Teaching Thursday: Gyrocopter Professors

This past week, Steve Conn penned a column over at the Chronicle of Higher Education site the describes the rise of the “helicopter teacher”. This is a nice phrase, and all, but it sounds cooler if you call them the gyrocopter professor. To Conn this term describes the rise of a group of faculty members who feel compelled to endlessly explain every aspect of their course to students and to hold their hand as they achieve each increasingly level of proficiency. Conn argues that these tendencies have emerged at the intersection of a number of trends in our education system: our growing concern for student self-esteem as well as our reluctance to allow students to fail; limited face-to-face interaction with our students, and an increasing dependence on digital mediation to make up for it; and, no list of ills would be complete without No Child Left Behind. The result is that students expect more and more handholding, more and more detailed explanations for even the most simple assignments, and more and more explicit instructions on how to engage material.

Having just read a series of course reviews of my Fall 2013 Byzantine History class, I found myself immediately in sympathy with Conn’s observations. The most consistent critiques of this course was that I didn’t use something called “The Powerpoint” and I did not circulate questions with my weekly primary source readings so students were not sure what the point of the readings were. (Of course, they also complained that they wanted “more culture” somehow overlooking the fact that the primary source readings were one of the main ways we explored the contours of Byzantine culture.) The requests that my students made, of course, weren’t unreasonable and are more or less consistent with their experience in many other classes. I still found the comments disheartening. I don’t use The Powerpoint because I want students to pay attention to what I’m saying during my lectures rather than slavishly copying down notes from a Powerpoint slide. I don’t circulate study questions before they read the primary sources because students tend to become mesmerized by these questions and find it difficult to think beyond them during our discussions. I hope, perhaps naively, that students will be curious enough about my lectures and the readings to find their own ways through the material, and I design my classes to reward unique and unexpected engagements with the content.

I feel like I can add three observations to Conn’s comments.

First, I suspect that the rise of the gyrocopter professor is also tied to the rise of “audit culture” (also known as the assessocracy). The insistence from both other faculty members and the administration that every cognitive move in the class be assessable and evaluated in relation to a strictly articulated set of course goals. For many administrators, this relates directly to accountability. Faculty have to be accountable for what they are teaching and the outcomes have to be trackable. As a result, we simplify the learning process into easily assessed goals (e.g. “Ability to read and know the meanings of really big words” or “Ability to clearly articulate a thesis statement”). These goals are then articulated in the syllabus and invoked whenever a task associated with these learning goals happens in class or on an assignment. This transparency of learning objectives is commendable to many, but our students will often see these goals as the ONLY objective of the course. As a result (and using a great phrase bandied about on the Twittersphere), students drift into becoming “incurious grade drones” especially as the pressures of the semester mount.

The other aspect of the gyrocopter professor is the slow and steady adaptation of the humanities to an industrial mode of learning. In craft practice, the master is deeply involved in all aspects of production from the arrival of raw materials to the final product. In industrial practice, the creation of the final product is broken into smaller and smaller tasks and each task receives detailed attention to improve efficiency. From the late 19th century, the American university system has seen the rising influence of industrial models for learning. Complex topics such as “ethical behavior,” “the past,” or “literature” are broken down into smaller and small tasks over a more and more structured curriculum. Each learning task becomes the subject of audit culture to improve efficiency.

Finally, one observation that got lost in all of this is that it is really difficult to keep your students engaged in classes that don’t lay out every expectation in great detail. Faculty and students have to share a significant amount of trust for learning in an unstructured way to take place over the course of the semester. Building that trust is a difficult, time consuming, and humbling task. For the average faculty member pressured by research and service obligations, it is hard to find the time and energy to build these bonds of trust. Students, of course, are in the same boat. Pressures of work, life, and other classes make it hard for them to slow down and get to understand the mutual expectations required for learning. In the place of this painful and protracted process of trust building, we produce little rubrics and state learning goals and lead our students by the hand through the wilds of learning hoping that somewhere along the line they move beyond being “incurious grade drones,” and we can end our daily gyrocopter flights.   

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