Sunday, October 18, 2009

Anger at Academe, Part Two

2. The second line of complaint we can call the ‘But you did not tell me’ critique. This comes in two versions, the first of which reflects an abdication of personal responsibility that is both unsupportable and increasingly apparent among students at all levels.

This (a) version runs as follows: an applicant might be accepted to institutions/ programs, and have their tuition accepted, to ‘discover’ that the institution/program does not offer or support the student’s desired area of specialization.

I do not know much about online ‘universities,’ but I know that almost every other college/university in this nation provides catalogues that fully describe available programs, majors, and courses. In most cases, this information is on-line. Certainly, any applicant could contact the program/department in question and ask whether her/his particular interests can be met.

How does anyone apply to – far less enroll – anywhere without finding out if a very specific academic interest cannot be pursued at that place? And, if one has been so unsophisticated/lazy/sloppy to find oneself in such a situation, why not suck it up for the time being and then move on – the wiser for the experience? At any respectable institution, one can withdraw with minimal or no penalty for the second semester.

Perhaps these poor folks did not enroll at a respectable institution. Nonetheless, it seems to me that they might figure that out and not turn their own experience into a general condemnation of ‘colleges and universities.’

This strange generalization from a bad experience with one institution of higher ed is particularly odd when set against the “Why isn’t Higher Ed more like Business” critique. Again, I do not assume that all these critics subscribe to the same memes. I just find it intriguing that so many of us fault Higher Ed for its imperfections despite the far more frequent abuses we suffer at the hands of Business. Is it simply that we expect banks and credit card companies to screw us, while we have more lofty expectations of Higher Ed? Yet, even if we do, can we rationally expect Higher Ed to protect us from our own stupidity and ineptitude?

Caveat Emptor has a place in all areas of human interaction, particularly for those who DO NOT READ the materials presented in legible font size and absent obfuscating legalese.

Another version (b) of the ‘But you did not tell me’ critique centers on the practicalities of completing a program. I have far more sympathy for this than for the (a) ‘I enrolled in something about which I knew nothing’ version.

The complaint is that a student may find that required courses are not offered as needed or, worse, at all. I think this is a criticism of merit, assuming certain facts. The facts we need to assume are several and interrelated.

Institutions of Higher Ed face special difficulties in ensuring their offerings. Outside of a few urban areas or those, such as the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, where several schools are located, the number of people immediately available to teach at the college level is limited. Hiring qualified faculty for a full-time position takes much longer than hiring someone for a job in banking or retail. This is because the hiring follows the academic year. There might be someone in the area who is not employed for the year or the semester, but there may well be no one.

If a faculty member departs at the end of one academic year, it can be very difficult to find someone with the similar qualifications for the Fall. No respectable program will simply replace a professor in, for example, bio-ethics with one who has never taught it and specializes in Marxism.

What can and should be done to help students fulfill the requirements of a program when something goes awry in staffing?

Many programs are loosely structured, with a number of options from which students can select; thus, students in the program are required to take a course from a set of several courses. A student may find she cannot take a course she wanted, but no institution can be expected to fully satisfy the desires of every individual.

However, some programs are very tightly structured, and this means that students in those programs have few options if there is no one to teach a required course. In these cases, the institution has a responsibility to arrange for students to complete their work.

If we are concerned with a program that is defined by the Faculty at that institution, then allowances must be made students when the program cannot provide what it requires. Any program that does not do this is a fraud.

If the program is one largely determined by outside agencies, the Faculty and Administrators at the institution should find someone who can provide the course[s] the students need. This might not provide the best educational experience for the students, but it will meet the program’s responsibilities. If no one can be found, then the institution should help the student[s] in the program find other places to complete their work and, needless to say, refund any tuition ‘not used’ by the student.

There is one thing colleges and universities could do to make sudden vacancies less problematic: they could pay adjuncts and professors taking on overloads decently. If there are no qualified adjuncts available, this will not resolve the immediate problem. But it is likely that full-time faculty members already teaching at the school could be enticed to teach orphan courses.

Probably some of those faculty be willing to do so for the students’ sake even at the insulting adjunct pay level [insulting to adjuncts and overloading full-timers] in an emergency. But they are also likely to resent the institution which, after all, is receiving the same tuition for teaching by adjunct and overloading faculty as it would if paying someone for a full-time position.

The fact is that Faculty are typically more concerned with the success of their students than anyone else on campus, at least at large universities. When those outside Higher Ed rail at the ‘pompous and arrogant’ Faculty because students are having difficulty completing programs, they are aiming at the wrong targets. Faculty do not set tuition and do not make the rules about refunds. Faculty are not always entirely in charge of program requirements and are most likely to try to help students of merit to manage obstacles created by requirements.

None of this is meant to set up Administrators as targets. Rather, I want to point out that Faculty have far less power than many outside Higher Ed realize. We work within the same systems as our students.

Are some of us pompous and/or arrogant? Sure. But that does not make all of us directly responsible for everything that can stand in the way of student success.
Now, if you want to fault me for my insistence on the use of paragraphs, O.K.

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