Friday, May 22, 2015

Beating a Dead Horse: The Student Disengagement Myth & Real-Life Impact

Just to poke Mark Bauerline with a stick one more time:

As my friend Steve Saideman pointed out in his response to Bauerline's piece, the argument relies largely on "anecdata" - individual observations (why aren't there students lined up in the hall of the English department at UCLA?) that may or may not mean anything. When you stoop to that level of argument, someone else's anecdata can be just as good as yours, maybe better.

So here are a couple of data points that contradict Bauerline's assertion that "professors don't matter anymore". Both are related to the recent retirement of a colleague who had served my institution for 30 years:

• A group of students organized a retirement party for said professor. Attendance was standing room only, probably 60-80 people there. One student drove from Virginia Beach to Dayton, OH just to be at that event - because this professor had meant that much to his career.

• At a subsequent retirement dinner, three recent graduates (two of them grown men) broke down in tears as they recalled the impact which my colleague had on their lives. Their paeans to her accomplishments went far beyond "got me a job" to her impact on their lives and their character - those in pursuit of mere employment don't cry about it in public.

Bauerline laments that professors are no longer "moral authorities" but have been reduced to "accreditors". My colleague's retirement, and reflections on her entire 30-year career (up to and including this past year) are a ringing indictment of his sweeping statement.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Marketplace of Ideas Really is a Marketplace

A little over a week ago Mark Bauerline, an Emory English professor, published an op-ed in the Sunday Review of the New York Times that asked “What’s the Point of a Professor?” In it he laid out a variation of the old “kids these days” argument and lamented that professors had lost their “moral authority”. It was the kind of “what’s wrong with the world” Jeremiad popular in many public discussions.

Bauerline’s article was swiftly skewered by dozens of other bloggers and writers in higher education, from the famous and well-placed (DanDrezner in the Washington Post) to the semi-famous (Steve Saideman, Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed) to the obscure (including me). As Drezner and Reed pointed out, the problem was not merely that Bauerline’s argument was wrong, but that it was published in the New York Times. As Drezner wrote, “off-base op-eds like these are the only source of information that general readers like my mother have about the current state of higher education”.

This isn’t the first time that the NYT Sunday Review has published a misleading piece that grossly oversimplifies the world of higher ed. Six weeks ago Paul Campos, a law professor at Colorado, published an argument entitled “The Real Reason College TuitionCosts So Much” in that same publication. It was just as simplistic as Bauerline’s, and met with a similar level of criticism. But it was, of course, widely read.

Why does this happen? Why are the most published voices about higher education those who have the most simplistic views of it? There are dozens of excellent writers and bloggers who understand higher education in all its complexities. Why aren’t they being published?

This state of affairs isn’t because the NYT’s editorial board only wants to publish simplified arguments. It isn’t because of their decision-making at all. The lack of good, widely-available public writing from people inside higher education is because of the choices we faculty and administrators make. To quote the late Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy and he is us.

To understand why this is so, you have to understand the dynamic that drives most human behavior: incentives. While for most people being published in the Sunday New York Times would be a very great honor, for most faculty and administrators it’s not that impactful. Academia is famous for developing metrics of productivity, particularly in writing and research. But popular op-eds (even in the NYT) don’t show up in those systems. They don't help you get promoted, or get tenure, or get a better raise. The same thing is true of administrators, who are rewarded and compensated for a host of measured things none of which involves contributing to the public discussion. University presidents will occasionally weigh in, because they can argue to their boards that they are “thought leaders”. But for most of the rest of us working stiffs, there isn’t enough in it to justify the effort.

So why do people like Bauerline and Campos do it? Because they stand to gain by doing so. Both have made careers as “public intellectuals” by publishing books that are both widely read and highly controversial. Every time their name appears in print, their book sales get a bump. Better still, as champions of publicly controversial arguments they are sought-after speakers. Each is represented by at least two speaking agencies that book speakers across the country for various events, generally for a minimum fee of $5000 - $10,000 per appearance. This is the way the modern intellectual economy works. If you want to make money as a professor, particularly in the humanities, the road to riches lies not within the academy but outside of it. And on that road, visibility in publications like the New York Times is the coin of the realm. It turns out that the marketplace of ideas really is a marketplace.

In pointing this out, I am not at all casting aspersions on either of these gentlemen or doubting the sincerity of their arguments. I am sure that they do, in fact, believe what they write. But it is true that both have a powerful economic incentive to make those arguments in as forceful, simplistic, and controversial a manner as possible in the most visible places in the public arena. Which is how they end up in the Sunday Review.

Since this isn’t true for the rest of us who rely for our living primarily on doing a good job within our universities, we don't have the same incentives. We write blogs, because it’s easy. A few who are still rooted in academia and who value more complex arguments, like Drezner and the founders of The Monkey Cage, have managed to land in higher-visibility places – though most of what they write about is politics and other issues more of interest to the wider masses. There are some excellent writers in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but few in the general public read that august publication.

This dilemma is not unique to higher education, but it is particularly problematic for us. We lament the fact that the public discussion is driven to a large degree by Jeremiads and sensationalist headlines (like Time magazine’s infamous “Is College Worth It?” cover). We wail and gnash our teeth as state legislatures slash spending on universities or debate laws dictating how many courses professors should teach. We know that the American higher education system, once and still the envy of the world, is being steadily eroded by a tide of ignorance. But we mostly complain amongst ourselves. If we want to turn this trend around, more of us have to push back against our own incentive structures and speak out. Otherwise the “marketplace of ideas” will continue to be impoverished, dominated by those who know the least about what is really going on in higher education.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Higher Education Myths: The "Golden Age" Fallacy

My good friend Steve Saideman had an excellent post this morning taking on Mark Bauerlein's NYT article "What's the Point of a Professor?" I'm sure that Bauerline's piece will get plenty of response in the higher ed world - it could be described as a form of trolling, or at least the NYT stooping to click-bait to boost their online attention. But I'll go ahead and jump into the fray anyway.

I do so because Bauerline is guilty of one of the most common fallacies in higher education writing: pining for a "golden age" of college, usually back in the 1960s, when things were so much better and wonderful and isn't it a terrible shame how far we've gotten away from that idyllic time? Or, as my friend Steve puts it much more succinctly, "Kids these days!"

Bauerline's argument is that "back in the day" - when Todd Gitlin was a "fiery working-class kid at Harvard" in the 1960s or when he himself was a student at UCLA in the early 1980s - students were much more engaged (especially with faculty), were more interested in the intellectual conversation that faculty serve as mentors and shepherds into, and were more intent on "developing a philosophy of life" than in crass material things like getting a job. It was a wonderful time when you couldn't walk down the hall of the English department without tripping over the legs of students who couldn't wait to engage in deep, meaningful, mentoring conversations with their professors. No doubt when Bauerline chose a career in higher education, he hoped to have a similar experience from the other side of the desk. And now he's not - and he's got surveys to prove it!

There are several problems at work here. One is the narrow view of higher education which many in higher education themselves hold. Three specific institutions are mentioned in the article: Harvard, UCLA, and (if you count the byline) Bauerline's employer, Emory University. These are all brand-name institutions, instantly recognizable across the country. And because most people in higher ed went to elite institutions like this (and yes, UCLA and Emory ARE elite institutions), they tend to think that these experiences represent the whole of higher ed.

The truth, unfortunately, is much more prosaic. Most college students - especially today, much more so than in the 1960s - don't go to these kinds of institutions. Most of them go to comprehensive regional universities near where they live: University of Akron, Wright State (my employer), Wichita State, Bridgewater State, Millersville, Shippensburg, SUNY (there are 64 SUNY campuses, only a small sliver of which are in or near NYC), and so on. Many of them are the first in their entire families to go to college. These students are, in my experience and observation, practical people pursuing practical things. Most of them don't have the background to understand the Golden Age image of the Life of the Mind that Bauerline is talking about. That's not to say that they can't come to appreciate those goals - but that's not where they are.

These students - many of them also post-traditional, not fresh-from-high-school - make up the vast bulk of college students today. So when Bauerline starts comparing surveys of students today to surveys of students in the 1960s, he's comparing apples and orangutans - they're completely different things. A MUCH larger swath of the American population goes to college today than did in the mid-60s, or even in the early 1980s when Bauerline was in school. It's no wonder they answer the questions differently - they're different people.

Then there's the problem of the supposed "culture shift". This is the "kids these days" part of the argument - Bauerline's lament that "back in the day" college students cared more about self-development, but now they just want to get jobs and make money. It's tempting to blame that shift on the kids themselves, which as Steve points out makes us old folks feel good about ourselves. Except that it isn't the kids' fault - its ours.

As a professor and administrator at an institution much closer to the median of higher ed than Emory, I see this on a regular basis. Every state politician - governor or legislator, Republican or Democrat - talks about education (and higher education in particular) in one manner only: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs! Our entire state government - made up completely not of slacker 20-somethings but of grown men and women older than Bauerline or me - views universities through this lens. Jobs and workforce development are the beginning and the end of the conversation. What state dollars we get depend on our ability, as a public university (which, remember, is where most students go), to sing from this hymnal. Is it any wonder that our students have absorbed what their elders spend so much time talking about?

This sometimes leads to another fallacy - the faculty "call to arms", in which professors complain that their university presidents should "push back" against this "crass commercialization" of higher education. Some of them want to mount the barricades and "take back the university" from those who would extinguish the higher purpose in pursuit of mere economic growth.

That's a comforting battle cry when you're a tenured full professor at a stable and elite university. I've known faculty to get extremely worked up demanding that their university presidents take up this standard and "fight back". But that ignores the reality that presidents face every day: they have to keep the lights on and the salaries paid. State dollars, dwindling as they are, are important for doing so. So are tuition dollars, and a full-throated old-school demand for "higher education the way it was Back In The Day" doesn't pull students in. Again, that's not where our students and their families are. And if we insist that they meet us where we want them to be - if we move the starting line back to someplace we think it once was, and then demand they follow - they won't. Call that crass commercialization if you want, but it's reality. Any good teacher knows - you have to meet students where they are, not where you wish they were.

And why is it, anyway, that politicians are so bent on casting higher education as jobs and workforce development? Look to their constituents - only 35% of them, in most areas, have a college degree. In really well-educated places like San Francisco or Boston, that figure can challenge 50%. But that's it. The reality is that 2/3 of the country hasn't gone to college in any meaningful way - and even accounting for differential rates of voting and participation, those folks are still a large part of the electorate. When Bauerline talks about the "moral authority" of faculty as mentors, most people have no idea what he's talking about. And those are the people who vote, pay taxes, and aspire to send their kids to college.

In a way, then, the problems which Bauerline and his Jeremiad brethren complain about are really the result of the enormous success of higher education. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when very few people went to college but the country was consumed with the idea of upward mobility and making things better for the next generation, there began a vast expansion of higher education as a means of bringing more and more people into and upwards within the middle class. That boom resulted in large numbers of new students, massive growth at existing universities, and the creation of new ones. My current employer is a byproduct of that growth - in 1967, Bauerline's benchmark survey year, Wright State didn't even exist. Now it sports 18,000 students and is looking to grow past 20,000.

All that growth inevitably changed the nature of higher ed. As more students arrived who DIDN'T have a multigenerational experience of college, the broader environment of norms, ideas, and expectations shifted. These newcomers brought their own goals, and universities naturally adapted to try to meet those goals. I won't argue that the broader culture hasn't changed, too - we are perhaps more concerned with jobs and careers and economic growth than may have been true in the past. But if that is true - and we need much better evidence for it than Bauerline offers - it's not the fault of our kids, its the fault of us and our parents, the people who really drive society.

None of this is to argue that the Liberal Arts ideal is dead, or that we shouldn't strive for meaningful mentorship as faculty. I'm a product of the liberal arts world myself, and still believe strongly in its benefits both for career-building and for enlightened citizenship. But the ways we instill that in our students - most of whom work, many of whom don't know what college used to look like, and most of whom have life experiences very different from ours - will of necessity be very different.

The story of a bygone "Golden Age" may be comforting to some, but it just isn't true. We haven't lost the opportunity to engage with our students, and students aren't necessarily less engaged than they used to be - they just engage in different ways. Real transformation is still possible in higher education - indeed, it happens all the time. Meaningful relationships and conversations do still go on between faculty and students. Students themselves frequently talk about the real and significant impact which faculty have had on them. These experiences just don't necessarily happen during regular office hours anymore. Better that we figure out how to do more of this in light of today's realities than pine for a past which isn't coming back, if it ever existed at all.