Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Ask the Administrator: If You Could Build a System...

An Australian correspondent writes:

In Australia we're hearing about the benefits to students of being taught by Faculty who are engaged in, or even hanging on by the tips of their fingernails to, research.  This nexus is the presumptive definition of a university learning experience in Australia, at least for the time being.  But we're also now seeing a recommendation that a teaching-only US style community college system be developed.   As you can see from the article, there's an assumption that there are some communities "that don't have the skills base to make the most of" funded research infrastructure.  This has very significant implications for those of us working in regional or remote areas.

My question is this: how do the community colleges achieve the same or comparable benefit for your students of being taught by Faculty who are research-aware?  What does this mean in practice for you?

Oooooh, I like this one. If you follow the link, it takes you to an article quoting the vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, who is proposing that Australia establish a national community college system based loosely on the California model. As I understand it (that is, as my correspondent explained it), the Australian system consists of 8 leading research universities, a TAFE system that sounds very much like our 'comprehensive' state colleges, and some private vocational educators. There's nothing terribly close to the community college model. Given the distribution of population across the land mass, huge areas of the country have little to no opportunity for higher education, so the cc model holds some appeal as a low-cost entryway to higher ed for underserved populations.

(As the article goes on, there's a clear implication that research money is at a premium, and the idea of colleges running on something other than research money is still a little fuzzy.)

I'll just do a few thoughts, and ask my wise and worldly readers to contribute their own.

First, something similar to a community college model would probably meet some real needs. The better cc's serve both short-term job training needs and college/university transfer, which I consider the higher level vocational training. (They also frequently help undo the damage of lousy high schools, through extensive and focused remediation.) Community colleges have frequently proved adept at handling large geographic areas, between satellite campuses, renting spaces in other local facilities (such as high schools or local corporations), and online instruction.

Although the funding base for the California model could charitably be described as 'all effed up,' the usual model involves some sort of multi-level split funding: the state pays some, a local entity (county or city, usually) pays some, and the students pay some. Of course, student tuition is often covered partially by external financial aid of various sorts. I honestly don't know how financial aid works in the Australian system, but the basic concept is that enrollment – not research – is the driver of revenue.

(With non-credit vocational training, sometimes local employers will pick up the tab for the students. CC's become 'vendors,' selling training packages to local employers. In an area where economic development is a real priority, don't overlook this. Some cc's even have technology or company 'incubators,' in which fledgling companies working on new technologies get subsidized rent and free or reduced-cost access to consulting expertise provided by retired executives who view their service as a kind of 'giving back' to the community. When the companies reach a certain size, they're sent out of the incubator to make room for new ones. It's a way to create the kind of locational synergies that Richard Florida writes about, but on a scale such that upstarts can actually afford it.)

In terms of research 'awareness,' I think your concern is largely misplaced. In the American system, cc's only cover the first two years of college (which for us is normatively set at four). In other words, in most states, cc's don't teach junior- or senior-level courses. (Florida allows some cc's to grant four-year degrees in selected disciplines, and there's some movement in that direction in several states, but it's still the exception.) The classes are primarily introductory, so being on the cutting edge of research is less imperative than would be the case in more advanced courses.

The degree to which faculty are 'research-aware' varies, which is to be expected, but I can say that our graduates have done better – measured by graduation rates, GPA's, or whatever else – in the colleges to which they've transferred than have the students that started at those colleges. I suspect that part of the reason is basic Darwinian selection – the weakest students don't graduate in the first place – but part of it is specialization. When all you ever teach is introductory classes, you get the chance to get pretty darn good at teaching introductory classes.

I've seen the difference directly. I went to graduate school at an R1, where I TA'ed the intro class for Big Muckety Muck Scholar. BMMS made his name through research, and made it clear in any number of ways that research was where he wanted to spend his time. The first-year students paid the price, enduring indifferent lectures in large auditoriums, then spending the recitation sections asking the TA's – who weren't much older, or more experienced, than the students – to explain what the hell BMMS was talking about. Yet they got a relatively prestigious degree.

By contrast, first-year students in the same class at my cc get a full-time professor teaching a small class. His job performance is defined by his teaching, not by research, and the classes are human-scale. There are no TA's. If the students struggle, the academic support center is relatively well-staffed with both peer and professional tutors. The degree is nowhere near as prestigious, but with a clear focus on teaching a narrow band of courses, the students reap the benefits of specialization. (The savviest ones graduate in two years, then transfer to someplace prestigious, thereby getting the best of both worlds.)

A community college with a tightly written articulation agreement with a university that has a strong distance ed program could work wonders in some of the less populated regions. A more educated population is both more attractive to relocating employers, and more likely to grow its own opportunities. And as various industries rise and fall, having an institution that can help retrain displaced workers is not to be sneezed at. Subsidizing someone's education for a couple of years is much cheaper than paying the dole for a couple of decades. It's also more respectful of their dignity.

Anyway, those are some first thoughts. Wise and worldly readers – emphasis on worldly, in this case – what would you add?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'd add that without a research focus CCs are significantly less expensive to run, as the faculty teach more students.

In my own case I teach a 5/5 load -- a total of 30 credits per year. Each of those courses has 40-50 students -- so in any given semester I'll teach 200-250 students, each of whom has paid about $450.00 for the course.

Compare that to the teaching "productivity" of a researcher -- whose contract probably stipulates a 2/2 -- and TAs... it probably takes four people (one prof, three TAs) to teach the same number of students.
There is some potential for trouble when faculty do not remain current in fields that change relatively quickly (like mine, art) - even for lower level instruction at CCs.

I've seen programmatic troubles that resulted in art courses that transferred, even within the school's strongest articulation agreements, only as electives.

I also believe that many students, once they're mature enough, respond very well to CC faculty who clearly do not relate to their subject areas under the same model that students' high school teachers had. I think it's a breath of fresh air for them and a carry over from the negative attitudes toward learning that our high schools cement so adeptly.

Let me add that, happily, of the three CCs I've taught at, I've only seen damage from out of touch faculty at one them. Furthermore, at my campus of that CC, my department was very much on top of things.

On the other hand, I have also worked with university faculty who thought that being a teacher while they were teaching was beneath them. The students, you might imagine, begged to disagree. I've never seen that at a CC.

So, I'd like to add that although I've only witnessed a semi-effective version of it, it may be helpful to create some positive incentives for CC faculty to remain active in their fields. The semi-effective version I saw was a small, competitive, one semester sabbatical system that was applied for and rewarded much like a grant. Before the budget crunches got really bad, that CC also had very good support for professional development - conferences, etc. I might suggest offering a small but non-insulting stipend to faculty who give public lectures at the CC on their current "research". That would offer something for the small core of ambitious students. And, it would also help to create an atmosphere supportive of engagement with discourses and the community.

In any case, the idea is not to transform CCs into mini R1s. Nor is it to spend a lot of extra money.
I think we can all remember a professor in college who was a brilliant researcher and should NEVER have been let near a classroom. I remember one in particular who taught a core theology course for majors, who was ... well, awful is the only word to describe it. The man was a giant intellectually, but he Could. Not. Teach. (My two most vivid memories of that class are one day when we got tests back and basically the entire class -- boys included -- burst into tears, and he just stood there and looked disconcerted and puzzled; and another day when right BEFORE a test the whole class, riddled with nerves, ended up bursting into song. It was a very high tension room and so very WEIRD.)

I came out of that class having learned so little that I actually retook it in grad school with lower-level students to straighten myself out. And I truly *enjoy* reading the man's articles and books -- he just didn't teach me anything at all in a classroom setting.

I think it's misleading to suggest that CC faculty aren't "research aware" -- one can be perfectly aware even if one is not researching oneself. And in foundational and introductory courses, I really think the key is solid teaching so that students really have a firm grounding in the subject. If you can't get through intro-level physics with a firm grounding, cutting-edge high-speed particle physics with Mr. Big Name Physicist isn't going to do you a damn bit of good.

I run into something similar sometimes with students, who'll say, "I'm really struggling with math, so I'm having a friend who's an accountant help me, but I'm just not getting any better." Well, that may be because your accountant friend may be great at DOING math, but not necessarily very good at TEACHING it, and you probably need an actual math tutor. Doing and teaching are two very distinct skills. Some people have one, some have the other, some have both; but to assume because someone's good at DOING something that that means they can TEACH it is a serious error.

(Indeed, sometimes it's hardest to teach the things that come easily to you, because you learned it so effortlessly it can be difficult for you to break it down into steps for a beginner. I've really worked and sweated to break down for my students how to write a thesis paper -- since nobody had to TEACH me, I just GOT it. That was a helluva a lot harder than putting together complicated subject matter material for my curriculum!)
Based on comments from the Australian physicists I know, their HS system (and hence their college system) is radically different from ours in the US with our "gen ed" classes dealt with in HS for college-bound students.

The CC-transfer model may not work as well there, or it might provide the necessary bridge for students who were not on the right "track" in HS and now want to enter a profession.

Could someone elaborate on the current HS system in Oz?
e fairly specific comment. I'm in a state that has been creating a (statewide) community college system out of what was a very specifically (statewide) vocational-technical institution. As a vo-tech institution, it did some gen ed things, but really did not emphasize two-year, transfer-oriented programs. Its faculty was, and continues to be, almost entirely part-time and dreadfully paid. Further, the institution offers, at least as it looks to an outsider, little or no opportunity for professional development for those part-timers.

DO NOT create a community college this way. While it's all but inevitable these days that a fairly large percentage of courses will be taught by part-timers, trying to run an academically respectable program without a core of full-time faculty will be a disaster. And trying to move from a wholly part-time faculty to a significant number of full-timers is hard, hard, hard. One reason our state government decided to create a community college system was to reduce the costs of the first two years of college (and, I might add, along the way they decided to pay for the venture by reducing support to the four-year schools), so telling them that you need a lot more money to hire more expensive full-time faculty is a hard sell.

Do it right--or don't do it.
I took a few minutes to look up the physics and engineering curriculum at the ANU, where quite a few associates either worked or earned a degree. Yep, zero classes in english, history, humanities, whatever, just a requirement for a half-dozen electives taken mostly as a sophomore or junior. Freshman year is entirely engineering and science classes, and the one-semester physics class assumes you have had something equivalent to our 2-semester non-calc class while in high school.

The US CC is not a good model for their needs, because our first two years at university are quite different from theirs. A very generalist faculty suffice with only a subset of CCs having the kind of science faculty ours has.

However, Oz does have an "Associates" degree (even at the ANU!), where you spend N years getting up the level of a junior in a specific field. That does suggest a basis for articulation of a CC system, but will require skilled f-t faculty in specialty areas to pull it off.

PS - I see they pronounce TAFE as Taeif rather than taffy. Sad.
Oz should look to some of the Canadian provinces for good models. British Columbia has a system that took all their CC-type colleges and turned them into baccalaureate schools. Students can still just show up to take classes and earn an Associate degree, but can also apply to matriculate toward a Bachelor degree.

Such colleges do not benefit much from having research faculty, but it is essential for faculty to stay current in their fields. This does not require original research as much as staying current with the research in a discipline. This is best accomplished through required and well-supported professional development that includes sabbaticals for taking university classes, working in the field, etc.
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