Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Big Thirsty. From ELS.

Q: What are the elements that make up a great undergraduate college or university. Think broadly, deeply, and satisfy your own fetish. No detail is too small or arcane


  1. There are many, but the first one that comes to mind for me is time. Undergraduates need time inside and, especially, outside the classroom to absorb and think about material introduced in individual classes, make connections between/among classes, converse with and learn from each other, etc., etc. They also need time to sleep, and exercise, and socialize in less edifying ways. And they may also need time for paid work, but that really shouldn't be the major focus of their lives during term time (nor should they have to spend time worrying about how they'll pay off enormous college loans).

    Professors also need time, not just to run more widgets (er, students) through the system, but also to think about what's working and what isn't, and to do some research (at least enough to keep their own intellectual muscles in shape), and to talk to each other, and their families/friends, and to sleep, eat, exercise, etc.

    But somehow, at least in the U.S., we seem to have lost track of the difference between making good use of time and having packed schedules with absolutely no leeway. It's possible that a reasonable number of existing ideas can be passed on in such circumstances, but it's difficult for new knowledge to be made (and for students to learn where knowledge comes from, and how to make new knowledge), which, by my lights, is a major (maybe the major) purpose of a college or university.

    1. I think you read my mind. I was just complaining to my spouse about how my Intro Hamster Physics class really needs one more hour per week for me to do a thorough job with all the material I'm supposed to cover. I also would like to assign weekly graded problem sets, but it's impossible to give real feedback on homework with >100 students and only one TA. If we had more staff with more TIME to work with the students and/or grade their work, everyone would be happier.
      I would willingly do some extra grading and/or class meetings if my workload were re-adjusted to give more weight to teaching, but I have to cram over 100 students plus 30 academic advisees into 30% of my time.

      I skip lunch about two days a week and often get dehydrated because I don't have time to refill my water bottle and use the bathroom. I limit my time in the office so I can spend time with my family, but the 3 afternoons per week I keep in my office (mornings are for classes) I have a constant stream of visitors. I hardly even have 10 minutes of quiet time per afternoon, which is hell for an introvert. I used to work late evenings (like till 10:00 or 11:00) after my offspring was asleep, but then I developed insomnia, so my doctor told me to knock off the night work. I'm ALWAYS exhausted, and I ALWAYS feel like sleeping for several days at a time (if I could).

      So yes, I need more down time and my students need more unscheduled time to focus on classes, rather than paid jobs. Honestly, I worked so hard to build an academic career but lately I've been thinking of quitting. My students aren't happy; I'm not happy. I don't feel like I'm doing a good job teaching, I hardly have time for research and I'm a wreck at the end of every semester. I would love to work part-time for awhile or take a career break, but I know that the OUT door is one-way. Still, it may come to that.

  2. This is cheating, I know, but I have to answer a SPLENDID question.

    PARKING. I know this varies tremendously, and many people will see my whining as, well, whining. WHY CAN'T FACULTY AT MY COLLEGE PARK NEAR ANYFUCKINGTHING?

    There was a big to-do a few years ago about our own PRIVATE faculty parking lot, but it is so distant from our office building or our main classrooms that I end up trolling the pay meters near the Admin building on days when I just have 1-2 classes.

    I'm not asking for a moving walkway or covering or valet, but let us have a lot near where we work!!! (The BUSINESS school has primo spots, but I'm sure you knew that.)

  3. ELS, you are the man! Great question and a fun answer.

    For me, though, I'm going to go with TIME. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I have grown to hate how classes are stacked one on the next, with this breakneck pace through the day if you're teaching multiple sections. I have a colleague who teaches 4 MW classes back to back. No snack. No lunch. I see her RACING to the ladies room sometime between the end of one class and the start of the next.

    And, because of the size of my campus, I always have students coming in 2-5 minutes late, even ones who I know aren't dawdling. (I can see a courtyard from one window and see poor Running Rachel hauling ass every TTh afternoon trying to make it - she never does.)

    And I know I'm guilty of wanting to get home, but a more leisurely schedule would be something I'd like. Half hour between classes. Let me sit in my chair. Let me have a drink. Let me see students for longer than those rushed 30 second visits that always take up the current 10 minute break between classes.

    Oh, I'm sure I'd complain under that system, too, but that's what I've got.

    PS: Fabby, you are a prince for posting the CD link. My first new tunes in 2 years so I appreciate it. As always, when I make my 49 cents per song, I'll be cutting you in on it all.

  4. A good school has a sense of community which includes a shared space, a shared experience, and a shared purpose.

    A shared space is easy for students on a residential campus. Faculty, staff, and administrators should want to appear during off-hours as well to enjoy or help facilitate student activities and performances.

    There should be something in common among all majors beyond the 1-credit intro to college course. A good college has a unique experience or tradition to offer. It can be a rite of passage for students, urban legends about the school's history, or even something mildly uncomfortable like cold wooden seats in the 8 am lecture hall. Alumni from different years and different disciplines can meet and have a common bond.

    Obviously, the university community needs a shared purpose of learning. That doesn't mean that the students are monks. "Work hard, play hard" is a fine motto. It does take a special mindset for an eighteen year old to be interested in learning but the college community can help influence and mold the student's views about learning. It mainly falls on the administration to set the tone that student learning is the purpose for the school's existence. The faculty are the group that provides the knowledge and experience that lead to learning so they should make the decisions about academic affairs. The administration should consider their views on all other matters as well since every decision at a university can affect student learning.

    I've visited schools which have at least some of these features. They seem almost unbelievable to me after spending my career at my present school. The students, faculty, and administration there should be proud of themselves for what they have created and maintained.

    1. I like these ideas, Ben! Shared purpose, a thoughtfully-built and maintained common physical space, a shared respect for learning...Unfortunately these are exactly the things that get eliminated by short-term cost-cutting.

    2. My college has all these things. My school still sucks.

      Why? Because we have these things at the expense of any serious attempt to be good at what we do. Only a few faculty do good research. Only a few faculty innovate in teaching. Only a few faculty attempt to push the students.

      We're collegiate and get along well.. which means we never EVER criticize each other. No standards. Cancel every third class period? Oh. Teaching from a book of conspiracy theories? Oh. Students don't know what an integral is after two semesters of math? Oh. Rampant cheating? Oh.

      Nothing changes.

    3. My place had a turn over in upper administration in my second year, and this has been part of the new bloc's agenda.

      Get the faculty to be more aware of each other's efforts across disciplines. Get the students more aware of the things the faculty do other than teaching. Encourage the faculty to be involved in student-led activities. And so on.

      I think it is actually helping, but it part because they also came with a renewed commitment to faculty (and staff) governance and transparency about what happens in the admin building.

    4. There's nothing wrong with the dream. It's just that realizing it requires other people. Other people who suck.

  5. Q: What are the elements that make up a great undergraduate college or university.

    A: Take everything they do at my joint, and do the opposite.

    (I'm being overly harsh. There's plenty good about my uni. It's just that the not-so-good is so fixable, so frustrating.)

    1. Yep, and not only fixable, but probably cheaper.

  6. I hope people keep posting answers to this thirsty. If I asked people at my school about "the elements that make up a great undergraduate college or university," lots of them would say stuff like "student success" or "Pearson modules" or some fucking batshit nonsense. So I have to rely on CMers at the compound to provide good ideas.

  7. Make it cheaper. Make it tougher to get out. Ferret out these profs (some well-inentioned and some simply hamstrung) who pass everybody no matter what. We contribute to all of society's ills when we devalue a college education by allowing it to become a consumer venture.


  8. I read somewhere (here?) that professors used to be more involved in administration. They shared the administrative load and rotated every year/few years. The segregation between administration and faculty has had a detrimental effect on academia. An undergraduate college with administrators as professors and professors as administrators sounds wise to me.

    1. I think this is better than the seemingly ever-increasing disconnect that results from 'professional' administrators, but let's not overlook that it guarantees a certainly level of buffoonery at the administrate level. Some of us (meaning faculty taken as a whole) are not cut out to administrate. Think of the people on your committees and in your faculty meetings.

    2. We have discussed here the rise of the professional ruling class: administrators who have never performed the tasks that those "beneath them" have done and/or must do on a daily basis. Ed.D. deans who have never been in front of a classroom. Provosts without PhDs.

      I first heard a similar complaint in the 1980s from a proffie in the business school. Students taking his courses in management were destined to become bosses of divisions and companies without having ever spent time in the trenches. He did not think this was a good thing and lamented the disappearance of "the meritocracy" in which someone would rise to leadership through demonstrated abilities both in the field as well as to command the trust of colleagues.

      I have not done a rigourous historical analysis of the phenonemon, but I believe as went business, so went education.

    3. PP, your points are well made. In a perfect world, such faculty would remove themselves from consideration for such positions. In a slightly less-than-perfect world, they'd be removed by other checks and balances. In this world, these buffoons become your bosses, often skipping the step of having ever been faculty.


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