Your scholarship won’t pay their bills.

11 02 2012

Judging from the number of mentions in my Twitter feed, this appears to be the blog post of the weekend. It describes a question from the Grafton-Lemisch jobs for historians session at last month’s AHA:

The very first question from the floor came from a historian who was also an administrator at a small regional college — the college president, if I am not mistaken, though I didn’t write it down in my notes and so I couldn’t swear to it. Anyhow, coming from a small department at a small school, this questioner had served on every search and been a part of every hiring committee for history professors at his institution since his arrival there.

Here is part of what he had to say about why history PhDs are having trouble finding jobs: “A large percentage of the graduates from your programs are not really worth looking at.” Out of scores of applications, this commenter said, “maybe the top ten percent are head and shoulders above the rest,” and the rest do not seem to be qualified for academic work period. He said that PhD programs are producing sub-par scholars. “And,” he concluded, “I haven’t heard any of you address this.”

My first inclination was to think that the author of that post must have misheard something, but then I remembered this guest post from the Professor Is In that made me cringe in the exact same way:

The administration did not waste time wringing its hands and piously invoking our teaching mission. “Teaching mission?” Please. That’s for the public. As they told the department in no uncertain terms, active scholars make the best teachers. Indeed, they promptly took the opportunity to chastise the “teaching first” crowd, publicly, that their tenure cases would be at risk if they didn’t step it up and publish more themselves.

The message was very clear: anyone can teach, and the administration is tired of professors who come here, settle into teaching and then do a minimal level of research and service both. The research-centric post-2009 hire, by contrast, are competitive with junior faculty at higher ranked schools with lower teaching burdens. Apparently, this boosts the campus’s standing with the state, which brings more money in, which makes administrators happy.

I happen to love doing research. It’s fun. It’s useful. It’s the reason I have a sabbatical coming up in the fall. I actually agree that active scholars make the best teachers. If you can’t do research, how will explain to your students where historical knowledge originates? if you can’t write well, how will you teach your students to write? Yet in the end, the vast majority of us have to be teachers first and scholars second. Nobody would ever pay me do research if I couldn’t teach. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be contributing to the university’s revenue stream.

Notice the similarity between those two accounts. Both locate the scholarship-first position among administrators. You’d think that administrators would know better. After all, your scholarship won’t pay their bills. Students don’t pay tuition to watch you work in the library.

Call me paranoid, but I have a theory. I think the cringe-inducing implicit and explicit belittling of teaching on display here is camouflage. Your scholarship is the best way possible to put lipstick on the pig that is our glorious online future. “See we are a real university!,” they’ll tell the prospective parents who’ll be paying most of the tuition bills. Then they’ll farm their online curriculum out to adjuncts and the 90% of new Ph.D.s who don’t “deserve” tenure-track jobs because these unworthy souls don’t do work that gets the kind of attention they need to put their evil plan into place. Your scholarship won’t pay their bills, but it will serve as an excellent fig leaf to cover the exploitive system that will.

Scholarly superstars, are you going turn a blind eye to this exploitive system? In the age of austerity, research time is a luxury that they’ll eventually feel comfortable eradicating for everyone. If I’m right, your scholarship eventually won’t pay your bills either.

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3 responses

11 02 2012
Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

[...] Your scholarship won’t pay their bills. [...]

12 02 2012
Matt_L

“A large percentage of the graduates from your programs are not really worth looking at.” Out of scores of applications, this commenter said, “maybe the top ten percent are head and shoulders above the rest,” and the rest do not seem to be qualified for academic work period. He said that PhD programs are producing sub-par scholars. “And,” he concluded, “I haven’t heard any of you address this.”

Wow. I don’t get this comment. I really don’t. I think that there is a lot of scholarship out there that is mechanistic and derivative, but its published in journals and monographs for major University Presses. There is a lot of stuff that I find uninteresting. But these are my personal observations, a matter of individual taste. It does not mean the work is ‘sub-par.’

I think that the quality of scholarship by graduate students has been increasing in the last ten years. There are some boring topics, but the technical chops are great.

19 02 2012
Best Reads of the Week 2-19 « Political Ennui

[...] Your scholarship won’t pay their bills. [...]

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