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Reviewed by:
  • Teaching at the People's University
  • Stan Carpenter
Bruce B. Henderson. Teaching at the People's University. San Francisco: Anker, 2006. 208 pp. Paper: $36.00. ISBN-13: 978-1933371108.

Stereotypes are anathema to the thoughtful—for good reason. They trap the unwary into superficial analysis and premature actions. But, not infrequently, they became stereotypes because they reflect truth, sometimes a lot of truth. This book can be summarized most easily as a fairly solid analysis and defense of many stereotypical ideas about what the author calls "state comprehensive universities (SCUs)" with a few challenges of other superficial generalizations. As such, it is most useful for faculty members considering employment at such institutions and secondarily for scholars of higher education as a sort of primer on the views of the general faculty.

The author, a professor of psychology, who has done his homework on general higher education literature—and on some of the specialized areas—begins with a definition of the institutions he wishes to treat and moves fairly quickly to a thumbnail history. He asserts that SCUs are the heirs of normal schools and other forms of regional, more community-based colleges and universities. Because of these roots, SCUs are likely to be regional in nature, to emphasize applied programs for a nonelite student body, focus on teaching, have an expansive mission, and have low status.

For these and other reasons, Henderson lays claim to the term "People's University," arguing that the real democratization of higher education is due to these institutions rather than to the label's previous holder: the land grant universities. Indeed, he breaks all schools down into research/doctoral, liberal arts, community colleges, and SCUs. In this taxonomy, SCUs are medium to large, state and tuition supported, not very selective, regional, vocational, and teaching oriented, with a moderate focus on athletics, but usually not appearing at the highest levels of the NCAA.

With the stage set, the book then spends several chapters in analyzing issues and environmental factors. The first aspect treated is the quest for prestige and status, quixotic at such schools for reasons that reflect some of the truer stereotypes—teaching loads, infrastructure, history, lack of a critical mass of researchers, and applied disciplines. The new and interesting piece is Henderson's suggestion that SCUs should focus on reputation instead of prestige. In other words, forgo mission creep (or at least hold it to a minimum and only in a few well-chosen areas) and do what the university does very well.

One way to frame this approach is using more expansive views of scholarship. At this point, Henderson launches into a bit of an ill-considered attack on the new emphasis on research at SCUs as the principal criterion for tenure and promotion by denigrating much of scholarship as busy work and using questionable and somewhat dated data to suggest that few professors publish except at a small handful of universities. The polemics are unnecessary to his point, which is that faculty members at SCUs might actually have more freedom and space to "do interesting things" (p. 76) that are scholarly, such as editing and reviewing, new forms of teaching, and pedagogical research, among other things.

A clever notion in this chapter is the idea of "consumatory" scholarship, in the sense of absorption—or the process of soaking up the information and experience-based expertise that makes one a true scholar. He contrasts it with the forced production of one kind of scholarship that is eligible to be counted. This idea further feeds into a longer view of productivity featuring different kinds of scholarship at various points in the career.

The following chapter on academic life discusses more differences between and among institutional types in terms of teaching, service, research, and collegiality. Unaddressed, by the way, is the notion of intraclass variation that can overwhelm interclass differences. Still, there are some nuggets here. Henderson makes a telling point that the adjustment of recent graduates to the professoriate is more difficult at SCUs than any of the other types of institutions simply because the new professor has no real understanding of what he or she is getting into. Henderson lays...


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pp. 178-179
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