Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Big Thirsty!

What's wrong with higher ed? What can be done? What can you do?


  1. Jeez Louise, where to get started with this one. The lunatics took over the asylum in the mid-to-late '80s, when demographics caused a downturn in the number of students attending college. This gave rise to the idea among university administrators of "students-as-customers," the evils of which college teachers have grappled with ever since. The ground was made fallow for this by three other developments, all from the '60s: (1) the advent of anonymous evaluations of teachers by students and their enthusiastic adoption by university administration, particularly of the numerical scores they generate; (2) the rise of grade inflation, a by-product of deferments from the draft for college attendance during the Vietnam conflict; (3) the abandonment of in loco parentis by nearly all American universities, which meant that students could run amok and faculty have no right to say anything about it. A parallel development in American society, which started around 1970 but became really noticeable in the '80s, around the same time "Baby on Board" stickers became common on cars, was the rise of “self esteem” in education, a symptom of which are rewards for participation: every kid gets a trophy, not just the winners. God help us all.

    What is wrong? How about the corporatization of the university? Or is that coprolitization? I know, it's a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist.

    How about the apparent complete lack of accountability that university administration so often enjoy? I'm beginning to think that, aside from sexually assaulting animals (a serious problem at my university, but so far still mainly among the students), there's nothing a university administrator can do to get fired. They just seem to get promoted and move elsewhere. Our last out-of-control Provost was genuinely surprised at the outcry that resulted in his attempts to break up our College of Science and Mathematics, and our College of Arts and Humanities: apparently, he was idiotic enough to think that we’d just gamely go along with this. Less than a year later he left us to become President of another university. God help them, I say.

    What can be done? How about those few of us with tenure who remain to make some noise about it? My physics department will be meeting with the new Provost next Friday to discuss our out-of-control Dean, who has bolted to become Provost at a university elsewhere. Frankly, I think that our Dean is now far from here is a very good thing, but we faculty have our blood up. We are about to mutiny in order to remove our grossly incompetent department Chair. The downside of this of course is that someone will have to serve as Chair, and inherit the mess he made.

    What can I do? That lucky winner may indeed be me, since I’ve served as Chair before. It wasn’t so bad: I got to get some excellent SHOUTING in. Don’t worry, no one GOT IT who didn’t DESERVE IT. If this is what it takes to protect our students’ educations, I’ll do it.

  2. defines retarded, in part, as "characterized by a slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding and awareness, emotional development, academic progress."

    And this is what has happened to incoming freshmen. They are so wildly unprepared for the work - not just the rigorous critical thinking, but the following of instructions and the taking of responsibility - that an undegrad instructor, like myself 2/3s of the time, spends the 14 weeks teaching grade 8-12 for them.

    I'm sick nearly every Fall term when I meet my sweet and precious and very unprepared 18 year olds. They are not ready for this venture. Not even close.

    And so over the 20 years or so of my experience, I've seen colleagues give in, lower standards, pass the unpassing. And I see them as sophomores and I have another year of education to teach them in my allotted time.

    I wail occasionally at faculty meetings, and a few like minded folks say hurrah, and then the Deans suggest we do even MORE for them, meet them where they are, open extended office hours - which are never attended - and offer weekend "study seminars."

    At those, and I have run some, the 5 good students come. It's like a real class, like olden days.

    But the rest makes me feel as though all is lost.

    Why do you think the misery exists?

    1. Oh, YEAH? Well, MY students are MORE retarded then yours---and they're sheep fuckers too! And it's DOCUMENTED!! ;-)/2

  3. I think the causes have been pretty well covered by Frod and the RGM (and I say that as an '80s college grad who probably has an Ivy League degree only because of the demographic trough into which I was born; in the current competitive environment, I would have landed at a flagship state u, which would have gone equally well, I'm sure. But hey, we may have been a bunch of latch-key kids, many from "broken" homes, who probably wouldn't have gotten into the place a decade or two before or after, but we did a pretty good job of making the best of the resources of our extremely well-endowed intellectual playground, in part because we had independence and initiative. Having distracted and/or absentee parents probably also prepared us pretty well for dealing with star professors who mostly weren't really into this teaching thing.)

    Still, I'd say that the system is in worse trouble than the students (who are, indeed, sweet and unprepared, but also trusting enough of full-fledged adults that it's actually possible, at least to some degree, to teach them -- or at least some of them -- about the value of things like challenge and struggle and working through frustration. Also, I actually have some hope for the common core, though I realize there are problems with both its inception and its execution, especially the involvement of the big-business testing/curriculum publishers). The "run it like a business" folks are a big part of the problem, as are all the edupreneurs who see colleges and students as markets, and insist that it is part of their American birthright to make a 15%+ profit selling administrators products to accomplish work once performed, silently and sometimes even unconsciously, by tenure-track professors fully integrated into, and genuinely playing a role in, the institutional structure (I'm thinking of things like retention and curriculum planning/course material production here). I'm not sure how to unwind the panic/assessment spiral those folks (plus rightfully-concerned legislators) are feeding, but it needs to be done. (continued below)

    1. The conversion of adjunct/contingent lines into tenure-track ones that include service (and preferably also at least a bit of research) would be a start. So would a requirement that anyone in an administrative role requiring a graduate degree (no matter how many levels of "assistant" or "vice" or whatever precede "Dean" or "provost") hold that graduate degree in an actual field taught at the undergrad level in the university (not higher ed administration; that should probably only be a certificate, or perhaps at most an M.A., that must be combined with graduate study in a traditional field*); have at least 10 years of university teaching experience, most of it at the undergrad level, on first taking up an administrative role; continue to teach undergrads (including in entry-level core courses) regularly while an administrator; and return to the classroom (especially the undergrad classroom) for at least 3-5 years in between 5-10-year stints in administration. In short, the idea that administrators are also tenured professors in a department needs to stop being a convenient fiction invoked mostly by administrators who lose their administrative jobs, and become a practical reality.

      Who can make these changes? I don't know. Definitely not me alone (though I suppose I can keep encouraging it, and asking awkward questions about the status quo). There are some very powerful entities with a strong interest (financial and otherwise) in maintaining the status quo. On the other hand, the "consumers" (a term I also hate, but it has its value if you think about students and parents and taxpayers as customers who have a right to demand a quality product, in the form of a truly educated populace, from the institution as a whole, rather than professors as service workers tasked with promoting individual "customer satisfaction" despite the generally rotten state of the overall entreprise) are getting restive about rising prices and declining quality. And I think we (the faculty generally, and especially the contingent faculty movement) are having some success in getting across the message that the money isn't going to the faculty (tenure-track or not). As the economy improves, and the miserable state of faculty employment becomes increasingly well-known, I also suspect that grad programs are going to have fewer and fewer takers. That could put a whole different (and, I think, ultimately healthy) demographic pressure on higher ed. At least one can hope.

      In the meantime, I'll keep telling my undergrads that challenge is good, frustration can be overcome, and both are signs they're actually learning. Some of them do seem open to the idea, and that gives me hope.

      *I say this despite the fact that I know several very good people with higher ed admin degrees, and greatly appreciate their efforts to make activities like assessment genuinely useful to the faculty. The thing is, I'm pretty sure those people would also thrive in a traditional degree/additional work in higher ed admin environment, and would be happy to spend part of their working time doing something like helping undergrads understand the use and misuse of statistics. It would, however, I hope, weed out the aspiring administrators who don't really want to understand where the "data" they live by comes from, and the strengths and weaknesses of the processes underlying its production.

    2. I so wish you were my real world colleague.

    3. Thank you. One of these days we need to found CM university (I think the plan was to start in tents down by the river, though whether that plan is as suited to our current location as our former one, I'm not sure).

  4. Much as I agree that the post-secondary educational system has gone off the rails and is badly in need of repair or even a complete overhaul, I no longer believe it can be salvaged.

    It's damaged to the point that it can't be fixed and there are too many parties which have a vested interest in maintaining its sorry state as they profit handsomely from it. Reforming it would be akin to cleaning the Augean stables, which mere mortals found impossible. It took the likes of Hercules to accomplish that and he had to divert two rivers to do so.

    The post-secondary educational system is fiercely defensive and severely penalizes anyone who wants to change it for the better. I tried for several years and was made to suffer for it by the administrators of the institution I used to teach at. It eventually got to the point where it was no longer worth it for me and I quit.

    I tried. I failed. It's no longer my problem.

  5. It can only be fixed by granting me SOVIET POWER for no less than a decade, but no-one is willing.

    "America: Our weaknesses are quickly outnumbering our strength."