I have debated how to begin our School of Social Sciences Salon. I will confess that I found myself weighing what might be the most politically expedient topic to start our discussion, who I would immediately piss-off or turn-off depending upon the topic chosen or not chosen. In the end, I have decided to follow the slightly expanded version of the Szefel Rule and to try to just talk about what I honestly think we need to talk about.
So, my first thought is that we need to talk about what we are actually doing. This is my 17th year at Pacific and for most years that I have been here, we have debated who we are as a college and what we are trying to be. To my knowledge, there has never been an “official” answer to these questions. But I believe that as faculty we know – and have known for a long time – the answer to this identity question.
As a faculty, we excel with students who have high academic abilities (or the potential thereof) but low social, cultural and economic capital. We are good with awkward, unsophisticated, needy but smart students. And those students can be transformed by their experiences at Pacific. This is not to say that any high-ability but low socio-economic status (SES) student would do well at Pacific. Within this larger group of students, I think we best serve students who have a genuine desire to do something in the world, however they might define that civic engagement.
There are, however, implications of admitting – or even embracing – this as our raison d’être.
First, it tells us who we are not. We are not Pomona, Whitman, Middlebury or any of a number of schools who excel at teaching students who arrive with both intellectual and socio-economic capital. Pacific is not and most likely will not ever be like these schools.
Second, it tells us that our students do not think about college the way that many of us did. Our students do not come from academic families or families whose socio-economic status puts them in contact with families with strong academic traditions. This means that our students do not accept a college education as an end in and of itself. Rather, they see college as a means to another end. The end for our students is to get a job/have a career and they see the potential for many different means to that end; college is only one such means. Our students will constantly evaluate their college experience in market, cost-benefit terms in a way that students of higher SES (and most faculty) do not. Students at Pomona, Yale, and even Whitman are joining a club – our students are purchasing a product.
Third, specializing in students with high intellectual ability, but low cultural and socio-economic ability has real implications for how we envision our role as faculty. This population of students cannot and will not perform to our standards without substantial teaching, training and guidance. They lack the skills that a more privileged background would have provided. This is not the same thing as lacking intellectual capacity, of course, though in a college environment the two deficiencies can appear similar. This guidance and development can be time-intensive, one-on-one and laborious. If we expect and need faculty to do this work, we need to value it both formally and informally. And as faculty, we need to see this as legitimate work, as an intentional part of our work as faculty, and not resent it as “hand-holding” or “remedial.”
Fourth, while a Pacific education can offer our graduates a chance to see, think about and be in the world in a way that is otherwise available only for those with more privilege, graduating from Pacific does not make our students wealthy. Unlike students with both high intellectual capacities and high socio-economic status, our students do not return from college to their family’s position of privilege. This means that no matter how good their experience at Pacific and no matter how much they care about Pacific, our graduates will not be able to build the kind of endowment that we want to have. This means that we need to think of other ways to ensure financial stability without depending either on constant growth or amassing a huge endowment.
The consequences of knowing – and openly admitting – who we are as a college are not all negative.
First, the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences is truly gifted, dedicated, and skilled. Given a clear direction and purpose, the faculty of this college can and will be exceptional in meeting that purpose. I worry sometimes that our frequent return to the research-vs.-teaching debate distracts us from knowing who we are and moving together toward an agreed upon set of goals.
Second, knowing who we are and what we are trying to become –and speaking openly in a unified voice about this identity – will help us as faculty to determine the best ways to spend our time and efforts. My own sense is that we increasingly feel that our tenure, promotion and merit pay hinge upon scholarship and the numbers on our teaching course evaluations. This has the consequence of making service and the kind of nurturing, time-intensive guidance and teaching that goes on outside of formal class meetings feel like a waste of time, a frustrating distraction, and even as counter to our interests as individual faculty members. It is interesting that while students, faculty, and the Admissions Office all understand that some of our most important teaching and learning goes on outside of formal classrooms, we evaluate our teachers based only on what goes on inside the classroom. Greater clarity and a shared commitment to a purpose can make our work as faculty better.
Third, understanding that our focus is on this particular group of students provides guidance for how to navigate many of the changes facing higher education and especially small residential colleges like Pacific. Knowing who we are allows us to better answer the question of, “What can we offer our students that the internet (as just one example) never can?” It gives us a basis for evaluating new programs and proposals for the College and can open the door to possibilities we have not considered for fear that they might move us away from attracting a more socially and economically elite student body.
Fourth, it allows us as faculty to participate in building a better world. Sometimes this is the only thing that gets me through the last stack of papers to grade. The truth is that most students with high SES and high academic abilities are on a trajectory. As faculty we might be a pleasant wayside while they are en route, but they are on a moving walkway, with or without our intervention. This is not the case for the students with high academic ability but low SES. For these students, you have the potential to change the trajectory of their lives and this, in turn, changes the world.
What are your thoughts on our identity and what that identity means for how we do our work as faculty at Pacific?