Making It Up As I Go

In this new Consulting Editor persona I’m trying out, I circulate freely among different academic and activist groups–part writer, part editor, part activist, part social butterfly. I’ve always been deft at moving between different social and professional circles, and sometimes folks come to me to ask for help, guidance, advice for leaving academia, and so on.

I’m making this up as I go, so I do what I can. Sometimes, it means helping friends and former grad school colleagues get published; other times, it means being a sounding board or sympathetic ear while a struggling adjunct vents.

While working on what I hope is a useful, long-term project, I did a Twitter & Facebook crowd source for thoughts about what’s most wrong with the American university. Not surprisingly, I got some great material that I’m weaving in to this current project; I’d also like to share some of it here. Students and parents especially should know more about how the colleges they’re attending or paying for their child(ren) to attend really work. There are many voices in many different movements around education, labor, academic freedom, and related issues that need to be heard. As loudly and widely as possible.

When asked for a short, focused answer to “What’s most wrong with higher ed?” many in the academic blogosphere had something rich to say:

Robert Oprisko: Elitism and structural inequality are parading around as meritocracy.

Greg Semenza: We are socialized by our culture to think about what’s wrong with higher ed rather than about what’s right.

Chuck Pearson: We have an educational culture issue in the US—diminished expectations at every level of engagement.

HelloGreedo: US advancing way over the inflation rate, tuition has increased…creating an even larger economic divide.

Art historian Victoria Scott provided several short, focused answers. Here are a few:

It needs to be about merit not money.

There needs to be a vigorous fearless discussion about what academic freedom means in America, and around the world.

And we need an independent organization that is responsible for gathering statistics about the state of higher education (statistics are key).

The number of adjuncts is the crucial issue. And then, how many of them are women.

In short professors, grad students, scholars, and students have to take back colleges and universities in all respects.

There’s a lot for teachers, parents, students, and university administrators to think about here. Claims of “meritocracy” are hollow; the systemic “diminished expectations” have eroded critical thinking and threatened to turn students into test-taking automatons. Greg Semenza usefully reminds us to remember the positives—i.e., what is working in higher ed (such as its dedicated, engaged teacher-activists). “Tak[ing] back colleges and universities in all respects” means criticizing the negatives and highlighting the positives.

Fellow writer-activist Mary Grace Gainer draws an interesting parallel: “Higher education in the US has a late-night infomercial type of problem: it uses a very large, vague set of terms to make claims buyers will like while at the same time, hiding the actuality of the product.” I can almost hear, But wait, there’s more—if you call in the next five minutes, you’ll receive a waiver for that boring course you don’t want to take AND the Easy A professor of your choice ABSOLUTELY FREE. (Just pay separate tuition and processing.) For Gainer,

Since many incoming students and parents are not well versed in higher ed lingo, what seems like a great selling point obscures the exploitation of adjunct faculty, which directly affects students’ educational experience. The generic term “professor” often is used in glossy print phrases like “90% of our professors have their terminal degrees” or “you will be taught by professors who are doctors, not graduate assistants,” to paraphrase a few standard claims.

But wait, there’s more:

While these statements may indeed be the truth, they conceal the actual status of those educators in many developmental, first-year, and core curriculum classes. The “professor” may indeed have an MFA or PhD (both considered terminal degrees in certain fields), but that individual may also be teaching at multiple schools because all the work is part time. The “professor” may have completed their graduate education and even published in the field, but may not be making a living wage or have health care.

And here’s this special gift, absolutely free:

This does not even begin to explicate the layers of ranking—assistant, associate, full—that full-time permanent academics, their salaries, and status are attached to. As an undergrad I was unaware of those categories, and they had no bearing on my education that I could see, but I did know that every person in front of my classes was a full-time employee. This is not the case for the many adjuncts shuttling between schools, and the glossy surface of higher education needs to reflect this precarious reality due to its inherent effects on both teachers and their students.

Social media feeds, personal blogs, and such major outlets as Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle regularly feature former and current teachers taking on a number of pertinent issues: cuts to educational funding coupled with spikes in senior admins’ salaries; the corporate model of education seemingly infecting our campuses; unconscionable (and untenable) lending practices for student loans; frightening (perhaps unconstitutional) policies from upper-level administrators and boards of regents curbing professors’ speech on social media; and the increasingly sharp divide between have and have not, among other issues. The current system cannot—and should not—hold. Period.

We’re not talking about issues affecting a relatively small, privileged, and “low stress” class of professors; we’re talking about a pattern of mistreatment affecting well over a million university faculty (and many more students) on campuses across the country. Let’s not forget that the university labor problem, ultimately, will determine our students’ and our nation’s educational future. We—former and current professors, undergraduate and graduate students, parents, and all university workers—need to be proactive and vocal on our campuses and social media.

Silence, as one of my favorite bands reminds us, is a dangerous sound.


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