Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Excellence without Money; Cutbacks without Students Suffering

I grew up without a lot of money. We lived in a shitty neighborhood in the inner city; my dad worked in a steel mill when he wasn't laid off (which was pretty much most of the time from 1980 until my parents divorced); both my parents came from huge, poor families (mom's = 10 kids [2 disabled, one set of twins]; dad's = 7 kids and his father divorced his mother when his youngest sister was in the cradle). And I remember quite vividly being told when times were tight, and I remember quite vividly how that directly affected me. I remember my mom reusing packaging bags for school lunches because she didn't have the money to buy sandwich bags. I remember having to wear plastic bags inside of my hand-me-down boots because that was the only way my feet would stay dry in the winter. I remember years when I was told that times were tight for Santa, and since I already had "so much" that he might not be able to bring me very many presents. There was no nonsense about pretending for me that money wasn't a problem, nor did I not face the negative effects of not having money. My parents did their best, but I was not sheltered from tough times. When tough times hit, they hit me, too.

But so what does the above paragraph have to do with the title of my post? Well, I'm getting to that. See, I've been reading a lot of late about cuts at universities, on blogs, in the news, etc. And one thing you hear over and over again is how we need to do everything in our power to make sure that students don't actually notice a difference in the quality of education they're receiving. I think that this might be the most ridiculous (and maybe the most dangerous for higher education structurally) idea ever.

Now, I'm really not a monster, and I do think that we should do everything in our power to give students the best education possible. I think students and student learning should be our top priority. But, and this is where I may be a monster, I think that the key word in the past couple of sentences is possible. Giving a student "the best education possible" means something very different when budgets are flush than it does when budgets are collapsed.

Example. When budgets are flush, it's possible to get release time from teaching in order to perform in other (required) areas of the job. With release time, an instructor can maintain the number and type of assignments as well as the level of rigor in all of his/her courses while also being a high performer in another part of the job (which, I'm going to note again, is REQUIRED - not a "pet project" or something like that, but REQUIRED). Now, even though things are comparatively good at my institution, release time has disappeared. And let's say that a faculty member has to teach four courses while also doing a REQUIRED part of her job that will be exceptionally time-intensive. What gives? I'll tell you what gives: stuff in the classroom. Because, realistically, I can control that part of my life more than I can control the required service thing. And so, what I will do is I will assign fewer papers (which means students will not get scaffolded writing assignments and their learning will be affected), I will stop doing quizzes in my lower level classes (which means many students will not be as inclined to keep up with the reading, which will mean that they learn less), and I will eliminate as much prep as possible across my classes, effectively finding time in my teaching to do another REQUIRED part of my job. While it is true that I could take time out of my non-work life instead, protecting students from the reality that my institution expects work from me that they don't support, I refuse to do that.

I'm not sure how protecting students from that reality teaches them, or how it helps the cause of higher education. At the end of the day, students become taxpaying voters. Why should they vote for more state support of higher education if their undergraduate institutions did a job that was just great (from a student's perspective) without more funding? Why should parents of current students support higher education funding, if their kids are doing just fine under the cuts, getting one heck of a college education? Clearly, higher education is not in crisis if students are not affected! This "crisis" is actually a blessing, right? It means we can "trim the fat" from these institutions, and put those fat-cat professors who only work 12 hours a week in their places!

And yet, the rhetoric that I hear most frequently as we discuss the dire budget situations across the country and at my own institution involves faculty (and to a lesser extent staff) taking one for the team so that students will not be affected by reality. Here's another example. A colleague of mine asked me, just days after the budget for the entire program (which has no permanent faculty housed in it) was slashed, to serve as director of Vibrant Interdisciplinary Program. If I had agreed, I would get two courses of release time (except probably not - a few weeks later they tried to take away that release time from people in administrative posts that were similar) and a small (TINY - think less than 5 grand) stipend (for which in exchange I'd be on a 12-month contract - meaning 25% more work for only 10% more pay). I said, swiftly and with conviction, no. Every time there has been a budget crises in the history of the university, this program's budget gets annihilated, and yet, faculty keep the program afloat out of the goodness of their hearts. Students never know that the university continually undermines this program, refuses to give it the resources it needs (last year they took away its administrative assistant, which means the director now serves as the program's secretary as well), and basically undercuts any attempts the program makes to grow. Does this serve this program? No. It doesn't. And it also doesn't serve students, because students who choose this program could really learn something about the content of this program from watching how the program itself is treated. Instead, students are given the impression that the inequities and injustices that they study in the classroom don't actually exist in the real world. Nice.

Professors across the country are taking pay cuts and going on furloughs, and the rhetoric is, "but obviously I care so much about students that I will work for free in order to shield them from the reality that there just isn't enough money for [insert thing central to student learning and success here]." Effectively, when professors make the choice to work on days when they are on furlough, to do the same amount and quality of work for less compensation (whether in pay or time), or to teach more classes without overload pay, they are extending a line of credit to institutions (and by extension, to state legislatures) that nobody is ever going to pay back. Because that's the thing: the benefit for this uncompensated labor is not, ultimately, to individual students. It is to those budgets that find a big pot of free money that will seemingly never dry up and that will seemingly never need to be repaid.

I'm lucky that at my institution we are not (at this point) discussing furloughs. But I'll tell you what. If we were? I can say with certainty that I wouldn't do a lick of work on those non-teaching days for which I wasn't being paid. Yes, I would walk into class and explain that I didn't grade because I was on furlough. Yes, I would explain that students would need to run discussion in the following class because I would be on furlough the day before. Not because there wouldn't be work to do, or because it wouldn't affect my students, but rather because it would affect my students, and perhaps that's the only way to make the point. If we don't value our own labor, why do we expect upper administration at our institutions, state legislators, or taxpayers to do so? Why do we expect students to do so?

And at the end of the day, isn't the attitude that we've got to protect the kids (or ourselves) from financial reality at least part of what got us (broadly) into this mess in the first place? The idea that we are entitled to things that we don't pay for and that we can't afford? How exactly does continuing in that vein when it comes to higher education help to solve the problem?



***Note: I just want to state for the record that I know that for the untenured and the non-tenure-track that the above position just doesn't work for any number of reasons. My point, I suppose, is that it's the job of people with tenure to fight this fight, precisely because we have the job security and status to do so.

20 comments:

Shane in Utah said...

Yes, yes, yes. My university has already been through massive budget cuts, a wave of firings, and a 5-day furlough (and the worst is yet to come, after the stimulus money runs out next year). Through it all, the administration's position is that we should do everything possible to protect students from the brunt of these cuts. Meanwhile, many of the faculty have been arguing just the opposite, that we need to make the cuts visible to students as much as possible so they recognize what's being done to higher education in our state...

Our furlough was scheduled for Spring Break (though the diminishment in pay was spread over the following 5 months). It was easy enough not to do any teaching-related work during those five days. But I had to give a conference paper the week after spring break, and the damned thing wasn't written yet. Granted, no one at my university saw the fruits of this labor beyond a line on my CV, but it was still work (research is 50% of my role assignment). It was patently absurd to pretend that salaried research professors would do no work during the furlough! Grrr...

Dr. Crazy said...

See, that's another issue - research. I suppose the only thing for a situation like what you describe would have been for you to slack on teaching in that week prior to spring break in order to get the conference paper written. Ultimately, if 50% of your role is research, research should trump teaching anyway, so it makes sense that teaching should suffer before research. I think perhaps the problem with how the furlough worked out at your place is that they told you when it would occur (over spring break) rather than having faculty choose the 5 days. Ultimately, by dictating when the furlough would happen, the university pretty much insured that at least some people would have to break the rules and work during that time.

Aurora said...

Well said, Dr. Crazy.

If we shield students from the consequences of higher ed budget cuts then they (and their parents) would see no reason to vote against them. I don't think we should go out of our way to make students bear the brunt of budget cuts, but there is no reason to shield them either.

gwinne said...

Really great post! Word in my department is that we "might" need to up our teaching load (if not in actual courses then by increasing the enrollment in each section) while, of course, our research expectations have also increased. As someone going up for tenure next year, that leaves me a little, uh, panicky. You're "solution" to this problem makes a whole lot of sense to me!

Dr. Crazy said...

Aurora wrote, "I don't think we should go out of our way to make students bear the brunt of budget cuts, but there is no reason to shield them either." I agree with you entirely here. The point is not to put all of this on students' shoulders, but it is to acknowledge that this level of cutting cannot do anything other than affect students.

Also, I think it's important to acknowledge, following Gwinne's comment, that one way to make sure that student learning DOESN'T suffer is to revise job expectations in other areas. If you expect teaching load to go up (whether in more courses or expanded class sizes) then that needs to be taken into account when managing other areas of workload and performance review. The reality is that you *can't* get something for nothing. The way these discussions are going, however, seems to be that this is exactly what universities (and, more broadly, states) expect. And it seems to me that the only way to make it clear that this can't work is to let students be affected. The reality is that if people don't keep up with the less tangible parts of the job, that doesn't work as protest because those are regularly ignored anyway, and they don't produce the same kind of negative PR. (I've never heard that people were up in arms because their local professors weren't publishing enough.)

Kate said...

Brilliant. I'm so glad you are here and making such an important contribution right now to this conversation.

Shane in Utah said...

Gwinne, if your teaching load does go up, you and your fellow junior colleagues should talk to your tenured allies in the department about the research expectations. It's absurd for publication requirements to increase even as your grading load has grown; the tenured ranks should have your back on this.

Crazy, you and Tenured Radical need to stop being so interesting so I'll stop posting comments and go do some work! (Uncompensated summer work, let me add...)

citronyella said...

I am an engineer working to keep the lights and the air conditioning on and next week I am going to be sitting at the house on "furlough". Its not just happening in the academe. I can assure you that I will not be answering my cell phone no matter how agonized the voicemails get. Furlough periods (coyly called "contractor free" as if dependence on contractors for technical support was some sort of addiction), and "donated time" which is unpaid required overtime for direct hires is common in my industry. And yet the expectation is seamless, uninterrupted power flowing from the switch.... sorry for what may seem an unrelated rant, but it isn't really unrelated.

Yancy said...

Excellent! In a related way, this has been bothering me as well--the whole "work for no pay" mentality, where teaching (at all levels) is seen as "service" or a "calling." This bothers me because when someone says teaching is a "calling" it almost always means that it is therefore okay to not value teaching--that devaluing largely being in the form of not paying for it!

Susan said...

Yes. We met about this yesterday, and our provost wanted students not to know about the cuts. Of course, students have been hit by a tuition rise.
Of course furloughs will hit students == though the plan for us is to have formerly paid holidays as furlough days. Oh, great: we work more for less. Or maybe we'll just have a straight pay cut.

Anastasia said...

This is a fantastic post. So much of this sounds like my regular life in terms of what is expected of adjuncts. I'm to pour heart and soul into my work for the sake of my students, despite the fact that I am paid very poorly, I have no benefits, and they can just decide not to renew my contract next semester because they feel like it. Even if I'm more qualified than the rest of the adjunct pool. I do this out of the goodness of my heart? Yes. And out of the (misguided?) desire to keep adding lines to my CV.

In other words, I do this or its the beginning of the end for my life in the profession.

At the moment, universities seem to be expected a version of the same thing of t-t and tenured folks. Actually, I think the budget cuts simply make it more visible that they already expect a version of the same thing from regular faculty.

Anastasia said...

expecting in that last paragraph, not expected.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

PREACH IT, SISTA! This is a great post. Reality bites, and it bites everyone, and so everyone should learn to deal. I especially like your point about students becoming (or in some cases, already being) taxpayers.

Sisyphus said...

A great post!

It reminds me of how awkward and strange it felt to go on strike while as a TA --- awkward telling our students about it when they were pretty hostile to the fact that we were not going to be there teaching them. The more we talk about our own labor and pay and connect the dots between what happens on our side vs what happens on their side in terms of fees paid in, though, the better it is for them --- I think we should be educating our students about our labor in the university at all times; that way we don't just bring it up at times of crisis like cuts and strikes.

Shannon said...

I couldn't agree more. One of the things I've been advocating for here on our campus is "working to the contract." That is, I've been trying to convince people to ONLY do those things that are required of them in the contract. All those extra things we do for free (out of the goodness of our heart) - shouldn't be done anymore. For example, our incoming students have a common book to read. Campus administrations then asks faculty to "volunteer" to lead discussion groups. I think we shouldn't do things like that. There's no reason for administrators to stop thinking our labor is free unless we stop giving it to them for free.

Bardiac said...

Good discussion here, thanks.

For us, our students are feeling the cuts in a lot of ways. It's important to talk to them about the cuts. We're even talking about having a teach-in on a furlough day, where we'll discuss state budget issues and decisions, talk about education and prison funding (they've gone in very different directions here).

But, there's also a point at which our students are directly paying more for less (higher tuition and fees), and we want to be mindful of how little power they have relative to the situation.

Belle said...

Great post, and you're so right. The tenured people need to be on the front lines on this. I've often wondered why teachers are so willing to denigrate their (our) own labors and efforts. I've included my students in the process in the past few years, as research expectations have risen even as funding has been cut. RNU hasn't started talking about furloughs yet; I"m sure it is coming.

Thanks for getting this post out there and let's hope people are listening.

Jay said...

As a student...

..I very much sympathize with this sort of thing. At the same time, this is all going on in the private industry and has been for a long time. Professors are similar to salaried workers in that they often are expected to do more work and "for free". In private industry though, if you refuse this sort of thing you lose your job.

At the same time, I work full time to pay for my tuition which has been steadily rising year after year. I also live in a high tax state, and while it doesn't support public universities as well as it should, clearly taxing people more is not the obvious answer. I am also a voter. I sympathize with my professors and their slashed budgets. That being said, at my university the professors pretty much do nothing but lecture a few hours a week, and MAYBE be present for an additional few office hours. Grad students do all the test grading, and undergrads are hired to do the remainder of the grading. I'm not saying that a lot of work doesn't go into teaching, but if my professor has literally a 5 hour a week commitment to teach a course I'm in, has taught it before many times (so presumably not a lot of prep work) and THEN goes on to complain about the work he did "on his weekend" or complain about being at his office hours and nobody showing I get a little irritated. I'm paying a tuition that keeps rising, and is paying at least a part of this professor's salary. In a way, I am one of his customers. I understand the professor has research obligations, but he really needs to take that up with his administrators not his students. So while you might face something like a 6% salary drop for a furlough, I've been facing 5-10% tuition increases EVERY YEAR. And don't think the raises in private industry are really enough to cover all that, they are just as scheming and underpaying as academia. So yes, let your few ignorant silver spoon students know what's going on and how tough it is. But please don't complain to me about how hard your lives are because many of your students are struggling as well.

Bavardess said...

Excellent post. I fully support your position. I think you make an important point about the wider problems in our society that have come from raising a generation (or more?) of kids in a culture of immediate gratification and the expectation of getting things without having to work for them (whether that's money, good grades, a promotion or whatever).

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for all of your comments. I have a couple of responses. First, to Bardiac: I agree that students don't have a great deal of power, and that they are being asked to pay higher tuition and fees. However, I'd argue that students have less power if they aren't given information. If everything "stays the same" they don't understand the increases, and they don't see where their tuition dollars are going. I think the idea of doing teach-ins on furlough days is awesome.

Which leads to my response to Jay. I understand that students are facing higher costs and are struggling. I do think that it is dishonest to hide what is happening in higher education from students, and I think that they need to be aware that their professors are not, even with tenure, going on as if nothing has changed. I teach at a historically underfunded regional state university in a state in the bottom in K-12 education. My regular teaching load is four classes per semester. My salary is less than that of my best friend from high school who is a high school teacher. There are no TAs or undergraduate graders at my university.

I don't think that my students by any stretch of the imagination are entitled or have silver spoons in their mouths, nor do I think that they should solely bear the burdens of the funding crisis in higher education. I'd say all of my students work at least part-time, and many work full-time or some combination of part-time jobs that adds up to full-time. Most of my students are paying their own way through college with little or no family support.

I don't think students should feel sorry for their professors, and that was not at all the intent of my post. I think that students should value the work that professors do as educators, and I think that they should demand the highest quality education they can get. The reality is that in the current situation, many students will not be getting the highest quality education because of the combination of state budget priorities, the priorities of (some) administrators, and the fact that faculty have been losing the power to fight on behalf of students after 30 years of adjunctification in higher education, particularly in the core general education disciplines.

A final note: I don't know what the workload of professors is at your institution, though I suspect they are working more than 5 hours a week, even if you do not see that work directly. I could be wrong, though, as I don't know your institution. I do know what my workload in a light week during the academic year looks like, because I took the trouble to log my hours worked in Spring 2008. I should note that I was doing an administrative job so was only teaching 2 courses instead of my regular 4 that semester. If you're interested, you can check out the series, which starts here:

http://reassignedtime.blogspot.com/2008/04/today-in-crazys-workload-week-long.html

You also might be interested in the review I did at the week's end:

http://reassignedtime.blogspot.com/2008/04/crazys-workload-day-7-and-week-in.html