Waking yourself up: the liberatory potential of critical university studies.

Author:Arthur, Mikaila Mariel Lemonik
Position:Teaching Critical University Studies

In Fall 2012, Mikaila had the opportunity to develop a new course on higher education as part of a new general education program at Rhode Island College. Rhode Island College is a public comprehensive college enrolling a diverse population of primarily commuter and first-generation students. Our new general education program requires students to take an upper-level course which is comparative across period, place, or perspective, and thus Mikaila chose to design an interdisciplinary course which would show how people from different perspectives-including higher education professionals--think about aspects of higher education.

This course was designed to help students think critically about their own experiences as students and to develop a sense of self-efficacy in shaping their educations. It also included a considerable focus on the practical organization of our own college, a focus that enabled students to learn to "debunk commonplace views" and work against or outside "academic practice as usual" (Williams 2012) by questioning what they took for granted about their own experience and their own institution. The realist perspective of critical university studies provides, as Williams writes, "a content" in which to "teach the conflicts," "one that has immediate relevance to our students in their own lives, as well as to their understanding of our society." How much more immediately relevant can a course be than one in which students have the opportunity to investigate and interrogate the very structures shaping the education they are in the midst of pursuing?

This paper is designed as a conversation between Mikaila and Scott, one of the students who enrolled in the course the first time it was offered, in Spring 2014. Scott is now a graduate student in sociology. By developing a sustained, paper-length conversation about the course, we hope to provide a sense of the liberatory potential of critical university studies as a pedagogical practice.

Mikaila: On the first day of class, I asked students to introduce themselves and to tell the group the thing they found most annoying about our college. The answers to this question may not have generally been surprising (many comments involved parking woes and bureaucratic hurdles), but this beginning made clear to students that our class was a different kind of endeavor--one that took their struggles seriously. As I told students that very first day, our course would try to develop an understanding of why those annoying things happen. Though I did not explain it this way on the first day of class, considering the contexts which generate such annoyances can be a crucial window onto larger power structures. For example, parking would not be such a problem in a context in which reliable, accessible public transportation were available to get students to class, yet public transportation is often a sacrificial lamb in local and state politics due to its role in serving the poor and working class.

I also asked students why we go to college, and we had an interesting conversation about vocationalization, general education, and students' motivations. Most of the students in the room were quite clear that their purpose in going to college was to improve their labor-market outcomes. Many of my working-class students did not have parents with four-year college degrees; even those who came from middle-class backgrounds often had parents who had succeeded as small business owners. They saw, as many students do, a college education as a ticket to a more stable and prosperous life than the one their parents had. While a college degree certainly gives individuals a much better chance of economic success than they would have without further education (Hout 2012), the bachelor's degree is no guarantee. One of the issues we returned to again and again throughout the semester was what students need to do to increase the chances that their degree will pay off, strategies that come as second nature to many privileged students but which often remain mysterious to those from working-class backgrounds (Rivera 2015).

Scott: What Mikaila did not ask on that first day is why students chose to take the course, as the answer for most would have been that it fulfilled a requirement and fit in their schedule. Since most students were taking the class to fulfill a course requirement, I was probably the anomaly, picking the course for another reason. Earlier in the first semester of my junior year at Rhode Island College, I was enrolled in Mikaila's research methods course. What I enjoyed most in this course was Mikaila's ability to showcase the often paradoxical conflicting ends in sociological research, giving credence to not only her preferences but showcasing all approaches in an objective light. When she mentioned to our class that she would be teaching a course more closely related to her research interests on higher education, I saw it as an opportunity to learn from the "source," so to speak, about a topic and interest area she was passionate and most knowledgeable about. Further, the course's title Comparative Perspectives on Higher Education encapsulated the aspect I enjoyed most about Mikaila's approach as well as offering a challenge to learning more about the paradoxical nature of the higher education system, one that I had thought I was familiar with as a college junior. What also piqued my interest in this course was that I knew that Mikaila had constructed the course herself, and I had some idea--despite my limited knowledge--that being able to develop a general education course focused on one's own research and political interests could be quite difficult within the bureaucratic structures of the higher education system. I felt like it would be the best combination of sociological inquiry and an opening awareness that could be meaningfully applied in my day-to-day interactions, decisions, and thoughts while within a higher education institution.

My first impression upon reading the course's syllabus was being surprised by the large periods of class sessions in which speakers from different administrative roles within the college would come and discuss their professional functions. This included practical academic and institutional resources like a reference desk librarian and staff from student support services as well as what I assumed were more mundane positions like the director of campus dining services and director of athletics. At first, this seemed a bit out of place compared to Mikaila's normal lecturing and group discussion style, and I had little interest learning more about our institution's dining hall and sports (although later on these ended up being the more interesting discussions). I distinctly remember having anxiety when, as part of the course's assignments tied to weekly readings, I was told we were to construct questions to ask these administrators directly when they came to discuss their role in class.

However, these discussions with administrators shed quite a bit of light on the institutional processes in which our education is embedded. We were able to see first-hand the political posturing of the administration as they worked to protect their normally unquestioned positions. For example, an administrator with dining services came to discuss his role and the role of the dining services division within our school's structure. We learned that the on-campus dining services were a for-profit agency, as are other auxiliary enterprises (Ehrenberg 2000); subsequently, the college has privatized its bookstore, with little discussion of the costs of privatization. Upon learning this, more general questions about the quality of the food became insignificant, and I turned my attention to how a for-profit agency wedges itself into a public education institution. I thus began connecting dots to the lived experience of students to observe that it is weird that each residential student is required to buy an outrageously overpriced food package and that students, at the end of the semester, have to buy cases of soda (20+) or other unneeded...

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