Tag: neoliberalism

Neoliberalizing the academy

Josh’s post on his experience with course evaluations has gotten me thinking about the practice of using course evaluations. Because my personal circumstances differ from Josh’s (e.g. I do not have children), I have been able to avoid some of the painful tradeoffs he discusses and have not yet had to confront ‘bad’ evaluations. Reading his post, however, prompted me to connect some dots that have been floating around in my head regarding the ideological underpinnings of practices in the academy with recent pieces I have seen in the media—specifically a NYTimes report on the release of the follow-up to Academically Adrift and a report in the Economist on the upward march of grade inflation.

 

I assume the original intention of course evaluations was a reasonable one. Professors spend most if not all of their time in the classroom unsupervised, and course evaluations provide a basic mechanism for administrators to make sure faculty are doing their jobs. They also, for reflective teachers like Josh, provide valuable feedback for refining pedagogical approaches and techniques. Today, however, they have come to serve a different purpose. Evaluations have become part of a broader shift within universities as they increasingly adopt neoliberal economic norms. This includes conceiving of students as customers and universities as job training centers. In this context, course evaluations become less about improving pedagogy and more about ensuring the customers are satisfied. But, as Aspiring Adults Adrift—the follow up to Academically Adrift—demonstrates, students are not well placed to assess the quality of their education. From the New York Times piece reviewing Aspiring Adults Adrift:

When asked during their senior year in 2009, three-quarters reported gaining high levels of critical thinking skills in college, despite strong C.L.A. [Collegiate Learning Assessment] evidence to the contrary. When asked again two years later, nearly half reported even higher levels of learning in college. This was true across the spectrum of students, including those who had struggled to find and keep good jobs.

Through diplomas, increasingly inflated grades and the drumbeat of college self-promotion, these students had been told they had received a great education. The fact that the typical student spent three times as much time socializing and recreating in college as studying and going to class didn’t change that belief. Nor did unsteady employment outcomes and, for the large majority of those surveyed, continued financial dependence on their parents.

This brings me to grade inflation. The Economist story only reports on the dynamic on Ivy League campuses, but where the Ivies go many others follow (exploding research productivity expectations for example). To me, these indicators connect to the neoliberalization of American universities. If universities are simply providing a service to customers, then happier customers produce greater revenues (higher enrollments) for departments, colleges, and universities. Course evaluations are the primary metric for establishing student satisfaction, and studies demonstrate that higher average course grades correlate with higher course evaluations. From a 2010 study in the Journal of Political Economy:

Student evaluations are positively correlated with contemporaneous professor value‐added [higher course grades] and negatively correlated with follow‐on student achievement [performance in subsequent courses]. That is, students appear to reward higher grades in the introductory course but punish professors who increase deep learning (introductory course professor value‐added in follow‐on courses). Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this latter finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.

Even units supportive of faculty that seek to prioritize rigor over easy As will have a hard time holding the line as enrollments (and thus revenue) drop because students migrate to courses and majors where such rigor is lacking.

 

The solution is not to eliminate course evaluations. Used properly, as part of a holistic assessment of teaching, course evaluations provide an opportunity for students to provide feedback and for faculty to understand how they are connecting with their students. Instead, the solution lies ultimately with students. The neoliberalization of American universities is not going away. So it will be up to students to demand more of their universities—not in terms of climbing walls or campus Starbucks—but rather in terms of educational rigor. The problem, of course, is that students are the least well placed to recognize rigor. Ultimately, they will have to ask themselves: Did the course challenge me? Did it push me outside the bounds of my conventional thinking? Do I think (about issues and problems) differently? If so, students should take more classes with that professor and reflect those qualities on course evaluations. Students in the end will have to change the ‘rationalist’ cost-benefit calculations underpinning the system.

 

How does this come back to Josh’s experience? I do not know the particulars of why his students evaluated him as they did, but the dynamics I discuss above suggest that perhaps the evaluations really are not as bad as he thinks.

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Revolution, Revolution until Victory

‎”… Yet the crowds were not placated, and they spent the next hour in the courtyard repeating the classic songs of the uprising, “thowra thowra huta nasr” (revolution, revolution until victory).” –Al Jazeera (4/25/2011)

The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is in danger. While Western media outlets have given primacy in their coverage of events to speculative discussions about the historic, current, and future role of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the pivotal role of the Egyptian military, it is the organizations representing the rights of factory workers and allied leftist youth that actually did the heavy lifting from an organizational perspective before and during the revolution (see for example the April 6th Youth Movement). Thus, it is these same groups (whose demands include nationalizing textile factories, improving safety conditions, increasing wages for workers, and a maximum wage for the owners of capital) which will need to be addressed alongside more established political organizations if enduring stability is to be achieved.

But the demands of the workers are scarcely likely to be met given the severe economic challenges which lie ahead for Egypt and the broader global economic context in which this revolution is unfolding. The government has already turned to the IMF for $10-12 billion in financial assistance and $2.2 billion from the World Bank, citing a dramatic decline in revenue from the vital but perennially endangered tourism industry and a wave of worker strikes in recent months. Given the neo-liberal economic ideology and decisionist (Schmittian) political outlook toward developing countries that is prevalent among the Western governments that dominate the Executive Boards of the Bretton Woods institutions, as well as with military leaders and comprador economic elites in deveoping countries, the Egyptian state will undoubtedly face external pressure to repress worker demands. In fact, foreign pressure will most likely be used as a welcome opportunity by comprador elites to pursue preferred policies while placing the blame for repression on an external bogeyman.

As with many other developing countries, Egypt has a complex and politicized history of relations with the IMF (not to mention an even longer and more sordid history of sovereign debt to Western creditors prior to WWII). At times the historical narrative about Egypt-IMF relations has focused almost exclusively on the 1977 food riots that followed an attempt at structural adjustment during the Sadat regime. This narrative has usually been oversimplified by left leaning academics who have all too willingly bought into the military regime’s account of the structural adjustment program as a moral lesson in the political shortsightedness of the mandarins at the Fund and the inhumanity of a ruthless and disembedded neoliberal economic ideology. (In point of fact and as we now know, it was the military regime which proposed cutting food subsidies when the Fund had recommended slashing the unsustainable military budget). An overemphasis on that moment risks ignoring all of the efforts since then to implement neoliberal strategies of privatization, liberalization, and integration — half-hearted, illusory, and lackluster though they may have been.

If we look beyond the kabuki theater of the state’s relations with the Fund and neoliberalism more broadly, we can see that prospects for meeting the workers’ demands and reviving the textile industry, which constitutes about a quarter of both industrial employment and industrial production, are unlikely to emerge through neoliberal strategies. The current challenge to Egypt’s textile industry goes back to the phase out of the GATT/WTO textile quota regime in 2004 and the beginning of genuine global competition. Egypt’s textile industry which is characterized by low productivity simply could not compete against Chinese textile firms. Egypt was able to gain some breathing room by signing on to a tri-lateral preferential trade agreement (the QIZ) with Israel and the US, but the political climate in Gaza and the West Bank has hardly made this a robust alternative for Egypt.

If Egypt hopes to compete against China, it will need to study China’s reform of its own textile sector in the nineties which laid the ground work for its return to profitability in 2000.  The short version of the story is that China cut 2.7 million employees out of 7 million, closed 600 state-owned firms (1/5th of the total), suffered billions in losses while it restructured and updated equipment (Lardy 2002, 23). The real question is what enabled the state and society to endure this restructuring? The answer is far more complex than can be covered here, but at the very least it seems apparent that a set of economic strategies designed to winnow the state is the wrong path to take. To the contrary, the East Asian “model” generally points to the importance of strengthening state capacity in order to compete in the global marketplace. However, while such strategies are often anchored by nationalist ideology, they are rarely kind to the interests and radicalized demands of workers.

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