CUNY and salvaging the "doomed project"

And just like that pedagogic expertise is crushed by economic and political efficiency. At CUNY Queensborough the administration has sought to reduce composition to a 3 hour course, instead of its traditional 4. The faculty refused, on the grounds that composition requires 4 hours. Apparently, to increase systemic efficiency, the state has adopted what they call the Pathways plan, "designed to create a curricular structure that will streamline transfers and enhance the quality of general education across the University." In short, from what I can tell, this requires any course to have the same number of credits and class hours from school to school.

When faculty refused to adopt this change, citing student need, they were hit with a letter from Queensborough's vice-president, which made its way to the Internet via the Student Activism blog. The letter threatened to freeze all hiring, terminate all adjuncts, and cut up to 19 of the departments 26 full-time faculty. A shot across the bow.

Today, the Chronicle reports that the president has stepped in and called off the dogs of war:

That message set off alarms that continued sounding over the weekend. On Sunday, however, the college’s president, Diane B. Call, said in an e-mail to faculty and other leaders that Ms. Steele’s letter was meant as a “worst case scenario—one we are prepared to work mightily to avoid.”

“It is my belief,” Ms. Call wrote, “that through continued communication and collaboration with our faculty, a constructive resolution to ensure student learning will be achieved.”

Of course, another reason for the president to soften the situation is that the vice president's threats clearly overstep their legal limits. But, as Aaron Barlow of the Academe Blog put it:

None of this would be happening had the CUNY administration shown respect for the faculty and had worked to build a Pathways program with the faculty, instead of in spite of the faculty.

For those who believe Universities should operate like businesses, (top down hierarchy, competitive environment), the faculty probably look out of touch. For those that believe Universities should operate like educational institutions (bottom up development, cooperative environment), the administration look incompetent and draconic. Given our economic woes, it is natural to expect Universities to look for cost cutting measures. But cutting credit hours and increasing class sizes should be the last thing on the board. Working with faculty to develop solutions should be the first.

The incident reminds me of the discussion of professional University administrator's in Academically Adrift, particularly their assertion that "contemporary higher education administrators experience institutional interests and incentives that focus their attention elsewhere" (11). In CUNY's case, their president has educational experience, but one has to realize that reducing the credit hours for a composition program that serves a large number of underprepared writers is disastrous. Even under the best of circumstances, FYC can be considered a doomed project (Sirc's essay comes immediately to mind, but I know there are others out there too). Teach students, many of whom come from secondary systems that almost entirely reduce writing instruction to a formulaic five-paragraph essay, to write lucid, structured, supported arguments in the span of 16 or maybe 32 weeks. Throw in research methods, citation styles, grammar, and, increasingly, new media technologies. A difficult, if not impossible, task indeed.

Last week, in my graduate class, we read Heidegger's essay "The Question Concerning Technology." In a class lecture, I claimed that our educational system, from kindergarten to graduate school, is increasingly realizing one of Heidegger's worst nightmares--that we would become so overwhelmed with the technological spirit, the desire for profit, efficiency, and utility, that "he comes to the brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve" (332). Grist for the mill. Raw material for the factory. I skeptical that education can find any way off of this path, especially given the rise of the for-profit University and disappearing industrial economy. But those of us who teach, and especially those of us who teach a vitalist, complex art such as writing, know that learning is a messy, inefficient process that takes time--time to try, to fail, to try again, to talk, to muster up the courage one more time.