What would you change?

This post ended up posing two sets of questions.  The second is really irrelevant, but I wondered if anyone else can discover certain phrases running through their minds….

1.   The relevant question:  If there were one or  two things you could change about academia, what would it be?  Let’s make it general; perhaps you’d like to get rid of a specific person, but that’s not going to count.

When you give your answer,  please let us know your perspective.  Some recommendations looks quite different depending on their source.

In fact the question comes from another blog, but since I’m tempted to run over there to get their ideas, I thought I’d spare everyone the occasion for having a desire to sneak.  So the source will be revealed later.

There’s actually another question that arises from the last remark: 

2.  The irrelevant question:  Who or what stresses that one must avoid not just sin, but also the occasion for sin?  And just as one must not lead others into sin, one must not expose them to occasions for sin?

13 thoughts on “What would you change?

  1. There are many things I’d change about academia.

    For one, I was a young mother and in order to do what all ‘the guys’ in grad school did, I had to work my tail off so hard that I became mentally ill. Things should be easier for parents to go to grad school, especially single moms, as I (usually) was.

    Second, since I became mentally ill, I’d like more openness for people with mental disabilities. My illness became so bad that I was hospitalized, but people just kept wondering why I wasn’t doing my work. Well, um, I was **ill**.

    Third, I think it’s interesting to think about how physical and mental illness are treated differently in academia. If I had gotten cancer, people would have had a lot of sympathy, I suppose. But not once did I receive anything remotely sympathetic when I was mentally ill—because my symptoms were annoying to people. There definitely needs to be more seeking of mental health care for people in academia, particularly when people show signs that they might shoot someone over tenure.

    So, in sum, I guess, since I was just reading about mental health policy, my comments are mostly in that line.

  2. I admit that it’s been awhile since my university days but it still bothers me that I had to change my undergrad major. I started out as a history major because of having a passion for it. I found that each seminar I had to attend when ever the issue of race came up everyone looked in my direction to see what I was going to say or think. I was expected to speak on behalf of my race and make connections for people. In the end I switched to women’s studies and sociology. I would say that the problems lessened but they did not disappear. I would say to professors, stop using your marginalized students as teaching aids. Even if the student has a relevant opinion, they cannot speak for an entire group.

  3. Grading. From the perspective of an American academic, grading creates a serious conflict of interests.

    On the one hand, we’re teachers: we want students to understand the stuff, get excited about the stuff, and do well. On the other hand we’re agents of the university which functions as an employment pre-screening and credentialing agency, ranking students who are after scarce resources: jobs and places in graduate and professional programs. So, we have to produce a spread of grades and make sure that a sufficient percentage of students get bad ones. At my place in particular we’re under constant pressure to keep a lid on grade-inflation.

  4. The roots of academia are classist, sexist, and racist. If I could change academia, I would challenge the academy & those within it…

    – to be critical of, accountable to, and actively working to dismantle the privilege it perpetuates, as it exists on the basis of color, economics, and gender.
    – to stop intellectually, economically, and culturally undermining (or even destroying) the communities in which its institutions are based.

    (My perspective: recent undergraduate in Philosophy, Political Science, and Environmental Studies; queer woman of color; radical left, politically; currently employed as a Community-based Learning Coordinator at an “elite” institution of higher ed.)

  5. I’m very tempted to go with H.E. Baber’s answer; I teach at a community college, and the conflict between the aims of education and of certification represented by grades is very acute here. What is more, grading often obscures rather than conveys information about student learning; from learning that Student A got an A in an Intro course at one college and that Student B got an A in an Intro course at another (or very often even at the same college, from different instructors), and nothing more, one has learned nothing about their education. You don’t know what they’ve learned, you don’t know how they have been challenged, you don’t know the skills they’ve picked up. The two grades are not commensurable, but we treat them as if they were, and when we do, it’s just pseudo-information, pseudo-knowledge.

    But in the end I think the single most problematic feature of current academic life is a more general assumption that education can be broken down into interchangeable portions. When we teach, the length of time to teach the subject of the course is pre-ordained, and the time was not chosen with that subject, or those students, in view. (This is a point that occasionally rankles me particularly as a community college professors. CC’s, unlike most other colleges, do not pre-select their students in order to raise the profile of their population; thus our student population tends to be massively more diverse in educational background. I get students who show in discussions that they are clever, intelligent people, perfectly capable of thinking through philosophical topics, but who have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have never really been taught to write beyond a purely functional level. They often drop out because there is not enough time for them to catch up on this, do what is required for the course, and handle whatever else they have on their plate all in twelve precisely planned weeks. It is a truly heartbreaking thing to see such promising minds fall beneath the cracks of an inflexible system.) While departments have some limited power to compensate with things like prerequisites, courses that are the same length are treated as all equivalent, regardless of what the students did in the course. Every class meeting has to fit into a particular spot on the schedule; unless you are at the rare college with a block-based program, the spots on the schedule are scattered throughout the week. And when the course is ended, that is it. I will never have any indication what happens to any students who do not later tell me themselves. Education is supposed to be packaged in standardized blocks, one size fits all.

    So that’s what I’d change. I don’t think it would be easy; in fact, I don’t think it can handily be done within the standard college structure, beyond some small things in how we structure our courses. And I know a great many instructors who work hard to take into account both the subject and and the students, within the limits they are given. But I think there is a fundamental need for institutions that treat education as an organic thing, needing at least a partial customization to topic and student, rather than a mechanical process involving a sort of mass production that can be precisely pre-planned without regard for what is to be taught or who is to be taught it.

  6. I take this question (in its most general form) to be a question about what we would change about the structure of the institution, rather than the proclivities of the humans who populate it. Perhaps this reading is due in part to a belief that certain undesirable human biases and behaviors can be muted and even modified, but not eradicated.

    With this in mind, I’d like to see academic institutions held accountable for sexual harassment and intimidation in the same way that corporate entities are. I’d like to see universities publicly pressured to grapple with the problem, open files, and be held accountable in the same way that the Catholic Church is being pressured to confronted the problem of molestation by members of the clergy.

    In my relatively brief career as a philosopher (I am a junior faculty member), I have experienced multiple instances of explicit sexual harassment: unwanted and persistent physical advances and declarations of love from a thesis advisor, an inappropriate email from an undergraduate mentor, unsolicited advances from a drunken colleague at a workshop, etc. The effect of this harassment was so serious that it derailed my career at one point. I have been open about the problem, seeking support, and have been (wisely) counseled by other senior philosophers to move on, put it behind me.

    This is also the advice I have given to philosophy students who have confided in me about similar problems — not because it is what I want to say, but because in light of the current policies of our academic institutions, it is the prudent thing to do. (I of course also give them copies of the relevant policies and reporting information, and refer them to counseling and the relevant administrative person or committee.)

    The basic problem is this: given the current lack of restitution and any attempt to hold the institution itself accountable for instances of sexual harassment, what does a victim of sexual harassment have to gain from reporting the problem?

    At best, a sense of righteousness or closure? (At what cost?) Certainly not the knowledge that the situation will be rectified.

    How can we, in good conscience, recommend that a student report a case of sexual harassment when it is likely to have a detrimental effect on that student’s career, and the report is unlikely to lead to any genuine change in the situation? I know of no case (at least in philosophy, at research institutions) in which a sexual harassment charge has forced the abuser to leave the field. In fact, when an undergraduate philosophy major at my graduate institution recently pressed charges against a member of the philosophy department, the outcome was an agreement between the faculty member and the university in which the faculty member was asked to leave and paid for the duration of his contract (some two years). One aspect of the agreement was of course a “hush clause”: both the faculty member and the university (and, by extension, any employees of the university) agreed to remain silent about the issue. This despite the fact that the charge was sexual assault 1 (rape), and the faculty member admitted to having slept with the student (and several others). He has spent the past two years working on research as a visiting scholar at another top-tier research institution.

    So what I’d like to see is an intiative (prompted by faculty members pressuring administration?) at some high-profile university to voluntarily “go public” with the problem: to open the files (with names and identifying details omitted); to mandate meaningful sexual harassment training for all faculty, undergraduate, and graduate students; to issue a public apology to victims; and to offer restitution to victims where appropriate (perhaps in the form of career opportunities such as post docs or research sabbaticals?).

  7. Reading the comments, it occurred to me that maybe what needs to change more than academia itself is the place of academia in society. The two issues touched on by Brandon and H.E. suggest that academia is (has become?) a place to produce workers and consumers, not critical thinkers. We go to college because that increases our chance to get a “good job” not because we love to learn. Someone once remarked that simply looking at the buildings and how similar they look to factories can tell us the purpose of schools… Grades are important because employers need a quick way to weed out resumes (not even people!). Pre-packed learning is important so that it can be administered efficiently. If we really were interested in teaching/learning, we would probably encourage life-long learning by, for example, allowing people to reduce their hours at work to return to school, which I have been able to do – the rare and amazingly fortunate exception.

    Regarding the sexual harassment zenmind mentions… I was flabbergasted to see some pictures yesterday from my classmate – publicly posted – that could very easily be seen as creating a hostile environment for women. Not even the (few) fellow women in the program seemed to get the problem with these pics. There seems to be no awareness that there could be something wrong. I have worked in corporate America for over 10 years now. One thing that has happened, at least in my experience, is an increased awareness about sexual harassment. So, I could not imagine something similar happening there – and if it’s only because they’ve learned to hide this kind of behavior better.

    Although I think this really goes deeper – to similar roots Jen is mentioning. Imo, sexual harassment is a symptom of a power structure. Clearly, professors have a lot of power, especially once they get tenure. And maybe this goes back to how I started this comment: The place of academia has to change. Maybe if we can create learning environments that allow people to learn from each other, the importance of individual players is deflated taking away their power that they could use and abuse.

  8. There are really good comments here. I think I’d like to refer to some in a future post or two. If you’d object to having extra attention paid to your comment, please let us know through using “contact us”.

    The source for the question mention an aspect no one here has so far brought up, and that’s Boards of Govenors or Regents (or whatever they are called). Often in the States with public universities they are political appointees who have no idea what a university is about, but they’ll have the final say on very important matters. I did see one situation in which a search firm for a high position in my university simply lied to the B of R, and they didn’t know enough to be able to tell. Never mind that they also couldn’t see why physics was more integral to a university’s excellence than hotel management.

  9. Hello all,
    This is my first year teaching at the college as a graduate assistant. I work at a public university in a rural area. Although I am not as experienced as many of you are (wonderful comments by the way), I have also noticed the paradox of the grading system. By grading students we are essentially forcing another label for society to use as an identifier, which is reinforced by our capitalistic society. Education has become a form of capital, unfortunately, and those with the most prestigious capital (high grades, elite school) get better opportunities. I was even reminded of that fact by my thesis mentor while applying for PhD programs (“Don’t feel bad if you don’t get accepted; You don’t have a pedigree”). We have created a system that forces people into impoverished states even with advanced education. The playing field is far from even.

    I have also noticed that my students have had extremely different educational experiences prior to college. While some students are capable of critical analysis, there are the other students that write “prolly” in their papers. This issue stems from K-12 education. For the most part, K-12 schools do not show students how to critically think. Students are taught how to regurgitate rather than create their own ideas. I have noticed the “cult of regurgitation” at the academic level as well. Some professors desire us to simply repeat their opinions as fact and no deviation is allowed. How can we promote “education” when we are forced into repetitive thinking? Clearly, the K-12 system builds the ideology of education as capital which is reinforced in college. Students are taught to “succeed” is to make money and actual learning becomes a means to an end. They get the grade by repetition not by actual thinking.

    Perhaps we could change this only if we put the importance on the process of learning rather than on material success.

  10. “Education has become a form of capital, unfortunately, and those with the most prestigious capital (high grades, elite school) get better opportunities.”

    I agree, but what are the alternatives? Places in graduate school and good jobs are a scarce good–how else would you suggest allocating them if not by educational credentials? By lottery? Or by having rich parents pay outright for positions in grad school and jobs for their kids–like buying commissions?

    There are, of necessity, lousy boring jobs that have to be done: some people will have to scan groceries, input data, take care of little kids and the elderly–there is all that shit work that has to be done. How do you decide who gets to avoid that work, who gets the interesting jobs if not by work for academic credentials?

    If there’s no other option though (and I’d be interested in suggestions) then the problem remains that there’s a conflict of interests for instructors who, on the one hand, are supposed to be working to get all students to succeed and on the other have to rank and screen students for the good jobs and good lives.

  11. Everyone should have to do a part-time ‘menial’ job, and a part-time ‘fun’ job. And everyone should be paid the same.

  12. If I had to choose a non-feasible utopian scheme it would be fixing a pay scale for jobs such that wages were inversely proportional to job satisfaction. So, cashiers, data-entry operators, “customer service representatives,” child care workers, etc. would get paid roughly what hedge fund managers and investment bankers now get and academics (like me) would get minimum wage. And I would in fact prefer doing my job for minimum wage to doing a less interesting job for more money because my paramount interest in life is avoiding boredom.

    This respects differences in individual preferences in a way that everyone working part time at both menial and fun jobs for the same pay would.

    However neither of these schemes is feasible. So we’re back to go: there has to be some way of sorting out individuals who get interesting jobs from those who end up with boring jobs. Other than competition for grades, test scores and academic credentials, what is available? Lotteries? Maybe an ordeal: you get to get a non-boring job if you’re willing to be branded, have a finger chopped off, be waterboarded? (I’d do it)

    Seriously, I get tired of my colleagues complaining that students are out for jobs rather than learning for its own sake, and the assumption that they just want to get good jobs for crass motives–to get money and status. This may be true of some, but for others the reason to grub for academic credentials is to avoid boring work. You cannot be a poet living in a garret unless you have a little trust fund to keep you going. If you don’t make it you’re going to end up doing boring work for 8 hours a day. It isn’t living in the garret that’s the problem–it’s the boring work one wants to avoid.

  13. There are already extra-academic ways for sorting out who gets the interesting jobs; promotions, for instance. And not all tests are academic in context; civil service exams and ASFAB come to mind. Depending on the state, even your local fast food employee might be barred from the job if they can’t pass a test. Actually, pretty much everything we do in academia that can be regarded as relevant to jobs has non-academic counterparts; even the pull wielded by credentials from ‘elite’ schools is just a complicated form of networking — good ol’ boys club, as the saying goes around here.

    So I don’t think that’s so much a problem. We could in principle completely separate education from certification, indeed, from job credentials entirely. The result would be a nearly complete collapse of higher education as we know it. Our academic institutions are simply not sustainable without drawing students with the claim that they will be better situated for jobs they’ll like if they attend. This is not because there wouldn’t be students who would be interested in attending even if it didn’t improve their job prospects (I would bet that there would be more than I think some people imagine) but because sustaining colleges as we know them requires a large and steady stream of students willing to pay quite large sums for a seat in the classroom. This cannot happen if students can’t at least see the sum as an investment; the students who would even be in a position to make such an economic commitment and write it off simply as a worthwhile economic loss are few and far between. There would have to be a choice: either schools would become fewer and even more a place for the rich, or they would remain generally accessible but become smaller, less formal, and much more frugal. I don’t see the latter happening voluntarily; and simple collapse is more likely than any healthy version of the former — it has happened before. In the early modern period, Spain went in just over one generation from the most educated country in Europe, with the finest university system, to the least educated country in Europe, with a university system in shambles, because university degrees became useless for seeking a position. Linking education to some sort of special certification is essential for the survival of education in any form more sophisticated than a study group or book club. If we do nothing that gives our students interesting job prospects, we are turning ourselves into parasites rather than participants in an implicit barter.

    I think that making a separation between education and assessment (credential assessment, that is, like course grades; other kinds of assessment would still be needed to get a sense of where the students are) is plausibly a simple that might have good results. It would free up instructors to focus on education, allow us room to do more justice to students, and get grade-inflation worriers out of our hair. For a while. Over time there would inevitably be increasing pressure to tailor teaching to assessment. But that could be compensated for, perhaps; and the notion that we can have an educational system that avoids deterioration and never needs to be reformed is an illusory one.

    I wonder, too, how much could be done simply by faculty, especially tenured faculty, pushing for more say. That was more or less the original idea of tenure — the primary motivation for the system was not to reward people for work but to give faculty as a whole more power to protect academic freedoms and privileges. To have it required conceding something to administration, which is why there are tenure requirements and why not everyone gets tenure automatically from the beginning. But the point of tenure was to have faculty who, having less need to worry about their jobs, could stand up for themselves and for those who didn’t have it. It seems largely to have been a failure in this respect, but there’s still room for faculty to push harder than they do. After all, faculty are still the most essential feature of a college.

    Except perhaps for here in Texas, where colleges exist for the primary purpose of making college football possible.

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