Historiann tapped me, along with many others, to respond to the question in the title of a piece by Tony Grafton over at the New York Review of Books. Why are our universities “failing”? Notorious, Ph.D. beat me to the punch on my initial reaction: “We, as a society, need to take some accountability, and realize that, whatever happens, we will get the system we pay for, and the results that we deserve.” But since Notorious has laid out that particular answer so fully and articulately, let me take another tack.
One thing that I noticed as I read Grafton’s piece is that he didn’t really question the idea that our universities are failing, at least in a lot of cases. And he produces a lot of “facts” to back that claim up, in spite of his nuanced critique of the other reports out there on how higher ed is failing. He claims that critiques of higher education fall into two camps. On the one hand, the polemics:
Instead of offering detailed accounts of particular colleges and universities, which could give a sense of the rhythms and textures of academic lives, they pile up stories clipped from popular media and Web pages; describe individual experiences, often egregious ones, as if they marked a general rule; and recycle anecdotes already worn smooth by the handling they have undergone in previous polemical works.
On the other, he singles out more data-driven critiques:
They excavate a world of ugly facts and unsatisfactory practices that has the gritty look and feel of reality—a reality that has little to do with the glossy hype of world university ratings.
He’s interested criticizing the failure in the rhetoric of both camps, but Grafton, in my reading, does seem to accept the broader claim that there is a whole lot of failing going on. His call to action is rooted in the idea that we need a more complex account of the failings of higher education. Indeed, he concludes:
Where are the great journalists? They will find students who manage to do excellent work and many more cases of wasted possibilities, and they might gain some insight into why.
Now, the point of my post is not to be a Pollyanna, or an apologist for the state of higher education in the United States. There are, indeed, many problems, and they do require a complicated analysis and complex solutions. However, I wonder whether that analysis and those solutions might begin with calling to question this notion of “failure.” Maybe we need to start with questioning whether “failure” is really a given with which to start. Maybe that discursive move is, in itself, problematic.
My theory-boyfriend Michel Foucault is actually really helpful here. In his analysis of the repressive hypothesis, Foucault calls to question the given that the nineteenth-century was characterized by widespread sexual repression, that sex was the great “secret” or “taboo,” the “truth” of which could only be spoken through the liberation of the twentieth century. (This is a reductive summary, but what the hell? This is a blog post and I can be reductive if I want to. It’s also worth noting that I do understand that Foucault was a crappy historian, but we folks in English don’t mind that all so much, just like we don’t mind that Freud’s theories have been roundly discredited by modern psychology. “Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?” we literary studies types ask. If the theory is useful, we ignore the pesky details.) Here is why this comes to mind in this instance. Basically, there is a jolt of pleasure in transgressing by speaking the unspeakable. If we think sex – or fucking, I suppose – is the ultimate unspeakable thing, then when we “speak” it, we think that we have “power” while those before us didn’t. We are “liberated” rather than “repressed.” For Foucault, of course, this is a total mystification of how power actually works. There is no outside of power.
In the current discourse surrounding higher education, I think that “failure” is the new “fucking.” If we practitioners of higher education, or pundits, or columnists, or whatever, speak the “truth” of how higher education is failing, then we get that jolt of pleasure in transgressing what we have construed as a norm. “The children are not the future!” we say. “There is no future! Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket!” And then we get to take self-satisfied pleasure in how we are subjects who know, while everybody else is “naive.” Even if we present a more complicated or nuanced argument, if we start with the premise of failure – just as if we start with the premise of repression when discussing sex and sexuality – we are buying into a mystification. *
Now, let me pause for a moment and describe my position in this conversation. I teach at a regional, four-year, public university. A “directional” university, with about 15K students, which is located in an “suburban” location (i.e., most students commute). My teaching load each semester is four courses, so eight courses per year. I typically teach four different preps per term, though there is often repetition of courses across terms. Because of a recent edict by our administration, there is no release time for faculty who are not serving in administrative positions (chair, assistant chair, dgs) – basically, departments are penalized if they offer such a thing to reward research productivity or to assist it. This edict was framed as “giving chairs more power.” I currently have around 80 students, plus I’m directing two MA capstone projects and serving on another MA capstone committee. I have some colleagues who are serving on as many as 7 capstone projects (whether as directors or readers) per term. While our research expectations are modest, there are research expectations, if one cares about tenure and promotion. (You know those surveys about how people are stalling at associate? I bet those numbers are skewed by people who respond from institutions like mine. Basically, if you want “full” in my department, you need to produce a book. Let’s note how difficult that is to do with that sort of teaching load.) There are fairly heavy service expectations, too. Most of my students work full time, whether or not they are in school full time. Many have significant family obligations. They are not going to keggers on the weekends or tailgating before football games. Most of them do limited or no “student life” sorts of things. Hell, they don’t even have time to make an appointment to meet with a professor about a paper or to get advising.
So let’s talk about some of the “facts” that Tony Grafton cites in his piece.
- “Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. ” Ok, now, there are two ways that one could read this sentence. First, there is the issue of the broad range of majors that exist now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. With more choice, obviously the distribution of students might spread out a bit. I’m not sure that’s a disaster. Second, there is the issue of the perceived “decline” in people majoring in liberal arts disciplines. Here, I can only talk about English. The figure that people adore citing about English is that once upon a time in 1970 7.6% of undergraduates majored in English. And now (horrors!) only about 4% of students major in English. It’s a terrible decline! Except… it’s not. It was about 4% in 1950. 1970 was an anomale. As much as I hate numbers, analyzing them critically really does matter here. Are we failing if we’ve really basically held steady?
- “Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers.” Ok, well, that is depressing, except…. I think we have to ask two questions: 1) Was this the case in the past? For example: for women who attended college in the 1950s, did they necessarily come to university with interest in particular courses and with a sense of a future career path, or did they attend college in search of an M.R.S. degree? Is that the same thing? Another example: did men attend college during the era of the Vietnam War with a particular interest in their courses and of a future career path, or did they attend college because it was a way to avoid the draft? In other words, was there really this prelapserian time where students all went to college for the “right” reasons? 2) To what extent does the knowledge economy of the 21st century, in which the prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle is pretty much college, affect the level of commitment in the student population? If college is the new high school, wouldn’t it make sense that you’d end up with a similar lack of seriousness amongst the student population? Many of my students are doing time, just as a generation ago they might have been doing time in high school. I don’t actually blame them for that. It’s the reality of our current economy. They see a post-secondary degree as a necessary, albeit an annoying, piece of paper that they must secure in order not to have a really difficult life. The piece of paper is the point – not what they will learn, and not what they will do beyond getting that piece of paper. I suppose I feel like my role is to try to inspire them somehow out of that way of thinking. But if I can’t do it for all of them, well, I’m not sure that it’s my fault or theirs, as individuals. I’m not sure whether any of us are actually failing if this is how they view their education. And in past generations these are students who likely wouldn’t have bothered going to college, and nobody would have seen that as a failure. (To be fair, Grafton notes the “credential-based” nature of higher ed today. I’m just wondering whether we should blame ourselves or our students for the fact that this is the case.)
- “Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.” Um, kinda. On the one hand, my institution hasn’t been hiring more and more tenured and tenured-track faculty to teach. But that doesn’t mean our teaching loads have decreased since the university opened about 50 years ago, and our service loads have actively increased over those years. And while my department has a (very new) MA program, we don’t rely on MA students to fill in the teaching gap. The crazy adjunctification at my institution has to do with the state’s goals for increasing college enrollment, and the lack of funding to hire full-time lecturers or tenure-track faculty. How do you increase enrollment without hiring people at a living wage? You hire adjuncts. This “failure” is not about individual administrators, or about faculty who want to retreat into research. It’s about the way that public higher education is funded (or not), even as the mandates increase. There are no “stars” at institutions like mine. Our “stars” are nobodies in the broader scheme of things.
- “Even in these supposedly tight times, finally, well-paid administrators and nonacademic professionals proliferate—as do the costly extracurricular activities that they provide, from bonding exercises for freshmen to intercollegiate sports. The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.” You know, I don’t even know if this is higher ed failing. Honestly, I understand why we need all these administrators at my institution, even if I resent the fact that all the Deanlets have salaries that are around twice my salary. Who else is going to deal with the pressures of accreditation, of state mandates, of the push toward updating technology, of the need to get more grants (since state funding and institutional funding barely exists), to retain students (necessary for tuition dollars), to increase enrollment (tuition dollars), to serve the community…… I feel like it’s a lovely dream to think about classroom learning as our primary pursuit. But I don’t know how to keep my public institution open if we ignore these other demands. And those other demands require people to administer them. Honestly? I think that when we talk about this stuff we’d need to be talking not about how our universities are failing but rather about how my state government and about how the voters (my neighbors in the Tea Party) are failing. Please refer to Notorious, Ph.D.’s post
- “But barely more than half of those who start BA programs will finish them in six years, and only 30 percent of those who start community college will win an associate degree in three years. After that point, most people don’t manage to graduate.” Ok, motherfucking graduation rates. I can’t tell you how angry this facet of the conversation makes me. Do y’all know how graduation rates are calculated? Well, let me tell you what they don’t include. They don’t include transfer students. (In other words, CCs don’t get to count students who transfer to four-year universities, and 4-years don’t get to count students who transfer from CCs or from other 4-year universities.) They don’t include part-time students – whether those students start part-time, or whether they start full-time and then move to part-time and back again. They don’t take into account when students “stop out” of their education for things like “not being ready for college” or having babies or major family crises or for military service or for jail. (Yes, I have had a number of students who have had to take time off from school to go to jail or because of various legal difficulties.) Graduation rates count students who are enrolled full time from the moment that they are first-semester freshmen until they graduate. As you might imagine, my institution’s graduation rates are abysmal. Because we have 15K students, and yet only around 40% graduate in 6 years. Except with all the people who are left out of that, and because of the way the calculations are done, that number bears little relationship to what students actually do and whether we really are doing what we can for them. 60% of students are not motherfucking dropping out. Failure isn’t that fucking simple. They just don’t count. They don’t matter. Not for the purposes of funding, and not for the purposes of this conversation. Counting all of those students would make the bean-counters’ jobs just so difficult.
- “Americans, as Malcolm Harris recently pointed out, now owe almost a trillion dollars in student loans, more than they owe in credit card debt. Student debt, he explained, “is an exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits.”” In terms of borrowing for a university education, I can only say that a year of tuition and fees (in-state) at my institution runs around $8k. As less than 1/5 of our students live on campus, most could go to college for 32K. Let’s imagine that we’re talking about the students who live in the dorms, though. For them, the most expensive campus housing (apartment-style set-up), would run around $8K for the year (housing plus meal plan), so let’s add an additional 32K to that total. That still leaves us with 64K for an undergraduate degree. The majority of our students get federal financial aid (some mix of grants/work study) and we have generous scholarships for students based on academic achievement. And remember, the vast majority of my students do not do the “traditional college student residential thing.” The student loan thing, in terms of my institution, is, in my estimation, a red herring. (Let’s note that one year of tuition and fees alone at my Ph.D. granting institution is about 40K per year not counting room and board, and most students spend at least two years in residence, and even if they move off campus it’s in a super high-cost-of-living place.) Yes, it’s true: college costs more today than it did when I started my undergrad degree in the Fall of 1992. And yes, some students end up fucked up financially, for a variety of reasons (stupidity, using student loans to support their families, whatever). And I’m not saying that my students don’t struggle to make ends meet – many do. But is this higher education “failing” students? I dunno. It’s not like a good 75% of my students would have even had the option of college 50 years ago. Hell, I wouldn’t have had the option of a college education 50 years ago. And I can also tell you that I know of a good many of my students whom I’ve had over the past eight years who have graduated with little to no student loan debt (they work).
So with all of that being said, I wonder whether talking about “failure” obscures the very real differences between, say, Princeton University and Directional State University in a Place Where People from Elsewhere Joke That Cousins Marry One Another. And I wonder whether rhetorics of failure – even the most well-intentioned – really get at what the experience of attending university and paying for university is for most students in the country. (A hell of a lot more students are like the ones I teach than like the ones Tony Grafton teaches.) Honestly, most of my students’ parents are completely clueless about what their children are doing in college. They are not fretting about the “high price” of a college education (they don’t contribute to the cost of their kids going to college), or about how universities are “failing” their children. Just like my mother didn’t fret about those things, because just the fact that I went to college – an institution not unlike the one at which I currently teach – was more than she had ever imagined I could do. (To be fair: my mom did contribute to the cost of my education, but my father contributed not a dime, and I always had to work to make up the difference.) And most of my students aren’t fretting about how universities are failing them – just as I wasn’t – because the fact that they have access to a college education isn’t something that they had ever really believed would happen for them.
And I don’t think these rhetorics of failure reflect my professional experience in higher education, because honestly, I most often feel like I am succeeding against the odds – both in teaching my students and in responding to the various unreasonable mandates from my administration and from my state (and sometimes the unreasonable mandates from my administration flow out of the unreasonable mandates from my state).
So, “Why are our universities failing?” I don’t know. I’m not sure that I would say that they are. I might ask why our communities are failing, why our country is failing, why voters are failing, why legislators are failing. Or, I might ask what criteria we’re using to authorize asking why our universities are failing.
Or, I might go further and say that we are asking the wrong questions. I’d much rather ask what we might do to help students to succeed, to help faculty to teach, to help administrators (yes, I even want to help them) to facilitate the work of the university. I’m not sure that “failure” is really the point here. I think rhetorics of failure, discourses of failure, might be a way to reinforce the status quo, the networks of power that oppress the vast majority of people who aren’t attending Ivies, elite liberal arts colleges, and even flagship state universities.
Or I might ask, why is “failure” such a dirty word? Because at the end of the day, how can anyone learn anything without failing sometimes? Isn’t it the case that an avoidance of failure is an avoidance of intellectual engagement? I know that’s what I teach my students. Why exactly is there such a charge in speaking the “truth” of failure, and why exactly is the repression of failure some sort of ideal or public good?
Maybe we need to think less about how to justify our existence, how to avert the “crisis” in which we find ourselves, and how to sidestep failure. Maybe we need to stop retreating into the easy pleasure of announcing our failures at every turn, or, perhaps more insidiously, in complicating our analyses of our failures. That’s not transgressive: it’s pathetic and counterproductive. Maybe less important than thinking about our mistakes and our missteps is thinking about what we already do well and what we might do better. Maybe our “epic fail” is our focus on our failings.
*Let me be clear, I am not calling out Tony Grafton as doing this in any sort of conscious way, and overall I don’t object to his project in this essay. I think that he’s responding to a certain set of criticisms directly, and he’s attempting to redirect the conversation from his position of power within the academy. But since I’m Dr. Crazy and not Tony Grafton, I have a certain kind of freedom to play with this topic a bit more radically. My audience is not his audience.