Efficiently Inefficient

Back in the old days when higher education was inefficient and less expensive, we scheduled classes in late October, students registered in November, and faculty turned in book orders, hopefully, some time before the first day of class. Eager young scholars showed up to class on the first day nervous about the workload and completely unaware what books they might, or might not, need for any given class. Sure, a few eager beavers and over-achievers had already been to the bookstore but they knew not to take the shrink wrap off those shiny new books in case the absent-minded professor changed his mind over the break.

Working in the Registrar’s Office and at the campus bookstore was its own version of hell the first two weeks of class as hordes of students descended on the poor, understaffed workers, and took whatever frustrations they couldn’t express in class out on the poor soul flipping through a course guide or that student assistant working the cash register.

The class can’t be full! I need it to graduate, they demanded.

I’ll have the money tomorrow. Can’t you hold my spot until then, they begged.

What do you mean, they yelled, you don’t have any more books with all the important lines highlighted!

Fortunately, now that universities are efficient but more expensive, we schedule classes in early October, register students about two weeks later, and faculty turn in book orders sometime in between.

Because, of course, now that all these things are automated and more efficient we have to do them sooner because they go faster.

Ostensibly, of course, these efficiencies are supposed to help students make “informed” choices and give them opportunities to  graduate quicker. Universities can better anticipate how many credit hours students will enroll in the next semester, helping them plan for faculty teaching loads and budgets.

Additionally, bookstores can better determine the value of buying back used books and pre-order texts, theoretically lowering prices for students. Such a system would also allow students to order books from Amazon or other off-site stores so they can have the books on day 1 and be ready to learn. They can shop for the best prices.

I feel comfortable reporting that books aren’t less expensive and students aren’t showing up with chapter 1 read on the first day of class.

You might have also noticed that being able to anticipate enrollment hasn’t exactly solved the rising tuition problem or improved graduation rates.

We’re definitely more efficient, though.

In fact, after today (only two or three weeks after the deadline), the students registering for my spring senior level Studies in the American Novel class can pre-order the novels and read them during the last half of this semester.

Yeah, right. Me, too.

While I realize that popular culture imagines college professors who are lazily coasting through the day, here in the real world my colleagues are working 55-70 hours a week teaching the current students they meet 2 or 3 times a week, reading chapters, grading papers, advising students, attending meetings, and finding time for scholarship and research. We are, simply put, focused on the students we have now and not really worried about the ones we might have next semester.

Earlier today, in fact, I needed to spend my morning preparing for next week, reading ahead of my students and wondering how I will keep the D students motivated and the A students interested.

Instead, I was picking novels for a class that doesn’t start until mid-January because for some reason the bookstore needs over 2 months to order books, even though I’ve given them the title, author, publisher, and ISBN number. I’m pretty sure my son could order those books before I finish typing this sentence.

What happens, though, as we become efficiently inefficient is that we are left with less and less time to explore different approaches to teaching our courses. Because I’m ordering books less than halfway through a semester, I can’t know if the books I’m using are worth trying again.

As importantly, I can’t know if the students find the books useful because our course evaluation happens at the end of the semester when I submit my grades.

For the novels course, a class I haven’t taught in a while, I need time to go back through the memory rolodex and ask how 2007 went. What other novels, I might ask, should we read? How, I might wonder, did Craig Thompson’s Blankets work as an example of changing novelistic forms? Would Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (yes, I think it’s more novel than short story collection) work better to close the semester or should I take a chance on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (a novel I plan on reading over the holiday break)? Do I really want to read The Blithedale Romance again? Will requiring Moby Dick open me up to accusations of cruel and unusual punishment?

Good questions all, but ones that are difficult to answer in the midst of grading 52 first year essays, completing the state mandated Sexual Harassment Training we have to complete every two years, and preparing my next lecture on audience analysis and passive voice.

Gosh, it’s a real shame we don’t  have an automated system that would help us be more efficient and give me time to finish this semester before I plan the next one.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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