I read this at The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, and something about it really popped for me.
As both of my readers will recall, I spent the spring semester serving in a minor administrative capacity. This all-too-brief introduction to real academic administration* got me to contemplate the critical issues facing academia. Among the issues that have been on my mind:
(1) Treatment of adjuncts. How we treat these freeway flyers can have dangerous consequences; this is nothing short of shameful. No doubt I’ll have more on this later.
(2) The continuing destruction of our commitment to higher education. At a time when we’re asking – nay, demanding – that everyone get a college education, we are defunding our public higher education system at a breakneck clip. This can’t end well.
(3) MOOCs and online ed. This is where the above article comes in. I’ve taught online, and I can see certain situations where it can be quite effective. But, just as there’s no substitute for a fresh tomato from your own garden, there’s nothing like a master teacher, working in concert with excited, ready-to-learn students, operating with a real sense of place. Small liberal arts colleges, like the wonderful institution that pays me every two weeks to do things I love, are uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity. Take advantage of it. Support your local college.
*I’ve headed up theory-composition programs, but those positions lacked budgetary and other responsibilities.
I had the good fortune to read this essay by someone who is currently teaching at my Alma Mater. It resonates with me, because it points to a couple of flaws in the current system of training college professors.
First of all, in what is supposed to be the great equalizer, we still privilege a very narrow few universities and colleges over all others. A certain amount of that is understandable, as places like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford et al have access to means of getting better labs/buildings/resources, funding for grad students, etc. Still, I would put my MSU education – especially in my major – up against anyone, anywhere, anytime. I might not be able to match them class for class or skill for skill, but it is precisely that experience which has allowed me to succeed. When we say, “Oh, you only teach at a regional state university or a small liberal arts college or a community college,” we are, in effect, saying those are not real institutions of higher education. This is grossly unfair to the students and to the faculty.
Secondly, our PhD programs are guilty of this (arguably more than anyone else). What does a PhD program do, in essence? It gives you the skills to be a researcher at a research university. Most PhD programs do nothing to prepare you to be a faculty member at an institution other than a research university. This does a huge disservice to graduate students, as there are only so many research university positions out there; it further does a huge disservice to all the non-research universities out there. (To be fair, some PhD programs are trying to remedy this.)
Essentially, we do ourselves no favors when we marginalize professors like Dr. Skallerup-Bessette, anyone tenured or tenure-track at a non-research university, or those who are not on the tenure track and/or those who adjunct. When we say that they can be replaced by MOOCs, we are saying, “You don’t count as an academic.” Folks, that’s most of us.
(nothing like a golden-age Simpsons reference…I really didn’t mean for this blog to become All Higher Ed, All The Time, but if it works…)
Matt Reed, the confessing community college dean, has a great post up today about the differences between mere competency and those skills which require the investment of time. The model is music lessons, and I believe this to be an outstanding metaphor for why education – at all levels, but especially higher education – cannot be broken down into standardized tests, MOOCs, and credit for life experience.
To be sure, I have no trouble with well-articulated, critically- and curricularly-thought-out plans to give credit for life experience (I hear good things about Thomas Edison State College and Empire State College), but I am skeptical that the true college/university experience (critical thinking, citizenship, breadth of knowledge, high level of expertise in a chosen area) can be reduced to a series of check-off boxes.
Of some concern is Coursera’s plan to offer MOOCs to “non-elite” institutions; I refuse to accept that because I don’t teach at Harvard I am less of a professor, which is the clear implication of this plan. (See Matt Reed’s Three Dollar People blog entry for a similar thought.)
What say you, Gentle Reader?