Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Notes from Grad School: The Last Professors

Dan Allosso

In a 2010 review of Frank Donoghue’s book The Last Professors, D.R. Koukal mentioned that while reading it he had several pangs of survivor’s guilt, as a member of the “dwindling community” of tenured humanities professors. This is an interesting sentiment, which could open a lively discussion on the role of tenured faculty in the change facing the educational system, but that’s a topic of a future post. Donoghue resists the idea that this is a new crisis. He calls attention to the historical griping of business magnates like Carnegie, Birdseye, and Crane against the academy, and to F.W. Taylor’s claim that progress happens only when people use “originality and ingenuity to make real additions to the world’s knowledge instead of reinventing things which are old.”

Donoghue also questions assumptions regarding the traditional bundle of activities that go with being a professor. Among these are the beliefs that, “professors are authors,” that “our scholarship determines our relative prestige,” and that “scholarship is integrally related to teaching.” Donoghue suggests that “the typical academic monograph sells 250 copies and goes largely unread, except in institutional venues of evaluation.” He suggests this element of academic work is a product of the quest for tenure, and that once this goal is acquired many professors lose interest in research. It might be fruitful for grad students like myself to try to "unbundle" the various aspects of our chosen profession, ask ourselves which of them we really want to focus on, and then pursue opportunities that match. We might even find that the traditional system is not the ideal solution, which might alter our perspective on the prospect of change.

“Any meaningful debate about tenure,” Donoghue says, “has to start with the fact that it is slowly but surely disappearing, and the current workforce in higher education is unwittingly hastening its extinction.” But when he says the current workforce, Donoghue does not mean just tenured professors. “Tenured and tenure-track professors currently constitute only 35% of college teaching personnel” in America, he says, and “this number is steadily falling.” Non tenure-track instructors are part of this workforce, and “In no other workforce is there such a wide disparity, both in income and in day-to-day life, between groups of people whose jobs are, in part at least, so similar,” he says. Donoghue notes that the use of adjunct faculty varies widely: “at Stanford, 6.4% full-time faculty members are off the tenure track, while at Harvard the figure is 45.4%. One pattern, though, is indisputable: those sectors of higher education that are currently expanding at the fastest pace–community colleges and for-profit institutions–are most resistant to the idea of a tenured faculty. Nationwide, 65% of the faculty at two-year institutions are part timers, and 80% are not on the tenure track.” These are scary numbers, viewed from Donoghue's perspective. But what is it like to teach in a place without tenure if your dream was to teach? What is it like to work in a place without such a rigid, caste-like disparity between roles?

Donoghue describes what he terms for-profit universities as, at best, vocational and professional training institutes, and at worst, mere degree-mills capitalizing on the wage disparity between holders of high school and college diplomas. He quotes a memo from a manager at a for-profit university, assessing the team of instructors based on student evaluations: “most of you do an excellent job . . . if you score below 4.0–I will be talking with you directly. We cannot retain instructors with scores in the 3.0 range. Have a good day!” Although this message is a bit brutal, as Donoghue says, it also seems to underscore an issue of accountability he is less enthusiastic about addressing. He chides the University of Phoenix for granting an MBA to Shaquille O’Neal, but does not seem equally concerned with the weekend “executive MBAs” granted by prestigious academic institutions. Donoghue criticizes the financial performance of these for-profit universities as well as their mission, as if there is no thought of profit (financial or otherwise) at traditional institutions. “They focus on the tight relationship between curriculum and job preparation and the appeal primarily to the older, working adults who are steadily becoming the typical American college student,” he says. But do we really want to be opposing working people who give up their leisure time, in order to try to make a better life for themselves and their families?

Donoghue seems to view the question of why undergraduates go to college as a battleground where the humanities must overturn students’ (and administrations’) market calculations. In the future, he suggests “the BA and BS will largely be replaced by a kind of educational passport that will document each student’s various educational certifications from one or several schools, the credentials directly relevant to his or her future occupation.” But “this will not be the whole picture. Like American society as a whole, with its widening gap between haves and have-nots, America’s universities will grow increasingly stratified. The elite, privileged universities and colleges will continue to function much as they do today, championing the liberal arts and the humanities and educating the children of the elite and privileged for positions of leadership . . . the gulf between these elite universities and institutions that educate everyone else will widen in new ways that will complicate our efforts to define both the idea of higher education and the concept of access to higher education.” While the "educational passport" at first seems like a utilitarian instrument for meeting job requirements, the idea it contains of a lifelong process of education, belonging to the student and portable between schools, has a certain appeal. In addition to a BS and an MA, for example, I hold several certifications, including an NASD principal's license and a UNIX System Administrator's certification from a Tier-1 University's technical night-school. If access to elite institutions does become more limited, flexible and effective educational options for the rest of us will become more important than ever.

The Last Professors presents a series of facts that are interesting and surprising. For example, “nearly 80% of the total PhD’s in the country are awarded by just 133 universities. This is a staggering imbalance, as those…universities make up a tiny fraction–less than 2%–of the 3,500 traditional institutions of higher learning in the country and only one fifth of all institutions that grant PhD’s.” Donoghue also notes that there were “a record 17.3 million students enrolled in college in 2004, up 28% since 1991. Enrollment is expected to increase another 11% by 2013. The image of an 18 to 20-year-old, full-time student in residence at a traditional college, however, is now a figment of the past; only 16% of all undergraduates now fit that profile. Today, the majority of students are over the age of 25, as compared to just 22% in 1970.” Clearly the game is changing, and grad students should begin to think about and act on these changes. Donoghue suggests there are two main things that tenured professors can do to improve their situation. First, they must challenge the main corporatist tenet, “the assumption that a practical, occupation oriented college education leads to a secure job and thus it is crucial to improving one’s quality of life.” The second action that humanists need to take, he says, is to “balance their commitment to the content of higher education with a thorough familiarity with how the university works.” Donoghue suggests tenured professors (and those who want to be tenured professors) “need to resist the tendency to romanticize our work,” and need to better understand the real distribution of work at a university, and the causes and likely effects of this distribution. While I think this is a good suggestion, the pool of tenure-track opportunities is drying up without a corresponding decrease in the number of new PhDs (see graph from 2010).

Some of us may need to think about finding new ways to do what we love, rather than just elbowing our way to the front of the queue. And the prospect of drawing a line in the sand and trying to argue against the vocational goals that bring so many students to higher education seems misguided. The claim that undergraduates have to choose between academic purity and a degree that will help them get ahead in the world sets up a confrontation the humanities cannot win. And it flies in the face of experience, since in many places, the humanities have found at least a relatively safe haven in their role as a vital complement to job-preparation and a key to general education.


Randall said...

Dan: Great post. I think that some healthy entrepreneurship will be required.

Would love to see a conference that dealt with the future of the history profession and looked into opportunities and new directions.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Wow. I really don't know how to think about this, except to be acutely aware of how it will shape the way I advise students who want to go to grad school. I'm reluctant to see it as a sign of the apocalypse, but we do seriously need to think about how to create departments and promote educational goals when tenure is a thing of the past.
Thanks for the ideas here.

Chris Beneke said...

Nicely done, Dan. A piece just out in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the "educational passport" idea may be fairly close at hand: http://chronicle.com/article/Online-Learning-Portals-/127694/?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

Chris Beneke said...

The title of that piece, btw, is:
"Online Learning Portals: Customizing Colleges Right Out of Higher Education?" Here's a snippet:
"The new infrastructure consists of online portals that allow students to create portfolios that document their workplace skills and to have those portfolios assessed by college professors. The portals­—the most prominent are Learning Counts and Knext—also let students package their certification credentials, including scores from the College Board's College Level Examination Program and specialized certifications such as Microsoft's."

Unknown said...

Thanks to all! Maybe someone should do a panel at the 2012 conference, combining the idea of popularizing historical knowledge with the idea of thinking outside the box of the traditional career trajectory? I was thinking of proposing something dealing with a history of popular historical writing -- but maybe that should be widened to look at not only the ways people used historical ideas in public discourse, but also how they applied academic historical educations to the broader world?

Randall said...

Dan: I think that's a great idea. I'm sure there would be several who would like to take part in that.