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Responding to "The Great Faculty Disengagement" Article

Responding to "The Great Faculty Disengagement" Article

Author : Christopher Blake

Recently, Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled The Great Faculty Disengagement. Not surprisingly, a slew of faculty at my college retweeted it, posted it, and discussed it. In many ways the article resonates with me as well, but there are certain arguments that either understate the problem or reflect a misunderstanding of the problem-at-hand. As most readers will know, the norm of faculty work is to be an excellent teacher, researcher, and committee member, all while serving as a student advisor, researching with undergraduate students (per implicit expectations at my institution), and innovating in the classroom. The challenges of meeting this norm are what I see most frequently discussed in the Chronicle and elsewhere. My contention is that most of these discussions don't highlight the extent of added responsibilities that have been asked of faculty members in the past two years.

Faculty aren't just "dragging themselves" to work everyday--to quote a colleague--just to meet the bar that existed before the pandemic, we are dragging because the bar moved higher in the midst of it.

Specifically, and as McClure and Fryar put it: "Students could certainly feel the effects, especially as they have come to rely on faculty members for emotional support to continue their studies." Faculty aren't just "dragging themselves" to work everyday--to quote a colleague--just to meet the bar that existed before the pandemic, we are dragging because the bar moved higher in the midst of it. Take one personal anecdote that perfectly encapsulates the extent of these added responsibilities. In Fall of 2021, I taught an introductory principles of microeconomics class that I have taught nearly every year. Across the country, much of the content is standardized (a luxury other faculty don't have in their classes), but I typically refresh the course with new examples and applications to keep the content more relevant to each batch of students. Per usual, I made such updates and off we went! Structurally, the class has several low-stakes, (effectively) participation-for-credit assignments that provide students with feedback prior to the first exam. Students seemed especially nervous as the exam drew near and so we spent some class time talking about it. Some intimated that they had "never taken a test," others that it was unreasonable I didn't give it (or a close proxy) to them in advance. I can't imagine being a high school teacher the past two years, and don't begrudge them for the decisions it seems were made, but obviously those choices were bound to affect students in the long-run. My choices were to: A) Lower the standard, thereby kicking the can down the road to upper-level teachers; B) Eliminate exams, which provides limited opportunity for me to actually observe how well students know the content; or C) Help students meet the standard in a way I would not have needed to do in the past. I opted for option C), and rather than spend time on content, we discussed how to study, how to prepare for an exam, and (more than in usual semesters) the pedagogical reasons for exams themselves. While but one example, this is certainly added work and, as much as I'm glad I did it for them, expecting this long-term as a new responsibility is untenable.

My other faculty member friends have all had similar experiences, each ending with the implicit expectation of them to help bring students up to speed "if they care." To focus on the effects the pandemic and its effects might have on creativity let alone the pursuit of big projects, as McClure and Fryar mention, misses the mark. Take their first suggested solution as an example. They argue that "we should acknowlege that there's a real problem here, then dedicate resources to understanding it." Short term, the administration would only need to check in to any social media platform to see the sources of and extent of disengagment. Indeed, the answer seems quite simple. The problem is that most faculty don't have time to do everything expected of them. At some point, research would be great about how this affects different groups of faculty, etc., but my suspicion is this problem runs deep enough that we need something now. In most cases, this would mean more resources to support faculty and a serious reconsideration of expectations. Especially for parents who have to balance the ever-changing landscape of childcare, time is at a premium. Even those without parental responsibilities have had limited opportunity to rest during standard breaks and are being asked to do more than they were pre-pandemic.

A second suggestion from the article is to rebuild relationships around more explicit shared governance. The hope is that this would help re-establish trust between the administration and faculty. Simply put, this is a terrible time to do that. The people most needed in any shared governance discussion are those most likely to be disengaging and they won't have time to come to the table as needed to suggest a way forward. Those most battling day-to-day for a semblance of work-life balance, particularly those attempting to schedule family obligations in the quicksand-like environment of childcare, should be at the head of any discussion. It feels weird to say, given how seemingly taboo it is, but even academics should have some work-life balance. The goal in many industries in the wake of the panedemic has been to re-evaluate positions, figuring out what tasks are necessary and what are not for the betterment of their employees, and its time academia did the same. To do so, we need everyone at the table with enough time for them to be truly active participants in any shared governance strategy.

Finally, many discussions ignore that education is a two-way street. If students are to have a chance in a collegiate system, there needs to be a louder discussion of how best to help them that doesn't implicitly rely on faculty of introductory courses. Students too have some onus here as well. It seems they are willing to admit that the educational experience they have had the last two years is lacking--a great first step. It seems, however, that the discussion stops there and either the system will change to fit them or faculty will get them there. Neither is appropriate. Helping to shrink the gap between where many students currently are and where they typically are upon entering college is essential to remedying some the added work and burnout of faculty members. Whether that's through changed admissions processes or more training and support for students, it cannot be a change motivated entirely by faculty "trying really hard."

Discussions surrounding disengagement and burnout are important. What we shouldn't lose sight of is that each of these discussions comes at a time when faculty are asked to do more (with less, though that feels cliché) and added work has been piled on. This is the biggest indictment of the academic system to be levied because it shouldn't get more difficult for faculty when something goes wrong. McClure and Fryar's suggestion of more intentional shared governance may be a great first step toward a re-imagined system, but the timing has to be right for everyone to be at the table when discussions are had. Part of those discussions should also include a hard look at resources provided to incoming students and how best to help them make adjustments to college life without relying solely on faculty for their academic success.

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