Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Time To Make the Donuts...

I love Dunkin Donuts coffee, so sometimes my thought experiments often tend to incorporate the store. In this case, my thought experiment is about pedagogy. Now, on the one hand I love talking about pedagogy, because I love to teach and because I find the investigation of the relationship between the teacher and the student to be an interesting (if not complex) one. But on the other hand, these damn thought experiments never seem to work out correctly, and just never seem to perfect map on to what you want. Ah well. This time I’m wondering what the proper responsibilities of an instructor are with respect to his/her students. Get a donut, and check below the fold.

Being a professor reminds me of selling donuts. Let’s say that you, as the instructor, have the job of making good tasty donuts. So you set to work. As time goes on, you notice that some people come in, buy the donuts, and eat them. But there are others who take advantage of a policy you have in the donut shop: if you pay for a dozen donuts, you can get free parking in the lot outside. Let’s say that the Dunkin Donuts shop is in NYC, so parking is pretty valuable. So some people come in, pay for their donuts, and leave without ever waiting for the bag. They just want the parking spot. So they pay and then leave. You think this is odd, but a fair number of people do it. As a matter of fact, some buy the donuts and then sneer at you when you try to stop them from leaving without their food.

The analogy with education is obvious. Some students pay for their education (donuts). Some pay not for education, but for certification or for a degree (the parking spot, which is valuable for separate reasons). So some earnestly try their best, excel, and push themselves. Some don’t. Some even sneer at you when you suggest that it might be a good idea to engage and learn something, since they’ve paid their tuition.

My question, one I’ve been grappling with for the last few years, is this: what is the job of the donut maker? There are lots of possible answers here, obviously none of them mutually exclusive:

1. Make the best donuts you can make for those who want to eat them
2. Do (1), but in addition remind the parking lot folks that the donuts are indeed, good to eat.
3. Do (1) (and maybe 2), but assure that no one merely parks in the lot without eating the damn donuts.

Everyone will agree that (1) is the donut maker’s job, so it’s not worth quibbling about. But (2) and (3) are more controversial. I think most people will agree that (2) is at least a prima facie obligation of any good teacher. To some degree, you have to sell the donuts too, right? But what now about (3)? Should you assure that no one just uses the parking lot without munching down on a Boston Creme?

Essentially, here I see it that what we’re suggesting (if (3) is included) is that part of the job of the educator is to punish the student for trying to use the parking lot only. There are lots of ways to mean this. Here are a few:

* (a) Making sure that students are suitably punished for bad work.
* (b) Making sure that no one “coasts” through the course without really caring much about it.
* (c) Trying to turn the “failing” students around via various methods of intervention.
* (d) Adding putative devices merely to weed out who isn’t doing their work, even when those devices (quizzes, say) take away from the educational time dedicated to the students who are doing their work.

I’m guessing no one is opposed to (a). But what (b), (c) and (d)? These are all difficult questions, and there are no black and white answers here. There was a time that I was firmly committed to all four, but I’m staring to wane on the last three. At the end of the day, the question is a simple one (without a simple answer): how responsible should we expect students to be for their own educational choices, even when they make bad ones? Is the onus on us to make sure that the student recognizes the value of their education? Is the onus on us to assure that they fail (you know those coasting “C” students — if you made the test a bit harder, they’d fail)? Is it to turn students around when they aren’t doing well for one reason or another? Just a lot of questions.

Have a donut.


  1. We tend to think of a university as a business in which the students are customers. I've no objection to thinking of the university as a business - I work in a small institution, and every semester, when I look at figures for enrollment, I know my future is on the line. The mistake though is to suppose that our only customers are the students.

    The certificate that they are hoping to get has only as much value as employers are willing to give it. If one of our graduates lacks key skills, then that devalues the certificate of all students. The fact is, students are also our product. I'll be giving my students a class in arguments from analogy in about three hours, and I don't think this analogy holds up.

  2. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for the comment. As I noted at the beginning, I think the TE is somewhat flawed (as they always tend to be, in some sense or another). Too many variables to grab. But in any case, whether it maps on perfectly isn't my real concern (I don't care actually); like most TEs, it's meant to get a conversation going.

    Your point is one that I did leave out, though some of the concerns are at least addressed in it. Of course, you have some obligations to assure that students who aren't doing their work do badly (as I did note; you have to fail students, grade them honestly, and so on), but this gets back to my question again: just how far should an instructor go?

    A quick example: unless I quiz students every single class, some won't read. So the ones who don't will "skate" to some degree. Yeah, the test will snag some of them, but not all. So: should you quiz them every day? How much harder should the tests be? And so on. There are always students who will try to figure out how to game the system.

    At some point, too, I think too much excessive focus on penalizing the bad students can have a negative effect on the education
    received by the good ones.

  3. Great topic, Chris. I think I am on the side of sell as hard as you can, but don't force it on anyone. For my two cents, the value in teaching philosophy to a broad swath of students is that it gives them a chance to focus some time and energy on creative and critical thinking, a skill that is not emphasized in many of their other courses. We should try our best to get them involved in order to grow their proficiency with these skills. Some of them will need no prompting, others will respond to the sales pitch over time, but there are some who will never get interested and I don't think that it is fruitful to spend our time worrying about those cases. It is tragic, in a way, but the effort required to punish these students takes away from time better spent elsewhere and I am unconvinced of the ultimate value of such punishment.

  4. Colin,

    Thanks for the post.

    The more time goes on, the more I must say that I agree. It's a tough subject, especially for teachers, and especially for teachers who love teaching (we all know that not all do). Perhaps it's the missionary or noble aspect of the teaching profession that nags at us and makes us want to convert them all, to make them "see the light."

    It's taken me some time to let that go. Sometimes I think this is a bad thing -- perhaps I'm being insensitive. Other times I tend to think that _not_ letting it go is actually the egoistic alternative.

    The battle between the two is always being waged in my head. Of course, there are other issues here, as you note -- whether excessive testing or pushing in one sense or another can actually end up hurting the students who do care and who are trying (for lots of reasons, one of which being that the instructor will be psychologically drained).

    By the way, say hello to Manchester Hall for me. Sometimes I miss it. Well, Mirror Lake anyway!


  5. Chris,

    I've been thinking about this post a lot in the past few days. Given Ben's point about our responsibility to ensure that the we give out degree means something, I think we need to ensure that people parked in the lot have eaten someone's donuts, even it they're not ours. That is, we ought to ensure that the students have achieved the educational outcomes that we deem necessary to pass the course, even if they didn't achieve those outcomes because of our classes.

    This has me thinking hard about outcomes assessment again. Generally, I think that I ought to give exams that are somewhat harder in various aspects, and I might try giving shorter, more focused writing assignments in 100-level classes in place of a paper.

    One idea in particular struck me today. We typically aspire to teach students to interpret difficult texts. This is a skill-based outcome, not a content-based outcome. To assess whether it's been achieved, therefore, would seem to require giving a student a (short) moderately difficult passage that they've never seen before and asking them specific questions about it.

    Has anyone ever given (or seen) an exam question in philosophy that does this? Any thoughts, advices, or warnings about it?

  6. A little late to this party, but my two cents:

    This is a difficulty that I use to have, but like you, I've largely focused on making the best donuts one can for those who want to eat them for a while. And like Colin suggests, I also try to make my donuts so alluring that some people won't want to leave without them. But to a point, I think that's all we can do. I still maintain that I can't teach something to someone who adamantly refuses to generate any interest in it from their perspective. Horse to water and all that.

    So here I think the professor's role as a teacher has to be complemented by his or her role in administration. The only way out of this rut (and Dunkin' Donuts increasingly saturated-fat based business plan) is to change student culture at our universities). Individuals can't accomplish such global change in their classrooms with their 100 students per semester (if you're lucky). The culture needs to be encouraged and rethought through meaningful university-wide and academia-wide initiatives. Frankly, attempts at generating student culture so far have been dismal failures. Administrations aren't good at creating student culture because it's a tough tightrope to walk between keeping students at the university and keeping them safe from bad performance in their classes.

    Maybe it isn't even possible for administrations to do it right -- maybe the movement has to come from students themselves. But the key to getting more people to stay for donuts has to be building a culture of donut eaters. And that can't be done in just one donut shop.


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