Monday, February 28, 2011

Academically Adrift Part I: The Disengagement Compact

In Academically Adrift (hereafter, AA), Arum and Roksa identify a phenomenon that I assume we all know all too well. George Kuh calls it the disengagement compact (AA, 5). Faculty and students strike a bargain - a rather expensive one. The bargain is one in which teachers agree to ask little of students while providing an entertaining simulation of teaching and good grades, and in which students agree to ask little of teachers while providing compliant behavior and a routine simulation of learning. The teacher is rewarded with time and good student evaluations and the student is rewarded with time and a good GPA.

Who among us would admit to striking such a bargain? Not I. But as Arum and Roksa point out, the bargain is not struck among individuals, nor is it struck in a vacuum. As teachers, we enter an educational system in which this bargain has already been struck collectively. In addition, the bargain is but one among a complex web of tacit agreements among students, faculty, administrators, parents, politicians and government agencies: parents want their children to live in a pleasant, safe environment while becoming more mature and independent; students want a socially engaging college experience; parents and students alike want a credential; professors want a regular, secure salary and time for research; administrators want measurable improvements in student (consumer) satisfaction; politicians want practical outcomes; government agencies want practical, technological innovation. None of the members privy to this agreement have undergraduate student learning as a priority (AA, 124-5).

So what happens if teachers opt out of the bargain? The three areas measured by the instrument used by Arum and Roksa (the CLA) are critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. These three areas are attested to by all parties - including the business community - as skills a good undergraduate education ought to provide. Arum and Roksa found that three things make the difference between showing no improvement in these areas - being academically adrift - and showing a significant improvement. The first two are taking courses with twenty or more pages of writing per term and taking courses with forty or more pages of reading per week. The third is faculty expectations: the higher the expectations, the more students studied, the more students studied, the more students developed critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication (AA, 119).

What keeps us from opting out of the bargain? The obstacles to individuals opting out are clear: a demoralizing exchange of more time on the teacher's part in return for angry students who will feel betrayed. For those of us with tenure, this is merely demoralizing - at worst the poor student evaluations we would receive might affect our salaries. But for the rest of us - the non-tenured and the non-tenure track, opting out means losing one's job. We know this.

But that is not what I am asking and Arum and Roksa are well aware that faculty face a classic collective action problem. I am asking what stands in the way of faculty agreeing - as a collective - to opt out. Could we do it? Could we agree amongst ourselves to opt out? If not, then we really must take quite a bit of the blame for limited learning. As Arum and Ruksa point out, unlike K-12 teachers, we have substantial professional and social capital (AA, 140). If we wanted to do it, we probably could. So what stands in the way of our prioritizing undergraduate student learning, and can we overcome it?


  1. Becko, marvelous thoughts, and a great kickoff to the reading group.

    You ask how we in higher ed might opt out of the disengagement compact. First, you mention tenure. You're right that breaking the disengagement compact is demoralizing, but not job-threatening, for those with tenure. A good thing, I'd say: With tenure, I find myself breaking the compact more. But at least my job isn't on the line when I do so. This strikes me as an interesting and potentially powerful argument for reinvigorating tenure: Tenured faculty are free to pursue the long-term mission of student learning. Here I'll reference a post I made in December ("Just add seasoning"), where I reported on a study whose conclusions included:

    "Academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status of professors are negatively correlated with contemporaneous value‐added but positively correlated with follow‐on course value‐added. Hence, students of less experienced instructors who do not possess a doctorate perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course but perform worse in the follow‐on related curriculum. ... Student evaluations are positively correlated with contemporaneous professor value‐added and negatively correlated with follow‐on student achievement."

    I remarked then that "the study highlights an unappreciated advantage of academic freedom and tenure: They free us to teach in ways that foster deep learning by inoculating us from the fears of challenging students in the ways necessary to foster deep learning." So perhaps one compact breaking strategy is to advocate for a tenure renaissance.

    Second, it wouldn't surprise me if AA creates a groundswell for individual institutions to adopt a learning first mentality. Even if other colleges aren't breaking the compact, faculty would still have a sense of safety if there was an institution-wide commitment to compact breaking. There could well be a market niche for colleges that embrace breaking the compact.

    Lastly, compact breakers need moral support. That's what ISW and other communities of pedagogies can provide (among other things).

  2. In my (admittedly brief) experience at a large public university experiencing dire financial problems, one problem with collectively agreeing to "opt out" is competition and cheaters. Many public institutions are attempting to make up for budge shortfalls by bringing in more tuition dollars. As a department, the incentive is to raise enrollments as much as possible — whether through increasing class sizes or (recently) moving courses online where they can be administered cheaply.

    Because these universities incentivize increasing enrollments, colleges and departments are now competing with one another for students. The competition is brutal. If a teacher develops a reputation for having a "hard" class, students will take their "dollars" elsewhere. I've seen this happen regardless of the quality of teaching evaluations. There is always a competing instructor who is willing to go down to the crossroads and make a pact.

    If we truly all agreed to stop the grade endless grade inflation and race to the bottom, such a move would theoretically succeed. But the effect of raising standards would drive out many students who probably are not ready to attend college. While that seems like a good thing to me, it shoves out the very students who prop up the public universities with their dollars.

  3. Daniel hits the nail on the head. Incentives.

    You can't hope to change the system, which has 10 moving parts (employers, teachers, students, parents, administrators, boards of trustees, etc) by redesigning 1 gear (teacher). The result would be a ground down gear. You need all or some of the gears to work together to have any hope for success. Professors on their own simply deciding to do this won't work.

    At the ground floor, you'd need instructors and administrators working together to do this to have any chance of success. The best route likely would be a radical change in the tenure and promotion process, one that de-emphasizes research and even service to some degree and instead identifies and rewards challenging teaching, even to the point of possibly disgruntling students themselves and altering the way the culture of the university works.

    Although administrators talk a good game on all of that, I can't imagine that they would in reality be for this. What for? At the same time, although some teachers would value it, many would not. There's a lot of reasons for the latter, I think, too much to fit in this box!

    In any event, TP is the place to start. I'm just not terribly optimistic about that.

  4. I fully agree with what Becko (and Arum and Roksa) say about the disengagement contract, but that was a conclusion I was inclined to believe anyway. I'd like to take a step back, though, and ask about the argument structure of the book. (Maybe this will come up later in the week.)

    Their big political argument seems to rest on a single statistical finding, which they state multiple ways. During the time period they looked at, 45% of the sample showed no statistically significant improvement in scores on the CLA. Alternately, they say that students in their sample improved by .18 standard deviation, or that the average scoring student moved from the 50th to the 57th percentile. They talk about this as if it were the change for all of college, but will admit that it was really only the first two years. Sometimes they even let it slip that they were really only looking at three semesters of instruction.

    This leaves me with a bunch of questions. Is an improvement of .18 standard deviation all that bad, given the duration of the sample? Can we extrapolate linearly from these three semesters to performance over the full four (or five or six) years of college? Is a student’s learning uniform, or does it move in fits and starts?

  5. Since I'm teaching courses on game theory and institutional design this semester, I'm thinking about this in those terms. (In fact, I spent so much time working up a game theoretic model of it last night that it displaced teaching prep time. What does that tell you?)

    Here are two conclusions of my game theoretic analysis:

    Given the current standards for promotion and tenure, a collective agreement to opt out of the disengagement contract will work only if you have a high enough proportion of "conscientious" teachers in a university—professors who care about teaching enough that they feel (sufficiently) bad buying into the disengagement contract. (Even if you have such a group, you'll still face Daniel's inter-campus problem.)

    Assuming that's not available, the collective agreement is impossible under current circumstances because an engaged student body is, from the faculty's perspective, a public good. If enough of the others opt out of the disengagement contract, then it's in non-conscientious professors' self-interest to buy into it. They still have engaged students, which they like, but they don't have to put in the work to make them engaged. Thus, each faculty member "underinvests" in engaging students, and it is likely to degrade into a general disengagement.

    I agree with Chris that the only way to change this is to change P&T, and that it's not clear how to make that happen. For starters, it requires changes in the way teaching is measured. Good luck agreeing on those changes in the faculty senate and getting the administration to downplay student evaluations.

    Also, I share Rob's concern about the general argument here. If we don't discuss that here, I hope we discuss it in a later post.

  6. Becko - excellent beginning to discussing AA. I agree that we need to find some way to come together collectively to break the 'bargain.' I would push the issue further by saying that it has to be lead by tenured and tenure track people and formalized at the departmental level. As Becko stated, adjuncts and non-tenure contract instructors, as much as we might like too, are not motivated to go against the tide and risk further employment. Student evaluations do play a large role in our retention from semester to semester.

    What to do - some ideas:

    Departmentally, we could standardize the material covered and the requirements used in evaluation between sections of the same course at the introductory level. For example in teaching an intro to philosophy it could be a requirement that instructors will require a set number of exams (with agreed upon questions) and a research paper. Instructors could be required to introduce students to an historically important figure such as Plato, Descartes, Hume, and/or Mill plus whomever else we might want to have students introduced to. Or departments could have a required text of readings that faculty are free to choose from as long as they covered agreed upon topics. For example, at Phoenix College, we all use the same text of readings. All instructors must teach the philosophy of religion in their intro courses, but we are free to select from other general topics, Theory of Knowledge, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Mind, Ethics, Political Philosophy, and Aesthetics to round the course off. This way every student coming out of our intro courses has a common core of material that has been covered. Because many of these courses are being taught by adjuncts or non-tenure track people it could be part of the hiring process that they agree to these parameters. Before people counter this suggestion by asserting academic freedom, etc, I would suggest that it does not seem unreasonable to require a department to be able to determine what they think students should be exposed to in an introductory course to their subject and to determine specific competencies that all students that are successful in this course will acquire.

    Mike brings up the important role that tenure plays in being able to break the mold. But look at what is happening to tenure. Some states are trying to eliminate tenure at State supported institutions. All institutions that I am aware of are hiring more adjunct and non-tenure track people to teach those courses that are support for other programs or core requirements. This is a bottom line issue. If tenure is an important element in being able to break the mold and change direction, then departments need to focus on securing tenure institutionally and increasing the numbers of tenure track positions available and limit the use of adjuncts, visitors etc. [But wait until I retire:-)]

  7. Thank you for the thoughtful replies. I agree that this comes down a great deal to P&T, which is troubling given that P&T is endangered. I can tell you that I put pressure on the disengagement compact much more than I did prior to tenure. I have really wonderful students, and so the response has been almost entirely positive. They appreciate the attention, respect and challenge. But I am very lucky.

    It would be great if we could get this point across more clearly to the non-academic community. It makes sense for them to think about what we do along a business model and to think of students as consumers. It makes sense for them to be suspicious of tenure - a totally foreign concept in the business community. If they think about tenure at all, they tend to think that tenure is the cause of limited learning and lazy teaching, not the solution (and given the lack of emphasis on teaching in P&T, they may be right).

    Think about it by analogy: even those who would be sympathetic with the public unionized workers in Wisconsin are ready and willing to hear a narrative about how such workers "get more" than private sector workers (false) and how unions stand in the way of accountability. It's not going to be difficult to spin the same narrative with respect to tenured professors, especially at public universities and colleges.

  8. This is an interesting aspect of the book that I have been wondering about (though I haven't read the book yet).

    I wonder why engagement is taken as inversely proportional to rigor. I don't see an argument for this. Maybe it's just an accepted premise. If so, I don't buy it.

    I can't speak for the NSSE, but I can speak for the CCSSE. In the CCSSE, they draw a strong, positive correlation between rigor ("academically challenging") and engagement. In short, they say that the more challenging the course, the more it forces students to be engaged.

    Maybe there is a presupposed belief that greater rigor leads to less engagement, but at least in the CCSSE, the data do not bear this out.

  9. Arum and Roksa argue that rigor increases engagement. They argue that increased instructor expectations leads students to spend more time studying and that increased study time is statistically significant with respect to improvement on the CLA.

    But a student can be studying more in a class (and thus improving on the skills measured in the CLA) while resenting it because it violates the collective agreement to limited learning. That student can still give very negative student evaluations to enforce the collective agreement to limited learning. Moreover, that student may be wholly unaware that the extra work that she resents is increasing her skills.

    In many institutions, teachers are assessed not on whether they have helped students develop these skills (the assessment mechanisms aren't really in place) but solely in terms of student satisfaction. As Arum and Roksa point out, rigor and student satisfaction can be in tension. Students might (consciously or unconsciously) prefer a lack of rigor in their course work to a degree that sets up a clear incentive when coupled by the over-reliance on "customer satisfaction" student evaluations.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Becko.

    Are these claims backed by empirical evidence? On the one hand it may be difficult to measure, as you say we don't really have the assessment tools in place. But on the other hand it might be easy to measure, given their very clear definition of what counts as rigorous. That is, do classes that qualify as rigorous return lower student evals than those that don't?

  11. Dear Friends, I have only just discovered your blog and only tonight worked out how to comment on it other than anonymously; so I hope you will now publish my remarks!

    What you call 'the disengagement compact', Deirdre McArdle-Clinton in her book on Irish Higher Education, 'The Consumer Experience of Higher Education: The Rise of Capsule Education' (London: Continuum 2008), calls 'the simulacrum of learning' in which education is 'delivered' to 'consumers' like pre-packaged supermarket potatoes, ‘presented for sale in capsule form’. Like medicine ‘absorbed without the distress or effort of chewing or tasting’, learning is sugar-coated and drip-fed fed to customers/ students on-line instead of in books. A tyranny of transparency explains to students/ customers/ consumers exactly what they have to do and when so as to turn their outcomes into quantifiable and thereby comparable commodities for audit and sale. This behavioral training effectively dumbs down learning to reduce rather than raise the standards it claims to raise as teachers are too busy assessing students to teach them anything.

    I have reviewed this book on my website with Martin Allen:

    We have also written about what we call 'the corrosion of education'. This is not only evident in the UK where undergraduate essays are randomly sprinkled with apostrophes even at Oxbridge, and where, as every marker sees, students at all levels rarely spell, punctuate or paragraph properly and often have only a shaky grasp of grammar. These are symptoms of cutting and pasting from the internet with inevitable plagiarism. As a result, as Maryanne Wolf says in her book 'Proust and the Squid, The Story and Science of the Reading Brain' (Cambridge: Icon 2008):
    'These students are not illiterate but they may never become true expert readers… [and] their false sense of knowing may distract them from a deeper development of their intellectual potential.’ (pp. 225 and 226)

    It is also a result of students since their earliest schooling becoming accustomed to connecting their self-esteem and what they may achieve in later life to their test scores. As one of my students wrote:
    ‘Over-assessment has made subject knowledge and understanding a thing of the past as students are put through a routine year after year, practicing exactly what to write and when in preparation for exams.’
    As a result, as you say, young people generally remove themselves from any meaningful involvement in an education become increasingly instrumental: ‘Let’s make like I give a shit!’ as a student T-shirt proclaims.

    Staff collude in the charade and at worst share the illusions in the quality they supposedly maintain, pandering to parents less concerned with what their children learn than with the certificate and what they will earn.

    This is becoming an increasingly serious situation in England, where a throrough-going commodification of Higher Education is being implemented along with tripled course fees for this academic year but I imagine that you are also all too familiar with it in the USA. I welcome your efforts to do something about it and I look forward to further discussion from you.


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