07 April 2014

What If, Instead of Touring Your Campus, the Prospies Talked to the Adjuncts?

It's college tour season for a lot of us: campuses are being visited now either by college seniors deciding which offer to accept or students earlier on in the process trying to decide where to apply. John Warner's words of wisdom to the students and parents taking such tours?  Pay no attention:
My advice to you, however, is to ignore everything you see, hear, or experience on these college tours or via the schools' glossy brochures. Do not be swayed by the boasts of leading-edge technology, or state-of-the-art anything. 
I say this because there are only two things that you will have ten or twenty years after your graduation, your relationships with your friends, and the experiences and encounters you have with faculty. 
In fact, for the purposes of making your decision, you might as well just use the equation of college = faculty.
His advice reminds me of nothing so much as my own experience locating a nursing home for my father a few years ago.  After an incapacitating fall and three weeks in the hospital, he was discharged to a nursing home chosen on the basis that it had an available space.  It was not satisfactory, but it gave me time to research the options, and in the process I learned a couple of things about nursing homes (particularly since I could triangulate his experience in one with what I was being told by the admissions coordinators at others).

First lesson: a warm and personable admissions director, beautiful decor (wood panelling, chintz drapes, elegant furniture, flowers on the tables), and elaborate schedules of stimulating activities mean nothing. My father was initially placed in a beautifully appointed facility.  The place we moved him to was smaller, with cinderblock walls and little common space beyond a lounge on each floor.

My second lesson: it's all about the staff.  A nursing home resident's quality of life rises or falls entirely on the quality of the certified nursing assistants (and other staff as well, but particularly the CNAs) who take care of their daily needs.  Wood panelling and chintz didn't helped him get dressed in the morning, bring him meals, take him to the toilet, or get him in bed at night.  They didn't talk to him, make note of what he did and didn't eat, observe changes in his activity levels, get to know his interests, or form a relationship with his family.

Image from Fox Business
But then, the CNAs at the first nursing home didn't do many of the things in that last list either.  He had a different person tending to him every day and, they were invariably hurried and stressed, required to process patients in much the way they might have processed burgers if they didn't have CNA training.  When his incontinence or uncertainty made their work more difficult, they lacked the energy to hide their frustration.  My only conversations about him were with the RNs who saw him more intermittently and seemed even more stressed, although they had slightly more time to discuss patient care.

I doubt that the CNAs in the second nursing home were paid any more.  As far as I can tell, there's not a lot of variability in these lower level jobs.  But the ratio of staff to patients was better, and they had a lot more reason to take pride in their work. Each was assigned to work with the same patients every day, so they had opportunities to form relationships and observe patterns.  They were expected to take part in regular patient care conferences with the nurses and MD, and their views were solicited and respected in those meetings.  Their work was treated with the respect it deserved, and they were able to bring a degree of warmth and commitment to their tasks that made all the difference for my father.

The choice of a college is much more complicated than the choice of a nursing home, and the people one meets outside the classroom can have as much effect on one's experience as the instructors who do the teaching.  In both cases, though, the quality of a student's intellectual experience is going to have a lot more to do with the way teaching work of the institution is conducted and valued.

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