Category Archives: Higher Ed Blues

09.20.21: The Fight Over Tenure Is Not Really About Tenure

Why should universities guarantee jobs to a bunch of elitists who study esoteric subjects and brainwash students with left-wing politics? This critique of tenure in higher education is as old as tenure itself, and it’s gaining ground. In recent years, governing boards and legislators in several states have attempted to ban tenure or curtail its power — sometimes succeeding, as in Wisconsin. In the American labor market, where employers have unusually wide latitude to hire and fire at will, it’s not hard for politicians to channel popular resentment toward a small class of workers with relatively strong protections.

That class is getting even smaller. The proportion of American faculty members on the tenure track has been falling since the 1970s, and today just a third of college professors have tenure or are on track to receive it. Every year more and more teachers join the ranks of contingent faculty members, surviving contract to contract with little hope that these debates will ever apply to them.

Over the years, tenure’s defenders have offered up noble pleas for the system. It does not grant a teacher a job for life but simply protection from arbitrary firing and retribution; it safeguards academic freedom; it decreases turnover and creates a more stable learning environment for students; it’s more cost-effective than critics suggest, especially when compared with how much universities spend on new administrative positions and lavish student facilities.

All these arguments are basically right. But they will never persuade tenure skeptics outside the university. That’s because the fight over tenure is not really about tenure. It’s a proxy for a larger debate about the meaning of academic freedom and the priorities of higher education. These are intractable battles in the culture wars, but universities are not helpless to confront them — as long as they grapple with the real problems in the tenure system and academic culture.

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Image credit: Shoshana Schultz

04.10.21: A Once-in-a-Century Crisis Can Help Educate Doctors

Over the past year, ordinary medical research nearly ground to a halt as researchers focused on coronavirus vaccine trials and treatments. Single-mindedness paid off. Drugmakers developed lifesaving vaccines in record time, and now a third of Americans are at least partially vaccinated.

But ultimately, the pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis that may force health professionals and medical schools to look beyond the traditional tools of modern medicine and think more broadly about how we train doctors to grapple with public health catastrophes.

There were signs of a reckoning at the very start of the pandemic. When Covid-19 hit the Northeast, the Yale School of Medicine moved classes online and pulled many students off clinical rotations. “The dean sent an email that said, go home, take this time to study,” Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako, a Yale medical student, told me. “I thought, oh my God, I can’t imagine studying for an exam right now.” Mr. Tiako and a small number of the faculty and students worked together to create new courses that students could take instead, including an intriguing elective called “Covid-19: A History of the Present.”

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Image credit:  Soomin Jung

09.25.20: Can We Take the School Out of Homeschooling?

 

Tiersa McQueen vividly remembers the morning she woke up and found her four children teaching themselves geometry. She discovered them standing at the whiteboard, measuring angles and studying shapes they had traced.

“They wanted to know what the shapes were, so they looked them up, wrote down the names, then started going down the rabbit hole of online information,” she told me.

The McQueens are unschoolers. The children — a 14-year-old, a 13-year-old and 9-year-old twins — learn at home, but with far more flexibility than traditional home-schooling families. Their parents spurn curriculums, textbooks, tests and grades. Instead they do their best to follow the children’s natural curiosity, their impulse to drop what bores them and investigate whatever captivates them, engaging in “self-directed education” at their own pace.

During this long season of involuntary at-home learning, what parent hasn’t dreamed of moments like Ms. McQueen’s morning discovery? As parents struggle to keep up with their own jobs while kids work through packets of worksheets and iPad apps in the next room, it is tempting to hope for a silver lining: the emancipation of children’s impulses to explore the world independently, to find ways to answer their own questions.

Unschoolers, who have long occupied an obscure corner of the home-schooling community, have suddenly become intriguing, less like alien life-forms and more like your cool neighbor who managed to stay relaxed through the monthslong shortages of toilet paper and child care. Unschooling is a pedagogy premised on letting your kid sleep in, read whatever they like (or not) and learn math (or not) through baking, elaborate Lego creations or wandering the internet rather than working through a textbook.

This approach is unlikely to work for most families. Even some who believe wholeheartedly in the idea of unschooling struggle with it in practice. But unschoolers’ choice to take on that struggle should compel the rest of us to face big questions about motivation, coercion and the purpose of education during this unusual school year and beyond.

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Image credit: Marta Monteiro

09.04.20: The Trouble with Empathy

When my daughter started remote kindergarten last month, the schedule sent to parents included more than reading, math, art and other traditional subjects. She’ll also have sessions devoted to “social and emotional learning.” Themes range from listening skills and reading nonverbal cues to how to spot and defuse bullying.

As millions of students start the school year at home, staring at glowing tablets, families worry that they will miss out on the intangible lessons in mutual understanding that come with spending hours a day with kids and adults outside their own household. We want children to grasp perspectives of people different from themselves. Yet in recent years, empathy — whether we can achieve it; whether it does the good we think — has become a vexed topic.

While teachers attempt to teach empathy through screens, the national context has become complicated in the months since the police killing of George Floyd. “Because our white leaders lack compassion and empathy, Black people continue to die,” wrote a columnist in The Chicago Sun-Times. When Joe Biden posted a video declaring that “the pain is too intense for one community to bear alone,” journalists called the message an effort to “project empathy” — while activists said empathy was not enough.

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Image credit: Geoff McFetridge

08.30.19: Can We Guarantee that Colleges are Intellectually Diverse?

According to some critics of higher education, as college students around the country head back to class, they will search in vain for classroom debate where all opinions are welcome.

Conservative watchdog groups paint a dark, repressive picture. “The Evil Empire on Campus,” an online resource published by the organization Campus Reform, urges students to be on guard against socialist professors and administrators committed to “leftist indoctrination,” who “weed out applicants who appear to be conservative” and “prohibit the expression of conservative thought by students in class.”

“The Evil Empire” offers no footnotes or examples. Its allegations are laughably overblown. But reasonable people should think about the issues these groups raise — because they are based, however tenuously, on a grain of truth and because hysterical caricatures have power. For too long, they have set the terms of public debate about ideological diversity and free speech in higher education. Their claims have inspired aggressive interventions by politicians and donors, who sometimes run roughshod over academic freedom and university self-governance. There are better ways to promote diversity of thought on campus, but they require a more accurate diagnosis of the problem — and a willingness to experiment.

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Image credit: Jennifer Daniel; Getty

06.08.19: The Anti-College is on the Rise

Michelle Jones, founder and president of Wayfinding Academy.

A small band of students will travel to Sitka, Alaska, this month to help reinvent higher education. They won’t be taking online courses, or abandoning the humanities in favor of classes in business or STEM, or paying high tuition to fund the salaries of more Assistant Vice Provosts for Student Life. They represent a growing movement of students, teachers and reformers who are trying to compensate for mainstream higher education’s failure to help young people find a calling: to figure out what life is really for.

These students will read works by authors ranging from Plato and Herbert Marcuse to Tlingit writers. The point is to “develop and flex a more rigorous political imagination,” according to one course syllabus. They will take on 15 to 20 hours a week of manual labor in Sitka, and set their group’s rules on everything from curfews to cellphones. Last summer’s cohort discouraged the use of phones during class and service hours and ordered everyone to turn off the internet at 10 p.m.

This is Outer Coast, one of an expanding number of educational experiments born out of a deepening sense that mainstream American colleges are too expensive, too bureaucratic, too careerist and too intellectually fragmented to help students figure out their place in the universe and their moral obligations to fellow humans.

There are alternative colleges that replace traditional courses with personalized study; gap-year programs that combine quasi-monastic retreats with world travel; summer seminars devoted to clearing trails and reading philosophy. They aim to prove that it is possible to cultivate moral and existential self-confidence, without the Christian foundation that grounded Western universities until the mid-20th century. They seek to push back against the materialism and individualism that have saturated the secular left and right, all at an affordable price. It’s a tall order.

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Image credit: Chad Brown

02.23.18: The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes’

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

I teach at a big state university, and I often receive emails from software companies offering to help me do a basic part of my job: figuring out what my students have learned.

If you thought this task required only low-tech materials like a pile of final exams and a red pen, you’re stuck in the 20th century. In 2018, more and more university administrators want campuswide, quantifiable data that reveal what skills students are learning. Their desire has fed a bureaucratic behemoth known as learning outcomes assessment. This elaborate, expensive, supposedly data-driven analysis seeks to translate the subtleties of the classroom into PowerPoint slides packed with statistics — in the hope of deflecting the charge that students pay too much for degrees that mean too little.

It’s true that old-fashioned course grades, skewed by grade inflation and inconsistency among schools and disciplines, can’t tell us everything about what students have learned. But the ballooning assessment industry — including the tech companies and consulting firms that profit from assessment — is a symptom of higher education’s crisis, not a solution to it. It preys especially on less prestigious schools and contributes to the system’s deepening divide into a narrow tier of elite institutions primarily serving the rich and a vast landscape of glorified trade schools for everyone else.

Without thoughtful reconsideration, learning assessment will continue to devour a lot of money for meager results. The movement’s focus on quantifying classroom experience makes it easy to shift blame for student failure wholly onto universities, ignoring deeper socio-economic reasons that cause many students to struggle with college-level work. Worse, when the effort to reduce learning to a list of job-ready skills goes too far, it misses the point of a university education.

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Image credit: Joan Wong/NYT

08.26.17: Memorize That Poem!

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

LATE one night this spring, Justin Snider, an assistant dean at Columbia University, was riding the uptown No. 2 in Manhattan when the train ground to a halt. After about 15 minutes — with little information about the delay and no cell service — everyone in the car was getting restless. Suddenly, inspiration struck. “I asked neighboring passengers if they wanted to hear some Shakespeare, and no one objected,” Mr. Snider told me.

He had memorized Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech more than 15 years earlier, to pass the time on a cross-country bike trip. “I was definitely nervous because I’d never performed publicly before,” he said. Although his jaded audience neglected to clap when he finished — they did applaud when the train started to move again — Mr. Snider was pleased that he didn’t forget a line.

The soliloquy was fixed in the architecture of his brain, ready to serve in a moment of boredom or underground anxiety. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Snider has asked students to memorize poetry many times in his career in education.

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline — to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.

Yet poetry memorization has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents — not to mention students — consider too boring, mindless and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?

In fact, the value of learning literature by heart — particularly poetry — has only grown. All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.

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Image credit: Anthony Gerace/NYT

05.13.17: U Can’t Talk To Ur Professor Like This

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

Chapel Hill, N.C. — At the start of my teaching career, when I was fresh out of graduate school, I briefly considered trying to pass myself off as a cool professor. Luckily, I soon came to my senses and embraced my true identity as a young fogey.

After one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step. I began attaching a page on etiquette to every syllabus: basic rules for how to address teachers and write polite, grammatically correct emails.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.

Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

His webpage covers matters ranging from appropriate email addresses (if you’re still using “cutie_pie_98@hotmail.com,” then “it’s time to retire that address”) to how to be gracious when making a request (“do not make demands”).

Sociologists who surveyed undergraduate syllabuses from 2004 and 2010 found that in 2004, 14 percent addressed issues related to classroom etiquette; six years later, that number had more than doubled, to 33 percent. This phenomenon crosses socio-economic lines. My colleagues at Stanford gripe as much as the ones who teach at state schools, and students from more privileged backgrounds are often the worst offenders.

Why are so many teachers bent out of shape because a student fails to call them “Professor” or neglects to proofread an email? Are academics really that insecure? Is this just another case of scapegoating millennials for changes in the broader culture?

Don’t dismiss these calls for old-fashioned courtesy as a case of fragile ivory tower egos or misplaced nostalgia. There is a strong liberal case for using formal manners and titles to ensure respect for all university professionals, regardless of age, race or gender. More important, doing so helps defend the university’s dearest values at a time when they are under continual assault.

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Image credit: Erik Carter/NYT

10.17.15: Lecture Me. Really.

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

BEFORE the semester began earlier this fall, I went to check out the classroom where I would be teaching an introductory American history course. Like most classrooms at my university, this one featured lots of helpful gadgets: a computer console linked to an audiovisual system, a projector screen that deploys at the touch of a button and USB ports galore. But one thing was missing. The piece of technology that I really needed is centuries old: a simple wooden lectern to hold my lecture notes. I managed to obtain one, but it took a week of emails and phone calls.

Perhaps my request was unusual. Isn’t the old-fashioned lecture on the way out? A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.” Maryellen Weimer, a higher-education blogger, wrote: “If deep understanding is the objective, then the learner had best get out there and play the game.”

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

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Image credit: Baptiste Alchourroun