14 April 2014

Who Are the Warm Blankets?

The New York Times recently (4/11/14) published an interview with Daniel Chambliss, author (with Christopher Takacs) of How Colleges Work. That book title seems a little less imposing when you learn that the college in question is specifically, an elite SLAC.
Although Hamilton, a small, selective, expensive liberal arts college in upstate New York, has little in common with the large state universities and community colleges that most students attend, Dr. Chambliss said the lessons learned could apply everywhere.
Depends on the lessons, doesn't it? "It comes down to factors like dorm design, friends and extracurricular involvement more than what happens in the classroom," explains the New York Times interviewer, Tamar Lewin. This summary already points to some limitations of the project. For commuters, nontraditional students living outside the dorms, students combining their studies with full-time employment, there isn't a whole lot of college outside the classroom. 
Still, granted that "college" means "traditional students on a four-year plan," I'm willing to reserve judgment and read on, particularly as I spend a lot of time on this blog arguing for the importance of "what happens in the classroom." Turns out that it's more important than the interviewer first let on:
What should colleges do to make students’ experiences better? 
They should be looking for things that give the biggest payoff for the least effort. One hospital study found that patients reported a better experience if a nurse had offered them a warm blanket while they were on the gurney waiting for surgery. There are all kinds of “warm blankets” colleges can offer. Students who had a single dinner at a professor’s house were significantly more likely to say they would choose the college again. In learning to write, it made a lasting difference if students had at least one experience of sitting down with a professor to go over their work, paragraph by paragraph; for the students it was someone serious saying their writing was important.
This prescription doesn't surprise me. Students benefit from the close attention and care of the people who teach them. What seems puzzling is the equation of that care with "warm blankets." It's not that hard to get blankets warm and keep them handy. Creating an institutional culture where students can expect at some point to dine in a professor's home (when such practices haven't been the norm) is monumental. So is creating a teaching environment where students have the expectation that "someone serious" (not, presumably, a part-time composition instructor) will have the time to give them one-on-one attention to their writing. 

The institutions where these kinds of things routinely happen are not the kinds of institutions that supply most undergraduate students with a college education. And it's been a long time since the student-centered, labor-intensive dimensions of teaching have been at the center of the public delivery of higher education.

At many institutions, these kinds of outcomes can only be achieved if the "warm blankets" are contingent and underpaid faculty tasked with delivering one-on-one student attention. But I'm pretty sure that's not how they do it at Hamilton College.

13 April 2014

Prestige Paralysis, or Who are We?

Well, we really don't know what to make of an impending strike at our sister campus upstate.

Some of us spin it into a cautionary tale.  Others of us yearn for the kind of solidarity that can take place when a critical mass of people realizes that things aren't fair.  And still others turn their heads quickly back to the lab, the classroom, the next grant proposal, the next article, the student at the door, the meeting in the next half hour: our university is big, and that other campus is a different place.

To acknowledge that labor unrest elsewhere has something to do with us would be to acknowledge that the work we do matters in ways over which we exert little control.  Higher education is being buffeted by growing student debt, declining public funding, unrest among contingent workers, a struggling economy.  We believe that we can't solve any of these problems, but we can do right by our students, our funding agencies, our departments, our service obligations.  "A union?" we say, "That's not a solution.  That's not us."

But who are "we"?  We are increasingly untenured and untenurable.  We are increasingly dependent on external funding or the vagaries of departmental needs.  We are, some of us, eligible to take part in shared governance, but many of us are excluded from decisions at all levels of the university.  Some of us see no institutional structures that represent us or protect our interests.  We may have the protections of tenure and tenure-stream regulations or we may not know from one semester to the next whether we have a job.

Some of us have read our university's mission statement and learned, to our surprise, that our work consists of "teaching, research, public service, and economic development."  And we wonder when we decided that we should serve the marketplace in ways that couldn't be folded into "teaching, research, and public service."  We wonder why no one in our units has pointed this out to us before.  We wonder when it will start to matter.

We, being academics, have looked into the research on faculty unions.  We are heartened to find that it fails to confirm the dire prognostications of the anti-unionist, but we are also nonplussed.  The data is scant, the problems confronting higher ed are vast, and the face of the U.S. labor movement is rapidly changing.

Many of us did not get into this business to find common cause with Walmart workers and automotive unions. We prefer to think of class as a concept we study, not a category we inhabit, but we are nonetheless comforted to learn that solidarity involves engineers, orchestral musicians, park rangers, and baseball players as well as hourly workers.

We are also finding that we no longer constitute the institutions that define our working lives--that we no longer govern ourselves, if we ever did, and that our institutions seek to impose a "we" that may not share our values.

We are starting to understand that we may need to define ourselves in new ways if we are going to have a voice in higher education.

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.

05 April 2014

How Corporatization Becomes a Pedagogical Problem

At some point in my gen. ed. class on the Enlightenment, we read Kant's famous essay, written towards the end of the period the course covers, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?"  There's a lot of relevant stuff in the essay to talk about, but what I increasingly fixate on is Kant's distinction between the public and private use of reason. Enlightenment, Kant argues, depends on the freedom to reason publicly, by which he means NOT "reasoning out loud" or "having a wide audience" but reasoning without reference to any "private" concerns or motivations.  "Public reasoning" is the reasoning you do, not to earn an income or fulfill a duty or perform a job (those are all examples of "private reasoning").  "Public reasoning" is the pursuit of Truth (you can hear the capital "T" even in English translation) for its own sake, and it's "public" (even if the only audience for your ideas is a handful of others scholars working in isolation) by virtue of the lack of private interest sustaining it.

This public/private distinction used to be a sidebar to the main points we needed to get to in the essay (Kant's understanding of religious truth, his paradoxical representation of the relationship between intellectual freedom and monarchy, his relationship to Frederick II of Prussia, his passing reference to women).  I'd bring it up and get students to articulate the difference by asking them, "What are we doing right now, in this class?  Are you guys reasoning privately or publicly?"

02 April 2014

How Many Adjuncts Does it Take to Alter Student Learning Conditions Beyond Recognition?

A recent post in Small-Pond Science walks readers through the problem from the department administrator's angle at a small institution:
Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors. 
Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?
The options: intro classes for majors, advanced classes for majors, graduate classes (it emerges that adjuncts are already teaching the intro for non-majors).