Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Indifferent Bureaucracy

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.


Anonymous said...

FSP, I have some experience of both a highly reputable university (HRU) and a non Ivy League university (MidU). I began at a HRU. Family circumstances led to the change to the MidU for my PhD. I definitely found that there were different (lower?) expectations of students at this university. Students at the MidU had much more varied career goals that were rarely academic; and the mentoring and leadership reflected that very strongly. Thus, for students like myself who wished to pursue an academic or research career, there were in general greater difficulties and obstacles to success (for example, little or no assistance with paper writing and publishing, or academic networking). I also came to realise that my PhD from MidU is regarded as being worth less than one from HRU, according to the estimation of students at other universities, and potential employers. I know that (in general)the staff at my MidU were dedicated and very hard working, but there are many inequalities when the resources, opportunities and training of students are stacked up with the opportunities available at HRUs. I have also met a number of scientific colleagues from HRUs (as well as other academic institutions) who seemed unable to talk with others (such as myself) that they regard as lesser or different because our institution was less prestigious, and in fact would even dismiss us out of hand without knowing anything about us or our work. I found this a frustrating and disappointing barrier to communication. I am very glad that you do not fall into this category, FSP, and again from my own experience, I know that visits like yours to MidUs like mine are exciting and help those of us pursuing research careers to keep focused on our career goals and keep excited about the discovery of science. However, for me, the point of Deresiewicz's article was to raise some important issues about inequality and the purpose of education that I believe are important.

Short Geologist said...

Ick. I can't believe that anybody would take this dude seriously. I don't usually talk smack or swear, but that guy's a completely egotistical asshole.

I used to work with a number of scientists from unspectacular state schools (that's what happens in industry - people care about where you came from for the first 12 seconds of a job interview and that's it) and I can personally assure this guy that smart, nay, brilliant people do indeed come out of boring regional schools to do great science.

Eugenie said...

I think my college may be in a bubble- being strictly and undergraduate institution that is highly regarded for many different subjects and not so research focused . We do get a lot of out of town lecturers, and usually the lecture halls end up getting packed.

We don't get "elite" speakers often, but regardless I've always enjoyed listening to someone from a different university doing very cool research. Sometimes the lack of a research focus I think dampens our perception of what could be/is done elsewhere.

I don't know if that makes sense, I'm just a silly undergraduate.

Anonymous said...

You wrote "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"

I love your blog but I have to say this. This is not true and not fair to William Deresiewicz.

The main theme of the 5000+ words essay is "The Disadvantages of
an Elite Education" - like the title said. The "talking to the plumber"-thing was just an unfortunate example he chose to start.

Keep on writing! Your blog is awesome!

Becca said...

Keep in mind, I'm coming at this assuming that there are people with spectacular minds in the least "likely" places (even *gasp* outside of academia entirely!) and interesting people everywhere.

That said, even quasi-elite Big State Universities often seem to emphasize "indifferent bureaucracies" from an undergrad's perspective. The tragedy isn't that mindless, boring people are condemed to narrow lives of subordination. The tragedy is that the universities themselves condem brillant people from non-elite backgrounds to narrow lives of subordination.

Anonymous said...

I'm a naive professor just starting his second year at StateName Technical University-City of Campus Branch. I'm a product of the elite schools, but the reality is that there aren't enough jobs to go around at those schools. Despite being a branch of the StateName U system and getting commuters with difficult lives, we still have a pretty good reputation in certain fields and we have some good students to work with. The two honors students who worked with me this summer did some great calculations, and any Big Name U that doesn't accept them for grad school will be making a big mistake.

Some of our students do have baggage that makes success more difficult for them. Some faculty do have lower standards. And some faculty do show a bad attitude by beginning sentences with "At a school like this, we can't....." OTOH, many of our students have career goals and often have jobs in their fields. Being commuters with jobs and family issues means that they might not always have time to put in long hours in the lab, but more economically comfortable students at residential campuses often find plenty of other reasons to not be in the lab. I have more respect for the person who didn't study because he had to work than for the person who didn't study because of a party.

Anonymous said...

I attend a "local college." It is a small branch of a school that doesn't merit the title of "State University," and would probably be called a community college if it weren't for the fact that it offers 4 year degrees.

About one-tenth to one-fifth of our professors hail from Ivy universities. We have, in fact, some middle-weight hitters from various fields attached to our little school. I rarely notice more impressive teaching from our ivy professors than our non-ivy.

As to our students? I have a great number of friends in various ivy league institutions. I know that a lot of their students are smarter than those attending my school. They *are* more impressive students. I don't honestly believe it's due to intrinsic intelligence so much as having been raised with better parents/families/opportunities/etc. Critical thinking ability, mathematics, writing, work ethic: a lot of these things are taught. These kids weren't, and the professors can't be bothered to teach them (not that I blame them: it's not for the physiology prof to teach elementary writing, or the endocrinology prof. to teach analytical thinking).

That said, I think the cheap little schools offer a far wider variance in student quality: I think the worst community college students are far worse than the worst Ivy students, but the best community college students can put the best Ivy students to shame - they've not only the intellect, but tend to have a far stronger work ethic. In example: I have a 15 credit courseload, volunteer in a prof's lab, have a part-time job, and I'm disabled - and I'm a senior undergraduate with a 3.9 GPA. I attended a local school precisely because of that disability (and its financial consequences). I defy an ivy league school to tell me that I am somehow worth less than they are because my degree cost me 20k and theirs cost 120k: their students worry about partying and studying, and usually still have lower grades than I.

But I know the world doesn't see it that way: my school is cheap, and so, of course, am I.

Anonymous said...

I feel particularly inclined to post because my Ph.D. is from Yale and I am now working at a university with a Carnegie Classifications of RU/H, Research University/High research activity.

First off, you might be surprised by all of the universities that have that classification, from Boston College to Clemson to a huge number of state universities. There's some great research (at least in my field) going on at many of these schools.

That being said, I find the major difference between my elite graduate institution and where I am now is the variation in the quality and productivity of the faculty. The students are certainly different (more variation than Yale), but the differences in the faculty stand out more. The "older faculty" in my department at Yale were still extremely productive and advised a small army of graduate students.

Ah RU/H school, the faculty in their 60s and 70s come from a different time. Many came here because they couldn't get tenure elsewhere. In contrast, the younger faculty are all for the most part quite strong. Many of us came from elite programs and take the job and our research very seriously.

I see this disconnect in how we interact with students. The older faculty sometimes seem to agree with Deresiewicz regarding training people for positions in the middle of the class system. Our younger folks are more open minded.

Anonymous said...

As postdoc at Princeton (after a Ph.D, at another name school--that another mistake), I got a chance to see how the "elite" undergraduate stacks up. I was appalled. The first fall, 200 kids were admitted to Student Health for alcohol intoxication on the day of their institutionalized "fraternity" initiation. One popular pastime of students was to get drunk and try to break the globes on the campus lights with their heads. I was left unimpressed by a class that seemed to be arrogant about the fact that they were rich rather than the fact that they were smart.

Don't get me wrong--there are great undergrads at Princeton, but no larger a fraction than I see in my classes at a top public. I'd never trade my undergraduate research students for those at an Ivy. It is true that more students come hre unprepared, but as other commenters noted, this has to do with the opportunities they had in rural parts of our state rather than their native ability. Anyone who thinks the sorting to schools is done by "intelligence" is living in a dream world.

My graduate students also stack up very comparably--I'll put the best of them against the best at Harvard and Princeton in a minute. As you move further down the research ladder, the fraction of well prepared students likely decreases, but as also noted by those above, there are great students at those places as well.

Mark P

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting post. As usual, I love your enthusiasm for meeting people, and I think I would like my job more if I got to do these kinds of things you describe.

And the first Anon's comment was very interesting to me.

I'm currently at what sounds a lot like a midU, although it depends on how you do the ranking to get the 'official' designation (research dollars is not the same as high impact publications or US news ranking).

This is my perception, too, that there's less help and more barriers at non-elite schools.

Not just for students, but for postdocs, it can even be worse since we are not considered student-clients or even clients at all, just temporary squatters pan-handling on the sidewalk. We're useful, we collect recyclables so you don't have to think about it.

But mostly we just come and go, plenty more where we came from.

Anonymous said...

Quite interesting - as a graduate of NNLAC (no name liberal arts college), I've often felt I had to defend my education at the HPU's I did my PhD and now post-doc at. As many other people said - my best classmates were better than the best students at either of these top 20 schools. People sort out by different factors - at 18 the thought of a 10,000+ campus just didn't appeal.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with the first anonymous poster -- there are a lot of differences in resources and climate at different schools. And there's a big difference in how people treat you if you got a PhD at a non-elite institution.

There's another aspect of Deresiewicz's article that I think is being overlooked -- the indifferent bureaucracy at the administrative level of some non-elite schools. I'm at a big state school now, and it's a scandal the way the administration thinks of the students. They claim to be about quality education, but they pack our classes full of too many students, hire an inordinate number of adjuncts, provide virtually no funding for the honors program, give us large teaching loads, and do a variety of other things that show that they're more concerned with profit than with education. Regardless of how great the profs are or how much we care, we can't give the students as much attention as we'd like to under these circumstances. And because the students are non-elite, many of them are coming from subpar high schools and really need extra help to be successful. I've seen many bright students drop out because they received inadequate support. These students are being scammed.

Anonymous said...

This is what made me angry:

[T]he opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhattan or a mansion in L.A.; you have to drive a Honda instead of a BMW or a Hummer; you have to vacation in Florida instead of Barbados or Paris, but what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you’re suited for, work you love, every day of your life?

Wow, this just demonstrates exactly how disconnected from the non-wealthy he really is. You can live comfortably in the US as a schoolteacher? I can think of several schools, off the top of my head, where teachers are not paid enough to qualify for a mortgage at all, nevermind a mortgage on a house built to safety codes, in a safe neighborhood with a yard. I know community organizers who will never qualify for any mortgage ever, who can't afford a Honda Civic but instead drive $500 jalopies that break down with depressing regularity. My friend Patti used to be a civil rights lawyer but had to quit and re-train as a part-time community college instructor--because it paid better! Artists? Can you help me up off the floor, 'cos I can't stop laughing long enough to sit in my chair. My husband is a tattoo artist and my mother is a commercial designer, and they don't starve or anything, but my illustrator friend was told not to bother including his income on the mortgage application he submitted with his wife--it was only $3000/year. The professional photographers I know are making less than the state minimum wage at their art. With no benefits like health care.

I agree w/ the first anon, incidentally, and partly with Deresiewicz: the wealthy, Ivy-educated are educated to be on the top of the financial pyramid, and by means of both their wealth and by that perception (both theirs and, well, much of the world's) that the rest of us mortals are lesser beings, often they become so. Sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy that is hard to work against, as you have to work a lot harder to be thought nearly as good. It just gave me the raging hate to read how there is some sort of great privilege in being poor. Rich people are welcome to give all their money away any time they please for whatever reason. There are plenty of wealthy photographers and artists, and plenty of do-gooder rich law school grads--they're the only ones who don't have student loans hanging over their heads, who are free to practice their do-gooder impulses!

Anonymous said...

Wow, to the last "anon" poster - that was uncalled-for. I think lora made a really good point about privilege and how out of touch the author seems to be on the topic of what jobs actually pay and how "comfortable" people are.

And to some of the other posters, at the risk of sounding crazy privileged myself, I do want to point out that some students at elite schools are great students. Maybe that sounded too obvious to state explicitly, but it's true. Sure, some of them party and do stupid things, and overall they are *no better* than students at less eilte schools. That's really important to point out. But I think some of the ivy-bashing is a little out of line (and no, I didn't go to an Ivy myself). I just don't really agree that the best students at a community college can put the best Ivy League students to shame - I don't think the best students *anywhere* can put *anyone* else to shame. Though I understand why you might say so.

Anonymous said...

No, it was very much called for, for a simple reason.

There ARE artists comfortably living in this country, as well as Civil Rights Lawyers and teachers. And compared to artists, civil rights lawyers, and teachers in the rest of the world (with exception of tiny, resource-rich nations), they have the greatest amount of purchasing power per person in the world.

Does that mean everyone who wants to be an Artist or Civil Rights Lawyer can be one? Absolutely not. The ACLU only needs so many lawyers (as do other law firms/DoJ) and NEA and other charitable organizations can support so many artists. There will be artists that do make it, and those who don't. Just because you say in a couple instances that YOU know of completely negates Deresiewicz's argument is malarkey.

FWIW, I didn't attend an Ivy, but I agree in large part with the bulk of his argument regarding public schools and private universities like the Ivy Leagues.

Anonymous said...

I can think of several schools, off the top of my head, where teachers are not paid enough to qualify for a mortgage at all, nevermind a mortgage on a house built to safety codes, in a safe neighborhood with a yard.

Lora, I'd add to 9/11/2008 09:13:00 PM's clarification that the point is that you can combine those jobs and middle-class lifestyle, not that you can combine them everywhere. If you live in San Francisco or New York or Boston -- well, no, you can't be a public school teacher and own a nice house.

One popular pastime of students was to get drunk and try to break the globes on the campus lights with their heads.

Yeah, and my wife teaches at a state school and rarely gets through a semester without one of her students winding up in jail. What's your point?