Tuesday, January 11, 2011

 

Liberal Arts or General Education?

I read with interest the exchange Historiann had with Anthony Grafton, the new President of the American Historical Association. It had an otherworldly quality to it that took me a while to pin down. I think I’ve got it.

History, English, and the rest of what I like to call the “evergreen” (as opposed to “seasonal”) disciplines think of themselves as part of the liberal arts. They each have a history -- contested, yes, but recognizable -- and a sense of their place in the academic firmament. (My own scholarly discipline in the social sciences is very much the same way.)

At many larger universities and comprehensive colleges, it seems, the liberal arts as liberal arts perceive themselves as under sustained assault. They don’t seem vocationally relevant enough for parents to like them, and they don’t bring in the enormous grant dollars that would make adminstrators love them.

It’s odd, because at the community college level, the picture is very different. Here, the liberal arts fields are all considered part of “general education,” which is at the core of every degree program. Business majors have to take history classes, and culinary arts majors have to take English. In practice, Grafton’s caricature of history as economically parasitic on more lucrative programs is exactly wrong; here, the evergreens are the cash cows, and the narrower, more vocational programs are ‘parasitic,’ if you want to use that language.

The single largest major on campus, in terms of enrollment, is the liberal arts transfer major. It’s composed entirely of evergreens, with the explicit goal of preparing students to transfer for bachelor’s degrees.

I don’t dispute Grafton’s or Historiann’s portrayals of life in their respective institutional settings. I’m just noticing that their descriptions don’t come close to the truth here. (And with over 1100 community colleges across the country housing nearly half of the country’s undergraduates, I’d offer that this milieu is actually representative of far more people than theirs. It’s just that faculty from cc’s don’t attend national conferences as much. Part of that is the relative lack of travel funding, but part of it is the palpable institutional snobbery that manifests itself in nametag-glancing. If you want to relive the worst of junior high, try walking through a national disciplinary conference with “community college” on your nametag. I’ve done it; it’s not pretty. If you base your impression of a discipline on its national conference, you’ll bear some pretty serious sampling bias.)

I’ve never been terribly happy with the term “general education.” It sounds like “miscellaneous.” But it’s commonly accepted, and it serves a purpose. At its worst, it denotes a distasteful obligation; if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase “get your gen eds out of the way,” I’d be a wealthy man. But at its best, it suggests a core understanding of what it means to be a college-educated person. Whether you majored in culinary arts, graphic design, or philosophy, you should be expected to be literate and numerate, capable of reading with perspective and writing with clarity, familiar with social analysis and quantitative reasoning.

At that level, part of the appeal of the ‘general education’ rubric is that it shifts the grounds of discussion of course requirements. Instead of “this is what we do,” the relevant argument is “this is what students need.” (On the ground, it often boils down to “this is what will transfer.”) Getting your course required should involve showing that your course is uniquely helpful for students. I’ve endured enough Curriculum Committee meetings to know that they often devolve into horse-trading and a sort of caricature of interest group politics, but the idea is still there.

In my world, the evergreens help pay for the seasonals. The high enrollments and low facility costs of, say, psychology help offset the high facility costs and low enrollments of radiography. In this context, getting rid of the history department and its counterparts would be madness. As the funding crises continue, the evergreens would be the last things to cut.

This isn’t intended as a rebuttal, exactly, but as an amendment. To read Historiann’s and Grafton’s accounts, you’d think that history was under assault nationally. It isn’t. The liberal arts as liberal arts may be; general education, by contrast, is doing quite well, thank you. You just have to look in places you normally might not see.

Comments:
"general education, by contrast, is doing quite well, thank you."

An amendment to your amendment: the above statement isn't really true in different regions of the country, depending on the will of state legislatures and/or accrediting agencies. In my SACS-accredited institution, in a state that is very concerned about time-to-degree to the extent that it is passing legislation about transfer modules, lowering credit hours to completion, and lowering credit hours to complete "gen ed" requirements, the result often ends up being (and ended up being at my institution) that the reductions come from disciplines like history, English, languages, philosophy, and the fine arts.

General Education can be, and is in my experience, just one front in the war against the liberal arts - it is not at all a safe haven. And those changes are coming from outside of institutions of higher education themselves, trickling down until ultimately they reach regional universities and community colleges, the battle already having been lost.
 
History IS under assault, by people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin who take it upon themselves to write "history" while rejecting decades of good, quality scholarship because they deem it to be "too liberal."
 
My concern with Grafton's comments, and why I'm not quite ready to dismiss them out of hand, is twofold:

(1) There is something to the idea that simply expecting scholars to teach, teach, teach to earn their keep without keeping their own scholarship up to speed is something to be feared, and I think this is one of Grafton's points (albeit delivered in the most biting, sarcastic fashion possible...seriously, one of the reasons academics don't get understood is we refuse to speak straight). There are people who have a passion for teaching the freshman-levels, and those people who don't feel embittered over leaving research behind and get pumped over spending time with first-generation students will always be able to find a place at a CC.

But what I'm hearing there is real pressure for ALL historians to take that tack, and concern about scholarship suffering. Because of the scarcity of positions, I've already experienced in my neck of the woods a narrowing of opinions that are allowable for exchange, for political reasons. I can't say I know the territory in history well enough to see the same thing happening there. But I can see how that would be a fear, and why someone in that position would want to forcefully advocate for history scholarship. (Just say that straight!)

(2) I do think there is a very real miconception across ALL the disciplines - english, history, psychology, physics, Christian ministry, even the coveted nursing! - about what we get paid and how we're the upper class. After all, we got that PhD in hand at all. I know when my students hear what the general pay grade is for what I do, they fall off their chairs and start wanting to take up arms on behalf of us. I have had one person tell me to my face I was lying about the salaries on my campus. Much of the populace is convinced we make $100-$150K, and they have real problems with the idea that their plumber makes more than the $30-40K that is typical for an assistant professor in the South - and they resent us for the perceived higher salaries we pull down. Without bridging that disconnect, I don't see how we have a real and fair conversation about the role of any academic discipline, let alone history.
 
My concern with Grafton's comments, and why I'm not quite ready to dismiss them out of hand, is twofold:

(1) There is something to the idea that simply expecting scholars to teach, teach, teach to earn their keep without keeping their own scholarship up to speed is something to be feared, and I think this is one of Grafton's points (albeit delivered in the most biting, sarcastic fashion possible...seriously, one of the reasons academics don't get understood is we refuse to speak straight). There are people who have a passion for teaching the freshman-levels, and those people who don't feel embittered over leaving research behind and get pumped over spending time with first-generation students will always be able to find a place at a CC.

But what I'm hearing there is real pressure for ALL historians to take that tack, and concern about scholarship suffering. Because of the scarcity of positions, I've already experienced in my neck of the woods a narrowing of opinions that are allowable for exchange, for political reasons. I can't say I know the territory in history well enough to see the same thing happening there. But I can see how that would be a fear, and why someone in that position would want to forcefully advocate for history scholarship. (Just say that straight!)

(Bah, Google moaning about comment length...)
 
2) I do think there is a very real miconception across ALL the disciplines - english, history, psychology, physics, Christian ministry, even the coveted nursing! - about what we get paid and how we're the upper class. After all, we got that PhD in hand at all. I know when my students hear what the general pay grade is for what I do, they fall off their chairs and start wanting to take up arms on behalf of us. I have had one person tell me to my face I was lying about the salaries on my campus. Much of the populace is convinced we make $100-$150K, and they have real problems with the idea that their plumber makes more than the $30-40K that is typical for an assistant professor in the South - and they resent us for the perceived higher salaries we pull down. Without bridging that disconnect, I don't see how we have a real and fair conversation about the role of any academic discipline, let alone history.
 
(oh, it took the comment anyway even though the Google side of blogger insisted that it didn't! apologies for the double-post...DD, feel free to edit out the mess if need be...)
 
To emphasize DD's point: at my college, one of our strategies to deal with state budget cuts next year is to offer more course sections in the "evergreen" academic departments to increase our S/F ratio and generate more tuition revenue. As DD points out, it would be crazy for us to cut offerings in departments like Psych, Soc, and History. Those are the geese laying the golden eggs!
 
I think anonymous coward has a good point...you're saying that liberal arts disciplines are not under fire because they're heavily protected in the GEs of yours and other community colleges and other institutions. But you're asking somebody who spent x years getting a PhD and learning how to really research and analyze history to earn adjunct wages to teach a very shallow, freshman-type class over and over again. That's not really preserving history scholarship.
 
Or DD might be advertising for a position where someone will be asked to teach a freshman class over and over starting at about 50 grand a year plus benefits, a job that the folks at the American History Association don't even know exists. They also might not know that those classes don't have to be shallow or boring. I know people who love teaching them, and the students reciprocate.

Comparing our institution to nearby Wannabe Flagship, which I did after reading this blog, is interesting. We teach more basic history classes than they do! Why? They have one of those "pick one from columns A through Z" approaches to gen ed whereas our CC has a more prescriptive approach. Are the various humanities programs eating each other's lunch at that university, fighting over the service load that pays for the upper level classes? Could be.

Our full-time faculty teach several times as many students as theirs do, because freshman classes can use m.c. exams whereas upper division majors classes can't be nearly as productive. Our Evergreen courses are very cost effective, which is probably why we have more TENURED history professors than many would guess.
 
"Or DD might be advertising for a position where someone will be asked to teach a freshman class over and over starting at about 50 grand a year plus benefits ..."

Sign me up. I'd happily take that position.
 
At my cc--which once was a Vocational Technical Institute and then a Technical College before its present incarnation--there is an official philosophy of preparing well-rounded citizens and lifelong learners, etc.

But there is also a dark and retrograde undercurrent, reflecting much common received wisdom, that says we should be turning out auto techs, welders, nurses, food techs, etc and that those tech students don't really need frills like ENG 101 and American History to take their eventual place in the workforce.

At best, my colleagues on the other side of the house think it's important that my writing students be good spellers and use apostrophes correctly--but, of course, those sorts of things are the least of my classroom concerns.

Oddly, if I may say so, I agree with that retrograde sentiment. I think writing well is important, but not many people agree, and, although I do my damnedest in class, in the end I don't imagine my ENG 101 will make much difference in most of my students' careers.
 
This post (and the one over at Historiann) suggests to me that there's a long overdue reassessment to be done of what research in the humanities ought to be, and whether it really makes sense for academic articles/books to be the ONLY recognizable measure for whether it's getting done. Tenure-stream faculty like Historiann and Tony Grafton are quick to assert the importance of teaching to research. Yet the connections they insist upon have little bearing on the professional lives of the adjuncts and part=timers who do a great deal of the gen ed. humanities teaching. And the profession as a whole suffers from this assumptions that research only matters if its highly specialized and published. Suppose a brilliant colleague in a different area (but same humanities discipline) writes a brilliant, field-changing book. The time I spend reading that book and trying to understand its broader disciplinary context will only count as "research" if I find a way to footnote the book in an article or book that results from my own specialized research. It doesn't count as "research" if it informs my teaching of a novel in a gen ed class, if it prompts me to redesign a syllabus, or it if gives me an idea for a more effective writing assignment. Yet those latter uses of the book will contribute far more to knowledge than a footnote.

Obviously, research as it is currently conceived has to continue if books like this hypothetical one are going to be written. But the humanities don't exactly suffer from a dearth of worthy peer-reviewed books and articles at the moment. They DO suffer from a dearth of professional incentives and opportunities to put the gen. ed courses (by which most of the tax-paying public encounters the humanities) squarely inside a research agenda.
 
Re CC at national conference: I went to a national conference in my professional area of expertise some years back. The name on my nametag didn't give away my status, but when I mentioned that my school was a CC I did get reactions of astonishment. Not so snobby, but definitely surprised. Don't know if it helped that I was presenting.
 
Dear Dean Dad,


I’ve been following your blog and have noticed you write about working in education.

The reason I'm leaving you a comment is that I'm the intern for StageofLife.com, and I am looking for bloggers who might be interested in guest writing on our site. Could we feature you? We work with talented writers and bloggers to build a network of stories, crossing all stages of life, that will help make the world a better place, and I think our readers would gain a lot from your life perspective.

Also, Stage of Life offers 4 writing contests, one of them being a College Student Writing Contest. For more information about that contest and our college stage of life go to,
http://www.stageoflife.com/StageCollege.aspx

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you if you are interested. My email is megan.colyer@stageoflife.com.

Thanks!

Megan
 
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