I have been teaching for over twenty years and higher education is under tremendous pressure and my college is experiencing this as well. I just started reading Jeffrey Selingo's book There is Life After College. I am doing this to try to understand the role of higher education in America now. It's very different than it was even a decade ago, and Selingo offers some context for that.
I have done a lot of reading because I want to provide the best education and experience for any student who comes across my doorway, either the doorway of my office or my classroom. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed at the different issues I must focus on. When I have a student in my office, or when they come to my class, I am thinking of any number of things, like:
- "It is my responsibility to teach this student and to be sure my course helps her on her way to graduation."
- "I need to make sure this student understands and can communicate the skills he has learned in my class in any interview situation so that he can get the job."
- "I need to retain this student because her continued attendance at my institution is important."
- "I want to be sure that I engage these students so that they continue to want to learn and finish their degree."
- "I want to be sure that this student doesn't end up a statistic of the millions who have some college, but no degree and student debt."
At times all of these thoughts can overwhelm and paralyze. And nearly all of those sentences should have an exclamation point after them, because each one seems pressing and necessary and URGENT. Sometimes I think I should just teach and NOT think about all of this. But is that really the extent of my job? Just teaching art history? I don't think so. I do think that my role at a small, liberal arts college is not just to teach. It's to help guide.
And yet, the more I read about our changing economy the more stressed I become for our students. The stakes are high. More and more it seems that the value that we place on individuals is really all about money. We do not hear about movies over the weekend that were good in a creative sense, just which ones made the most money at the box office. Everything is a value exchange.
I teach art history. How do I translate that so that my students can benefit from the skills that my discipline offers, while still helping them be successful in their eventual careers? How do I do that when art history is usually the degree that is maligned, as in a 2014 speech by then-President Obama (which you can read here). Or when it's mentioned in a podcast as a major that even students police among themselves: "Why are you majoring in Art History?!" according to William Deresiewicz in a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative podcast (you can read about/listen to it here).
My institution is wrestling with the big question of the role of our college in society, what we teach and our mission. We are a private, liberal arts college and I know we help students. I know we're important. Yet, so much is changing around us. I believe strongly in the core of the liberal arts and want my students to be successful. Ultimately that is why I am mentoring students that happen to be on the football team, because I see such potential in them, and yet also a reticence among some of them to be disciplined enough in academics to have it help them launch a career.
I'd love to hear from my former students about how their experiences launched them - or did not. What would you do differently? What do you wish your alma mater did differently?
And today, I'll decide how best to teach tomorrow, and I'll also be planning mentoring meetings this week with students. That work must carry on.