Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Keele Diary #8

Thoughts on higher education gathered while pondering the fact that England has a magazine called Carpworld, that there is apparently so much competition in the genre that Carpworld advertises itself as "The Original and Still the Best," and that the fellow standing in line ahead of me at the news agent was scooping up his copy. There is also The Racing Pigeon, a magazine that apparently is so dominant in its genre that it can advertise itself as "The Only Independent Pigeon Weekly." Who am I to doubt such a grand and self-serving claim? It ain't raging if it's true.

One major similarity between academic culture in the United States and in the UK is the enveloping sense of pessimism about academic life. The list of complaints is remarkably similar in both cultures despite the separation of the Atlantic. And the criticisms have credence. I will list just a handful: Students are apathetic/ill-prepared/worse than they once were/entitled/lazy. Administrators are daft/invasive/clueless/capricious/annoying/ignorant and insensitive to the needs of professors/departments/programs. Politicians intervene in the world of higher education without any real clue as to how things work and with ideological blinders firmly in place. We are too reliant upon time consuming assessments and metrics that do not actually tell us anything useful. Academic fads and fashions that tend to be imposed from above shift without warning. Technology leaves us in a state of flux on issues ranging from research (our own and our students -- the Wikipedia problem in the case of the latter), copyright, and library acquisitions. The effort to rigidify research outputs does not serve research or learning. The over-reliance upon student teaching evaluations re-enforces the consumer model and shackles professors and in turn hinders good teaching. The list goes on.

Read Times Higher Education, the weekly magazine for higher education, and one quickly realizes that with the exception of configuration and formatting and the vast and impenetrable gap between English and English and one could be reading the Chronicle of Higher Education in terms of many of the lamentations and concerns and debates. And yet my colleagues both here and at home should take a longer view. I am in the midst of reading three books about higher education. One is a collection of essays from academics in the humanities and social sciences calling for a radicalized and more politically engaged professoriate. Another of the books comes from a respected historian lamenting the state of the academy at least in part for the opposite reasons from his colleagues in the collected essays. And the third book wants to remind a skeptical profession of the utility of that most beleaguered and endangered species: the classroom lecture. But here is where we should perhaps take solace, step back, realize that the sky is not falling, and understand that higher education is always in crisis. The three books? The radical historian Theodore Roszak's collection The Dissenting Academy, published for the first time in 1967; historian of the Soviet Union Adam Ulam's The Fall of the American University (1972), and British education specialist Donald Bligh's What's The Use of Lectures (1971). I am not arguing that we should be sanguine about some of the very real threats we face. But I am willing to make the case that we overstate our dire sraits both here in the UK and back at home. Universities are remarkably adaptable. And one thing we should realize is that invasive administrators, clueless (and also invasive) politicians, disappointing students, and transformations in technology (inter alia) have always been with us. But so too have committed and sensitive administrators, wise and understanding politicians, and clever and dedicated students, and we have always adjusted to the new technologies. I, for one, do not lament the rise of the electronic library catalogue.

Vincent Vega had it right in this case: It's the little differences. And in academic culture there are lots of little differences between the US and the UK. But on most of the big things, including our fears and complaints, we are all part of very similar basic cultures of higher education. And thirty years from now we will probably be able to read a whole host of books from academics lamenting academic life in 2009 even as a host of such books and articles are being published at the time. Twas always thus, and always thus will be. As with most aspects of life, when we look back in the not-so-distant past and look for a golden age, there is one discovery to be made: there never was a golden age.

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