Archive for the ‘Higher Education: A Conversation’ Category

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. 


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I had claimed I was going to finish off my higher ed series by the end of September.  And then it became October.  And, well, now October is nearly done, and I feel like if I procrastinate about this post any longer there won’t be a point to writing it.

But I’m actually sort of inspired.  Between these two posts over at Tenured Radical’s, and Historiann’s post over at her place, people are talking all about the benjamins.

In other words, it seems like the time has come for me finally to think about the money piece of this.  The problem is, it’s not just a “money piece.”  It’s like a thousand tiny money pieces – shards, really – that don’t quite fit together and that compete with one another.

Rather than enumerate all of the thousand tiny pieces, though, I’ll stick with what I see as the big three that affect all schools.  In no particular order:

  • Tuition.  As Historiann has written, the public discourse on tuition doesn’t quite reflect the reality of what most students pay for a college education.  Nevertheless, it is the case that tuition costs do keep rising, and the public isn’t seeing what it’s getting for that money.  Is that a problem of PR or is it that students really aren’t getting more for the money?  Is it that the public doesn’t believe that education is actually something worth paying for?
  • Money for the University itself.  It costs money to keep the lights on.  It costs money to have nice landscaping.  It costs money to raise money, to find money elsewhere when the state keeps taking back the money that it used to give.  It costs money to have a range of programs, computer labs, buildings, and all those things that make a college campus a college campus.  Library acquisitions. All the things.
  • Faculty/Staff.  You’d think we’re all millionaires from the way that the public perceives us, though clearly that isn’t the case.  However, we do cost money.  Maybe not as much money as we’d like to cost, but money nonetheless, not only for salaries but also for things like health insurance.

The problem is, and this is why I haven’t been able to write this post, I have absolutely no ideas and no answers.  Because the reality (or at the very least my reality) is that there isn’t enough money to satisfy the different constituencies represented by these three broad areas.  There is not enough money, say, to convert all of the sections that are taught by adjuncts to sections taught by full-timers with benefits.  There is not enough money to stop tuition from rising, particularly when people don’t want to pay taxes and when state governments think that the best way to make up for budget shortfalls is to gut higher education.  There is not enough money to do all of those things that make a university all shiny and fancy and an “experience” and an “environment” that students will pay for.

At least at my university, I feel as if there is very little fat left to trim.  That “feeling” is based on the fact that our state budget has been slashed by millions.  And yet, the rumors are already starting about the fat that will be trimmed when we hear about the state budget, which will be slashing our funding once again.

It’s also worth noting that while all of this is happening, universities are being called to graduate more and more students, students whom they don’t have room to enroll in face to face classes and students who can’t necessarily to get jobs when they’ve finished.

I am… cynical?  depressed?  at a loss for what I can do to address structural problems that are so deep and wide and vast?  demoralized?  tired?

Yeah, at any given moment, those are the prevailing things that I am, and I think that those are the sentiments that weigh on most of us in higher ed these days.  And I’ll tell you: I get irritable when people talk about unionizing as if it’s the answer to any of the above problems, because that’s not a model that is likely to have any traction in my state, and so when people hold up unions as the answer, I feel like they are closing their eyes to my working conditions and the realities of my location, applying a solution that would work for them in a one-size-fits-all sort of way that certainly isn’t going to fit where I live and work.  But then I feel like a jerk for being resistant because it’s not like I have any answers either.

I suppose what I’m looking for is a leader.  I’m looking for somebody with vision, somebody who presents a future to me and not just who administers our decline.  I’m looking for somebody who will be honest about the fact that you can’t get blood from a stone, so legislators and politicians should stop trying.  I’m looking for somebody who will tell the general public that they are getting a crappier education the more that they refuse to pay for what they’re getting.  I’m looking for somebody to give a shit about what people at comprehensive liberal arts colleges and state universities have to say about these issues, because, quite frankly, it’s those institutions that together educate the vast majority of Americans – not elite slacs and research universities.  I’m looking for somebody to understand that as much as our problems are about the money that our larger goals aren’t, in fact, anything to do with money. Our larger goals are about things it sounds naive to care about: knowledge, culture, innovation, a thoughtfully lived life.  I’m looking for somebody to take a stand about those things mattering and being worth the price that we have to pay for them. And I fear that I am absolutely the most unrealistic and silly person in the world for wanting those things, ’cause, folks, I am not likely ever to get them.

So I know this is a bleak conclusion.  But I’ve got nothing, folks.  Thoughts?

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I don’t have time to do justice to this post because I need to work on the chapter that apparently will never be finished.  However, the time for a conversation about tenure and what it means and what exactly protects is one that we definitely need to have, especially given the latest news from Albany.

So, first, in case anybody wasn’t clear about this, earning tenure

  1. Does not mean that you can’t be fired.
  2. Does not mean that you have institutional power such that you can make sure your job (or field of study) is protected or valued.
  3. Does not mean that you are exempt from the corporate model that guides higher education today.
  4. Does not mean that you suddenly don’t have to work for a living.
  5. Does not mean that you can rest on your laurels – though it might mean that all of the work that you do gets little recognition and compromises your job mobility.

With those things being the case, it seems strange that people would blame tenure for the woes of universities and colleges today.  Let’s be frank: tenure – that state of being that protects our freedom to pursue unpopular paths of scholarly inquiry or to teach potentially controversial subject matter in our classes – is not the cause of higher education’s woes.  Moreover, tenure does not protect us from “budgetary realignments” or from drastic changes in institutional or cultural priorities, changes that can do everything to change our working conditions (if we’re lucky enough to keep our jobs) or our actual employment status.

I probably have more to say about tenure, but as I noted, I have real writing to accomplish today so I can’t waste my time on a lengthy blog post.  Have at it in the comments, folks.  Is tenure really the problem and I’m just not seeing it?  Is there an alternative to tenure that preserves academic freedom, not only in research but also in the classroom?  Would eliminating tenure cost less than keeping it?  Why exactly is tenure the target of angry adjuncts and anti-intellectual ideologues alike?  Is it just me, or do those seem to be strange bedfellows?

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This is sort of a bonus post in the higher ed series, and also sort of not, but I decided to write about it first at the request of Dr. M in the comments to last week’s post in the series but also because of the various things floating around the internet of late about online education and the fact that online course development is being strongly encouraged at my institution…. blah blah blah.

But so.  I’ve taught online.  I’ve taught face-to-face.  I prefer teaching face-to-face, not because I think online education is in itself and by necessity inferior to teaching in a traditional classroom but because I find teaching in a classroom face-to-face personally more rewarding and, also, easier.  I do not believe that just because I have a personal preference or because I find it easier that the thing that I don’t prefer or find more difficult is bad.  I also wonder at whether some of my distaste for my online course had to do with the content of the course as much as the medium.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What’s important now is that I took this year off of teaching online, but I just put in an application to develop a new online course for my department.  So clearly something is motivating me that doesn’t have to do with my own personal preferences.  And, I’m going to argue, something is even motivating me beyond the cash I will earn (should my course be selected) for developing this new online course.

Now, I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m not generally motivated by things like institutional loyalty or a martyr complex, so that’s not what’s going on here.  I actually think that the way my university has historically handled the shift to online course offerings has been monumentally stupid and, ultimately, bad for students.  So my reasons for wanting to participate in online course development don’t have to do with some sort of altruism directed at my institution.

So with all of that being said, what are the benefits of online teaching for the various parties involved?

For education in the broadest sense:

  • Online courses allow a certain kind of flexibility in scheduling that makes a college education available to the greatest number of possible students, regardless of family situation, support network, responsibilities beyond school, etc.  Say what you will about the for-profits, but they understood that and cared about it long before “real” colleges and universities did.  Putting aside the issue of how the for-profits have exploited this, they did ultimately target students that mainstream higher ed has historically left out.  I do believe in open-access education, and I do believe that there should be delivery methods in place that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

For institutions:

  • The biggest and most important benefit to brick-and-mortar institutions about including online offerings is that they are no longer bound by brick-and-mortar.  This is not to say that online education does not require large infusions of cash (it does) or its own infrastructure (technology, IT support, server space, etc.) in order to be done well.  It does.  BUT all of those things are becoming more and more easy (and cheap) to come by than is space.

For instructors:

  • I can’t really speak for all instructors, but I can speak for myself.   For me, there have been both practical as well as intellectual benefits to teaching online.  Practically, teaching online has given me greater control over my schedule.  This might not be such a draw for people teaching only one or two courses per term, but when you teach four courses per term, and when you have a lot of meetings and stuff in addition to your classes, time becomes a pretty hot commodity.  And anything that gives me more flexibility with my time has the potential to make me better at my job – or at least more efficient.  (Note that I say potential, here – obviously this is not universal and there are many ways in which this might not be the case.)
  • Intellectually, teaching online has really made me examine my pedagogy and has made me learn in a concerted way about teaching, which I’d never really done before unless we count a one-semester class I took on teaching comp.  In teaching online, I’ve been forced to reexamine classroom practices that I’d taken for granted.  I’ve become much more thoughtful about the way that I present information, and I’ve become much more attuned to a wider range of strategies for encouraging active learning – strategies that rely more on technique than on my personality.

For students:

  • I think that students, like instructors, have the potential to learn a lot more than the course content in an online course.  Again, though, I think that the emphasis needs to be on potential here and we have to acknowledge that this isn’t always what happens.  As with faculty, students benefit from the flexibility of online course scheduling.  BUT. One of the challenges is also showing students that “flexibility” doesn’t mean “lack of responsibilities” or “I’ll just work at my own pace regardless of deadlines.”  Just as professors can rely on their charm in the F2F classroom, so, too, can students.  In an online environment, that charm goes a lot shorter of a way.
  • Intellectually, online environments for classroom instruction can force students to be much more aware of audience in their writing, much more adept at multiple kinds of writing, much more well-versed in a range of technologies for communication, and much more actively engaged in their own education.  Those things are only possible, though, if online courses are developed thoughtfully to encourage those things.  Yes, online education can mean that students just passively stare at a screen and then complete assignments in as passive a fashion as possible.  But let’s not kid ourselves: that’s what F2F classroom instruction looks like a whole hell of a lot of the time, too.  There is absolutely nothing that makes that sort of classroom instruction superior to online instruction.

But so.  I think the trick with online instruction is that we need to make sure that its expansion occurs only inasmuch as it reflects sound pedagogy and careful attention to the intellectual and ethical concerns of classroom instruction.  This is where the Bill Gates model of “no more teachers! no more books!” collapses in on itself, and where the for-profit model is over before it starts.  Because if what we’re really talking about is greater access to more people in more various life stages and situations to education, then we need to attend to the best practices in education across various disciplines even as we incorporate online technologies.  Further, we need to be willing to acknowledge that in so doing, we may need to revise what we think of as our fields’ “best practices” – we might actually learn that what we thought was “the best” just isn’t.

But, see, this is why I think it’s important that we really make online instruction a priority – both at an institutional level and for ourselves as instructors.  That means getting tenured and tenure-track people to learn the technology and to develop those courses.  If we outsource this whole chunk of our curriculum to adjuncts then we are no better than the for-profits and we are not serving students.  It means devoting resources to online instruction so that it’s not just crapped together – resources that faculty say they need and not primarily what corporations want to sell.  (In other words, Blackboard – or the equivalent – does not “adequate resources” make.)  We need to take seriously students’ complaints about the online courses that they take, and we need to try to address the places where we’re falling short.

And I don’t think we can do any of those things if we just refuse to deal with online instruction.

The reality as far as I can tell is that most students getting a 4-year degree today take at least one course online.  Even those students who go to elite schools that don’t tend to have online offerings often take an online course at some point – only they’re taking that online course that’s offered from their hometown public uni or community college that will transfer, to fulfill some sort of core requirement or something – while they’re busy working or doing an internship over the summer.  Or they took that online course while still in high school in order to start off with college credits and to beef up their applications to those elite schools.  Transcripts don’t reveal that a course was taught online in most cases.  Nor are the student learning outcomes for those courses any different from those in the F2F equivalents.  And so, if we (t-t faculty) pretend that the only people doing online education are for-profits, or if we act as if “real” college students aren’t taking online courses, or if we believe that we’re not responsible for online curriculum at our own universities, I think we couldn’t be more wrong, and I think we’re making a huge mistake.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems that must be addressed with online delivery formats – there surely are – but the best people to address those problems are faculty who are invested in curriculum and the future of the institution – not some army of administrators trying to meet the demands of state legislatures or the armies of adjuncts that those administrators deploy to support ever-increasing enrollments at ever-lower costs.

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You wanna know how boring this conversation is?  Boring enough that I had to take a week off before I could get it up to write the post.

For all of our concerns about the state of higher education as well-meaning faculty members, it strikes me as odd that we spend as much time as we do talking about issues over which we have very, very little control – such as the casualization of academic labor, the funding and cost structures of colleges and universities, whether or not we should have Division I athletics, the tenure system, etc., ad infinitum.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not at all saying that those things aren’t worth talking about.  I’ve talked about many of them, if not all of them.  But here’s the thing: in my experience, full-time, tenured faculty have very little power over any of the items on that list.  Where full-time, tenured faculty do have power is over issues of curriculum and assessment, both of which are linked to accreditation (which, in case you haven’t noticed, most universities want).  But wow do people not want to take ownership over those boring, practical things.

To be fair, I can understand the reluctance of many of my colleagues for jumping into these issues with both feet.  Curricular change at an institutional level takes time, political savvy, a thick skin, and a willingness to put the perfect to the side in favor of the good.  It’s stressful.  Often thinking about curriculum on a broad scale – and by “broad” we might just mean having to think about all of the courses in one’s own department as opposed to just thinking about the courses that one herself teaches – means that we have to understand and respect perspectives different from our own, and accommodate them, and the results might mean that we lose some of the turf we’ve carefully protected.  Assessment is a pain in the ass, and it seems like adding a layer of work beyond what we already do for little to no compensation.  It can mean having to think carefully about things like online instruction, the necessity for having some parity across sections of a course, in spite of one’s own personal classroom preferences, the reality that we can’t just ignore contingent labor but rather that we have to reckon with the consequences of contingent labor on curriculum.  (In the case of the accrediting agency that governs my institution, they will penalize you if you don’t have a certain number of f/t faculty teaching certain blocks of the curriculum, so faculty members do ignore part-timers and their teaching schedules at their own peril.)  And then there’s the paranoia.  You guys have colleagues like this: the ones who refuse to turn in their syllabi at the start of the semester, to reveal what assignments they give on the course syllabus, or who think that we should come up with “fake” assessment tools that will “give the accreditation people what they want” but that won’t actually reveal anything about what’s actually going on with curriculum and instruction “lest it be used against us.”  (And if you think you don’t have colleagues like this, you may need to take a walk across campus to your philosophy, English, or foreign language departments, for surely there is at least one of these types housed there.)

It strikes me that there is a heck of a lot more potential for faculty to take back universities by taking control of curriculum and assessment, though, than there is by faculty complaining in the NY Times or by crying about how their academic freedom is compromised.  Here’s the thing: if you’re not using your academic freedom to affect your institution and your students in a positive way, then you’re kind of a free-loading douche.  With freedom comes responsibility and all that.  And no, working on issues related to curriculum and assessment is not at all sexy and it’s not fun and the results are slow in coming.  Also, it means going to more meetings than you want and people who would like to avoid such work begin to treat you with suspicion, suggesting that you are a “tool of the administration.”  I know, sounds awesome to you, right?  But at a local, grass-roots level, I really do believe that these are the areas in which we might see results, and with that being the case, it’s people with tenure who need to get in there and get their hands dirty because tenure gives them the authority to do so.

So am I wrong about this?  If it is through these annoying bureaucratic concerns that we can get some power back to faculty, how can that work?  What should be our focus as we think about curriculum and assessment within our own disciplines?  How does that translate to thinking about these issues within larger groupings within our institutions?  Are the issues different here for private vs. public institutions?  For research universities vs. teaching-intensive places?  How do issues of curriculum and assessment intersect with issues related to funding?  Can we make the relationship between these work to our advantage?  Thoughts?

[This was not at all the post I felt like writing this morning, but I knew if I didn’t force myself to do it then I’d never get it done and my stupid little series would be dead before it was finished.  Perhaps I’ll do the post I really want to write later.  We’ll see.]

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So this weekend when my parents were here I was watching the Today show with my mom, and there was a whole segment about how some college (I can’t remember which, and I tried to search on the Today site for a link but I can’t be bothered to devote hours to this) that is selling itself based on the fact that it allows students to bring pets to school with them – like, to live in their dorms.  When the students go to class they have doggy daycare where the students can drop their pets off….  You get the picture.

Anyway, the first thing that I thought was “well, this totally hits the bull’s eye on what I’m going to post for the Higher Ed thing on the blog!”

So, I don’t have anything terribly illuminating to say about all of this.  Just that I do think that there is an ever-increasing divide between the work that universities do as educators and the resources that they devote to actually educating students.  Instead, it seems like the money is flowing toward the “experience” as opposed to the education.  When we think about the buzz words in higher ed today, we hear a lot about things like retention, student satisfaction, student life, branding, etc.  All of those things demand administrators, and they demand money.  They also, under the guise of “serving students” take the focus away from what happens in the classroom and instead move that focus to what happens in dorms, on quads, on the internet.

Now, lest people think that I’m too reactionary here, I think some of these “university experience” type things are a good thing.  I think it’s good, for example, that we attend more to students’ mental health needs, and that we recognize that students go through a period of adjustment when they enter college and they need support.  On the other hand, though, I don’t see where any of the experience stuff makes a damned bit of difference if we’re not focusing nearly all of our energy on what happens in the classroom.  Not on new course management software, new reporting software for students who are in trouble, new administrators for new programs that are just inserting more administrative layers without actually enhancing student learning, workshops for “student-centered learning” that take professors away from things like actually meeting with students or giving them feedback on their work, the increasing casualization of classroom instruction, because we really need to spend less money on that if we’re going to have more “services.”

So I guess my question is this: how can attention to the university experience work with attention to education, as opposed to working against it?  How can we socialize students in P-12 to worry less about the “experience” and more about the education that we receive – or if not students, then their parents?  Is there really a conflict between these two things, or do I just see a conflict because we’re all so busy fighting over scarce resources?  What do undergraduates really need to get out of their college educations, and how do we put that first, even if what they need isn’t terribly exciting?

(Sorry again about being a day late on this one.  Talk amongst yourselves.)

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First of all, I’m a sorry I’m a day late on this one.  Second of all, the reason that I’m a day late is because it’s hard to know where to begin.

Here’s how I most frequently see conversations about graduate education go:

1.  There is an “oversupply” of graduate students!

1.a.  Programs at all but the most elite institutions should be shut down!

1.b.  Even the elite programs should admit only as many students as can get jobs!  Fewer graduate students!

1.c.  Students are stupid!  They should go find gainful employment and jump ship on academia!

2.  But what about a “life of the mind”?!

2.a.  It is anti-intellectual to criticize graduate education in this country!  We have the best graduate programs in the world!  That’s why everybody from other countries comes here for grad school!

2.b.  It’s our responsibility to make sure our grad students get jobs!  The problem isn’t with how many students we admit – it’s with our failure to professionalize/mentor those students!

2.c.  How dare we try to tell people who want to pursue graduate degrees that they shouldn’t do so?  They are adults!

The funny thing is, I think I’ve taken every one of these positions at one time or another.  Now, well, I’m just going to throw out some scattered thoughts, and then I’m going to leave this to you all to discuss.

The reality is that we – and by “we” I mean institutions of higher education from community colleges to elite research institutions – need graduate students to teach.  The contemporary university cannot function without its armies of graduate students, just as it cannot function without its armies of adjuncts (who oftentimes are graduate students).  So if we are to shrink graduate programs, where does that leave undergraduate education in this country?  What does that do to open access to education – not only at the undergraduate level, but also at the graduate level?  Who gets left out when programs get eliminated or downsized? And further, how do we make institutions that are not primarily educators of graduate students part of this conversation – because contrary to what some might like to believe, every institution relies on graduate students to get its daily work done.  (And don’t even talk to me about how the for-profits exploit graduate student labor – particularly from weak programs like the MA program in which I teach – to get their classes staffed.)

Another question (and I don’t have the answer to this given my field so I’m interested to see what people in fields where this is relevant have to say) is how much of research depends on those armies of grad students (who then will become post-docs) to run labs and collect data.  What do we do about that piece of the puzzle, if we are interested in thinking about restructuring higher education?

But so I guess there are two questions here:

1) What is our responsibility to graduate students themselves?  In some respects, I think that there are many answers to that.  Not all graduate students aim to join the professoriate, and thus a program like mine serves a need for those students – who want to bump up their rank as teachers, who want to get a promotion at work that requires a master’s degree.  But there are always a few of those students whose dreams change midstream, and those students will leave my program in debt and not terribly competitive for their new path.  And then there are the research universities, who are training the next generation of scholars and teachers – except of course many of the scholars and teachers they are training have no hope of securing full-time, tenure-track employment.  What responsibility do those research universities have to change things, and how might they go about it?

2) To what extent is any conversation about graduate education going to lead us to a conversation about undergraduate education?  How do we reconcile the needs of both tiers – at all of the different tiers of institutions that have their thumbs in those pies?  The reality is that institutions like mine are often the training ground for graduate students in school at the research university down the road.  We are where they go when their fellowships run out, when they need teaching experience beyond TAships, and when they need some extra cash.  What does that mean for the quality of undergraduate education at a university like mine?  Further, what does it mean when some students at my university end up deciding that they want to pursue graduate school – have they been trained adequately to get into a decent program, or are they doomed to end up in an unranked program that they pay for out of pocket?  And, let’s say they do get fully funded – does that really make it better when they’re losing ~8 years (conservatively) of income over that time?

So how do we think about how undergraduate and graduate education fit together?  How do we reconceive how graduate education works in order to try to address issues in the employment structure of higher ed from the source?  Is graduate education the place to start, or must we start someplace else before we deal with graduate education?

Sorry that this post has more questions than answers and that it’s so disjointed.  I really need to get to my real writing today, and so I needed to dash this off quickly.

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Before I begin in earnest, welcome to the first in what I anticipate will be a 6-part series of posts designed to (I hope) foster a deep conversation about higher education in the U.S.  (I’m sticking with the U.S. context because it’s the context with which I’m most familiar.  This is not to exclude non-U.S. readers from participating – just to be up front about my own vantage point.)  If you’d like to know more about the idea in general, head on over to this page before you continue.

Now.  You may be asking yourselves why I think this is an interesting thing to do, or why we should bother doing this on blogs wherein many of us aren’t writing under our professional names.  Well.  Here’s the thing.  I think that this is exactly the medium through which to get people from all across the profession, from many different disciplines and institution types, and from many different backgrounds together to talk in an honest way both about their experiences and about potential strategies for the future.  And I’m sick of what gets left out by “forums on higher education” like this and this.  Not that there’s anything really wrong with what those things try to do, but they sure do leave out a lot of voices.  And I’m a whole lot less interested, personally, in sweeping pronouncements about “Higher Education” in general (despite my tendency toward polemic when I post sometimes) than I am in strategies that can be used locally to institute slow and lasting change.  I don’t have a whole lot of faith in collective action when it comes to these questions – primarily because “higher education” in this country is not a monolith.  So, on with the show!

When I was 17 years old, aiming to become one of the first people in my extended family to “go to college,” here are the distinctions that I made between schools:
  1. Community College/ Local State School – 13th grade, where stupid people went because they couldn’t get in anywhere else, for losers who would live in their parents’ basements forever, and very cheap and very low quality.
  2. State School – Where I’d be going, because it would mean leaving home, and it was “good enough.”  The tuition wasn’t too expensive, and they did have an honors college.  Why bother even considering anything else?
  3. Expensive Regional Liberal Arts Schools  – Too small, too expensive, too filled with people who had parents who’d attended college but who didn’t seem to realize that they would be paying a million dollars for something that wasn’t all that great and that nobody outside of the area had ever heard of.
  4. Elite Research Universities/Elite SLACs – People like me don’t get into schools like that.  And they certainly don’t have the money to pay for them.  Didn’t consider applying to one of those.

Looking over this list, I do think I was sort of savvy in that I did understand that there were different types of institutions.  But looking over what I thought the different institutions signified, I wonder how much more clueless I could have been.  You’ll notice my analysis very much hinged on money, and it very much hinged on wanting to leave home but understanding that as a first-generation college student there was a limit on where I could go.  It didn’t occur to me that there would be differences and advantages to attending one type of school over another.  I didn’t think about things like class size or the quality of instruction.  I assumed (and really didn’t understand how wrong I was until graduate school) that the job of “professor” and the experience of “college” in terms of what happened in the classroom was pretty much the same across institutional types.

Of course, now I know better.  I know exactly the ways in which students who end up at the regional state school don’t get the same education – no matter how hard we and they try – that their counterparts at elite universities get.  I understand that community college can actually be the path to a higher-status degree, if one is willing to do the time at the CC in order to save up for the more elite school.  I understand that those regional liberal arts colleges aren’t necessarily a waste of money – that they afford a kind of personal attention and opportunity for networking that one never sees at a big state school.

Anyway, I wanted to begin our conversation here, because if we’re going to talk about higher education, it probably would be helpful to be clear about what we’re talking about, particularly since I really don’t think most of the general public realizes that there are anything other than cosmetic differences and differences in price tag between the different types of schools.  They really don’t understand that how much you pay really can make a difference.  And part of the reason that they don’t understand that is because we don’t tell them.

My university, for example, is a regional comprehensive with the lowest portion of state money directed toward it of all the state schools in my state, with one of the lowest tuition costs,  and 70% of its total budget comes from tuition.  (And people wonder why we rely on adjuncts.)  I teach 4 courses a semester, and while my teaching load primarily is at the undergrad level, we do have a Masters program (which, given our reliance on tuition, is needed for the money it brings in, aside from whatever good it does for students).  Research is part of the gig, there is very little support/reward for doing it.  Obviously my experience isn’t identical to everyone else’s, but it’s funny: when we start talking about Higher Education, all of a sudden the experiences of people at major research universities and elite schools are taken as representative.  I wonder why we expect experts from schools that have so much money on top of tuition to have some sort of insight about what schools that are so tuition-driven are supposed to do.  Bizarre.

But so anyway, what do you think the similarities and differences are between different types of institutions in higher education?  How do the array of institution types get in the way of systemic change?  Have the potential to assist it?  How can we talk to one another from different institutional vantage points and contexts in order to reach some sort of consensus about the state of Higher Education generally?  Is reaching that sort of consensus actually useful, or should we be dealing with these different segments of the Higher Education universe separately?  If you ruled the world, what would the future of these different institution types look like?  Why?  What are the consequences of this tiered system in terms of access to education, educational quality, etc.?

Ok.  Chat away.  You’ve got a week, and then we’ll move on to the next topic….

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