Is Academia Purely 'Academic'?
(One professor's perspective)

 

by Armand A. Gagnon, M.A.

"The proof is in the pudding, not in the recipe."

    The business of educating people in an exciting and effective manner is indeed an interesting profession. One would think that the terms academia and academic, in the scholarly sense, would have much to do with learning. Yet if the 'recipe' is a Ph.D in a given discipline, and the 'proof' or taste lies in the teacher or professor who delivers the 'culinary' product to the consumer or student, then can Master of Arts or Doctorate degrees in a selected field guarantee effectiveness or quality pedagogy? Can a musical composition written on staff paper guarantee a beautiful musical piece regardless of the performer, the musician, his musical instrument, or the conductor? Can a Bachelor in Music degree insure a musician's sound ear training or guarantee superb improvisational skill? I should think not, no more than can a Ph.D in a foreign language insure fluency, a clear pronunciation for student modeling purposes, quality translating ability, or adequate teaching skills.

   Our words academia, academy, and academic were borrowed either from the French académie or from the Latin academia. Both terms ultimately trace themselves back to the Greek Akademía, the area in ancient Athens where the philosopher Plato (c. 428-347 B.C.) had taught. Thus, both terms are rooted in teaching and the spreading of acquired knowledge to be passed on to disciples or learners in a designated discipline

    Now an effective or dynamic teacher (working with Kindergarten to Grade 12) or a college professor (working in post-secondary, Higher Education), in my professional opinion, should exhibit the following qualities in the classroom, regardless of the students' age or the subject material being taught:

                               1- Warmth
                               2- Sensitivity
                               3- Spontaneity
                               4- Immediacy
                               5- Sense of humor

    Now these five aforementioned qualities I've delineated above are innate qualities, inborn characteristics, completely independent of book-learning and degree-chasing. Suffice it to say that a thorough knowledge of one's disciplinary field be an understood "given", a necessary ingredient for a teacher, much like it must be understood that a professional boxer be in tip-top physical shape for his chosen craft or career. Yet diplomas, certifications, and higher degrees can never insure such accomplishment, no more so than optimum physical endurance or body fat percentages can determine a world-class boxing exhibition. 

    It seems that in education, the maxim or current motto in many college catalogues these days is "Students come first" or "Our staff are committed to fostering and enriching our student body in a pleasant learning environment", or something along these lines. This set of lofty ambitions paints a rather optimistic, yet not too realistic of a picture. Based on my having been a  full-time college student for six years in California's junior college and university systems, coupled with having taught on the secondary level, Bilingual Kindergarten, and now in Higher Education in three different college settings, I find these ideals just that: ideas only. Let us take a closer look at the current Adjunct Faculty vs. Contracted Faculty situation we find contaminating the United States and much of the world today.

PART-TIME vs. FULL-TIME FACULTY

     An Adjunct Professor is a Part-Time Credit Faculty employee who must live with that very stigma, be paid only for the amount of credits taught, sign quarterly renewable contracts, be given what classes and times suit his or her "superiors", miss out on many important conferences and meetings, and suffer that unenviable limited status throughout his or her professional career. The term adjunct, as delineated in Miriam Webster's Standard American Dictionary, is defined as "A thing added to something else, but secondary or not essential to it". In essence, such a division or distinction can evoke a second-class academic working environment, much like a plague creating resentment among colleagues within departments. This somehow might set the stage for the superiority/inferiority syndrome so prevalent among community colleges and universities today. Apart from lack of paid benefits, seniority preference to teaching classes, and higher retirement contributions, when it comes to conflict resolution, the standard seems to be that full-timers are right and part-timers are not (if they are even allowed a voice to be heard at all). A prevalent and a propos witticism among many part-timers is "Add junk" faculty, for this is how many of them feel. 

    Oftentimes Adjunct Professors are disallowed to teach second-year classes among many colleges and within varied departments. A common example of this can be found in many English Departments across the country wherein the part-time teachers can only teach the 100-level writing and composition classes and not the coveted 200-level literature classes, for those are savored only by full-time Contracted Faculty. Across many math departments throughout the nation, part-timers may only teach algebra and geometry, not the higher branches of mathematics! Much like Supporting Actors or skilled workers sent out to job sites from "temp agencies", adjunct people are simply not-always-needed add-ons, with no priority nor respect given them whatsoever in the overall academic scheme of things. Ironically, a vast majority of the superior professors nationwide are Adjunct personnel.

    Now, a very handy and nifty gimmick used in numerous states to cut costs is the GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellowship) program wherein graduate students actually take over a class for the full-time professor so that s/he may pursue assigned research for the university in order to secure further funding of projects. On many an occasion, a recently graduated student (fresh out of his or her Bachelors Degree program) teaches the entire accredited class! Thus, an inexperienced student-teacher recites the entire course while students lose out on their dollar's worth: instruction by a seasoned, or at least a fully trained professional in the field. Isn't this much like having a dental hygienist pull one's tooth instead of having a fully-qualified, state-licensed dentist perform the task? Some states, like California for example, do not allow this gross miscarriage of educational justice to take place, fortunately for millions of incoming students. In fact, the State of California only allows its T.A.s (Teaching Assistants) to correct papers and to assist in class for they are, as yet, not fully qualified nor sufficiently experienced to take over a class on their own.

     So just who pays the price? Everyone does, especially the students. A dynamic part-time teacher often has a following and students, who for understandable reasons of continuity, better learning or personal familiarity, might just want to continue with that same professor into their second year of study. There is indeed a reason why "popular" teachers are popular: they deliver a quality product, plain and simple. Additionally, if a part-time teacher is only allowed to teach the beginning first-year classes, then how can that professor possibly have a grasp on what the over all program entails? Indeed, the students who have completed the 200-level classes end up knowing more than the part-time professor who is left out in the dark. Doesn't this diminish a department's standing?

    So in cases like these, students (for quite obvious reasons) are not considered a priority at all. The professor suffers by not being able to expand her career, the department itself loses out in terms of professionalism when such a professor is not allowed to teach second-year classes, and if and when an Adjunct professor wants to apply elsewhere at other colleges in hopes of advancing his career or professional status, they are oftentimes turned down by prospective colleges due to their "lack of experience" in teaching any 200-level courses. Makes sense? It makes about as much sense as sitting in a Dickensian 19th Century London debtor's prison in hopes of working one's way out. In the end, it is the students who lose out, the customers of our "quality" product, while they continue paying top-dollar for their intended education. In the end, it all boils down to dollars and cents, or rather, no sense at all.

INTER- DEPARTMENTAL CONCERNS

    Oftentimes, institutions of higher learning lump different, somewhat related disciplines together under the same identical department unit, such as the Astronomy, Physics & Biology Department, or the English, World Languages & Speech Department, or the History, Afro-American Studies & Indigenous Peoples of the Planet Department. On many college campuses across the nation, these three disciplines are chaired or conducted by one faculty member whose only area of expertise lies in one of the three discipline areas. This leads to the inevitable supervisor paradox. For example, a Department of World Languages is integrated into an English & Literatures Department, oftentimes with the department chairperson being a Doctorate professor in English (whose specialty resides only within the realm of the English language) "supervising" professors who are accomplished, multi-lingual educators.

     Another scenario could include a Biology professor overseeing an Astronomy Department, yet the Ph.D completed in Biology hasn't included specialized areas of intergalactic studies nor extraterrestrial environs. So, how can a monolingüal English-speaking supervisor, who may indeed be fully accomplished in world literature and writing or composition, oversee, correct, add, or adjust curriculum in Portuguese or Italian? How can a Ph.D. English professor observe a French teacher in class and be able to leave that classroom with an adequate summation or critique of the professor's performance when they themselves cannot understand a word of what was being spoken in class? Granted that paralingüistic body language "speaks" for itself, the supervisor could at least be able to feel or sense the teacher/student interaction in the classroom without having to understand the foreign language being spoken. The irony here lies in the fact that the students in the classroom being observed know more French than the Department Chair does. Over all, such professor/supervisors put in such awkward positions indeed cannot perform that aspect of their job adequately in any reasonable fashion. Nor could a non-mechanical businesswoman who owns a Volkswagen repair shop be able to oversee her mechanics' work if she herself knows nothing about Volkswagens and how they operate mechanically. 

    Perhaps a supervisor with a Ph.d in Applied Lingüistics could resolve this inherent tension, this "paradox" for a World Languages, English Literatures and Speech & Debate Department. Maybe another supervisor with an advanced degree in Interplanetary Studies for the Astronomy, Biology, and Earth Sciences Department could resolve such professional friction too. Unfortunately, this "professional paradox" seems to be the case nationwide, more often than one would think.

     Well out of the realm of professional appropriateness then, a runaway curriculum process can then set forth a chain of events wherein the World Languages Department  or Astronomy Department can organize and run their program however seen fit by a partially informed supervisor or overseer! And this might include the pacing of the material, choice of textbook to be used, and selection of pedagogical methods, without any true professional scrutiny being carried out on the part of their supervisor (who knows little or nothing to begin with about the subject material being taught). So much for department accountability. Again, in the long run, it is the students who lose out with the Department's vested interests at stake, not their own. This I call "irreducational irresponsibility". Such falsity to be found within academic circles is quite appalling, really.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM

    An interesting, extremely loose concept entitled academic freedom is tossed about much these days, as aspiring college educators salivate over any potential prospects that this very concept might imply. When a new professor is hired on in a given department, rather quickly does s/he find out just how much freedom they really do (or do not) have with  incorporating any of their own previously tested techniques and ideas into their classes. One extreme could include a totally prescribed, ready-made curriculum wherein the professor must follow an already pre-established, supposedly time-tested syllabus, with no personal nor professional freedom allowed the newcomer whatsoever. So, they then have no option other than to play follow-the-leader at the expense of dampening or even squishing their own creativity, professional expertise or input, or past experience in the classroom. 

    Another extreme, which seems somewhat a rarity these days, could include an "open" program wherein the professor may write his or her own syllabus, choose the textbook of his or her choice (or no text at all, for that matter), and employ any classroom activities of his own choosing at will. Between these two extremes lies a more common, generally pre-established textbook with an accompanying course outline and mid-term exams already pre-written, thus giving the professor much latitude and liberty to add, modify, remove, or improvise on elements and components within the program. With the advent of online classes, even more academic freedom can be injected into the equation nowadays. But just how does one learn and practice Welding 101 online?

    In the long run, it will be the students who will best determine just how much "freedom" the class allows their teacher and themselves, for the end results will be paramount in terms of their absorption and consequent application of the material being presented to them. Generally speaking, rigid, static programs in any discipline create rigid and static outcomes. "Academic freedom", whether applied to the teacher or the pupil, generally remains a rather subjective, speculative, nebulous and elusive concept, not applicable in equal proportions to all involved, and indeed not to all academic learning settings even within the same department or learning institution.

HIRING PRACTICES

     Commonly, when it comes to hiring practices within Higher Education, the filling of abstract categories is the general predominant rule in conjunction with Affirmative (in)Action along with ubiquitous Equal Opportunity Employer seals. "Diversity breeds strength" or "We encourage women, minorities, and the physically challenged to apply" are among some of the many socio-political divisions one can read on most college position postings. To begin with, it is not too uncommon these days to find a selection committee member actually missing from the interview panel! Equal opportunity or not, the aspiring applicant is then left only to ponder just what this selection committee member actually looked like, knowing all the while that s/he will be deciding the outcome of the hiring, yet without ever having met them. But just how many other competing candidates will or already have met that person? The aspiring applicant is only left to ponder and wonder....

    Oftentimes it is what appears on paper in the college posting, especially in the cover letter of interest, that matters most in academic circles. For this could determine future accrediting requirements or grant proposal stipulations, regardless of the teaching skill, clear pronunciation, language fluency, musical genius, mathematical ability, historical expertise, background in psychology, or student rapport on the part of the applicant. After all, just how can such applicants adequately demonstrate or prove cross-cultural competence during a teaching demonstration or interview? The actualization of such high falutin ideals truly is quite ludicrous.

    And what of a highly qualified, possibly mathematical genius non-handicapped Anglo-Saxon male who wants to apply? Would you think him to be discouraged by these already preëstablished or preordained prospects? Indeed he must be. Most college selection committees, when it is all said and done, hire just whoever they want to hire, be that person an in-house "shoo-in" candidate who has already paid their part-time Adjunct dues and remains in good standing within that same institution (thus barring all outsiders from entering their regulated system) or a personal friend. Or opting for someone who is already on more familiar turf with committee members and remains less of a threat, is a known recognized "safe" candidate, and becomes a much less risky employment prospect? Oftentimes outside applicants are simply too much of an overall threat, indeed an unknown wild card or a potential "squeaky wheel", for selection members to take any kind of chances. Yet, the opposite could be true too, by wanting a "clean slate" candidate. Thus, the outside applicant wouldn't be carrying  any long-term interdepartmental baggage, either. 

    Many applicants across the United States have experienced the humiliation of that most impersonal of interviewing techniques: the telephone conference call. Such an exercise in blind exploitation and fragmentation within the hiring process does, however, fulfill an important mission: The college may claim that they "interviewed" an outside candidate. Clever, don't you think? Some colleges even solicit a video tape of their applicant in order to save paying transportation and lodging costs for prospective candidates who might have to travel from afar. Insensitive it is indeed. Thus all in-person interviewed candidates have quite an advantage (a sterling silver edge shall we say) over their competing counterparts from afar.

     Instead of brains, innate ability, and experience playing a dominant rôle in the hiring process, genes and ethnicity oftentimes appear to matter more, as is all too apparent in the ethnic background questionnaires applicants often must fill out as a random step in their application and screening process. Sometimes Instructor of the Year certificates and Academic Achievement awards mean nothing to a given committee, and positive evaluations from the students can actually increase the level of discomfort for some committee members (of course, it is no fun being outshined by an outsider or part-timer) by creating envy, fear of change, and may ultimately become an over all threat rather than a boon to any given department. Instead of such honors becoming a desirable asset for the department, for the college, and for the students at large (as it should be), it ends up becoming a detriment to the aspirant in the end. 

    General intimidation by excellence in teaching among many colleagues is all too rampant in education today, a very sad and sorry commentary on today's times and on our educational system in general. Perhaps status and prestige are the principal concerns among most academicians today, and not teaching or inspiring student curiosity much at all. This reveals an underlying insecurity in the system as a whole. Such "teachers" only end up having external power over their students, never internal power nor earned respect. And strong unions oftentimes only serve to protect such incompetent teachers from being deservedly let go from their tenure-track positions, perhaps inadvertently assuring the continuance of a repetitive cycle in non-diversity and further recycled incompetence.

    Occasionally, some colleges actually include live students in the interviewing and selection processes, as is the case with Southern Oregon University, but this is rare due to possible disagreements over whether the students are qualified to make such  judgments, even though they are the end and means for why we educate in the first place. Much of hiring within community colleges and universities across the world is indeed a disgraceful façade, unworthy of the boasting, fallacious ideals and rosy picture so often portrayed in many schedules of classes and college catalogues. Once again, in general it is the students who pay the ultimate price of having to suffer and tolerate incompetent professors and mediocre "professionals". Isn't it they (the students) who constitute our paychecks? Are we not to be their stewards and guardians of intellectual enlightenment? Sadly, across many college boards nationwide, students have been reduced to mere commodities, simply a product from which to be profited, as tuition fees' spiraling out of line in gross disproportion to students' economic standards of living can well attest nationwide.

INSPIRATION IN EDUCATION

    In my estimation, teaching must be saturated with spirit on the part of the teacher or educator. A true educator must breathe Life into his subject matter, make it come alive for the students. I like that term spirit because it is intricately linked with and inseparable from the word breath. When the spirit leaves the body, so does the breath, and visa-versa. Non-sentient beings devoid of breath are devoid of spirit or soul, as well. The Latin term spiritus is derived from its verb form spirare, and all modern offshoots into modern English are connected with breath, integrated into the realm of spirit: aspire, aspirate, aspirant, aspiration, aspirator, aspiring, inspire, inspiration, inspiring, perspire, perspiration, perspiring (the pores breathe), spire (of a church, as it points skyward towards the heavens or Eternal Spirit), respirate, respirator, expire (ex + spire = "out with the breath"), expiration, conspire, conspiracy, transpire, etc. During the Augustan period, the term spirit meant "soul"; both were synonymous or interchangeable. These two words were etymologically linked with the Latin ánima (soul), from which have evolved our modern terms animal, animate, animated, animation (breathing life into a still cartoon), inanimate (lacking breath or life itself), and animism (the attributing of Life or breath into inanimate objects). So, it is up to the teacher to animate his material at hand, to give it breath to be felt, experienced, and lived by his or her pupils.

   Yet, for most full-time professors, what comes with their perceived social and professional status are those interminable, often senseless meetings that constitute up to 30% or more of their total work week. Instead of spending more time with their students either in their classrooms, in a laboratory setting, or investing precious time in tutoring them on a one-on-one basis or in small groups to clarify any academic or personal concerns that might become an obstruction to their academic growth (thus allowing for professors to get to know their students as real people and not as mere commodities), full-timers can bathe in the luxury of listening to one another babble and talk for hours on end. At times, genuine academic strategies and new ideas that can be directly applied and integrated into the classroom become paramount at these meetings. Yet other times, unit planning, multiple initiatives, budgetary issues or other urgent concerns become paramount. Oftentimes, professors and administrators simply like to hear themselves talk, which I suppose comes naturally to the profession. 

All too often a favorite local university, such as the University of California at Los Angeles or the University of Washington in Seattle (an institution well known for integrating research into its programs) somehow carry an air of local popular singularity within the immediate community. Often, professors who hold degrees from such local institutions join a system excluding "outsiders" who hail from other universities to participate fully in their multi-faceted programs. Diversity? That word itself seems expansive. Perhaps the term diversity is being slightly confused these days with the concept of ethnic plurality, or regional variation. Such prevalent situations are mainly, in my opinion, rooted in a territorial  fear, in an insecurity, and in a constant need to control and not to be controlled by others, especially by any outside newcomers or strangers. 

In many respects, situations like these correspond to certain underlying commonalities within the founding of our modern world fundamentalisms: rigidity, domination, separation, and exclusion. In all likelihood, the pervasive competitiveness and insecurities that permeate so much of academia today are born from the inescapable conclusion that, although academicians earn a living from their intellects, minds, and time invested in formal training and studies, they are certainly among the least paid of professionals compared to other such fields as medicine, sales, sports, broadcasting, the entertainment industry, construction, and many blue collar trades. As a matter of course, this list could go on and on. 

TEACHING MASTERS

    Actually, true masters in any discipline (be it in music, in drama, in the dance, in the sciences, in foreign languages, in mathematics, or in history) are for the most part rarely, if ever, really deeply threatened by any newness or change in direction in their discipline, for they generally welcome and even embrace any incoming input, new ideas, latest technologies, or programs that might be of use to them and to the advantage of all involved. Why? Because they love what they do, want to expand themselves and their world around them while keeping abreast of the latest state-of-the-art in their field. Teaching masters even bask in the joyous delight of learning from their students too (what a concept!) knowing fully well that they themselves will improve all the while in the process. In short, such authentic masters in education, in general, lack limiting and self-defeating insecurities in all that they do and thus have little need to have to prove themselves for external validation. These are the authentic, truly dynamic educators of our times. 

    In paraphrasing a hopeful John Dewey regarding promoting democracy in education, MIT Lingüistics professor and ground-breaking grammar pioneer Noam Chomsky further adds:

                "In a free society, universities ought to be, schools too for that matter, should be places where people faculty and students are encouraged to challenge, question, press the borders of inquiry, to be completely open to challenging received and accepted ideas. In fact that's the way the sciences work. The sciences wouldn't survive if that wasn't the atmosphere. And it should be the atmosphere throughout education. But when you get to areas that reflect public policy, the hammer comes down and you get repression of challenges to authority."

    Let's take for example professional astronomers or interplanetary rocket scientists of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. These scientists and empirical futurists must initially answer to the higher truths of the cosmos, lay aside any preconceived assumptions or notions of what they would like to find in favor of what really is out there. If they are proved to be wrong in their hypotheses, they of necessity must openly admit it, in keeping with the scientific method, with all sense of insecure ego attachment brushed aside. The laws of the physical universe are their indisputable, phenomenal guide. Such professional scientists, astronomers, cosmologists, astrophysicists, and planetary geophysicists constantly scrutinize each other's work and discoveries, as do all true scientists, simply as a matter of routine convention. Thus, harboring any personal interpretation and subjectivity becomes superfluous once photo images from the Viking landers or the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on the surface of Mars are received from space back to Earth, only  to shatter any anterior, prejudicial ideas one might have once held based on previously analyzed data. Now the scientists must reëxamine their thinking and outlook once again based on the empirical evidence, as a matter of habit, and swallow any prideful prior outdated claims. So science is a self-correcting process. In pure fact, that's the way the sciences work.

     Perchance all professors from all fields within all colleges and universities around the globe could learn such lessons in patience and objectivity from these marvelous women and men of humanity's future, be they of the European Space Agency or NASA, or aboard Russia's floating space station Mir. Ego-bound, insecure, close-minded scientists and educators really belong in some other profession, especially since they affect so many young, open, and upcoming fertile minds around the globe.

    If only Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), rector and founder of the University of Virginia, could have had his way as he had originally envisioned an open university to be: available literally to all at little or no cost for every human being on our planet! Then maybe we could assimilate the original connotation of universe into our institutions of higher learning, into our universities.

 © 2004   
All Rights Reserved

To order THE SPANISH SAMPLER:   

"The unexamined life is not worth living."
            Socrates (470-399 B.C.)

"So schools date from the Middle Ages, and pedagogy from the Enlightenment".
        
   from Sophie's World, by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder, 1991

"Both comets and cats have tails and do just what they want."
            from the NOVA episode entitled Origins, 2004

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."  
           
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

"Preferment goes by letter and affection,
  And not by old gradation,
  Where each second stood heir to the first."

            from William Shakespeare's Othello

"Any restriction of academic freedom heaps coals of shame upon the community."
           
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

"I will fight to the death to defend my opponent's right to his opinion" 
             Voltaire (1694-1778)

"Killing bias slays ignorance."
            anonymous

Please continue to Lingüistic Sources of Hallowe'en.

Hallowe'en poem: Winds of October

Day of the Dead/Día de los muertos

Origins of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving short story of fantasy: The Ghost of Thanksgiving

Origins of Christmas

Origins of St.Valentine's Day

Origins of Easter

Language Families

The Indo-European Family Of Languages

Indigenous Languages of Alaska and Siberia

Armand A. Gagnon on "UNIVERSATILE" LANGUAGE

Tales of B'rer Rabbit, as Spun by Uncle Remus

California Dreamin'

Chilean Eclipse

About the Author

Methodologies in Foreign Language Teaching

The History of the Guitar in Spain w/ YOU TUBE video

Anti Semantic: What's in a Word?            

Artificiality in Foreign Language Teaching  

 

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