Grad School for All?

Worst Professor Ever alerted me to this New York Times article about how the Master’s degree is the new Bachelor’s degree. I posted my response on her facebook page:

I have to say I was more than a little flatter that William Pannapacker (aka Thomas H. Benton from the Chronicle) liked my response. And WorstProf wrote an absolutely hysterical Onion-esque response: “Education Secretary to Today’s Youth: Stop Getting So Many Fucking Degrees.” I do want to expand on my facebook comment, because it does reflect on how the economics of the universities are getting more and more screwed up.
I’ve written before about the economic realities of getting PhD, especially in the humanities. But what about from the other side, from the perspective of the universities that are increasingly offering MA programs. Faculty, particularly at public universities, are seeing their salaries if not get cut, then certainly decrease in purchasing power. One way to appease faculty is to create graduate programs; it’s like a perk! Smaller classes! Better students! More prestige! Never mind that it’s actually more work to recruit and retain these students, not to mention mentor and supervise them. From the university’s perspective, they’re getting the faculty to do more work for less money. And, the added prestige of graduate programs. Win-win.
Actually, it’s a win-win-win. Grad students are cash-cows. You can charge more for grad programs (even though they aren’t hiring any more faculty, or paying the current faculty more) and they’ll pay. Plus, you can then use the grad students a cheap labor, working on campus, for professors, and maybe even teaching some of those pesky intro classes that no one else wants to. And did I mention the prestige? Rankings love grad programs. 
But does the student really win? It keeps them out of the work force longer, usually will end up putting them further into debt, and makes them over-qualified for many of the jobs they may want. And, for the most part, this will benefit the same students who are benefitting from a BA anyway; the wealthy and upper-middle-class. Applying for graduate school is perhaps even more difficult and complex than applying for university. And even more expensive. To get into the best graduate programs, you have to not only be outstanding, but also know the right people. It’s a big circle jerk, and those who benefit are those who have always been a part of it. 
And do the professors really win? Soon, College Misery will be devoted not to the under-qualified and entitled undergrads, but to the under-qualified and entitled grad students that the college accepts because of the money and prestige. The MA will be the new BA, insofar as students will feel entitled to their degree on the basis of having a) been accepted and b) paid for it. The best and the brightest will continue to go to the “best” schools, while everyone else will move from one mediocre program to another. You’ll be able to say that you supervise grad students, but at what cost? 
To reiterate, I hate it. We’re fooling ourselves within the academy into thinking that what we are doing is in the name of social justice and equality, when really we’re just providing excuses to governments and corporations to compress salaries, benefits, and cheapen our students’ educations, not to mention out own value as academics. 

Getting Sucked In or Putting Myself Out There?

I’ve written about this issue before; that I’m a Bad Female Academic for having administrative ambition, but also how it’s a difficult position to put myself in because I am not on the tenure-track, thus it doesn’t “count”, nor am I afforded the same protections. Nonetheless, and despite being warned, I volunteered to be an “Early College Mentor.” What does this mean? Well, our college offers early college credit courses in the high schools and I will be mentoring the teachers in the high schools who are teaching these classes. 

The question is, why? 
I have often written about the “exploitation” of contingent labor in academia. And I am acutely aware of my own position, trying to make sure I don’t put myself in (or get sucked into) a position where I will either be taken advantage of or made a scapegoat out of (or both). But this mentorship role seems to me to be a relatively safe compromise. 
For one thing, I’m doing it for the money. The mentors are getting a significant amount of professional development money for every teacher we mentor. I can use the money on conferences, books, research trips, whatever. This is not an insignificant reward for me because I am an instructor and therefore don’t have the same level of support for these activities as those on the tenure-track or have tenure. 
I’m also doing it because I like the idea of mentoring teachers and creating a community. It’s one of the reasons I co-founded #FYCchat on Twitter. We should be more active in helping one another be better teachers, for ourselves and for our students. I really am hoping to facilitate a learning community for the teachers I will be mentoring using social media. I also hope to encourage (inspire?) these teachers to use social media in their teaching. 
Our university’s service area is largely (exclusively) rural and mostly poor. Many of these students come to our college underprepared and have a lot of difficulty completing a college degree. If I can help high school teachers better prepare students for college, then I think I am doing a great public service. These students are just as deserving of a good education as anyone else. This is a concrete way that I can help. 
And I look like a good university citizen. Hopefully not too good, however. I am only supposed to be mentoring five teachers, but it looks like I’ll have at least three times that many. I am also scheduled to teach five classes in the fall. Something has to give, so I am not afraid to stand my ground to make sure that my students don’t get short-changed, either. Or my family, for that matter, and my research. I’ve been warned by those who have participated in this program in a similar capacity in the past that the university is all too willing to keep pushing the number of responsibilities. I’ll push back. 
Or, I’ll just walk away. If I have to chose between a conference or my sanity and dignity, I know which one I will chose. 

More Thoughts on Coaching, the Humanities, and More Things We Can’t Measure

If you read this blog regularly, you know I used to swim and coach swimming. I received news the other day that one of the swimmers I coached in the past got a head coaching job. This past year, a girl I used to coach (when she was, like, 6) qualified for the the World Championships. I felt a tiny little bit a pride in seeing these two swimmers succeed in swimming. Here are two very, very successful swimmers in two different areas of the sport.

But, looking at it, that’s two swimmers out of, how many? A couple of hundred? By that measure, I’ve been an absolutely horrid failure as a coach. I guess no less of a failure than I was as a swimmer; I’ve never came anywhere close to making Nationals, let alone a national team. My parent and I spent thousands of dollars on training, equipment, swim camps, and trips to swim meets. I don’t even want to count the number of hours I spent in the pool, at the gym, in the weight room, training. For what? To what end? And all the time I spent on pool deck as a coach, breaking down video, planning workouts, organizing swim meets, and holding swimmers hands through nerves and disappointment. 
These two swimmers are not the only swimmers I take pride; I am friends with many of my former swimmers on Facebook, and they are all successful people in their own right. They almost all do something other than swimming, although some have gone on to become lifeguards and coaches themselves before embarking on their chosen career. Many of them still swim, for fun, or run, or cycle, or play soccer, or some other form of physical activity. I’d like to think that their success is, in part, because of my influence as a coach. 
I feel pretty confident in this assumption because despite my “failure” as a swimmer, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I learned so much more than just how to swim from one end to the pool to the other over and over as fast and efficiently as possible. I learned how to be a part of a team. How to deal with failure. How to persevere. How even the smallest success can be overwhelmingly satisfying. How important health and fitness are to my well-being. These are lesson that will stay with me the rest of my life, that I can call on when I need them. 
While I teach writing, which is possibly the most practical and necessary of skills in this information age, my “training” (ugh, I hate that word) is in comparative literature, often seen as one of the most superfluous and decadent of majors. I don’t miss the days of going to undergrad recruiting fairs and answering indignant parents when they ask, “What can you do with a degree in comparative literature?” While I never appreciated the question, “Are you going to the Olympics?” when I revealed I was a swimmer, I was never asked, what are you going to do with that? The (gag) return on investment on my years of swimming is negligible if you use any sort of objective metric (my best times, success of the swimmers I’ve coached). But no one expects those sorts of returns. So why are we so resistant to seeing the biggest picture of the value of the humanities?
The skills and experiences I had studying literature will also stay with me, regardless of my career. There are books that have literally changed my life, and books that have also literally saved it. In the same way that I can go to a pool, throw on a pair of goggles, dive in, and immediately feel better, I can pick up a book and have the same experience. My life is richer for having swam and for having studied the humanities. But only I have to explain and justify one of them. 

Accountable to Whom? The Un-measurable in Education

I don’t think I need to go back over for any readers of this blog the push in education, both K-12 and higher education, towards standardization, concrete learning outcomes, and return-on-investment. One has to look no further than what is currently going on in Texas to see that what we do as professors/instructors/educators is under some heavy fire. Increasingly, my job is about counting and measuring. 

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be held accountable, but I wonder to whom we should be accountable to? And if we change who we are accountable to, then we also need to change how we “measure” or evaluate the job we have done. 
As public institutions, we are accountable to the public at large that supports our work. I have some trouble with that assertion if only because the “public” has largely abandoned public higher education. If we look at California, we can readily see the impact of severely reduced public monies going to the university; the list of universities that have had the highest net increase in tuition overwhelmingly come from California. I invite you to check out the work that Remaking the University has been doing to expose the erosion of public support for higher education in California. 
But even if we still looked at the university as serving the public good, much of what the university does do (or, at least, could do) goes “un-measured” by the typical metrics. If all we measure are students taught, graduation rates, and post-graduation salaries, we are missing the rich and complex work that professors do in the university. In fact, I would argue, that it is not in the greater public’s good to limit our judgement on a university’s (or professor’s) success based exclusively on raw numbers; it actively discourages academics from actually engaging the larger community that they are a part of. When the “public good” is defined as test scores, then you can be sure that that is the only good the public will receive. 
But as the students’ burden of paying for their education increases, so, too, then, should we see the individual student as the person we are ultimately accountable to. This, of course, is problematic. There are many ways we are, as educators, already at the mercy of our students’, thus accountable to them. We are, if Academically Adrift is to be believed, simplifying the curriculum, at students’ demand. We are entertaining them at best, enabling them at worst, rather than educating them in order to prop up our evaluations. But these sort of accountability measures don’t actually serve the students, but the administrative (or governmental) dictates of retention and completion rates. In fact, the student is not the one who is holding us accountable. 
When I look at the recent post from the educators at the University of Venus, commenting on the best part of their job, it universally comes down to the relationship we all have with individual students. In a moving defense of the humanities, a professor defends how a liberal arts education enriches the individual, making the world at large a better place. But I want to take his argument a step further and show how self-perpetuating arguments against “impractical” education have become.
Liberal arts degrees are seen as worthless because they don’t provide students with any sort of “hard” skills. But they do provide students with the soft skills necessary to make good choices, both in their professional and personal life. But, why aren’t they then? Why are more and more people acting badly (insert whatever definition of “bad” you’d like; the argument works no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on)? 
Could it be because less and less students are, in fact, pursuing or even have access to this kind of enriching education? 
I teach at a rural state institution, filled with non-traditional, first-generation college students. Our completion rates are, admittedly low. Not for-profit institution low, but low nonetheless. When I see my developmental students, I know the odds are stacked against them. In my mind, I am accountable to them by trying to teach them as much as I can in 15 weeks to attempt to make them not just a better college student, but a better person, period. I teach writing, critical thinking, and, even in this age of narcissism, confidence. Even if my students never complete their degree, or even their freshman year, I act as though my course will serve them outside of university.
They will come out of my class as better writers and more aware of the importance of literacy. Maybe they’ll write a better cover letter, or earn a promotion because of their improved writing and literacy skills. Maybe they’ll come back later to complete a degree because they demonstrated progress in my class. Maybe they will consume media a bit more wisely, carefully, and critically. Maybe they’ll read to their kids, stock their dwellings with books, and take regular trips to the library, increasing the chances that their kids will succeed where they did not. 
These are the un-measurable parts of my job. This is how I am accountable to my students. Are they better people having taken my class? That is one of my most important goals when teaching. No one measures that. I don’t even know if we could. But I see it as my responsibility as a teacher, to my students and to the public, whoever they may be. 

Who Will Be Our Future Professors?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

A video has made the rounds online recently, a hysterical and painfully accurate description of the future that awaits a student who is interested in getting a PhD in English. Another — less popular, no less hysterical — concerns the probable future of a student wanting to get a PhD in Political Science. On The Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas H. Benson has written about how students looking to do a PhD in the Humanities shouldn’t bother, unless:
  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
In the face of all of this negative rhetoric surrounding getting a PhD and aspiring to become a professor, I ask, who will be teaching my children (currently aged 3.5 years and 21 months) when they are ready to go to university (if they chose to go)? Who will be teaching any of our children? What if, as the advice tell us, we opt out?
This is particularly troubling when we start to think of the situation in terms of minority or non-traditional students. The number of undergraduate students who fall into those categories is increasing, but it doesn’t look like that the number of people representing those groups in the professoriate will be increasing at a comparable rate. And, as studies have shown (at least in STEM fields), race matters. And if we truly value diversity, what does it say to our students when the professors teaching them come from an incredibly small (and, one would imagine, fairly homogeneous) part of the population?

But it also matters because of the message we’re sending the best and the brightest minds: don’t aspire to become a professor. If you have a passion for the humanities or social sciences, either channel it in a different direction or try to find another one. Do we not want the best and the brightest teaching in our institutions of higher learning? Who do we want teaching our children: those with privilege or those with passion? The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but nonetheless, it would seem that the small number of the former would lead an even smaller number in the latter.
This impacts every level of education. It is our universities that train and educate future K-12 teachers, administrators, and, more importantly, future elected officials, leaders, and CEOs. Who so we want educating our leaders, decision makers, and policy shapers? Do we allow the dangerous image of the spoiled and pampered university professor to continue unabated? Do we participate in the active discouragement of an entire generation of young people who may serve to inspire and innovate, shape and motivate through the universities?

We cannot give up working to change higher education. I refuse to see an entire lost generation of potential (and passionate) academics.

How Universities Are Like Newspapers

This post originally appeared on So Educated.
I was on the phone with a reporter who was trying to track down my brother for a story the other day. Nothing bad; she was a Montreal reporter looking to talk to fans who had made the trip to Edmonton for the Grey Cup (the Canadian Super Bowl). At the end of our conversation, she thanked me for all of my help and wished that all of her leads were as helpful as I was. I am sympathetic, I said, I originally wanted to be a journalist. Really, she asked, what did you end up doing? I’m a professor, I answered. She laughed, saying, “that sounds like a much better idea.”
Sigh. Not really, unfortunately.
When I started out as an undergraduate, the Internet was still in it’s infancy. But the newspaper industry was already losing money, shedding full-time writers, and increasingly relying on freelance reporters and wire stories. At least, it was in a shrinking English market in Montreal, a city in a predominantly French province. My program was ahead of it’s time, offering classes in web publishing, such as it was at the time. But the idea of getting into a dying industry wasn’t very appealing to me. I have a few friends who have “made it” as journalists, but they work in really isolated locations and often do so much more than writing stories; they are editors, formatters, and web designers.
So I choose to enter a field where I, too, will be paid little while I pay my dues, in an industry that is under heavy fire and on the brink of, perhaps, dying. There are fewer and fewer full-time positions, and the people in those positions are being asked to perform increasing duties within the institution. If you are lucky enough to get a full-time positions, it is often, once again, in a small, isolated location. The biggest difference? Instead of starting my career as a fresh-faced 23-year-old with a brand-new BA, I am starting it ten years and many tens of thousands of dollars of extra debt later.
In both industries, the wild Web is radically changing how we do our jobs and deliver our content. We are both increasingly using low paid (or free) labor who are more than willing to undervalue themselves in the name of exposure or experience. Newspapers, and thus aspiring journalists, are about ten years ahead of universities in term of their downward trajectory. If universities, and aspiring professors, want to know what things are going to look like in another decade? Look at newspapers, for better or for worse.
(I’m not sure how the resiliency and durability of magazines fit into this little analogy. The highly specialized liberal arts college?)
Journalism schools and aspiring journalists have had to adapt. PhD programs will have to adapt as well. There is a new hashtag making the rounds on Twitter, #NewPhD, in the hopes of fostering a exactly that, new types of PhDs to meet the demands (or lack thereof) of the new university and economy. Just as journalism students quickly realized that they wouldn’t make a living working for a newspaper, so too are we realizing that we will not make a living as a university professor, as we have historically understood it. So what will we do?
Some of us, like me, will move to the middle of nowhere in order to be able to work as a professor (ok, full time instructor, but it’s still better than adjuncting). Others, however, will re-imagine what it means to be successful in or out of higher education. And we all need to fight to play a role in whatever form higher education takes in the future.

Bad Female Academic: Administrative Ambition

There is a pernicious belief in higher education, perhaps even more dangerous than believing that if you are a good researcher than you can’t be a good teacher and vice-versa. That belief is that good academics don’t want to be administrators or can’t be good administrators. Especially for those on the tenure-track, administrative responsibility is often the kiss of death, because of the politics. Being a position to make decisions very quickly can made friends into enemies. And once you get tenure? Well, why bother? 

Another reason that administrative ambition is met with distaste is that faculty are increasingly disillusioned by the university administration and administrators. As an increasing number of classes are being taught by part-time, underpaid adjuncts who are off the tenure-track, the number of full-time administrators is growing even more, and beginning to outnumber the faculty. And the relationship, through budget cuts and skyrocketing administrative salaries, is causing an increasingly adversarial relationship between the faculty and administration. A good academic doesn’t want to do anything with the increasing corporatization of the university.

When I was a PhD student, because of various organizational difficulties, I decided to become president of the Graduate Students’ Association. And, I loved it. Maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to be at a university where the students (both undergraduate and graduate) were respected and an integral part of the decision-making process. Maybe it’s because I was in Canada, where presidents are academics and not from corporations and we don’t have high-profile/high-money sports. And I know that I was following a long line of serious, highly effective GSA presidents who set up a wonderful set of expectations for me to fulfill. Regardless of the reason, I came away from the experience motivated to move up the academic ranks with the goal of eventually going into administration in order to work to try to make the university better.

But even before my PhD, I would get involved, usually through student government. I was taught that if you didn’t like how things were going, you figured out how best to make them better. So, I did. And I always liked it. I figured that academia would be a great opportunity for me to do research, teach, and…be an administrator.

Yes, I am a bad female academic.

My dirty little secret. I have ambition, and that ambition involves moving up the administrative ladder. This, as I have outlined above, can be a dangerous thing to admit. Between the idea that true academics shouldn’t aspire to administrative positions and the idea that, as a woman, it could be seen as threatening to express any sort of ambition, I’m pretty much waving the white flag. I’m either going to be taken advantage of on the lower rungs, make too many enemies, or burn out. Or maybe, just maybe, prove that you can be a good faculty member and a good administrator.

The major roadblock to my plan? I’m not on the tenure-track. By choice. But that will be for next time.

New CRW Summer Feature: Bad Female Academic


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.

Innovative Education for Me, But Not for Thee

Whenever I read Cathy Davidson, I am find myself moving from being inspired and invigorated to very, very depressed. Take her latest, for example, “Going Interactive in a Big Way: How Can We Transform the Lecture Class?” I read it and thought, yes, this is what I want to try and do in my classes! This is, indeed, the future of education! We should be asking our students to think critically about the Internet and electronic medium(s)! Why can’t students take responsibility for their education in my class? Onward and upward over the summer in order to reimagine (yet again) my classes! 

And then doubt starts creeping in. I remember all of the requirements and limitations that are imposed on my because I’m teaching general education courses. I remember that I don’t have tenure, nor am I on the tenure-track, so I am in a vulnerable position, making it that much riskier to be daring in how I teach my (supposedly) standard and increasingly standardized courses. I also fear letting go of control of my class, allowing my students more input and control. I fear giving up lecturing, the only way I really know how to teach, after all. And, above all, I fear failing.

I realize that it is a total failure of imagination at this point that I either can’t conceptualize how to make my writing classes more interactive, or I can’t imagine it being successful. Which is total crap because I know that it works. But there is a persistent message about the students that I teach, which is that they aren’t prepared to learn this way or that it doesn’t really benefit them (hence the increasing standardization of the curriculum). They don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t know what they need to know, so it is up to us to preach it to them. But in a writing class, where the goal is to improve reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, won’t just about anything do?

Other challenges that I am trying to overcome are that a) the classes are lower-division and b) required. In my mind (and, again, this might be totally false), upper-division classes that the students willingly chose to take are easier to make interactive because the students are more experienced and there because they want to be. Convincing these students to be innovative would appear to be less work. A freshman who has no idea who I am, what college is about, or what to expect (or the wrong idea of what to expect) might not look to kindly on a teacher who walks into class and says, we need to learn how to write, how do you want to do it?

I feel like an old dog. Can I learn and teach these new tricks to my students? And why do I think that my freshmen/sophomore non-traditional/first generation students are any less capable than upper-division students at highly selective colleges? Why am I helping to perpetuate the myth that innovative teaching is only good for the best and the brightest? I want to be braver, and I am ashamed that I am not. I talk a big talk, but when it comes time to walk the walk, I falter. I pat myself for the (minimal) work that I have done, but when confronted with the reality that I am just simply repackaging the same old pedagogical framework, I am left unable to respond. 

My students deserve an innovative and non-standardized education as much as anyone else, perhaps more. One of my projects for this summer is figuring out how I can combine the requirements that are imposed on me and my desire to do better for my students. I know it’s going to be a struggle, but I have to try. 

Loss of Classroom Autonomy and Grade Grubbing

After mecifully not having too many grade grubbers last semester, this semester, they have come out of the woodwork. I have one particular student who has sent me multiple emails (starting about three weeks before the end of the semeser) begging me for bonus work because the student knew that s/he was far away from getting an A. I don`t do bonus work, but I did allow the student to hand in an assignment that s/he had missed. It was only worth 5%, but, as the student figured out, those 5% assignments add up quickly. The student actually wrote to me that s/he received A`s on all of the major writing assignments and refused to get a B in the class because of some “stupid” 5% quizzes and assignments.

And this is where things start to get a bit tricky for me; there is a significant portion of the grade in my class that is based not on what I have assigned and developed, but things that I have been forced on me because of` “accountability” and “student learning outcomes.” I have tried to minimize the impact that these assignments and quizzes could have on the students` final grades, but inevitably, they add up.

So I`m torn; part of me wants to just round everyone`s grades up if they completed the “required” portions and be done with it. But part of me also wants to write that a) it was clearly outlined on a syllabus that these assignments would be worth something and b) they should be grateful that I am technically not following the guidelines by making these assignments only worth 5% each (they are supposed to be worth 10% each). And still another part of me wants to say, look at your homework grade. That`s where you lost your A.

But this situation raises a great deal of questions for me. My students` know that certain parts of the course are not of my doing nor are these parts what I want to be doing or evaluating. And I resent the fact that so much of my students` grades are based on elements I have absolutely no control over. As we increasingly stadardize college courses, particularly general education and writing courses, what are we really accomplishing other than simply collecting “data” and undermining the authority and autonomy of the individual instructor? Students are not stupid; mine have figured out the weakness in the process and are exploiting it for their own benefit.
And I feel powerless to stop them, really. I am tempted to really commit career suicide by recommending to the student that if s/he is unhappy with the grade I assigned, then they should take it up with the Provost, the person responsible for all of these “assessement” measures. I know it will get kicked back down to our department, saying that we were “free” to develop whatever assessment measures we wanted (just as long as they fit into this long list of requirements that have nothing to do with our dicipline).

Maybe this will help students understand and fight back on this move towards standardization in higher education. Because the faculty certainly aren`t getting anywhere.