Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Obsession with Size

The past two days I have needed to come to UCF’s main campus in the middle of the day. I’ve moved my main campus office hours from Friday afternoon to Tuesday midday in an attempt to consolidate my days outside the house. Having an obligation away from home really wrecks any kind of work that requires consistent, undistracted thought (like grading or wrestling with course websites) so being out one day midweek rather than two with Fridays accounted for is a better use of my time. 

I also found that the new time makes me available to more students. Given that I teach strictly online I am not required to hold office hours in person. But I learned from the nuclear meltdown that I endured last Spring term with students angry over being required to critically consider the course in Christianity they had taken that being present in person for students to ask questions, to vent and attempt to negotiate grades goes a long way toward preventing unpleasant interactions as the end of the term nears. 

Moreover, as extraverted as I am (and in all honesty, I’m fairly close to the middle of the spectrum these days), it’s still good for me to see real live human beings each week and not just deal with a name on a computer screen. I actually enjoy meeting most of my students and always love catching up with students from classes gone by. Indeed,  I sometimes find myself getting a little depressed in the summer when I toil away at online classes as a solo long distance runner. 

He Descended Into Hell…..

My Tuesdays now begin with two hours out on main campus after which I get back into my car and drive the 32 miles south to the Osceola Campus, hold my office hours for regional campus students, then teach the Ethics and Critical Thinking class I adjunct there until 9. It’s another 24 miles and a half hour home from there. By the end of each Tuesday I’ll have travelled 70 miles round trip and contributed $7.00 to the expressway agencies that extort money out of motorists just to be able to get across the metro area in a timely fashion. I’m pretty beat by the end of the day but fortunately, my Valencia course is almost always inspiring and I find myself coming home on a high, a very happy teacher. 

But those very long days begin on a sour note on main campus just finding parking. Because I am no longer assigned to the main campus and on campus at most two days a week, I decided not to allow the university to once again extort the $200/year from my already meager salary for the privilege of hunting for a space to park at my workplace. (In contrast, the regional campus at Valencia not only provides everyone with free parking, our parking permits last for two years.)

The last two days trying to find parking on main campus have been absolutely hellacious. Tuesday I got to campus early hoping to finish grading a set of papers before my office hours began. Because I have to buy a day pass for $5.00 a pop, I am relegated to only the D lots and garages with the students. Of course, that presumes there is a space to actually claim. Tuesday and Wednesday that was simply not the case. 

I spent 30 minutes looking for a space to park Tuesday. Same thing Wednesday making me 15 minutes late for my meeting there. I circumnavigated three lots and three parking garages. Everywhere the lots were full and the lanes between parked cars filled with frantic students seeking a slot. Students leaving campus are stalked by students in cars praying to be the first on site to claim that newly opened spot. In the poorly lit garages that more resemble medieval dungeons than modern parking facilities, impatient drivers whirl around corners without lights and race up and down narrow lanes in an ongoing game of chicken seeking that elusive slot.

This is an absolute nightmare. 

Into the Sausage Grinder 

If I had ever doubted that this institution that touts itself as a soon-to-be world class university is actually an overcrowded credentials factory, sitting at the bottom of the down ramp in the parking garage watching car after car with single occupants talking on cell phones pouring out of the structure removed any doubts. The image that came to mind immediately was the scene from Pink Floyd’s The Wall with the faceless children marching obediently down the assembly line into the sausage grinder. 

As I alternatively slammed my brakes to keep from being hit and cursed under my breath at being forced to endure this purgatorial nightmare, it suddenly occurred to me that the students who came to campus in the middle of the day for afternoon classes, often after working full or half day shifts, faced this endurance test every day.  I thought back to students who often came to class late and missed the opening film review or roll passed around the class and lost a point for lateness. I thought about the students who arrived in foul moods for no apparent reason. Suddenly I knew why they were in foul moods. I now know what they had been enduring .  

Perhaps I should have had this experience earlier. I probably could have been a little more understanding in dealing with these latecomers. It’s easy to pass judgment on a hardship you haven’t actually experienced. 

Even so, it’s hard to fully benefit from a class for which you’ve only been present for a fraction of it. The fact that students cannot anticipate coming to campus, parking their cars and walking across campus within a reasonable amount of time to make it to class on time points toward much larger problems than mere individual time management. It points toward a failure in vision.

Field of Dreams Unrealized 

Ironically, the reason that parking lots were overflowing yesterday was that a good chunk of parking spaces had been cordoned off to accommodate the guests of the university president giving his State of the University speech. G-d forbid the speech might have been held at night when the campus population is decreased with fewer classes to interrupt. Like everything from the visits of Sesame Street Live to ice skating rinks to weeknight football games which require cancelling of classes and removal of all permitted parking from east campus to accommodate the townies arriving to get drunk before the game, the university sends very clear signals to everyone about where its priorities lie. And one thing that is consistently clear is that its classes are not a priority. 

In the State of the University, the president laid out a grand vision of expansion to a downtown site and more building on campus and at the medical center. The president also noted that with money from a state legislature and governor on the eve of an election the university planned to add 197 teaching lines, less than half of which are tenure track. It all sounds quite exciting.

However, even with the additional state funding, the money UCF currently receives from the state is less than it was in 2007. Yet, cuts in funding have not deterred the university from admitting even more students. The president reported in his address that the university had broken the 60,000 enrollment barrier this fall, just behind its closest competition at Arizona State. 

Charge on, Knights! 

Of course, this is also an increase of more than 2000 students from the 2007 enrollments when funding was higher than it is today. Apparently the UCF version of the Field of Dreams mantra - “If you admit them, the money will come”  - has proven to be erroneous. 

Bigger is Better, Right? 

A Google search for “obsession with size” turns up a number of very interesting sites. Not surprisingly, many are related to penis size or female bustlines. The sites speak of inferiority complexes, hypercompetitiveness and how self-concepts are affected by how one fared in the genetic lottery.  But what is striking about these sites is that virtually all of them see an obsession with size as the sign of superficiality at best and a pathologically uncritical lack of depth at worst. 

“Bigger is better” is the familiar mantra of consumer marketing. It points toward production, assessing its own value in quantity while scrupulously avoiding concerns for quality. In turn, “Bigger is better” becomes a mantra for those who are willing to define themselves in a thoughtless consumerist manner.

At a public university, this mantra plays out in some seriously pathological ways. It begins with the rat race for parking described above needed to even get onto campus. It manifests itself in overcrowded classes whose students begin their discussions with their professors during office hours with “I’m X and I’m in your Y class,” a necessary introduction because the faculty member has no clue who this member of a cast of thousands in his or her auditorium presentation actually is. It then spills over into online sections of classes designed to sop up the overflowing student population which can no longer be housed in actual classrooms, insuring that at key times during the day the online site will slow to a crawl.   

Of course, the truth is that bigger is not necessarily better, only better is better. A study recently published by Gallup Polling and Purdue University found that the most important aspect of higher education and its impact on students  has little to do with the size of a college’s enrollment, its athletic prowess and the accompanying season-long bragging rights, the quality of its housing or the speed within which its enrolled can access a degree. Rather, whether a graduate was able to thrive after college turns almost exclusively on what kind of experience they had during college. To wit: 

The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended -- public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective -- hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work -- meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving -- which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing -- in all areas of their well-being.

Instead, the study found that support and experiences in college had more of a relationship to long-term outcomes for these college graduates. For example, if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being. And if graduates had an internship or job in college where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, were actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, and worked on projects that took a semester or more to complete, their odds of being engaged at work doubled as well.

In short, quality of experience is what counts. A factory approach which shuttles students through a maze of auditorium presentations and bogged down online courses is simply not likely to produce graduates inclined to thrive in their careers or their well being generally. The reason? Because they have been processed like commodities, not engaged as human beings. 

Of course, as the president’s speech noted, insuring there is sufficient instructional staff to actually teach the never ending tidal wave of students the university seems intent upon admitting (unlike the University of Florida which long ago capped enrollments in the name of quality) also requires having the money to pay them. This, in turn, affects class size and forum. And in turn, that greatly impacts the ability of faculty to know and engage their students as actual teachers and mentors.  

But Do We Really Care? 

As always this brings us back to the question that underlies all discussions of education at any level: Do we really care?
Do we care enough to provide sufficient parking to allow students access to the campus to attend classes on time? Do we care enough to provide enough teachers and small enough classes that students actually get to know their classmates and their professors and have the potential to form productive relationships with them? Do we care enough to ensure that enrollments are small enough to allow faculty to offer useful feedback on writing and content in classes which demand the same? In short, do we care enough to see the human beings coming to our campuses to work and study as worthy in themselves to foster and develop to the limits of their potential and not simply units of production on conveyor belts in degree assembly lines?

If the answer to those questions is yes – and I do not labor under the misapprehension that they will be – then the next questions become even more important:  

Are we willing to pay for the quality we demand? How much do we really want to produce quality educated  graduates able to engage the world outside the university? Are we willing to simply accept the mediocrity that mass production of degrees represents and are we then willing to live with the consequences of that decision for our lives together? 

Do we really care?

I wonder.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Harry,it is a shame that enough parking is still not provided. And, the masses of students are pushed through the curriculum like cogs on an assembly line. UCF's ADMINISTRATION is being motivated by the almighty $ in this GOVERNMENT run University like most groups in this capitalistic society. Mike