The Productive Bias Fallacy in Higher Education

University students are dying the death of a thousand rubrics.

From daily blog posts, to discussion board questions and answers, to short papers, to quizzes, to exams, to the ultimate capstone, the 20 page research paper due at the end of the term, students are immersed in thousands of small tasks that have very firm deadlines, often administered by a Blackboard or Moodle algorithm.

I call this rise of work the productive bias fallacy. It is a belief that because students are producing pages of writing, text, or other material (i.e. It can be held and seen) products, they are learning. More than that, the course is challenging, good, and the professor is really “doing something.”

This fallacy operates on the assumption that more is more. That writing something long is valuable. It’s almost the stereotype of the movie professor holding up a thesis and weighing it saying, “This argument seems incomplete.”

The fallacy quells the professor’s anxiety that he or she might not be reaching students, that learning might not be happening, that the class might not be “real.” The fear that college has little value in the world of work is a motivator here. We see the productive bias the most in the humanities.

The productive bias is a result of the loss of trust between faculty and students. What happened to faculty assigning a book and trusting that students would read it? Or attempt to read it? Or read part of it? As faculty began to doubt student honesty or engagement in reading, out came the writing responses. And the quizzes. And the discussion board (post your question and answer one from a peer). And the blog post (thankfully long after blogging’s popularity had died). As the busy work of production increased to meet these often graded demands, the time to read, to engage with a thoughtful book or article declined.

It is the most ironic inverse relationship, and it is perpetuated by professors. Lack of trust in reading and engaging creates assignments that whittle away the time needed to read and engage. But don’t worry: The class is good. Look at all the writing I am making them do. Look at the daily discussion board, there are over 100 entries today alone!

The productive bias cannot be satisfied. No matter how many pages students produce, the value of those pages will never connect with the perceived demands of “future employers.” After all, that’s who the university serves these days, isn’t it? If liberal arts professors, and humanities professors continue to try to please “future employers” (who are these people anyway? Are they on campus somewhere? How do we know what they want?) on the terms of production, they will always lose. The struggle to produce will serve as evidence that the humanities and liberal arts are no longer necessary.

Perhaps some fields can survive through their service component — teaching how to write or speak or do mathematics — but that’s bare survival. What is needed is a rhetoric that challenges the dominant narrative of value. That narrative can be found in professors taking a risk to trust. It can be found in the class where everyone is sitting around, books on desks, chatting on a Tuesday afternoon about the value of what they read. And by doing so, they will be creating the value of the university.