Dr. John Cobin's philosophy of education
I have had the privilege of living abroad and visiting many countries, as well as teaching at a dozen universities since 1986. Most of these assignments were for single short courses or month-long seminars which were done in addition to my regular faculty appointment. Thus, I have had an opportunity to see many different levels of universities and infrastructure, as well as a wide variety of student qualities. This broad experience has helped me develop a robust philosophy of education.
CUSTOMER SERVICE I am reminded of a tale I heard as a graduate student in economics. Western tourists in China stood in horror as they witnessed a supervisor whipping rowers on a Chinese long boat on the Yangtzee. He "obviously" was willing to do anything, even something inhumane and unethical, to make the men work harder. Later it turned out that the guy with the whip was actually hired by the rowers to prevent shirking.
Universities often make the mistake, in my view, of considering students to be their most important or even sole customers. Education processes often reflect the maxim "the customer is always right". Courses and testing are subjected to what students want. Faculty performance is evaluated in part by students.
I challenge such notions. It seems to me that students are more like the rowers on the Yangztee and faculty members are there, like the supervisors, to prevent shirking. Moreover, the consumers of the university's services are not just its students. In fact, parents are commonly the college-chooser and bill-payer (especially for undergraduates) and firms often pay for their employees to take college courses or go to graduate school. Parents and firms may be considered de facto consumers just as much or more than students are. Indeed, it is firms that ultimately pay for the "product" of the university, viz., the graduates which they hire. In some sense, students are incidental or even ancillary to key profit centers for the university, much like users of "free" internet sites, which profit from selling advertising, are incidental although certainly important. Universities which please firms and other interested organizations (i.e., the market) have indirect gains from increased reputation, which leads to more and better students, and more research grants. Aside from having a great football or basketball team, a commitment to high-quality, fair, and even "hard" teaching and research should be the center of a university's educational philosophy. Firms and parents rely on us faculty to ensure that the students do a good job, or at least to accurately grade their performance so that they may evaluate whether or not their investment has an acceptable rate of return. Students too need someone to push them (fairly and respectfully) to succeed. Like the rowers, they often have an propensity to shirk and everyone knows it.
TESTING Most of my students would consider me to be a "hard" teacher. I generally give only written exams, although I have made use of true-false quizzes frequently on readings, and with first and second year students I have (on rare occasion) used multiple choice questions in addition to essays and terms. However, my students also find my classes memorable and consider me to be an excellent lecturer. My presentation method is modern. I use technology whenever possible, including much use of the internet in the classroom. Despite my aptitude in lecturing, I consider myself to be far more of a research-oriented professor than a teaching-oriented one.
I believe that education should not be "easy" but that it should be fair. Hard-working students should be rewarded both for understanding the textbook and other readings as well as what was discussed in class. They should understand it well enough to express their knowledge cogently and logically. Tests are opportunities to reflect such abilities. I have no problem passing the entire class with As or failing the entire class if they do not perform up to an acceptable standard. I do not "curve" tests just because "too many" students fail. Fairness and quality are essential. I have a syllabus prepared before classes begin that serve as a contract that students can rely on.
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