OK, I’ll admit, my last post was a bit weak. It’s bound to happen, more often than I would like. But hopefully, what I post below will be a little more thought-provoking.
Also, I have to admit that when I started this blog, I really did want to focus on pedagogy. And in some ways, I still do. And in the future, I hope to include more posts regarding creativity in the college classroom. However, recently, I have devoted far more of my brain to the structure of academia itself. Part of this is because of the problems taking place in my own corner of the world.* Part of this, no doubt, is the new-found sense of obligation to my workplace and colleagues that came with my recent tenure. I understand that, for some, tenure means pulling away from service and research. For me, it means an expectation of leadership.
Part of this, however, most assuredly comes from my growing distaste for the finger-pointing that I increasingly see when it comes to the systemic problems plaguing academia. It’s quite disturbing, in fact, to watch as various groups identify and then blame others for problems that, in all honestly, we all find ways to contribute to. Myself included. I’m not innocent here, and I can only hope that as I continue to develop as a teacher, scholar, and member of the profession, I can better understand my place in the system and contribute positively.
So anyway, for the past few days I have been thinking a great deal about this recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this piece Derek Bok – lawyer, former president of Harvard, and author of numerous books on higher education – points his finger at graduate programs (particularly those at research institutions) and calls them “the worst-designed and worst-administered of any major academic program in our research universities.” A bold claim, and one he doesn’t appear to support. That alone almost made me want to stop reading the article. However, then he hits upon a topic very important to me, noting “how little they do to prepare their students to teach.” As a graduate of two graduate programs,** I have some personal experience with the training of future college faculty, both as a recipient of training and a contributor to the development of my colleagues in graduate school. Further, some of my closest friends from graduate school have been or still are engaged in the scholarship of teaching, and I try my best to stay apprised of their various efforts.
And while my first read of this article made me angry, and inspired me to want to post about all the wonderful work that my graduate programs did to help train me as a teacher, more reflection led me to something I really don’t want to admit:
Derek Bok is absolutely correct.
However, that doesn’t mean he also isn’t totally full of shit.
You see, I agree with Bok. Very often, graduate programs do not emphasize the training of teachers as teachers, but rather focus on training future scholars, understanding that scholars will earn their keep at universities by teaching. At least in part. But if I can be excused for a little finger-pointing here myself, this is not exactly the fault of the graduate programs. When Bok writes that “[t]he problem is not just that faculties resist change,” he is correct; however, when he notes that “[p]rofessors in departments of English literature or economics or chemistry are simply not trained to offer instruction on the applications of cognitive psychology and motivation theory, or the findings of researchers concerning the relative effectiveness of different methods of instruction, or the skills required for developing online courses,” he misses why this is often true. The underlying assumption seems to be that faculty in the various disciplines have little to no interest in such professional development, or lack the tools to engage in such development. And further, that there is little to no interest in changing the way we train graduate students in the various disciplines. However, graduate programs are working to feed a market, and one that has made crystal clear that the standard for hiring is publishing. And this, in part, is due to the large role publishing plays in reappointment and promotion decisions.
Now, before we move on, I want to note that I’m not really pointing the finger. Because many of those schools that are insisting on publishing as the gold standard for professional development are the same programs that are training and producing graduate students. I’m not blaming the market; rather, I hope to demonstrate that academia is faced with a systemic problem that institutions are actively participating in, and as such can actively work to change.
As long as hiring and promotion decisions are based largely on the production of research, graduate programs will never change how they prepare graduate students. Mostly, there is little impetus to do so. Graduate students need to be prepared for the profession, and the profession values research.
Ask yourself this, how often have you ever heard the phrase “teach or perish”?
Right. It’s “publish or perish.” And for all the talk given over to teaching, I’ve yet to see any evidence that academia is considering any change to this truism.
Even in my PhD program, a program that focused on teaching with seminars, workshops, and various opportunities to engage in new teaching methods,*** made clear that my primary obligation was to my research. I was personally told this, in various ways, on numerous occasions. Just as importantly (and no, I will not provide any names), there were multiple examples of graduate students who were given non-teaching assistantships when it was clear that they were doing a terrible job in the classroom. One of my officemates nearly lost his assistantship when he failed to complete his seminar papers; however, his stunning failure in the classroom was a flaw that the program was more than willing to overlook. The message was loud and clear: teaching is secondary to research, because research is what will get you hired.
But as I said, I’m not interested in this kind of finger-pointing. Or, rather, I refuse to sit back and simply blame the market. Because the market is determined by those very schools that produce graduate students entering the market. In short, the academic market is an elaborate circle jerk.
To reply to Derek Bok, I would ask him about Harvard’s own practices. When, at Harvard, did he encourage academic departments to value teaching over research in hiring or tenure decisions? Where was his invented outrage when he was leading one of the most prestigious universities in the world? He had an opportunity to be the leader in this change. Instead, Harvard has a reputation for refusing to tenure any but the most senior scholars in the field. Where, under Bok’s leadership, was the pressure to find and train the best teachers in the nation? Where, under Bok’s leadership, was the pressure to hire and tenure the best teachers in the nation.
Derek Bok can take his advice, and kindly go fuck himself. Because when you captain the ship that is the very metaphor for academic elitism based on the the “publish or perish” model, you lose the right to point your finger at anyone else for not training teachers.^ I’m not saying that Harvard does not produce good teachers; I actually studied with more than one excellent teacher who studied at Harvard. Rather, I’m suggesting that those teachers were excellent teachers despite Harvard’s influence, rather than because of it.^^
However, another issue that Bok conveniently ignores is that there is a class of faculty at universities whose primary, if not sole, obligation is to teach: adjuncts. Rather than repeat myself on the “adjunct issue” I’ll simply link you to those posts. (Yeah, I’m that lazy.) What I would like to note here is that academia already has a class of teachers as teachers, a class of faculty that at least one (admittedly controversial) study has identified as superior to their tenure-stream colleagues. What this means, of course, is that Derek Bok’s desire to focus on the art of teaching is a reminder of the daily slap in the face that is the academic labor market. In short, Bok is calling for research faculty to spend more time on developing their teaching, but turning a blind eye to those faculty whose professional lives are largely, if not solely, focused on teaching. Faculty who do not enjoy the resources, benefits, or pay of their tenure-stream colleagues. It’s almost like Bok is asking for faculty to think and act more like adjuncts – whose job security often depends solely on their merits as teachers – albeit as better supported, better paid, and generally more respected colleagues. Or, as Paul Mooney might put it…
And finally, while I’m in a cheeky mood, I’d like to respond to Bok’s assertion tha “[i]f such material is ever to become a part of preparing graduate students, then provosts and deans will have to take the initiative.” While I have much to say here, I think I’ll just put forward a proposal to create a new administrative Office for Academic Initiative. In the spirit of the corporate model for academic affairs, I think every university needs an office dedicated to Academic Initiative. This office should have an administrator, a vice-administrator, and plenty of support staff to institute change. Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that nothing important has ever been accomplished in the absence of unnecessary administrative bloat.
*Recently, the UUP “negotiated” a pay decrease for teaching faculty in the SUNY system. In order to make sure we make less money, we are forced to take “deficit reduction days,” which is a fancy way of not saying “furlough.” This semester, our “deficit reduction days” are scheduled for Thanksgiving Break, with an email from our union representative explaining, essentially, that as we have always been expected to work over holidays anyway, our vacation days are work days that we can be docked for. This is the third union I have been a member of in my lifetime, and I never imagined that a union could be so spineless and ineffective. Literally, our union representative told us that it was our job to wait for our university president to tell us what to do. Solidarity.
**Boston College and the University of Connecticut, both of which made a concerted effort to train graduate students as future teachers as well as future scholars, though as I will note later, this effort was spotty at best.
***It was as a young graduate student teaching Freshman Composition that I attempted my Moby-Dick experiment, with great success. Then-Director of the Freshman Writing Program Tom Recchio encouraged this experiment and provided a great deal of advice ahead of time, and was interested in following up with me about what did and did not work, so that I could use this as a learning experience. In many ways, Tom is one of the most innovative and inspiring teachers I have ever met.
^I did my undergraduate work at Northeastern University as well as graduate work at Boston College. My own anecdotal evidence gathering suggests that graduate students at Harvard – at least in English – were pointedly told that their job was to excel as scholars, not as teachers. This attitude was, sadly, repeated during a conversation I found myself stuck in at the MLA conference in 2007.
^^However, if I am incorrect here, please correct me. If there is some movement away from “publish or perish” at Harvard University, I’d love to read about it.