23.7.13

WHY IT MATTERS.

A lengthy, often autobiographical essay in Inside Higher Education indeed spells out the stakes for higher education.
I spent nine years teaching at a public university. For most of that time, I was running an interdisciplinary program at the very heart of the humanities. We were charged to grow an "honors-style" major, with small classes, lots of writing, and intense faculty and student interactions. In short, to create the experience of a small liberal arts college -- an experience I know well – within a 35,000-student university. Our capacity to grow was the result of a clever administrator, who – in the face of a statewide budget freeze – added on an additional fee for incoming students, and used that vast pot of money to shift growth toward the emerging interdisciplines. But this "honors-style" dream was chipped away slowly by the annual news reports of state budget cuts. We were pressed to create bigger courses, to put "fannies in the seats." We ended our enhanced foreign language requirement because it kept our major count down. We were encouraged to open up our enrollments, to create a big survey course at the front end of the major, a course that became so large that we had to trim off the writing requirement and give multiple-choice exams. We spent hours on assessment data, all required by the state higher education board, and less and less, as a consequence on students.

Not surprisingly, some of us left, hoping to find somewhere else something rather like what we’d experienced as young adults, some place where we could do for every student what had been done for us.
The neglected part of access-assessment-remediation-retention is the institution's failure to retain faculty that have options. Hugh Akston is running a roadside diner in the Bakken.
Today’s jobs might not be yesterday’s, but they still require the ability to write and speak clearly, to analyze evidence and form opinions, to solve problems with research, to reach an informed opinion and to persuade others, through a presentation of logic or facts or material, that your opinion is worth their attention. This is what higher education is supposed to do. Fulfilling this mission requires an attention to scale, and a commitment to making it possible for faculty and students to work together closely. In the big and small publics – the great post WWII laboratories of social mobility, from which [David] Brooks and his cohort are so greatly distanced – we simply can no longer teach these skills or create this scale of interaction.  And if these centers of gravity fail, everything else will, too.

This should make ordinary Americans angry. It used to be that my story could be your sons' and daughters' story, but not any longer. Don’t blame the teachers in the classroom, though. They still work as hard as they can – they still drink too much coffee, still drive beat-up cars, still occasionally mismatch their socks – to deliver sparkling lectures, to rouse students to believe in the passionate study of humanity, to expand their intellectual horizons. And they try very hard to work closely with students in need, students with talent, and students who seem to want more. Don’t blame the administrators either.  Most of them are simply trying to stave off the very worst consequences of this transformation. Blame the folks with the budget ax. And blame those who vote them in.
Put another way, the logic of do more with less is the logic of positional arms races that are not likely to end well for the constituents who vote for legislators that see in the university a chance to harvest resources for other purposes.

There have to be unexploited gains from trade, somewhere.

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