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Nespor - lBfiFaaiSr Ch—rrlculumStudies v.22 no.3...

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Unformatted text preview: lBfiFaaiSr Ch—rrlculumStudies_ v.22 no.3 pp.217—232 @1990 Taylor 82; Francis Curriculum and Conversions of Capital inthe Acquisition of Disciplinary Knowledge . NOTICE: THIS’MATERIAL MAY JAN NESPOR BEPROTECTEDBYCOPYRIGHTLAW Bourdieu (1986) suggests that students’ social skills and cultural orientations are forms of ’capital’ that can be converted into other forms of capital, such as high school of college performance or educational credentials. The argument developed in this paper is that within educational institu— tions curricular structures create pressures and constraints on such conversions of capital, in particular, on conversions of social capital into academic capital. The focus will be two under- graduate programmes—physics and management-mat a major research university in the US. I examine the interplay of students’ academic and social experiences in the two programmes and show how the curricular structures create opportunities and pressures ,for particular kinds of social relations that, in turn, influence how students perform the academic tasks embedded in the curricula. - In this analysis the term ’curricular structure’ refers to the network organization of pedagogical contexts within disciplines. lintroduce this term as a partial corrective to the practice of conceptu- alizing curricula as school—sanctioned repositories of knowledge—textbooks, examinations, and classroom materials—or as enacted loiowledge—mthe knowledge accepted as legitimate in class- room interaction {e.g., Anyon 1981, Keddie 19?1, cf. Whitty 1985). The analytical focus of such frameworks is curriculum as ’textualiz‘e"? knowledge that can be ‘deconstructed’, critiqued in terms of the information it includes and excludes, examined for the implicit messages carried by a rhetorical form, or analysed in terms of the ways it values different conceptions of knowledge and its uses. But such analytic accomplishments are achieved at the price of an implicit endorsement of the basic assumption underlying existing curricula: the idea that learning takes place through students’ encounters with knowledge in particular classrooms; that subject matter is learned, or not learned, or learned in particular ways, as the result of what happens in discrete classroom settings. What is ignored are the organizational structures of curricula, the patterning of students’ academic careers through these structures, and the cumulative growth of students' knowledge over the course of their academic careers (see Nespor 1986, 1987). 7 An alternative conception of curricula begins with the premise that student learning takes place over long periods of time (months, years) as students move through systems of courses and contexts. From this perspective, academic learning would be a function of students’ academic careers through curricula, and these curricula would be viewed as sequences of organizational contexts distributed over time. These contexts—courses, for the most part—would be said to consist of sets of ‘activities’ or ’tasks’ analysable into four basic components: ’goals’, objects or ’resources’ that. can be used to achieve those goals, ‘operations’ or actions that can be used to transform resources to achieve goals, and ’constraints’ on permissible lines of action for achieving 504 Learning from Participants’ Experiences 505 goals (see Doyle 1983, Nespor 1986). In particular tasks, or in particular courses, students may define task components in ways quite different than their teachers expect, but these task defini- tions are not idiosyncratic, nor do they merely ’reflect’ differences among students. Rather, students’s ways of defining tasks are products of their cumulative experiences in curricula (Nespor 1987), and, at least in curricula with the kinds of structures discussed here, task definitions are power- fully influenced, indeed are created, by means of ‘conversions' of students’ social and cultural ’capital’ onto ’acaclemic capital’. It is this process that I shall try to describe. The first part of the study describes the structures of the undergraduate physics and manage— ment curricula at the university in which this study was conducted. The second part analyses the kinds of social practices students in the two fields develop to negotiate the demands of the curricula. The research reported here comes from a field study of four undergraduate majors (physics, management, sociology, and secondary science education) that differed markedly in curricular structure (see Nespor 1988). I need to note that only physics and management pos— sessed the kind of curricula ‘tightness’ (defined below) that seemed to produce conversion processes of the kind described here. - The fieldwork was conducted at a large, state-supported research university during the 1986- 8? academic year and consisted of 116 interviews with students, faculty, and administrators; over 100 observations of class sessions; the collection and analysis of course syllabi, catalogues, text— books, and students’ class—notes; analyses of 225 transcripts of recent graduates in the fields; and ethnographic observations and interviews with students outside the classroom. in the following analysis I rely most heavily on college catalogues for the discussion of curricular structure, on interviews with seniors in physics and management for discussion of how students experienced the curricula (14% and 12%, of the seniors [fourth year students] in the two majors were inter- viewed), and on course syllabi, classroom observations, and interviews with faculty for the comments about the task structures in the courses of the curriculum. Curricular Structure The curricular structures of the two programmes can be compared along three basic dimensions: density, tightness, and interlocking. Density refers to the proportion of the students’s undergradu- ate course requirements accounted for by courses Within the major field of study. Tightness refers to the proportion of the required courses (or hours of course credit) that are ’completely determined’(in the sense that the specific courses to be taken, whether or not they are in the major field, are prescribed and named). Finally, interlocking refers to the linkage and sequencing of courses in the major by prerequisites. When describing interlocking I shall speak of 'interlocked strings’, the number of courses (or hours) linked by prerequisites. Table 1 shows the variation across these dimensions in the two fields. Physics was a dense, tightly—organized, and highly-interlocked major. From their first through to their final semesters, physics majors moved through a sequence of courses that were completely structured by prerequisites. Figure 1 depicts the structure of the curriculum (I use generic labels instead of actual course titles to preserve anonymity). Table 1 Course requirements in physics and management . Physics Management Total hours for the Bachelors 126 120 Hours in the major 40‘ 21 Completely determined hours 66-69 53 Longest string of interiocking hours 52 15- «curse, 506 Revisioning Curriculum in Higher Education intro. Quantum Classical Dynamics Thermo dynamics Quantum Mechanics intro. Elect. 8: Magnetism Applications of Quantum Mech. Subatomic Physics Classical Advanced Lab Electrodynamics intro. Mechanics 8-hour Calculus [12 additional hours of mathematics] Vectors and Tensors Figure 1 The physical curriculum. , Management,by contrast, had a low density (only 21 hours in the major), but a tight organization - (49% of the undergraduate coursework is completely determined). As figure 2 shows, the curriculum derived its tightness from the large number of general business courses, or ’core courses’, required of students majoring in the field: six hours each in economics, accounting, and finance; three hours each in statistics, data processing, business law, and marketing. By contrast, there were only nine corn- pletely—determined hours in management itself; no management courses were taken until the junior (third) year, and interlocked strings of courses were short. These figures do not describe the actual course-taking patterns of the students, or even show all of the completely—determined courses students had to take (omitted are the nine credit hours of English, and the four hours each of government and history required for both majors). Rather, they show the curricular structures that formed the skeletons and musculature underlying students’ idiosyncratic academic careers. These structures placed powerful constraints on aca- demic careers by limiting the courses students could take, how many they could take, and when they could take them. Less obvious perhaps is the way these structures created pressures for particular kinds of learnings to take place. This is the topic I turn to now. Conversions and Transformations of Capital in Physics The undergraduate physics curriculum I studied was part of a longer physics curriculum that began in high school and continued to the graduate level. Students decided to major in physics while in high school, usually taking physics, and mathematics at least to the pre-calculus level. Indeed, the long sequence of prescribed courses begirming in the freshman (first university) year almost required students to have committed to a major in physics prior to entering college (the alternative being a significant extension of one’s college career). What the high school physics and mathematics courses did, then, was recruit and sort students, crating a small clientele for the physics programme, while preparing those students for undergraduate study. The high school physics courses introduced students to some of the basic concepts that they would encounter in Introductory Mechanics (and to lesser extent, Introductory Electricity and Magnetism). However, in addition to a more sophisticated reworking of subject matter already familiar to the students, the two introductory courses did three things. First, they forced students to work more intensely and for much longer periods of time than they had in high school. The work itself might not have been especially difficult, but there were vastly greater amounts of it. As a student explained: ' Learning from Participants“ Experiences 507 (Four Courses From Among Those Listed Below) intro. Operations Res. Production Systems Adv. Operations Mgt. Personnel Mgt. Personnel Internship Personnel Assessment Special Topics Collective Bargaining Adv. Org. Behaviour Micros Macro- Economics Economics Statistics ‘ Financial Managerial Accounting Accounting Managerial Strategy Bu siness Finance Business Law Marketing Calculus for Business Data Processing Figure 2 The curriculum structure of the management major. One of the things you get out of your early classes is you get used to doing a lot of homework. That may sound kind of funny, and it is, but it‘s true. I mean, when I was in high school I whipped through homework in five minutes towards the end of class. . . . So when I got here I wasn’t used to, like, spending most of the night doing problems and getting three or four hours of sleep. And the massive quantifies of homework they tend to give you in initial classes teaches you that you're going to have to do that, if not through difficulty then just through sheer volume. A second and related function of the introductory courses, articulated for the most part by faculty, was to weed out students. without the necessary knowledge and willingness to work. About 30% - of the students were expected to fail in each of the introductory courses. Finally, the introductory courses gave students a ’feel for the phenomena’. As one student explained, they provided: a better intuitive grasp for what’s going on. By the time you’ve gotten into classical dynamics or classical electrodynarnics the math is so powerful—~it’s just amazing to be able to solve these problems that you had to slave over in earlier courses just in one line. But if your introduction to these concepts . . . is through this very poWerful mathematics you’re going to lose touch with what's going on behind the math, with the physics. And so you develop, perhaps, your intuitive grasp of the real world in the introductory courses, as well 508 Revisioning Curriculum in Higher Education W as just an ability to comprehend this mathematics and apply it. . . . Its a levels process. In graduate school I'll. take exactly the same thing (e.g., mechanical), except at a higher level of mathematics. As this statement suggests, the physics curriculum was interlocked in a cycling, recursive fashion (a ‘spiral’ approach, one professor called it, 'where you circle around and bury into the tissue more and more’). As one student explained: After you’ve taken a course and you’re onto the next level, you see how that course really help you to get to where you are now. And you do each step of the way. As you’re actually taking it you’re basically trying to get through the course, pass, get a grade, and . . . I find that I don't understand it as much while I'm taking it as I do afierwards, when I've seen everything. Then I see how it all sort of fits together and intertwines. So I find it more and more interesting as I get into the higher and higher levels. But seeing how it all The together’ did not come easily, nor was it in most cases an individual achievement. Rather, understanding both within and across courses was a function of a group efi‘ort to produce a consensual understanding of the subject matter—students working together to accomplish course tasks. This group effort was shaped and partially produced by curricular pressures. The density of the coursework in the major, the interlocking of courses, and the ‘weeding out’ that took place in the introductory courses, meant that by the beginning of the upper-division (third year) coursework (Classical Dynamics and Modern Physics) classes were small (about 20 students) and the students in them knew each other from past courses. In the lower—division (first and second year) courses students had begun experimenting with joint work in groups growing out of lab partnerships. These study groups crystallized in the upper division courses, and through the many hours spent together in and out of classes, physics students began to form close friendships with one another, often to the exclusion of other friendships (the female students were an exception, having friends unconnected to physics in addition to a core of physics friends). As a senior explained: Since there’s a core set of courses, you usually go through them at the same time. There turned out to be some courses that you weren't taking with your other friends-mdepending on how they arranged their schedules it was sometimes different, but usually there was at least one person in your class that you had in a class with before. '. I studied for maybe a year to two years with just the same people . . . you get to be real comfortable around them and you get to know them very well. 'And we’ve all become pretty good friends. According to another senior, working in groups was a conscious strategy for academic success: I think either you’re extremely bright or you’re a fool if you don’t get in a study group. Because you save so much time, simply because when you sit there, even if you’re trying to ' explain a problem that you already understand to someone, you learn it that much better by explaining it. And you find out what you don't know while you’re trying to explain it. Also, if you‘re having a problem with something, then someone else might have a different viewpoint on it so they might understand it a little better. And there’s alsu the fact that you’renot sitting by yourself for five and six hours on end, pounding over a problem. Instead you sit in groups of four or five and pound over them for four or five hours. But group work was not merely a more efficient way of learning something that could be learned in solitude. As a senior explained, learning as part of a group was different than learning on one’s own: ‘ ' ’ - If you just try to always think about it or write about it I don‘t think you ever know what you knew. You need to talk about it, you need to be able to put it into words, what you know. Because if you can't, then you really can‘t understand it. Working with other people forces you to put it into words, to say what you think, to say why you think your answer is right and his is wrong. . Learning from Participants’ Experiences 509 One reason why talking about problems was important was that the kinds of problems students were asked to work changed from the introductory to the upper-division courses. In the former, problems were routine, with well defined goals, operations, constraints, and resources. The emphasis was on learning to work._With the Waves course the emphasis shifted. Only a handful of problems were assigned each week, but they were less well-defined, providing ambiguous specifications of goal states and partial sets of resources (givens). Students could not simply 'solve’ them, they had to refine their understandings of the goal and discover the relevant operations. In accomplishing this other students became key resources. As the student just quoted described the process: I We work, just . . . basically solving problems. And we would just take-tums. Each getting up to the blackboard and writing the next equation, and arguing about how things are, and why we believe the answer is this, and therelwere a lot of things that we found we didn't understand and we argued through some of them. The instructors reinforced the emphasis on understanding by giving substantial credit for how problems were solved. As a senior explained: [The professoFsTdEfl't tell you how to solve a problem. If you 'solve it in a valid method they have to give you credit for it, even though they may tell you, ’Well, that’s not the way We wanted it done’. Most of the time they will give you at least partial credit. . . . They'll leave a note on your paper like ’Not exactly whatI had in mind.’ Lots of time . if you’re wrong because of something you don’t know about . . . they will give you most of the credit and say like, ’Excellent argument, however, see . . .' and they‘ll reference a book as to why this can’t be done. The formation of academically—oriented friendship and Work groups among physics students thus produced shared understandings of physics, qualitatively different conceptions of the sub- ject matter than would have developed among students working individually. It also had aca~ demic consequences. All of the interviewed students who worked in groups had above a B average in physics, the cut—off criterion for admission to graduate school in physics, while all of the interviewed students who worked individually had less than a B average. Although there were undoubtedly exceptions to this pattern, it seems clear that group work influenced grades, and through grades, one‘s chances of a career in physics. _ lNhy then did four of the 11 seniors interviewed choose to work alone? There was no indication that groups excluded students. Rather, solitary work seemed to be a consequence of one of two-factors: strong friendship networks outside physics (and students' entry into the programme in the upper~division), or working-class backgrounds that shaped the outlooks of students in ways that made them reject group study. One of the four students, for example, had family ties in the area that monopolized his time outside the classroom. With no friends among the physics students, he failed several physics courses, and ultimately abandoned his plans to go to graduate school in physics. Another student had joined a fraternity (during the summer before he began coursework at the university) and had found his time monopolized by fraternity activities. After making good grades in the lower-division physics courses he began to fail the upper—division physics courses. The f...
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