Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Low-Grade Colonial War in Education

From what I've observed in higher ed, and from what people in primary and secondary ed have told me (keep in mind that my wife, mom, and little sister are all teachers), our education system is in the midst of a low-grade war between faculty and administration. I call it a colonial war because administrators at all levels have decided to invade the territory of educators and determine what is taught in the classroom, from colleges that only allow professors to use certain textbooks, to high-stakes standardized tests that force teachers into a narrow curriculum. A friend of mine in a "visitor" position at a state university told me about his school-mandated student evaluations, which consist of only bubble sheets. That's right, there's no room for qualitative, written comments from the students. My buddy calls it "No Instructor Left Behind." Our performance is increasingly judged on the basis of numbers, and numbers alone. (Luckily my current school preaches the opposite of this.)

Like other colonized people, teachers and professors resent their subjugation, and do small things on a day to day level to resist it. On the lowest level, there's hushed conversations over the latest administrative power-grab, which often leads to a reflexive trashing of any and all administrative initiatives. The content of new policies doesn't require consideration, because in the minds of most faculty, administrators are their natural enemies. Any seemingly benevolent proposal must have a sinister agenda lurking beneath it. This might sound hyperbolic, but the last thirty years have seen a systemic disempowering of faculty along with a decrease in funds, salaries, benefits, and job security. Instead of saying, "we will take away your autonomy, but allow you to have a decent standard of living" teachers are being told "you are untrustworthy gold-bricking parasites" and junior scholars are increasingly left with insecure, low-paying adjunct and visitor positions. Their respect and autonomy are being stolen at the same time as their standard of living is under attack. No wonder faculty are paranoid and angry!

Faculty have also learned to wear two faces. They know how to hide their resentment in public, and to be all smiles around their rulers, and then let the mask drop when they are around their own kind. Of course, there are dangers, even among the faculty. There are a certain few, as in any colonized society, who opt for the dishonorable role of collaborator. They figure they can get farther by accommodating and obeying rather than fighting. As I saw at my last job, collaborators have little reservation about tattling on grumblers if it means using them as a stepping stool to get closer to power. These collaborators are easy to spot, since they tend to get a lot of awards, honors, and kudos from the administrators, all on the way to joining the administrative club themselves.

The forms of resistance available are pretty piddly, mostly because the wretched economic situation has left faculty members on all levels with few options to leave their jobs to take another. Beyond the garden-variety kvetching to their compatriots, teachers and profs might blow off assessment reports, turn in half-sketched lesson plans, and commit other acts that don't change much but give the satisfaction kicking back at the system. It's really the only way to fight back, since meetings and faculty organizations increasingly exist to warehouse faculty concerns and give the impression that administrators are listening when they're not. Most university faculty senates are window dressing with about as much power as their Roman namesake under Caligula. Is it any wonder that faculty and teachers' unions have been spoiling for a fight? They are the only organized force with any power that teachers and professors belong to.

I am not sure where this all will lead, other than to increased acrimony between the two sides. Administrators tend to see the faculty as backward, recalcitrant, unenlightened natives in need of discipline until they can understand the wisdom of their colonial superiors. That haughty attitude will only get worse. Faculty at all levels will continue to bristle at their treatment and distrust their bosses. Until administrators stop trying to subjugated their charges to greater control and diminished respect and compensation, this low-grade war will continue on into perpetuity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, Bear, your two posts on the state of higher ed do resonate. It gives me hope if these perceptions are out there circulating. I too have heard the 'soul sucking silence of apathy' and sat in faculty senate meetings that made it clear the best the faculty could hope for is a pat on the head.