This here’s a story about Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue

If you have been paying even a little attention to issues in higher education, you have read one of the numerous stories about Gov. Scott Walker’s plans for the University of Wisconsin, which includes asking faculty to increase their teaching loads. There have been numerous responses to this plan, and I’m going to use my platform here to explain why I think this is a prime example of the biggest problem facing state universities.*

A few years back, faculty at SUNY Potsdam were informed that the university would be raising tuition, and the university would be turning over more than 100% of that tuition increase back to the state. This move was supposed to help off-set the state budget deficits, which resulted in cutting a number of services at the university.** The result was that the following year, students paid more money to the university for fewer services. This trend has not changed, as tuition is increased while state funding is reduced.

If I may speak on behalf of faculty everywhere, we are sensitive to the financial problems facing universities. In fact, we may be far more sensitive to such issues than administration. For instance, here at SUNY Potsdam, faculty (and some staff) are still losing money every paycheck to a mandatory deficit reduction plan, a plan that does not affect administrative-class employees. (Translation: those of us who have had our paychecks cut are the ones dealing with the financial “crisis,” not the administrators.) Similarly, it’s the faculty – those who work with students on a daily basis – who see the effect of these cuts on the education we can provide these students. And it’s the faculty who are told – often quit explicitly – to make sacrifices.***

Now, some people will say that there is not enough money to go around. That’s bullshit. I firmly believe that we do not have a funding problem; we have a spending problem. Universities love paying upper-administration 6-figure salaries, while insisting that those who teach the bulk of the courses in American colleges and universities earn salaries that keep them below the poverty line. Universities will create administrative offices and spend money chasing the technological holy grail, but will not spend money on basic supplies.**** I have never once met a university official of any level whose eyes didn’t light up at the chance to spend money on some new initiative. Universities are happy to spend money; they just do not want to spend it on faculty, or even ask faculty what they need to better do their jobs.

What does any of this have to do with Walker? As the Chronicle of Higher Education asks: “What is the primary function of the faculty?” This seems like an innocent question, but no, it’s a rather ignorant question. I reject the premise of the question. Because there is no “primary” function. (Don’t even get me started on “Just what do university professors do all day?” The idea that faculty should be spending “all day” on their jobs is insulting.) Faculty must – and should – be doing multiple things, often simultaneously. There is no “primary” function because, simply stated, every function engaged by faculty members (when done properly) supports the others. It’s simplistic to say that the primary function of faculty is to teach, even if faculty can (and often do) spend most of their time engaged in teaching-related activities (planning; grading; and working with students in the classroom, in office hours and, increasingly, over email). But to simply say that “faculty are supposed to teach” – a position Walker clearly holds – misunderstands the nature of the job faculty are asked to do.

Pause. First, it’s pretty clear that Walker – and those who think like him – don’t know what it means to teach. Asking faculty members to just pick up another class works from the assumption that teaching begins and ends with the time spent in the classroom. Classes take time to prepare, and work takes time to grade. Faculty members spend more time outside of the classroom supporting their teaching than they do inside the classroom. As any adjunct would be happy to explain to Walker, picking up an extra 3-credit-hour class does not mean working an extra 3 hours. Depending on the nature of the class and the enrollment, this could easily add another 3-9 hours per week outside of the classroom.^

And we know that this is a misunderstanding of the nature of teaching because Walker – and those like him – are not asking administrators to pick up extra work to help close the budget gap. For instance, my university employs three deans (one for each college). Does the university need three deans? Could my university cut its dean-related spending by a third by asking two deans to pick up a little extra deaning?

OK, maybe I was going for a joke, but that doesn’t mean I’m also not serious. One of the problems with Walker’s position – and one of the reasons he misunderstands the job of faculty – is that much of the job of being a faculty member is performed outside of the public eye. Prep and grading is often done at home. Yes, it’s great that faculty have the chance to get a fair amount of their work done on their own terms. But this does not mean it’s not work. By the same token, much of the work done by faculty on campus that counts as work may not actually be work at all. I’m sure we can all remember the time we lost sitting in meetings that ended up not getting anything done.^^ But so long as we are on campus and engaged with our colleagues in an office, we are “working.” That is, visible work that produces nothing is valued as work, while invisible work that is essential to the job is often not considered work. (Again, ask adjuncts who are not compensated for their time spent prepping and grading.)

But faculty do more than teach. Faculty engage in research and service, and advise students.^^^ And when done right, these all contribute to our successes in the classroom. Research is how faculty stay current. If universities want their students to be prepared for the current state of the profession (in any field), be prepared for graduate school, etc., those students need to be taught by faculty who are current in their fields. Further, those students are better served by studying with faculty who are not only paying attention to the new developments, but are contributing to those new developments. The best teachers work to develop their pedagogy, but they also work to stay current (and contribute to) their respective fields. And this is no less true for the humanities than it is for the sciences. And this does not even begin to address how important teaching is to the development of faculty research. My most recent article, in part, came out of some thinking I did in preparation to teach a novel, one that often poses problems for students. I came to the conclusion that one reason I had trouble explaining certain parts of this novel is that there was no critical vocabulary that properly explained what the narrative was doing. In developing that vocabulary, I also developed a theoretical framework, which I then published. And as a direct result of that work, I am no co-editing a collection of essays that further develops this and related ideas. And of course, I hope to bring this work back into the classroom. In short, “teaching” is more than merely “imparting knowledge to students.” It’s also about helping students contribute to the field, which we do by example as well as by instruction.

Similarly, quality advising is a key component to students’ academic success. Advising is more than finding empty seats for students, more than plugging students into courses because of a convenient scheduling block for gen-eds. The more we know about the students we advise – the more we understand their goals and their needs – the better we can advise them on their schedules. Often, faculty must deal with poorly-advised students, who take classes they should not be taking at that time. For instance, this semester I have students in upper-division courses who have not completed their lower-division pre-reqs (and had those pre-reqs waived because they are graduating this semester). A month into the semester, and these students are already struggling. Because they don’t have these pre-reqs, they do not have the knowledge or skill set to succeed. They may very well fail. And because these students have been poorly advised, and are placed in courses they are not properly prepared for, those students and I will have to put in more time, more effort, just to help these students pass. In short, all involved will engage in more work for lesser gains.

And although many faculty dislike engaging in service, when it is well-done it very much assists faculty in their teaching. Department service, when performed well, allows faculty to develop courses and programs that help students succeed. University service, when well-performed, can have the same effect. Faculty sit on committees that concern themselves with academic programs and curricular development, admissions, advising protocols, business affairs, etc. All of these committees can and should work to assist faculty and staff in identifying and addressing student concerns, be those concerns pedagogical or financial. Committee work, in this regard, is like wi-fi: when it works properly, you hardly notice it; but when it is not working properly (or fast enough), everything goes to shit.

So when Walker and others like him ask for faculty to just “teach more” as a way of saving money, they ignore the variety of jobs involved with providing a quality education. Walker’s proposal is asking faculty to do what I have repeatedly been asked to do: do less by doing more. Faculty might be able to teach more courses. But the quality of that education – and the faculty member’s ability to engage in all the tasks that contribute to providing the best education possible to students – will certainly suffer. Can administrators put more students in front of faculty? Absolutely. Does that mean those students will be getting the best education the faculty can provide? Absolutely not.

And this highlights the most dangerous assumption underlying Walker’s plan: the commodification of students. Students in this line of thought are not a population to be served; they are a resource to be taken advantage of. Students are simply the conduit by which universities take money from student loan providers. Some schools do a better job of making this clear than others. One recent president of SUNY Potsdam explicitly charged departments with developing and recruiting for graduate programs. He made clear that the university would not devote any money to these programs, but they were essential because graduate students pay more per credit hour than undergraduate students. In short, graduate students were to be treated as ATM machines, and nothing more. And this kind of thinking is not limited to graduate students, nor is it limited to my university. Across the country, students are paying more money for fewer services, essentially subsidizing an administrative bloat that is only fed by increasing the number of tuition-paying students.^^^^

The biggest problem underlying Walker’s proposal is a fundamental misunderstanding of the job faculty do, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the student in higher education.

A student is not a commodity.

*I cannot speak to private universities, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they are facing similar problems.

**This included, but was not limited to, canceling an academic program, canceling classes, and cutting funding to a variety of student services.

***My current department chair, my former department chair, my current dean, and my former dean, have all explicitly told me (and many others) that I should do less in the classroom. I have been told by all of the above that the best way to handle increased workloads is to send less time on individual students and their work.

****Two years ago, I taught in a classroom that had no board of any kind (it was finally installed before the end of the semester), in the same semester I taught in a classroom with a brand new projector unit. My university recently built a new performing arts center, while many of us still work in buildings that have not had even cosmetic upgrades for more than a decade. And I’ll save for later a post on the various ways my university is ignoring the large number of buildings that serve students but are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

^Time that the adjunct is not ever going to be paid for.

^^For instance, last year I sat on my department’s Graduate Committee, and we met several times last year to draft a brochure for our department’s graduate program. The result? This year’s committee scrapped that brochure, and decided to redraft it. All that time I spent in meetings – not to mention writing and editing copy outside of those meetings – resulted in nothing. That said, the university considers that “work,” because I was on campus engaged in committee work with colleagues. (Officially, the committee has now been working on this brochure for a year and a half. At the last department meeting, the committee announced that they hope to have it completed soon.)

^^^Well, some of try to, anyway. For the second consecutive year, the university denied my sabbatical application, for funding reasons. On the one hand, this is another way to save money: paid research leaves are not seen as an important investment by my university. On the other hand, this is another in a long line of moves by the university that demonstrates my campus’s aversion to research. In my time here, I have published two books. Neither one was even noted by any administrator (including department chair) in any capacity. I am not eligible for any research-related funding. And my sabbaticals have been denied. The university has stopped hosting its annual day-long celebration of faculty research. And I will never forget that, during my orientation when I was first hired, the provost explained that faculty were hired to perform three functions: teaching, service, and advising. When she was asked about research, she explained that the university expected us to engage in research on our own time, and that’s what weekends and breaks were for.

^^^^To give yet another local example: my university currently serves just over 4,000 students (undergraduate and graduate combined). For as long as I’ve been here (long enough to earn tenure, but not a sabbatical), administration has been looking for ways to push us to 5,000 students. However, none of the plans for this growth include hiring new tenure-track faculty, offering more courses, or building new dorms. In short, the university wants to absorb 1,000 students without any new expenses. Similarly, I was recently asked by my dean to develop a new minor program for Arts & Sciences. I was told that there would be no new hires for this program, and that I should design it on “existing resources.” I also sat on a committee that reviewed new programs, including a new arts program that similarly would be built without spending any new money. Translation: the university wants new academic programs, but it doesn’t want to pay for them.



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2 responses to “This here’s a story about Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue

  1. Joaquin

    Oh, but a student is absolutely a commodity, Jim.

    Think about how few people bother to learn their students’ names or, if they do, remember them more than a week after semester’s end.

    Think about how many people list their students’ achievements on their own CVs.

    Think about how the discussion of getting the enrollment up to 5000 students almost never differentiates meaningfully between “any 1000 additional students” and “1000 additional students demonstrably capable of doing work at current (mediocre) standards or even exceeding them.”

    As long as tuition dollars are going to be the predominant driver of revenue for colleges, the students cannot help but become commodities; their presence is the only thing that keeps the lights on, making them indistinguishable from anthracite, uranium, of wind (though that last commodity seems to issue in much greater volume, if also to lesser effect, from administration…). The sense that education is a collective investment in the social good as opposed to a luxury that adheres to the individual possessing it died decades ago.

    I find it noble and right to continue to tilt against windmills in the face of such vile developments, but I never forget that, in doing so, I am as out of step with my own time as Don Quixote was. And as I have repeatedly pointed out, Don Quixote was intended by his creator to be less of a scoundrel than anyone else in the novel. As another notable picaro succinctly stated, “A man got to have a code.”

    Oh, indeed,

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