Contact Hours: Some Follow-Up Thoughts

So, the past week has featured a great deal of discussion amongst my colleagues and I about the contact hours issue. That discussion has been spurred on by not just by the Mail on Sunday article about York last week but also subsequent coverage of that story in student newspapers and opinion pieces in other national newspapers (including this idiotic piece in the Guardian). That discussion has made a number of issues a little clearer for me. Probably the most important of those issues is trust: more specifically that the particular model of education that I work with and in places a significant amount of trust in students to do things that they need to in order to get what they’re supposed to out of higher education. It’s no coincidence that the institutions that offer the highest contact hours in the arts and humanities are ones that are lower in the university league tables than the ones that offer fewer contact hours. This isn’t said explicitly very often but the bottom line is that those institutions often have a high number of contact hours because (a) they actually have to teach their students in a way that’s like A-Levels or GCSEs and (b) the academics doing the teaching don’t really trust enough of their students to turn up to sessions prepared. The high contact hours are a way of supervising learning.

Thinking about that issue has also highlighted how stupid the strict identification of contact hours with fees is. It’s a point I make a lot but it’s true: students don’t get or experience contact hours in an open field with no books. There is a more subtle point here that I don’t think students at institutions like York quite appreciate. The money from fees helps produce the range of courses (geographic and chronological) that they get to choose from. For instance, first-year students in my department get to choose from around 20 courses that will run during the spring term of their second year. Those courses can only run because York has invested not only in hiring staff, including historians of China, Japan, and India but also the resources that are required for students to study those subjects. This doesn’t and won’t happen any time soon at other universities, particularly those lower down the league tables, because they simply don’t have the resources to do it. They could hire a historian of China but there’d be no point because they wouldn’t have the money to buy all the books they need to if that person is going to do their job effectively.

None of this is an endorsement of league tables or a slight on the institutions I’ve been referring to. If anything it’s a set of observations that supposed to underline the massive inequalities that exist in higher education. One of the things that’s obvious from the debate about contact hours is that it’s convenient for some people to present the situation as one in which all institutions are on a level playing field and differences in contact hours are indicative of the extent to which groups of academics are trying to pull a fast one. That point always comes across in the comparison between the arts and the humanities and the sciences. As we all know, science students get a billion contact hours per week compared to the apparently tiny number arts and humanities students get. However, science students get lots of hours in the lab each week where they are heavily supervised (and not by senior academics) in technical and basic aspects of scientific practice.

All of that got me thinking: how could arts and humanities departments replicate the science approach in a way that would keep most of the learning processes they expect students to engage with and increase contact hours? As far as I can see, we’d have to drop the trust we currently place in students. What we’d do is hire a room in the library for each course. The time we’d hire that room for would be proportionate to the number of hours reading we require students to do for the seminar that week (something that’s roughly determined by the length of the seminar, the stage of the degree, and the weighting of the module). We’d then tell students that they’d have to turn up to that room at set times, say 9-5 one day then 9-2 the next. When they were in the room the students would undertake supervised reading: they’d sit at a desk and do the reading they’d need to do for the seminar with an academic in the same room, just in case anything out of the ordinary happened. That, as far as I can see, would be the arts and humanities version of lab time. What do you think? Would the students go for it?


3 Responses to “Contact Hours: Some Follow-Up Thoughts”

  1. 1 Liz Morrish May 5, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    My guess is they would go for it, especially if their attendance affected their grade in any way. They would probably be grateful, but forget expecting them at 9am. They could be supervised by grad students -on hand to answer questions, especially since there would be no actual librarians around. And there would be an end to squirreling away key texts as well.

  2. 2 Paddy May 16, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Agree with the broad thrust of what you are saying – it’s a shame students are so easily falling into a consumer mindset. I would say though that seminar groups should be smaller. Ten rather than twenty people. I imagine there’s not the money for it but the problem should be acknowledged.

    • 3 chrisrenwick May 17, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      Good point but you’re right about the economics of it. Typically, post-92 universities, which offer high contact hours, do so not just through lectures but also seminars with c.30 students in them (which they do in the knowledge that large numbers won’t turn up — a bit like libraries guessing space needed for books based on assumptions about how many will be in loan at any moment in time). At the other end of the scale, the Oxbridge tutorial model (1-2 students) is only sustainable because they have huge ancient endowments. Oxford and Cambridge lose huge amounts of money per student because if the system. They can only do it because of that financial inheritance.

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