Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Tough Love

I'm not crazy about the academic who writes as Thomas Benton in the Chronicle. He strikes me as a bit conservative, curmudgeonly, and --yet-- at some level contented, since he has a tenured position in English, the job for which he trained. But he writes well, and sometimes it's hard to argue with his conclusions. This week is a case in point. He takes on the recent MLA report on "Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion" and notes that it focuses all its attention on people who, maybe, don't need it: those who already have tenure-track jobs. After all, as he notes (and as the MLA report acknowledges), the tenure rate is about 90%. The big problem in the academe is not that we are eating our own young on the tenure track (though it does happen, and though a discussion about standards for evaluating scholarship is, truly, long overdue). The problem is that we are producing too many PhDs and not enough of them are getting tenure-track jobs. The stunning statistic in Benton's piece is not that 90% of tenure candidates achieve it, but that tenured faculty now make up less than 25% of all faculty members. Contingent faculty are far less involved in faculty governance, in making curricular and hiring decisions, and in scholarship, than tenured faculty, but they are doing the bulk of college teaching. They are good teachers, most of them--that's not the problem. The problem is that they have little job security and little incentive or opportunity to control the conditions of their own employment. As work-for-hire faculty, they are far more subject to the encroaching corporatization of the university than are their tenured colleagues (like me).

I don't know what to do about the problem. I don't encourage many students to go to graduate school, and when I do, I try to make sure they have alternatives in mind right from the start. I still think the process can be rewarding (it would be more so if dissertations didn't have to be drafts of books, to get back to the MLA report), and valuable in its own right: but we need to figure out a way to protect the academic freedom of college faculty, to improve working conditions for contingent faculty, and to find other employment options for PhDs who don't land one of the increasingly-elusive tenure-track jobs. I don't think just shrinking the size of graduate programs, as Benton seems to suggest, will help much.

And here is where the MLA report could have done some good: the increased demands on tenure-track faculty over the past generation have in fact reduced the time and energy they have to commit to faculty governance, with the result that the increase in contingent faculty has gone on with little awareness or comment--except probably relief that someone else is teaching those pesky introductory courses. If we resisted the use of adjuncts to teach our classes--even though that would mean denying casual employment to very good graduate students and unemployed PhDs, and even though that would mean producing less publishable work--could we raise the status of all of us in the profession? Could we force a re-examination of the two-tiered academic system that pays lip service to students but rewards avoiding them? Could we re-invigorate faculty governance and academic freedom? Or is it too late, as Benton seems to suggest?

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