But I’m still a happy academic, mostly

I have many other things I need to do (in the midst of teaching in the short spring term, minutes and notes from a meeting last week need to be written up and sent out, I have some writing about assessment I want to post here soon, etc.), but I thought I’d post briefly something I started this morning about a bummer of an article in Inside Higher Ed, “In for Nasty Weather.” It’s a long piece, but what it boils down to is the “academic life” is becoming a thing of the past as tenure disappears and as universities hire more and more adjuncts.

There is a similarly downbeat article in The Chronicle, by the way, this one titled “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges.”

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I largely agree with most of the article’s claims, and while I am generally not one of those “oh, the good old days” kind of people, I can say with some personal authority that things were “better” for me when I first came to EMU in the late 1990s, mostly because the institution still had some money to work with.  Hiring of tenure-track faculty in our department does seem to be trickier, and there’s lots of “administrative creep.”  The current political environment is obviously not that friendly to higher ed (tenure being generally under attack and so forth), there are lots of predictions of things like standardized testing in college, there are fewer tenure-track jobs, the value of “knowledge” and “education” in a wired/socially networked world is up for grabs, etc., etc.  These things are all very true and it is why I have been telling most students who ask about pursuing a PhD and an academic career that they shouldn’t.

But there are many other hands.

The crisis in higher education– particularly in terms of the declining number of tenure-track positions– is not exactly new, and, as the IHE points out, it is perhaps more the norm than the post World War II/GI Bil era of higher education.  The 1960s was not the way higher ed was supposed to be; all those hires and grown in higher ed was an anomaly.  Further, I work in a field– composition and rhetoric– that has relied on disenfranchised teachers (grad students, adjuncts, and other non-tenure-track-types) for… well, forever.  I’m not particularly crazy about the idea, but it isn’t exactly new.

It also seems to me that most of the dire predictions are for things happening at research 1 universities and more prestigious kinds of places, which, I think people too often forget, is not all of higher education.  I attended graduate school at “regional” universities and I’ve only worked at these kinds of places too, schools where faculty were expected to teach first and do scholarship second– albeit it a close second.  In any event, we’re not a prestigious, egotistical, tweed-wearing lot here at EMU, and I think that is largely true with most universities that have a direction in their title.

There’s also the micro-conditions of EMU and of my particular position in these state of affairs.  Because we’re a unionized faculty, I feel pretty secure job-wise– though I think at EMU the faculty union does a lot more to protect faculty than tenure, and we need to be on the look-out for Snyder and his crowd trying to end collective bargaining rights for public workers and others.  But besides that, I teach and do work that is probably going to be necessary and in demand for a long time.  As I’ve said before, what are they gonna make me do:  teach comp?

And while I think tenure is important and a completely legitimate privilege (and responsibility) of the job, I do worry that tenure is too often the last time that the institution has the opportunity to do any sort of job performance evaluation.  In the years I was “probationary,” I was observed two or three times a year and had to do extensive documentation to prove my worthiness to department committees, the department head, and beyond.  The year I went up for promotion, there was a mini-version of that all over again.  But I’ve been a tenured full professor for going on five years now, and I’m 45, meaning (knocking on whatever) that I am likely to be around here for another 25 or so years.  That’s a long time with no sort of performance review, and it’s also a long time to not be eligible for any sort of promotion– which is one of the wrong reasons why so many professors at places like EMU end up going into administration.

On at least one other hand and besides all that, all professions are changing, as the article points out.  Doctors don’t do house calls and and lawyers rarely have their own practices anymore.  I’m not saying those are good things either, but they are what they are.

None of this is to dismiss the warnings about the state of affairs in higher ed.  There are some huge problems here.  Besides these two stories that crossed my path today, I heard this morning on Morning Edition a story that’s part of series on young people and finance about college loan debt, which now exceeds the nation’s credit card debt.  I read yet another article about outsourcing grading (and then entire courses?) to India.  On and on.  Right now, it’s not a line of work I’d recommend for anyone starting out.

But it still beats shoveling coal, and if academia can respond in a way that’s responsible and not defensive/defiant/reactive, we might be able to contain these things.  And if the economy ever picks back up, well, I think folks will find other things to complain and/or worry about.

2 thoughts on “But I’m still a happy academic, mostly”

  1. Hi Steve–I appreciate your blog as it makes me feel connected to EMU, so, thanks. I hope all is well with you and EMU. About this issue, I had to comment because I am one of the newbies coming into this situation, granted, without a PhD. To me, tenure is not completely desirable, in that I don’t want to be stuck somewhere at this point, which I know might change with evolving circumstances. (As a side note: are we, as newbies, allowed to question the attractiveness and necessity of tenure? It seems blasphemous yet I think that is problematic, since we question everything else all the time. To me, it’s like owning your own home–which is still a pretty unquestioned goal–a touchstone that makes us feel like we’ve made it.)

    But my real point is, the rhetoric seems all-or-nothing regarding tenure and of course, unions. Some people I know blame unions for the downfall of the economy and propose an end to unions as some sort of panacea. In the same way, I am adjuncting while tenure opportunities are scaling back. Simplistically speaking, where is the middle ground? Surely unions can help a lot of workers and likewise we can give benefits to the “disenfranchised teachers” while maybe not granting full on review-proof tenure. In the same way that the housing bubble burst, we’ve built a system that is no longer sustainable. The answer is not bemoaning the loss of tenured positions, but creating a new system that serves the most possible people in a just manner. I’d really just like benefits, but many people pay for their own so who am I to complain?
    Thanks again for the forum.

  2. I agree with you on most of this, Natalie. There are a lot of pros and cons to the union at EMU, the biggest one to me being they’re always fighting for the floor: that is, it seems like the argument is what is the least we can do to keep our jobs tidy and secure. And there’s also something to be said about the problem of rank/tenure in terms of mobility because while tenure more or less means job security for the individual, it also means that individual faculty type almost certainly is locked into that job.

    But I also think that the two-tiered system of tenure-track (and empowered) faculty and non-tenure-track (and not empowered) faculty is very problematic. It might seem like an opportunity for non-tenure types, but the prospects of stepping up the ladder as an adjunct within academia are slim indeed.

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