Tuesday, November 02, 2010


A Response to Marc Bousquet

As regular readers know, Marc Bousquet and I are not each other’s biggest fans. That said, he has really outdone himself this time. In a remarkable tirade on InsideHigherEd – sheesh, I take a week off and the standards drop – Bousquet wrote:

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's plans for higher education are evident in their attraction to community colleges. All of the features that most educators deplore about community colleges are what the current administration likes about them: top-down control of curriculum, disposable instructors, automated courseware, a training model of education, and management highly responsive to local employers.

Until now, to my knowledge, Bousquet has restricted his attacks to administrators. Now he’s setting his sights on the public institutions that teach over forty percent of America’s undergraduates.

I'll take the charges individually before getting around to the larger point.

“Top-Down Control of Curriculum.” This is just false. At my cc, and at every one I know, a curricular change -- a new course, a new program, a change to a prerequisite, anything of substance -- has to be proposed by a faculty member in the department responsible for the course(s). It has to be approved by Curriculum Committee, which has a faculty majority. It then goes to the College Senate for approval. I couldn’t impose a program if I wanted to.

“Disposable Instructors.” We have tenured faculty who started teaching here before I was born. Literally. I am not making that up. The people here who live in fear of their jobs are the administrators, among whom turnover -- mostly involuntary -- is much, much higher. Even the adjuncts are unionized, and can’t be dismissed without process.

“Automated courseware.” What does this even mean? We don’t have robo-faculty. We have tenured faculty teaching in learning communities. We have tenured faculty on paid sabbaticals. At least with the previous charge, I can imagine what Bousquet probably meant. This one just leaves me scratching my head.

“A Training Model of Education.” Our largest major is liberal arts transfer. Our largest academic department is English. Our enrollments in transfer programs dwarf our enrollments in career programs. While we’re at it, I’d like to point out that our transfer students graduate their destination colleges at higher rates than their native counterparts. If you want to beat up on someone...

“Management Highly Responsive to Local Employers.” This one is partially accurate. Yes, when considering new vocational programs, we look at local employment needs. I don’t know why we wouldn’t. But to suggest that we’re somehow slaves to market dictates is both slanderous and ignorant of the transfer function.

The specifics of Bousquet's charges are laughable, but I doubt that would bother him. There's a larger worldview underlying his drive-by attack on public institutions that serve low-income students. This, in a column in which he attacks Michelle Rhee (whom he feels entitled to call “Micky”) for trying to reform public institutions that serve low-income students.

If you read Bousquet's stuff often enough – hell, I even slogged through his book – you see a single theme emerge above all others. Faculty are Special, and their purity of motive deserves substantial material reward. Never mind the contradiction. Community colleges are bad because they don't convey enough status to those who are above the need for status. Alrighty then.

That's how Bousquet can assert, simultaneously, that colleges are run by evil and overpaid administrators who glory in the degrading of the faculty, and that those administrators should be entrusted with far larger budgets – with which to pay tenured faculty -- on the public dime. Never mind the contradiction.

There’s a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of Bousquet’s position. He asserts with metronomic regularity that “working conditions are learning conditions,” from which it should follow logically that higher faculty salaries will equate mathematically to better education. (Interestingly, he fails to apply that same logic to administrators. Do higher salaries equate to better management? Goose, gander, whatever.) But he never bothers actually engaging real world economics.

Say that you have a finite budget. Which of the following scenarios will lead to better learning conditions?

1. A full-time professor teaching five sections of fifty students each.

2. Five adjuncts teaching two sections apiece of twenty-five students each.

That’s a pretty clean approximation -- simplified, but recognizable -- of the choices administrators face. Here’s another one:

1. Two programs, each forty percent full-time.

2. One program, eighty percent full-time.

I can envision principled arguments on both sides. But to assume that these dilemmas simply don’t exist, that they’re just smokescreens behind which administrators hide their nefarious agendas, is just silly. And to assert that talk of costs is real but talk of revenues isn’t, is just fantasy.

Bousquet’s tendentious agitprop simply doesn’t allow for a diversity of priorities, a mix of institutions, or the existence of difficult choices. It’s a Manichean morality tale; you are either Good and Pure and Noble or you are Evil. And as with most moralists, the longer he goes on, the larger the category of Evil becomes. It used to ensnare only the administrators and legislators. Now it ensnares an entire category of public institutions, and anybody who dares to suggest that decades of sustained failure might just warrant trying something different.

Community colleges do wonders on a shoestring. I would have expected him to be a supporter of community colleges, since they’re nonprofit and they serve underrepresented populations. Instead, in a climate in which many of us are facing the third consecutive year of state budget cuts and the political winds are cold, he piles on. When those funding cuts come, from whence, exactly, are those faculty raises supposed to come? And is the AAUP seriously in agreement?

It’s an appalling performance, and it couldn’t be less timely. Now I’ll return to crossing my fingers and watching the election returns, hoping against hope that the choices we’ll have to make don’t get even worse.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say (even though I have no idea who you are or where you are) that English is also your department that depends most on adjunct labor.

Of course your English department is the biggest department. That's the case at *most* institutions of higher learning, not because those institutions are meccas of support for the liberal arts or humanities but because those institutions require students to take composition courses. And required composition courses are *all about* a "training model of education" (and also top-down control of curriculum, and disposable instructors, and automated courseware....)

I'm not saying that's always or in all incarnations Evil. Just saying it's totally disingenuous to trot out your gigantic English department as evidence of your institution not participating in a training model of education.

Look, I'm not Marc Bousquet's biggest fan, and I don't agree with him on a number of issues. But if you're going to criticize him, it would make a better case for you if you didn't willfully misread him and willfully misrepresent community colleges in the process.
Bousquet lacks rigor and is not nearly as colorful a writer as he seems to think he is (that whole tv Western analogy left me twitching).
On the other hand, if what he really wants is "smaller classes, support for faculty, salaries that will pull talent out of overcrowded law schools"- I can't really see any solid objections. All else being equal, I'd rather put my kid in a school with those things than without those things.

His points on the community college system are not very convincing (automated courseware? WTFmate?), but I'm not so sure I agree with your one of your counterarguments.
Pointing to the shrinking minority of tenured faculty members, (who make up a smaller % of the faculty at the average community college, than at a 4 year state school, no?) and unions as evidence that instructors are not disposable strikes me as a bit disingenuous. I freely admit admin gets a relatively raw deal on that front, but *in general* I see a lot more problems caused by people running pointless rat races to pay their mortgages than I see by the legendary 'deadwood' that supposedly exist.

In addition, I'm not so sure what's terrible about training instead of education. The Red Cross CPR classes are probably the ultimate in training, and they are incredibly useful. They are also *evidence based* in how they are taught to a degree that would make most science and math curriculum designers blush.

"Education" is necessarily a more amorphous goal, and there is simply *not* a good consensus about what an 'educated person must know'. If we recognized and valued training as such, I think we'd get further. I think there's more inherent validity in training assessment- "can you perform this skill" (like CPR)- than educational assessment- "how does your reading comprehension compare to other students in your grade".

@reassignedtime- I kind of understand what you're saying, but I disagree that composition is usually viewed as a skill we train people in. Why on earth would we intentionally train people who are going to write emails, memos, and project reports to write five paragraph essays?
Unless you are arguing that English departments are training students so they can complete their college degrees?
I wanted to throw out my comments to this post, and do not necessarily feel qualified to do so, given that I have no idea who this Bousquet character is.....I suppose I now have something to do. If current descriptions are correct then the guy is a DORK. However I will detract my descriptive name calling until I can tell if it is true or not.....

Fact “Top-Down Control of Curriculum.” This is just false. As an individual who has held responsibilities for managing curriculum at the university level, graduate and undergraduate no faculty member can push curriculum through the system. So at this point I can clarify the DORK like statement Bousquet makes for that point...

I will have to conduct my own due diligence on the other points.
@DrCrazy - I'm confused. What is it about composition courses that is all about a "traning model of education" and top down control of the curriculum? Do faculty not believe that comp courses should be a required part of a liberal arts education? Should composition be made a broader priority throughout the curriculum rather than one course?

My experience with our English and Reading departments finds that the curriculum they choose to offer is quite different from what the administration or our local businesses would choose, if given the chance.

My take on Bosquet's training model critique was that he thinks we are all technical colleges producing auto mechanics, even though over 90% of our students enter with the intention of obtaining an AA degree and/or transfering to a 4-year institution.

If anything drives our curriculum, it's the transfer curriculum that is designed with the 4 year colleges in our system and the University of M in mind (our largest partners for transfer students).
A quick comment on the "working conditions are learning conditions" thing. Dean Dad, you say that, financially, you can either have 1 full-time faculty teaching 5 sections of 50 or 5 adjuncts teaching 10 sections of 25. And I think Bousquet's point is that, if you go for the 5 adjuncts, most of them won't only be teaching their 2 sections for you. They'll often be teaching other sections at other places, trying to cobble together enough classes to make enough money to buy groceries. That means more travel time, more time dealing with different bureaucratic structures, proportionally less time on each campus, and so forth. So your classes end up smaller, but your faculty engagement probably ends up being much less deep, and the amount of time the adjuncts have to spend per student (on things like grading papers and having individual meetings) may take a hit as well. Class size is a factor, but it's not the only factor.

Like you, I'd like to see what Bousquet actually believes about the case you describe. Would he choose bigger classes will full-time faculty, or smaller classes with adjuncts? I don't know.
A couple of brief responses, because I feel like I'm hijacking, and I really don't want to do so.

@Becca - in composition classes that I teach and in composition programs with which I'm familiar, there is a huge emphasis on all different kinds of writing - and NOT the 5-paragraph essay. And as somebody who teaches composition, I can tell you that people across my institution view those courses as responsible for training their students in writing, as do people in the community. Ultimately, comp is the dumping ground for people's expectations both inside and outside the university about written communication.

@Anonymous - I personally - and a lot of people would agree with me - believe that the teaching of writing should be a broader priority throughout the curriculum (this is where "writing across the curriculum" programs come from). I think your "if given the chance" line is the key. The reality in my institution, and in many others that serve similar populations, is that instructors have very little control over what must happen in their composition classrooms. This becomes even more the case when the majority of people teaching those courses are not full-time faculty members with a voice in university curriculum committees, faculty senates, or departmental votes. SLOs are handed down from committees made up of people who have never taught composition, assessment measures are imposed on instructors (many of whom are adjunct) which affects everything from what assignments they give to how they grade them, and in many cases instructors don't even get to choose the textbook that they use. Now, all of the above is not always the case, but it is common. And - again, at least in my experience - required composition classes are expected to be responsive to the needs of employers in the community, other disciplines across the university, and practical needs of students. And it's not teachers of writing who make those decisions/priorities, but it is teachers of writing who are expected to execute them.
Surely there is some middle ground between the Obama/Rhee Teacher Punching and the foolishness of the Teacher Worshipping?

If a system doesn't work, it's because of one of two things -- either there aren't enough resources, or management of those resources is poor. This is because systemic problems are management problems. If you have bad teachers, it's because you are hiring bad teachers, and you are not supporting teachers in getting better. There are an infinite number of people who are perfectly willing to learn to be a teacher and teach for an adequate wage. So the problem isn't on the teachers' end.

That said, teachers are ordinary dedicated human beings with strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. So it's silly to put them on a pedestal or suggest that everything a teacher says is automagically correct.

But if we have a systemic problem -- and many of our public school systems have systemic problems -- then the problem is either management or resources (or, of course, both). That's what Obama and Rhee are wrong about.

PS: I'm not sure we have a "problem" precisely. My concern is that our schools do precisely what we want them to do, and we aren't willing to admit that that's what we want.
1. A full-time professor teaching five sections of fifty students each.

2. Five adjuncts teaching two sections apiece of twenty-five students each.

Assuming you have hired the right chap, I'd prefer #1. I'd rather be taught by someone with a long-term commitment to the school, someone I could count on to be there next year. I've been taught by adjuncts cobbling together a living teaching a dogs breakfast at different locations, and it wasn't pleasant and I didn't learn much.
You could have been harder on the guy. After all, he has to be either ignorant or a liar to make some of the statements he made, and neither option is particularly good given that he is identified as a member of the faculty of what I thought was a decent university while writing for a decent on-line newspaper.

The only thing I will add to your primary points is that I do know what is meant by "automated courseware" and I know, from the vendors, that the prime market is at universities. They pitch it to those of us at a CC based on which universities are using it.

Much the same goes for adjuncts. The guy writes as if they don't use any adjuncts to teach English at Enormous State University, as if TAs were invented by CCs. Heck, my CC has trouble hiring adjuncts because a nearby university pays a higher wage because they need them more than we do!

But you left out the best part: the IHE comments. Where else can you find the lovely rants of Frizbane Manley?

PS - Memo to Dr. Crazy:
I don't know if DD mentioned English specifically because Bousquet is a prof of English at a Jesuit university that costs 53 k$ per year, but I figured that was a distinct possibility.
FWIW, I read How the University Works and am essentially sympathetic to Bousquet's point of view generally speaking. It is striking that he can write rather sensible and non-inflammatory stuff (such as a blog post on how it might behoove English departments to recognize that members' interests encompass much more than 'literature', essentially acknowledging that 'literature' does not hold the prominent place it did within the quasi-national culture-building university).

But then he can get a bit too clever and with overblown rhetoric alienate people who might otherwise be at least marginally sympathetic.

I think he means: if all education is is job-training, then all it does is serve the needs of captial (even as individuals become increasinly responsible for bearing the cost). But instead he looks like he's making swipes at CC's and everyone else, which rather undermines his project.

Thanks for calling him out (albeit with some of reassignedtime's caveats in mind).
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