Delight Springs

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Our chief weapons

The annual Fall Faculty Meeting in Tucker auditorium yesterday felt to some of my colleagues less like the falsely flattering pep talk it usually is, and more like a public scolding by our university president for the benefit of those tight-fisted GOP state legislators sitting just before him in the front row. They must've loved seeing Bill Ford, proud adviser to the Young Republicans and past scourge of our philosophy department, receive his lifetime achievement award. Graciously too, I must admit.

"If students interrupt your day you're in the wrong profession!" True enough. Teaching at every level should always be "student-centered." So should research, at least in the sense that it (like the best teaching) is ultimately auto-didactic.

But the new public university mantra "retention and graduation" began after awhile to remind me of MLK's alliterative allusion to George Wallace, "lips dripping with nullification and interposition." Of course we want to keep our students for four good years and then send them into the work-world with minds made full and curious and compassionate (as described in that wonderful Rhodes vision statement).

We also want to be sure our students are not just racing through a curriculum modeled on the industrial assembly line. I'm uncomfortable when my president speaks of the library, for instance, as a mere source of "input" not to be allowed to interfere with churning out our "product" (a degree-holding and employable new worker for the 21st century) on deadline.

"We can philosophize all we want" about this results-oriented  approach, President McPhee allowed, but the "reality" is that public higher education now must deliver the goods. And to underscore the point, he held up the morning's newspaper with its headline about the Tennessee approach being applauded by President Obama as a possible model for the nation. He looked just a bit like Harry Truman in 1948.

And he's right, there's nothing more important in education than student success properly defined. And yes, again, the cost of higher ed is shameful. It can't be lowered soon enough (especially for those of us with kids in college.) We can't fix a broken system or insure student success, though, guys in the front row, without taxpayer support.

But OK, I'm ready. After lunch in the shiny new grand ballroom of the shiny new Student Center (speaking of student-centered learning at all costs) with grousing colleagues from other disciplines (those from mine bailed, but I never skip a free lunch) I stuck my head into the bookstore and confirmed that all my books are indeed on the shelves, waiting to be whisked up by knowledge-hungry young minds.

(So students, please do your jobs: acquire and read them: HAP 101 top right, CoPhi bottom left.) One distressing feature of the new student-centered paradigm has been a greater administrative tolerance for those students who report that they just don't like to read. Despite current trends, though, I'm not an administrator.)

Then, I popped over to Forrest Hall. It's the ROTC building on campus, and (since we lost our old classroom across the hall) the venue for my first class of the new semester Monday.  The walls of my new classroom are a little scolding, too.
Yes, our chief weapons include a ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the, umm, Provost? Gotta love this new era of accountability.  Don't forget fear and surprise.

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