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?