Thursday, September 30, 2010

The future of higher ed?

While browsing the anthropology blog, Savage Minds, I clicked on a link that made me feel for a moment that I had entered Bizarro Blog World.

The blog is called Confessions of a Community College Dean, and this is what Dean Dad says about his blog:

The cast of recurring characters includes The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl. The Boy is in elementary school. The Girl is in preschool, and queen of all she surveys.

For a moment, I felt like I had a glimpse of the hand that might be writing this script called my life... Or it might be just that, given the numbers of Americans involved in higher education, either as students or as the faculty and staff, a lot of people might have a lot to say on parenting and work in academia / higher ed. BTW, I know for a fact that Dean Dad is not me in drag. Also, it is not StraightMan. In addition, Beanie is the one in 1st grade, and Bubbie the one in preschool. Plus, neither StraightMan nor I are deans (personally, I can think of nothing I want to do less...) or teaching at community colleges (which as unglamorous as that might have seemed to me as an undergraduate and graduate student, I think is where higher education might be most critical today...)

Anyhow. This post, "Will They Still Need Me When I'm 64," might give pause to the graduate student or the faculty member advising undergraduate students about graduate school.

For the moment, I will bracket what Dean Dad says about the current status of academia / higher ed and its projected future - bracketing being one of those things that we in academia / higher ed (esp. anthropology...) do so well: Kind of a form of intellectual procrastination.

Instead, I want to say that I like what Dean Dad says about "the ‘bundling’ function that institutions perform. There’s a value in having a single place to go that answers multiple needs at once." As a cultural anthropologist, it strikes me that the discourse on "assessment" in higher ed, for example, ought to be understood not only as, say, the recalcitrance of faculty mired in their 19th century conception of The University or the idiocracy of a growing strata of university and college administrators or even as a concern of workload (on which I have commented here before...) - but might be even more significantly a contest over the meaning of academia / higher education. In particular, to make it less bundly...

The assessment imperative, I suggest, carries with it what I will characterize as a restricted understanding of academia / higher education: It frames the rather messy enterprise of teaching and learning into the much neater terms of input and output, i.e., "outcomes." From where I perch, the problem is that assessment starts with a rather narrower definition of the purpose of higher ed: After all, when one is attempting to collect data, there need to be measures. It seems to me, however, through the practice of assessment, the restricted definition becomes imposed. It sets the terms in which we can talk about - and think about - the meaning of higher ed.

For example, my department produced student outcomes, the language of which a campus advisory committee criticized: We had to rewrite them. Ask your favorite expert on Foucault: It is through such "capillary" actions that power becomes exercised. Or just ask your local anthropologist: Contests of culture happen in experiences of everyday life.

I worry about what it means to restrict the meaning of academia / higher education. Would it not rob us all, not just those of us participating in academia / higher education, of a place / space where meaning in its multiplicity matters?


  1. Our age seems to produce both nostalgia and a need for scapegoats. Pundits and presidents have responded to this by scapegoating us educators, who, it is implicitly alleged, aren't doing as good a job as our predecessors did. They have burdened us with Outcomes Based Assessment so we can "save" higher ed. The politicians look like they are addressing the issue, but, in fact, no one knows for certain that this mechanical attention to inputs and outputs actually improves higher education. Of course, politicians probably don't care all that much as long as they can avoid the heat.

  2. I agree. This is exactly why I thought Nicholas Lemann's piece in the recent issue of The New Yorker seemed so spot-on: While no one is suggesting that all is well in higher ed, the idea that higher ed needs to be "saved" - and by particular measures like assessment and austerity - is a story being told. Or sold. (I blogged about it earlier - see the post, "Don't believe the hype.")