January 23, 2009

iTunes rock stars and the cultural script of college teaching

Listmania time! I'm glad that I'm in the tenth hottest profession (though some would disagree). And apparently I have the seventh best job in the whole world. Yeah... Let's be clear: tenured university faculty (who are the minority of faculty in the U.S.) have significant benefits in terms of due process on the job and (for the most part) being able to choose which hours you work each week. (I'd steal the "I can work any 50 hours I want" line if it hadn't already been written for lawyers.)

But there are two deep problems with these lists. As everyone should know by now, "historian" is a great job if you're employed full time with job security (see the "tenured" bit above), but it's entirely inapplicable to adjuncts and other contingent academic workers. The other problem is about cultural stereotypes: there is something unreal in the promotion of professors as personalities instead of looking at the social organization of colleges and universities. (That's true for all professions--I much prefer the "best organizations to work for" lists to the "best occupations" because for your job satisfaction, where you are is at least as important as what you do.)

Let me focus on the cultural stereotypes of the professor and understandings of college teaching. A case in point is standout lecturer Walter Lewin of MIT. He's become famous for the video lectures available through iTunes, and from the lectures I've watched, justifiably so. Yet his fame (and iTunes availability) also reinforces certain cultural stereotypes about higher education: the lone lecturer who is engaging and charismatic at the front of the stage. It's a heck of a lot better than other stereotypes of faculty as absent-minded, clueless, and uncaring, but there's still the common script of the university as a set of lectures and exams. 

What is missing from this script is the discussion and other non-lecture stuff in and out of classrooms. I've never seen an iTunes recording of a seminar discussion, and certainly I doubt there's an iTunes track of an organic chem lab. The reverse is true, too. When Sara Rimer wrote about the redesign of the MIT intro physics course less than 13 months after writing about the famous iTunes lectures, Lewin was absent from the discussion of teaching physics at MIT. It was as if the two articles were about different universities, though the department and the Times reporter were identical, in a subtle act of journalistic amnesia that made me wonder if Lewin had been interviewed and what his thoughts were about redesigning courses away from lectures. 

But one thing you can be sure of: to borrow from Gil Scott-Heron, the evolution will not be televised ... or on iTunes.

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Tags: Gil Scott-Heron, higher education, iTunes, MIT, physics, teaching, Walter Lewin
Posted in Higher education on January 23, 2009 8:08 AM |