Inhabitants of the Ivory Tower

A conversation about issues in higher education

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.