Category Archives: Professors and Tenure

Yes, Professors Work Hard, But…

Do college professors work harder than other upper-middle-class Americans, or less hard? Former college president David C. Levy’s March 23 op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that faculty members ought to increase their classroom time by up to 67 percent, ignited a fierce debate in academe. Levy’s op-ed alone generated 1,352 comments online, mostly from professors insisting that they work very hard, what with preparing for classes, grading papers, meeting with students, sitting on committees, and doing the scholarly research that enabled them to win tenure and thus keep their jobs.

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Yes, College Professors Can Work Harder

David C. Levy’s Washington Post article, “Do college professors work hard enough?” set off quite the firestorm. His basic point was that we currently “pay for teaching time of nine to fifteen hours per week for 30 weeks,” but that

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase…

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Unionize All Those Adjuncts?–Let’s Not

adjunct union protests.jpgSome two-thirds of America’s college students are taught by adjuncts, and now the battle is on over whether these low-paid, low-status workers should be unionized. Adjuncts, also called contingent faculty, are teachers hired without tenure, paid a small fraction of those on tenure-track positions, (typically $2700 per course, with minimal benefits). All three college faculty unions–the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association–have recently ramped up unionization campaigns while non-academic unions like the United Auto Workers have likewise entered the battle. The stakes are high both for institutions and for individuals.

One does not have to be a Marxist to yell, “Exploitation!” Endless tales of “Gypsy Scholars” abound–young men and women struggling with no job security to teach as many as six courses per semester, occasionally at multiple schools, lacking any health or pension plan at a salary comparable to working at McDonalds. Meanwhile tenure-track colleagues, some of whom may be brain dead, enjoy a princely wage (with generous benefits) for teaching identical courses. So, what better way to eliminate this blatant unfairness than unionization?

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An Academy Made Up of Adjuncts?

The Chronicle recently featured an article
about the Adjunct Project, a program put together by a University of Georgia
adjunct named Joshua Boldt “asking fellow adjuncts to enter information about
their pay and working conditions.” Adjuncts are often underpaid. They also
generally do not have research or service expectations, and they are almost
never hired through competitive searches. The position is a useful one for
graduate students needing experience.

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Do We Really Want Professors to Be Productive?

charlie-chaplin.jpgAccountability is all the rage in today’s education reform industry and at the university level, “productivity” typically means upping scholarly publishing.  The allure is simple–who can resist prodding lolling-about professors to generate more knowledge?  Unfortunately, putting the thumbscrews on idle faculty will only push universities farther to the left.  Better to pay professors for silence.

When I began my academic career at Cornell University in 1969 publications were important but production was not yet industrialized.  Quality–not volume–was overriding and it was tolerable that some senior faculty had published almost nothing for decades.  By the time I retired in 2002 from the University of Illinois-Urbana, however, scholarly publication there and elsewhere often mimicked Soviet-style manufacturing.  Every year we received detailed annual report forms with multiple categories to list every last publication, all categorized according to supposed prestige rankings, as the basis for salary increases and promotion.  Volume (“productivity”) was now deep in the academic DNA, even at schools hardly famous for original research.

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When Texas College Reforms Come to Florida

It’s hard to tell whether it’s a news story or a media meme: Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a fan of Texas Republican Gov. (and current GOP presidential candidate) Rick Perry, is reportedly considering foisting on Florida’s public universities the same much-criticized reform proposals that Perry has been trying to foist on public universities in Texas. Behind the scenes in all of this–or so the news reports imply–is the looming presence of Jeff Sandefer, Voldemort to the Texas higher-education establishment. Sandefer, a Texas oil entrepreneur, disgruntled former business professor at the University of Texas-Austin, and major contributor to Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns, authored the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” a 2008 document mostly calling for public universities to abandon their research missions and focus on undergraduate teaching. The “Solutions,” which formed the centerpiece of  a 2008 conference involving Perry and the regents of the University of Texas (UT) system, reputedly underlay recent efforts by Perry to assess and reward teaching productivity at UT-Austin and Texas A&M–and now they’re said to underlie similar efforts under consideration by Scott in Florida.

Trouble is–it’s hard to find the story in this story of Sandefer’s tentacles stretching across the Gulf of Mexico to entangle Tallahassee. On July 26 an article by Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida appeared on the WCTV website. It was titled “Scott Promotes Controversial Education Reforms: Controversial changes that have rocked Texas higher education system may be coming to Florida.” Rockwell had interviewed Scott.

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Campus Freedom, AAUP-Style

The American Association of University Professors has now issued its final report on “Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel groups.”) The basic principle is as unobjectionable as it is admirable: professors should not be hired, fired, or disciplined on the basis of their political beliefs. Yet the AAUP’s report is basically unchanged from the organization’s draft document, which I described at the time as “worse than nothing: it would have been far better for the organization simply to have issued a statement affirming that its job is upholding the views of a majority of its members, and that those professors whose views conflict with the academic majority can enjoy academic freedom rights only at the pleasure of the majority of their colleagues.”

The document’s final version retains nearly all of the weaknesses of the earlier draft. In the AAUP’s academy, virtually no check exists on the tyranny of the faculty majority. Outside criticism is inherently suspect. Students, trustees, and even “bloggers”–including, it would seem, academic bloggers who criticize the will of the majority–are portrayed alongside “talk-show hosts” as threats to the principle of academic freedom. (The report’s attack on students, who possess some academic freedom rights at nearly all non-religious universities, is particularly outrageous; anti-academic freedom students are described as those who “report and publicize offending classroom statements” made by faculty members, allegedly at the behest of “self-appointed watchdog groups.”)

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‘Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little’

A huge brouhaha has erupted over the release and interpretation of data about the faculty of the University of Texas, centering on whether a relatively few individuals are doing most of the teaching at the system’s flagship institution, UT-Austin. Two reports drew most of the fire, one by my organization, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), the other by Rick O’Donnell, a recently fired aide to the system.

The CCAP bottom line: it seems like a relatively small portion of the over 4,000 persons teaching on the Austin campus shoulder a huge percent of teaching burden (especially in relation to the costs they incur to the University) and an even smaller group garners the bulk of the outside research funds viewed as critical to the maintenance of the research mission. This means a large group of faculty members do moderate amounts of teaching and not much funded-research.

Our report said preliminary data “strongly suggest that the state of Texas could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching. Looking only at the UT Austin campus, if the 80 percent of the faculty with the lowest teaching loads were to teach just half as much as the 20 percent with the highest loads, and if the savings were dedicated to tuition reduction, tuition could be cut by more than half ….”

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How Administrations Undermine Their Faculties

the fall of the faculty.jpgIt’s no secret that America’s colleges and universities have become bastions of political rectitude. This is often attributed to the left-liberal political orientation of the faculty. Typically, however, the administration, not the faculty, is the driving force behind efforts to promote campus diversity, to build multicultural programming and to regulate campus speech.  The president of the University of Rochester, for example, recently announced a 31-point “diversity plan” saying that diversity was a “fundamental value” of his university.

What accounts for the solicitude shown by university administrators for this progressive political agenda?  The chief reason is that a pitched battle for control of the university is under way, and by championing left-liberal causes administrators hope to bolster their own power

How Productive Do Professors Have to Be?

800px-Professors.JPGThe firing of a controversial aide to the University of Texas system has triggered a full-blown debate over the productivity of teachers and whether “star” professors who teach few classes are really worth the cost to the public. Rick O’Donnell, dismissed on April 19 after only 49 days on the job as special adviser to the public university system’s regents, had argued forcefully that public universities should devote their resources to teaching undergraduates rather than academic research. On May 5, in response to a request by the UT board of regents, the University of Texas-Austin, the flagship of the 15-campus UT system, released an 821-page spreadsheet listing the names, tenure status, total compensation, and course enrollment of each of the 4,200 people with teaching responsibilities on the UT-Austin payroll.

The university cautioned that the data were preliminary and likely contained some errors. Nonetheless, acting on the presumption that the spreadsheet was generally accurate, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, who heads the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, quickly issued an analysis of the spreadsheet from which he drew some startling conclusions: measured by student credit hours taught (the credit value of courses multiplied by the number of students enrolled in them), the top 20 percent of faculty shoulder 50 percent of the teaching load, while the bottom 20 percent teach only 2 percent of student credit hours.

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Honor Codes and Affirmative Action

I recently posted an essay here about a racial hoax at the University of Virginia Law School that quickly became an issue implicating the University’s honor code. Briefly, Johnathan Perkins was an attractive third year UVa law student from what could be described as a civil rights family inasmuch as both his father and grandfather wrote civil rights books. A few weeks before graduation Perkins sent a letter to the Virginia Law Weekly describing in vivid detail an offensive and frightening case of racial profiling and abuse he had suffered at the hands the UVa police. Or it would have been offensive and frightening abuse if it had actually happened, but it didn’t. Perkins made the whole thing up, he confessed after an investigation had been launched, to “bring attention to … police misconduct.” The police and the commonwealth’s attorney declined to bring charges, arguing in effect that charging someone for inciting a riot by shouting Fire! in a crowded theater would discourage others from reporting real fires.

At most places the refusal to bring charges would have been the end of the matter, but the University of Virginia is decidedly not most places. It has one of the most ancient and honorable Honor Codes in the nation, a code that most members of what “Mr. Jefferson,” in local parlance, referred to as the “academical village” take very, very seriously, and the honor code has a “single sanction” for those who lie, cheat, or steal: expulsion. Whatever happens with Perkins — his degree has been withheld pending an honor council investigation — his fraud has focused attention not on imagined police misconduct but on a long simmering dispute over what can be described as the “disparate impact” of the honor code on minorities at UVa.

Various explanations have been offered for the “overrepresentation” of those accused and convicted of honor violations, among them the SPOTLIGHTING of black students — they stand out in a mass of white students (they all look different?) — and the “DIMMING” of whites in a white crowd (they all look alike?). Really. No one at UVa  seems to take very seriously the idea that the “overrepresentation” represents  disproportionate actual honor violations. Whatever the explanation, however, the disparate impact of honor codes on minorities is not a phenomenon limited to Mr. Jefferson’s University. 

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Fraud Up and Down Our Educational System

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In Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz the Wizard says he wants an educated populace, “so by the power vested in me I will grant everyone diplomas.” Welcome to the education system of 2011. Much of what we now observe comes right out of the Baum novel.

When Charles Eliot was president of Harvard, he was asked why there is so much intelligence at this college, He replied, “because the freshmen bring so much in and the seniors take so little out.” My guess is if a university president were completely honest today, he might say the freshman bring almost nothing in and leave by taking nothing out.

The question is, if the society spends billions on primary, secondary and higher education, why is so little accomplished? There are many answers to this question, of course, but I would argue the overarching reason is fraud, fraud at every level in order to satisfy political demands.

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Adjuncts and the Devalued PhD

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If you are a college student today enrolled in four classes during any given semester, it is likely that only one of your teachers is employed by your school in a permanent position that comes with a middle-class salary, job security, and benefits. The other three are contingent faculty, often called “adjuncts”; they have job titles like “instructor” or “lecturer” rather than “professor” but their roles in the classroom are the same. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), adjuncts at U.S. colleges and universities now comprise “more than 75 percent of the total instructional staff.”

But the vast majority of adjuncts–who typically either have Ph.D.s or are in the advanced stages of completing them–earn a fraction of what their tenure-track colleagues do. Their contracts are offered on a course-by-course, semester-by-semester basis and often come without benefits. Unlike most tenure-track faculty, few adjuncts even know until just a few weeks before the semester starts which classes they will teach, if any, and many take part-time jobs off campus–or at multiple institutions–to supplement low pay and forestall the crisis of a semester with too few classes to pay the rent.

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What’s the Point of Academic Conferences?

At research universities in the United States, most departments in the humanities have a travel budget that supports professional activities for their faculty members.  Most of it goes to help professors attend academic conferences and deliver a paper to colleagues and attend sessions as an audience member as well.  For a department of 30 people, the amount may run to $50,000 or more, enough to fund at least one trip by every individual who requests support.

From what I’ve seen of the conferences, though, the amount of genuine research inquiry that is shared and remembered is negligible.  Yes, some papers are strong, but more of them are thin, half-hearted, or hastily-composed.  Those that are strong are often too dense to follow, especially when they have to share time with three other papers at the panel.  This is not to mention, moreover, those sessions that are attended by less than ten people. 

No, the main purpose of the meetings, it seems to me, is to provide academics scattered around the country but in the same general field the chance to gather and re-connect.  The actual research preparation they put in before the meeting and the research effort they expend during it are minimal. They have enough general knowledge of the panel topic to be able to listen with some understanding to the deliveries and formulate a question.  Their own papers may be part of a larger project, and the activity of composing and presenting a conference version of that part is, though helpful, often a last-minute composition to fill 12 minutes at the podium.

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Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years

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After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested  in teaching students to write and communicate clearly.  The group’s agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting’s 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against “marginalized” groups and restrict self-expression.

Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is “good enough.”  The Internet, thankfully, has freed us from our previous duties as “grammar police,” and Elbow heralded the day when the white spoken English that has now become the acceptable standard, will be joined by other forms, like those of non-native and ghetto speakers.

Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as “performance,” as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their “agency.” Expressions are made through “the body,” images, and song–sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet.  Clothes are rhetorically important as “instruments of grander performance.”  

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In Praise of Ideological Openness

Many people, some conservatives included, say we need to get ideology out of the college classroom. Some professors say proudly, “my students never come to know where I stand.”
 
I practice an opposite approach. I tell students that I am a free-market economist, a classical liberal or libertarian.  And I am not suggesting that it is wrong to be ideologically reserved. Different styles suit different professors.
 
And of course some professors go much too far in pressing their ideological judgments and requiring conformity, even forms of activism. But we should not fall into simplistic ideals of neutrality and objectivity. There is an ethical high-ground in temperance, but that does not necessarily mean reserve and circumspection. One can open up about ideology without falling into intemperance. Here I meditate on some merits of being open about your own ideology, even somewhat outspoken, when teaching a college course.
 
When listening to testimony on financial regulation, we like to know whether the testifying expert has a vested interest. And we like to know if he has other sorts of commitments that might affect his interpretation and judgment.
 
An individual’s ideological commitments are like his religious commitments, in that they run deep and change little. They suffuse his professional and personal relationships; they suffuse his sense of self. They are like vested interests, only deeper and more permanent. 

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The Campus Left’s Nostalgia Party – RSVP

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I head an organization, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), that is often accused by its critics on the academic left of nostalgia for days when higher education was an exclusive club for the privileged.  The accusation is false.  NAS focuses on the enduring principles of the university:  rational inquiry, liberal learning, and academic freedom.  True, there have been points in the past when these principles have been better observed than they are today, but our interest is in the future of the university, not its past. 

Thus I was eager to learn more when I heard that a group of professors had come forward to promote an ambitious “Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.”  Alas, my excitement proved premature.  It turns out that the Campaign is mostly reactionary.  It was put together by an alliance of groups, mostly unions, fearful of current trends and desperate to halt developments that may well lead away from a recent epoch in which higher education was indeed “an exclusive club for the privileged.”  The “Campaign for Higher Education” might be better titled, “The Way We Were.”

In January the California Faculty Association (CFA), a faculty union, convened a meeting of seventy faculty members, representing several other unions and other organizations, including the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported under the headline, “Faculty Groups Gather to Craft a United Stand on Higher-Education Policy,” that the attendees agreed to take back to their memberships a document drafted by the CFA that “outlines a set of principles it believes should undergird higher-education policy over the next decade.”  AAUP president Cary Nelson indicated that the principles would be presented publicly in April in a series of teach-ins.

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There’s No Such Thing as Intelligence?

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One feature of academia’s less reputable quarters is the imperative to shun the obvious and prosaic, even when the obvious and prosaic happen to be true. As Theodore Dalrymple noted in his review of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society,

Intellectuals, like everyone else, live and work in a marketplace. In order to get noticed they must say things which have not been said before, or at least say them in a different manner. No one is likely to obtain many plaudits for the rather obvious, indeed self-evident, thought that a street robber cannot commit street robberies while he is in prison. But an intellectual who first demonstrates that the cause of an increase in street robbery is the increase in the amount of property that law-abiding pedestrians have on them as they walk in the streets is likely to be hailed, at least until the next idea comes along. Thus, while there are no penalties for being foolish, there are severe penalties (at least in career terms) for being obvious.

The obligation to be unobvious, if only for the benefit of one’s academic peers, may help explain the more fanciful assertions from some practitioners of the liberal arts. Consider, for instance, Duke’s Professor miriam cooke, who refuses to capitalize her name, thus drawing attention to her egalitarian radicalism and immense creativity. Professor cooke’s subtlety of mind is evident in her claim that the oppression and misogyny found in the Islamic world is actually the fault of globalization and Western colonialism, despite the effects predating their alleged causes by several centuries. Professor cooke also tells us that “polygamy can be liberating and empowering” – a statement that may strike readers as somewhat dubious. It does, however, meet the key criteria of being both edgy and unobvious.

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Professors Should Dress Like Professionals

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Judged by the recent avalanche of autopsy-like books, American higher education appears troubled. Alleged evil-doers abound, but one culprit escapes unnoticed–the horrific sartorial habits of many of today’s professors. Don’t laugh. As Oscar Wilde brilliantly observed, only shallow people do not judge by appearances. Indeed, I would argue that much of what plagues today’s academy can be traced to an almost total collapse of sartorial standards. When I began my professorial career in 1969 the tweed sport coat and tie was more or less standard. Today, with all too few exceptions, “academic casual,” even jeans and tee-shirts is de rigueur. This slide has not been kind to life of the mind.

Many of the academy’s ills are traceable to diminished professorial authority. We often feel like “I don’t get any respect” Rodney Dangerfield: students day dream, ignore assignments, barely show up, cheat, gossip during class, and send text messages among other contemptuous behaviors. And not even entertaining lectures, grade inflation and dumbed-down syllabi seem able to restore the loss of respect.      

To appreciate the connection between respect for authority and outward appearances, consider the one setting obsessed with maintaining authority –courts. Judges always dress the part though sartorial details vary. Severe black robes are standard while some wear special hats, even wigs and all sit high above the court proceedings. To drive home respect, judges are addressed with “your honor” or “may it please the court” and lawyers must ask permission to “approach to the court” for private conservation. Discussions are all judge-controlled and disrespect is punishable by contempt of court. All rise when the judge enters and nobody would dare catch up on e-mails during a trial. This is the physical aspect of respect for rule of law. Professors should be so lucky.

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No Longer Academic: When Activism Is on the Curriculum

howard_zinn.jpgHoward Zinn, the late self-described “socialist anarchist” history professor and mentor to the New Left, would have been proud of the way the Wisconsin protests rolled along.  The weeks-long sit-in of the Wisconsin state capitol building–heavily populated by teachers and students–exemplified the kind of “participatory democracy” his associate Tom Hayden promoted in the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the SDS.  For Zinn, education was a key component of  “guerilla warfare with the system,” as he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists in 1964.  In 2009, he told students at the University of Wisconsin, “the best kind of education you can get is when you’re involved in social struggles for a cause.”  Zinn himself acted as provocateur to his students at Spelman and Boston University, encouraging them to act as subversives to the U.S. government and to their school’s administration.
 
Much of the public may want to leave the New Left to ancient history and simply cast their work in the humanities as the activities of eccentrics with little impact on day-to-day life.  Politicians and citizen groups leave curriculum development to the credentialed.  But behind ivy-covered walls changes instituted in the intervening decades were played out in Madison.  The standards of scholarship have been overturned, with overt political agendas replacing scholarly academic subjects, and “direct action” replacing scholarly modes of inquiry.  As a result, students today feel they are on a moral mission; they follow the lead of activist professors who flatter them with the idea that they are “critical thinkers,” while they guide them into mandatory “civic engagement” activities.  The new pedagogy of foundationless (anarchic) “critical thinking” and (democratic) “collaborative learning” make disrupting the legislative process seem like part of the school day.   
 
A guest post titled “From the Occupied Capitol,” by University of Illinois-Champagne graduate student Michael Verderame, in the Chronicle of Higher Education provided an apt example of the New Left’s influence.  Verderame joined a hundred other Illinois Graduate Employees Unions members in Wisconsin.  His post from inside the capitol resonated with the self-righteousness and self-congratulation of memoirs of 1960s veterans, especially Bill Ayers in Fugitive Days. “We went there in support not just of public workers in Wisconsin, but of the very idea of collective bargaining,” Verderame wrote.  He and fellow protestors wanted to “build on [the] energy” already in the occupied capitol, to support “union brothers’ and sisters’ rights.”  They formed a human chain around the capitol building.  He had scrawled a contact number on his arm in case of arrest, “a surreal experience for someone who’s never had a speeding ticket.”  At the end of the protest day, some protestors choose to leave, but several stay inside, “understanding that they were risking their own liberty to do so.”  Starvation was averted: “we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press.”  Word came at 7:00 p.m. that no one would be arrested–another close call.  Such melodrama reflected protest signs in Wisconsin as well as those I’ve seen in Atlanta, likening Governor Scott Walker to Mubarak and Hitler. 

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Signs of Campus Dissent in Madison

Not surprisingly, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has been deeply affected by the important labor dispute that has consumed the state, its capitol, and the nation the last two weeks. Passions are high, especially over the part of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal that will drastically limit collective bargaining by state employees covered by unions. The budget proposal also requires public employees to contribute substantially more to their healthcare and pensions. But the collective bargaining provision has generated the most heat.

Libertarian thinker Alvaro Vargos Llosa has remarked that Wisconsin’s debate over collective bargaining is of “planetary” significance, while Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest claims that the standoff constitutes a “watershed” event in American history, as the nation vies over the size and scope of public finances.

At an overflow law school forum on the issue on February 23, I stated that the conflict is an example of what the great political scientist Samuel Huntington called “creedal passion” in American Politics and the Promise of Disharmony. Creedal passion involves the intense conflict that periodically erupts over which fundamental values will shape public policy and philosophy.  As Huntington wrote, “The history of American politics is the repetition of new beginnings and flawed outcomes, promise and disillusion, reform and reaction. American history is the history of the efforts of groups to promote their interests by realizing American ideals.” In the Wisconsin case, the creedal debate concerns the proper balance and arrangement between the private and public sectors in an era of crippling debt.

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Students ‘Adrift’? Don’t Blame Them

inside-college-classroom.jpgI haven’t read Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, and frankly, I’m not sure that I want to. Having had high expectations of other widely touted books on higher education—most recently, Hacker and Dreifus’s Higher Education?, Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus—and having been sadly disappointed after reading them, I’m afraid that reading this book will be an instance of history repeating itself. Besides, after listening to a great deal of the chatter that it’s generated, I keep asking myself, “What’s new?”

In his fascinating book, Weapons of Mass Instruction (2009), John Taylor Gatto cites a 2006 study conducted by the University of Connecticut that affirmed that college students weren’t learning the things they were supposed to be learning. Having surveyed 14,000 students at fifty intuitions in five academic areas, the study showed that at sixteen of the fifty schools—including Yale, Brown, and Georgetown—negative intellectual growth (meaning that seniors knew less than freshman) had actually occurred among undergraduates. In thirty-four of the fifty schools, no discernable change occurred. This prompted Gatto to write: “after spending an average of six years in search of a BA degree or its equivalent, and spending an average of a quarter million in cash and loans, a great many young people had nothing or even less than nothing to show for the investment.”

In the American Scholar (Summer 2008), former Yale professor William Deresiewicz already warned us that even the elite institutions, which used to be the bastions of higher education, have been slouching “toward a glorified form of vocational training” and increasingly graduating more educated ignoramuses. Will another book on the failings of higher education deter students from going to ivy-league schools, even though they will be no better off after graduating than the 35 percent of first-year community college students who don’t return for their second year, or the 33 percent of students at four-year institutions who don’t complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, or even those who never step foot in an ivory tower? (Source: A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, 2006.)

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What Else Do Professors Do? They Teach.

Teaching periodically reaches the public’s attention, as in a recent statement by a group of scientists about the failure of research universities to train their students to be good teachers. The New York Times ran a report on a study published in Science that led its lead researcher to contend: “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” This undoubtedly prompts teachers to feel more pressed to teach “to the brain.” Is learning finally “all about retrieving”? And the veiled acknowledgment that students might fare better by being tested more regularly, a staple of language learning, for example, can now be imagined as one more panacea for our cultural ADD. I do not think Professor Karpicke and his associates are off-base, I think they are tinkerers at the base of a vast cultural inheritance of teaching and learning that deserves its own acknowledgment.
When my graduate advisor, Philip Rieff wrote Fellow Teachers, which began as a lecture/conversation he conducted at Skidmore College in the early 1970s, few were prepared to read about the vocation of teaching—not about how to teach. The latter has become the ball and chain wrapped around the ankles of so many teachers. No reputable institution of higher education today is without a teaching and learning center. (Curiously at my own institution, it is called the Learning and Teaching Center, suggesting that many carts (i.e. students) are entitled to go before the horse in keeping with a consumer-driven logic that drives up the cost of everything.) Fellow Teachers marked an important point of departure in the culture wars that spread throughout many institutions, first in the American university. It had been preceded a year or so by Robert Nisbet’s equally important The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind upped the ante considerably, by then, already fifteen years later, but also by then, the arguments had assumed a life of their own far beyond the university as they do today.
I do not mean to disparage the craft of teaching. The Socratic Method, for example, is intended to engage students effectively in a public setting, insisting that they learn how to think on their feet. A film illustration of this made Orson Welles’s early collaborator, John Houseman, the cultural icon of teaching as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. The film celebrated the autocratic, distant figure in authority who could drill and humiliate while teaching the law. The film’s final scene marked, however inadvertently, the end of that kind of figure. Kingsfield’s best student folds his final grade report into a paper airplane and sends it into the sea without opening it. For him the encounter with such an inspiring teacher counted more than the final grade. What more needs to be said today about how much has changed?

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When Students Are Rude and Disruptive

male%20funny%20face.jpgWhen Minding the Campus asked me if I would write something about two Canadian engineering professors walking out of class to protest rude and disruptive students in their classrooms, I happily obliged. What harm, I told myself, could there be, after so many years of avoidance, to re-visit this issue?
After all, it has been some 13 years after I wrote Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America, about my experiences leaving daily journalism to teach college in the early 1990’s. Disruptive students? Let’s put it this way. I once had a student who sat in the middle of a lecture with a ski mask pulled over his face as I tried to engage the class in the art of essay writing. This being a relatively small class of about 15 students, the ski-mask guy was like a throbbing boil that nobody in the room could ignore, politely pretending that this assault on civility wasn’t really happening. Unlike the Canadian professors, I did not walk out in protest. But looking back, doing so might have been a good idea: let the student’s peers hold him accountable for his disruption and call me when the class is ready to learn.
Ultimately, however, I left the classroom for good. I left teaching — no, I bolted from teaching — as fast as I could run, after enduring culture shock and a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by a system of higher education that treated students as eminently entitled customers and professors as their hand-holding, entertain-at-all-costs servants, whose official job performance rating depended excessively on the opinions of these customers in their anonymous teacher evaluations. Success in the system boiled down to this: I entertain, therefore I am a good teacher.

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Every Professor an Entrepeneur?

What if all college professors were forced to be higher-education entrepreneurs, with salaries pegged to the number of students they attract to their classes? That’s the model recently proposed by a Texas professor who styled himself “Publius Audax” on a Pajamas Media blog. Publius launched his proposal, he wrote, as the solution to a projected $25 billion budget shortfall over the next two years that is likely to hit the Texas higher education hard. Publius’ argument is that his “entrepreneurial professor model,” when coupled with other reforms would “harness the power and efficiency of the market” to make public higher education cheaper and better. The other reforms include abolishing tenure, eliminating state subsidies to public campuses, getting rid of “core curricula” (which nowadays are nothing more than pointless distribution requirements, and allowing private “charter colleges” (both nonprofit and for-profit) onto public campuses in order to provide more competition.

Hmm, my own undergraduate alma mater was founded by a highly successful entrepreneur, the railroad baron Leland Stanford. What if college professors were more like Leland Stanford and less like the brilliant but economically illiterate head-in-the-clouds types who taught at Stanford when I went there?

Here is how Publius’ entrepreneurial professor model would work: All professors and lecturers would receive a base “living wage” of $30,000 plus benefits. Beyond that it would be up to the professors themselves to generate a “tuition-based bonus” for themselves consisting of 50 percent of the tuition income generated by students enrolled in their classes, “up to a maximum of 320 students (960 student hours).” All instructors would be allowed to teach up to eight classes a year. In order to gin up the price competition further, professors, department heads, and even entire colleges could offer tuition rebates to students, the money to come out of the professors’ salary bonuses. Professors with ultra-large classes could hire teaching assistants—but the money would again have to come out of their salary bonuses. And to ensure that professors wouldn’t game the system by handing out easy A’s to all comers, there would be a strict grading curve. No more than 15 percent of students in any given class could receive an A-grade, and another 15 percent would have to either flunk or receive a D. Professors whose grades deviated from the curve would lose their bonus for every student whose grade exceeded the curve. This would not only keep the professors in line, Publius argues, but would “transform the campus culture, replacing partying with studying” as students scrambled to stay out of the bottom of the class.

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