Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Nebulous Creature

I wasn't going to say anything on this because I am between institutions and because I am soooo much happier not thinking about this sort of thing right now when I don't have to. Shoot, I don't even read Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education, and skip anyone's blog posting about the State of the Profession these days. It's like that old joke about the guy who goes into the doctor and says, "doctor, it hurts when I do this," and the doctor says, "well, don't do that." I just don't do that. Nonetheless, so many bloggers that I read are writing on this that, even as I tried to look away quickly, my own thoughts began to obsess on them. So, I decided to say something just to get those thoughts out of my head and go back to not being all knotty and fatalist and frustrated -- which is how I get when I think about most things related to teaching.

I used to work at a community college in the near suburbs of a major city. That is not work for the weak of heart, and I am very weak of heart. Despite what the administrations say, and despite what professors try, and even despite what many of the students seek, it is very much like teaching Grade 13.

That's not the endemic problem, however. That's just the nature of the beast, for the most part, especially in an urban area where the public school system is notoriously bad, and especially in an area in which the immigrant population had other things to worry about in the past ten years, like fleeing civil war, learning another language and culture, and seeking political asylum. That sort of stuff. These are the students who then appear in our classes, all woefully ill-prepared for grade school, much less college.

In my years at the community college, I found three insidious concepts that pointed toward the endemic problem of the college. All three were the sort of things that, on the face of it, seem like they could maybe be good ideas; but, when you looked a little beyond the surface, you could see that the ideas were concocted outside of the reality of the institution, of the needs of the institution, and of the needs of everyone associated with the institution, including the students. These three things were outcomes assessment, online instruction, and "completion."

Outcomes assessment -- that is, ensuring that students are learning what they need to learn in order to advance to the next level or in order to have mastered basics of a subject -- is generally a good idea. Some oversight on the process is good, too, especially if it is meant to improve performance not punish the performer. All fine and good, except that we, the instructors and the departments, tend to already do this. It's called "a test" or "a quiz," and "peer evaluation" and "department evaluation" through classroom observation. What seems to be demanded, however, seems to be not what the instructors and department have determined is a good means of evaluation, but what someone somewhere else had determined is a good means -- even if their means has proven to be a patented failure in actually assessing mastery of a subject. The result becomes a huge waste of time in which the whole official "outcomes assessment" becomes a cynical exercise to produce numbers, while the actual assessing of learning and instruction becomes this renegade shadow activity addressing the actual problems we see in our classrooms -- the ones that take time and money to actually fix.

Online instruction -- to serve the needs of students with busy schedules, also seems like a grand and democratizing idea. It can, in fact, be done well, with tiny classes of motivated students and good, experienced, on-site technical support for both student and instructor. The problem is that the dictum seems to not seriously care if it is done well. The dictum is to serve more students and this is an easy and cheap solution. Doing it well will require more staff and therefore more money. As it is, online education is becoming the same as those 600 student survey courses with 3 t.a.s that I was part of as an undergraduate and grad student (except online classes have the added bonus of constant technical problems). If anyone walked into that, they would say "my god, this is NOT education." Community colleges pride themselves on not having those large classes. Put it online, however, and the idea becomes the Next Big Thing because the problems are all hidden.

Completion -- the number of students to graduate, diploma in hand, within a reasonable period of time also sounds like a good idea, and makes sense at universities and four-year institutions. At a community college, especially in an urban area with hundreds of other colleges and universities? Nonsense. Students go to a cc, especially in an urban area, for a thousand different reasons, none of which involve the completion of a cc degree. On top of that, the demands made from this particular "agenda" in no way addressed the reasons that those who do pursue a diploma do not do so in two years. They are always careful to remind instructors that we must have compassion and understand the problems facing students with full-time work, full-time family, and full-time course loads; yet, they do not look at that very fact of the students' lives as an obstacle to advancement. You want completion? Address the real reasons that students don't complete.

Who is "they" in my rantings here? Who comes up with these ideas, thinks they are grand, and demands their implementation in the face of overall opposition from the people who have to do the implementing? Well, I wish I knew. Anyone can be part of "they" at any point on any issue, I suppose, but the main "they" is the real, endemic problem of the college where I worked. The endemic problem went above and beyond the college itself to the people who the decision makers at the college seemed to want to serve. Those people were not the students but this nebulous creature called "businesses" or "the business community." Sometimes this nebulous creature was not even that well-defined. "It's the wave of the future" or "it's the way things are" or some other passively voiced "it," outside, over there, not within the college itself, all demanding "excellence without money," and often capable of providing money, but not really wanting to unless the college did X, Y, or Z.

This nebulous creature and its handlers, however, had very very little knowledge of how education works or the purpose of education. Very few people connected to this nebulous creature had any experience in education beyond their last college course; and this nebulous creature had obviously failed itself in its own education because it could not conceive of anything as being useful unless there was a point-to-point correlation between something in a classroom and a specific skill that might be demanded by an employer. Anything going on in the classroom must directly translate into a student's ability to profit and the line had to be direct.  Any questioning of the nebulous creature's demands was met with "if we don't do what it wants ourselves, then it will come in and do it for us."

Now, I don't think it is a bad idea to explain how the Humanities are useful to society or even to individuals who are just in college to get a better job. That's most of the students in a c.c. anyway. It is the reason that college is connected to upward mobility. Humanities exposes people to a variety of ideas, expands their way of thinking, hones their analytical skills (or exposes them to the concept of analysis), and requires verbal expression and communication most often in written form. Sometimes this may not seem so obvious as one tries to wade through the causes of the American Civil War or the intricacies of Hamlet.

Sadly, the nebulous creature seemed not particularly interested in those explanations. It understands "business writing" or Elizabeth I, CEO. It understands, "student will be able to demonstrate the ability to use a comma" or "student will be able to identify George Washington." It understands "history" as "dates and facts and wars  and politicians who have no connection to anything happening now." It understands "literature" as "that boring shit in which everything meant something when really the  white whale was just a whale and who gives a damn anyway?" This nebulous creature is simplistic and does not take into consideration that education is a complex endeavor that is bigger than the numbers that they want to production -- sometimes even more subjective and not apparent for years. It can sometimes be as traumatic as it is enlightening, if done right, which is why it should not be a series of hoops to jump through or numbers to generate in order to do it right.

The biggest problem in the face of this nebulous creature was the way that it was able -- despite its nebulous nature -- to force complete capitulation and compliance, to draw so many into its thrall. I kept asking, as everyone complained about the "outcomes assessment," and online "learning," and "completion" -- at every level in some cases -- "at what point do we just say 'NO'?" Seriously, at what point do we, those of us actually IN the college, say "WE are the professionals here, we actually ARE competent, and we actually DO know what we are doing." When do we -- and I mean faculty, staff, librarians, counselors, administrators, everyone at the college who increasingly sees these measures as futile, if not cynical wastes of time -- when does that we seize control of our own business as professionals?

Indeed, what would happen if we did? What if we said, "we will decide our own 'outcomes' and how best to determine if they are being met," rather than going through the farce of the current system in place at the college? What if we said, "these are the terms on which we will offer and implement online courses in our departments according to our department's needs"? What if we said, "your definition of 'completion' has no meaning at our institution, so here is our varied means of determining 'completion' at our college"? Seriously, what would happen? I doubt students would stop flooding into our classes. I doubt employees of the college would quit.

Of course, the state and the county might not fund because they are in thrall to their own nebulous creature.
I'm about to go to a smaller, private institution that encourages research. I have no idea what problems I will see there. I'm hoping that the lighter class load of smaller classes -- none of which are online -- will allow me to be the better teacher that I am when I do have fewer students pecking away at me, as it often felt at the cc. Oddly enough, I believe that the research component of the job will also make me a better teacher not because there is a point-to-point connection between the research and the teaching, but because having that sort of variety in my work makes me happier and more effective, even in the parts of the work that are not my favorite.

As my mother used to say, "you have your putting in and your taking out." That is, what you do for yourself -- putting into yourself --and what you do for others -- taking out of yourself. For me, teaching is for others and research and writing is for myself. Too much teaching means too much is being taken out of myself and not enough is being put in. That's how I felt most of the time there and it made me knotty, fatalist, and frustrated and, ultimately, not the best of teachers in my own estimation -- although I gave it my all everyday. I'm hoping my all will be better and have a longer temper when I can also do research. Get back to me in a year, and see if this is the case -- as it most probably will not. I'm sort of a glass is half-empty girl.


Digger said...

How much of this crap is a societal internalization of "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach"? In other words, though we (insiders in the teaching gig) know we're competent, functional, and good at what we do, there's a general feeling "out there" that, well, if that were really true, we'd be working in business making $hit-tons of money? Therefore, outsiders know better, etc. etc.

Digger said...

PS: Thanks for the putting in/taking out analogy. I need to put more in, take less out.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Digger: I wonder that, too! I once ended up in a conversation in which the other person said that people don't go into teaching for the money, therefore, it really didn't matter that they were paid very little. I had to walk away, otherwise I would have been writing the dissertation from a jail cell. (That other person, by the way, was a dude who had no discernable job or skills beyond having married a rich woman.)Still, that idea seems awfully prevalent.

I also wonder if some of the hostility toward teachers is something akin to mommy- or daddy- issues. Someone had a bad teacher or professor, therefore ALL teachers and professors are THAT teacher or professor and should be punished.

My mom came up with good stuff from time to time (speaking of mommy-issues!).

profacero said...

Great post!

Susan said...

"They": each of these is different. We're all affected by the accountability s**t that has taken over higher ed; but we've managed, so far, to ensure that outcomes assessment is at least according to criteria that we determine. So on the one hand "they" is accrediting agencies, and the agencies that accredit them, but it's also they way "they" are interpreted at each institution.

"They" in online education is institutional.

"They" on completion is, I believe, the Dept of Ed, and the way it measures student success.

Which means that it takes a humanist to think about the ways each set of demands is structured and interpreted, and to show that the real problem is multiple 'theys" which collectively corrupt actual, like, education....

Clio Bluestocking said...

Thank you, Profacero!

Susan, exactly! One common theme seems to be the assumption from the Nebulous Creature that everything should be exactly the same and that all institutions, all professors, all classes, should fit a formula, which assumes that all institutions, all professors, all classes, etc. have the exact same strengths, weakness, and goals. The ass-essement, as it appeared at my former place, was a means of standardized testing, like NCLB. The desire for online teaching was to make each class the same. The completion assumed that the cc was like other colleges, or even other ccs. Uniformity chokes the life out of education, and turns it into something from Pink Floyd's The Wall (film). The whole reason that there are different types of colleges and different types of teachers and different types of classes and so forth is to create the kind of intellectual diversity necessary for actual intellectual improvement.

If I were conspiracy minded, I would say that the Nebulous Creature wants this corruption of education -- no perversion of education -- in order to keep the masses ignorant and unthinking. If the masses are not ignorant and unthinking, then maybe they will do exactly what you are saying humanisss do and then the game will be up!

Janice said...

The pursuit of uniformity and standardization has almost destroyed K-12 education. I fear it will do the same for higher education.

My students are paying a lot to be taught by experts and how I get them to learn something not only relies on my subject expertise but on my ability to 'read' the classroom. But if I have to tick the boxes and fit the mold, I'm stymied from giving them the support they need as they progress. This is where outcomes assessment bothers me: that it attempts to ensure a certain educational achievement by enforcing a one-size-fits-all model that no one likes or can employ well!

Clio Bluestocking said...

Janice, soooo frighteningly correct! My mom worked in elementary schools back in the 1980s in the district that pioneered the NCLB. Disasterous and rife with corruption and cheating. No one who had to work with students thought it was a good idea and would go anywhere -- next thing they knew, it was national. CCs are the canary in a coal mine, and when I saw that the standardized crap was creeping in there, I thought "why are we even bothering?" One-size fits no one, everyone knows it, but it seems there is no resistance.

Exactly, too, that students pay for experts and that the experts are engaged in a form of communication. One of the criticisms leveled at colleges is that students are being taught by t.a.s and not the PhDs. T.A. or PhD, both have to be able to interact and tweak the interaction to make sure that people are actually learning.

I seriously think Kurt Vonnegut could have written an excellent dystopian novel about this...or the writers of The Wire -- which they sort of did in Season 4.


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