Head in the Clouds

When experts advise academe to embrace a radical new future, they ignore what students really need and move us toward a faculty-free future, writes Laurence Musgrove.

October 24, 2011

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.   


Back to Top