Thursday, March 05, 2009

Lies, damned lies, and...what in the world??

After having read the Inside Higher Education story this morning on the latest results of a longitudinal study of faculty attitudes by the University of California at Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute, I wandered over to see that the Chronicle of Higher Education also had a, um, similar story.

Check out the differences in the headlines and lead paragraphs (first the IHE story, then the Chronicle):

Shifting Faculty Mission (IHE)
March 5, 2009
Every three years, education researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles release a national survey of faculty attitudes and norms, and various categories show movement of a few percentage points. This year's survey, being released today, finds significant shifts in several categories related to social change.

While the above data reflect an apparently broad view of the social responsibility of higher education, other findings suggest that professors are more likely to embrace instruction and assessment methods that focus on students' individual needs. Compared to three years ago, faculty members were more likely to believe it is part of their job to "help students develop personal values" (66.1 percent, an increase of 15.3 percentage points over 2004–05), "enhance students' self-understanding" (71.8 percent, a 13.4 percentage-point increase), "develop moral character" (70.2 percent, a 13.1 percentage-point increase) and "provide for students' emotional development" (48.1 percent, a 12.9 percentage-point increase).

Social Change Tops Classic Books in Professors' Teaching Priorities (Chronicle)

A new national survey of faculty members shows that the proportion of professors who believe it is very important to teach undergraduates to become "agents of social change" is substantially larger than the proportion who believe it is important to teach students the classic works of Western civilization.

According to the survey, 57.8 percent of professors believe it is important to encourage undergraduates to become agents of social change, whereas only 34.7 percent said teaching them the classics is very important. Observers say the difference results from influences as diverse as conservative criticisms of curriculum and Barack Obama's call for social activism during his presidential campaign.

These two articles may offer the best example I have seen in some time for how our biases can shape the story.

The title of the actual report is "U.S. faculty: Civic engagement, diversity important goals for undergraduate education." Wilson at the Chronicle clearly saw a sexy angle in contrasting classics with social change, and the story focuses almost completely on the "radical young activist professor types versus traditional intellectuals." They even got a quote from Cary Nelson that I am guessing was not really what he was saying...

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says he believes faculty members should teach the classics. "I teach American literature all the time, that's what I do," says Mr. Nelson, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But he says that to many professors, teaching the classics has become part of a "conservative agenda" that they don't want to be part of. Conservative critics of academe, he says, "have poisoned the well for these subjects because they've gotten politicized and become symbols of a reaction against the progressive academy."

My guess, after years of hearing from Dr. Nelson and AAUP, is that Nelson wasn't saying professors don't believe in teaching classics. I mean, come on already, we all went to grad school! We read all the classics, the critiques of the classics, and the critiques of the critiques. We could hardly speak if we didn't have the classics to argue for and against, and we know we need to give our students the vocabulary they need to engage all sorts of texts, ideas, and opportunities.

Instead, I think Nelson was talking about why professors might have responded to that survey item in that way. Talking about "whether teaching the classics of Western civilization is important" is code, used by folks from the National Association of Scholars. Were I responding, I would say, "Of course, but not to the exclusion of other materials from people usually excluded from the canon." And, of course, the article becomes a debate between NAS and the education professors, with AAUP President Cary Nelson sounding like he sides with the NAS. Not likely.

Both stories discuss the NAS and their criticism of faculty members' perspectives on diversity and community service, not to mention our left-leaning politics. I am okay with that, though the Chronicle article really moves towards the absurd.

Indeed, the biggest conceptual leap in the Chronicle article links professors' support for teaching students to be agents of social change to... wait for it... the Obama campaign. Yes, that damn community activist-cum-President caused academics to be "shamelessly anti-intellectual," according to an NAS spokesperson. You know, we get accused of a lot as academics--being elitist, out-of-touch, ivory tower effete geeks, but (to channel Rachel Maddow for a moment) anti-intellectual? Really?

I hope you will read the research brief and the accompanying PowerPoint, because the results are pretty interesting. But someone needs to give our friend at the Chronicle a wake-up call. That article was incredibly lame and read like an NAS press release. I personally expect a lot more from the Chronicle.

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