Saturday, January 29, 2011

A stretch of river LX: Inaugural dispatch from the Stretch of River School of the Dismal Science

Note: My computer still needs replacing, but at least it's no longer threatening to crash on me. So, maybe we can limp along here for a while yet.

My sole formal training in economics consists of a single Intro. to Macroeconomics class that I took in college (of which about all I remember are supply/demand curves). However, as you'll see, this isn't about economics per se except in the figurative sense of an intellectual economy--in particular, the one that exists at my place of employ. Yes, wiseacres, I do teach at a community college, but we do have an intellectual economy, even if we don't talk about it in any formal way. Which is part of the point of this post.

Some context first: The combination of Kansas' state budget having an estimated $500 million shortfall for this fiscal year and the state's electorate's having put into office an especially-conservative Republican governor, former U.S. senator Sam Brownback, means that public education will see some funding cuts. My school is better-situated financially than some and so should be okay, but neither are we about to go on a hiring binge, either, despite increasing enrollments.

All of which made my ears perk up the other day when I heard my colleague's outburst from his office: "It's gotta be a grant! It's gotta be!" I wandered over and asked him what was up; he said that the college had just posted job opening notices for not one but two full-time Economics instructors. Yes: Economics. When, from a strictly utilitarian point of view, we could really use a couple more English (or Mathematics or Biology or Chemistry or even (formally-trained) Philosophy or Religion) full-timers. My colleague knows all this; hence his exclamation.

I had class to go to just then, so I couldn't linger. The next day, though, I asked him if he'd found out any more about these mysterious positions; he said No but that he would right then. So, we go to the college's job openings list on the website, and here's what we found, excluding the less-exciting stuff like, you know, salary and such:

Economics Instructor (2 positions)


Full-time Economics Instructor will be responsible to teach Economics courses. Knowledge of Austrian Economics expected and preferred. Prospective candidates must be willing to incorporate Austrian capital theory into their macroeconomic classes. Prospective candidates must be skilled in a variety of instructional techniques and technologies, with a demonstrated commitment to student engagement and learning outcomes assessment. May teach evenings and at multiple sites. Teaching experience and Master’s degree required.

(Here's a summation, and here's a detailed discussion of Austrian business-cycle theory (which incorporates capital theory).)

Now, my interest was really piqued.

Those of you who've followed this blog can probably guess that I'm not a fan of (what I understand of) the Austrian School. Not only is it not especially well-regarded as an economic theory, it meshes in distressing ways with other systems of thought (one in particular) that are either (take your pick) laughable or odious but which seem to be making inroads into mainstream conservative politics in this country. I would hope, though, that my eyebrows would raise if the position had specified the hiring of someone committed to Marxist or Chicago School economic theory or was a really big fan of Paul Krugman. It's the specificity of the call that is so odd, especially given that it's a call put out by a community college.

So here's a list of what's at issue for me as an instructor at a community college as regards these announced positions; as you'll see, they overlap, Venn diagram-like:

1) In all our talk as a faculty about assessment and incorporating technology into our teaching and the transferability of courses to in-state 4-year schools (a whole other blog post, I assure you) and all the rest, in my 11 years at my college we have never had a formal, faculty-wide discussion about our sense of ourselves (and I'm including our students here, too) as an intellectual community. Do these new positions signal that we now have such a vision, and will future hires reflect it? Or, will they lead to formal discussions of a vision?

2) If these positions are part of achieving a long-term goal of developing our faculty's intellectual diversity, I'm all for that. As the Wikipedia entry makes clear, the Austrian School has some powerful advocates even if most mainstream economists find their theories suspect; students need to know about these theories (the better to be able to discredit them, I would hope). But that does lead one to wonder whether, as my colleague fantasized, our next hire in Economics will be a Marxist--that is, given that as of right now we offer two courses in Economics, Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics, how will achieving this intellectual diversity mesh with the larger goals of what are, after all, introductory-level courses?

3) If the answers to my questions are something along the lines of, "The Austrian School bit was just a string attached to some money we're after; no need to be concerned," well, that to my mind begs the question of why I or my colleagues wouldn't or shouldn't be concerned about our particular version of inculcating in our students some sense of what it's like to be engaged in intellectual work. Perhaps the fact that, as I mentioned before, we've not had that sort of discussion as a faculty indirectly answers that question. I would hope not, though; to say that that lack of discussion is its own answer reflects poorly on both our administration and our faculty.

4) Aaaand, I think I'd better stop here for now. As I have stated many times before on this blog, I have deep admiration and respect for my administrators and fellow faculty. To pursue things further here would be purely speculative and potentially unfair to them. But I'll conclude by saying this: I understand and accept and enjoy being part of the roles that community colleges play relative to 4-year schools and the regional economy. Speaking for myself, though, there's a danger in letting our vision of ourselves be determined too much by others (as embodied, for example, by the "student as customer" model of education) and not enough by our sense (not the state's, not would-be donors') of what it means to be educators and how best to model that for our students, no matter their particular ambitions. Part of that would seem to be not being beholden to any one particular ideology--not our own, and especially not that of someone outside the college.


Cordelia said...

Hmmm... my automatic reaction is that the college wants to hire someone in particular, but by law must run a search, ergo they make the position so specific in its details (knowledge of the Austrian School required), that Wanted Applicant will be sure to be a finalist. Not that having someone in mind precludes the thoughtful goals you mention in #1 and #2.

John B. said...

(Wow! It's Cordelia!! How the heck are ya?!?)

I actually hadn't considered the possibility of the person-specific position notice; now that you mention it, though, it does make sense. I've seen my share of those, too.

My plan is to not to continue to speculate darkly and then keep blogging about it without any sort of evidence aside from said dark speculating, but to write a letter to the president and vice-president for academic affairs to see what I can find out. So far as I know, I am on good terms with them, so I don't anticipate that anyone will be reading about this on down the road in Academe.

R. Sherman said...

I think Cordelia is correct, a belief I base on experiences of people close to me.

Off topic (sort of) comment regarding funding in higher education. What I find distressing, is that the cuts always seem aimed at the pointy end of the academic spear and not at the bloated administration which spends most of its time at cocktail parties. Thus, cuts come to full time faculty and programs the students use, while colleges add ever increasing number of assistant deans for this or that at 100K a pop, while keeping ever increasing numbers of adjunct faculty at near slave wages. It's a travesty.