Higher Education

declining by degrees

Watching this PBS documentary, Declining by Degrees. The college has been showing it on campus, but I haven’t had a chance to get to it, so I got it through Netflix. It tells a story about higher education that I think is familiar to faculty. There is a growing sense that higher education is struggling to meet the needs of students. As we know the problems are multiple and complex. I can’t get into all of it in a blog post, but I wanted to talk about it from the specific perspective of the faculty’s role.

So the familiar criticisms of faculty are:

  • We aren’t especially interested in teaching. We are primarily tenured, promoted, and otherwise rewarded for our research. So perhaps it is understandable we put our efforts there.
  • We aren’t particularly trained as teachers. Not so true for rhet/comp folks, but certainly there are disciplines where pedagogy is not part of a graduate education. See the point above. We are trained and hired for research. Maybe that should change but I don’t know that faculty can change it.
  • We don’t hold students to a high enough standard. There is perhaps an unspoken contract that says if I don’t bother you then you don’t bother me. That’s a problem. And that’s the one I want to talk about here b/c I was really thinking about this while watching the video.

So here’s the thing. Anyone can create a standard by which virtually every student gets an A. Alternately, anyone can create a standard by which virtually every student fails. I can set a standard for what I think should be 200-level work or 400-level work and so on. Having taught at several institutions, I can tell you that those standards are different from one institution to another.

Why? Obviously it has something to do with the level of preparation/ability of the students coming into the class. For example, Gregory Ulmer has this great textbook called Internet Invention. It is marketed as a first-year composition text. One year I used it in a 300-level class at Cortland, the students found it so challenging that they cursed me out over the text in their written comments on the course evaluation form. It was a rough semester.

Could I teach them this text? Of course. Well, part of it maybe. We would have to move quite slowly. It would probably be a rather frustrating experience for the students as well, being continually confronted with a text they are unable to read. And I don’t mean to pick on Ulmer here. I think it’s a great text. And there are plenty of other texts I could name.

As a teacher, you realize you have to meet the students where they are. Certainly every class has students at a variety of levels but you have to design a course that hopefully is accessible to any reasonably determined student while providing opportunities for challenging the best students.

I don’t think this is about setting or holding to standards. I think we need to recognize that our curriculum and teaching practices are based on a model that is now several decades old. Contemporary students struggle in the lecture hall. One can complain that professors give boring lectures, but I don’t think the lectures are any more boring today than 20 or 30 or 50 years ago.  In fact I would bet that overall they might even be better with multimedia and so on (though there is the death by powerpoint factor to consider). In any case, my point is that professorial teaching practices haven’t gotten worse. Professors have not become less engaged or concerned with teaching (even though pressures for publishing have increased).

I don’t mean to blame the students either. The point is just that the old methods clearly do not work as well as they once did. As my mom used to tell me, "You can’t change other people; you can only change yourself." And perhaps in changing your own behaviors you induce changes in others. But changing the overarching culture of higher education is not going to happen without changing the material conditions under which faculty and students work.

The documentary articulates the failure of the social contract that went from looking at higher education as a social good to looking at it as a private good. Now more students pay more to go to college with the expectation that they will get good jobs at the end. Instead, we could have a system where students pay less (and the state pays more) with the expectation that an education is a social good that benefits our society (if largely in an economic way by improving human capital). When the documentary shows students really flourishing, it is in small classes or personal relationships with tenured faculty who have active research lives. They go to Amherst where the student-faculty ratio is 9:1 and faculty teach 2-2. If you are teaching 20 or 30 students a semester, that’s quite a bit different from 60 or 100 or more.

But that’s only part of the answer. If the 10 students in your class are working 20 or more hours every week, they still don’t have time to do the reading or really take advantage of the classes they are taking or other events the college offers. And it’s not only an issue of time, it is also an issue of culture. There needs to be a change in how we think we should be spending our time–not only in college but in general. Why should students think that for 4 years in college they need to be "intellectual" and then after they graduate they can go back to watching reality tv? It really doesn’t make much sense. But we are insisting that college students behave in a way that many college graduates do not. I live in a neighborhood of college grads. I don’t see people engaged in a "life of the mind."

Finally, we will never live in a nation where everyone has an "above average" education. It’s an obvious mathematical impossibility. Education will always be relative. With the growth of economies around the world in comparison to ours, it is only logical to accept that their educational systems will come to rival ours (in many instances public education elsewhere is already outpacing us). Sending more and more people to college will obviously devalue the 4-year degree. We can’t think of that as a crisis.  Instead we have to realize that even though a four-year degree means less, the fact that more people have them means that overall we will have a better educated population.

One last thing in this long post. The theory has been that a 4-yr degree will earn you $1M more over a lifetime. That’s a figure cited in this documentary. So people rush to college. But that’s not the way it works folks. When 2 out of 10 people get these degrees, maybe those 2 get the $1M. But if 4 out of 10 get degrees, is there suddenly $4M to dole out? I don’t think so. Instead, the value of the degree goes down. As more people go to college, the value of the degree as a "private good" (i.e. as a means to make more money) probably declines, particularly when you consider the increase of higher education on a global scale. Instead, you need more education just to keep in place! The idea of higher education as a private good is really illusory.

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