Thursday, April 17, 2014

advice on college: research and teaching; secular and Christian; on-line, hybrid and traditional

Of course, I should start with the caveat that the following comments are necessarily generalizations. And perhaps the generalizations are not as accurate as I imagine. But these are my observations and inferences, from my first-hand and second-hand experiences.

Let's start with a key distinction: smaller vs. larger colleges. Small schools typically provide better "customer service" and have smaller class sizes. (For example, at IU Southeast, we only have a handful of classes over 45 students-- with a max of 70, I think. Large schools typically have many sections with hundreds of students.) Therefore, students are less likely to "get lost" and it's easier to get around. Smaller schools tend to be more conservative and to have less variance in the student body.

On the flip side, larger schools will provide more diversity (of many sorts), more opportunities as a student, greater access to grad schools, and greater networking after graduation. I would imagine that the quality of smaller schools has more variance-- since key hires (for good or for ill) will make a bigger difference.

To me, this is a key and under-rated consideration for choosing a college. If you are (or have) a student who would thrive with a more personal environment, then a smaller college is closer to wisdom. If the student "won't get lost" in a less personal environment, then they may endure some bumps at a larger university as they adjust, but should be fine.

Related to school size, there are key distinctions between research schools vs. teaching schools vs. hybrids. At research schools, teaching will get at least lip service (hey, we teach at universities, right?)--but maybe not much beyond that. In some cases, good teaching may actually be a liability for a professor's career-- taken as a sign that one is not spending enough time on research. (I know of one example.)

Beyond the incentives put forward by administrators, there are presumably differences in the preferences of the teacher/researchers at research schools. They find teaching relatively less attractive-- if not absolutely so. (For one thing, they're only going to teach a class or two per semester-- and that, often, to a small set of grad students.)

Research schools will often use grad students as teachers. Their lack of experience may be trumped by passion and energy. (I'm confident that this was often the case when I was at Texas A-M.) Some schools do not allow this. But at least for native speakers, grad students would often be an improvement.

A hybrid school expects and supports research. But their research expectations will be lower: fewer articles, a broader sense of acceptable quality (including lower-tier peer-reviewed journals, editor-reviewed articles, practitioner-based research, books, etc.), and a greater range of acceptable topics. Teaching quality is vital: at least competence is required; and excellent teaching can offset modest/minimal research. The teaching load would generally be three sections per semester, allowing a lot of time in the classroom, but some time for research as well.

(Pure) teaching schools will have little or no role for research. The professors will teach four (or more) sections per semester. They're attracting profs who are more interested in teaching. Beyond that, these profs are not all that interested in research (unless they see this as a temporary job and are looking to "move up")-- or even, may not be all that competent to do research. Teaching prowess will typically be required; classrooms will have fewer students; and faculty will generally be more focused on mentoring.

One caveat to add here: the increased role of lecturers in many schools. Lecturers have a heavier teaching load (e.g., 4 sections per semester), typically focus on lower-level classes, have few if any ops for research, love teaching and are good at it. Many research-oriented tenure-track faculty have been concerned about this trend. But it makes complete sense to hire specialized, better, cheaper faculty to cover teaching, leaving research and higher-end teaching to those more qualified for those tasks.

As for "Christian" schools, it's difficult to define what that means, really. You can find plenty of Christian students at any school, at least in the Midwest and South. If one is looking at full-time ministry, I would strongly consider a Christian school; otherwise, this narrows one's possibilities post-grad quite a bit. Even for "sheltering" a child from worldly influences (or concern about their academic performance or otherwise handling all that new freedom), I would encourage them to stay home for the first two years instead-- and then consider transferring after that.

Finally, a note about on-line and hybrid courses: I'll blog on this separately, later. But in a word:  I'd be really careful with these opportunities. First, they're new-- and I can tell you from experience that it requires tons of effort to work out the bugs and do this well. Second, beyond that, some profs will respond by reducing effort, "covering" material and testing in a convenient way that generally reduces student competence. Third, it takes a remarkable amount of discipline for students to complete these courses-- even if they learn nearly as much through the process. I would not enter into these (particularly the on-line courses) without a strong sense that one has the requisite self-motivation.

Thoughts? Questions? Your experiences and wisdom on this?


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