Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Perceptions of Online Graduate Degrees

A new correspondent writes:

I am two years into the four year tenure process at my community college after having been a lowly lecturer at a research institution for five years.  The seven years I have been teaching professionally has taken its toll on my dissertation.  Well, on both my dissertations...my original lit theory one (2 chapters) and the composition pedagogy one (1 1/2 chapters) I devised after having taught composition exclusively for two years.  In any event, both dissertations are defunct, as is my time extension to complete the dissertation process.  While I might be able to revive my prior degree with more begging and promises, I cannot bring myself to do that again.  Besides, to salvage some sort of professional ethos, I finally came to a point there a few years ago where I had to tell myself, "Not completing is ok.  I am a teacher, not a researcher."

Which is, of course, not completely the truth.  At 40, I am finally settling into some financial security, a marriage, home ownership, a job with which I could retire, fatherhood, and have (mostly) given up video games, I am beginning to think about what else I need to do.  I have never actually stopped thinking of writing or researching and I usually present at one or two conferences a year.  A part of me still longs to produce interesting and vital scholarship and to have the letters behind my name that give that scholarship more scholarly heft.  And, some day, I think it might be nice to teach a grad seminar or two at a local university.

Though I am dubious of the academic value online classes I teach, I am considering pursuing a new doctorate in an online setting.  In particular, I am thinking about going for an EdD or for a cross-disciplinary degree in human organizations because on a daily basis I grow more interested in how we at CCs deal with students who are at pre-college levels.  Because of my schedule though (and my need to keep working to pay off my prior college loans), I cannot see any way to go for a degree except online.  My questions for you, then, are as follows:  As an administrator at a CC, what would you think of one of your faculty members pursuing an advanced degree online?  As an academic, what do you think is the tenor of the academy regarding online graduate work?  And as someone who is, presumably, familiar with the tensions between community colleges and universities faculties, how do you think a community college instructor who gets doctored up online might be assessed by a university hiring committee?

Ah, the joys of turning 40. Preach it, brother. Sandra Tsing Loh claims that 40 is when the wheels fall off. I'm experiencing it as the age when you discover that nobody really knows very much, yourself absolutely included. But that's another post.

The real question was about graduate online degree programs, and how they're perceived.

First and most obviously, not every online program is the same (just like not every traditional program is the same). Some are more respected than others. Having said that, what I've observed has been that online degrees work fine for certain kinds of administrative jobs, but are still usually looked upon askance by faculty.

That may seem paradoxical, but it isn't if you look at administrative jobs outside the academic line of department chair – dean – provost. For example, in the student services areas (admissions, counseling, financial aid, etc.), I've seen people do a great deal with online degrees. In those areas, what really gets you ahead is actual job performance; the degree is usually seen as getting your hand stamped. As long as the stamper is properly accredited, all is well.

With your background, I could imagine you doing very well running tutoring services, and making your way up from there. You'd be dealing with the very students who have captured your heart, and would be staying close to the academic mission, but you wouldn't have to worry about impressing anybody with a highfalutin degree or a dense publication dossier.

That said, you'd probably need to stop thinking in terms of 'how do I break into the university world,' and start thinking about whether you could be happy staying in the community college (or lower-tier four-year public college) world. The Harvards of the world maintain their prestige through rigorous inbreeding, often to predictable effect. Jumping strata like that is unusual and uniquely difficult. It can be done, but I wouldn't base a life plan on it.

At some level, it's about figuring out what matters to you. In my own case, despite having done time in some of the snootier corners of academe, I've decided that clarity of mission trumps prestige. Community colleges have a clarity of mission, and a genuine public purpose, that I find appealing. I feel like I have something real to contribute here. In the snootier corners, there are plenty of folk more adept at certain kinds of gamesmanship than I, and I'm okay with that.

In other words, if you see the online degree as a way back into the ivory tower, I'd be skeptical. But if you see it as a way to apply what you've learned through teaching, to help students who really need it, and to feed your kids and pay your mortgage, go for it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? How are online graduate degrees received where you work?

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