The Stump Speech for Higher Ed’s Relevance that Wasn’t

Image source: 1859

Image source: 1859

I already wrote a bit about my experience at the symposium for Framing the Future of Higher Education I attended on Friday in Austin, Texas. I was part of an opening discussion around the changing role of faculty in the future of higher education. While I am not a professor, the work I did with ds106 has suggested to many that I might be some demented, cyborgian vision of what’s to come.  I can only hope they’re wrong.

I really liked the format of the conversational featured session, and it was a pleasure responding to Sally Johnstone’s ideas. The plan was to have a quick 8-10 minute intro where we talk about our vision of the future of higher ed. As an exercise I wrote up my position, and for a minute I though I might use it. But I abandoned it at the last moment because it didn’t feel right. I ended up talking specifically about what UMW’s doing with Domain of One’s Own, and the vision of a community inspired to interrogate the digital landscape as part of a broader interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts.

I’m including what I wrote up for the initial speech below with hopes I might come back to it and make it better (or someone out there will 🙂 ). It’s too preachy and not nuanced enough on the issues of cost, privilege, and ackowledging and exploring the wide-range of alternatives on the landscape. That said, the idea that higher ed (not vocational training and certification) at it’s heart should be a place that cultivates alternative ways of imagining the world we live in would not get cut. I truly believe it should be a place of stark critique, creative possibilities,  and boundless hope, but that’s probably why I am ever more useless going forward. My ideals and the reality couldn’t be more divergent in the aggregate. I’m trying to be honest with myself on that count, but it still hurts.

What’s the role of higher education?

This is a question we could probably dedicate a series of conferences to, and I’m well aware it’s a far broader question than we can cover in this discussion. But it’s an important anchor for my position within this discussion. I think the role of higher ed is not just to teach and certify students, but also challenge some of our most sacred cultural assumptions.

The discussion around access to an education is often limited to the political keywords of lowers costs and equal opportunity, and while they’re both crucial, there’s a third element of access associated with the university that’s eroding: access to truly alternative ways of thinking. An educated community that is given the freedom and power to critique who we are and what we do. I would argue it’s not only crucial for students to have access to these ideas, but also for our culture at large.

[Aside: a large part of this erosion is brought on by the tenured class of academics themselves–welcoming in a wave of adjunct labor to work for a fraction of the cost that often enabled less teaching and more freedom, but without any mind to the longterm implications of this reality. ]

We’ve become increasingly polarized as a nation when it comes to politics (#theteaparty), religion (#hobbylobby), and wealth (#occupy), and there’s little question anymore, at least legally, that corporations are increasingly the people we aspire to be. But for me, and I can only speak for myself in this, education provided a space for us to move beyond these extremes. A space to cultivate a more nuanced, historicized understanding of the ideas that shape who we are as a society. A meta-level of cognition to begin to think about how we think, a space to commune with people who have spent a lifetime thinking about thinking.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting this is the only model for learning or becoming accredited or qualified, but rather a moment wherein we are all encouraged  to dig deeply and critically into who we are, a historical context for the moment we exist in, and an interrogation of the prejudices and promises of our cultural moment. That requires both agency and academic freedom. It requires funding and protections. It requires time for both faculty and students. And, ultimately, it requires an investment in higher education as a perceived need for the health of our culture. Given the tale of state funding for higher education across the US over the last thirty years, one could easily argue that has not been a percieved need by anyone in power for a long while.

That said, one of the reasons we are here today is to talk about the fact that skyrocketing college costs aren’t necessarily equated with better quality—and better compensated—faculty. According to the article in The Atlantic, “The Ever Shrinking role of Tenured College Professors,” since 1975 the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track professors have gone from roughly 45 percent of all teaching staff to less than a quarter. What’s more, the reverse is true for adjunct faculty. The number of part-time faculty has gone from less than 25% of all faculty in 1975 to more than 40% in 2011.

That’s the story, and one of my roles in this is to imagine how ed-tech can honor the mission of access to alternative ideas while at the same time navigate the shark-laden waters of the politics of defunding higher education. It’s a tricky game, especially for an ed-tech like me from a public liberal arts college in Virginia who palys a professor on TV. That said, I am not without ideas….and hopefully I’ll hit on a few of them during our discussion today.

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6 Responses to The Stump Speech for Higher Ed’s Relevance that Wasn’t

  1. Mike C. says:

    I think one related idea is this — the university has two missions: to transmit the wisdom of the past and to reinvent the future.

    So it’s not just about teaching individual students to be critical, it’s about the university as an environment that keeps thought and culture and even science from becoming rusted shut in their current positions.

    If you believe that you have to ask — what is it that contrains the possibilities of the outside world? That limits us, and reduces our creativity and potential? That pushes us into worn frameworks of “how we ought to act”?

    I think the answer is technology. We’ve both thought that for a decade now. And yet we live in this world where faculty have no requirement or social pressure to use anything other than Bb. We want the university to reinvent the world, except for all the net-mediated bits. What does that mean, even now? What will that mean in ten years?

    Either we get as serious about teaching students to use technology as we are about having students learn to write or we accept our future as a museum of ideas. The claim that we’re teaching students to reinvent the future without reinventing the way that we use tech is a joke.

    Crap, I just depressed the hell out of myself.

  2. Matt says:

    Wish I could have been there for this conference. No one even told me about it until 3 days before! I’m still also suspicious of anything Rick Perry does – his view on anything is usually paid for by the highest bidder, so you have to wonder what is in it for him with the $10,000 degree thing.

  3. Geoff Cain says:

    I can’t think of anything less relevant than tenure right now. I see too many professors using it as a way to shield the status quo, and I have known very few professors who had anything worth saying that needed to be protected. What we are really teaching the students is that protecting privilege is more important than accountability.

  4. Matt says:

    While I’m not a huge supporter of the tenure idea, I also work with many professors across many universities and I would disagree with your broad stroke against tenured professors Geoff. Many of them do push the limits and have some provocative things to say. Certainly, there is a vocal minority of professors that abuse the concept of tenure for protection. But most see it as a system they are forced to participate in – you either have to obtain tenure or lose your job. You would be surprised how many have told me they would rather just skip tenure, but they can’t because their job (and first raise in 6 years) depends on it).

  5. Yeah, it wanders quite a bit. You were close to a good formulation, but you hadn’t found that key point to hang everything else on.

    Reading through it, this is what I think you were trying to say:

    “The purpose of most education is to examine and inform ourselves about what is. The purpose of higher education is to examine and inform ourselves about what could be.”


    • Reverend says:


      I really like that forum lation, and one of the things I’ve appreciated about your writing over the years is your ability to be more direct, succinct, and get at a thing really quickly and powerfully. I appreciate the feedback, and I’m gonna give this another shot. Thanks for the focus.

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