Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Getting Your Discipline Noticed

A new correspondent writes:

I am an adjunct instructor at a large, urban university and I'm very happy with my job - this spring will mark the end of my third year here. Every so often a student approaches me to express their desire to switch their major to my discipline (anthropology) and I have to tell them we do not offer it as a major or minor. My classes are only on the books in order to enrich the actually existing majors of sociology and criminal justice, and because my department chair (sociology) sees that I'm doing a good job and genuinely likes me.

This was not always the case. In the recent past, say 10-15 years ago, the university had two full-time faculty in my discipline and offered the major. Then, in quick succession, one retired and the other suddenly died. Rather than bring those lines back the program was shuttered. Now there's just intro classes and adjuncts, and that's about it. Every time someone asks me how they can take more classes in my subject I wish I could tell them there was something we could do to bring the major back.

Is there any hope for getting my university to expand its commitment to my admittedly esoteric discipline? My classes are popular and pique students' curiosity, but they have to go to another institution to study it more. Is there an appropriate way to bring that popularity to the administration's attention?

It’s a great question, because it gets to the heart of what the institution chooses to support.  And it shows a basic flaw in “shared governance” as it’s usually understood.

Most community colleges below a certain size have to make some difficult choices about which majors to support (or combine).  Those choices tend to reflect transferability and/or employability, enrollments, historical commitments, what was hot in the fat years, the availability of external funding, and incumbent employee preferences (both faculty and administration).  It doesn’t usually reflect the academic merit of one course of study as against another, since that varies so greatly depending on who’s measuring.

That may sound cold and offensive in the abstract, but when you get to cases, it makes sense.  Okay, you’re in charge of allocating faculty positions this year, and you have one to give to a department that makes a good proposal.  You get impassioned arguments from both photography and anthropology.  Quick, which has more academic merit, and how do you know?  

It’s a remarkably difficult question to answer with any level of confidence.  (And heaven help the administrator who explains to an incumbent department that its program lacks academic merit!)  But you could look at enrollment data, transfer/employment data, and external funding; those are all much easier to defend, if need be, and they speak to the ability of the college to sustain the program over time.  It’s easy to caricature that as “corporate” or “soulless,” but I think of it as an expression of epistemological humility.

For a major that doesn’t currently exist as a major, it’s usually not enough to say that the course of study is inherently worthwhile, or even that some students have asked you about it.  You should be able to show not just demand -- though that’s certainly helpful -- but also what problem you’re solving.  If your college already offers a sociology major, what would an anthropology major give the students that they don’t already have?  Could they transfer to a four-year college and major in anthro if they majored in sociology at your cc?  If so, what would your proposed major give them that they don’t already have?

Shared governance, as usually understood, is premised on the idea that the incumbent faculty are in charge of curriculum, and the administration handles the budget.  But the two categories are hard to separate when it comes to new program development.  And when incumbent employees vote and prospective ones don’t, there will be a pronounced tendency to direct resources to where they already are.  A new program that can draw entirely on faculty who are already there is an easy sell, but one that would require existing departments to forego badly-wanted hires in favor of something entirely new is harder.  There’s a conflict of interest to overcome.  It can be done, but it’s harder.

The few successful cases I’ve seen have either involved entirely new technology or belated recognition of massive external economic forces.  It’s not immediately obvious to me that either would apply in the case of anthropology as such.  But you might be able to work with sociology to hitch a ride with something else.  Could you develop a course that might be of particular interest to allied health majors?  Maybe something with human services?  Sometimes a program can develop organically simply by becoming the common denominator among disparate areas.  But there’s no guarantee of success, and it’s a hell of a lot of work.

Sorry to be a downer, but that’s how it looks from here.  

I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one.  Is there a better way to raise your discipline’s profile within the institution?  Have you found a more effective route?

Good luck!

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