Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dispatches from the Academy

I have a weird and wonderful job. My job is to try to figure out things that have not yet been figured out, write about them, submit said writing to journals, and then argue with similar strange people until said words come out in print. The particulars of what I’m trying to figure out have nothing to do with making widgets, and almost nothing to do with deeply noble social causes such as curing cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. I am an academic, in the production of knowledge for knowledge sake.

There has been much recent criticism of the academy lately, primarily brought about by the publishing of Mark Taylor’s  Crisis on Campus: a Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities

While American universities are not without their faults, the timbre of this argument has reached laughably hyperbolic heights such as "Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning" or that the current university system is a "Ponzi scheme".
A Ponzi scheme? Seriously?

The uncomfortable truth at the heart of Taylor’s argument is that there are too few tenure track professorships for too many young Ph.Ds. This is true. When I left graduate school last year, there were about 100 graduate students for 40 faculty members. While a conservative sounding student-to-faculty ratio, it is far above the replacement level for each of those 40 faculty members, each of whom trained students before and after us. And although some of my cohort knew they wanted to go into industry, the vast majority of us were bent on the tenure track. Although it’s too early to know what will happen to us, it is safe to say that we have a few years of fierce competition ahead, and of necessity, many of us will be doing non-academic pursuits. But in my field (and other sciences), we did not incur extra student debt in grad school, and have picked up some math and computer skills that make us somewhat employable.

Graduate students in the humanities have a harder road, having to pay for their graduate educations, and often becoming part of an economic underclass of highly educated adjunct professors, earning $1000-$5000 per course a semester, without benefits. David Hiscoe described his experience as an adjunct as “five writing courses a quarter at $12,500 a year, slightly more than the average hourly wage I'd pulled down as a not-too-able carpenter's assistant during the summers when I should have been writing my dissertation.”

Taylor’s solution? Abolish tenure to kick out the lazy, old, irrelevant and expensive professors.  The problem is that the economics of this argument don’t make any sense. Of course, a tenured professor is going to cost more than an adjunct. But the cost of this tenured professor is chump change compared to, say, landscaping, catering, the cushy salaries of university administrators, state-of-the-art athletic facilities and the salaries of football coaches.

Tenured professors (at least in my own field, it might be different in Taylor’s department of religion) are not lazy people. I believe that the difficulty of getting tenure selects out the people that are not intrinsically motivated for high achievement. By the time one’s tenure is decided, one has gone through 4 years of undergrad, 4-10 years of grad school, 1-6 years as a postdoc and 5-7 years as a non-tenured professor. You may get through a few years with the “eyes on the prize” mentality, but not half of your working life!

Furthermore, pressures that exist before tenure exist after tenure: research can only happen with funding from competitive grant proposals, and highly selective journals will not publish work that is irrelevant.

In anticipation of the counter-argument for tenure, Taylor speaks out against “academic freedom” by stating "If you don't have the guts to speak out before, you're not gonna have it after."

Academic freedom isn’t just about saying something controversial in the classroom, it’s about being able to take scientific risks. Many of the young professors I know, under the pressure to keep a certain publication volume, publish small, incremental pieces of work. This is not to say that it’s not good work, but it is safe work, and it is work that doesn’t radically change anyone’s world view. It’s work that, in the big picture, will be forgotten. In order to do important scientific work, one needs the ability to take some risks, to explore a set of experiments that might not work out, and to still have a job when and if these fail.  Without a degree of job security, we will lose cutting edge research.

But as I disagree with these major points from Taylor, I do see that there are major problems in American research universities. Chief among them is a lack of importance on teaching. The weighting of teaching in the tenure decision varies from university to university, but runs from indifferent to disdained. I recall with sadness the anxiety that my graduate advisor had over receiving a teaching award, it being seen as a "kiss of death" for tenure.

I want to be the professor who values teaching, because it does more good in the world than research alone. At the end of a long and venerable research career, one’s life’s work will be scarcely more than a paragraph in an introductory textbook, but teaching well affects students for a lifetime.

One point that no one seems to acknowledge in these debates over the future of universities is this: the prospect of becoming a tenured professor is a dream much like that of becoming a rock star. Both professions have demand that overflows the market. Both professions afford a lifestyle of creative freedom. And in both professions, you will find young people putting off creature comforts just for the opportunity to try, whether it is toiling in a wedding band, or being an adjunct instructor for $3000/semester. It’s not the safest bet, but I still can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

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