Saturday, October 1, 2016

The TubaPlayingProf Seeks The Guidance of a Tiny and Unruly Group of Academi-cranks.

I foresee a huge conflict coming here at Ambitious State.

The ever-growing offices for social engagement and for social inclusion—two missions that I personally feel are worthwhile—have mentioned to students that they will soon offer classes—to address the issues that each feels is important. They tell the students that these courses will be required of all students.

I sense a serious clash between the officers and the academics. For the earnest and sincere people in the two offices have not partnered with any academic departments—yet they assure the students that these courses will be available next fall.

For over eighty years, course proposals have come from academic departments, then gone through a rigorous (and at time ridiculously so) evaluation and assessment on both the college and university level, then on to final approval by the Trustees. (It once took three years for me to get an elective in my department through the process.)

Academics by disposition resist change—and I think I know how will they react when required classes come from offices instead of departments.

Are we here at good old Ambitious State merely once again behind the times? Are offices elsewhere proposing then offering classes—for college credit—in the general education banks? Who approves them? Who teaches them? Faculty? Officers with no training in teaching? Do they hire adjuncts? Who pays for them? Do the course replace other electives? Required courses? Or are additional credits students must earn? Does everyone take these courses? Will the admins who set up then hired the staff for these offices side with the academics or the officers? How do students react to being required to take these two courses—that do not appear to prepare them for careers (in their view)? How will the media respond—if at all? The two or three state representatives who have recently attacked Ambitious State? The Governor?

Am I overreacting (as usual)? (I am a teaching faculty member after all.) What am I overlooking?


  1. This seems like a real problem. The one or two classes can grow into more as other offices see another way to expand their reach. What used to be a 1-hour session during orientation can become a required, for-credit class: diversity, healthy student relationships, drinking and sex (somehow I doubt the class would be as much fun as it sounds), etc.

    You should raise a stink about this. It creates added pressure for students to finish their degrees with one more class to take. It occupies classroom space that may be limited on your campus, and it's harder to schedule other classes around these required courses. It may raise issues with accreditation. (I love the accreditation agencies. For all the extra work they create for us, they also shoot down a lot of really dumb ideas from our administration.)

    At my school, we do offer a first year experience course for one credit (required). I don't know who oversees the course. Faculty and staff teach the course (you get a small bonus for the effort). I don't know if any faculty raised a stink about this since it's only for one credit and we didn't see any way that it could grow beyond that.

    We offer some literature/data search classes taught by the library. The librarians managed to use those courses as a justification for them becoming faculty, so it's no longer a problem of staff teaching students.

    1. > somehow I doubt the class would be as much fun as it sounds

      At the place I did my undergraduate work one of the numerous gen-ed boxes could be ticked by a course entitled "Human Sexuality" offered by the Sociology department.

      Just as you would assume it regularly ran in the largest auditorium on campus, and was the most over-subscribed course in the catalog.

      It was also upper-division had a vast reading load, essay exams and a term paper (another box ticked!), so it was the most failed gen-ed on campus. And, no, I don't think it was all that much fun to judge by the harried faces of my acquaintances who took it.

  2. You are not over-reacting or overthinking. This is the same bullshit that Chancellor Bruce Leslie tried to pull, first brought to our attention by Frankie in this comment of more than two years ago. Specifically, the bullshit is the circumventing of faculty-governed due process of implementing curriculum. I followed that story for a while: Leslie had to back down. I had meant to curate some links and write about it when it was still hot two years ago, but all that shit's gone now. Here's an article that mentions the fallout.

    1. I'd forgotten this example, which is, indeed, highly relevant.

      From my disciplinary perspective, I'm more afraid of someone deciding that of *course* writing can be taught as a 500-person lecture course, with advanced undergrad "teaching fellows" providing all the direct student contact/grading, and that if the stick-in-the-muds in the English department can't embrace this vision, then we'll just call it "communication," and if the communication department balks, too, we'll create a humanities division to sponsor it, or put it online, and we'll point to "financial exigency" as a justification. But chancellors and their crazy ideas are a reality, too.

    2. Here's another link, this one to the San Antonio College Chapter of AAUP website. I seem to recall that site was full of news about this topic in the January-April 2014 era; this may have been the first article.

    3. Oh man, I'd forgotten about that. And he's still there, getting lots of love from the Aspen Institute [PDF] for his "inspired leadership" and "leading-edge thinking" that "could position Alamo Colleges as a national leader in demonstrating how to improve student success." Page 4 of the report shows that Alamo's completion and transfer goals are significantly below the national average, but that's only because their visionary plans haven't yet been "brought to scale."

  3. Like Ben, I think there are some real dangers here (and I, too, would probably be in sympathy with the goals of the classes themselves, though I'm also a bit skeptical that required classes are a good way to change the thinking of students whose thinking many of us might want to change; they're just as likely to dig in their heels, and be backed by FIRE et al. in doing so).

    They key point is, as you realize, the end-run around the usual faculty-run course-approval procedures, and the precedent it sets. At my institution, the office that seems most likely to try this sort of thing is not student life (or an equivalent), but distance ed, which sometimes makes noises about creating online courses that fulfill certain core requirements themselves if the departments that traditionally teach those courses balk at teaching them online. One could also worry about the athletic department setting up classes for athletes (which I suspect already all but happens some places, even if you leave aside the mess over "independent studies" and other paper courses at Chapel Hill, which, as I understand it, was more a subversion that a misuse of the system).

    So, assuming these are for-credit courses (is there another kind of required course? I've heard of tests one has to pass *or* take a course -- swimming at some schools, very basic statistics ("quantitative reasoning") at my undergrad alma mater, at least in my day -- but not of required non-credit courses), yes, they really need to go through the process, to avoid setting a dangerous precedent.

    And, since you're a teaching faculty member (tenured, I hope), who supports the goals of the proposed courses and even has recent experience getting a course through the approval process, maybe you can build on a key word in your account -- "partner" -- and reach out to the offices involved, saying that you're excited to hear about the courses, and would be happy to partner with them in drawing up the necessary paperwork and shepherding the courses through the approval process? It might be even more effective to have a group of faculty in relevant departments, and with relevant experience (and the protection of tenure) reach out in this way. It might involve a bit of playing dumb -- of course the course will be going through the approval process; they all have to, right? -- but that probably beats waiting until someone tries to put the course on the books without approval, and protesting (and getting tangled up with the people who may protest the courses more for content than procedural reasons; this sounds like a situation that could eventually get messy fast, with the debate showing up in all sorts of distorted ways in the media).

    1. Agreed, these are good solutions, and allow for the (probably quite small) chance that the offices just don't realize there is a rigid procedure that can take time and has very fixed deadlines (at least this is the case at my place).

    2. I am perhaps overly charitable in assuming that the chance is more than small. Outside the one-off workshop, seminar series, other extracurricular event, etc., which they can (and should) do without gaining any approvals but their own, planning and inserting a full-term course into the curriculum is typically not the realm of these offices. I think it likely that they just don't know how much they don't know.

      That's why Cassandra's approach is so spot on: it builds interdepartmental partnerships and leverages* shared mission** even while it brings the new courses into alignment with due process. Brilliant.

      * As much as I despise empty business-speak, here the term strikes me as quite apropos.

      ** There, I've done it again, and I shall do it yet again in the future. When colleagues work towards articulated common goals, how is this bad? That the edubusinessadminiwonks can repeat the phrase glowingly to their superiors is not reason in itself to eschew it. However, should anyone bring in "monetise" to the conversation, I trust you'll take them to the Northeast Duck Pond and deal accordingly.

  4. You're not overreacting.

    This sounds familiar to themes I think recur around academia, where admins are so removed from the actual business of teaching that they start to think of courses as being simply commodities. Of course they could do a better job than faculty! They've thought longer and harder about the general outlines of education more than we have!

    This includes Centers for Goodness like the ones you describe. The need might be genuine.. but they really have no sense of the work that's poured into courses every day.

    1. Indeed. Sadly, the denizens of Centers for Goodness (like many of the undergrads they attempt to serve) are devout proponents of the gospel of "awareness" (otherwise known as being informed, getting the word out, etc.): if only people knew what they knew, then those people would think as they think, so the purpose of education is to spread "information," and everything else will magically fall into place.

      Of course, this in no way resembles what actually happens in our classrooms (though it closely resembles what many "watchdogs" think is happening). For one thing, as many of us have said here, if we had the awesome power to effectively indoctrinate students, we'd probably start by using it on something simple like comma usage, or decimal point placement. The fact that we can't, after considerable effort, get students to think about those relatively straightforward issues in the way that we'd like suggests that our powers (for good, ill, or anywhere in between) are limited.

      And then there are the issues of critical thinking, understanding how knowledge (including knowledge conveyed by numbers) comes from, etc., etc. Sadly, much of the "information" beloved by activists

    2. Oops; that comment seems to have lost its last sentence or so. I think I was saying that activists on both sides of issues often cite statistics of dubious/uncertain origin, and that most situations tend to be complicated -- which is good for genuine intellectual inquiry/conversation, but doesn't bode well for courses that are planned to have simple, foregone conclusions/effects.

  5. As the flakies say LOL, nope. I am personally sympathetic to civic engagement as an ethical responsibility of higher education. I am not sympathetic to the overgrowth of administrationesque, student-service positions that both raise costs for the students and create a class of university employees who need to justify their existence. At my last several gigs do this by creating so much programming that there is literally no room in the day for the time commitment, no room on the campus for all of the new meetings and no room in the minds of those involved for all of this activity to actually become learning through introspection and reflection. All the worse when the programming is courses offered for credit, taught by staff who do not have the academic experience to teach meaningfully in these areas. Actual research done by actual qualified academics shows that these kinds of shallow experiences are actually harmful - reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes and creating the exact opposite of the desired effect. So. Much. Nope.