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Posts Tagged ‘Higher Education’

Upon starting my new job last year, I noticed some things that seemed strange because they were different and gained a renewed appreciation for the mentoring I received at my previous institution. Nearly everything about my new position is an improvement from my last, but even though I’ve become more comfortable speaking up I still miss the department culture of my old institution.

This is not to say that the relationships within the department are bad. I seem to get along with everybody and everybody seems to get along with each other. The department as a whole, though, does not seem to do much together. For example, at my previous institution, it was common for several of us to walk to faculty meetings together. At my current institution, everybody heads over on their own.

Another small difference that I’ve noticed is that only a few of the other faculty members in my department say hi when walking past our doors. I’m sure that there are a variety of factors contributing to this: the desire not to interrupt colleagues when working, the division of our department among several areas of the building limits passing by the doors of others*, colleagues who are thinking about what they need to do as they walk to and from their offices, etc. Most egregious, however, are the colleagues whose offices are next to mine and who must walk close to my open doorway to approach their own office doors.

This is unacceptable, so I have made efforts to change it. Whenever I notice somebody approaching their office I now make it a point to say hello. When I am leaving for the day I make it a point to say goodbye**. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have affected the behavior of anybody other than me, but it was either this or starting a tally of how many days I could go without one of my colleagues speaking to me and that seemed like one of those “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” situations.

So I will continue to say hello and goodbye and if I can get tenure I may be able to outlast some of these colleagues and say hello and goodbye to new hires and, eventually, change the department culture. Seriously, people, you can do better!

*When my external mentor asked a colleague in my department how I was handling the transition she replied, “I don’t really know, he’s on the other side of the hall.”

**When telling one colleague to have a good night, he frequently replies, “Okay, thanks.” For the record, the correct response is “You, too!”

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During my second-to-last class period of the semester, I was standing at the front of the classroom talking, as I often do during class, and the light above me went out. The power had not gone out. Nobody had inadvertently hit a light switch. Just one light, directly above my head, that decided it had had enough.

A few days later, when I arrived for my final class in the same course, the clock had stopped working. Its hands resting on the numbers indicating that class would start in ten minutes. The clock couldn’t stand the thought of even one more minute of class.

When I arrived for the final exam period this afternoon I began handing back an assignment from earlier in the semester when a student took a chair from the back of the classroom up to her usual spot. Looking around, I noticed that about eight chairs had decided to abandon their posts and wander off into a nearby alcove.

Professors often make jokes about students, but I appreciate the fact that despite our classroom’s insistence that the semester had ended, my students did not give in.

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A recent discussion on Crooked Timber centers on whether higher education is due for a scandal. Daniel Davies argues that scandals typically involve things that are taken for granted in one domain being discovered by the public. Given this, Clay Shirky suspects that low teaching loads might lead to such a scandal. He writes:

What the public doesn’t understand (and what many academics don’t understand that the public doesn’t understand) is that the social compact between taxpayers and selective public colleges has been re-written. Up through the 1960s, state schools committed most faculty to teaching most of the time, while directing only a few institutions to hire and promote based on research. (Clark Kerr, PBUH, designed his famous Master Plan assuming that very few California schools should be able to offer Ph.D.s)

This limitation proved unsupportable. After WWII, research was where both the money and prestige was. This shift in our self-conception coincided with the spectacular but unsustainable support we got from the states after Sputnik. For fifteen glorious years, academies were funded as if we ran missile systems instead of monasteries. We used the money to reduce our teaching loads (in the old Carnegie model, a 4-4 load was considered full time) and allowed course release for anyone who brought in additional research dollars.

When our Cold War funding began to ebb in the mid-1970s, rather than go back to the classroom, our selective institutions began calling up an army of TAs and adjuncts to shoulder the teaching load, a transition so enormous that contingent faculty is now the majority, and we tenured faculty the minority.

As long as college was still cheap, and a degree consistently raised income, the public was largely indifferent to the increased reliance on contingent faculty to fill the gap left when we reduced our teaching loads. That period is ending. Constantly rising tuition and the emergence of a Bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite for middle-class life is exposing the American academy to a degree of scrutiny and skepticism that little in our history has prepared us for.

Shirky argues that recent events to increase teaching in the North Carolina system are emblematic of this sort of change.

The problem for colleges and universities is that as they have reduced teaching loads for faculty members, they have increased demands for research. Although I have a 3-2 teaching load and small classes, then, the demands for publication are much higher than at my previous institution where I taught a 3-3 load, where they were slightly higher than those at institutions with 4-4 loads (or higher). More publications are associated, somebody must assume, with more prestige (even if this is more closely related to endowments), making our institutions worth the high cost of attendance. I would argue, though, that publication expectations and teaching loads are out of alignment. I teach one fewer course per year than somebody in my position thirty years ago, but my publication expectations are an order of magnitude higher. As I wrote in my post on academic false consciousness:

Because administrators want to increase the rankings of our institutions, they want each generation of faculty to be better than those who came before. They want us to publish more and in “better” journals while teaching more students with fewer resources. They want us to become internationally-known experts in our fields while denying sabbatical requests that would allow us to finish a book. And we do it. … Administrators have continually raised the bar for tenure-track faculty members and rather than refusing to play their games, we buy into the idea that the administration’s view of the world is real and meaningful.

It seems like the logical result would be to reframe the expectations of faculty at many institutions, increasing teaching loads and decreasing publication requirements. It seems that there is room for a college or university to find success by increasing teaching loads but maintaining small class sizes and drastically reducing publication requirements, making its message to parents that their children will always have small classes and never be taught by an adjunct. This sort of change, though, would require faculty and administrators to be on the same page. Anybody who has sat through faculty meetings can also attest to the fact that logic is not always high on the list of things that are on display.

In my view, the institutions that are going to successfully navigate the transition that higher education is undergoing will be those that can most quickly figure out who they are and how they can best fulfill their niches. Those who try to continually operate under the rules of the old system likely have bleak futures.

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In the past, I’ve written about branding at small liberal arts colleges in terms of finding a niche and communicating that niche to prospective students, but John Quiggin had a great post at Crooked Timber last week about branding in higher education more generally. He writes:

First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness.

Later, he concludes:

Branding, as applied to higher education, is nonsense. Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction, handy during football season but of little relevance to the actual business of teaching and research. The suggestion that a common letterhead and slogan can “present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution” is comforting to university managers but bears no correspondence to reality.

The idea of universities as corporate owners of brands is directly at odds with what John Henry Newman called “the Idea of a University.” To be sure, that idea is the subject of contestation and debate, but in all its forms it embodies the ideal of advancing knowledge through free discussion rather than burnishing the image of a corporation. In the end, brands and universities belong to different worlds.

All of this provides important context for the continued corporatization of higher education, leading to academic false consciousness. Go read the whole thing.

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The history of the sociology job market contains some interesting peculiarities. For example, George Herbert Mead received an M.A. in philosophy from Harvard and then went to Germany to work on his Ph.D. Before his dissertation was completed, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Michigan where he taught philosophy and psychology before later following John Dewey to the University of Chicago. He never completed his Ph.D. (Imagine the field day that a certain job site would have with his hiring today!) It was, I suppose, a different time. (A certain job site does have a field day with discussions of full professors whom it is argued couldn’t get a tenure-track position in today’s market with their current records.) The cases of Howie Becker and Erving Goffman show that not all of the big names in sociology had such an easy time on the job market while reinforcing how different things were back then.

At ASA in San Francisco this year, Howie Becker was the discussant on one of the “Young Ethnographer” panels (the one without Alice Goffman). About the papers, he said something along the lines of “How am I supposed to talk about such different papers at the same time” and then moved on to a discussion of his belief that the best ethnographic work (he actually stated that he prefers the term “field work”) is typically conducted by young people in graduate school who have the benefit of time.* Early in his career, he and his fellow University of Chicago graduate Erving Goffman (if this had been the session with Alice Goffman he could have brought things full-circle…) were unable to find work. So they conducted research.

According to Wikipedia (which has incorrect information about Mead’s education and, thus, may or may not be a reliable source of information on the biographies of sociologists), after completing his Ph.D. Becker conducted research at the Institute for Juvenile Research, in a postdoc at the University of Illinois, and as a research associate at Stanford before starting as a faculty member at Northwestern. Although things might not have seemed too dire because he received his Ph.D. when he was only 23, it was over ten years before Becker started what today would probably be considered his official career. Goffman, meanwhile, worked as a research associate at the University of Chicago and then for the National Institute for Mental Health before beginning as a faculty member at Berkeley.

Becker’s point in discussing the job market woes that he and Goffman experienced at ASA this year was that they both relished the opportunity to focus on research during those years, even as their friends took pity on them. My point in discussing them is to highlight the evolution of job market pathways in the intervening years. While a candidate today might be able to get a postdoc, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor means that the prospects for somebody without a tenure-track job who wants to stay in academia are much more likely to include cobbling together a poverty-level salary from various adjunct positions than earning a comfortable living conducting research. The outcomes of these pathways are also clear, since adjunct teaching leaves little time for building a publication record that will result in an eventual tenure-track job.

Despite what might have been perceived by their friends as early-career stumbles, Becker and Goffman went on to have illustrious careers in sociology and made large contributions to the discipline. How many similar contributions does the current opportunity structure within academia deprive us of?

*Later in his career, he claimed that he found time for field work by being a bad departmental citizen. It is best that we don’t mention the advice that he solicited on this topic from a few esteemed audience members.

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The President of the American Association of University Professors has released a damning statement on President Obama’s higher education plan. In it, he states:

Blaming “complacent faculty” who remain “shortsighted” ignores the reality of higher education in the 21st century. It is not the tenured and tenure-track faculty, much less the army of contingent faculty who have been displacing tenured faculty, who are complacent or shortsighted. If anyone has lost touch with reality it is the metastasizing army of administrators with bloated salaries, who make decisions about the allocation of resources on our campuses, and our university presidents who are now paid as though they were CEO’s running a business — and not a very successful one at that. Unfortunately, these are the very people President Obama plans to consult while implementing his plan.

Read the whole thing here.

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Recently, administrators at my school circulated copies of the newest brochure – part of a revised marketing campaign – for faculty comments. The brochure looked great – we have some good people in charge of these things – but beyond its appearance, I couldn’t find much to get excited about. The takeaway from the brochure seemed to be that we are a liberal arts school with liberal artsy things like small classes and opportunities for students to study abroad and conduct research. What I did not notice was anything that sets us apart from other liberal arts schools in the region.

Over the past several years I have grown increasingly weary of administrators talking about our “educational brand,” our “marketing strategies,” and our “competitors.” Are there new programs, they ask, that we could create to attract students with higher academic abilities (and whose parents have deeper wallets)? Looking at the new brochure it struck me that the administration seems to be going about things backwards. Instead of focusing on who we want to be, more attention should be paid to playing up the strengths that we currently have. If our “brand” were consistent with our strengths, maybe we would be able to attract better students who are drawn to those strengths.

I’m obviously a faculty member and not an expert in marketing or branding, but looking at the current trends in higher education it seems that any small liberal arts college that wants to exist in its current state fifty years from now had better find a niche. Otherwise, schools like mine seem likely to devolve into little more than sources of online adult education, maybe with a token physical location as a loss leader. In carving out such a niche, a school’s marketing had better be closely aligned with its mission and both had better be closely aligned with its actual strengths and the students it serves. Whatever the case may have been in the past, generic statements about small classes and student research opportunities are not enough anymore.

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Following Obama’s comments about education during the State of the Union, David Shribman refutes the argument that the value of a college degree can be quantified on a scorecard (look up your own school here). He states:

Where the president has gone wrong — along with those college trustees contributing to the 39 percent decline in the number of liberal arts institutions — is in assuming that Americans need to be trained for a living rather than educated for life. This is more than a semantic distinction. It is the difference between reading Shakespeare in college and mastering accounting.

This is the sort of argument that many faculty members have been making, but it seems that the view of student-as-consumer, however flawed, is inescapable.

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In any given class, I have some combination of first-generation college students, students whose parents have professional degrees, lower class, middle class, and upper class students, students who are engaged, students who are not, students who can learn on their own, and students who cannot. One of the most difficult parts of my job is teaching in a way that works for as many of these students as possible. I recently wrote about my belief that massive open online courses (MOOCs) are not a good match for my institution. Yesterday’s editorial in the New York Times makes the point that MOOCs are also unlikely to be a good match for many of my students.

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One of the things I’ve found interesting about higher education in the United States is that the public seems to increasingly favor specialized degrees while the job market is moving toward uncertainty, meaning that students with specialized skills are less likely to get the jobs they are trained for. For today’s job market, it appears (from my potentially biased position as a liberal arts professor) that what students actually need is a well-rounded education that will prepare them to think through a variety of potential situations rather than to perform any particular task. Two recent articles reveal that I’m not alone.

The first, an op-ed by Michael S. Roth in the New York Times, argues that the goal of any education should be to instill students with “the inclination to learn.” He states:

The inclination to learn from life can be taught in a liberal arts curriculum, but also in schools that focus on real-world skills, from engineering to nursing. The key is to develop habits of mind that allow students to keep learning, even as they acquire skills to get things done. This combination will serve students as individuals, family members and citizens — not just as employees and managers.

The second, by Barry Glassner in USA Today, reports that a national study by the Annapolis Group has found that this belief in developing one’s ability to learn and to reason is echoed by liberal arts graduates:

Among the key findings: Liberal arts students are academically anchored — not adrift — and community minded. They value supportive learning environments and teaching that stretches their abilities. Strong mentoring, abundant intern and community service opportunities, and working directly with professors rather than graduate assistants — these things matter.

So, what is the ultimate liberal arts payoff? Alumni declare they are well prepared for both graduate study and the workplace, having developed intellectual, practical and leadership skills vital to scholarly inquiry, career advancement and life as public citizens.

I wonder when the public, and those in charge of the shrinking higher ed budgets, will catch on.

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