Monday, February 20, 2017


Changing the Subject

Richard Rorty, of all people, had a moment over the last month or so.  He was a philosopher who died in 2007, and was known -- among people who know such things -- for “antifoundationalism” and an idiosyncratic reading of the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism.*  In other words, he wasn’t a likely candidate to trend on Twitter in 2017.  But he did, due to an excerpt from his 1998 book “Achieving Our Country” that seemed weirdly prescient about the 2016 election.  

For today, though, I’ll focus on his idea of the way that progress occurred in philosophy.  As he told it, breakthroughs happened not when someone finally solved a big question -- proving the existence of God, for instance -- but when someone (or a group) changed the subject.  The old questions didn’t really go away, but they stopped mattering quite so much.  As a pragmatist would put it, they had outlived their usefulness.

The older I get, the more wisdom I see in that.  

I’ve been working with some folks on campus to change the subject from some questions that don’t have happy answers.  It’s harder than it sounds, but I think it offers a chance for a real breakthrough.

As a sector, we’ve become incredibly good at telling the story of financial decline.  Nearly everyone can point to the disconnect between flat or declining public funding and increased costs.  The more sophisticated like to add the exponential increase over time in health insurance.  For extra credit, I like to throw in Baumol’s Cost Disease, which I remain convinced underlies the whole thing.  Finally, you have IT, unfunded mandates, textbook publishers, and whatever else you think adds flavor.  

The story of financial decline is compelling because it’s both relevant and true.  It explains a lot of what we see every day.  

But by itself, it can be demoralizing.  The more comprehensive, thoughtful, and accurate the diagnosis, the easier it is to sigh resignedly and just hope to run out the clock.  In other words, we may have exhausted the usefulness of that story.  It’s time to change the subject.  

Given a demographic headwind, we can’t rely on effortless growth to bail us out.  There’s a political limit (as well as a moral limit) to tuition increases.  And the prospect of wave after wave of layoffs isn’t terribly appealing.  

It’s much more gratifying, and empowering, to focus instead on things we can do to turn it around.  Given demographic headwinds -- that is, declining numbers of 18 year olds -- we can focus on doing things differently to keep more of the students we do get until graduation.  That might include attacking “summer melt,” or developing competency-based programs, or looking at different configurations of the academic calendar.  It might mean looking at peer mentoring, or finding ways to get peer mentoring into the online programs.  It might mean infusing OER wherever we can, to take some of the economic challenge out of completion.  It might mean any number of things.

These conversations may or may not pan out -- I’m guessing some will, some won’t, and some good ones aren’t on the list -- but they offer both the real possibility of stopping the decline, and a badly-needed sense of agency.  Most of us can list the visible injuries of austerity, but the loss of felt agency is one of its worst hidden injuries.  If we can get past that, I’m thinking we have a better shot of getting past the rest of it.  The diagnosis is well understood.  Let’s start talking treatment.

*For those keeping score at home, Rorty appended William James’ agonism to Dewey’s optimism, bracketing Dewey’s Hegelian teleology with an enormous “as if.”  He held that we didn’t actually know that, say, the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but we’re better off acting as if we knew it did.  He conceded the epistemological superiority of the Nietzschean vision that ran through James, but preferred the emotional solidity of the Hegelian strain that ran through Peirce and Dewey.  You’re welcome.

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Interesting comment about leading by asking questions. Do you also ask questions up and across the chain of command as well as down? Also, you are (I assume) no longer in a position where there is someone between you and the President, but, in the past, did you ever ask questions above your immediate supervisor? I sure wish that my leadership did that.

I ask because I use questions as my way of leading from below, and have found it to be effective even when it only leads to awareness rather than change up above.

On the other hand, your reference to Baumol remains as mistaken as it always is. It certainly explains the rise in cost of health care. A doctor only sees one patient at a time, and adding a PA or nurse practitioner does not change the ratio and has only a modest change in personnel cost. It still takes one nurse a fixed amount of time to distribute medication in a hospital, and it is likely that a robot replacement would cost just as much once the cost of testing and liability insurance is accounted for. Might be the last thing we automate, because the robot can only ask questions if it also has judgement rather than a nurse in front of a monitor.

In contrast, a college can easily increase class size. The only problem with that solution is that (1) it was implemented (along with video replays of lecture capture) a half century ago and (2) they don't want to do that. Regarding (1), the low hanging fruit (including cheap grad or undergrad student graders rather than adjunct instructors) was picked a long time ago. Even so, the only thing that keeps us from adding 10% more students to a classroom is the physical size of the rooms at my college along with collective bargaining limits on contact ratios. But the latter could be adjusted with 100% machine scored exams (grading is much more work than teaching) for any classes without essays. There is nothing we can do about the square footage of the rooms available at 10 AM. That is capital, not Baumol.

Regarding (2), consider this: Why do parents pay and/or borrow to send their kids to "nothing special" liberal arts colleges that always feature their student-teacher ratio in the materials they are sending your son? Right. They want actual personal instruction for their children, not just the credential, and they will pay even more to get the right university name -- usually a research university -- on that credential even if the professor is a full-time adjunct.

In my opinion, the increased tuition cost is mostly to pay the tenured faculty at research universities to do research and train graduate students who help do that research, thereby generating grant money plus overhead plus patents and news releases that bring fame and high paying students to the university. (Ditto for football and basketball coaches, to get your son's attention.) Adjuncts fill in the gap, but tuition has to pay for both professor and adjunct because the state only pays for part of the professor's cost and none of the startup funds.
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