Ouch! Geral Graff Opened a 30-Year-Old Wound A Good Teacher Models for his Students

Electives and Transference Interference

March 31st, 2008 FrancoisGuidry

In Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe, the author describes the cognitive and societal obstacles that interfere with students and teachers at institutions of higher education.  Graff covers a great deal of material, including the tension between scholarly jargon and the vernacular, but his discussion of compartmentalization is particularly insightful.  For reference purposes, most of this exploration takes place on page 68.

The entire credit system is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it theoretically affords students the freedom to choose courses of interest.  On the other hand, these mix-and-match patterns of coursework don’t often yield the general body of knowledge that an institution’s mission statement advocates.  Every student’s experience is unique, which poses some interesting issues.  Consider my background.  As an undergraduate math-major-turned-English-major, my academic transcript is rather odd.  While the number of math courses is predictably excessive, it is the overflow of non-American literature and history courses that is particularly striking.  Most of my coursework involved a study of French and Russian history.  As for literature courses, only several courses in Shakespeare would count as “traditional” literature classes.  The reason behind these choices had to do with scheduling and finding the “right” teachers.  As a result, I’ve managed to be one of the few English majors that have never read Hemingway.  What does this mean?

More importantly, this issue brings up the tendency of students, including myself, to compartmentalize knowledge in each course.  When learning physics, I did not apply it to any “real world” examples that were outside of class.  Application or transference was something that I assumed would happen later through some magical process involving experience.  This flawed assumption on my part and the inaction on the part of the education system to foster interdisciplinary thinking created a gap in my understanding.   It’s no wonder that many students score highly on tests and in course assignments but are unable to solve problems on their first applied job.  The gap between knowledge and application appears to be growing.

Measuring, or assessing, transference between courses and fields is an extremely difficult task, yet scholars and successful professionals often cite the ability to link concepts across seemingly unrelated fields as a key ingredient in innovation and progress.  It would seem that interdisciplinary studies would best be suited to accomplish this goal.  Unfortunately, institutional barriers quickly emerge to thwart such an undertaking.  For example, budgetary concerns question the rationality behind paying two teachers to teach a single class.   This doubling in the budget at a time when money is tight (when isn’t it?) has prevented team teaching from becoming a reality.  Not surprisingly, compartmentalizing has become the norm.

Graff’s discussion of the criticisms of the elective system dating back over one hundred years is particular disheartening.  After such a long period of experimentation and analysis, the need for a significant change or modification would appear obvious.  However, the credit/elective system is tied to a series of interests, laws, regulations, legal precedents, and budgetary mandates that maintain the status quo.  The only realistic opportunity for addressing transference appears to remain inside the classroom.  Perhaps reforming the curriculum to include cross-disciplinary evaluations and activities are the only short-term solution.

Entry Filed under: Week 11

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Edith  |  April 1st, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    When I first read your post, my first thought was taht maybe we need more Comprehensive Exams. Then i realized that even my Comps were compartmentalized. Maybe the Portfolio will work?  

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ENGL 610:002 // Spring 2008

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