Actually, universities have always been a little like daycare

I can’t remember the last time I went this long without posting anything to my blog. It’s not as if I have been that crazy-busy with other projects– though I have been pretty crazy-busy. And oddly, with EMUTalk.org closed up and the Facebook group for EMUTalk moving right along, you would think I’d have more time and energy here. Maybe I just haven’t had the time (or I haven’t made the time) to sit down and write something worthy of a post. Or maybe a better way of saying it is every time I would have thought about writing something, I end up needing to or wanting to work on something else.

In any event: a couple of weeks ago, there was a blog post/commentary/whatever that got passed around the social medias a bit, “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” by Everett Piper, who is the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Ostensibly, Piper was responding to a student at OkWU who “felt ‘victimized’ by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13” (don’t ask me what that means– I looked that passage up and it seems to be about the power of God and don’t kill or commit adultery), but he’s clearly responding to all kinds of college students proclaiming their “victim-hood,” from various injustices like yoga classes and costume controversies, to the ways in which race and the #blacklivesmatter movement has played out on campuses, particularly at the University of Missouri.  Piper’s post concludes:

Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.

This is not a day care. This is a university.

Piper’s post went viral and he had his moment in the mainstream media, even getting this not unsympathetic response from the New York Times, though most of the news favoring Piper’s approach was from places like Glen Beck’s TheBlaze.com and Fox News.

It’s easy for Piper to talk about OkWU as being “not a day care” because OkWU is a theocracy. This is not a university that moved away from its primarily religious mission long ago nor is it a church-sponsored institution that emphases a specific faith but welcomes a variety of different religious beliefs. No, as the OkWU student handbook makes abundantly clear, this is a university where everyone is expected to be a specific version of Christian, where the Bible is taken literally, where all drugs are strictly prohibited, as is all pornography. And, of course, no sex:

Oklahoma Wesleyan University affirms the exemplar and standard of heterosexual monogamy within the context of marriage as the singular, healthy, and holy expression of human sexuality. Behavior that promotes, celebrates, or advertises sexual deviancy or a sexual identity outside of the scriptural expectation of sexuality is prohibited.

By virtue of their voluntary enrollment, all students, regardless of age, residency, or status agree to engage in sexual behavior exclusively within the context of marital heterosexual monogamy. All students also agree to not engage in any behavior that promotes, celebrates, or advertises sexual deviancy or a sexual identity outside of the scriptural expectation of sexuality.

This place teaches students “about life” the same way as a Taliban Madrassas, just different religions and focusing on the Bible rather than the Qur’an.

(Though interestingly enough, there is a “daycare” element too since OkWU’s “Residential Parent Connect” provides several updates every semester to parents about “what your student is up to while away at college.”)

It’s also easy to point out that Piper’s concern about the “coddling” of college students isn’t remotely new. One of the many research holes I’ve leaped/fallen into with my ongoing MOOC project is about the rise and fall of teaching by correspondence in the early 20th century, and this has included some poking around Abraham Flexner’s 1930 book Universities: American, English, German. Flexner was a well known education reformer and his book is a purple-prosed and scathing attack on many different aspects of higher education just shy of 100 years ago. Here’s a rather fitting paragraph about “the kids today” back then:

Every jerk and shock must be eliminated; the students must be “oriented”; they must be “advised” as to what to “take”; they must be vocationally guided. How is it possible to educate persons who will never be permitted to burn their fingers, who must be dexterously and expensively housed, first as freshmen, then as upperclassmen, so as to make the right sort of social connections and to establish the right sort of social relationships, who are protected against risk as they should be protected against plague, and who, even though “they work their way through,” have no conception of the effort required to develop intellectual sinew?

Framed in the current debate, Flexner appears to be complaining both about coddling and “trigger warnings.”

And there have also been several very good and reasonable columns that I think anyone who is prone to complain about these “damn college kids today” needs to read first. For example, there’s “How Talking to Undergraduates Changed My Mind” by Steven Petrow in The Atlantic and “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience'” by Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. Both pieces point out in different ways that there has been an alarming rise in racism that crosses over to hate crimes on college campuses, and thus there are good reasons why students are asking that their campuses be made “safe spaces.”

But here’s the thing: universities are kind of like daycare, and that’s a good thing.

Both daycare and universities are institutions which are potentially liable if something bad happens: that is, a serious toddler fall at the play-dough table caused by daycare negligence and a serious freshmen fall from a dorm window caused by university negligence are both going to lead to various kinds of charges and lawsuits. There were several notorious daycare sex abuse scandals years ago (though most of that was hysteria rather than reality); the most certain way a tenured faculty member will be fired from most universities nowadays is to get caught up in a sex scandal with a student, even if that student is 18 or older. And so on.

in loco parentis isn’t a new idea, though it does seem to me to be a responsibility that universities are taking a lot more seriously now than when they did when I was an undergraduate in the mid 1980s.  I’m no expert, but I think one big motivator for this is the change in drinking age, from a system that varied from state to state (in Iowa, it was 19) to a national age of 21. Before that change, it was legal for the majority of kids in the dorm to drink (or at least close enough to legal); after that change, it wasn’t and I think universities felt the pressure to crack down.

The other big change I think has to do with an emphasis on retention and increasing graduation rates, and one way to keep students in school is to pay more attention to their lives in way that is “parental.”  I actually know more about how this works at the University of Michigan rather than at EMU because my son Will is wrapping up his first semester at U of M right now. He lives in a dorm on a floor where a resident assistant “looks over” a group of about a 20 or so, a building that is clean, secure, and comfortable. He jokes that the dining hall is like eating on a cruise ship with its variety and availability (though perhaps not quite as much in terms of quality). He has an advisor assigned to him to guide him through his courses and registration. Annette and I receive regular email updates from U of M directed to parents, and we’re encouraged by some outside company (it looks like U of M sold a mailing list) to pay to have “care packages” delivered to our child, expensive boxes of cookies and candy Will tells me are a complete rip-off. The point is U of M works hard at reassuring parents like me that they’re taking care of and paying attention to my child/their student. It’s not as invasive as OkWU’s program that seems to me to be a mechanism for parents to spy on their kids away at college, but U of M’s day-to-day “care” for its students– particularly first year students and those living in the dorms– is evident.

And besides all that, it seems to me that universities (at least for traditional students) and daycare are similar in that both are spaces where children begin to transition away from parents, at least a bit. Well-run daycares and well-run universities both give our children access to a new level of self-confidence and independence. There’s an obvious degree of difference in the kind of independent moves our kids make, but don’t discount how that happens in daycare settings. I vividly remember a specific time in seeing this with Will. He was about one, maybe 18 months. I came into the daycare baby room to take him home and he (along with the other kids) was in a high chair wearing a bib with a bowl of some kind of baby food in front of him, and– and this is the kicker– he was feeding himself, sloppily, incompletely, but independently. “Wow, I didn’t realize he could do that!” I said to the daycare worker. “We always feed him at home.” She smiled and said “Yeah, we can’t do that with all of the kids here. So we hand them a spoon and they go at it.”

It was a little thing, sure, but it was moment where I realized that my son, even as a baby, had things in his life outside of what I knew and controlled as a parent. That independence grew throughout daycare and then school and now at college. All of these spaces protect and nurture children/students, but they also allow them to explore independence. In that sense, it’s better that universities are a little like daycare than not.

Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips

Last week, I was in Naples and Capri, Italy to attend the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference. My brief talk/presentation/position statement (everyone just gave small talks) was more or less called “A Small View of MOOCs: A Limited Look at the Recent Past and Likely Future of MOOCs at the Edges of Higher Education in the United States,” and that link takes you to a Google Doc version of my talk– the slides and the script I more or less followed. Here are links to my tourism pictures of Naples, Anacapri, and Pompeii on Flickr.

After the break, I go into way more detail than necessary about the conference and the trip. Read on if you’re interested, though a lot of it is really me writing/thinking out loud for myself, which is often the case on my blog, right?

Continue reading “Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips”

MOOCs and PR: That’s not exactly what/all I said

Here’s an example as to why I am often not all that interested in talking to reporters. I was quoted in Crain’s Detroit Business in the article “Massive online courses grow; what’s in it for the universities?” by Kirk Pinho. Here’s how I’m quoted:

Steven Krause, a professor in the Eastern Michigan University Department of English, Language and Literature who co-edited the 2014 book Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, said that in many ways MOOCs are good public relations for universities.

“It represents, for UM or Ohio State University or MSU a little less so, PR. And it’s not a huge cost to them. It’s more about trying to attract a student to apply to UM rather than take a MOOC online. It’s essentially advertising,” he said.

That’s not inaccurate, but it’s not at all complete, either.

Pinho called me up to talk MOOCs after getting my name from one of the PR folks here at EMU. He told me he was pretty much done with his article and was contacting me at this point to get some additional thoughts. He seems like a nice guy; we chatted for about 30 minutes about a variety of different things, mostly MOOCs.

Just to be clear, Pinho isn’t misquoting me or misrepresenting me. I do think that MOOCs represent a form of PR for the universities offering them. It’s just that I said a lot more than that. For example, I think that the University of Michigan et al feel a completely earnest and legitimate obligation to give back to the community at large, sort of along the lines of what Geralyn Stephens from Wayne State says in this piece. Pinho and I talked a bit about some of the possibilities of “internal” MOOCs, along the lines of what Stephens talks about as well. We talked about completion rates and how one of the problems with MOOCs is the definition of “student” and how that also problematizes things like completion rates. And on a completely different topic, we also talked a bit about how companies like Coursera seem to be making a pivot away from higher education and more toward “just in time” training and certificates.

And anyone who has read this blog at all knows that I think MOOCs are about a whole lot more than PR.

Anyway, I realize Pinho is just trying to do a job here and this is just one out of seemingly hundreds of articles that are “out there” in the MSM along the lines of “gee whiz, what’s up with all this MOOC thing I am hearing about?” I am guessing that Pinho’s editors were the ones who cut the shit out of his piece to make it fit, etc., etc. It just gets kind of frustrating to see what I thought was the least interesting thing I said to be the only thing that makes it into this article.

But at least the book got mentioned again, so that’s a good thing.

Trigger Warnings Triggering Memories of Teaching From Long Ago

A different kind of Trigger…

There are two articles making the rounds about trigger warnings of late. There’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. And there’s (at least one) response to it, “The Trigger Warning Myth” in New Republic and by Aaron R. Hanion. By “trigger warning,” both articles are talking about the warning given to an audience (students) to a text, movie, or whatever else that might have disturbing content.  While doing a quick search for a definition of trigger warning to quote, I also found out that the AAUP’s position on this is that trigger warnings are a threat to academic free speech. In any event, Lukianoff and Haidt thinks trigger warnings are an example of how we’re coddling the “kids today,” Hanion thinks that’s a myth.

It’s a complicated issue and I think critics like Lukianoff and Haidt have a point. Law students calling the use of the word “violation” a microagression doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of studying law. But I tend to side with Hanion’s view and that most of what Lukianoff and Haidt write are wrong, and as I understand trigger warnings, I think they have the exact opposite effect of censorship, contrary to the AAUP’s position on this. Hanion writes:

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

And a bit later, this longer passage:

While a miniscule number of colleges and universities have gone so far as to codify trigger warnings for professors, most trigger warnings exist as a pedagogical choice that professors make in situations over which we exercise considerable control. (And have existed as such for much longer than the present debate suggests: While “trigger warning” was not part of my vocabulary as an undergraduate, introductory comments like “we’re going to spend some time today on lynching images, so prepare yourselves for graphic and difficult material” were indeed.)

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one,” for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class,” meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.

Most of my teaching nowadays at the undergraduate level doesn’t merit trigger warnings (“just to let you all know: today we’re going to be talking about HTML and CSS” or “Hang on everyone, because today we’re going to talk about how writing is actually a technology”). But I’ve used the kinds of benign warnings that Hanion talks about with some controversial readings and activities in the past (and I’m likely to do that again this fall since I’m going to have students spending a little time with Yik Yak), though I didn’t call them “trigger warnings;” no one did until recently.

If anything, the current argument seems to parallel the debate about “political correctness” way back when, and more or less, the politics are the same in that the more conservative view is that trigger warnings/political correctness are silly. I think both trigger warnings and political correctness can be silly, but it also seems to me that they are also both gestures toward both civility and empathy with an audience. In other words, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

But thinking about this a bit more the other day triggered a teaching memory for me. It was when I was at Southern Oregon and in 1997 or so. It was a specific time where I didn’t give enough warning and where the shit kind of hit the fan. I didn’t get into any actual trouble with an administrator of some sort, but I did have students leaving class in tears. It was a time where maybe more of a warning would have helped, or maybe it was an example of how trigger warnings can only do so much.

And not so much as a trigger warning as a spoiler alert about the rest of this post: after the jump, I give away some key plot/synopsis details about the movies Scream (the first one, from 1996) and a Belgian film released in the U. S. in 1993 under the name Man Bites Dog (the French name was C’est arrivé près de chez vous, which I guess translates basically as It Happened in Your Neighborhood).

Continue reading “Trigger Warnings Triggering Memories of Teaching From Long Ago”

Yes, I can think of a better way of spending 9 bucks (or, NCTE, please don’t sell my email address)

Yesterday morning, I received an email from my “good friend” NCTE Membership Services with the subject line “Can you think of a better way to spend 9 bucks?” I didn’t think anything of it and sent it to “archive” unread. Later that day, a professional colleague/friend had a bit of a rant posting on Facebook (which he has since deleted– his prerogative, of course) about this email and more generally about NCTE. So this morning, I thought I’d go find that archived NCTE email and figure out what all the fuss is about.

That “nine bucks” a month is for an “Educators Professional Liability Insurance” plan offered through Forrest T. Jones & Company, which is an insurance company that has been offering these plans for a long time.

This is what they are offering in Michigan:

  • The “Educators Professional Plan” offers “Personalized protection for educators who are employees of educational institutions….The plan pays all your defense costs in addition to liability limit for professional liability claims. It also provides job protection benefits if you’re subjected to a demotion, transfer, reassignment or dismissal.” I have my doubts about that last sentence.
  • Then there’s the “Private-Practice Professional Liability” plan, which probably does have some merit if you are indeed a “self-employed educator.” Of course, anyone working for any kind of school or university is not. Next.
  • Finally, there’s the “Student Educator Professional Plan,” which I guess is for students who are doing student teaching, practicums, internships, and so forth. The line here is that this is “required by many colleges and universities.” Maybe that’s true, but I’ve never heard of that and I would assume that the university is the one doing the insuring of the student.

So, two basic observations:

First, while I am not a lawyer and I am not offering any sort of legal advice or insurance advice, the idea that your average NCTE member (that is, a K-12 teacher or a college professor) needs any of this insurance is dubious.

I’m in a faculty union here at EMU, and in any of these professional liability scenarios, I am certain that they would step in. Besides that, all of the examples they give where this insurance would be justified seem to me to be covered by the school’s insurance– that is, a student gets injured in a classroom or something goes wrong on a field trip. And the example of a student suing a teacher because of a bad grade– please, show me the court case where that actually happened.

When I did a search for “do teachers need professional liability insurance” or “teacher liability insurance scam,” I founds some interesting results. There’s this response from a Texas insurance lawyer who argues it’s a waste of money and, if anything, will make the plaintiff go after the teacher instead of just the school.  There’s this article that is actually a critique of the Michigan Education Association: basically, the MEA argues that one of the big benefits of being in their union is the liability coverage, but this “exposé” of sorts says that’s bull. Here’s a long quote that I think speaks to the lack of need for this insurance:

“That is one of the ‘top shelf’ benefits that they tout for being a member,” said James Perialas, president of the Roscommon Teachers Association, an independent teachers union that was created in 2012 when teachers voted to decertify from the MEA and form a local union.

Perialas said the MEA doesn’t come out and say it is the sole provider of liability insurance for teachers, but implies that it is.

“That is not only false, but is inherently misleading to teachers in the union. A teacher’s primary line of defense is his/her school district. They all purchase a liability policy that covers employees,” Perialas said. “Furthermore, many Roscommon teachers have purchased professional liability insurance through their homeowner’s policy, for approximately $25 a year if they want additional coverage. If they are still not satisfied, the teacher-specific liability insurance can be had with membership in organizations like the Christian Educator’s Association, or the Association of American Educators. I am a member of the AAE, and it also provides litigation insurance if I need a lawyer for a wrongful discharge.

And then there’s this piece about teacher liability insurance in Florida, where this time the union there takes the opposite view. The issue there was there was a proposal making its way through the legislature that would require the state Department of Education to run an insurance program. Here’s a quote from that article:

“The last time the state offered this liability insurance, it cost taxpayers $4 million and paid out one claim,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “This is wasteful spending. There are many other places in public schools that could better use whatever dollars are spent on this.”

The Florida Education Association offers liability insurance, and Pudlow said all 140,000 members are covered by that program. Pudlow said his organization has not experienced an uptick in claims in recent years.

So again, IANAL, this isn’t legal advice, find out for yourself, etc., etc., but no, the vast majority of teachers in this country don’t need this insurance.

Which leads me to my second point: NCTE, you should be a better organization than this. 

As it is, NCTE charges its 30,000 or so members between $22 (for students) and $50 a year for membership, and then, if you want to go to one of the organization’s conferences (which is the only reason why I’m a member of NCTE in the first place) it’s another $100-$150. So with this amount of revenue coming in– not to mention the organization’s books, journals, teaching materials, and God only knows what else– is it really necessary to squeeze a few more bucks out of members by selling a list of member emails to an insurance company?

And besides, this isn’t professionally responsible. A big part of what Forest T. Jones & Co. is buying from NCTE (besides the mailing list itself) is the ethos of the organization: that is, NCTE members (and frankly, this particularly applies to newer and more naive members) are being told by this professional organization that this insurance plan is a good idea– certainly a good way to spend $9 a month.  I’m not comfortable with that.

So my friend, NCTE Membership Services, please stop it. I don’t have a problem with you emailing me about dues, about upcoming conferences, or about upcoming publications coming out from NCTE and related presses and organizations. But if you’re going to include me on a mass email you send out, please let it be something that isn’t this spammy. Thanks.

I am not sure what Kevin Carey is imagining here….

I started this on Sunday night while a bunch of folks were at my house playing a very very involved board game called Civilization. I did not play along. It is a long story, but the short version is I instead cooked what turned out to be a pretty good and more elaborate than I was planning dinner, and when it comes to playing games generally, I really have to be in the right mood and with the right game. I like game theory a lot more than actual games.

Anyway, late in the night while they were playing (the game went on for about 10 hours and still hadn’t finished), I got around to reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” I came to it via a commentary from a response Cathy Davidson had on HASTAC, “Universities are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Cary and NYT,”  and also on Facebook.

Carey opens with the story of an athletic scandal at UNC where student athletes were taking classes that were technically legitimate classes but where the lack of recognizable requirements (like not having to attend) helped the less scholarly of student athletes to stay eligible for sports. It seems to me that stories like this cheating scandal pop up every few years, but that’s a problem of college sports and not “college” generally, and probably a different post. Then Carey writes:

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

Let’s try to walk through that logic for a moment:

  • Big-time college sports tempt coaches, students, and even sympathetic professors/fans to create “in-house credit mills.”
  • While most colleges (presumably) don’t have a lot of this kind of problem, the design, value, and operation of most other colleges are “no different” from the school where these fake courses happened.
  • Therefore (I guess?), colleges/universities are “not coherent” when it comes to consistency, standards, classroom excellence, and influencing teaching and learning practices.

So for me, part of this is “well, duh,” that there is cheating in big-time college athletics. Obviously. As Davidson points out in her post, what Carey’s example demonstrates is a problem with college sports rather than college. But why would Carey (or anyone else) think that from this example it logically follows that the colleges across the board have no consistency/standards/oversight when it comes to teaching and learning practices? I know op-ed commentators are fond of the hasty generalization fallacy, but this seems a bit of a reach even for Carey.

Having read Carey’s book The End of College (and one of these days, I’ll blog a more extensive review of that), I think I know where he’s trying to go here. In his book, one of the main problems Carey has with higher education are the damn professors because professors are too independent, too lazy, too focused on their research, too indifferent to teaching, too petty, etc. So in Carey’s view, there’s no coherence or standards in higher education– that’s why it’s an illusion– in large part because professors get away with doing whatever it is they want to do. More on that in a moment.

But at the same time, Carey argues here that the college experience doesn’t vary much between schools. Carey wants to make this argument because one of the other points he hammers on in The End of College is that college rankings are way out of control. He cites Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, authors of How College Affects Students, which appears to be a giant and long-standing study on the question of (duh) how college affects students.  Carey writes:

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

And a little later:

 People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

If it’s true that at the level of big data that there isn’t much difference between different four year colleges– that is, you put all the undergraduate students attending “traditional” universities that grant bachelors degrees and those students come out statistically close to the same– then that means that there actually is a lot of consistency and coherence in higher education. And broadly speaking, I think this is true: that is, I believe that the experiences that EMU graduates have in terms of personal growth, subject knowledge, and academic skills are similar to those of University of Michigan graduates (though of course, individual results vary quite a bit). In other words, because the best available research suggests that there is a lot consistency, coherence, and statistical similarity between between different universities, there is no need for the mandated standardization and regulation Carey implies is necessary to make the college a less “illusionary.” Indeed, it isn’t an illusion at all.

But I want to dwell on that second paragraph I quote here because it demonstrates the problems I see with Carey’s “logic” generally. He begins with a claim that I think most people in higher education would actually agree with, that most people learn a lot in college regardless of what college they attend. Then he slips into a claim that the differences that exist within higher ed are a result of the “autonomy” and “academic freedom” of individual professors, and those professors are not “guided by a shared sense of educational excellence” at all. Rather, these damn individual professors are all just a bunch selfish entrepreneurs who bitch and complain about parking. Jeesh.

As Davidson points out in her post, if we’ve learned anything from the “No Child Left Behind” nonsense forced on to K-12 in this country, the absolute last thing we need is more regulation to curtail individual approaches to teaching, autonomy, and academic freedom. As she writes, “We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.”

But beyond that, who are these “professors?” Depending on how you define permanent work and the “tenure track” in higher education, at least 70% (maybe more) of the folks doing the teaching aren’t professors at all; rather, they are graduate students, part-timers, and full-time instructors who might enjoy job security through renewable contracts (or not– some full-timers are on contracts that are not renewable after 3-5 years). These folks are not professors in that they are not usually required to do the research and service/administrative work of professors (that’s certainly the case at EMU), and, for better or worse, they don’t enjoy the level of autonomy and academic freedom of professors. Take our first year writing program, for example, one that is similar to a lot of first year writing programs in that almost everyone teaching classes in it are not professors (full disclosure: I’m the interim associate director of that program right now). We have specific outcomes we expect everyone teaching the class to get their students to meet, and we have a curriculum that offers teachers options but only within the expectations of the course. We wouldn’t hire (or rehire) folks who weren’t willing or able to teach within those expectations. I can’t claim that this level of “programming” and “control” exists across the board in other disciplines, but I’m certain it isn’t “anything goes” for most of the non-professors doing most of the teaching in universities nowadays.

Further, Carey’s assumption about the level of autonomy professors (as in the 30% or so of us who are on the tenure-track) have in their teaching is wrong too. Davidson wrote a LONG comment on her own blog post outlining the steps that are pretty typical for getting a new course approved at a university, a process that more or less squares with my experiences here at EMU. The same kind of bureaucracy is in place for degree programs and any significant change to a course or a degree program. I wish I worked in the environment Carey imagines for me.

I guess what bothers me the most about Carey’s views here and in other places, notably in The End of College, is the amount of airtime it gets in places in the mainstream media like The New York Times. He purposefully sets up the most visible part of higher education– professors– as the sole problem, conveniently skipping past the bloated administrations and edu-entrepreneurs that are profiting the most from out of control tuition. He is a self-described education policy wonk who (surprise, surprise!) thinks that the problems in higher education can be solved with more strident and controlling policies and regulations.   He’s tapping into the lizard brain general public “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sentiment that always exists since things are always getting worse, and he does this by making sweeping generalizations that have truthiness to them but that are demonstrably wrong. The problem is it’s very difficult to change people’s lizard brain minds with actual logic and evidence.

Though Carey is right about one thing: the complaint that unites all of academia has to do with parking.

A short vacation post about academics on Twitter, @saragoldrickrab, and what our students don’t know

I’m on a vacation/family trip right now, and even while “away,” I tend to get up early and I’m currently enjoying a bit of peace and quiet. Almost all of the other 17 or so people sharing this giant vacation house are still asleep. So I thought I’d take a little time– just a little– to offer a few more thoughts about the Twitter conversation I had this morning. And let me apologize up front for not having all the details of this particular dust-up, for typing quickly (and thus with typos and bad sentences), etc.:

The latest installment of academics gone wild and/or “getting in trouble” on Twitter comes from CHE, “U. of Wisconsin Professor’s Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.” Seems fitting since I actually am in Wisconsin right now. Anyway, the “naughty” tweeter in question is Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in Education Policy. Here’s a quote from the article:

To several students who had tweeted their excitement about enrolling at Madison under the hashtag #FutureBadgers, Ms. Goldrick-Rab sent a link to an op-ed essay from the Journal Sentinel criticizing the removal of tenure protection from state statutes. Here are some of the responses she got:

Here CHE includes some response Tweets– here’s a link to that— where basically some not so informed college kids respond “ha ha we don’t care” and other nonsense. This was like a month ago. Then the College Republicans got involved a month later, in part because Goldrick-Rab kept on going and tweeted “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it’s terrifying.” This caused more outrage, more attacks on Goldrick-Rab on Twitter, and condemnation of Goldrick-Rab from both the UW Chancellor and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate.

And then, like I said, I stumbled into a spirited and pleasant Twitter conversation about some of this this morning.

So, a few thoughts in not a very precise order:

  • The general public doesn’t understand tenure or the difference between what it means to be a professor, an associate professor, an assistant professor, a non-tenure-track professor/instructor/lecturer, part-timer, or a graduate assistant, all of which is to say that the general public does not understand why all these professors in Wisconsin are in such a tizzy about weakening tenure. So it is not at all surprising to me that some 18 year old young people “stoked” about being admitted to UW think it is uncool for sara to kill their buzz with some sort of newspaper article, man. Because even though Goldrick-Rab is completely right, academics in Wisconsin (really, everywhere) have A LOT more work to do to explain to our students and the public at large how this all works and why this matters. A lot more work.

Most of what academics take as “common knowledge” about how higher ed works is a mystery to the rest of the world. I can recall times where some of these issues have come up informally in class discussions over the years– sometimes during faculty union contract negotiations– and I’ve taken five minutes to explain to a room full of juniors and seniors some of the basics of higher ed hierarchies, not only about faculty but also administrators. For most of my students– juniors and seniors,  mind you!– this is all new information. So again, while Goldrick-Rab is completely right, she made the faulty assumption that her audience of stoked would-be freshmen would actually understand her references to this op-ed.

  • The second mistake I think Goldrick-Rab made is the comparison to Hitler, and actually, as a general rule of thumb, I think any argument that makes a comparison to Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. to a contemporary figure– as in “Scott Walker is like Hitler”– is lazy and it’s going to cause trouble. This “x is like Hitler” trope shows up so much on Twitter because it’s shorthand and you only have 140 characters. The problem is it’s not accurate– I am no fan of Scott Walker, but I don’t think he’s likely to wage an aggressive war of domination in Europe and a systematic extermination of the Jews– and it can be taken way out of context by a group like College Republicans, who are already probably sensitive enough to informally being compared to Nazis. Anyway, my first piece of advice to any would-be academic Twitter-er: no Hitler comparisons.
  • Two other bits of advice to would-be academic Tweeters (and this is a bit of a tangent, but it came up in my Twitter conversation this morning) I’ll mention. First, Twitter is a terrible place to try to discuss anything that is at all complex or controversial, and yet academics try to use it for that purpose all the time. This is why (IMO) online spaces like blogs are still relevant and useful: instead of trying to convey all this on Twitter, I just shared a link to this. Maybe not as many people will read all of my rant here, but I am less likely to be misunderstood and/or taken out of context.

Second, academics (and anyone else, for that matter) who take to Twitter to express strong (and controversial) beliefs can’t get too upset when they are held accountable in some fashion for expressing those beliefs, especially when those beliefs actually take more than 140 characters (sans Hitler references) to convey. Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for academic free speech and I’m not suggesting that Goldrick-Rab or Steven Salaita or any other academic ought to be fired over Tweets. I’m just saying that if an academic (or anyone else) posts provocative stuff on Twitter, they shouldn’t be too surprised if a) it offends people and/or b) the message gets passed around and gets out of the writer’s control in a hurry.

  • Having said all that, I think the executive committee of the University of Wisconsin faculty senate are behaving like a bunch of wimpy knuckleheads. First off, Goldrick-Rab didn’t tell those young people not to come to UW; she referred them to an op-ed piece in Milwaukee’s mainstream newspaper about the impact of Walker’s budget cuts and rollbacks/changes to tenure. These really are things that the faculty ought to be telling would-be students; keeping them in the dark doesn’t do the students any good and it kind of indirectly supports Walker et al’s decisions. Second, what the hell is the point of faculty senate if it isn’t going to defend the faculty’s right to speak? I’m sure there are some details I’m missing here, but as reported in CHE, these people are throwing one of their own ranks under the bus. That’s appalling.

Seven Observations About Why Tenure is not “All That”

There’s been a lot of talk in the social networks I travel about tenure lately because of the mess in Wisconsin. For example, there are these two pieces from the New York Times, “Unions Subdued, Scott Walker Turns to Tenure at Wisconsin Colleges” and “Tenure Firmly in Place, but Colleges Grow Wary of Lasting Commitments.” Both of these articles only mention in passing the real crisis, IMO, that of the enormous budget cuts that Walker et al are forcing in the UW system.

Also, I don’t think either of these articles makes it clear that the system in Wisconsin is also unique in that tenure was specifically protected by state law– that’s what Walker managed to change. Ultimately, I suspect there will still be a system of tenure within the UW system that is more akin to the way tenure works in other states. But because of all of the emphasis on tenure, I also have a feeling that Walker et al will be able to cram through these budget cuts without a lot of pushback.

In any event, all of this has had me thinking about tenure in general and also how it has impacted me specifically. Perhaps my seven observations are all kind of obvious to other academics, but I thought I’d write them down anyway. But before I get to these points, let me offer two very important caveats/disclaimers/preferences/whatever:

  • I am for tenure. I don’t think it’s a perfect system (obviously), but I think it’s better than the alternatives. And of course, I’ve been tenured at EMU since 2002 and a full professor since 2007, and I’m not giving up tenure anytime soon.
  • I think the stuff going on in Wisconsin is insane. I worry tremendously for my colleagues and the students in the UW system, and I also worry about some of what’s happening there spreading to other states. I mean, I never thought Michigan would follow Wisconsin’s lead as a “right to work” state, but that’s exactly what happened a few years ago. I sure as hell hope that Walker’s moves in higher education don’t catch on.

Okay, my seven (or so) observations: Continue reading “Seven Observations About Why Tenure is not “All That””

Where Bauerlein Sorta/Kinda Has a Point: Office Hours and “Tutoring”

Mark Bauerlein’s latest piece in the New York Times, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” is too much of a troll to take too seriously. He’s just complaining about the “kids today” in college and how they are all so much more interested in careers and so not interested in sitting at the feet of master professors in order to build a personal philosophy of life, the universe, and everything.

For a more direct response to the problems of Bauerlein’s take on things, I direct you to two very smart blog posts.

I especially appreciate Gannon’s critique because he is highlighting one of the problems I see with a lot of the writing about MOOCs and/or the future of higher education– people like Kevin Carey in The End of College, and also like David Noble in his critique of what I would describe as “traditional online courses,” Digital Diploma Mills.

Without going into a lot of detail now, I think Bauerlein, Carey, Noble, etc. are assuming as “the norm” that every other institution deviates from in one fashion or another is a big flagship state university or a famous Ivy league school– you know, the kinds of places that show up in the “top 20 universities in the world” lists. The fact of the matter is though that by definition, the vast vast VAST majority of community colleges, colleges, and universities are not “elite,” and the students and faculty at these places are similar but not the same as the students/faculty you find at elite institutions.

So while Bauerlein and Carey both assume that professors are “pointless” and not needed because they don’t teach much and/or are self-consumed with their research, Gannon goes to great length to explain the extremes of teaching and student involvement at the school where he works, Grand View University (he cheekily describes it as the Harvard of East Des Moines), where the teachings loads are high and the hands-on work with the small student body is extreme.

Anyway, go read those blog posts– smart stuff and I agree with both of them. But I wanted to take a slightly different view with Bauerlein’s essay and take up two things he brings up, more or less indirectly, that have to do with face to face interactions.

Continue reading “Where Bauerlein Sorta/Kinda Has a Point: Office Hours and “Tutoring””

Post from sabbatical-land 126 days to go: dodging the administrator bullet & those lazy professors

I say “126 days to go” based on my self-declared date of September 1 as the end of my sabbatical, but this isn’t entirely true. Technically, my sabbatical was only for the winter (what everyone else calls spring) term, and since today is the last day of finals for this term at EMU, I suppose you could say that today is the end of my sabbatical.

Anyway, on the “dodging the administrator bullet” part of things: I applied for an administrative position here at EMU, as the Director of the Faculty Development Center, and it’s been quite a trip over the last couple of weeks.  I first mentioned the possibility of this here earlier in March and over at EMUTalk when I talked about closing down that site. I’m still going to be phasing EMUTalk out because it’s too much of a time-suck and it’s too much me (and that’s what this blog is for), but this is what I had in mind when I said “I might apply for an administrator job.”

Most of this is a matter of public record (which is why I’m comfortable about blogging about this at all), but needless to say, I’m not going into too much detail about the actual search process. Let’s just say I found myself as a finalist, I thought the interview process went well, the powers that be hired Peggy Liggit (who was the interim director), and I couldn’t be more relieved.

Part of my relief has to do with the job itself– I’ll skip the details of what I mean on that point. But most of my relief has to do with what I guess I’d describe as a realization that becoming an administrator would be a bad idea for me. It was sort of a mini midlife crisis. I first applied for the position because I thought I was qualified (and the fact that I was a finalist for the job suggests that I was qualified), I thought it might be interesting, and I liked the idea of the pay raise. But as the process went on, the more I saw the negatives of giving up my freedom, the ability to work at home (or coffee shops or wherever) while wearing jeans and t-shirt, the flexibility of not having to be in an office 40 hours a week, my summers. I started to realize I was going to end up doing a whole lot less scholarship and probably no teaching and instead I was going to go to a lot of meetings. Maybe I would have felt differently if I wasn’t sabbaticalling right now and if I had been waist-deep in grading and the like. In any event, about a month after I had first applied and while the interviews were happening, I started regretting applying at all. I mean like really really regretting it.

But like I said, in the end it wasn’t to be me, I couldn’t be happier, and I’m (almost completely) sure I won’t be doing that again. Of course, I probably would have never reached that realization had I not actually applied for the job in the first place.

Anyway (and I’m not sure this is completely connected), I was thinking about my realization that it would be foolish for me to give up what I’ve got– even for a lot more money– and a couple of these laws that have been floated lately to make professors “work more” and/or to vote them out of a job. There was the “8 courses a year” proposal in North Carolina by state senator Tom McInnis — here’s a CHE article about it— which would basically mandate a 4-4 load for every professor in the state schools, including the research universities. Then there’s the proposal from State Senator Mark Chelgren in the Iowa state congress where faculty would be evaluated solely on student evaluations– a professor not meeting some threshold of performance on these evaluations would be fired– and where the five professors who scored above this minimal threshold but the lowest would be fired. CHE has an interview with this winner of a politician here.

Of course, both of these plans are bad, though I have to say that the angry backlash reported in that CHE article about the “8 courses a year” proposal is perhaps a little over the top. Sure, if you’re teaching at an R1 and are expected “book plus” and/or lots of grant writing and the like for tenure and even more for promotion, a 4-4 load is a lot. We technically teach a 4-4 load here at EMU and there are some departments where faculty do teach four courses every semester. But because of a series of what are called “course equivalencies,” most faculty teach something closer to a 3-3 load (that’s what we teach in my department), and there is course release/reassigned time for doing quasi-administrative work and the like. But the point I am trying to make here is that lots of faculty at lots of “less than” R1 institutions teach eight courses a year or more.

And the “vote them off the island” plan from Chelgren is based on an actual problem: it is pretty much impossible to get rid of bad professors who are tenured, especially over something like bad teaching. Don’t get me wrong: the vast vast majority of professors are good at what they do in large part because it takes a lot to get these positions. But every department has a few bad apples– old, tenured, dried-up apples– and it doesn’t really matter how terrible the student evaluations are. So as ill-informed as Chelgren is, I kind of see where he’s coming from.

Both of these proposals are also variations on the “lazy professor who gets his summers off” view of academia.  This is a view that is of course inaccurate and it tends to be held by not very educated people and also by people who are kind of envious of the lifestyle. What I mean is sure, I work a lot, but I also enjoy the freedom to do the work I want to do and I can do that work mostly wherever I want. So I guess one of the big reasons why I’m not leaving my faculty job for administrative work anytime soon is so I can continue to tick off people like McInnis and Chelgren.