The Death Knell Rings for Higher Education, Too

A powerful letter from a teacher in North Carolina appeared recently on Diane Ravitch’s blog. Many of us who work in higher education, when we read it, wring our hands and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But it might be that we should not be sending to know for whom the bell tolls and saying our prayers for others. We may be on our death bed, too.

The author of the letter, Kris Nielsen writes eloquently, and should be read by everyone involved in American education, at all levels. She writes:

I refuse to be led by a top-down hierarchy that is completely detached from the classrooms for which it is supposed to be responsible.

We all should be joining her, creating a strike for real education, but we don’t. I don’t. Teaching is my living and I go about it passionately. But I don’t have the guts to say that the line has been crossed and I cannot do it any longer. I am still trying to fight back from within the system. CUNY Pathways, for example, is a result of just such a hierarchy, especially in its implementation. Its goals are laudable, but they cannot be met through a program designed by people far removed from the students, classrooms, and teachers it affects. I am working as hard as I can to help make the program a success, but I worry that I am also prolonging the death-throes of education strangled by a system beholden not to learning but to organization and efficiency.

Nielsen goes on:

I will not spend another day under the expectations that I prepare every student for the increasing numbers of meaningless tests.

This has not yet conquered higher ed, but its hordes are on the horizon. Quantification of assessment along with reliance on “learning outcomes” (works of fiction, for the most part) are already starting to hamstring teachers, moving what should be student-centered activities to assessment-centered ones, as in our public schools.

I will not spend another day wishing I had some time to plan my fantastic lessons because administration comes up with new and inventive ways to steal that time.

Though teaching and scholarship are supposed to make up some 80% of our activities, “service” now is pushing these aside as colleges and universities rely more and more on contingent hires who have no “service” responsibilities at all. This leads to heavier and heavier administrative responsibilities for the full-time tenured and tenure-track teaching staff. Eventually, as in the for-profit colleges, there will only be temporary and part-time teachers–and full-time administrators.

I refuse to watch my coworkers being treated like untrustworthy slackers through the overbearing policies of this state, although they are the hardest working and most overloaded people I know.

Many college teachers, even at community colleges, are finding themselves saddled with scholarship demands for promotion or even retention, demands much greater than in the past (once, a book pretty much assured one of promotion to full professor; today, it is hard to get a tenure-track job without a book or, at least, clear progress toward one). Yet teaching loads continue to be high–at my school, we teach four courses each semester. At community colleges, the load is often higher. In addition, our administrative duties continue to climb and our students, thanks to the abject failures of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, are coming to us less prepared for college work than ever before, increasing our teaching responsibilities exponentially. Yet we are still accused of working only 12 hours a week (that’s the number of actually hours in the classroom when teaching four three-hour courses). Taken all together, I suspect I spend about 80 hours a week on work related to my position (not counting what I put in on Academe). Many others do as much, yet the politicians bill us as lazy.

Read Nielsen’s letter. There’s much, much more to it. A great deal may seem relevant only to public schools but it is all headed our way, though it comes toward us dressed in different shrouds.

5 thoughts on “The Death Knell Rings for Higher Education, Too

  1. Pingback: The Death Knell Rings for Higher Education, Too | Adjunct News |

  2. Pingback: The Death Knell Rings for Higher Education, Too « As the Adjunctiverse Turns

  3. philosopher John Searle has called for major changes to tenure systems, calling the practice “without adequate justification.” Searle suggests that to reduce publish or perish pressures that can hamper their classroom teaching, capable professors be given tenure much sooner than the standard four-to-six years. However, Searle also argued that tenured professors be reviewed every seven years to help eliminate “incompetent” teachers who can otherwise find refuge in the tenure system.

    • As one with ambivalent feelings about tenure as currently instituted, I don’t want to argue details. Still, I do think tenure as a fire-wall against attacks on academic freedom and shared governance (and on professors in roles as public intellectuals) is extremely important and should be applied to everyone working in higher education beyond a relatively short probationary period. It should not be a blanket job-protection program, and that was not the intent. Someone who is incompetent should surely be removed. The problem is, who gets to decide on “incompetence”? Few administrators are in a position to do so, and department politics can make determination suspect. Keeping review to an absolute minimum is necessary, as I think Searle would agree (seven years is certainly a possible minimum), but even that long a time does not eliminate the risk of abuse.

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