Thursday, February 18, 2010

Teach It!

Big Midwestern University has one of the shortest breaks between semesters in the entire nation. My loyal readers might imagine that the past six weeks have been spent lounging about without a care in the world. Not so! I have been trying to navigate the pressing demands of multiple academic departments while also feigning that I have a personal life.

My last nerve being worked over, though, isn’t the topic of this post. Rather, it is the alleged crisis facing humanities on our nation’s campuses.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Making College ‘Relevant’.” It turns out that the model of liberal education in place in this nation for the past 160 years has been totally disconnected to the lives of those who obtained degrees. Thankfully, a new group of extremely savvy students and their parents are finally asking the right question: Which majors pay the big bucks?

I know it’s easy to be flippant about those desires (fun, too). Let me be clear: It’s not that I begrudge the reasonable expectation that time and expense invested into a university should result in a graduate’s ability to earn a basic income that meets hir basic needs. Those of us who are in Race and Ethnic Studies units have long known parents' desires to steer their children away from our classes to something “useful.” After all, if one’s child is the first generation to attend college, parents don’t want to see it “wasted” on an “impractical” degree. I get it.

I am under no illusion that humanities fields are a sure path to financial wealth and fame. What I do begrudge is that universities are being driven by some rather base impulses. Few faculty, and even fewer administrators, are on the front lines defending the larger role of universities as sites of intellectual inquiry (especially for the humanities). The push to treat students as consumers has resulted in the tail wagging the curriculum dog. And that’s resulting in one nasty, mangy mutt of academia.

Should we really celebrate the Literature Department at the University of Texas bending its curriculum by having classes focused on résumé writing, networking, and interviewing? If those aren’t the topics covered by the Business School already, just what are they learning over there?

Other departments shouldn’t be upstaged by those enterprising literature professors! Why not have the philosophy professors build their classes on existentialism around the modern U.S. tax code? Or have lessons on table etiquette in your history class? “Remember students, the peasants were starving in the years leading to the French Revolution,” a typical lecture might go, “but if you want to rock it like Marie Antoinette, just remember that the salad fork goes on the far outside of the table setting! She might have lost her head, but she never lost track of her water glass because it was always positioned on her upper right!” Finally, some sensible real-world advice from a history professor!

For me, being engaged with the humanities is not some optional luxury like heated seats in a gas-guzzling SUV. Learning from the humanities is necessary to be a thoughtful citizen of the world. Humanities scholarship reminds us, as individuals and as a society, that we are more than our jobs or the amount of money in our bank accounts. It also prompts us to consider that our own perspectives and experiences are not universals that account for all other humans.

The benefits and unique role for humanities courses at universities has slowly been eroding over the past decade (or longer). Humanities professors' unwillingness to defend their disciplines has allowed the the consumer-driven model of higher education to take root. We have more-or-less capitulated to the notion that we aren’t doing anything really important unless the students tell us we are.

Time was that professors’ abilities were imagined to be measured by the skills that their students received upon exiting their classes. Well, stop the bus, Betty, because those days are over. Legislatures are slashing funds left and right from universities. American taxpayer greed is reaching a new high. Universities and colleges have little choice but to increasingly depend upon tuition dollars to keep the lights glowing.

This means that students are no longer seen as individuals who will be educated, but as consumers who must be placated. Side effects of this trend have included a new tyranny of student evaluations; a push to make classes as “cost efficient” (read: ginormous) as possible; and occasional dry mouth. Humanities professors’ success does not depend upon the amount of knowledge or content covered during the semester. Instead, our main goal has moved more and more to entertaining those consumers. Professors who keep their students rolling in the aisles with laughter are seen as “good teachers.” Why are university professors being held to a higher standard than NBC holds for its late-night talk show hosts?

We are all now subject to tedious programs from (what HistoriAnn has dubbed) Centers for Teaching Illusions. These centers are often created by university officials to prove to parents how totally seriously their institution takes teaching; but they are regularly staffed by people with a ph.d. in almost anything except the theories and practices of learning. As far as I can tell, most of these centers also take the student evaluation as the ultimate benchmark for a professor’s “success” in the classroom.

It’s not that I don’t think that professors should reflect on teaching strategies, goals, and methods. Nor do I discount that student feedback is an important element in that reflection. For instance, I have had students note that there was a gap in the material covered that they wanted to learn. I have changed my courses when such comments emerge.

I do reject, though, that students are always the best assessors of what they need in the classroom. If that were so, they wouldn’t be, you know, students.

Perhaps my sensitivity to these trends has to do with my own intellectual autobiography. My model for teaching stems from courses that were incredibly influential in shaping my academic thinking and training. Travel with me now as we go back to the time when I was not GayProf, but rather GayUndergrad.

Like everybody in their late teens and twenties, GayUndergrad was quite certain that he knew how the world worked and how his life would turn out. I was a serious student, but often exhausted because I was also working nearly full time (That’s another story for another time). I do remember that there were “fun” professors. And I also remember two professors that I really didn’t like very much while I was in their classes. One taught Theories of Anthropology and the other Feminist and Queer Studies (FQS).

Looking back, it’s clear that they both cared that their students learn how to think in new ways. Let me tell you, though, they never gave a fuck about funny.

They expected us to write research papers using methodologies that we learned in class. This was not something that I appreciated at the moment that I took either class. Why? My time was precious and they were some pretty demanding taskmasters for three credit hours. AnthroProf shockingly expected us to read actual academic journals and to contemplate the underlying premise that informed the articles that we encountered. She seemed nuts.

When I signed up for the feminist-and-queer-studies prof, I remember thinking it would be a breeze. How hard could it be to complain about sexism, racism, and homophobia? These were topics I thought that I knew quite well. Turns out, it’s a lot harder than I make it seem on this blog.

The FQSProf for that class took to task our facile identity politics. Sure, GayUndergrad identified as “lefty” as did most of the students in the class (and, thus, we were predisposed to take such a course in the first place). She pushed us beyond simplistic notions of “good” and “bad” stereotyping; to think about the ways race, gender, and class intersect in daily lives; and to consider how racial, gender, and sexual ideologies inform relationships of power. For the early 1990s, it was heady stuff. It was also stuff that required lots of reading and time, which made me a little bitter (Or, er, bitterer).

As a student in each of these classes, I knew that I was working hard and that hard work made me not like my professors very much. What I did not appreciate was that the hard work in those classes would turn out to be so foundational later on in my academic career. Indeed, I was often way ahead of students in subsequent undergraduate classes who had not yet been exposed to the dense theories covered in those classes. It is also no exaggeration to say that I probably would have failed horribly in graduate school had I not taken those two classes as an undergraduate. Indeed, most of the “fun” or “easy” undergraduate classes that had seemed so great turned out to be almost totally useless later in my life. Sometimes I even look at my transcript and find it hard to remember anything from some of the "fun" classes listed there.

But what would happen to my anthro and FQS classes under the emerging standards for humanities? Efforts to keep at bay poor student evaluations would also likely mean reducing the work load, avoiding complicated challenges, and gearing the material to specific careers in the business world. I find it hard to believe that these classes would have generated as much impact if part of our time went into discussing what type of paper stock makes the best résumé.


Roger Owen Green said...

Look, GayProf - ya gotta send those kids out there to fulfill the market's need for working drones. Sounds like you want them to THINK, have a historic and cultural underpining, and maybe even be intellectually rigorous. This is totally inappropriate, particularly in a recession.

Mel said...

You mean there are actually SUVs out there without heated seats?! Oh those poor destitute souls. My heart bleeds, I tells ya.

Janice said...

They actually need a literature department to teach students networking and interviewing techniques? You're right -- what's the business school doing? (Obviously, contemplating their own highly polished navels.)

Of course, that NYT article is also very disingenous. Michigan State University saw declining numbers of classics majors but more than sustaining levels of classics students. The importance of maintaining elective choice in university education goes right on past the noses of such bean-counters who are sure that the humanities and social sciences are nothing but irrelevant filler disciplines.


pacalaga said...

I can't speak to any of that, since I was an engineering major and as such, was only required to take 12 units of Humanities. And you can bet I didn't take anything where I was required to *read*.

Frank said...

I do have some sympathy for those who want "relevance," since, as an English major, I'm pretty much qualified for nothing, but at the same time, I simply can't imagine taking accounting or law just to have a job. I hate work as it is; if I hated the basic subject, too, I'd turn to drink. There is also the little thing of expanding horizons and transmitting the wisdom of the ages, too.

Historiann said...

Excellent work as always, GayProf. (Thanks for the h/t too!) I really like your point about how the tough and not-so-funny proffies taught the classes that are still with you today, but that the fun classes vanished from your brain.

If in fact we are more entertaining than Jay Leno (and who isn't??), why don't we make more money? I ask this in all seriousness because it gets to the value system you decry here--that making money justifies itself, and if you don't make money, then there is no other value in your work.


GayProf said...

ROG: I had secretly hoped that the economic crash would generate a new level of scrutiny towards our current values and obsessions with wealth. Maybe, I thought, we would see a flourishing of the arts and humanities. Alas, it seems to have had the opposite effect.

Mel: I think the ones without the heaters are the "fuel efficient" models. They can get up to 9 MPG!

Janice: BMU has embraced the bean-counter mentality at a scary level. I do think that it will only escalate the divide between "public" (Or in BMU's case, quasi-public) institutions and private ones.

Pacalaga: Well, the important thing is that you read my blog now. And, really, isn't this the same as a four year humanities education?

Frank: I tend to think that if universities came to the defense of the humanities, then so also the business world would begin to see that such degrees do have value. But, look at me, assuming that the business world operates off of ideas of "value."

HistoriAnn: It might be nice, too, if our contracts gave us all of our salary for the next ten years if one of our classes was replaced by another professor.

tornwordo said...

I love it when you write an opinion piece. State the opinion, support it in various (and often amusing) ways, and conclude by restating it. I was teaching that this morning. You do it much better than I though.

As for my university experience. I think the most useful part was learning how to navigate a bloated and contradictory bureaucracy. I remember few profs. I do remember the guy that wore a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants every day. Of course my major was as useless as they come - drama. Still, I use elements learned at that time in my teaching. I'm the clowny teacher, but that works in ESL.

Historiann said...

tornwordo: I should hope you're better dressed than the guy who wore a sweatshirt and sweatpants every day of class! Now, that's an image to try to forget.

Were they a matching set? Bonus points for that! (Wasn't it a Seinfeld episode when George was unemployed and wearing a matching sweatshirt and sweatpants every day, and Jerry said, "Now, that's a sign that you've just given up."

Susan said...

Great post. And I'm going to crib from your comments about the role of the humanities in producing thoughtful citizens. (I've used the phrase "empathic imagination" as I argue for positions.) This is an argument I am making all the time -- that value is not just the immediate patents, grants, etc.

In reality, most businesses DO value the humanities, because usually our students can write, and since the technology will change in a few years, writing and thinking are more useful skills...

GayProf said...

Torn: While I might have many shortages, opinions isn't one of them. If only I had more time to vent them onto my little bloggy!

HistoriAnn: My paternal grandmother would be very proud to know that I never leave the house without a crisply ironed shirt, thank you very much.

Susan: I had imagined that the current economic fiasco would actually have undermined business schools, economics, and finance departments. Clearly our nation's financial leaders did not learn much wisdom in their college education. So, why not allow the humanities to return as a dominant force?

Anonymous said...

Crisis in the humanities, indeed.
I thought that the present crisis was in the economy?
And that it (in the Midwest, at least) had something to do with the failings of the industry whose foundations were laid by a man who famously claimed that "history is bunk"?

This present slide toward market-driven evaluations of professorial performance worries me. While I understand why universities do it, I don't think that it serves student interests in the end. The undergrad courses I took which best prepared me for grad school were not the most entertaining, to put it mildly.

Good to have you back, BTW.

susurro said...

Like you, I think the humanities, and the uni, provide far greater rewards than can be measured by one's paycheck after a degree and the identity studies programs in particular create critical paradigm shifts on and off campus. But I also think that people are playing off of current economic fears to blame the uni for intersecting series of problems with cost, financing, and air tight loan agreements coupled with expectations about [econ] value & educational envy on the job market. In other words, easier to say "It's those race obsessed ES Departments/ those unshaven feminist man haters in WS/etc. that are costing me &/or my child our future" than it is to deal with an interlocking system that works to undo critical thinking based studies precisely b/c of the questions they raise while benefiting economically from their continued existence.

Blake said...

It was not until I got my first real job that I had the experience of meeting with prospective students and THEIR PARENTS. This was new to me but is something that I now have to do about once per semester (and that as a department we do pretty regularly). Which means I need to explain to them why it's perfectly OK for Susie or Jimmy to major in History and why -- current economy notwithstanding -- ze will still be able to find employment upon graduation even with a degree studying old stuff.

In addition to what you say here I also try to emphasize that in History (but also in all the other disciplines in the Humanities) we teach students to think, to write, to argue, to analyze, to communicate. And that employers will want those skills. But that they need me to justify this is proof of exactly the phenomenon you describe, particularly for people who did not themselves go to college (as is the case for many of my students' parents) and so don't know that many people (with the exception of academics) don't "use" their major in their jobs in ways that are very obvious. In other words, it's clear that pre-professionalism is winning.

Rebekah said...

Here here Gayprof. Very well-said. I remember being asked "what are you going to do with a major like that?" when I was finishing my English Lit. degree, as if it was limiting.

I don't agree with Frank; an English (or history, etc.) degree can open all kinds of doors. We are the ones who can put a sentence together. Hell, we can actually make a point, give evidence, and explain ourselves clearly.

Concentrated thought, on one topic at a time, is disappearing on a day-to-day basis; humanities is one place where it continues and is celebrated.

Leslie M-B said...

OK, I'm agreeing with much of what you say here. . . except I'm so. damn. tired. of everyone beating up on teaching centers. Maybe it's because I work for one, and I'm tired of people dismissing my ten years in the college classroom and my expertise in pedagogy, not to mention my colleagues' decades of experience in teaching and commitment to research about teaching. Grrrrrr.

I can tell you that the teaching center where I work has been around longer than I've been alive and has made a positive impact on teaching on this campus--a campus where many science profs show up with ZERO teaching experience and are expected to teach courses of 300 or more students. And yes, since you bring it up, my colleagues and I understand student evaluations of teaching generally rate instructor personality and students' perceptions of their grades in the course rather than measure any actual learning. We'd love to change the questions asked on them, but we meet a good deal of faculty resistance when we suggest as much.

With university budget cuts, we're now losing a teaching consultant with 20 years of teaching experience, and I suspect my and my colleagues' positions will go soon. (Thankfully I just landed a t-t job elsewhere.) When the budget hit the skids, the university's dedication to teaching and learning was among the first casualties; I don't feel it's even paying lip service to the quality of teaching anymore--in fact, our chancellor routinely leaves the word "teaching" out of her vision statements and speeches. But I want to make one thing clear: at my university, the decline of a teaching center, and not its presence, is a clear sign of institutional rot.