The Shifting Educational Terrain

The Shifting Educational Terrain August 5, 2012

                We get comfortable with the way things have been. Change does not come easy for most of us. But to expect things to stay the way they have been sets us up for nasty surprises. Those of us in academia would do well to remember this. Over the past couple of weeks I have been considering some of the changes occurring to the institutions of higher education. I do not have solutions to these potential changes but those of us who draw our paychecks from academia need to think about what these changes may mean. In no particular order here is what I see as potential changes that we should consider.

1. The Coming Financial Crisis – Austerity is not merely coming to Greece. It is coming to academia. In a society where the government is looking to make cuts, higher education is often vulnerable to those sorts of financial hits. In the state of Texas we are competing with funding for K-12, health care, government service employees, law enforcement and the persistent demands for tax cuts among other financial concerns. We have to be honest. To the ordinary taxpayer, higher education is of a lower priority and it is hard to convince that taxpayer, and the politicians they vote for, to make higher education an economic priority.

                This means that we have to either do what we have done before with less resources or figure out a better way to “sell” ourselves to non-academics. Some institutions have tried to do this with community programs which may or may not resonate with those non-academics. But at least it is an attempt to show those outside of academia how valuable we can be. We can no longer live in the ivory tower disconnected from non-academics. We have to sell ourselves just like other business institutions even though we are not directly selling “products” to our “customers.” I am not used to thinking in such a manner but doing so may be an important way to adapt to the changing economic reality.

2. Being Online – About ten years ago I put together my first online course. I like my online course. It allows me to do some things more easily than I can do in a traditional face-to-face classroom. But there are definitely shortcomings to my lack of personal contact with the students. The reality is that many students love the flexibility that these courses offer and they are not going away. Furthermore we are seeing more online programs whereby people can get their degrees and never step on campus.

                Online courses are not the only technological alterations. Students like professors on Facebook and the use of social media. YouTube is becoming more commonplace. Students rarely show up at my office hours since they can just email me. Unfortunately they expect me to be on email 24 hours a day. I have told my friends in the past that I believe the internet to be the biggest instrument of social change since the coming of the wheel. You can rest assured that academia will not go untouched by this social change.

                What are the implications of the predominance of online course and internet tools? How will these changes alter the way we relate to our students? Will it lead to our being responsible for more students since we have less interpersonal contact with the students? Will the expectations of students pressure us to utilize the tools in social media so that we can stay relevant? These are some of the new challenges we have to think about in light of the new ways we communicate with each other.

3. Political Trouble – In my last blog I made the argument that we have allowed our politics to distort our science. I have no need to revisit that argument but we have to think about the implications of academic political activism. Previous research has clearly documented the overwhelming politically progressive attitudes of most academics. This is not new. But there is more of a backlash against the perceived political bias in academia which is a threat to our legitimacy as producers of scientific knowledge. As we think about how we can possibly restructure our institutions to meet new challenges, we have to also consider this political angle.

                I do not know if President Obama will win reelection. But he definitely could lose in November. It is highly likely that Republicans will hold the House of Representatives and they have a decent chance of winning the Senate. The impaired position that institutions of higher education have toward obtaining government funding is likely to become worse in a Republican controlled government. Even if the Republicans do not win control this year, at some point they will win control. In a very practical sense those of us in academia may have to reconsider the advantage of playing one side of the political war against the other. Smart businesspeople know how to play this political game so that they will maintain position regardless of which party is in charge. They do so without consideration of whether they agree with a given political party. Learning from them may be a valuable lesson that can help keep us sufficiently resourced.

4. Job Training – The emphasis in academia from liberal arts to occupational training likely comes in cycles. In the sixties and seventies we saw an emphasis of college as a way to gain critical thinking skills. The Reagan-Bush era saw more of an emphasis on preparing students for the workforce. There was a resurgence after that era on the liberal arts and preparing our students to think but there are reasons to believe that we will see more occupational emphasis. The focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) indicates a focus on developing practical skills and away from liberal arts perspectives. Furthermore in a troubled economy we should expect to see more students who are basically looking for a way to gain the credentials they need to secure a nice career.

                This does not mean that training in the liberal arts has to go away. We still must serve the role of stretching the ideas of the students we encounter. But we are foolish if we do not also think about how we can provide those students with practical occupational skills. We do offer practical methodological and critical analysis skills that governments, businesses, non-profit organizations and other institutions find valuable. We can make ourselves valuable to such groups and still help individuals engage in their sociological imagination but it will not be easy to do both at the same time. Few things that are worth doing are easy.

               By no means is an exhaustive list of important changes occurring in higher education, but it should give us food for thought. We have to be ready to deal with our shifting educational terrain. It is tempting for me to ignore these potential patterns and do what I have done in the past without regard to the changes occurring in higher education. It is smarter to look ahead and try to not only adapt, but also to use these alterations for the betterment of my situation and the situation of my field. What that will mean differs between scholars but hopefully we will not be stuck with our past patterns so that we can invest in our opportunities in the future.

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  • Hello Kitty

    Hello Dr. Yancey,

    I am enjoying your writing. Let me start by saying that Sociology is not useless.

    Let me follow by saying that I am sometimes surprised that self-proclaimed experts at macro-level and systems-oriented thinking have trouble recognizing that answering the parents’ perennial question: “What are you going to do with a sociology major?!”

    The answer “sociology makes you smart and improves your critical thinking so you can do anything” is a non-answer in this current economy.

    Sociology is an awesome discipline precisely because it straddles the “tech” and “liberal arts” gap so well. In order to learn decent sociology, the major student must learn technical social research skills that are highly employable. And s/he must learn critical thinking along the lines of the liberal arts. I would argue that to do Sociology well, the major must learn BOTH sides of this.

    I fear we fall short when we fail to draw connections to the outside world. We as faculty need to build the internships, and weak networks, that will help our students’ first steps out of the university. Because other disciplines already have this, and our usefulness needs to be OBVIOUS to state legislatures and tuition-paying students and parents.

    I find that trying to peer forward to be proactively prepared for shifting terrains is often misunderstood as actively WISHING for those futures. Yet, I have serious concerns about the sustainability of higher education the way we are currently doing it.

    I would love to see an honest discussion of whether or not higher ed could be in its own bubble. I hope you have started it here.

  • George Yancey

    I agree with just about all of what you have said. I know that sociology is not useless. But I do fear that we have done a poor job letting the rest of the world how valuable we are. Look at how psychologists have developed a channel for their applied work and become a staple in secondary education and in our larger society. We have at least as much to offer society as psychologists but everyone knows how valuable psychologists are while much fewer individuals appreciate what sociologists have to offer.
    I think you are touching on one of the reasons why we have not gained the clout we deserve. I do think we live in a bit of a bubble and do not always appreciate how to reach out to those not in academia. Interacting with mostly other academics does not alway prepare us to be ready to make our case to non-academics. I think a conversation on how we can better interact with those outside of academia is long overdue.

  • George,
    I really appreciated this post. I do think that higher education will undergo many transformations in the coming decade, and I would like to see faculty participating in and helping this transformation.
    I also agree that we need to do a better job of integrating the insights of sociology into everyday issues students will encounter when they go to work. I try to do that by searching for articles or You Tube clips that relate to the topics I reach about in economic sociology or sociology of religion, and showing students how sociology goes much further to explain social phenomenon we all care about. And I agree as well that basic research skills in social statistics is a very useful skill.


    • George Yancey

      Thanks for the kind words Margarita. I have not gotten to using YouTube yet but I should. I just hope I do not get to old tokeep learning and trying new things. Love your blogs too by the way. George