Where High Ed should be more matter of fact

Here, there, and everywhere, I’ve engaged with the flood of “educational disorders” books that have been appearing in the early to mid-last decade.

I’m talking about books like DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of higher education from within by Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education by Jeffrey Selingo and Kevin Careys The End of College: Shaping the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

There are numerous others. These are the ones written in good faith by people who had a genuine interest in the educational mission of higher education, rather than trying to use higher education as a vehicle to funnel vast sums of public money into private hands, or just to kill a sector they see as hostile to their political project.

My criticism was rooted in a few key differences.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I had an overwhelming belief that a common core thesis underpinning these books—that a technological revolution was at hand to fundamentally transform teaching and learning—was blatantly wrong.

Because of my frontline experience teaching the types of needed courses that still make up a significant portion of the undergraduate experience, and the exact courses that would have to be paused if higher education changed, I knew MOOCs and such further – called personalized learning – would not prove to be an acceptable alternative to traditional education without also specifying what should count as a university degree.

(Defining the qualification to meet what the technology is capable of was actually my biggest fear after seeing how defining what constitutes competent writing in the five-part essay destroyed the writing guide.)

My other major objection was rooted in my conservative stance and my belief that college and university institutions are important as collective enterprises in and of themselves for reasons beyond their role as brokers of credentials. They are what Cecilia Orphan and Kevin McClure call it in a recent article Change: The Magazine for Higher Education“Anchor institutions” that act as hubs of employment, activity, and economic opportunity for people living in the community.

As I argue in my book Consistent. Robust. Free.: The future of public higher education, Education is rightly seen as an “infrastructure” and not just a consumer good. Even if a disruptive technology emerges that provides a good enough alternative to the current system when it comes to the credentialing function of post-secondary institutions, we should be very careful about what would be lost when those institutions cease to exist.

I am somewhat heartened by the realization of many post COVID isolation that these institutions are perhaps more important than we gave them credit for and are indeed worth preserving and even improving. Whether we will achieve that is an open question, but we hear a lot less about disruption and higher education these days.

A clear subtext of all these books was essentially, given that these institutions will not change, what else could emerge that upholds the educational mission without bringing all the baggage with it?

But that baggage — the decentralization, the principles of faculty autonomy, the high bar for change — is an essential part of what makes higher education institutions so important and enduring. That baggage keeps some really catastrophic things from happening, like the 2012 example at the University of Virginia when a panicked visitors’ committee fired university president Teresa Sullivan because some board members felt Sullivan was too slow to get online /MOOC train that pulled out of the station with Harvard and Stanford in the lead. The board specifically cited Sullivan’s “perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom line mentality of a corporate executive.”

Opposition from faculty and the broader university community led to the reinstatement of Sullivan, who eventually served through 2018 and guided the institution through a successful overhaul of its general education curriculum, which became fully effective shortly after the end of her tenure.

While I believe my critiques of these books have been well-founded, there is one area where I have developed more sympathy for the overall critique of higher education than institutions, which are too narrow-minded and should actually consider adopting some methods which look more like “economy” than “science”.

Don’t get me wrong – the core thesis of Consistent. Robust. Free. argues that institutions should be significantly less business/operational focused on generating tuition income and much more focused on the mission of teaching and learning. I’m not here to argue that colleges and universities should be run like a business, because that is already happening to their detriment.[1]

But… as we refocus institutions’ business away from revenue generation and toward mission, we can see some areas where a more no-nonsense approach would do well.

One of the areas that could take on a more factual/entrepreneurial spirit is teaching and learning, which is about the pace at which (good) companies can move and the mechanics of (good) companies[2]to identify and nurture talent and provide resources to support that talent are superior to academia.

Let’s start with the later question of identifying talent and providing those employees with the resources so they can continue to do their best and innovate.

When it comes to teaching and learning, academia could hardly be worse in terms of structure and practice. As we know, the guild structure of admission to the academy bears almost no relation to the quality of teaching and learning and, with the increasing adjunction of faculties, has created an arbitrary division between faculties, which limits access to the material resources (such as time and compensation) that make it possible to prioritize this important work and those who don’t. Even worse – yes, it gets worse – the, the do have the resources to teach effectively and innovatively are not judged on the quality of that work.

It gets worse than worse. In positions where teaching and learning should be the focus of the work, many institutions deliberately engage in a practice of “brain drain”. Consider almost every “guest” position in the country, or Harvard’s truly amazing practice, their faculty/fellows/et al. without restricting tenure track. for a maximum of eight years of service.

As James Rushing Daniel writes timeline“Fellows who reach this threshold are not eligible for an extension, regardless of their teaching or academic achievement.”

According to the “business logic” of academic institutions, this makes sense because leaving positions prone to attrition gives schools financial flexibility.

But from the perspective of corporate business practices, it makes no sense to have a standard policy that fires your most experienced and qualified employees once they reach an arbitrary mark on a calendar.

The working structures of science combine the worst of all worlds.

The practice of teaching and learning within science is also hampered by the fact that it is not sufficiently factual. This point was brought home to me by Robert Talbert on Twitter earlier this week.

He wrote, “Higher education institutions need to treat teaching innovation the way (good) companies treat innovation: talk to users, build/deploy a minimally usable product, and then iterate. Collect data and adjust on the go. But don’t wait for critical mass to start.”

Reading Talbert’s comment, I was struck by the irony that in this way I could actually run my own courses, as a continuous semester-by-semester experiment in improving my pedagogical practice, largely because, as an academic, I was outside the academic guild -Tenure track teacher.

Humility thrown out the window that embodies pedagogy The writing practice is a superior approach to teaching writing than any other resource I’ve come across in my nearly 20-year teaching career. The pedagogy is further enhanced when employed by an instructor who has the freedom to change and adapt the material to their student body.

If I were in the academic guild, I know I could design a study that fit the peer review parameters and demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach, and had I not been one of the victims of the churn I might do just that .[3]

But in Talbert’s view, this should not be necessary, nor is it desirable in the field of teaching and learning. In another tweet on the same train of thought, he says, “I think people in secondary schools, mostly from academic backgrounds, hesitate to do or say anything until there is a comprehensive review of the literature and several published studies to back it up. That’s fine in some areas, but that’s the way it is way too careful for class‘ (emphasis mine).

I knows that my writing pedagogy works for me, and it works for others who come from a similar place in terms of underlying values. This peer-reviewed study, which I could theoretically undertake, is not necessary when the proof of concept in terms of the work the students are producing and what they are articulating about their own experiences is right under my nose.

Anyway, it’s frustrating. There is tremendous energy around innovation in teaching today, but that energy is tempered by the academic atmosphere in which it reigns.

However, if I had to choose between the binary of a “move fast and destroy” business culture in terms of how higher education works and the much slower nature of the academic status quo, I would stick with the status quo.

I’m just not sure why we have to choose from these binaries when we know other options exist in the world. Many educators defy the constraints to produce great, innovative work—Robert Talbert among them.

How do we create an academic structure that encourages and disseminates these ideas for the benefit of students?

[1] The problem is that the business (earning tuition) doesn’t align with the mission (teaching and learning). These things are at constant war.

[2] Let me highlight the “good” part of good deals here. I’m aware of the harm companies do to their workers in the name of profit, but there are good, sustainable companies out there. I’m talking about the differences in the structure of how these issues are handled in academia versus business.

[3] I actually know pretty well what it would look like.


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