Inhabitants of the Ivory Tower

A conversation about issues in higher education

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Virginia Tech and Students of Iraq

The tragedy last week on the campus of Virginia Tech was unmatched by any episode of craziness in the history of American schools and colleges. The madman murdered 32 students and professors and then himself with an estimated 175-225 rounds from a pistol, more than 100 hitting people. The grief experienced by members of the campus community and town folk is overwhelming, and it has touched us all. But I, for one, am deeply moved by the cohesiveness of the students, the need the Hokies feel to be together, as they were before, so rare on college campuses, I think.

But they have not gone unnoticed around the world as others around the world have observed and shared the sorrow and been inspired by them. And in one particularly significant group of students there is a feeling of solidarity. At Baghdad Technology University, the students have erected a banner that reads, "We, the students of Technology University, denounce the attack at Virginia Tech. We extend our condolences to the families of the victims who faced a situation as bad as Iraqi universities do. The sanctity of campuses must be protected around the world."

One of the students, Yassir Nazar, said, "We have lost many friends and professors. But in spite of our wounds, we want to show our solidarity with the students of Virginia Tech who are our brothers in humanity and in pursuing knowledge." In spite of the deteriorating condition of higher education due to neglect over the last two decades, and the carnage heaped upon the professors and students -- indeed, the entire country -- over the last four years, these students can extend the hand of understanding and sympathy in the spirit I know to be a cornerstone of the true Iraqi character.

Just. Simply. Amazing.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Truck Farmers of Higher Education

I have alluded to this before in the post, The Only Commodity People are Willing to Pay For And Not Get, but I think it's a little more descriptive to consider the idea of Professor as Academic Truck Farmer.

A truck farmer, for those who are not familiar with the term, is generally a produce farmer
who markets his produce directly from the back of a truck along the roadside where passers by may stop to purchase his produce. In this way he bypasses middlemen and the retail grocer who add their profit margin to the prices they pay the farmer. A truck farmer can theoretically make more money by marketing directly from his roadside perch while giving the consumer a price break.

Well, in a sense, the same thing is done in higher education where institutions send out their professors to offer the product (i.e., classes) in close proximity to customers (i.e., students). This usually takes the form of distance education through online learning, compressed video, or direct instruction where the professor carts his weary butt off to some remote site to teach a class in a compressed time frame, nights or weekends to a (usually) small group of students in proximity to where they live -- a type of roadside academics.

What makes this different from truck farming is that it is a form of prostitution -- we function as the whores for the institutions pimping our services. Whereas in earlier times distance education was an honest attempt to be of services to remotely situated constituents, distance education is now a true oxymoron -- a lot of distance between professor and student and not much education. The motivation has shifted from service to corporate greed and profit.

Some argue that this is a natural and logical evolutionary stage in higher education, adapting to a climate of intense competition. It is true that competition has intensified with institutions in the same region doing everything they can to steal students from one another, almost universally at the expense of quality. Hell, there isn't even much pretense that what we offer is worth having. There is even a private, church-affilliated institution in my service region that is offering a doctorate, yet they don't have even one damn person on faculty with a terminal degree.

I really don't ascribe to conspiracy theories, but this is how it works:

1. The institution loses enrollment, so institutional leaders build resumes by building empires; we are no longer a university, we are a university system. We now have presidents and vice presidents, but also chancellors and vice chancellors. We also have more students when the satellite campuses are counted, even though they are taught by pretty much the same faculty with exponentially bigger teaching loads;

2. State departments of higher education that once controlled for needless duplication, distribution of resources, and capital expenditures have been rendered ineffective by intense legislative lobbying from campus leaders who want that empire. And they go along with it;

3. Accrediting bodies will accredit almost any institution or program, even though the institutions and programs violate the standards the accrediting bodies once had. They want to keep their memberships;

4. Students demand that courses be offered and degrees conferred without any expectation that they have to do anything. When their desires aren't met or faculty try to maintain standards, they complain to their legislative representatives who complain to campus administrators who beat up on faculty, manipulate the reward system, unilaterally alter transcripts, and admit students with IQs below freezing;

5. Young faculty buy into the role of truck farmer because they think the new face of higher education is the way higher education is supposed to be and they want to keep their jobs. Older faculty who once had a reasonably strong grip on such matters as curriculum, teaching loads and advancement through the ranks have been rendered irrelevant by power grabs from the plantation owners, i. e., presidents and boards of trustees. Faculty roll over and play dead, engage in futile battles, or just give up. Faculty loyalty has shifted from loyalty to the institution to loyalty to the professions, to no loyalty at all -- even to good teaching.

It may not be a conspiracy, but it sure seems to be better-than-chance collusion. And so, we are truck farmers.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Reflections on death at the university

A university is like a small community within a community. The inhabitants are a separate but intimately connected part of us, within our little towns and large cities, and often they are us. They may lead two lives, one at home in the larger community with their mothers and brothers, fathers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends... the other at the academy where they gather to be enlightened and stimulated by the power of minds and the creative energy of their souls. Some even live there, in a home away from home, or in the only home they have ever known, having no other family, other than the one they make at university. For them, special times or holidays such as Ramadan, Eid, Chanuka and Christmas are lonely and difficult, and some end their lives because these times are unbearably sad for them.

Sometimes a university becomes a place for tragedy that lasts, and lasts, in the minds and hearts of those who were there. In Texas, a young man climbs a tower to look down on fellow students making their way to classes... and kills as many as he can with his rifle. Nobody knows why. In Iowa, and Berkeley, California, doctoral students murder their professors, and themselves, for reasons that can only be imagined. In a time long passed, students gathered by the thousands on campuses, and were beaten, maimed and imprisoned for protesting a war that should never have been. At Kent State University, Ohio, nearly 40 years ago, four students were murdered and numerous others wounded by the national guard troops that were sent to... what?? Protect them from themselves?? Protect society and the institution from members of the family who were just trying to say to their government, "you are wrong." ??

But the most tragic, most horrendous, most senseless, most unforgivable, happened in Baghdad, Iraq a few days ago at a university that is over 800 years old. Over eighty students were murdered, and many more badly wounded, by car bombers and suicide bombers whose sick, twisted, perverted minds reside at the lowest levels of animal life. The victims were mostly girls, young women whose wombs carried the possibility of forging a brilliant future for a wonderful country of courageous people struggling to find their way through terrible chaos. I don't have enough tears in my old eyes to quell the anger and sadness over what has fallen on them... and us.

When it comes to unspeakable acts against humanity, a university should be sacred ground where inhabitants are protected from such craven cowards. But what makes this event even worse - if that is possible - is that it appears to be part of the sectarian exchange of death between Sunni and Shiia. This is happening where thousands of college students have a Shiia mother and a Sunni father, or the other way around, at a university where it is natural that hearts and minds should reach across divides. They came from families whose neighbors and best friends include Christians and Kurds and Turkmen, where Muslims exchange Christmas gifts with their Christian friends.

I am smart and well educated, but I do not understand. Words fail.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Donating text books for University of Mosul- please help

Higher education in Iraq is in a world of hurt, due in large part from governmental neglect over decades and recently because the ministry of higher education has been unable to garner the support it needs from the central government. I suppose the neglect of recent times is understandable, given the chaotic situation, severe security problems and incompetent political leaders.

But the Iraqi people place a very high value on education and they struggle forward as best they can under the circumstances. I have a young lady friend who turned 18 in April, lives in Mosul, and just started college at the University of Mosul last week. The libraries at her school are in dire need of recently published textbooks, particularly in engineering and the sciences, but all other disciplines as well. I asked colleague this semester to donate books and I got a good response. Thus far, I have shipped about 150 pounds of books to my friend and she is putting them in the right places. The books are very much appreciated by professors and students.

I encourage anyone who might be inclined to help to join in the effort to get books to the University of Mosul libraries. While shipping to a war zone is problematic, it can be done. If interested, please contact me and I will provide details on how to do it. The professors all speak English and most teach in English, most students read English, so the language is not a problem as long as books aren't culture bound. My friend's blog is at this address...

In fact you can read her comments about the book project here...

My email is dcline at suddenlink dot net

Please help if you can.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

On teaching at a second-rate university

I read an article many years ago with that title. I think I even remember the publication - South East Atlantic Quarterly, or something like that. Why I had my head in that journal, I don't know, but there was a time when wide-ranging interests took me to places a lot of people don't go.

But that's what I've been doing for years, now... teaching at a second-rate university, that is. It has been so long that it is a little hard to remember the difference between a second-rate and a first-rate institution, or a first-rate, second-rate institution, for that matter. I think in the process, I may have become a second-rate professor. It has to do with standards.

After joining the faculty of my current university, some 15 years ago, my idea of a good or excellent student seems to have been slowly transformed from what it was when at my former university. That is, the standards I once held have grown dim. But I remember that students at my former university were almost entirely good to excellent students. This I know because when I accepted my current position I was shocked to find that something on the order of less than half of the students were good students and excellent students were rare. This is still largely true but less pronounced. I don't know if it is because we are getting better students or if I am more tolerant of second-rate performance. I know I have a reputation for high expectations and it seems I still push students as hard as I ever did.

But second-rateness extends to administrators and faculty too. Overall, my current university is a good teaching school and we have some excellent faculty, both as scholars and teachers. But we seem to have an inordinate number who are poor teachers and non-scholars. I know this because I spend a lot of time around other faculty, work with them closely, and students talk to me about what goes on in their classes, whether I want to hear it or not. Amazingly, many of these poor teachers get high evaluations from students. This is because these faculty give students what they have gotten all their lives -- they are spoon feeding them, catering to their external locus of control. But when these students get to my classes, or classes taught by colleagues who are excellent teachers, they go through a period of painful adjustment because they have to become independent, self directed learners engaged in tasks they don't believe they can accomplish. Yet when they do perform, they are both surprised and proud.

I realize that there is some research which indicates that most university professors see themselves as being more competent than their colleagues. That's not what I am doing here; this is just the way it is.

Our administration is a case study in mediocrity, some of them are borderline incompetent. Many are good task managers, because they do simple mechanical work, but leadership is an alien concept. Most are control freaks, many are micro managers, and you think you are in the presence of a flock of high school principals. They often try to borrow good ideas from elsewhere, but don't understand them well enough to lead the implementation -- so things are half-assed or disastrous successive approximations because they don't see the detail or accommodations that need to be taken into account or how things fit into the larger scheme. They never, ever, ask faculty for help. They also do things, or enforce policies, that fit into the jaw-dropper category. That is, most administrators at most other universities would be amazed or dumbfounded to observe such goings on.

That's some of what it feels like to teach at a second-rate university.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The only commodity people are willing to pay for and not get

The only commodity people are willing to pay for and not get is education. This is a favorite observation of a colleague and friend. He is referring to American university students. I think he is right.

That is not a generalization about all students. Most are very conscientious and concerned about performing up to their potential. But there is a growing number who expect us to hand them degrees with little or no effort on their part. And we, in the Ivory Tower, play right into it by dumbing down the curriculum, relaxing or eliminating standards, and acting like the truck farmers of higher education.

The problem has gotten worse with the advent of the internet, online learning, and the most insidious pedagogical abomination of all, compressed video. I teach a couple of online courses and I have pretty high standards, the most taxing on student commitment being participation in discussion boards where I and the students engage in structured processing of case studies. This activity accounts for 60 percent of their grades and is based on frequency and quality of contributions. In a semester course this means that students make an appearance several times a week -- each case study has a time limit of 3-4 days. Of course, one favorite complaint is, "I shouldn't have to show up more than once a week, just like in a regular on-campus face to face class" which is the schedule for graduate level classes.

Conducting an introductory on-campus orientation session for students is also a source of hostility. They resent the idea of having to get in the car and drive to campus; some refuse and then complain when I scold them for not following directions (and no, online orientation is not as effective).

Of course there are many other examples of "willing to pay and not get" behaviors. Professors everywhere probably have examples. But I don't know what to do with it other than tell students, "Hey, you don't want to do the work? Then pay the consequences."


Thursday, August 24, 2006

A professor's woes in Tel Aviv

Yael K. an American Jewish girl who made Aliyah to Israel a year ago, is a half time professior in communications who is being a bit taken advantage of in her academic load. Her specialty is social psyhology and she may be on the verge of getting another half-time assignment in her chosen discipline. Good for her.

In the meantime, she has posted a rant about the situation with her current assignment. It is interesting to hear about the acadmic life of professors in other countries. We have much in common. Yael is also feeding half the stray cats in Tel Aviv and recently tried to train her own to dash downstairs to the shelter in the event air raid sirens might sound off in Tel Aviv.

Click on the title of this post to visit her rant.