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3 F i r s t- Y e a r C o m p o s i t i o n C o u r s e R e d e s i g n s DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c003 Pedagogical Innovation or Solution to the “Cost Disease”?1 Emily J. Isaacs In “Laptop U,” Nathan Heller (2013) asserts that higher education’s move toward MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has been driven by a labor efficiency problem. Productivity has increased in many fields—cars are made with lower labor costs today than in the 1950s, for example. For economists William Baumol and William Bowen, the problem with higher education is that teaching has become no more efficient. It still takes the same amount of professors to teach the same amount of students, an observation that seems imminently reasonable to those of us who teach. However, Bowen, the former president of Princeton, believes that the “cost disease . . . help[s] explain why the price of education is on a rocket course, with no leveling in sight” (Heller 2013, 84). Indeed, the ever-increasing cost of higher education alarms us all, though the decision to point the primary finger at labor costs—rather than at, say, declining public dollars (Weerts and Ronca 2006, 2012), or rising expenses for non-academic campus entities and showcase projects as part of an effort to recruit students—is worth much more discussion. This “problem” view runs neatly into a hubris that exists among some of America’s elite college professors: the conviction that their intellects are so great that having access to their teaching—even as one of 10,000—is worth more than instruction provided by apparently hum-drum professors at any of the 4,300 non-elite US four-year institutions that offer accredited BA degrees. Echoing the philosophy faculty at San Jose State who publicly rejected Harvard’s Professor Michael Sandel’s MOOC for their students (“An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel from the Philosophy Department at San Jose State U” 2013), MOOC critic Geoff Shullenberger (2013) aptly summarizes the problem with the elite mindset: “Perhaps within the Harvard or Stanford orbit, allowing the 52   E mily J. Isaacs educationally underprivileged to watch videos of people like you seems like a great gift. But outside of that orbit, there is growing fear that monetized , creditized MOOCs will convert state and community colleges into a homogenized, intellectually impoverished simulacrum of the elite university world, in which courses consist of streaming online videos of celebrity professors combined with a robotic regime of instantly-graded multiple choice tests and software-evaluated essays.” MOOCs are like Freire’s banking approach to education on steroids. Although MOOCs are getting the attention and, from most scholars, the critique, in this chapter, prompted by my own campus experience, I am exploring first-year composition course redesign efforts, which have emerged alongside MOOCs in this age of austerity. As a movement, Course Redesign may ultimately be a bigger and longer-lasting movement than the MOOC movement, and because it’s quieter, frequently locally grown and not primarily organized by for-profit entities (like MOOCs’ Coursera and Udacity), there is reason to hope that financial pressures will be contained, more measured, and less likely to take precedence over what should be bottom-line imperatives for high-quality instruction and rigorous assessment of teaching methodologies. Yet the following investigation of four course redesigns in first-year composition sponsored by Carol Twigg’s non-profit National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) tempers my hopes and suggests caution is warranted . From this review it seems clear to me that a focus on “the cost disease” has resulted in what I want to call push assessing (think: push polling): a reinvigorated focus on grammar and other lower-order concerns , and a procedural, lowest common denominator interpretation of writing as a process. Course Redesign couples two perennial efforts, one that has inspired our best work and one that has inspired our worst. First, there is the best work—our collective efforts in pedagogical reimagining, inspired by technological possibilities, theoretical advancement, or research (think of Linda Flower’s [1994, 2008] pedagogically inspiring work). Second, there is the work of cost-saving, which is perhaps most forcefully and disturbingly represented by ever-rising reliance on adjunct faculty.2 Nonetheless, Course Redesign is a term that Twigg has coined in reference to an approach that uses “technology to achieve cost savings as well as quality enhancements . . . Redesign projects...


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