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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2013

Dumbing down for dollars

By G. Kim Blank

Most universities have found themselves on the red — that is, the de­ficit — side of economic history. It didn’t take long for the Great Recession of 2007 and the Global Recession of 2009 to team up and impose themselves on campuses more or less everywhere. In the UK, the metrification of higher education had already pointed to an unsteady and unhealthy slide. In the US, the endgame was the Obama administration’s hauling out of a creepy and sneaky-sounding word that has now stuck in everyone’s craw: sequestration. In Canada, provinces were more or less left to their own devices to do more with less while increasing enrolment. The Globe and Mail recently summed it up: “As the new reality of restraint sets in, schools are shedding jobs, closing courses and programs, growing class sizes and leaving empty professors’ posts unfilled.”

It played out something like this: governments mandated that universities find savings; university administrators applied their strategic cuts across the campus in order to meet the funding gap; as usual, deans were the hapless messengers, and departments, appropriately indignant for an ineffectual moment or two, then jumped to attention and attempted to figure out ways to save their skins. In some cases, they pretended they weren’t attempting to save their skins, since this might be seen by their vigilant admin-collaborators as a sign of even deeper vulnerability. High ground was sought, but the low road may have been taken.

What may have happened is that a new and surprising narrative emerged out of this exercise in academic austerity and the circum­stances that created it. As hinted at, it sometimes took the form of departments responding to and then embracing the cuts with un-anticipated zeal and, alas, pride.

A couple of troubling questions arise. Could this self-congratulation be seen as a little de­lusional, or perhaps worse, even disingenuous? Could it have turned otherwise virtuous professors and respectable departments into sympathetic lackeys for administrative bean counters, who really couldn’t care less about how savings are found? It’s not quite the Stockholm syndrome, but the irrationality behind this new campus relationship makes it near enough.

This moment of dimmed acceptance is es­pecially evident in and among humanities faculties, where the grand, deep traditions of humanistic knowledge and learning are apparently no longer touted as quite so deep or so grand. In fact, bragging rights seem to be associated with so-called innovative pedagogical investment in purposeful shallowness and in cotton-candy subjects.

While the appearance and criticism of trifling courses is nothing new, and has been a topic of parody since the rise of left-leaning cultural studies in the 1980s, today’s acute fiscal circumstances have forced a darker aspect on the situation. In this newer mug’s game of dumbing down for dollars, students (now known and counted as “bums-in-seats”) represent both the consumer and the product over which departments compete. The common approach is to advertise the course (color posters are de rigueur), register as many students as possible, serve them something cool and slack, make the course “assessment lite” and send them on their merry way.

The department for the moment has its skin-saving numbers, and proliferating administrators (abacuses and axes in tow) have their spreadsheets pulled out of the red and dipped into the blue (until the inevitable next round of cuts). But what of society — that is, taxpayers? You have to wonder if those courses based on Twilight or underwater basket weaving equip students for a richer life or, heaven help us, the workplace. Or does it matter? Again, maybe the only driver is some version of survival, which is not the same as sustainability. “Responsibility” is a word seldom heard; it’s been trumped by “revenue generating.”

Part of the bad news is that this race to the bottom implicitly and sometimes directly pits departments against each other as they compete for the limited market of students looking for carefree electives (tip: when in doubt, add a few movies; further tip: put it online; final tip: give lots of marks for parti­cipation — tweets count). Modern language departments (especially European languages) have been playing dodge ball for a number of years now, and may be especially vulnerable, and therefore desperate. Unfortunately, some faculties have not mustered their strength in numbers and in tradition; it may turn out that they have allowed themselves to be divided and conquered, from outside then from within, with the latter not just the most devious, but potentially the most permanent.

Some who saw this coming might very well be saying, “We warned you: you stepped into the quicksand of cultural relati­vism, and now you’re sinking.” Others simply shrug, slouch toward retirement they can’t afford to take, and conclude, “The end is near.” A few smug philistines gloat, “About time.”

Unlike most higher education stories these days, this one does not really involve the MOOC-a-maniacs and consortiums like edX and Coursera that, along with high volume and high visibility, produce high dropout and high plagiarism. Indeed, why should the saviours of higher ed concern themselves over compromised programs, since in many cases they radiate the sense that they are above the slings and arrows of academic — and moral — retrenchment? This may be what happens when a solution is mistaken for a symptom.

G. Kim Blank is professor of literature at the University of Victoria.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.