The Road Taken

BY AARON BARLOW

When I was an undergraduate, students and faculty saw a great deal of each other. We went to dinner at faculty homes, saw our teachers at concerts and art shows as well as frequently throughout the day. The faculty lived near campus and students were the prime focus of their professional lives. As at least a partial result of that, I am sure, the vast majority of us graduated and even went on to earn advanced degrees.

I thought about this when I saw a photograph on Facebook of Bob Irrman, a history professor at Beloit College and a particularly favorite teacher of mine. His wide-ranging style influenced my own. It was he who introduced me to the Gilbert and Sullivan lines from H.M.S. Pinafore, “Things are seldom what they seem,/Skim milk masquerades as cream.” I would later quote them in my dissertation and have used them ad nauseam in blog posts. Dr. Irrman taught me and thousands of others to trust our curiosity but not our answers, an indispensable skill in almost any field.

After I graduated, I spent a year as a counselor working for a government program designed to give extra support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was an easy job: Most of it was already being taken care of by the faculty.

For three years, recently, I served as coordinator for advisement (and chief advisor) for one of the degree programs at the college where I now teach. We have about 1,000 students in the program, all of them commuters. Over half of the courses those students take are taught by adjuncts, the rest by over-taxed tenured and tenure-track faculty (who also commute). Of necessity, the students in the program, I quickly learned, get nothing like the advising and mentoring that I did at Beloit.

Add to this the fact that I and my classmates came from college-educated families, rarely had to work while going to college and had no responsibilities for children or elderly relatives and one begins to understand why retention rates at urban public universities are so low. The students I worked with that year after college so long ago came from ‘difficult’ backgrounds, too, but they could hardly slip through the cracks—there were few cracks. For my students today, there often seems nothing but.

There’s nothing unique about the college where I teach. The problems we face are those of just about every urban public campus. The resources are not available for providing the support our students need. The full-time faculty, overburdened with ‘service’ (including advisement) duties that grow both because of the increased reliance on adjuncts in the classroom (reducing the number of full-timers) and increasing demands from administrations for the dressings of ‘accountability,’ no longer have the option of focusing on the students who should be the center of their work. Making matters worse, faculty face new demands for scholarship—even at community colleges—leaving even less time for the students.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the expansion of scholarship beyond top research institutions. It broadens conversations, making research more responsive to the needs and interests of people outside of the elite. Also, teaching scholars can bring their work into their classrooms, adding significantly to the student experience. The problem is, teaching loads have not been reduced enough to compensate for the increased demand for scholarly production. Faculty teaching a 5/5 load are beginning to find themselves held to standards of publication once reserved for those with 3/3 (or less) responsibilities.

Once upon a time, when a student had a problem, she or he could go to a faculty member who could then assist them and advocate for them within the institutional bureaucracy. Today, when faculty are often seen as enemies by administrators, this is a less effective route—especially since faculty no longer have the time to spent on student needs, let alone the ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape. The divide between administrators and faculty has become so wide that one Dean of Students was able to say, quite seriously, that the faculty is the problem with the modern university—the administrators aren’t being given the room to do their jobs. His own degree was in higher-education administration!

The importance of the faculty to education is easily proven. Think back to your own as I did on seeing that picture of Dr. Irrman: Who do you remember? The administrators? Maybe the president of your college or a particular dean—but probably not on a personal basis. On the other hand, you probably can recall quite a few of your teachers. Recently, a student from ten years ago wrote, remembering details of our classroom experience. On the street in East Flatbush here in Brooklyn, I heard someone yell “professor!” It was an ex-student who has just completed a Master’s degree in Computer Science—at Columbia University. Most every professor has similar experiences… do many administrators?

The classroom remains the core of the college experience but it is not the whole of it. Beloit, my own undergraduate college, was well aware of that and understood that the greatest impact on the experience came when those who had the central interaction with students were enthusiastically involved beyond classroom walls, letting their leadership extend beyond pedagogy (in its most restrictive form). This is still true at Beloit, from what I understand, as it is in many elite environments of higher education.

In most other cases, however, the institutions themselves are now pushing the faculty aside, making them responsible only in three prescriptively defined and restricted areas: teaching, scholarship and service.

Much noise is made about the first, but it is the least understood by administrators. Though they are constantly trying to codify it, regularize it and “assess” it, administrative failure (so far) to do this has left teaching, at least, to the faculty—administrative impact being simply an increased burden on the faculty in terms of time spent on growing bureaucratic “responsibilities” that have little impact on the classroom itself. Oh, of course: some campuses are attempting to reduce the importance of teaching by “augmenting” it with digital tools, some of which, more than a few administrators believe, can replace teaching staff—if not completely then almost so. But this isn’t working out so well (look at the spectacular failure of the MOOC movement).

Ambitious colleges want to increase their public profiles—and one cheap way to do this is to demand more and more from the faculty in terms of scholarship. This is being done almost everywhere, but rarely with any compensating reduction in other duties. Even where, as at the City University of New York, there is substantial ‘release time’ from teaching for research for untenured faculty, that time is almost always encroached upon for ‘service’ responsibilities—which brings us to the third area.

“Service” was once the completion of responsibilities to students, departments, colleges and communities. There was a wide range of what these could be. The idea was that the faculty members need to be involved in the life of the institution beyond the classroom—laudable, and exactly what happens at schools like Beloit.

Unfortunately, “service” has been twisted into service to the bureaucracy. Huge committees are formed for “exploration” of things like General Education or in anticipation of accreditation review. Work on them is considered of primary importance, much more so than that work done directly with students. Departments are charged with “assessment” that is “guided” by college bureaucracy; “self studies” of all sorts are now required—not by departments or other units and not (though the claim is otherwise) for the benefit of faculty or students but for the bureaucracy itself.

Thanks to more and more restrictive policies on the parts of accrediting agencies, colleges and universities are becoming more and more alike in the undergraduate education they offer. Room for experimentation or alternative methodologies of education is becoming smaller and smaller. Beloit itself once had what was called the “Beloit Plan,” a modified version of what Antioch College in Ohio offered, mixing work with learning in a flexible fashion that gave students a great deal more control of their education than did traditional college structures. There have been plenty of other alternatives for undergraduate education over the years, including Black Mountain College, but their numbers have dwindled in the face of the rise of for-profit colleges and the power of accrediting bodies. Today, neither faculty nor students have many options, plans toward graduation and even course offerings being depressingly similar everywhere. “General Education,” for example, once seen as a means of providing a base platform for more advanced learning and intellectual experimentation, has become a restrictive formula of almost factory-like precision limiting students to certain pathways.

College, once supposed to be a time of joyous exploration and growth, has become little more than a grind for most students not privileged enough to attend the few elite colleges where great leeway is still granted. That won’t change—not until college administrators learn to trust their faculties once again and free them up to work with students the ways faculty see fit (which will be myriad). The distrust of faculty we see today is distrust of individualism and evidence of belief in the efficacy of regimentation. It is a reflection of a generalized distrust of educators and even of students.

That attitude, if we are ever to progress again in higher education, needs to change.

Or the route we are on, to ever more prescribed and restrictive education, will soon be the only one. The gap, already too large, between students and faculty will continue to grow.

And it is the students—not the faculty—who will suffer most.

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