Pricing the Priceless Class

One of the hardest things about managing budgetary contraction in colleges and universities will be the differing ways that academics talk about what they value in a curriculum.

We believe that the cost of curricular programs and institutional projects has to be evaluated by different criteria depending on what kind of program or commitment we’re talking about, that value is sometimes intangible and sometimes concrete.

I think every academic I know agrees that in the last instance, how much it costs to teach in a particular way or to maintain a curriculum of a particular design matters. No one is so ethereal that they reject in principle all discussion of the budgetary implications of curricular decisions. Equally, no one is so focused on finances that they think questions of intangible value are irrelevant. A purely budget-driven curriculum would be entirely consumer-oriented: you’d just move resources around to where the enrollments clustered most heavily, without trying to exercise any judgment about what students ought to learn or need to learn. The moment you set a requirement, structure a major or lay out a curriculum by criteria that are independent of what gets you the most paying matriculants for the least institutional expenditure, you’re driven by values that aren’t purely subject to budget. (Hence, “non-profit institution”.)

I wouldn’t ever hope that a diverse group of institutional actors could come to a strong consensus about these competing visions of value. We shouldn’t want to be rescued from disagreement by hammering out a fixed rubric or single logic, because these are necessarily debatable and mutable premises for investing resources in one program or direction rather than another. On the other hand, money doesn’t exist in quantum superposition, allocated to all possible states: if you have to cut (or even grow), you have to cut something, and it’s better to do it for a concrete reason that arises out of community deliberation than on random whim or first-past-the-post cutthroat competition.

I think the possibility of contraction is easier to deal with fairly if most of the people involved in deliberation over curricular resources can keep a couple of general principles in view, most of which I think should hold even if an institution is financially healthy or planning for growth.

1) At least at small liberal-arts colleges, to the extent that it’s possible, you want faculty to partially disentangle their sense of self-worth from their sense of the importance of their discipline. At a large institution where specialization is the main principle driving the distribution of resources, it’s possible that some faculty are valued primarily for their ability to represent a specialized field within a specialized discipline, that they are their specialization. At a smaller, less-specialized undergraduate institution, most faculty deliver their primary value through the range and vigor of their individual teaching and other interaction with students. You can always hope to replace someone who is a great teacher with a great teacher, but styles and emphasis of teaching differ a lot, so you’ll also always have a change in the mood and atmosphere of the curriculum as a new teacher comes into the faculty as a replacement. Every individual wants to know that they are valued by their institution. When that sense of individual self-worth becomes powerfully submerged into a discipline or specialization, it is understandably impossible for folks to participate in conversations about shifting the emphasis in a curriculum without seeing that as a negative judgment on them as individuals. There is only so far you can go with disentangling the two: the animating passion I bring into the classroom has to draw in part on a belief that the subjects I’m teaching are important and the disciplinary tools I’m teaching are indispensible. A professor who cared about the curriculum only because he or she had a very high opinion of himself or herself wouldn’t be any better for shaping the institutional future than a person who believed that any change in their discipline’s share of the curricular market was a mortal insult.

2) Every curricular stakeholder needs to have a rolling, constantly re-considered answer to the following questions: if your pedagogy is expensive, does it have to be expensive? is it expensive because that returns proportionately better learning outcomes, or because it preserves some intangible but vital tradition of practice, a vision of craftwork? Again, it seems to me that those are questions worth answering even if the institution is rolling in money, for two reasons. First, because sometimes faculty settle on a pedagogy or curricular structure which turns out to be expensive relative to that of other departments or units without being aware that it is more expensive. Second, because asking these questions forces departments to be clear about why a disproportionately expensive practice is important.

3) Following on point 2), if cost considerations have assumed a new importance, it’s important for stakeholders in the curriculum to fish or cut bait on the reasons why they think resources should be committed to particular ends. If it’s important to teach particular subjects in particular ways, then decide why it’s important and stick to that. It’s ok to have multiple reasons why a particular curricular commitment is urgent, but not if some of those reasons are incommensurable with one another. If you claim in one context that a subject area or discipline is important because of its practical, utilitarian skill-based benefits to graduates seeking jobs in the real-world economy, then that ought to constrain your ability to argue that the same subject is important because of its intangible, impossible-to-pin-down ability to enrich the human spirit, or important because it preserves the traditions of academic institutions in Western societies. Those three things (and other rationales) can all be true, but they can’t be equally true, or true in the same way. If a subject is important because it delivers highly concrete skills that have measurable value on the contemporary labor market for college graduates, then that importance is mutable as the needs of the market change. If one makes a conservationist argument for the preservation of a subject’s traditional place in academic knowledge, then that commits the person making that case to a larger philosophy of curricular design that is in tension with a view that a curriculum should service current real-world needs for particular skills.

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2 Responses to Pricing the Priceless Class

  1. Doug says:

    Excellent post.

  2. G. Weaire says:

    “If one makes a conservationist argument for the preservation of a subject???? traditional place in academic knowledge, then that commits the person making that case to a larger philosophy of curricular design that is in tension with a view that a curriculum should service current real-world needs for particular skills.”

    I don’t see this as being anything like as much of a problem as you do. Ultimately, it’s just another “how does one strike the balance between different legitimate goals?” issue.

    One of your other favorite themes is relevant here: that colleges and universities should be more different from one another. Part of what gives this the appearance of being a problem about two fundamentally incompatible things is the way in which we talk about curriculum as if we were legislating globally for all of higher education for all time.

    If one were to think of it as a local decision about striking the balance for this institution only -knowing that people elsewhere were striking the balance differently, and that this was totally OK -, I think that one would be less quick to become boxed into a strong position.

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