Compromising higher learning, measure for reified measure

The obsession with contact hours is a result of the market logic that threatens to undermine the academy, argues Thomas Docherty

April 14, 2011



Credit: Paul Bateman


In 1932, the economist and businessman Alfred Cowles stopped making stock market forecasts, having become convinced after the 1929 Wall Street Crash that forecasting was simply guesswork. He decided that he needed more information before returning to the investment market, so he opened the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics in Colorado Springs. Its motto, retained when it moved to Chicago where it became a foundation, was: “Science is measurement”. Econometrics would yield investment certainty.

The idea that measurement brings certainty persists. One example is the quantification of the contact hours students have with teachers under the new dispensation in which higher education is cast as a quasi-privatised investment. Contact is important, but the quantifying of hours occludes the more serious issues: the quality of contact, and what we want from it.

The logic of higher learning is that students develop autonomy and establish independent authority as they inaugurate their futures. Such logic implies that students need fewer contact hours as they progress, as reliance on the teacher’s authority cedes place to their own emergent autonomy. However, econometric market logic requires quantification of the investment and presses the student to argue for increases in contact hours, thereby compromising their education. Market logic endangers the very point of higher education.

Quantifying hours leads only to guesswork (8; 12; maybe 15; 20?); and the result is always unsatisfactory, for the number becomes an inadequate proxy for the more pressing question of how well students are integrated with their disciplines, institutions and peers. “Contact hours” becomes a substitute for actual engagement.

Now, another motto: “Only connect”. In his 1910 novel Howards End, E.M. Forster makes a plea for a kind of integrated life experience, where passion is connected to prose, the spirited life of the body to the cool life of the mind, impassioned intellect to hard-headed business and realpolitik. Against this are ranged the forces of fragmentation, forces that atomise societies into discrete individuals constructing lives as a series of accountable business transactions. The contact hours fetish is simply one symptom of that atomised society, and of the ongoing commodification of “knowledge” itself. Such an attitude has no place in any university education worthy of the name, for it implies that once the contact is over, so also is the education. The quality of our connectedness - of our education, our society - is revealed instead by our students’ growing autonomy and authority; and if good, that is immeasurable.

We live in the most “connected” society ever. Phenomena such as texting and tweeting ensure that we all appear to be constantly drawn online for a relatedness from which there is no escape, as if we have taken fully to heart the injunction to “only connect”.

Indeed, in a period when we are all now enjoined to deploy every aspect of contemporary technology, it won’t be long before lectures themselves develop into “interactive” tweeted “discussion”. This has consequences for our interest in contact hours. If I take time to text during a lecture, should I subtract those minutes when I account for my contact time? What if the text that I send or receive relates to the matter in hand? In the interests of market econometrics, we become increasingly, pointlessly, Jesuitical about figures.

The real question relates to the material engagement between teachers and learners, and to the quality of their integration with each other in the pursuit of knowledge relevant to the discipline. We could call it “teaching-led research”. It involves not only contact between teacher and student, but also between them and the future of their discipline: we teach to learn what our students will become.

The motto “science is measurement” derives from an 1879 painting by Henry Stacy Marks. It shows the scientist, armed with a measuring tape, standing before the skeleton of a pelican. The irony is clear: reduced to measurement, science kills. The current obsession with quantified hours leads to the fragmentation deplored by Forster. It is consistent with the atomisation of social and university life into the activities of discrete individuals, isolated in the marketplace. Such atomisation guarantees only unhappiness.

The university, however, is not a marketplace where individuals come to account for or to buy time; it is precisely a mode of being together, of seeking communities and forging shared futures; and these are immune from measurement, but open to questions of quality. That is the point of contact: connectedness with each other, not econometric clock-watching. Even the Cowles Foundation, now at Yale University, no longer believes that science is measurement. Nor should we.

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