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Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education Hardcover – October 1, 1988
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Point: Universities are much less concerned with teaching students as they are with plumping out research that is trivial, abstruse, and to all but maybe 10 peers who will read the resulting article, irrelevent (and those ten are reading it to cite it in the next essay). Point: The humanities have done away with virtually all standards, are interested in theory that poorly reflects the real world, and consist mostly of 'guts' courses that are called that because they are so easy one can pass the tests on gut instincts. Point: tenure is partially destroying education. Once designed as a bastion of academic freedom, now it serves to insulate already detached professors even more from the real world, and destroy any notion of accountability.
Here's the books downfall: it is so eager to point out these things (even though the book is for the most part right on) that it ends up sounding paranoid and overly combative. Every example of a poor professor is accompanied by an adjective like "assinine" or "abysmal". There was even one section where the author points out that "one study says..." in order to show how bad social science education is. I was left wondering....what the other studies said. In other words, the book leaves us with a feeling that while largely correct, the author may have been a.) selective and b.) a little overeager to rip on all things academic for the meer sake the it feels good.
But the main messages is that education is overpriced while quality declines. The proffesoriate cares infinitely more about themselves (and their obscure research) then their students. Graduate students do the teaching while professors 'play at' writing important things. This is all, unfortunately, true. But I do want to write that while the author is quite pessimistic, I am not. I am currently finishing graduate work at a small liberal arts college in Richmond, VA (if you'd like you can figure out which one as there is only one). There, the teachers teach, there is no such thing as a teachers assistant, class comes before research, and classes are small enough where students even have the teachers home phone. Anyone contemplating colleges I urge you to read this book and consider the smaller liberal arts schools (and the one I'm at is top notch).
1. At a university in Missouri, a PhD staff member gave some very modest suggestions to an otherwise mediocre undergraduate laboratory manual. The authors of this manual, insulted by these suggestions, retaliated with a vengeance that lasted for years, with the result that the staff member was finally dismissed.
2. At a university in Texas, a professor copied a well-known copyrighted textbook word-for-word and sold the copies to his class. So how did he think he could get around the copyright restrictions? He copied it longhand.
3. At a university in Missouri, one professor volunteered to take part in a teacher's preparation workshop, something that he felt was beneath him as his prior dialog readily indicated. So why did he participate? To obtain the grant that was attached to the attendance, monies of which he used to pay for a vacation overseas.
4. At a university in South Dakota, a faculty member was promised that as of being hired, he would have full authority in choosing the textbook. When he began his employment, he quickly learned that the vice-president of the university approved all selections of textbooks, which he did without reservation.
There are many more such stories, but they are merely anecdotes, and it would be wrong to conclude that they reflect the moods and ethics of people in American universities. To understand these would take a time-consuming, exhaustive effort, more than most would be willing to undertake. This book is not one of these studies, but is only a hurried diatribe that lashes out at American higher education, which at the time of publication was a practice that was just beginning. It currently seems to be the rage, and shows no sign of going away. It is popular to smear the university, and the evidence used to do so is frequently weak and insufficiently researched. This book does however have some value in the sense that it can be read by anyone interested in how pundits and self-professed journalists have criticized the university, and the degree to which they have instigated a large following or engaged public sympathies.
At various places in the book the author blasts research projects that he thinks are trivial or unnecessary, and clearly believes that it is these projects that are representative and proof that the university is a racket, producing junk that nobody cares anything about. As an example of this, he refers to a paper entitled "A Functional Approach to Interruptions in Conversation, a Mathematical Analysis" which as part of its analysis included the counting of the "ers" and "uhs" in conversation. He seems to think that this research is completely irrelevant, but actually it is of great interest to groups such as "The Toastmasters" who grade speaking ability on the number of these kinds of annoying pauses when their members practice their speeches. It is also of interest to neuroscientists who are studying language disorders, since such interruptions, if excessive, may point to neuronal maladies in the speech areas of the brain. It is also of interest to the military as even slight exposure to powerful neurotoxins can cause excessive interruptions in the flow of speech.
The author does not mention a few of the more deplorable and unethical features of the research university, such as the wide practice in research papers on designating an "author to whom correspondence should be addressed". This allows one author to control the feedback process and actually take more (or complete) credit for the paper. He also only makes passing reference to the anonymous review system, which encourages recklessness in criticism and an excess of vituperation. Such a practice should stop, with reviewers signing their name to the review just like they would if they were in fact the authors. The anonymous reviewing system makes no sense at all and has no place in rational discourse. Also not mentioned in the book is the deplorable practice of placing phony employment advertisements in academic journals so as to make it appear to satisfy an Affirmative Action requirement. Candidates are interviewed, and ethnic or gender identification carried out, but the departments involved do not even have the necessary funds to hire anyone, minority or not.
The author offers solutions to the "problems" (as he sees it) of the university. His first suggestion is to change its research emphasis, and focus more on teaching, but in this regard he gives no evidence, and does not present a metric, that would allow him to classify only one in ten academics as producing original research of any "value". This is a statistical claim, but he offers zero evidence for it, and if he attempted to he would find it to be a formidable project, due to the subjective nature of assigning "value" to a research project or manuscript. One can be sympathetic to the author's suggestion to abolish tenure, but another option may be to limit it to a maximum block of time, say twenty years, with no possibility of renewal. Candidates who enter the university under tenure track contracts would undergo tenure review after five years, and if granted, would be allowed fifteen more years to conduct research or engage in teaching.
But it is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate against stupidity, cowardice, incompetence, or arrogance. The faculty, staff, and students of a university have their own biases and aspirations, and they will continue to have these despite legislation to the contrary. It is easy to complain about the current makeup of the university, but it is quite another thing to construct a sound, scientific analysis, backed up by hard evidence, of the workings of the same. Again, the author does not do this, and only now are there studies appearing that are more scholarly and coherent. And technological advances may force the universities to change, due mostly to the increase in the availability of free information and automated learning and tutoring tools. This technology may in fact make the university research professor a white elephant, or even an extinct species after this century has ended.
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