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.
10 years ago