Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sacrificing Students to the Major

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.


Dr. Crazy said...


Especially to the part about this not being all of one's colleagues, but about the culture poisoning the well, so to speak.

How do we address it? Well, more and more I'm having less and less faith in addressing it through institutional, bureaucratic means. I'm thinking that maybe the path to institutional (or, in my case, departmental) change might be more localized, that maybe the trick is to get all of those like-minded individuals together to do great stuff, and that this will exert pressure on the culture, not because we pass motions or because we make announcements, but rather because people will just be shamed by the awesomeness of the people who are doing better. At my institution at least, or at least in my department, the problem is one of publicity: we don't really acknowledge really great things that a select few do in a way that really encourages others to aspire to great things of their own. (I think this is because we don't want people to feel badly about themselves, but I think that sort of lowest common denominator thinking is REALLY lame.)

I'm thinking that if I focus my energies on getting a bunch of people to do really great stuff, as a collective of awesomeness, and if we all brag shamelessly about our accomplishments (both of our own and of others in our little collective) that this will make a difference. Or, if it doesn't, at least all of us in the collective will benefit professionally from it. And our students will also benefit from our collective energy.

In other words, I've got no hard and fast answers. But I am coming less and less to believe that just stating the problem and offering institutional solutions is the answer. I'm thinking more and more that (and this is so needlessly theoretical) the most effective approach is something along de Certeau's line of tactical points of resistance. In other words, you're within the structure, but locally you engage in tactics that undermine that structure.

Anyway, you're not alone, Heu. I'm right here with you.

heu mihi said...

About that lowest common denominator nonsense--TOTALLY have that here. In fact, Awesome New Dean told me that he was told not to make too big a deal out of my book contract, because it might make other people feel bad.


Anyway, we do have one advantage, which is that we're a very small school, and so small efforts can be visible. And I think that you're right in your approach: do awesome things (or encourage others to do them) and brag about them shamelessly.

It's just disheartening, when students present to me as a fait accompli the abandonment of some hope or dream. (Not that I'm projecting here at all or anything! Of course, I need to be careful not to romanticize their intellectual pursuits, myself.) And the extent to which they honor the words of their advisors--seriously, I liked my advisor, but I did not feel this way--is also quite troubling.

But then I could write another whole post about the ways in which our students are infantilized at this institution. Possible connection, anyone?

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