Friday, April 15, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Speaking Truth to Power

A new correspondent writes:

I am a doctoral student at State University, a university founded on the principle that college and continuing education should be available to everyone. We began as a college for night students, students of color, and students returning to school in hopes of a better job; as a result, we are still known for being a teaching college and many of our students are public school kids or returning students. I have been a TA or instructor of record for my entire graduate career, and I enjoy teaching quite a bit.

However, my university is trying to advance in the rankings and lately we've been hiring research-driven faculty. All of them are very nice and collegial folks, and are powerhouse researchers. This is great for us graduate students, who now get to learn from rising stars in our field. But many of the new folks do not seem to be very good at, or even interested in, teaching the undergraduates. They often expect the undergrads to turn in Harvard quality work and when the students struggle, the professors dismiss the students as lazy. In a conversation today, one of my professors was stunned when I pointed out that most of our undergrads work part-time jobs, as though such a thing had never occurred to him. As an adjunct professor myself, I've had some students complaining in my class about tenure-track professors in my department and the way the professors speak down to the students as though they are stupid.

In the short term, should I say something to my tenure-track colleagues about the way they are perceived by their students, even in a laid-back and sensitive way? And in the long term, must teaching always fall by the wayside if a university is trying to amp up its research faculty? I realize that many of the new faculty are young, and may not have much teaching experience, but the lack of interest in undergraduate teaching troubles me.

Until just now, I had never made the connection between faculty attitudes towards administrators and the way that grad students are treated by senior faculty. When your socialization into a profession is basically abusive, you start to imagine that that’s just how academic hierarchy works. In some settings, it probably does, but many of the most petty tyrants never manage to rise terribly high, precisely because they’re petty tyrants.

Anyway, back to your question. One of the blessings of working at a community college is that we’re banned, by state law, from “raising our academic profile” by offering higher degrees. That means that we’re blessedly free from the identity crisis that occur when an institution that was one thing historically is in the process of trying to become something else. When a college or university that was historically focused on teaching decides to try to move up the ladder to the big leagues of research, it can’t just jump all at once. Tensions between earlier hires and newer hires are understandable, since the two groups were recruited for different reasons and understood their employer in different ways.

In my doctoral program at Flagship State, the faculty were bracingly blunt about how they viewed undergraduate teaching. While they agreed that, all else being equal, it’s better to teach well than to teach badly, they also agreed -- and told us directly -- that spending any more than the bare minimum amount of time and effort would be self-defeating. Good reputations for teaching would result in higher enrollments -- meaning more time spent grading -- and higher student expectations, meaning more time spent advising. Since there are only so many hours in the day, “excess” time spent on teaching represented a deadweight loss from research. We were told, in both word and deed, that teaching was something to minimize; be just good enough to not get fired, and spend the rest of your waking hours publishing.

I took offense at that, of course, but I also knew that nothing was to be gained by trying to argue the point in any serious way. The graduate faculty were notorious bearers of grudges, and their treatment of grad students could be mercurial. I took the measure of the place, did what I had to do to get my degree, and forged a career path on my own terms.

It’s possible, of course, that your new graduate faculty are uncommonly enlightened beings with self-awareness and strong ethical compasses. But I doubt it, based on experience, and the downside risk for you in taking them on is significant.

My advice would be to be diplomatic, get your degree, and not try to be a hero. If that’s simply untenable, then either decamp for more congenial pastures or be prepared to. Once you have the credential and can make your own way, you can choose whichever path makes the most sense to you. But based on personal observation and experience, I would not encourage a graduate student to “take on” the graduate faculty. Grad school is not about being right. It’s about being disciplined, in every sense of the word.

I suspect that my wise and worldly readers will have a range of opinions on this one, which is good; my own grad program was famously contentious, even by graduate school standards. So, wise and worldly readers, what would you advise?

Good luck!

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