Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Colleagues and Universities

As I promised yesterday, in today's post I will address Lesboprof's excellent discussion question, but also, Nik has weighed in to ask another that is related, and so I'll cover both in this post.

Lesboprof asks:

What do you do with colleagues who don't seem to like students? They just want to spend all their time and energy on the best and brightest, the ones we don't have to teach because they critically engage the books and come to class already knowing more than we might teach them. As for those students who don't look right or act right or speak or write correctly, they basically ignore them or castigate them. They spend the rest of their time bemoaning "falling standards." What do you do besides wait for them to retire??

This is a great question, but it's funny: it's not one with which I actually have a tremendous amount of experience. I think that I have dealt more with the inverse of this question, i.e., colleagues who tend to make excuses for students and to talk about how "great" they are in lieu of teaching them basic skills that they need. What's interesting, though, is the result is the same, just what I've dealt with has a more warm and fuzzy cast to it. In other words, the needs of the lower third or half are still not met - those students are still ignored - but in your version that lower third is castigated or lamented, where in my version that lower third is explained away through excuses and apologies and, ultimately, praised. ("Our students have so many responsibilities!" "Our students have such difficult lives!" "They do the best they can!")

I think that the problem with both attitudes is that they both let us as instructors off the hook for what students fail to achieve or master. "Learning" becomes something for which one either has a natural aptitude or one doesn't. If a student doesn't "learn" it's entirely on the student, whether because the student is stretched too thin to fulfill their academic obligations or whether it's because the student is in some way inherently "weak." Now, I'm all about students having ownership over their own educations, and I don't think that it's all on the instructor to "inspire" in the fashion of Dead Poet's Society or Mr. Holland's Opus. That said, I do believe that there is a reason why it's worth it for students to pay money to park themselves in front of me for three hours a week, to do the assignments that I set for them to do, and to think in the ways that I show them how to think. For me, the classroom should be a space in which both students and instructors have obligations to each other: the moment that one lets the bottom third or bottom half fall by the wayside without any attempt at intervention, for whatever reason, I believe that the instructor is failing to hold up his or her end of the bargain between instructor and student.

Ultimately "standards" fall whether instructors blame students for not achieving or excuse them for it. The only way to insure that "standards" remain high is, to some extent, to teach to that lower third or half and to bring them up to the middle or higher. And, it seems obvious to me, that doing so ultimately pushes the top students to achieve more as well, because if the other students increase in their abilities it takes a lot more effort for students in that top spot to shine.

But so what is to be done? Well. Institutional change is slow, and I think overt attempts to change an institutional culture can often be counterproductive. The Old Guard will become even more entrenched in their positions because they'll feel that they are being threatened. One thing that I think is helping at my current institution is that there has been an influx of new professorial blood, and students are responding well to the higher expectations. Ultimately, I only really have *control* over what happens in my own courses, but when it *works*, and when students respond to it positively, that goes a longer way toward changing the minds of the fuddy duddies than if I railed against them in an overt way. And there are small changes that one can try to institute at a department level (somewhat under the radar) that increase the level of professorial engagement - like, for example, taking an administrative call for more transparent assessment as an opportunity to come up with assessment objectives that fall in line with hitting that lower third by framing it as "this is what all majors should come away from courses with the ability to do." This way, it's not an attack on specific individuals but rather the discussion becomes one of shared governance and about making the administration the enemy - not students, not other faculty members. [Edited to add: Dean Dad writes a post today that reacts against my characterization of faculty/administration interaction here. I've left a lengthy comment to his post, so I won't repeat it here. I will say, however, that I do not think that individual administrators are the enemy, nor do I think that all administrative pet projects are bad ones. What I want is to get things done, and sometimes an administrative decoy can help with that job. Again, though, I wasn't lashing out at administrators here, but rather just writing off the top of my head about how to navigate the distance between entrenched and embittered faculty (or entrenched and enthusiastic faculty) and faculty who are less entrenched. I'm in no way an expert, and I hope I didn't characterize my thoughts here as some sort of universal truth for how things should or do work at every single institution.] But at the end of the day, some people won't change their attitudes. What I suppose speaks loudest is if students stop enrolling in their courses. How one can achieve that kind of shift in enrollment, though, I'm not entirely certain.

This then brings me to Nik's question, which is about what kind of university would most appeal to me. How is this linked to the above? Well, I think students and the attitude to students matters a great deal in how I imagine the "ideal" institutional setting for me. But so here is Nik's question:

Nik asks:

If you could choose what kind of University you wanted to work at, what would it look like and where would it ideally be?

This is such an interesting question to me because given the state of my field (English) I've historically avoided allowing myself to fantasize about ever having such a choice. It was enough to have a job - any job. Even when I tried my hand at the market last year, I was fairly scattered in my approach because I didn't really believe that any preferences that I might have would make any difference. This year, however, I've been more focused on what I want than on what the market has to offer. So, let me first address the types of institutional settings that seem most attractive to me:
  • I'd like to work at an institution that has a better sense of its own identity and about the identity that it imagines for itself in the future. My current institution began as one thing (open enrollment, serving a community college type mission) and now is in the process of transforming into something else (although it's not always clear what that is). On the one hand, there is a heavy focus on serving the community. I think that's ultimately a good emphasis for my institution. But because it's not always as clearly articulated as it might be, it makes it difficult to figure out how to fit oneself into that mission when one's specialization doesn't necessarily lend itself to that kind of work. At the same time, my institution has been adding many graduate programs, which then requires (or should require) a greater emphasis on research for faculty. At the same time, the emphasis on teaching remains. So an institution that once was all about teaching now is all about everything. This makes it a pretty grueling set-up, especially for junior-faculty who must be aware of tenure requirements that seem to increase year by year with no grandfathering in. On the one hand, it's exciting to know that the work I do shapes the future of this institution; on the other, it's very easy for the work that I do to become all-consuming in ways that are not at all personally healthy.
  • I'd like to work at an institution at which I did not have to teach composition. My Ph.D. is in literature, I have no commitment to teaching composition and no interest in doing so. That is not to say that I don't have a commitment to teaching students how to write, but since I end up having to do that in my lit classes anyway, with students who've already had composition, there is a futility to teaching composition for me that is disheartening. I like working with freshmen, and I actually do enjoy teaching service courses in literature. The issue is not that I don't want to pull my gen. ed. weight. It's that I know that I do a better job with teaching things that I'm passionate about - even if only tangentially - than with teaching things that I am only barely qualified to teach (and where the qualification comes out of a system of exploitation that begins in grad school). If I'd wanted to teach composition, I'd have gotten a Ph.D. in composition and rhetoric. Now I do it, and I do the best job I can with it, but I hate it. I'm burnt out on it. And I am not inspired to find a way not to feel burnt out, and this does a disservice to my students.
  • I'd like to work at an institution at which my research has more value than it does in my current context. In part, this links to teaching, in that I know I'm a better teacher when I feel satisfied with the research portion of my duties. For me, the two really are linked, and I would love to be in a situation in which that link was recognized more than it is.
  • I'd like to continue to work at an institution that serves a large population of first-generation college students. I was in the first generation in my family to attend college, and I identify strongly with the needs of those students and the particular challenges that they can face in an academic context. I think that it's important that they have instructors who understand those challenges, not only intellectually but also personally.
  • I'd like to work at an institution where I have relative autonomy in choosing what courses I teach and how I teach them. I have that at my current job, and I'd be reluctant to give that up. Same goes for autonomy as it relates to scheduling.
  • I'd like to work at an institution that cares about all of its students - that does not privilege grad students over undergrads or vice versa - and that rewards excellent teaching as well as excellent research.
Do I care about teaching grad students, like, as a career goal? No. Do I think it could be professionally rewarding? Of course. Would I devote myself to doing a good job with it if I had the opportunity to do so? Yes. But ultimately I've never cared that much about the idea of teaching or supervising grad students as some sort of preference above teaching undergrads. Again, I really do love working with freshmen and non-majors, so it's not at all that I'm looking for a more specialized audience for my teaching.

Now, as for part two of the question: location, location, location. I'm actually fairly open on location. When I look at the positions for which I've applied this year, they do tend to be in cities of some kind, but geographically And they're not centered in a particular region. I did tend to choose based on being nearer to people I care about than I currently am, but not necessarily nearer to family in all cases. Some places are on the east coast (nearer to grad school and high school BFFS); some are nearer to my family and hometown friends; some are further west, but again, nearer to friends. Ultimately, I want to end up in a place where I can imagine myself making a life. Here, well, I've given it a good shot. And I don't see my life ending up here. For a long time I beat myself up or feeling that way, like it was somehow my fault that it doesn't work for me here. What I think now is that maybe this place just isn't for me. It's not a bad place, as places go. I'm not totally miserable. But I'm not *happy* here. And dude, I want to be happy where I live.


Dr. Bad Ass said...

I find your wish list for an institution interesting, as I sometimes think about applying for positions elsewhere. One of the things that keeps me from doing it is the idea of moving -- moving my books, my spouse, my cats -- buying a new house, etc. I can't do it again. For a while at least.

As to those bottom third of students that you describe, one thing that I repeat to my students (all secondary English education majors about to head out for their student teaching semester) is this mantra: Along with high expectations for your students, you must also provide high levels of support to help them meet those expectations. Anything else (lower expectations, less support, etc.) is doing both your students and your self a disservice.

So I'm with you on the importance of not dismissing those students and not coddling them.

Anastasia said...

"along with high expectations for your students, you must also provide high levels of support to help them meet those expectations. Anything else (lower expectations, less support, etc.) is doing both your students and your self a disservice."

wow...yes. I so agree with that and it makes me all teary eyed about my advisor, who is all sorts of awesome for just this reason.

k8 said...

I really like your institution 'wants.' And, I think it is safe to say that comp/rhet phd's want to teach more than freshman comp. [I know you didn't specify freshman comp, but that is what most assume the word composition to mean so I'm going with it] I love freshman comp classes, but I also like to teach intermediate and advanced composition, and my area of research specialization is literacy studies and print culture(s).

But anyway, I agree that people shouldn't have to teach in areas so far away from their specialization - these really are two very different parts of English studies. And the grad school/teaching composition exploitation, in my experience, leads to a lot of resentment towards gen. ed. students and composition in generally. And that, I think, doesn't help the situation from the first question/prompt - professors who resent their students.

And yes, it is very very important to have high expectations. I always had more respect for teachers/professors who expected more from me. I'll stop now - I could rant about that issue for a while.

Dr. Crazy said...

Anastasia and Dr. Bad Ass: I just want to chime in that I am in entire agreement with the passage that Anastasia quotes. I suppose what often frustrates me is that I am committed to providing that level of support, but the demands of my institution make it very difficult to keep that level of support as high as it should be. In other words, I do understand why people burn out here and why they stop, however they justify stopping to themselves. At the same time, I don't know how to love my job and to do that. And so there we are :)

K8 - I totally take your point that comp people don't just want to teach freshmen comp! Just as I wouldn't want four sections of intro to lit! (Actually, at my institution I've also taught an intermediate comp class that also fills a gen ed requirement, so I'm not really complaining about the "freshmen" aspect of my comp teaching, which in fact I enjoy much more than the intermediate class.)

See, that's the thing: if we really believe that composition is important, why do we tend to have non-specialists, adjunct labor, and grad students teaching the majority of courses in it? Would we do that for Shakespeare? (Um, no, we wouldn't.) Comp thus becomes a ghetto where very few people teaching it are committed to doing so and are energized by doing so, so students benefit less, and instructors *still* end up teaching writing in whatever their specializations (or disciplines).

If that's the case, then what is the *point* of composition? If we really care about composition, then we should acknowledge that it's really its own field and stop assuming that people trained in literary studies are "good enough"? If we don't think it matters, enough to fund a true composition program and faculty, then why require it of students at all?

k8 said...

Exactly! It's an issue oft discussed in comp/rhet land. For all of the chatter about students' alleged inability to write, it is damn hard to convince people that students in writing courses should be taught by experts in the field. It is so hard to convince some (not you!) that the fact that a person writes well does not mean that s/he will be a good teacher of writing. Basically, I completely agree.

Oh, and I adore freshmen - especially in their first semester before they become jaded! Intermediate comp can be difficult because (at least where I am) it is very likely that students tested out of the first year writing course or have put off their sophomore-level writing req. until senior year. Students come in with a wide range of skills and many are so thoroughly invested in their major that gen ed reqs can seem like a hassle. I probably take a more radical approach than my peers here in that rather than having a traditional course theme, one version of my course has the theme writing from research - students write in different genres throughout the semester based on research (primary and secondary) about the topic of their choice. It is a nice little combo of my training in rhetoric, my mls, and their interests and engagement. But, everyone I know finds it a challenging course to teach.

My earlier comment was, I think, related to the fact that so many people associate comp/rhet with FYC and think that it is all we do. I think a general ignorance of the field does lead to some of the institutional problems. And, we are the most feminized part of the field. Susan Miller's book Textual Carnivals is a nice source for that issue.

Anastasia said...

oh yes...I mean, my advisor has a 2-2 and one graduate student. she has, comparatively speaking, nothing but time.

Belle said...

As a historian, I find this conversation very interesting because even though it's not about comp/rhetoric, we have the same issues with surveys. When I interviewed and they told me I'd have to do World Civ, I thought and said 'sure!' because I'd have said yes to nearly anything to get a real job. Now, it is the most dreaded of my classes, and I teach a section every term. It's draining and I'm really burned out on it. And yeah, I've done things to counter the burn-out and they really haven't worked. So I keep trying. But I'd quit that class in an instant if I could.

And like Crazy, I'm not happy where I am geographically even though I like the SLAC, dept, and my home. I just don't want it to be in this state. Or, to be honest, in this country.

Field Notes said...

wow. I just wanted to say I hear you; I think we are on the same page with regard to the way it ought to be, both in serving the lower third and what type of institution we'd like to be in.

I know that ideals aside, I have to settle for whatever job I get and work within that place to serve students the best I can.

Doctor Pion said...

I know the kind of institution I would like to be in is one with someone like Dr. Crazy on the faculty, since those ideas on the problem and a politically clever way to get some faculty to become more engaged match some of my concerns.

What bugs me sometimes is that there might be a person like Dr. Crazy on the other side of campus, but never found myself in a position to find out what that person really thinks. That might be true where you are, Crazy. Everyone nervously keeps their own counsel and fails to find like-minded souls at their own institution.