Tuesday, June 06, 2017

When Stories Collide

Sometimes a couple of news stories intersect in ways that suggest another story altogether.  That happened this week with the collision of two bits of news.  The first was that despite all the hand-wringing about the death of the humanities in higher education, humanities enrollments at community colleges have been rising steadily for decades.  The second was that Paula Krebs has been named the new Executive Director of the Modern Language Association.

I was excited to hear about Paula Krebs.  We’ve been friends for years, and I’m happy to have had the chance to work with her (and even co-present with her) on the New England Cross-Sector Partnership, in which graduate programs connect with teaching-intensive colleges to prepare their students for the academic jobs that many of them may actually get.  She’s a thoughtful advocate for humanistic education and social justice, she knows how to get things done, and she’s funnier than many might suspect.  

Many of the comments to the IHE story about her appointment, though, focused on the situation facing many involuntarily-adjunct faculty in the humanities, with a somewhat sinister implication that she’s oblivious or complicit in it.  Which got me thinking about the roles of disciplinary organizations at community colleges.

No disrespect to the MLA, but it doesn’t make resource allocation decisions for campuses.  It couldn’t.  That’s not its job.  It makes periodic public statements about faculty status, and that’s all to the good, but in fourteen years in roles like these, I’ve never seen a Board or an administration make a hiring decision based on anything the MLA (or the AHA, or APSA, or fill in the blank…) had to say.  

The exception is the organizations that actually accredit programs, like in Nursing.  We have standards we have to meet for our students to be eligible to sit for the NCLEX, and I’ve seen those standards drive hiring decisions.  Specialized program accreditations can do that.  But in areas without specific accreditations, such as most of the general education fields, it doesn’t happen.

And that’s not because community colleges are indifferent to the humanities.  Stereotypes aside, as the recent report shows, this is the sector in which enrollments in the humanities are on a steady upward path.  Much of that is due to gen ed requirements for vertical transfer, but they still count.  

To the extent that I’ve paid attention to disciplinary organizations over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of relevance to community colleges.  In languages, there’s more traction with the 4 C’s (the rhetoric/composition folks) and TESOL than the MLA, probably because the more teaching-oriented ones come closer to addressing our daily reality.  In math, AMATYC is far more relevant than the others.  As far as I know -- and I’m happy to be corrected on this -- many of the other liberal arts fields don’t have organizations focused primarily on undergraduate teaching.  APSA, my own discipline, has an organized subgroup that focuses on undergraduate education, but it’s basically a caucus under a much larger umbrella.  

Asking the MLA and its counterparts to address institutional hiring is setting them up to fail.  Instead, I’m hoping that it (and especially its counterparts) will notice that a sector of higher education that they’ve mostly ignored over the years is, in fact, growing, and presents opportunities both economic and pedagogical.  Krebs’ experience with the Cross-Sector Partnership gives me hope; she gets it.  If she’s able to bring her characteristically thoughtful and tenacious efforts to bear on getting the organization to recognize a changed reality, the MLA could become an exemplar for organizations in other fields, too.

Community colleges shouldn’t be afterthoughts anymore.  Krebs gets that.  Good luck to her, and kudos to the MLA for hiring her.  There’s hope yet...