Sparks fly around the table–of the seminar room or the lunchroom

There’s something seriously wrong when the dominant methods of education do not foster the skills most valued by potential employers.

In a recent spate of op-ed pieces in The New York Times, pundits have explored this disconnect, which seems to be grower wider as we advance into the 21st century.

David Brooks, making a distinction between what he calls “technical knowledge” and “practical knowledge,” says that online education is good for transmitting and measuring students’ mastery of technical knowledge, but does little for helping students gain the practical knowledge they’ll need to be successful in the workplace.

“Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it,” Brooks says. “It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.”

Brooks points to the college seminar as one of the important incubators of important workplace skills, and as someone who teaches exclusively in seminar style, I agree with him.  The college seminar is where students learn how to listen to each other, build on each other’s ideas, articulate their own ideas clearly and concisely, and take away crucial insights that they’ll use to construct their more fully elaborated written papers (which in the workplace might be called briefs or reports).

But Brooks and I part company when he suggests that seminars should be used as laboratories for the dissection of intellectual exchange.  He thinks that a smart use of online education technology would be “to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar….Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.”

Deep groan.  This sounds like a perfect recipe for a disastrous seminar in which students—and faculty–would be made to feel increasingly self-conscious, where the delight of the “free-form” exchange of ideas would degenerate into a stilted, scripted, uber-careful caricature of what a seminar should be.

Occasionally taping a seminar and analyzing it might be fruitful, especially in one of those inevitable groups where the dynamics are terrible and everyone, by mid-semester, wants to just crawl under the table and hide. But making the focus of the semester the “how” rather than the “what” seems like a terrible idea.

It’s also in sharp contrast to the most cutting-edge ideas of how to spur human innovation and creativity, which lord knows we desperately need as the 21st century advances.

In his own recent column on education, NY Times columnist Tom Friedman interviewed Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner, also looking for ways that educational practices could better connect to workplace imperatives. According to Wager, who just wrote a book called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, “because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”

Critical thinking, asking the right questions, and taking initiative are indeed what should be taught at every level of education, from kindergarten to college and beyond.  Interestingly, Wagner also points to another important goal of education, which is to motivate students to want to learn.

“Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously,” Wagner says. “They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

Unfortunately, in our current education environment, where passing standardized tests becomes a goal in itself, keeping kids engaged is a serious challenge.

I saw this myself when I taught at a large state university, where the students were much more interested in finding the best watering holes for their weekend parties than in any of their classes.

As Friedman reports: “We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over,” said Wagner. “Because of this, the longer kids are in school, the less motivated they become. Gallup’s recent survey showed student engagement going from 80 percent in fifth grade to 40 percent in high school.”

Wagner’s solution is to re-imagine the classroom, and the educational system, so that teachers are focused on “teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.”

That is a tall order, really, and it has to do not just with the classroom, but also with the dining room table—with what happens at home, in students’ family environment.  How to inspire passion and persistence in students who are being reared on smash-em up video games?  How to foster critical thinking and collaboration in students who come from plugged-in families who rarely spend much quality time together?

Somewhat paradoxically, it appears that it’s precisely in web-based interactive technology companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others that the qualities of human innovation and creativity are most dogged sought.

And how are they trying to foster these skills among their workers?

Google350x233By going back to good old-fashioned lunchroom tables, at which, it appears, the unstructured back and forth of ideas is what prompts the greatest leaps in creative thinking.  Just like that other good old-fashioned table, the one in the college seminar room!

In a New York Times article provocatively entitled “Engineering Serendipity,” Greg Lindsay points to a recent study in which “researchers at Arizona State University used sensors and surveys to study creativity within teams.” The study found that “employees who ate at cafeteria tables designed for 12 were more productive than those at tables for four, thanks to more chance conversations and larger social networks. That, along with things like companywide lunch hours and the cafes Google is so fond of, can boost individual productivity by as much as 25 percent.”

If our best, most innovative companies most value creative, collaborative thinking, which is best fostered in face to face interactions, why in the world is K-12 education focused on teaching technical knowledge measured by standardized tests, while higher education is flocking to online learning, which isolate students in front of their computer screens?

Give me the old-fashioned seminar table any day, with a smart, dedicated teacher and a roomful of students who are absolutely forbidden to use their computers or phones or tablets for the duration of the class session! Give us some provocative material to discuss, and just watch the creative sparks fly!

MOOCs for the Masses

imagesThe automation of education is one of the big issues of the early 21st century, and in the halls of higher education, where I hang out, it’s very controversial.

The leaders of small colleges like mine are watching nervously as the big boys jump on the MOOC bandwagon, throwing their immense resources behind the development of sophisticated online learning platforms designed to serve hundreds of thousands of students at a clip.

So far these courses are not available for actual degree credit, but the accrediting corps is not far behind, busily working on the conceptual architecture needed to award students college credit no matter which institution’s logo is on the screen.

Once this is fully operational, students will be able to work towards a college degree in patchwork fashion, taking math and science courses from MIT, liberal arts from Yale, and philosophy from Princeton along the way to their shiny new 21st century B.A.

The minute the technical hurdles to this system are worked out, the floodgates of online learning are going to open for real.

Those who are skeptical of the quality of online learning argue that even video conferencing, now widely available through Adobe Connect or Google Hang-out platforms, cannot match the electricity of ideas exchanged face to face, facilitated by a well-trained, talented instructor.

This is the argument used by small liberal arts colleges like mine to justify the continued emphasis on bricks-and-mortar institutions, and there is truth it, as long as the class sizes are small and the instructors are not only knowledgeable, but also  skilled at facilitating discussion.

But let’s be honest: most American students do not have the benefit of attending small liberal arts colleges, because the small student/teacher faculty ratio is incredibly expensive to maintain.

LectureHallHaving spent nearly a decade teaching on a State University of New York campus, I can attest that most undergraduates there sit in large lecture halls where they watch powerpoint shows narrated by a teacher down at the podium.  That is, when they bother to go to class.

There is no question that such lectures could be more easily and cheaply delivered online, sparing the professor the travails of explaining Chemistry 101 yet again to another generation of yawning, surfing students.

Big institutions are now getting excited about “flipping the classroom,” meaning: the student watches the lecture on her own time, as homework, and then comes into the classroom for a discussion about the material.

My question, as a higher education insider, is: who is going to lead that discussion?

My guess is it will be graduate students and adjunct professors doing the discussion leading, as it has been for many years already with tenure-track professors who give the lectures and leave the work of actually interacting with students to their teaching assistants.

The ramifications of this for higher education as a field of employment remain to be seen.  For the moment, most people who are thinking about online learning are much more focused on the students (the “clients”) than on the labor issues involved.

Clearly, a professor who can teach 100,000 students at a time is going to be offering a lot more value to the institution than a professor who teaches 20 students at a time, especially if at least a percentage of those thousands of online learners start to pay for credits towards a degree.

As the century goes on, we’re going to see fewer tenure-track professors and a lot more adjuncts.  The field was going this way anyway; online learning is just going to put the trend on hyperdrive.

Faculty advocates in higher education need to be focusing on the issue of a living wage for adjunct professors now, because once American adjuncts are competing with part-timers all over the world, we’re going to see the out-sourcing of American education bigtime, with unpredictable results.

 

Meanwhile, globalization cheerleaders like Tom Friedman are waxing enthusiastic about the idea of beaming lectures by Harvard professors to remote locations around the world.

“For relatively little money,” Friedman said in a recent column, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.”

Yes, this would be globalization with gloves on, and certainly far better than spreading American-style ideology at gun and loan-point, as we did in the 20th century.

MOOCs are already opening up the previously hallowed halls of the best American institutions of higher education to new, worldwide audiences.

As Friedman reports, the head of the new Harvard/MIT online platform EdX, Anant Agarwal, said that “since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. ‘That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.’”

In the next few years, we’re going to see online learning take off bigtime, as more and more students clamor for the opportunities it affords, and higher education leaders perceive the huge benefits in cost savings that will result from not having to house all the students they serve.

We’re going to see more and more students living at home with Mom and Dad right through their undergraduate years, whether it’s here in the U.S. or, as Friedman imagines, in some Egyptian village.

From the point of view of the average student, the one who would not in any case be able to afford or get into a selective liberal arts college, this may be for the best.  Certainly it would be better to live at home a few more years than to incur heavy debt burdens for the privilege of living on campus.

Students and their parents are already viewing education in increasingly utilitarian terms; as they contemplate getting on the B.A. track they want to know What can I do with this degree? What jobs will it prepare me for?

They’re looking for the most practical, value-added route to the goal—a secure, interesting, well-paying career.

images-1There are always going to be elite undergraduate colleges ready to give a premium, face-to-face educational experience to those who can pay for it, just the way there are still deluxe prep schools available even though most Americans go to the public high school down the road.

Faculty at these colleges will continue to teach small classes, where students are encouraged to be creative, critical thinkers, to question authority, to write papers rather than take tests, and to get to know each other both in and outside of class.

Just as future queen bees are given a far richer diet than future worker bee, there will be different educational strokes for different folks.

The real question, as we enter the MOOC era, is whether education will continue to serve as a vehicle for social mobility, as it did so strongly in the 20th century, or whether we’ll have online learning for the masses and bricks-and-mortar for the elite, with the gap between the two growing ever wider.

Something is rotten in the state of higher education: time for change!

Higher education today is like a feudal castle, with the King living in opulence, his knights doing well as long as they serve the king faithfully, and the servants toiling away in perpetual bondage.

President Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, is the highest paid private college president in the land

President Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, is the highest paid private college president in the land

Thoughts of Elsinore are rising to mind today because of a new report detailing just how wealthy those academic Kings are: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “In 2010, 36 private-college presidents earned more than $1 million,” and among the 493 presidents surveyed at private American colleges with budgets exceeding $50 million, the median compensation was $396,649.”

In contrast, a recent American Association of University Professors survey found the average faculty salary at American institutions of higher education to be $82,000—but this average is pulled way down by the inclusion of “instructors” in the mix, for whom the average salary was $47,000.

Tenured faculty, in the Elsinore analogy, would be the nobles of the realm, the knighted vassals who serve the King in the castle, and are richly rewarded for their allegiance.

They are supported by a legion of staff, including graduate teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, whose salary falls behind the cost of living a little more each year.

And then there are the serfs in the system, whose labor supports it all: the students and their parents, many of whom are forced into a new kind of debt bondage to attain the gold ring of that vaunted college degree—paying ever-increasing tuition, and ever-increasing taxes as well.

What would make young Hamlet really moody these days is the growing recognition that the college degree just isn’t worth what it used to be.

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, cites Academically Adrift, the damning study by Richard Arum and Josipa Ruksa, which “found that many students at traditional colleges showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing, and spent their time socializing, working or wasting time instead of studying.”  And then, he adds, there are all the students who enter college but never end up graduating, often because the price is too high or the academic work too dull.

At the graduate level, too, there is a sense of crisis.

According to Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Stacey Patton, “The student-debt problem, coupled with the dearth of jobs, has sparked a national conversation about whether going to graduate school is worth it.”

At the Council on Graduate Schools annual meeting this month, Patton reports, the buzz was about whether it’s “unethical to keep admitting students to programs and training them for jobs that don’t exist while they are racking up piles of debt only to risk finding university employment as just an adjunct, or obtaining some other low-wage job for which a graduate degree is not necessary, or ending up on food stamps.

Poor Hamlet, who just wanted to go back to Wittenberg and bury himself in philosophy!

These days, the humanities are particularly beleaguered, with leaders among the humanities professoriate having to constantly deliver pep talks to the rank and file on why what we’re doing matters.

“We should keep telling our students (and their parents) that ‘doing the humanities’ prepares them generally in a way no narrow occupational degree can,” says Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association.

“When we say the word research,” she continues, “most people don’t think of the humanities, and they have trouble recognizing the product as useful. It’s true that “doing the humanities” doesn’t produce scientific knowledge that can, say, cure cancer. But it can yield imaginative works on cancer like Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman and Mary Cappello’s Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life that change people’s lives.”

It’s interesting that when pressed to think of humanities work that “changes people’s lives,” Feal points to two memoirs as examples.

As someone who is currently writing a memoir, and who has studied personal narrative since my dissertation (entitled Hybrid Encounters: Postcolonial Autobiographies of the Americas), I have to agree with Feal that personal narratives have great educational value.

Human beings have been sitting around campfires telling stories since we first began to use language.

We have always learned by listening to our elders hand down traditional stories, and inventing new ones.

The tragedy of Hamlet, for example, was Shakespeare’s reworking of the older Scandinavian tale, and it illustrates vividly the dangers of puffed up pride, greed and ruthless ambition.

The desire of Claudius for wealth and power blinds his moral sense, and in killing his brother, marrying his sister-in-law, and plotting to kill his nephew, he sets the stage for the total destruction of the royal house of Elsinore, leaving it ripe for the plucking of the neighboring Prince, Fortinbras, who is as decisive and aggressive as Hamlet is moody and tentative.

In our current educational landscape, the Fortinbras army waiting in the wings might be robotic: the legions of online courses that are swiftly breeching the walls of Castle Academe.

Online learning has the potential to be as revolutionary as the rise of industrial capitalism back in the 19th century.  Suddenly the educational territory cannot be entirely controlled by the King in his castle, although to be sure he is dispatching his Knights left and right to try to secure his boundaries—every day brings word of new online learning consortiums or treaties being signed in the scramble to lock down the goldmines of higher learning.

But what kind of educational model are those Kings of Academe trying so hard to protect and secure?

The kinds of subjects that lend themselves best to MOOC virtual classrooms (that’s Massive Open Online Courses, for those new to the territory) are those that can be taught by lecture and multiple-choice exams.

But does young Hamlet, or any other thoughtful, creative young person, really want to be lectured to and tested on canned, pre-recorded knowledge?

Wouldn’t he rather be engaged in a dialogue with his elders, or a dynamic, free-ranging conversation among his peers and their mentors?

Online technology does have the power to help open up multiple conversational platforms.  Since the advent of the internet, we humans are conversing globally in ever-expanding ways, and the price of admission to the conversation is fairly low: a computer and an internet connection is all you need, for starters, to get into the game.

But to succeed in this brave new social landscape, you do need competence with those familiar old tools of the humanities trade: the ability to read and analyze critically; the ability to write and speak with precision and thoughtfulness; the ability to sort through, understand and analyze the massive amounts of complex data that are thrown at us every day through the media.

The Kings of Academe must not lose sight of this bedrock mission of higher education in their rush to consolidate their hold on the online learning market.

The old model of having students physically living on a campus with their professors on the outskirts may not hold up in the 21st century, other than at a few of the most fabulously wealthy castles like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Is it worth having students and their parents bury themselves in debt to afford the tuitions that keep brick-and-mortar campuses running?

Maybe not.

But in this transition time, let’s make sure we hold on to what’s best in the old system, while getting rid of what no longer works.

I am all for increasing the horizontal democratization of learning, which is the promise of online education, as long as it doesn’t lead to the pauperization of the professoriate, the students and their parents, all toiling beneath bloated administrators.

It’s possible that we may be able to transition to what is now being called “blended learning” environments, rather like today’s distance MFA programs, which convene students for intensive sessions four times a year, but otherwise have them working in small online learning groups facilitated by a professor.

But it’s also possible that it may be time for some really profound change.  What if, instead of having to choose between Elsinore and Wittenberg, young Hamlet could reject both these traditional poles and instead strike off on his own, relying just on his own creativity, wits and drive?

What if he could access the maps, equipment and tools he needed to succeed from other entrepreneurs like himself, free agents circulating their skills in the grand market of online ideas?

Maybe massive fortunes wouldn’t be made this way, but isn’t it becoming painfully clear that the growth and accumulation model of economics is crashing and burning these days, going down like Claudius under the weight of its own greed?

A new kind of barter system might work just as well or better, if the goal were happiness and productivity, rather than frantically making enough cash to stay ahead of the debt collectors.

Joi Ito

Joi Ito

I am excited by the vision of Joi Ito, the dynamic new director of MIT’s influential Media Lab program.  Ito, profiled in a recent issue of WiredUK magazine, wants to break down the castle walls of academe, and get students and their professors out into the streets where the action is.

“In the old days,” he told WiredUK,  “being relevant was writing academic papers. Today, if people can’t find you on the internet, if they’re not talking about you in Rwanda, you’re irrelevant. That’s the worst thing in the world for any researcher.”

At the Media Lab, it’s not about students passively sitting and taking in a professor’s canned words of wisdom.  Instead, posses of students and professors work together in the labs and out on the streets to find creative solutions to real-world problems.

“By opening up the Media Lab,” WiredUK reports, “Ito hopes to move closer towards his goal of  ‘a world with seven billion teachers,’ where smart crowds, adopting a resilient approach and a rebellious spirit, solve some of the world’s great problems.

“His is a world of networks and ecosystems, in which unconstrained creativity can tackle everything from infant mortality to climate change.

“‘We want to take the DNA [of the lab], the secret sauce, and drop it into communities, into companies, into governments,’ he says. ‘It’s my mission, our mission, to spread that DNA. You can’t actually tell people to think for themselves, or be creative. You have to work with them and have them learn it themselves.’”

Ito has just placed his finger on the prime value of education at any level: helping young people learn how to think for themselves and be creative.

Young Hamlet had that gift, which is why he was able to escape the clutches of Claudius and maintain his own principles in even the poisonous atmosphere of Elsinore.

Laertes, whose poisoned sword kills both Hamlet and himself, is the other kind of student: the kind easily influenced by a corrupt mentor like Claudius into playing foul in the quest for personal gain.

In this day and age, we need to be teaching our young people not only to be creative problem-solvers, but also to be ethical, principled human beings who are willing to take risks and stand up for what is right and just—even if this means foregoing easily attainable blood money.

The Media Lab’s Ito has observed that “a lot of the kids at the Media Lab today don’t want to make more money, don’t want to become immortal, they just want to figure out how to fix this unhealthy system we have. There are lots of kids who are not happy with this massive consumerism, this unsustainable growth, but who have really smart science and technology values. That’s a type of person we can draw into what I think will become a movement.”

What kind of movement? A creative commons movement (Ito, by the way, was one of the founders of Creative Commons and the Mozilla Foundation), in which some of the key principles would be, in Ito’s words: “Encourage rebellion instead of compliance”; “Practice instead of theory”; ” Constant learning instead of education”; “Compass over map.”

Exactly the kind of principles that Hamlet employed to successfully navigate Elsinore—until he was undone by the treachery of Claudius and Laertes.

But get a billion young Hamlets–and Ophelias!–going, and there will be no stopping them.

“In the old days,” Ito told WiredUK,  “you needed hundreds of millions of dollars and armies of people to do anything that mattered. Today a couple of kids using open-source software, a generic PC and the internet can create a Google, a Yahoo! and a Facebook in their dorm room, and plug it in and it’s working even before they’ve raised money.

“That takes all the innovation from the centre and pushes it to the edges — into the little labs inside the Media Lab; inside dorm rooms; even inside terrorist cells. Suddenly the world is out of control — the people innovating, disrupting, creating these tools, they’re not scholars. They don’t care about disciplines. They’re antidisciplinary.”

This kind of talk, as Duke University professor Cathy N. Davidson observes, has many traditional educator-types quaking in their boots.

Tenured faculty tend to be rather complacent as a group, since their jobs are assured for life—unless, that is, their institutions fail.  The truth is that we are in a sea-change time when many of the weaker institutions of higher learning are likely to be weeded out.

We have, right now, a fantastic opportunity now to break out of what Davidson calls the “Fordist, production-line compartmentalizations and hierarchies of knowledge,” including ossified disciplines and stifling pedagogical models.

Those of us within the profession now need to be tunneling from within towards the freedom of creative expression that we and our students so desperately need.

Every discipline has a role to play, but only to the extent that we allow the disciplinary walls to become permeable, fostering the free germination of potent new ideas.

In the fresh air that will then begin to circulate in the musty corridors of academe, we will be able to hear rumors of the coming of a better world.

Welcome to the Knowledge Factory

The lead article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education Review is titled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

More than 350,000 Americans with advanced degrees applied for food stamps in 2010, part of “an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of Ph.D. recipients, adjunct professors, and other Americans with advanced degrees who have had to apply for food stamps or some other form of government aid since late 2007.

“Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children’s college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.”

And the numbers of impoverished Ph.D.s may actually be much higher than this.

“Leaders of organizations that represent adjunct faculty members think that the number of people counted by the government does not represent the full picture of academics on welfare because many do not report their reliance on federal aid.

“Even as the number of highly educated aid recipients grows, shame has helped to keep the problem hidden.”

Yes, I know that shame well.

How could it be that a highly educated, well-groomed, extremely intelligent individual with everything going for her is so embarrassingly poor?

Why is it that after more than 20 years of teaching college—and doing a very good job of it, I might add—I  still make only $10,000 more now than I did as a freshly minted B.A. starting out in publishing in New York back in the 1980s?

It is very hard to earn a Ph.D., in case you didn’t realize.  It takes many years of study, great determination and self-motivation, the ability to see a major, high-quality independent research project through to its conclusion, generally a book-length manuscript.  It also takes a lot of money, especially in the poorly funded humanities.

By the time one finishes the intense slo-mo marathon of the Ph.D. program, one feels like someone of consequence: someone who has jumped through every hoop, earned lots of accolades, managed to accumulate a great deal of social capital.

And yet all that evaporates in the face of the reality of American higher education today.

Except for a very few lucky ones with good connections or true star quality, most of us discover that it’s a buyer’s market out there in higher ed, and whatever we’ve got to sell is a dime a dozen.

You take that first adjunct job telling yourself it’s going to be temporary, only to find five years later that you’re still doing the same frantic shuffle of trying to teach enough courses, at something like $4,000 apiece, to make ends meet.

If you want to get on with your life and have a child, good luck!  You’d better have a spouse working a real job—because adjunct pay and adjunct uncertainty is not what a family needs as its bedrock.

This is what 70% of American faculty—70%!!—are doing now.

And I am afraid it’s going to get worse.

Just as American manufacturing turned belly-up in the face of the out-sourcing of labor in the globalized market in the 1990s, higher ed is now poised to do exactly the same thing with the professoriate.

Distance learning, the fastest growing segment of the higher education market, will make it possible for a Ph.D. in New Delhi to teach that big section of Chemistry 100 to students from all over the world.  And in New Delhi, $4,000 will probably seem like pretty good money.

Within a few years, I will not be surprised to find that American Ph.D.s are competing with academics from all over the world for the same few positions.

What does it say about us as a society that we not only force our students into deep debt to buy their educations, but also refuse to pay their teachers a living wage?

***

There are some alternatives on the horizon, such as the free, online University of the People, a start-up that is attracting a fair amount of attention right now.

Maybe in the future education will be free, entirely online, and totally globalized.  I am not so enamored of bricks and mortar to cast this shift in a wholly negative light.

Perhaps the end result will be that American professors will simply have to up and move to cheaper locales…teaching their classes from an internet cafe in Central America, let’s say, or East Asia.

But we need to be careful, as the transition to online education shifts the sands beneath our feet at lightening speed, that we continue to focus on the most important aspect of any education: the shared excitement over common interests and new ideas that is the hallmark of a good student-teacher relationship.

This excitement can be transmitted just as easily over the internet as in the classroom, as long as the ratio of students to teacher remains humane, and as long as neither student nor teacher is driven to distraction by the bank creditors slavering in the background.

To tell the truth, I am more interested in strengthening local education, rather than following the dangerous globalized outsourcing model.  But I’m willing to play the game, as long as we, the players, are treated with respect as human beings, not wage slaves and pawns.

Who’s Afraid of Distance Learning?

It used to be that a smart, motivated young person could work hard, earn a doctorate, do a good job as a junior professor, and live happily ever after as a tenured professor.

It also used to be that a smart young person could work hard, get into a good college, and expect to be taught with passion and enthusiasm by a corps of dedicated professors.

Despite the ever-increasing cost of college tuition, neither of these expectations holds water any more.

Academia, as a profession and as a social landscape, is deeply troubled right now, in ways that are profoundly connected to wider social and economic problems in our society.

In today’s New York Times, pundit David Brooks suggests that colleges need to do more to ensure that their high sticker price is delivering measurable value. However, his solution—standardized exit testing of college seniors—shows how out of touch he is with the real issues and problems facing academia today.

At a recent high-level conference hosted by Lafayette College, ponderously titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership in Education Around the World,” “Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss laid out four major challenges facing liberal arts colleges — affordability, public skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree and college in general, decline in the share of U.S population who fit the demographic patterns of students who traditionally attend liberal arts colleges, and questions about how to incorporate technology into the college and serve a generation of students that is increasingly networked.”

Smith College

At small liberal arts colleges like Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where I teach, we pride ourselves on a low student-faculty ratio. At Simon’s Rock the ratio is only 9 students to each professor.  But of course that’s a big part of why our tuition is so high, to pay for the one-on-one, intensive engagement with each student.

From the perspective of college presidents and administrators trying to make ends meet, this educational model may not be sustainable.

Certainly that was the case at the University at Albany, SUNY, where I taught for nine years in an interdisciplinary first-year seminar program designed to “give a small college experience in the big university.”  The program, which had just received an enthusiastic external review that trumpeted its successes in retention and learning outcomes for the roughly 800 students we served each year, was axed in 2011.

Now those 800 students are sitting in the big lecture halls with 500 others at a time—or, just as likely, not bothering to go to class at all.  It was a common complaint among my SUNY students that the professor wouldn’t know or care if you showed up or not—all it took to pass the course was cramming for the exam with the textbook.

Given this scenario, it’s not surprising that more and more of our large universities are shifting to distance learning.  Why go through the trouble of housing thousands of undergraduates, when you can deliver the lecture and the exam to them in their own bedrooms at home?

There is truth to this, and I have no doubt that networked, globalized distance learning is going to be the standard form of higher education delivery in the years to come.  It’s already happening incredibly fast, and even small liberal arts colleges need to be thinking about how to jump on that train before they miss it entirely.

As someone who teaches media studies, with a special interest in new media, I am in many ways delighted and intrigued by the potential of distance learning in higher education.  I have even been trying to persuade the administrators at my college to give it a try.

While it is never going to be the same as the old-fashioned model of nine students sitting around a seminar table with a professor, with current video capabilities it can come pretty close, as anyone who has tried a Google “hang-out” can attest.

And wouldn’t it be exciting to “hang out” in a seminar classroom with students from around the world?  We higher ed folks like to trumpet the value of diversity and international education—well, distance learning provides the platform to make the dream of a truly diverse and globalized classroom a reality.

However, there is a catch, and it is the same catch that has dogged other American industries as they have leaped on to the globalization bandwagon.

U.S. higher ed is already troubled from within by the shift from stable, tenured fulltime faculty to legions of roving part-time adjunct faculty.  With distance learning, the adjunct model gains even more steam, and goes global.

Why not outsource that first year Calculus course to a professor in India, who will teach 1,000 students for a fraction of what even an adjunct in the U.S. would earn?

Welcome to the knowledge sweatshop of the future.

According to the Inside Higher Ed article on the Lafayette conference, “Williams College President Adam F. Falk argued that the principal reason for adopting technological innovation should be for educational improvement, not just productivity gains. ‘College education isn’t simply about most efficient or innovative means of delivering content,’ he said, arguing that the engagement component of what colleges like his do was over all more important. ‘It’s hard for even the best students to learn on their own.’ Falk’s presentation was warmly received by the crowd.”

But Williams College is one of the richest liberal arts colleges in the nation, with an endowment of nearly $2 billion even after the economic downturn of 2008.

The social stratification that is affecting every aspect of American society is no less marked in higher education.

In the near future, we will be looking at an academic landscape where there will be a few highly paid tenured research professors and a vast majority of poorly paid adjunct professors all over the world, working mostly from their home offices via distance learning networks.  While there will always be a few lucky students who will be able to gain access to ivied classrooms through scholarships, those classrooms will increasingly be reserved for the children of the super-elites of the world.  Ordinary kids who have the motivation and discipline to go to college will do it from home, a financial decision their parents will have no choice but to support.

Distance learning is often lauded as a way to level the playing field, since it makes higher education accessible to kids who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

This may be so.  But it is also going to be yet another way to divide our society into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—in other words, to harden the de facto caste walls that are already making the old rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American dream a quaint memory.

A Crucible Moment in Education

There was some rolling of eyes in my community when President Obama announced he would like to see high school mandatory until age 18.  That’s because at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, my alma mater, where I’ve been teaching for the past 17 years, the standard procedure for students is to leave high school at about age 16, generally after 10th grade, and shift into our early college program.

Most Simon’s Rock students are motivated to step off the beaten path and try a different approach to college because they’re high achievers who are bored in high school.  A few come to us because they’ve been so socially mauled in high school that Simon’s Rock becomes not only an academic, but also a social refuge for them.

In any case, for my students, being compelled to stay in high school until they were 18 years old would have been torturous, and would not have improved their future chances of success any more than “dropping out” to try a more innovative form of education—early college.

President Obama’s instinct that staying in school is better than dropping out altogether is absolutely correct.  It’s just that if we’re going to compel kids to stay in school, we need to make their schooling compelling.

Lots of great minds have already weighed in on the question of how to make learning fun and meaningful, but somehow we do not seem to have made a dent in the great battleship Education, which is still plowing its way implacably through the cold waters of Teaching to the Test.

It’s true that there is a certain amount of knowledge that you simply have to be taught, in that passive sense of receiving information and committing it to memory.  For instance, the alphabet.  The multiplication tables.

And having got these basic tools, you need to be taught how to use them: how to read, how to manipulate numbers.  If you’re going to be a doctor, you need to be taught how human systems work, just the way an engineer learns how a mechanical system works, or a mechanic learns how a car works.  OK.

But beyond mastering these kinds of basics in any field, there are two things students most need to get out of their education: learning how to figure things out for themselves, and learning how important their educated selves are to their communities and the larger society as a whole.

In today’s networked world, we no longer need to have kids waste their time memorizing all the state capitols, or learning by rote anything that can be measured in a multiple-choice test.  What kids need to learn is how to find the information they need to answer the questions they have about the world.  They need to learn how to frame their questions, understanding that the way a question is asked will often guide or predetermine its answer.

Reading is still a fundamentally important skill, but what we need to be teaching kids is how to read between the lines.  How to see through propaganda that passes for “fair and balanced” journalism, for instance.  How to sift through multiple sources of information on a given topic, and understand the criteria for determining which source is most credible.

But even that is not enough. Students not only need to become active readers, but also nimble thinkers, capable of taking in a spread of ideas on a given topic, and responding with their own original thinking.  A society where kids only learn how to feed back to their elders old, predigested ideas is a stagnant society, and we can’t afford that kind of stagnation at this time.

And here we get to my second point: kids not only need to learn to think for themselves, they need to understand how important this activity is for our rapidly changing society.  And that means taking the skills they’ve gained through their education out of the school and the academy into the street.

Students at every level, even the littlest ones, will benefit from a much more active engagement with the social and natural environment beyond the walls of their classrooms.  Little kids should be planting gardens in their schoolyards and composting the remains of their lunch. In Waldorf kindergartens like the one my sons attended, kids partake in preparing their mid-morning snack, and in keeping their classroom clean and neat.

What kids learn through activities like these is the importance of collaboration to community—an invaluable life lesson that needs to start early and be reinforced in different ways as they grow older.

Instead of our current competitive test-based system, we need collaborative learning that anticipates the kind of team-based environments of the most successful communities and businesses.  Instead of seeing kids hunched on their own behind raised folders taking a test—no cheating!—we should see groups of kids assembled around a problem, working collaboratively, noisily, joyfully to solve it.

The task of the teacher in this kind of learning environment would be to set the kids ever more challenging and interesting problems, with clearly visible and defined real-world applications, and guide the kids to the tools they need to solve the problems and evaluate their successes or setbacks.

Lord knows there is no shortage of serious problems in our world today, problems that demand every ounce of our most focused attention to surmount.  We need to get kids out of their classrooms and into their communities, bringing their creativity, their intelligence, their caring and their wonderful energy to bear on the challenges that lie just outside their classroom doors.

The Obama administration has just released a major new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, prepared by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which brought together leaders in higher education from around the country to come up with recommendations for ways that education can help students become engaged, responsible local and global citizens.

The report concludes that given all the “pressing issues” facing us today—“growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more,” educators need to focus on “expanding students’ capacities to be civic problem-solvers using all their powers of intellect and inventiveness.

“The kind of graduates we need at this moment in history,” the authors say, “need to possess a strong propensity for wading into an intensely interdependent, pluralist world. They need to be agile, creative problem solvers who draw their knowledge from multiple perspectives both domestic and global, who approach the world with empathy, and who are ready to act with others to improve the quality of life for all.”

The report “urges every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice.”

Specifically, the task force advocates developing service learning and community engagement programs that move beyond simple volunteerism to actually involving young people as active participants and innovators in making their social environments more vibrant, more responsible, and more equitable.

Sounds good, and sounds simple to implement, but as I know from trying to develop community engagement structures for students at my home institution, it takes staffing—and therefore funding—to provide the channels students need to quickly jump into productive off-campus programs.  Commitment to this kind of active learning environment needs to come from the top, and that’s why I am excited to see such an array of distinguished leaders in education come together as the signatories of this new National Task Force report.

Let’s hope some of that energy and enthusiasm will trickle down to schools and campuses all over the country, and soon.  The tone of urgency evident in the title of this report, A Crucible Moment, and in the President’s remarks about education this past week, is not exaggerated.

We are in a crucible moment in so many ways, and we desperately need to equip our young people with the skills and outlook they will require to bring us safely through the turbulence that awaits us in the foreseeable future as the globe heats up and pressures on human society increase.

Keeping our kids in high school until they’re 18 is only a good idea if high school becomes a meaningful, active learning environment.  Let’s do what needs to be done to make that so—or let’s come up with another model.  Early college, for example—a good idea whose time may finally have come.

Academic blogging: break-dancing for scholars?

As I previously noted, “digital humanities” was the topic du jour at this year’s Modern Language Association conference, but no one seems to be quite sure what precisely is meant by that moniker.

Stanley Fish took a stab at the digital part of the equation in his NY Times column on Monday, promising to come back again next time to explore burning questions such as: “Does the digital humanities offer new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals? Or does the digital humanities completely change our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be?”

Professor Fish, being someone from the “great white north” (ie, a white male of a certain age–I only wish I could claim to have invented this pithy expression), is cautious in his official embrace of digitality, though he does take the leap of reluctantly admitting, in paragraph one, that he is technically writing a blog post, rather than a column.

Should this matter?

Well, in my profession, it does.  In fact, a column is only very slightly more palatable, officially, than a blog post, since both are classified as so-called “public scholarship,” as opposed to “real scholarship.”

Although nobody puts it quite that baldly, that’s what they mean.  In other words, as one academic put it recently, blogging is never going to get you tenure, even if thousands more people read your work on a blog than will ever read that monograph you finally published with an academic press.

All I can tell you is that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt as intellectually engaged as I do now that I’ve started blogging again.

Blogging–and publicizing my posts via Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media outlets–has allowed me to connect with people I never would have been able to reach in any other way.

I’ve tried the more traditional other route, publishing academic books and articles, and for the most part it was like sending my ideas out into the ozone.  I got very little back, either in the way of praise or disparagement.

In contrast, with my blog I get virtually instant feedback, almost every time I post.  It may not be more than a thumbs-up, but I can tell by looking at my blog stats whether or not people are intrigued by what I’m writing; and if they are interested enough to post a comment in response, I glow with the warmth of human connection, however mediated it might be by keyboard and screen.

Blogging suits my current lifestyle, which is hurried and harried to an extreme.  I am doing much more than I reasonably should be, stirring all kinds of pots and responsible for sustaining all kinds of programs, from classes, to festivals, to summer programming, to various and sundry committees–not to mention serving on boards, parenting my two children, writing piles of  letters of recommendation, applying for grants, sending in conference proposals, etc etc etc.  It’s endless!

How, given my life at the moment, could I ever steal away the focused, quiet, concentrated time necessary to produce “long-form scholarship”?  Maybe my colleagues at prestigious research institutions can manage it, but they don’t have the teaching, advising and service load I do, not to mention a life. 

For me, the hit-and-run blog post is just the right form: short, sweet and to the point, allowing me to express my ideas on a range of topics without having to be weighed down by footnotes and exhaustive surveys of existing scholarship.  In blogging, I can be light-footed and fleet, rather than plodding and thorough.

I do cherish the hope that eventually I will be able to find the time to gather my swiftly penned thoughts into a more sustained discourse that could be published in a book–though an e-book might be just fine.

But in the meantime, I wouldn’t give up my free-wheeling blogging lifestyle for anything.

Sure, a blog post may be to a book like a hook-up is to a marriage.  But you know what?  Having tried nearly a quarter-century of marriage, I’m ready for something new.

The power of words for a world in crisis

So what am I, a Ph.D. in comparative literature with years of teaching experience in global women’s literature, gender studies and media studies, doing writing and thinking so much about the environment?

Why am I spending time blogging rather than diligently writing research-based articles for peer-reviewed academic journals?

I entered grad school part-time in 1984, first in English, and then in Comparative Literature.  Why those fields?

As an undergraduate, I started out wanting to major in environmental studies, but was soon turned off by the level of statistical empiricism required by my biology professors.  Having always loved to read and write, I gravitated towards English, and ended up interning for the local newspaper and becoming somewhat of a prodigy cub reporter.  I went on to work as a reporter for a daily newspaper, then a staff writer and editor for trade publications in New York City.

After a while, I missed the excitement of the classroom, began taking a class or two at night, and was soon drawn into the orbit of the comparative literature department at NYU, where things were really hopping in the late 1980s and early ’90s.  It was the time of the culture wars; of deconstruction and post-structuralist theory; of post-colonialism and eco-criticism and Marxist feminism.  It was an exciting time to be a budding scholar, learning to talk the talk and walk the walk.

And now here I am at mid-career, looking back and wishing that I hadn’t allowed myself to be discouraged from environmental studies so easily.

These reflections are spurred by the lead article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, about the Modern Language Association convention, which starts today in Seattle.  I’ve already written about why I’m not there, and reading today’s Chronicle article, I don’t feel too sorry to be missing this year’s conference.

The article, by Stacey Patton, presents a pretty bleak picture of the field of languages and literature–a picture I recognize only too well.  Enrollments in literature classes are at record lows, and many leading voices in the field are being called upon to explain just why an education in the humanities is of continued value in the 21st century.

The Chronicle article quotes James Donelan, a lecturer in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “We have been going about our business as if the study of literature were self-justifying, and that making an overt case for its relevance to society was somehow too mundane a task for us….The immediate consequence of this attitude is that we’re losing undergraduate majors and financial support at a terrifying rate, and the far-reaching consequence is that anti-intellectualism and a general lack of empathy are running rampant in civic life.”

Meanwhile, as many as 70% of English department faculty nationwide are so-called “contingent” faculty–hired as adjuncts, on a semester-to-semester basis, often earning minimum wage or less despite their doctorates and their publications.  As one angry commenter (evidently an adjunct English teacher) put it, “I for one will not encourage ANYONE to be an English major.  I will teach them their required composition classes for their OTHER majors because I know those majors will actually change their financial lives and allow them to support their families and move out of poverty.  This IS an elitist profession filled with elitist ivory tower ‘folks.’  Everybody knows it; that’s why the numbers in this field are dropping so much.  Get real.  Stop b.s.ing and face what is really going on.”

Yeah.  So we have an anti-intellectual student body, most of whom are highly resistant to reading books at all; combined with a demoralized and exploited faculty.  Although things are somewhat different at my college, it’s impossible to ignore what’s going on in the field as a whole.

And although some literature professors may be willing to put time and energy into justifying why it’s essential that we continue to study so-called “high literature,” like Shakespeare, Milton, Dante,  and Joyce–or even Pynchon, Rushdie, and Roth–I am not.

Egyptian author, doctor and activist Nawal El Saadawi

My whole career has been dedicated to the kind of literature that provides windows into the real material conditions of people living on the margins of society–people outside of the ivory tower, whose voices are rarely heard in the American classroom.  My own personal canon includes Rigoberta Menchu, Wangari Maathai, Buchi Emecheta, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirin Ebadi, Nawal El Saadawi, Mahasweta Devi, Malalai Joya, Vandana Shiva, and many others, few of whom would be familiar to most of the scholars gathered at the MLA this year.

These writers have taught me, above all, to listen.  They’ve taught me to be aware of the intractability of my own privileged social conditioning, and to work hard at overcoming the elitist worldview into which I was born and raised.  And many of them have shown me again and again how in a patriarchal culture women are lumped together with Nature as commodified resources to be managed and controlled.

I never wanted to be a scientist.  My interest in environmental studies sprang from my love and reverence for the natural world, which was so strong in me as a child, and my horror at learning what human beings were doing to the flora and fauna of our planet.

Knowing what I know now about the dire urgency of the manmade threats to our ecological systems on Earth, I cannot sit by and write yet another academic essay on literary theory and disembodied “texts.”

Yes, I care about the sad state of English and literary studies in the academy.  But we’ve doomed ourselves, each of us, by the short-sighted and self-centered decisions we’ve made as individuals and as institutions.  If students today see reading books as irrelevant, and if administrators see English professors as expendable, well…who should we blame but ourselves?

As we hurtle into the 21st century with its multiple crises of climate, ecology and economics, I find myself  still reading, still writing, and circling back around to where I began, in environmental studies, where I will do all I can to use the power of the written word to ignite the social changes we so desperately need.

In narratives of women and the natural world, I have found my home–and my voice.

Survival is not an academic skill

Yesterday I wrote that I intend to devote my second half of life (OK, let’s be real, we’re talking about  more like my last third of life at this point) to parenting and trying to change our global social systems to be sustainable and non-exploitative.  That intention rolled around in my head overnight, and I began to wonder how my role as a college teacher fits into this scenario.

Can I use my vocation as a teacher of comparative literature, media studies & gender studies/human rights to change the world?

As if in response to my unvoiced question, the inimitable professor Stanley Fish published an op-ed on the NY Times website last night, in which he used the occasion of the upcoming Modern Language Association annual convention to reflect on the state of the higher-ed humanities profession.

I’ve participated in many an MLA convention in my 25 years or so of professional involvement in the field of comparative literature, but this year I am not attending because my panel proposal, entitled “Strategies of Resistance: Women’s Writing and Social Activism in Iran, South Africa and the United States,” was not accepted.

Professor Fish’s analysis of the 2012 conference Program gave me a good insight into why my proposal, which I thought was comprised of excellent papers by well-qualified scholars, was rejected.

“Absent or sparsely represented,” he says, “are the topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general.”  My panel would have fit nicely into at least three or four of these categories.

The new hot topics at the convention this year, says Prof. Fish, can be lumped under the umbrella term “digital humanities,” which covers “new and fast-moving developments across a range of topics: the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure — in short, everything.”

Everything?

The problem with this brave new direction in literary studies is that even while it reaches out to the world through digital portals, it seems to have lost all interest in the real world beyond its own narrow and insular ivory halls.  Other than “the changing face of tenure,” which is certainly a meaningful labor issue for the small percentage of Americans who are college/university professors, there is no indication that the young literary Turks all fired up about the digital humanities care at all about material conditions for people, animals or the environment.  Politics becomes cyber-politics; people become avatars; electricity simply flows, and food appears like magic in supermarkets or restaurant dishes.

Let me be clear: I am no Luddite when it comes to digital technologies.  I’m writing a blog, after all, and I regularly teach a class in digital media studies, which changes radically every time I offer it because I try to keep up with the rapidly transforming media landscape.

But to me, digital technology is a vehicle, not an end in itself.  I want to involve myself in digital media and the digital humanities to further my material, political goals of remaking the world.  Otherwise it’s just so much more mental masturbation.  We don’t have time for that now, if indeed we ever did.

And here’s where I come back around to my starting question of whether my role as a teacher will be useful to my larger political goals of transitioning to a safer, kinder, happier human and inter-species landscape.

It depends what I teach, doesn’t it?

For years now I have been teaching a series of classes on “women writing resistance” in various areas of the world–Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, the U.S.  The political writings of strong women who have successfully resisted both private and public oppression have taught me and my students so much about what it takes to stand up for one’s principles and put one’s visions of positive social change into action.  We’ve also learned a lot about the price activists often pay.

In the years ahead, I want to continue to use my vocation as a teacher to explore literature that is not afraid to speak truth to power.  I want to seek out visionary texts that look ahead fearlessly into the future and light the way for those who are following more slowly and cautiously down the path.  I want to amplify the voices of authors who advocate for those who do not have the same privileged access to the literary stage.  I want to become one of those authors myself.

I should not be surprised that this direction is of little interest to the crowd inside the insular tower represented by the MLA.  What was it that Audre Lorde said at another academic conference, long ago?

Survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with others identified as outside the established structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.”

Yes, Audre.  I’m with you.

President Obama, looking for solutions on student debt, should not overlook the issue of contingent faculty labor

The student protests around the country have been focused largely on three key concerns: the high cost of a college education, the resulting weight of student debt after graduation, and the scarcity of jobs.

Put together, it’s a recipe for frustration, if not outright desperation.  Students who lack substantial family support these days have to make incredibly tough sacrifices to get their B.A. degrees, and with no jobs at the end of the tunnel, many are rightly asking–is it worth it?

A lot of thoughtful people have been considering this very question for some time now.  On Monday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, there will be a panel discussion on “The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World,” featuring, among others, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann of Bard College, who just co-edited a book called What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education.

In the book, Lagemann and co-author Harry Lewis argue that colleges and universities need to renew their commitment to fostering ethical, responsible student engagement with the public sphere.  Higher education should not just be a credential to string around one’s neck, the passport to a decent job, they say, but should challenge students to think deeply about their role as citizens and stakeholders in society.

This message certainly seems timely.  If getting a college degree can no longer be valued in purely instrumental terms, as a ticket to a job, then it had better be providing some deeper value, both for the students and for society.

On the same day as the Harvard panel, President Obama will be meeting at the White House with a group of ten influential college and university presidents, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other key players in higher education, to discuss “increasing access and success as well as how to make higher education  more affordable,” according to an article in today’s online Inside Higher Ed magazine.

The article says that “amid an increasing focus on student debt and college prices, the event seems to signal that the Obama administration will make the issue a focus going into the 2012 campaign. In a speech Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on colleges to address rising tuition prices “with much greater urgency.” The House of Representatives held a subcommittee hearing Tuesday on rising costs, discussing a broad range of possible solutions.”

As someone who has been teaching in higher education for more than 20 years, I am of course concerned about the rising costs for students.

But I’m also concerned with the way budgets are increasingly being balanced by reducing fulltime tenured faculty teaching lines.

The phenomenon of using adjunct faculty, graduate student teaching assistants, temporary “visiting” faculty and any other form of contingent labor available is under-discussed, both within the institutions perpetrating these practices, and in the broader society.

Within the institutions, it’s under-discussed partly because it’s so humiliating for Ph.Ds, respected scholars when they present their research at conferences or publish articles, to admit how little money they’re making as adjunct or visiting faculty.  College adjunct teachers are typically paid $2,000 to $4,000 a course.  Most faculty teach 3-4 courses a semester.  You do the math.

Also, there’s the fear factor: if you speak out, your contract may not be renewed next semester, or next year.  There is no job security for what we call in the business “term contracts.”

At the White House meeting, the college presidents aren’t going to want to tell the President that they’re reigning in the cost of tuition by hiring contingent faculty at bargain basement salaries.  But that’s the truth of the matter.

And it’s been very difficult for adjuncts to unionize, in part because the Labor Board in recent years has ruled that college and university faculty are “managers” because we make a salary rather than an hourly wage, and get to set our own hours. Managers aren’t entitled to a union.

There are a host of reasons why it’s bad for American higher education to use cheap faculty labor.  If we want to get serious about student success, as the Obama Administration claims, focusing on contingent faculties would be a good starting point.

A harried professor who’s working at two or three institutions to barely make ends meet is not going to do as a good a job for her students as someone making a living wage with a longterm contract at a single institution.

American institutions of higher education need to model the kind of society we want our students to create when they move out into the world as newly minted young citizens.  They won’t want to be temporary workers any more than their teachers do.

President Obama, if you really want to make a difference, you need to push those college presidents for deeper, systemic changes.

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