Thursday, July 28, 2016

Higher Ed Thoughts

I hesitantly sampled Malcolm Gladwell's new podcast Revisionist History last week.  I am a voracious podcast listener but not a Gladwell fanatic.  I have heard him give good interviews but his books never gripped me.  Perhaps because the current three part series is about something directly relevant to my life, higher ed, but largely because its really good reporting, I highly recommend episodes "My Little Hundred Million" above and "Food Fight" ("Carlos Remembers is good too, but somehow something I think we know more inherently -- there are many genius kids in shitty situations that need a leg up early in life.)

"My Little Hundred Million" discusses the university I teach for: Rowan University.  Renamed for Henry Rowan, who donated $100 million to Glassboro College, a state school in NJ, in an effort to make the most difference in the most needed part of higher ed.  To raise up the most students possible at a typical, state school.  Gladwell goes on to make the case that other multimillionaires followed by making big donations but to the completely wrong places -- the schools already at the absolute top of the heap, Harvard, Columbia etc with gobs of money already at their disposal.

It made me proud to be state school educated.  I didn't know a ton as an 18 year old but I knew I didn't want to pay $40,000 a year and I didn't want to be somewhere that had the elitism I grew up around at my nationally ranked public high school. It also made me proud to be teaching at Rowan.
Although on a bad day I can get frustrated by the one or two students that slack off or don't seem open to learning, for those few I have met hundreds who are earnest, hard-working, curious individuals.  And really, college is a place where those few should be able to realize what topics don't interest them at a cost that they aren't paying off for the next 25 years.

My students are not only bright and caring and interested but they face a multitude of obstacles each semester.  Many commute, many work, many support families, many have health problems.  I have had a student whose 18 year old brother was murdered during the semester and she missed one class, asking about how to stay on track.  I had a student who loved my assignment to make night drawings because she worked the 9pm-9am shift at a nursing home and could do this work there.  I had two students who just got back from military duty, one redeploying to Afghanistan.  I had a student who had two kids at home, surgery during the semester, english as a second language who stayed after class to help me clean up and brought a cake for the class on the last day.  These were some of my best students, in terms of the quality of work and their effort.  And none of them were art majors (some of their work shown here)

The other idea Gladwell brings up in the episode "Food Fight" is where schools choose to spend their money.  He drew comparisons between the liberal arts colleges Bowdoin and Vassar.  While Bowdoin students boast of organic exquisite meals and Vassar students complain of run of the mill, packaged dining, Vassar is putting all its excess capital into bringing low income students to campus.  And as he argues, and I agree, as a tax exempt institution isn't there a duty to serve the greater public?  Every dollar put into school's fancy dorms and lobster bisque are dollars taken from hard working students' scholarships.  It makes it harder for schools like Vassar to compete for wealthy students and feeds the loop of higher ed only being available for the rich.

The one thing I would like to add is that money also must go to adjunct professors.  These are the people teaching the content.  One of the most valuable experiences I've had was teaching Art 101 at Burlington County Community College.  So many students came from high schools with no art program, let alone art history.  They blew me away with their curiosity and critical thinking.  However, I made $1,800 for 16 weeks of teaching two days a week, 55 students.  Grading papers, creating power points, answering emails, making tests.  I probably spent 15 hours a week on the class and commuted nearly an hour each way.  This is not sustainable!  As a result I had to leave.  I still hear from some of those students four years later.

We must make higher ed more affordable.  We must give professors fair pay.  This balance of power where students don't feel like consumers but an investment by our country and teachers don't feel like volunteers but valued educators is essential in a respectful and productive relationship between the two things a university needs to be a university: teachers and students.  I implore, pray and beg all who can to vote for HRC in November so we can try to make inroads on this most important issue, its what my students deserve.


Blev said...

Great work by your students. Good thoughts by Gladwell(and you)

Aubrey Levinthal said...

So fucking depressing! DeVos got confirmed yesterday, I couldn't have even imagined things getting this out of hand, gonna be a long four years.

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