Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to Be a Professor: SLAC vs. Big University

Only time for a short post today: in anticipation of Kalamazoo, I've taken off early to visit a friend who teaches at Small College a few hours away. They're in their dead week here, so my timing is fortuitous. But she's been telling me about what she does and how she does it, and I realize how many different things "professor" can mean.

My friend not only hostessed, but also totally made me a pie.

I did my undergrad at an urban SLAC. That's my model for how things should be done. But it's so very hard to import that model to a four-year urban school with over 25,000 undergraduates, over half of them transfers from two-year colleges, the vast majority of them first-generation college students, almost all working at least 20 hours a week in outside jobs, and far from all from English-speaking households.

What I see here at Small College? I want this for my students. And I want to be the kind of professor that my friend here is. But I don't know where or how to begin. Any ideas?

UPDATE: After reading the comments below, I've come to a totally different (and only partially rhetorical) question, which perhaps is more the one I should be asking: Is it perhaps my attitude toward the possibilities of a particular institution, more than the institution itself, that is getting in the way of me being the teacher I want to be?


Dr. Crazy said...

It's hard to know how to respond because it's not clear to me what you mean when you say, "What I see here at Small College? I want this for my students. And I want to be the kind of professor that my friend here is. But I don't know where or how to begin. Any ideas?"

What exactly is it that you want for your students? That your friend has/does that you want? And why are those the things that you want for your students and yourself?

The one thing I will say is this: I went to a regional college about the size of where you work and with a similar sort of student population (though nearly all were native speakers of English). I chose a school like that precisely because I had absolutely no interest in what SLACs had to offer, having seen a number of my friends who graduated from high school before me go on to SLACs. It may well be that your students aren't suffering at all for not having the kind of experience that you think is "how things should be done" and that they wouldn't thrive in that sort of environment. Looking back, I really do not think I would have thrived in a SLAC-type environment, and I really look back fondly on the relationships I developed with professors and the education I received at my large undergrad.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hm. Good point. There is definitely a bit of that at work here: "This was ideal for me, so it must be ideal for everyone, if only I could make it work."

I think what I'm talking about here is the individual attention, the institutionalized high expectations, the environment where learning comes first, and has a value in and of itself. At Urban University, I'm competing for my students' attention with all sorts of other more pressing priorities: keeping their job, taking care of relatives, all of that. And I feel like I haven't been leaping into the high-level work because I'm so concerned with getting them to write a grammatical sentence.

Anonymous said...

I think it has to be a balance of the two... you can't expect students at a school where they've got so many other priorities (paying their own way through college etc) to be able to focus the same way students at a small SLAC who are there on their parents dime to do so...

and this is true amongst types too - I've run into this myself - I went to a small religious SLAC where most of the students either had their parents paying for their schooling, or they had managed to get enough financial aid plus work study that those few hours a week were enough to pay for it. Plus the school required that everyone have proof of medical insurance to register.

I now work at a different small religious SLAC, where most of the students are financially independent from their parents (even if they're traditional college age) and have no medical insurance at all. Its a completely different world! And yet both would on first glance be very similar schools...

clio's disciple said...

Some of those things (high expectations, learning comes first) are hard to maintain even at a SLAC--social lives matter a lot to many of my students, I have a number of athletes, students with jobs and family obligations too. (One student missed class today because his son was ill, for example.) I'll be happy to talk this over with you when I see you tomorrow.

feMOMhist said...

I think perhaps your refer not to SLAC but ESLAC. The elite version is a different world, materially (usually incredibly well endowed) intellectually (highly selective) culturally (highly diverse) and I could go on, from the majority of SLACs. For the vast unknown SLACs (well unknown until you do that first desperate job search and discover the hundreds of colleges of which you have never heard), the story is quite different and feels to me more in kind if not quantity like CC or BSU teaching experiences I had before TTLAC. That said at MFRU as an undergraduate, I still got individualized, high expectations within my major honors program. Perhaps that is an option for you?

Historiann said...

Notorious, it sounds not so much that you "want this for [your] students," but that you want your friend's job for YOU. I'm not making an accusation here--I'm just agreeing with Dr. Crazy that different institutions fulfill different missions and serve different populations.

I went to a tony SLAC (or ESLAC in FeMOMhist's terms), and always thought that that's the kind of teaching environment that I would like. But, it didn't work out for me, and now I'm at an R1 (but my department grants only a M.A. & not yet a Ph.D.) I've found a lot of things to like about this--such as graduate students. But, there's still a lot that grates. For example, when I teach a survey course, I have 100-120 students and one T.A. (who really is just a grader, not a T.A., as we don't have discussion sections.) I don't like it because I don't think it's effective and I think it is a waste of my time and the students' time, with the exception of the 1/4 to 1/3 of the class that does the homework and earns As and Bs. But, I won't kill myself to deliver a SLAC-y style class. I don't have the institutional resources or support, the time, or quite frankly, the architecture to do this on my own (in that our classrooms seat 100-120 students, because someone 60 years ago said that they should, and now we're stuck with someone's 60-year old public uni pedagogy. Awesome!

Bottom line: most of us do our best, or try to, given the institutional resources and expectations we have to live with. I don't like it, but my survey classes are what they are, and apparently it's good enough for Baa Ram U.

But, like you, I wish my uni had higher standards and the money to back them up. Until they put their money where their mouth is, I'm not going to crucify myself to run my own mini-SLAC.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the clarification, Notorious. Here's what I'd say in response to this: "I think what I'm talking about here is the individual attention, the institutionalized high expectations, the environment where learning comes first, and has a value in and of itself."

The one thing that I think isn't necessarily possible in environments like ours is *institutionalized* high expectations. The institution, by nature of its mission and the population it serves (both in terms of size and in terms of type of student), isn't by its very nature going to have the resources to institutionalize high expectations for all students across the board. But. I think that it is possible to give one's own students individual attention, to have high expectations as a standard in the courses that one teaches, and to create an environment where learning comes first. This was my experience as a student at a school like this, and this is what I try to recreate with the students whom I teach. Do I achieve this perfectly with each and every student? No. But I don't think that's only on the institution or the instructor - I think that's also that some students just don't *want* that experience out of college. And I'm inclined to think that's ok, as long as the opportunity is there for them.

I think it is true across various majors at my university (and luckily mine is one of them) that the values that you endorse above happen at the local level of the major, if not in an institution-wide context. So, students tend to be more major-identified than institution-identified, if that makes sense. With that being the case, it may take longer for students to experience the kind of community that they might experience immediately at a smaller, more selective institution, and it may be the case that they don't experience those values early enough for them to do as much good as they might if there were more intervention early on.

I think a positive for some students, though (and this was probably true for me) is that there's a lot less pressure and competition than in more intimate educational settings, and a lot less to worry about if one doesn't necessarily "click" with a university-wide or department culture - or even with an individual faculty member. What a big state school has the potential to do is to give students a lot more independence and freedom, and in some ways more time to figure out how they want to experience higher education. Yes, some students are going to fall through the cracks at big schools like this, and that independence won't be a good thing for those students. But for others, I think it can be really good - both personally and intellectually.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Yes, there's definitely self-interest in what I'm saying, in that I see a kind of idealized version (at least in my head) of what this should be like. But as some of you also point out, I'm overgeneralizing quite a bit -- and this may also be born of idealizing a certain type of institution.

Hm. Doing some real thinking here, but not about what I thought I'd be thinking about when I posted this. Is it perhaps my attitude toward the institution, more than the institution itself, that is getting in the way of me being the teacher I want to be?

(That final question is only partially rhetorical. Feel free to jump in.)

Belle said...

My background: large undergrad, enormous grad. Now at small SLAC that has undergone tremendous changes in the years I've been here. I had no idea about SLAC culture, so this has all been new to me.

I underwent a transformative experience re: teaching about four years ago, and I don't know that it would have happened anywhere else - or needed to. But part of it was clarifying what teaching/learning meant to me, and how to do that best in my environment. Oddly, I've found that others are doing similarly weird things at large R1s. And large state unis. Etc.

My hunch is that changing things comes from within us. Mine started with asking questions like you're doing. Good luck - it's a wild ride! (BTW, I'm still on the roller coaster... it may continue forever if I'm lucky.)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

My classroom teaching is a combination of large lectures and small tutorials. Both the students and I do the large lecture shit because the "curriculum" requires it. We do the small tutorials because it provides a context for serious fucking learning (and it's fun!).

maepress said...

I find it very refreshing to see someone in your position putting deep thought into these questions. I went to a small college as an undergrad and am at grad school at a large state school. I feel like most of the profs in my department don't have time/don't care about teaching and I find that very disappointing. We have some incredible experts in our field here but they are more interested in buying out of classes then imparting knowledge. Thankfully, we have all sorts of resources available for those kids that want to get something more out of their education. They can take on fairly sophisticated research projects and get excellent mentorship outside of the classroom. And it's true, the honors classes seem to fulfill the need for more specialized teaching and higher expectations.

I look forward to teaching myself, and feel much the same way in that I'm afraid I have an idealized version of what it will be in my head. I would prefer to have small classes full of bright students then the slacker, texting, goof-off that I TA.

Often though, I fear that it comes down to this idea that we've created as a culture -- that one must absolutely go to college. Learning a trade should be held in higher esteem. Many students that I see now have no idea why they are there and are wasting a lot of time and resources, not to mention making others' degrees worth less.