A farewell to academia

There is a scathing elegiac on modern higher ed written by a departing mid-career professor that appears in Inside HigherEd.

After too many years at this job (I am in my mid-40s), I have grown to question higher education in ways that cannot be rectified by a new syllabus, or a sabbatical, or, heaven forbid, a conference roundtable. No, my troubles with this treasured profession are both broad and deep, and they begin with a fervent belief that most of today’s college students, especially those that come to college straight from high school, are unnecessarily coddled. Professors and administrators seek to “nurture” and “engage” and they are doing so at the expense of teaching. The result: a discernable [sic] and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class.

I’m of two minds on the piece. Most of his critique is right on. And naturally, I think he is right that professors need to take responsibility for a good deal of this. But there is enough blame to go around.

As demonstrated over on Open Education (a great blog, by the way), colleges seem to be doing a pretty poor job of graduating students. So even with the anonymous “Mr. Smith’s” criticism that college has effectively been dumbed down, students still don’t manage to graduate. And I will be the first to note that at UB we graduated people who were functionally illiterate. The case may not be as extreme here at QU, but I have had graduate students–some of whom did their undergraduate work here–who said that they had never been required to write a research paper as an undergrad. That’s both scary and sad.

As I was leaving my offices last week, a freshman advisee came in to visit a colleague, and noted that she had blown off a meeting earlier in the day because she was too tired from partying on Thursday night. I was flabbergasted, but I’m not sure why. The six people scheduled to come in for advising on Friday before noon had been no shows.

It becomes a race to the bottom. Anyone who considers themselves a good teacher wants all of their students to succeed, but it is frustrating to have to teach things you expect to have been learned in high school in graduate seminars. It’s bad enough that for many students the high school experience is social rather than academic, now a bachelors degree consists of doing the bare minimum, just to get by. And communication programs have the unfortunate reputation (“football major”), of being less rigorous than many other programs, a reputation that is too often well-earned.

I see this reflected in my own syllabi. If I look at a syllabus from a decade ago, when I first started designing my own undergraduate courses, and compare that with something like the syllabus I just posted the differences are stark. Admittedly, this would be comparing senior level courses to freshman, but even leaving that aside, my expectations have plummeted. I am shocked to hear from students that I was their “hardest” professor, especially after I feel like my courses consist of a pretty light workload.

As “Smith” notes, there are a lot of reasons for this. The university seems to be most interested in keeping up the student-to-faculty ratio, and growing admissions. “Quality” in admissions, is always something to put off until we can afford to be more selective. Considering we accept nearly half our applicants (as opposed to the college down the road, with a 10% admit rate), and more than 70% of those graduate, I’m not entirely surprised at the mediocrity. Can you imagine what sort of improvement in the overall educational experience would occur if my university decided to shrink, accepting an incoming class of 650, rather than 1300? That would put our admit rate at lower than down the road in the other direction, as well as lower than places like Tufts and Barnard. Now, realistically, it would also make us a much tinier college, and given that most of our operating expenses come right out of tuition, it would mean we would have to also cut our expenses by 50%, which would be pretty much impossible (though killing off our intercollegiate sports programs would cushion that a bit).

Once students are admitted, we need to keep them happy so that they don’t either drop out or transfer. Many believe that this is a problem that is restricted to private institutions, and particularly with regard to Ivy League schools, you hear a lot about the difficulty in dropping out. If you have a pulse, you’ll graduate, probably with a B average. But even in public institution, funding is tied to how many students you can retain and teach.

Smith says “enough,” and is moving out of higher ed. I am not willing to give up on it, so how do we fix it?

1. Track especially talented students. I think a lot of universities have picked up on this idea, since it is helps with “selling” the university as well. It can be a hard sell: as a student do you want to be a big fish in a small pond? But from the faculty side, encouraging these kinds of “cadre” programs makes a lot of sense. Many of them are pretty weak programs, and I would like to see them cultivate high school students directly, and prepare teachers to challenge these especially able students, but at least it’s a good start.

2. Be the mean guy. I’ve played the heavy in most of my programs, taking on the first class and treating it as a “cut” class. Unfortunately, that’s no fun for anyone involved. I don’t like failing people, and it’s bad for the cohort. Too much stress is as damaging as too little. Even better, convince the whole faculty to grade more rigorously (good luck!).

3. Use student learning to assess faculty performance. Teaching evaluations are, perhaps, the stupidest waste of time ever. Sure, there are insights that can be gleaned by the professor who wants to improve his teaching, but too often these are just popularity surveys; we find out who the students like, but not who provides the best learning environment. A lot of learning is difficult to measure, but we need something other than student evals to do it.

4. Resist treating education like a business. I think faculties need to stand up to their administrators, and demand quality over quantity. University administration is going to be looking at the dollars: how much does it cost to educate a student. They see more ROI in investing in things like pretty buildings and sports stadiums than they do in the “softer” form of student achievement. We need to focus on ways of selling student achievement and making it more visible, and use that visibility to argue against the commodification of student experience, and the numbers game. Students are not hamburgers, and we should not be judged on how cheaply we can assemble them and pop them out.

Finally, I want to stress that I disagree with “Smith,” on the issue of fun. I think a demanding educational program can still be fun. I think there is a place for a nurturing learning community, and that teaching is more about figuring out how to get (trick!) students to learn than it is about instilling knowledge. The most interesting, exciting, and rewarding things in life are also the most challenging. There has to be some give and take, and if you can show students why you are passionate about learning, some of them will become equally passionate. If you concentrate on grades, they will too. Try to keep them on their toes.

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  1. andrew
    Posted 11/22/2008 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I think you missed a crucial point in an otherwise thoughtful post: if you want students to learn, you need professors who know how to teach. Not requiring professors to go through any teacher training program is the biggest joke of higher education. The professor who, by nature of having earned a PHD or such degree, is inherently adept at teaching students in interesting and meaningful ways is the needle in the hay stack. Hiring professors for their publications gives you professors who are good at research and publication, not at teaching. Until teaching is taken seriously as a profession there will be little to no improvement in the quality of education at any level.

  2. Posted 11/22/2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Alex, very insightful analysis of some of the things that are wrong with academia… and your 4 ideas to fix things are right-on.
    I have to disagree though that the main problem with academia is the students. Students are the product of a broken educational system. They haven’t failed us, we have failed them – and maybe not we college professors, but their school and high-school teachers. By the time they reach college, they often don’t have the fundamental skills (such as correct grammar) we can build on.

    That being said, I’ve been lucky to work with very good students at Clemson University. They have the basics right. They’re even quite motivated to learn. But many of us college professors have a special talent for killing the fun and with it, their engagement and motivation. I’ve begun to see my job as not that of transmitting information, but that of motivating. Once students are motivated, they learn on their own, and they’re having fun.

    Yes, the academic system is broken in many fundamental ways, but there are micro-strategies we can use to navigate around the flaws of the system. Blaming it all on students, though, doesn’t seem fair at all to me.

  3. Posted 11/22/2008 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree with much of what the embittered professor writes. As long as it’s clear that it’s not about all students (and certainly not their fault, most of the time, even when it is true) nor does nurturing and engaging students (scare quotes not needed) have to come at the expense of teaching. There’s a discernible lack of educational quality and understanding of the modern environment on the part of educators too…

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