Thursday, July 27, 2017

Teaching at a Public Comprehensive University: Three Items

So, you are about to start teaching at a public comprehensive university somewhere in the United States, quite possibly with a direction as part of its name.  Shippensburg University doesn't have a direction, but it is a public comprehensive university of about 7000 undergraduates and just over 1000 graduate students, and so not that different from many others.  All institution types have a few things in common, but there are often differences, and the peculiarities of public comprehensives aren't always communicated amidst the focus on large research institutions and their supposed opposite, small liberal arts colleges.

This post is therefore about three things I've learned from being here, much of which I think is common at similar institutions.  The biggest reason Shippensburg may stand out in the bunch is that it is a unionized campus with a fairly low cap on adjunct teaching and lots of small class sizes even in many general education courses.  Without further ado...

1.) Students will have diverse skill levels

Honestly, the range of ability at Shippensburg is much larger than anywhere else I have ever been.  You have some students who are very weak, and quickly fail out or barely make it.  They are there because public comprehensives are usually unselective and your may have been the only institution to take them.  You will also have students who would excel no matter where they went.  They are there because they wanted to go someplace close to home or where tuition was cheaper.

What this means is that you have to craft courses in a way that students of a variety of skills can benefit from them.  This is actually where I think having studied secondary education in college and becoming a certified teacher (though I never taught K-12) has served me well, in that I was specifically taught to think that way in my social studies methods course.  You might assign an essay requiring some complex reasoning, while accepting that your bottom 20% will simply improve at writing grammatically, or a reading where the bottom students will simply improve at spotting the parts of a scholarly article.  At the same time, you might spend class time on some basics to make sure everyone you can is at a certain level, assuming that the top students are more likely to have done the reading and gotten a more complex picture.

2.) Students will be very focused on professions

At this point in time, I'm not sure this is that different from other places, even in matters of degree, so let me approach it this way.  Starting in grad school and through an adjunct course at Beloit College and a VAP year at Colgate, the "tough audience" for history classes was supposed to be science majors.  When I started at Shippensburg, I therefore used James McClellan and Harold Dorn's Science and Technology in World History alongside my department's common world history textbook and a primary source reader.  I think some students liked it who wouldn't otherwise have liked anything in the course, but I was trying to solve the wrong problem.

At Shippensburg, and I believe at most similar institutions, students flock overwhelmingly to the directly pre-professional majors such as business, education, and criminal justice.  Their view of college is strictly vocational, and to be honest, given the costs of college, I don't blame them for their lack of idealism.  It does mean, however, that expanding the range of those who value your course means trying to show it as having significance for their professional futures beyond just the idea of becoming an educated citizen of a democracy.

Sometimes this involves low-hanging fruit: basics of reading, writing, and critical thinking are widely respected, and history in particular excels at "symphonic thinking" - recognizing patterns and seeing big pictures.  I tell students that once they've written good cover letters and reports and read whatever people in their professional field read to keep ahead, they might one day notice a pattern in reports from subordinates all around a district of which they are manager, and this is the same thing historians do when we see a pattern in our primary sources that turns up as a general statement in their textbook.

In ancient and medieval history, students can usually be persuaded that religions matter, while the conceptual level that is inevitable when dealing with those periods helps them think about why the world is the way it is, and therefore what types of things might change it.  This easily relates to business buzzwords about anticipating the future and spotting trends.  When credit appears in history, you can stop and think about why credit matters in an economy, which many students don't.  I highlight Isaac Newton's troubled past for social work majors, and call attention to education systems during the Enlightenment and in nation-building for the education students.

Does it all work?  Impossible to say, since you never get everyone on board, and I have no idea if more students assert that my class is interesting (or boring) than do for my colleagues or would if I related everything that happened to its impact on grass.  Thinking about where your students are at and what matters to them is always a good idea, though.

3.) Service, service, service

There are famously three aspects to being a college professor: teaching, research, and service.  Much time is spent discussing whether institutions are teaching-oriented or research-oriented.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that public comprehensives are service-oriented, but they do seem to have heavier service requirements than many other institutions.  If that is the case, it might have to do with having the bureaucracy of a public university, but fewer economic resources than the flagships.

Consider this:  At many institutions, JSTOR catalogs are purchased as they come out by the library.  At Shippensburg, interested faculty have to submit an application to a competitive grant to acquire them, an internal grant program in which other faculty, of course, have to participate.  Faculty governance always means work; the more decisions have to be made or reporting mandates have to be fulfilled, the more work there is.

A colleague at one of my sister institutions once estimated that promotion decisions at her school were based about 40% on service.  Because of this, being on the right committees is something even junior faculty strategize about and compete over.  At Shippensburg, a lot of campuswide committee appointments are made by the union.  At the end of both my third and fourth years, when the call went out, I submitted various committees I would be interested in serving on.  I got no committee assignments at the end of my third year, and only one my fourth year.  My sense is that experience was extreme, but the point about service mattering a lot remains.

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