“Eat your veggies!,” says the professor.

22 02 2011

Have you ever seen that book by Jerry Seinfeld’s wife where she teaches moms how to hide vegetables in junk food? I’ve had a hard time figuring out whether it’s good or evil because I’m for kids eating vegetables, but I think that they ought to do so willingly with their eyes open. I have a six-year old who’ll eat salad for dinner. Still, I don’t want to spend this whole post bragging about Everett. I want to make an analogy.

I do not think my students are six-year olds. I don’t even think they are like six-year olds, but it can still be difficult to get them to eat their veggies in the academic sense.

We all struggle with the question of how to get students to read who don’t want to read. But what happens if they don’t want to enroll in your course in the first place? Thomas H. Benton explains the ramifications of this well in a long review of Academically Adrift:

Students gravitate to lenient professors and to courses that are reputedly easy, particularly in general education. Some students may rise to a challenge; many won’t. They’ll drop, withdraw, or even leave a college that they find too difficult. If you are untenured and your courses do not attract enough students, then you can become low-hanging fruit for nonrenewal. If you are tenured, then it means being “demoted” to teach service courses. In such contexts, the curriculum—populated by electives and required courses competing for the lowest expectations—is driven increasingly by student demand rather than by what a community of scholars believes undergraduates should know.

The logical solution to this problem would be to coordinate minimum standards across your department or across your university. But what if your university (or even your department) is big and faceless? As Benton explains elsewhere:

Formerly, full-time, tenured faculty members with terminal degrees and long-term ties to the institution did most of the teaching. Such faculty members not only were free to grade honestly and teach with conviction but also had a deep understanding of the curriculum, their colleagues, and the institutional mission. Now undergraduate teaching relies primarily on graduate students and transient, part-time instructors on short-term contracts who teach at multiple institutions and whose performance is judged almost entirely by student-satisfaction surveys.

There’s one more reason that you should be able to pick your adjunct faculty members out of a line-up. If they degrade academic standards (and I realize that’s a gigantic if, with plenty of class-related baggage that comes with it), everyone else look bad by comparison.

Worse yet, what if your department chairman or your dean goes over to the dark side and gets addicted to junk food? You can try to slip your students their vegetables disguised in macaroni and cheese, but if they don’t eat it whose side are your administrators going to take?

That’s why tenure is more important than ever in these troubled times. Tenure gives faculty the protection they need to see this as low as we’ll go, and no lower. Like Jessica Seinfeld, you should be willing to do what it takes to get your students to eat their veggies, but eat their veggies they must! The real evil would be to turn your university into a giant educational McDonald’s full of empty calories and cheap labor.


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