Friday, February 13, 2009

The unethical nature of the LAC

I think many Liberal Arts Colleges or Universities play a bait-and-switch game with their students and parents.

I'm talking about a particular kind of Liberal Arts College/University --- be it small or large. Let me describe it to you ---
  • Markets itself to parents as a good place to learn, with small classes and lots of student/faculty interaction.
  • Has high tuition ($30,000/ year and above).
  • Has substantial research expectations of its faculty and a standard 3/3 or 4/4 load..
  • Has aspirations to be a research university, thus it makes hiring and P/T decisions based on research and not on teaching ability.
Understand that my criticisms below mostly apply to disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, if only because I understand how they work. They may or may not apply to the hard sciences or other areas.

Also -- understand that I'm not saying everyone at such a place IS unethical, only that the structure of such a place tends to reward unethical treatment of students. Of course, many folks do well by their students in such an institution but that is because they work hard to do so in a system that is not designed to facilitate good teaching.

The problem is that, in such institutions, the structure of the institution makes it difficult to be both a good teacher and a good researcher. Of course, they make noise about research influencing teaching -- blah, blah, blah -- BUT, unless a) the research is about teaching itself or b) the research is at an undergraduate's intellectual level, it seems unlikely that there is substantial overlap between scholarship and the classroom. It is a rare person who is a good researcher and can communicate complex concepts to undergrads in a meaningful way. Often those folks are discounted as "just good teachers".

The unethical part about this is that the students or their parents are paying a lot of money and they are not getting the education they are paying for. If they were, the professors would either have fewer classes or lower research requirements. As it is, the professor's time is divided between teaching and research -- and when grading is put in the teaching side of the equation, the time for preparation and thought about the classroom experience is significantly decreased. Add to that an institutional structure that expects and rewards research AND the fact that research is generally more interesting, it pretty clear why most people will slight the classroom for the research.

This is different from ACTUAL research universities (R1s)-- in three ways....

1) R1s aren't marketed to parents as being student-focused places for high quality education due to small class sizes and high faculty/student interaction. Instead R1s market themselves as being a place where excellent students can excel. There isn't an illusion of being student-focused. Perhaps you can claim that their marketing implies student interaction with research super-stars, but that is easier to see as bogus than the LAC's claims of significant faculty interaction.

2) The faculty at R1s teach fewer sections and often have TAs to do stuff like grading. Thus, they CAN put some additional thought into the classroom presentation because they don't have to do the grading part. That isn't to say that they DO, but -- if they spend 20% of their work time thinking about classes, then that time is not consumed with grading.

3) Many R1s are state schools, so costs are subsidized by tax dollars and -- as a result, it isn't the case that tuition dollars must be spent on research. The state R1 has two stated purposes, teaching and research -- and thus two benefits to the state. Private R1s are schools that come with a high degree of prestige for their graduates, so it can be argued that their tuition dollars are an investment that buys a name that will open doors and result in higher salaries.

This isn't to say that the CC system (or, at least BNCC) doesn't have unethical elements in it's structure -- my Intro, Ethics and World Religions class sizes are a perfect example -- but, our tuition is lower and the student/faculty interaction is higher. We aren't marketing ourselves as a perfect little educational cocoon in which your precious snowflake will be intellectually nurtured and developed -- rather, our marketing is something like "Our tuition $150/credit hour, their tuition $340/credit hour".


Anonymous said...

this is a total tangent but my current institution markets itself to students on small class sizes and student/teacher interaction (you really get to know your profs bleh bleh) to distinguish itself from the big state u in town. The part they don't lead with is that 50% of the time, you're getting to know an adjunct who doesn't actually are that much. I say that as an adjunct who doesn't actually care that much.

I thought of it because it does feel like a bait and switch. They aren't lying about class sizes but that doesn't mean you're actually getting any more contact with full-time faculty than you would be at the state u.

Anonymous said...

I've found that it's the concentrated time in class that makes the difference in how well profs and students get to know each other. I've taught classes that were one hour/three x week and rarely knew anything about my students. They mostly showed up late and left right on time.

Then I've taught for other schools where students were in class twice a week for 2 hours or once a week for 4 hours (yeah night classes were 6-10). Seeing students for two hours at a time, twice a week was nice.

But when you really get to know students is in a once a week four-hour class. And the best part is you don't have to deal with them again till the next week :)

BarbS said...

I'm currently a visiting asst prof at an elite, small LAC; this is the second such gig I've had. Both of these schools advertise themselves in the way you describe, and while one has a teaching load of 2/2, and no Friday classes, which gives faculty a lot more time to devote to both teaching and research, even my current school is more schizophrenic than unethical, I think. The current gig has a 3/3 load, and most profs teach 4 days a week (I've taught 5, but since I'm not t-t, that is considered acceptable). The problem is that while the emphasis here is quite clearly on teaching, with every single job candidate doing a teaching demo that really is the make-or-break part of the campus interview, tenure requirements are getting more stringent. So on the one hand, both faculty and administration really *want* to be student-focused, with lots of interaction (we are *required* to hold 10 hours of office hours a week, for example), getting tenure without significant publications is getting harder. With a huge endowment, it is easy for faculty to do research because there is a ton of money devoted to funding it, but most faculty in humanities and social sciences do their research in the summer or over winter break, or while on leave. In my dept, most people do translating of materials during the semester, or polish articles or other writing done over break. However, as part of the goal of selling parents on the school, the administration has sought out scholars with big names, and bend over backwards to accomodate their speaking engagements and other outside activities. My dept's current chair is a Middle East expert who does a lot of behind the scenes work for the state department, so in the seven months he's been chair, there have been 6 interim chairs to cover things while he's been out of the country for a week or more at a time. Needless to say, this means that his students see a lot of movies! I guess my point is that there is an underlying double standard on the part of the administration that sends a double message to faculty: 1, teaching comes first, but 2, increased name recognition and exposure for the school trumps teaching. I think the increasing tenure demands have grown in part out of this focus for name recognition, with the result being the kind of unethical situation you describe. On the plus side, I guess, is that as tenure requirements get more stringent, the admin and the faculty are more careful about not hiring people they think might not get tenure, and about offering frequent informal meetings to help faculty from the entire school talk about the expectations and how to deal with them, to ensure that as many new hires as possible do get tenure. For someone like me, who hopes to go from here to a t-t job somewhere, research probably takes up more time than it does for most of my colleagues, but since I love teaching and my students, I do try hard to be as prepared as I can be for my teaching. Of course, teaching two sections of the same class for 4 semesters in a row helps! :)

tomorrow said...

If we were chatting over poker, I'd argue w/ you. Right now, I'll just disagree.

I got my undergrad at a small, private LAC. The faculty (98% Ph.D.s) had 4/4 (or more) teaching schedules, they advised students, their research expectations were reasonable (I assume--I never asked). While I was not the best student, they were incredible faculty--they *wanted* their students to succeed.

And, I was not lost in a sea of students at an R1.

It's this experience that I carry into the classroom.

Maybe you should use a small brush with which to classify *all* LACs.

Just my $.02. (Throws a $10 @ you because you'd win it in poker anyway.)

(we miss you)

tomorrow said...

Oh, holy crap!

I got you mixed up w/ another Phil. friend.

I would play poker w/ you, though. (Taking back the tenner.)


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

To be clear -- it I never said that this was the case for all LAC's... but, rather the sort that should be a good LAC and not have delusions that they are a research school. These seem to be more and more common -- and many places that were great LACs have turned into research wanna bes...

Anonymous said...

I think the thing that teaching and design have in common is that they're both things that people who don't know about them just assume that anyone who tries them can do them.

If your students don't pay attention and fail, it's all their fault. And, if people routinely fill out your forms incorrectly, it's because they weren't paying attention.

Those of us who do both are naturally plagued in our sleep by daily encounters with bad teaching and idiotic design.

We get little respect. But, we have neither stopped entire university departments from disassociating themselves with their students' (lack of) achievements nor made people understand that color is a functional element in Powerpoints - and that they have thus far forcibly dissuaded even the most earnest students from reading their visual aides.