Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ask the Administrator: What the Fish?

Ask the Administrator: What the Fish?

A new correspondent writes:

After recently reading Stanley Fish's NY Times blog
on education, I felt moved to write in. I recently attended a talk about
curriculum and program design where large university decided to roll
out a new undergraduate program (let's call it "computer science
lite") since enrollments were collapsing in a related discipline
("traditional computer science."). As part of the planning process at
this university, the committee asked for consultations from
professionals in the IT industry (and presumably other educators). The
IT sector said that graduates were clearly weak in professional skills
(defined to be skills such as communications, project management etc).
Industry feedback seemingly played a major, possibly decisive, role in
the design of this new undergraduate program. This focus on employer
input as central strikes me as interesting and rather unusual in
higher education.

Contrast this to Fish's views about post-secondary education which he
asserts, "In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that
higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence
of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and
measurable effects in the world." This strikes me as odd. What about
the public policy programs? What about medicine? What about almost all
the social sciences (which often propose ways to address the world).
What do you make of Fish's "purist humanities" view of higher ed? I
suspect you would categorize as an elite R1 view, but I'm curious.

In devising new programs or re-evaluating existing ones (say as part
of regular exercise to determine where to allocate funds), what
counts? Cheers of delight from employers? Nods of approval from
graduate schools admitting students from a given program? Student
satisfaction, however measured? Or does the administration and faculty
simply make an assessment based on what they see and feel and go with

As a general rule, I try to ignore Stanley Fish. It's the decent thing to do. As an old Kristin Hersh lyric puts it, “I don't judge people/I just try to look away. I want to look away now.”

That said, the guy is the Tony Danza of higher ed. For reasons that elude me entirely, he keeps popping up. How he continues to find sweet gigs, like New York Times columnist, is a complete mystery. I suspect that in an attic somewhere, there's a picture of him looking unpublished. But I digress.

I'll be generous, and assume that Fish is working from narcissism, rather than glaring incompetence. From the not-thinking-very-hard perspective of someone who made his professional bones writing about Milton, it may be plausible to say that irrelevance is a sustainable gig. And yes, there are a few well-upholstered corners of higher ed in which you can both declare your irrelevance and cash large checks. But to suggest that that's all there is to higher education, or all there should be, is just silly.

Having attended one of those well-upholstered corners of higher ed as an undergraduate, I can let the world in on a dirty little secret. Many of the students majoring in classic liberal arts disciplines aren't forgoing professional education; they're just postponing it. After the SLAC, they went on to law school, or med school, or business school, or graduate school. The savvier ones even understood their SLAC experience as distinctly 'pre-law' or 'pre-med' or whatever. Undergraduates at, say, Harvard aren't generally known for their lack of worldly ambition, either.

But leave that aside. Because Fish's position isn't really based on actual student behavior. It's based on a sort of declension narrative, a decline and fall from the Platonic ideal. Back in the day, the story goes, students were deferential and wise and pure and virtuous. Now they're vulgar and materialistic, unworthy of respect from those of us who remember the days of milk and honey.

Anybody who knows the history of American higher education knows that this is a load.

Harvard, for example, was established to train clergy. It was explicitly and unapologetically vocational. The land-grant universities were established to foster agriculture and the 'useful arts.' Many of the smaller colleges, both public and private, were established as “teacher's colleges,” with the clear vocational purpose of training teachers. (Sometimes they were called 'normal schools,' which is how Normal, Illinois got its name.) Community colleges were founded specifically to bring both 'pure' and vocational education to anybody who wanted either; that's why so many have the word 'comprehensive' in their mission statements. State college and university systems had workforce and economic development missions even before they called them that.

Most of American higher education started as clearly vocational, and mission-crept its way away from that over time. That's neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but it's the direct opposite of the 'fall from grace' narrative. The idea that paradise was lost might make sense to a Milton scholar, but it has nothing to do with reality.

I'll imagine an objection. “Ah, but what about the shift of majors? Students used to major in English or history; now they major in Business! What about that?”

There's some truth to that, but the idea that English is somehow pure is relatively recent. In the 19th century, the idea of studying literature in anything other than Latin or Greek was considered a form of selling out. And anybody who peruses the offerings of a typical English department now would be hard-pressed to say that it's all classic literature, all the time. It never was. (If you really want to be disabused of the idea of the study of language as pure, check the history of the term 'sophistry.' Even in Athenian times, 'rhetoric' was understood as primarily utilitarian.) And anybody who doesn't know that 'history' or 'poli sci' is usually the liberal arts equivalent of 'pre-law' hasn't been paying attention.

I'd also argue that some of the most interesting work in the social sciences today comes from the intersection of economics, psychology, and business. Behavioral economics is based on being 'impure' in the best possible way. The most interesting work in most fields – biology, engineering, medicine, political science, architecture -- comes from informed engagement with some sort of problem in the world, rather than some sort of cloistered musings. Proust is the exception, not the rule.

If I had to give a definition of higher education, it would probably involve something like “learning to bring analytical rigor to bear on the world.” Necessarily, that involves picking a particular slice of the world and focusing on that. That narrow slice may be your navel, but most of the time, it won't be.

Whew. Now to the second part of the question: where do new programs come from?

In my experience, they can come from any of several sources.

Sometimes they come from student initiatives and/or political crises. (This was usually the source of women's studies or other identity-based programs.) Sometimes they come from pure faculty interest. Sometimes they come from employers, or from what we expect employers will want in the near future. Sometimes scholarly fields just develop in ways that require secession from their home disciplines. Sometimes they come from a sort of 'emulation,' in which schools lower on the prestige pole imitate schools higher up, both to give students opportunities and out of a sense that that's just how it's done. (Operationally, that's the source of most mission creep. The approved euphemism is “raising our academic profile.”) Sometimes they come from efforts to chase external money. (Over the last few years, there has been a profusion of “homeland security” majors. You tell me.) And yes, sometimes they just come from some administrator with a bee in his bonnet.

Usually, for a new major to succeed, it has to solve somebody's problem. That problem may be a lack of employable graduates in a given field, or a lack of enrollments in a given department, or a consistent hole in the existing curriculum that swallows up otherwise-worthwhile projects. A purely-vanity major won't 'take,' since it only solves one person's problem.

Judging by the conclusion to his piece, Stanley Fish has already solved his own problems. Good for him. For the rest of us, though, there's serious work to be done.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen majors develop in odd or unusual ways?

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