This is part two of a series on higher education. Read the first post here.
I believe in education.
Just wanted to get that out of the way first. Because some of the thoughts that I have about education after high school may seem like I’m opposed to it. That’s not true. But I do think that our current expectations, and often our methods, have some problems that need to be addressed, and the turmoil of 2020 gives us an opportunity to do exactly that.
So who am I to make suggestions about higher education? Let me give you a quick summary of my experience in higher ed so you can decide if I’m someone worth giving some of your attention.
I’ve worked in higher ed for 21 years. I spent a brief year as an adjunct instructor at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, in the early 1990s, teaching a graphic design course about “desktop publishing.” (If that term’s unfamiliar, it’s what we called software like Aldus PageMaker and Quark XPress that were key in moving print layout from manual work to digital.)
In 1997 I started teaching as a contract instructor for St. Clair County Community College (SC4) in Port Huron, Michigan. I taught day-long seminars that covered introductory and intermediate level use of Microsoft Office programs, including Word, Outlook, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. It was part-time work, but in the late 1990s there was a lot of federal and state money available for companies to train their workers in these skills, so I kept pretty busy, teaching three or four days per week. That funding dried up around 2002 and I went back to my freelance work as a writer, designer, and marketing consultant.
In late 2008, I got a call from a community theater friend, Roger Hansel, who was the technical director at SC4. They needed a director for their Christmas play on short notice. I’d done about twenty plays as an actor and director for local theater groups and Roger knew I was self-employed and might be available. I took the gig and with a small group of talented young performers, we put the show together in about four weeks. I thought it went well, but didn’t expect it to be anything more than a one-off opportunity. The chair of the visual and performing arts department, David Korff, had other plans. My predecessor wasn’t coming back, so would I be interested in directing the next show? Um, sure. At the end of the semester, he asked me what plays we were doing next year. I wondered why he was asking me, so he told me that it was my job to pick them since I’d be directing them. And I’d also be teaching acting and improvisation. Oh. Okay.
I did that for eight years, and they were the best “work” years of my life. I loved teaching theater, directing shows, working with such enthusiastic young performers. For some of them, theater was their refuge from their less-than-ideal real lives. Through our program, they made friends, learned to resolve differences, and in a few cases, just survived. It was fun, but it was also important work.
(I’ll always be thankful to Roger and David. I know I solved a short-term problem for them, but I’m pretty sure I got a lot more out of the transaction than they did.)
But then that ended. After building a program, directing almost 30 shows, teaching hundreds of college students, and revising and relaunching an oral interpretation of literature course, I was told I was no longer qualified to do any of that. I have no master’s degree, not just in theater but in anything (I’ll have one – finally – in 2022, but it won’t be in theater). I have a bachelor’s degree in geography and earth science. I never claimed otherwise, and no one suggested that I had. What I did have was years of experience actually acting and directing, which continued to grow over my eight years as the artistic director of The SC4 Players. Unfortunately, that was no longer enough.
I understood intellectually why I couldn’t teach theater anymore. Updated Higher Learning Commission standards meant that instructors needed to have at least a master’s degree in the field they teach (or any master’s degree and at least 18 additional hours in that field). In order to get a MFA in theater, I’d need to do remedial work to get a BFA first, then get accepted into an MFA program, then complete the program. I’m sure I’d have learned a lot of new things, but the fact was I already was doing the work an MFA should have qualified me for, and according to my colleagues’ evaluations of my work, I was doing it well. So it made no sense for me to spend that amount of time and money to get degrees in the hope of maybe being able to reapply for my old job.
I won’t detail what happened over the next two years, but in the end, my college doesn’t produce any plays (even before COVID) and there are fewer theater arts classes offered. Again, intellectually I understood the need for “standards,” but I don’t think those standards ended up serving our students very well.
I was fortunate that I’d also been working as an academic advisor at the college, so I was able to continue doing that, which provided a connection to students. I have a sticker in my office from NACADA, the Global Community for Academic Advising, that says “Advising is Teaching,” and that’s true. In 2016, I was given an opportunity to rebuild our recruitment and admissions team, which I accepted. I’ve loved these challenges and I think we’ve done pretty well. I still miss teaching theater – I’ll probably never completely let that frustration go – but I’m proud of my current team. We still make differences in people’s lives and that makes it worthwhile.
So I believe in education. But my experience working in higher ed has led me to question some of the things we do. Especially the things that we do out of habit, because we just haven’t taken the time to ask whether it still makes sense to do it that way.
As I lay out some of my questions and perhaps even a few ideas to answer them, I hope that if you agree you’ll let me know. Even more importantly, if you disagree I hope you’ll also let me know and will engage with me in a constructive manner. That, in the end, is the point of education.