Monday, August 17, 2009

Balancing Academic and Non-Academic Stuff in Classes

I got an email from one of my favorite administrators* this morning, a mass email offering some overtime appointments (two) to work on revamping our Special Program For First Year Students. I was mildly interested (except for the overtime part) until I got to the details, which said that of the two appointments, one would be a faculty/academic staff appointment and one would be a non-academic staff appointment.

And my immediate reaction was, nope, ugh, not for me.

Yes, I'm afraid I had a negative reaction to the idea of a non-academic staff person revising this program.

From the teaching side, we've felt the program has had problems for a long time of having too much emphasis on non-academic stuff, and too little on academic stuff. And by non-academic stuff, I don't mean time management or anything, I mean "alcohol awareness," mostly, that sort of thing.

On our campus, the SPFFYS works through special sections of regular classes, where we're given fewer students (which is really important for courses typically taught as large lectures, but still helps to keep our comp classes down to about 20 rather than about 30). The trade off for smaller classes is that we're supposed to add content about adjusting to college and academic skills and to work with one or more mentor students. The students are, as it were, a captive audience in our classes; they rarely choose to attend alcohol awareness sorts of programs without some carrot/stick.

The pressure from the non-teaching folks is to add more and more non-academic content ("alcohol BAD!"). Of course, if you add an hour of alcohol awareness to the calendar, you take out an hour of something else. And that something else is basic biology (or whatever). You might say, "but Bardiac, you teach a writing class, you could give an assignment about alcohol awareness and they could write about it!" Kill me now. Seriously, you want me to read 20 essays on alcohol awareness? (Don't laugh; it's been suggested by the non-academic folks more than once. I can't help thinking how much those essays would induce me to want to drink, thus adding to the adult drinking problem in the state.)

(As a side note, this state has one of the highest levels of adult binge drinking and alcohol abuse, supposedly. Our students learn at their parents' knees.)

I know a little about the "content" vs learning arguments, the idea that faculty have focused on getting through a syllabus of material without sufficient attention to what the students were actually learning and knowing at the end of the term. So it's not that I'm lecturing on grammar habits of 19th century school marms (as if they were all bad teachers). But at some point it comes down to wanting my writing students to learn what an essay is, what a thesis is, how to make different sorts of arguments, how to think rhetorically about their audiences, how to use resources, how to represent someone else's point of view or argument fairly. Writing classes, like chem labs, are both content and skills courses; students need to practice to make the knowledge really theirs.

Once I got through my initial reaction, I realized that from the non-teaching folks' side, their stuff is also important (and yes, I know they hate being characterized as "non-teaching" or "non-academic"). Yes, we have a drinking problem on campus, just like every other campus I know of. (Hm, I wonder how the military academies do?) And like pretty much everyone these days, we're emphasizing taking care of students, and that's not all bad.

If a student came to class all upset and crying, I'd certainly stop the class and try to talk to the student privately, see what help I could muster. But at some point, that's not really my job; my job is to teach writing and literature, to advise students, to work as a member of my department, to research about really dead writers' lit.

I guess I feel like the balance here in this program and elsewhere has tilted for a long time too far to the "caring" side, and too little to the academic side. There are students who should fail out. That probably sounds cruel, but some students simply don't do the work to be in college, and we should put our resources to the students who do do the work.

Unfortunately, I don't see that tilt changing; the fact that there are two spots divided between the academic and non-academic folks means that the pressure to give equal weight in our classes to stuff such as alcohol awareness is going to continue in the revamped program.

*This is totally without sarcasm, by the way.

A moment for critical self-awareness

You see what I did in that paragraph about "content" vs learning?

A typical reductive argument I hear here about faculty is that we're poor teachers who focus only on getting through a syllabus rather than on student learning. That is, we're focused on inputs rather than outcomes. It's a reductive argument, of course, and guaranteed to get any faculty person's hackles up. So I tried to pre-empt that bit.

But, and here's the critical self-awareness part, I did much the same thing in reducing the work of the non-academic side to alcohol awareness. They do more than that, or course.

It's hard for me to get a good handle on the other things they do, but here are some of the things I'm aware of: rape/sexual assault education, counseling, student health, student recreation, student government. I'm sure there's more, often nebulous stuff that's hard to put a finger on. Where do students learn, say, leadership skills? They learn in classes a little; some learn by being student mentors, but I'm guessing that the ones chosen to be mentors already display those skills pretty well. They learn at home, in band, in sports, in clubs, wherever. How about compassion? Where do students learn that? And should they learn it in college? Is that our business?

To the extent that such things are the business of a university, they're important. Folks I know want a critical citizenry, citizens who are critical thinkers, who make good decisions, who work well, parent well, and treat other citizens well. But how much of that is the business of the university? And if that's our business, how does that fit with educating nurses?

Hard stuff.


  1. I'd be worried about the revision too - but, of course that would be a reason for me to want the academic position.

    It seems like there's a real chicken/egg problem in terms of "student life" issues. Does academic performance suffer because of "life" issues, or does poor academic performance increase "life" issues?

    I think I'd probably go for the job just so that someone with the idea that you could/should have writing assignments about substance abuse doesn't take the job.

    In fact, I'd work to get the student life part more focused on academic success... but, that's just me and I like to tilt at windmills :).

  2. I'm interested in the involvement of non-academic staff here. In the institutions in which I've worked there has been a push to include the study skills aspects in first year programmes but we have always been expected to do that ourselves. Certainly, where I am now, there would be no question of us involving non-academics and I haven't come across any instance of our being expected to try and influence the students in other areas. I can imagine immediate rebellion if that were the case. Is this common practice in the US?

    Given that this is your situation, though, I think I agree with the previous comment. Rather someone who has thought through the ramifications of this doing the job than someone who hasn't.

    On your point that there are some students who should fail out. OH YES! But try telling the powers that be that that is the case. All they see are the £££s signs and the fees they would be losing if that were to happen. But don't get me on that soapbox or I will be here all day!

  3. LOL go teach at Berkeley. I never even spoke to an instructor/advisor/any staff human being there.

  4. Anonymous7:37 AM

    I do think the "non-academic" stuff is a really important part of college, but I guess I thought that was what distinguished college from other types of post-high school education such as technical schools. That is, you're signing up for a whole experience, which includes classes but also extra-curricular activities that allow you to explore leadership and other aspects of learning. That doesn't seem to me to be the role of the classroom.

    Alcohol and sexual abuse awareness is harder, because of course no one's going to volunteer to participate in those things. But at the same time, if it's taught in classrooms, is it getting through? Do they listen? Isn't it something that needs to be taught much earlier?

    I don't think it's necessarily reductive to say these things might not belong in the classroom. Especially because it seems to me that you have more productive conversations about the complications of these problems by discussing literature. For example, reading something like The Mayor of Casterbridge and discussing the serious consequences of alcoholism, the cycles of abuse, etc.

  5. ItPF and Table Talk, I thought about putting my name in, but I got hit last spring with a HUGE committee assignment for fall, in addition to the busy college committee I'd run for, and the department committee I'm chairing, so I just don't have time for an additional campus responsibility.

    MSILF, I'd teach at Berkeley in a minute, if I could. Heck, if I could get a job that paid enough to make rent in the Bay Area, I'd go in a flash. But, I'm sorry you had such a bad experience at Cal. (I didn't go to Cal, but Davis, and had a wonderful experience. It could have been better if I'd been a better student, but that's on me.)

    Anon, I'm not knowledgable enough about alcoholism to talk about it meaningfully, really. And in the short time I have, I've chosen to study early modern lit. IF I'd wanted to study alcoholism and such, I'd have tried to do so. I think that's part of the difficulty with putting such things in a lit classroom. I can't be an expert on lit, and alcoholism, and drug addiction, and counseling, and study skills and on and on.

  6. I didn't know you went to Davis!

    I'm so sorry I didn't in retrospect. A lot of my friends did and they really had a good experience, and did well academically.

    Maybe you can subvert by finding some good lit short piece on some alcoholic decline or something (something Tennessee Williams-like) and just make them read that. One of those misery tales.