I’ve started a podcast, “Placing culture,” which focuses on cultural geography, and particularly on conversations with individuals doing work at the intersections of geography, the arts, sciences, and humanities. You can follow the podcast via tumblr, Twitter and SoundCloud. The first episode, with Stephen Daniels and Lucy Veale of the University of Nottingham School of Geography, is embedded below.
After seemingly retreating from obsessive micro-managing of student numbers, certain administrators at my university have recently returned to routinely flagging “low enrolling” sections term-by-term while now also pointing to numbers of majors when citing decisions about faculty lines and other forms of program support.
I, like most faculty I know, understand the need for sound financial management and also the value in periodically assessing faculty lines and the distribution of university resources. As part of that, I accept both that not all programs will be viewed equally by administrators, and that there may be a variety of bases for determining the value of programs. As faculty, you find ways to deal with administrative priorities in whatever way you can.
However, it is difficult to understand these kinds of judgments where the logic of administrative assessment and decision making cannot be followed or is not articulated to faculty. I can think of a few reasons why there might be an intense focus on “low enrollments” and “program size” on the part of administrators on my campus right now, but I don’t actually know which, if any, of these might be the correct answer to why the metrics that are being valorized are, in fact, being valorized.
To begin my guesses, the Oregon University System is being dissolved. The larger institutions, University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State, have already been freed to establish independent boards. For smaller campuses like mine future governance it still to be determined. Our president has submitted a proposal to the legislature for an independent board.
It is possible that the obsession with enrollment minutiae has to do with either demonstrating “strong management” to members of the legislature to bolster the case for independence or is more practically concerned with scraping up nickels and dimes from, particularly, reducing adjunct hires, but also from not renewing tenure track lines, in order to finance the prospective board.
Second, after growing from 4,889 in 2006 to 6,233 in 2010, enrollments at Western have essentially settled to around 6,100. It is possible that the concern with micro-enrollments is a reaction to this macro-level contraction and leveling off (my data is from the Fall enrollment reports to OUS). The idea being, I suppose, to rationalize course numbers to what appears to be the popping of an enrollment “bubble” since 2010.
Third, and similar to the first, there have been a number of personnel changes in upper-level administration in the last year, particularly on the academic side of the university. What may be happening here is an attempt to establish some kind of “hard” management style or administrative united front. We have a strong union and a tradition of faculty control over curriculum. Focusing in on term-by-term enrollments and number of majors could be a strategy to divide faculty in competition over students.
A fourth possibility is that the concerns here are not so much about the present, but are about laying groundwork for future hiring decisions, that is, if administrators are on the record now expressing concern about “low enrolling courses” and “small programs”, then later, when decisions are made about faculty lines and adjunct sections on the basis of these metrics, no one can claim ignorance regarding the criteria for allocating faculty resources.
To extend this speculation further, maybe the targeting of section enrollments and rumbling about numbers of majors are expressions of an un-articulated plan for re-shaping the university, one imagines around a few select professional, pre-professional, or simply “practical” programs with currently high enrollments, while gradually downsizing, by attrition, many of the traditional liberal arts and sciences to supporting roles, with no majors and only a few upper-division courses as deemed necessary for the full programs that do remain.
This last point seems the most likely, not just because it imparts a clear logic to the imperatives at work here, but also because it seems consistent with recent actions on hiring. However, as noted, nothing like this reasoning has been directly or clearly shared with faculty.
For me, and many of my faculty colleagues, one of the biggest sources of frustration in this process is not knowing why we have to engage in the exercise of cutting or defending all sub-twelve sections every term. Assuming that the goal, or, okay, let’s say, “outcome”, is one that faculty can at least sympathize with, I am sure that many, maybe most, would be willing to reassess our course schedules and make whatever practical adjustments we can to maximize enrollment each term.
But right now no one particularly understands why every section of every course is expected to meet the same enrollment threshold every term, regardless of program, purpose or enrollment history (I’ll just note here that there are sections of courses on the schedule that are routinely capped at less than twelve). There are, perhaps, vestigial OUS directives being responded to, but that hardly explains the current level of intensity over course enrollments (and I don’t think it explains the attention being paid to number of majors at all), expect, perhaps, as part of my first guess, where dutifully fulfilling system mandates, even as the system is being dismantled, will be looked at favorably in making the case for an independent board.
Of course, if I were in upper-level administration and I had a plan to change hiring practices to favor programs that met certain metrics for section enrollments and program size, or an even more radical plan for remaking the university around those numbers, I probably wouldn’t want to share that with faculty in a direct way either. That is, if the desired outcome is contraction of most of the academic programs at the university, I would not expect most faculty to embrace that outcome.
In an immediate political sense the unspoken rationale or rationales behind both the focus on section enrollments and numbers of majors is that, currently, for faculty to make even the most minor of curricular changes requires detailed explanations (“we must have a culture of evidence!”) and an assessment plan for determining if the stated purposes, excuse me, “outcomes”, are met.
Right now faculty have no idea what the administrative outcomes are, what goals are meant to be achieved, by imposing an enrollment threshold of twelve and insisting that majors be of a certain size, or how those outcomes are to be assessed (and, it should be noted, the exact number for size of major has not been articulated).
Without that information these imperatives seem arbitrary. It isn’t difficult to think of other ways of measuring departmental health or vitality or value – whatever term you like – besides section-by-section enrollments or number of majors. Why not total section enrollments? Why not student credit hours? Why not annual enrollments? At a small school like mine, why look at the departmental scale, why not Division or College? Why look at number of majors instead of student contact hours? Why employ the same measurements or standards for all departments when different departments serve different primary functions, e.g., there are departments that are primarily service departments and there are departments that primarily serve majors? Why is teaching majors more important than teaching in the core?p
My point isn’t that these would all be better measures than the ones being deployed. My point is that how you measure value or success should depend on your underlying purpose and not the other way around, that is, I don’t think what we do as faculty, or as a university community, should be driven by metrics that are selected prior to understanding what kind of a place we want the university to be. There is no prima facie or obvious value to section enrollments, or to twelve students, as opposed to any other number of students, or to numbers of majors. The fact that we don’t know what value is being ascribed to these measures is a far bigger problem for me right now than is the insistence that they be applied in the first place. It makes me wonder why these numbers are not being presented for discussion, but are simply being imposed.
This coming Winter I will be teaching my first fully online course. To prepare, I decided to attend some of the Moodle workshops during Fall in-service at my university. While my initial purpose was narrowly drawn to learning how to get my course up and running, this orientation also introduced me to a parallel digital institution which I had only vaguely been aware of before.
Ironically, I think my lack of awareness is not due to a lack of interest in or resistance to online communication and social media, but because, relatively at least, I have been an early user of such tools for my classes. I have, for over a decade now, been trying out, and putting into practice, a variety of resources on the public web, from my server space at the university to blogging services and sites like Pinterest, in support of my courses. I haven’t needed prompting or significant investments in support and infrastructure from my university to engage with students digitally.
After the introductory workshop I attended I immediately began thinking about whether I should be making use of my university’s official digital spaces. I did, immediately, fill out my online profile pages, which, too, I did not know about. For whatever reason and to whatever effect, administrators at Western have encouraged faculty to go online, and have slowly built an architecture that makes it relatively easy to do so, but use of these resources has largely been left to individual faculty, or faculties, to decide. Not surprisingly, this has clearly resulted in an unevenness to what, notably, students will find from professors when directed to sanctioned spaces online.
Beyond populating my profile pages with information, I have, for the moment, decided that, I will use the formal online infrastructure primarily to direct students to my more public presences, and not in place of those resources.
I would be lying if I claimed that inertia and my sunk investment in my existing workflow had no role in this decision, but I have more substantive reasons for this choice as well.
As I’ve already implied, “WOU Online” and the university “Portal” system are both variations on walled gardens, with the former being more open than the latter, but still fundamentally designed to be accessed by those with WOU ids. There’s a philosophical aspect to this, I prefer not to treat my teaching materials as proprietary, even in a de facto way, but also a practical dimension.
One of the tools in Moodle I’ve thought most seriously about trying to use right away is its functionality for assignments and grades, which can allow for an essentially seamless process of submission, assessment and feedback, and posting of grades. After giving this some thought, I decided that my current system for electronic submission, which involves students sending me their work via e-mail attachment and me uploading assignments into Google Drive, had at least the advantage of not requiring students to login to Moodle before submitting their work.
This would not be an issue if my course resources were all being collected and distributed via WOU Online, but they are not, and that’s where the walled garden concern matters. I don’t want my syllabi and other materials behind a wall and I can’t see sending my students behind the wall to perform certain operations when everything else we do is located somewhere else on the public web. Some of my students have a hard enough time tracking the online syllabus and the class blog. I can’t see asking them to also go to this other, largely disconnected, space, too. More broadly, it is now easy for students who are inclined to do so to find me and my courses online, and equally so for those already at Western and those thinking of attending, not to mention having my materials accessible by others more generally. It is a small matter, but right now my course resources also serve a public service function that would be largely lost by moving my materials into the more “secure” spaces at my university.
I don’t want to give up the resources I’ve cultivated on my own, not only because of their open and public natures, but also because I have more control over the look and feel, content, and structure of what I currently use online than I would if I were to shift to places like WOU Online for communicating and interacting with students. This is most true for my faculty website, which I built from the ground up with the help of Anne-Marie, but even services like Pinterest and Vimeo are more “design rich” than are the institutional alternatives.
I know that Moodle is more flexible than the basic set up available in WOU Online and that if I wanted to I could dig deep into how to customize, but I also think that, ultimately, I would still have to work in an institutional frame and that there are inherent limitations to using a set of tools envisioned specifically for “course management” and not more broadly for communicative purposes.
A very small minority of students the past few years have assumed my courses would be “in Moodle” and some have been critical of my not being there. Now I have course shells set up to reach those students, as well as an active profile in WOU Online. It may be that at some point I will be compelled by student expectation to move more of my course resources into Moodle – the leader of the orientation I attended told another attendee that he thought that students would soon expect to be able to track their grades online via Moodle – but until I know more about what I might be able to do in these kinds of institutionally managed spaces, and am persuaded by their advantages, I am inclined to keep communicating via the public web. I can see where Portal and WOU Online would appeal to faculty who have been reluctant to move their course resources online, at base, all you have to do is fill out forms to use these tools, but for someone like me, these UIs compel compromises that I’m not prepared to make until I can see clearer advantages to doing so, both for myself and my students.
Some perspective on undergraduate majors and employment
Here is a re-presentation of a discussion I initiated on Twitter about choosing an undergraduate major sparked by the first hour of the Diane Rehm Show today (http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2013-08-29/derek-bok-higher-education-america).
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As I’ve documented before, while “finishing” with Comic Book City, I started work on a new film project, one based on selected writings by J.B. Jackson. Most of the work I’ve done so far has involved going back to Jackson’s essays and drawing out major themes around which to make my film, or films, but as of yesterday I’ve also started to shoot video.
My intention is to use moving images to interpret, comment on and reconsider Jackson’s work. In interpreting his writings, I want to show them in practice, or how landscape looks from the perspective of his essays. In commenting on his work, I want to draw attention to gaps or silences, or unarticulated implications of his writings (one example that I was working with this week while out with the camera was the role of nature or non-human agents in the making of landscape). In reconsidering his ideas about landscape, I want to place his work in contemporary context. I think, for example, that Jackson’s celebration of car culture in the United States bears revisiting in light of how that culture is changing and how the landscapes associated with that culture have also changed in the past 30 years.
I had the idea for basing film and video work on J.B. Jackson’s writings a number of years ago, stemming from my teaching of Landscape in Sight (Yale University Press, 1997) and Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, eds. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (University of California Press, 2003) in my upper division cultural geography seminar. In particular, I have been thinking about “The abstract world of the hot-rodder” (1958/59) in audio-visual terms for awhile, and also as a work that would be interesting to re-examine in light of changing relationships to modes of transportation in the United States.
Despite this history, I did the work that would become Comic Book City first for a number of reasons, I think. I wanted to do a longer form film, and it still isn’t clear to me what form this film is going to take, or even if it is going to be a film or films. I also wanted my first major academic work in moving images to not only be “feature length”, but also, essentially, straight-forward in terms of design and execution. So, I think, at some level, I understood I probably needed more experience before turning my attention to the J.B. Jackson concept, though I don’t remember making that as a conscious choice.
Whatever the case, I think that the experience of making Comic Book City will be important to my execution of the current project.
First, it helped me to gain confidence in my ability as a filmmaker. Finishing and screening that film, putting my work “out there”, was invaluable in moving me forward to take on what is, I think, a more creatively ambitious work.
Second, I went into making Comic Book City not knowing what I might end up doing with it, especially in terms of peer review, but as a conventional “feature length” film, I at least had a finished product that was simple enough to manage. What I learned from my experience is that working in non-traditional forms like film and video poses challenges for peer review and for publishing, but that it also opens opportunities for connecting across disciplines and that there is a sense of freedom that comes from working outside of traditional formats for scholarly work in geography. In short, ultimately, I was able to do with Comic Book City what I wanted to do, no need to negotiate with publishers about open access or making the film available in other formats. The experience of bringing that film to fruition was liberating, and I think I needed to be set free before returning to thinking about J.B. Jackson.
Third, while I am planning collaborations on the soundtrack, in the field, I am planning to be a one-person crew for most of what I do here. This is mostly question of mobility and being free to work opportunistically, something I wasn’t able to do when conducting interviews and going to specific events for Comic Book City.
Along the same lines, I am not planning on working with human subjects on this project. This will actually make this film more like my non-film work, which has dealt primarily in the interpretation of texts rather than with informants.
I’ve also been thinking about form and how I want to experiment more with “modular” structures. I realized in putting together Comic Book City that the documentary could be broken down into pieces, and I have made many of those pieces available on Vimeo, but that is more incidental than planned. Here I am thinking of an almost fully flexible work, one that could be presented as some kind of a whole, but also as fully realized “modules”. That may change, but editing Comic Book City opened my mind to a number of possibilities that I want to play with more (I am also being more immediately influenced by having taught Jim Jarmusch with my Geography and Film students last Spring).
Most of all, making Comic Book City affirmed for me that, while I still enjoy and want to do traditional forms of writing, film and video are the media I most want to work with, especially in further developing my interests. I don’t think I would be pursuing, for example, insights from Actor Network Theory or notions of affect in papers in the way that I am in film and video. There are many areas of theory in cultural geography that I relate to more meaningfully and creatively in audio visual terms than in words, which is to say, I think I have more of an original contribution to make in my fields as a filmmaker than as a writer.
I am not entirely sure what I think about the Pay It Forward approach to tuition for public higher education in the U.S., but I do think that the Oregon legislature passing a bill to study the idea is a a welcome spark of creativity in the ongoing debate about costs and affordability.
At first look, I am drawn to the idea for its apparent progressiveness, but it is hard to say how well, or how progressively, Pay It Forward, as proposed here, would actually work in practice. If the proposed study is well crafted and executed, and a solid pilot is recommended and launched, there should be answers to these questions in the next couple of years and perhaps some meaningful action on at least college affordability as a result, whether in the form of Pay It Forward or some other approach that might emerge from the discussion being started here in Oregon.
However, I do have two more specific thoughts on the early debate over the idea.
First, I am singularly unpersuaded by one of the central arguments being made against the concept of Pay It Forward, namely, that the approach is either unfair to or a disincentive for students intending to, and who do, enter high-paying jobs or professions after college.
Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, sums up this argument in a Time Business article by Martha C. White, “‘It’s a real moral hazard problem,’ she says. ‘If you have no intention of doing anything other than staying home with your kids, this is great for you. If you think you’re going to be an investment banker, you’re going to think really hard,’ and might decide not to participate with ‘Pay It Forward’ or attend a state school.” At The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann, calls this the, “engineer problem.”
Baum’s invocation of “moral hazard”, suggests that, on one level, this is an argument about the ethics and politics of “redistributive” social policies. Where one stands on this question depends on one’s political commitments and vision of a just society. Some people will insist on seeing Pay It Forward as a system that punishes the rich, who are, implicitly, hardworking, and rewards the poor, who are, implicitly, lazy. Comparing a stay-at-home spouse to an investment banker is a framing that seems deliberately designed to make this point.
Writing as a professor, I’m thrilled by the prospect of the odd student who is not fixated on what job they’ll get after graduation. Presumably, that individual is seeking a college degree to be a more fulfilled human being, citizen and member of society and not just because they’ve been told, repeatedly, that higher education is necessary to securing, “a good job.” If it takes a few investment bankers – or a few more university professors – to subsidize that person, fine by me, and, on balance, better for my classes.
More realistically, there are very few individuals who choose to go to college without some job or career intentions, and in that case, where everyone has a job and everyone is paying back into the system, identifying “takers” and “makers” becomes less clear. I think you have to look at his issue from a particularly abstract perspective to see much of a problem with Baum’s investment banker paying more, over time and in absolute terms, than, say, a teacher or home healthcare worker.
And if you do consider the principle here in abstraction, I think that you then also have to consider the broader question of value in relationship to different educational and employment choices, and not just how much someone ends up paying back to their college or university. Does Baum really think that the well-educated stay-at-home parent contributes less to society than the investment banker? (I’m not even asking for consideration to be given to the damage that actual investment bankers have done to other people’s livelihoods when using their educations solely for their own enrichment. Imagine an ethical banker, if you want).
The other side to this argument, Weissmann’s “engineer problem”, is not so much that Pay It Forward sets up a moral hazard, but rather that individuals with high-income aspirations simply won’t like the idea of ultimately paying more than those whose job goals or prospects are less lucrative. These feelings of unfairness or resentment will lead the engineers of the world to avoid Pay It Forward schools, leaving those institutions with a revenue problem.
Unlike the moral hazard question, the “engineer problem” is an empirical matter and until there is an actual trial of Pay It Forward no one will know if this problem is, in fact, a problem. That being said, I do think that arguments like these are rhetorically powerful for many Americans, but that, in practice, most people don’t actually base many of their important life decisions, like where to go to college, solely on calculations of whether their choices will result in them coming out economically “ahead” or “behind” other people.
Studies of the effect of tax rates on both households and businesses largely suggest that these play little to no role in individual choices regarding where to live or do business. That isn’t to say that there aren’t those who will decide to move, whether themselves or their business, because of perceptions of being unfairly taxed, but as Matthew Yglesias has noted recently, even in contexts where you might expect individuals to act as rational profit-maximizers, they often don’t, choosing instead to give greater weight to other values or outcomes.
While the ability to choose a college for reasons other than cost and affordability is substantially tied to class in the U.S., this is also an intensely personal choice for many students. Closeness to, or distance from, home, where one’s friends are, or are not, going, family ties to an institution, sports and geographic allegiances, quality of academic programs, appeal of campus life and activities, are some of the more obvious factors that can and do influence where an individual might go to college in addition to cost and how to pay. In other words, and by way of example, it is hard for me to imagine an aspiring engineer from a long line of engineers, all of whom attended Oregon State, turning their back on the family legacy simply because Pay It Forward leaves a bad taste in their mouth, which is how I understand the essence of the argument articulated by Baum and Weissmann.
I first learned about the Pay It Forward proposal in the Oregon legislature from Think out Loud on OPB and on that broadcast one of the arguments in favor turns the “engineer problem” on its head. The position here is that the status quo causes students to value earning potential over other considerations when choosing a program of study and looking at options for employment after college. The result is that many individuals end up majoring in fields about which they care little and entering into jobs that might pay well, but are not very fulfilling. More particularly, individuals are dissuaded from choosing jobs and professions in socially valuable, but lower paying, fields such as teaching and social work or, even, less remunerative specialities in otherwise higher paying areas like law and medicine.
In the absence of evidence one way or another, it is difficult to say whether the status quo’s “teacher problem” is greater than Pay It Forward’s “engineer problem”, but I do think it should be noted that the proposal under consideration is not classically progressive in that the tax that would be levied on post-college income will be flat, working out to 3% annually for individuals who finish their degrees in four years. This is clearly intended to make the system appear “fair” and to garner support across party and ideological lines, but it does make Pay It Forward less progressive than it could be if there were different tax rates for different income levels. I also think that this decision has implications for my second thought.
Pay It Forward is clearly aimed at addressing the problems of student debt and college affordability, but, in regards to U.S. public higher education at least, those issues are not isolated, but are the consequences of declining funding. Simply put, rising tuition and fees, and therefore student debt, are responses to state legislators cutting support to public institutions of higher education.
My sense here is that following a Pay It Forward model for tuition is probably an excellent idea where there is an adequate baseline of funding for services and the physical plant, but that where tuition dollars are being counted on to provide that baseline, the model turns risky. This sense is reflected in the recurring question of how to pay for the first generation of students, if and when Pay It Forward is adopted. In effect, state voters or legislators will have to be willing to provide funding to the public system at a level much higher than they have been willing in order to implement Pay It Forward. The question then becomes one of how serious everyone is about the potential for the model to bring down debt and make college more affordable. Maybe the Oregon study will reframe the funding issue in a way that gets the relevant individuals thinking about funding in a realistic and productive way or maybe members of the legislature who voted for the proposal are hoping that somehow the study will provide a magic key for solving all of OUS’ financial problems. It won’t, obviously.
Even if at the end of the study process in Oregon there is a consensus that Pay It Forward would reduce student debt and make college more affordable for more people it still seems likely that no one will have the will to address the problem of funding. In that case, the real shame won’t be the failure to implement Pay It Forward, but the confirmation that platitudes, and studies, are about as far as most people in positions of political and economic power are willing to go in support of higher education.
A few years ago I had the idea to start an online journal devoted to film and video work in/on/about geography, but at different points technological, financial and support issues became barriers to getting the project launched. Recently, I decided to readjust my thinking and reboot the journal as a “channel” on Vimeo, “Moving Image Geography”. You can go to the homepage, and also get content notices via Twitter. If you have relevant interests and qualifications, I am looking for additional moderators. Contact me with inquiries if you’re interested.
In the meantime, here are two of my initial selections: