I have managed to collect a number of reports/assessments/surveys of the current and future nature of universities. I offer them as links to PDFs below: Harper’s “How College Sold Its Soul” and the Pew Higher Education Research Program’s “The Lattice and the Ratchet”.
I occasionally bring up the idea of working abroad, whether it be some place in Europe or in China, with my wife. The reasons for wanting to leave *here* in order to go *there* vary:
* *Here* in the current moment is sometimes our current employment, at a regional public university which is increasingly run “by the numbers” by increasingly cynical administrators: that is, they are happy to check off mandates given to them by the state, or sometimes even by themselves, in order to claim success, without really engaging the matter at hand. Classic example: State – “Our students need exposure to international culture because business is increasingly global.” University – “Um, if we require students in freshman English to read something written by a foreigner … that counts! (And we’ll ignore the fact that freshman English is already responsible for retention efforts, despite the fact we cram two dozen or more kids into each and every class.)”
* *Here* is also the South, and sometimes that just feels limiting. There are ways in which girls are socialized that we simply find unappealing if not downright appalling.
* *Here* is also a small city in the South, which loves all its big fish in its small pond: we don’t want to live in such a constrained world, and we certainly don’t want our daughter to grow up under such constraints.
*There* of course is always subject to being the other side of the hill. I am sure that *there* has its share of problems, but those problems will not be ours, unless of course we plan on staying there. For now, our conversation is usually about a semester or year abroad. Enough to scratch the itch, as they say, and then to return to *here*, perhaps with a renewed appreciation for *here* or perhaps with a kind of worldly detachment.
All of this was prompted by a terrific article in the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ on [“Faculty Life Abroad in Unusual Places”][che] which is accompanied by some really thought-provoking comments.
I’m taking an online workshop that, essentially, walks you through a 28-page rubric. 8 standards broken into 43 specific thingamajigs. There are a series of slides for each general standards that walks you through some of the specifics. Each and every specific slide begins like this:
Standard $ states, “Encapsulated abstraction that is not to hard to figure out here.”
Standard $ is an [essential | very important | important] Standard in the Rubric.
The Rubric offers Annotations to further explain what is meant by Standard $.
Take a moment to read the Annotation for Standard $ in the Rubric.
This is how I have spent a good chunk of my past week. I’m an intelligent man. Really, I think so. But I don’t think I’m going to make it through this workshop.
What happens is that I end up thinking about how I would write a Python script to write this stuff. Natural language processing, indeed.
Steven Conn has stirred up quite conversation over at the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ with [“The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher”][sc]. I am sympathetic to his sense that we are awash in rubrics, but I think many of the commenters are correct that it is not an untoward moment in education when students are better aware of the criteria by which they will be judged. (If only life itself were like that, eh?) There is hope, I guess, that the pendulum will swing at some point toward a moderate middle within which students and teachers can have both more freedom to play but also have a sense of clarity about any grading coming out of the interaction.
It is, I should note, the tendency toward driving out play that rubrics, and their all too common accompanists, standardized testing, to which I object. Regular readers will know that I have complained before about the nature of education at my daughter’s school, which is so driven by students achieving certain competencies by a certain date in the spring semester that there seems like there is less room for fun than one might hope in what is considered a gifted and talented environment — hers is not a G&T school per se, but rather a private school that, I think, claims to be steeped in G&T approaches and ideas. (I can’t say for sure because the more I get to know about educational theories and rhetorics, the less I understand them.)
I don’t have much more to say on the subject, except to make note of a side comment by one of the commenters to Conn’s post. It got a hearty, “Tell it!” from me:
> Moreover, many students bring pre and misconceptions about their classes with them: eg: reading literature is an act of decoding or that science gives them right answers.
[William Deresiewicz in _The New Republic_][nr] confronts the the nature of private schools — and he means universities — and their meritocratic notions that really rely on the kinds of things only the upper middle class — doctors and bankers, he notes, in particular — can provide to their children.
> This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
> The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.
His advice to private schoolers who want at least some sense of the bubble in which they live:
> You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them. You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of “service,” … [but] service work[:] That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way. There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any college—often precisely for reasons of class. There are smart people who are not “smart.”
The best line of the essay?
> Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal.
It is no surprise to anyone in higher education, especially anyone in higher education in Louisiana, that things are fairly dire when it comes to the job market. The poster below reveals some of the larger trends at work across all departments: the humanities are not the only ones “in crisis.” Higher education, in general, it could be argued is under attack. Yes, the economy has been tough, but that does not explain the glee with which state governments have hacked at higher education budgets. Critical thinking and science are simply too inconvenient for the political forces that have emerged, largely on the right but also some disturbing ones on the left. That university administrations have taken advantage of these economic and ideological trends not only to hack away full-time faculty but also to increase their numbers and fatten their salaries is not unexpected, given the rise of MBA-think among them.
The crazy thing is, most university administrators don’t have a clue that they are re-purposing MBAisms from the 90s, which proved disastrous to corporate America in the following decade: even Harvard, birthplace of the MBA, is re-thinking the degree’s nature and focus. Unfortunately for higher education, lessons are not as learned as quickly here, buffered as we are from fools quickly being run off when things go wrong. And so we will probably face at least another decade, if not more, of high-sounding rhetoric making all the wrong decisions.
So, yeah, take a look at the last graph or so in the poster: the one that reveals that retention and graduation are highest when you have full-time faculty at the front of classrooms, be they physical or virtual.
The poster was, I think, originally from Marc Cortez, but I can’t find the link now.
Kudos to Rosemary Feal for leading efforts within the MLA to re-imagine what it means for PhDs in the humanities *not* to get jobs in the academy: that is, what does it mean when we don’t *clone* ourselves? Even in my small field of folklore studies, I have been astonished by the assumptions that we make about what is “proper” work for our graduates and what is not. As Feal points out, the problem remains of what counts for graduate programs: when our graduate students land research and teaching jobs, that’s good. When they land teaching jobs, that’s acceptable. When they find ways to use their training in other kinds of jobs in ways that speak to their passions, their experience, or their economic needs … that doesn’t count at all. (To be sure, this is probably something that applies more to R1 programs and departments than to R2s, or whatever it is that my university is.)
Take another look at the photo. It was originally posted to Reddit, and its topic was the dog, sitting patiently on a bench in what, I believe, was described as an animal shelter. Sure, the dog is sweet, but what really captured me in the photograph was the setting: that bench, the glass partitions, the easy-to-clean tile floor, the cinder block walls that someone has tried to camouflage with some military-gray wainscoting as well as the slip of paper that no one could be bothered to pick up and the glimpse one catches of institutional lobby furniture suggested to me a kind of emergence of a common institutionality.
What is the consistency of that common institutionality? There is, of course, the ever-present rationalization that we are doing what we are supposed to do because the numbers all add up. No one asks larger questions, about meaning and quality, because to do so would be to call attention to oneself. You have a limited set of options: give in and go along, invest and get promoted, or retreat into whatever private world keeps you sane when you have had contact with the institutional world.
Whoa, I surprised myself with just how fast all of that tumbled out. And I wondered: is it just the current moment, the current circumstance? I work at a regional public university which has given up even trying to be better: our dean recently told a fellow faculty member that quantity of publications count, not quality. When asked about getting back some of the 20 to 25 percent in wages we have lost over the past 8 years, his response was simply “Talk to the legislature.” But he isn’t alone in not caring. A number of faculty have begun not to care, and so hallways that were once vibrant with conversation are now deserted. Office doors that were once open are now closed. People used to at least rally around getting and keeping the building clean, which has been a regular struggle for the last decade, but now no one even complains about the stairway handrails that you dare not touch or the dirt accumulating in corners of the computer classrooms. Like that piece of paper lying under the bench in the photo above, it just doesn’t matter enough to anyone anymore.
I hope this is just Louisiana, and not some larger set of trends. I gather from colleagues elsewhere that things have begun to turn around, but here, here I don’t know if they ever will. The budget for higher education might get better, but I’m afraid the organizational changes that have occurred during this period may not be so easily reversed.
Zachary Ernst [left his tenured position] at University of Missouri for a job with a Chicago-based company called [Narrative Science]. (A very intriguing name.) His first post is a nice rant — sometimes one likes the jagged edge — but he also has a [follow-up post] that considers the gains and losses in moving from an academic job to an industrial job.
[left his tenured position]: http://zacharyernst.blogspot.com/2013/10/why-i-jumped-out-of-ivory-tower.html
[Narrative Science]: http://narrativescience.com
[follow-up post]: http://zacharyernst.blogspot.com/2014/01/after-jumping-off-ivory-tower.html
I get what the Chronicle is trying to do with Vitae — i.e., trying to make up for the fact that it’s the community that matters — but I’m less sure about the blogging dimension they’ve added to it. Case in point: [What’s the point of academic publishing?][v] Is it the angsty, or angry, essay that draws readers, that generates a conversation?
More importantly, why is _Vitae_ separate from the rest of the Chronicle? If they recognize the importance of community, why not fold everything into the larger whole? (Or maybe it’s too hard to divorce themselves from Disqus?) I think serious commentators would re-apply, if they didn’t already have a Vitae account, and it might reduce the amount of trolling that seems to take up way too much room in the comments of late.
Listen, it’s been 15 years since Locke et al. published [The Cluetrain Manifesto][ct], and if you are going to publish articles deriding the old system of publishing, then you better take a look at that rock you got in your hands and check behind you to see what your house is made of…