On Friday, I discussed academic/non-academic communication issues, and referred to an essay by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar about "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." The main theme of the essay -- that people who went to Yale can't talk to working class people because Yale didn't teach them how to do this -- does not merit additional discussion, but I wanted to mention a few things about the author's views of non-elite institutions.
His views of non-elite institutions are just as strange as one might suppose from the rest of his essay. He believes that some? most? all? public universities are run by an "indifferent bureaucracy" and his view of students is that:
"At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines."
Non-elite schools are basically factories that churn out oppressed drones to be the cubicle-dwelling accountants and customer service representatives upon whom the elitely educated rely for their quotidian needs?
In the essay, the term "indifferent bureaucracy" seems to include professors as well as administrators, and this is a great disservice to all the hard-working and caring faculty at non-elite institutions. In addition, most state universities, however non-elite, have swarms of deanlets and other administrators whose sole purpose is to advise students, help them stay on track, work out plans for failing students, and send endless email to faculty with instructions on how to provide the best customer service for our student-clients.
There may be indifferent university administrations out there; I cannot argue otherwise. Furthermore, all the state universities with which I have been most closely associated have Carnegie Classifications of RU/VH, Research University/Very High research activity.
I have never been a student or faculty at a school like the author's favorite example, Cleveland State, so perhaps I don't speak from any more experience than the author of the essay, but from time to time I visit schools like Cleveland State. I typically give a few talks each year at regional universities that do not have research/graduate programs and that do not typically have outside speakers visit departments to give talks. This, along with the experiences of friends and colleagues who teach at regional (non-research focused) universities, form my (incomplete) database.
When I give a talk at a regional university, students are likely to ask me "Why are you here?", "Why do you want to talk to us?", or "Are you visiting because you want a job here?" because they are puzzled by the purpose of my visit. As Deresiewicz correctly notes, these schools are not besieged by academic or professional visitors, unlike the situation at elite institutions.
Why do I visit? The organization that pays for my travel has the specific focus of facilitating visits by faculty from research universities to non-research universities, to meet the students and faculty, talk about summer internships, graduate school and other career opportunities in the sciences, and basically just help the faculty get students excited about science and education. An additional purpose is for students to see women professors in a field in which there are few.
Some of my colleagues sneer at these visits. You're going to give a talk at Southwest-central Statename University? Will there be chickens at your talk? But I love these visits. Some of them have been grim, I must admit. When the faculty are relentlessly negative, when no one wants to talk to me outside of my scheduled lecture because they are "too busy", and when I am left on my own in the evening to walk alone down blighted industrial strips hoping to find a Subway, I can get a bit downcast about the experience. These bad experiences have, however, been extremely rare.
Much more often, I visit places where faculty are doing amazing things despite high teaching loads and large classes of students with complex lives, where students are working hard and are excited about what they are learning, and where people ask me lots of questions after my talk, with interesting conversations continuing throughout the evening. That is my experience at most of the places I visit. There are interesting people everywhere. There are bright and motivated students everywhere. Perhaps they are attending a regional university for economic or family reasons. Perhaps they screwed up in high school and didn't get focused and intellectually engaged until college. Some of these students have the same career goals as students at more elite universities, and, if they do well as undergrads, there is no reason they can't have interesting (and lucrative) careers.
My husband said to me recently "You always grumble about going on these trips to Southwest-central Statename University [confession: I do grumble; the trips take a lot of time and energy that I don't always have in abundance], but you always return happy about the trip and filled with stories about all the great people you met."
Yes, there are major differences between the student populations (and the experience of giving a talk) at Regional U and Prestigious U, but I think most students at Regional U's would be surprised to hear that they are doomed to narrow lives of subordination just because they are not attending an elite university. They might not, however, be surprised to find that people at elite universities believe that this is their fate.
2 months ago