Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Foucault and the Front Desk

 A Whole Layer of Depth

Over the past 11 years that I have been a member of the Philosophy Department faculty, the department has repeatedly sought to add a graduate program to its undergraduate offerings. It has offered numerous white papers detailing the need for such programs, the benefits the programs would offer the Florida public, the university as well as the department itself. Each time the requests have been thoroughly researched and written up in highly polished final form. And each time they have been rejected.

For those outside academia, this may not seem like a big deal. So what if you can’t offer graduate courses in philosophy, humanities, religious studies or cognitive science? Students can go elsewhere if they want those degrees, right? It is costly to produce the small numbers of graduate degrees that result from these programs. And, besides, it’s philosophy, forchrissake!  Who really needs a graduate degree in that? Just ask the current occupant of the governor’s mansion in Teapot Tallahassee!

Of course, anyone who’s ever spent any time in academia knows that graduate programs add a whole layer of depth in conversation within any academic department. Research becomes a prominent aspect of department life and students, faculty and the university itself benefits from the academics the programs draw to the department to those who come from outside the university to speak on campus. Graduate students bring to the table their various areas of research interest for consideration and discussion. Academic life is almost always enriched by graduate level studies.

More pragmatically, most departments on campus heavily utilize graduate students to teach and assist in teaching undergraduate classes. Without them, the General Education Program could probably not be offered in most departments. Such an arrangement provides teaching experience for future college instructors, a human face for undergraduates to consult and takes some of the grading and teaching load off of faculty with publish or perish deadlines looming who also must teach large sections of undergraduate courses. 

More Than Our Share of the Load

In the philosophy department many instructors teach up to four sections of General Education Program courses at a time with up to 65 students apiece. (One should note here that the local state colleges cap these same courses at 25). Adjuncts paid a paltry $2000 per cours, and without whom the department could not offer its GEP curriculum likewise teach these huge sections. Given that many of these courses include the Gordon Rule intensive writing requirement, that translates to four pieces of writing to grade times 65 students times 4 sections alone. Providing meaningful feedback on content and writing under such circumstances is simply an impossibility.

Even so, it is also an ongoing reality. The department has long borne the brunt of GEP credit hour production at the Factory even as the other departments, against whom Philosophy is regularly compared in terms of “productivity” (translation: mere numbers of enrolled students who enroll in the course), have readily used graduate students to lighten their burdens. This becomes an even more urgent concern as the department is being told to make its classes more “sexy” to draw higher enrollments or face cutbacks. We must roll those production units through in four years regardless of the cost to departments and their instructional staff.

Various reasons have been offered the department for the rejection of its bids to add graduate programs. Initially the reasons focused on a supposed rule prohibiting the addition of graduate programs at a given state university when such programs existed elsewhere. Of course, that has not stopped the addition of incredibly expensive medical and law schools of questionable need at places like UCF and FIU but when institutional egos with political power drive policy decision making, the rules clearly go out the window. More candid reasons have alluded to the cost of graduate programs though clearly that does not matter if one’s program has political support and sex appeal, whatever that might mean. It also doesn’t hurt to have corporate sponsorship.

Two weeks ago, the banner headline of the UCF Future read “Ph.D. program added to college.” With a photo of a white columned portico bearing a sign reading “PROFESSIONALISM” the reporter documented the addition of a new doctoral program – in hospitality management! The article notes that UCF is among the “less than 10” colleges and universities around the nation who now offer such doctoral programs.

No doubt.

Malthus Comes to Dinner

My main challenge in even reading such an article is to try to avoid the almost immediate condescension that springs to mind unbidden when reading anything about hospitality management programs. Truth be told, I’m not sure such undergraduate programs even belong in institutions of higher learning, much less those offering doctoral programs.

Of course, I have similar feelings about undergraduate programs in a number of other areas as well. Frankly, all trade programs – including the seminary-style indoctrination into free market fundamentalism that passes for undergraduate business programs - belong in trade schools, not universities,  in my opinion. The cachet of middle class respectability – not to mention a modicum of understanding of the liberal arts and sciences - that college degree programs provide simply isn’t a requirement for running a hotel no matter how many stars it touts.

On the other hand, in a state which foolishly, I believe, ties its entire economy to tourism, ensuring that tourist-related businesses from theme parks to hotels to restaurants can run smoothly makes some sense. However, whether one actually needs a bachelor’s degree to do so is questionable. And, frankly, the idea that one would earn a doctorate in this field seems pretty absurd to someone who has actually earned one in a real academic discipline.

The director of graduate studies at the Rosen School of Hospitality crowed in the article that if one is looking for a “top notch faculty to do research and publication…” the new program would be a “very strong magnet for that.” Seriously. One can only imagine the coming journal articles: “The Foucauldian Aspects of Surveillance at Guest Check-In” and “Gazpacho, Portion Size, Carbon Footprint and Climate Change; Malthus Comes to Dinner.”

I can hardly wait.

Them that have the gold make the rules.

Frankly, in a world where there are infinite resources and an unlimited supply of interested students willing to engage in actual academic pursuit, such programs would be simply one more contribution to the production of knowledge in the generative process called academia. Who would really care if hospitality management offered doctoral programs in an academy where lecturers and instructors were paid salaries commensurate with their educational and experiential attainment and students were not herded into auditoriums for factory processing of credit hours or forced into the anonymity of online “classes” just to have a prayer of graduating in six years? In an academic world of plenty, no one’s ox must be gored.

But this is hardly that world. This is a world of artificially scarce resources occasioned by policy decision making driven by corporate interests. It is a world in which the powerless in that process - and thus the losers in its budget wars - are pitted against each other for the scraps. And that is why this program is such a slap in the face to programs like Philosophy which have done so much with so little for so long in the name of being team players only to see that the coach plays favorites with impunity.

There are two aspects that make this decision particularly unpalatable. The first is that this program actually already existed. As the Future story revealed, “Having a Ph.D. program of its own isn’t exactly new to Rosen College; previously it had teamed up with the College of Education to offer a doctorate of education with a specialized track in hospitality.” Not only was there already a program in place, this one actually replicated an existing program in an ostensibly academic department across campus.

In theory, that should never happen in a university system which prohibits the replication of existing programs. In fact, the rules only bind those who are actually subject to them. In a free market fundamentalist culture, the Golden Rule devolves to this: Them that have the gold make the rules.

That quickly brings us to the second aspect. There is a reason that the college in question is named Rosen. Indeed, there is a reason many of the colleges and buildings on campus bear corporate names. Cash starved universities have sold their very souls to egocentric corporations. As I saw on the University of Florida site yesterday, the new trend in the NCAA football, is to provide opportunities to trademark individual athletic contests: The First Annual [your-corporate-logo-here] Game. Never underestimate the powerful combination of corporate egos and disposable cash.

This is a world where public taxpayers have been allowed – if not encouraged - to avoid the responsibility of actually educating the people of their state they expect to serve them. In the wake of such irresponsibility, corporate moneys are increasingly being called upon to make up that gap. But they always come with strings attached, like being able to break the supposed rules for new graduate vocational programs and screwing everyone else in the process.

So, take that, you would-be philosopher kings!

Bottom line: In today's world of higher education, money talks, egos reign, and education is at best an afterthought if a serious consideration at all. Of course, that’s only a problem in a culture where people actually care about education in the first place. Increasingly it is apparent that is simply no longer the case here in Florida -  if it ever really was.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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