Academia and Education: Am I Naïve?

Last year, I wrote a short post about academia and teaching which I meant to be fictional. In it, the character was listing things s/he had assumed about academia and asked not to be called “professor.”
The fact that it was supposed to be fictional wasn’t very clear and my perspective is in reality quite close to that of the character. Still, I wasn’t disillusioned with the system. I was mostly voicing concerns which I perceive are being whispered by friends and colleagues. In other words, I do think that academia should be about knowledge, etc. It’s just that I never truly assumed it was, in fact, all about these things. While I’m usually quite naïve, I don’t think I ever was that naïve about academia’s inner workings. That’s one of the advantages of being raised in an academic milieu. We become quite cynical by age ten.
For some reason, Polish blogger Przemysław Stencel (a fellow Moodle user, it seems) deemed my blogpost worthy of pinging. And his blog repinged my post today (maybe he changed something on his blog). What I hadn’t noticed is that his link to my post generated two short comments. In Polish.
Unfortunately for me, I don’t know Polish. Pushed those comments through automatic translation. In the first comment, from a year ago, Robert seems to say that he had hoped educational systems weren’t all like the one I had naïvely described. In the second comment, published last month, Sebastian seems to point out that these discussions have been going on for a number of years in Poland and elsewhere (citing Ivan Illich as an example).
Only heard about Illich fairly recently. Can’t remember where, possibly a TED talk. Been looking at some of Paolo Freire‘s work (some of which is available online). Perhaps annoyingly, I keep mentioning that my father was trained by Jean Piaget because I strongly believe that my perspectives on learning and academia were shaped at a young age.

To be honest, even at the time I posted my blog entry, I was rather happy with my teaching experiences. In fact, the post was written while I was teaching at Concordia University, an institution which is pretty close to my academic ideals. Almost all of the other institutions at which I’ve been lucky enough to teach were also compatible with my approach to teaching. And the way I describe it, my high school experience seems very positive in terms of learning and teaching.🙂
The source of my naïve professor post wasn’t frustration with teaching. It wasn’t even a disillusion with academia. It had more to do with a transition period in academia and what I realized my attitude was toward changes in academic contexts.
For one thing, I want academics to think about teaching. Because I believe such reflections are important yet occur rather rarely. I don’t think it’s especially useful for academics to take on some specific teaching strategies but I do think it’s important to reflect on what teaching really means, in diverse contexts. Teaching at a North American research university. Teaching in an urban high school in Africa. Teaching informally through European conferences. Teaching online.
Many of us in academia complain about some of the changes facing “our” universities. The (in)famous “customer-based approach to education.” The growing “sense of entitlement.” Unsolvable problems with the tenure system. All sorts of issues with lack of funding, the high turnover rate of new faculty hires, the politics of being an intellectual in anti-intellectualist contexts. All of these are fascinating topics, especially among academics. Pent up frustration needs to be vented, especially if overworked professors are to remain sane.
Yet… My attitude is slightly different. As things are changing for many of our academic institutions, I want to think about where we want to go next. Call me a naïve idealist (sure, why not?) but I do think we can select some scenarios. As long as we look at diverse options.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that academics pay no attention to all the options available. But it’s rather remarkable how some options are rarely discussed while those options which are discussed most frequently remain within the strictest limits of the current system. Even among radical thinkers, there seems to be a tendency to push aside several possibilities before looking at all their implications.
One none-too-radical possibility which is rarely discussed is to improve adjunct positions into something of a mid-level category. As things stand, adjuncts are sometimes perceived as lowly versions of full-time professors (tenure-track or tenured). The conclusion which is often reached is that adjuncts should be replaced by “more tenure.” In fact, some bitter adjuncts complain that they never had a chance to go on tenure-track. As if the two position types were variants of the same position.
A few people have talked about the idea of having “teaching faculty” with better job security than adjuncts (say, renewable five year contracts). In French, such a position is sometimes labelled «professeur enseignant» (“teaching professor”) by opposition to «professeur chercheur» (“research professor”). Maybe less prestigious than research chairs and endowed positions, but still worth considering. It seems to me that people are rather too quick at rejecting “teaching faculty” options entirely and I’m not entirely sure why. Oh, I do understand the reasons they give me to reject the options (that we need more full professors, that Harvard shows that such teachers are exploited). Yet I have no idea why academics seem so unwilling to look into such “teaching professorship” models and prefer dismissing the very concept offhand.
Similarly, something as obvious as taking a fresh and dispassionate look at current models for PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment) seems inconceivable to many a faculty member. Sure, there are countless committees tasked into rewriting PTR guidelines for their respective (and highly respected) institutions. And faculty meetings often focus on PTR, for hours on end. (Though, luckily, some PTR discussions I observed were thoughtful, peaceful, and efficient.) But what I think we need is an open-ended discussion of what PTR could become, in diverse contexts.
Nothing too radical. In fact, just the kind of work we ask our students to do.
Critical thinking. Dialogue. Exploring options. Temporarily suspending assumptions we may have about the way contemporary universities work. Brainstorming (!) on what could be, before we can look at what’s really doable.
In other words: I happen to think that we need to be more naïve, not less.

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About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

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