There is an exceptionally comical research agenda in “education administration” (which is not a scholarly field in the academy) that constantly beats the drum of crisis in higher education and points to the desperate need for radical reform. Higher education is broken. Students aren’t learning. Professors are out of step with the “real” trends in research. There needs to be more accountability to the public for all the money being wasted on these egghead dilettantes who are a bunch of commie homos who hate America. What has ensued is an exponential proliferation of administration in higher education seeking to combat these windmills of pedagogical impasse and mediocrity—it isn’t an accident that this began with the anti-communist crusades of the 1950s and gained permanent (so it seems) dominance during Ronny Raygun’s war on education.
But, fuck all that. I’m hear to tell you a happy story. Despite the fact that the ever expanding phalanx of deanlets and deanlings are trying to ruin college by overadministrating, those people are worthless losers and they can’t even properly fuck things up. Better yet, nothing is really broken. At the top tier, in research focused private universities, flagship public universities, and top of the line liberal arts or science colleges, nothing is even hurting. Higher education is wonderful. Great things are accomplished. Contributions are made to science, the arts, and humanity, and students learn a great many things about myriad subjects and life in general. The experience of going to college and completing college is a marker of success that commands a substantial return in the future. And you only get that from real college. Not online MOOCS or telecourses or from institutions with a revolving door of instructors who are not Professors. Tenured and tenure-tracked professors are the key ingredient in college education. They are the experts who convey and make knowledge. And, nothing can replace that.
I always wonder where these asshole deanlets and deanlings and chancellors and prevosts and shit went to school. Was college broken where you went? Did you learn nothing? Do you think you would be a better person if you just took a telecourse degree? Did anyone write you a letter of recommendation for graduate school? Was it the instructor of a junior college telecourse who was teaching it for $350 and only held a Bachelors or Masters degree in some field of study? College wasn’t broken where I went to school, and I attended a flagship state school (the University of Oklahoma), a solid junior college (Tulsa Junior College), a strong liberal arts and engineering college (the University of Tulsa), and a top tier private (Duke). I had excellent professors at all of these institutions. I learned a great many things. I talked to professors about how to learn more, and they helped me. When it came time to go to graduate school or eventually to get a job, professors wrote me letters of recommendation—and those letters mattered. I wasn’t some number in an online course where the “instructor” might be able to say, “studentx earned an A in my course” but a person about whom they could discuss a variety of characteristics that are relevant for success in graduate school.
And it is still like that, and it isn’t just at the top tier institutions or for the best and the brightest. While I may bitch and moan about it at this time of year, one of the most important things I do is write letters of recommendation for my students. And this week I’ll be writing one for a typical student, let’s call her Kanisha. Kanisha had three courses with me when she was an undergraduate, and she was a solid B- student. Like many of my SIU students, she had children and lived a long way from campus. But, she also made it to class, and if she was going to be late because of weather or a kid issue, or miss class, she always, always sent me an e-mail apologizing for her absence. After graduating, she took a job in social services in her hometown—yes, she got a job, using her sociology major. It’s been a couple of years and now she wants to go back and get an MSW. And, I’m proud to write her a letter of recommendation. I know she’ll do a great job in that field. You see, I know her. I’ve met her. She’s been in my office many times, and I even met one of her sons once. She may not have been the most talented student, but she learned a lot in my courses—and no, I’m not going to prove that to you, assholes. And, even though she didn’t get A’s, she kept coming back for more. She wanted to learn, and she did. She was a college student, and while I hate going to graduations (and didn’t go to my own) I remember being glad that I went there and saw Kanisha and her family at hers, and I was proud of her. My recommendation will mean something. It will have an impact beyond the numbers of her GPA or GRE score. Notably, this privilege is not questioned for students at top tier universities. No, we just want to eliminate the actual experience and benefit of going to college for people like Kanisha. We want “them” to get anonymous online degrees, and then we’ll have a deanlet produce bureaucratic propaganda about Kanisha claiming that her test scores say something about her as a person entering a program leading to a particular professional career. None of US did online degrees. I never took an online course or telecourse (I could have in junior college). None of US thought that our educational experiences were broken, or that we didn’t learn anything. We learned a lot. I hope that the deanlets who think that people aren’t learning in college are willing to explain why I should listen to them given that they are the product of a broken system and learned nothing.
Much of the whiny, sniveling, right-wing “critique” of higher education is the demand for professors to demonstrate what it is that we do. Some of the deanlets and deanlings (especially people trying to work their way up the deanlet totem pole at research universities) demand quantitative accountability of our research production. We’re only as valuable as our latest publication count or (usually more importantly) our grant dollar total. Others (the “teaching geek” deanlets) demand that we produce evidence that our little children are actually “learning,” and those deanlets want to micromanage our courses, homogenize the content, and enforce some kind of no-child-left behind nonsense on higher education. Few of those deanlets could even pass my introductory course on statistics, or have had any basic training in measurement or time series analysis. The only crisis in higher education is that we’re letting a bunch of mediocre flakes “fix” something that isn’t broken. Flakes. Haven’t I heard something about them before? Happy Zappadan.