Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tear down the Ivory Tower

So, I'm going to wade in here, where I'm not wanted, to talk about the article by Mark Taylor, in the New York Times. I liked the article. I thought it made some really good points. But around the blogosphere, there've been some misgivings, not unwarranted misgivings, but misgivings. Not unsurprisingly, Marc Bousquet is concerned about the treatment of the faculty and argues that jobs exist for faculty, but the university has shifted its labor force to part-timers or non-tenured people already. If they just opened those jobs up for full-time t-t faculty, the world would be a better place. Here's my take on that argument, as an adjunct myself. There are indeed some places that rely too heavily on adjunct labor, with 75% of their classes being taught by adjuncts, but this is not the case everywhere. At least part-time work is available at colleges and universities, unlike at corporations. Would I like for those jobs to come with some benefits? Yes. Would I like for the pay to be reasonable? Yes. One of the problems in the college and university labor force is that, while many people think tenure is holding back higher ed from change, no one has come up with a good, viable solution that protects the employees (academic freedom, bargaining rights, etc.). And there's the problem of mobility (or lack thereof). I know I've said this before, but if a manager gets laid off from a job, she doesn't have to move halfway across the country to get another one (usually). An English professor doesn't have that option, especially in a small town. Somehow, we have to deal with this. Either faculty will need to just understand that the possibility exists that they'll have to move (and doesn't this exist anyway?), or perhaps they'll consider it a freedom to be able to move to another university without having to give up the hard work they've put in toward tenure. In many cases, whatever structure one comes up with in terms of long-term contracts will probably mean informal tenure anyway, the difference being, perhaps, certain standards have to be met.

Dean Dad takes on the suggestion that departments be eliminated. He describes the administrative nightmare this would cause, and wonder who the hell would do all the work of developing the curriculum for these programs. I think he's thinking it will be him. At the SLAC's I'm familiar with, some of this interdisciplinary work is being done informally, either by individual faculty or by "centers" or programs. The course I'm currently teaching is cross-listed in 5 different departments and programs. We've read materials in sociology, computer science, literature, film theory, psychology, cultural studies, and philosophy, to name a few. We brought in guest speakers and the work the students were required to do involved both traditional papers, blog writing, and a multimedia project. And let me just say, the planning alone was a buttload of work. So I see where DD is coming from. But I also see what a fabulous learning experience this was for students. I could envision parallel systems here, where students are required to take courses that are interdisciplinary, but still have majors. And these courses could be centered around a common theme, so that there's a common language for the students, but it would be good to have the math majors talking to the English majors.

Finally, although Tim Burke agrees with much of what Taylor proposes, the online collaboration bit seems suspect to him. I think that the idea is actually a good one. The problem is many schools do not have the infrastructure necessary to make this possible, even expensive schools like the SLAC's in my area. I like the idea, however, of less specialization, of feeling the need to cover every niche of every discipline. Maybe there's a faculty member at another school who teaches a niche that no one at our school does and technology could facilitate having that person teach some of our students. Granted, smaller scale tools like Skype and other web conferencing tools can be used in some cases. But would those work for a large class? How many support staff would you need to support this kind of work if, say, 25% of your courses are taught this way? How would the distant students get access to the materials? Would they need accounts on certain systems? Most schools are not using something like OpenID or even any kind of open tool where students can just sign up for their own accounts, so unless the course is on the open web, there's some overhead there for getting students access to the course. And then there's the administrative overhead of figuring out the curriculum or at least approving it. Around here, we have around 100 colleges within a 50-mile radius. There are clusters of collaborations already, both formal and informal among the schools that have similar missions and/or are close to each other. Could these collaborations be expanded? Yes. Can technology help? Yes, but IT departments would need to shift to a different model on the academic side to make this work. Lock-down mode doesn't work when you're trying to collaborate across institutions.

My own feeling about the article is that I do want something to change. I don't know if the elimination of departments works, but what about merging departments? What about creating a real interdisciplinary infrastructure instead of just giving lip service to it?

I especially like the idea of eliminating the traditional dissertation (oh, what I would have done if I could have used video!) and providing expanding opportunities for grad students. I would love to see career fairs for grad students where corporations, think tanks, museums, and other institutions who value the experience of Ph.D's would come and recruit students. Instead what happens is graduate advisers, who only know the academy, tell you what schools to apply to. A Ph.D. who then takes a job outside the academy either does so because no academic jobs were forthcoming or feels like a sell-out.

Whatever we think of Taylor's argument, I think there's a general feeling that the structure at most colleges and universities is not serving the needs of the students (this may not be true at CC's). The training that students receive, even at SLAC's, is mostly training for an academic life that most won't have even if that's what they want. A broader, more interdisciplinary education has the potential of creating more knowledgeable citizens, who are better prepared to solve the world's problems. There will still be some who choose to become faculty (and we will need them), but wouldn't it be great if being an English major didn't mean that you knew nothing about physics?

Cross-posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting
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