Posts Tagged Higher Education
Mid-terms have come and gone at the University where I teach and work as an administrator. With their passing, students are left to ponder just what it will take to get them through the rest of the semester. Some will take advantage of the services available to assist them as they try not to buckle under the growing burdens of their blended school work, jobs, and social life. An even larger number, however, will fall by the wayside and drop out of their classes.
This is especially true of the First Year students I teach. ACT statistics from 2012 show a first to second year retention rate at all of the United States’s colleges and universities they surveyed of approximately 67%. Even if the financial burden of going to college were not as bad as it is today, this rate is still alarming. It is indicative of an educational system that is good at persuading students to enroll, but not as good at ushering them towards the completion of their degree.
Part of the problem is the message that parents, educators, and public figures such as President Obama send to prospective students. First they tell them that college is a surefire ticket to a better life. And then they convince prospective students that any college and degree program will do. All the would be students need concern themselves with is that they hurry up and get a BA before its too late.
A major problem with this message is that the first assertion is a selective interpretation of the truth. Statistics show that “on average” college graduates have greater earning power than those with only a high school degree. The reality, however, is much cloudier. Earning power depends largely on the degree earned and the school granting the degree. As more Americans have Bachelor’s degrees, employers can be more selective. This makes the subject studied and the network of potential recommenders that a well-known school can provide more important than ever. Also, it is worth noting that the only reason college earnings have remained higher than the take home pay of non-college graduates is that the average wage of high school educated employees has plummeted since the 1980s.
Armed with this faulty information, students are then fed the equally faulty perspective that all institutions of higher education are essentially alike. How many students do you know of who are savvy enough to parse the distinction between a college and a university? How many faculty can do this for that matter? What does a community college really offer? How about for profits? Students are left with the impression that college is vital to their future, but then are left essentially adrift to figure out where they should go on their own. Is it any wonder that undergraduates are often better at comparison shopping for a smartphone than they are at picking out a college?
One way to alleviate this problem is to be honest with would be students. Don’t discourage them from going to college, but explain that, depending on what career path they are intent on pursuing, a college degree might not be necessary. There are numerous certificate programs and high school vocational programs that can place students in satisfying careers that pay a living wage. Additionally, there are two-year colleges that can either serve as a place for would be students to discover what they are interested in studying or provide them a skill that is immediately applicable to the workforce.
Making these career track options more visible and more viable will then enable colleges and universities in the United States to stop marketing themselves as job training centers. Four year institutions of higher learning should busy themselves imagining the jobs of tomorrow rather than placing its students in the popular fields of today.
Much of the research on the “digital divide” focuses on individual users and demographic groups that have traditionally had limited access to technology. A recent study by the Pew Research Center continues this trend. Their findings indicate that thanks to mobile technology, specifically the smart phone, internet use among all social groups is increasing. Fear of technology is also fading as once excluded groups learn digital literacy.
Although these studies are heartening to read, indicating gradual progress towards greater access to technology for all citizens, they fail to take into account the digital divide that exists within educational institutions. While television, radio, and internet news providers have been busy bashing the teacher’s unions and tearing apart the educational policies of “No Child Left Behind,” precious little has been said about the uneven technological infrastructure of our nation’s schools.
For every school with access to i Pads and state of the art computer labs, there are hundreds with only a handful of aging computers (usually in the library) that are available on a first come first served basis for internet research and word processing. This problem is endemic throughout the current educational system, reaching as far as the ranks of higher education.
Right now I am writing this blog post at home on my personal laptop. Partially this decision was made voluntarily, as I wanted to write during the evening in the comfort of my home and not use work resources for non-work related activities. Even if I had wanted to write this post earlier at work, however, I could not.
I share an office at my institution with four other Non-Tenure Track Faculty (NTT as we’re calling them these days). At one point, we had a desktop computer that was five years old. Not surprisingly given the CPU intensive nature of WEB 2.0, this machine died during the summer semester.
In its place, next to the CRT monitor (i.e. the kind that looks like an old TV), mouse, and keyboard of the old computer, sits a seven-year old laptop–a PowerBook G4. This machine was wrangled from the department after over a month of hectoring our IT guy. I had never even heard of this particular brand of Apple laptop so I took the time to search for information about the system on Wikipedia. It turns out that the “new” computer in my office is the precursor to the now ubiquitous Mac Book.
With its limited CPU power and an outdated browser, the most I can do with this laptop is check my email and read websites that aren’t overly graphics heavy or interactive. On most days I go upstairs to the computer lab and wait to use one of the three computers in our departmental computer lab. I also have the option (unlike most of my colleagues) of using the computer in my other office where I serve as an undergraduate studies program assistant.
Added to these frustrations is the lack of wireless internet access in either of my offices, which prohibits me from bringing my personal i Pad to work and getting around the technological limitations of my work space. At one point, I was able to “hack” my way into the network by plugging the internet cable in my teaching office into my own laptop, but as of today our internet connection there is down. This also makes it impossible to use the telephone in that room as my institution switched a few years ago from regular phone service to VOIP (voice over internet protocol).
If we move from my early twentieth century office into the classrooms where I teach, the situation is only slightly better. In a course I designed to teach digital literacy and multi-modal writing to my students, the most advanced technology in any of my three classrooms is a flat screen monitor with a VGA cable that allows me to plug in my own laptop and display its screen on a 25″ television. Wireless access is available in all three rooms, but that assumes that my students can afford to bring their own technology to class as I have.
“Plug and Play” is better than nothing in a world where technological access is no longer a luxury but a precondition for education to take place. Yet it places the burden of technology’s cost on the students and educators. Not only is this unfair, it also sends a strange message to our students: “You need to be educated for the jobs of the 21st century, but we will not provide the tools.” No wonder self-learning is coming back into fashion. Why pay for school when you can buy a laptop and let the internet teach you the skills needed to survive in a tech-driven world?
Now I should perhaps qualify my statement/rant above by reiterating the fact that I am a NTT faculty member. I’m also an English Professor. Perhaps things are different for the TT faculty in my department or are significantly better in other programs at my institution. My suspicion, however, is that while the technological infrastructure might be less antiquated than what I described above it is still inadequate to meet student needs.
When we talk about the digital divide, we need to remember that surfing the internet is a skill easily learned alone at home. Using the web to your advantage, however, is a skill that should be learned collectively in the classroom. Regrettably, this can’t happen when many educators work in an environment designed to teach Baby Boomers to fight the Red Menace.
A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, "In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, 'History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.' I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education.
In what may qualify as the non-event of the year, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released its report on Adjunct working conditions yesterday. The data paints a picture similar to that of Josh Boldt’s earlier crowdsourced study the Adjunct Project. Non-tenure track faculty are working long hours for little pay, and they would gladly accept a full-time career track position if one were made available. The more interesting statistic from the CAW study that gets lost in the overwhelming focus on pay is that a significant majority of those working off the tenure track are women who teach in humanities disciplines.
Reading through the CAW’s study, I couldn’t help but feel that the time spent on this project would have been better used somewhere else. The trends in Adjunct labor have not dramatically changed since the CAW was founded in 1997. What has changed is that each year conditions in Higher Education have become steadily worse. Studies don’t change society, men and women possessing moral courage who are mobilized for action do. What makes this study even more useless (in my opinion) is the small number of non-academics who will ever see it. They are the ones who need to see the data. I would wager they are the only ones who would be surprised by the content of the CAW’s study.
So it’s official, the dead horse has been beaten once again.
More promising but still cringe-inducing is the plan endorsed by Middle Tennessee State University to create a four phase plan for non-tenure track faculty that would recognize their integral role in departmental life. It would allow those teaching on semester-to-semester contracts (Adjuncts in the truest sense of the word) a path to becoming full-time lecturers and (eventually) senior lecturers.
That path is severely flawed, as the Homeless Adjunct points out. Moreover, it’s not even that inventive. My employer already has such a system in place and has for at least as long as I’ve worked there (2000).
Yet in spite of these flaws, talk of a phased system of Adjunct employment moves us beyond the statistical study of “the Adjunct Question” and the tiresome stories of victimization to actually doing something about the problem. Let’s hope that more talk about solutions comes into vogue so that better plans than Middle Tennessee’s might emerge.
If nothing else, the CAW study and the “four-phase” plan adopted by Middle Tennessee and endorsed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demonstrates the epistemological gap between the tenure track and the non-tenure track in Higher Education. It also demonstrates that Academic Professional Organizations are paper tigers. I guess that explains why union membership on college campuses is up while professional groups struggle to maintain their ranks.
A Reuter’s report describes recent efforts to create computer software that could scan and grade common errors in student essays. Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.
Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills. He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.
Steve Graham, a Professor at Vanderbilt who has conducted research on essay grading techniques, argues, in contrast, that the replacement of writing teachers by grading software is not only “inevitable” but also desirable as “the reality is humans aren’t very good at doing this.”
As the writer of the Reuter’s article notes, talk about paper grading software is not new. It began in the 1960s. Now, however, technology has reached a level where such grading is not only possible but also probable. But the question still remains: Is it a good idea?
Leaving aside for a moment the question of faculty employment, machine grading sidesteps a more important question than how to get students to write more and grade that writing effectively. Namely–what is writing and who is responsible for teaching it.
In too many schools writing is viewed as the “problem” of the English department. Students are sent to writing classes to learn essay structure, research techniques, and grammar. Only the last of these is universal. The other two skill sets are discipline specific. I guess that explains why to my students everything they read is a novel and every paper a literary analysis. They’ve been taught after all that writing equals English.
If we really want students to learn not just writing but effective communication, parents, teachers, and administrators need to spread the responsibility for this instruction across the curriculum. Some schools already do this but most are content to leave communication training to literary scholars. Machines won’t change this. They will be programmed to evaluate whatever curriculum is currently in place. Until the curriculum is changed, the machine will not only replicate the error but multiply it.
Moving on to the issue of employment, part of my unease with a machine that grades papers is it would most likely put me out of a job. I have 48 student essays in need of grading that are staring at me right now as I pen this post. Of course, the curricular changes I suggest would more than likely have the same effect, with or without machine assistance. The way to counter this, however, is to lower class sizes.
This is the other aspect of the issue that is completely ignored by most research. If class sizes are lessened, not only will more teachers have employment but writing will become a less onerous task to teach and evaluate. It could also then be meaningfully integrated into the entire curriculum and not remain the purview of the English Department.
Would such changes cost a lot of money? Yes. But it is a good investment. Far better than the money we’ve wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even larger sums of money we spend incarcerating drug offenders. It’s even better, dare I say, than the cost of a certain software currently being designed to solve all my problems.
This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same. My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States. In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced. Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments.
With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education. A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000. In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation. That is up from 46% in 1990.
Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work-study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue-collar employment on campus. Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar.
Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to “economize” and “monetize” their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen-house. Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation.
In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution.
Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm. Here are a list of those events:
8:30am– A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton. That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.
11:00am–A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.
1:00pm–C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally.
These are just a few of the events occurring that day. Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open. If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker. Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.
Somewhere in the top drawer of my dresser is a metal insignia that reads Savoir C’est Pouvoir–Knowledge Is Power. That insignia was given to me by my uncle years ago when he left the 82nd airborne to return to civilian life. He had served for several years as an intelligence officer with his unit and that service was reflected on the insignia he wore on his maroon beret.
What is true for the armed forces is often equally true in other areas of life. In this case the quest to reform the conditions of teaching and learning in higher education. To achieve any kind of victory, it is first necessary to understand what exactly you are up against. Good data can save lives on the battlefield and it can shape for the better (or worse) the future of students and teachers in the college classroom.
The task to gather accurate intelligence on Adjunct labor conditions began with a vengeance last week as Josh Boldt, an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Georgia and fellow attendee of the New Faculty Majority summit, created a Google docs spreadsheet where Adjunct faculty can list their salaries, benefits, and working conditions. Here for the first time the general public can see in one place how much Adjunct faculty make at institutions throughout the United States and (in some cases) the world. I’ve added my information to the spreadsheet. I’d encourage you to do so as well.
Reading through all the information on the spreadsheet is a bit daunting and at some point it will need analysis and visualization to work as an organizing tool, but I anticipate some great coalition building campaigns emerging from out of this data. Administrator’s can easily dismiss claims based on ethos and pathos but they can’t dismiss the logic of numbers. A quick scan of the data on this sheet shows that the median salary for Adjunct faculty is well below the suggested MLA guidelines and is far lower than the amount needed to sustain oneself let alone a family.
In a recent post to her Inside Higher Education Blog, College Ready Writing, Lee Bessette extols the benefits of this “crowdsourced” project on behalf of Adjuncts everywhere and I am inclined to agree with her. My only quibble is with her use of the word “hero.”
At the New Faculty Majority summit I was frequently the annoying pragmatist who pointed out the need for data and clear talking points not simply to push our adversaries back on their heels but also to energize the people we hope to form into a coalition to change higher education. Call it lamenting, kvetching, carping, whatever you like–the fact remains, I have been witness to and participant in ALOT of failed organizing campaigns. I’d like to think that I have learned something from those experiences and what I was saying came from that perspective.
We don’t need heroes in the quest to reform higher education. Instead we need patience, perseverance, and clarity of vision. These are the qualities that inspired Srdja Popovic in his campaign to topple Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and later guided uprisings in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The status quo works for the people in power. If it didn’t, contingent labor wouldn’t be expanding and it wouldn’t be invisible to the general public. To make it stop working will require thousands of micro-strikes against it rather than one dramatic lunge. We are small but mighty. Non-violent guerilla war against corporate higher education has begun.