Something Wrong with This Picture

My daily thanksgiving: the opportunity to live a life of letters and learning. To read and write, teach and learn. The latter part, teaching and learning, obviously requires an institutional setting. Reading and writing, these may be more solitary activities, but in the broader consideration, they also require an institutional setting, one that values scholarship and letters.

The phrase, “institutional setting,” is inadequate. These things require, in fact, a learning community. When the learning community degenerates, then the whole package comes apart. And coming apart is what is happening with university learning communities today.

There are recent developments that have brought the situation to a head. Most obviously, COVID has ravaged learning communities. Some degree of shut-down was necessary. We like to think we patched the gap with online learning and other expedients, and to an extent we did. We maintained transactional functionality. Classes continued, degrees were conferred, life of a sort went on. Transactional life. COVID accomplished in months what the neoliberal establishment had been attempting to do for a half-century: reduce our learning communities to transactional entities.

In the larger context and the longer view, however, COVID was an accelerator and a crystallizer; it was not the fundamental problem. Good learning communities in a good country would have come through much better. We entered the COVID crisis, however, with our learning communities in a weakened state brought about by a larger malaise affecting the country at large. That malaise was corrosive neoliberalism–the intellectual and popular rejection of the ideal or even the possibility of the public good, the embrace of individualistic, atavistic, self-absorbed libertarianism.

People with institutional and personal memory will tell you that sometime in th 1980s or so, public authorities adopted a new model for management of higher education. Various shuffles of the deck obscured what was happening, but the key change was in the nature of expectations of university presidents and other high officers. Public authorities installed CEOs in presidential offices. This was not in the interest of managerial expertise or institutional efficiency or anything like that. It was for the sake of malleability. You see, if you had a scholar for a president, and a board told him to do something he thought was bad for the university, he was likely to say, No, I can’t do that, it’s bad for the university. If the board were adamant, and the matter was serious enough, then he might just say, OK then, fire me. And because that president was standing up for learning and students and the university, he had legions; he had a power base. What public authorities wanted, and what they installed, was a president who would do bad things, or maybe just stupid things, without question. Because he was not a scholar, he was an education CEO, and thus dependent on the pleasure of the board to sustain his creature comforts. Thus was accomplished a neoliberal capture of educational management. It took place, by the way, during the heyday of corporate raiding, and thus it also brought the adolescent delusion of creative destruction to the academy. This continues. (Yes, I’m thinking of Huron Consulting, but not only it.)

All this was enough to establish a declensionist imperative in the academy, as it did in the country at large. It’s why we can’t have nice things. There is another, even more sinister aspect to the story. It’s kind of like Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning about tyranny. Yes, it would be a bad thing if authorities deployed democratic authority to suppress liberty of action and thought. The dystopia more to be feared was if it were to become unnecessary for authorities to suppress liberty, because a conformist people had forgotten how to be free.

Now back to the academy: destructive neoliberal management might do great mischief, but the academic dystopia more to be feared was one where the rank and file, the faculty, absorbed and exhibited the individualistic, atavistic, and self-absorbed values (or lack thereof) of neoliberalism. As it turned out, this situation was fairly easy to accomplish. Simply establish systems of recognition and recompense that downgrade scholarship, teaching, and learning and reward managerial malleability. (What are associate deanships designed for, anyway?)

Faculty will follow the money, right? Many of them, anyway, enough to degrade the learning community.

Now throw COVID into the mix, when we tell people to go home and just maintain the transactional skeleton. It turns out this can be pretty comfortable. It turns out the learning community already was degraded sufficiently that given the opportunity to come back and bring the university back to life, quite a few people will say, No, thanks, I’m fine where I am.

Earlier this week I wrote this post to social media: “While we may need to bolster our portfolio in distance education (taking care to avoid corruption and maintain the brand), we need to double down on solid residential instruction. Students are coming back to college (propaganda to the contrary), and they deserve the best. Attend to the curriculum, take teaching seriously, engage. Faculty still holed up at home–get your butts back on campus. Sure, I keep a good home office, because I work crazy hours and do serious writing, but I tell you, the students are back, and we need to be fully back, too. Repopulate the university, restore the vitality. Take in a concert, a lecture, a Bison game. Hang out in the library and the union. Present and accounted for.”

The next day I got up about 5am as usual and did the morning routine at home, which includes correspondence and writing. Mid-morning I ran by my research office (external to main campus), then proceeded to my campus office. Got squared away for afternoon class, met Dr. Kelley for lunch at the Sons of Norway. She dropped me off after that to meet my methods class, which is a full-contact scrimmage. The middle of the afternoon I spent in my teaching office, keeping what we call “office hours” for consultations. I met with a few students to sort out course matters and project work. I encountered a total of two other faculty in the department during the afternoon.

Come 3:30 I met up with Dr. Kelley again to attend a two-hour lecture, “The Crisis in the Greater Levant: Israel versus Hamas in Context,” presented by Dr. Roby Barrett. The event was sponsored by our Northern Plains Ethics Institute. The subject was way outside my area of expertise. I wanted to attend, however, because Roby is a PhD in History with prodigious experience in foreign service and intelligence. I just wanted to be informed. I agreed with 85% of what was said. We don’t have to agree on everything, because this is a university, but it is good to come together and learn. Evidently, hardly any of our faculty or students felt the same about the opportunity.

I ran home to feed my dog and then back to the SHAC for the Bison women’s basketball game with the Jackrabbits. We fell short at the end of a close contest, but the level of competition was high, the crowd was good (not many students, though), and I got some Dippin’ Dots. It was real college basketball. I was sitting with congenial strangers, because my usual companion was otherwise occupied. I offered my extra ticket to anyone in the department who wanted it, but no one was interested in seeing a game matching the top two women’s teams in the conference. Meanwhile, Dr. Kelley was attending a play being directed by one of her publishing students, which evidently was splendid (although the audience numbered only about thirty); she can tell you about it. We enjoyed recounting to one another our satisfaction with our respective events.

Except we thought, there’s something wrong with this picture.

Thomas D. Isern

Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor, North Dakota State University

2 thoughts on “Something Wrong with This Picture

  • February 4, 2024 at 8:35 am

    Thank you. A feast for thought.

  • February 5, 2024 at 10:46 pm

    Unfortunately, but not unsurprising, public grade schools are traveling this same path. Any semblance of academic rigor is rare, and results in retaliation. Formal or not, light or heavy, the teacher is placed under a microscope for every student who does not get promoted.

    This is not opinion or speculation . I can show numerous examples of students who completed one assignment in a grading period and for their report card, recieved a 9-weeks grade equal to the grade of that one assignment.

    And we blame Covid for the 3 – 5 – year gap between reading ability and grade level. And we want to put on a dog-and-pony show every day.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *