Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Faculty can’t control the things they’re responsible for

Wiley has published a little report (which wants to harvest your email address etc, so I don’t recommend actually reading it) about “The State of the Student 2022,” listing five trends in higher education and some strategies for “instructors and administrators looking to address them.” The five trends are:

  • Student engagement challenges
  • Student enrollment and retention issues
  • Financial and emotional stress
  • Students’ uncertainty about the future
  • Gap between faculty and students perceptions

That’s five mostly serious problems (and I am also aware that most of what I am about to complain about is far worse for school teachers). But it is extremely unhelpful for me, as a college professor, to be told that these are the problems facing higher education, because I have an extremely limited set of tools to address them.

Faculty can do some things to make classes more engaging (though only so much), and faculty can do more to understand students and bridge the gap between their expectations and those of the students (though again only so much). But when you look deeper into the descriptions of the issues the report identifies, you just see reflections of the underlying problems with higher education in America: students want class to be more engaging by essentially being more oriented toward career preparation, and the gap in perceptions is because students are more worried about getting a job and being prepared for their career than faculty seem to think they should be.

Except, in part, for the enrollment and retention issue, all of these problems are really one big problem: higher education is getting more expensive and American society is providing less support for students and for higher education in general, but almost everything still tells students that they need to go to college if they want to be professionally and personally successful while American work culture continues to devalue the importance of a college degree by treating it as nothing more than career prep. I think that higher education administrators are themselves partly responsible for this state of affairs, but generally this is something beyond the control of any college or university leader, certainly in the short term. It’s something that I, as a history professor at a tiny rural college, can do as much to change as I can the tides or seasons.

I’d like to be able to do more about these things. But I’m not rich. I’m not a trained counselor. I am a historian; what I want to do, what I am trained to do, and what I think is important for me to do is to teach and do history. The kinds of things I or most other professors can do to address those larger problems–switching to free open-source materials instead of expensive textbooks, or making a real connection that treats students like people instead of customers or numbers–are a drop in the bucket. And it’s only getting worse; it’s nice to have a real mentorship relationship with your professor, but it’s not easy to do that if you have to drop out of school because your loan payments are too high, or if your instructor is an adjunct at five different schools.

In December, I watched a session of the wonderful Future Trends Forum about ChatGPT. It was good (as they tend to be) but also very dispiriting. A guest, Jess Stahl, who works for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, said the sage on a stage and guide on the side models are both out because of ChatGPT. Instead, college faculty should focus on building relationships and professional networks with/for students. Some quotes: “what I would say to faculty is that most of what you do, probably, in your day to day, is really emerging as not that valuable. Probably almost all of it will need to change, and in fact your role is going to be strongly questioned.” Faculty won’t be presenting curriculum or evaluating learning; rather, it’s about “how human and important and valuable can you make your relationships with the learners”. I think this is basically wrong, because I don’t think artificial intelligence can now or in the near future effectively present curriculum or evaluate learning beyond rote memorization; mechanical lifts have not replaced the value of weight training. But the accuracy of that statement is not my concern.* The bigger issue is that once again, college faculty are being told: You need to take on an entirely new set of responsibilities, for which you have no training and which you did not plan to do when you entered this field, and no we won’t be giving you money, time, or meaningful support to do it.

In particular in the humanities but across higher education, professors and would-be professors get their start playing the Tenure Track Job Lotto (and likely drawing losing numbers). They have to teach students who may not have been prepared for college, may not want to be in college at all, or may not care about the particular class they’re in. They’re being told they’re responsible for the financial well-being of both their students and their institutions. Is it any wonder that professors–and students, for that matter–seem so dispirited about education, both today and for tomorrow?

*Actually, it is 100% my concern, but it’s not my concern in this post. But it’s very concerning! As you might imagine, I found it distressing that someone who works for an accrediting body for higher education said that professors teaching is not very valuable, and it’s been increasingly distressing ever since.


One response to “Faculty can’t control the things they’re responsible for

  1. Pingback: Weekly Varia no. 16, 03/04/23 – Noodlings

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