A New Model for Academic Faculty IV: One Can’t Fix What Isn’t Really Broken

TL;DR I conclude that the equity movement is well intentioned but is a waste of time until we reassert classroom autonomy that has literally been taken from us by administrators and outside parties (e.g. the testing industry), and autonomy that we have ceded without resistance.

Once again this is mostly a brain dump of thoughts I’ve been carrying in my head and conscience for weeks. They are, as always, subject to clarification and modification.

Since attending a grading conference in June, I have been thinking a lot about broad efforts like the equity grading movement. I have been thinking about all the ways our good professional intentions are undermined by the very system in which we try to do our jobs.

Authoritarian administrations are on the rise, particularly in two-year colleges where tenure often does not exist, adjuncts outnumber full time faculty, and faculty in general are seen as mere disposable human content delivery devices and are not respected at all.

Student “demands” and student “needs” are not necessarily the same thing. In my experience, authoritarian administrators cater too much to the former while preventing faculty from actually, and authentically, addressing the latter. If the latter were important to administrators, faculty would be allowed to address student needs in each discipline, and indeed in each individual class. In practice, administrators take it upon themselves to decide what is “best for students” and then attempt to impose that vision across the board. When faculty resist that imposition, we are accused of insubordination, “poor judgment,” character assassination, and many other psychologically deceptive practices that take away the very reasons for our presence in the first place. Administrators are really only interested in forcing faculty into a state of uniform submission not to benefit students, but to make controlling faculty easier across the board. In my experience, all the evidence one needs to see this is to note that all administrative responses nowadays begin with the familiar two word phrase, “In Blackboard…” (feel free to substitute the LMS of your choice in place of Blackboard). It’s about establishing a surveillance culture similar, if not identical, to that in the corporate world. It’s definitely not about addressing student’s needs. It’s shocking how many people have access to our Blackboard classes here. Department heads have access to all courses in their departments. Deans have access to all courses in their respective schools. The official line is that this is for administrative efficiency in case of things like student complaints or grade appeals and for coaches to verify athletic eligibility. There are other parties who constantly bombard me with requests for student progress, and I wouldn’t know these people if I were to see them but I’m required to blindly hand over the information and that makes me so uncomfortable. Truthfully, I have no way of knowing who, in addition to students, their families, and at least two levels of administrators, have access to my Blackboard courses. So much for privacy. Administrators are rapidly moving in the direction of requiring everyone to have their courses, and especially grade books, formatted identically. This is the very antithesis of standards-based grading and similar practices and thus the very antithesis of the equity we claim we want.

And speaking of needs, how about faculty needs? I’m all for supporting students, but without faculty there would be no means for anyone to meet students’ needs. Even more galling is that administrators have taken it upon themselves to tell us what are needs are. Think about that. We don’t get to articulate our very own needs because administrators think they know our needs better than we do. That’s now how this is supposed to work.

Consider the adjunctification of higher education faculty. Is it equitable for students to pay the same tuition for a course taught by adjuncts as for a course taught by full time faculty? I’m not so sure.

If we have to strategize on how to “sell” something to administrators, we are admitting that we are not in charge of our own jobs and that administrators have all the power.

If we are explicitly told how to grade, we are admitting that we are not in charge of our own jobs and that administrators and other outside entities have all the power.

If we are explicitly forbidden from doing anything to improve instruction, we have no hope of changing anything from within the system. The system is the problem.

All faculty must have the same opportunities to introduce changes that bring equity. Implementing changes only where explicitly allowed by administrators will only intensify the inherent inequities in the current system. Faculty can’t improve equity unless/until we ourselves are subject to that same equity.

There are many large scale socioeconomic and sociopolitical problems inherent to contemporary higher education that are not intended to be fixed in any way. They are working flawlessly as designed, and they are designed to perpetuate inequity, the same inequity we claim to want to fix. We can’t fix what is not fixable in the first place. We need to stop wasting time pretending otherwise and collectively walk away from the current model. That will not be easy, because so many of us actually benefit from the inequitable system in which we work. That’s a hard reality to come to grips with, but I have spent this entire summer doing just that. Some of us are quite secure and well paid. Most are not since tenure is becoming more and more rare at the hands of state legislatures. Some, like me, have never had the privilege of tenure and have nevertheless thrived for the most part. Getting back to equity, I think tenure must be extended to all faculty if we really want an equitable system. As a further argument in favor of that, consider that non-tenured faculty surely outnumber tenured faculty, at least at the college level, and non-tenured faculty surely serve more students than tenured faculty, especially with something like 75% of all college faculty being non-tenured and/or adjunct. Should not the needs of the many outweigh the privilege of the few? This equity thing is tough to dismiss, and more pervasive the deeper I into the system I look.

In my experience, administrators will not allow faculty driven changes to happen if those changes go against the predetermined (and not necessarily publicly known) administrative narrative to which they try to force everyone to adhere. When cornered, they (admins) use fallacious appeal to authority and claim the changes are not allowed because of “higher up” reasons about which they can do nothing. At the end of the rope, when all other fallacious appeals have been called out, and when backed into their final corner knowing they must win at this point, they almost always either appeal to accreditation or threaten the faculty and shut down the discussion. Administrators must not have this kind of power over anything we do in our classrooms.

Is an inherently inequitable system really worth trying to fix? I think not. It’s working as designed.

We need a new model.

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