30 July 2014

Refinancing the Mortgage on the Academy's Soul

Image from http://www.fhmtg.com/
How's this for a tasty morsel of righteous indignation?  As reported by Eric Hoover at the Chronicle of Higher Education,
At the ACT’s annual Enrollment Planners Conference here on Thursday, Mr. Niles, founder of Target X, recommended five “dirty words” colleges should use regularly.... 
Finally, Mr. Niles asked for other words that colleges should embrace. “Closing,” said one admissions official (as in, closing the deal with an accepted applicant). “Fire,” said another (as in, letting an ineffective staffer go). “ROI!,” someone else exclaimed. “ROI!”And then, just maybe, everyone went and washed their mouths out with soap.
The words? Customer, Sales, Competition, Experience, Accountability.
Ho hum.

We're surprised? “'You are a business,' Mr. Niles told his audience. 'Why do we think that’s a bad thing?'"  We're not a business, and being a business would be a bad thing, but the "why" is a question that the academy has been remarkably unwilling to answer in any vigorous way, outside of comfortable collegial griping.  In the meantime, as public support for higher education diminishes, the bills keep coming, and the "but we're not a business!" methods for coping with them tend to further diminish the role of the humanities.  At my institution, faculty are encouraged to pursue grants to fund their research, and the hefty percentage that the university skims for overhead is a source of deep resentment.  So is the fact that reliance on external funding falls awkwardly on departments for which there are few external funds, like most of the humanities.   My institution recruits students who pay full sticker price, and the enrollment of international students has soared accordingly (and students for whom English is a second language, and for whom tuition represents a family investment generally choose not to major in humanities).

So tuition dollars matter more than they once did, and in the absence of public commitment to higher education as a shared good, it's up to  participants in the academy to channel them in desirable directions.  This reductio ad sales pitch is being carefully skirted wherever faculty gather to wring their hands about declining enrollments in their departments.  Everyone knows we need aggressive marketing campaigns to draw students to our fields of study; everyone knows we're competing with adjacent fields for the handful of remaining students who gravitate towards learning-for-its-own-sake; no one wants to say it, much less act on this knowledge.   We rightfully recoil at any framing of our work as a commodity, but we recoil so far that we miss the opportunity to market any alternative.

Timothy Burke of Easily Distracted takes a rare stab at the issue of how we can defend the most liberal of the liberal arts without resorting to, on the one hand, a narrow careerism or, on the other hand, mushy (and intrinsically elitist) claims about humanizing self-improvement.  Burke argues that finding that sweet spot involves: (1) acknowledging the provisional nature of the improvement we offer ("Yes, we’re cultivating humanity, it’s just that we’re not very sure what will grow from any given combination of nutrients and seeds. In our students or ourselves."); and (2) redesigning undergraduate curricula around those provisional aims rather than conventional disciplinary structures:
Right now, many faculty want...to have rigorous programs of disciplinary study that are essentially instrumental in that they primarily encourage students to do the discipline as if it were a career, justified in a tautological loop where the value of the discipline is discovered by testing students on how they demonstrate that the discipline is, in its own preferred terms, valuable. 
If we want people to take seriously that non-instrumental “dark side of the moon” that many faculty claim defines what college has been, is and should remain, we have to take it far more seriously ourselves, both in how we try to live what it is that we study and in how we design institutions that increase the probabilities that our students will not just know specific things and have specific skills but achieve wisdoms that they otherwise could not have found.
"Wisdoms" are an uncomfortable sweet spot, particularly when one tries to imagine the  committee room in which a group of faculty try to agree on the learning objectives that will constitute a content-free yet meaningful vision of mutually acceptable moral improvement.  Even if the aim is a stated "probability" rather than "certainty" and cloaked in delicate circumspection, anything substantive enough to provide college level rigor will fall far short of consensus, and anything vague enough to satisfy all parties will be unteachably inchoate.

We don't need to dissolve the conventional disciplines in order to offer a meaningful college curriculum, but we do need make a stronger and more persuasive case for them--which doesn't have to be an argument for the moral improvement they offer.  Studying something in depth makes you smarter, and the more complex the material you are working with, the farther in takes you from realms with which you are already familiar, the smarter it can make you.

Smarter in ways that an employer will value?  Sure.  But also, smarter in interactions with other people, smarter in understanding the complexity of any problem, smarter in recognizing what you don't know, smarter in filling in those gaps.  Burke is right--it may not necessarily be an improvement that makes you more humane.  "Smarter" may make you better at manipulating, not empathizing, better at amassing wealth, not improving the world.

Either way, though, "smarter" gives college graduates more control over the choices they will make, in every dimension of their lives, and it's an objective we should reclaim from the realms of human endeavor where wealth is taken to be the only measure by which "smarter" can be measured.

25 July 2014

Acad Men; or, Entrepreneurial in All the Wrong Places

This right here is why education is not customer service, as described by a math professor in an op-ed piece for the New York Times:
With the college students I teach, it’s a straightforward transaction. They’re paying me to teach them math, and my job is to cajole or incentivize them into doing the work that’s necessary to learn the subject, whether they feel like it or not.
Jordan Ellenberg's point here is that coaching (as in Little-League "have fun while learning the sport" coaching) is a good model for teaching.  Mine is a little different: for administrators and educational entrepreneurs looking to make education cheap and scalable, education has to be equated with the delivery of information, preferably information that can be neatly packaged in textbooks, online courses, and marketable units.  Instructors experience education as a complex interaction: that combination of cajolery, incentivizing, performance, and passion that can cause students to absorb the information that gets delivered.

The customer service model of education (which David Perry has taken down in the CHE) prevents the two sides from noticing that they are talking past each other.  Administrators want their "customers" to buy their brand of academic credential and so strive to create a mutually beneficial and trouble-free commercial transaction. Instructors, too, want happy "customers."  Instructors are acutely aware of how students are responding to a lecture or discussion.  Every classroom interaction provides implicit feedback that a good instructor will use to shape future interactions; many instructors know that they can reach happy, engaged students better than hostile, bored ones and so they look for ways to make their instruction both rigorous and user-friendly.

Teaching is ultimately about getting students to do things.  The administrative customer service model stops dead at the doorway where the educational package gets delivered, as if that was all that mattered.  Instructors know, however, that the doorway is where education starts.  The instructional version of customer service stands over customers as they open the package and try to assemble the contents; it helps them read the instructions, find the right tools, recognize when the thing they've ordered works like it's supposed to, and use it effectively.

But of course, it's also more complicated than that.  As anyone who has advanced beyond the minimum-wage front lines of retail knows, the customer is not always right.  Customers can be greedy and mendacious.  Customers can be out to scam the company.  Customers can desire what's bad for them, for their health, for their neighborhoods, and for the planet.  Moreover, customers are made, not born.  Customers don't always know what they want until it's getting sold to them.

Somewhere between administrative pressure to offer better and narrowly conceived customer service and act of salesmanship performed by a talented instructor lies the black hole into which the future of the literature and language study has fallen. In Unmaking the Public University (Harvard UP 2008), Christopher Newfield explains the problem:
In its attempt to be realistic about economic forces, LCS [literary and cultural studies] learned one half of the lesson of business. It was the half the culture war taught again and again: the market was to be adapted to, not to be criticized or changed. The market model blocked rather than answered a simple question: who or what decides the level of demand? The other half of the lesson of business, the half LCS ignored, was the requirement to respond to "market" environments by increasing one's own influence over the market's demand decisions. This meant learning how to manage markets--how to discover hidden demands, how to create demand for products one thinks are important, how to adapt the market to one's output, how to subordinate markets to the needs of one's "customers," not to mention the wider society. (150)   
Recently, a three-part series in Inside Higher Ed urges academics (particularly those outside the STEM fields) to find markets for their skills and knowledge beyond their day jobs.  "My purpose in offering this series" writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore, "is to both encourage any academic who has a big idea for change to move forward AND to encourage college and university incubators to rethink who belongs there and which ideas are worthy of support."

Nothing wrong with that! Academics have good ideas, institutions can be remarkably short-sighted, the remuneration and prestige of conventional academic work is dwindling. Why not find alternative ways to matter and get paid for it, particularly if you can do some good in the process?

What's remarkable here is not that Dr. Rockquemore has perceived a need and is filling it, but that she's advocating a mind-set that the academic humanities seem incapable of applying on a disciplinary or institutional level but that individual faculty members are, presumably, receptive to.  As she explains,

At the most basic level, there are three components to making a new venture successful. Your idea has to help people solve a problem that they already know they have and are actively seeking to solve. It really is that simple: there’s a problem, people know they have a problem, and they are looking for an answer to the problem.
Right. "There's a problem": dwindling public resources for higher education are putting a squeeze on the humanities.  "People know they have a problem": well, yes--see the ample stats on the oversupply and underemployment of Ph.D. grads.  "They are looking for an answer to the problem": see every tendentious blog post ever on what to do about the oversupply/underemployment problem.

A real solution to the problem has to involve addressing the dwindling public resources for higher education.  It involves reframing the problem in the entrepreneurial way that Dr. Rockquemore advocates: what problems does the tuition- and tax-paying public have that literature and language education can solve?  How can we explain what we do in those terms and make them persuasive to people who aren't already convinced of the value of a broad liberal education?  How can we reframe the conversation so that it's not about job skills, narrowly conceived, but about informed citizens, well-lived lives, an educated society, the ability to understand?

If we who are in the literature and language business just laugh those questions off as quixotic and ill-conceived, maybe we don't deserve the limited public resources we're getting.  If we mean what we say to each other about the value of what we do, then we need to use our powers over text and language to say it to others.

22 July 2014

The Wrong Problem

Nothing jolts me out of the midsummer shallows like lots of smart people linking to the same misguided solution to the wrong problem.   Did you think the MLA report on reforming graduate education was done and dusted?  No: prepare for another round of handwringing.  Once again, those who resist the call to cut down graduate humanities education find consolation in the hope that it can be retooled as a sort of vocational philosopher's stone, a magical Ph.D. that allows anyone who touches it to both embark on an exciting career in a nonacademic field AND to eschew narrow careerism.
Doctoral recipients have a rich set of skills — in communication, research, and leadership....Nonetheless, doctoral study should not be viewed exclusively as the pursuit of a career-oriented credential. It must also involve an intellectual passion for languages and literatures, as defined by our evolving disciplines....The qualities cultivated through intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing are not just transferable to other careers; they are valuable in their own right, just as it would be valuable to our culture as a whole — and particularly to the future of the academy — to have highly educated professionals who appreciate scholarly thoughtfulness and humanistic perspectives working throughout society.
One would think that, without such stirring words, prospective graduate students might slink off to MBA programs, entry-level digital marketing jobs, and whatever other tedious fates awaits those who have failed to develop "intellectual passion."   They might enter graduate programs warily, with one foot already in the alt-ac/post-ac camp of their choosing, sacrificing hours in the library to opportunities to build their network or gain a marketable skill.

Cheer up!  There's no shortage of young people willing to fall on the sword of "intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing."  Despite ample evidence that academic careers are dwindling, enough continue to apply to graduate programs to sustain the exploitative academic labor market.  And so long as R1 faculty are willing to fight tenaciously to preserve their graduate student funding and research support (and so long as faculty at other kinds of institutions are encouraged to emulate the research model and productivity of the R1s), the economy of prestige will sustain the Ph.D. pipeline and keep graduate programs in business.

What there IS a shortage of, the problem that we need to solve, is the declining number of people who see "an intellectual passion for languages and literatures" as "valuable in their own right" and "valuable for our culture as a whole."  The long-term survival of the academic humanities doesn't need retooled programs; it needs more undergraduates who are drawn to humanities majors, more parents willing to pay tuition for a nonprofessional degree, more taxpayers willing to fight cuts to higher education, and a broader recognition of the public value of all of the liberal arts.

The proposed solution to the oversupply problem will only make the demand problem worse. Broadening the scope of Ph.D programs in order to prepare students for careers outside academia may make graduate faculty feel better about accepting more students for whom there are fewer academic jobs, but it will do little to draw undergraduates to study their fields.  What does a BA in literature or language equip a college grad for, other than (a) grad school of whatever flavor or (b) alt-ac/post-ac work minus the additional debt and time for the "ac" part?

We promise incoming majors that they are not limited (as they often assume) to high school teaching or low-paid writing/editing drone work.  Instead we point to the same kinds of possibilities now being dangled in front of contingent malcontents and worried ABD's by those who would preserve graduate education at all costs: grantwriting! museum work! nonprofit arts organizations! management consulting! internet journalism! entrepreneurship!

We're not wrong to do so. Grappling with centuries of literature, negotiating between close reading and broader contextual understanding, writing arguments involving complex ideas, chewing over dense and unfamiliar texts--all these are practices that give literature and languages majors the creativity, broadmindedness, and intellectual agility that are both a public good and a career asset.   We as a profession, though, have done a piss-poor job of convincing anyone but ourselves and the already-converted of that truth.  Obviously, we owe it to the Ph.D's already in the pipeline to give them the support they need to be paid what they're worth, in whatever line of fulfilling work will make that possible.  But changing the shape and focus of the literature and language Ph.D. will not save the academic humanities.  Changing the shape and focus of the BA (and concentrating our energies there) just might.

01 July 2014

The Absence on the Horizon

Photo from http://www.mnh.si.edu/highlight/riola/
This post, for once, isn't about academia.  At least, not directly.

When I was a kid, my mother and I would drive at least twice a year from Morgantown, West Virginia to the middle of Indiana to visit her family.  Ohio was long and boring to get across, but when we had left the hills behind us and the landscape flattened out, I knew we were really on our way and getting to somewhere I very much wanted to be.  The fields stretching out in all directions told me so: the dome of sky was not part of my experience at home in West Virginia and I loved it, even if the long drive under it was tedious.  My mother had long since pointed out the rim of trees circling the horizon.  "Have you ever wondered why we never get to those trees?" she asked me once, and in a few moments I had worked out why.  The fencerows, the occasional buildings, which appeared individually as we passed them by, piled up at the end of one's field of vision, making it look like permanent border between earth and sky. My mother had been pondering the phenomenon with much more regularity than me from an earlier age, and still remembered the bewilderment she felt as a young child, about the forest that always receded.

Now I live under the dome, a bit farther west, in Illinois, but my days are so sheltered by a tree-covered campus and academic neighborhood that I only see it when I drive or bike out of town.  A few years ago on such an excursion I started to point out the rim of trees on the horizon to my daughters, to pose to them the same question that had puzzled my mother.  But it was gone.  There was no rim.  There were a few trees here and there, now and then a house and barn and outbuildings, but mostly there were just soybeans, and then corn and more corn, as far as one could see into the distance.  With no fences to piece out the landscape, less variation between corn and beans, the fields looked less flat, the undulations in the ground were more apparent.  Beyond them, the corn and beans met directly with the sky.

The change fits in with the story that's getting told with increasing urgency, about why the bees are in decline.   These big unbroken fields under a sole manager make it easier to spray pesticides. They lack the borders and fence and marginal spaces where flowering weeds used to flourish.  It's complicated, of course.  My grandfather, a farmer, prided himself on keeping his fencerows clear of the weeds and undergrowth that we now know provide habitats crucial to the ecosystem.  

Thousands of small choices, each of them made for good reasons, have changed the relationship between earth and sky within my lifetime.