Monday, August 08, 2011

Blind Pigs

Dontcha hate it when when someone whose views strike you as generally asinine happens to score a really good point?


In an otherwise awful essay in IHE, Robert Martin strikes a chord in discussing groupthink:

When teaching loads or class sizes are discussed, faculty members studiously avoid the cost question, preferring to focus on how reduced loads and smaller classes will improve quality. No attempt is made to balance the very real higher costs with the intangible improvements in quality. Worse still, we make no effort to study the outcome after teaching loads or class sizes are reduced

To which I have to say, ayup. In fact, I can top it. A few programs here went prereq-happy a few years ago, putting up all manner of prerequisites on courses that had previously been open to anyone. The argument was that some students were simply underprepared, so their failures were unsurprising. Put up curricular walls, the argument went, only the worthy would find their way in, and pass rates would soar.

Um, nope. Enrollments in the affected courses dropped, predictably, but pass rates didn’t budge. This has held for several years now.

Confronted with evidence that the barriers to student enrollment have achieved exactly nothing, the departments in question have simply shrugged off the facts. They won’t hear of “going backwards,” though they still want the increased resources that flow to departments with higher enrolllments. Any attempt to point out the contradiction is greeted with ritual invocations of corporate style management, bean counting, Wal-Mart, and the like.


I recently slogged my way through Benjamin Ginsberg’s atrocious polemic The Fall of the Faculty, for which I’m steeling myself to write a full review. (First I have to decide which genre it is: science fiction or parody.) Almost despite himself, though, Ginsberg backs into one good point. He notes in passing that faculty with part-time administrative roles -- such as himself -- are the ideal, since they bring faculty awareness to administrative decisions. Leaving aside both the reasoning -- the term “skill set” doesn’t occur once -- and the workload, there’s an argument to be made for the same idea in reverse. Get enough faculty who have had real administrative experience, and maybe the groupthink will abate somewhat. People who have actually had to balance budgets will understand that you can have curricular gatekeeping, or you can have resources, but you can’t have both. Indignation won’t pay the bills.

The common thread, I think, is holding open the possibility that you could be wrong. The enemy isn’t one group or another; it’s any one group deciding that it is in unproblematic possession of the truth. Ginsberg assumes as a matter of theology that faculty are Right and administrators Wrong. It just doesn’t work like that. Even a blind pig finds the occasional truffle, and even a sharp and virtuous soul will occasionally stick his foot in it. The test isn’t whether someone is pure or evil; it’s whether you’re willing to concede a truth you’d rather not, from a source you’d rather not.

So okay, Robert Martin scored one. One of my goals for this year will be to get some departments to acknowledge some facts they’d rather not. And I’ll promise to do the same.