Monday, November 14, 2011

Never Say: No One

It is always with great trepidation that I read an article about Our Failing Universities, even an article written by a professor rather than a journalist out to make a splash, and even an article in a publication that I greatly admire and enjoy reading (such as The New York Review of Books).

In a recent issue of NYRB, there is a review/essay by Anthony Grafton titled "Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?" (not Are They Failing, but Why). The essay mentions, at least briefly, 8 recent books with titles (and subtitles: every single one has a subtitle!) such as:

The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get The College Education You Paid For. I have not read this book, but I hate the title (and the subtitle) for a large number of reasons that I can't explain without seeming professorial in the negative-stereotype kind of way.

OK, I will obliquely mention one reason: Do you have faculty lounges at your university? What goes on in them? Or is "Lounges" a verb here?

Anyway.. here's another one:

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. I am not really sure what it is that matters, but without reading the book (just the review), I probably agree with the author that there are too many high-paid administrators doing who-knows-what other than making the rest of us do time-consuming pointless things. But mostly I want to know: Have the faculty really fallen? What does that even mean? That we have no say in anything anymore? If so, why am I still on all these committees? Can I quit them? And if the faculty have truly fallen, where are we? It makes me want to say: We are here! We are here! We are here! (Seuss, 1954)

I am skipping over a few other books that have exciting words such as Exclusion and Assault in the title, and others that have already been much discussed in the blogosphere, here and elsewhere.

But I don't want to skip this one: Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Again, there is that scary and definitive why. This book is, according to Grafton, "a.. recent polemic against the corruption of the humanities". Alas, that is a topic on which I cannot even pretend to have any insight. Within my very limited socio-professional universe, all the humanities professors I know even reasonably well seem to be quite entranced with the meaning of life, unless they are secretly corrupt, and that is why they all wear so much black. Or perhaps the corrupt ones never leave their offices (or faculty lounges!?) and so I have not met them. Or maybe they are at your university, but not at mine.

In any case, what do we think about statements such as these, from the essay:

Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research.


The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

We have all seen statements like this before, and I have discussed them before. But I will ask again: Which professors? Where? Certainly there are research professors -- who typically raise some or all of their money from grants -- but most of the science professors I know are serious about both research and teaching, and see these both as important parts of their jobs. If, however, someone devotes 60% of their time to research and 40% of their time to teaching, the statement is true, but misleading. And that brings us to the second excerpt.

Does no ones see classroom learning as a primary pursuit? Is the emphasis on the word "primary"? If so, then perhaps that statement is also true for many professors and administrators at large universities. Classroom learning is just one of many aspects of a university. Even so, the statement is misleading and is an unfair criticism of universities, administrators, and professors of all sorts.

Classroom teaching is not my primary pursuit, but that doesn't mean it isn't as important as research, including research involving undergraduates. Does it have to be more important for more people for our universities to stop "failing"? My colleagues and I teach, advise, do research, and participate in various service activities in our departments, universities, professional communities, and beyond. We are busy people, doing many different things, most of which contribute to the vitality of the university and many of which directly or indirectly benefit students.

I am not saying that universities are perfect and that there aren't many things to fix, but it is quite rare to see the good and the bad considered in a fair and thoughtful way. Maybe (almost) no one would want to read such a book.

In the end, though, this is why I liked Grafton's essay: because he concludes that these books are not constructive contributions to the large task of figuring out how to fix the problems with US universities. He ends his essay:

..  public discussion and scrutiny would become much more productive if informed writers captured the texture and flavor of the American university .. The novelists discovered this territory long ago. Where are the great journalists? They will find students who manage to do excellent work and many more cases of wasted possibilities, and they might gain some insight into why.


Alex said...

I'm at a place where teaching is our primary activity. The median teaching quality is probably a bit better than the median teaching course quality at a place where research is the primary activity. Mostly because, well, if something is your primary pursuit, you'll hone it.

However, I only made a very weak statement: "probably a bit better". Two reasons:
1) The rewards and expectations for quality matter at least as much as whether you teach 40% time or 80% time. And, frankly, the expectations can only be so high when the faculty are unionized and the culture is focused on saying that everyone is great irrespective of what they do or don't accomplish.
2) I know people who spend 40% of their time on teaching...while teaching 1 course. I spend 80% of my time on teaching...while teaching 4 courses. Honestly, who do you think will do a better job, if all else is equal? (Hint: Not me.)

I'm teaching a course right now that I would love to put at least 40% of my time into, because it's such a fascinating course. Alas, I can't. And that, more than anything else, might some day send me out of the world of teaching institutions and into the arms of an R1.

Anonymous said...

The department on the floor below us has a room marked faculty lounge. It's just a break room with a coffee maker and refrigerator, and a few tables for eating lunch. I can't imagine why anyone would object to it. :)

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

Er...what's a faculty lounge?

Admittedly I work at a State University (and a cow college at that) and in the Physics Department but things around here are pretty spartan.

Grant money gets spent on research and the teaching facilities are adequate

Cherish said...

My observation is that the biggest factor is teaching load. I've been at two R1s as a student. The one where the faculty taught one course every two years and had ample teaching assistants had far superior teaching than the one where significantly more teaching was expected of the faculty.

At another university, I spent time in two different departments. The department where teachers had 1-2 courses per year had better teachers than the department which required 3-4 courses per year. (Class size was also probably a contributor.) It was also easier to get involved in research as a student in the department where the professors were required to teach less.

Realistically, I would not recommend a student go to most R1s for a good education simply because the teachers are, in most cases, not going to view teaching as a priority. (Not that it's not important, but that they don't view it as important as their other pursuits, especially pre-tenure.) That's what the liberal arts schools and smaller state institutions are for. I'm not saying there shouldn't be research, but there is an observable tradeoff when research becomes the priority. For some students, that's fine. For others, it's not going to work as well.

I think it's reasonable to assert that these books do have a point, but it would be helpful if they left the sweeping generalizations out. Of course, that doesn't sell books.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of the popular press on "universities are failing" makes some sense if you think about it from the perspective of an undergraduate student (and the student's parents). The student (and parents) are paying *tuition* that is increasing in an unsustainable way. They see their tuition as a market exchange: I pay the university and I get taught stuff in exchange. Since tuition *does not* take into account the quality of the teaching (within an institution anyway), it seems reasonable to complain about faculty who do not take their classes seriously and/or do not devote the time to teaching that the student expects and perhaps deserves.

As an undergrad in the 1990's I went to an expensive private university and paid $96,000 in tuition total. (Tuition is *much* higher today in many of the "top" places.) I took 32 courses, so I paid $3,000 for each course. Let's say each course was 4 hours per week (some were 6 due to labs, some were 3) and there were 14 weeks in a semester, for a total of 56 instruction hours per course. That means I paid $54 per instruction-hour. That's a lot of money, on par with doctors and lawyers fees. Yes, I know that you have to factor in buildings and administration and all that other stuff, and yes, professors spend more than the number of instruction hours preparing and grading, etc. But to the *consumer* it still seems like too much money. So when the quality of the teaching goes down due to extra demands put on faculty (due to budget shortfalls, for example), I think it's fair for the public to complain that they're not getting what they're paying for.

Factor in the fact that today's college degree is a *requirement* for getting a basic job, and you can understand the frustration of today's youth who start out their adult life in a massive pile of unavoidable debt. This is new. The system is failing. (But, IMO, that doesn't mean specific universities or faculty are failing. But the general system of higher ed is.)

Also, also, yes undergraduate research is nice and all, but typically the undergrad doesn't have to *pay* for it! (And sometimes the student can even get paid.) So this doesn't factor into the thinking about whether universities are giving a good education or not. Maybe universities need to restructure their pricing, so that students are charged for any educational experience they have at college. There could be a fee for undergraduate research. And an advising fee. And a fee for exchanging interesting ideas with friends at 2am. I'm a bit tongue in cheek here, but you get my point: those outside-the-classroom experiences *don't count* in the mind of the consumer when thinking about what they get for what they pay.

Anonymous said...

There are too many topics in this post to respond to. First, with respect to science education, you should check out Bruce Alberts' editorials in Science mag. Several issues (I think 2008-2009) were devoted to changing ways in which science is taught in classrooms. Given the lack of science literacy (if I can call it that) within the US population, one can conclude that science education as it currently stands in this country is poor. Something must change.

A second issue (and this by no means covers everything you've mentioned) relates to Universities having too many administrators at the expense of faculty. I was a junior faculty who lost her job at a major research university for fiscal reasons. You may also be aware of the NIH/NSF budget squeeze which is effectively eliminating small start-up research labs. When I lost my job, I was asked to consider an administrative position (a dean's assistant or some such bullshit). In more professional terms, I told them to go fuck themselves and left. I disgusts me that the MRU had more money for useless administrative jobs and less for faculty, education, and research.

Ann said...

The article points out a problem which i believe exists:"vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers....Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend....thirteen hours a week studying."
But it also criticizes the amount of time professors spend on research and adminstrator pay without making any case that this contributes to any problem. Maybe there is a case but the article doesnt make it.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

I wonder if people are confusing the goals of different universities.

If you want a great education where professors get to know the students personally, and have a close professional relationship with them, there are universities that offer that. They are generally smaller.

If you want a great education where you can work with (even if just as a gopher or coder) some of the best minds in the field outside of class, go to a school that encourages professors to put more time into research than into education.
I've spent at least as much time with my summer research students than what most of my friends who went to small liberal arts schools got from the professors they were closest to.

The list of educational goals goes on. Different schools fit different goals.

If the complaint is, and sometimes I fear it is, that college students aren't getting the same attention from professors as they got in high school, well.... this ain't high school.

Anonymous said...

I hardly think this is worth pondering too much. If R1 universities were failing so terribly, then our students would not be able to compete with the products of R2 and R3 institutions. Have you seen book titles proclaiming the rise of liberal arts colleges in the wake of the grand R1 failure?

On your subtitle snark: I hate them too. They are totally pro-forma and a waste of ink. I'm glad scientists aren't expected to conform to that nonsense.

Kea said...

Oh, yes, the Faculty have fallen, indeed. Like Lucifer, the light of the morning. There was a time when Academia was a place for social conscience and honest, valuable research. There is little of either nowadays. Your inability to see all this is one of the qualifications for your job, I guess.

Anonymous said...

That means I paid $54 per instruction-hour. That's a lot of money, on par with doctors and lawyers fees. ... But to the *consumer* it still seems like too much money. So when the quality of the teaching goes down due to extra demands put on faculty (due to budget shortfalls, for example), I think it's fair for the public to complain that they're not getting what they're paying for.

I'm a professor teaching 3 courses a year; that's 3 hours of class time per course per week for 14 weeks. Let's say I have 25 students in each course. If you see it as paying $54 per classroom instruction hour, then that comes to me earning 14*3*3*25*54 = $170,100 for my teaching. I can assure you that what I get paid for teaching is not even within an order of magnitude of that. I'm making more like $10 per student per hour of classroom instruction time.

"Seems like" is not the same as "is". I don't think it's a fair complaint at all if "consumers" can't be bothered to get more information and work through the logic to see the absurdity it leads to.

Instead of defaulting to complaining about the faculty, why don't "consumers" ask where that extra $44 per hour of classroom time is going?