Sign of the Apocalypse—Higher Education Edition

This is an email I received recently. I have changed the name of the college based upon the ratio of full and part time faculty.

Dear Dr. Byrnes,

Academic Keys, LLC is conducting an executive search for the position of Interim Dean of Education at Adjunct College.

As part of our search strategy, we are seeking recommendations for colleagues who may be interested in this opportunity.

If this position isn’t right for you, but you would like to receive opportunities in your discipline, please subscribe to Academic Keys e-Fliers where you may choose your discipline and specific fields of interest.

This is a rare opportunity for an experienced administrative leader to serve as Interim Dean of the School of Education at Adjunct College. Working closely with the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Interim Dean will provide program review, assessment and recommendations while providing vision, leadership, and dedication to quality higher education. Specific focus will be placed on maintaining accreditation with external regulators and providing recommendations to senior leadership for the direction for the school.

Adjunct College is a private, non-profit college. Serving approximately 1000 students, the School of Education, the largest of the three schools, employs:

  • 1 Department Head
  • 7 part time Program Coordinators
  • 3 full time faculty
  • 150 part time faculty

This is a full-time Senior Level Administrator position, and the person appointed to this position will be a member of the Deans’ Council Team. The position reports to the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs of Adjunct College.

My Complicity in Civilization’s Decline

I like to think my teaching makes a small positive difference in the world. That my students learn new things they deem meaningful, that they become a bit more curious about the world, and incrementally more caring towards others. Most enjoy my decidedly informal approach towards teaching which has been shaped by Quaker education principles and Ira Shor’s teaching (Critical Teaching and Every Day Life and When Students Have Power).

That aside, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, has me rethinking my three decades as an educator. In a New York Times essay titled “U Can’t Talk to UR Professor Like This” she argues that the teacher-student relationship depends on a

“special kind of inequality” and that insisting on traditional etiquette is . . . simply good pedagogy.”

In the end, she impugns professors like me for being on a first-name basis with students who are all adults.

Worthen:

“The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning.”

Worthen leans on a math professor friend who argues,

“More and more, students view the process of going to college as a business transaction.”

The suggestion being my type of classroom informality is the reason students. . .

“see themselves as customers, and they view knowledge as a physical thing where they pay money and I hand them the knowledge, so if they don’t do well on a test, they think I haven’t kept up my side of the business agreement.”

A pretty heavy trip to lay at the foot of classrooms like mine.

“Values of higher education,” Worthen explains, “are not the values of the commercial, capitalist paradigm.”

So faculty like me are to blame for the corporatization of higher education, but that’s not the worst of my offenses. Worthen also states that professors should take the time to teach students how to relate to authority figures not just as preparation for a job.

“The real point,” she explains, “is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.”

I never realized it, but ultimately I guess, by encouraging my students to use my first name, I’m complicit in civilization’s decline.

I don’t begrudge Worthen her formality, but I don’t understand her stridency. Who knows why she can’t accept the fact that teaching excellence takes many forms. Tucked in the middle of her essay is one paragraph that resonated with me:

“Alexis Delgado, a sophomore at the University of Rochester, is skeptical of professors who make a point of insisting on their title. ‘I always think it’s a power move,’ she told me. ‘Just because someone gave you a piece of paper that says you’re smart doesn’t mean you can communicate those ideas to me. I reserve the right to judge if you’re a good professor.’”

Worthen writes about “esteem for learning” without acknowledging what most undermines that, unrelenting grade grubbing. I believe the more formal faculty are, the more likely students are to “give them what they want”. Passivity is so engrained in students by college, any hope for a genuine questioning of authority, especially the professor’s, requires an intentional informality. Forget the guardian of civilization bullshit, I just want students to speak and write more authentically. Passing on using my formal title is a means towards that end. It isn’t a panacea for heightened student authenticity, but it’s not the root of all problems in higher education or Western Civilization either.

Liberal Arts Lamentations

I teach at a smallish, private liberal arts university that’s $5m in debt. Our president has “resigned”. A special faculty committee has been formed to determine which programs and tenure-track or tenured faculty should be eliminated. The guess is 20-60 faculty will be let go in one year’s time.

I’m skeptical of our newest religion, data analytics, because I reject data’s omniscience. I’m partial to stories. Numbers can tell stories, but the emotionally rich stories that resonant most deeply with me are told with words, photographs, video, film, dialogue, music, and acting.

My university’s ability to turn things around is complicated by the resistance of Religion, Language, Music, Philosophy, Art, and English faculty to change. My militant liberal artist friends are struggling mightily to accept their declining influence. Here are just a few recent signs of their struggle:

• At Faculty Assembly, a faculty member stands and says, “Many people don’t realize it, but some departments aren’t nearly as productive as they once were.” A religion professor turns to his colleague, makes air quotes, and quietly and derisively mocks the speaker by repeating, “productive”.

• A faculty leader from the Religion department writes a letter to the Board informing them that they should hire an interim-President for two years, not the planned for one, so that the campus can spend two years on the search for the next president. Humanities faculty dominate the growing list of signatories.

• Following an administrator’s decision to cut one liberal arts department’s budget, the chair says, “Are we going to become a trade school?”

We are not going to become a trade school, but we are not immune to the disruption that’s riddling wide swaths of the economy. At the price families are paying, it’s understandable that they want a “return on their investment”. And yet, business phrases like “return on investment”, and “productive”, and “market forces”, really anything related to the business model, set my militant liberal artists friends’ heads spinning.

The MLA’s (pun-intended) are trusting that our University’s mission will save their bacon. And I’m confident the most economically successful departments will continue to subsidize some especially mission-critical academic majors and programs. But not nearly as many as in the past and not nearly as many as the MLA’s are hoping.

 

Self Promotion—The New Normal

My trial run as a university administrator is eleven months old. My experience has been mostly positive. On good days I even think about taking on more administrative responsibilities. Increasingly, it seems, demand for capable School of Ed leaders exceeds the supply. Meaning opportunities are aplenty.

But as I read vita after vita of my peers applying for higher administrative posts, with an eye to how I compare, I’m more and more convinced that I am at a disadvantage because of (at least) one glaring shortcoming. Relative to my peers, I’ve failed at self promotion. That’s not quite the right term because failing implies having tried. Probably because of my dad’s Eastern Montana, Depression Era humility that I hope has shaped me, I haven’t even tried.

An administrator friend recently told me she was working on a reference for a faculty colleague who was applying for a teaching award. I would never think to apply for an award, which may be one (among others of course) reason I’ve never received one. One peer’s vita I read recently included a list of 16 awards. Odds are that required some serious hustle.

I can’t help but think that the most eager self promoters have narcissist tendencies, but since it’s become the norm, maybe I should be more understanding. Maybe self promotion is more savvy than it is morally questionable. Maybe I need to get with the program. What do you think?

Unless you convince me otherwise, my plan is to be true to my dad, my uncle, my mom, and myself, and sit this trend out, even if it limits my professional opportunities. Despite that, I acknowledge everyone needs to be affirmed, appreciated, recognized for their efforts on behalf of others. Whether in their personal or professional lives. Myself included.

And that’s the thing. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to have been affirmed and appreciated by a steady stream of students. Including, one glorious day many moons ago, when I did a guest teaching stint in my daughter’s third grade classroom. Showed slides of bicyclists in China. Led a discussion. Felt pretty good about how engaged everyone was. “How was it?” I asked Alison afterward. “Dad,” she beamed, “it was perfect!” Hell yeah.

The Good Wife has been a continual source of personal and professional encouragement. A very Good Wife, loving daughters, appreciative students, more than enough fuel for my fire.

It’s at this point in the story that somewhere in Northwest Indiana, my head shaking older sissy thinks to herself, “It’s not about YOUR fire!”

Dad lives in sis. Thanks for the telepathy. Case closed.

 

Christianity’s Decline

Mark Bauerlein asks “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Kevin Gannon lets loose on Bauerlein in “I Will Not Be Lectured To. I’m Too Busy Teaching.” Which prompts Adam Copeland to ask “What’s the Point of a Pastor?“* Copeland’s insights prompt thinking about the Pew Research Center’s new Religious Landscape Study.

Among other findings, Pew concluded:

Christians are declining, both as a share of the U.S. population and in total number. In 2007, 78.4% of U.S. adults identified with Christian groups, such as Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and others; seven years later, that percentage has fallen to 70.6%. Accounting for overall population growth in that period, that means there are roughly 173 million Christian adults in the U.S. today, down from about 178 million in 2007.

• Within Christianity, the biggest declines have been in the mainline Protestant tradition and among Catholics. Mainline Protestants represented 14.7% of U.S. adults in 2014, down from 18.1% in 2007, while the Catholic share of the population fell to 20.8% from 23.9% over the same period. By comparison, evangelical Protestants have been more stable, declining only about 1 percentage point between 2007 and 2014 (from 26.3% to 25.4%).

Why is Christianity in decline in the United States in 2015? Copeland implies it’s because pastors don’t challenge people nearly enough. More specifically, here’s what he wants needs from his pastor:

• A reframing of community that moves away from me and my wants as central

• A constant reminder that my money, my possessions, and my very life belong not to myself, but to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

• Someone to name the true, ugly, beautiful, painful reality of life together, and to cast a new vision of what the Kingdom of God looks like

• A wise, honest soul who looks me in the eye and says, “You are a jerk and God forgives you anyway. Go and sin no more.”

• A hope-filled, justice-seeking, cross-bearing, advocate for those on the margins

• Consistent Spirit-filled testimony that my identity and accomplishments are not of my own creation, but are only made possible through God’s grace and faithful provision

If every pastor/priest took Copeland’s prescriptions to heart starting today would it slow Christianity’s decline? Reverse it altogether? Why or why not?

* thanks to Pastor SMW for the Copeland link

Choosing Debt

Something’s wrong.

I just finished reading a batch of student essays about whether money is important or not and what recent social scientific research suggests about money and happiness.

Some of my students’ families struggle financially. Those students touched upon their parents’ debt and the negative consequences that have resulted from it, strained relationships marked by stress and unrelenting tension. Being well-to-do is more important to them than to my students who take their family’s financial stability for granted.

Many of these students describe the loans they decided to take out. “You have to spend money,” one explained, “to make money.” They are desperately in need of adults who model financial self discipline.

At age eighteen, they are eerily comfortable with five figure debt. And if statistics are any guide, their precarious family foundations make graduating less likely. Even if they graduate, there’s no guarantee they’ll find work that pays enough for them to dig out of their debt.

It’s great they want to continue their education, and I like having them in class, but someone has to wake them from their slumber and tell them there are much less expensive paths to getting a good education. In particular, community colleges and public universities.

Their fallacies overlap and multiply. The first is that loans are a logical solution to financial problems. The second is that attending an expensive university leads to higher paying jobs.

Universities absolve themselves of this problem, saying it’s up to the lenders themselves to assess peoples’ ability to repay loans.

I don’t know what to do. If I tell the “loaners” that there are much less expensive paths, they’ll probably conclude that I don’t think they can cut it at our pricey, private university. And if I follow my university’s lead and simply close my eyes when I know the train is about to jump the track, the students will continue down a very treacherous path.

Delusions of Grandeur

During faculty workshops, like last weeks, I sometimes get a feeling that my university colleagues think they’re better than high school teachers. Smarter. More rigorous. Better teachers more generally.

Last week nothing explicit was said by any particular person, it’s just a vibe, and maybe I’m off-base. A handout from our university’s Academic Assistance Center contributed to this sensibility. Titled, “High School vs PLU”, it lists about 30 differences. Some value neutral, “you spend 30 hours a week in class” versus “you spend about 15 hours a week in class” and some that hint at hierarchy, “makeup tests are easily available-h.s.” versus “makeup tests are seldom an option-uni” or “tests ask you to give back facts-h.s.” versus “exams require analysis and synthesis as well as facts-uni”.

The lists are presented as factual, but many of the assertions could be challenged. Newsflash—some university professors use multiple choice exams that emphasize factual recall and some high school teachers require students to analyze and synthesize content.

Two points of distinction under “High School Teachers” and “PLU Faculty” deserve special attention. High school teachers “teach to the intellectual middle of the class” and “write key info on board or give handouts”. PLU faculty “teach at a more challenging level” and “expect you to figure out what’s important, what you need to do”.

I’d put it differently. Secondary teachers work hard to adapt their teaching to their students’ varied learning styles. They accept the burden of “differentiating instruction” or “individualizing the curriculum”. University teachers expect students to adapt to their one or two preferred methods of instruction. Differentiating instruction is more logical and more challenging, and yet, we hold university professors in higher regard. Why is that? Is it because they completed some more coursework and wrote a dissertation that few outside their committee ever read?

The truth of the matter is elementary, middle, and high school teachers are woefully unappreciated by university professors and the public more generally. Compared to university faculty, they teach many more students, many more hours a day and week, for many more days a year. And they receive little to no support for scholarship or professional travel. And they have to work their magic with legions of parents, some who truly believe they have it out for their children. And more and more of the public—the same public that too often delegates both educating and parenting to them—think they have too much job security and too many guaranteed benefits. And to top it all off, the students are compelled to attend so there’s a much, much wider continuum of motivation.

Throughout my career in both secondary education and higher ed, I’ve been fortunate to work beside some outstanding teachers. After periods of adjustment, I suspect the best high school teachers I know would flourish at the university level and many of the best university teachers I know would probably do okay at the K-12 level.

Apart from job swapping, I’m not sure what it will take for university faculty to demonstrate greater understanding, humility, and respect when it comes to their skilled, smart, hardworking, unappreciated K-12 brethren.