A good colleague of mine here at school shared with me a report titled "College of 2020: Students," which describes the future of university life. One of the initial claims in its executive summary — a common argument turning up these days in similar report -- struck me as fascinating:
The traditional model of college is changing, as demonstrated by the proliferation of colleges (particularly for-profit institutions), hybrid class schedules with night and weekend meetings, and, most significantly, online learning. The idyll of four years away from home — spent living and learning and growing into adulthood — will continue to wane. It will still have a place in higher education, but it will be a smaller piece of the overall picture.
I love claims about the future — I am still waiting on that rocket-powered backpack I was promised in 1962. Still, I find most talk about outsourcing learning and extracting profits from the education of our citizens highly troublesome. When the social good is turned into consumable goods, democracy is in trouble.
Still, because I am a faculty member and department head, it makes sense for me to keep an eye on developments inside higher ed, including the flailing attempts to technologize teaching and learning. I know a bit about keeping up with the iJoneses. I use an iPad to grade student papers, I illustrate concepts I teach on a Wacom tablet, I teach in "smart classrooms," and I can SurveyMonkey a rubric with the best of them.
But what troubles me about the whole-hog exodus to online learning is the failure to account for what most traditional undergraduates really want out of college, and that is getting out of the house and away from the folks. I would venture to guess that it's the No. 1 reason students go to college. Not to get a good job or a good education or even to find themselves. But to get up, up, and away. To escape. To join another team. Graduate to new logo wear.
I like that. I think that's just fine. Students discover soon enough where they are and where they need to head. It takes time, and it can be expensive. But that's what many academic futurists and state bureaucrats forget. Students go to college without a clear idea about what college is or what they are going to do there. Using the most recent coin of the realm — the discourse of assessment, college is formative, not summative. That's why persistence rates are so low. That's why so many students change majors. It's the messy necessity.
Still, if the higher ed wizards really believe their crystal balls, then a new kind of university campus is going to have to appear out of the fog. And here’s what I see. Let’s call it the Faculty-Free University.
Let's locate it in the mountains near good skiing, rock-climbing, fishing, hunting, rafting, good trails for hiking and biking and running and hang-gliding. Let there be comfortable dorms and coffee shops and lots of WiFi. Let there be expert IT support with 24/7 chat. Cubicles with academic advisers in headsets. Virtual and f2f intramural sports. Sports bars and restaurants and clubs and good parking and Zipcars and triathlons and film festivals and yoga classes and pizza delivery and the best damn college football stadium and coaching staff and team in the country. And financial aid out the wazoo.
But no faculty or departments or department heads or deans or provosts or vice-provosts. No offices. No secretaries. No classrooms or lecture halls or laboratories or studios. No paper. No printers. No library. No books. No paperclips. No copy machines. No faculty senate. No shared governance. No healthcare. No retirement contributions. No tenure. No promotion. No faculty appreciation dinner. No fuss.
Just students and the latest in instructional technology and lots and lots of learning on the fly or in bed or in the subscription cloud. E-mailing and tweeting and apping all the way to graduation.
Or not. Come and go as you please. Whatever. We’ll talk more after you finish texting.
As you know, the movement is already afoot. The future of Faculty-Free University is growing up all around us. It may be the only growth industry left. Why not break ground today? Jobs is jobs, right?
And green. It has to be green.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and head of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, where he teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. He blogs at www.theillustratedprofessor.com and draws at www.cartoonranch.com. He is also the author of Handmade Thinking: A Picture Book on Reading and Drawing.
The latest book to suggest that American higher education needs to face up to a period of radical change is Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press). Abelard represents the medieval ideal of scholar/teacher/philosopher while Apple is the world of iTunes U. The author is Richard A. DeMillo, Distinguished Professor of Computing, professor of management and director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology.
An erstwhile associate kinesiology professor at California State University at San Bernardino remains on the lam after police raided his home last week and found a pound of methamphetamine and a cache of guns. Police are charging that Stephen Kinzey, who had been on the San Bernardino faculty for a decade, was leading a double life: teaching and researching by day; directing the local chapter of an outlaw biker gang, and its drug business, by night.
Has public higher education outlived its usefulness -- like cassette tapes and typewriters? Are our students "academically adrift," our institutions shams? Who benefits from this tale? Policy-makers and government officials are regarding public higher education as an industry that needs to operate on cheap labor in order to manufacture products. William Deresiewicz, Peter Brooks and Martha Nussbaum make clear the consequences: the dismantling of public higher education eviscerates the creation and perpetuation of knowledge, access to education, and the principle that an educated citizenry is the keystone of democracy.
The crisis in higher education must be redefined by those of us in public institutions who are living it daily. For us, there are two crises: the bowdlerizing of what learning means, and the critical need for a counter-discourse that will lead to material change in public attitudes and allocation of resources.
Numbers reveal a certain kind of information and conceal other kinds, such as what it means to be a human being. How do we quantify students’ experiencing the wonder of intellectual discovery, those moments when, as Rita Dove conveys so beautifully in her poem "Geometry," the ordinary is transformed into transcendent possibility? How is this learning accounted for when it occurs outside a public college course or institution, but is a direct result of both?
I prove a theorem and the house expands: the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling, the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything but transparency, the scent of carnations leaves with them. I am out in the open
And above the windows have hinged into butterflies, sunlight glinting where they've intersected. They are going to some point true and unproven.
To those of us who teach working-class students that using their minds expands and transforms their lives, the data on spreadsheets is akin to thinking of students as if they were part numbers. In our classes, we propel students to grapple with the paradoxes of the "true and unproven" gleaned from different disciplinary perspectives. At semester’s end, we judge how well they’ve achieved this and other objectives and assign a grade. We can never assess, however, if, when, or how students integrate what they’ve learned into their psyches and experiences. Counting, quantifying, and measuring are not the only ways to make sense of what and how students learn. These methods do not illuminate the value of a college education to working-class students for whom privilege is not a birthright.
Stories and story-telling are other options, potent sources of information. Stories provide entrée to the inner life, "ourself behind ourself concealed," access to knowledge about what it means to experience learning. Stories humanize numbers on spreadsheets. They are a different kind of currency in an economy in which the exchange of ideas is the basis of community. Stories perform a multiplicity of functions as Robert Coles reminds us: they "point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers — offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings." Stories, the ones we and our students tell, make possible an alternate way of thinking about learning, success, and achievement in publicly funded academic institutions.
Here is such a story. I was on a New York City subway deeply absorbed in reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried when a young man sitting across from me noticed the book’s title and started talking to me: “I remember that story. That’s the story that begins with the description of what the soldiers are carrying. Oh, I remember that story. We read it in my freshman English class.”
O’Brien’s book is indeed memorable. A searing account of soldiering in Vietnam, the collection of interwoven stories probes the anguish of war while meditating on the porous boundaries among reality, truth, and fiction. Most spectacularly, O’Brien employs the metaphor of carrying to convey the gravity of heartbreak, senseless loss, and war’s breach of moral ethics. "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey," the first story begins. "They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack." Within the first two pages, O’Brien develops the metaphor further by listing the literal objects the soldiers wore on their bodies, hauled on their backs, and stashed in their pockets.
The subway encounter between the young man and me is as symbolic as the literal weight of the items the soldiers carried: the interaction encapsulates the very best a liberal arts general education can achieve. Something in the O’Brien text, the reading, the discussion, and the college classroom experience entered into the student, changed the way he constructed meaning, and became part of his world. Like the soldiers who carry the material and psychological weight of war, the student carries the book and the experience of reading it with him, and that is what inspired him to initiate connection with a stranger on a New York City subway.
The experience in the general education classroom provided the model for the interaction. The young man wanted to create connection about being moved emotionally, his discovery of the meaning of metaphor, and his memory of that experience. The interaction between the young man and me sparked by the O’Brien text suggests that the general education classroom fosters community building. Unknown to each other, the young man and I are part of a community premised on the idea that learning, and communing about learning, are fundamental, unifying values. Not limited by class or status, the community is the Jeffersonian ideal of an enlightened democratic citizenry. All involved, including the English professor who taught the class, the public institution in which the student took the class, and the faculty who designed the curriculum and deemed it a requirement, are academically on course, guided by a compass that keeps the true meaning of learning in view. Best explained by Ken Bain, true learning occurs when students embrace “new mental models of reality” spurred by teaching that cultivates their abilities to question, judge, evaluate, and construct meaning out of facts and information. True learning is personal and intellectual transformation.
In the story I just told, what proves the student’s learning? The student may not have done well in his freshman English class. He might have failed the class, transferred to another college, or dropped out for a year or two. He could be a statistic on a retention or graduation rate chart. Outcomes, measures, deliverables: inadequate. What this student learned is ineffable, as difficult to wrap our minds around as Emily Dickinson’s claim that the Brain is wider than the sky.
The Brain -- is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside
Dickinson’s dictum about the sanctity of the human imagination must guide us as we create a counter-discourse about the crisis in public higher education. Colleges and universities are not factories in which we produce widgets on an assembly line. Academics work with people, human beings whose height and weight can be measured, yes, but whose brains are wider than the sky, “For — put them side by side — /The one the other will contain/ with ease — and You — beside--.”
We need to create a competing conversation that honors the idea that brains are wider than the sky and deeper than the sea, “For — hold them — Blue to Blue — /The one the other will absorb — / As sponges — Buckets — do.” And we need to tell a collective story about what is right and on course about public higher education: the ways in which it defies an intellectual caste system and is currently one of the few places that comes close to realizing the American value of equality — in the diversity of faculty and students, and the pursuit of unregulated intellectual freedom.
Linda M. Grasso
Linda M. Grasso is professor and chair of English at York College of the City University of New York.