"We've spent years figuring out how to do more with less. It's time for us to figure out how to do less."
-- my department chair, circa 2008
I have recently arrived at the suspicion that operating in crisis conditions undermines one's ability to make objective judgments. My hunch is that the effect is especially strong when it comes to evaluating whether an on-the-ground response to an extreme reduction in resources will help or hurt the broader goals one (or one's institution) is trying to achieve.
And indeed, this hunch is something I am just articulating to myself (rather than leaving it as a miasma that envelops my head and my workplace) as my assistance has been requested in devising a radical curricular response to "the new normal" of hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the budget (with more to come!) that we have been told are never coming back. The radical curricular response, as I understand it right now, would have the virtue of saving a significant amount of money. However, it would do so by taking particular pedagogical goals that it is difficult to achieve well in a 15 week semester and cramming them into about 5 weeks of another semester-long course -- and by delivering the whole thing completely online to all of our incoming freshmen. This latter detail concerns me in terms of the workload it will entail for the faculty teaching the course and evaluating student work (since, in my experience, the time required teaching online has never been less than teaching the equivalent course in a classroom, and indeed has always been substantially more). And, it concerns me in terms of the challenges it will create as far as getting new college students to engage meaningfully with the course material, with their professors, and with each other. (My experience teaching upper division students online is that even keeping them engaged is a challenge.)
There is a piece of me that loves problem-solving enough that I have been thinking through topics and readings and assignments that might efficiently achieve the pedagogical goals in question. There are people I respect, people I like, who believe this goal is attainable and consistent with our educational mission.
But, there is another part of me, one whose voice is getting louder, that says this is an exercise in patching a boat that cannot, cannot stay afloat under these conditions. This part of me argues that we need to recognize this radical curricular response for what it really is: a signal that we have passed the point where we can actually deliver a quality college education with the resources we will be given.
If that's what it is, can it be ethical to proceed as if we can somehow deliver something close enough to a quality college education? Should we not, instead, call it as we see it and identify the resources we need to do the job we're supposed to do?
Obviously, asking for appropriate resources does not guarantee that we will get them. It may result in our doing the job right but for fewer students. Conceivably, it might also result in the administrators finding ways to clear out faculty who say the job cannot be done with less (by eliminating our departments, for example, or by ramping up class sizes and cutting salaries to the point that the job becomes intolerable) until the ones who remain are the ones willing to play ball.
I have tended to view adaptability as a good thing, but I have long been suspicious of the assumption that we should regard the environment to which we might adapt as an immovable object -- especially when that environment is made up of people making policy decisions. I think I'm ready to find out whether university system administrations can adapt when faculty take a stand for quality education.