When publish or perish bumps up against pedagogy – Part I

Part I:  Has the cost of pedagogy really risen beyond core inflation?

We have all heard the headlines.  College tuition is skyrocketing.  The trajectory is indeed unsustainable.  And for good or ill, it was undoubtedly a key motivating force behind Barack Obama’s recent push to control rising costs by incentivizing a mean and lean model that produces measurable results.  Ok, so once again we are trying to “incorporate” academia using the Walmart plan.  To that end Obama has also encouraged colleges and universities to step up the online coursework opportunities.

In truth, the speech seemed more like warmed-over pablum than thoughtfully conceived policy.  This is mostly because it failed to address the underlying issues that contribute to exponential cost increases while simply attempting to squeeze out more “product” for less money in an already plundered pedagogical system.

Controlling costs is essential.  But in order to do so effectively we need to understand the root causes of academic hyperinflation.  All the cost-cutting efforts seem to be targeted at the teaching end.  If salaries for teaching faculty and services for students are actually out of control, that’s fine. But as someone who has spent most of her adult life in academia, I can say with confidence that there is something wrong with this picture.  If anything, we appear, to be investing less and less in our students at least in the qualitative sense.  Certainly basic costs have escalated.  But have they moved so far beyond core inflation?   In the end,  I am having a hard time squaring the soaring tuition costs with any increased investment in the student .

The brave new world of the permanent adjunct professor:

The specter of well-fed academics living in any ivory set apart and above the concerns of the real world is no more than a fantasy.  The idea has its roots in a bygone era where professors were generally considered upper-middle class. But only a few tattered remnants of that lifestyle still exist in todays world.  Over the past generation the landscape changed. Full time tenure track positions are as rare as hens teeth. They have been supplanted by temporary adjunct positions where professors are hired on a class by class basis and paid a virtual pittance.

How much of a pittance?  The pay for a class involving 3 hours of lecture a week for 14 weeks?  In my case, with a doctorate in microbiology and immunology it has generally been about $2500-$2700 gross. That’s well south of $15/hour when you consider lecture, lecture prep, office hours, testing, grading and correcting papers. We won’t even discuss the time traveling, the wear and tear on my vehicle or the price of gasoline.

For today’s adjuncts, the notion of spending an entire day in a single institution has become a luxury they can’t possibly imagine. Their car has become their office as they have morphed into academic road warriors racing from campus to campus in order to teach enough courses to put food on the table.

Some of this might be tolerable for a couple of years if the nascent professor could achieve escape velocity and launch into some kind of permanent position.  But winning Power Ball is probably an easier feat in the current market.  This isn’t simply paying dues.  Its becoming a way of life.

Can this lemon be squeezed any more than it has been? No. When professors with doctoral degrees are only a half step up from a McDonald’s burger flipper, you have pretty much reached rock bottom.

So how does this brave new system square with skyrocketing college costs?  It doesn’t.

The rise of on-line courses:

The only way to squeeze more “productivity” out of this new model is to move everything online. Then a single professor can theoretically lecture to thousands of students at the same time. This would eliminate the need for so many overpaid adjunct professors (sarcasm intended).

But this is already being done. Access to online courses has been steadily increasing on the undergraduate and even graduate levels for several years.  Students are availing themselves of these classes in droves. Shouldn’t that have eased the cost per student?  Certainly. So why the continued cost escalations?

Enter the “virtual laboratory”:

I have to stop here, pause, take a big breath, and ask “Seriously?? Seriously???”

It makes one wonder what is next? How about “virtual surgical residency”? The medical resident trains on a virtual version of the famous game “Operation”. You know its time to jump off the operating table when the surgeon announces that he is going to remove your “funny bone”.

A former professor of mine who teaches her students the old-fashioned way told me how  shocked her summer students were when she informed them  that she actually expected them to attend lecture and attend a wet lab in microbiology.

Oh my gosh! They were expected to grow cultures, get their hands wet, and even wear lab coats and goggles when necessary. Oh! the humanity!  Apparently she is a dying breed of pedagog that actually wants her students to learn something.  These biology majors and pre-med students were used to getting their lectures on “blackboard” (online) and doing their lab work in cyberspace.  The fact that colleges are turning to “virtual” labs for majors is alarming; the fact that a goodly number of these students were from name universities is absolutely terrifying.

Yes, running a wet lab is expensive, but there is absolutely no substitute for hands-on application and experience.  Not EVERYTHING can be moved online. Nothing says that their institution of higher education could care less about their undergraduates better than consigning biology majors and pre-med students to virtual labs. It is a statement of indifference bordering on outright contempt.

Beyond the glaring fact that this trains the student to do exactly nothing on the practical level, I am once again left at a loss to explain the skyrocketing costs of tuition in the face of all of this penny pinching on the pedagogical level.

So where is the money going? Stay tuned to part II for a discussion about the bifurcation of the academic mission and why pedagogy is suffering as a result.

© 2013 – RGHicks – http://reinnovatingamerica.com – All rights reserved.

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One Response to When publish or perish bumps up against pedagogy – Part I

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