Book Review of “The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching”

A snippet from my review posted at the Canadian Journal of Higher Education

In my classes I try to explain to second year comput-ing students that their technical skills are only one part of what they need to succeed. Many jobs are like that, requiring both discipline or field specific skills and trans-ferable or soft skills. In The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (2019) David Gooblar explains that for postsecondary profes-sors teaching is not a soft skill, it is a second discipline we should be engaging in the same way we engage with our primary discipline.

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning is not a new discipline. However, it is often neglected in grad-uate studies, relegated to the individual’s professional development rather than being a core part of the curric-ulum. The Missing Course (2019) is Gooblar’s attempt to provide a concise and practical overview of teaching and learning with the objective of helping college and university instructors improve their classroom teaching. It is a valuable book for everyone who teaches or plans to teach in postsecondary from full professors to new graduate students.

Alberta Post-Secondary Roles and Mandates

A snippet from my article for Communiqué

The Alberta system of post-secondary education may be unique in Canada. As Alex Usher says, “Alberta not only has the closest thing Canada has to a genuine system of education, but the government is also by some distance the most interventionist in the country when it comes to universities” (Usher, 2019). The Albertan system has changed over the years from its single public university – the University of Alberta founded only three years after the province was created (Macleod, 2016) – to the current seven universities. Four of the universities are called comprehensive academic and research universities and three are called undergraduate universities (Types of publicly funded institutions, 2020). In addition to the universities, the province has eleven publicly funded comprehensive community colleges; two polytechnic institutions; five private universities; and the Banff Centre, a specialized arts and cultural institution.

The Alberta system went through an overhaul in the first decade of the twenty-first century. New institutions were added, institutions changed from being colleges to being universities, and funding, which had been cut substantially in the 1990s, was increased (Usher, 2019). More importantly, in this decade was the 2007 introduction of The Roles and Mandates: Policy Framework for Alberta’s Publicly Funded Advanced Education System, which I will refer to as Roles and Mandates 2007. This document formalized the six-sector model that Alberta continues to follow today and laid out the goals and directions the system works towards. Although it has been superseded by 2019’s The Roles and Mandates: Policy Framework for Alberta’s Adult Learning System, referred to as Roles and Mandates 2019, the current structure of the Alberta system was formed by the 2007 version and so this inquiry will focus on the Roles and Mandates 2007 and the report that led to it.

Read the rest here

A Response to “Let the Professors Run the University”

In “Let the Professors Run the University” Dr. Samuel J. Abrams lays out his concerns with how the University has fallen, and he places the blame squarely on the separation of faculty from student services roles.

His argument broken down:

Student facing administrators (by which he seems to be trying to conflate the front line student affairs professionals with management level employees but I’ll use his term shortened to SFA) have begun shaping academic discourse at universities. And this decreases deliberative dialogue.

SFA are more liberal.
SFA set the agenda of what happens on campus because they control everything that is “extracurricular”.
From the link to his other articles (strange that he’s mainly citing his own opinion articles) he, again without citation, says that SFA shape the experience of university.
Again from his self citation: SFA feel that “personal values” are important when educating (and again remember that these are people who only have control over extracurricular) and he implies that this means they are going to push their personal values onto students.

The backdrop of his argument then is that SFA, through their control of things extracurricular, encourage students to be more liberal and progressive and to become activists.

With that in mind he goes on to complain about the number of protests (as he is well versed in the literature and history here I’m sure I don’t need to point out that the small local protests of today are much smaller than the university student led protests of the 1960s). He says that the protests have led to his own university capitulating to student demands.

He follows this up with a complaint that SFA feel that students should be able to direct their own educational path.

The solution to this is to have faculty members run extracurricular programming. This should include everything from student orientation to residence life to academic advising to career services.

Now lets look at the biggest problem here. The average professor makes between $70,000 and $110,000 a year while the average student affairs professional makes between $35,000 and $65,000. To have a professor take over the job of a staff member making 1/2 their salary would be absurdly costly. Every professor who did so would need to do a job that they have no training for at double the efficiency in order for the university to break even.

Unfortunately for his argument the main reason why universities today have so many staff members doing things that in the 1950s were either done by faculty, or weren’t done at all, has a lot to do with capitalism. In the shift from elite to mass education many things needed to be offered at scale. This includes things like residence life, student orientation, academic advising, and career services. To offer these things at scale a professional workforce that specialized in those things took over them, allowing faculty to focus on teaching and research.

If instead a university decides faculty lead student services is an important thing and so will reduce services to ensure that faculty can provide them instead of professional staff then that university will have a harder time competing as they will be providing fewer services for the same price. This problem arises whether you feel that the university is offering “mass” education or “elite” education. Universities are not immune to market forces, and those forces don’t want universities to decrease services, those services are what get students who may not have been able to access post secondary 60 years ago to thrive and graduate on time.

Unfortunately it is not uncommon to see people write articles about post secondary as if you don’t need to think about 1) how much things cost or 2) where that money comes from. Both errors that Dr. Abrams seems to have made.

A second issue in the article is a mistake that Dr. Abrams has made before in his article “One of the Most Liberal Groups in America“. And that issue is the conflation of jobs that results in his phrase “student-facing administrators”, referred to in other articles by him as “professional class of administrators”. In the articles he cites, such as “Remarks on Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty” the definition of “administrator” is very narrow and is used to refer to “vice-presidents and vice-provosts” “deans and chairs” “associate and assistant deans and assistant chairs” and their support staff. Dr. Abrams takes that group and combines them with the Student Affairs professionals to create his term “student-facing administrators”. This allows two things, first it widens the pay scale and second it makes the mean seem like the median or mode.

Vice, assistant, and associate, provosts, deans, and chairs nearly always arise from the faculty side. They usually have a history as a tenured or tenure track professor, and they almost always have a doctoral degree. They nearly always have a higher salary than faculty. Their direct staff tend to be administrative assistants and the like who make 1/4 to 1/3 of what they make and rarely have influence beyond the office in which they are situated.

Student Affairs professionals as a whole have either bachelors degrees or, commonly in the US and uncommonly in Canada, masters degrees and are in student facing roles. Dr. Abrams is correct that their role is often one of overseeing the extracurricular activities on campus. But unlike vice, assistant, and associate provosts, deans, and chairs they always have a lower salary than faculty and their say on policy is always smaller than that of the actual administrators.

By conflating the two groups Dr. Abrams gets to imply that the large influence on university policy held by the actual administrators is also held by the student affairs professionals, thus making the group exercising a large influence becomes bigger than the number of non administrator faculty. This is untrue, as Dr. Abrams no doubt knows.

I’m sure the last problem here is obvious by now. If you share the salary of an associate dean and imply that student affairs professionals make that salary then you can imply that the ballooning of budgets is because of them. In a recent twitter thread new student affairs professionals shared whether they made in the 30-40k range or the 40-50k range. Virtually no one was above 40k and the majority of them had a masters degree. To conflate that person with the assistant provost making $100,000 more is absurd. And the most frustrating part is that since Dr. Abrams has done the research and knows all of this he must be doing it deliberately.

An Ideal First Year?

I think a lot about what students need to know to be successful.  And more and more I feel that the old elective model does a huge disservice to first year students. I was reading this article about the differences in perspective between educators and employers. I think that we need to think less of education as being discipline specific and think of it more as being general leading to specific. So the first year would be a more general education, the second being general within the chosen discipline, and the third and fourth years being the same as they are now.

I’d like to propose a standardized first year regardless of program. This curriculum assumes that the student is attending an English speaking university.

The guidance behind this is taking a liberal arts concept and applying it to the key soft skills of oral communication, written communication, reading, basic math, working in teams, thinking skills, and computer use.

Continue reading “An Ideal First Year?”

Disrupting Higher Education?

Talking about the university system as if it’s doomed is fairly common. Here’s an article from three years ago outlining some common metaphors about the end of the post secondary system. The author’s disdain for them has been proven right so far. And yes, there are some for profit colleges running into problems because they were going for the quick money and shareholder support rather than looking at the long view the established PSIs have. And yes a small liberal arts college decided that it would rather close than leverage their endowment to reinvent itself. Whether that was a good or bad idea isn’t the point here.

The most important thing to remember about all of this is that we wont wake up one day with the university system crumbling or even disrupted. There will be warning signs.

Continue reading “Disrupting Higher Education?”