Three things that could (maybe) change the academic job market in small, medium, and large ways

I’m still procrastinating on getting ready for the start of the winter term (we call it winter and not spring here– and for good reason– and it starts next week), and for whatever reason, I can’t quite let go of trying to respond to the kind of rage about the terrible academic job market I talked about a couple posts ago. I’m not sure why; maybe because it’s just rage and complaining without any suggestion for a solution. Ask these folks who are complaining about the unfairness of the job market/tenure “what do you want?” and the main answer seems to be “a job that leads to tenure;” in other words, they want to become part of the problem as they see it. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, in thinking this all over while I continue to be (quasi) snowed-in and before I get started actually working on things for next week, I thought I’d write about three things that aren’t solutions but what might be tangible things academia really could do that could help make the academic job market a little more humane in the short, medium, and longer term. You will note that none of these ideas are “increase government funding of higher education so we can hire more faculty;” I think that’s a pretty futile project, though the folks at the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education do have some interesting ideas. And you will also note that I am not suggesting something abstract like “make ‘the Humanities’ matter to students and others” either.

Small thing: eliminate face to face interviews from MLA (and similar conferences) and use tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and other conferencing software to screen job candidates.  The face to face MLA screening interview is a legacy of a pre-cell phone/pre-internet era where live and reliable long distance was sometimes dicy, never mind video conferencing.  We do not need to do this anymore and the MLA ought to discourage it rather than profit off of it– which it clearly does now.

A lot of my friends and colleagues (particularly in literature) disagree with this. Some of them will be at MLA next week, awkwardly sitting on beds in hotel rooms or at strangely narrow tables in an enormous ballroom to meet a dozen or more interviewees, each of them for a twenty to thirty minute interview. I think the “pro-MLA interview” wisdom is you can just get a lot more information from a candidate if you see them in person– the body language, the way they carry themselves, their body odor, etc.

I suppose that’s true, but at what cost? We ask job candidates to spend hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars to have the honor of participating in a brief interview where the odds that it will lead to something more significant are slim.  In fields where the market is especially tight and candidates only have one or two interviews (and that’s pretty much all of them at MLA), that’s ridiculous.  It reminds me of publishing scams: send us your novel and we’ll publish it for only $1000! No wonder why so many people are so bitter!

So sure, conducting interviews via Skype or a related technology is not as “immersive” of an experience as actually being with someone in the same room; but as far as I can tell, that’s the only downside. The upside?

  • It’s essentially free– both for interviewing committees and job candidates. All you need are a couple of laptops with cameras and an internet connection.
  • It’s a lot less stressful because it doesn’t involve a lot of travel to and from a conference and/or sitting around a hotel room/a ballroom.  And this is true for both interviewers and interviewees: by far the worst experience I ever had at MLA was when I was on a search committee way back when at Southern Oregon and we interviewed at MLA. Awful.
  • Skype interviews can be done on much shorter notice because of these two previous reasons. If the UC-Riverside English department decided to do Skype interviews with only a few days notice instead of holding MLA interviews, there would not have been this particular  “rage” against the academic machine.
  • Add all of these things up and I think you get to the biggest advantage of the Skype/online interview: it is humane.
  • Finally, a Skype interview yields exactly the same information you would have in a face to face interview because it is a face to face interview.

Tangent: Some tips I’d pass along based on my experiences with Skype interviews in the past:

  • Both the interview committee and the candidate have to have a rock solid internet connection in a reasonably quiet place. We conducted interviews on campus not because it was so comfortable and professional but because we knew the internet connection was more reliable than it would be at someone’s house. I strongly encouraged candidates to be at their campus during the interviews too.
  • Lighting and sound matters. You want to be in a pretty well-lit place that is quiet. As the search committee, we were in a classroom on a quiet floor with the door closed, and I think that worked reasonably well; we had a few candidates who used a headset/microphone set-up, and that was probably a pretty good idea.
  • Worry some about what’s in the background, but don’t worry too much. What I mean is you don’t want to have anything behind you that looks kind of strange obviously, but I think some folks tried to stage it too much. So not a big sloppy mess, but it’s not essential that you have a lot of well-ordered books behind you either.
  • Everyone has to be a little more patient and accepting of the technology. We’re all used to that when talking on cell phones to folks already; you just have to extend that patience to this format.  Sometimes, the connection is shitty; sometimes, you have to reconnect; sometimes, you have to repeat things. It’s not a big deal, especially if you prepare for it ahead of time. Which leads to my last tip:
  • Schedule the interviews with plenty of time in-between for both unforeseen problems and technical mess-ups. They will happen.


So what I’d like to see is for the MLA (and perhaps other similar organizations) to stop renting out ballroom space for interviewing and to officially discourage interviewing in hotel rooms. Just stop the whole thing and provide some basic instructions and guidelines for things like Skype.

Medium-sized thing: Unionize at all levels.  I’m talking graduate assistant unions, part-timer unions, non-tenure-track but full-time unions, and faculty unions. Everybody in academia– other than the administrators, I assume.

As a faculty person, I’ve always been in a union. My first experience with it at Southern Oregon was very low-key, but at EMU, The EMU-AAUP looms large in the lives of faculty and administrators and it has been a key part of academic life here since the 1970s.  Full-time lecturers and part-time instructors are also unionized on campus, as is pretty much everyone else– secretaries, the police, “professional-technical” employees, etc.– again, everyone other than administrators aka “management.”

Now, unionization in general and the EMU-AAUP in particular are far far from a perfect solution.  I am not really a “rah-rah union forever” kind of guy, even though I’ve always supported my union to authorize a strike and what-not. But I get frustrated with the union a lot. I don’t like that it has to sometimes defend some indefensible colleagues (though I understand why they have to sometimes take on this “public defender” role). I think the union spends too much time “fighting for the floor”– that is, instead of setting up guidelines for tenure and promotion that promote excellence, it too often feels like “what’s the least amount people can get away with here?” There are some tensions between the different “bargaining units” because what the faculty want and what the lecturers/part-timers want are not always the same thing, and that goes as well for the non-academic and unionized units. I don’t like that the union rarifies and exaggerates the distance between the faculty and the administration. For example, at EMU, we don’t have “department chairs,” a member of the faculty who is in charge of the department. Rather, we have “department heads,” who are not members of the faculty union and they are hired by and serve at the pleasure of the dean. In practice, department heads are also tenured professors in the department and they’re hired with significant input from faculty, but in theory, the dean could put whoever he or she wants into the job.

And of course unionization of faculty probably wouldn’t work at elite institutions where there is a “star system” at play. I think the union does a good job of making things like salary, benefits, and tenure fair and clear for everyone, but this probably wouldn’t work in a system where these things are intentionally unclear because part of the point is to give Professor Fancy-Pants a much better deal than Associate Professor So-So.

Anyway, even with all of these problems, organized labor (in academia at least) is probably a lot like Churchill’s take on democracy: it’s the worst system, except for all of the others.

At EMU and in my experience, the basic benefit of the union is it establishes the rules for work and it it provides the faculty– and the administration, frankly– a structure for things like salary and benefits, teaching load, working conditions, faculty conduct, and (and this is the big one) tenure and promotion. Besides all of the salary/benefit/working conditions things that are the nitty-gritty of contract negotiations, the union and the contract establish the basic rules of work and those rules can’t be changed without negotiation. So, for example: remember when a few years ago and during the “great recession” when there were all these stories about faculty having to take “furlough days” or about universities increasing teaching loads with no input from faculty or whatever? That stuff didn’t and wouldn’t happen at EMU because of the contract.

Another important function of the contract and the union: if a faculty member has some kind of complaint about an administrator or if someone (notably students, but also administrators) has some kind of complaint about a faculty member, the contract sets up the rules of how these grievances are to proceed and the union defends the faculty member. So, let’s say I was practicing my right to free speech and I wrote something on this web site or on that upset some administrator and that administrator wanted to “punish” me in some fashion. I’d take that to the union and the union would defend me– and I’d surly win in that case. Or let’s say that a student accused me of sexual harassment or intimidation or something like that; again, that is all mediated through the union. Like I said, the downside of that is sometimes the union has to defend some pretty guilty people; the upside of all of this though is there is a mechanism in place to defend the wrongly accused. The impression I have is that at non-unionized places, faculty are pretty much on their own in these situations.

And like I said, tenure and promotion at EMU is a matter of the contract.  I’ll spare you the details, but every department has to have a “Department Evaluation Document” (known as “the DEaD”) that outlines in surprising detail what’s expected in terms of scholarship, teaching, and service at all levels of a tenure-track person’s career. There’s no semi-secret group of senior faculty who make semi-arbitrary decisions, and I don’t think there’s really a way for someone to be denied tenure for publishing in “the wrong” places or whatever. It’s all spelled out, and when people are denied tenure or promotion (to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t happened in my department but it does happen in other departments), it is the subject of a grievance between the union and the administration.

So again, unionization is a good thing for everyone, and at EMU, I think it is far far more important than the concept of tenure. If I had to choose between a system where there was a union but no tenure or one where there was tenure but no union, I’d take the union every time.  Which leads to my last point:

Large/long-term thing: phase out tenure. As a tenured full professor, I am not sure how crazy I am about this idea or how it would even be that easy to accomplish. And just to be clear: If tenure were to go away, I’d still want to be in a faculty union.  If I had to choose between a union or tenure, I’d choose a union; but if a union wasn’t an option and my choice was either having tenure or not, I’d take tenure.  Obviously.  But as a thought experiment and assuming faculty unions replaced tenure:

One of the many things I’ve found odd about this latest round of anger about the unfairness of the academic job market and the disparity between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty is no one is suggesting that we give up on/phase out tenure. A lot of the rage/anger about the job market seems to be directed to people who are tenured professors– like this post, for example. So why not talk about trying to eliminate that privilege?  I mean, when the 99% movement was protesting the distribution of wealth in this country, I don’t think there message was “we want to be the 1% too!”

How would such a tenure-less system work? I don’t know exactly and I think it’s something that would have to be phased in over generations rather than revoking it from faculty.  But basically, I’m imaging people would still get hired as faculty for particular specializations/fields and they would still have to do things to demonstrate their abilities as teachers, scholars, and community members. It’s just that instead of having a tenured position that lasts “forever,” faculty would be on renewable contracts.

What would be different under this tenure-less system? As long as there was a union, I don’t think there would be significant differences at all, frankly. I am guessing such an arrangement might help some folks transition from non-tenure-track-like jobs into more tenure-track-like ones– that is, the person who is teaching a lot of first year writing and gen ed classes might be more able to be promoted from within to a better teaching position. But I would still assume that universities and departments would base a lot of their hiring practices on specializations, holding the appropriate and terminal degree, having experience as a teacher and a scholar, etc. There’s still going to be some kind of seniority system, which is pretty much the case with any other job.

Along these lines, I think that Alex Reid’s post “What’s the Relationship Between Tenure Track Hiring and Adjuncts?” is probably relevant here.  Go read that, but basically, Alex’s point is that there really isn’t a lot of relationship between faculty hires and adjunct hires because faculty are hired to teach advanced undergraduate and graduate classes and to do other quasi-administrative things, while adjuncts (and others currently off the tenure track) are generally hired to teach less advanced/gen ed courses and usually with limited other functions.

So, why get rid of tenure? Well, it might–might– make people feel a little better about the hierarchy in academia. It might give universities a little more flexibility in dealing with senior faculty because it might motivate folks not to become “dead wood.”  And it might actually help people with tenure who want to explore other options. I mean, I like my job a lot and I’m not contemplating going on the market anytime soon, but one of the limitations I have is as a tenured professor, I can’t really apply for a position as an assistant professor someplace. No matter how I explained it in my application materials, the search committee would say “there must be something wrong with this guy.”

“But what about the freedom to say anything you want?!?” First off, see above about the union: I think that’s what’s protecting my right to speak out more than tenure. Second, as we’ve seen with social media, speech is never completely “free.” I can go into a meeting of my colleagues and say “I think you’re all a bunch of idiots” and I’m not going to get fired, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder to convince those colleagues they should see things my way. I don’t have to keep working on scholarship at the same clip as I did as a tenure-seeking professor, but no one has any respect for the senior professor who hasn’t published or presented since the first Bush administration.

See, that’s the thing about tenure: it’s good to have it, but it really isn’t all that. Sure, there’s a little more job security and such, but it’s not a golden ticket and having it or not is not going to solve the woes of the job market. But if it would cut down a little on the rage and the whole overly entitled thing, then sure, phase it out.

4 thoughts on “Three things that could (maybe) change the academic job market in small, medium, and large ways”

  1. I suppose I’ve always thought of tenure as a significant job benefit, so you wouldn’t just give it up. You’d either have to have a union that collectively bargained for something… and even then it would have to be an opt-in situation as I don’t know that you could just take away tenure. Or you could have a non-unionized institution that just started to offer jobs without tenure moving forward. So let’s say as a newly-minted phd you have the good fortune of two equally appealing jobs, one is tenure-track and pays $60K/yr. The other has no tenure but a 3-year renewable contract. How much more would the latter have to pay to attract you? And what about from the institution’s perspective? Would universities really benefit from a more fluid hiring dynamic? In this situation maybe as much as half your faculty would be on the job market in any given year. You’d have much more faculty turn over which would mean more time and money spent on hiring.

    1. We had a candidate turn us down for a job a few years ago where this hypothetical situation played a role. I can’t talk about the details obviously, but it turned out to be a lot more money but it also had a lot to do with the geography of the other institution– or ours near Detroit, I suppose.

      Anyway, you make a really good point that the value of tenure for institutions is it makes it difficult for good faculty to leave and that might outweigh the problem of the few people who the institution would rather layoff. Tenure in that sense is kind of like “golden handcuffs.”

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