Tenure, “A farewell to academia,” the journey to hell in a handbasket, and other problems of students not succeeding

I was not going to post about this at all since this article, “I’m Leaving” by John “not his real name” Smith, was in Inside Higher Ed almost a month ago and because I just am not that interested in the thoughts of yet another disgruntled college professor. But somehow, my holiday travels brought it up again for me.

We went to Iowa to be with my extended family of parents, sisters, their spouses, and their kids for Thanksgiving and an abbreviated Christmas. A good time was had by one and all, though at one point, the Republicans in the group went to another room to commiserate over the recent election.

And at one point, there was more interest than usual from my brothers-in-law about hiring in academia and this thing called “tenure.” I should point out that no one in my family (other than my wife, of course) knows anything about academia beyond their own experiences as college students 20 or more years ago, and all of these folks have had more immediate connections with the current economic downturn than I have. From their point of view, tenure was nothing more than a gimmick where people like me were guaranteed jobs. It was an interesting discussion for a variety of different reasons, but the one that struck me at the time was that this topic never came up when the economy was good. Suddenly, these (comparably) lower-paying academic/state government jobs look like a pretty good deal.

Anyway, I didn’t go into it all while watching Detroit lose again and family cheer, but I did point out the free speech aspect of it and that it was more complicated than that. In brief and in no particular order, here’s a few things I would have/should have said:

  • It is possible to be tenured and to be fired, though I will concede that it isn’t easy. But keep in mind that you’ve really got to prove yourself to get tenure and promotion, even at a less prestigious and less demanding place like EMU. In other words, faculty with tenure rarely get fired for doing a “bad job” because they have to demonstrate their abilities to do a really good job to get tenure in the first place. This also ties into the hiring process for professors, another discussion I had with one of my brothers-in-law: it takes a year to hire someone in my field because you’ve got to make dang sure you are hiring the absolute best person since you are liable to have to work with that person forever.
  • Tenure is a seniority system, meaning that if EMU did have to lay faculty-types off, they would first lay off part-timers and grad students, then lecturers, then non-tenured faculty, then tenured associates, and then the likes of me. As far as I can tell, this is no different than most other kinds of businesses where the most senior people have the best job security.
  • Lots of professions have something like tenure and/or a high degree of job security. A lot of K-12 school districts have a system of tenure not unlike higher ed, and I have always thought that college professors were more like “partners” in a law firm or a medical practice (though I don’t get a cut of the profits). Besides, I ultimately work for the government, which generally offers the same sort of trade-off of lower pay for higher job security.
  • I worked really really hard to get here– two degree programs past my undergrad, twenty years of teaching, publications and dozens of presentations. I’m a good teacher, a good colleague, and I have a modest national reputation in my field. I deserve it.

Anyway, on the 9 hour drive home yesterday, Annette and I were talking about all kinds of things, including work and including students who were not doing great. Were we failing these students? Were they failing themselves? It’s not a new discussion, though it’s one that tends to come up at this time of the school year where the realization that some students really will fail the term is extremely immediate.

The other side of this coin is that these students and the system are more or less failing us. Basically, the main reason why Smith quit his job is because of these sorts of failing students:

Professors and administrators seek to “nurture” and “engage” and they are doing so at the expense of teaching. The result: a discernable [sic] and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class.

It’s not just the students that are going to hell either. A little later in Smith’s article:

Today’s faculty and administrators capitulate to students’ demands in innumerable ways. They hold classes outside on sunny days, not really caring if there is no blackboard, or if the students are admiring each other instead of the texts to be dissected. They encourage students to think of college as a “comfortable” and “supportive” community, not as a means to acquire necessary skills. Far too many of my colleagues are dialing in – showing up late, popping in videos during class, assigning group projects, or sitting in a circle and asking students how they feel. Why they have abandoned classroom rigor is something that only they can answer. But one answer is simple – students flock to these popular classes, probably because they cater to the students’ worst sensibilities. Homework is minimal, or sometimes optional. Surprise quizzes are considered unfair. Late assignments are not failed. Some grades are even negotiable.

Not surprisingly, I think Smith is exaggerating both our students’ laziness and the faculty/administration’s response. I have lots of students who are working their asses off. I still give lots of homework, lower grades on late assignments, believe in rigor, etc., etc. It is a problem that universities are perhaps letting in more students than they ought to in an effort to make money. “Opportunity-granting” universities like EMU are always faced with a dilemma: what is the line between giving under-prepared students a chance to succeed and simply taking their money because they were never capable of doing the work in the first place?

Still, I think complaining about students (not to mention faculty, universities, and tenure) are kind of old news. I never tire of this passage from Isocrates’ Antidosis written 2400 years ago:

Yes, and you have brought it about that the most promising of our young men are wasting their youth in drinking-bouts, in parties, in soft living and childish folly, to the neglect of all efforts to improve themselves; while those of grosser nature are engaged from morning until night in extremes of dissipation which in former days an honest slave would have despised. You see some of them chilling their wine at the “Nine-fountains”; others, drinking in taverns; others, tossing dice in gambling dens; and many, hanging about the training-schools of the flute-girls.And as for those who encourage them in these things, no one of those who profess to be concerned for our youth has ever haled them before you for trial, but instead they persecute me, who, whatever else I may deserve, do at any rate deserve thanks for this, that I discourage such habits in my pupils.

Somehow, professors like Smith and Isocrates keep teaching these students year after year, and, even after teaching these students the same thing over and over and OVER, they still don’t get it. They still are interested in nothing but drinking, partying, and sex. Go figure.

Anyway, I’m not sure how this is all connected, but it somehow feels that way to me. There are certainly parts of the current economic downturn and the current state of academia as articulated by Smith and his ilk that are unique; but there is certainly also a feeling in the critique of tenure, the economy, and the sorry state of our students that feel a lot like something I’ve seen before.

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