Monday, August 30, 2010

How Do You Describe Your Course?

For me, as an instructor, the challenge isn't teaching the remedial writing courses; the challenge is teaching the more advanced required writing course. While we are told when we teach remedial writing that we can do or use what we want, as long as the kids can write at a college level by the end of it, the more advanced writing courses are a part of the student's general education requirement, and thus have a laundry list of boxes to check (common textbook, common assignments, common readings, etc). And the students, having already made it through Freshman Writing, don't really see the point of doing yet another writing course.

I was really excited, however, when I saw that one of the units in the textbook was on "Education." The current debate surrounding education reform, my personal interest in the role and purpose higher education, the fact the these students have chosen to attend university and typically come from underperforming, rural high schools, I thought this course would be an opportunity for the students to really think critically about their (continuing) education and the education they would want their children to receive. Couple that with a few weeks spent on really talking about rhetoric and rhetorical devices, I thought that this course would be a slam dunk with the students.

I was very, very wrong.

As I was introducing the students to concepts we were going to be talking about in the class, I saw their eyes glaze over the moment I mentioned that we were going to look at education. You could feel the energy and enthusiasm in the room drain away. And once it was gone, I couldn't find a way to get it back. Nothing I said about education, its implications for them as students and future parents got their attention again. I sort of got a reaction when I mentioned that concept of unschooling, but other than that, nothing. I could see the wheels turning in their heads, trying to figure out how to manipulate their schedules in order to change out of my class.

I was extremely discouraged. How can I get students to enjoy remedial writing, but I can't get them excited about education, a subject that has touched and shaped all of their lives in a really important way? And then I realized that I had forgotten one of the important lessons I teach my students: words matter. Sounds simplistic, I know, but we forget (and students take for granted) that we can say the same thing in many, many different ways. The meaning itself hasn't changed, but how we interpret and receive that meaning can vary a great deal.

So I set about rebranding my course. How can I get my students excited about studying and thinking more critically about rhetoric and education? Once I came up with my answer, I had a wonderful epiphany: why don't I have my students come up with their own rebranding for our course? It would help give them a sense of ownership (the latter half of course will be entirely driven by their own interests in education) and be a preliminary exercise in the power of words, or how rhetoric can work.

And that's what I did. I told the students they couldn't change the content of the course, only how the material is introduced? How should I have titled and described the course in order to have ignited their interest? For a generation that has been completely bombarded with ads since birth, they had a surprising amount of difficulty coming up with anything, further reinforcing the need to study rhetoric. We had a couple of interesting narrative descriptions, but a really snappy catch-phrase way to describe the course eluded them.

I shared with them what I came up with: Rhetoric, or How to Get Anything You Want; Rhetoric, or Why you Continually get Conned even though you swear you're a Cynic; and Education, or Why High School Sucked. Everyone laughed. I had them again. So now, we're on a mission to understanding how rhetoric works, for better or for worse, and to see if we can't look at what high school (and higher education) could be or should be, rather than what it is.

It's all in the words you use.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Obstacle or Opportunity: How do you see your (remedial) course?

I'm teaching three sections of what the university calls Basic Writing, but what is understood as Remedial Writing. These are kids who didn't achieve a college readiness score for writing on their ACT. These are kids who do not have the writing (and usually reading) skills necessary in order to do college work, in order to really succeed in college. They are often first-generation students, coming from impoverish rural areas with small, sub-par schools. These are kids with big dreams and I, with my required, not-for-credit course, am standing in their way.

No one wants to do remedial writing: students don't want to take it (who wants to pay for an extra class?), professors don't want to teach it (good news for me, because it means I have a job).  For professors, remedial writing was not what they were hired to do, nor what they were prepared to teach. So, the class represents an obstacle, something that stands between them and what they really want to be doing. For me, it's a challenge, an opportunity to help students get to a place where they can take the classes I've been trained to teach, the classes that I really want to teach. An opportunity to help a student who would otherwise (most likely) fail and dropout.

I tell this to my students: this class is an opportunity for them to improve, to practice and to hone their reading and writing skills. An opportunity to try, fail, try again and do better. The class is like training, like practice, doing the basics over and over again so that they are ready for the big show, the big game. Coaching and playing on gameday is fun; coaching and performing in the practices leading up to gameday is hard. I tell them that if they see this class as a chore, then it will be; if they approach it as a waste of their time, then it will be that, too. 

The class, as I teach it, isn't just about writing, it's about college success. To become better writers, they need to give themselves time, they need to be able to read and recall what they need to write about efficiently and effectively, they need to have skills and strategies to balance their work and life, and they need to know how to get the right kind of help they need. I can teach them grammar until I'm blue in the face, but if the students don't have the time or motivation or substance to write, then I've wasted my time. I tell my students, in this class, I'm here to put you on the right path to get out of here with your degree.

I am not standing in their way anymore than they are standing in mine. I'm in it for 15 weeks. I hope they come along for the ride. 

Tomorrow, how my 200-level (or second-year students) are an even bigger challenge.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Are you ready for college?

This post first appeared on

This is it. What you have been working towards for four long years in high school, why you studied long and hard for your SATs or ACTs, why you gave up evenings and weekends in order to perfect your college application. Your Fall semester is about to get underway. But after all that hard work, are you ready for your college academic career?

One of the first things you need to ask yourself is “why am I going to college?” To get a degree? To get into business/law/medical/graduate school? To get a job? Or is it to get an education? You need to be clear about your goals. Write them down so that when the number of distractions outnumber the hours in your day, you can remind yourself the reason why you’re in college to begin with.

The second thing you need to decide is how you are going to approach your classes. You will be required to take a number of courses that are outside of your major or interest, especially your Freshman and Sophomore years. Are you going to see these courses as a burden or an opportunity? Each class presents a chance for you to improve your skills, expand your knowledge and practice critical thinking. But if you decide ahead of time the class is a waste of time, then it will be.

Which brings me to what is probably the most important class of your Freshman year: Freshman Writing. Most students don’t see it that way. But remember, no matter your major, from science to sociology, pre-med to pre-law, engineering to English, you will be required to write, and write well. A professor can’t evaluate your ideas if they can’t understand them, or are distracted by mistakes. Freshman Writing classes have been developed specifically to help you transition from high school to college-level writing.

Improving your reading, writing, and critical thinking skills takes practice; Freshman Writing invites you to practice and concentrate on these three important areas. But a student’s freshman year is full of new challenges and responsibilities: a full course load, a job, roommates, social life, homework, extra-curricular activities … the list goes on and on. Courses such as Freshman Writing often end up getting pushed aside, or lost in the chaos and excitement of the freshman experience.

And please, remember that what you learn in Freshman Writing isn’t just for your English classes; it’s for all your classes. If you have to write, then you should be applying what you learned in Freshman Writing. Your college education should be about taking what you learn in all of your classes and applying them elsewhere. This will help you succeed on your path towards your degree, career and beyond.

But you don’t have to do this alone. Learn about all of the programs and services that are available on your campus, often at no charge to you as a full-time student. Is there a writing center, a peer tutoring service, college literacy program, or other student support groups? You never know when you will assistance of one kind or another, be it academic or something else. If you know where to go if your money runs out, or if you have problems with a roommate, or if your computer breaks, then if something does happen, or you need help, you can get it in a minimum amount of time and stress.

And, finally, learn how to relax in a healthy way. University can be stressful, not to mention full of distractions. Without proper sleep and rest, you won’t be able to learn. Living off of energy drinks and all-nighters will wreck your health, your immune system, and your GPA. But lying in bed, mind racing, will do exactly the same thing. Find a way to unwind, calm your mind, and get the sleep that you need to stay healthy and keep your mind sharp. This is often something we ignore, the least of our worries. Or “stress-relief” involves lots of alcohol. There are lots of different services and programs available on campus, so explore what works best for you. Your body and brain will thank you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why I've Returned to Teaching

"If you want to see those raises, you [the faculty] need to work on retention, keeping more students from year-to-year."

This isn't an exact quote, but it's pretty close to what we were told this week at the Fall Convocation for faculty and staff by the university's president. After taking almost a year off from teaching, I am now going to be a full-time Instructor, teaching developmental English and Writing II. My teaching load is 5-4, and while I am receiving full benefits, I'm making 3/4 of the salary of a professor (I know-my husband is one). And, being a state institution, all of us are facing shrinking budgets, regardless of rank. "Do more with less" we are essentially being told. And, possibly, pass the kids along so you can keep your jobs.

I've written so much on this blog about the hypocracy of higher ed, about how liberating it has been for me to leave and try something new, that I feel like a hypocrite myself for going back to the university at all.  I have very strong mixed feelings. For one, I am so thrilled to be going back into the classroom.  Teaching, for me, isn't a job, it's part of who I am, as much a part of who as am as "mother," "wife," "sister," "writer," "swimmer," etc. Maybe it's all a social construct, but that doesn't make it any less real for me. I missed being in front of a classroom, I missed watching students become better writers and better students, and I missed being a part of something larger than myself. 

I am also grateful that I will be pulling in a regular, larger salary. Grateful, and very relieved. I didn't escape my education debt-free (far from it), and neither did my husband. His salary alone was not going to pay them back and allow us to live. Outside of the university, the only other real option for a job here is in health care. I may have toyed with the idea, but I'm not retraining for another, completely different career. In this economy, in this environment, I am lucky to have a job.

But, when I hear the administration telling us that we need to do more, much more, with less, I feel a sense of despair.  When I learn that my developmental students have ACT scores in English that deem them woefully unprepared for college, my resolve and enthusiasm wanes. When I read that the university is taking advantage of my passion for teaching, I get angry at the idea that I am allowing myself to be a pawn.  When I look at the statistics and other studies that show that it is disproportionally women who fulfill the roles of underpaid and under-appreciated workers in higher ed, I question my whole decision to give up my tenure-track job for my family. I've asked this before, but what kind of role model am I providing for my own children, for the (very) young adults that I teach?

So, why have I gone back to teaching? Because, at the end of the day, I'm making a compromise. For me, the benefits, both literal and figurative, outweigh everything else. I might not be on the tenure-track, but as long as their are developmental students, I have a strong sense that I will have a job. And I don't see the developmental student going away anytime soon. I can still blog, and I can still try to find a way to change higher ed for the better. I can teach the students who will potentially teach my children. I can open students' eyes and minds, lots of them (between 100-150 a semester). I won't pass them along, but I will, instead, make them earn their passing grade.

For now.

If the situation changes, I have no problem walking away, starting (however begrudgingly) over, again. Maybe by then we'll have managed to pay off some our debt. Maybe by then, I'll be able to leave on my own terms, not theres. Perhaps that is the best lesson I can teach my kids.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hey, look, I'm a published author!

My long-awaited book, Anne Hébert: Essays on Her Work from Guernica Editions has finally come out. I guess there's going to be a launch party in Montreal sometime soon.

I'm so happy I could burst.

That is all.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Higher Education? Part V: What is Higher Ed?

For my brief, positive review, see here.
For Part I, on how much a professor is worth, see here.
For Part II, on the issue of administrative bloat, see here.
For Part III, on college athletics, see here.
For Part IV on tenure, see here.

The question that shapes the book, Higher Education?, is: what is higher ed? What is it for? Who is it for? According to the authors, it is for basically a liberal arts education, not training for specific careers (engineering, medicine, fashion merchandising, etc) and should be for everyone. Cut away all of the bells, whistles, sports teams, rankings, research dollars, and students services, university should primarily be about education, learning to learn, and not training.

I am very sympathetic to this idea. I often get into arguments on Twitter when we talk about higher ed and the "training" of graduates for the future, giving them the "skills" they need to succeed. Often, these skills involve technical know-how, not knowledge and idea production. To me, students should have all the "skills" they need by the time they graduate high school: reading, writing, basic math. In higher ed, I firmly believe it is our job to refine these skills further and integrate them into knowledge and idea production. When I teach writing, part of what I am teaching them is how to move from a high school report to a university-level essay that has an idea that it tries to communicate. I do often wonder why many programs are a) even in the university and b) require a four-year degree (and increasingly, a two-year masters). 

The authors call for all research institutes, hospitals, engineering and medical colleges, and any other branch of the university that isn't directly related to the basic, liberal arts education of the student to be spun off into their own, independent entities. They call for the faculty to abandon most, if not all, research if they are to be employed as professors (another reason to do away with tenure; over-reliance on the research part of the equation). And, of course, to end the prestige and rankings race that takes place every year, blinding parents to the realities of the campus as well as fueling much of the growth in cost of a Bachelors degree.

But wait.

At the end of the book, the authors point to several large, multiversities as they are referred to, that a student can thrive in. One example that stands out to me is Arizona State University, with two (TWO!) engineering colleges and a smaller, liberal arts college. The authors really think everyone should do a liberal arts degree before a more technical, career oriented degree. But one of the advantages of the multiversity is that a student does just that: just about every bachelors degree requires the student to take a set of core required courses, usually outside of their major. Instead of calling for the destruction of the multiversity (which I don't even think would be possible) why not instead call for the strengthening of core requirements (a movement that is already taking root across the country)?

One of the greatest strengths of the American system of higher ed is the ability to offer choices to students, from going to a flagship state university campus to a small, liberal arts college and everything in between. Yes, they are getting more and more expensive and it is getting harder and harder to gain admissions to the "prestige" universities (although, man, Harvard really doesn't come off too well in the book). But why not celebrate the choice that is out there for students, and the opportunities even a degree in fashion merchandising presents if the student is on a large campus and required to take many different courses, rather than at a smaller, highly-specialized (and increasingly private) institution?

Another aspect that the authors tend to forget is that even the specialized, highly technical degrees are intellectually demanding. More and more engineering programs are about creating and not just recreating, problem solving, and communication (can't get that venture capital if you can't communicate your million-dollar idea!). My younger brother did a specialized certification in welding (after getting a degree in photography and doing that for a few years).  He was required to do math (but with no official math course) in order to interpret or modify blueprints. He was also required to learn about aesthetics, because often the project he designed needed to look as good as it was functional. People won't readily buy something that is ugly. A recent article quite rightly indicates that students in technical programs are looking for more than "just a paycheck," but an education.

So I come away conflicted in my feeling about the university and the book Higher Education? On the one hand, I still strongly recommend it because it gets so much right about what's wrong with the university. If I have written a few thousand words here in discussion or disagreement with them, it does nothing to nullify the tens of thousands of words they have devoted to the problem (and there are problems) of the way higher education runs today. But I worry about some of their recommendations to throw the baby out with the bath water: professors don't really have academic freedom, so let's get rid of tenure; students should have a broader base in the liberal arts, so let's get rid of the more technical programs on campus. Have we gone too far in terms of publish-or-perish at the expense of the classroom setting? Yes, in many cases, but then is that a reason to do away with research institutes on campus, especially in the humanities or social science, where the work done there would never be recreated anywhere else?

Perhaps we need a new kind of university, one that will push the old ones in new and different directions. The authors are indeed correct when they call for presidents and university leaders who are brave and bold and innovative in their approach to the job of reshaping the university. I think even the biggest R1 institution can give a strong, broad-based core education to all students on campus, even though it will never match the experience at a small, liberal arts college. Read the book, think about the book, and speak up with ideas on how to make the university a better (and more affordable) place for our children.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Higher Education? Part IV: Freedom To or Freedom From?

For my brief, positive review, see here.
For Part I, on how much a professor is worth, see here.
For Part II, on the issue of administrative bloat, see here.
For Part III, on college athletics, see here.

Possibly one of the most controversial recommendations that the authors of Higher Education? makes is that tenure is outdated, expensive, and should be abolished, replaced instead with renewable multi-year contracts. Hacker and Dreifus show that tenure does nothing to protect professors when political or other pressure really insists that someone be fired or removed from their position. They seem to resent professors being granted lifetime employment and then hanging around well past their expiry date. And they quite rightly point out that tenure doesn't all of a sudden make a scholar more radical or controversial in their research, writing, or teaching; the road to tenure has been so carefully planned that, seven years in, the newly-minted associate professor isn't likely to change course.

I've written about the issue of academic freedom; I agree that the concept of academic freedom is well-understood, much touted, but unevenly practiced. Even the idea of what is academically acceptable is problematic. We expect the freedom to be able to do the research that we want (as long as it fits into the hiring committees plan for us, the university's over-all goals, the criteria for whatever external grant we want/need, what various rankings rate as being important, and what the tenure committee deems useful/impactful/groundbreaking) and the freedom from being fired for no good reason. Tenure is supposed to protect those freedoms. Today, we are protected for the most part from being fired, but certainly not granted the intellectual freedom tenure is supposed to provide.

At the end of the day, does getting rid of tenure make any of this better or is it just a way of throwing up our hands in defeat? Do we want to function in an institution where we are not intellectually free, as was originally intended? And will getting rid of tenure (and thus eternal, life-long, employment) suddenly open the floodgates to new tenure-track professors? And is it really tenure's fault that professors never retire?

Age discrimination is illegal, and so are mandatory retirement ages. Most people look forward to leaving their jobs for the wonderful world of retirement; other are no longer able to perform their jobs. Many retired professionals keep working part-time or as consultants, either because they enjoy the work or out of necessity. People working past the historical retirement age of 65 is no longer an anomaly. Should it be something to disparage that people actually enjoy their work so much that they don't want to retire? Many older professors at public institutions are vested in the defined benefits pension programs so their salaries don't actually take that much of a hit. Rather than attacking tenure, why not celebrate that being a professor is a job that is so rewarding that people want (and can) keep working well past the age of 65?

The authors cite an example of a college that has effectively managed to entice professors to retire from their positions, without getting rid of tenure. So when this call to abolish? Of all of the cost-cutting methods the authors propose, I am most skeptical of this one. I am cynical about these things, and time after time, I've seen retirements go unfilled by new tenure-track faculty, instead hoarded by deans or provosts for whatever pet project/trend/opportunity they see fit to hire in order to increase the university's prestige. Adjuncts, grad students, and increasingly upper-level undergraduates are instead shouldering the load. Perhaps professors, seeing the writing on the wall, are holding on to their positions in part because of the pressure to produce more graduate students, who can't be off-loaded onto part-time faculty, and in part because they know that once they leave, no one will be brought in to replace them?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Higher Education? Part III: Athletics Away!

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus save a lot of vitriol for the athletics arms race, a billion-dollar industry that does little to pay for itself. The argument against college athletics is not new. How the authors present the arguments are new (to me, at least). While the NCAA and colleges boast about how sports like basketball and football increase opportunities for minorities, really, the authors argue, it is white, middle- to upper-class students who benefit because the majority of sports are things like rowing, gymnastics, swimming, fencing, hockey, wresting, bowling, etc. Not exactly hotbeds of racial, cultural, or economic diversity.

They also, rightly, attack the money spent on new athletics facilities such as stadiums, workout rooms, devoted study halls, tutors, etc. They question the sanity of expecting students to train full-time and study as well. They wonder why teams need to travel thousands of miles for games. They lament the exorbitant pay of coaches, even at lower-tier schools.  The authors do a truly excellent job of showing that football does not, in fact, increase alumni loyalty or giving rates. Title IX did not, in fact spell the doom of college wrestling teams (football did). For me, this chapter was really convincing that sports have to go. And I started college as a student-athlete, have coached student-athletes, and generally am very sympathetic to sports being available for everyone.

And there lies the rub: at these schools, sports isn't available for everyone-only the chosen few. While many Division III schools have an open-door policy on team membership, often because of budget or league restrictions, only the truly best make the teams. And because of the intense focus on NCAA sports, inter-mural leagues falter for lack of funds. Those are places where students can, in fact, participate, meet new people, let off steam, and stay healthy. There's another area where it is unclear if college sports really do more harm than good; uninsured students being injured playing sports and then cut lose.

I want to come back two hypocrisies to be found within the college athletics system. One of them deals with universities putting pressure on athletic apparel companies like Nike to end practices they deem to be exploitative lest they no longer be allowed to advertise their products on the universities' athletes or have alumni and students spend millions on official gear. I'm not denying that Nike uses sweatshop labor. But I do have a problem with universities and students demanding better treatment for workers overseas while contingent faculty literally slave away and these same student-athletes are exploited as well. Indeed, let us end exploitation. Just please don't look too closely in your own back yard.

Finally, I want to address the well-worn justification that college sports increase opportunities for minorities in higher education. We all have heard wonderful anecdotes about how a basketball/football scholarship is a poor minority student's only way of hardship. But is that a plus for college athletics or a strike against our entire education system where a system that focuses exclusively on wins and losses and not graduation rates? If sports in indeed the only way out, then we really need to take a hard look at education across all levels. College should be something that all students, regardless of race, color, or class, should reasonably be able to aspire to, not just those who can dribble, throw, run, or catch.

Shame on all of us for that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Higher Education? Part II: Administrative Bloat

Read my brief, mainly positive review, here.
Read Part I of my review, where I wonder what a professor is really worth, here.

Right on target in the book Higher Education? is its attack of the administrative bloat of the university.  in the chapter attacking professors and their pay vs work, the authors point to the fact that professors are serving on more and more committees, increasing their administrative duties and taking time away from teaching. The authors argue that the professors are to blame because they want to feel as though they are being heard and that the university is truly a world where shared governance rules.  But is this a case of the professors willingly giving up their time for committee work that they initiated or an increasing number of committees dictated from the top down in order to appease the masses?

The modern university has an administrator for everything: counseling of all sorts, admissions, advisers of all kinds, coordinators, associate this, assistant that, etc. Experts are brought in every year to advise and administer to newest program to increase enrollment, improve retention and completion, ensure effective teaching, technology integration, grants applications...the list goes on and on. We have textbook specialists who can overrule a professor in their choice of materials for their course! It seems to have become an arms race between the administration and the faculty: for every new administrator, there needs to be at least one committee to "advise" them in their job.

But how much impact do these faculty committees really have on the day-to-day decisions administrators make? How do professors know what student advisers are telling students in terms of majors, classes, etc?  Should this function be in the hands of an administrator or an academic who knows the programs and the students, not from a transcript, but from the work they've done in class? The question that needs to be asked, who is the "expert" in any situation when it comes to the students?

I think there are a number of factors that has lead to this administrative bloat. One, universities are running scared of liability. So much of the bloat comes down to worrying about complying with laws. Not just research laws or grant guidelines, but laws about student privacy balanced with the worry that any student (and their parents) could sue because of whatever reason strikes their deep feelings of injustice. Two, universities are playing too many games: accreditation, rankings, government funding, private funding. While the for-profit sector in being burnt to the ground, the universities pat themselves on the back because they fulfilled their accreditation requirements by forming another committee and hiring another "expert" administrator.

Three, there aren't very many professors left. The majority of the classes in universities are taught by adjuncts, contingent faculty who are not well paid or (sometimes) well-informed about the university. Students used to go their faculty advisers (and some still do!) but when there are no longer any faculty to see, they are forced (or the university is forced) to provide some sort of guidance for them. And, another administrative layer is born. Faculty used to oversee all aspects of student life on campus. No more.

The authors deal with the issue of adjuncts in the book, making the connection between student success and the number of adjuncts they have in front of the classroom during their initial years. But they tend to lay the blame at the feet of over-paid professors who refuse to retire. Instead, they need to be looking at the administrative class, the ones who are making the decisions about hiring an increasing amount of adjuncts and an increasing number of themselves. More adjuncts have seem to have lead to more administrators.

Another unexamined phenomenon is that this administrator class is also highly educated. Browse job postings for administrative positions and the ideal applicant has at least a masters degree. This increase in administrators has lead to an increase in students seeking graduate degrees. The administrators wear the veil of an expert because they have a graduate degree. One wonders how the university used to run before there was a PhD in higher education administration or student services. Or how the university ran before these students were paying full-ride to get these graduate degrees.

And I think professors (at least some of them) secretly like the idea of the administrators. Because, at the end of the day, any failure can be put at the feet of whatever administrative unit was in charge. I would argue (or at least I think it should be examined as a possibility) that it was not the professors who threw away their responsibilities beyond their narrow job descriptions, but that administrators took those responsibilities away. Chicken-egg argument, but an important one. And as the demands from outside of the university kept increasing, the professors certainly weren't lining up to get those roles back. Who wants to deal with accreditation boards, government representatives, and layer upon layer of regulation and laws?

I would say that parents should ask, when universities brag about all of the services/specialists/administrators who are there to "help" their child, ask a) does your child REALLY needs this and b) is an administrator really the best person for this job? As a professor, ask yourself, does my committee work really reflect an authentic opportunity to participate in university governance or is it keeping me happy so that business can go on as usual?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Higher Education? Part I: How Much is a Professor Worth?

For my brief, positive review of the book, see here.

In the very first chapter of Higher Education?, the authors discuss the compensation that professors earn in comparison to the job that they do. They point to the fact that professors (at least at R1 or prestigious private universities) are paid a lot of money (six figures in a lot of cases, if you just read the book) for not a lot of work (four classes taught a year), usually with graduate assistants doing the bulk of the grunt work (grading, leading discussions, answering questions). This may be true for a small number of very prestigious schools (the Golden Dozen, as the authors call them), but for the majority of the professors out there who are in fact lucky enough to be on the tenure-track, this is not the reality.

State support for higher education had clearly been deteriorating. This has lead to an erosion of the real salaries of professors, while they have been asked to teach larger and larger classes, sometimes requiring that the professors teach an overload course, sometimes compensated, sometimes not. And these are not professors who are only teaching four classes a year. These are professors who are teaching four or five classes a semester or quarter. These professors are not making anywhere near six-figure salaries.

The picture that the opening chapter paints of university professors is one of lavish (unearned) privilege. The Ivory Tower is full of Marie Antoinettes calling for the ungrateful, unwashed masses of undergraduates to eat the proverbial cake. Maybe I'm over-reacting, and I know that there are many, many professors out there who do want more and more and more (money, prestige, accolades) for less and less and less (students, teaching, other responsibilities). But most professors work at underfunded, tuition-reliant institutions that cannot afford to pay professors a fraction of what the Golden Dozen and a handfull of others pay.

And besides, what is wrong with the pay a professor earns? As I have written elsewhere, professors face a huge unpaid/low-pay training period as compared to other professions. We go to school for ten years. While our friends who got out of school after their undergrads have paid off their student loans, begun buying houses and moving up the professional ladder, we're stuck doing low-paying postdocs or adjuncting. We start our careers in our thirties, a full ten to fifteen years after our undergraduate cohorts do. Not to mention the loans we still haven't paid off and the loads of credit card debt we've accumulated in the meantime.

The authors give an example of the pay and benefits of a professor at Stanford (pay, health, housing/mortgage credit, free tuition for kids, etc). For those living in an area where the cost of living is low, then this amount (high six figures, all things included) sounds obscene. But, having lived in California, what Stanford is paying is about what a person would need in order to live in or around Stanford. Northern California is expensive. Housing is expensive. Food is expensive. Heck, California taxes are expensive. A person living on that salary in Northern California is just hanging on to what we might consider the middle class.  The offered tax credit in order to buy a better house should be telling. In other words, on this salary alone, you can't afford to live in a neighborhood that has good schools and is safe for your family. It might also say, you can live with the other white people, but that is a different discussion about the hypocrisy of higher ed.

Or is it? Early in the chapter, the authors refer to the old practice of placing universities away from the cities, to keep the professors and students "pure" and, one would imagine, away from distractions. If you point to the Stanford benefits package, why not point to the hypocrisy of being able to buy a better house to a class of people who increasingly identify themselves as being inclusive and tolerant?

The authors also do nothing to indicate what would be fair work and fair pay for professors. Later on in the book they (quite rightly) attack the obscene pay of university presidents and other administrators, saying that they should view their role as a public service and accept less pay as a result. What other sacrefices do they authors expect professors to make, already having forgone up to fifteen years or more of earning power (opportunity costs) in order to become a professor to begin with? We might have jobs that others would be envious of. But to paint us all as six-figure earning, student-hating (or at least avoiding), greedy, myopic relics of a time past isn't fair to the thousands of professors struggling to make ends meet, even on a six-figure salary.

Brief Review of "Higher Education?"

I just got the book Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids-And What We Can Do About It by journalist Claudia Dreifus and former professor Andrew Hacker. In a nutshell, I highly recommend the book to anyone who cares about higher education - especially people who are not directly involved in it (like, professors). I think administrators should be forced to read this book, although I worry it will lead to the formation of another layer of bureaucracy to more closely study and then implement what the book calls for (more on that later). Parents and high school students need to read this book, from all walks of life, from those who aspire to Harvard or those who will be going to community college because that is all they can afford. And we should all be horrified by many of the truth about higher education this book exposes. 

What is written in the book is nothing new. I've written on a number of the topics the authors deal with here on this blog, as has The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, New Faculty Majority, AAUP, etc. The strength of this book is that it is found all in one place, in one (more or less) cohesive narrative. It is a popular book, so if you're looking for an academic book, filled with the usual trappings, then look elsewhere. This is not a criticism. There is enough research and number-crunching to give the book the right amount of heft and credibility. Perhaps the most convincing aspect of the statistics/numbers presented is that they are all publicly available, if you're willing to dig around a little on universities' websites. 

I do think the authors miss some important arguments, rush through others, and present an inconsistent picture at times of the university experience. Over the course of this week, I want to write some of my own thoughts and reactions to the their book. I hope that others will read it and engage in the same kind of debates, with the authors and with each other. The future of higher ed demands it.

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