In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

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Sven Sven's picture
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

 

Sven Sven's picture

If the author of this [url=http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/college]Atlantic Monthly[/url] piece (an adjunct professor of English at a "college of last resort") didn't write this anonymously, I'm sure he (or she) would be fired. Wow. What an indictment.

Cueball Cueball's picture

True enough. It used to be professors were awarded tenure on a regular basis, so it was possible for professors to speak their minds, without fear of professional repercussions. There were also professional standards committess, teachers associations, and other insitituional safe gaurds designed to protect teachers from malicious persecution by the administration. Now, however, since universities and colleges have been reduced to operating on the "for profit" corporate model professors have been reduced to protesting the shambles resulting from "for profit" education anonymously, or simply remaining silent, because they can not get tenure, and are given whimsical titles such as "adjunct" professor to indicate their tenuous grip on their paid employment.

quote:

Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.


[ 17 July 2008: Message edited by: Cueball ]

WendyL

And sessional staff are in even more precarious positions, working long, hard hours for crappy incomes and lacking any sense of power, ownership, or participation in the structures of their work. They are frequently sold-out in contract negotiations, and discarded when they have exhausted contract awards (depending on the regulations of the specific institution).

Michael Hardner

Interesting that the generally take on this article in this thread identifies with the author's necessity to publish anonymously. I would have thought that the struggles of his students would have brought more comment.

The education system he describes pushes people to get education where it's not really required. Everyone seems to think that they're capable of getting a degree, and colleges are glad to take their money only to have them fail.

To me, this says taht education as a "market" is clearly amplifying the wrong benefits of education - pointless status and snob appeal.

America (where this article was written) rose to world dominance because it was, in the early/mid 20th century, somewhat of a meritocracy.

The current US president is symbolic of the shift away from that to an era of legacy ivy-league enrollment and family ties: a man of seemingly average intelligence who holds two ivy-league degrees.

[ 19 July 2008: Message edited by: Michael Hardner ]

martin dufresne

(Some back-editing) I am concerned about what seems like attempts to weed some categories of students out of colleges, allegedly out of sympathy for their plight. It's true that educational institutions are in a conflict of interest in terms of maximizing enrolments. It's also true that it's hell to try and study and work at the same time, as more and more students find thmselves forced to do, for lack of institution and student funding. But I know some people trying to obtain a degree they really need to get and hold better jobs, and I am aware that present curriculi and teacher workloads are woefully inadequate to some students' abilities and needs. This disconnect is mostly what fails them, not their lack of merits or a too-ambitious system.
As crucial monies get siphoned away from the public sector and corporations muscle in on curriculi to get the education system to fashion a docile, specialized workforce that saves them training fees, we have to be careful about who gets blamed. It seems too convenient to suggest that some people simply ought not to be getting college education. 'Meritocracy' can easily serve as a cover for a return to decent education as a privilege of the few. For instance, I am thinking of immigrant nurses trying to complete a college degree while working on call at all hours and being asked to write dissertations about the notion of justice in Jean-Jacques Rousseau which would have them try and find time to read three of his books and synthesize/apply his philosophy in a creative manner. Some people would argue that nurses don't need a college degree to do their job, but I would argue that the bar is being placed unrealistically high by traditional curriculi which some clueless decision-makers and teachers won't or can't adapt to such audiences.

[ 19 July 2008: Message edited by: martin dufresne ]

Michelle

I'm curious about what the author means by "the gentlewoman's C-".

martin dufresne

A variation on the expression "gentleman's agreement" where someone in authority looks the other way and allows someone else to "pass" despite his lack of merits. Teachers do this by giving a C-minus instead of an F.
See our courageous if anonymous author bucking political correctness to be fair:

quote:

She simply was not qualified for college. What exactly, I wondered, was I grading? I thought briefly of passing Ms. L., of slipping her the old gentlewoman’s C-minus. But I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the other students. By passing Ms. L., I would be eroding the standards of the school.

Presumably, she'll thank him in the morning...

[ 19 July 2008: Message edited by: martin dufresne ]

Michelle

If, as he claims, the school is letting in everyone and anyone, qualified and unqualified, then I'm not sure what kind of "erosion of standards" at his institution that he's worried about anyhow! [img]smile.gif" border="0[/img]

WendyL

I don't see the situation of the adjunct professor (more likely to be labeled sessional/contract instructor in Canada) and 'the struggles of his students' to be distinctly separate issues. They are, I believe, both related to the nature of secondary education now being more about making money than providing education. This is not a new phenomenon, and became much more evident in Canada once we managed to float on the ship of a FTA with the US. Even in the early 80's, when I was union organizing on campus, university lawyers were quite willing, at Labour Board hearings, to state that universities were not about education, they were about making money. I would prefer to hear the students speak for themselves of their experiences rather than assume a frame to their experience through the anonymous authorship of the adjunct professor. His article speaks only to his experience and his perception of student experience. No doubt, there is much awry for the students.

Is not the move from 3 year to 4 year degree programs in university simply a money grab on the part of the institutions? I am a bit out of the loop and don't have knowledge of when this transition happened. So, now I take a 4 year degree program which includes upward of 12 - 15 elective courses. Does this benefit me as a student? For some, perhaps, but the real benefit is to the pocketbook (I love that old-fashioned word) of the institution. And what of this whole need to pair a community college diploma with a university degree in order to have marketable skills? WTF is this about? Practical vs. theoretical?? When did this division, false though it is, come to be?

PB66

Slightly off topic, when did Canadian universities shift from three-year to four-year programs? I've come across othr Babblers talking about three-year programs, but, as far as I know, even when I started university, more than ten years ago, the system seemed to be entirely based on four-year undergraduate degrees. What's the situation at colleges?

By the way, this is the first time I've seen a reference to "Gentleman's C" outside the context of the Ivy League. I'd always seen it used to refer to the grade inflation that occurs there, particularly for the sons of wealthy donours and influential families (ie the quasi-aristocratic "gentlemen"). It's apparently hard to fail someone when they've paid the equivalent of a decent down-payment on a middle-class home for a single year's tuition. This type of grade is what, apparently, fills George Waterboard Bush's transcript. This story perfectly illustrates the "gentlemanly" nature of the "gentleman's C" - it's class power that transforms a failing grade to a mediocre one.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

I did my BA in two years, because I was admitted directly into second year as I already had a college diploma in my field of study and I did a couple of courses each of the two summers of my BA. That was in the 1970s when a BA was three years and the Honours year added a fourth year. Master's was normally two years in the 1970s unless it was a theology degree which was three years. I have no idea how long a basic medical degree was.

Caissa

When I began Doctoral studies at Western in 1987, three year degrees still existed. I think they were pretty well being phased out when I left there in 1992.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Ontario universities used to have 3-year programs because they had the OAC level of high school, a grade 13 "Ontario Academic Credit" year that was supposed to substitute for the first year undergraduate. Unfortunately, it wasn't recognized as such in other provinces' universities (like, say, Quebec, whose CEGEP program has a similar effect). Bring in Mike Harris and the end of OAC (a move clearly cheered by bored high school students everywhere) and the elimination of what should essentially be a free year of education, paired with Ontario universities adding "four-year" programs for honours, or whatever in order to eke more money from students and pretend to higher standards than other Ontario institutions, and the three-year degree erodes, disappearing completely around 1998-9 or so, if I remember correctly.

I have to say that the author of the article in the OP strikes me as a self-righteous, pompous, insufferable git looking for martyrdom.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

I'm not aware of shifts from 3 yr BAs to four at the university here... I went through a four year BFA program, and I do know that a few years after I left they switched from full class loads being 4 classes of 4 credit hours apiece to 5 classes of 3 credit hours.

I did some marking for one of my professors back in the early '90s and recall there being some definite howlers on the exams I went through, but I was astounded by the poor quality of work turned in by some of the students in a 200 level media studies class I taught as a sessional a few years ago. I think academic standards have slipped a lot between when I left high school in the mid-eighties and now. Some of the students were very capable, but there were a number that simply couldn't put together a coherent paragraph, even with help.

I enjoyed teaching, it was a real lift to see the penny drop when one of my students picked up something new... My favourite moment was when a student who was very bright but not confident in his ability to analyze or write told me I'd opened a door for him. What I didn't enjoy was having to fail students, or give them a mark that would prevent them entry to the next level of their program (IIRC anything under 65% meant you were weeded out). But I couldn't just pass them -- then you have a student who can't handle the work for someone else to handle, waste more of their time and money.

I got really sucky ratings on ratemyprofessor.com, too. I didn't realize how hated I was, and it was sort of scary to read.

I don't think I'd want to teach regularly -- just the once was good. I might do it again someday, but not in the near future.

(ETA -- I have a head cold and lost my point...) I agree with the article's writer that not everyone is suited to university. I think there's a lot to be gained with a university education, but I think something that he misses, or rather touches on lightly and passes over is that you do well in university or college when you have the intellectual curiosity to explore what the classes offer. Some people just don't have that bent of mind and it doesn't mean they're unintelligent or less worthy -- just incurious. My niece, who is very bright, just switched to a vocational program after a disastrous year in university. It wasn't an inability to handle the work, more an inability to push on through the boring bits to find stuff out. Maybe she'll develop that later on, but she wasn't in the right head space for it last year. Some never are.

[ 22 July 2008: Message edited by: Timebandit ]

torontoprofessor

quote:


Originally posted by PB66:
[b]By the way, this is the first time I've seen a reference to "Gentleman's C" outside the context of the Ivy League. I'd always seen it used to refer to the grade inflation that occurs there, particularly for the sons of wealthy donours and influential families (ie the quasi-aristocratic "gentlemen"). It's apparently hard to fail someone when they've paid the equivalent of a decent down-payment on a middle-class home for a single year's tuition.[/b]

This is a myth. I taught at Yale for three years, as a tenure-ladder Assistant Professor. Never once was I pressured by the administration to change a grade. Never once did a single colleague ever indicate that s/he was pressured by the administration to change a grade. I have many friends who teach or have taught at Ivy League schools, and not a single one has ever mentioned any pressure of this kind. The only case I know of inappropriate pressure to change a grade was for a football player at a public university with a major football team.

What [i]is[/i] true is that admission to Yale (and, I'm guessing, Harvard) can be easier for applicants with one or both parents who attended Yale College, graduate or professional schools. These are called "[url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legacy_preferences]legacy admissions[/url]". [url=http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/13301]Here[/url] is an article about it from the Yale Daily News. This is, indeed, a terrible practice. But once admitted, legacy students do not get special treatment. In fact, when assigning grades I had no idea who was, and who was not, a legacy student.

torontoprofessor

quote:


Originally posted by martin dufresne:
[b]As crucial monies get siphoned away from the public sector and corporations muscle in on curriculi to get the education system to fashion a docile, specialized workforce that saves them training fees, we have to be careful about who gets blamed. It seems too convenient to suggest that some people simply ought not to be getting college education. 'Meritocracy' can easily serve as a cover for a return to decent education as a privilege of the few. For instance, I am thinking of immigrant nurses trying to complete a college degree while working on call at all hours and being asked to write dissertations about the notion of justice in Jean-Jacques Rousseau which would have them try and find time to read three of his books and synthesize/apply his philosophy in a creative manner. Some people would argue that nurses don't need a college degree to do their job, but I would argue that the bar is being placed unrealistically high by traditional curriculi which some clueless decision-makers and teachers won't or can't adapt to such audiences.[/b]

I am puzzled.

Should we have a specialized curriculum, with a lower bar (i.e., one not set "unrealistically high"), for "immigrant nurses trying to complete a college degree"?

torontoprofessor

[url=http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/education/21endowments.html]An interesting article[/url] on a related topic.

George Victor

Wasn't George W. Bush a Yale grad?

Michael Hardner

Yes, as per my post above:

quote:

The current US president is symbolic of the shift away from that to an era of legacy ivy-league enrollment and family ties: a man of seemingly average intelligence who holds two ivy-league degrees.