The Disconnected College Curriculum and "Spider Ed": Guest Post by "Professor X"

Professor X has more than 20 years of teaching experience at the University of Oregon and has taught more than 12,000 undergraduates in a variety of science classes, including about 16 separate classes in the Honors College.  In addition, Professor X is noted for teaching various interdisciplinary courses on the science/policy/culture/society interface and is one of national pioneers in Internet Based education (starting this in 1993) and has taught thousands of students in various online classes.

Note from Katie: In addition to this resume, Professor X was also invited to guest post on my blog because he's been a friend and mentor of mine for several years, since I first had the audacity to share my humanities-leaning opinions in one of his science classes. He taught me a considerable amount about how to approach and digest complex concepts, and also when to recognize BS. As a mentor, he has offered me sound and cynical advice, some of which I've actually listened to. For more information and critique of the education system, check out his previous posts "The Transition from High School to College.

In 2009, an important but highly overlooked book was published titled “Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More”.  This book clearly outlines the need for the College Curriculum to evolve and to be more responsive to the manner in which the rest of the world is changing (and changing rapidly now).  To date, this book, and the subsequent book by the author, Derek Bok – a flamboyant and polarizing personality; former president of Harvard and former drinking buddy of Professor X ) – titled Higher Education in America, while illuminating the nature of the curriculum disconnect, continue to be largely ignored by University administrations remaining relegated to merely a discussion item in curriculum reform workshops.

Here is a relevant passage from Bok's Our Underachieving Colleges

If colleges [continue to] miseducate their students, the nation will eventually suffer the consequences. If they can do a better job of helping their students communicate with greater precision and style, think more clearly, analyze more rigorously, become more ethically discerning, be more knowledgeable and active in civic affairs, society will be much the better for it.

Bok’s main argument is that colleges are no longer producing responsible citizens of the world.  This is a damning testament, since the world, or at least America, is clearly evolving toward entitled lifestyles where people are informed by their own filters and become disconnected from any real world.   Why is the college experience enabling students to remain on this path?

Part of the reason, of course, as that Institutions evolve glacially (even with accelerated global warming).  However, the real reason is the legacy foundation of the higher-ED curriculum experience; best depicted here by our new friend Spider-ED. 

Spider Ed

Now to "dissect" the spider, starting from the upper left:

  • Legs 1 and 2 are what you actually do in college to get a degree in something. You are to accumulate 180 credits primarily based on placing your butt in a seat in some lecture hall. Coursework-based credits completely dominate over research, internship or experiential learning credits, and that needs to CHANGE.
  • Legs 3 and 4 represent the mechanism that delivers those credits to you.  In many classes your are merely one of the sardines in the can, immobilized in fixed, uncomfortable seats in some dusty lecture hall where some even dustier professor believes that they are actually engaging and teaching you with there usually not very brilliant lecture.   In the case of fulfilling the general education requirements, Spider ED demands that you experience introduction to content via the mass lecture (sardine) approach.  So you can look forward to Physics 101, Biology 101, Poetry 101, Political Science 101 and the like. Spider ED has known for centuries that no one is actually educated via the sardine mass lecture approach, it just the cheapest (administrators like to say efficient) way to deliver a Gen ED curriculum. 
  • Legs 5, 6, 7 and 8 reflect the Academic Silo approach to college education.  These legs are linked via the following example:  1) you go to the physics building, 2) you take the same course that was taught 100 years ago, 3) its taught by a single professor, a single course of knowledge, a single person to please, a single God (this is why faculty are generally whacked out), a single viewpoint, a single bias, 4) each student is treated as an isolated learner with emphasis on competition for grades and not on collaborative problem solving and contributions to team projects.

To be sure, Spider ED was a successful structure throughout most of the post WW2 period in a world that itself was largely being shaped by an engineering approach.  However, for the last 10 years, Spider ED has not been relevant and employers are clearly seeing college graduates with significantly inferior skill set.   Spider ED needs to dissolve away, preferably all at once, but one leg at a time would be acceptable.   In a work world that now emphasizes problem solving, collaboration and dealing with multiple viewpoints/data, points 3 and 4 above (legs 5 and 6) are particularly unhelpful to current students. 

At the most basic level is skill deficiency. The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed more than 200 employers about their top 10 priorities in new hires.  Overwhelmingly, they want candidates who are team players (e.g. collaboration), problem solvers (e.g. independent thinks) and can plan, organize and prioritize their work.  Spider ED clearly does not develop this skill set in the course of navigating through its legs to get a degree. 

These issues, especially the issue of poor collaborative skills, come to light in any survey of employers, such as the recent Talent Shortage Surveybut most importantly are candidly revealed in the August 2013 New York Times interview with the head of Goggle’s hiring division.  The headline from that interview is basically “Why Google No longer Hires Top College Graduates

 The google interview is particularly important and for Professor X, it was personally gratifying as it accidentally served to legitimize his own teaching strategies.   This interview centered on two foundational themes:

  • Intellectual Arrogance (or equivalently, the lack of  intellectual humility)
  • Emergent Leadership

The combination of these two themes produces the main failure point in the eyes of Google:  College graduates lack adaptive learning and collaborative problem solving skills.  These two areas have been the foundation for Professor X’s teaching strategy for the last 10-15 years yet a) students revolt instead of embracing this approach and b) student’s often complain that I am not doing my job as a Professor by continually to force students to deal with ambiguity instead of just telling  them the “Truth”.  This is exactly why Spider ED is such a tenacious beast; university administrators don’t see the need for change (even if it is one leg at a time), students in general are not receptive to experiments involving the spider legs, and faculty certainly get no reward for taking on Spider ED – yet the real world of employers would like nothing better than to severe the head of the Spider ED.

As college itself is starting to become a market commodity, eventually Spider ED will evolve and/or new institutions will spring up to correct the deficiencies of Spider ED.  This is already starting to happen.  For the current college student, you would be well served to develop resiliency and collaborative problem solving skills.  You would be well served to deal with ambiguity and to better understand what can and cannot be supported by data.  But most of all, you would be best served by ceasing to act as passive sheeple , absorbing only the single professor view of the problem.  It’s a large and complex world out there – discover it, embrace it, understand its uncertainties and learn how to navigate through it.  Indeed, learn how to challenge the professorial single viewpoint.

Once upon a time, someone called this integrative skill set by the buzz word “critical thinking”.  By in large, Spider ED has simply sat and squashed critical thinking for the sake of production efficiency**.

(**No one in higher ed will actually believe this last sentence.)

So what do you do about this? 

Okay, so you are a reader of this blog and therefore likely a college student on this trajectory that results in a content degree together with large debt, unmarketable skill set and a passively absorbed via of the world.  What can you do to change this outcome for yourself? The system will not do it on your behalf, it is there to process you first and educate you second.  The system is certainly not there to respond to the real world – after-all, college is not a vocational school, it’s the place here you go for critical thinking – and please- if you’re a college administrator reading this blog just chant the critical thinking mantra over and over again, perhaps you will even come to believe it.

Following is Professor X’s action list of 5 items that college students should engage with to avoid the processed outcome and to increase their own opportunity space:

  1. Don’t be a member of the sheeple.  Exercise some initiative in class.  Use Google as a scholarly instrument to find resources and other opinions relevant to the current topic in class.  Stop absorbing one point of view to spit it back on a poorly constructed midterm.  Worry less about making the professor “happy and concentrate a lot more on becoming an independent thinker.
  2.  Spend less time profiling yourself in social media and spend more time on thinking about the kind of positive impact you want to make in the world.  You, not your profile, but you, your real self. 
  3. Aggressively seek out internships and experiential learning opportunities – these will help set you in a real world context, far better than putting your ass in a sardine can.
  4. Learn to be a self-starter.  Learn how to use the amazing array of open source software tools that now exist to organize and visually represent data of all kinds.   One example, go to or and learn how to use some of those libraries.  Include graphics in your term papers or class projects.   Publishing and communicating in the digital age is a lot more than just using words and the Queen’s English.
  5.  Most important – stop being paralyzed by the fear of failure.  Learn to be resilient because resiliency instills confidence and confidence is what one needs to successfully navigate in an uncertain and changing world.

Spider ED needs you to kick it and kick it hard.  College should be where you find yourself, find your passion and mold your knowledge to serve that passion.  Steps 1 through 5 above represent a concrete way of achieving this and, who knows, in the end, Google might just hire you.

Please share your thoughts and commentary on this piece--debate and critical feedback is valuable!