Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part commentary considering how college classes are designed and offered — and the teacher’s role — beginning with retired psychologist and former Baker College instructor James Woolcock’s rumination on why he left teaching at the Flint campus. A complementary second perspective is offered by retired teacher and EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford, found here.
Background: Baker-Flint is one of 11 Baker College campuses throughout Michigan. According to its profile on collegedata.com, the private not-for-profit institution enrolls 24,000 students statewide, 68 percent of them women, 77 percent white and 18 percent black, and offers 100 programs via on-campus, online and video delivery at the undergraduate and graduate level. According to the profile, 100 percent of 8,862 applicants in a recent year were accepted; that same site states 97 percent of grads were offered full-time employment within six months. Tuition and fees are listed as $11,250. Baker is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
In praise of “Grandma’s homemade soup”
by James Woolcock
Do you remember Grandma’s homemade soup? It was tasty, full of what was actually good for you, and was even better the next day and the day after. Then, you grew up to your busy life in the rat race, settling for Campbell’s soup. It was not all that tasty, was filled with stuff not very good for you, and was never better the next day or the day after.
Does this analogy apply to college? Can a college course be like Grandma’s homemade soup? You know, that course taught by “old-so-and-so,” with his/her funny anecdotes, course material that was good for you, and “wears well” in the time after the course is completed?
Likewise, can a college course be like Campbell’s soup? You know, every can tastes the same, filled with the same material not very good for you, and is never better the next day.
I think this analogy is fitting, at least here in Flint. Baker College has gone all-in on the Campbell soup model, college-in-a-can.
Here’s how it works. You enroll in a four-credit course (costing you in the area of $200/credit hour), likely taught by a part-time instructor. The instructor then “inherits” a course structure with the textbook selected by college administration, a syllabus pre-set, and 70 to 75 percent of the course assignments also pre-set. The instructor, mind you, is privileged to then interject 25-30 percent of his/her “ingredients.” Never mind if the instructor works in that particular field and can bring the full weight of his/her career into the classroom. Baker has already done that!
You know this model, don’t you? You’ve added pieces of chicken to your woeful Campbell’s chicken soup. You can’t get the sodium out, but by golly you try your best to enhance its mediocrity.
This is why I am now fully retired. My story is a typical one for a Baker College instructor. I worked in the field of psychology for 32 years, was blessed to retire in my 50s, and wished to share my experience with students. I was attracted to the career-emphasis at Baker College and got in during their enrollment boom after the 2008 economic depression. Lucky.
Great colleagues and a supportive administration that encouraged a course design of my own “ingredients’ also surrounded me. They even had faculty guides for each course that offered ideas and suggestions. When taking on a new course, I borrowed heavily from those faculty guides, later tweaking and seeking improvements where I saw fit. I repeat, where I saw fit.
All of that changed in Baker’s “run up” to their semester conversion in 2017. They decided that the Grandma’s homemade soup in Port Huron, for example, needed to be the same as the Grandma’s homemade soup in Flint. Thus was born college-in-a-can.
All of this rolled out to instructors in Spring 2017 with a dog-and-pony show where the most common phrase from the instructional effectiveness specialist was “you can’t delete”. It took me awhile to fully grasp what was happening. All of the courses would now have to have 1000 points. Why? We were told it was because students would better grasp percentages, based upon 1000 points. Yes, you heard that right. You know, future nurses, occupational therapists, and accountants needed help with third-grade arithmetic. Ouch!
Then, we were told that the syllabus for each course would be pre-set, but we were free to add additional assignments. The previous model had a syllabus boiler plate of college policies to which we added our own course design, schedule, assignments, etc.
The punch to the gut was the revelation that each course would have pre-set assignments of approximately 700 points, out of the 1000 already mentioned. Instructors were expected to add their own 300 points, but could not delete any of the pre-set assignments.
The “you can’t delete” mantra carried the day from there.
I was still determined to “beat these plowshares into swords,” so I took a look-and-see attitude. After all, I wasn’t teaching again until Fall semester, two courses I had taught for many years. Both courses, by the way, I had designed, tweaked, and improved based on student feedback and my own judgments.
These two courses and their “pre-sets” rolled out in June for my perusal. I was horrified. The assignments constituted out of class, busy-work more commonly found in online curriculums. But, for F2F (Baker-speak for real classroom instruction, face-to-face), the students also had to meet their classroom responsibilities, not the least of which is to show up enough to keep the federal school loan money flowing.
Suffice it to say that I received no assurances of any return to the academic freedom I’d enjoyed. So, my request for such turned into a resignation.
I miss the students but, more than that, I am dismayed that they will miss Grandma’s homemade soup.
James Woolcock taught at Baker College-Flint from 2010-2017, after working for 32 years as a behavioral clinician and administrator across four agencies. He retired from Genesee County Community Mental Health in 2009 as the Senior Director of Clinical Services. He has a master’s degree in psychology from Drake University, starting his professional career in the State of Iowa in the late 1970s. He is married to Robyn (41 years), has two sons, Paul (Dana) and Andrew, and two grandchildren, John and Emily.
Editor’s Note: After this commentary was submitted, East Village Magazine approached management at Baker College three separate times requesting a response, but none of the emails were acknowledged or answered. We would of course welcome a response any time. In an attempt to get at least a second perspective, we invited our education writer, Harold C. Ford, retired from 40 years as a teacher and administrator, to comment. See his thoughts here.