About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Who Is Smarter Than Whom?: Status Games in Higher Ed


A while back I was reading letters of support for an award, and in one of the letters there was a demeaning characterization of the home academic department of the candidate. While the letter writer praised the candidate to the skies, the writer portrayed the candidate’s department—a department of great prestige outside of the candidate’s university—as being of marginal status in the eyes of those in other academic disciplines within the university. The letter writer wanted to assure anonymous evaluators like me that the candidate was of much higher intellectual quality than the candidate’s discipline would suggest. 

Boy, am I sick of this academic snobbery. 

What I read is not without its irony, however—worthy of the most trenchant portrayals of academic life (think David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man). The discipline of the snooty letter writer is one that I heard routinely ridiculed when I was studying and then teaching in an English Department.

And so it goes in the academic status games.

Applied disciplines (e.g., journalism, nursing, management) have less status than “pure” ones: philosophy, biology, mathematics. And within disciplines there is typically a status hierarchy, with “theoretical” pursuits having more dazzle than applied work. Art history and musicology trump the making of art or music. The theoretical mathematician has the status edge on the applied statistician. The literary theorist sits on a higher rung—much higher—than those who teach writing.

Of course, these status dynamics are not absolute, are ignored, even subverted by some faculty, and an institution’s history and current reality come into play as well. And in our era of the “entrepreneurial university” and economic accountability, traditional academic status markers might lessen in importance; what will count will be enrollment numbers and the employability prospects of a given major.

Still, as someone who has spent decades at a research university running a tutorial center and a freshman composition program and then residing in a school of education—all quite low in that disciplinary hierarchy—I can tell you that judgments of intellectual virtue based on disciplinary affiliation are alive and well and factor into all sorts of behaviors and decisions, from departmental funding , to faculty promotion, to the letters written for honors and awards—like the one I read.

We have not even considered the more pronounced status differentials among various units at the college or university: for example student services versus academic departments. And then there are the loaded status distinctions made among the different kinds of institutions that comprise higher education in the United States: the community college versus the state college or university versus the research university—with research universities scrambling to climb to the top of their own heap.

All professions generate status distinctions, so why should the field of higher education be any different? Fair enough; I take the point. But the thing that gets to me in all this is that the distinctions are made through narrow and self-interested attributions of intelligence that hardly reflect the variety of ways people use their minds to apply knowledge, solve problems, reason and make decisions, and so on. Furthermore, intelligence doesn’t reside inert in a discipline or a kind of work or in one segment of a system rather than another; intelligence emerges in activity and in context. The attributions of intelligence I’m concerned with have much more to do with the preservation of power and prestige and turf rather than helping us all—faculty, staff, and students—improve on what we do. Faculty don’t get better at teaching by luxuriating in their bona fides or looking down on the department across the quad.

This last point about getting better at educating is at the center of a new book by my UCLA colleague, Alexander Astin, an expert on higher education in the United States. In Are You Smart Enough?, Astin argues that colleges—especially “elite” colleges—are more concerned with acquiring status markers of intelligence (high entering student gpas and test scores, faculty publication numbers, and so on) rather than creating the conditions for students to become more intelligent during their time in college. Instead of the scramble to attract students already identified as smart, Astin wonders, what if colleges put increased effort into helping students become smarter through more attention to teaching, mentoring, and enrichment activities? It’s a provocative and important question.

Back, now, to that letter. Over the years, I’ve spent time in many sectors of higher education, from a medical school to a community college tutoring center, and one of the things that has most struck me is the distribution of intelligence across the domains of the enterprise. To be sure, I’ve observed the routine pursuit of trivial research, uninspired teaching and unimaginative management, tireless self-promotion. A whole host of sins spread across areas of study and levels of the system. But I’ve also witnessed insight and inspiration, deeply humane problem solving, moments of brilliance in both a writing and a mathematics classroom, in a counseling session and in a meeting of tutorial center coordinators, in a laboratory and in a library. No little domain has a lock on being smart.

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