Sunday, 13 November 2011

Never Say: No One

It is always with great trepidation that I read an article about Our Failing Universities, even an article written by a professor rather than a journalist out to make a splash, and even an article in a publication that I greatly admire and enjoy reading (such as The New York Review of Books).

In a recent issue of NYRB, there is a review/essay by Anthony Grafton titled "Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?" (not Are They Failing, but Why). The essay mentions, at least briefly, 8 recent books with titles (and subtitles: every single one has a subtitle!) such as:

The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get The College Education You Paid For. I have not read this book, but I hate the title (and the subtitle) for a large number of reasons that I can't explain without seeming professorial in the negative-stereotype kind of way.

OK, I will obliquely mention one reason: Do you have faculty lounges at your university? What goes on in them? Or is "Lounges" a verb here?

Anyway.. here's another one:

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. I am not really sure what it is that matters, but without reading the book (just the review), I probably agree with the author that there are too many high-paid administrators doing who-knows-what other than making the rest of us do time-consuming pointless things. But mostly I want to know: Have the faculty really fallen? What does that even mean? That we have no say in anything anymore? If so, why am I still on all these committees? Can I quit them? And if the faculty have truly fallen, where are we? It makes me want to say: We are here! We are here! We are here! (Seuss, 1954)

I am skipping over a few other books that have exciting words such as Exclusion and Assault in the title, and others that have already been much discussed in the blogosphere, here and elsewhere.

But I don't want to skip this one: Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Again, there is that scary and definitive why. This book is, according to Grafton, "a.. recent polemic against the corruption of the humanities". Alas, that is a topic on which I cannot even pretend to have any insight. Within my very limited socio-professional universe, all the humanities professors I know even reasonably well seem to be quite entranced with the meaning of life, unless they are secretly corrupt, and that is why they all wear so much black. Or perhaps the corrupt ones never leave their offices (or faculty lounges!?) and so I have not met them. Or maybe they are at your university, but not at mine.

In any case, what do we think about statements such as these, from the essay:

Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research.


The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

We have all seen statements like this before, and I have discussed them before. But I will ask again: Which professors? Where? Certainly there are research professors -- who typically raise some or all of their money from grants -- but most of the science professors I know are serious about both research and teaching, and see these both as important parts of their jobs. If, however, someone devotes 60% of their time to research and 40% of their time to teaching, the statement is true, but misleading. And that brings us to the second excerpt.

Does no ones see classroom learning as a primary pursuit? Is the emphasis on the word "primary"? If so, then perhaps that statement is also true for many professors and administrators at large universities. Classroom learning is just one of many aspects of a university. Even so, the statement is misleading and is an unfair criticism of universities, administrators, and professors of all sorts.

Classroom teaching is not my primary pursuit, but that doesn't mean it isn't as important as research, including research involving undergraduates. Does it have to be more important for more people for our universities to stop "failing"? My colleagues and I teach, advise, do research, and participate in various service activities in our departments, universities, professional communities, and beyond. We are busy people, doing many different things, most of which contribute to the vitality of the university and many of which directly or indirectly benefit students.

I am not saying that universities are perfect and that there aren't many things to fix, but it is quite rare to see the good and the bad considered in a fair and thoughtful way. Maybe (almost) no one would want to read such a book.

In the end, though, this is why I liked Grafton's essay: because he concludes that these books are not constructive contributions to the large task of figuring out how to fix the problems with US universities. He ends his essay:

..  public discussion and scrutiny would become much more productive if informed writers captured the texture and flavor of the American university .. The novelists discovered this territory long ago. Where are the great journalists? They will find students who manage to do excellent work and many more cases of wasted possibilities, and they might gain some insight into why.

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