This post at Dr. Crazy's has me thinking about problems of institutional culture--specifically, what happens when a significant minority of a college's faculty does not value intellectual exploration and development for its own sake. Sounds like a paradox, right? Only, at Field--and obviously elsewhere, as indicated by Crazy's post--it isn't.
Let me give you some background. We have quite a few faculty who don't have Ph.D.s--fewer than we had even just a few years ago, but still a good handful. Some of these faculty have, say, MBAs and significant work experience, and teach business or accounting; some have M.A.s in foreign languages and teach those (both our French and Spanish professors actually just have M.A.s and originally taught high school); etc. I am quite certain that many of these professors, by virtue of having had minimal reseach experience of their own, retain a kind of business model of education whereby students come to acquire a degree, and it's our job to get them to that degree as expediently as possible. Period.
And some of our faculty who do have Ph.D.s have been here for a very long time and, I suspect, grown accustomed to the minimal research expectations at the College as well as the largely pre-professional orientation of our student body, and are, perhaps, somewhat resigned. For our students, by and large, come in thinking that they need to get a degree in Education or Business and then go on to get a related job, because (I suspect) they have no idea just how many varied jobs there are out there (in fairness, neither do I) and they don't come from a background that values intellectual pursuit as a formative and exploratory thing.
I know that we're not going to radically change our student population anytime soon. And I know that job prospects are a real concern. But I can't help but think about how much our students are missing if they see college as a road to a job, and nothing more. (And how much they must suffer through most of their classes if that's how they see it!)
The other thing is that we still are a liberal arts college. Not a Swarthmore or an Oberlin or a Carleton or a Reed, but a liberal arts college (with pre-professional programs). And our mission is to provide students, whether they are in a traditional liberal arts program or a pre-professional program, with an education that gives them a liberal arts perspective: a cultural breadth, a holistic framework, a broad set of approaches to the intellectual, social, and personal situations that they will encounter throughout their lives.
Our (extensive; perhaps too extensive) gen ed program introduces them to the liberal arts. But I know how easy and tempting it is to talk to advisees about these requirements as a series of boxes to tick off--to say things like, "Great, you got your lab science out of the way"--which only adds to the sense of these courses' being arbitrary hurdles and the "breadth" component of the liberal arts curriculum as a hassle.
And then, as director of the Honors Program, I meet students who--as first-years!--have had their advisors tell them that they shouldn't bother pursuing a psych minor because they'll never have time to finish it, even though the student himself really wants to study psychology. What the hell is that? Maybe the student should major in psychology, not just minor, but how will he ever know, if his advisor discourages him from taking it because a) he might not have time to pick up a minor (to which I say, Really?) or b) it might deflect him away from his original major--which is, of course, in the advisor's department. (And dude, you can take a psych class. The idea that there's no point in taking a course if it's not going to show up on your diploma is absurd.)
There are a series of forces at work here, of course, and part of the problem is that there's been a lot of talk in recent years about eliminating "under-enrolled" majors. So we want to hang on to our students. But that shouldn't be a consideration (nor should "under-enrolled" majors be cut. Luckily, we haven't been having those conversations recently). And when it starts to look like the student's interests are being ignored for the sake of keeping a major on the books, or--less perniciously--because the advisor forgets to think of the student's intellectual trajectory as her own and instead remains bent on following the curriculum that he has been accustomed to recommending, the student suffers.
And the college suffers.
Because we, the faculty, are then telling our students not to pursue intellectual enquiry, not to take courses to seek fulfillment or satisfy curiosity or because something sounds cool. We are telling them that education is about getting a job, and a job is gotten* by completing a particular major, graduating as swiftly as possible, and maintaining a good GPA--by taking easier courses, if need be.
And yes, I am partly angry about this because I see students being talked out of completing the Honors Program, because what's the point of writing a thesis, after all? Better just to take another intro-level course to fill out your required hours to graduation.
Not all of my colleagues are like this, of course. I wouldn't even say that most of them are. And many of them have twenty or thirty-five advisees and just don't have the time to help each one find him or herself. But it's a problem of institutional culture. What can we do to address it?
*I hate the word "gotten." I used it there on purpose.