Friday, June 8, 2018

Why I Do Not Want A Tight-Knit Middlebury Community

Many colleagues at my institution think that, unlike larger universities, we at Middlebury College ought to be a tight-knit community. In a series of posts, I hope to describe and recommend an alternative, loose-knit community that I envision. Since I am most familiar with the academic faculty’s role in the College’s community, I focus on this, though future posts may anticipate some of its implications for other members of the community. Ideally, each post would stimulate discussion, which in turn would help me to sharpen my formulations, so that I (and perhaps others) might better understand the costs and benefits of different communal structures at liberal arts colleges in general, and Middlebury in particular.

In this post, I first clarify the distinction between tight- and loose-knit faculty communities. I then consider and reject the idea that faculty members' obligations to teach effectively entails a further obligation to form and maintain tight-knit communities. I conclude by providing some general contours for other arguments in favor of tight-knit faculty communities that I intend to criticize in future posts.

1.    Drawing a Distinction

I begin by characterizing the distinction between tight- and loose-knit faculty communities.
As a first pass, we might think that an ideal tight-knit community is one in which every community member knows every other community member. Knowing another means having accurate information about his/her motivations and beliefs, at least as concerns the workings of the College. I should say that some colleagues seem to suggest that knowing a coworker also requires knowing that coworker outside of his/her professional capacities. However, this strikes me as rather invasive. I take it as obvious that not every coworker should know about every other coworker’s personal life. I do not know if all of my colleagues share this opinion.

As mentioned above, I focus on faculty members’ role in the College community. Faculty members’ responsibilities fall into three broad categories: teaching, research, and service. Thus,
to know a faculty member in his/her professional capacity is to know his/her motivations and beliefs about his/her own teaching, research, and service. So, as a utopian ideal, every faculty member of a tight-knit community would have accurate information regarding every other faculty member’s motivations and beliefs regarding teaching, research, and service. Of course, a more realistic goal for a tight-knit community would only require most faculty members to have accurate information about majority opinions of the faculty regarding these three domains of faculty responsibility. Hereafter, I shall take this less utopian description of a tight-knit community as my working definition.

So, let’s simply take a loose-knit community as the negation of a tight-knit community: it’s a community in which no more than a few faculty members have accurate information about the majority opinions of faculty concerning teaching, service, and research. Note that a loose-knit community need not entail that every faculty member is completely ignorant of every other faculty member. For instance, a loose-knit community might consist of several tight-knit sub-communities who are unaware of other sub-communities’ institutional motivations and beliefs. One obvious loose-knit community that has this structure is one in which the only tight-knit sub-communities are departmental, but this is neither the only such loose-knit community of this kind, nor do I think it is the best of this kind.

Finally, there are some imprecise terms in these formulations. What counts as “many” and “few” faculty members? As it turns out, very little will hinge on this. Indeed, my arguments below will mostly work the extreme case of a loose-knit community in which no individual has knowledge of majority opinions among the faculty. One might also worry about how to characterize a “majority opinion.” Is it a simple majority or a supermajority or something else? However, in a realistic tight knit-community, we should not expect a faculty member to have anything more than imprecise knowledge, e.g. “A majority of faculty members believe that…, but some have argued to the contrary on the grounds that…,” even if they cannot quantify “majority” or how many are opposed.

2.    Do Tight-Knit Communities Improve Teaching?

In this post, I critique one argument for a tight-knit community. I conclude this post with a framework for generating other arguments in favor of tight-knit communities. In subsequent posts, I hope to criticize these arguments as well.

The following assumption animates much of what I say. Forming and maintaining loose-knit communities is less resource-intensive than forming and maintaining tight-knit communities. In short, in loose-knit communities, time and effort spent getting to know faculty opinions can be allocated to other pursuits. Hence, unless there must be sizable benefits to a tight-knit community in order to offset these costs. I shall argue that there is nothing so obviously beneficial of a tight-knit community that fits this job description. Hence, faculty members are under no obligation to form and maintain a tight-knit community.

I think it obvious that there is at least one aim shared by all College constituencies: the teaching of students. No other institutional aim enjoys this kind of consensus. As a result, an argument that tight-knit communities are an effective means of improving teaching would be especially persuasive. So, let us consider whether tight-knit communities produce better teaching than loose-knit communities in such a manner as to obligate faculty members to form and maintain such a community. (Spoiler alert: this argument does not work.)

One might think that if most faculty members knew what other colleagues were doing pedagogically, then everyone would have more resources for improving their own teaching. In short, there would be a repository of best practices that could be shared among the faculty. However, this rests on the following assumption, which I will call the Principle of Pedagogical Transferability (PPT):

A teaching practice successfully wielded by one liberal arts college professor in a particular class, discipline, etc. has a high probability of succeeding when wielded by another liberal arts college professor in a different class, discipline, etc. 

Ultimately, PPT is an empirical proposition that, to my knowledge, has not been confirmed, and would be difficult to confirm without clear methods of individuating teaching practices, classes, and pedagogical success. Indeed, my own experiences tell me that a teaching practice wielded by me in one philosophy class doesn’t have a high probability of being successful when wielded by me in another philosophy class. In slogan form: most pedagogy is local.

Since PPT is not obviously true, the question then becomes one of whether the resources allocated for achieving a tight-knit community are worth it given that the prospects of pedagogical improvement are uncertain. It seems to me that there can be reasonable disagreement about this. Hence, there is no obligation to participate in a tight-knit community on the (shaky) grounds that it will improve your teaching. Hence those who do not opt in to a tight-knit community have done nothing wrong or bad.

Furthermore, one might very well boost the probability in question by devoting more time and effort to getting to know only those faculty members who have teaching practices that look most relevant to one’s own. Hence, it may very well be that the best way to improve one’s teaching is to form tight-knit sub-communities, and to largely ignore what those in vastly different pedagogical contexts are doing. 

Thus, I conclude that the argument that tight-knit communities should be formed and maintained in order to improve teaching is unsound.

3.    A Look Ahead

As mentioned above, this is only one of several arguments in favor of tight-knit communities to consider (and in my case, criticize.) I conclude by providing a framework for generating other arguments of this sort. 

First, one may offer different definitions of a tight-knit community. I have opted for one that seems to impose relatively modest demands on the faculty, in the hopes that any shortcomings with this definition would apply, a fortiori, to more demanding conditions. However, since my arguments are of a cost-benefit variety, there may be a sweet spot where a more demanding conception of a tight-knit community would yield greater benefits. An interesting question is whether such conceptions are realistic or feasible. 

Second, one may challenge my claim that forming and maintaining loose-knit communities are less resource-intensive than tight-knit communities. I personally do not see how this could be defensible, but this may merely reflect a lack of imagination on my part.

Third, one may look for other potential benefits of tight-knit communities than their effects on teaching. I think that this is the most fruitful source of generating more arguments for tight-knit communities. Here, I briefly sketch a typology of such benefits. Above, I considered an argument in which tight-knit communities are a means to better teaching. However, tight-knit communities might be a means to other ends. Since I’m focusing on faculty’s obligations to contribute to a tight-knit community, it would be natural to explore arguments for tight-knit communities as a means to better research and better service. Additionally, it may be that a tight-knit faculty community does not serve the faculty’s ends, but serves some other College constituencies ends (such as the Trustees’, administration’s, staff’s, or students’). And, finally, it may be that tight-knit faculty communities are not a means to some further end, but are ends unto themselves. More on these arguments in the future.