I have been thinking about this post and summer series for a while now. It fits in well with what I write about both here and for the University of Venus. I was planning on doing these posts on Friday, but it looks like Mondays it is. Makes more sense, as I will have the weekend to write them. Although, over the summer, every day looks a lot the same (take care of kids in the AM, write and research in the PM, rinse, repeat).
What is this weekly feature? Every week, I will look at all the ways I am a Bad Female Academic. Some weeks, it will be about why am I a bad academic more generally, sometimes about how I am a bad female. Other weeks, it will be why I am a bad combination of the two. I specifically want to deal with the ways in which our communities (large and small) try to limit who I am and how I am allowed to view and understand myself. The pressures academia places on me are well-knows, as are larger societal messages about who I am supposed to be as a woman, mother, and wife. When these two worlds collide…
I am inspired by two people in particular: Her Bad Mother and Worst Professor Ever. But unlike Worst Prof (and more like Bad Mother), I tired to leave academia and found myself pulled back in (OK, so once you have kids, you’re pretty much stuck with them, but you get the analogy, right?). In my mind, the work of breaking the stereotypes of what it is to be a “good” mother and a “good” academic (which, in my mind, sounds an awful lot like being a “good girl” – actually, go and listen to the Barenaked Ladies song, you’ll see what I mean). They are chains hanging around our necks and I want to really take a long, hard look at them.
But mostly I’m just tired of all the things I should or shouldn’t be doing, worrying about what everyone else thinks, and just be who I am, which is, apparently, a Bad Female Academic.
There is a persistent image that many undergraduates (or, more accurately, the public at large) have about professors, that we, locked away in our ivory tower, have no idea what it is like in the “real world” where people really work (as opposed, I guess, to pretending to work?).
There has also been quite a lot of talk recently about the value of internships, especially the kind where students have to pay to participate and don’t see any money in return. And, as college admissions seasons have came and went, there has been a deluge of hang wringing about how high school students can no longer afford to work, lest their college application not reflect the right kind of values and experiences.
I have been working since I was 10 years old (crap, here she goes). I started with a paper route (mind you, it was only for our weekly local paper, but still) that I inherited from a friend. I moved on to babysitting, found through hand-made fliers that my mom graciously copied at work (I colored them afterwards, too). These jobs didn’t pay much, but they were enough to keep a 10-13 year old in Tiger Beat magazines and cassettes.
I also did some unpaid work at that time, via a quasi-internship program run by the city, Leaders in Training/Leaders of Tomorrow. I wanted to be a lifeguard, and this was how the city (who ran the pools) helped prepare us for our eventual job as lifeguards (or park attendants). Basically, we got to do all the nasty jobs (like clean out the gutters) that the lifeguards didn’t want to do. It was sort-of terrible, but that was outweighed by the fact that it meant you got to hang out in the office with the lifeguards who were all older and impossibly cool. That was worth a lot of dead bugs.
Now, a few words on lifeguarding, my first real job. To all those college admissions people who think that lifeguarding equals lazy, I’m here to tell you, you’re dead wrong. At least where we grew up, lifeguarding meant not only sitting on a chair in the sun, it also meant that you had to coach a water sport (diving, swimming, synchro, or water polo), teach swimming lessons, organize the competitions for the sport you coached, and organize community events to be held at the pool. Sometimes, we also had to do fund-raisers. At the age of 16. No one working at the pools were usually older than 21 or 22, and they were manager. These were not insignificant jobs with no responsibilities. And, trust me, when the patrons weren’t happy with the job you were doing, they let my bosses at City Hall know (being how my salary was paid by their taxes and all that).
But even if lifeguarding only consists of sitting up on that chair, know that that job is one that is a matter of life and death. If someone is drowning, has a stroke, a heart attack, has a severe allergic reaction, etc, it is our responsibility to save them. We’re trained to do that. It’s one of those jobs where it doesn’t look like you’re doing much until you are called upon to act. And then, you’d best act. I’ve had to clear the pool for one spinal (which is stressful because one wrong move and the person could be paralyzed), and it was frightening. We might not always have to put our knowledge into practice, but if something were to go wrong, lifeguards (at least the ones I grew up with) are professional, capable, and still in their teens.
Kids, you can quote me on that one, too.
I learned some valuable lessons. I had to show up for work, on time, or suffer the consequences. I was once suspended for a week because I missed staff training (this precious little snowflake simply forgot). And so, I didn’t work for a week, lost the wages, and had to deal with the ire of my staff-mates who had to make up my shifts. I learned how to deal with the public, think on my feet, and get my head out of my own ass. I remembered how much I looked up to the lifeguards who coached me, so I knew the responsibility I had to my swimmers. I’m not saying I didn’t do stupid things, but I owned up to them, took my licks, and moved on. I also learned that it is really, really hard to work with friends, especially when they are your boss.
When I went to university, I chose my program, in part, because built into the program were paid internships. Our tuition money paid for an entire department devoted to finding related and relevant jobs and job experience. They had to be directly related to our major (professional writing) and they had to pay. We did pay a nominal amount of tuition during our work terms, but it was nowhere near full tuition and was easily covered by the salaries we were earning. I had applied and been accepted into a much more prestigious journalism program in large part because I wasn’t about to work at unpaid internships.
When I was 14, my parents divorced. I still swam competitively, and much of the costs became my responsibility. I loved lifeguarding, but I needed to work in order to pay for swimming and any other activity I wanted to do. University was no different; I was paying my own way, and I couldn’t afford to take summers or semesters off to get coffee and not make any money. While I understood that an unpaid internship was a “foot in the door,” if there was an option on the table where I would get paid, well, there really wasn’t a choice.
And this is where the discussion about voluntourism, unpaid internships, and the college admissions game gets me really, really rilled up. While I am fortunate that I never had to work retail or in fast food, I nonetheless had to earn my keep. I had to work (although I would have anyway, probably). I think, as valuable as unpaid internships may be, they are exploitative and unfair because they favor those students who can afford to not make any money. Summers in the developing world building houses is great, but that wasn’t going to pay for school.
I think that the people who are disconnected from the “real world” aren’t academics, but the people who think that unpaid work and luxury volunteer opportunities are what build character. I think the same people who think lifeguards are lazy are the same people who think academics are lazy. My real world is a lot more real than you think.
My post on the standardization of higher education from earlier this week was a hit, so to speak, driving traffic and stimulating some interesting discussions on Twitter. I’ve decide to address some of these concerns and continue venting on what I think is going to be the undoing of higher education in this country.
I received two tweets (one from @qui_oui and another from @rwpickard) about how a certain degree of standardization is necessary for transfer and the like. Look, I’m all for standards. We should all have a clear idea of what a 100, 200, 300, or 400 level class should contain within a discipline (how much to read, write, and the level of ideas/concepts expressed). I also understand that in other disciplines, you need to know a certain set of skills or concepts before moving on to the next level; I completely understand that Cal I has to come before Cal II, and that there has to be some standards in order for a student to make progress in their education. But, these standards would seem to grow organically from disciplinary requirements. Sometimes they are imposed by professional organizations, but often in the name of safety; I’m glad that my nurse has a standard set of skills that are required of her before being accredited.
It’s when we get into the “softer” disciplines, like English, where I live, that things get dicey. I have written already about my experience teaching an upper-division Modern Literature course. I appreciated the fact that, within a set of clear guidelines (400-level class on English literature written during what is known as the Modernist period), I had the freedom to teach the texts that I wanted to using the approaches that I thought would work best. I was able to “create” arches, comparisons, contrasts, and evolutions with the works we studied. Modern literature is a huge field (much like any field in English) and each professor will teach the course differently, according to their biases and expertise, but also based on the make-up of the student body and institutional culture. What works in a Modern Literature course at Yale won’t necessarily work in a Modern Literature course at Regional State U. But we can safely assume that given the guidelines and descriptions, a student coming out of an upper-division Modern Literature course should be able to do a certain set of things, from identify the major authors and features of the movement, as well as write a lengthy, in-depth research essay on a work from that period. How we get there will vary wildly.
And it should. Some may point to my characterization of the class as a disaster as a reason why we need more, not less, standardization. The argument goes that I was not to be trusted with coming up with the class, and instead I should have been given the syllabus and reading list to teach in a prescribed way (hey, just give me the script while you’re at it). I say that my failure is an indication that the institution needs to invest in professors, not temp workers, to teach class. If the administration continues to undermine and devalue what goes on in the classroom, no amount of standardization and accountability measures are going to improve student learning. Saying that we should teach all students the same things in the same way, all in the name of accessibility, is not the answer.
Which brings me to the next point of contention. Faculty, then, should then take it upon themselves to develop the accountability measures. We do already; it’s called the syllabus and grading. Apparently, that’s not good enough anymore. But is that the faculty’s fault or the fault of an administration that continually undermines the classroom experience (and professor’s authority) in the classroom? I just came across this essay about how we, the faculty, are increasingly pressured to let learning slide in the name of “customer service”:
This is what I am talking about when I say that the administration often don’t support what professors and instructors are trying to do in the classroom, but then blame us when learning doesn’t happen. Students are seen as tuition machines, and we are told they are to be retained, at all costs. When a student isn’t happy, we hear about it and need to adapt to keep the customer satisfied.
I say, get our backs, get out of our way, and let’s see what happens.
Money is being invested everywhere on campus except in front of the classroom, illustrated by increasing class sizes, the increase in online education, and the over-use of adjunct faculty. Students get the message; the professors (and learning) are the least important component on campus.
And even when faculty are involved in developing the accountability measures, it is usually because they are being required to do so and have to follow narrow guidelines with the demand for very prescriptive (and arbitrary) outcomes, in order to feed the data machine. Yes, cosmetically, faculty came up with the measures, but our hands are tied, impacting the results. Rather than having measures and standards that are organic to a given discipline, we have data driven measures that give us stats, but little else.
Time and resources are also a factor. Often, it is an already over-worked tenure-track faculty member (or committee of tenure-track faculty members) who is tasked with coming up with the measures. Those measures are then imposed on even more precariously positioned instructors and adjuncts, who are already burdened with the demands of teaching intensive introductory courses to larger and larger numbers of students. But none of that comes into the minds of the administrators requiring the extra work from their instructional staff (tenure-track and contingent). There’s no course release, no reduction in class sizes, nothing. Something has to give, and it is either dropping other elements from the syllabus or devising the “easiest” measures to implement.
There’s a win-win situation for student learning outcomes.
I was at an institutionally-mandated get-together for those instructors who taught the various developmental classes (math, reading, writing) at our institution a few weeks ago. We were hearing about the educational technology the math department was using to get students up to college readiness when the instructor presenting told us a disturbing little anecdote about how she caught a cheater last semester. “It was just like Big Brother!” she exclaimed excitedly. Ugh.
Now, I’ve already voiced my thoughts about our over-reliance on ed tech as the savior of education, but this statement made me think about one of the unintended (or intended) consequences of the move to standardize higher education, heavily facilitated by educational technology: the constant monitoring of all activity of both instructor and student. If we can standardize and record every instance of learning in a student’s academic career, then we can certainly pinpoint where learning failed, exactly which teacher or advisor is responsible for derailing a student’s career.
The more we standardize, the more we continue to infantilize our students and undermine our faculty. We are basically telling students that they aren’t responsible enough to learn and professors can’t be trusted to teach. Think about that for a second. Students can’t learn, and we can’t teach, so you need to be constantly monitored to make sure that these things happen.
How does this move towards standardization and assessment actually help students? What happens when institutions and accrediting boards rigidly dictate when and where learning happens in higher education? When instead of facilitating “informal” moments of learning, the university is required/requiring rigid reporting/return on investment data on campus talks, meeting spaces, and optional (but really mandatory) activities? Or that students (and eventually instructors/professors) measure success exclusively through test scores?
How do we teach and learn through experience, experiment, trial and error, and failures when Big Brother is always watching us? Does $44 billion really buy the Federal government the right to dictate to us how and what we teach, or how and when students can learn? As I put in the comments of Mary Churchill’s post “Can We Afford to Play,”
As we discover with young kids, we can spend all the money we want, but at the end of the day, all they want to play with is the empty cardboard box. I think the same thing goes for higher education, especially on the side of the professors. If professors didn’t have to worry as much about constant accountability measures, measurable outcomes, and reporting, we might be more likely to relax along with the students. If more people in front of the classroom had job security and more time, they may be more invested in the students outside of the classroom. If it didn’t feel like Big Brother was constantly monitoring all of us, we might relax, let loose, and really, really, learn.
At a certain point, the institution needs to get out of the way and just let learning happen. I have been critical of the type of “leisure” that takes place on (or rather off) campus, but is this behavior a result of the high states, high pressure environment we’ve created on campus? Most faculty and students can’t wait to get off campus at the end of the day; why is that? Universities have invested billions in creating “spaces” for students, faculty, and sometimes even community. Some have been very successful, but I wonder how many of them developed organically, and how many of them were responses to accreditation board requirements (having gone through two at two different universities, this is an important component for any re-accreditation)?
We may end up passing whatever tests they put in front of us, delivering more mandated content in increasingly rigid ways, but at the end of the day, we have failed.
In Canada, because spring comes around so much later, we call the week vacation that occurs during the semester that occurs during the first months of the calendar year Reading Week. I still call it that, out of habit. My students here, they have no idea what I’m talking about. Spring Break, I say, it’s what we Canadians calls Spring Break; it’s just cruel to say spring when there’s still three feet of snow on the ground. But, I also think that it’s a reflection of a different attitude Canadians hold towards higher education.
I asked one of my developmental writing students what he was planning on doing for Spring Break. He’s off to Florida to party. This particular student has missed a great deal of my class because he had strep throat (yes, he had a doctor’s note). This student is also repeating the class because last semester he partied too much. If anything, I was hoping that the student would take this week off to rest, recover, and catch up in his classes. But no. I probably won’t be seeing him for an entire week after Spring Break because he’s recovering from alcohol poisoning, lack of sleep, proper nutrition, or any combination of the three.
(And no, I never did Spring Break. The one year my friends went to Florida, I was stuck on a work term. My other trip to Florida in college was for a training camp, which was subsidized by the school; we swam or worked out 4-5 (or more) hours a day. If we had been out drinking, it wouldn’t have been pretty the next morning at practice.)
There was an essay recently that extols the virtues of learning through hanging out. But when I ask my students what they do when they hang out, they admit that it often involves getting pass-out drunk or stoned out of their mind. What, then, are they learning by “hanging out” that they couldn’t learn while not also paying college tuition? Drinking, drugs, and sex are acceptable behavior in college; kids of the same age who are engaging in this kind of behavior and are not also college students are considered deadbeats. What’s the difference? Tuition, and a couple hours of courses a week that the student may or may not attend. For some students (and I include myself in this), they can get away with this and still come away with their degrees (and futures) in tact. But for the majority of my students, they can’t get away with it; they don’t graduate, can’t get a job, and are left in debt.
Personally, I wish I had been encouraged to save my money, work, and get the parties out of my system so that I may have actually benefited from my education. It’s what my husband did, and it benefitted him immensely.
In fact, the university encourages this kind of laissez-faire attitude towards the educational purpose of college by consistently investing money in the “experience” side rather than in the classroom (for example, building stadiums and then increasing class sizes, hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track professors). Why should students take me seriously when the university doesn’t, either? So, enjoy Spring Break. Just don’t expect me to cut you any slack when you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned; I spent my break reading.
“Hey, people will finally know where we teach!”
We all (should) know the tale of the King who was taken by a sweet-talking tailor, convinced that the “clothes” he was wearing were invisible and magical and valuable. When the King goes out to show off his new suit (aka his Birthday Suit) the only person in the crowd who has the courage to say what everyone else knows to be true (or because he doesn’t know any better) is a child. There are lots of morals to be taken from this tale, but I think we all need to think about how we, as academics, play the role of the silent crowd in our own tale of the decline of higher education.
I do not regret my education on most days. But some days, the really bad days, I remember that ignorance can sometimes be bliss. Wouldn’t I love for my faith, and really, my only faith, in an institution that I love so much to return? For many of us, the university is our secular church, the place that we turn to for stability, security, justice, and answers. But our faiths are eroding, the cracks and inconsistencies are showing, and the corruption is seeping through. Too many of us hold our noses and keep returning day after day for service, because if we don’t, what is left? Perhaps a weak or corrupt faith is better than no faith at all? Is this why we keep talking around the problem or burying our heads in the sand?
Or, maybe we’re in awe of the King, able to walk around naked without a care in the world. When we discuss the economic realities of doing a PhD in the humanities, most prospective students think either a) it won’t happen to them or b) it won’t matter to them. When you’re in your early twenties and all of your friends are broke and working for little to no money, grad school life doesn’t seem that bad. Nor is it easy to see yourself ten years later, when your friends are all making more money than you are with less debt and are getting on with their lives. The life of the mind is, indeed, an excellent and noble life, but is that really all you want for yours? The King running around completely naked is a sign for us all that it is possible, no matter how shameless or corrupt (but who cares, he’s in power!) and if we just leave it alone, maybe someday we can run around naked as well.
I am depressed. I am feeling this way for a few reasons. The first is from a conversation I had with a student yesterday. I mentioned in class, while we were talking about education and personal economic benefit, that anyone who was considering doing a PhD in the humanities should come see me ASAP. At the end of class, there was a student. She wanted to go to a large private university in California where she could do a joint program where she would be working towards a law degree and a PhD in history. Her ultimate goal was to get into entertainment law, “but I could become a professor making $100k if I end up in a crappy firm.”
My kids are playing with play clay while I type this. It’s amazing how a simple thing can keep my almost-four-year-old and barely-two-year-old entertained for, well, an hour, tops. But the different things they can come up with to do with or imagine the play clay as being is amazing. It’s a wonder to watch; my mind can’t get around how they can keep themselves occupied with a pile of mushy stuff.