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Demanding the impossible

2011/10/27 2 comments

Apparently, the Faculty Senate picked the wrong day to ask for my input on a new initiative from the state legislature and board of regents. Below, find my response to this question:

2. Given increased enrollment and smaller budgets, how can we maintain and improve student success and retention?

We cannot. Improving student success and retention — especially when we are planning to let in more students, which necessarily means letting in more students who are less qualified than current students — requires more resources, not fewer resources. Even in industry, the efficiencies of large scale production have limits (the law of diminishing returns), and producing educated citizens is much more resource-intensive than producing widgets. The non-stop demands (throughout the country, not just in our state) that public university faculty “do more with less” have been going on for years: If there truly ever was a time when increases in efficiency, redirection of resources to teaching from less central tasks, and other transformations of how we do things could improve student education even while reducing budgets, that time has long since passed. I can think of several ways I could improve my teaching this semester — more frequent feedback on smaller assignments, for example. But since I worked 36 hours just in the first three days of this week, and don’t foresee working any less in the remaining two days and will also work over the weekend, I cannot imagine where I would find the time and energy to create and produce meaningful feedback on additional assignments.

The board of regents and state legislature can demand whatever they want — they can demand that faculty alter time and space, suspend gravity, and invent perpetual motion machines — but we cannot meet demands for what is simply impossible. When someone insists that you do something impossible, the only correct and sane answer is, “No.” Any response to their demands other than honestly telling them how and why their demands are impossible would simply reinforce their deluded conviction that they can create the results they want by simply insisting that the people and institutions they have power over produce them. Real-world results cannot be produced by fact-ignoring fiat, and hard problems cannot be solved by insisting that someone lower down the totem pole solve them — especially when that insistence is accompanied by a reduction in the resources available to carry out the work needed to fix those problems. Even the attempt to meet these impossible demands would be a gross disservice to all those additional students they expect us to educate with ever-shrinking resources, and to existing students whose education will be diminished by resources (and faculty members) spread ever more thinly.

I have no objection to performance-based funding. In fact, the strangest thing about this situation is that the concept of “performance-based funding” could not be more clear about the logical and causal connection between funding and performance — yet somehow the state legislature and board of regents keep insisting on more performance with less funding. It is a fundamental principle of ethics (my field of study) that “ought implies can,” which simply means that one cannot be obligated to do something that is not in one’s power to do. Surely at some level the powers that be must be aware of the self-contradictory nature of their demands, and that those demands cannot be met — but if they are not aware, that does not obligate us to nevertheless try to meet those demands. If we are obligated to do anything, it is to make them aware that their demands *are* impossible, and to explain why. In other words, we are obligated to educate them — which, after all, is our calling.

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Categories: Uncategorized

An illustration…

2011/02/17 1 comment

An example of how I refuse to be miserable today in search of some hoped-for future reward: I will not be applying for even a temporary job at the school which prominently features the following paragraph in its statement of purpose.

The Christian tradition to which [school name redacted] remains committed recognizes God as the source of all truth, and believes that Jesus Christ is the revelation of that God, a God bound by no church or creed. The loyalty of the college thus extends beyond the Christian community to the whole of humanity and necessarily includes openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions. [redacted] dedicates itself to the quest for truth and encourages teachers and students to explore the whole of reality, whether physical or spiritual, with unlimited employment of their intellectual powers. At [redacted], faith and reason work together in mutual respect and benefit toward growth in learning, understanding, and wisdom.

It is my considered (and rigorously argued) opinion that faith is by its very nature the enemy of reason, and therefore the enemy of genuine, intellectually honest scholarship. While well-meaning ecumenical faith makes for better scholarship (and better neighbors) than fundamentalist dogmatism, that’s an awfully low standard to rise above: For example, see the implicit logical self-contradiction in the first sentence of the quoted paragraph.

Even if the hiring panel never thought to Google-stalk me and thereby discovered my outspoken atheism — which I imagine would impede my chances, to say the least — I cannot imagine what would induce me to sacrifice a year of my life to such an institution. My intellectual integrity is worth more to me than whatever fiscal or professional benefits any such job could possibly offer. I’d rather commit myself to adjunct wage-slavery. (Fortunately, there are other options on the table; hopefully, one of those will pan out.)

Categories: Uncategorized