My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


If You Love the University, Read This Book! (If you’re frustrated with the university, definitely read this book!)

In preparation for My Year Away, I’ve started to read more books on higher education. Just a few days ago I finished Jeff Selingo’s College (UN)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students (ISBN 978-0-544-02707-7).

This book captured my attention from the first page to the last. First, Selingo is an excellent writer. Second, he’s a journalist. Third, his beat is higher education. No surprise he had me at page 1.

College (UN)Bound takes the perspective of advice to parents and students shopping for college. But, it’s really a book about the current state of higher education. Selingo provides a plethora of data so it’s hard to argue with his findings. And no doubt about it. Selingo thinks higher ed is broken. But, instead of just saying “Innovate!” “Change!” “Be flexible!”, he gives concrete examples of universities and colleges that are meeting the challenge.

Sadly, very few flagship research universities show up on his list of innovators. He claims we are a risk-adverse, self-satisfied industry (pg. xi). He says it is because of filiopietism (“clinging to tradition”—I love it when I learn a new word!). When you think about it, the whole university system encourages snail-paced change. If you’re a 9-month tenured faculty member (yes, yes, I know, we’re a privileged lot, not warranting much empathy), you work two 15-week semesters (yes, yes, yes, I know that we’re all incredibly busy over the summer doing research, etc.). During the first couple of weeks, it’s hard to pay attention to university issues because we’re getting our classes up and running. During the last couple of weeks, it’s hard to pay attention because we’re preparing exams and dealing with student crises. Which leaves about 15 minutes in the middle of the semester to lift our heads, look around, and notice that the university seems woefully behind, well, name whatever bailiwick, you’re currently touting.

In my field (journalism and mass communications), it’s usually about how the industry is going to hell in a hand basket and how J-Schools should constantly change the curriculum to meet the demands of the new world of content creation. For example, the school I lead just changed its curriculum. It only took four years. (You can’t make this stuff up.) The new curriculum is better than the old one, but probably not as innovative as it can (or should) be. But, that’s what happens when you put a group of 40 faculty members together working to effect change. Hey, at least we’re moving in the right direction!

Selingo’s book spends a lot of time discussing technology, credentialing options (other than the tradition credit-hour), disruptive changes we are either facing now or will face shortly, and a host of other issues. But, throughout, he somehow also demonstrates how important a college education is. For example, he makes an astute observation that all the techno greats who did not graduate from college such as Gates and Zuckerberg, did, indeed, go to college. He also masterfully touts the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, writing—all the things we academics like to say we teach (while we create more “innovative” classes that actually don’t focus on these, but, rather, meet the short-term goals of industry needs).

As I neared the end of College (UN)Bound, right before I got to the point of wanting to stick my head in the sand and declare that I would be the biggest filiopietist (I’m pretty sure that’s not a real word) in the universe, I realized something.

As I prepare to begin my sabbatical and My Year Away, I can start work now on making innovative changes in my own classroom. I haven’t taught very much over the past 9 years because I’ve been a full-time administrator. One more semester and that will change. I want to change, too. I want to embrace the dilemmas facing the university—and look for solutions. I can do that on a small scale now.

Jeff Selingo’s book will provide lots of fodder for me to consider during My Year Away. The university system has issues, that’s for sure. But, I’m thankful that I am a part of it. I will try even harder not to take it for granted.