Sunday, May 03, 2009

"Changing" Higher Education - Dr. Crazy's View

Craig Smith from AFT (and the blog FACE Talk) asked me (along with a slew of cool folks) to weigh in on questions surrounding how and if higher education needs to change. I like the premise of Craig's call to arms:

Now, there are some out there who are offering up solutions, but I am curious--since the inclination when discussing the future of higher education is to do what the CHE did and chat up association and institutional leaders--if there might not be just a teensy bit more room for faculty and staff in that discussion? And that is what this is really about.

So, here are two questions:

  1. Do you believe the U.S. system of higher education is in need of change and, if so, why and to what degree?
  2. What are the top three things you would change in the long-run if you had the power to do that?

Finally, the intention is not just to encourage folks to talk about staffing (unless that is one of the areas you firmly believe needs changing), but rather to generate a wide range of ideas from a faculty and staff perspective since one fundamental change we believe in is more faculty voice in academic decision making . . . but I get ahead of myself.

So I've been thinking about this since I received Craig's invitation a few days ago, and I've gone back and forth about how to respond. It seems to me that discussions about higher education reform often reach an end point that is likely going to be difficult if not impossible to implement in practical terms. So, for example, let's say that we want to talk about the crisis in adjunct labor. Yes, I think that this constitutes a crisis. But if where we go from there is that we need to hire more t-t faculty (which I'd agree in principal that we do) and stop hiring such a high percentage of adjunct labor (which I think that we do), where we often come out at the end is with a call to action that will never become reality, not because it's not right but because there isn't the infrastructure to support that change.

The bottom line is that if we need hundreds of sections of composition, we're not going to get the lines to support t-t hires to fill all of those sections, what with the budget situations of the states these days. So then, the extension of that is that we end up whining about how everything's broken, but we don't see improvement in working conditions for faculty (whatever their stripe) or improvement in education for students (which should really be the ultimate point). In the worst cases, we just offer support for those who believe that higher education has been totally ruined - "taxpayers" (not individual people, but the group that is invoked), legislators (people who think that implementing tests will get them re-elected), idiots - without offering a workable alternative. We are the very people who have trained our whole lives in the field and who, in theory, should know best how higher education should work and who should really be the people who spearhead discussions about change in higher education. And yet, what we end up doing is confirming suspicions about our own inefficiency, stupidity, and obsolescence.

So, before I begin, let me offer some suggestions about who should be coming together to start any discussion of these questions:
  1. Working tenured and tenure-track professors from a range of institutional types and from a range of disciplinary areas of expertise. The profession of "college professor" is not, ultimately, a monolith. Being a college professor at an Ivy League institution is different from being a professor at an R1 Flagship state university is different from being a professor at an R1 non-flagship is different from being a professor at an Elite SLAC is different from being a professor at a non-elite, non-selective SLAC is different from being a professor at a regional state university is different from being a professor at a community college. The institutional cultures are different, the funding levels and emphases are different, the students are different, the missions are different, and the conditions for one's labor and successful promotion and tenure are different. Moreover, having a wide representation of fields is important, as my experience as a professor may actually more closely resemble that of an English professor at a non-elite SLAC than it does a business professor at my own institution. Also, in this category I'd include tenured and tenure-track librarians from the whole range of institutions.
  2. Administrators from a similar range of institutions, as well as from a range of positions within administrative hierarchies (academic deans, provosts, presidents, deans of students, those in charge of technology, heads of libraries).
  3. Contract faculty (part-time, full-time) in non-t-t positions, post-docs, VAPs, again, from a range of institutions.
  4. Students. Both grad students and undergrads. I know, crazy, right? And this isn't about the customer always being right but rather about including the biggest population on university campuses in the discussion.
  5. Staff. Full-time advisers, support staff, IT people, people in administrative units like First Year Programs or Retention or Study Abroad.
In other words, to put it succinctly, I don't have faith in a conversation about "changing" the American university that comes from outside the university or that comes from the top-down within universities or within the hierarchy of higher ed. I do have faith in a conversation that is broadly inclusive within all of the sectors of higher education.

So with all of that being said, let's look at the first question.

Do you believe the U.S. system of higher education is in need of change and, if so, why and to what degree?

Before I can answer this, I want to think for a minute about what we think "change" is supposed to do. Who is the "change" for, and what we hope to achieve through change? Because here's the thing that often gets lost in discussions of higher education in the United States: even with all of its problems, the university system in the United States is still, as far as I'm aware, the best in the world. Our higher education system still attracts people from all over the world, and degrees from the United States remain more marketable than degrees from elsewhere. So as much as we talk about our system as "broken," it's still, apparently, pretty darn good.

So let's start with what makes our system good. I think it's the fact that we do believe - across types of universities - in "general education" and in open access (to varying degrees depending on institution type) to higher education. Higher education in the United States (first since the GI Bill, and then since affirmative action) is not, across the board, about preserving privilege for a select few. It is about granting access to opportunity. That has to do with economic opportunity, sure, but it is also - and this is key for me - about intellectual opportunity. This is what general education, core, or general studies requirements are about. Any student who goes to college in the United States is put into a position where there is the potential that his or her mind will be blown. No, this may not happen for all students. But the potential is there for all students.

So if we are to change things, I think the only reason to do so would be to increase the chances for students - across university types, across backgrounds - to have their minds blown. This is potential that I see as already being there, and something that already happens for many students. "Change," for me, would mean that more students get their minds blown. (I'm not going to say all students - that might be more than anybody could deliver.)

But so if that is the goal of "change," then "change" can't really start with an objective of "selling" higher education to legislators, or taxpayers, or whatever. Change has to start with curriculum and with what happens in the classroom, and, further, with ideas, and those things aren't quantifiable or assessable before you imagine them. If you start with assessment before you address what will be assessed, you're not changing anything in a meaningful way - you're just adding layer after layer of bureaucracy. It's not that I don't believe in assessment. I do. I just don't believe in putting the cart (assessment) before the horse (education). Meaningful assessment grows out of solid curriculum. Solid curriculum does not grow out of proficiency tests, pre-ordained learning outcomes, Quality Enhancement Programs, or legislative mandates. And it certainly doesn't grow out of demands for excellence without money, or, more broadly, without support (which includes things like time).

So, do I think higher education should "change" in the United States? Yes. I think that we do not serve all students as well as we are obligated to serve them. I think that as college has become a necessity for most people rather than an option for an elite few, that the structure of higher education as a whole has not transformed to meet that need. Instead of transforming higher education to our current needs, we have merely added on to an elite (elitist?) model, which means a brilliant kid from Appalachia will go to the state college down the road rather than to the private university in the Northeast, and that brilliant kid's opportunities will reflect that "choice." Only it was never really the kid's choice, because we talk about "college" as if it means the same thing no matter where you go. And if your parents, or any of the people that you know, didn't even graduate from high school, they're in no position to tell you any different.

I think that it's wrong that we exploit highly qualified "temporary" or "contract" faculty because it means that the bottom line works out, even if it also means that students don't necessarily get the same kind of support that they would get otherwise (and this is not a diss on the temporary or contract faculty: this is about the fact that if they do give students that support it's out of the kindness of their hearts and not in any way something that students should have the right to expect of them).

And finally, I think that a model of higher education where tenured and tenure-track faculty fight turf wars about the respective "value" of their disciplines through battles about curriculum is totally fucked up. That's not what our students need, and it's not really about educating them. We do it because that's what higher education used to be, and we do it because administrators can force us to take those positions based on their edicts. But seriously: I shouldn't want a course to be required for all students just so that I'm sure to make my enrollment, or because I'm worried that my program will be axed if x number of courses in my department aren't required. I should want a course to be required for all students because I think that all students really would find such a course useful, illuminating, and enriching in their lives as educated people. Seriously. That's the bottom line - not enrollments, not department power, not anything else. As higher ed stands today in this country? I'm a fucked up idealist. What I just said totally isn't reality.

So on to the next question:

What are the top three things you would change in the long-run if you had the power to do that?

Ok, so I'm going to list three, without a whole lot of explanation because this is already wicked-long. We can talk more about the ins and outs of these in comments, if people want more.

  1. I do not believe that adjunct labor (or graduate student labor - grad student labor should be about training them to do this job, not about using them) should underwrite lower teaching loads for tenured and tenure-track faculty at institutions that aspire to raise their research profiles. It's bad enough that we rely so much on adjunct labor at my teaching-intensive regional institution, but at least I teach as much as most of our adjuncts, and I do teach those "unattractive" gen. ed. courses (comp, intro courses) that they also teach. Yes, I want a lower teaching load. But no, I don't want it on the back of somebody who's making 2 grand a course. And seriously: teaching is not an impediment to ideas or to solid research. It's just a time-suck. In this job I've learned how to make it less of one, without sacrificing rigor in my students' educations. This is not impossible. If research universities want to have faculty who teach less, they need to hire more t-t/tenured faculty.
  2. Curriculum should be about serving students - not about serving the legislature, not about serving the "community", not about doing an administration's will. Curriculum should be determined by people who have an investment in those disciplines, not by outsiders. Just because you "love to read" or have read a few books doesn't mean you know what literature students should read in college, or how much they should read. Seriously. I went to school for years to become qualified to make these judgments. I teach these students. You hired me to do this. You tenured me. Yes, I'm the lady who knows more than you about these matters.
  3. Decisions about the vision of higher education at a particular university, or about what it should become generally, need to happen with ultimate transparency and they need to happen with a mandate. This isn't all that hard. Dude, I'm in an English department (and we all know that those are snakepits) that hadn't truly given its curriculum an overhaul in 30 years and I made that happen. How did I make that happen? By being totally transparent and by getting people invested in the change through that. Yes, it was a fuck of a lot of work. Weeks of my life I'll never get back. But I made it happen, and I'm like this hero for doing it, even for those who were suspicious and resistant. That can happen on a broader scale. It just takes trusting that it can, working really freaking hard, and involving as many people as possible.
Thus ends this manifesto.


The History Enthusiast said...

A wonderful post, as always. I totally am with you on all of this!

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I agree with your comments -- I also think that the problem that causes the adjunct labor issue starts with grad schools. Sure, there are statistically way too many grad students, but that's not really the problem.

The problem is that most grad programs will send folks out to teaching institutions. Most grad students won't end up at R1/Ivy universities -- instead, they end up with a 3/3 or 4/4 and then complain that they can't get any research done because of their teaching load. Some Dean believes them, buys out their teaching with an adjunct and the problem perpetuates.

If grad programs would give serious consideration to teaching their grad students to teach -- their graduates would be ready to run their own classrooms in a way that isn't as much of a time suck as teaching CAN be. I've had to learn most of my survival techniques the hard way -- because my grad program wasn't interested in teaching about teaching...

Also - this has to happen from within grad departments. Farming it out to the edu-crats is useless. Those folks don't generally understand the specifics and they often aren't well respected by other disciplines. A generic course on how to teach isn't going to work. Two semesters of actual professional development coursework within the department is what's needed. One course should be near the beginning and focus on how to do research, publish, etc.. The second course should be near the end and focus on developing syllabi, assessment and other things that can make life easier for young profs.

Patti said...

I'd love to hear you (and others!) talk about how to make teaching not as much of a time sink. I think you've discussed it briefly at various points while I've been reading your blog, but I'm starting to think hard about the issue for the first time. I've been teaching comp for the last four years, with a 1-1 load as a grad student, and our first year writing program's principles are nearly impossible to implement when one has a higher teaching load--1 class genuinely works out to 20 hours a week on average. So, the things I'm used to doing I know I can't keep on doing, and I'd love to hear what people do in order to actually make teaching more efficient.

Craig @ AFT said...

Just want to say thanks for this post--you are the first to take on the questions we posed and what a great first response!

Couldn't agree more about getting all stakeholders involved in the discussion. We are working on doing that at a state level which we will write about more soon, but it would be great to have these types of discussions at the institutional level as well.

Hope others will join in the discussion and we will bring them all together over at our site.

Susan said...

I love your proposal on many levels. First, the acknowledgment of institutional differences. Second the respect for professional knowledge driving the conversation. And the transparency.

What's unsustainable is that we have a model that assumes a level of funding that we don't have. So we keep trying to patch things to catch up. You're right, we have to start from the beginning.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This is a great post. I hope you'll be a university president someday.

Bridgett said...

I especially hear you about the student-serving curriculum. Our GER curriculum is a giant turf war. It's exceptionally divisive for faculty and no good for students. It was apparently designed and imposed by a former administration staffed with Catberts who wanted to keep the faculty badly divided as a means to serve their own ends. Boy, does that ever work.

Anastasia said...

"I think that it's wrong that we exploit highly qualified "temporary" or "contract" faculty because it means that the bottom line works out, even if it also means that students don't necessarily get the same kind of support that they would get otherwise (and this is not a diss on the temporary or contract faculty: this is about the fact that if they do give students that support it's out of the kindness of their hearts and not in any way something that students should have the right to expect of them)."

This is true.

Shaun Huston said...

Thanks for the defense of faculty expertise. Too many discussions of "assessment" seem to take for granted that faculty cannot be trusted to design and deliver college curricula (or, at the least that there is a perception that this is so, and we just have to capitulate it to it cuz that's the way it is). Your critique of the way assessment is done, making curriculum subject to predetermined outcomes, is also spot on.

Leslie said...

I love you, Dr. Crazy.

The End Of History said...

Excellent post indeed. Higher education in the US is not, as you make clear, "broken," but it is definitely breaking in ways that jeopardize the goal of providing intellectual opportunity. The changes you suggest would surely help, but the main problem I see is that nothing good can happen until there is a shift in what society values about education. I may be unduly cynical, but what we in the US generally value is training, not education. True education, that mind-blowing experience you talk about, presents a clear threat to the existing power structures in society, the economy, and politics. Training, on the other hand, supports the existing power structures and is clearly more "practical" than general, mind-blowing education. Forty years of political attacks on education in general and on the educated in particular have left us in a desperately poor position to reform the way we deliver intellectual opportunity.

On the topic of teaching at the university level, Inside the Philosophy Factory makes an interesting point regarding how graduate departments prepare the tiny minority of their charges who will become future faculty members. Teaching practice -- not just grading stacks of essays -- should be a priority in all disciplines. My experience was apparently unique in that I was a classic teaching assistant (grader) during the first two years of my Ph.D. program. After that, the history department (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) turned me loose on my own Western Civ sections and literally left me to do everything from choosing a textbook and supplemental reading materials to designing my lectures and exams. I was slightly more "mature" than some of my colleagues, in my early 30's at the time, but I had never handled a course on my own before. Needless to say, I had to become exceptionally proficient very quickly if I had any hope of surviving. During the four years I taught history during and after my Ph.D. program, within my department and at nearby schools, I never found the work to be an excessive time sink. Of course, since I have a wife and a son, need health insurance, and don't really want to live under a bridge, I had to abandon my academic dream for something much less interesting but eminently more practical....

Virtually Scholastic said...

Change = Blowing Students' Minds I'm all for supporting that kind of change! Great post with lots of poignant issues to think about. You discuss the importance of change needing to start with the curriculum, classroom dynamics and the intangible, unmeasurable gooey stuff in the center of it all. Although already inferred, I would just add an explicit note about the importance of cultivating an education system that also has the power to blow the teachers' minds. Especially in an age in which more of us are becoming eternal students. If teaching = time-suck, perhaps we're missing the whole a massive way. So thanks to the hero who made change happen. And the time it took you to do it (those weeks of your life lost forever)...well, if you didn't go through that experience, you wouldn't be prepared for what's to come, and you wouldn't have been able to teach those around you by example that it's possible.

And just to add to "The End Of History"'s comment, I agree - I'm unclear what perceived value education has in these volatile times. See more here.

Virtually Scholastic said...

Just an ammendment to the previous comment: final link goes to: