend to developing any proficiency in that area, unless the student was majoring in political science.

While this begets a broader debate about to what extent colleges should make up for gaps students come to college with from their high schools, the fact remains universities enjoy a great deal of latitude in deciding their core curriculum as broadly or selectively without consequence – admitting and eventually graduating students regardless of what they came in knowing from high school or what they did or did not learn along the way.  On what basis does Penn State for example, require students to “take a certain allotment of “diversity-focused” courses that teach minority and cultural awareness”, but not U.S. history or economics?

Does this differ for honors students?  Sadly, it does not.  An honors student at PSU and at many other schools chooses from hundreds of courses, no matter how arcane, from the same exact broad categorical areas as any other student to fulfill their General Education and baccalaureate requirements.  The only difference is that the Honors class, or section, or in some cases mere designation, simply entails more work and perhaps an accelerated pace of work for the student, coupled with the eventual writing of a senior thesis.

Teaching Expertise:

Another problem area we identified was that with the growing number of graduate students picking up the burden of larger teaching loads, one apparently growing trend is that grad students are sometimes saddled with teaching students in courses outside of their own area of study or expertise.  In other words they will be expected to teach a course that is within their general area, such as history or philosophy, but that focuses on a particular sub-area they know little or nothing about.  In speaking anecdotally, I knew of grad students in history, focusing on medieval Europe and knowing very little American history, utilized to teach a U.S, history course; grad students in comparative literature assigned to teach French, and grad students in philosophy teaching juniors and seniors seeking to go on to law school, the philosophy of law, even though the grad student knew nothing of law or this area of philosophy.  In some of these cases they could not even name any major canonical works of literature, and never took any courses in the specific area they were now teaching back when they were undergrads.  So they’re learning the material as they go along teaching it.

This appears to be a growing problem, where one grad student explained to me that there seems to be a growing underclass of graduate students on teaching assistantships and fellowships spending better part of their time being utilized as cheap labor to teach classes outside of their expertise, while much older tenured professors will sit with their endowed chairs made possible by donations making well over $100,000 a year, and not teach.  He said there appears to be a diminished “middle class” of young professors in their 40’s to teach undergrads.

I raised some of these points with Dr. Brady to gauge his understanding of this problem, but unfortunately he seemed unfamiliar with the trend, and argued that aspiring scholars and academics should know and be able to teach more broadly outside of their area of focus.  Perhaps this is not an apparent problem in an honors college where virtually all of the students are taught by professors or designated authorities in their fields.  But evidently it is happening often enough that I was able to hear of several instances independent from one another and from others.  Perhaps there really are some acute differences in the experiences between students in an honors program vs. those who are not.

Social Media and Digital technology: learning tool or impediment to critical thought?

Dr. Brady is also an advocate of interactive technology inside and outside of the classroom.  His students use everything from blogs to twitter, to creating podcasts about their research.  But I brought up one of our previous interviewees, Mark Bauerlein, the author of the “The Dumbest Generation”: How the digital age is stupefying young Americans.  Dr. Bauerlein admitted that the problem in today’s generation was not that young people check their facebook per se, but rather that there is an uninterrupted cycle of bombardment of digital information which for so many mostly has to do with the trappings of their adolescent world.  In other words, many do not engage in intelligent media, despite the abundant ability to do so with all the technology of today, but rather use the social media to remain constantly connected with an otherwise anti-intellectual world.

However, we would assume that a typical honors student would be the exception to that, hence why we broached the subject of social media and digital technology with Dr. Brady.  Although admitting he was not familiar with Bauerlein’s book, Dr. Brady contends that the use of technology is no different than pen and paper, in which one could read Playboy or academic journals or a philosophical treatise; and that one blogger found that the ‘dumbing down’ argument was made since the advent of the printing press.  Basically, digital media is no different than print, it’s all in how your use it; and no more or less people engage in intelligent media vs. trash any more digitally than with pen and paper.

However, technological changes can and do in fact alter the way we take in and process and learn information, and our ability to think and learn.  If attention spans are getting shorter, and the mental discipline necessary to read, follow, and contemplate complex ideas is no longer being instilled by teachers and mentors, then clearly that would have an effect on students.  Moreover, if our digital technology reduces education to instantly googling and collecting facts and, then how does that bode for the process of synthesizing ideas?  Bauerlein argues that the digital age we’re in hyper-accelerates the trend of education becoming more mercenary, in which students find the quickest way to race to the answer to recite on a test, and forget about it later.  While this also may have been evident in the past, the digital technology only aggravates the trend.

More importantly, Bauerlein argued that a generation or two ago, a student’s daily routine was broken up with exposure to parents and mentors and time away from their peers.  If all the non-stop texting and social networking today prolongs an endless stream of their adolescent culture, and never allows for the environment in which it’s rebuked, then the effect will be to deny them that necessary component of growing up: of intellectually maturing, disciplining and preparing them for college and beyond.

Conclusion

So the point of our discussion with Dr. Brady was not to ask him to account for how education is struggling outside of his college, but to see if and how we can learn from the successful model of honors colleges so as to break through these challenges facing higher education, academia, as well as facing most students coming out of high schools and heading into colleges and to better their intellectual experience.  But this requires recognition of the problems before we can work to rectify them.

While it’s not Dr. Brady’s responsibility to look for problems outside if his college, he still plays a vital and leading role in perfecting higher education as a student-centered dean of a successful honors college – one that owes its success to more than just brighter-than-average students, but to quality learning environments and, to his credit, good leadership at the top.  Hopefully Dean Brady can help expand the excellence of the Schreyer College to the rest of Penn State and beyond.

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