Monday, February 24, 2014

the mission of the university

I've written some things about university education that could seem fairly cold-hearted, critical, or even cynical. I have wanted to write a paper to submit to an upcoming conference that would take the form of a prospectus for potential shareholders in a university based on the principles of advertising and information analyzed by Jean Baudrillard. I'm out of time to write it in a way consistent with my long-term health and well-being.

I'm grading papers and attending meetings about curriculum, instead. What I learned from one recent meeting is that, no matter how cynical the tone in my satires, I could never hope to match the cynicism of some actual university administrators. Quoting liberally from their universities' mission statements, some actual university administrators manage to bankrupt all meaning from any concept pertaining to the work universities do, while speaking of the pursuit of various metrics of this same work as the key value universities ought to have. (I should note in passing that interpreting some of what actual university administrators say about university education as cynical ought to strain us, because parsimony demands the simpler explanation that some actual university administrators are unable to comprehend what it is universities do. Calling it cynical suggests that these administrators are people who know that they are paid to say that they care about education.)

Gentle reader, you may be relieved to find that this post is not at all cynical.

Today, after another meeting about curriculum, and after a woman in a red Cadillac tried three times to run into me and my bike at the same intersection on the way home, I was thinking about how something like the university's mission is reflected in my actual, you know, work.

I graded four papers from a class of 30 just before the meeting. One of them was good, followed the prompt, and generally explained the ethical problem and the two articles I asked the class to write about. It was a B. One of them was fair, said what the two articles were about, but didn't really address the prompt or the ethical problem. It was a C. Two of them were basically incomprehensible because of poor English grammar, mechanics, syntax, word choice, and poor comprehension of course material, and failure to follow instructions. The proper score for each of these two papers would be F-. The students in the class are juniors or seniors, meaning they have already supposedly successfully completed two years of college work.

This tells me something about our university's mission. We have students who are functionally illiterate in at least the English language, and we have students who are capable of what I consider college-level work. In most of my classes, the ratio is one student who cannot do college work for every three who can. Our university's mission is to serve these students, all of them, because all of them meet admission standards at this public four-year comprehensive university, being among the top third of their graduating classes or having met admissions requirements for community college transfers.

We most often speak and think about the university's mission in terms of imparting knowledge, preparing students for careers, and for life, but with the narrow and fixated focus on particular outcomes -- graduation being the most important, and most commonly cited. It's a discourse obsessed with winning and losing -- with the university winning and losing -- and each student is one more ball game in the never ending season.

Now, that really is cynical, keeping score by counting students who graduate and "succeed." When I grade papers with a mindset like that, I get more frustrated and angry with every paper that's hopelessly off-topic, ungrammatical, and incoherent, because every paper like that is another loss in my record.

What I think I want to know about the university's mission, and about my students, is what good we can do for these people who come here and take our classes. Win or lose.

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