Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tenured Blues: Last Thoughts

I have been slow in writing this last post. Apologies. I will start off a new subject in the next one which might also be a bit out of the ordinary. What I'd like to do here is quickly summarize the arguments I have been making to date and to suggest an overall perspective that allows us to move the conversation forward on the problems of post-secondary education.

I say "problems" because I don't want anyone to get me wrong. I am not defending the status quo. There are problems with universities and with university education; there are changes that need to be made. What we need to do, however, is to think concerted about what those changes should be with an end goal in mind. But, the changes that we need to engineer need to be considered with end goals in mind. Minor, piecemeal, economize, etc. changes will not necessarily do anything, in my view, but mild out the rough edges. I hasten to add that there are a lot of things I think universities are doing right. The data we have for Mount A suggests (whatever this means, and I confess that I am not 100% sure) that our students are, overall, quite happy with their experiences here.

I make this point -- in part by way of summary -- but also because we are, I think, at a bit of a crossroad in education at the post-secondary level. The strikes we have seen at Mount A, UNB, St FX, the near strike at CBU are, I think, signs of this crossroads. In what direction should we be moving? The strikes are about answering precisely this question. They have occurred for more than one reason, to be sure, but if you look at the issues involved in the strikes, you can see that pay levels is not a particularly important issue. The strikes are about other things -- staffing levels, modes of assessment, the arbitrary assignment of penalties to faculty by administrators, etc. The issues are complicated and, of course, there is more than one side (because, if there were not ... well ... there would not have been the strikes).

I think that what these strikes show us is that the system with which we have been working to organize, innovative, and develop post-secondary education is creating conflicts. These conflicts are not, in themselves, bad. Don't get me wrong: no one likes strikes (I was on strike and I did not like it). But, we need to find ways of addressing our concerns before they come to such a point. How can this be done? I'll offer one suggestion and then get back to the point at hand because it feeds in to what I have to say. It really does.

One of the problems we encountered at Mount A was communication. I credit our VP Student Affairs for this observation. It was not a problem of communication in this sense: the faculty did not understand what the administrators were saying (which leads to the belief that if administrators just communicated better, there would be no conflict). Indeed, having been on strike, I can say that the faculty fully understood what the administration was saying. They just disagreed with it and, it turns out, fundamentally. Communication is a two way street. As administrations have developed, they are less connected to faculty than they were in the past. To try to be objective: both sides view each other as not cut from the same clothe. In the past, there were many reasons why there were not strikes but one reason was that administrators and faculty tended to see things the same way because administrators were faculty (more or less).

There were a lot of problems with the way universities used to be run in Canada. This system of common views between administrators and faculty was sexist, racist, and carried with it elements of Christian religious conformity. We should not mythologize it. It was changed for the right reasons. The problem we have now, however, is that the shared community has given way to competing or different perspectives. Conflicts between these perspective can be vibrant and viewed as a sign of commitment. That is not a bad thing. A dialogue of competing perspectives can be a good thing. It is certainly democratic. But, what is clear is that faculty feel that this is not a dialogue. That they are being told things. Their views are not fully considered, rejected out of hand, minimized, or discarded. Left with no other way to make their voices heard and to resist policies that they feel will harm the university and its mandate, faculty elect to go on strike. For me and for my colleagues, this strike really was a last alternative.

What does this have to do with research? It has a great deal to do with it in the case of Mount A because one of the issues that has been causing conflict here is the balance between teaching and research. I have argued repeatedly that Mount Allison is not UoT writ small. It is a teaching institution. Research is necessary; it can and should be encouraged and supported, but we also need to bear in mind that teaching is of vital importance. It is the reason the vast majority of students come here. And, we need to bear this in mind. If we make changes to the university - say, make tenure dependent on winning major research grants, make promotion dependent on number of publications -- we need to consider, I have tried to argue, the outcome of this change. The natural outcomes is that the balance of teaching and research at Mount A will change. If tenure is more dependent on winning big grants than on  teaching ... faculty will change their own balance. They will devote less time to teaching and more time to writing grants. If publications are the mark of promotion, then faculty will devote more time to writing and less to teaching.

Time, economists tell us, is a scarce resource. This does not mean that is available in limited quantities. It means that if you use your time for one thing, you cannot use it for another. Earlier, I tried to explain how I spent my time and how most of it -- during the school year -- was devoted to the various elements of teaching (which included marking and preparation). It is not all I do, but the largest chunk of my time goes to this. I do this in the expectation that my superiors understand that this is the mission of the university -- to provide effective teaching -- and that I am, therefore, doing my job. In the summer, I can  turn to research and writing in a more concerted way. If, however, this balance changes, I need to change my balance. One simple example: we have small internal research grants at Mount A. I don't apply often, but you could get a few thousand dollars to help with research. Because my research in the recent past was local, this was all I needed. Now, however, internal grants might be tied not to one's research but to whether or not one were going to apply for a big grant, say, from the federal government. The result is that my research is either (a) harmed because I cannot get one of these internal grants if I chose not to apply for a big grant or (b) I have to devote more time to getting the big grant. Big grant applications can take just about forever to fill out. It is a very time consuming process. My point is that the drain on my time now becomes greater. Instead of researching in the summer and teaching in the winter, I now have to take part of my summer to apply for a research grant. This lives me in a deficit with regard to actual research (filling out the grant form, of course, is not research). And, imagine in this scenario, that the standards of promotion are increased so as to require more publications. Time being scarce ... where is the time for publication (of which I have to do more) going to come from?

You know the answer. It comes from the only place it can come from: teaching time. Everyone -- everyone I know of, anyway -- proclaims their commitment to teaching but proclaiming something and actually supporting it is not necessarily the same thing. I know a soccer coach who proclaims his love the game and yet discourages people from actually playing the game. It make it difficult to believe his proclamations of his love of the game if he is not interested in encouraging actually existing people to play it. Teaching is the same way. Simply asserting that we are committed to teaching is not evidence that we are actually committed to teaching if everything else we do contradicts that statement. These are the kinds of discussion that we need to have. If we are committed to teaching, we need to create a situation that does not detract from research and supports it but which also maintains the important balance between teaching and research.

Here is the point I want to make as a summary point. I originally began this series of blogs as reply to Richard Gwyn's critique of faculty at universities. I've tried to show that much of Gwyn's critique is empirically inaccurate. Faculty cannot be easily faulted for the cost of post-secondary education if they have no control over it and Gwyn would find that most faculty agree with his perspective: expenses are too high. Faculty are not monks living in cells doing arcane research to the exclusion of everything. Many faculty are remarkably active in the public sphere. Simply taking a look at what faculty actually do will illustrate this. Most faculty prize the balance between research and teaching and they are not the ones who are trying to change it. Indeed, they are in the case of Mount A trying to maintain that balance or at least force a wider discussion before it is changed. There are problems with the university system, but simply saying 'bad profs' will not address the problems. Those who think that it will, are misinformed. At least, that is the contention I have tried to sustain.

Faculty are not just altruistic. Don't get me wrong. Like other people, we want to paid for the job we do. If you have problems with that ... ask yourself whether or not you want to be paid for the job you do. Some faculty are not doing their jobs. But, the evidence we have at Mount indicates remarkable satisfaction from students, suggesting that most faculty are doing their jobs. We need a balance of teaching and research; changing that balance will have implications and will push faculty into doing more research. The result, however, because time is scarce, is that this means less time devoted to teaching.

Ultimately, these are choices that we make. What we need to know are the implications of those choices and not pretend that they do not exist.
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