Loyalty or Desperation?

This post originally appeared at http://uvenus.org/2010/06/30/loyalty-or-desperation/

Loyalty or Desperation?

I didn’t teach last semester (Winter 10). It was the first time I had been out of the classroom, away from students, for almost 10 years.  And it wasn’t because I didn’t have the opportunity to teach, it’s because I decided that I didn’t like the conditions under which I would be teaching.

Go anywhere online that talks about issues in higher ed (Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, countless blogs) and you can read about the current plight of teachers at colleges and universities. Increasing reliance on adjunct teachers and harsh punishment for any sign of disloyalty from those who are lucky enough to hold full-time/tenure-track appointments.  I, to some, showed my disloyalty by refusing to teach a class whose timing would severely impact my quality of life, turning the course down at the last minute while I waited to see if another opportunity came through so we could make the bills.

“Roxie Smith” wrote on her blog about academic loyalty/disloyalty in regards to a (female) provost who was fired by the (male) president of their university for looking for another job. She writes that there has been a “shift in the academy from a decentralized administrative structure to the much more centralized, top-down model that has taken hold as universities have come to be run more like corporations in recent years. We deplore that shift in part because it encourages — even, indeed, forces — faculty to think of themselves as independent contractors rather than as members of a collective with a stake in the future of the institution.”

Bingo.

I don’t know anyone, other than the administrative assistants and the professor who hired me, where I am currently teaching.  I don’t have any motivation, either.  I was told upfront that I would never get a full-time job there because my specialty and interests were not a priority.  Can I help it if I adapt as mercenary approach to being an adjunct as they take towards adjuncts? Nothing personal, just business.  I am dedicated to the students I teach, but not to the institution. I now consider myself an independent educator. No one owns me or my loyalty.  Is it any surprise, then, that institutions that too heavily rely on contingent faculty have problems with retention and completion rates?

This is not to say that I am not dedicated to trying to change higher ed for the better; I’ve decided to think big instead.  When I read articles that claim that higher ed still cares about students, academic freedom, etc, I wonder if change can really come from within.  It’s one thing to care, it’s another thing to actually do something about it.  I have written elsewhere that women especially hit a glass ceiling because they make up such a huge percentage of the contingent faculty ranks and are thus cut off from ascending the ranks of administration where they can truly have an impact.  So, I’m breaking rank and going at it differently.

A colleague asked me about what message this teachers our younger generation, when we become so disloyal to institutions that were at one time the bedrock of our culture and society? I  respond by asking what lesson am I teaching my daughter if she sees me working long, horrid hours for basically nothing, increasingly doing volunteer work in the slim hope that one day the institution will reward me for my hard work and “loyalty”? And every year watching me stress out because I don’t know if I will have enough courses to pay the bills, qualify for heath insurance? And every time there is a position opening, watching me go from hope to despair as the job goes to another (usually external) candidate?

Loyalty is important. But, my loyalty has to be earned. I want to teach my children that you do not reward people or institutions who abuse and exploit you with your loyalty.  I refuse to let them confuse loyalty with desperation. 

The Failure of American Higher Education

Really? More standardized tests? Because those have made students entering college that much more college ready. I’m being sarcastic. Students are taught to the test at the expense of content. Do we really want higher ed to be that way? The basic skills that you talk about SHOULD have been learned in high school (summarizing? grammar? averages? Really? That’s what higher ed’s job has become?). And, these are students who are the result of the testing bonanza that is No Child Left Behind.

I just wrote collegereadywriting.blogspot.comm) about the difference between college professors and high school teachers. If anything, teachers need more content training in order to make the skills they are trying to teach more relevant to the students. But you seem to imply that content is irrelevant (A history major? Don’t need history to do the job. I want SKILLS!). Then lets just get rid of all liberal arts programs, keep the skilled degrees (medicine, engineering, etc), and we’ll all get degrees in tech and “critical thinking.” Never mind that we’ll have no idea how to apply them.

University is fundamentally about creating knowledge, not skill transfer. The skills you need to create knowledge used to come before higher ed, not during. And more testing is not the right solution.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Teachers vs Professors

Dear #edchat participants:

Yesterday we chatted about “How can K-12 and higher ed work together to promote positive change in education?” Well, you chatted, I listened while trying to do four other things. I’m sorry that I missed it, because I’m pretty sure the K-12 teachers involved in the chat outnumbered their higher ed counterparts by a large margin.

There were a lot of criticisms leveled at higher ed professors, that we are poor teachers and are stuck in a stone ages when it comes to ed tech. But, while most universities (as it was pointed out) claim evaluate their professors on teaching, research and community service, they actually spend a serious amount of time judging a professor’s research output while just making sure they have taught and done something that remotely resembles community service. Research in your field is king. You get a PhD in your subject area, be it biology, literature, nursing or music.

Because we are not rewarded for improving our teaching, we don’t do it. Our time is spent on administrative duties, our research and, yes, teaching.  But we have been told, you need to do research to get tenure. So we make research our priority. Our PD? Going to conferences in our field, to learn about the latest research and findings. We are expected to stay on top of what’s going on in the field we teach.  Ed tech? What’s that? Will it help me get tenure? No? No, thanks!

So I admit and agree that most university professors could learn a thing or two from the K-12 teachers who participate in #edchat on twitter. But, please give us credit for being experts in our fields. When professors complain about unprepared students coming into their classes, they are usually talking about two areas: not having what we would consider the basic knowledge/skills in that area and not knowing how to be independent learners (“good students”). Facing a room full of disinterested and unprepared students just makes us mad. We think we spend too much time teaching the students what they should have learned in high school and not enough time teaching what we are passionate about. That passion? It shines through, tech or no tech.

Professors are all good students: independent learners, highly motivated self-starters and passionate. If we weren’t, then that dissertation would never have been written. Trust me. You choose grad school in part because of a passion you have for a subject and the right skill set (enjoy reading/writing/doing experiments).  We know our area, we love our area, and we want to share that knowledge. When we think of ed reform, we don’t think about HOW you teach, we think about WHAT you teach. Because we love WHAT we teach. How we teach it is really a secondary concern.

I ask you, K-12 teachers, do you consider yourself experts in pedagogy or experts in your field ? Which do you think is more important? Is your PD exclusively in the latest ped or ed tech? Or do you brush up on deepening your knowledge and understanding of a subject area? If you teach English, have you ever done a grad class, not in ed, not in teaching English, but English literature or writing?

There is a division of labor that needs to be overcome. Yes, university professors need to work to be better teachers. But can K-12 become better at the subjects they are teaching? You can ace all of your education classes, but if you don’t do well in the subject area classes, should you be allowed to teach that subject?  I agree with all of the suggestions about exposing K-12 students to the wonderful work and research professors are doing, to inspire them. But that should also extend to the teachers, so that they can remain current in not only how they teach, but what they teach.

The Difference Between Traditional and For-Profit Higher Ed?

Basically, nothing.

I was following the recent Senate hearing on for-profit institutions (#4profit) and joined in with my own Twitter rant, to go along with the Twitter rants of many supporters of for-profit education. Notice I say supporters and not apologists.  I am not so naive as to think that for-profits are all rosy and above-board, but what really makes me mad is that some of the same accusations that are laid at the feet of for-profits can and should be laid that the feet of traditional institutions of higher ed.  Let’s go through the list, shall we?

CEO Pay:

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides wonderful information about BOTH traditional (both private and public) and for-profit earnings of their CEOs and Presidents. Notice anything? OK, there are some SERIOUS earners in for-profit education. But what the information provided by the Chronicle fails to really calculate is the external benefits that presidents often earn, even after they retire. Presidents often get homes, cars, trips, domestics, etc, all paid for by the university, and all “external” to their reported earnings for much of it. 

It makes me sick that a CEO in education get paid about a thousand times more than I do, but is this all about the greater-good? Or is it jealousy? And, I ask those Senators who it is they made their fortune in order to be able to afford to run for Senate. I bet most of them would have earned it in the for-profit world.

Bad Management/Accreditation

While I am sure that there are poorly managed and dishonest for-profit schools, if traditional schools were so above-the-board, then we wouldn’t need the regional accreditation boards that we have. I invite you to read Kevin Carey’s excellent analysis of a traditional college gone bad. Students left with debt and a worthless degree.  Accreditation boards taking a laissez-faire approach because of the non-traditional students the school served. Sound familiar?

As for the accusation that for-profit accreditation is meaningless because it is done by peers, who do you think does the accreditation for traditional schools? Peers. Peers who pay money. Discuss. Or, does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch in for-profit, but not traditional higher ed?

Credit Transfer

It’s unclear, the claim goes, what your credits from a for-profit really represents. I point you to another essay by Mr. Carey describing his undergraduate experience at SUNY Binghampton: after receiving 24 credits for his high school AP courses (six courses, four credits per course), he also discovered that unlike other SUNY campuses, “awards four credits for classes that require only three faculty-contact hours per week.” He continues:

I also talked to the provost, who insisted that Binghamton’s four credits are more substantive than, say, the State University of New York at Stony Brook’s three. But there are no external studies or standards to verify that. Speaking as someone whose housemate once entered slacker Valhalla by skipping the entire months of October and November while still earning 16 credits for a full four-course semester, I am, to say the least, unconvinced.

This is just one example, but if credit transfer were so simple for traditional higher ed, then why are many calling for an American version of the Bologna Process, Europe’s plan to effectively standardize higher ed?  (I’m not saying we should, just raising the question)

Job Placement

Ah, can we repay our loans.  The Senate hearings brought out a student who got a degree from a program that wasn’t accredited and now has obscene loans that she can’t pay. Her advice, don’t go to for-profit. 

I’d like to point you to a piece in the New York Times, profiling an NYU grad who is effectively unemployed and unable to repay her loans. Her advice? Actually, the advice is to think long and hard about going to NYU.

I have a lot of sympathy for both these women, as someone who has an obscene amount of debt, lots of degrees and no job (if they really want to investigate, try grad school for selling us a false bill of goods with no idea how to market ourselves and get another job).  What is interesting to me is the idea that somehow the for-profit school is more guilty for claiming high job placements while schools like NYU just strongly imply it.  Read the mother’s comments about sending her daughter to NYU: “All we needed to do was get this education and get the good job. This is the thing that eats away at me, the naïveté on my part.”

Recruitment

This rankles me a lot.  For-profits get dragged in front of Senate hearings for recruiting at McDonalds, while traditional schools get Federal grants for their efforts to diversify/attract non-traditional students.  For-profit schools are overwhelming non-traditional students in every sense: they are older (Stop calling them kids, Senator! was a tweet I read frequently), usually minority and usually first-generation college students.  If traditional higher ed was doing such a great job diversifying and educating all, then there would no market for the for-profits, would there?

No, wait, higher learning loves their rankings and rankings do not reward things like admitting underprepared students (Must. Be. Highly. Selective!)

For-Profit

This is, for me, the ultimate hypocrisy of this whole dog-and-pony show. We don’t like it/trust it because it is for-profit, with shareholders and CEO’s, etc…And we love traditional universities because it’s not about the money, it’s about education. Except when it isn’t (cough, Harvard, cough). Because using (cheap) adjuncts to teach up to 70% of courses on campus while building new million-dollar football stadiums and basketball training facilities isn’t about the money. It might not be “profit,” but it’s greed.

Perhaps I am defensive as well because I am now, technically, in the for-profit education business.  I care deeply about education. The system, at large, that we have now is broken, on all sides. The for-profits are exposing many of the cracks and chasms that exist.  We can attack or we could take the time to look at why so many students are spending their (and the government’s) money at these institutions. We also need to look at all the ways all of higher ed can improve.  I want to be part of that change. And get paid doing it. 

Dr. Jane Can’t Network, Either

Johnny Can’t (Net)Work, but neither can Dr. Jane.

As academics (especially in the humanities), we are trained to network as academics, in order to be academics.  Conferences are spent meeting other academics, creating valuable links that will either lead to jobs or academic collaborations (which lead to jobs).  We shouldn’t waste or time meeting people outside of academia, heck, outside of our field, because what good would that serve?

We work (as pointed out by a recent article http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/05/24/krebs) as teachers or researchers inside our discipline and sometimes even more narrowly in our specialty.  Why work outside of what we are training to do? 

But most importantly, we use social networking as an extension of the first two “networking” opportunities: to promote and connect our narrow research (and thus career) interests.  How many articles about looking for academic work remind newly-minted PhDs that talking about kids or hobbies on facebook is a no-no, lest a hiring committee think you aren’t dedicated to your research 100% or, once you are hired, wasting your time on frivolous activities like family or your health?  Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Linkedin and Adademia.edu) have become another non-networking opportunity, another chance for graduate students and PhDs to show how narrowly focused and single-mindedly dedicated they are to their research. 

So how is Dr. Jane supposed to advise Johnny how to network to his benefit? Johnny needs flexible skills, adaptable to a variety of different jobs and demands, and the ability to connect and communicate with a variety of people.  Dr. Jane knows how to narrowly present herself to a unique audience of like-minded individuals.  Is it any surprise that students aren’t well-equipped for our present economy?

(Cross-posted at UVenus)

Non-Academic Mentors

This post first appeared on the UVenus blog at http://uvenus.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/non-academic-mentors/.

There are three women, all with PhDs, who are probably the most important to my development as an academic and now as a mother and entrepreneur.  The first is my dissertation supervisor.  She was the first (and only) person to get excited about my dissertation research topic and guided me through my research, without dictating how the work should look (unlike others who tried to steer me in a direction I wasn’t interested in going). She had an unconventional path to her job as a professor; after getting her PhD in French, she followed her (now ex) husband, did a law degree and a masters in law, then became a French professor.  She has held just about every administrative role that doesn’t require a special hiring committee (assistant dean, associate provost, special assistant to the president, senator, etc).  When I announced I was going to run (uncontested) for Graduate Students’ Association President, she laughed and wished me luck.  For that year I was GSA President, during our meetings about my dissertation (I defended my dissertation proposal while President), we would trade war stories about university politics and meetings from hell.  She supported me in all of my work, and continues to do so.
 
In hindsight, I should have gone with someone who would have pushed me towards an approach that was more “marketable” rather than just simply what I wanted to do.  I should have had a supervisor who would have discouraged me from getting involved with university politics.  Instead, I went with the person who allowed me to explore all of my strengths as an academic, learning valuable skills along the way; skills that I never expected would help me in my new life, my new role.
 
The two other women aren’t professors.  One of the women, I met while I was GSA President and selected to sit on our university’s hiring committee for a new president.  We hired a search firm, founded by a PhD in history who 15 years earlier couldn’t find a job in academia.  She now is CEO of the largest and most successful higher ed search firms in Canada.  I didn’t know it at the time, but her example, her success outside of academia provided part of the inspiration I needed to be able to break out on my own.
 
The other woman is also not a professor.  She is a mother, translator, writing, teacher, editor, publisher, award-winner, change agent and all-around inspiring woman.  She got her PhD from the same school when I did my undergraduate and masters degree.  When we first met, she was the first person I had ever met who had a PhD and wasn’t a professor.  She had carved a life for herself doing what she loved, and it didn’t involve full-time employment with tenure.  I looked at her life, on the brink of starting my own PhD and was at once inspired and terrified.  I was about to embark on the path to being a professor, and here was someone who had done something different.  A reminder that life could be different.  I wasn’t, at that point, interested in being different.
 
It’s hard when you’re a PhD; you only meet other PhDs who (mostly) want to do the same things you want (your fellow students) or PhDs who have achieved the dream (your professors).  We never meet PhDs who have done something else with their degree.  We have been taught that these people are failures.  As a woman, at least for me, there seemed to be an added pressure of becoming a professor, in the name of women and equality. 
 
But the three women with PhDs I mention here represent something else, and allowed me to become who I am today, just by being who they are.  Wonderful, smart, caring, respected and successful women in whatever they chose to do.  Now, I aspire to be the same, in my own way.

The Resiliency of Trees

I was “trained” in literature.  As a result, I tend to see symbols, metaphors, and analogies all around me.  Some days, it’s obvious, like the terrible parenting day where (among other things) my son broke my “Best Mom” mug.  Or when the Internet ate, not one, but two of my initial blog posts for this site, forcing me to start all over again.

Other days, I have to work hard to make meaning from what I see around me.  I live in an area that was recently hit with heavy rains and flooding.  Because of the poor weather and conditions, I had not ventured outside much in the weeks that followed.  When I finally did hit the highway, I was struck by how the landscape had changed.  Rock formations that had lined the highway had crumbled from the onslaught of water.  There were huge canyons running down those same walls where the water drained.  But most striking to me were the tress that had slid down the rock faces and where now clinging to the edge.

A majority of these tress were still green and in bloom.  You could see their roots holding on and already beginning to explore their new surroundings, looking for the best place to hang on, get water and stay grounded even though the ground had shifted beneath them.  And, a small number of tress had already bent themselves vertical again, standing up while their roots were growing more beside them then underneath them.  Grass and wild flowers were also starting to grow on these rock faces, from the dirt that had slid down the sides with the water and erosion.  Nature in all of its destructive and resilient beauty.

This resiliency is not new to me.  A little more than ten years ago, I was living in an area that was hit by an ice storm of epic proportions.  Trees had inches and inches of ice caked on them.  Metal towers that carried power lines crumpled like paper under the weight of the ice.  Some places lost power for more than six weeks.  Driving, you saw these bare trees, bent under the weight of the ice, running parallel to the ground.  But once summer came, the highways were lined with green leaves all over the trees.  It looked like nothing had ever happened.  Ten years later, you can still see bent trees in the winter, but many of them have righted themselves, pointing upward towards the sky once again.

I wonder if the trees hanging over the edge of the cliffs will climb their way bag up the hill, roots slowly pulling the tree towards more stable ground.  But, another heavy rain could just as easily push those trees  all the way to the ground, uprooting them and leaving them for dead.  I really hope the trees just stay where they are, hanging over the side and flourishing.  Because I never would have noticed those trees if it weren’t for the fact that they had broken free from the rest, been given the opportunity to appreciate the resiliency of trees.

I looked at those trees and they looked like I feel, pushed out from where I was comfortable, pushed over an edge, hanging on for dear life.  Except I was the one who pushed myself over that edge by choosing to start my own business, leaving academia behind.  And now, will I bend upward and flourish, spreading my roots to secure me, or will a heavy rain fall? I look at those trees hanging on, and I remind myself that I will hang on, too.

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And Happy Mother’s Day!

What My Mother Taught Me

My mother instilled my respect for education and educators. She read to me early and often as a baby and small child. She sent me to reading school when I was four so I would know how to read in English, even though I was about to start school in French. She sent me to French Immersion school, so I would grow up knowing two languages. She allowed me to chance school boards (kinda like a district, but not really) for high school, so I could go to a more academic rigorous school and get away from the students who had bullied me all throughout elementary school. She never let me give up. She never accepted a poor grade from me. There was never a question that I would go on to university.

But one of the most important lessons she taught me, a lesson that has taken me this long to learn and appreciate, is the lesson about who you know. She went beyond “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” No, with my mom, it was “It’s not who you know, it’s how you use them.” This was a lesson she learned from her own mother, a lesson she pushed onto us, my brother and I, every chance she got. It’s a lesson she keeps trying to teach me, even today.
She understood the importance of networking. She knew that she didn’t have the connections we needed, but she wasn’t afraid of reaching out, beyond her circle, into other circles, in order to give us a chance to live out our dreams. Want to be a journalist? Here is the email address of a guy who was friends with a former co-worker with whom I went to see The Rolling Stones with 10 years ago. Getting a PhD? A friend of mine who I went to university with that one year is now president of a college. Contact him. Writing a book? I don’t know anyone off the top of my head, but let me ask around. I’ll see what I can find.
She tried to lead by example. But she also encouraged us to reach out beyond our circle, like to examine what the parents of the kids we coached swimming did for a living. My brother got some of his first photography work that way. When I told her I was starting my own business, she immediately began to run through the list of all my contacts, as well as her own, in an effort to help me drum up some business.
As I look back at it, it’s because of her that I feel comfortable on a social networking site like Twitter or Facebook, comfortable reaching out and asking for help (if you’re often on the receiving end of my requests, then you can blame my mom). I don’t think my mom, or her mom, ever imagined that their advice could eventually lead me to reach so many different people, but here I am, learning about social media, website development, education reform, charter schools, homeschooling and unschooling. And I am learning that I am a part of something very much larger than myself.
Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!
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