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Some academic navel-gazing

December 21, 2011

Recently, in the course of my blog-reading, I was pointed to two articles, one in the New York Times through Bill Caraher and one in the Chronicle of Higher Ed through John Hawks.  The first is a piece about the purpose of undergraduate education, while the second is about the quantity vs. quality of research being produced in the humanities.

The NYT piece is interesting in its own right, but the comments were actually what stuck out most to me (I know, I know. . . call it a guilty pleasure).  Some of these seem to be obvious trolling, since it doesn’t exactly take keen Google-fu to figure out that increases in fees at public universities have nothing to do with funding research in the humanities (actually, it doesn’t take much Googling at all to see that, at the UC at least, this is something of a shell game; if the UC is to be believed, these increases are to make up for the fact that state funding per student in 2009-2010 was about half of what it was in 2000-2001).  I’ve noticed, though, that the idea that universities should adopt a corporate model comes up a lot in comments on articles like this.  It’s also something I heard a lot when I was teaching writing.  The idea was that students often consider their fees as a payment for a product: a grade, a degree, etc. (I noticed that this product was never “an education,” though — why would you pay for something so trivial, I guess).  I wonder, would that system actually be a lot different from the one we currently have?  Theoretically, in a system like that you would shift the focus of professors away from teaching toward activities that pull in grants; after all, the students are only paying for their grade or their degree, so there’s no reason to put a lot of effort into teaching them, and it’s cheaper to hire TAs or adjuncts to do it, anyway.  Likewise, you would want to bring in as many out-of-state students as possible, since they pay just a bit more than in-state students do.  The big difference seems to be that in a perfect world you would just eliminate less profitable departments entirely.  That last comment was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek until this morning, when I read this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and remembered that Florida Gov. Rick Scott basically said exactly that, but seriously, earlier this year.  I agree with Scheper-Hughes that the problem really isn’t that public universities need to adopt corporate models, but that these have probably been adopted much too easily (I disagree with her, however, on the issue of professors needing secretaries. . .).

I don’t have as much to say about the second piece, and I think John Hawks gives a good summary of the ways that this problem is related to the problems that the first one brings up, specifically the focus on research at the expense of teaching.  As Bauerlein says, the solution is probably to change the practices of hiring and tenure committees.  I did want to point out, though, the somewhat odd position archaeology is in, at least compared to many humanities disciplines.  It’s arguable that overproduction of writing is a problem in our field, as well, but on the other hand, many sites continue to be under-published (or not published at all, in some cases).  For us, I think, we need not only to consider adjusting our priorities in terms of the research/teaching balance, but also our priorities when it comes to what we actually publish.

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