On tenure and labor

If you’re an Old, like me (and I know I’m an Old, because I think to myself “I’m not that old”) then you may remember that 70s classic “Future Shock,” by Alvin Toffler. Basically, this book describes the psychological shock of culture change. Whether this is a real thing or not is open to debate, given all the Tweeting grannies out there. However, it is true that we have been undergoing a tremendous cultural change in academia in recent years. A brief synopsis might look like:

The American research experience is ovah. Between sequestration, budget ceiling fights, congressional inaction, and just a general malaise in the system, we’re working hard to destroy a generation’s worth of scientific infrastructure in our Universities in just a few short years. Junior faculty are getting annihilated. Senior faculty are downsizing their laboratories as quickly as possible, and then going deadwood. I note in passing that while this is happening in a very general way, there are winnahs as well as losahs: there is a new, amazing ’superclass’ of scientists, who live in a syncytium between academia, industry, and government. I cannot but envy George Church and Jay Keasling, good on ya, I mean that. But the fact is that I’m just a wildcatter to their oil baron, and that will probably always be the case.

This American teaching experience is … different. For years we stood in front of classes and lectured, whatever that means. For my part, I’ve been doing Socratic instruction for over twenty years now, so this whole “inside out” or “flipped” classroom stuff is nothing new to me. It’s almost like my Flock of Seagulls ‘do has come back into style (I’m kidding, of course, I had a tinted rat tail, for God’s sake). While it is a good thing that folks are being encouraged not to just read from the textbook, the fact that we now have high end reading from the textbook in the form of online or virtual instruction is not necessarily a good thing (and, yes, MOOCs, online mentoring and chat, yada, yada … it’s great for the same 1% of the student base that got it when you were just reading from the textbook). It is, however, a very cheap thing.

Which really leads us to our thesis, that I keep looking in the mirror and seeing the coal smudges under my eyes. A tenured professor, the very height of privilege, is the last person that should think of themselves as Labor. Nonetheless, the professoriate bears more resemblance to a Wobbly Shop than might first be grasped: we’re not wage slaves, and we used to practice self-management, for the most part. It’s this latter point that is particularly sharp: it’s not so much that I’m Labor, as I sit here swilling my martini (OK, cider), it’s that I definitely recognize Management when I see it.

I think that one of the largest differences between academia as it used to be when we all hung onions on our belts, and academia as it is today, is that there is a vast, gaping divide between Labor and Management. There was a time when Department Chairs and above were once professors, and had a feel for the faculty. That time is long past. There are now career graspers who move fluidly upwards and discard their faculty credentials like a second skin as they go (biased much?). They don’t really teach; they don’t really do research: they administer, for the greater glory of us all. And, yes, there are many counterexamples: I can find my peer and former Dean David Laude in a classroom many days of the week, doing his thing. Still, exception, rule, and all that.

And in consequence, they begin to see us perhaps for what we are: not their professional peers engaged in an equity enterprise not unlike law or medicine, where our contributions should return value directly to us, but as paid-for laborers who can be called upon at any time to do any task that needs doing. Now, the great thing about tenure is … we still don’t have to do it. We’ll get to that in a minute. But I think the disturbing part is that this Management divide has somehow gained traction over the years, relative to the notion that we’re carrying a shared burden. Less money in the system? Teach more. Major rearrangements in the structure of your institution? Not your problem, you’re not really part of the system. Group initiatives? That’s nice, but we know better what you should be doing. I could give examples, but what would be the point? If you’re reading this and you’re Labor, you already know what I’m talking about. If you’re reading this and you’re Management, you’re already coming up with rationales in your mind for why it can’t possibly be true. If you’re reading this and you’re not faculty, you just want to punch me for being such a privileged asshole.

But then there’s that pesky tenure, that wonderful, awful ability to say “No.” I exercise that ability quite often (just as often as I use the same superpower to take on 80 hour work weeks to launch new, unfunded projects or initiatives). With research on the skids, and virtual instruction supposedly providing all the education you’ll ever need off the back of a cereal box, we stand revealed as: overpriced educational labor. If you can’t really force us to teach more (and, mostly, you can’t, not by nearly the amount we’d need to teach to actually ‘rightsize’ the system, especially here in Rick Perry’s $10 K degree Texas), then you have to … get rid of us.

What Management really is, is a bunch of former faculty dedicated to the elimination of current faculty. It doesn’t really matter that they’re just trying to balance the books. By replacing faculty with instructors and lecturers and online lesson plans and as much credit as can possibly be loaded into college prep courses (that will ultimately doom your average Freshman who first encounters a real college course) they are in the end letting us sail gracefully into the night. The point of modern University administrators, of Management, is to remake the University so that it is no longer a University.

And that will be very interesting indeed. The Wobblies are gone, long live the Wobblies. I would rouse our Rabelais to take back our shop, but it’s late and I have a lecture to not write (because I don’t lecture, remember?).


- originally posted on Thursday, December 5th, 2013