Sunday, January 07, 2018

Thoughts on “The 21st Century Academic”

“No matter how much faculty members cling to “the good old days,” there is no going back.  We might as well embrace the possibility of creating a new kind of academic.” - Manya Whitaker, “The 21st-Century Academic”

When Ford suffered sales declines in the 70’s, it wasn’t because its workforce forgot how to make cars.  It was because it was allocating resources according to the rules of the previous decade.  The workers wound up paying for the mistake, but for the most part, they weren’t the ones who made the wrong call.

Substitute whichever company you want.  Kodak didn’t go bankrupt because it forgot how to make film.  The workers were as good as they ever were; the problem was that the world changed and the company failed to change along with it.

In the context of companies, most of us have no problem seeing that.  But make a similar point about academia, or politics, and the same argument suddenly comes off as abstract.  

Manya Whitaker makes some terrific points on her piece about the 21st century academic.  She’s right about many of the changes in higher education over the last couple of decades, and I give extra points for self-awareness when she notes that her position makes her one of the lucky few. (Self-awareness is at a premium these days.) She notes the increasingly unapologetic vocationalism among current students, which I would attribute largely to increased income polarization.  She also captures the increasing premium on courses of study outside of the traditional academic ones, and the effects of that shift on morale among faculty in traditional academic fields.  All of that is spot-on.

But the piece ends with a call for a new kind of academic, independent of any sort of academy.  In other words, it misses the company behind the workers.

Most of us - myself absolutely included - are not independently wealthy.  We can’t afford to be free-range academics, teaching the occasional course and mostly just pursuing truth on our own. Just as with our vocation-minded students, most of us have to make a living. In other words, before talking about 21st century academics, we should talk about a 21st century academy.  

We can’t lose sight of the institution.

Whitaker is writing from Colorado College, a four-year liberal arts institution.  I’m writing from a community college, where the issues are somewhat different.  We’ve always had vocational programs; the concept of a “comprehensive” community college refers to one that encompasses both vocational and transfer programs. The entire sector has moved in the direction of free-range faculty -- we call them “adjuncts” -- but the limits of that are becoming clear.  

Whitaker is right that wishing for the good old days won’t bring them back. But I’d rather focus on the institution than the people in it.  How should institutions change?

That would involve looking at funding mechanisms, cost structures, community alliances, policy changes, academic calendars, and various other structural issues. In my slightly more perfect world, faculty would be actively engaged in understanding all of those, the better to transform them. And faculty and administrators could present a united front in pressing for the rules and resources we’d need to make it work. In other words, we’d make the transformation of the institution -- and its business model -- our shared concern.  That means folks coming out of silos a bit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Faculty do their best work in an institutional context, even at the cost of a few meetings.  Ignore the context, and we’re left arguing over who’s better at building Pintos.