Seçil Paçaci Elitok has made different experiences of teaching in the US, Europe and the Middle East from the 2000s to the present day in times of COVID-19. In her article she describes her experiences and the transformations she could see in Eastern and Western higher-ed models:
Over the last decade, American higher education has changed enormously to fit the global complexities of our digital age and to meet the evolving needs of millennials. Many modifications have gone largely unnoticed since they have occurred gradually. However, the evolution of American higher education has left little room for instructors’ creativity and flexibility.
First, the syllabus has undergone major renovations. Second, the way instructors interact with students has altered, including the way we address accessibility as well as reciprocity. Third, the way instructors design their classes, create their syllabi, and share resources has taken a different route. Finally, teaching environments and classroom policies continue to transform in modern higher education modifying the way we address social issues.
This article provides an outside perspective on American higher education—an informed opinion based on my experience as someone who participated in the system, left, and then returned after a decade. The paper will discuss the aforementioned changes and examine both good and bad variations that have impacted higher educators and learners alike.
Why is my syllabus 15 pages long?
The last time I taught a course in the United States was in the late 2000s. My course syllabus was about three pages long, included basic information about the course, and a general content outline. At that time, syllabi were not something faculty spent a significant amount of time developing. After a decade, I am again instructing a course in the U.S. In the interim, the American syllabus has become re-prioritized into a critical facet of courses that demands the time and attention of faculty—time and attention that could be spent elsewhere.
As instructors, we used to perceive the syllabus as a tentative document which gave us the right to change it if necessary. Now, making changes is frowned upon and we are encouraged to provide the final version on the first day of class. This is partly related to fairness, rules, and the way millennials value these two. To the modern student, the syllabus is perceived as a binding contract that sets the rules; if you change it, students feel “cheated.” This translates to the corporate world governed by codes of conduct and ethics, an environment that awaits many graduates. The notions of “fairness” and “rules” also relate to the over-scheduled and distracted life of millennials, which makes decision-making processes between priorities increasingly difficult. The precision of syllabi makes this lifestyle seem less chaotic and more structured. Moreover, instructors are encouraged to prepare PowerPoint slides of the syllabus instead of passing it out or browsing through it on the first day of class. For example, Moore (2019) suggests making quizzes and designing interactive games, such as scavenger hunts, to ensure students read the syllabi. While some changes have been positive, increasing the importance of the syllabus has alienated instructors’ ability to improvise, leaving them little room for creativity and flexibility.
Office Hours versus Student Hours
In the 2000s, instructors provided office hours at our offices. Nowadays, instructors are encouraged to title them “student hours” and provide students with various avenues for interaction, namely by meeting outside of the office and beyond merely scheduled hours. We are also expected to meet our students virtually, via Skype for example. Furthermore, instructors often provide students with short biographies, and in some cases, even profile pictures. This is all very cohesive with the fast, online, and flexible lives of millennials however it places an undue burden on instructors. On the other hand, professors are not regarded as royalty anymore; fear has been replaced by respect. This evolution has made instructors more accessible and easier to communicate with, which positively aids in students’ overall learning.
Textbooks are a major component of courses and are directly linked to overall learning objectives. When I was teaching in the previous decade, the main textbook assigned for my courses was typically a thick hardcopy sold in a bookstore. Today, American classrooms not only use electronic versions of everything, but also expect instructors to provide multiple alternative resources for the course. It is strongly recommended that we explain why we chose each specific textbook.
In an age of information, and with this generation questioning everything, it makes sense; however, it is taking away from the learning process of students and hindering their ability of “learning to learn.”
Furthermore, flooding students with too many resources often has an undesired effect; by overwhelming them, they end up not reading anything. While having more resources available is certainly a positive shift, students’ underutilization of these resources is evident. Unfortunately, this change in higher education has led to positive and negative outcomes, which will require further investigation.
In the old days, in addition to the textbook, every course had unique objectives and learning outcomes. These depended on the content as well as the professor. Recently, courses are clustered under certain groupings and professors are given “cookie cutter” learning outcomes that must be included in their syllabi. From the perspective of the university, it is reasonable to align goals, but this policy leaves little room for creativity and improvisation among professors. Again, while the standardization of learning outcomes can be viewed as a positive change overall, it places limitations on professors’ autonomy and unilateral decision making within their classrooms.
Classroom policies have also changed in positive and negative ways.
For example, one positive change is the acceptance of the LGBTQ community. In the late 2000s, LGBTQ clubs were at the crawling stage. Today, in my syllabus I am required to mention that students should notify me if they do not identify with their registered names, or if they use different pronouns. I wish this policy was globally mandatory in the 1990s; many of my peers suffered during college due to their sexual orientation and identities.
Furthermore, non-Christian religious observances were fairly unknown in the past and have been a relatively new addition to American higher education. Policies have been expanded, requiring me to observe students’ religious holidays and ensure there are no conflicts with academic requirements. Recognizing the importance of diversity is certainly a step in the right direction, and these have been positive changes.
When I began teaching, universities did not have emergency plans for active shooters. In today’s higher education environment, I am expected to register my cell phone to the campus police and keep it accessible during my class hours in case of so-called “stranger danger.” For example, the protocol at the University of Utah states “All course syllabi at the University of Utah will be required to include a safety message on how to report suspicious activity and contact campus police following two murders on campus” (Baur-Wolf, 2019). Most of the instructors also lock the doors in case of an emergency. Although I feel like campuses have become more diverse and inclusive, they have also become less safe overall. Active shooter and other safety policies plant a seed in our subconscious that our classrooms are not secure.
Gallimore, Braun, and McLaughlin (2019) argue that faculty members need to get more involved in helping students with mental health challenges. In some cases, potential physical safety risks have caused psychological issues within the campus community, launching faculty into new roles as perceived counselors. Although it is good that professors have become more attuned to students’ psychological needs, it suggests an ethical dilemma, calling into question what is appropriate and what peripheral responsibilities should now accompany the role of professor.
It is normal that higher education has not remained static, but rather has evolved to accommodate our ever-changing society. Some of the changes we are witnessing are positive outcomes of rights gained by marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ students and religious/ethnic minorities. These changes make us hopeful for a better future.
However, some changes, such as the response to gun violence, are signs of sad realities of this era. Others have largely resulted from a digital age that reduces the attention span of students and forces instructors to accommodate policies that regress overall learning.
The day I reviewed my syllabus and realized it had become a 15-page binding contract was the day I realized how much has changed in American higher education over the past two decades. The importance given to syllabi is among various signs of the transformations on American campuses where each person walking the hallway is looking down at a screen. I teach in a high-tech classroom where most freedoms and rights are protected and secure, although this progress could be rendered meaningless if I fall prey to an active shooter.
Ultimately, what I arrived at is this: although higher education has made great strides to improve, some of these actions can be perceived as overcorrections, and others are negated by the introduction of new risks.
Our newest modern risk, COVID-19, has brought challenges not only to higher education in America, but also to education in general all around the world. We abruptly moved to virtual instruction, becoming online teachers and learners overnight to accommodate social distancing measures. This pandemic has also brought opportunities for us to rethink the way we teach and learn, revise our teaching philosophies and classroom policies, and redesign our future courses based on emerging needs. The post-pandemic period will require both faculty and students to apply hybrid methods during this process of normalization.
The future of American higher education is partly based on the way it addresses the aforementioned issues and continues to move forward. COVID-19 will likely fundamentally alter this direction. Some of the good and bad variations that are elaborated on in this paper may lead us to a hybrid system where we combine the traditional role of higher education with the modern needs of our age, without ignoring the importance of physical risks and related health issues. Finding a balance between the inevitable changes brought by the 21st century and the long-established notions of higher education will certainly be a long road ahead.
Moore, C. (2019, January 11). Seven ways to make your syllabus more relevant. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/seven-ways-to-make-your-syllabus-more-relevant/
About the author:
Seçil Paçaci Elitok is researching international migration, specifically the migration from and to Turkey, as well es high-skilled migration, return migration and remittances. She is currently working as a visiting adjunct professor at the Center for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (CERES) at Michigan State University.
Published on February 9, 2022.