Thursday, February 25, 2010

Accountability or Responsibility?

Education policy makers keep telling us that the quality of higher education has declined.  Enrollments are up, but those who oversee and fund higher ed tell us that we should be worried about whether colleges are doing their job.  That anxiety translates into calls for accountability.  YSU, like all public institutions in Ohio, has to publish statistics about things like retention and graduation rates as part of a "college portrait" created through the "Voluntary System of Accountability" (which in Ohio isn't voluntary at all).  In order to gain accreditation, we have to demonstrate (among other things) that the University is assessing students' learning.

These efforts raise two questions in my mind.  First, why the push for accountability?  And second, what kinds of information would best communicate the quality of education offered at a university?  My guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, Linda Adler-Kassner, has been examining these questions for several years.  She has worked with the Higher Learning Commission, the organization that provides accreditation to YSU, and as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, she has been working with colleagues who direct first-year writing programs on campuses around the country on how they should respond to the claim that colleges aren't doing their jobs. 

As she suggests, calls for accountability are nothing new, and they generally reflect both genuine concern and a belief that college faculty are  not doing our jobs well enough because we don't really understand what students need.  As a professor, I work with students every day -- much more than anyone in the Department of Education or the Ohio Board of Regents or at the Educational Testing Service.  I know both my students and my field well, and that should earn me your trust.  Policy makers disagree, and to be honest, I can understand why.  Too many faculty define their work solely in terms of research, and too many blame any difficulties students encounter on the students themselves.  That's where Adler-Kassner's focus on responsibility comes in.  If I don't want someone else telling me what I should teach and what counts as appropriate learning, then I have to take responsibility for my work as a teacher.  My colleagues at YSU do that, in part, through assessment

That said, I'm troubled by the idea that a bunch of statistics about the University as a whole can possibly reflect the complexity of what happens in our classrooms, and I wonder how useful the information is to prospective students and their parents.  The YSU College Portrait provides data on things like the ACT scores of entering students, and it uses some data from a survey on students' experiences, but if I were going to show you the quality of students' learning here, I'd invite you to QUEST, where students present their research every spring, or have you visit a few classes and listen to students discussing problems and issues and ideas.  I'd show you faculty research on student learning and have you listen in to my colleagues as they advise students on registration and MA thesis work and what to do after graduation.  Most important, I'd sit you down to talk with my students.  Of course, none of that can be captured easily. 

Real education is a messy business.  It can't be reduced to a 5-page report.  That's why it works. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Small Press, Big Vision

Talking with Phil Brady about Etruscan Press was a special treat for me, because long, long ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I did some work with small presses.  Our conversation reminded me of the incredibly hopeful, committed vision that inspires this kind of work.

Small presses like Etruscan make new writing available without regard to sales and markets.  In that sense, they provide the practical side of art for its own sake.  As Brady says in our interview, because their support comes from donors and institutions, not sales, they can choose books based on artistic value, not their potential popularity.  With small press books, writers create, editors and publishers provide space for, and readers pay attention to fresh voices and perspectives.  The work itself, not the size of the audience, is what matters most.

While big press books that sell millions of copies may have more immediate, obvious influence, small presses matter for different reasons.  They make it possible for artists to do their work without having to fit their vision into the often narrow confines of existing models.  Put simply, they make true creativity possible.  They protect us -- not just writers but also readers -- from sliding into cultural conformity.

Happily, such work is sometimes rewarded.  Several Etruscan books have been nominated for major awards, and the press's book of writers' responses to 9/11 drew considerable attention. As Brady suggests, that kind of recognition validates the work of the press.  But that's not why he does this work.  It's all about the writing itself, about supporting writers and providing readers with the best quality books.

Doing this can be joyful work.  You can hear that in the way Brady talks about Etruscan.  It's also stubbornly optimistic work.  Small press publishers and authors know that their work will reach small audiences, but they persist, because they believe that what matters is not the size of the audience but the audacity of the creative vision.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Future of Manufacturing, Part II

Scott Paul runs an unusual organization.  The Alliance for American Manufacturing is a joint effort of US steel companies and the United Steelworkers of America.  Such a labor-management partnership may seem like a contradiction in terms, but as he explains in our conversation, both workers and companies have a stake in preserving, or better yet restoring, manufacturing as a cornerstone of the US economy. 

It's not just that workers need jobs, though of course they do -- as anyone in the Mahoning Valley can attest.  It's also that companies need consumers, and in order to afford to buy products, people need jobs.  More than that, they need jobs that pay well.  Too many Americans have accepted a sad and problematic story line about how the demise of American manufacturing is the fault of workers and especially unions.  No doubt, organized labor is far from perfect, and yes, labor costs are higher when companies pay decent wages and provide good benefits.  But jobs like that have a ripple effect in a community, creating additional jobs and spreading prosperity through a community.

We've seen that locally.  Local leaders as well as unions worked hard to persuade GM to assign the Cruze to the Lordstown plant.  Why?  Because 1500 jobs matter, and not just to the 1500 workers who have them.  1500 jobs means thousands of purchases at local businesses, requiring hundreds of hours of labor by clerks and other store personnel.  1500 jobs means thousands of doctor's visits by people with good insurance, requiring hundreds of hours of labor by clerical workers, nurses, accountants, janitors, and others who help keep clinics and hospitals running smoothly.  And 1500 jobs bring thousands of dollars into city, county, and state budgets, providing not just jobs but also increased safety and quality of life for everyone. 

 It might not be pretty, and no doubt many local leaders want us to "get over" our history as an industrial community.  But as Scott Paul reminds us, the future of manufacturing is really the future of our economy.  Maybe you're a lawyer, a technical writer, or an elementary school teacher, doing work that seems far removed from steel mills and auto plants.  Doesn't matter.  Manufacturing matters to you.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Future of Manufacturing

Richard McCormack, editor and publisher of Manufacturing and Technology News, offers a grim view of the state of manufacturing in America, but nothing he says will come as a surprise to listeners in Youngstown.  We know all too well not only that both the amount of stuff that America makes and the number of jobs involved have shrunk over the last 30 years.  And we know, too, how little federal policies are doing to change the trend. 

Equally important, we understand why manufacturing jobs matter.  The economic story of the Mahoning Valley illustrates this all too well.  Even beyond the high levels of unemployment locally, we can see how the shift from manufacturing to service jobs affects families and the community.  Service jobs pay less, often allow people to work fewer hours, and often fewer benefits than manufacturing jobs, and all of that matters not just to those who hold these jobs but to their families and the community at large.  After all, if people earn more, they also spend more, and a single manufacturing job can help support several more jobs in other sectors.  Some economics have suggested that the  U.S. can thrive by sending manufacturing jobs out of the country and focusing on research and design, management, and various forms of creative work.  As McCormick explains, that just doesn't work.  We need manufacturing, not just here in the Mahoning Valley but across the country.

You can hear more of Richard McCormack's analysis by checking out some of the videos from his visit, available now on the Center for Working-Class Studies website.