Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Ask the Administrator: What the Fish?

Ask the Administrator: What the Fish?

A new correspondent writes:

After recently reading Stanley Fish's NY Times blog
on education, I felt moved to write in. I recently attended a talk about
curriculum and program design where large university decided to roll
out a new undergraduate program (let's call it "computer science
lite") since enrollments were collapsing in a related discipline
("traditional computer science."). As part of the planning process at
this university, the committee asked for consultations from
professionals in the IT industry (and presumably other educators). The
IT sector said that graduates were clearly weak in professional skills
(defined to be skills such as communications, project management etc).
Industry feedback seemingly played a major, possibly decisive, role in
the design of this new undergraduate program. This focus on employer
input as central strikes me as interesting and rather unusual in
higher education.

Contrast this to Fish's views about post-secondary education which he
asserts, "In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that
higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence
of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and
measurable effects in the world." This strikes me as odd. What about
the public policy programs? What about medicine? What about almost all
the social sciences (which often propose ways to address the world).
What do you make of Fish's "purist humanities" view of higher ed? I
suspect you would categorize as an elite R1 view, but I'm curious.

In devising new programs or re-evaluating existing ones (say as part
of regular exercise to determine where to allocate funds), what
counts? Cheers of delight from employers? Nods of approval from
graduate schools admitting students from a given program? Student
satisfaction, however measured? Or does the administration and faculty
simply make an assessment based on what they see and feel and go with

As a general rule, I try to ignore Stanley Fish. It's the decent thing to do. As an old Kristin Hersh lyric puts it, “I don't judge people/I just try to look away. I want to look away now.”

That said, the guy is the Tony Danza of higher ed. For reasons that elude me entirely, he keeps popping up. How he continues to find sweet gigs, like New York Times columnist, is a complete mystery. I suspect that in an attic somewhere, there's a picture of him looking unpublished. But I digress.

I'll be generous, and assume that Fish is working from narcissism, rather than glaring incompetence. From the not-thinking-very-hard perspective of someone who made his professional bones writing about Milton, it may be plausible to say that irrelevance is a sustainable gig. And yes, there are a few well-upholstered corners of higher ed in which you can both declare your irrelevance and cash large checks. But to suggest that that's all there is to higher education, or all there should be, is just silly.

Having attended one of those well-upholstered corners of higher ed as an undergraduate, I can let the world in on a dirty little secret. Many of the students majoring in classic liberal arts disciplines aren't forgoing professional education; they're just postponing it. After the SLAC, they went on to law school, or med school, or business school, or graduate school. The savvier ones even understood their SLAC experience as distinctly 'pre-law' or 'pre-med' or whatever. Undergraduates at, say, Harvard aren't generally known for their lack of worldly ambition, either.

But leave that aside. Because Fish's position isn't really based on actual student behavior. It's based on a sort of declension narrative, a decline and fall from the Platonic ideal. Back in the day, the story goes, students were deferential and wise and pure and virtuous. Now they're vulgar and materialistic, unworthy of respect from those of us who remember the days of milk and honey.

Anybody who knows the history of American higher education knows that this is a load.

Harvard, for example, was established to train clergy. It was explicitly and unapologetically vocational. The land-grant universities were established to foster agriculture and the 'useful arts.' Many of the smaller colleges, both public and private, were established as “teacher's colleges,” with the clear vocational purpose of training teachers. (Sometimes they were called 'normal schools,' which is how Normal, Illinois got its name.) Community colleges were founded specifically to bring both 'pure' and vocational education to anybody who wanted either; that's why so many have the word 'comprehensive' in their mission statements. State college and university systems had workforce and economic development missions even before they called them that.

Most of American higher education started as clearly vocational, and mission-crept its way away from that over time. That's neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but it's the direct opposite of the 'fall from grace' narrative. The idea that paradise was lost might make sense to a Milton scholar, but it has nothing to do with reality.

I'll imagine an objection. “Ah, but what about the shift of majors? Students used to major in English or history; now they major in Business! What about that?”

There's some truth to that, but the idea that English is somehow pure is relatively recent. In the 19th century, the idea of studying literature in anything other than Latin or Greek was considered a form of selling out. And anybody who peruses the offerings of a typical English department now would be hard-pressed to say that it's all classic literature, all the time. It never was. (If you really want to be disabused of the idea of the study of language as pure, check the history of the term 'sophistry.' Even in Athenian times, 'rhetoric' was understood as primarily utilitarian.) And anybody who doesn't know that 'history' or 'poli sci' is usually the liberal arts equivalent of 'pre-law' hasn't been paying attention.

I'd also argue that some of the most interesting work in the social sciences today comes from the intersection of economics, psychology, and business. Behavioral economics is based on being 'impure' in the best possible way. The most interesting work in most fields – biology, engineering, medicine, political science, architecture -- comes from informed engagement with some sort of problem in the world, rather than some sort of cloistered musings. Proust is the exception, not the rule.

If I had to give a definition of higher education, it would probably involve something like “learning to bring analytical rigor to bear on the world.” Necessarily, that involves picking a particular slice of the world and focusing on that. That narrow slice may be your navel, but most of the time, it won't be.

Whew. Now to the second part of the question: where do new programs come from?

In my experience, they can come from any of several sources.

Sometimes they come from student initiatives and/or political crises. (This was usually the source of women's studies or other identity-based programs.) Sometimes they come from pure faculty interest. Sometimes they come from employers, or from what we expect employers will want in the near future. Sometimes scholarly fields just develop in ways that require secession from their home disciplines. Sometimes they come from a sort of 'emulation,' in which schools lower on the prestige pole imitate schools higher up, both to give students opportunities and out of a sense that that's just how it's done. (Operationally, that's the source of most mission creep. The approved euphemism is “raising our academic profile.”) Sometimes they come from efforts to chase external money. (Over the last few years, there has been a profusion of “homeland security” majors. You tell me.) And yes, sometimes they just come from some administrator with a bee in his bonnet.

Usually, for a new major to succeed, it has to solve somebody's problem. That problem may be a lack of employable graduates in a given field, or a lack of enrollments in a given department, or a consistent hole in the existing curriculum that swallows up otherwise-worthwhile projects. A purely-vanity major won't 'take,' since it only solves one person's problem.

Judging by the conclusion to his piece, Stanley Fish has already solved his own problems. Good for him. For the rest of us, though, there's serious work to be done.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen majors develop in odd or unusual ways?

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

How about the follow-up question:

Is the new major just a different assemblage of the same courses that already existed? If so, how will this address the skills deficits that employers stated existed?

This has always seemed like a case of rearranging the deck chairs without making any real changes to the way the education is delivered or any real thought about the value and content of courses.

Oh, wait... Our courses are perfect the way they are!
Stanley Fish is an easy target, but I don't actually think that it's narcissistic or incompetent to argue that "education" broadly defined might mean something in addition to "job training" or even in addition to bringing analytical rigor to the world. (Note: I say "in addition to" and not "other than.")

I think that the conversation Fish is having in his review of Donoghue's book is not so much a narcissistic screed bemoaning a fall from purity of the humanities and liberal arts but rather a book review that draws attention to the fact that, in today's version of higher ed, universities have, in focusing on job training, lost something valuable, and thus students, as well as faculty in the traditional liberal arts disciplines, lose something when that happens. Or, at least, this is what students will experience at all but elite institutions, because, as you note, students at elite institutions don't actually choose between learning in the abstract and job training, but rather they have the luxury of a timeline and an expected educational path of getting both.

Fish may be the Tony Danza of the academy, and yes, he's been doing this for 50 years and so the problems of today's higher ed won't be his to solve, but he's not entirely idiotic as he presents his perspective on this stuff. Agree with him or disagree with him, think he's annoying or think that he's nothing more than a guy who's really great at self-promotion (what I think on many days), I think that one has to grant that he's not totally stupid and crazily oblivious to at least some version of the realities of higher education today.
He also ignores that the University's early development grew out of the monasteries and offered four degrees -- MD, JD, Ph.D., and Th.D.; medicine, law, philosophy, and theology. The first two are clearly vocational, and the latter two certainly have vocational aspects.

I believe in the value of a traditional liberal arts education -- I was appalled when a woman I knew was recently trying to find a program that would allow her to earn a BA WITHOUT PASSING ALGEBRA. Maybe it makes me elitist, but I honestly don't think it's asking too much to demand BA students catch up to the state-of-the-art of 17th century mathematics and pass Calc. If people want entirely content-specific educations that ignore a solid, well-rounded foundation, let's call that something other than a BA and quit devaluing the BA. But a BA says (or should say) to an employer, "I am capable of successfully engaging in a wide variety of tasks, I have a large toolbox of analytical tools, and I KNOW HOW TO LEARN."

What kinda pissed me off about this Fish column (and I know to some extent Fish just says stuff to stir things up, that's how popular columns work) was this bit: "higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world" because I think it's both dismissive and dangerous.

Teaching philosophy, it's often a struggle to convince my students that philosophy actually matters, it isn't just a random requirement for mental masturbation. My students get an rather impassioned lecture about how Jefferson thinks the liberal arts will make them better citizens of a democracy, which makes them think I'm a dork but usually makes them participate with better grace thereafter. But more importantly, I spend a lot of time tying in a lot of the philosophy we do to real-world issues, particularly legal issues. (Partly because of the nature of philosophy, partly because of the nature of me.)

Like when we talk about what a person is, they usually think it's sort-of irrelevant and even exasperating, since we all "know" what a person is. Then as we get near the end, I tell them, "Imagine you've been asked by the Illinois state legislature to report to them on what the legal definition of a person should be for the purpose of making laws in Illinois. Give your definition and persuasively support it for a bunch of lawmakers." (Which excludes religious definitions, which is the first place they want to go.) Suddenly they see that this question matters a HECKUVA LOT and that it's a debate that's playing out every single day. And, hey, look at that, it's philosophy having a direct and measurable impact on the world. :P

Part of me suspects this is the elitism some "pure" Ph.D.s show towards lawyers and doctors (which are, of course, learned professions that demand ongoing participation in the intellectual life of the profession), that since they do their work "for hire" and get paid better for it, they're not "real" academics and their degrees aren't "real" doctorates. Yeah, well, stick it.
I've actually thought about this alot, because my political science department has separate tracks--two applied and one abstract. Four quick thoughts:

1. I disagree with splitting undergraduate majors into "vocational as career-relevant" and "abstract as not relevant." What is usually labelled "vocational" focuses on preparing a student for their first job. One goal of a "non-vocational education" (liberal arts?) is that it prepares them to learn whatever it is they need for what they later decide to do. For example, the WSJ ran a survey of employers a couple of years back and they said communication skill was the most important thing they looked for. That isn't something limited to a particular vocation or track. The way I see it, in a modern economy where people change careers multiple times during their life, vocational education has become a short-term strategy that gets them a job right away, liberal education is a longer-term strategy that gives them more flexibility as they age. Either strategy is viable, but I disagree with the idea that one is somehow career-relevant and the other not.

2. Because I teach my department's methods course, I see a broad mix of our majors, and I've been able to watch both types of students in action. In terms of ability/effort, there isn't much difference between the average student in each track. The difference is their level of curiousity about the world. My applied students tend to be quick to say "I can't imagine using this in the career I've planned, so I'm not interested." The abstract students (in general) are more willing to make the effort to learn even without a clear payoff. I think there's value in encouraging that.

3. I've said this before, but I think part of the value of humanities has no payoff in career terms because it has no value to other people (I don't care whether my plumber studied Shakespeare). Call me romantic, but it seems to me that there is something to the idea that a life enriched by the humanities is, well, richer, than one fully occupied by tax law. DD is right about the origins of US universities, but we need to remember that the people who ran those universities also considered humanities learning (like Milton :) to have value in and of itself too. I don't think DD would disagree, but I think it gets lost sometimes.

4. DD, I know your "poli-sci" is another name for pre-law" was an off-the-cuff exaggeration, but give it a little more thought next time. Those of us who do pay attention to poli sci departments know that some departments have lots of pre-law students, some don't, but even the pre-law heavy ones never send a majority of students to law school (maybe Harvard/Yale/etc do, but not those of us who teach in the real world). Our majors go on to a lot of different careers.
I'll keep it simple:

Fish could not possibly at an "elite R1" because you have to do RESEARCH that requires an interaction with "measurable effects in the world" to be a comprehensive R1, even if said university contains elements that have no obvious connection to reality.

As for that new program, it will be interesting to see if industry comes back in 5 or 10 years and say that its graduates have great communication skills but lack the ability to program computers.
Fish gets work because he does what people publicly deplore and secretly desire: he reaffirms their preconceptions. He's the perfect cartoon of the Intellectual Professor: an old man who is brilliant, comically out of touch, and infuriating. Looney Tunes couldn't have created a better one.

Fish not only reminds us of the value of education for its own sake, which many folks appreciate, he also allows us to rage at his arrogance and disconnection from the workaday world. To those who gripe about pointy-headed intellectuals, Fish is perfect, because he's not only proud of the conical shape of his noggin, he scolds everyone else for lacking such points.

Fish allows readers to wallow in their disdain for modern education and its countless shortcomings, which we all like to do. He panders to the "fall from the golden age" fallacy, one that's so easy to believe in, facts be damned. Yet all the while, readers can also feel that their contempt for academe is right and proper, because this Fish guy is a smug, useless bastard advocating solutions that make no sense in a real world.

Since all of those feelings and notions he evoke match with elements of the popular understanding, he's a comfortable read. He "proves," unintentionally, that the world really is what "you" think it is. He's an accidental panderer who thinks he's a philosophical bomb-thrower.

Fish is a dancing bear, and he gets work because dancing bears sell. If he were thoughtful and had a broad perspective that addressed issues in an insightful manner, he wouldn't be hired.
I started teaching in the visual arts just when computers were entering the education realm and studios started turning into labs. All I know is a student can not draw on the computer until they know how to draw with pencil and paper. They can not illustrate a book with out having read. I am assuming this line of argument applies to other disciplines.

The only changes I have seen in departments are the introduction of technology and high need employment areas such as healthcare.
In computer science (no idea if this maps to other disciplines) there's tension between "code monkey now" and "knows the theory but not the language de jour".

Employers say they want people who are instantly productive and that usually means in their minds "knows the current hot language".

If they aren't themselves high level software engineer types then this is the level of understanding. But those who are more technical that that know that languages can be learnt but the understanding of computer science from simple linked lists and recursion to much deeper magic is vital to designing good complex software.

That's the computer science version of the split I think Fish is talking about. The difference between "productive in entry level jobs now" and "understands how the really hard stuff works, which is nothing to do with the language and all to do with design".

Computing courses have changed over the years in my experience. Used to be they were BSc and very focused on ones and zeroes and felt the science had to be in computer science. When IT started to be heavily used in business, and especially when the internet took off then many universities focused more heavily on "information" which the old style geeks considered easy pass wishy washy stuff that were all about website design and not enough about proper computing.

I suspect the new style has way more emphasis on what the employers in your correspondents letter say they want: communication and project skills.
"Most of American higher education started as clearly vocational, and mission-crept its way away from that over time. That's neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but it's the direct opposite of the 'fall from grace' narrative. The idea that paradise was lost might make sense to a Milton scholar, but it has nothing to do with reality."

Oh, how I want to see this said, over and over and over. It's not just Stanley Fish. Many of my colleagues in the arts & humanities (at a regional campus of a state university system, with no--zero--arts & humanities graduate programs) feel exactly the same way. I think the decline-and-fall narrative must be taught in graduate school.

And where do new programs come from? (1) Someone is able to demonstrate a clear and defined market for the program. This can come from employers, who offer, in one way or another, to put money behind it (e.g., by subsidizing their employees). (2) Someone has a passion for the program and is able to sell it to the powers-that-be (in my state, new programs have to be approved by a state-level commission).
Let me add something to what I just said.

Higher education is, and has always largely been, about education-in-support-of-vocations.

That need not mean that the education is narrowly "job-focused." Logic (more broadly, philosophy) provides people with intellectual skills that are really useful. History helps people prevent making obviously stupid decisions. And history provides you with a broad knowledge and background that is useful in making creative and innovative decisions. As are art and music.

But the notion that higher education somehow used to be this idyllic garden in which people wandered among myriad intellectual delights is false.

I was struck, a few years ago, by the physical (and institutional) structure of Italian universities. I noticed it first in Pisa. The various colleges of the University of Pisa, which are discipline-specific, are physically separated. If you're in the College of History (or Law, or Sciences), you do not actually associate much with people in other colleges. They aren't right next door, they're across town. That's also true of the University of Rome. At least we're not (yet) doing that.
"I suspect that in an attic somewhere, there's a picture of him looking unpublished."

I LOVE that line, Dean Dad. It genuinely made me LOL.
I had a liberal arts education and thank god for it otherwise I would not have been employable. I see students spend all their classes learning technology. It is great on a resume that they are proficient in software, but what other proof is there that they can communicate, read, research and analyze. I obtained those skills through my humanities courses.
@rubashov: "My applied students tend to be quick to say "I can't imagine using this in the career I've planned, so I'm not interested.""

This is enormously short-sighted, particularly for poli sci majors! Since many of them will go into law, policy, politics, etc., EVERYTHING is relevant.

One of the key characteristics of a good lawyer, particularly a good litigator, is the ability to master a strange discipline quickly and thoroughly. It's probably second in importance right behind the ability to construct and communicate a good argument. It's similarly crucial for policy people, who have to master everything there is to know about polar bears and ice this week, fish and industrial pollution in the Illinois River next week, etc.

I never really thought I'd use finite math again after I passed the class (though I did actually enjoy the class), but I turned out to work on a patent litigation a few years later where I had to understand how these complex data-handling algorithms worked. It required learning plenty of math even WITH the math background I had. My husband does some health care defense litigation and he knows everything there is to know about kidney surgery except how to do the actual cutting thanks to a recent case.

And even beyond using these seemingly useless things at work, I once got a date with a hot engineer out of it -- he was working on the same algorithms and I was the only person he'd met who'd ever heard of them. And could more or less understand what he was on about when he talked about them. We had a polymath friend just win $30,000 on Jeopardy! with his "useless" knowledge. Everything's useful!

Your poli sci students should understand the importance of being an intellectual magpie, because PLENTY of this is going to come in useful later. It'd be upsetting enough if they didn't want to learn outside their discipline ... refusing to learn inside the discipline is appalling!

"there is something to the idea that a life enriched by the humanities is, well, richer, than one fully occupied by tax law."

Hey now! I think you should go enrich yourself by reading some tax court decisions -- those dudes are punchy, and there are entire cases where both parties AND the judges wrote everything in poetry! Srsly. ;)

A question: why calculus? Why not probability and statistics? Heck, we'll get you all the way up to "state of the art for the 18th century" in a semester in that class...
Belated extra comment: I have a strange but powerful feeling that the mid-20th Century shifts in academia discussed in this book might have something to do with all this. A lost "golden age" of pure life of the mind, a sense of alienation from practicality, and so on.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?