So today (on http://www.wkow.com) I read that Wisconsin Representative Robin Vos is appalled that the UW-Madison campus decided to cancel some classes one afternoon because of President Obama’s visit to the campus. While that particular decision may seem controversial, I find it puzzling that he would be so appalled by this particular incident when, budget and support-wise, public education has been purposefully jeopardized since 2011 in Wisconsin with Mr. Vos apparently approving of such course of action. His words about the issue indeed demonstrate a lack of what higher education is about and what life at a university means. He refers to the campus decision as something that would hinder “a child’s education,” even if it is a well-known fact that university/college/technical college students are adults. In this light (?), and given that there appears to be so much confusion surrounding education and higher learning, I think it is necessary to clarify a few terms and contextualize them:
-Child/Adult: A *child* goes to elementary/middle/high school. That’s the basic education most people need and have. It gives teens/young adults the foundation to pursue higher education at a university/college/technical school as *adults*.
-University/college/technical school: They all serve similar yet fundamentally different purposes. I’ll begin with the latter. A technical school/ college serves the purpose of training for a specific skill, allowing for some core knowledge to be distributed among required courses. From these, you can get an associate degree or a B.A./B.S. or the like. Instruction-wise, in most cases you do not need a PhD/professional degree to teach at these institutions–which does not mean they don’t have fine instructors, but the teaching scope is different than that of a college or university. Colleges, for the most part, are 4-year institutions, but may also offer graduate programs. A B.A. from a reputed college may be the springboard into a graduate program at another institution later on. The university setting has many of the features as a college and, usually, offers a variety of graduate programs, from M.A to PhD, and degrees in areas such as medicine, dentistry, etc. The university is not only a place of higher learning, but it is also an intellectual community in which scholarly aspirations are (or should be) fostered and encouraged. Like one internet meme reminds us: you may get the skills to clone a dinosaur…the humanities will show how that won’t be such a good idea.
To be a professor (assistant/associate/full) at a university, you must have the highest degree in your field. It is very likely that while you were pursuing that degree, you were a Teaching Assistant or a Lecturer, teaching beginning to intermediate courses in your discipline. If you choose to make your career at a technical college, those are most likely the very same courses you will be teaching, given that you will never be teaching graduate students and you are primarily regarded as an instructor and not as a researcher in a more scholarly track. All different levels of instructions have their distinct value and all levels of teaching require a lot of effort and dedication. That is: choosing a technical school, college or university setting will have its perks and challenges, but at different levels.
Now, as for the issue of value: would you ask a dentist–who has been trained for so much more than cleanings and who has had ample research time as an expert–to stick only to cleanings? Isn’t that a waste or misuse of preparation and potential? Of course, the work of the hygienist is instrumental, just like the work of any professional instructor is. But just as there is a difference between the level of preparation and what a person has been trained to do in any given profession, let’s proceed to make the next distinction.
Teacher/Professor: A teacher with capital “T” is one of those instructors who motivate and inspire, the ones who emerge as role models. Teachers teach elementary/middle/high school and they offer an invaluable service to society by educating children and adolescents. A professor is someone who teaches at the university level, and who, by profession, is also a researcher with scholarly standing. Not that teaching school or college is more valuable than the other. These are all be stepping stones that require solid instructional foundations, from kindergarten to dissertation mentoring. But the preparation is different. The job requirements are different.
When you are a professor–a professor of Latin American and US Latino literature as in my case–you teach your classes and you: grade exams, papers, written assignments; read new material to incorporate into your lectures, research articles and books on the subject of your classes and of your scholarly research; spend time not only researching but writing the papers that you will present at conferences; maybe even chair sections at professional conferences and arrange panels, moderate them; incorporate feedback and plan what to do with that paper: a chapter for a monographic volume, or an article in a journal?; you evaluate students’ language level for study abroad or a colleagues’ proposals for grants; you advise graduate students, serve on M.A. thesis and comprehensive exam committees; serve on departmental, divisional and university-wide committees–sometimes even chair those committees, which means you are in charge of open meeting notices, agendas, minutes, and other meetings related to those meetings; work with assessments and submit reports; you may be part of sub-committees regarding language instruction and academic planning or reviewing undergraduate and graduate research papers for a contest; you also need to order your books for next semester on time and have syllabi ready in a timely fashion, and re-assess syllabi for specific requirements; evaluate manuscripts…etc.
And, back to Mr. Vos’s remarks about professors asking for more resources, faculty lines, salary compensation, etc.. With remarks like these, it becomes obvious that many people making major decisions do not realize how education and higher learning works, its intricacies and complexities. Yes, we need more resources, especially understaffed units. And yes, in some UW system campus, faculty salaries are under the median and some areas are disproportionately and significantly underpaid.
Back, then, to the issue of value. The campus was not shut down for President Obama’s visit to Madison. It’s a university. And you know, sometimes there’s a snow day. An intellectual/educational community never shuts down. Saying so because of one afternoon is expressing the lack of regard and understanding of an institution that otherwise has been readily under attack by an administration that feels contempt toward public education and higher learning in general.
The cuts to the UW system this past year were the highest ever. If all of a sudden someone is going to care about “a child’s education” then, it is imperative to be supportive of education at all levels, from kindergarten to doctoral programs. No half-way.