Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Soul of Fresno State (University)

Last Saturday I went to the Arts and Humanities annual event, Arts in Motion, where the nominees for the Dean’s medal from each department in the college were recognized. As each one came forward, Dean Vida Samiian introduced them, and each said a few words in response. I have played a part in the nomination of English students for two years in a row—Jamie Barker last year and Grant Dempsey this year, both fine students who taught me while I taught them, as the best ones always do. This is one of the few university events each year that gives me peace and satisfaction.

(Grant Dempsey and Jamie Barker at Arts in Motion, 2012)

Two of this year’s nominees said things that will stick with me. Bradley Rutledge, a French horn player in Music, talked about his first session with Prof. Thomas Hiebert, who told him that his technique was bad, his breathing was wrong, his tone was off—in short, he was making the full range of mistakes possible on a French horn. But at the end of that intake session, Hiebert also told him he had potential, and that was the word which ignited Rutledge’s career in music at Fresno State. 

Josh Stein, the nominee from Philosophy, articulated the moral of this story in a different context: he said he’d come to Fresno State to study philosophy because he knew that, here, he’d be able to discuss philosophy, and that discussion was the heart of philosophizing. To become a philosopher, studying and reading by yourself isn’t enough. Philosophy is inherently social, and without that dimension, a student can’t do philosophy. Josh Stein found his agora at Fresno State. Socrates would have been delighted.

The soul of any educational enterprise resides in the community of teachers, students, and administrators that make it work. It primarily occurs in that moment when a well-prepared student (or simply a highly motivated one, like Bradley Rutledge) meets a well-prepared teacher in a classroom or office and subjects his or her skill level, understanding, or ideas to elaboration and testing. That flash-point is specifically where the soul of the university lives. Of course, it occurs among the students of a classroom as well, and in the best classes I’ve taught or taken, students energized each other.

Though the students who spoke all had different stories, they shared the same theme: while you work in your individual discipline, that discipline works on you. As they learned, their worlds not only opened, but they changed in other ways. Their minds became more disciplined and their ability to make creative connections increased. I saw the same story being told on Monday when I went to the Arts and Humanities Honors College presentations and watched students explain and perform their own research or artistic creations, including dances, songs, and even an epic poem. These students had used the social dimension of learning to the full—they'd had many flash points with professors and other students.

This is not just true for the best students. The joys of teaching at Fresno State often come from watching the great progress students can make in even a short time. Last semester I had a Hmong student from a gang-ridden neighborhood, who had no idea that the United States had come together from thirteen British colonies. (He made this discovery when we were studying a poem by Tennyson about the British Empire--where Plymouth Rock and George Washington had disappeared in his education between first grade and high school graduation is anyone's guess.) We were reading the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, and for him, it was like hitting an impenetrable wall. But he persisted. He came to almost every single office hour for the first half of the course, fell in love with poetry, and finished with the second highest grade in class. He was remarkable, but I have taught others very much like him, and I'd bet that every professor at Fresno State has similar stories.

The soul of the university can start to ail for any number of reasons. Professors can have bad performances and bad semesters, depending on all sorts of things: committee loads, health trouble, personal trouble. They can get burned out. So, things can go wrong on the teaching end. This, however, won’t affect the university’s soul unless it becomes a mass phenomenon: sheer workload and lack of opportunities for professional growth are part of the problem. It is a sad fact that student disengagement tends to breed professorial disengagement, and this may be the biggest challenge for professors at Fresno State.

Although I have just acknowledged wonderful exceptions,  “student disengagement” has become a fact of life in the contemporary university. I’ve both taken and taught classes at Fresno State where it was clear that not even 10% of the class was doing the homework. (These were all GE courses; several years ago I took beginning Spanish, and lack of student preparation hamstrung the teacher and the few people in the class who had prepared. And by the way, this was not the teacher’s fault: she came to class loaded for bear and did her best to pump seemingly boundless energy into 25 students, most of whom did little or no homework for the entire semester.)

There is no evading the fact that learning requires a lot of time spent studying alone: doing lots of math problems, conjugating irregular French verbs, practicing scales and arpeggios, reading Hamlet for the third time, reading the chapter on how to use a comma even once. I’ve heard people call it “kill and drill” in derision. Try to do “critical thinking” without it. Mastering any academic subject requires it, just as mastering a free throw requires shooting thousands of practice shots. Part of the reasons why education is failing is because students will not put themselves through this; part of the reason why they don’t, is that faculties as a whole have lowered their expectations as student performance has fallen; the faculty is encouraged in this (sotto voce) by administrators who want high retention rates (with no decrease in "quality," of course).  Schools of Education, which seem dedicated to the quick fix, have pooh-poohed this kind of labor in training teachers at all levels. But anyone who has succeeded at anything knows it is required, and “self-discipline” ought to be one of the main objects of education.

Readers may think that's unfair to schools of education. After all, what about all the other social factors that have reduced the human capacity for concentration? We live in a multi-tasking, web-surfing, channel-surfing culture where focus is becoming harder for everyone, and many of our students come from backgrounds that don't especially promote education. But the effects of this culture ought to be resisted. Schools of education have not encouraged that resistance. For years “critical thinking” was touted, seemingly without the understanding that a person needed something to think critically with, i. e., a lot of information. The Multiple Intelligence idea had kids in English classes coloring drawings of characters in The Human Comedy instead of learning how to read it. You might has well draw a picture of a piano to learn to play scales or color a picture of Tiger Woods to learn how to hit a golf ball. (I've even heard of a student on the cutting edge who asked her history teacher if she could dance out the final.) I watched my own children engaged in this twaddle from kindergarten through high school.  The most frustrating aspect of CSALT for me was the underlying assumption that some teaching technique could make it all easy and that the professor was more responsible for student-learning than the student. Of course the professor has responsibility, but finally, the student has even more.

The third entry in the soul-killing mix is bad administration, and by bad, I mean policies that directly or indirectly attack the soul of the university, that flash-point where students and teachers meet. This primarily comes about through attacks on faculty energy and administrative invasion of areas where decision-making should be primarily with the faculty. 

This year, that happened at Fresno State to a degree which was unprecedented. First, it came through the threat of dismantling the College of Sciences and Mathematics and the merger of the School of Arts and Humanities with that of Social Science. This would have destroyed the two biggest communities at Fresno State where learning takes place. 

The second and more insidious threat is the slow but sure transfer of responsibility for curriculum and instruction from departments to the provost; this has occurred through (1) cohort hiring and the provost’s new 50 /50 funding model; (2) the creation of special faculty positions directly under the direction of the provost; (3) a move to take the writing program out of the English department and put it under the provost; (4) side-stepping faculty senate committees by the creation of task forces on budget and rebranding; (5) stifling and controlling the flow of information to faculty, again with regard to the budget and rebranding. These administrative tactics may seem far removed from the “flash-point” between students and teachers, but they are not. The more faculty become mere employees, utilized to achieve objectives not their own and with which they do not agree, the less passion there will be in teaching, and the fewer meaningful points of contact between students and teachers.

Over the years I’ve heard great frustration from professors and deans about the virtual impossibility of getting support for team-taught classes and faculty collaboration. The Sierra Nevada mountains provide us with one of the great ecological laboratories in the world, but we barely use it, not that faculty in the sciences haven't tried. Ashland, Oregon has one of the great Shakespeare festivals on the continent, but try getting support to take a class up there. I went through that labyrinthine trial, and finally gave up. Great things could happen at Fresno State by unleashing the creativity of the faculty instead of thwarting it—great things could happen for students. If cohorts are important, we’ve had the material for faculty partnerships for years. Would I love to teach a class in Renaissance culture with a historian and a philosopher? Would I ever.

This semester we’ve been in a battle for the soul of Fresno State.  This university could grow a big soul, but we’ve been struggling to save what’s left. I voted for the CFA to strike on this basis. It isn't a matter of wages or benefits for me anymore, although I can understand why it is for some of us. It's a matter of having a meaningful career--of teaching in a university that knows it has a soul and cares about it.


  1. This single entry in your blog, Professor, is the culmination of everything so many of us have been seeing and feeling over the last year. I agree: the soul of our university is flying away. However, I am reminded of a cute little folktale I read earlier in the year, where Hiiaka, the sister of the great Hawaiian goddess Pele, saves a dying fisherman by literally slapping his escaping soul back into his body.

    Thank you for being our Hiiaka.

  2. The adversarial relationship between the faculty and the administration is still something that I find bizarre, as the stated mission of the University ("Make student success the first priority." - via Dr. Welty's page) would seem to offer a framework for resolving such conflicts.

    Grant makes the point that the University was directly formative in finding his voice as an academic. I found, as you put it, my agora. In either case, the function has led to the apparently unequivocal success Grant and I have found as young academics. This "student success" is the realization of the vision of the University; that it should be contentious at all is staggering. - Joshua Stein