“I Quit Lit” and the new “Departure Eulogy”
Professor Xie resigns to protect adjunct faculty
by Teri Shaffer Yamada
Recently, some slightly satiric joking about a new academic subgenre— “I Quit Lit”— has appeared in the columns of Slate, the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere in the blogosphere. Actually Zachary Ernst’s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower” (Oct. 20, 2013) deserves careful consideration. (1) A fine and thoughtful writer, Ernst’s dismay at leaving his philosophy position is visceral; but his love of teaching cannot outweigh negative consequences from the structural dysfunction of his institution. He writes:
What makes me pessimistic about my own university and public universities in the United States in general is that their inability to adapt isn’t due simply to bad leadership or an unfavorable economy. It’s based on structural features that are self-reinforcing. Poor leadership drawn from huge corporations, an incentive structure that favors narrow specialization, and hostility to potentially disruptive research, all reinforce each other. Those of us whose interests don’t fit into that structure have some difficult decisions to make.
A 2013 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education—“Attitudes on Innovation: How College Leaders and Faculty see the Key Issues Facing Higher Education”—shows that many faculty share Ernst’s concerns about the future of the academy. (Executive summary)
Faculty members, in particular, are pessimistic about the future of higher education. Only one-third of faculty members say higher education in the United States is headed in the right direction, compared to two-thirds of presidents (see Figure 1). Among those most uncertain about the future are faculty members in the humanities (where departments have seen declining enrollments), those at public research universities (which have seen sharp cuts in state subsidies), and those who have been teaching more than 20 years. The faculty most optimistic about the future are those teaching in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—where government support has been high for much of the last decade.
A must-read survey, it explores the perception gap between faculty and academic leadership, a gap that hinders constructive change.
As the youngest and brightest tenured faculty flee from an organizational structure that cannot easily transform itself, the elders who form the largest percentage of the remaining tenured faculty approach retirement. What structurally remains is a hollow layer of smaller departments and programs on the verge of collapse, years of budget cuts and retirements having eviscerated tenure lines. As more adjuncts are used to fill in where tenured professors once were, the discussion about power—who runs a program in this situation—needs to be thoughtfully addressed. Or, it the silent decision just to eliminate this layer of the Humanities?
Notably, Stanford University has recently recognized this problem exacerbated by declining student enrollments. The question—What to do about it?—for less endowed universities leads to a hard, potentially controversial discussion. Better to have this tough debate in the open where some strategic planning could be embraced by faculty and administrators as opposed to a silent, slow death of so many programs like philosophy and physics, religious and ethnic studies departments, and even foreign language programs—many are now experiencing a prolonged death, or the fear of one, occurring without any discussion at all.
But I digress, my real intent was to add a new subgenre to the “I Quit Lit” oeuvre: the departure eulogy. In my case, it will be for the Chair of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at CSU Long Beach, Prof. Tim Xie. A fine man and wonderful colleague, a nationally renowned linguist and expert in Chinese language pedagogy, he has recently submitted his resignation as Chair along with a retirement letter to the university in order to save several of our highly valued adjunct faculty, skilled Chinese language instructors, from economic devastation when all lecturer courses were eliminated in the Chinese program due to imposed restructuring. Prof. Xie is a ‘survivor’ of the Cultural Revolution in China. Midst the gallows humor of who may die first from stress, we have discussed the failure of democracy and shared governance at our own institution: his closing comment, “I thought America was different!” So I say on behalf of my fellow colleagues, we will deeply miss this noble and talented man.
1. Equally compelling is Sarah Kendzior’s “The Closing of American academia: The plight of adjunct professors highlights the end of higher education as a means to prosperity.”
Further Reading on the structural critiques of academic organizations
Henry A. Giroux, “When Schools Become Dead Zones of Imagination” (Aug. 17, 2013)
Wellford Wilms, “How Kafkaesque Bureaucrats Are Ruining Education” (Aug. 19, 2013).
Has the CSU Forgotten Its Mission? The Decline of Ethnic Studies in California
by Teri Shaffer Yamada, CSU Long Beach
” The mission of the California State University is:
- To advance and extend knowledge, learning, and culture, especially throughout California.
- To prepare students for an international, multi-cultural society….”
In fall 2013, CSU faculty returned to campuses looking forward to a better year given their efforts to pass Prop 30 with its promise of stable budgets for the near future. Instead, many Ethnic Studies faculty have encountered a reign of “data” terror: a new administrative ideology that privileges the number of majors, course popularity, and fill rates over a broader vision of the CSU’s mission: to prepare students for a multi-cultural society.
Instead of promoting that mission, administrators across the CSU have stripped courses from Ethnic Studies, even courses that have a history of full enrollment. This administrative over-reach may be based upon a belief in a post-racial America, where Ethnic Studies courses are no longer relevant. Institutional efficiencies are more important; what is relevant now is STEM.
Concerned about this trend, over 50 faculty representing more than half of the system’s 23 campuses met at San Francisco State University on Friday, 18 October 2013, for the second CSU-wide Ethnic Studies Council meeting. Topics of concern included the downsizing, merging, or elimination of Ethnic Studies programs across the CSU; the treatment of professors of color in the system (1); how administrative ‘assessment’ of ethnic studies programs is being conducted without consciousness or value of the CSU’s mission. Professor Maulana Karenga ( Chair, Dept. of Africana Studies, CSU Long Beach) stressed the importance of genuine shared governance on campuses and the contradiction of the CSU “using diversity as a marketing tool while dismantling it.”
The most egregious example of de-facto program elimination is CSU Stanislaus, a designated Hispanic Serving Institution. The remaining two tenured faculty in the Ethnic Studies program there “have chosen to resign their positions as of 24 December, 2013 rather than help with what they believe amounts to the elimination of the program they have put so much effort into.” (2) The administration at CSU Stanislaus has refused to replace any of the four tenure-track positions the program once had. Another example of forced program reduction has occurred at CSU Long Beach in the Asian American Studies Program, which offered 14 courses in Spring 2010 reduced to 9 in Spring 2015. A new enrollment management directive apparently requires further reductions over a year in advance! These reductions include ASAM 120 (Asian American History), a course that typically fully enrolls.
The results of the second CSU Ethnic Council meeting included the nomination of six delegates to visit Chancellor White on November 11. Among their objectives for this meeting will be to report faculty concern over the CSU’s failure to fulfill its own mission to the people of California: to prepare students for a multicultural society.
Racial/ethnic makeup of California as percent of total population, 2010
- Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders make up 0.3% of California’s population.
- Asians make up 12.8% of California’s population.
- People of color make up 59.9% of California’s population.
- African Americans make up 5.8% of California’s population.
- Latinos make up 37.6% of California’s population.
- Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up 0.4% of California’s population.
- Source: U.S. Census 2010, U.S. Census Bureau
(1) A report from UCLA suggests that the UC shares issues about racial bias regarding faculty of color. See Stephen Ceasar’s “Study faults UCLA’s handling of faculty’s racial bias complaints” (Oct. 18, 2013).
“Nearly every faculty member of color had achieved tenure and professional success at the university, the report said, but they were still upset by the incidents of perceived bias, discrimination or intolerance they had experienced at UCLA.
Nearly all of them said they felt that the offending parties were never forced to face consequences for their actions.
The report states that UCLA’s reaction to such complaints has consistently been to attempt to placate the injured faculty member without repercussions to the offending party.
In 2012-13, African Americans made up 3% of faculty, while Latinos represented 6% and Asians made up about 17%. Whites made up about 73% of the faculty, according to the report.” Nearly every faculty member of color had achieved tenure and professional success at the university, the report said, but they were still upset by the incidents of perceived bias, discrimination or intolerance they had experienced at UCLA.
Nearly all of them said they felt that the offending parties were never forced to face consequences for their actions.
The report states that UCLA’s reaction to such complaints has consistently been to attempt to placate the injured faculty member without repercussions to the offending party.
In 2012-13, African Americans made up 3% of faculty, while Latinos represented 6% and Asians made up about 17%. Whites made up about 73% of the faculty, according to the report.”
(2) Oct. 12, 2013 letter to Dr. Joseph Sheley (President CSU, Stanislaus) from Lillian Taiz, CFA President. and Cecil Canton, CFA Associate VP Affirmative Action.
On a warm Monday afternoon in a packed Anatol Center at CSU Long Beach, newly recruited Chancellor of the CSU’s 23-campus system, Timothy White, easily charmed the audience of several hundred faculty, staff and students. The cleverly humorous Chancellor spoke of his enduring optimism in the mission of the CSU, California’s Master Plan, and the unique quality and success of CSU Long Beach in spite of six tight budget years. Fielding some tough questions with the grace of a seasoned diplomatic, his answers were compassionate and perceptive with an underlying toughness.
When asked about faculty concerns that STEM disciplines were being privileged over the Humanities, White responded that he hoped his own young son, potentially a future scientist, should also be reading the Great Books. On the question of Ethnic Studies in the CSU, he mentioned it should be preserved either as programs, minors, or departments. He has appointed former CSU LA President James Rosser to head his task force on this issue. The Chancellor’s Ethnic Studies Task Force is charged with investigating enrollment rates and other data for Ethnic Studies programs in the 23-campus system before a recommendation is brought to the Board of Trustees for a vote.
He thoughtfully fielded the question of CSU LB’s next president and the secretive process of his or her selection in accordance with a new system policy that shelters candidates from campus visits and interviews to protect their professional privacy. White mentioned that he had been selected in much the same manner and that our culture had changed since the past selection of both Presidents Maxim and Alexander. Now there are more openings than qualified “A-Team” candidates. He did state that if the final short list of candidates were all willing, a campus visit would be arranged pending approval of the Search Committee and Trustees.
Chancellor White takes charge of the CSU as it emerges from a bleak period of budget cuts, with a technology infrastructure in need of massive update and investment. On Sunday, October 13, the Los Angeles Daily News ran an article “Bottleneck courses resulting in students struggling to graduate” , which identified nearly 1,300 bottleneck courses causing student delays to graduation. Thirty-four percent of the courses are Liberal Arts (440 courses). The CSU identified the biggest factor causing this problem as “a lack of tenured faculty.” In fact, according to CFA LB statistics, there were 848 tenure-line faculty in June 2009 with 29,266 undergraduate students and 824 tenure-line faculty in January 2013 with 30, 931 undergraduate students. Student enrollment has increased while the number of tenure-line faculty has decreased, putting an extra burden of university service on younger tenure-line faculty and underpaid adjuncts. White was also asked about the 4-4 workload at CSU Long Beach compared to other campuses. He mistakenly equated this with a collective bargaining issue. Actually each campus can determine faculty course load based upon their budget process. This explains the lower course load at CSU Channel Islands, San Diego State and San Francisco State.
by Teri Shaffer Yamada, CSU Long Beach
(Thanks to Monte Bute, Sociology professor at Metro State University, for forwarding information on this issue.)
In fall 2012, Chancellor Rosenstone of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, with its 54-campus system, declared that it must become more “strategic” and confront “’wicked questions’ around the future of higher education and the system itself.” (1) He charged a new 46-member Task Force, split into three workgroups, to develop a ten-year strategic plan incorporating its vision of three broad topics— the education, the workforce, and the system of the future— that would provide “the most cost-effective, highest value education” to all Minnesotans.
In June 2013, his task force described their 35-page, first-draft report of “Charting the Future” as a “bold shift” for the MnSCU system. Along with the merging of collective bargaining units, it advocated “campus and center mergers, relocating academic programs and offering a single portal to the system’s online offerings.” This initial draft was open for comments and review over the subsequent four months. The second draft, with a set of six recommended strategic priorities, has just been published, with the report to be finalized prior to the November 2013 meeting of the Board of Trustees.
In response to the latest draft, the Inter Faculty Organization (IFO), a faculty union representing 4,000 faculty members at seven Minnesota state universities, released this comment: “We oppose moving toward a Soviet-style management structure with centrally controlled decision making by bureaucrats who are far removed from the classroom.” The IFO’s key criticisms are that the plan could squeeze out innovation on campuses and emphasize job-training programs at the expense of academic ones: “Student program choices should not be limited to the programs supported by the business community.” (2) See their complete comments below.
The IFO critique is denied by the administration, which emphasizes that collaboration is a core value of the 10-year plan.
A key to understanding this difference of perspective between the IFO and administration is the process itself. Chancellor Rosenstone’s 46-member task force had a membership of 14-17 people per workgroup: typically two faculty, two students and two staff representatives, with approximately 50-60% of the remaining membership the “administrative cohort’”(campus presidents, deans, trustees and Chancellor’s Fellows). Administrators headed all three work groups.
Were the six non-administrative representatives on a work group to agree on specific recommendations, they could still be outvoted by the administrative cohort. The lack of real power for faculty representation within this organizational structure is familiar to those of us who have served on university task forces with similar membership composition. It simply provides a cover story for faculty participation.
The Catch-22 for a faculty representative on this type of structured task force is the genuine desire to make a difference. If one faculty member refuses to serve, another will be appointed anyway. Yet it is unlikely that one faculty opinion will sway the rest of the group given its composition. Ironically, a faculty representative’s thoughtful ideas ultimately may be redirected to a means of oppressing fellow faculty rather than serving their interests.
Nancy Black, union president of IFO and a faculty representative on the “Education of the Future” workgroup, states that the June report took her by surprise: “We had what I would term, euphemistically, lively discussions,” she said, but her group did not vote on any of the recommendations. She said she did not see the final draft until it was made public June 19. She also reports that faculty were “enraged at me for being a part of it.” The truth is Nancy Black was never “part of it” since she was excluded from the smaller core of decision makers within her work group. They are the ones who formed the first rough draft and circulated it among themselves for comment before forwarding it to whomever put the entire report together.
The game was rigged from the beginning, with the Chancellor’s questions that skew the outcome and the Task Force composition. Given these two factors, the recommendations naturally reflect administrative interests. These interests are currently to provide efficiencies that include weakening faculty power over the curriculum, shared governance structures, and faculty unions —that is shifting more control to the administration in a top-down organizational structure. This efficiency objective incorporates the consolidation and elimination of programs and colleges—essentially the elimination of faculty and staff jobs— and the shrinking of knowledge or its elimination through the privileging of “professional” degrees.
When jobs are created again, actual hiring patterns will vary by industry and by geography, but one pattern is already clear according to Lisa Belkin in an October 2009 New York Times article. Many of the low-skill, low-wage jobs lost during the current recession were held by men. Many of the jobs that will be created during the recovery will be filled by women because they cost less to hire—women earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man—and because they are concentrated in industries, such as healthcare and education, that are expected to grow….
Professional and related occupations will be one of the two fastest-growing and will add the most new jobs. Almost three-quarters of job growth will come from three occupations: computer and math occupations; healthcare practitioners and technical occupations; and education, training, and library occupations…. Management, scientific, and technical consulting services will grow 78 percent. According to BLS, “demand for these services will be spurred by the increased use of new technology and computer software and the growing complexity of business.” (p. 9)
Through the Task Force’s vision of efficiency, its 10-year plan eliminates choice and diversity of knowledge, both faculty values. Administrative vision is also very costly to implement. Just one item, the consolidation of online courses from 54 campuses into one portal, may require ten’s of millions of dollars in course redesign and a costly private provider for the unifying learning management system (LMS) or platform that will be required to link campuses or establish a supra structure over them. There is no cost-benefit analysis attached to this report. And we have yet to see how many costly administrators are projected to be eliminated with this bold vision.
(1) The Chancellor’s questions shape the vision itself: These questions focus heavily on e-learning, technology, and workplace solutions responsive to business and industry as well as access and cost-saving efficiencies.
(2) IFL Board Response to “Charting the Future” is available here.
The IFO Board Response to Charting the Future (CTF)
The IFO strongly supports Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ (MnSCU) strategic framework:
a. b. c.
Ensure access to an extraordinary education for all Minnesotans; Be the partner of choice to meet Minnesota’s workforce and community needs; Deliver to students, employers, communities, and taxpayers the highest value/most affordable option.
However, the IFO rejects the strategic recommendations of Charting the Future:
1. Charting the Future promotes centralization—a goal the IFO fundamentally rejects. According to CTF: “Our system values institutional autonomy and decentralization…. This culture is out of sync in a world where collaboration and synergy are needed….” (CTF:9). The CTF document is filled with proposals that promote centralization—for example, a statewide academic planning and program review process; a statewide facilities master plan; a statewide certification of competency based award of credit; a comprehensive statewide e-strategy; and continuing education and customized training through statewide collaboration.
Instead, student and community needs are best achieved through competitive and highly autonomous institutions that can quickly and nimbly change to meet local and regional needs. We oppose moving toward a Soviet-style management structure with centrally controlled decisions made by bureaucrats who are far removed from the classroom. Multi-layered, centralized bureaucracies tend to be self-perpetuating, and consume financial resources that could be better spent on student learning.
2. CTF fails to address the most pressing higher education issues on the minds of students, their families, and the legislators who represent them: student debt and the affordability of higher education. MnSCU sought a 3% tuition increase in 2013, a goal the IFO successfully opposed during the 2013 legislative session. In CTF, MnSCU pays lip service to affordability, without supporting policies to accomplish it. IFO supports efforts to reduce the cost of higher education, which is best accomplished through local control.
3. The MnSCU state universities have been a critical socio-economic asset for over one hundred years. The liberal arts university promotes the development and practice of analytical and critical thinking skills. The state universities provide an affordable and accessible four-year education for all Minnesotans, representing diverse and underserved communities and groups throughout the state. CTF does not sufficiently
recognize or value the long-established universities, and the communities within which they are located, particularly in Greater Minnesota.
4. Academic offerings should be driven by the demands of students and their families—not the demands of the business community. Businesses should fill their workforce needs by offering livable wages and benefits, quality in-house training, and desirable working conditions to attract the best employees. If employers offer attractive wages, benefits and working conditions, students will invest in the education necessary to obtain those jobs. Diverse education for a diverse community of employers strengthens Minnesota.
Finally, the IFO urges Chancellor Rosenstone and the MnSCU Board of Trustees to reject the CTF’s recommendations—including statewide academic planning and union consolidation that simply increase bureaucracy and centralization—and instead promote a vision for the future that provides student-driven choices for all Minnesotans. The IFO encourages legislators and Governor Dayton to oppose administrative strategies that lead to larger, costlier, and more centralized management structures. Instead, Minnesota leaders should continue to support efforts to work with faculty to ensure access to an extraordinary and affordable education for all Minnesotans. Far from resisting change, state university faculty are on the front lines of educational innovation, helping to ensure students, employers, communities, and taxpayers the highest value and most affordable option for higher education.
“The New Normal for Humanities: Death by a Thousand Cuts”
By Teri Yamada, CSU Long Beach
We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.
—Chris Hedges (Henry A. Giroux, “Beyond Savage Politics and Dystopian Nightmares”)
Warning! This is yet another sorrowful examination of the shortsighted privileging of STEM and the defunding of the Humanities now occurring across the United States. It reflects Chris Hedges lament that our universities (certainly not all of them equally) are now in the business of destroying knowledge. This also appears to be the “unintended consequence” of the California State University system since 2011, echoing Governor Brown’s and the federal government’s ideology that STEM fields will make California and the U.S. more globally competitive.
Consequently, diverting funds from foreign languages, religious studies, philosophy, and ethnic studies programs, for example, just because these disciplines have never really drawn hundreds of majors each year is now rationalized by a new numbers game of student-customer demand plus class fill rates at my campus in the CSU. It becomes death by a thousand cuts for the Humanities. The administrative subtext, always subject to denial, is that Humanities’ disciplines are of low value in our stagnant economy. Who needs another “worker” with a English, psychology, religious studies, or Chinese language degree? Why spend money on classes with just 15-25 students in the language disciplines! Or on departments with under 100 majors? Or on MA programs in the Humanities? Move students over to STEM where they at least have a chance for a stable, well-paying job after graduation!
Or do they?
What is the reality of the competitive global marketplace that our graduates now enter seeking these “better” jobs? It is a world of increasing contingency and contract labor. A world of no benefits, pensions, or job security. A world where, beyond any STEM skill set, you must be entrepreneurial (think outside the box), proficient at professional networking, and aggressively self-promoting to land even a short-term contract. It is a world where analytics will be used to measure your personality and past performance to assess whether you are a good-enough fit for your new, transitory “team” ( see Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over. Dutton, 2013).
IBM phrases it this way in its self-promotional report “Redesigning work creates a Smarter Workforce” (2013):
The labor market inside each organization will need to change as the percentage of independent and contingent workers rise. This transformation can bring about the creation of a true labor force. This true labor force will be global, complete with a “common currency,” a “common language” and the free flow of information. People will earn a “talent passport” that expresses their true value based on their actual skill set, achievements and the continuous feedback of nearly everyone they interact with at work. The data on this “passport” will enable virtually every company and individual to rely on the accuracy of the information, and locate experts for projects and work at just the right time, creating greater efficiencies and higher engaged employees.
Or from the Harvard Business Review (“The Rise of the New Contract Worker,” 9.7.12):
Contingent workers can add to an organization’s intellectual capacity and provide instant expertise as needed….Not only can organizations derive a cost savings from adjusting staff sizes up and down based on business requirements, but they are also able to control the wages paid for particular tasks by using contingent talent on a project basis.
Or Fox News:
The use of temps has extended into sectors that seldom used them in the past — professional services, for example, which include lawyers, doctors and information technology specialists….
Beyond economic uncertainty, Ethan Harris, global economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, thinks more lasting changes are taking root. “There’s been a generational shift toward a less committed relationship between the firm and the worker,” Harris says.
An Associated Press survey of 37 economists in May found that three-quarters thought the increased use of temps and contract workers represented a long-standing trend….”You have your just-in-time workforce,” Houseman says. “You only pay them when you need them.”
Take the experience of my former student Aaron as he navigates the global contingent-worker marketplace. A 2011 graduate in Asian Studies at CSU Long Beach, language emphasis Japanese, he just signed a contract to teach English at a public elementary school in Saitama, Japan. It took two years of effort to land this “one-year contract,” including a short trip to Japan to investigate the job market and improve contacts by establishing firmer relationships through face-to-face meetings, extensive online-research and networking, and a successful job interview in both English and Japanese via SKYPE. It also entailed Aaron giving up his Longshoreman’s job at the Port of Los Angeles, a decision not made lightly. But unlike his father who is now in a permanent senior position as a Longshoreman at the Port, Aaron entered the workforce at a time when management was using technology to reduce union jobs while demanding more contingent workers. He spent the last eight years, trying to obtain more work hours at the Port, hoping to move up the union hierarchy, showing up early mornings on non-school days to see if his number was picked, worried about finances while living with his dad. So if Aaron cannot leverage this year of opportunity in Japan with his other skill sets—including expert knowledge of Japanese popular music culture—he may find himself back at his dad’s place, without any job. But he takes this chance because of a deep interest in Japan. He is following his dream.
And my point is this. Every time we privilege STEM and kill an opportunity in the Humanities, by eliminating Japanese or Chinese or philosophy through a slow death by a thousand cuts, we diminish our own culture by reducing opportunity for those who DO NOT WANT to pursue STEM careers. We eschew diversity and diminish our students’ competitive advantage in the global market place.
Jeff Kolnick’s thoughtful comments below, questioning the quality and courage of administrative leadership in our public institutions, echo a number of other recent media commentaries and publications that problematize this issue. Where have all the creative, courageous, and competent administrative leaders gone? Or is this a new form of academic nostalgia? Bringing clarity to this question is Diane Ravitch’s cautionary lecture on the ‘fetish of measurement’ overtaking the public higher education sector and the need for courageous administrators to rethink the “obsession with data let loose on the land.” This obsession is enhanced by President Obama’s recent campaign for a type of NCLB accountability system tagged to universities receiving federal aid; such aid abuse can be solved by other means. There is also Serena Golden’s intriguing new publication Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education.As we chuckle at the zombie meme we simultaneously note the dead zone of communication that often seems to exist between higher level administrators and their worker faculty on our campuses. Perhaps we have entered a post-MOOC media mania moment, where some very serious issues like the real and immediate need for strong and principled academic leadership at this moment in the shifting sands of higher education history can find some space in our ed journalists’ tweets and blog musings. Teri Yamada
Colleges, universities should show less caution, more courage and challenges
Prof. Jeff Kolnick (Southwest Minnesota State University), Aug. 21, 2013
The fall semester is an exciting time to be a college professor. The spring semester has its charms with the promise of summer and the thrill of graduation, but for me, the start of the school year is what keeps me coming back for more. My scholarly work over the summer months pays off immediately in the changes that appear on my syllabi. My batteries are recharged by a blessed absence from office politics and paperwork. And the best part is I get to encounter a new class of college students. This year many of these newcomers will be from the high-school class of 2013.
The class of 2013 is an important group of young people. Many of them would have started their academic journey in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency and entered first grade under No Child Left Behind. They also began the first grade around the time of the Sept. 11th attacks. For this class of young people, their academic minds have been shaped by a steady diet of high-stakes standardized tests, and their civic consciousness has been molded by a nation continuously at war.
What kind of colleges and universities will these students enter? While reading the current issue of Harper’s Magazine I discovered Harry Lewis, a distinguished professor of computer science at Harvard and the former dean of Harvard College. To give you a sense of Lewis’ thinking on the current state of higher education, I share this with you:
“One of the reasons that moral courage is lacking in the [United States] is that it is lacking in universities. As institutions, they now operate much more like ordinary corporations, fearful of bad publicity, eager to stay on good terms with the government, and focused on their bottom lines, than as boiling cauldrons of unconventional ideas sorted out through a process of disputation, debate, and occasional dramatic gestures.”
More cautious, increasingly conservative
I teach at Southwest Minnesota State University, not at Harvard. And at SMSU, disputation and debate are common, though the dramatic gesture has retreated largely to the theater building! But Lewis was thinking institutionally and not about individual classes or particular events on campus. And I think he is right. I have been around colleges and universities since 1977, and in that time the institutions have become cautious.
Education is now seen as a personal investment, not a public good. Scarce dollars cause colleges to chase money from billionaire philanthropists who push free-market solutions to every conceivable problem. University leaders feel the need to appeal to increasingly conservative state legislators who despise government.
University governing boards, chancellors, presidents, provosts, deans and chairs (and, sadly, even most faculty) are afraid to challenge the conservative orthodoxy because they desperately want to save what is left of higher education. Colleges and universities, as institutions, used to challenge authority with facts and reason. This is less common today and stems, I believe, from the austerity agenda of the super rich.
Mentor ‘shocked one into thinking’
Eleanor Roosevelt once said of her mentor and favorite teacher, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, that she “shocked one into thinking, and that on the whole was very beneficial.” It is this chance to shock students into thinking, into realizing the power of their own minds and ideas, that causes me to return each fall semester.
If ever there was a class of students that needed to be shocked into thinking, it is the class of 2013. After 12 years of No Child Left Behind, too many of them have been numbed into believing that filling in bubbles can measure intelligence. Never having known a conscious moment of peace, some of them might think that war is normal.
What they need from a college is a boiling cauldron of unconventional ideas that are tested through rigorous debate and civil discourse. I fear that they will find instead institutions that prepare them only for work and not to think or, when necessary, to challenge stale orthodoxy.
MOOCs at U Minn — “Educating for democracy: the power of presence” (Lars Christiansen and Michael Lansing)Posted: July 26, 2013
This essay is reposted from MINNPOST with permission of the authors.
Educating for democracy: the power of presence
This summer, in collaboration with the educational company Coursera, the University of Minnesota began offering Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). The decision brought a national debate about the transformative effects of the Internet on colleges and universities to Minnesota. Other local schools are also exploring the possibilities of MOOCs. Meanwhile, faculty either wring their hands or join in as ongoing debates about the meaning and consequences of online-only education continue.
Those who boost for MOOCs promise more access to higher education with lowered costs. Yet they make assumptions about teaching that obscure the complicated ways in which people successfully learn. Rarely do these commentators attend to the power of presence in teaching and learning. These assumptions often lead to overstatements regarding the democratic potential of online-only education.
First, they assume that technology refers only to devices for online coursework. Too often, pundits conflate technology with the latest version of Internet-ready computers, pads, and smartphones. In fact, chalk and chalkboards, pencils and papers, dry erase markers, overhead projectors, cameras, slide machines and video projectors are also technologies. Teachers and learners used technologies long before medieval Europeans invented universities.
More than ‘sages on stages’
Third, pundits presume that more typical forms of education consist only of “sages on stages.” Yet colleges and universities offer learners much more than lectures. Most institutions provide more diverse experiences, including: discussions, internships, lab work, field work, archival research, literature reviews, group projects — and, of course, online discussion boards, wikis, blogs and web pages.
Fourth, MOOC boosters assume that education is about the thinking mind, not the feeling body. For the last 100 years, educational theorists have consistently rejected such dualistic thinking. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Mark Johnson insist that feelings and emotions — which emerge through sensory capabilities of the person in their surroundings — remain crucial to intellectual endeavor. Feeling and thinking are phases of an experience, not separate and distinct acts.
Left unchallenged, these assumptions lead those who advocate for online-only learning to argue that the format supplies the same learning experience as face-to-face settings. In their mind, online education delivers the same thing as existing forms of higher education, but makes them cheaper and more accessible.
Online education offers promise it can’t deliver
It doesn’t. Instead, an experience with far less potential is being offered to greater numbers of people, even as boosters present it as the same experience as the varied forms of education that already exist. Online education offers the promise of something it cannot deliver. It robs the very people that it claims to enrich. The rush to online learning also undermines and devalues educators who understand and deploy the vast opportunities for powerful learning that come from engaging the whole person.
After all, content is not an abstract thing that teachers merely communicate to students. Learning occurs through any number of distinct experiences. The qualities of every educational experience matter. By itself, online learning — involving sitting (or standing) at a computer, looking at a screen, scrolling with a mouse, and typing with a keyboard — offers a limited experience. When presented as a substitute for or alternative to direct experience and embodied presence, online learning insults rather than enriches.
In contrast, physical presence offers the gift of embodied interaction. To be sure, some instructors succumb to giving boring lectures to students who remain uninspired, disconnected, and passive. Others, however, embrace a multitude of experiences to help students learn. They work hard to evaluate the educational value of every reading, lecture, site visit, guest lecture, film, puzzle, problem, research project, laboratory experiment, performance, or service and community-based project for learners.
Ignoring embodied experience: a major step backward
The power of presence must find a place in public debates about the merits of MOOCs. This requires educators to take seriously the sensory capabilities of students, as well as the role of feeling and emotion in learning. Teaching that ignores embodied human experience represents a major step backward in educational practice. It also reveals a staggering ignorance of educational philosophy and theory.
Minnesota’s colleges and universities should work to empower students in their quest for higher education by reducing tuition and debt instead of embracing disembodied online-only learning. Then they could increase access to an education that cultivates excitement about learning, develops a wide range of skills and competencies, and fosters empowered citizens committed to making a better society. All learners — irrespective of socio-economic circumstances — deserve nothing less.