Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No Bad Guys, Just a Poisoned Well

The last faculty meeting of the term had gone along swimmingly. We were reminded to turn in copies of our grades (just in case there is any dispute about them) and to provide whatever data we’ve contrived for the course assessments that will help the local technocrats sleep well at night. We had even gotten through the fairly complicated changes to curriculum in two different programs and approved the hard work of the heads of those programs and their faculty.

Amazingly, the elephant in the room snoozed quietly in the corner, all this time. The means by which it came to life is a story in itself. 

Three for the Price of One

Near the end of the meeting, a group of instructors who had participated in a Writing Across the Curriculum program over the past year gave their report. The program proposed a number of ideas to help insure that students emerging from our classes could write at an improved level from when they entered. For an increasing number of students who arrive at college with writing deficits, this could simply mean that their writing would begin to approach college level in quality.

Then came The $64,000 Question: Did your program even consider the problem of trying to teach writing skills to classes that are too large to provide any kind of meaningful feedback to the students?


Suddenly the elephant roared to life, running rampant through the assembled faculty too exhausted from a long and trying term to avoid it.

The room buzzed with heated observations that overcrowded classes by definition eliminate the possibility of grading and providing meaningful feedback on any significant amount of work an instructor might assign each term. In real terms that means less writing assigned by the faculty and thus less opportunity for students to improve research and writing skills, critical reasoning, and various means of presenting their ideas.

I came to UCF in 2002. The intensive writing Gordon Rule courses I had just been teaching at Valencia Community College were then capped at 20 students per section to permit faculty to focus on student writing. UCF’s version of the exact same classes at that time packed 37 students into their classrooms. Within six years, that number had ballooned to 75 students in a single section.

That’s nearly four times the size of exactly the same class at the community college. And when you multiply that by the four classes full-time non-tenured instructors are required to teach, that meant an instructor was teaching up to 300 total students in a given semester.

From an economic perspective, that’s patently exploitative of faculty, particularly adjuncts getting paid $2000/course, well below average (US average for adjuncts is only $2700) with no benefits. It effectively means that instructors are providing three plus classes for the price of one. But, more importantly, from the student’s perspective, the instructor’s inability to demand that they write regularly, receive critical feedback on those writing efforts and thus be provided an opportunity to improve their writing is a serious pedagogical failing and the denial of an educational opportunity.

Of course, this is hardly a problem relegated to this university. Arum and Roska’s study of the academic experience of undergraduates in America published in Academically Adrift  (2011) found that most students in America’s colleges and universities are being required to read or write very little in their classes. Their study found that “as much as 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don't take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.” (Scott Jasich, “Academically Adrift,” Inside Higher Education. )

An Obsession with Size

And yet the problem of overcrowded classes is more a symptom than a cause of these failings. A part of the problem at our university came into focus early this month in the wake of the latest audit of the university by outsider consultants. The John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education of Brevard, NC, released its review of undergraduate education at UCF, a study actually commissioned by the university. Among the findings:

·         The review found great uncertainty and lack of clarity about the mission, purposes and organizational structure for undergraduate studies 

·         These findings are in contradiction to the high level of importance given to undergraduate education in the university’s stated mission

·         The review also found disproportionate attention on graduate education, given the gross number of undergraduate students versus graduate students (about 51,000 vs. 9,000)

The auditors noted that even as the university had neglected its undergraduate programs, it celebrated the swollen ranks of its undergraduate population as a source of pride:

The University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando is the second largest non-profit higher education institution in the United States. That fact is constantly emphasized and pointed to with pride by all types of administrators, staff, faculty, and students. In fact, it appears to be a truly dominant determinant of internal status. We have never visited another research university where such emphasis is placed on size.

So, while the university does not want to fund or adequately support the cast of thousands it has admitted into its undergraduate student body or those of us who endeavor to help them become educated, it still sees their mere presence as a source of bragging rights.  A number of our undergraduate males wear tee-shirts around campus smugly proclaiming “Size Matters.” (One wonders why one would need to advertise in such cases) But, apparently the university’s management agrees. It’s a rather mindless obsession with quantity and a major blindness to quality.

Herding the Cash Cows

Undeterred by its own audit’s findings, the university continues to focus on graduate programs. As the heated conversation at the departmental meeting about class sizes subsided, the chair then revealed that the deans of the university’s 13 colleges had pronounced at their last meeting that their colleges would actually be increasing their focus on graduate programs. There are a number of reasons for that.

First of all graduate programs offer the promise of research grants, an important source of income to a state university slowing being drained of its lifeblood by a vampiric state legislature increasingly beholden to the same wealthy interests which dominate most governments in our nation today. Our own university long ago sold its soul to the defense industry whose research dominates campus research and whose corporate and governmental outlets populate the office park which girdles the campus to its south.

Graduate courses also provide cheap instructional personnel in the form of teaching assistants who make factory process mega-classes (some well over 1000 in the business school) possible. Many more take the reins of teaching of undergraduates entirely, competing with adjuncts for these instructional slots.

Of course, the Philosophy Department has never had any graduate students to fall back on since it has consistently been denied any kind of graduate program by the university. It is the only department in the College of Arts and Humanities without a graduate division.

Not surprisingly, the focus of our meeting suddenly shifted to the possibilities that perhaps this might be the opportune moment to once again apply for a graduate program. “Who better to direct an interdisciplinary graduate program?” a faculty member quipped.

At this point, two former chairs reminded the department of the devil’s bargain required for any new graduate program: Graduate programs will be added only if no new faculty lines or resources are requested.

So let’s see.

·         We already have more undergrads than we can handle and thus cannot assign the kind of intensive writing students need to develop their writing skills.

·         According to its own audit, the university does not sufficiently support its undergraduate programs.

·         But more graduate programs are the priorities of the deans of the colleges.

·         And the only way such programs can be created is if the department agrees to take on those additional tasks with existing staff and resources.

More job duties but no more staff to help carry them out. And no more money even as the services provided must expand.

That’s a good deal for somebody. But it sure ain’t us.

No Bad Guys Here

So let's leave it alone 'cause we can't see eye to eye.
There ain't no good guy, there ain't no bad guy,
There's only you and me and we just disagree.
- Dave Mason, We Just Disagree (1977)

As the smoke from these explosions began to clear, I looked around the room, suddenly seeing my colleagues in a whole new light. It was the end of a long hard term. We were all tired. We had just sat through two hours of an end-of-term departmental meeting that had predictably dissolved into the latest round of the ongoing vicious Catch-22 that is life in a public university today. The frustration was palpable.

There was an air of futility among these bright, well-educated people, most of whom had worked like hell just to get through a very trying academic year. Now at the end of that year, here we sat with the drunken elephant of the corporate university once again thrashing about the room.

The reality is that those of us who labor at these corporate universities will never be able to do enough to meet the demands of a bloated corporate management oblivious to both the students and faculty they allegedly serve. With their self-appointed privilege to engage in unlimited job description creep, we will never be able to do enough work for the same salary or less (our instructor’s beginning salaries have actually dropped over the past three years) to satisfy this insatiable, exploitative machine.

It is also unlikely that the human dignity owed the dedicated men and women who operate this process will ever be recognized. And it appears highly unlikely that the quality of the education we seek to provide the undergraduates we teach will become a serious concern for those who make the real decisions about how the university operates. It’s a lot easier to maintain a flow of underpaid visiting instructors through the cattle chutes and treat students as consumers, trying to insure their passage through this Unlimited Credentials Factory in as painless a manner as possible.

As I looked across the room at those faces, I realized how much I value and respect these people with whom I have worked these past 13 years and how much I will miss them when I finally give up the ghost and get the hell out of there. And it dawned on me that, while it is easy to single out any player to blame in this danse macabre that plays out on a regular basis here at the Factory, there really are no bad guys in this drama. There are simply a lot of decent human beings trying to survive in a dysfunctional system that many readily recognize as toxic.  

One of the marks of any pathological organization is that it tends to pit its victims against one another. But the reality is that none of these folks alone are to blame for the problems we face. As a colleague observed after the meeting, “The system is too big and most of us can’t even see the problems clearly, much less try to solve them.”

I believe my colleague is right. And that then leaves those of us who actually still care with this dilemma:

Knowing that current conditions are unfavorable for quality education to be provided, that this is unacceptable for those of us who consider providing quality education to those who seek it to be our calling and that this is highly unlikely to change anytime soon, at what point do the costs of staying outweigh any diminishing returns?  

Sadly, I know that the point at which I must personally answer that question is drawing very near.

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 Regional 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Anonymous said...

Harry, It sounds like return on investment (ROI) has more credence with the administration than the education of the students.

frharry said...

This is certainly the way a corporate manager would construct the situation, no doubt. Problem is, public universities are not corporations. And education of the students is the stated purpose of the university. At a basic level, this suggests at least a misfeasance on the part of university leadership if not malfeasance.