03 February 2014

If You Love Something, Assess its Outcome

Another article this weekend in a prominent urban newpaper about the plight of adjuncts. The world is, indeed, noticing that adjuncts are exploited and that academia, by seeking to make that exploitation invisible, is complicit in it.

Some adjuncts are acknowledging their complicity in their exploitation--or at least, the scope they have to recognize and reject the premises of their exploitation.  When Miya Tokumitsu pointed out that the "Do What You Love" mantra leads to rank exploitation, her article went viral and prompted responses.  Rebecca Schuman describes her own rejection of "teaching as a calling" in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Nate Kreutzer pointed out in Inside Higher Ed the problem with the world in which teachers work for love and their loan officers do not.

The flip side of the "pay me what I'm worth" argument is "the love I pour into this profession is worth something!"
John Warner today writes movingly about one-on-one work with students as an important part of college learning:
The purpose of these conferences, as I’ve come to realize over time, is not in the conveyance of information or reinforcement of course content. When I have these conversations, what I am really saying to these students is:
I am paying attention.
I care and I would like you to care as well.
What we’re doing here really is important.

I now see that I am trying to bridge the motivation gap. Having once been an unmotivated student, I know how important this can be.
The conferences are time consuming, adding an additional eight hours onto the normal, already busy work week, but in my experience, they are an opportunity to have the “unusual influence” that Chambers and Takacs speak of.
He's right--but the narrative of good teaching (and why it is so labor intensive in ways that technology can't replace) emphasizes its exploitable qualities.  The resonance of Warner's columns about effective teaching comes from their candidly personal quality.  It's no wonder that the trope of the noble and self-sacrificing teacher has been so persistent: good teaching requires an expenditure of self.

Adjunct advocacy has to promote the important things that happen in the college classroom, while rejecting the patterns of exploitation that tend to go with them.  This dual charge is a problem, because making adjuncts less invisible often means acknowledging that one's teaching isn't as excellent as it should be, that, for example,
this generation of community college students...encounter, instead, a weary army of impoverished professionals, shuffling from here to there, trying to keep their heads down and their paychecks coming in. Regrettably, seldom do we have time to chat with students, as we rush from place to place, job to job, worry to worry.
It also involves revealing that delivering education is in the hands of faculty intimately familiar with poverty, food banks, and energy-help hotlines.  That's a thing the world needs to know, but it's not something individual faculty members want to divulge.

Changing these patterns of exploitation may well involve figuring out who precisely is to blame in any given institutional context, where costs can be cut, which cages need to be shaken.  As Timothy Burke argues, tenure-stream faculty may not be the bad guys, but attributing the failures of higher education to an ever-growing "administration" that absorbs resources that could otherwise go to teaching is misguided, particularly given the larger economic context in which both labor and education are persistently devalued.
Faculty who just toss this sort of argument against “administrative bloat” off casually aren’t much different than right-wing voters who believe that somehow there’s a lot of waste in government social spending and a lot of voter fraud: it functions as a deep authorizing mythology that precedes any engagement with the world as it is. If there is any bloat–or at least growth that could be pared back over time–faculty were usually deeply involved in its creation, or they at least endorse the idea of the institutional missions that administrators are supposed to be executing. Faculty want experts in mental health and learning disabilities, they want diversity experts, they want legal staff, they want librarians, they want instructional technologists, they want expert financial and budgetary staff, they want human resources personnel who understand contemporary benefit structures, they want environmental services staff, they want staff who organize peer learning, they want administrative assistants, they want event planners, they want people who handle communications. If you remove any of those functionalities, or ask faculty to handle it themselves, you hear plenty of griping.
The administrators we will always have with us.  Is administrative bloat a problem?  Of course, but deflating it isn't an easy as a solution as we all want it to be.

Perhaps the solution to keep adjuncts from getting exploited for doing what we love should not be solely in the hands of adjuncts willing to disclose the many humiliations, large and small, of adjuncthood.  And advocacy for why we are right to love it belongs to a wider circle of people than those who either have the time to say why or the professional stature not to be exploited for it.  People at all levels of academic life who value the liberal arts have a stake in articulating what needs to happen in the college classroom in order for students to learn.  The lyrical first-person accounts that speak to IHE readers and the academic blogosphere are a good starting point, but we need to find ways to explain what we do to skeptical students, parents, legislators, tax-payers and to justify the resources we need to do it.

Those ineffable human transactions that make it possible for students to leave our classes having acquired capacities, skills, knowledge, habits of thought?  They seem incompatible with the terms that people far, far from any classroom come up with to describe what happens there: competency based learning, outcomes assessment.  But we all need to get better at using that language (and the fears it speaks to) to describe what we do.

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