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    21st Century Education: SUNY Albany Edition

    Earlier this week, I blogged about SUNY Albany's plan to fulfill its "world-wide" mission by cutting almost all of their European language programs and declaring its intention to fire the full-time tenured faculty who teach French, Russian, Italian, and the classics. At the same time, Albany cut its theater major.

    I'd like to walk through the logic behind these particular cuts, because they're a striking example of how American universities are changing, and an illustration of the changes most critics of "hidebound" and "old-fashioned" universities would like to enact. Why did the President of SUNY Albany pick these programs for cutting?

    The kneejerk response is that all of those programs were somehow "impractical." We all know how impractical the humanities are, right? But a few moments' thought suggests that this is wrong. There are a number of majors, in the humanities or out, that are probably less practical as employment training than the programs that have been cut. I won't single out any for disrespect, but SUNY is retaining some humanities programs that are less obvious preparation for a specific career than a BA in French is. It also has a number of social-sciences and natural-sciences majors which, to put it delicately, are perhaps more specialized than a sound undergraduate degree would be, and which certainly don't constitute a professional credential in their fields. (If you need a graduate degree in a field to get a job, and graduate students in that field have typically majored in biology or chemistry or economics first, the existence of the undergrad major strikes me more as marketing than education.) After all, foreign-language majors can easily take their skills to other industries, but at the very least they're preparing for a possible career as high-school teachers. Cutting the BA and MA in French isn't about getting rid of frivolous or impractical majors, unless New York high schools are no longer hiring French teachers.

    Theater, which also sounds like a flaky liberal-arts major, is also a clearly pre-professional program, which trains directors and theatrical designers as well as actors. There are actual jobs for lighting designers, set designers, and costume designers, about 150 miles from Albany, and having solid professional training in those fields is a serious help. SUNY Albany, which is three or four hours away from both Broadway and Montreal, just cut its theater major and its French major. Real-world value was not the issue.

    The reason that these programs were cut is not because they were flaky or worthless. It is because they were expensive. Every one of those fields demands labor-intensive instruction by highly trained specialists. There is no way to put any of these fields on a mass-instruction basis.

    You learn Russian, if you're actually going to learn Russian, by taking a number of small, labor-intensive classes over a few years. There's no way to turn Russian class into a large lecture, where three hundred kids sit and look at Power Points about how to decline nouns. No one can even propose that with a straight face. (In fact, secondary-school language teaching is already badly hampered by trying to fit the usual high-school class size. Classes of twenty-five or thirty teenagers, forty-five minutes a day, will achieve basic language proficiency in an average of seven thousand years.)

    Nor can you turn the instruction over to technology ... Rosetta Stone isn't exactly filling America with linguists. You can send undergraduates to the language lab for extra drill instruction, but you can't have just the language lab and not the classes. What you're stuck with, as a university, is a set of courses that require a low and therefore expensive student-to-teacher ratio, one faculty member in a room with ten or twelve sophomores. And the teacher's expertise obviously determines how much the students can learn; if you put someone who's not entirely fluent in the target language or someone who has a funky accent into the classroom, the students don't learn properly. So you need teachers with specialized skills, but you can only charge a limited number of student-credit-hours for each one of those teachers.

    (All of this also goes for most theater classes. You can't teach acting, directing, or costume design to large lecture groups. You need small hands-on courses where a teacher with serious professional expertise observes and guides the students' efforts.)

    The only way to economize on language teaching at all is to turn it over to poorly-paid "part-time" faculty, lowering the overhead for each course. French 101 and 102 get taught by people without actual salaries or benefits, for a per-course fee. But you can't run a major or offer most serious advanced courses that way. You can hire people on the cheap to teach basic grammar and vocabulary, but students won't become fluent unless you're paying for an actual department. C'est la vie. Same thing goes for theater; you can pay someone a scandal wage to teach the introductory classes, and that will go fine. But you can't teach the advanced stuff without faculty who are further along in their careers. If you want to produce graduates who can get jobs in lighting design off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway, you need faculty who have already succeeded as lighting designers off- or on Broadway themselves.

    So, let's be very clear about what SUNY Albany is doing. They are going to keep introductory-level language courses, taught by ill-paid and overworked adjunct instructors. But they will cut the advanced courses in French, Russian, Italian, and the classics and cut the faculty whose responsibility it was to make sure that instruction in those languages stayed up to standard. Few or no students will actually learn enough of those languages to be useful, but they will manage to fulfill language requirements. It's cheaper to give people credit for filling requirements than it is to teach them things. In theater, I suppose, there will be no more advanced classes, but likely they will retain some introductory courses as "fun" electives, which students can treat as a diversion instead of work, and which will not lead to any more demanding or instructive studies. This will all be inexpensive; it will probably actually show a bottom-line profit which can be used to underwrite other programs. The only cost will be that the students will realize that the courses don't actually teach them anything, and decide that a university education is about checking off boxes instead of learning. That attitude will carry over into their other classrooms.

    But have no fear: SUNY Albany will keep its "spectacular" Performing Arts Center, even if they're not educating performing artists anymore. And they will continue to boast of their "nearly 500 study abroad programs," including programs in France, Italy, and Russia. How is that possible? For many of those programs, there is "NO previous study required" (caps in the original), as SUNY Albany would like you to know. Study-abroad programs, unlike teaching languages, are a cash cow for universities, with a high profit margin.

    So, when you hear people talking about how the American university needs to be "transformed" and how outdated models need to be swept away, or how universities should be run "more like a business," remember that this is what is being proposed: a shift to the lowest-cost instruction available, and an emphasis on "productivity" in terms of easily measurable units, such as credit hours and credentials, rather than on difficult-to-quantify questions like student learning. Teaching students to speak another language is expensive. Certifying that they sat through a language class can be very cheap indeed.

    The operation of the free market, which will supposedly make universities innovative and forward-thinking, actually produces more old fashioned big lectures, in which a single faculty member can be paid to teach several hundred students at once. That format is enormously inefficient in terms of student learning; big lectures are clearly less effective than small-group teaching in every field, but when the lecturer is teaching history or economics schools can call the results good enough. This is about economics, rather than teaching economics.

    A freer, more economically "rational" market does not produce higher-quality goods in this example, or lower prices. Rather, it leads to lower-quality instruction for increasing prices, with a few flashy deluxe items, such a spring semester in Milano for monolinguists, which exact a hefty price premium for the shopping experience. Welcome to the 21st century.



    I read a Mamet book several years ago in which he advised against studying theatre in school. He felt you learn theatre by working in theatre. Having said that, the fine arts program at my alma mater had a very well-regarded theatre program, but the students mostly did a lot of theatre, and set design, presumably lighting design, etc., which as you say, was probably a lot more expensive than handing out definitions of theatre terminology and testing their memorization skills.

    Our architecture program was well-regarded, too, but employers always like to say that students have to be retrained for the real world. My profession used to be taught largely through apprenticeship, which seemed to work well enough for Mies and Wright.

    If colleges are going to drop the expensive subjects, I wonder if apprenticeship will become more common again?

    Well, apprenticeships are already here, in the shape of unpaid internships. Magazine publishing, for example, is heavily dependent upon unpaid internships and that is often necessary to begin a career. But that mostly limits magazine publishing to people whose parents can support them while they work for free. An apprenticeship system will almost certainly be unpaid or nominally paid, and make the profession being apprenticed for more socially exclusive.

    Mamet says a lot of things. And I agree with him that no bachelor's degree is in itself sufficient preparation to work in the theater. On the other hand, I don't think most bachelor's degrees are, in themselves, sufficient job training, and treating them as if they were misunderstands them. Mamet also leaves out the continuing classes and training that many working actors voluntarily undergo. The style of naturalist acting he himself promotes comes from actors who studied with professional acting teachers like Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg. Mamet is romanticizing, and like all romantics he overlooks the details that spoil his view. If we're going to be all "learn from the real world," let's look at the real world: if you read the resumes of all the working actors on Broadway today, most of those under 40 or 50 will have college coursework, if not an undergraduate degree, in theater arts.

    Mamet is right that undergrad productions will never teach you as much as Equity productions will, but what he leaves out of the equation is the difficulty of bridging the gap from Kid Who Wants to Be in the Theater and Kid Who Wants to Be in the Theater and Knows Where the Jobs Are. What a BA or BFA gives some students is enough skills and knowledge to try for an entry-level job. They can be helpful to actors ... I've seen some young actors in professional shows who were still undergrads, and one of those was quite gifted. But it's even more indispensable for tech and design people. No one picks up lighting design from just hanging around, believe me, and no one gets qualified for a lighting desig job by sitting in the audience. You have to be taught.

    Ironic thing about Mamet is that his style of acting and directing was in part popularized by people like William H. Macy, who studied his technique in acting classes.  Mamet also taught and his collection of plays "Goldberg Street" is full of sketches he wrote for his acting students.

    Actually, Macy and Mamet hooked up with each other in, ironically enough, college.  Then later, they started up a theatre company together in Chicago. 

    I think you're totally right, Dr. C.  Especially about the absolute impossibility of setting out on a technical career in theatre with no training.  But Mamet also leaves out little details like the fact that having gone to, say, a school like Yale School of Drama (where he taught) is a total calling card when you hit New York.  Send out your picture and resume to agents, and who's going to get the agent to come and check you out in your 4th floor walk up off off off Broadway debut on the Lower East Side?  The kid from Iowa who did Motel the Tailor in highschool or the kid who's got an MFA in acting from Yale? 

    No doubt there are really different lessons to be learned from being in an equity production.  But good luck to kids with no connections or experience getting in one.  And while there's a lot that can be learned rehearsing and performing four floors up for no pay and 12 people in the audience, it's a tough row to hoe, waiting tables or typing your fingers off to make ends meet.  Not something I'd want my eighteen year old kid to leave home to do. 

    College is the intermediary stage between adolescence and setting out as an adult (or semi-adult) in a career, and it's no different for a kid who wants to be an actor and a kid who wants to be an accountant.  I mean, what should the budding tax expert do?  Go out and work as a receptionist at H&R Block to get "real world" experience?  This is hogwash.

    And it saddens me greatly that a school like Albany State, that had such a great theatre department at one time, has now given up the ghost.

    They weren't above bragging about their great Theater alum Harold Gould last week, either. Have obit for celebrity alumni in the Times, immediately cut program that produced that alumni.

    Yes.  Well what can you say.  It's a disturbing trend.  Next they'll reduce English programs to writing and reading skills for college, and the people who teach Shakespeare and Romantic Poetry will be driving cabs. Though don't get me wrong, I understand that SUNY has to regroup, especially at the community college level where they need a lot more career-oriented training.  But SUNY Albany's a four year school.  And they don't need to offer degrees in languages and the classics?  That's actually worse than eliminating the theatre program, which is specialized and perhaps arcane in the larger scheme of things.  But if the humanities become the province of private schools and only those who can afford the tuition (or the poor but brilliant scholarship students) will graduate knowing who Homer and Dante were, much less having read anything they might've written, what then?  We've already got enough cultural illiteracy in this country, and enough insularity and closed minds.

    Argument by anecdote, for sure but my employers in journalism and now marketing have all been intrigued by my theatre degree.  The response to it has been mostly positive both by people who have and haven't hired me.  To be fair, I also had one job interview go badly because I studied theatre instead of journalism and the hiring editor didn't like that.  So I suppose it cuts both ways.

    There will always be some, especially when you're young, who will expect you to study what you want to do and to spend your college years pursuing your future job.  Admittedly, if I could hack it as "professional playwright" I would but it hasn't so far worked out that way.  That said, having the degree has not been impractical by any means.  Stage managing a show or two actually is management experience, by the way.  It's actually paid off for me.

    The great thing I think about students doing art is that it really is about the bottom line in many ways. A show either goes on or doesn't, and the audience either enjoys it or doesn't. In many ways, art is more result-oriented than many other kinds of academic pursuits. Theater, especially, makes students deal with the unexpected ... what do you do when the fire marshal shows up? Cause sooner or later he does.

    Meager budgets, conflicting agendas, instant feedbacks.  They don't call a theatre a "company" for no reason!

    I studied to be a professional Wainwright. 

    I'd like to think that when I go for job interviews, this intrigues my potential employers. To date, however, the only comment it elicited was, "Does that mean you were partway to becoming a Barrow Wright?" 

    Answer: No.

    At least one important Renaissance English playwright, John Webster, actually was a wainwright's son.

    My younger kid is at SUNY Oswego and will be graduating in the spring with a degree in Fine Arts...if she passes French. Wink  Looks like she squeaked through just in the nick of time if the SUNY system is going to start cutting instructors and programs.

    Well so far it's just Albany. SUNY campuses are more autonomous colleges and universities than they are one big megaschool, and this decision was made by Albany's president.

    It does seem driven by the legislature's treatment of overall SUNY funding, and is clearly a response to continuous cutting. After all, the legislature just raised tuition for in-state students, but cut SUNY's state funding by the amount that tuition had gone up. Believe me, I understand that the people who run SUNY campuses are looking at serious budget dilemmas.

    Nelson Rockefeller is turning over in his grave.

    I live in Salt Lake City, though I'm not from here. Tonight I listened to State Superintendant Larry Shumway deliver his annual "State of Utah Education" address. For the past decade or so, Utah has consistently placed last nationally in per capita student spending. In 2009, we spent an average of about $5700 per student; Idaho, the next-to-last state, spent nearly $7000 per student, while the national average is roughly $10,300. But superintendant Shumway had a different way of looking at it. "Instead of seeing it as expenditure-per-student," he said, "I prefer to see it as cost-per-student. From this perspective, Utah actually LEADS the nation in educational efficiency."


    Yeah. There's the problem right there.

    Great point, thanks.

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