This post will be a look at the current state of higher education in light of two films I was asked to watch and multiple articles I have read in recent weeks about higher education and the place of teachers and students in it. If you would like to watch the videos that I am writing in response to, please use the links below.
A Vision of Students Today by Michael Wesch
Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk a PBS documentary
I have had aspects of this post drafted for a couple of weeks now, but I was never really sure what I wanted to focus on here. Honestly, the documentary made me angry for a lot of reasons and kind of made me question what the purpose of all of my hard work in graduate school is if that is what’s on the other side. Of course, I knew that inadequate funding, struggling to get tenure while teaching too many students, and working with students who are barely present because they have so many other responsibilities were all out there and will likely affect my career trajectory in various ways, but seeing so much of it crammed into two hours was just too disheartening.
I am a fan of students getting an education. The example with the small liberal arts university is certainly more so what wish education was. Striking the balance between what is pedagogically responsible and fiscally responsible is a difficult ethical consideration, but I think most people would agree that the current system is not balanced. I am not willing to go so far as to say that we should embrace Peter Elbow’s philosophies from the 1980s and abandon grading in favor of holistic assessment of whether or not a student seems ready to move on, but there has to be something better than fill-in-the-blank tests and a system in which students can pass a class without reading any of the material. Teaching students a cookie-cutter lesson so they can pass a bubble-in test and get their mass-produced credentials in the form of a diploma does not serve the student, the instructor, the university, or the community. Here at Virginia Tech, I hope we are moving away from this model of education for that very reason. Many of the classes I have seen or worked with have utilized assignments that asked students to think critically and engage with material outside their textbook. It may be a little melodramatic, but I honestly feel that if we are not making sure students develop the skills to think critically and analyze and respond to future contexts, then we are failing them.
Shifting the focus to graduate students, our experience was largely missing from these videos. I don’t mean that graduate students don’t heavily utilize social media or that we don’t party with our friends, but the pressures and expectations are different in graduate school. Upon reflecting on the documentary in particular, I thought that issues like the glut of graduates who get advanced degrees but still don’t don’t find jobs in their fields and the number of applications that universities get for every faculty position would be appropriate to cover. Along those lines, the excessive number of institutions with graduate programs is also an issue that affects students like us. When there are so many choices, there is no way to concentrate the best scholars in departments together. Ultimately, I think this hurts students. You may be able to apply to many programs and get in, but you may be ultimately choosing based on who you think will chair your thesis or dissertation, and if that person were to leave, go on sabbatical, or refuse to work on your project for any number of reasons, then you are faced with the choice of changing your research or changing graduate programs.
Obviously, these are just some examples, but I tink this question is worth considering, and I would like to see a documentary analyzing the state of higher education for graduate students and the ethical considerations involved.