24 February 2016

Winter is Here

The signs are unmistakeable.  Chicago State University is cancelling spring break, in an effort to race to the end of the semester before the money runs out.  The governor vetoed funding for MAP grants. Eastern Illinois University recently had to lay off 198 civil service employees.  Southern Illinois University is bracing for an additional $40 million in budget cuts.  Kishwaukee College will be laying off 17% of its workforce.   Parkland College is hiking its tuition 11.4%.

Even here at the Casterly Rock of Illinois higher public ed, we're feeling the chill winds. So frightening is the impending budgetary catastrophe that the our new president's draft strategic plan has attracted less snark than such documents usually do (although some of us will always rise to the occasion).  Credit where it's due: there's only a thin layer of bureaucratic cant and no tired metaphors (no loops, boxes, envelopes, peanut butter). The cringeworthy phrases are too oblique to make good targets ("lifewide learners," "innovation clusters"), and the tagline ("optimizing impact for public good") is too clunky to yield ironic variants but not inherently risible enough to amuse by itself.  

So we are left with the substance.  

As one of my faculty friends on Facebook wrote, 
is that document supposed to be meaningful? It seems like a crass collection of obvious platitudes put together to speak to the state legislature. I mean, fine, I guess, if we need something like that, but surely actual people who have actual jobs to do in the university aren't supposed to treat it seriously, are they?
After all, the presidents gets the six-figure salary, the house downstate, the condo in the big city, the country club memberships, and the various other perks of the office, so that he or she will use these accoutrements of power, and the dreadful corporate jargon that goes with them, to lobby the state legislature while we get on with our work.  In these dire times one would prefer to just leave him to get on with it and fire off the occasional "crass collection of obvious platitudes" as circumstances require.

The reason why I can't let it alone, though, is that public higher education is being redefined.  Crass platitudes are no longer simply repackaging "actual jobs...in the university" so that legislatures will continue to fund them; documents like these represent our upper administration's best effort to preserve our ability to keep doing what we do in the face of public pressure that is fundamentally reshaping the institutions in which we do it.

I prefer to believe, for now, that our new president is committed to a vision of public higher education that most of us would sign on to.  That's why this draft strategic plan is depressing as hell, and something we all need to think about.

In a recent blog post, I pointed out that we who teach and advise students
need to keep clearly in mind that our duty is to our students, many of whom will change careers several times in the course of their lives, and many of whom just haven't lived enough yet to know what kind of job will give them long-term satisfaction.  Our duty is NOT to corporate employers who would prefer to offload the training of an entry-level workforce on to institutions of higher learning.
The draft strategic plan lays out a diametrically opposite set of priorities.  Item 1, under the first "Strategic Goal" ("A Healthy Future for Illinois") on the first page of the document is
1. Prepare a “Next Generation” Workforce

U of I will identify the most critical current and future workforce needs of the State and build programs to prepare our students with the knowledge and competencies necessary to meet this demand while satisfying their professional and life goals. 
How are students to identify their "professional and life goals"? How are we going to help students respond to a changing world and not just the "changing demands of the workplace"?  What scope do we have to educate students for a world that exists beyond the workforce needs of the State of Illinois?  And who, exactly, gets to decide what those workforce needs are?

One looks in vain for evidence that a public university is the place to ask those questions.  Item 3 does, to its credit, set the goal of building "Strong Civic Engagement," but since it comes after enabling "Powerful Research and Development Partnerships," one can reasonably wonder who will get to decide what counts as "civic engagement." The state's "public, nonprofit sectors" do get named as potential partners, but these are the same sectors that are also getting starved by the current budget impasse.  It's seems unlikely that they will exert a pull equal to potential private partners.

"We are thus accountable to our students first and foremost" this document declares.  On page five of ten.  Strategic Goal II is "An Institution of and for Our Students."  We will do a lot of good things for the next generation workforce.  We will "create an inclusive community" and "build connections" to "nearby immigrant and minority communities."  We'll also make it easier for students to transfer between campuses.  Will we teach them things other than how to be part of a workforce?  They'll get "global competencies" and "pedagogical innovation" will be "brought to scale" so that everyone can get the benefit of it.  There will be online tools and university-wide databases.

But will they get better at being smart human beings who can think for themselves?

Hard to say.

In a sop to something or other we are told that "We will...Celebrate the human condition through innovation and creativity in the performing arts and humanities."

I'm not sure how much time my humanities and fine arts colleagues spend "celebrating" the human condition.  We contemplate it.  We study it.  We try to get students to understand themselves and their mounting student debt as part of a historically contingent reality that explains but also extends beyond immediate exigencies. We expose them to the variety of ways that people have sought to make sense of themselves and their worlds and we encourage them to value these four years as a time to explore realities other than the ones they know intimately and those determined by their life circumstances.  It's not just the work of the arts and humanities to encourage this kind of broad and open-ended thinking; science teaching does it, too.  It also gets harder all the time.

Documents like this draft strategic plan don't help.  It balances the purpose of the university on the training of an entry-level work force and justifies its public value as a monetizable one.  If it is meant to be a Trojan horse hiding an older alternative understanding of public higher education within a gift that will please our state legislators and their constituents, that hatch in the belly is well hidden indeed.

Not every public institution of higher ed is giving up quite this completely.  Compare the "Announcement of Comprehensive Planning and Analysis Process" issued by the Berkeley campus of the University of California system.  Granted, it's a campus and not the university as a whole, and granted, they offering transparency in an ongoing process, not demonstrating the leadership of the new executive in a shaken institution.


Berkeley frames the need for a strategic plan not with the putatively inexorable need for the public university to be "an engine of for economic growth" but by frank acknowledgement of "a substantial and growing structural deficit, one that...does not reflect a short-term dip in funding, but a 'new normal' era of reduced state support."  Berkeley, like the University of Illinois "must focus not only on the immediate challenge, but also on the deeper task of enhancing our institution’s long-term sustainability and self-reliance."  However, unlike Illinois, Berkeley recognizes an inevitable cost, and certain values that must be maintained:
This endeavor must not be interpreted as an abandonment of our commitment to a public mission nor to our efforts to advocate for increased public funding for higher education. We are fighting to maintain our excellence against those who might equate “public” with mediocrity, against those who have lost faith in the need for higher education to serve as an engine of social mobility, and against those who no longer believe that university-based inquiry and research have the power to shape our society and economy for the better. What we are engaged in here is a fundamental defense of the concept of the public university, a concept that we must reinvent in order to preserve.
Throughout the state of Illinois, the public university (and the community college system that feeds it) is getting reinvented out from us.  The concept of the university that gets preserved may have little to do with the values that we were trained to uphold.

20 February 2016

Leveraging Contemplation

(with apologies to W.H. Auden, The Musee des Beaux Arts)

About education they were never wrong,
The crafters of strategic plans: how well they understood
The human condition; how it must be celebrated
While someone else is leveraging technology or enabling potential partners or just
Doing some civic engagement;
How, when the citizens of Illinois are reverently, passionately waiting
For a state budget, there always must be
Corporations who are happy to build their headquarters elsewhere, sipping coffee
In the innovation food court.
They never forgot
That students must get something in return for their tuition dollars
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the instructors flash Powerpoints on a wall and grade papers
in the glow of laptops not paid for by the university.
In The Public's University: A Framework for the System Strategic Plan, for instance: How everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the citizen may
Have heard the system power off, the final "ping,"
But for him it was not an important failure; the lights stayed on
As they had to in the rooms where economic growth gets
Stimulated; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, the life of the mind as a public good,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

08 February 2016

Skillz in Action! Thinking Critically about Ads Posing as Copy in IHE.

Okay, class, go read this: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/02/08/debate-over-liberal-arts-vs-vocationalism-lazy-one-essay

And then go check out this: http://burning-glass.com/

See, with the right technology purchase, you can turn your impractical liberal arts majors into an entry-level corporate workforce. Painlessly. Effortlessly. It won't hurt a bit. You won't even notice.
This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.
How's that again? Just a few paragraphs up, Smigelman was pointing out that academic advisors in the liberal arts, being mostly faculty themselves, were out of touch with the needs of a rapidly changing workplace, clueless about the narrow technical skills that can boost a student's employability. How do you retool THAT academic-advising workforce without distraction from the "fundamental role" of those departments? Has Smigelman ever seen actual actual academic departments collaborate on a certificate program? Has he seen how tapped out faculty advisors already are by the multiple institutional gaps they already have to fill? No biggie:
This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.
Hmmm. Guess who makes these "career applications"? Yup.

Smigelman isn't wrong about his basic solution: liberal arts students need more help than they generally get identifying their strengths, recognizing the kinds of extracurricular involvement that will help they acquire particular competencies, and learning how to get information about possible careers. But we who help them do that need to keep clearly in mind that our duty is to our students, many of whom will change careers several times in the course of their lives, and many of whom just haven't lived enough yet to know what kind of job will give them long-term satisfaction.

Our duty is NOT to corporate employers who would prefer to offload the training of an entry-level workforce on to institutions of higher learning.

The debate over "practical" majors vs. the liberal arts is not lazy: it strikes at the heart of what higher education is for. Is the purpose of our college and universities to educate human beings and citizens, or is it to train students for their first post-college job? Ideally we do both, but many of us in the liberal arts find ourselves desperately trying to carve out room for the former, while multiple institutional pressures tend toward the latter.

Student who know they want to go into human resources (Smigelman’s example) or advertising or sports management can probably work electives and minors into a suitable program--and more power to them. Similarly, though Smigel doesn’t say this, liberal arts majors can find ways to develop skills through their other activities--every serious student organization needs someone who can run Excel (another of Smigelman’s examples), a part-time job in an institutional communications office can provide on-the-fly training in Adobe, internships make it possible for students to sample potential careers, getting involved in a volunteer organization offers ample opportunities to develop organizational and management skills. And yes, faculty in the traditional liberal arts disciplines can do much more than they do now to encourage these kinds of engagement and to encourage students to situate what they learn in the classroom in relation to their overall life goals.

But how many happy human resources managers knew at eighteen that such a career was what they wanted? And how many students have diligently shaped themselves for a first post-college job, only to discover a couple of years in that it’s not what they expected and that their talents seek a different outlet? Most people do many different things in the course of their lives, and few people end up doing a job directly related to their undergraduate study. Much as we want our students to be employed upon graduation, when we spend four years directing them to jobs that “represent compelling targets” and making sure that they acquire “technical skill bundles” along the way, we’re diverting energy away from the fundamental work of our disciplines and making the interests of employers our own.

It's not lazy to see this as a problem worth arguing about within our institutions and departments. It IS lazy to pretend that a software program will allow us to serve our students without inadvertently selling their souls.

06 February 2016

Humanities the Sh*t Out of This

Humanities departments don’t just have an image problem, they are stymied by a paradox.   
Any argument for the employability of majors in history, English, philosophy, art history, classics, or the like cosies up to the premise that the goal of higher education ought to be career training, above all else. Greater knowledge and understanding is, for the humanist, worth pursuing for its own sake. Our disciplines lead to no patents and offer few insights with monetizable implications for meeting current needs. Nor should they: while some solid work in the humanities reaches a broad audience, the arc of direct market value tends towards bland truths, false commonplaces, and lucrative lies. Moreover, teaching students to excel at entry-level professional tasks defeats the goal of a liberal arts education: informed and open-ended grappling with the complex truths of human life.

Nonetheless, humanities departments need students to major in their disciplines if they are to survive, and students insist--reasonably--that the credential they earn should pay back the debt they incur to get it. Those not committed to the liberal arts (much less the specifically humanistic ones) will be quick to tell you that a humanities BA is an expensive journey to a career in fast food service. Those committed to the liberal arts may point out that humanistic study equips students with crucial critical thinking and communication skills, but there is no pithy alternative to the fast-food myth. The absence of a linear career path from these majors makes specific examples seem anecdotal to the point of irrelevance.  

The humanities disciplines didn’t used to have to make the argument.  For a while in the early and mid-twentieth century, knowledge of history, literature, and culture was the marker of a mostly elite, mostly white, class status.  A degree in history or English or the classics was a membership card for the applicant pool to corporate training programs and entry-level jobs in a variety of white collar fields.  As the number of students entering college has increased, the array of majors has grown as well, and other pipelines from the academy to the workplace have proliferated.  At the same time, the academic humanities have expanded in the last few decades to cover broader swathes of human experience, and in doing so they have jettisoned their role in shoring up existing power structures. These disciplines have turned their attention to minorities, women, previously underrepresented pockets of experience, and bottom-up narratives: a more accurate and truthful exploration of the world, but one that has diminished the complicity that made the academic humanities valuable partners in stabilizing corporate institutions.    

Humanities departments can assert their continuing relevance--but they also have good reasons not to. Preprofessional course offerings? They draw butts to seats, but not everyone wants to teach grantwriting or build coding opportunities into undergraduate research projects. Extracurricular professional experience like internships and volunteering?  Students get a lot out of such opportunities, but they may legitimately wonder why, if such activities beyond the classroom get them a job, they need to pay for a degree. Lingering remnants of cultural elitism? Well, yes: dwindling state support means that humanities programs flourish best in expensive institutions serving the already well-off students who can afford to attend them.

We can do better.  Another option:

Humanities faculty can recognize that it's skills, not majors, that employers look for. Without changing anything in the curriculum, they can teach students to recognize the capacities they are building in their humanities disciplines. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the top five skills that employers seek are not STEM-specific. Nor are they obviously pre-professional: they are skills that one needs to accomplish anything, from community organizing to building a boat to managing a household.  According to a 2015 survey of employers conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), they are

  • ablity to work in a team structure
  • ability to make decisions and solve problems
  • abiity to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  • ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
  • ability to obtain and process information

These top five skills  are not humanities-specific either, but there is not one that isn’t improved by rigorous study in humanistic disciplines. Consider, for example, “ability to work in a team structure”--a phrase that (along with its associated buzzword “teamwork” appears in many entry level job ads.  It is meaningless out of context. “Teamwork” in an operating room differs from “teamwork” on a political campaign, which differs still from “teamwork” in one of the sports where the metaphor originates.  

Of course the humanities don’t teach deracinated “teamwork” in any formal sense.  Small-group activities are a common pedagogical strategy, but an occasional twenty-minute exercise in isolating images in The Wasteland  with two or three classmates, or even a semester-long project in researching and presenting a historical counterfactual, will hardly prepare students to  tackle consulting problems for a Big-Three firm. Yet we do teach students to fully inhabit viewpoints that differ from their own; to understand their internal logic and coherence and then to step outside them again.  We teach students that this is what it means to listen carefully. Our students get comfortable with disagreement and learn to ride it to a better understanding than they could have produced on their own. They learn to examine a phenomenon from several different competing perspectives and to gather information while living with uncertainty about which one to embrace. They get practice in synthesizing a range of views in order to arrive at their own informed course of action.  These are all capacities that are relevant to “teamwork.”

Each of these five skills can similarly be divided into component parts that students excel at in different ways; each presents ways to recast “critical thinking” in terms that are intelligible to employers, yet also help students understand their individual strengths and interests.

When students learn to recognize what they do in these terms, they gain agency. Not all students will want to work for companies that are large enough to belong to NACE, much less have a recruiting staff to fill out questionnaires about their practices. Still, knowing they have skills that are valued by such employers makes it easier for students to recognize the choices they have. Being able to talk with some specificity about the particular ways they excel within these broad categories positions them for the work they want to do. Moreover, naming and distinguishing these skills provides a framework for students to consider their priorities beyond paying down student debt and becoming financially independent. What sorts of interactions particularly energize them?  What kinds of problems do they want to solve?  What personal trade-offs are they prepared to take on in pursuit of success?  What values do they want their working life to reflect?

We in the humanities need to wrestle better with this paradox: the impossibility of asserting our relevance without validating the increasingly narrow and instrumental expectations for higher ed. We may not be able to communicate to the corporations that increasingly drive higher ed the importance of the alternative we offer to the limited values of the marketplace.  We can, however, show our students how their learning will help them both succeed within a world that needs their skills and resist the devaluation of their humanity.