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Higher Education — Some Musings 14 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
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Now that I’m no longer part of the academic proletariat, or as I used to call myself, the academic-sharecroppers (i.e., the ever-growing army of part-time, adjunct faculty), I’ve begun to take a hard look at the state of higher education, my relationship with students, the institutions, the pay, the actual education, and research. It is an odd realization that even as an adjunct faculty member for five years (and a graduate instructor for five years before that) I hadn’t ever really stopped to look at what I was doing or the institutions I was working my ass off (and indenturing myself to the federal government’s loan program) to be a part of.

Last year, most of my energy was spent making the huge mental shift from “graduate student” to “professor”, trying to get up to speed on a couple of classes I’d never taught before, and securing a contract for my first book (coming out in early 2007, if all goes wel). This fall, however, somewhat settled into my new ‘identity’ and having a better feel for my particular institution, I’ve begun to reconsider the whole enterprise of higher education. Part of this has been confronting some interpersonal issues I’ve had with students (usually issues of personal discipline (e.g., whining when they have to actually do an assignment)); part has been confronting my lack of time to do the research I want to do (I’m a public teaching institution with a 4/4 teaching load); and part has been dealing with the educational culture and its intertia at the institution that employs me. In a nutshell, now that I’m a professor, I have a stake in the institution and actually care about the quality of education for my students and the quality of my work life here. From talking to many of my colleauges, I know that I’m not the only one who cares; yet I find an overdetermining sense of resignation to the Way Things Area and to the Powers That Be. I’m currently torn between following the example of my more experienced and wise coworkers and kicking against the pricks.

[Given the reality that several professors around the country have been punished for the contents of their blogs, I’m only going to speak in abstracts here.]

Recently one of the former Presidents of Harvard, Derek Bok, published a book about what’s wrong with undergraduate education, which was subsequently reviewed in Commentary by Donald Kagan, Professor of Classics, Yale University. In the book, Bok outlines the major problems with undergraduate education today, and the findings are grim. In Kagan’s words,

It seems, in short, that our colleges are “underachieving” after all—and that even their supposedly happy clients know it. Fewer than half of recent graduates, according to Bok’s ever-ready statistics, think they have made significant progress in learning to write, and some think they have actually regressed. Employers confirm this self-assessment, complaining that the college graduates they hire are inarticulate. As for critical thinking, “The vast majority of graduating students are still naïve relativists who ‘do not show the ability to defensibly critique their own judgments’ in analyzing the kinds of unstructured problems commonly encountered in real life.” In the area of foreign languages, fewer than 10 percent of seniors believe they have substantially improved their skills and fewer than 15 percent have progressed to advanced classes. Nor are the results any better in general education, the great battleground of the critics. According to one study, only about a third of seniors report gains in the understanding or the enjoyment of literature, art, music, or theater. Bok goes so far as to quote Daniel Bell’s judgment of the typical curriculum as “a vast smorgasbord” amounting to “an admission of intellectual defeat.”

Beyond the measurable shortcomings in the intellects of college graduates are deficiencies of character. According to Bok’s findings, recent graduates lack self-discipline. Employers complain that they are habitually tardy, lazy, and unable either to listen carefully or to carry out instructions. Bok blames this, too, on their undergraduate experience: grade inflation has undermined standards and professorial laxity has encouraged negligence. “If undergraduates can receive high marks for sloppy work, routinely get extensions for assignments not completed on time, and escape being penalized for minor misconduct, it is hardly a surprise that employers find them lacking in self-discipline.”

Kagan argues that the reason for this failure is that professors teach so much less than when he was an undergraduate 50 years ago. He says that in his day, professors taught five courses per semester, and that that was slowly widdled down to 2 courses per semester by the 1980s. To be frank, I’m a bit dubious that a professor at a research university ever taught 5 courses per semester, but I’m willing to take him at his word for the sake of argument. There is something to the argument that the priorities have shifted from teaching to research (although research was always a part of the equation). But I think that Kagan’s analysis is lacking in historical and sociological accuracy. Kagan argues that most classes are taught be ill-equipped graduate students and adjuncts (so far so good) and that this is because professors are spoiled and lazy.

Here’s where I think Kagan could use a bracing dose of reality. The economics of higher education have dramatically shifted from his youth prior to WWII. Perhaps Kagan suffers from these misperceptions from his relatively privileged position at Yale. In a nutshell, as America’s politics took a turn to the right, funding for higher education has been dramatically cut (at least at the public university). At the same time, demand for places in undergraduate institutions has continued to rise. We are left with a situation in which there isn’t enough money at my institution to even pay the professors they have a living wage in this state; and to fill the need, more than 1/2 of the courses taught statewide in my university are taught by part-time teachers, many of them not fully qualified (i.e., no Ph.D., as when I was an adjunct before completing my degree). Adjuncts who are fully qualified are overworked and underpaid and have no time for continued research and development in their field. These economic factors and the social pressures to cut costs have also been accompanied by inflation of salaries and rewards on the administrative side of universities, the cost of which has increased exponentially in the past 3 decades.

Bok, on the other hand, offers an equally problematic solution. Bok says that it’s professors refusal to use accurate and substantiated “assessment techniques” to understand why their courses are failing. Although I do have a respect for actually studying what is working and not working in classrooms, I find this to be simplistic in the extreme. Undergraduate education has deteriorated because professors don’t use assessment? I hardly think that’s adequate. Bok suggests these possibilities:

He gamely offers a number of suggestions. At the prodding of their presidents, for example, colleges could undertake continuing “evaluation, experimentation, and reform.” They could offer professors seed money and released time for trying new and better ways to teach. They could hire better-qualified, full-time instructors instead of the graduate students and academic gypsies who currently teach subjects disdained by the regular faculty (like writing and foreign languages). From the other side, student evaluations could be made more probing. Ph.D. programscould be made to include better preparation for teaching. And so forth.

I actually agree with most of his proposed solutions. But again, I think the reality is more complex and am not sure that there would be much progress made. Nearly 80% of graduating high school seniors go on to a post-secondary institution now. The reasons are clear: A BA/BS is a key to the professional-managerial class in the U.S. It’s a credential required by most middle-class employers. But most of them fail or drop out. (Only 22% of Americans actually end up with the degree.) With the massive influx of students on one hand and the significant and much ballyhoo’d problems in our K-12 system in the U.S., is it any surprise that students come unprepared for a college experience and that they drop out or fail? Institutions like mind spend millions of dollars on remediation, trying to get students up to just a freshman level, but that’s after they’re already at a four-year institution! The community college system in California just voted (finally) to increase it’s graduation requirements so that students couldn’t get an AS/AA unless they had achieved at least a freshman college level of English writing and of Algebra. To me this seems like a no-brainer, but in California, this was a debate that took years, because people were afraid that the increased requirements would mean that many students would be denied degrees.I am a vocal advocate for working to decrease social inequality in any way possible. But I think that lowered expectations at the university level (which widely results in the decreased value or meaning of a university bachelor’s degree) is precisely the wrong way to go about doing that.

So I agree with Bok that professors should work to improve teaching, but think that’s inadequate; I also agree with Kagan that there are perhaps some spolied “Imperial Faculties” out there. But I think the economics of the issue must be addressed, as well as the overall state of education in our nation, and including the cultures of educations on our campus which have led to dramatic reductions in expectations overall and results, which are lowering the value of an American college degree.

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Comments

1. Hope - 14 September 2006

whittled.

I totally agree. My sister graduated from a state college, a small one, but still fully accredited and all that. Her writing is atrocious. I also have co-workers who can’t spell or punctuate at all. We even have spell check on our computers and I still find errors not only in our advertising, but in the editorial sections of our paper as well. I wish the copy editor jobs paid as much as my advertising job so I could help my company produce better editorial content.

2. Mike - 23 September 2006

You are right on track, Todd. At my institution there is a big push to retain students, as the legislature has tied student retention to future funding. Consequently the president came down hard on the history department, which had low grades among students in its introductory courses that virtually all students take. Basically the message has been to make courses rigorous and yet reduce the % of F and D grades. Oh, and by the way, our courses should be more interesting, interactive, etc, despite the fact that they are larger than they used to be.

To help with retention, the administration has mandated all staff read the same book on “customer satisfaction” and are employing spies (at least that’s what I call ’em) to test staff’s ability to keep our students/customers happy. Is this what “higher” education has sunk to?

3. Dan - 30 September 2006

While I can’t speak to the academic side of this as I’m too far removed, I concur that the pool of recent graduates lacks the basic reading, writing and comprehension skills. It’s fairly easy to tell that they’ve recently completed a “how to interview” class, but I’ve found that getting substantive information out of them is like pulling teeth (great if you’re a dentist, but I’m not.) In many cases I leave the room feeling like I’ve just interviewed myself and might be better off walking in with a multiple choice quiz for the next candidate.

I agree that money needs to be poured into the system. I’m a little worried at the idea that it comes from the government (state or local.) I’m about as liberal as you’ll get, but money from the government equals money from me with the added bonus of a whole boat load of inefficiency. One comment stuck with me – from your quote of Kagan “Employers complain that they are habitually tardy, lazy, and unable either to listen carefully or to carry out instructions.”

I’m wondering if the solve for this problem lies with large corporations? Many have developed in-house “univesities” to get new and existing employees up to speed. What if instead of putting yet another remedial band-aid on the problem, large corporations contributed more to local higher-education establishments? At the end of the day corporations are the ones suffering the most (aka end of this food chain.)

Just a thought.

P.S. I’m over being paranoid that my writing/spelling is subpar for this post. Feel free to rip me to shreds.


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