Last night Liam and I attended a talk by Derek Bok, Harvard’s president emeritus, hosted by the Spencer Foundation at the meetings of the American Educational Research Association in Vancouver. Due to a lack of Wifi and data service, I couldn’t tweet the speech, which was probably good because we both got a little worked up. Here’s a bit about why.
Bok is a thoughtful, experienced leader in higher education and I have long appreciated his efforts to get colleges and universities to pay attention to undergraduate education. He’s written a book on the topic, and found a set of Bok Centers on many campuses to try and get faculty involved (unfortunately, as he admitted last night, engagement in the centers is often low).
The main thrust of his speech was that professors need to get focused on rigorously improving undergraduate education because policy changes are bringing a reform agenda focused on student outcomes, and we’d best get prepared. We ought to do this, he suggested, by acting as the good researchers we are and attending to and creating new research on what works to improve student learning and graduation rates. We ignore those studies at our peril, he said, instead going about our teaching in un-informed ways — lecturing, failing to use technology, failing to conduct formative assessments etc– and it’s partly because there’s a dearth of good research on quality teaching in undergraduate education. It’s time to wake up and embrace our role in the problems we “know” exist– a lack of learning in higher education, students who don’t study, and falling graduation rates.
His contentions were on the one hand laudable — I’m always a fan of people who push the comfortable elite to wake up— and on the other hand deeply problematic.
First, Bok spoke about the faculty as if we are a homogeneous bunch. Only once did he mention adjuncts, and it was when he said they were the workforce of for-profits, which are organizations that do pay attention to pedagogy, according to him. So my open question to him, and the first question asked after his talk was “It is increasingly the case that we research types are not ‘the faculty’ — the faculty are the enormous number of part-time, contingent, and adjunct workers used by administrations to teach for cheap. What are the implications of your argument for them– and what are the implications for tenure?” I don’t think Bok really understood my question since he respond simply that they ‘they’ needed to care about good teaching too. (He also made some statements about the potential that the use of adjuncts reduces graduation rates and promotes grade inflation–things that I have commentary on but will take up another day.)
Well, part-time, contingent, and adjunct faculty do care about teaching practices — and they are arguably more experienced than those of us who teach a few times a year. They also know quite a bit about technology and contemporary teaching practices. But the big difference between “us” and “them” is tenure, status, and pay. They teach very frequently with little job security, no perks like offices to meet with students, and for very little money. They are not segregated to for-profits as Bok suggested, but are employed nationwide in all types of colleges and universities. And they are the workers whom the accountability movement will hit first, hit hardest, and undoubtedly change forever.
When it does, “our” response will have everything to do with tenure. And it will have everything to do with the future of tenure. If those without tenure respond in ways policymakers “like,” then you can be sure that tenure will be deemed the obstacle to student success — just as it has in k-12 education — and will be under steady attack. We tenured professors will be pitted against our students in a classic “who cares most about student achievement” false dichotomy, and that is the situation we must prepare for– and work to avoid. That is what I’d hoped Bok would address.
A few other thoughts. I’m tired of the movement to improve undergraduate outcomes being led by people at institutions where everyone finishes college and money appears to grow on trees. I’m not saying people at those schools don’t care about these issues, but most speak in ways that suggest they are out-of-touch with the 99.9% of the rest of us. (There are big exceptions to this rule– Bridget Terry Long is one.) One could make the case that Harvard got us into this mess — leading the arms race, raising the costs of attendance like it was going out of style, and setting up an idealized standard in the public imagination that could never be realistically achieved. The more public higher education tries to be like Harvard in any way, the more our doors close rather than open– leaving the vast majority of students outside in the cold, just waiting to be devoured by the for-profits. Again, I’m so happy people at elite places care about these issues, but I wish that they would (at minimum) partner with people in settings where the real problems actually exist. And I think that wonderful foundations like Spencer should elevate the stature and share the work of people whose research struggles in focused, daily ways with the reality of students dropping out of college and faculty working over-time and under financial constraints to serve them.
I also fervently hope that leaders like Bok will stop repeating shaky empirical research findings that cast undergraduates as fundamentally lazy and underachieving. Throughout his talk, Bok showed a recognition of the importance of rigorous research in establishing cause and effect. Yet he gave great credence to studies of student time use that have enormous problems with measurement error, failed to recognize the role of technology in changing both study and leisure time, and again imposed a homogeneity assumption on undergraduates. Ask yourself, what if undergraduates were mainly a hard-working bunch, with a strong desire to learn — wouldn’t you still want to work harder to teach them well? Why do we feel we must establish a crisis by saying they are unengaged partiers, playing more and doing less?
Finally, I take issue with a point Bok ended with — the challenge of measuring learning outcomes in higher education. When asked whether he agreed that some goals of higher education are more difficult to measure than others, he responded that that’s “mainly because people haven’t thought through the issues of measurement enough and aren’t clear enough on what those goals entail.” While I agree there is too much hand-waving at broad goals, and we often aren’t specific enough about what we want students to actually learn, I disagree that everything is quantifiable and readily assessed. College today is a place where life begins to come together for students– and that happens alongside textbook learning and is a key piece of faculty work. Those successes should be recognized and we deserve credit for them. But they will not be easily measured.