Number 3 is out! Go here.
To read the Guardian article referenced in the podcast, go here.
(Yes, that is a boring title.)
I’ve been Tweetstorming quite a lot lately, and someone said, “Don’t you have a blog?” This reminded me that, yes, I do have a blog and should probably start using it more. (There was a time when I wrote a blog post every day.)
I love this gig. It’s a great gig with great colleagues, great students, and administrators who more often than not get it. But it is not without challenges. First and foremost is geography. We are 90 – 100 miles from anyplace with more than, say, 25,000 people, and three hours from the Twin Cities. In many fields, that wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference, but since music is so specialized (you wouldn’t want me teaching, say, flute), the six full-time faculty cannot hope to cover all the possible areas of instruction. We rely more on adjuncts than I would like, but we do provide mileage for those coming from more than 10 miles away, and we do also put people up in hotels as necessary.
The problem with this is that it is unsustainable. Not financially, necessarily (though it may be that), but just in terms of building a traditional music program. I wouldn’t want to drive three hours each way every week for no more than four students, but we cannot in good conscience give a student less than the best possible instruction. We have tried some online lessons (through a partnership with MacPhail Center for Music) and that has worked to some extent, but to do that well we would need a large increase in our capital budget to update some rooms with a full spectrum of equipment for those purposes (cameras, microphones, necessary connections). This will be an ongoing challenge.
The other issue we face is somewhat tied to the first issue. Our curriculum is pretty much the Standard Undergraduate Music Curriculum (four semesters of theory, two semesters of history, lessons, a jury, a senior project, and some electives). It is designed to prepare students for graduate study, a teaching career, or a performance career.
But most of our students don’t do that.
We’re a liberal arts college on the prairie. Even though we have a high percentage of first-generation students, who are usually geared more toward music education as a career, most of our students don’t take that path. We have a couple of students who are carving out performance careers, but they are the exception. Same for graduate school. Our students usually end up working outside of music, using the ancillary skills they develop in the program and continuing in music on an amateur or semi-professional basis while paying the bills in some other way. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are days I’d do that. But it doesn’t make sense for our curriculum to reflect an approach that is simply not in line with what our graduates do. Thus, we are making some changes to the curriculum.
They haven’t all been ironed out yet, but when they are, I shall post them for your feedback. Like David Letterman in his Late Night years, the stuff may or may not work, but we’re going to try it anyway. If it doesn’t work, well, it wouldn’t be too difficult to return to the traditional model. But if it does work, we could change the face of music education in a liberal arts context.
Of course, this new curriculum would not likely earn the imprimatur of NASM, but we’re not accredited by them anyway, and many of the top music programs are pulling out. I have nothing against NASM; I worked with them at the last gig, and I think they do what they do very well and they should continue to do it. I just don’t necessarily agree that what they do overlaps much with what we do.
More bulletins as events warrant.
Looking through the files, I see my “On Academia” post still gets a little love now and then. Maybe I should write a sequel. There’s no shortage of material.
(I put this on my Facebook wall. Figured this would give me a better link.)
This is not an end point. I’m not even sure it’s a starting point. But it is what it is, and I welcome discussion.
I love what I do. I love where I do it. (This wasn’t always so.) I have great students, great colleagues, and an administration that seems to actually care more about education than cost-cutting, “disruption,” or being a toy of the Board of Regents. I recognize I am, in every sense of the word, one of the lucky ones. Having said that, Academia-with-a-capital-A is in trouble in many places. In 30 years, tuition has gone up over four times the rate of inflation, and fees have increased by a significant margin as well. The local community college, one of the few places where you could go cheaply and get a solid foundation or job training, has become unaffordable; four-year public institutions have seen a precipitous drop in state funding, and private institutions are now, in some cases, pushing $60,000 a year for tuition alone. For-profit institutions have been created to do nothing but suck up grant and loan money from ill-prepared students and saddle them with “degrees” that are less than useless. On top of that, even politicians I support on every other issue are woefully shortsighted, trying to apply the same “test-and-rank” methodology that has all but destroyed P-12 public education to the Academy.
And that’s just what you see on the outside. Inside, tenure – and the concomitant job security* and academic freedom – is rapidly becoming extinct, as adjunct positions, once set aside for a very few who had distinguished themselves in the field but outside Academia, are now often the only positions available. Those who would run Academia as one would Business love adjuncts, because (a) adjuncts cost way less, both in terms of salary and in terms of benefits, and (b) adjuncts are employed in a contingent fashion, so they fear for their jobs and will not cause trouble for the management classes. Since so many Trustees/Regents come from the world of Business, they see this as A Good Management Practice To Strengthen The Bottom Line, and reward those administrators with larger salaries, titles, and sinecures.
We in the Faculty are not blameless, though. We have contributed to this in two key ways.
First, through our disciplines, we took the idea of research and/or creative activity that will add to the body of knowledge in the discipline to an extreme. Through our scholarly organizations and our intradisciplinary promotion and tenure committees, we created “publish or perish.” Take note: I am not arguing for a removal of the research/creative activity requirement. What I am arguing for is balance and perspective. When I read that a community college – an institution that is geared towards teaching above all else – is now requiring publication credit for tenure, I worry. There simply aren’t enough outlets for all the knowledge we are allegedly creating, and it is getting more and more difficult to get into even a third-rate journal. (The ranking of journals is a topic for another time.) In addition, through peer review as it is now constituted, in many disciplines knowledge production becomes stilted and inbred intellectually, as the relatively small number of acceptable journals often have sizeable overlap in their editorial board (if not in actual fact, in intellectual history; certain programs dominate certain disciplines), so an idea that is not within the mainstream of that discipline’s thought has a much harder time seeing the light of day. Finally, a journal is a time-consuming and expensive thing, though the material costs can be much lower if it is online. (Of course, several disciplines still have a strong bias against online journals.) This emphasis on publishing more and more research in fewer and fewer journals has required the Faculty to spend a disproportionate amount of time doing research that, if it even gets publish, will reach a decreasing audience. And of course, research can mean grant money, so Administration loves to see that.
Second – and this is tied to the first – we have abdicated our role in shared governance. This was brought home to me in a recent post on Jennifer Jolley’s Facebook page, when a hale fellow named Steven Baker (a mid-level college administrator, from the looks of things), said the following:
“My one (obligatory, being an admin) response is that the disciplinary complex for faculty that has inflated basic requirements to be considered a “good” scholar has forced academics to shed a lot of their administrative and student-directed responsibilities they held for so long in order to feed the beast that is peer-review that admins need to fill those gaps. There are worthless admin positions, but done of us are just as overworked (and definitely underpaid) as many professors.”
Put another way, we don’t have time to do the shared governance things properly because tenure/promotion/grant money has overtaken everything else, including pedagogy. Nature abhors a vacuum, and into that missing governance unscrupulous administrators and staff are all too willing to step.
Once again, I am most assuredly not saying “research is unimportant.” Far from it. My research and my creative activities have made me a better teacher. We in the Academy have a singular responsibility to create and disseminate new knowledge and new ways of looking at things. What I am saying is that we have to be careful to not let our search for new knowledge become so all-encompassing that we allow the Academy to be overrun by charlatans and grifters. If taking a more active part in the life of the college means one less paper on motivic manipulation in Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah**, then perhaps that is not the end of the world. The paper will still be there. If we rotate and share duties, then no one person need do too much work.***
I am taking my fellow faculty members to task here because we ultimately can do something about this. Instead of buying in to the system, stand up to it – especially if you have tenure already. This is one of the reasons tenure exists! Then we can devote our energies to other problems, like legislators and Trustees/Regents meddling in curriculum, politicians and professional rabble-rousers using higher education as both a whipping boy (see the slashing of state budgets in the name of a false “fiscal conservatism”) and a fiefdom (see Florida State University), and the copious problems facing our compadres in P-12 education. But it can’t begin until we stop running good people out of the club.
*Once again, “tenure” doesn’t mean “you can’t be fired.” It means “you have rights of due process to make sure your termination is for a just cause.”
**Of course, I’ve already got that paper written – I just can’t find anyone who will publish it.
***We do that pretty well here at UMM, for the record.
I am currently serving on a search committee (which is why I haven’t been able to blog much).
One of the things that is utterly fascinating* about a search committee is how stylized everything is. We get to generate our own questions for the phone interview/campus interview, but they seem to be derived from some ur-Questions from some years back. There are very clear lines as to what is and what isn’t relevant (and this is how it should be, of course), but you still try to get a read from the candidates in the hopes that you can find the best “fit.”
“Fit,” of course, is often used to make sure the status quo is never upended, and in higher education right now a great debate is raging as to just how sustainable – or unsustainable – the status quo is. Academia treats its contingent faculty horribly, and the non-academic staff usually don’t fare much better. The security of the tenure-track position is denied to all but a few lucky ones, and even then, the tenure process** is getting harder and harder to navigate. Between publication expectation bloat and the demands of accreditation agencies, tenure may in fact be impossible for all but a rarified group. I remarked the other day that “research, teaching, and service” is now more accurately stated as “publication in a narrow range of journals, assessment, and administrative work.”
And what’s more, that’s not accidental.
I’ve made no secret of my wish to move into administration at some point, and one of the main reasons is to be there on the front lines of trying to change things. The current model of higher education is unsustainable. We need to look at the entire system. We need to get away from a model that treats human beings as cogs. We need assessment procedures that build on what faculty do, not ones that needlessly add to their labor. We need publication guidelines that reflect the new reality of the dissemination of academic inquiry. We need new models for peer review that expand the knowledge of the disciplines, instead of codifying current biases. We need administrators who understand faculty, faculty who understand students, and students who understand how much they don’t understand.
What are the solutions?
*”fascinating,” perhaps, for about twelve people
**for the record, I am not referring to my specific situation. UMM has been great thus far.
Same as it ever was:
Only a few of these denominational schools were equal to good second-rate grammar schools, Lindsley charged, and he scorned their “capacious preparatory departments for A, B, C-darians and Hic, Haec, Hoc-ers–promising to work cheap, and to finish off and graduate, in double quick time.”
The quote is from Richard Hofstadter, Academic Freedom in the Age of the College. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955, p. 212. Hofstadter is known today as an historian of populism and anti-intellectualism, but in this instance he turned his gaze on the development of academic freedom and the beginnings of American higher education. In this case, Hofstadter is quoting Rev. Philip Lindsley, an 1804 graduate of Princeton and later president of Cumberland College (which became the University of Nashville).
So when I rant about the low standards and fly-by-night nature of most of your for-profit “universities and colleges,” at least I’m part of a grand historical tradition.