31 May 2015

On Chyme, K - 12, and the Liberal Arts

"It takes a great deal of conformity to be a happy K-12 teacher these days." says Fie Upon This Quiet Life, in a thoughtful riff on "The number one problem with K-12 education -- the loss of academic freedom."  

The K-12 problem is also a postsecondary education problem: college instructors find themselves not just teaching students the subject material but also acculturating them to an entirely different conception of "education" than the one they bring with them to college.  Students want to be led to predetermined right answers and to be rewarded for demonstrating their ability to repeat them.  It's on us, then to get them comfortable with the idea that getting it right can involve first getting it very, very wrong and that the "right" answer may mean "the answer that most effectively explains the phenomenon, where the definition of 'most effective' may be subject to interpretation."  
Anna Fischer-Dückelmann,
via Wikimedia Commons

A few years back I contemplated a decisive break with academia.  My new career path, however, required me to return to school, so I found myself in a 100-level nutrition class at my institution.  The facts about nutrition that I learned were largely a more fine-grained and detailed version of things I already knew.  The eye-opener was the class itself: Powerpoint slides supplied in advance with key words omitted, so students would have to listen to the lecture to fill in the blanks.  Study guides ahead of each quiz or exam.  Opportunities for student questions that mostly consisted of students asking to have certain missing words repeated or variations of "will this be on the test?"  I sat there and realized that while I had been in graduate school and teaching classes myself, college education had changed beyond all recognition.  The old term, "spoon feeding," no longer seemed adequate, but I did learn a new metaphor for what I was experiencing. This was chyme-feeding (chyme is the mass of partially digested matter that passes from the stomach to the small intestine).  

But who was I to judge?  I was surrounded by earnest and hardworking students.  Well, there was that guy a few rows down from me who spent every lecture surfing the Louis Vuitton website, but mostly they were taking a summer class to speed up their path to careers in health services, they wanted to learn the material quickly and efficiently, and the graduate instructor teaching the class knew how to deliver it in a way that would get them to the best possible grades on the quizzes and multiple choice exams that made up the bulk of the course.  

"I don't believe any of this stuff we're learning," I heard one buff student say to the lass he was flirting with over the break on day.  "Scientists change their minds all the time.  They don't know."  He went on to describe at some length his own nutrition and fitness regimen.  He clearly cared about the subject matter, but saw no possible connection between the things that might be conveyed in this class and his own health concerns.  Though an isolated assignments asked us to keep our own food diaries and chart our nutrition while reflecting on our choices, and another asked us to analyze the nutritional claims of a consumer product, but there was nothing in the design of the course that would encourage this student to see such exercises as anything but hoops to jump through on the way to a credential.

That summer I became viscerally aware that the kind of liberal arts education I had known myself as a student and that I tried to recreate in my own classes could change lives.  Could.  But I also realized why communicating complex humanistic subject matter to students was so damn hard--they had no tools for recognizing complexity and struggle in learning as a good thing.

The liberal arts need to be in solidarity with K-12 educators and to see their struggles against test-driven curricula as part of our own struggle to maintain norms of academic freedom and shared governance within increasingly corporatized higher education.


30 May 2015

AAUP Censure: Now What?

As I was writing this post, I got word that the AAUP has voted to censure the University of Illinois.

Will it matter?

Among the reasons that the Good Enough Professor went silent for a while in there was a change in my job duties.  I'm now doing less literature teaching, more helping-English-majors-get-professional-experience-and-find-jobs-after-graduating.  There has been a lot to learn, less mental space for blogging.

In this capacity, I've now found myself at various campus-wide events where, if I'm not the ONLY representative of the liberal arts, I'm one of, perhaps, two. Such events lay bare a truth about the university that I realize I've been blogging about for a while now: that nobody apart from liberal arts faculty themselves see the liberal arts as a critical part of the university's mission.

What I have NOT seen is a university eager to starve the liberal arts into irrelevance.  A lot of good people are trying to do right by their students and their colleges: where "do right" means establish corporate partnerships, supply ample opportunities for students to get professionally relevant experiential learning, supply employers with a deep talent pool, and help their students transition into successful careers.

Are these university staff thereby trying to edge out the parts of the University where the primary goal is, say...learning?  No.  They just don't know anyone here might be trying to do anything else.  Many of them don't even realize we're here as anything other than providers of gen ed courses.  "Wow, 400 English majors?" a colleague in career services at another academic unit said to me.  "I thought it was more like 40."

I would feel a bit like the last ibex wandering the Pyrenees, except that I know that I'm not.  That's a lot of majors.  My colleagues are out there--lots of them.  But our habitat is changing, and here the metaphor falls apart.  We don't need to change to survive, but we do need to make ourselves relevant in an environment that is largely indifferent to our existence.  Academics have more scope to do that than ibices.  L'Affaire Salaita has revealed that institutional features we thought would protect us--the university's mission, the academic senate, shared governance, formal procedures--are broken.   While we work to fix them, we need to also be mindful that our efforts may not, ultimately, matter that much.  The university is not what we thought it was, and we in the liberal arts need to find ways to be salient outside those protections.

When I signed up to attend yet another campus-wide event, the second annual University of Illinois Social Media Conference, I felt the pull of these two different conceptions of the univeristy. As someone who continues to follow the fall-out of Salaita's unhiring and who was acculturated to the critical approaches of the humanities, something calling itself a conference, here, on the topic of social media, that doesn't directly address Salaita's twitter feed comes across as risibly out-of-touch.  As someone who manages a social media account to make the work of my department visible to students, potential majors, alumni, other campus units, potential mentors for our students, and employers, this conference exactly as conceived covers topics and issues that can help me do my job better, and derailing it with the Salaita affair would be a pointless exercise.  It's taken me a scant six months to internalize a view of the university where work goes on while AAUP censure is something someone else has to worry about.  Granted, that internalized view is at war with every reason why I ever got into this higher ed business in the first place.  Also internalized.  Some ibices probably lost their footing and died while they tried to migrate to the flatlands while still yearning to stay in the mountains.

I want to be part of a university where vigorous and potentially uncivil debate flourishes--on social media, in student assignments, in classrooms, in conferences of all kinds--not because we're all upholding rules that protect it (although we should be doing that) but because

  • our students
  • their families
  • the communities they come from
  • the taxpayers of illinois
  • our alumni
  • our donors
  • the stakeholders in the change we can help bring about

all recognize that such debate matters and that a vigorous education in the liberal arts is necessary to sustain it.  Fighting the AAUP/Salaita battle is necessary, but it's not going to bring that university into being.

26 May 2015

Two Cultures, Shmultures

from http://theconversation.com/why-arts-and-
A peculiar silence has descended over campus. Partly it's because the students have mostly left for the summer, but it's also the silence of a lot of people waiting to see what happens next. Whether one cares or not, the chatter that was raging last fall on all sides of L'Affaire Salaita has ceased.  There's not a lot to say at this point. Some minor ripples percolate through the humanities faculty as FOIA'ed emails from last summer bubble up to the surface, but all there is really to do is await the outcomes of processes beyond our control: Salaita's lawsuit and the vote on AAUP censure.  Meanwhile, we figure out how to move forward within an institution where academic freedom is a matter of profound indifference.

"Nothing to be done!" my friend, the Countess of Useful Research, said to me the other day.  "What do you mean, nothing to be done!  Now is the time for all of you to exert pressure on the Chancellor! NOW before the AAUP votes!  While there's still time!  She needs pressure from the faculty that she can legitimately succumb to!"

I was nonplussed.  MORE letters?  Emails?  Votes of no confidence?  Public meetings?  They didn't make a difference in the fall.  Why would they work now?  Maybe an illegal wildcat walkout action? Kind of hard to pull off now that classes are over...

"Well what do you have in mind?" I asked.  "Are you going to galvanize support among your colleagues?  How?"

"Oh no," the Countess explained.  "I don't care.  But you guys care.  You should do something."

The Countess's research really is very useful.  It's not going to make anybody money, and it's not so obscure that its connection to Real Things that Matter is only accessible to experts.  Trust me, you're glad that the Countess is here, doing what she does. But once again, I found myself peering across that chasm, the one that L'Affaire Salaita laid bare. It goes beyond, way beyond, CP Snow's "two cultures": a place where dear friends with identical values, mutual moral and intellectual respect, similar life experiences, and congruent professional goals find themselves talking at institutional cross-purposes.

Let me note that there's NO way to try to explain each side to the other without coming across as self-serving.  Also: offer to tell someone how you think they differ from you and the hackles go up.  But I can't seem to stay away from the challenge of trying to figure out how people with more in common than not and bound together in a shared institution find each other so fundamentally puzzling.  

My latest in a series of theories about why the liberal arts and the remainder of the university (including the STEM fields) miscommunicate: practitioners of the liberal arts are unaccustomed to explaining themselves.

With no market forces to justify or sustain them, no corporate support, no significant funding agencies to supplicate, the liberal arts have historically depended exclusively on the widespread public recognition that they matter. And, frankly, they're pretty cheap: no need for labs, equipment, staff, space, material.

While there is widespread public recognition that other university entities matter (particularly the STEM fields), their work tends to cost more and there is the expectation that outside entities (public or private) will fund it, particularly in those cases where it has market value.

As a result, faculty outside the liberal arts are accustomed to a relentless grind of self-explanation, to a variety of audiences with a stake in their work.  Being called upon to justify themselves is just a routine part of doing business.  Liberal arts faculty, on the other hand,--apart from isolated bids for fellowships or occasional grants--are accustomed to explaining their work to each other and their students.

Everyone is feeling the constriction of publicly funded higher education.  As grant money dries up alongside state budgets, STEM faculty and liberal arts faculty alike are coping with dwindling resources. The difference is, non-liberal-arts faculty confront this reality with the tools they already have ready to hand: the capacity to explain why people should pay for what they have to offer.

The problem is not that liberal arts faculty have no such case to make--but the justification of a public good tends to inhere in the assumption that the public already recognizes it and values it.  The very fact of becoming a hard sell diminishes its intrinsic worth.  We offer a vigorous alternative to the stunted values of the marketplace, but we have yet to find a persuasive way to communicate that frame to the marketplace itself.  We who make living confronting the paradoxes of human life struggle to live within this one: the impossibility of asserting our relevance without validating the norms of relevance that we seek to transcend.

24 May 2015

The Day the Liberal Arts Died

Just to be clear, it was a long, long time ago.  The fatal wound took place in the Reagan era.  What we're observing now is not even the death throes.  It just took some of us longer than others to realize we were dealing with a corpse.  L'Affaire Salaita, if nothing else, laid that truth bare.

A certain forensic fascination remains in picking through FOIA-ed emails, the way we close-read tweets last summer.  Was Salaita subject to procedural irregularities?  Yup--procedures are, as a result, being altered to it easier for those outside the faculty chain of shared governance to intervene when necessary.  Did administrators lie?  YES!  They lied.  Will we be censured for their malfeasance?  The official decision still lies a few weeks away, but it looks like, yes, we will be censured.  Does anyone care?

Well, that's the thing.  Some people care very much.  They read my blog and my live-tweeting/facebooking of the relevant meetings.   They ask the probing questions at these events, they make their anger known, they speak to colleagues elsewhere who decry what is happening here.

They attended last month/s IPRH event to discuss the likelihood of AAUP censure and they were eloquent in their shock and dismay.

They asked trenchant questions at the first Town Hall with the new University of Illinois President, Timothy Killeen, and they elicited stirring boilerplate from him about the centrality of the arts and letters and the importance of academic freedom (even if the real questions remained unanswered).

What becomes increasingly clear, however, is that none of this matters.  There may have been a time when these stalwart voices from the liberal arts lay at the core of the university's purpose and mission, but that time is long past.  All year the administration has granted us, and we have supplied ourselves with, echo chambers in which to hear ourselves amplify our outdated convictions about our significance--senate meetings, academic freedom symposia, town halls, colloquiums, meetings.  Over and over we've seen representatives of the administration--Chancellor Wise, most notably, but also, at the IPRH symposium on AAUP censure, the outgoing academic senate chair, Roy Campbell--nurture our illusions by allowing us to vent our impotent rage at them.

Meanwhile the real work of the university, the grantsmanship, the corporate partnerships, the entrepreneurial endeavors, the channeling of state funds into lucrative endeavors, goes on.

What happens next?  I don't know.  But a meaningful answer that changes things can only come from us.

17 May 2015

The Bump in the Land-Grant Road

from the Daily Illini
Tomorrow the new president of the University of Illinois, Timothy Killeen, will take office.  I'll be syncing up my Facebook and Twitter accounts to live-tweet his first Town Hall on the Urbana-Champaign campus tomorrow afternoon. For once, I'll be trying not to be snarky--there's too much at stake.

The announcement of the meeting links to an online form for asking questions.  I've sent in three, and I'll be listening closely for answers tomorrow:

1.  What steps will UIUC take to lift AAUP censure, should it be imposed (as seems likely)?
2.  How will President Killeen and his leadership team restore confidence among the sixteen academic departments at UIUC that voted "no confidence" in Chancellor Wise and the U of Illinois leadership in the wake of the Salaita "un-hiring"?
3.  What should be the role of the liberal arts at the University of Illinois in the future?

Had L'Affaire Salaita not happened, chances are few people would come to this Town Hall in a spirit of genuine curiosity spiked with fear, least of all a minor academic functionary like me.  This transfer of leadership would happen, as so many do, in a cloud of meaningless bureaucratese.  The future of the liberal arts faculty would be--as it always has been--underfunded, beleaguered, tarnished, yet secure.  What is a university, after all, without its trivium?

Things have changed.  Boycotts?  Angry meetings? International scholarly outpourings of outrage?  Senate committee reports?  Votes of no confidence? It turns out to have been the theater of irrelevance.  It's not just that Salaita hasn't been hired--it's that the administration has not engaged substantively with the faculty concerns that administrative actions have provoked.  When Chancellor Wise called AAUP censure a "bump in the road," her rhetoric horrified liberal arts faculty.  But perhaps she was simply riding the wave that makes it so.

There is that administrative indifference, and there is declining state funding, and there is rhetoric about "the university of the future," which sounds like this:
Killeen is confident the UI has a strong future but said it has to ensure that it uses money wisely and provides a world-class education that students can afford.
"Clearly there has to be a real focused emphasis on what I call the three Es, — efficiency, effectiveness and excellence," he said. 
That may involve new structures, greater use of technology, sharing services where that makes sense, and "focusing on what you can be truly excellent at." 
Killeen plans to launch a new strategic plan for the university at the board's July meeting, building on plans already developed by the three campuses. 
"We want the University of Illinois to be the model for the land-grants for the 21st century," he said.
At an institution where "excellence" is often code for "able to attract grant funding and entrepreneurship," the humanities may have already been shut out of this conversation.  Does "a world-class education that students can afford" and "what you can be truly excellent at" include the liberal arts departments for which L'Affaire Salaita was a body blow?  That's the question I'll really be listening for the answer to.