Sunday, November 6, 2011

Explaining Higher Ed's Malaise: Too Many People Just Don't Give a Shit

This historical blogosphere is abuzz after Historiann put a call out for responses to a recent Anthony Grafton article in the New York Review of Books concerning the growing number of books diagnosing the malaise in higher ed. Both Grafton's piece and Historiann's commentary are well worth checking out. Since this humble blog is well below the radar of the heavy-hitters, I myself have not been invited to comment, but I figured I'd do it anyway.

Now having left academic life, I feel that I have gained some special perspective of things. When I think back on what I observed in America's universities, I have one overwhelming thought: too many people just don't give a shit. As Grafton himself points out, the diagnoses of the American university system usually blame one group of people for their problems, but the issue is much too complex to pin on one group. In my experience, the inability to give a shit infects students, faculty, administrators, politicians, and ultimately, and perhaps most crucially, the public.

Just to be fair, let's start with the faculty. At every institution where I taught -Big Ten University, Frontier University, and East Texas University- there was an appalling apathy among many faculty members when it came to undergraduate education. This was especially flagrant at East Texas University, because many of the same people who didn't seem to give a shit about educating their students also did the absolute rock-bottom minimum of research to get tenure. (And get tenure they did!) At that supremely awful institution, they considered being a university professor a cushy job, which it is if you mail in your unrevised lectures and never publish. One of these people even openly mocked faculty members who were doing relevant research! My former employer is an outlier on the living hell scale, but nevertheless, most American college students are matriculating at places that much more resemble East Texas University than they do the Ivy League.

At the more august Big Ten University, there were many distinguished scholars who also happened to be wonderful in the classroom. However, there were others (interestingly, not as accomplished in their scholarship) who seemed contemptuous of their undergraduate students, and annoyed that they should ever have to step down from the lofty heights of their research interests to sully their hands in the lecture hall. Other scholars trailed a cloud of suspicion for being too good in the classroom. After all, shouldn't they be using their energy on research, not teaching? The idea that the two are completely separate, or that being good at one precludes being good at the other, is a bullshit fabrication concocted by scholars too lazy or maladroit to teach well. (Like I said, the most renowned scholars also tended to be among the best teachers.)

To be even more fair, I will not exclude contingent faculty from this discussion. At my last job I knew of an adjunct who paid an undergraduate to transcribe her notes from her Western Civ class (taught at the same university) so that he could put together an online version of the course. When I was at Frontier University, where contingent labor taught most of the classes, there were multiple people totally unfit for the job. One read the textbook aloud to the class, another skipped a week of classes for a wedding, and had a student in the class show a film each day that he was gone. This same person also had a sexual relationship with one of this students. Neither one of these men was fired, and I have yet to hear of a contingent faculty member being pushed out for incompetence. However, I do know of a few who lost their jobs for resisting pressure to change grades, or complaining about their own ill treatment. Strangely enough, these adjuncts and visitors tended to be top teachers and passionately devoted. Their unwillingness to submit to having their dignity as educators and human beings stripped from them made them unfit for life as a contingent faculty member in the modern American university. For the most part, contingent faculty are seen merely as the warm bodies necessary to slot into the schedule to keep the gears of the machine running, as long as they accept their position, they will keep their jobs.

That state of affairs, of course, can be laid at the feet of administrators who don't give a shit, of which there are many. So many of them are focused on climbing the ladder to the next job that they drown their current institutions with meaningless initiatives that look good on their resumes. By the time that the new policies have proven themselves to be utter failures, their authors are already at their newest job, applying the same initiatives to their new institution. They also drive the decay of higher education's true mission by funding the rec center arms race, with its rock climbing walls and lazy rivers while starving faculty of development funds and libraries of books.

But let's not forget about the students. I had many great and memorable students in my time in higher ed, but also a gigantic cancerous mass of lazy, apathetic consumerist zombies. So many students don't seem to have a solitary clue as to why they are in college in the first place, something reflected in studies showing that students spend less time studying outside of class than at any other time. Many of them expect answers to be spoon-fed to them in between hours in front of the TV and games of beer pong. Fewer and fewer students seem to have any real desire to learn anything, college is a mere stepping stone to them, never a thing in itself to be cherished and cultivated. As Grafton noted in his piece, universities, through the rec center arms race and largesse spent on the beer and circus of college sports, have basically whored themselves out completely to consumer demand. They do this because, you guessed it, too many of the people running them just don't give a shit.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, the public and their political representatives really and truly don't give a shit about maintaining affordable and quality higher public education. State schools get less and less money from their state governments, but still just enough that the politicians can slap them around if they so choose. Hence the state of Texas forcing schools to make all kinds of information public, like student evaluations and course syllabi. The public and their politicians would rather have the short-term gain of slightly lower taxes than the long term benefit of robust higher education. Instead students shoulder ridiculously high tuition and get buried under mounds of student loan debt. We now have a situation where public universities are starved for cash, and the money they do have gets diverted into building the toy towns that seem to exist in the minds of university presidents everywhere. Without money for instruction, contingent faculty positions proliferate, education quality degenerates, and student achievement stagnates.

I have left academia to teach at a private high school, and one of its great graces is that the community, from students to teachers to parents to administrators, really and truly care. The students come to class prepared and are usually enthusiastic to learn something new. Instead of asking questions to students and hearing nothing but the soul-sucking silence of apathy, I have a difficult time making sure everyone who wants to participate gets their chance. Faculty do not cut corners, but work hard to improve their classes and maintain high standards. They care intensely about the students, and even if they kvetch about certain individuals, they never do so in a superior of mean-spirited fashion. The whole place just exudes a powerful aura of giving a shit, a seemingly simple virtue that is appallingly deficient in the supposedly superior realms of higher education.

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