Sunday, November 29, 2009

Follow-Up: Some Things about Academic Employment

FrauTech left a lengthy comment to my ranting post about tenure and adjunctification, and I wanted to respond, if not to each and every point, point by point, then at least in a general fashion to the comment.

Before I begin, let me put the caveat in place that I'm definitely talking from my experience at a regional, non-selective, primarily undergrad-focused university. All of this stuff is not one-size-fits-all, and it's important to acknowledge that. Also, I think it's important to acknowledge that things vary by discipline, and they vary by status within the academy (adjunct vs. full-time contract lecturer vs. t-t vs. tenured). So I'm very much talking as a person in a humanities discipline, at a non-selective state school, who now has tenure but who recently was yet to be tenured. And yes, I think all of that matters.

So, FrauTech writes,
"Implying that faculty would not devote anything on contract would be implying that ALL the employees of for profit and non-profit companies in at will states are not contributing anything or innovating anything. Which is patently untrue. The pay gap is not so large as to explain this discrepancy (unless you mean a paygap between humanities in industry, b/c i'm not sure where outside of academia that is a viable career)."

Ok, so here's the thing. I was totally ranting in my post, and when I get on a rant, I oversimplify. I become sometimes stupidly polemical. So let me be clear: I do not think that people on a contract would not devote anything to their jobs. Rather, I think that tenure allows us to, and encourages us to, particularly in those fields that are not so much about professions for students but those that are about a broad, liberal arts education, devote ourselves differently. It's not that contribution or innovation are impossible when one does not have the security of tenure. If that were true, then I'd not have contributed or innovated anything in the past 6 years. But I do think that this is where discipline matters. FrauTech is in engineering. This puts one in a very different position from a person who is, say, an English professor. First, in a discipline like engineering, there is an outside market value to ones labors. This matters. This is not to say that there is not value to the skill-set that I possess, but rather that the particular skill-set that I practice day-to-day within my job as a professor does not really translate in an obvious way to employment outside the academy. Now let me be clear: this is not because I'm not qualified to do other jobs. But, whatever those jobs might be aren't in one-to-one relation to the degrees that I hold. An English degree, in itself, qualifies a person for no particular profession. A journalism degree does. An engineering degree does. A degree in, say, marketing, does. And the longer that I stay in academic employment, the less employable I become outside of the academy. Because what I do in my academic job is so different from what I might do in another job, this makes me less amenable to the idea of academic employment without tenure. (And I'm not just saying this because I've now got tenure - I felt the same way before I had a tenure-track job, which is why I was resistant to adjuncting. This is not to cast aspersions on those who do adjunct or who have adjuncted, but rather to say that for me, it always felt like a path that wouldn't be good.)

But so if I don't mean that employees without tenure (whether they are in a "permanent" position or whether they are on semester-long contracts) contribute nothing (to their institutions, to broader knowledge, whatever) then what do I mean? I mean, and this is coming from a very field-specific place here, that what one contributes depends on the conditions of one's employment. (We were reviewed each and every year toward tenure, which may make a difference here. In other words, the way tenure works at my institution, I could have been fired at any time pre-tenure - it wasn't like I had three years to prove myself before I came up for a contract renewal.) Example: pre-tenure, I did not serve on potentially contentious or political committees, regardless of their import. This is not to say that I did not do service - I did service in spades. But, and I'd say rightly, I did not put myself in a position to make enemies when it came time for review. So I "served" my institution, and I contributed to things, but I did not risk my neck. I did not risk my livelihood or my professional future. (I've only started taking risks since the tenure binder was in.)

Similarly, my research agenda was shaped by the fact that I didn't have a stable position until this year. Don't let the fact that I published a book obscure that fact - that happened only because I wrote a very-close-to-book-manuscript dissertation (with the aid of my diss adviser and readers). I did not need a book for tenure. What I needed was a couple of journal articles and a number of conference presentations. And so, that was where all of my "new" research energy was focused. Now, did those articles contribute to my field? I hope so. But I'm in a "book" field. The fact of the matter is, one cannot embark on a completely new book project pre-tenure, devote oneself to that, and hope to get tenure. Because the reality is that teaching a 4/4 load, with no pre-tenure sabbatical, means that it is very unlikely that one would finish the book before one went up for tenure. And so one can't, in my field, reasonably expect to make the kind of scholarly contribution that is most valued while being secure in one's job. (This is not to say that people without tenure don't write books: they do. But it is to say that spending one's time on a book that doesn't find its way to a contract can get people fired. It's also to say that the only people I know who have managed to produce books not related to the dissertation without stable employment (i.e., tenure) have done so because they were not the sole breadwinner in their household.) This is not to say that those writing articles aren't contributing to broader knowledge, to their institutions, to the profession. They surely are. But it is to say that the contribution is different, and differently weighted, than if those same people were writing books.

Finally, I do think that one's teaching, in those disciplines that serve general education requirements, is intimately tied to one's employment status. If one is adjuncting 4 courses - let's say two sections of comp and two sections of intro to lit- at 2 or three different institutions, each about 30 mins. away from one another, that is going to affect the way that one chooses to teach those four courses. In contrast, if one is on the tenure-track, or tenured, and teaching those same four courses, but at only one institution, and if one knows that he or she will also teach upper-level courses in his or her specialization in a subsequent semester, he or she might choose to teach the course differently. This is not to say that adjuncts are sub-par teachers. They're not. It is just to say that one's choices as a teacher are affected by the conditions of one's labor. If I didn't have my own office, I would be much less likely to hold mandatory individual conferences with my students. If I were teaching across two or three institutions, I would be less likely to develop content suited to the student body at one of those institutions in particular. Now, you might say, but what about those full-time "permanent" faculty without tenure? I will say that the teaching of those faculty members tends to be much more parallel to the ladder faculty, in that they do have more commitment to the institution, to its students, and more commitment from the institution. But, if you're never teaching a course outside of gen-ed requirements that relates to your own specialization, then your teaching is going to be much less linked to your own intellectual life and to your own area of expertise. When I was a student, I know that I responded much more to those faculty who were passionate about the content that they taught. And passion isn't something that happens by accident, or something that is just magical. It's something that is totally affected by the conditions of one's working life. Again, this isn't to say that there aren't great part-time and full-time adjunct instructors. There are. And it's not to say that none of those people have passion when they teach. They do. It's just the conditions of their labor do not inspire that. And thus, we can't expect inspired teaching from those people. If they offer up inspired teaching, that's a bonus. It's not part of the job that they've been hired to do.

Finally, a last thing about "permanent" contract people. The reality in academic hiring currently is that when budget cuts happen, "permanent" people without tenure are let go. This has happened to a number of my "permanent" colleagues in the past two years. Not because they did something wrong, or because they didn't fulfill the duties of their jobs. Just because there were cuts, and somebody had to go. Sure, in theory, the decision was made on performance. But in reality, none of those people were let go because of performance: they were let go because we were told from on high that we had to eliminate x number of instructors. This had nothing to do with the teaching needs of the department (our enrollments have increased, not decreased), nor with the performance of individual people. That's the reality of that kind of contract. Those people's courses are now being taught by part-timers, because part-timers cost less.

FrauTech also writes:
"Faculty DO benefit from a flexible schedule, whether they are tenured or adjunct. This is not disimilar to exempt employees hired, again, At Will by private industry. Yes you end up working a lot more than 40 hours a week. Give it up, everybody in this country except the unemployed are working those hours. And b/c they are exempt, they also are only paid for the 40 hours a week."

You know, I've got to say, this whole "academics benefit from a flexible schedule" argument is something that always irritates me. On the one hand, it's true: we're only in the classroom for x amount of hours, which is much fewer than a person would be in a cubicle in a 9-5 job. But let me talk about my own experience a little.

I am in the F2F classroom this semester for 9 hours per week. In theory, this would mean that I am flexible for 159 hours per week. Sounds grand, right? Who wouldn't want that schedule? But let's consider further. I've also got 3 office hours per week, plus 3 hours of committee work per week. This puts me at 153. Take into account 3 miscellaneous hours in any given week (meeting with my chair, other committee meetings that don't happen weekly), and we're at 150. Ridiculously flexible, right? I've also got to spend at least 6 hours a week dealing with email. That puts us at 144. And then let's consider my online class. I'll generously estimate that this takes but 4 hours a week. So we're at 140. Oh, but prep and grading. Let's minus approximately 15 hours per week, although that assumes I'm not reading anything new, which puts us at 125. That's 37 hours per week. Oh, but I've not counted any sort of research in there. And research is required by my job. Let's lump any reading for class in with research-related stuff, and let's put that at about 15 hours per week, which leaves us at 110, and then let's add in writing letters of recommendation, being a good department citizen by attending events, etc., and let's say that's an extra 3 hours per week in a given semester. This puts us at 107. This means that on average, I'm working 61 hours a week. And let's note that I was being generous in my calculations.

First, let me say this: I'm not saying that people in other professions don't work a similar amount. But many people, even in this current economy, don't. My friend who's a director of annual giving at a non-profit? Doesn't. My friend who's a high school English teacher (who actually makes a comparable salary to me?) doesn't. My friend who's a photographer for a university? Not so much. My friend who works in the insurance industry (and who makes a gajillion dollars more than me)? No dice. My parents don't. My cousins don't. My aunt, who works for a medical school as a high-level administrator, doesn't. Nor does her husband who is a union negotiator. I know lots of people who make good money - and some who don't make great money but who are doing just fine, thanks - who totally don't work more than 40 hours a week, as a rule. Now, is this to say that I shouldn't work more than 40 hours a week. NO. This is just to say that an incentive for me to do so is tenure.

Further, the "flexibility" of academia is relative. Yes, it's true that I went and got my hair cut on Tuesday morning. I didn't have to be anyplace before noon. Yes, this is a benefit. If I need to take care of banking, or of other errands, I can do so on a weekday afternoon. But this "flexibility" is not all that it seems. The "flexibility" of my schedule this semester means that I'm putting in 12 hour days (on campus) 2 days a week, not by my choice. "Flexibility" means that I'm expected to be at a 9 AM meeting and then at a 2 PM meeting because I'm "free" (I don't teach that day) even if I was there 12 hours the day before. This semester, I've mostly been in the office 5 days a week. Yes, some days I'm there only for a few hours. Yes, I'm not committed to being there from 9-5. But the way that it's working out is that I'm there at least 30 hours a week, for shit that's not my choice, plus working at home when I'm not in the office. For part-time adjuncts, "flexibility" means teaching when you're needed, regardless of preference or of your other needs. (This is one of the most hideous things for part-timers - trying to negotiate schedules across institutions, or with child-care or other commitments. Being an adjunct isn't like this awesome flexible job. Oh, and let's note, adjuncts at my institution in my discipline make around 2K a course. Is this really comparable to salaried employees outside of academe? Really?)

And lastly, regarding flexibility, while there is flexibility in a given work-week, academia is incredibly inflexible when it comes to needing time that is more than a few hours. When my father died, I cancelled but one day of classes. This is not because I was ready to be back in the classroom, but rather because there was nobody qualified to teach the material I was teaching, and had I missed more, I'd have had to cut content from the course. Which would have hurt students. There are no subs in college teaching. There is no "vacation" time and there are no "personal days." I've got a HUGE amount of sick time accrued. You know why? Because I can't get sick. There's nobody to do my job if I do. So yeah, I've got the flexibility to get my hair cut on a Tuesday morning. And this being me, with tenure. But if I really needed time, if it weren't over the 4 weeks over Christmas or over the summer break? If I had a real reason to take some time off? Nah, that shit better happen on the academic calendar.

Here's the thing: I'm not at all saying tenure is perfect, or that this system serves all people equally. It's not, and it doesn't. But I value it (precisely because I have it, I should note. I know that I'm in a privileged position here). Sure, without tenure, people would still strive to do good work. I'm not even saying that good work can't happen without tenure. What I am saying, and what I truly believe, is that work would be shaped by different things if tenure were not in place. What would matter would be keeping one's contract, and that would shape one's productivity - not the higher ideals about what students should learn. People would still make important contributions to their institutions, to their fields, to the profession as a whole. But those contributions would be influenced by the prospect of contract renewal (or non-renewal) at the end of the day. Is that really what we want shaping higher education - as opposed to what we believe is best for students, even if that "best" is not the most economically or politically advantageous?

What I want is what is best for my students, best for my field, and best for my institution. I don't know that I could want those things without tenure. I think that without tenure I'd only think about what was best for me.

(Though maybe that makes me an asshole? I don't think it does, though. I think it makes me reasonable.)


Annie Em said...

Brava, Dr. Crazy.
My hubby, the part timer, just put the lovely dinner he cooked for me (the tenured one--while I wrote several reference letters on this lovely Sunday evening) on the table so I have no time to digest much less comment thoughtfully on this, but wow: this is such a thoughtful posting with so much in it (and surprisingly, not at all that far away from my world as a tenured prof at a comm college).

More later...

Ann said...

Man, I loves me my flexibility. I'm so flexible, I can work from 4-6 a.m. from home, before I get my shower, take care of everyone else in the household, and get myself out the door! (That's what I did the semester I was working to get my book into production while being Grad Studies Chair in my department.) Flexibility! It's awesome.

BTW, I'm on flex time now: marking papers at 10:30 p. MST. because I'm flexible.

You know what isn't flexible? Those 5 years on the tenure track before you have to go up. There's zero flexibility built in there--those years count more than any other years in our careers, like dog years. I know people don't like to hear this, but seriously: most of us have earned this incredible privilege of scheduling haircuts on Tuesday mornings or staying home to meet an appliance delivery truck or carpet cleaner on a Wednesday afternoon. Because by the time we've earned tenure, man have we let ourselves go to the frikkin' dogs.

Maude Lebowski said...

Brava! Even though this is my first semester on the t-t, I am already having this argument with my father, and argument we all know so well that is "must be nice" to get to be "lazy and off and paid for it" for four weeks during winter and even more in summer. My father reminds me a little bit of my students who think that prep and publishing are things that only take a minute or two and aren't essential to what I get paid for.

Our tenure clock is 7 years! 7 years man! Which seems ridiculous to me and a bit out of the norm isn't it which means I have a lot to have to show for by then, and I don't think be lazy over supposedly nice long vacations count. And a large part of my ability to get tenure is going to be centered around am I doing what's best for my students, if I stay where I am. If I want to leave, then I need to figure out how to do what's best for me.

But here's the thing, I think I can find a happy medium, which I think is what I have been struggling with this first semester. And I think you're right; if it were simply about contract renewal after 2-3 or even 5 years, I think I would be less concerned with whether or not my students were learning but more concerned with protecting myself.

Does any of what I'm saying make sense?

I'm sorry if I strayed from your point. In my head, my rant and your post are related. And it's still early yet.

Maude Lebowski said...

please excuse my typos. Like I said, it's early yet.

Christopher said...

"I think that without tenure I'd only think about what was best for me."

I think this would likely be true, and I also think, even after all of your well thought out remarks, this is the crux of the issue. As a "career" adjunct, (and occasional non-t.t. full timer) I certainly think this way. I also think the institution is thinking this way as well, though the institution is likely split between monetary self-interest and something more intrinsic. Still, money over rides everything eventually -- that's what your remark about letting non-tt full timers go shows.

But back to individual or personal self-interest, to the extent that I'm ever enlisted into some sort of departmental service or committee work, (yes, it happens) I simply check which way the wind is blowing and go with it ... even if it seems to me to be a bad, bad direction.

janetdammit said...

Is not a significant reason for tenure the freedom to research, write, and publish on any subject the tenure holder wishes...without fear of recriminations from the institution? For example, how would gender/queer studies have started and become a respected field in the humanities without tenure protecting those first explorers of the field? One of the most important initial publications in queer studies in my particular discipline was written by a tenured professor at an ivy league university where the administration expressed some discomfort about his research at the time (late 1970s): now, of course, that same university takes great pride in the "ground-breaking book" written by one of its "most highly respected" faculty members and its "revolutionary" impact on the academic discipline.

A renewable contract system would inhibit new research...especially if that research was considered "distasteful" to the university's current administration, the current political leanings of the state or federal government, etc. And would think about what was best for you if you knew that publishing on a particular subject would result in your contract not being renewed.

Christopher said...

One further thing -- and this ties back to D.D.'s original post. Tenure, on any sort of large scale, is dying and will die completely within a generation or two. People will either retire or die and their positions will be broken up into adjunct lines. It's already happening. And the process is going to continue to become more pervasive, or all-encompassing (take your pick) until and or if someone can propose a better economic model.

You're arguing that tenure is not only a sweet deal -- and it is, guaranteed employment for life is a sweet deal no matter how many hours you work -- but something essential to the pedagogic and research mission of higher ed. Who's arguing against you?

I'm deeply saddened by this, but in the end, as much as I agree with you, these arguments carry no weight. Until there emerges a more cost effective model ...

Doctor Pion said...


1) Flexibility. Maybe, maybe not. I have zero flexibility about those 15 hours when I am scheduled to be in a classroom. None. Five days a week at those specific times. Students can cut class, but faculty that cut class can lose their jobs.

However, it is true that I can grade and do class prep while watching basketball.

2) Service. You can't underestimate the value of critical feedback from persons who are secure enough to speak out, particularly when they will be at the college through the tenure of many presidents. At a university, you are likely to see a new President before you get tenure!

Re comments on the 7 years to tenure: It seems to me that this time period is chosen so the productivity during that time pays for the worst case scenario where the hire turns out to be a dud for the next 33 years. The tenure period is shorter at a CC, where people rarely work much past their retirement date.

FrauTech said...

Thanks for the followup, I found it really interesting. I'm not as familiar with the academic job track so certainly bound to see things differently.

I agree with Historiann's comment about the pre-tenure years. I know people who've gone through that hell. And maybe tenure is the only thing that makes it worth it, the only real carrot to give up a higher paying field elsewhere and normal working hours for 8 years instead of indentured servitude.

Flexibility - I don't mean to overestimate how "easy" I believe faculty have it. I just think faculty on the blogs I read try too hard to overjustify how many hours a week they work, how long and difficult and underpaid their weeks are. Maybe that is a reaction to the uninformed public who thinks they have extremely limited commitments. And maybe it depends on the institution. At my institution TAs do literally 100% of the grading (or even undergrads for the homework). I've never known a professor to have more than 2 hours a week of office hours, and never been aware of a professor teaching more than 2 classes at a time. But maybe that's why we're having so many problems. And I know plenty of engineers who work 60 hours a week, come in on weekends, come in on evenings, etc for no extra pay. And they can be fired tomorrow. I guess I'm just saying compare that to the secretary who maybe only works 40 hours a week, but every time she has to pick up her kid or leave the office has to use her vacation time. I'm not saying a professor hasn't earned this privilege, I'm just saying it's a flexibility in scheduling your own days that's fairly unusual while the high hours of work per week is not completely unusual.

Oh and I really do think I support keeping tenure, just not for some the reasons usually given. Thanks for the follow-up post.

Arbitrista said...

Thanks for writing these posts. I think that in some respects the life of an academic - even a tenure-track one- is far too grueling. Why is it that people are EXPECTED to work more than 40 hours a week? When did that happen? Have you seen the efficiency and health studies of what happens to people who work 60-80 hours a week? The prospect of having to do so is precisely what drove me away from academia.

As for doing away with tenure, or downgrading it to any appreciable degree, I think that the long-term result would be a flight from the profession for all but those from affluent backgrounds. With the workload, and the lower & deferred salary, the prospect of job security is the only thing that makes getting a PhD remotely rational. Yes, this means I did an irrational thing in getting a PhD. I enormous student loan debt but I have my degree, and I still walked away from it (for a variety of reasons). If I had it to do over again, I never would have gone to graduate school. If people in graduate school - early on in graduate school, I mean - had any idea of how remote their prospects were, and what a backbreaking life they had chosen, I suspect a lot of them would never have done stayed in the program. But the illusion of getting tenure convinces a lot of people to hang in there. Take that away and we'll all go off and do something else. And poof goes the country's intellectual capital.

Anonymous said...

Someone should point out that most professors, in whatever field, teach more than two courses a semester and don't have TAs who grade for them. I would do it but I find it too tedious. Do we really have to go over this again?