Friday, May 16, 2008

Academic Transgressions

Transgression is a prerogative of rank. We in the lower orders have to obey. Sometimes it just gets a little frustrating.Confessions of a Community College Dean
This wonderful line is in response to a post from Easily Distracted on re-imagining the liberal arts curriculum (this discussion also continues on Reassigned Time as well). CCCD notes that his own community college isn't free innovate or experiment with ways to reinvent the college curriculum because of its place within the academic food chain. Instead, it is constrained to fill the requirements set by four year institutions. CCCD is exactly right: "Transgression is a prerogative of rank."

But this insight holds true not only between institutions, but also within institutions.

At my own Bizarro University, we are currently in the midst of a "reorganization" which has meant that faculty who for decades had been able to envision and implement an interdisciplinary program of study not unlike the one imagined by Easily Distracted, have instead been disbanded. The ability to transgress and innovate has been moved higher up the chain of command and is now the demesne of Provosts and Vice Chancellors. This is simply one of the most recent manifestations of the corporate university structure as it is being played out on my campus. Now, rather than curricular decisions about interdisciplinary programs being made by the faculty and implemented by the administration, the order has been reversed. The administration decides, and the faculty is supposed to implement.

The problems with this structure will no doubt plague us for many years to come. And as CCCD correctly notes: "Sometimes it just gets a little frustrating."


  1. As one of those who is part of the interdisciplinary crown at my college, let me tell you that you run up against some tough walls. Not only colleagues whose notes are so old they are in Latin (and they don't teach Latin), but also from the junior folks who are afraid of not having time to publish. Innovation requires having the entire institution behind you because tenure requirements and culture can get very much in the way. Sad, sad, sad.

  2. I agree this is a great insight and describes the reality of most people. However, as someone who picked strawberries for three years as an adjunct, I can add a category of transgression: flying under the radar. As long as I was able to produce the correct appearances and started no bonfires, I could substantively transgress about any way I wanted in the classroom. The brass were just grateful that they didn't have to pay attention to me. I've since confirmed this analysis through my own stint as department chair.

    I kept trying to explain this to my adjunct colleagues when they wanted to bitch about how oppressed they were, but their superegos were so strong that they kept wanting to ask some daddy if they could do the things they wanted to. And of course the answer was always no.

    It's harder at community college, no doubt, just as I've found it harder at a small private than at a big public. Still works though. There's always play in the system, but it disappears the moment you try to change the system formally. That's when the walls go up. The question for me is whether I want to stand on principle and lose, or play smart and win.

    You can't get everything you want this way, but when do we ever get everything we want.