5 years ago
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Excellence Without Money, or, My Money is Your Money: Part II
So I wrote this post about my university's budget crunch a couple of weeks ago, and I haven't been the only person writing about such budgetary woes. Tenured Radical wrote a post about this, too, from a much more generous and less angry perspective than me, and then Historiann wrote about both of our posts together. And then Historiann continues to think about budgets - and even gets the ball rolling with a slogan (via Roxie) and a seal (see above) - and then Dean Dad posted today, also linking my and TR's initial posts in his analysis of faculty perspectives on budget cuts.
Whew! That's a lot of linkage! However, I think that should have us all caught up.
But I do feel like it's worth posting about these issues again, in a more substantive way than I did in my initial post. See, I knew that I should write a Big, Important Post about this stuff!
There is a reason why both Historiann and Dean Dad talked about my post alongside Tenured Radical's, and it's not because we were directly talking to one another. It's because, to some extent, our posts represent divergent ends of the spectrum of what it means to be "faculty." Now, on the one hand, I have a certain kind of privilege just by virtue of the fact that I'm on the tenure-track and (crossing fingers) soon to be tenured. I do not in any way mean to dismiss that privilege in what I'm about to write here. I make a decent living, and I'm doing it in a profession and field where many people with educations and accomplishments that look just like mine don't get to do that. So I'm not in any way suggesting that I'm exploited labor or something in a general sense. I'm not.
That caveat in place, however, there are very real structural inequities within academia across even the tenured and tenure-track professoriate, and these inequities come to the fore in times of economic downturn. The divisions aren't so simple as "tenured or tenure-track" vs. "adjunct or contract." We're used to talking about inequities in the profession in those black-and-white terms, and I'd argue that this is far too simplistic. There is a big difference between teaching at a regional state university and teaching at an elite slac. There is a big difference between being long-tenured and not-yet-tenured, and there is a big difference between one's circumstances depending on discipline/field. Those differences are real, and they involve the material conditions of one's life and labor.
And thus, it's easy to conceive of oneself as a privileged faculty member when one is a "privileged" faculty member.
Yes, compared with our administrative assistants, or the janitorial staff, I hold a position of privilege. Compared with adjuncts and full-timers not on the tenure track, I hold a position of privilege. But if we compare me to my peers across institutions or even across disciplines within my own institution, I would not characterize my position as one of privilege. I am in a field that bears the brunt of some of the most labor-intensive portions of the general education curriculum; I am in field that has historically been one of the lowest paid; I am in a field where job mobility is about zero once one hits the associate level, and where it's not much better even at the assistant level for all but lateral moves; I am at the lowest funded university in my state, a state with notorious budget problems, and that disparity will likely not be rectified in my lifetime; at the same time, my university's enrollment is rapidly growing and there is an expectation that it will continue to grow by leaps and bounds even without adequate state support for that growth.... I could go on, but I think the gist of what I'm saying here is clear. My job, although I really do enjoy it most days and while I am pleased to be working in the field in which I trained, is not a plum gig.
Now, for me, I believe in the work that I do here. I like teaching the students at this place, in large part because they are not a "privileged" student population (although, I suppose, if we were to extend the argument about tenured/t-t faculty at this institution to the students we could say that they are "privileged" just because they are going to college). I do think that the work that I do at this institution really matters. In other words, I don't list off all of the ways in which I'm not privileged out of disgruntlement with my job or dissatisfaction with my lot in life. Rather, I list these things off because I do think that the conditions of my labor, and probably of my own class background as well, affect my response to "everybody has to do their part" rhetoric. I think that such rhetoric makes a good deal of sense if one sees one's position as privileged and if one ultimately doesn't have very much to lose by taking one for the team. In contrast, if one feels as if one doesn't have anything left over at the end of the day to give to the team, that kind of rhetoric inspires (at least for me) a certain amount of anger. At a certain point, one wonders why faculty who are already "doing their part" are supposed to fix problems that are far beyond the scope of what they can fix.
So, in short, institutional differences cannot be discounted when it comes to any sort of analysis of "faculty perspective" about budget cuts. But that's not the only factor in play.
We've also got to think about career trajectory and where one falls based on one's point on the academic path.
I think that one of the major differences between my perspective on these issues and, say, my department mentor's perspective (he's been employed here since before I was born - literally) is that he is at a point where sacrifices like contributing to department accounts to keep them solvent really aren't major sacrifices. He is not paying off student loan debt (I went to graduate school fully funded, but living on 9K a year in Boston in the late 90's really wasn't possible, and my family couldn't give me an allowance, as some of my friends' parents did for them, so yes, I've got some loan debt), credit card debt (see previous), attempting to save for a house (again, no family help available). We can also include things like relocation costs and furnishing a home with real furniture for the first time, etc. And the thing is, I'm actually in a good position compared to others in my age/pay range who have young children, who have ailing parents for whom they have to care, who bought homes at the height of the housing bubble, or even who live very far from family and so have to spend exorbitant amounts on travel to visit them. I'm in really good shape compared with those people. But so this list of things is pretty typical for recently minted faculty.
In contrast, my mentor is at the top of the pay scale because he's been here since Nixon was president. Chipping in a hundred or 500 or whatever just isn't that big of a deal. Forgoing a raise or taking a pay cut when you are totally financially solvent and comfortable and set in your life isn't that big of a deal. Paying for the copyright permissions for your book out of your own pocket (snarl) isn't that big of a deal. But the point is, what would seem like a small sacrifice to a person in one place in terms of their life and position in the profession is a really big freaking deal to people who aren't there yet. Just because we're all faculty together doesn't mean we all have the same resources on which to draw, or that we all have the same voice in discussions about how money is allocated or how money should be raised.
There are also psychic differences in how one perceives faculty calls to arms.
And this gets to the "excellence without money" thing. For people who are at about my point in this career trajectory - recently tenured, about to be tenured, on the tenure-track, or job-seeking - we've witnessed first hand the ramped up expectations without support for years. We've been expected to prove that we are stellar teachers with evidence of teaching excellence and statements of teaching philosophy coming out of graduate school, where we've received little to no training about how to be good teachers. We've been expected to present at conferences with little to no funding for travel and registration (see credit card debt that lingers above). We've been expected to publish just to get a job, and we've been expected to publish more if we're lucky enough to get a job than we were advised to do when we were hired because the requirements have steadily increased. In short, we've come of age in a profession that has demanded "excellence without money" from us for quite some time. So now, as this budget crisis hits, I suspect that people of this generation of scholars and teachers respond to demands for "more with less" quite differently from those who came before us. I'd imagine that belt-tightening can almost make one feel virtuous if one has not been experiencing the belt tightening notch by notch for about the past 10 years without let-up. The thing is, "more with less" seems like the rule rather than the exception to me, and I wonder at what point we'll hit the breaking point where "more" just isn't possible. I can tell you that right now I don't see how "more" is possible for me. And I feel disenfranchised, and I feel completely hostile to the idea of doing any more than I already do. This makes me a bad department citizen and a bad member of the university community, obviously. And yet, I wonder, how can I expected to be "good" - let alone excellent - under these conditions?
Nah, I haven't got any of those. I feel like to some extent I'm going to need to play the hand that's dealt me. So the things that I've been thinking about involve how I intend to play. Let's put it this way: I think that there will be a lot of bluffing involved :) What matters to me most centrally is that I continue to push my students and to offer them the best education that I know how to offer them. Doing that involves continuing to invest a lot in my teaching, but it also, for me, involves investing a good amount in research, because I don't really know how to be an effective teacher if I'm not engaged in research myself. And so. How does one accomplish those things with a 4/4 load, with maxed out classes, a horrifyingly huge service burden, etc.? And little or no support for any of the above or for research? Well, I think that it's going to require some invention on my part. The bluffing will come in when it comes to those "on top of everything else" demands that don't contribute to my students or to my research. Because you know what? If something has to give, it's not going to be the things that for me really are the only point of this job. And so I'll appear to be a team-player, but to some extent, I'm going to have to stop actually being one. And in addition to that, I will do everything in my power to advocate for my students and for the quality of the education that I can bring them. And, as soon as that tenure decision is in, I think I'll be a whole lot less diplomatic in how I do so. One benefit of the whole "excellence without money" thing is that one doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to lose.