In defense of college teaching (because someone needs to defend it)

classroomThis semester, I find myself teaching a dual-credit Computer Science course to students at a local high school. The class started tonight. Leading up to it, I couldn’t help but think that the last thing I needed as Department Chair was to drive an hour and fifteen minutes every Tuesday night to teach an additional course.

But I loved it. I left the building wishing this were my regular job.

I found myself truly envious of people who get to teach high school full time. The experience reminded me of what it was like to be an adjunct instructor at a community college back in 2000. Teaching was my release from the corporate job. It was my opportunity to share my knowledge and my love for my adopted field of Computer Science, and to have the opportunity to affect lives in a lasting and positive way. It was my avenue for being industrious and creative without having to justify the worth of that industry and creativity in terms of the company’s bottom line. The stakeholders were the people I was helping. The only things different about tonight’s experience from my work in 2000 were that the students tonight were younger (though just as interested and committed), and the release I found was from my other teaching job – not from a corporate one.

All of which leads to the question: has college teaching become a corporate endeavor?

Of course, because this high school teaching is somewhat of a “side job” for me, my view of what high school teachers do is a naive and idealistic one. There are standardized tests and state and federal regulations and shrinking budgets and less-than-supportive families and unfunded IEPs and state-sponsored union busting and power-hungry union bosses and the ever-present snickering and smirking and elbowing-to-the-ribs lack of respect for you and your position because you supposedly get summers off and don’t know what a “real job” is. But high school teachers get to teach at least most of the time, right? They get to lead young souls and fill young minds at least most of the minutes they spend with them, right? I hope so, because that would be something to celebrate!

And then I got to thinking how we college professors are almost comatose at the wheel right now. We have the respect, warranted or unwarranted, of the same people who criticize other teachers for “having summers off”. We also get to fill and inspire and influence young minds. We are the disciplinary experts, because we spent years earning that piece of parchment that identifies us as the experts. As such, we decide what we’re going to teach, when we’re going to teach it, how we’re going to teach it, and where we’re going to teach it.

Except, increasingly, we don’t.

We assess using artificial metrics meant to provide data sought by external regulators that have been gathered into teams by bureaucrats commissioned by politicians who have promised to bring some nebulous level of accountability to an “industry” that apparently didn’t serve them well.

We find ourselves arguing for our place at the general education table or personnel request table or equipment request table or secretarial support request table, forced to explain the virtues of our discipline versus some other department’s discipline to a panel of peers who don’t know enough about our field to appreciate that its value lies in its as-yet undocumented boundaries and who fail to understand that … no ,,, that program in historical ironic dances of indigenous peoples offered by the History Department does not count as a science general education requirement simply because it asks students to verbalize hypotheses about Incan dances and subsequently test them using more hypotheses, conjecture, and a spreadsheet composed in Microsoft Excel.

We find ourselves having to explain why a college shouldn’t be reorganized because of a misguided belief that it will give greater visibility to this program or that program just because the current organization makes it hard for some less-than-informed people to see the powerful symbiotic connections between art and science.

We sit in task forces with a stated charge delivered at a so-called “charge meeting” where the most obvious reason for convening – to bestow unmerited gravity on an administration-chosen initiative – does not make the bulleted list of stated task force responsibilities.

And we create programs – niche offerings in established fields rather than serious, comprehensive explorations of a topically rich field – that are primarily meant to generate credit hours by capitalizing on buzz words that inspire the masses, not unlike Fall Out Boy’s inclusion of the Munster theme in their insipid Uma Thurman song inspires the kinds of warm affection familiarity breeds, no matter how annoying and shallow the rest of the offering may be.

I say we faculty in higher education are comatose at the wheel because we have the esteem of the rest of the population. It may be unwarranted, but those letters at the end of our names mean something to a lot of people. And yet, we play along with all the things that are currently cheapening what we do – assessment for the sake of reporting numbers, program creation for the sake of snagging more credit hours, skill-ifying our fields to make the case to business-types on boards of trustees that there is great return-on-investment to be had here, as if student gains in critical thinking and the ability to resonate with and be informed by others’ perspectives weren’t sufficiently valuable. Instead of capitalizing on our strength of credential, we get caught up in the corporatization wave that has transformed us into for-profit institutions in modest-looking non-for-profit threads.

I ask my colleagues to read this, see if it resonates, and, if it does, start to say no to being dragged in a direction that runs opposite to what made our higher education institutions the envy of the rest of the world.

I don’t want to battle for credit hours.
I don’t want to fight over turf.
I don’t want to write grant proposals,
That’ll cost more effort than they’re worth.
I don’t want to attend another meeting
Or deliberate on more task forces
Whose final product will prove as useful
As windshield wipers on horses.
I don’t want to defend curricula
Against business masquerading as science.
And I don’t want to map learning outcomes
For external regulatory compliance.
I don’t want to apply a rubric
To assess my students’ reach.
The fact of the matter is simply
That all I want to do is teach.

Teaching – helping others by informing and inspiring them – is why we got into this in the first place. All the other stuff is the side show that we can’t let become the main event.

About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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