Tenured heads in the sand?

18 11 2010

As I’ve sort of written before, I’m a major fan of the journalist (and occasional historian) Thomas Frank. It appears from this month’s Harper’s (no link as I’m working off my paper copy) that Frank is taking over Lewis Lapham’s old job and will be writing a column at the front of every issue.

The first one is worth the price of the magazine all by itself. It’s about the demise of newspapers, but it begins with a comparison between them and his old profession:

“Although it scarcely seems believable today, I originally came to journalism as a practical, responsible career move. It was the mid-1990s, I had just finished a Ph.D. in history, and I was toiling away as a lecturer at a college in Chicago. Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted. Friends of mine all told the same stories of low-wage toil, of lecturing and handing out A’s while going themselves without health insurance or enough money for necessities. Our tenured elders, meanwhile, could only rarely be moved to care. What was a predicament to us was a liberation to them-a glorious lifting of their burden to teach. For the university, which was then just then discovering the wonders of profit-making, it was something even more fabulous: a way to keep labor costs down.”

[Emphasis added]

Besides being beautifully worded, I think most of the above quote is right too. I think the highlighted part, however, attributes far too much agency to people like me who have far too little agency to deserve being displayed this prominently as part of the problem.

Since I loaned out my copy of Marc Bousquet’s book a long, long time ago and have yet to get it back, I’ll have to quote one of his best old blog posts in order to explain the real problem a little better:

Instead the “prof scam” turns out to be a shell game conducted by management, who keep a tenurable stratum around for marketing purposes and to generate funded research, but who are spread so thin with respect to undergraduate teaching that even the most privileged undergraduates spend most of their education with para faculty working in increasingly unprofessional circumstances.

Historiann has been writing about that cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida in a 600 person class. With no intention of excusing what strikes me as the classic example of the lazy professor, do you think he actually wanted to teach a 600-person class? Do you see a huge flood of tenured faculty members dying for the opportunity to teach online? I certainly don’t.

Perhaps Frank was right about what tenured faculty thought about the adjunctification of the academic labor market in the mid-1990s, but if they still feel that way now they are either right near retirement or extremely short-sighted.

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10 responses

18 11 2010
Historiann

This is funny–I once contemplated a career as a journalist (although I never did anything about it), and a good friend of mine in grad school was a former reporter whose colleagues all thought he was completely nutz to go get a Ph.D. in history. In his case, all of his friends at the Hartford Courant have been laid off, and he’s tenured now, so who’s to say his was the riskier path?

I don’t think the guy at UCF himself chose to teach a class with 600 students in it. I thought my post made it clear that the big cheat seems to belong to UCF, and perhaps to the business college there. My post today suggests that large classes are de rigeur in business schools–which might be why their faculty can spend all of that extra time consulting and running moneymaking schemes for themselves and for their unis. The casualization of academic labor is a problem everywhere–but it appears that there are vastly different scales on which this is happening.

18 11 2010
Jonathan Rees

Historiann:

Indeed, you did make it clear. I was just thinking of your post as I wrote this one as another illustration of the bad conditions that even the most senior of us face. Certainly, contingent faculty have it worse, but the corporate university is no picnic for anyone (except for maybe presidents and football coaches).

18 11 2010
Historiann

Cool. I should add: I think Frank is wrong about the beneficiaries of the casualization of faculty labor. He seems to think that it’s the senior generation of faculty who benefit, whereas I’ve not seen that in any of the departments I’ve taught in. In fact, it’s the “young turks” from the mid- to late-1900s and early 2000 (like you and me, I think) who have benefited most. For example, the teaching load at CSU was 3-2 until the late 1990s, when it dropped to a 2-2. But, some of my senior colleagues continued to teach a 3-2, AND do a lot of the service, while we young’uns achieved tenure. Now that generation of faculty have all retired, and no one among the regular faculty teaches a 3-2. (We are, however, pretty productive research-wise.)

But in any case, it’s not even we formerly-young faculty who benefit most from the casualization of academic labor. (After all, those of us on the regular faculty are doing more with less because we’ve seen our TT ranks shrink.) The real beneficiaries are the ones making these decisions in the first place: the Deans, Provosts, and other administrators who choose to permit us to replace a retiring tenured full professor who made $70,000 with a lecturer teaching a 4-4 load for $30,000. We departments aren’t the ones making those decisions, because we certainly aren’t the ones who see that $40,000+ in savings.

18 11 2010
Alan Trevithick

I think the issue now is whether or not you’d like to see your profession survive. I gather you personally are ok, which is nice, because perhaps you have a bit of energy to lend a hand? When you have this sort of hand-washing response – “We departments aren’t the ones making those decisions, because we certainly aren’t the ones who see that $40,000+ in savings”one wants to ask “we departments”? Well, it’s “we” your adjunct and contingent colleagues who are doing all the work in “your” departments. Where were you for the last three decades when this was all unfolding? Time for a little soul-searching. Help out, unless that will interfere with your peaceful retirement.

19 11 2010
Historiann

Alan–

Thirty years ago I was in seventh grade. Do you seriously think that the tenured faculty have led the way on the adjunctification of higher ed? How does it benefit us, exactly, when the burden of service is distributed ever more heavily on us alone? Do you think that we make these decisions? I can assure you that these decisions were made for the profit and convenience of those far above my pay grade. Every faculty I’ve been a part of has resisted the casualization of academic labor, but we’re not the ones who get to decide.

it’s “we” your adjunct and contingent colleagues who are doing all the work in “your” departments. Oh, yeah: We tenured faculty just crack the whip every once in a while. I don’t do any teaching, research, or service.

Your hyperventilations don’t help your case here.

19 11 2010
The origins of the casualization of academic labor : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[...] Jonathan Rees draws our attention to comments by Thomas Frank in a recent issue of Harper’s (sorry–no link) about why he left academia to pursue a career as an independent writer and journalist: “Although it scarcely seems believable today, I originally came to journalism as a practical, responsible career move. It was the mid-1990s, I had just finished a Ph.D. in history, and I was toiling away as a lecturer at a college in Chicago. Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted. Friends of mine all told the same stories of low-wage toil, of lecturing and handing out A’s while going themselves without health insurance or enough money for necessities. Our tenured elders, meanwhile, could only rarely be moved to care. What was a predicament to us was a liberation to them-a glorious lifting of their burden to teach. For the university, which was then just then discovering the wonders of profit-making, it was something even more fabulous: a way to keep labor costs down.” [...]

19 11 2010
Jonathan Rees

I think we should ignore our petty differences and join together to fight the Romans. Hopefully, we all know who the Romans are in this analogy.

19 11 2010
Professorial candid camera. « More or Less Bunk

[...] while we’re talking about the comparative oppression of contingent faculty, this stands as another pretty good example of why their position will always be worse than mine. [...]

20 11 2010
Alan Trevithick

Historiann-didn’t mean to suggest that you did it all yourself, and starting at such a tender age. Don’t notice any offer to help out either. Am not hyperventilating but, again, do you want your profession to survive or not? If so, stop with the “we’re not the ones who get to decide” and try doing something about it. And if you don’t care, just admit it. And I’m sorry you work so hard—the adjunct and contingent labor that are doing the same teaching you are doing are getting on average per course about 1/3 of what you’re getting and no or very low benefits. Or is that just me hyperventilating? BTW, I’m with J. Rees here-don’t forget who the Romans are here-and fight

29 11 2010
How to make yourself obsolete. « More or Less Bunk

[...] 29 11 2010 My new favorite blog, ProfHacker, tackles an issue that Historiann and I were discussing before the break: the “cheating” scandal at the University of Central Florida. Neither of us is [...]

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