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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

All Quiet on the Eastern Quad?

This past week two articles arrived in my inbox in rapid succession that have caused even my head to spin. I often tell people that after you’ve had people confess murders to you, there’s little they could say that could shock you. Occasionally, I am proven wrong.

Grenade Launchers for Crowd Control

I was made aware of the first article in a blog entry from the Tampa Bay (né St. Petersburg Times). In an entry at his site The State You’re In, Michael Kruse grabbed my attention with this headline: The University of Central Florida has a grenade launcher and Florida International University has 50 assault rifles”


It is hardly our imagination that our cities are being militarized, an issue that has become a topic of debate around the country. But it was news to me that the police departments at college campuses – including the one where I work – were among those agencies.  Thinking this was either the product of hyperbole or some kind of bad joke, I bit and followed the link to the blog.


I was wrong.


The blog was based on an article from the previous week at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was hardly a joke. Under the 1033 federal program, military surplus is being transferred to law enforcement agencies around the country.


The University of Central Florida has had its grenade launcher since 2008. Retooled to launch tear gas canisters, the launcher has only been fired in training since that time. When asked why the university needed this weapon of war, the chief of campus law enforcement replied it had been obtained for “security and crowd control.”


Of course, the crowds in question have never really been a problem at UCF. Remember, this was the safe university for Richard Nixon on the eve of his being forced from office for high crimes and misdemeanors to come and deliver a commencement speech. About the rowdiest this largely disengaged student body (whose empty seats in the football stadium are currently being raffled off to all comers by the campus credit union) ever gets is the Spirit Splash at homecoming. The only real disorder of any magnitude on the campus generally comes from drunken townies fighting over spaces on the campus mall to erect their tents for tailgating parties.  


The absurdity – and the dangers - of attempting to achieve crowd control with a grenade launcher are immediately obvious to anyone who’s ever actually seen one of these weapons of war in action. But that is hardly the only refugee from the killing fields to find its way to campus.


The most popular item under the 1033 program on college campuses has been the M-16 assault rifles well known to the GIs in the steamy jungles of Vietnam and today the most widely used weapon of its class in armed conflicts around the world. At least 60 colleges across the country have received these weapons of war with Arizona State University the biggest recipient with 70 such weapons. Florida International procured 50 for its campuses while UCF has lagged behind at a mere 23. Given the university's obsession with size and its sights set on Arizona State as the only public university larger than UCF today, one wonders if this does not have the makings of an intercollegiate arms race.


Rationalizing the Insanity of Militarized Campuses


The first question that comes to my mind is how it is that we seem to have such a surplus in military weaponry in the first place. Why do we have so many weapons of war that we can give them away to small cities and college campuses? Aren’t weapons of war expensive, produced for major conflicts, exceptions to the rule and not for everyday use?


Of course, these arsenals were produced in a social context. A decade of unwinnable wars in far off places like Iraq and Afghanistan have produced both a flood of wounded warriors returning to our society as well as the weapons they employed. In a free market fundamentalist culture, there are no restrictions on what can be produced or sold nor any limitations on who can buy them. And with the fundamentalist interpretations of the current SCOTUS on the Second Amendment, the militarization of campuses – like the rest of society – appears in retrospect to have been a foregone conclusion.  


The justifications from officials at Florida universities for this militarization reflect the corporate mentalities which now dominate their operations. Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Florida, calls the program “a cost savings for taxpayers."  Calling the program a “force multiplier,” the chief of police at Florida State University argued that this was a way to offset underfunding of campus police departments: “Typically, we are not staffed at optimum levels. We are not given budgets comparable to some large cities and municipalities, so we need to find ways to make it reach."


In other words, we make up for not having enough campus cops by arming the ones we have with weapons of war. What a plan!


The UCF police chief operates a department known for its run-ins with the public, high profile incidents in which faculty have been publicly humiliated in traffic stops, called crack addicts while being repeatedly bodily frisked, as well incidents in which agents smashed the passenger window out of a student’s car when she refused to open it. Revealing a dualistic worldview cast in the cognitive developmental language of children, the chief explained his support for his department’s militarization: "These bad guys have plans and are heavily armed, and law enforcement needs to be able to keep up with them.”


Thank goodness for the good guys, right?


But what happens when the self-appointed good guys are not so good? Who protects us from the protectors?



It’s Just Business, Right?


The same day this article arrived, a second followed on its heels that truly had me reeling.


Urban Outfitters have received a firestorm of criticism following its production of a sweatshirt bearing the Kent State University seal and name and dyed to resemble blood stains. Touted as a “vintage Kent State University” sweatshirt, it was offered for sale at $129.


It’s hard to know if this is a case of profit-uber-alles or the product of an educational system that no longer really teaches American history, like that of Texas. Kent State, for those who suffer from historical amnesia or simply never learned about this, was the site of the killings of four students by national guardsmen called in to quell demonstrations by students on that campus. The demonstrations had arisen in opposition to an expansion of the Vietnam War to nearby Cambodia and Laos by a Richard Nixon soon to be forced from office due to the Watergate scandal. The governor of Ohio called in national guardsmen who opened fire on unarmed students, killing four.


Imagine what the good guys could have done with a grenade launcher and M16s.


The killings were immortalized by a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by John Filo showing a 14-year-old runaway girl from Florida, Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the bullet riddled body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller, one of the victims of the Kent State shootings. 

Reminiscent of the wailing mother holding her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica, this photo seared the American conscience as the middle class saw its children lying dead on a public college campus.



The slaughter was also immortalized by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in a protest song simply entitled “Ohio.”The lyrics honestly reflected the reality at Kent State: “Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down,” then adding sarcastically, “Should have been done long ago.” The latter was a barb tossed at conservatives like Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was himself soon headed to prison, whose most famous quip regarding the hippies he derided was “Get a haircut and get a job.”

The song ended with a soul-searing refrain: “Four dead in O-hi-o.” And it was only the tip of an iceberg which within a week would include deaths of two more students at Jackson State in Mississippi and a march on Washington a week later in which 100,000 demonstrators would shut down the US Capitol.

Is This Really Who We Want to Be?

What the photographer and the musicians refuse to do is to construct the world in terms of dollars and cents, to view the college campus as a theater of war, to see the students at the college campuses in black and white childish caricatures or as obstacles to “crowd control.” As with all protest artists, they insist upon seeing the humanity of those involved, here those who live, work and study on our campuses. They insist upon claiming the sanctity of the college as a noble place, a temple to learning, an understanding in which weapons of war have no place and their use tantamount to sacrilege. And their vision reveals the marketing of human suffering for profit as the blasphemy it truly is.

Kent State released an official statement decrying the tasteless sweatshirt saying "We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today."

But is this merely a matter of poor taste? When we look at militarized public spaces and a consumerism that willingly commercializes human suffering, what does this say about the people we have become? When we look in this mirror of our own social construction, what does it reveal about us? Do we care?

More importantly, is this really who we want to be? Does this behavior and the uncritical rationalizations we offer for it represent the best we can do under the circumstances that we have ourselves created? Are we courageous enough to look at this reflection and honest enough with ourselves to admit that this is a squandering of the potential of a once great nation? Or are we simply willing to acquiesce to the status quo because we fear that change demands too much from us?  

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

Osecola 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Education Done Right? – Part II: Making Choices

Different Kind of Student

Institutional culture alone does not completely explain the differences in my experience of these two educational institutions. Much of the distinction lies in the demographics of the students themselves.

I often describe my classes at Osceola as teaching ethics at the United Nations. Osceola County, like neighboring Orange, is a majority-minority county and there is no single ethnic group numerically prevalent there anymore. The college reflects that diversity with representatives not just from the Caribbean and Latin America, for whose cultures I hold a decided affinity, but from India and Pakistan, Southeast Asia and Africa as well. Diverse learning communities like these tend to be highly generative primarily because they lack a dominant cultural understanding. There is no “common sense” to default to.

For the most part, my students are working class to middle class people. They range in age from the dual enrollment high school seniors to the empty nester adults I love to see come through my doors. What they hold in common is an understanding of the importance of education to them, not just to secure employment but to become better human beings and active participants in their community. For most of them, the state college (né community college) is their only shot at getting a higher education. And, for the most part, they take that pretty seriously.

This is a very different reality from the predominately white upper middle class kids right out of high school who make up the majority of my classes at the university. Many of those students see college largely as a foregone conclusion, an entitlement and an obligation, a requirement to get a decent job that they are compelled to endure and get through as quickly and painlessly as possible. They are largely hypercompetitive, self-promoting, disengaged and largely alienated from each other, all marks of the professional middle class. Whatever community emerges there does so in spite of the institutional culture, not because of it.

My students at the college don’t tend to use Ratemyprofessor to pick their classes. They don’t evidence the enormous senses of entitlement I observe to be a normal part of life at the university. They are generally very respectful and express gratitude readily. And thus far they haven’t used student ratings at the end of the term or grievance proceedings to get even with instructors who have not met their demands regarding work load, grading and feedback.

Many of them struggle through the term with ungodly work schedules and home commitments. They come to class tired, holding cups of coffee and energy drinks needed to keep them alert for another three hours before they go home to their next job as Mom or Dad. But for the most part, they give their best to the learning process. And the vast majority of them are a joy to teach.

It’s tempting to see this kind of congenial working environment where real teaching and learning are actually possible as a luxury that is too expensive in a state without a fair, reliable tax base or a socially responsible citizenry. But there are more pragmatic reasons for seeing this example of higher education as a model worth emulating. In my experience: It gets results.

Last semester, in the same ethics course, I had 20 students from around the world. They worked hard and we held some outstanding classes together as we wrestled with ethical dilemmas from nursing to public policy to criminal behaviors. The night of the final, I took them to the cafeteria and paid for a soft drink for each of them and then took them out by the campanile in front of our building to take a class photo. Before I handed out the final that night I told them that I was in their debt, that they had given me a great gift – for the first time in a very long time I remembered why I loved being a teacher.

Of the 20 who began the course, 20 completed it. Of the 20 who completed the course, all but one managed to get the C they needed for their program requirements. I worked with that one student right to the day I submitted grades but the student just couldn’t hold a chaotic life together long enough to get the final exam done.

Like the true teacher I am, I still grieve the one that got away. 

Lessons to be Learned

Clearly it is important not to romanticize the Valencia experience too much. My first semester class in Ethics at Osceola a year ago was a very different experience. I faced a class composed largely of full time employed working class women, some still in high school, some just graduated, many of whom struggled with the critical thinking and creative problem solving aspects of the curriculum.

I lost about ¼ of that class to withdrawals and often deliberated about how generous I needed to be in my grading of their work. Not everyone who shows up at open admission colleges is ready to be there. And the potential value of achieving success has a downside as well when lack of readiness leads to failure thus confirming one’s suspected shortcomings.

I also hear from my former colleagues at Osceola that this campus may be a bit of an anomaly in the Valencia constellation. Apparently as the original two campuses have grown they have begun to exhibit some of the same problems with impersonal relations, competitiveness, ambition and anonymity that the second largest public university in the country suffers from.

Conversely, despite a largely adversarial institutional culture (one of my university colleagues actually calls it toxic) that tends to alienate students and faculty alike, there are some real success stories occurring at the university in terms of research and individual educational achievement among faculty and students alike. At some level, success in the face of alienating competition is even more commendable.

Could the university learn from the Osceola experience? Is it possible to cap class sizes to create genuine learning communities, create a less hostile system to negotiate, actively support instructional staff and students, and insure an economically and ethnically diverse student body from which critical thinking and creative problem solving could be generated?

I wonder.

Do We Care?

The first step would require a gut check – do we really care? Do we want a higher education in which all students actually have the privilege of learning enough to provide the context to make it possible for their teachers to actually teach them? Do we care about the ones that get away, particularly the up to 1/3 of all online students who end up withdrawing?

Second, if we care, what do we really care about? Do we really value learning or is mere training for the work world with a veneer of higher education sufficient? Do we care what our students bring away from our classes beyond a grade and credit?  Do we want our students and faculty to actively engage each other? Do we want students to learn to think critically and creatively express their understandings?

What is it we want our students to come away with and why? And how much is it worth to us?

Third, are we simply inclined to acquiesce to the status quo simply because changing it requires too much from us? If we care enough to change, how much are we willing to invest in that process? Are we willing to invest the time, the courage to critically assess what we’re currently doing and why? Are we willing to identify the values that surely inform any decision making regarding higher education - Cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose expense?

I recognize that a lot of considerations – many of them economic, political and ambitious in nature – came together to create the current reality I observe. All of these would have to be reconsidered in recreating a corporate megauniversity as a true learning community. Even this idealist is realistic enough to recognize that the inertia of the status quo alone gravitates against such a shift.

And yet, the example of that small campus in Kissimmee with its United Nations student body and its collegial faculty and staff working hard to provide their students with an opportunity to become educated human beings suggests that there are always other choices. And every choice has its consequences.   

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)
Instructor: Religion and Cultural Studies,
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
Adjunct Instructor: Valencia College-Osceola

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