An Ethics of the Seminar Table

I have a lot to learn. I’m not an expert, and maybe never will be; I’m sure my views will change. But right now, I don’t like what’s happening to teaching and learning in higher education.

Public funding is drying up. Tuition is rising. The tenure track is disappearing. And corporations, backed by venture capital, have smelled blood.

In the past couple of years, Coursera and edX and Udacity have partnered with wealthy institutions and begun to develop MOOCs (massive open online courses), which they are now licensing to less wealthy institutions as cheap replacements for homegrown courses. The end-game: lower instructional costs at public universities, fewer tenured professors, higher percentages of contingent faculty.

Like many other academics, I see this kind of corporatization as a threat to college classrooms. Students without the resources to attend a private school should be able to take courses designed specifically for them – courses conceived and delivered by full-time, on-site researchers and instructors.

As the San Jose State Philosophy Department put it in their righteous open letter to “superprofessor” Michael Sandel and edX, “… we fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.”

In response, Sandel and several other MOOC superprofessors effectively shrugged and said, “Whatever, dude.”

Sandel: “I know very little about the arrangements edX made with San Jose State University.” Robert Ghrist, University of Pennsylvania: “I have long  ago dealt with the issue of: What if something I create is put to bad use? And I have found out that, throughout history, the benefit of building good things outweighed the hazards.” Mohamed A. Noor, Duke University: “I don’t see it as particularly my business how people use the stuff once I put it out there.”

Let’s call these statements what they are: socially irresponsible and intellectually vacuous.

Against the corporate vision of higher education – dispersed, impersonal, hierarchical – I propose what I’m calling “an ethics of the seminar table.” Around the seminar table, students and professors gather as fellow seekers. Everyone is a teacher, everyone a learner. The seminar table is a symbol of community, of knowledge sharing, of physical co-presence, of intellectual equality and accountability.

But it is not a utopia. The seminar table can also be a site of conflict, a “contact zone.” Sometimes students discover that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about the world, and find it difficult even to sustain a debate. Sometimes they don’t like each other. Sometimes there is a struggle between the institutional authority of the teacher and the burgeoning scholarly authority of the learner. And sometimes – okay, often – sitting at the seminar table is boring.

Nevertheless, as we adjust to the digital economy/academy, I hope we retain the ideals of the seminar table, if only symbolically. Whether undergraduates get educated on campus or online, whether they come from money or not, they should have the opportunity to form small, close-knit communities within their academic courses. They should come to know their classmates’ names, minds, and points of view. Above all, they should have access to a curriculum designed by a teacher who is familiar with their needs and ambitions, who takes a coherent approach to setting expectations and conducting assessments, and who can, if necessary, adjust the syllabus midway through the term.

At the risk of sounding naïve, I think we can deliver this kind of educational experience to a majority of students at public and private universities. But if we can’t, let’s figure out why, and not pretend that MOOCs and other corporate “innovations” will magically allow us to spend less and educate better.

To be clear, I am not against online learning. The web has the potential to refine the techniques and democratize the institutions of higher education. But I fear that if students and teachers don’t take charge of the new digital tools, corporations will. And as much as Coursera and edX and Udacity squawk about empowerment and open access, they are impelled by capital, and capital seeks hierarchy. Capital views students as consumers: those who pay less must necessarily receive a lower quality product. Some get the premium whole-bean blend. Others get used grounds.

Some get the seminar table, others get an embedded video of the seminar table.

I believe that the goal of higher learning is social justice; Coursera, edX, and Udacity adopt the rhetoric of social justice to build their brands and to extract profit from the hopes that people attach to education.

So the basic stance of this blog will be one of resistance – a stance that I hope will emerge organically from my search for good teaching methods. And I will be careful not to defend the status quo, not to denounce digitization as such, but instead to oppose digital feudalism, and above all to promote the techniques, the experiences, the ethics of the seminar table.

I still have hope for higher education. And the practices of the seminar table are, for me, the practices of hope.


49 thoughts on “An Ethics of the Seminar Table

  1. Thought provoking! I don’t agree completely (what would be the fun of that?), but I understand where you’re coming from. This spring semester, I’ll be teaching a small doctoral seminar, a handful of independent studies with undergraduates, I’ll be taking my second MOOC, one of my colleagues will be teaching an online entry-level lecture course to 250 students, several of my colleagues will be teaching small skills courses, a couple will be teaching on-the-ground large courses, an professor from another university will be teaching an online course to 8 of my students because they can’t get the content any other way. Isn’t there room for all these approaches? Is one absolutely better than the other? I, too, have hope for higher education. Here’s hoping!

    1. Hi! Thanks for the comment and for the collegial disagreement.

      I agree that there is room for many different approaches in higher education. Who would want a pedagogy religiously devoted to one and only one approach? How dull would that be!

      And I don’t object to MOOCs as a Thing That Exists. I myself have a couple of Yale Open Courses on my iPod, and I plan to take Cathy Davidson’s “meta-MOOC,” “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” this winter.

      What I object to is actually quite specific: the licensing of corporate MOOCs to struggling universities as cheap replacements for locally developed courses. Such a trend would, I fear, create a tiered system in which some undergraduates would have access to small classrooms and many wouldn’t.

      And I believe that the small classroom, the group of ten to twenty students engaged in Socratic learning with a professor, must still form the core of a liberal education. It is in the small classroom that critical, responsible, empathetic democratic citizens can be formed. The kinds of interpersonal accountability, guided discussion, and nuanced assessments of learning that define the small-classroom experience cannot be replicated in a MOOC.

      This isn’t to say that MOOCs – or any other type of pedagogical environment – should be eradicated, just that we need to stop pretending that MOOCs could serve as the foundation for a complete higher education.

      More broadly, I would argue that corporate culture is a bad fit for the university system. But that’s a claim to be developed another day…

      Hope you keep reading!

      1. I completely agree with your comment about licensing of MOOCs to struggling universities “as cheap replacements.” And, I definitely agree about the “corporate culture” as a bad fit for the university. I see this happening more and more in my own field of journalism and mass communications–and so far, it hasn’t worked very well for J-Schools.

  2. My feeling is that not everyone should go to college anyway. We need more kids being trained to do something. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc. They all make a lot of money. I have a son who went to Northwestern – a very expensive school – and while he was there he decided to just get a liberal arts degree. Son far that expensive degree has gotten him no where. It could also be the fact that he is lazy and married an even lazier girl. By the way, congratulations for being “Freshly Pressed.”

    1. Hi wakingofthebear – Thanks for the congrats! I’m very honored (and frankly a bit shocked) to be Freshly Pressed.

      I agree that not everyone should have to go to college. One of the more worrisome trends in American society is that the college degree has become the new high school degree: you usually need one to find decent employment. A shame, certainly.

      But I personally look at higher education as something other (or more) than job training. People with humanities degrees end up doing all sorts of stuff after they graduate – as do people with economics degrees. Plenty of studies have shown that one’s major is a relatively poor predictor of one’s career path.

      So I prefer to see a liberal arts education as training of a different sort – as preparation for full, sympathetic, and critical participation in democracy. This, I believe, has to remain the central mission of higher education, even in tough economic times.

      (Then again, I’m a graduate student and instructor in a liberal arts department at, guess where, Northwestern! What a coincidence, huh? Wonder if I taught your son.)

  3. I think which ever way you look at it, there are pros and cons. For example, here in the UK we have something called ‘Open University’ which is online. Prior to Open University, we had people who either went to college or didn’t. Those who did, either went to University or didn’t. When Open University came along, those who didn’t go to college, now had the options to take part in an actual course leading to some sort of qualification. These people either were mature, adults or those who in their later years wanted to follow their interests.

    The Online University has, in recent times, expanded. Where, they now allow you to study additional courses which in fact are operated and setup by colleges and Universities.

    But I agree that there is room for large corporations to exploit these options – but again is that a bad thing? Especially now, when graduate are in their millions and all looking for work.

    1. Hi BritishAsianBlog – Thank you so much for this transatlantic perspective! The British education system is something I know shamefully little about, and I appreciate getting to learn a bit more.

      I am definitely all for democratizing higher education. Especially when it comes to credentialing adults for specific jobs, I believe that ed-tech corporations could do a great deal of good. (Indeed, Sebastian Thrun has recently been saying that his company, Udacity, will focus more on corporate training in the future.)

      But problems arise when corporations begin to offer their products to struggling universities as cheap replacements for on-campus courses. Wealthy universities, serving primarily wealthy students, will continue to offer small, personal courses; poorer students at poorer universities, on the other hand, will increasingly be forced to make do with a standardized online curriculum that features little human interaction and that is not responsive to their needs.

      One of the great things about the U.S. university system is that students at state institutions generally receive outstanding, personalized educations from top-of-the-line, local professors. Along with many other academics, I’m doing my best to make sure this feature of American life doesn’t disappear.

  4. I think a good model was the remote classes I took during my undergraduate education. There were two classrooms a hundred miles apart, but we had video-conferencing technology so both sides could discuss and interact. The professor switched between both classrooms.
    We not only learned the subject, but also learned about one students new baby, of their hopes and dreams, and daily life. It was easier to connect with those physically around us, but the conferencing was still a satisfactory way to get to know others miles away.

    1. Hi L. Palmer – What a lovely anecdote! I too am convinced that the principles of “the seminar table” can be upheld in online environments, even if there isn’t literally a seminar table to gather around. The keys seem to be relatively small class sizes and the opportunity for nuanced interaction with your professor and classmates.

  5. With 50% of college graduates unemployed, living “back” home or employed in part time work in another field it is an absolute that something has to change. My grandson has masters from Embry-Riddle and is working part time delivering pizza & taking classes in Airplane Mechanics, with educational debt of $150,000. Kahn has certainly proven, his system is working…

    1. Hi Kay – Wow, yes, student debt and underemployment are certainly two of our most urgent problems. But I would disagree that Khan Academy can be part of a long-term solution for higher education. Moreover, to help young college graduates, we have to do more than reform education; we have to reshape the economy.

      I’m sorry to hear your grandson is struggling, but it sounds like he’s working hard! He has my respect.

  6. Licensing MOOCs to Universities? That’s just awful. People shouldn’t be going to University just to learn a course or get a certificate. One of the most valuable aspects of University was getting to know my classmates and professors during labs and practical activities. That kind of interaction just isn’t possible online. MOOCs, as they exist right now, are not a suitable replacement for a proper University course.

    Thanks for writing about this troubling development.

  7. I took my degree with the Open University, and it was a brilliant experience, because although there was a lot of online learning at home, you always had your own personal tutor, and there were regular tutorials. There was always somebody to turn to if you got stuck. It was that human touch that kept me going. It sounds as if this is what these MOOCs lack.

    1. I love this, Elaine: “It was that human touch that kept me going.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt the same way during difficult moments in my education.

      And thanks for the additional info about Open University; your comment pairs well with BritishAsianBlog’s above.

      1. Yes, I saw that. The OU is one of those great British institutions, like the Queen and marmalade, that is so well known here, that you think everybody knows about it

  8. I work at the public high school level, where education has already been massacred by businesses stepping in. I went to a liberal arts school, and I am proud of the rigorous and enlightening education I got there. It is both enraging heartbreaking to me to see the changes that are happening in higher education. Thank you for writing about it, and for proposing solutions.

    1. Hi seriouslysoap – Thank you so much for this perspective. Sad and true. I myself did a stint as a public high school teacher, so I know exactly where you’re coming from.

  9. I was lucky enough to attend a four year university back in the early 90s, when kids still lived in dorms, shuffle-ran across a freezing cold campus to their next class, dropped by their professor’s office for an impromptu chat on a Thursday, learned the horrors (and benefits) of eating Captain Crunch with Coca-cola instead of coffee in the breakfast cafeteria, mastered Euchre and Quarters, the whole shabang.

    I gotta say, I can’t imagine getting all that you pay for by merely logging on and hitting some keys. College campuses are where the bullied nerds who survived high school finally meet kindred spirits and form lasting bonds and a sense of power. It’s where you are finally allowed to design your day, your schedule, and your life around your own priorities rather than your parents’. It’s an indispensable transitional period of social growth that this culture needs to help define the line between “kid” and “adult.”

    Just getting a job won’t do it. Kids have jobs. Just taking some online courses won’t help. You can’t absorb social nuance from characters on a screen (Twitter be damned). College is Outward Bound for the mind; it’s fun but it’s not easy. And you have thousands of peers right there in it with you: you belong to a giant gang called “Student Discount.” That’s a bliss you won’t know again until you’re 65.

    I understand the financial reasons for a shift to MOOCs but they don’t assuage my sadness over the trend.

    1. Hi allthoughtswork – Oh, this is beautiful. Worthy of a blog post in its own right. You put your finger on why so many of us defend campus-based higher education: we are devoted to the human experience of not only being in college, but being IN A college, making lifelong friends, learning from them in and out of class, pulling all-nighters with them, getting to know your professors both as teachers and as neighbors. I couldn’t believe more strongly in the moral, intellectual, and emotional value of these experiences. It would be a crime to reserve them for the rich.

      1. Rich is relative, ain’t it? (Putting my English degree to good use.) I mean, my father was actually a professor at said university but the fallacy of the Teacher’s Kid Discount Rate is right up there in veracity with the Blair Witch. Doesn’t exist.

        My tuition happened thanks to a very small inheritance from a distant relative, end of story. I’m sure that amount would feel like winning the lottery for some and just some extra Friday night liquor change for others. For the record, I paid for my own drinks out of my own pocket (until I discovered the power of cleavage; God bless lonely engineering students).

      2. Ha! Gotta find some use for those engineers, right?

        And of course I didn’t mean to imply that you must have been rich to have received a fun, intimate liberal arts education. I’m just worried that, in the future, students will have to be rich to have access to such an experience.

        So here’s hoping that a small inheritance from a distant relative will continue to do the trick. 😉

      3. Every couple generations, there comes a potentially paradigm-shifting opportunity to jump forward like this autodidactic electronic pursuit of a degree. Thing is, this one is a biggie, it’s a hell of a leap. The ancient structure and form of a traditional university setting versus the hyper-futuristic delivery of the internet. Methinks the jump is giving some people whiplash. And I think most of those people are of the liberal arts persuasion.

        After all, feeling and intuition and subtle energies, the pulse and bedrock of the arts and humanities, simply cannot be encompassed in an emoticon. Art and language and music manifest their power through their performance; it’s the communal, shared experience of them that makes them meaningful. I have never met a person who has loved a book, yet never discussed it with another living soul.

        This reminds me, someone once wrote a blog bit on the lost art of the silent movie: the extraordinary emoting of the actors, the skill of the stunts, the old-timey pianos that tinkled out ragtime accompaniment to one side of the stage in cigar smoke filled theaters while people watched Buster Keaton fall on his hat up on the screen. But I pointed out something the writer missed: the laughter. You can pull up an old Keaton movie on the internet but you are not getting the true experience, nor even the point. It’s the laughter that rolls through the room around you as you watch it with a hundred others in that theater that makes a movie a movie. That’s the power.

        And it’s the real, live people that make a university an alma mater.

  10. I admit that when I took my first Yale Open Course it was incredibly hard to focus (and I still haven’t finished the full syllabus) because online courses just don’t work as well with my learning style. I really need personal interaction (and disagreement/discourse) to engage the material.

    1. Hi pink-briefcase – Absolutely, I think most of us do need personal encouragement (along with a light dose of peer pressure, perhaps) to immerse ourselves fully in intellectual work. You’re not alone there!

      I’ve actually downloaded the lectures for a few of the Yale Open Courses (Paul Fry’s Intro to Literary Theory, David Blight’s Civil War survey) and listened to them on my walk to work. I treated them as podcasts, and enjoyed them as such. But as you suggest, taking an actual course is a different category of experience – one that the digital medium can’t really replicate.

      Thanks for stopping by! Hope to see you around again.

  11. I entirely agree with you. I’m still in the midst of my degree right now – only a second-year undergrad student. But I study in a pretty tiny department (classics and ancient history) and the value of seminar discussion and face-to-face relationships with professors and fellow students became apparent right away. I wouldn’t be getting anywhere near the grades I did if I was removed from that community – it’s vital both for support and for extension.

    I’m lucky to live in New Zealand, where MOOCs aren’t (yet) around. The very prospect worries me though – the connections students form with each other and their professors carry them into their working career, no matter what they studied. It’s not just the learning experience of the seminar table that’s so important, its the network that’s formed there as well.

    1. Absolutely, silverrosesc – the social network created by a small, in-person class is indispensable, both intellectually and emotionally. Many thanks for your perspective from New Zealand. It’s great to hear that you’ve had a positive experience so far in seminar discussions. Gives me hope!

  12. I believe that you created a fallacy by deciding that a MOOC is by inherent and less than. This is a generalization that is not universally true (or untrue, if you wish). The direction of your thoughts seems to stem from this, so while I can see where you wanted me to go, I stand up from the table and call shenanigans.

    I have experience with both sorts of courses and of study. As part of education it is one of the jobs as a student to reach out and to grab what he/she wishes to obtain. If I chose to sit on my ass in a f2f class and if I chose not to engage, I believe I get what it is I got.

    It could be that a ‘good’ instructor might be one who drags these students out of themselves, however, these are social skills that are emergent or taught as a child grows up. It can be a gift from an instructor to engage in this sort of teaching as parallel to subject matter, however for me, and many others this is not the goal.

    I believe that one ought not have the privilege of college if one does not know how to think and to seek. (That last bit is personal, and possibly irrelevant to the direct discussion, though does relate to the ability of the student to engage, to chunk context, and to operate within a framework of application–and to seek these out should said student find these to be lacking.)

    I appreciate your thoughtful post. I like pondering with my tea.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Elisa. I’m glad the post provoked some deep thinking from you.

      I agree, of course, that a student’s self-motivation and will to engage has a lot to do with the quality and depth of her learning outcomes. A great learner can get a great education from reading a textbook. A substandard learner might get a substandard education from a full, immersive college experience. Granted.

      But what I’m arguing in this post is that, in acquiescing to corporations and their digital “innovations,” the U.S. higher education system has begun to reproduce inequalities of social class that capitalism has already produced elsewhere. If you can afford to attend a four-year liberal arts university, you will have access to small classes, extensive mentoring, and in-depth assessments of your work. If you can’t afford $60,000 per year tuition, you will be forced to make do with massive (sometimes online) courses, little mentoring, and almost no assessments of your work.

      This is an injustice. And it’s not enough simply to tell underprivileged students that, in order to keep up, they have to work harder, be more engaged, do more with less than their privileged counterparts.

      A sidenote: I don’t think that MOOCs are inherently less-than. I could imagine a MOOC in which students would be required to form small face-to-face communities through Skype, and would have access to an instructor who mentors them and evaluates their work. Of course, such a MOOC would need hundreds of professors to handle its thousands of students. And this kind of MOOC just doesn’t exist – so far.

      Thanks again, Elisa, for engaging!

  13. I believe there is an essential point that needs to be made: education is not about making workers, it is not about bottom lines, it never should have become subject to the imperatives (mostly dogmatic) that anything that has a value must be submitted to economics. Building brighter and a more engaged population cannot have a price tag on it. The issues are not about the types or formats of education: they are about the underlying philosophically naive and pernicious thinking that education is a service that must be charged for… New technologies should be about providing wider more public debate: however, if the vast majority of people have no idea about the rules to debate, to conflict management – education becomes a joke… degrees become progressively irrelevant… The University has an obligation to foster NEW research, NEW talent, and get it out there to the real world… These issues always seem to be blind-swiped by the trivial arguments about on-line education, economics and access to knowledge. If we address the underlying, real world issues about what education means to us – then the rest of the bickering is a silly distraction we entertain ourselves with… and the refrain goes “and the band played on…”

    1. Hi Kevin – This is a really important point. It seems to have become common sense to many people that higher education is, or should be, job training. Even our president (himself a sophisticated thinker and a sterling example of the kind of mind a liberal arts education can cultivate) seems to assume that the primary purpose of schools, elementary through post-secondary, is to produce “skilled workers” who are “competitive” in the “global marketplace.” This, as you suggest, is a grave misapprehension of what universities can do.

      But I would argue that the debate about online learning has a lot to do with these underlying philosophical issues. As currently practiced, American digital pedagogy presupposes that education entails the accumulation of easily assessed “competencies,” and that such competencies are purchasable commodities. In understanding the education mission this way, politicians and corporations have fundamentally departed from – even forgotten – the liberal arts model. As you put it, “Building brighter and a more engaged population cannot have a price tag on it.”

  14. The nature of knowledge is heritable and shared. Learned skills require routine practice. The apprehension of knowledge and dissemination of its elements require systematic practice. We don’t expect a lake to freeze overnight. Frost appears. The ice becomes thicker. The lake freezes. Useful education is a guided practice among peers. The only thing instantaneous is cultural mediocrity built on ignorance.

  15. “The end-game: lower instructional costs at public universities, fewer tenured professors, higher percentages of contingent faculty.”

    This is not the end game for we have achieved this already. My dissertation proposal is in process, having completed all academic work from the Univ. of Phoenix at a time in my life when I could not have done it traditionally. Now I am wondering if this grand effort can ever be fruitful at its end?

  16. Interesting post as well as the comments that follow. As someone who teaches a course in the history of higher education I would suggest that these tensions are not particularly new–who gets to go to college? for what purpose (or to what end) should a student be educated? And who gets to decide the value and purpose of a university? These debates have been swirling since the advent of the universities in the 12th century; they just get reframed every couple of decades. 🙂 The most recent manifestation seems to be the hullabaloo over the MOOCs. I find the constant negotiation of these tensions really interesting.

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