What follows this paragraph, is an example of me giving my opinion on what I think is a critical issue, which is, how we as University faculty might turn the flashlight on ourselves before external agents get further along in their attempts to do so. Remember, I am doing this not as an official voice of UTM, but as one concerned and temporarily in a position to help generate (I hope) conversations around issues of this sort on our campus.
A few years ago during a visit to Nashville along with professors and other employees from UTC, UTK and MTSU, to lobby on behalf of the United Campus Workers and Communication Workers of America Unions; a group of five or so of us got a few minutes with one of the state representatives and as soon as we sat down he said he had two question for us: (1) how many hours a week do we teach and (2) why is the cost of education rising at a rate so much higher than almost any other prices in our society?
I offered two answers: (1) asking us how much we teach per week is like asking him how many hours he spends in the legislative chamber per week, it is only part of what both of us do, and (2) tuition costs are going up because the state is reducing its funding for higher education.
Both of the answers could have been much more involved and maybe even more contentious, and no doubt more thoroughly thought through, but those were the answers I found in my head on the spot.
As most of us in higher education know, there are think tanks across the country (see the link at the bottom of this blog entry) promoting reform of higher education by state legislatures, and most state legislators are aware of the conversation and are staking out their position.
Are those who call college professors elites, out of touch with the real world, getting by with doing almost nothing after receiving tenure, publishing research no one reads – research often esoteric and seemingly done just because of the requirement to do it and not to address real problems; entirely wrong?
I have often had funny feelings when spending $1000 or more, to go to a conference and present a paper to six or seven colleagues, who themselves are only there to present their own papers and not so interested in what I was presenting; knowing that once my paper was on the CD or in the physical proceedings or journal, it would sit on a shelf or in a drawer until those who subscribed or attended the conference finally cleaned out their office and (hopefully) recycled it?
I know new knowledge comes from Universities, although not all of it, a good deal of it does; and I know this knowledge results from freedom to thinking deeply, broadly and in consort with other professors or students passionate about the subject being studied; but do those who criticize us from the outside not make any good points? Might we not be better off to think critically ourselves about our practices rather than waiting for legislators to address them?
In my estimation, Universities such as UTM are in an even better position than Tier-1 research schools to take on (study, contemplate, offer solutions) problems in our communities in collaboration with our students or members of the communities. When I drive to the airport in Memphis, fly to a city somewhere for my paper presentation (that few will ever read), and drive back from the airport, I might on my way there and back, drive past a dozen places where problems are persisting that I, my colleagues and students could well help identify, address and solve.
One reason we do not take this approach to academia, even at the Tier-2 or regional comprehensives schools such as UTM, is that we are all so isolated in our disciplines it would be tough for us to know enough about an entire problem to take it on and find a solution. Problems, unfortunately, do not know which academic disciplines we have to throw at them.
I would suggest three reforms-from-within for higher education (at least at schools like UTM) that might well cast us in a better light with our communities and with legislators, and perhaps most importantly, our own consciences; and they are these: (1) we should stop doing research just for the sake of publishing, (2) we should find real problems in our community to address with our research time, and (3) we should figure out how to collaborate across disciplines and members of the communities we serve, to address these real problems.
What are your thoughts on this? Is everything all right at Universities or at UTM in particularly? If everything is not okay in your judgment, what needs to be improved or changed? I only mentioned the “applied-local research” notion, because it has been swirling around in my head for years. What similar things are swirling around in your head? I have identified a problem and proposed possible solutions, but I have a number of other things on my mind and I hear a lot of things like this from colleagues all the time, both here and at other schools. If you identify a problem (or shall we say opportunity?) please try to accompany it with a suggestion for solving it.