Robert Elder

Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University

Practicing Affection in the Academy

Full 03072014 berry

Opponents of MOOCs and the "adjunctification" of higher education ended 2013 riding high on a wave of righteous indignation and schadenfreude. First, there was the acknowledgment by Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, that his company will retool itself to focus on corporate education in light of its well-known failures in the higher education sector. Next, there was the heartbreaking story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an elderly (and, it now appears, mentally troubled) adjunct at Duquesne University who died a lonely death after the job she loved was slowly reduced to nothing.

Those developments have alternately provoked glee and anger among academics who value traditional modes of instruction—a professor (preferably with job security), in a classroom (preferably one with chairs), with students (preferably with names and faces). But while it's easy to say "I told you so" to innovators and administrators, and deeply satisfying to see the failures of our academic labor system laid out with verve and wit, these stories also highlight a failure on the part of those pointing fingers to present a compelling case for why these developments in higher education were misguided in the first place.

Those of us who think online education can never fully replicate the real thing and those of us who advocate fair pay and fair treatment for adjunct faculty have been fighting a two-front war. Against MOOCs, we argue that in-person, small-scale instruction is essential. And then, faced with the widespread use of adjuncts to fulfill that requirement, we fall back on a different set of arguments about the benefits of tenure and the horrors of adjuncting as a way of life.

Unable to articulate the principles that dictate our traditional approach, we are left arguing against every new innovation and every diminution of tradition in a piecemeal fashion that justly provokes charges of obstructionism and privilege from those trying to solve real problems. Rather than inspiring smug self-satisfaction or rage, the failures of MOOCs and the immiseration of adjuncts should make us ask: Why is it that we do what we do in the way that we do it?

The Importance of Affection

I recently found one answer to that question in a somewhat unexpected place. Last year the poet, writer, and aging agrarian radical Wendell Berry gave a lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The talk was titled "It All Turns on Affection." Rehearsing the well-known problems facing American society, Berry traced the roots of the current ecological crisis, the increasing corporatization and alienation of modern life, and even the recent financial crisis, to a loss of affection—a sentiment, Berry argued, that if properly cultivated can save us from ourselves.

The crux of Berry's argument is that people are limited beings. They will only properly understand and care for those things they can readily imagine, things that fall within the scope of individual experience. Our current predicament is mainly due to the scale of modern life and the disappearance of the circumstances in which imagination and sympathy, the wellsprings of affection, can flourish. Most importantly, Berry argues it is only on the basis of these local affections that “we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world.” Berry is mainly concerned with the problems that accompany industrial capitalism. But over the last year I have considered how his ideas might apply to my own profession as an academic. In what follows I'd like to consider the ways in which an ethic of affection could reshape the world of higher education during a time of dizzying change.

The Industrial Academy

In his talk, Berry decried the proliferation, in the last century or so, of what he calls "statistical knowledge.” "Human life has become less creaturely and more engineered, less familiar and more remote from local places, pleasures, and associations," Berry said. "Our knowledge, in short, has become increasingly statistical."

The American research university has, of course, been at the forefront of that development. One has only to read sociologist Max Weber's essay, "Science as Vocation" (a founding document of modern higher education first delivered as a lecture in 1918), alongside Berry's address, to understand the vast gulf between them. Weber invoked the distinction between "fact" and "value" to argue that the duty of a teacher should be only to impart facts, not values, to students. (He did accept as a matter of course that facts might challenge students' values.) "The task of the teacher," Weber argued, "is to serve the students with his knowledge and scientific experience and not to imprint upon them his personal political views."

Few of the educators I know, including myself, would disagree with that statement, and yet it is also clear that in Weber's warning against the "personal" and his emphasis on "fact" lies the very essence of the abstraction that Berry fears, and on which he blames our current predicament.

Over the course of the twentieth century the production of statistical knowledge became the main goal of the research universities that train PhDs. This required increasing levels of specialization within disciplines that became increasingly disconnected from each other—a familiar pattern of production in modern industrial societies. My point here is not to attack the modern research university and its undeniable accomplishments. The point is that modern academics, at least in my own discipline, have internalized the distinction between facts and values to an extent that makes a coherent critique of things like MOOCs and adjunct labor nearly impossible.

Trained to produce and deliver "facts," even in humanistic disciplines, we are defenseless when innovators propose more "efficient" and cost-effective modes of instruction and content delivery. Trained to guard against the "personal" in our professional lives, we are uncomfortable invoking it in our defense. Yet we often do so anyway, instinctively if incoherently. We fall back on appeals to tradition and sympathy, we point to the impersonality of MOOCs and the injustices associated with adjunct labor to justify what we should be able to argue for on its own merits.

Affection in Higher Education

What would adopting an ethic of affection in higher education look like, and why is it important? In many ways, it wouldn't look significantly different from what academe, at its best, already is today. Higher education in this form predates and has coexisted uneasily with the rise of the research university. Andrew Delbanco, in his recent book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (you can read an excerpt here), argues that higher education in many ways should do what it once did, only expanded to include a much larger and more diverse swath of the population.

Delbanco describes a traditional model of education that is eminently worth defending. As he notes, "Genuinely new educational ideas are rare." He traces the origins of the American college—of learning as a collaborative endeavor between teachers and students living and working together in one community—all the way back to Socrates. He follows that theme through the Puritans, and on through John Dewey. Centuries after the Puritans established Harvard on similar principles, Dewey wrote that education was "a mode of social life" in which "the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of work and thought."

In other words, the American college experience was once rooted in assumptions very similar to those Berry describes as essential for the cultivation of affection, imagination, and empathy. Those centuries of assumptions have been discarded only in the last few decades, but without those assumptions, true education, synonymous with what Berry calls a "responsible relationship with the world," is impossible. And yet, because most of us have accepted the separation of knowledge from its traditional sources—personal, geographic, religious—we find ourselves unable to mount a coherent response to their loss.

To take only the two examples I started with, an ethic of affection would dictate that students must be taught by professors and learn alongside peers with whom they can form relationships. We all know adjuncts who manage to be wonderful teachers despite the odds, but an ethic of affection would resist the reduction of a human being to a conduit for content delivery as an injustice to student and teacher alike. Online learning and MOOCs might be in some ways less obviously offensive on this front, but the very scale and abstraction of these innovations violate a bedrock requirement—that for any true learning and growth to occur, an education must conform itself to human limits and relationships.

There is, of course, one potential (and potent) objection to adopting an ethic of affection in the academy: that affection is a luxury. In other words, that it does little for those without access to traditional higher education.

The purveyors of MOOCs have sold them as a way to extend the benefits of higher education beyond the brick and mortar walls of traditional colleges to those who can't afford or can't access those institutions. But as we are now beginning to understand, MOOCs and other forms of online education fail to accomplish that goal. The godfather of the MOOC movement, Sebastian Thrun, recently acknowledged the dismal failure of his online platform Udacity in reaching the underprivileged and underserved students that were ostensibly its target audience. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal confirms that most of the students who enroll in MOOCs are already well-off and well-educated.

And as an article in Salon pointed out, MOOCs were proposed as a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. There is no crisis of access to higher education in America; there is a crisis of retention. More high-school students than ever are enrolling, but fewer and fewer of them are graduating. MOOCs, with an average completion rate of less than 7 percent, aren't a solution to that problem.

Fostering affection is the solution. We know that already, but we haven't had a name or an overarching principle to bind together the multitudes of studies that show that in-person instruction, faculty-student interaction, small class sizes, and residential campuses all contribute to student persistence. (Take this 2006 report, "What Matters to Student Success," from the National Center for Education Statistics.)

The next obstacle to the affection agenda is cost, and here the objections are real and not easily dismissed. As Delbanco notes, "The educational premise is simple: a class should be small enough to permit every student to participate in the give-and-take of discussion. The economics are simple too: the lower the ratio between students and faculty (especially tenured faculty), the higher the cost." He does not pretend to solve this problem, but he provides several justifications for why the cost is worthwhile, including the necessity of informed citizens in a democracy: "It is a nightmare society that affords the chance to learn and grow only to the wealthy, brilliant, or lucky few."

This is where Berry's argument for the necessity of affection can be of great use. Instead of arguing for the benefits of affection, Berry argues for it as an absolute necessity, a kind of natural law that cannot be transgressed without dire consequences. The fight to preserve the most precious parts of the traditional college experience is also a fight to preserve and build what Berry calls a "neighborly, kind, and conserving economy." It's a fight to preserve, in Berry's view, the world itself.

Places to Practice Affection

Here, somewhat unexpectedly, American higher education may have something to offer Berry, as well. He is often hailed as an impractical prophet of place who advocates that everyone move back to the family farm, as he did. For most Americans, of course, that is impossible. What is needed, even required, is a place—and it must be an actual place, where physical and emotional attachments can be formed—for modern Americans to learn and practice affection.

As places and experiences, American colleges and universities are uniquely suited to serve this vital need. They are some of the oldest and most stable places in our peripatetic society. They are often places with unique cultures born of their long history and stability. They are places where for four (or more) years, undergraduates get to experience the reality of community in a way they may never find again.

Unsurprisingly, then, these special places where we experience community and form relationships inspire nostalgia and fierce loyalty. They also serve as nurseries for the cultivation of affection, in the sense that Berry uses it, and it is this essential experience that students take with them into the world.

With all of that in mind, the question becomes not "How can we pay for this?" but instead: "How can we not?"

Image: Wendell Berry. Creative Commons licensed photograph by Guy Mendes.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.