Talking Politics: Clarion in Context

― Melissa K. Downes

Nick Anderson, 2014

Figure 1. The non-voter (Anderson, 2014)

Good things happen here at Clarion: great teaching, thoughtful colleagues and committed mentors, performances and projects that surprise and delight, and moments when students rise above their own or our expectations or teachers see new and exciting ways to approach familiar lessons. We have celebrated many of these moments in this blog (browse other entries for examples). Jeanne and I have also talked about many fine things that we haven’t (yet) discussed here but hope to engage with in future entries.

When we consider that many of these great and good things have continued to happen even while our students, our teaching, our livelihoods, and our university have been under attack from within and without, those great and good acts and events move from great to extraordinary and astonishing. Just imagine what we could be if we were nurtured and supported consistently instead of living in a culture of fear.

I am thankful that retrenchment has been averted this year at Clarion and some of our sister schools, but I still see around me both the negative impact of the workforce plan and last year’s retrenchments and the signs of an attitude and approach to higher education that concerns me deeply. But concern is not enough: understanding, speaking up, and taking action need to follow on that concern.

Figure 2. Forces attacking public education

Figure 2. Forces attacking public education

What has happened and is happening at Clarion is also happening across the United States. Attempts to dismantle or undermine education in the US have a long history, often associated with suspicion and contempt for intellectuals (T. White, 2014; W. E. White, 2014). However, a recent concatenation of crises and circumstances has made for a snowball effect, especially when mixed with the growth of “neoliberal” politics (which have very little in common with liberal viewpoints; Barkawi, 2013; Fish, 2009; Giroux, 2014).

Figure 3. Cuts in state funding to universities, per student (Lederman, 2013)

Figure 3. Cuts in state funding to universities, per student (Lederman, 2014)

Public universities have faced daunting cuts in state support (See Figure 3, Lederman, 2014) while fewer students are graduating from high school (Kiley, 2013). Full-time tenure-track faculty positions decrease or remain stagnant, and many universities instead use (and often truly exploit) underpaid and unprotected adjuncts, yet administrative positions appear to multiply (Carlson, 2014; Chomsky, 2014). There is an increased focus on narrow job training as the purpose of public higher education as opposed to the development of broader skills and knowledge (Keeling & Hersh, 2012). Money is funneled toward extracurricular amenities (think climbing walls and the Main Street Suites), as debt grows (Schuman, 2013). All this occurs amid an increasing contempt for science, education, and educators within the US (Giroux, 2014; W. E. White, 2014).

Under such an assault, it is easy to tune out, become merely cynical, and  keep our heads down, hoping we won’t be noticed. Such responses are very human, but they ultimately hurt us, our students, our university and beyond. Looking at the context of these threats to higher education and to Clarion allows me to see more clearly what needs to be done:

  • Vote!!!
  • Advocate for ourselves
  • Explain the need for an education beyond  narrowly-defined job skills
  • Maintain rigor
  • Use media and social media effectively as tools for education advocacy
  • Negotiate contracts thoughtfully and carefully

Hand in Hand is not just a place where we praise great teaching at Clarion, and it’s not just an act of celebration or survival; we must also clearly articulate what we believe our university should be ― and why. We celebrate the very real moments of learning and teaching at Clarion in part because we believe education is fundamentally threatened. Acts of good teaching, celebrations of excellence, activism, and advocacy are all necessary and extraordinary. My recommendation for this week’s necessary act? Vote!

References

Anderson, N. (2010, November 2). The nonvoter. Retrieved from http://blog.chron.com/nickanderson/2010/11/the-non-voter/

Barkawi, T. (2013, April 25). The neoliberal assault on academia. Al Jazeera English. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/04/20134238284530760.html

Carlson, S. (2014, February 5). Administrator hiring drove 28% boom in higher-ed work force, report says. Chronicle for Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Administrator-Hiring-Drove-28-/144519/

Chomsky, N. (2014, February 28). How America’s great university system is being destroyed. AlterNet. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/chomsky-how-americas-great-university-system-getting?paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Fish, S. (2009, March 9). Neoliberalism and higher education. New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/neoliberalism-and-higher-education/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Giroux, H. A. (2014, March 19). Beyond neoliberal miseducation. Truthout. Retrieved from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/22548-henry-giroux-beyond-neoliberal-miseducation

Keeling, R. P. & Hersh, R. H. (2012, February 16). The higher education learning crisis. HigherEdJobs. Retrieved from http://www.higheredjobs.com/blog/postDisplay.cfm?post=327&blog=7

Kiley, K. (2013, January 11). The pupil cliff. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/11/wiche-report-highlights-decline-high-school-graduates-and-growing-diversity#sthash.8acX0MTU.dpbs

Lederman, D. (2014, October 27). The States “great retreat.” Inside HIgher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/10/27/how-reverse-and-prevent-state-disinvestment-higher-education

Schuman, R. (2013, November 26). A ghost town with a quad: Is that the future of the American university? Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/11/minnesota_state_moorhead_could_cut_18_academic_programs_why_do_colleges.html

White, T. (2014, February 23). Why anti-intellectualism is dumb. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thomas-white/why-anti-intellectualism-is-dumb_b_4842808.html

White, W. E. (2014, August 8).  America: Dumb and dumber. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-e-white/america-dumb-and-dumber_b_5670293.html

Thanks to Jeanne M. Slattery for her thoughtful comments and encouragement, which made this essay possible.


Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu.

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