Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why I Don't Envy Colleagues at Four-Year Colleges

I'm beginning to think that anytime I'm stuck for an idea, I should just read Tim Burke. This piece on “Building the Teaching University” – to which I'm inexcusably late – is well worth reading if you haven't already. And it encapsulates nicely why I'm happy to stay in the community college sector.

Burke does a thought exercise, imagining how an ambitious President of a regional college or university who wants to make a mark might go beyond the usual semi-successful mission creep and winding up a “third-order imitation of the University of Michigan.” The exercise runs aground quickly, and that's not a criticism of Burke; I think he has it right. For a public college or university that doesn't stand out in any particular way, the path towards gaining notice involves specialization. If you want to specialize in research and try to claw your way into the relatively lucrative top tier, that path is well-worn (if consequently slippery). If you want to stand out for teaching, the path is much more difficult to discern. External evidence of strong teaching isn't as easy to find as external evidence of strong research, and the revenue payoff is, shall we say, elusive.

From a community college admin's perspective, I can say confidently that we place a great deal of weight on teaching ability when we hire, and have done so for years, and we still haven't cracked the code entirely. It's harder than you might imagine, even assuming the best of intentions on all sides. Judging one teacher “better” than another involves having a clear sense of what good teaching looks like, and there are plenty of schools of thought on that. I've seen brilliant lecturers who believe with all conviction that that's what good teaching is: they present, clearly and engagingly, and the students get it or not. I've seen teachers who refuse on principle to teach other than in a circle. I've seen some who think it's all about group work, and some who consider group work little more than legalized shirking.
Some who aren't that great in the classroom do great online, and vice versa.

There's also the matter of context, by which I mean students. Anybody who has taught in multiple settings can tell you that what works in one college may not work in another. At Flagship State, my students were acutely grade-conscious, so I learned to pay a great deal of attention to incentives. At Proprietary U, the students were jumpy, angry, and skeptical; my job was to calm them down and to get them to risk trust. When I taught my first class at the cc, by contrast, the students struck me as inexplicably docile. They showed up on time, took notes, and more or less did what they were told. My job was to get them past memorization to something like critical thought. Instead of coming to class prepared to shadow-box, I had to come to class prepared to wake them up.

The common denominator, I think, is a focus on students. Community colleges are capable of that, and in their better moments actually achieve it. That's what I like about this sector; I understand the mission. Research universities exist to produce breakthroughs, and they pay the bills with adjuncts and football; I get that. Elite SLACs sell exclusivity and high standards; I get that, too. Schools with specific religious niches or curricular foci justify their existences by their differences from everyone else. Community colleges exist to provide the basics for either transfer or work. But the 'comprehensive' midtier public college that tries to be a little of everything strikes me as doomed. I can't help but wonder if some of the animus directed at administrators in the four-year colleges derives from their personification of what's really a very confused mission. You have an opportunity to hire one of the world's leading specialists in nuclear basketweaving; she's brilliant, well-published, and utterly incomprehensible. Do you hire her? At Flagship U, yes. At a cc, no. (So much for 'meritocracy'!) At a midtier school trying to raise its profile? Uh, maybe...

As barriers to entry keep coming down in all areas of life, I just don't see the “all things to all people” model as sustainable. When people have so many options, the way to stand out is to pick a particular niche and do that really well. To my mind, for a cc that would involve pouring what resources we do have into a few fundamentals, rather than growing by constantly multiplying small programs. Get damn good at remediation, general education courses, and a couple of job programs, and leave it at that. (Alternately, 'technical community colleges' might put job programs first.) We don't do high-level athletics, or dorms, or climbing walls, or specialized research, and I'm okay with that; I'd rather do a few things well than a whole bunch badly.

I've had conversations with friends who've asked me when I plan to make the jump to the four-year sector. My response is 'never,' which sometimes takes them aback. There's a clarity of purpose here that I find really appealing. My hat is off to anyone who figures out how to do the 'comprehensive four-year midtier public college' thing well, other than just clawing its way up the food chain and becoming either the third-order imitation or the de facto state honors college. My guess is that the basic structure is flawed, and starting to come undone. Subtler minds than my own have come to grief trying to crack that nut. No, thanks. When 'confusion' is the central organizing principle, I'm not interested. Doing a clear mission well is hard enough.