It Has Nothing To Do With Technology

lca

Computer technology won’t solve the numerous systemic problems we find in contemporary teaching based (4/4) higher educational state-funded institutions because most of the problems these institutions face today are problems of identity rather than “technology.” The pressing need to change traditional teaching based colleges and universities to becoming more “research based” to gain “prestige” and have “the ability” to receive more grant dollars to offset budget cuts in the public sector will backfire because such universities won’t ever be able to compete against institutions of larger stature. Teaching institutions in this country seem to be seeking their own destruction and finding a way to close their doors by trying to be what they are not. In the case of media departments, this shift has been disastrous.

Media departments in teaching universities are in a difficult position. Its operating costs are very high as real estate, TV licenses, computer labs, radio station hardware, softwares, digital camcorders, DSLR’s, lenses… are very expensive to obtain and to maintain. To make matters more complicated, the vast majority of media faculty are hired primarily because of having a PhD in the field of communications and for their ability to do peer-reviewed research in their academic discipline along with serving the university. To complicate matters even more, the promotion and tenure process that is used by most universities rarely distinguish between media and non-media departmental work. In fact, there isn’t a  differentiated structure for promoting and tenuring faculty members across departments which in itself is a major problem for media faculty. Research, in a lot of respects, is more important than producing a media artifact. Let me explain… Writing research articles for a newspaper isn’t often considered scholarship by P&T committees. Presenting a TEDx talk isn’t really perceived as an academic presentation. Creating a video game (or a video production) is certainly not as important as a producing a published article in a top academic journal. Getting tenure or being promoted in a media department is often based on how much one is able to publish peer-review articles, along with good teaching. This presents a big problem for media students wanting to produce media artifacts  as professors are divided between teaching students practical media knowledge and risking losing their jobs or publishing an article and for what is best for their families.

In my first tenure (and promotion) application, I submitted ZERO media productions for review. The former presents a very problematic issue for college students who want to produce media professionally and we all know it. You may be asking why didn’t you? Well, I was strongly advised by my senior faculty back then. They told me that producing scholarship is a much safer path to tenure and promotion than producing media artifacts. I was told and now I know that non-media department faculty just don’t consider a video production to be in equal stature as an academic publication. In most cases, a physics (business, chemistry…) professors don’t consider a PSA to be scholarship. Media professors can’t afford to run the risk of losing their tenure and promotion by submitting an artifact in the wrong P&T category, right? That’s right.

I am seeing a large group of frustrated college students accusing media professors of not offering enough practical media experiences (courses that emphasize praxis) for the tuition price they pay. They feel ill-prepared to do the job of a professional in the media field because of lacking practical skills, they say. In my opinion, students have a point and should be heard. They are right. I think they have the right to learn practical skills when paying a high premium college tuition. However… A better explanation, other than technology, should be provided. So, let me explain something for you students.

The problem is that professors can’t fix this problem — not immediately. The university system is structured around faculty having to produce peer-reviewed publications instead of practical artifacts, contractually. At least, it is interpreted that way by most media faculty. Folks, college professors in media fields are stuck with this dilemma, in most cases. Would you produce practical artifacts instead of publications and risk losing your job and/or a promotion, especially in times of budget freezes when adjustments in pay don’t happen as often? I don’t know about you but I can’t afford to lose my job and have to move my family unexpectedly to a new location because of not fulfilling what is written in a contract. I choose my family over anybody on earth.

I have received two letters of tenure in a period of six years because I’ve focused my efforts on writing peer-reviewed academic articles rather than creating media artifacts, along with good teaching. It is true that my student evaluation averages were very high during these six years but I can assure you that without publications, I would have never been promoted to Associate Professor or received a letter of tenure in a media department in my career. I paid the price in one regard — Some of my students thought that I didn’t teach media because I didn’t know media, I bet. Big mistake. I am a media producer but when the contract and your senior peers clearly advise you to “publish,” you publish not produce.

So, what should Media departments in teaching universities do then? One of the solutions is surprisingly simple yet it won’t ever be implemented, I don’t think. These kind of schools should abandon the idea that their university needs to be categorized as a research university by accrediting standards. They need to focus on what they do well! Remember the concept of competitive advantage in your business classes? Historically, teaching universities are good in teaching undergraduate students! Why abandon the obvious? So, administration should consider rethinking the “research university” model especially when resources are scarce. In times of crisis, tuition dollar is king for media departments (and non-media) in traditional 4/4 universities. Asking faculty to do more academic research will result in faculty closing its doors to students in order to get the work done. As soon as faculty disappears, so does the students and their friends who matriculated to learn how to do media. So what am I saying? More time spent on writing research articles in media departments in 4/4 universities equal less student enrollment and retention overtime in today’s market? This is exactly what I am saying.

I know, you know and probably all the folks cheering for the Pittsburgh Steelers know that administration won’t, in a million years, “demote” the status of their university to a “teaching” status again on the grounds of losing academic prestige. I understand the argument but academic prestige isn’t why college students attend college, for the most part. Most college students attend Penn State University because of football. The other half attend because of cost. I know, we are turning our 4/4 teaching institutions into research universities because of grant money to offset lack of public funding. Let’s talk numbers, then.

I am not aware of any teaching university (or research intensive) who is as prepared as a true tier 1 research university when it comes to load and competing for funding, at all levels. Let me explain… At the most basic level, the difference between a “research university” in Wisconsin and its true research counterpart in Madison are immense. The University of Wisconsin-Platteview asks professors to teach a 4/4 load. The University of Winsonsin-Madison asks professors to teach a 2/2 load.

The stipend received by a graduate students pursuing a doctoral degree in a research university is much higher than the ones offered by 4/4 universities — or should I say, “research” universities that use the teacher-scholar model. Of course that 9.9/10 students will choose to attend the institution who gives them the most funding. Is Academia like football then, right? Of course it is. Why do you think that the yankees always have a chance to win the Word Series? The more funding we offer graduate students, the easier it is to recruit them which in effect helps the institution to formally write a letter of admission to the best students. Why do you think that Harvard recruits so many great PhD candidates?

To make matters worse to 4/4 schools aspiring to becoming “research” universities is that they now need to also compete with the big research universities in offering attractive packages to tenure-track Assistant Professors with the hope that these new faculty members write grants, often without a grant office that is as equipped as their big research counterparts, to justify the investment. Of course that 4/4 schools don’t have the funds to do such thing or an office that is of the same stature of one say by Ohio State University.  The tier 1 universities will always win in this area not because they are better but because they have way more years of practice doing it.

People, this whole idea of moving an institution to another level without the appropriate resources is putting a tremendous pressure on faculty (especially media faculty) all across the United States. The result? Several entry-level media faculty in 4/4 institutions are asking to teach media theory courses do department Chairs in order to have time to research and keep their jobs. What happens to the students? You tell me.

My solution: If you can persuade administration to reverse the institution back to having a teaching focus, do it. Recommend that tenure become a competitive process (as it should be) and only tenure a fraction of the incoming faculty.  If you can’t persuade management to turn the institution back to a teaching focus (a literal 4/4 where teaching is premium and producing artifacts rather than publications are good enough for P&T), work with administration to re-write the faculty contract to read, “Faculty can be classified as teaching intensive, research intensive, or adjunct, and put search committees together to hire specific types of faculty where the department is in most need. Hire a tenure-track faculty who will have his/her P&T judged by their teaching along with the number of artifacts he/she will produce with students. Here is my model to fix this whole mess. In order to achieve tenure and get promoted, teaching faculty (4/4 load) need to be outstanding in teaching and help students to produce quality artifacts; research faculty must be outstanding in publishing peer-review research (with a 2/2 load) and competent in teaching; and adjuncts (5/5) must be excellent in complementing the operation in teaching.

So, how is technology part of the solution to this monstrous higher education problem? It isn’t one. Using technology to “teach” and free-up time for faculty do do research won;t help students to get jobs because production is a collaborative enterprise like anything else. I am seeing trouble ahead for media departments all across this country. This business model just does not work. Are we going to see a shrink in higher education departments in this country in the next five to ten years?

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