Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Trickle-Down Departments

Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke has a fascinating piece outlining his proposed hypothetical liberal arts college. Among other things, it does away with academic departments, favoring faculty who (as I read it) draw liberally on different fields of study, and encouraging students to become intellectual free agents. (He uses the term 'polymaths.') It's worth reading carefully.

I love exercises like that, since they often take you in surprising directions. They also reveal a lot about blind spots. In this case, it seems clear that an idiosyncratic, self-contained enterprise like that would have to be completely closed off to transfer students. You know, like cc grads.


Regular readers may have noticed that I occasionally get crabby at some of the dysfunctional aspects of academic departments. But the realities of transfer agreements dictate that cc's adhere to the most traditional, conservative, plain vanilla definitions of disciplines, since anything quirky doesn't transfer. (Or it transfers as a 'free elective,' which means it doesn't actually count.) So even though a departmental structure that evolved many years ago, in a very different institutional context, really doesn't make sense for us, we're largely stuck with it.

Four-year colleges – especially small ones – have the luxury of quirkiness. They can decide to, say, devote the entire freshman year to 'modes of inquiry' team-taught courses that don't have obvious disciplinary cognates. We can't. Since our students transfer to lots of different places, we have to make sure that the credits they earn with us are maximally portable. If we customized ourselves to match Quirky Local College, our grads who wanted to transfer to Midtier State would be out of luck. So it's out with the interdisciplinary, and in with Freshman Comp and U.S. History I. And when you run gazillions of sections of the same plain vanilla intro courses every year, it's hard to avoid a traditional department structure. Staffing alone pushes you in that direction.

This isn't a huge issue in itself, necessarily, but it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger trend. Elite schools set the rules, and the rest of us follow them, whether they make any sense on the ground or not.

To the extent that we differ from the elite model – remediation, vocational courses, older students – we're considered suspect or failed.

The IPEDS database is an easy example. The federal standard used for calculating graduation rates only looks at first-time, full-time freshmen. In the elite world, that's a pretty good measure. For cc's, that's almost comically inappropriate, since that's a small (if growing) minority of our students. But that's the standard, because that's what the opinion leaders of higher ed say it should be. Not coincidentally, by the measure favored by the elites, the elites look good. What are the odds?

I would love to have the freedom to try some of the quirky, ambitious, interdisciplinary stuff at my cc that right now is a prerogative of economic rank. I'd love to experiment with different structures, use different measures, and make the changes on the ground that are so painfully obvious from here. But right now, doing that would endanger our graduates.

Transgression is a prerogative of rank. We in the lower orders have to obey. Sometimes it just gets a little frustrating.