Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Poised at the Edge of the Desert

This past week the daily meditations from Richard Rohr’s Center for Contemplation and Action have well expressed the way I currently see the world around me and my own role in it. The timing of these articles is uncanny. It was almost as if Rohr had read my mind. Little wonder that I will be starting a two year program at Rohr’s Living School this September.

Prophetic Critique: A Rare Art Form  

Monday’s meditation was entitled “Self-Critical Thinking.” Focusing on the Hebrew prophets, one of my favorite parts of the scriptures, Rohr said

The Hebrew prophets are in a category of their own. Within the canonical, sacred scriptures of other world religions you don't find major texts that are largely critical of that religion. The Hebrew prophets were free to love their tradition and to criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form.

Prophets saw themselves as called by G-d to stand just inside their institutional religion at the margins, charged with the role of loving the religion enough to note the places it fell short of its ideals as well as to endure the personal attacks that inevitably come from one’s peers when such critiques are articulated.

Rohr provides a convincing account of why this happens:

Even today, one of the most common judgments I hear from other priests is, "You criticize the Church." But criticizing the Church, as such, is just being faithful to the pattern set by the prophets and Jesus….

[Yet] the presumption for anyone with a dualistic mind is that if you criticize something, you don't love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite.

Dualistic visions construct the world they encounter in highly simplified black and white terms. Yet, the reality is almost always more complex, cast in shades of grey. As cognitive scientist’s William Perry’s research has shown, dualistic constructions of the world are very low level, undeveloped ways of thinking which become dominant in adolescence. Most human beings mature out of this way of thinking but it always remains a possibility for anyone, particularly about subjects in which we are deeply invested.

Dualistic thinking constructs the world in dichotomies: One either is for the religion, one’s profession, one’s country et al, as they currently exist or one is against them. George Bush provided a classic example in the days after the 9-11 attacks when he sought to silence any critique of his plans to invade two different countries, saying “You’re either for us or you’re against us.”

But prophets see a bigger picture. They see not only the institution at hand in its current state, the status quo, they also see the institution in its ideal state. These are often the very ideals the institution itself has articulated. When the prophet calls the institution to live into its ideals, the critique of the status quo s/he articulates is often experienced by the beneficiaries of the status quo as an attack on the institution itself. We hear that today in the common mindless description of critics as “haters.”

Bear in mind that the popular dualistic slogan “My country right or wrong…” is only half of Sen. Carl Shurz’s original quote. The remainder sounds pretty prophetic: “…if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Meanwhile, Down in the Psychic Basement

Carl Jung often wrote about the tendency of human beings to repress aspects of ourselves we don’t want to face, aspects that end up taking on a life of their own in the unconscious psychic basement of our minds. Jung called the complex of repressed elements our Shadow. The darkness of that Shadow is often proportionate to the brightness of our Personae, the positive aspects of ourselves we readily display to the world and often wrongfully see as our true selves.

Unfortunately, our Shadow rarely stays put, being readily projected onto others who are unable to protect themselves against such projections. Consider the way we talk about terrorist and religious extremists. Now go read the Senate report on American torture.

The prophet essentially serves as the reality check for any institution prone to project its disowned shadow onto others. Hence the reason they are resisted at all costs, as Rohr notes:

The Church's sanctification of the status quo reveals that we have not been formed by the prophets, who were radical precisely because they were traditionalists. Institutions always want loyalists and "company men"; we don't want prophets. We don't want people who point out our shadow side or our dark side. It is no accident that the prophets and the priests are usually in opposition to one another (e.g., Amos 5:21-6:7, 7:10-17).

When I was about to be ordained priest, I was incredibly ill at ease. While the priestly ordination reflected my successful completion of the four years of preparation for the priesthood and the assent of the institution to that ordination, I also knew that my primordial calling was to be the prophet. When I confessed this to my assistant rector who had been assigned to marshal me through the ordination process, she simply said, “Harry, the church needs its prophets.” I quickly replied, “But it never wants them.” Her reply in turn was indeed prophetic in its own right: “But you are being ordained as a priest to the margins.” I simply never knew how far they - or I – could stretch.

It Has Never Been a Comfortable Existence

On Tuesday, Rohr’s column dealt with what he called “Archetypal Religion.” He said:

The biblical tradition hopes to reveal that whenever the prophetic function is lacking in any group or religion, such a group will very soon be self-serving, self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, and self- promoting. When the prophets are kicked out of any group, it's a very short time until that group is circling the wagons around itself, and all sense of mission and message is lost. I am afraid this is the natural movement of any institution.

Establishments of any kind usually move toward their own self-perpetuation, rather than "What are we doing for others?" In fact, the question is not even asked because self-perpetuation is presumed to be a high level necessity. Thus the prophetic and Pauline words for institutions were "thrones or dominions or principalities or powers" (Colossians 1:16). They consider themselves "too big to fail," usually because they are protecting their own privilege--which is too important to question.

This is decidedly my observation. I have seen it in public schools and public policy making regarding public education. I have seen it in my practice of the law and my ill-fated attempts to make life better for the juveniles I saw being warehoused in hell holes with no attempts to rehabilitate those who went in as children and emerged as hardened young criminals with a slew of new criminal skills. And I have seen it in my years at the university where any pretense of being a process designed to provide the means for its customers to emerge after four years as educated human beings has largely gone the way of the pay phone.

In each of those encounters, I have found myself unable to remain silent, to keep to myself the pathologies I observed and the places where the institution fell short of its own ideals even as it often cynically praised itself regarding them. And I have often paid the price for speaking out, lurching between the perceived need to speak truth to power and the perceived need to be liked and affirmed by my peers, the conflict of dominant Myers-Brigg iNtuitive and Feeling functions.

It has never been a comfortable existence.  And there’s a reason for this:

Prophets step in to disrupt the usual social consensus--"How wonderful our group is!"--and say, "It's just not entirely true!" So you see why the prophets are all killed (Matthew 23:29-39). Prophets expose and topple each group's idols and blind spots, very often showing that we make things into absolutes that are not absolutes in God's eyes, and we relativize what in fact is central and important. As Jesus so cleverly puts it, "You strain out gnats and you swallow camels" (Matthew 23:24).

And yet, my sense of calling to a prophetic vocation has never left me. Indeed, I feel a strong calling today to a new form of prophetic work. I do not know where or how that will play itself out. But I strongly feel change is coming and that it cannot come soon enough.

The Desert Calls

Today’s meditation by Richard Rohr well describes the current status of my life. In “Knowing and Not Knowing.” Rohr says:

We need transformed people today, and not just people with answers. I do not want my too many words to separate you from astonishment or to provide you with a substitute for your own inner experience. We all need, forever, what Jesus described as "the beginner's mind" of a curious child. A beginner's mind or what some call "constantly renewed immediacy" is the best path for spiritual wisdom. Tobin Hart writes: "Instead of grasping for certainty, wisdom rides the question, lives the question.... When the quest for certainty and control is pushed to the background, the possibility of wonder returns. Wonder provides a gateway to wise insight" 
(Information to Transformation, p. 11).

That is where I find myself this Ash Wednesday, riding a host of questions, entering into a 40 day solitary journey into the quiet darkness of the desert. I am seeking guidance and, hopefully, wisdom. And yet I know the path to wisdom always comes at a cost.

Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with your shadow. I wish someone had told me that when I was young. It is in facing your conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that you grow up. You actually need to have some problems, enemies, and faults! You will remain largely unconscious as a human being until issues come into your life that you cannot fix or control and something challenges you at your present level of development, forcing you to expand and deepen. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of consciousness. I doubt whether there is any other way. People who refine this consciousness to a high spiritual state, who learn to name and live with paradoxes, are the people I would call prophetic speakers. We must refine and develop this gift.

Incorporating negative and self-critical thinking is essential to true prophetic understanding. At the same time, we must also trust that we are held irrevocably in the mystery of God's love, without fully understanding it. Alongside all our knowing, accompanying every bit of our knowing, must be the humble "knowing that we do not know.”

If I am to live into a prophetic calling, I must learn to make friends with my Shadow. I have never been oblivious to my shortcomings. The Psalmist’s words say it well: “My sins are ever before me.” But the human mind is an efficient machine when it comes to repressing Shadow content. That’s particularly true of those who have spent lifetimes honing the powers of that mind.

I know there is much yet for me to confront and I assume that task with fear and trembling. I have never doubted G-d’s presence with me, even in the darkest moments of my life and I know G_d is my companion through the desert. I also know I will not emerge from this journey unscathed or unchanged. If I said I was not fearful, I would be lying. And yet, like the Jesus overwhelmed by his experience of the divine at the Jordan River, the desert calls.

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

The Luxury of Caring

In the past two weeks, three events have brought into sharp focus the realities of my dwindling career in a rapidly changing academy. As ever, it is a bewildering pastiche of realities that many of us encounter in our daily lives as teachers, mentors and scholars.

AWOL at Exam Time

Last week was the first round of exams for two of my four online classes. I tend to break course material into thirds for any kind of assessment. While I do use midterms and finals in one of my classes, I generally find that about five weeks of material is as much as most students can process at a given point.

The first exam is often the point that students who have been struggling give up the ghost and withdraw. Unlike many university instructors, I make an effort to reach out to such students early on. After a couple of weeks of assignments (quizzes and/or discussions) I will send students who are failing a note, letting them know I am concerned about their progress and offering to help in any way I can.

I realize I don’t have to do this and I also know that many, perhaps most, instructors won’t bother. Most students do not respond at all though a handful will take this as a wakeup call. If nothing else,  the lawyer in me feels the need to provide notice to students who are facing failure in the class if for no other reason than to cover my own backside. In a day when students readily blame instructors for their own failures on end-of-term consumer ratings and send letters to everyone from G-d down to your department chair to grieve any perceived slight, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

First exams often expose online students’ lack of engagement. In analysis after analysis I’ve conducted and provided my classes, there is a direct relationship between attendance, either in person in face-to-face classes or at the website of online courses, and performance on the first exam. This is hardly rocket science. If you’re not engaging the class, the chances are you will perform poorly on exams. While that’s not universally true (strategic learners are occasionally adept at pulling of last minute grade saves in classes they have neglected) it’s true in the vast majority of cases.

While I was prepared for poor performance among my AWOL students, I was not prepared for what actually happened this time – non-performance. In my World Religions course, of the 69 students still enrolled, a full 20 (29%) simply failed to submit their first exam at all. Without that exam, the student could not pass the course.

At some level, that might be a bit more expectable among underclassmen. World Religions is one of our General Education Program courses, the curriculum that has replaced the traditional liberal arts foundation that all students were once presumed to need prior to entering their majors. But this pattern was hardly confined to my underclassmen.

In the Contemporary Humanities course, an upper division course which meets a graduation requirement for our majors, of the 21 students in the course, 10 of them failed to submit their first exam. Again, that’s tantamount to failure in the class. And that’s nearly half the class.

Horses That Just Won’t Drink

If these were demanding courses, I might be a little less disturbed by this kind of irresponsibility. The problem is, they really aren’t. I realize that in the context of other classes students might have taken, they may well be seen as demanding. And students regularly tell me mine are the most demanding classes they face.

But when I examine the time commitments of the classes themselves, a factor I regularly consider when creating my syllabi and schedules, the evidence simply isn’t there. The fact that students are not required to do much in other classes hardly means that these classes, considered on their own terms, are particularly demanding.

The World Religions course requires students to read on the average of 40 pages a week from their textbook and related supplemental readings. At an extremely slow reading pace (high school average) of 2 minutes/page, that’s about an hour and a half per week of reading. The quizzes which are designed to insure students actually do the reading require 20 minutes maximum. If students are taking an average 1.5 quizzes a week, that’s an additional 30 minutes.

Using the Carnegie Unit of two hours prep for every hour in class, a three hour course could reasonably demand up to nine hours a week from each student. This course’s two hour/week demands come nowhere close.  And yet, when it comes time for the exam, nearly three in 10 students fail to submit an exam.

The Contemporary Humanities course is a bit more demanding, not surprising for an upper division course. The readings average about 50 pages per week, or about two hours total. Students are required to then submit one original post answering questions designed to digest and develop the readings and then respond to two classmates’ posts. While the quality of the posts I am grading hardly reflect much time actually being spent, in theory this activity could take up to an hour and a half.

That’s just three and a half hours total, again, in the context of a Carnegie Unit total of nine hours/week which could be reasonably demanded. This is the class in which nearly half of the students failed to submit their first exam.

I realize that my classes demand that students not only read assigned materials and write responses to those readings and to each other’s comments but also require them to actually think about what they’re reading and writing about. My guess is that when they say these classes are “hard,” they mean they are not terribly inclined to do the critical thinking I’m asking them to do. Their discussion posts and exam answers generally bear that out.

In all honesty, that’s pretty depressing. As the instructor of the course, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and selecting materials, constructing provocative questions for discussion and the formats for the students to use in writing them. I’ve worked hard to arrange the schedule so that readings and assignments do not bunch up and become burdensome. The Schedule tells the students from Day One when the exams are coming and for all of my exams, which are open-book essay format, they get a week to complete them.
In short, I’ve done everything I can to insure student success in my courses. But the horses do have to eventually decide to take that drink.

“Oh, you actually care.”

At times like this I find myself wondering aloud to anyone who will listen what in the hell I am doing all this for. It’s demoralizing to work as hard as I do, to try my damndest to engage students, only to have so many simply fail to even submit exams.

This is where the second jolt came last week. As I lamented my woes to a couple of colleagues at a local pub, I found myself encountering blank stares in response. “So what?” one of them said. I sputtered to find a response when the light of recognition came to my colleagues face:

“Oh, you actually care.”


Of course, perhaps I shouldn’t. While I’ve long realized that the old maxim about college students being adults was at best wishful thinking, at worst a pernicious myth giving rise to rarely met expectations, I’ve never felt that concern for their success was an option. I’ve always felt that part of my job was to care that my students not only succeeded in my class but actually learned something in the process. As I sat at that table looking across my beer at my colleagues last week, it became very clear to me that I may well be among a small minority who hold such views.

Later that night as I laid out that story to my gentle-spirited husband, who himself works for a state college (in an IT department), over dinner, he softly responded with his usual common sense observation: “Harry, they don’t have the luxury of caring. They are not in an institution which values that. They’re not being paid to care.”

Of course, he is right. At a mega-university with bottom lines of status, numbers and dollars and an army of technocrats to insure those bottom lines come rolling in, caring about student success is clearly not an institutional value. Indeed, it may well be seen as a liability to those things which truly are valued.

In this context, faculty concern about half of their class not submitting exams and thus heading toward failure is indeed a luxury. But if the rewards of teaching are primarily moral, where does one find reward when one’s students don’t care, when one’s colleagues don’t have the luxury of caring and when one’s employer’s values are in conflict with your own?

A Surprise Party

The third event in this pathos mashup came yesterday. As is true with most faculty, I have always had a coterie of students who have sought me out to talk. Some come to ask questions about their classes they are currently taking with me. Some seek advice on their academic careers and their plans beyond undergraduate. But most come to just chat about whatever is on their minds.

At one point yesterday during my office hours I found myself with a full house – one graduate, two former students nearing graduation and two students who have taken classes with me previously and now are finishing up graduation requirements in an online section with me. We quickly ran out of chairs and the two current students stood in the doorway. The conversation was widely ranging and raucous punctuated with a lot of laughter. No doubt there were faculty members down the hall who felt the need to shut their doors.

These are among the few joys that true teachers like me still find in our work in higher education these days. These students remind us that the nearly 50% of students who end up AWOL on exam day are not the whole story. They remind us that the institution with its shallow corporate values and the oppressive technocratic culture in which we struggle to do our jobs at least ostensibly still has as its goal the concerns of thoughtful human beings like these. And they remind us that when we actually do indulge the luxury to care, there are human beings deserving of that care and more than willing to reciprocate.

For those random moments of affirmation of my lifelong vocation to being a caring teacher, I am deeply grateful.

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Careers on Spec – Job Description Creep, Bait and Switch

Over the past two weeks a series of articles have appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education online site regarding the changing reality of what used to be higher education. Three articles in particular have brought these changes and their impact on faculty and students alike into focus.

The Anti-Professor

Inaugurating a series of articles on the emerging role of entrepreneurship in higher education, the shot across the bow was fired Feb. 2 by Jeffrey Young in an essay entitled “Here Comes Professor Everybody, The ‘sharing economy’ meets higher education.” [i]

Young detailed the rise of the “anti-professor,” the creator of online instructional sites such as Udemy, a populist version of the MOOC (massive open online courses). Where MOOCs employ academic experts and frequently operate out of venerable institutions such as MIT and Stanford, Udemy is open to anyone with enough time on their hands and access to a mobile device to create content, upload it and run their sites.

The “anti-professor” is personified in the example of Nick Walter, a recent graduate with a newly minted information systems bachelor degree who began to cast about in search of a living:

Walter had no experience teaching, no affiliation with a university or accredited educational institution, and—by his own admission—no particular gifts as a computer-science student. But that doesn’t matter to Udemy, or to any of a number of similar platforms that have emerged in recent years. Walter’s thin credentials didn’t bother his students, either. They’ve signed up in droves.

Young makes the case that clearly there is a market for services offered by people like Walter. “Like any good entrepreneur, Walter identified an untapped need.” While it is unclear whether this is actually a need or merely a consumer demand that is being met, there is certainly a market. But is it a market for education?

Your Whole Career on Spec

The first response to Young’s Professor Everybody came a couple of days later in “The University is Just Another Client,” an essay by Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a non-tenure track associate professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill:

As a contingent faculty member, you work your whole career on spec. Every class you teach, every grant you write, every article you publish—they’re all on spec, because you have no job security to back you up if a project doesn’t pan out. You work and work, hoping some person in authority will give you: (a) more money, (b) more job security, (c) more job respect, or some combination of (a), (b), and (c).

Spoiler alert: It doesn't work. As those of us who've been at this for a while know, giving administrators your work for free does not inspire them to reward you. More often it backfires and inspires administrators to turn your previously volunteered work into new job requirements. Suddenly what you did as a favor becomes a rigid job expectation.

Pryal’s advice to contingent faculty who find themselves at the corner of Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t is to come to terms with being freelancers. Among her tips for making this transition is to think in terms of marketable skills, converting one’s academic CV into a quick read resumé and joining communities of freelancers for support. She ends her essay with these words:

Remember that moving into the mindset of a Freelance Academic does not mean that you give up your job teaching on a campus. It just means that you approach your relationship with your institution differently. You no longer belong to them: They belong to you. Once that shift happens—and you’ll know when it does—there’s nothing more empowering.

Maybe. Frankly, that all sounds just a little too glib to this contingent faculty member. There is nothing remotely close to an even playing field here upon which such arms-length bargaining could take place. In all honesty, I doubt this writer has ever had to live off what she could make as a freeway flyer.

But I’m Not an Entrepreneur 

It’s into this context that the final of the three articles appeared. Author and visiting instructor John Warner responded to Young’s article on Professor Everybody with a poignant essay entitled “What If I Don't Want to Be an Entrepreneur?”

Warner argues that at some level, the move to an entrepreneurial economy can be exciting. “A ‘sharing economy’ where anyone with a phone can earn extra money driving others, or where a college graduate (or non-graduate for that matter) with a knack for explaining something others want to know how to do can become a “teacher” without having to take the time or suffer the expense of additional training or jumping through regulatory hurdles looks to be efficient and empowering.”

Of course, as Warner notes, competition rewarded by ratings of consumer satisfaction rarely says much about quality of performance. Warner confessed that even if he proved to be a “superstar of the medium,” that may well say more about his customers than his teaching. Moreover,“[W]hat about my vanquished competitors? They’re probably still pretty good teachers – not as awesome as me, but pretty good – what are we going to do about them?”

But it was his concluding words that really spoke to my own experience of a changing academy:

And really, I don’t want to be an entrepreneur. I want to teach and write. I like the work. I’m pretty good at it. Every moment I spend selling myself and competing in the marketplace is a moment not spent doing the things I enjoy most, and which convey the most benefit to others.

Precisely. It’s the duties that are increasingly pushed upon all of us that we are ill-prepared to resist or to handle in addition to our actual jobs that make our careers in academia harder and harder to endure. As Warner notes, every moment we spend on these unsolicited additional tasks on our own nickel is a moment not spent on doing the jobs we were hired to do.

It’s hard to love a job with an infinite job description creep.

Unarticulated Expectations

Marketer - Last semester when one of my courses failed to make, I was told that I was not doing sufficient marketing. Of course, I was not hired to be a marketer. I have no background in marketing and I’m not particularly good at it. And in all honesty, I’m probably not the only faculty member who feels that this is an incredibly misguided approach to offering classes by departments and for choosing classes by students.

College courses should not be marketed, they should be taught and taken. If students don’t want to take the classes offered as the result of careful consideration by departments of their academic value, they should not be in college or at least not in that college. Perhaps Udemy is calling them.

Marketing classes pits one-time colleagues against each other in a desperate struggle for FTE numbers (thus, dollars) to survive. This is the stuff that destroys collegiality. It also appeals to the lowest common denominators – low workloads, high grade anticipations, sexy course descriptions, and, of course, fun, fun, fun ! Such marketing is mediated by consumer reviews, both those conducted by the university and those at commercial online sites. Lost in the shuffle is anything remotely related to learning.

Facework - I’m also not terribly expert at computer science. The only course I have ever taken in online technologies was the introductory course for teaching online I took 11 years ago for a system we no longer use. Ironically, the course in how to teach online had to be taught and taken in person – go figure!

I spend enormous chunks of time these days dealing with technology problems, recreating files created for previous courses but not working in subsequent versions of the same courses, relinking attachments and images that become unattached in course transfers (usually after 40 urgent emails arrive just before quiz and assignment deadlines telling me the link isn’t working). I spend hours trying to figure out why the steps the system’s “help” function has said I must follow to accomplish a given task at the site simply isn’t working. And I’ve come to accept that no matter how problematic the technology might be, the cause will always be attributed to the user by the “help” desk.

At least half of the email I get from students involves technical problems at course online sites. Many take the form of frantic messages from students dumped off online quizzes or submission sites for assignments at 2 AM, all with the presumption that their instructor is somehow available to them 24/7.

A majority of these problems I simply cannot resolve even if I knew how because the ability to make the changes in technology required lies in the hand of the IT department.  I can’t even update Adobe and Java programs on my own office computer without calling IT to come to my office to provide the permission needed to download to my computer. Thus I must refer students to a very overworked help desk team who may or may not get back to them within a day.

These interactions are often the stuff of negative comments on student ratings at the end of the term. While it is completely unfair to hold instructors responsible for technology over which they have very little control and whose failures are often as much a surprise and source of frustration to them as to their students, it is perhaps human nature to blame the convenient nearby representative  for the failings of the system they represent. Indeed, under the circumstances, it’s fairly predictable.

Twenty five years ago social theorist Anthony Giddens observed that in a society where human beings must increasingly interact with nameless, faceless abstract systems, human agents must stand at the intersection of the individual and the system to provide what Giddens called “facework,” an encounter with a live human being that allows the interacting individuals the ability to trust the system. Not surprisingly, when the system proves untrustworthy, users often blame the facework agent at hand.

Technocrat - I think I’m a pretty good teacher, adviser and mentor, the jobs I was hired to do. But I confess to being a lousy technocrat. I have no background in administering or interpreting standardized testing nor do I share a blind allegiance to this approach to education or the control issues that underlie it.

I am hardly alone in seeing little of value that comes from assessment data that is increasingly demanded of instructors and increasingly provided by those same instructors in the most contrived of manners. Truth be told, given the time and attention needed to go back and garner detailed information from classes already concluded and the inutility of that data to our work as instructors, most of us simply make up what we are required to report.

This obsession with producing empirical evidence of learning that is but one of many pathological results of the corporatization of the university ultimately tells instructors very little about what their students may or may not have learned. It tells their instructors even less about what their students might understand about it. It is, in the final analysis, a major waste of time. Worse yet, it is uncompensated.

Not My Job, Man

 Each of these aspects of instructors’ lives are little more than annoyances in themselves. What is troubling about them is that while all of them are demanded of instructors without recourse and play increasingly central roles in their consumer ratings - and thereby one’s faculty evaluations - each year, none of these job duties are ever mentioned when faculty are hired. And none of them appear on the contract faculty actually sign.

I am currently serving on a search committee for two permanent instructors. The carefully crafted ad for the positions require Ph.D. in hand, one year teaching experience with preference for introductory and online teaching, evidence of teaching effectiveness and commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching. It drew 81 applicants for these two positions from around the world whose files we are now beginning to laboriously plow through, all the time knowing that successful candidates will likely earn less than local first time public school teachers.

So what’s missing?

First, there is no mention that they will be required to market their classes and compete with their new co-workers for market share. While online teaching experience is required, there is no mention that the system the instructor will be using is unpredictable and flakey on a good day, requiring them to be the facework agent who will bear the brunt of consumer ire for its shortcomings. There is also no mention that at a factory which mass produces degrees and admits more customers than it can seat, online services will frequently be overloaded thus making accessibility to their work site unpredictable.

Finally, there is no reference to the requirement that one will be required to produce the assessment data that allows anxious technocrats to sleep at night. Worse yet, there is no suggestion that the chances are that newly hired contingent faculty will probably be saddled with the responsibilities of overseeing this process, attending endless meeting, creating and recreating assessments, gathering that data from other instructors, analyzing and reporting it to the satisfaction of technocrats. And they will not be in a position to refuse.

At a very basic level, this is little more than a bait and switch. If the ad to which our current applicants are responding is truthful, these new faculty faculty members are not being hired to be marketers, to handle trickle down managerial duties or outsourced technical roles. They are hired to teach, advise and mentor students. They are hired to conduct scholarship and report their insights through publication and presentations, both within the confines of the academy and for those of us engaging public scholarship, outside of it as well.  That’s what our contracts say and thus what is reasonable to expect in terms of performance.

But our time is increasingly claimed by things we were not hired to do even as management gladly pronounces “this is part of your job.” Worse yet, our performance is increasingly judged by duties we had no idea we were assuming when we were hired.

Warner concludes his essay with these words:

I think some of these institutions that allow us to concentrate on the work, rather than the marketing, institutions that shelter us from unproductive competition are worth not just preserving, but strengthening.

I worry that my side is losing that argument, though.

Indeed. But I fear that it is not just his side that is losing here.

[i] While I usually provide the link to the stories I cite in my entries here, this article is behind a pay wall at the Chronicle site. I encourage you to read the original article at the Chronicle site

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Advice to Would-Be Academics

Today’s online site for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Ticker features an article entitled “Academics’ Advice to Young Scholars Has a Familiar Ring to It.” It begins with a report on a column by Fusion website writer Felix Salmon in which he advises budding young journalists not to go into that profession if they can help it which resulted in an avalanche of tweeted responses. That, in turn, prompted a Twitter storm of commentary on the topic #AdviceForYoungAcademics.

In both cases, the advice is pretty brutal and the overall outlook is decidedly grim.

Why do you need to be a lawyer?

I’ve long been infamous in our department for being the recovering lawyer who tries to talk would-be attorneys out of going to law school. Of course, that’s only half true. My goal has always been to provide starry-eyed Boston Legal wannabes a reality check on what they’re actually getting into before they sign the dotted lines on their student loan papers.

I inevitably tell such students that I do not doubt their capacities to become attorneys. Smart people can do a lot of things but that doesn’t mean they should. What they should do is what they are called to do. And that takes a lot more soul searching than achieving high scores on LSATs and following a litany of advice from parents and friends who have always said some version of “Child, you’d argue with a fence post. You should be a lawyer!”

What my young legal eagles don’t know is that it’s a lot easier to walk away from law school prior to entering than once a student is there and has invested more than one pound of flesh in time, energy, agony and money.

Truth be told, I’ve written a number of letters of recommendation for those students I couldn’t talk out of law school to help them get into the profession they appear hell-bent upon entering. In virtually every case, I have felt the student had the promise of becoming a fine attorney. As I provide their recommendation, I inevitably tell them, “All right, now go be a good attorney. We need good attorneys.” And in virtually every case, they have performed brilliantly in law school and many now serve admirably as attorneys across the country.

Let’s hear it for Jedi Nation!

 But the article prompted me to think about the advice that I give my young would-be academics. I’ve taught many students who clearly were natural teachers and whose gifts are badly needed by a largely ungrateful public. I have never hesitated to make my observations of their talents clear to the student and to encourage them to come talk with me about the possibilities of a life in academia.
 But the fact that I admire and care for these students prompts me to pause in my encouragement of their vocations. Given the state of academia today, am I really doing them a favor by encouraging them to enter it?  

My Advice

My first attempt to articulate a response to this question came to me this morning as I read the many brutal tweets reported in the Chronicle story. Dear Lord. I’m glad none of these folks were my advisors in undergraduate. I do think the realpolitik element needs to be faced by would-be academics. But it’s simply not the whole story.

So here is the response I finally submitted to the Chronicle site:

My advice to a potential academic would be to follow your dream. Do not be deterred by naysayers. But also do not enter the arena unarmed.

Academia is a vicious, hypercompetitive arena populated by intellectual gladiators with thin skins and super-sized egos. Its operations are increasingly dictated by the shallow values of the corporate world and its classrooms are increasingly populated by consumers, not students.

Money is the bottom line. Never lose sight of that reality. And never labor under the misapprehension that your position there is secure. It almost never is.

Cherish collegiality where it might be found because it is an endangered species. The inevitable effect of corporatization is to pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom line.

Don your bullshit repellent raincoat to endure the torrents of self-serving PR designed to maintain a superficial "brand" that will be thrust upon you and, like the emperor’s new clothes, must never be questioned, at least not in public. Put on your hip-waders to deal with all of the mind-numbing assessments that will produce mounds of meaningless data that allows the ever increasing army of technocrats to sleep well at night. And get ready to serve on search committees that will reveal the real soul of your department with all its warts and will grease the wheels of underpaid and perennially job-insecure teaching staffs with the blood of ongoing human sacrifice of contingent labor.

In short, prepare yourself to work like hell, to receive little reward for your labors - either monetary or moral -  and to be criticized, often unfairly, on consumer surveys, faculty evaluations and by self-serving politicians.

Do not be deluded by dreams of Plato’s Academy. *This* is what you are signing onto.

But there will be rewards as well. You will meet some of the most interesting people you've ever met both in the lectern and in the seats of your classroom. You will learn some of the most interesting things you've ever known, particularly if you do not fall into the trap of specialization which condemns you to a confined life of defending a small patch of intellectual turf with a limited shelf life while ignoring the rest of the world.

You will have opportunities to travel and attend conferences where new ideas and new faces are presented. Take them without hesitation and do not fall into the trap of believing that your students or the bureaucratic duties thrust upon you cannot live without your presence. They can. And you will need the time away if for nothing else than to catch your breath.

Look at this whole picture with open eyes. See it in all its potentials, both good and bad. And if you still feel you are called to a life in academia, go for it. The world still badly needs true scholars unencumbered by debts to outside “sponsors.” And teaching remains a noble profession even as its beneficiaries – which ultimately includes all of us - regularly fail to demonstrate gratitude for the indispensable services teachers render.

Autumnal Advice

Of course, I offer this advice in the late autumn of my career as an academic. The light is beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel of my time in academia and I’m increasingly hopeful it is not an oncoming train.

My guess is that I would not have given such advice as little as five years ago. While I would not necessarily see myself as an optimist, I have long been an idealist. As such I’ve been willing to remain hopeful that the best potential of any of the institutions in which I have served (educational, legal, religious) could still be attained despite their inveterate inclinations to succumb to the entropy of the lowest common denominator. All that is ever required is a clear vision of where change needs to occur and the willingness of the human agents of these institutions to engage the hard work of living into that potential.

But much has changed in the past five years, not just in my own life but in academia at large. Change always has the potential for living into the sage vision of our Framers of “a more perfect union” even as we recognize that perfection itself will inevitably elude even its most dedicated seekers. But while evolutionary advances are one possibility in such changes, a degrading devolution is also possible.

The trends that are clearly dominant in academia today are alluded to above – decreasing public support, increasing corporate values replacing the classical value of the pursuit of knowledge and the devolution of students seeking such knowledge into hordes of consumers seeking satisfaction of entitlements. The results are fairly predictable: increasingly contentious relationships among peers, ever growing class loads, ever increasing technocratic micromanagement and the Niagara of managerial duties increasingly descending upon instructors under the rubric of an open-ended job description. And that’s all before one even gets to the wrestling over grades and course requirements with one’s customers.

Not surprisingly, all of this most often and most directly impacts the contingent labor providers least capable of defending their own interests. And in reality, it is precisely the contingent labor force where most would-be academics are headed these days. Would-be academics deserve to know this before they leave the Shire to take their Hero’s Journey.

Increasingly these days, the Dragon wins.

Yet, we need good teachers. And the world needs good scholarship without which we simply cannot hope to contend with the plethora of serious problems facing the human race today. As deeply as I feel my need to fully inform those who would enter lives of public service of what they are getting into, I feel just as deeply the need to encourage them to engage those sorely needed lives of service.

 Venerable Voices

So what advice can I give these young minds I have come to admire and love?

I think I would begin with Thoreau who would say:

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

But I would quickly follow up that noble exhortation with the cautionary tale of this 1st CE writer:

“Be of a sober mind, ever vigilant. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your calling, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”  (I Peter 5:8, adapted)

Both have valuable advice. And my young would-be academics will need both the hermeneutic of generosity and the hermeneutic of suspicion they provide if they are to navigate the shoals of academia.

This is the best I can offer you, young Jedis. Godspeed. Remember that I believe in you. And drop a line from time to time to let me know how you are surviving.

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