So you want to be a Professor?


Somehow I missed it, but this is an interesting article from the WSJ, “So you Want to Be A Professor.”  Along with Mark Taylor’s pretentious Op-ed from the NY Times last week (for a spirited reaction see here), it kind of rubbed me the wrong way.  For instance:

On some recent doctoral program cuts at Emory and Columbia:

But graduates students also act as teaching assistants, doing a great deal of time-consuming classroom work (and grading) that professors themselves are thus not compelled to do. In all sorts of courses, especially in their freshman and sophomore years, undergraduates may find themselves being instructed more often by a 25-year-old doctoral candidate than by the university’s full-time faculty members, who, of course, already have their doctorates (and one or two books to their credit, too). It is an odd, upside-down arrangement, but it has an economic logic: By providing cheap labor, graduate students save college administrations millions of dollars each year in salary costs.

So why the cuts? Well, the calculations work out differently for different schools. For instance, universities in lower tiers might not have to do as much because they can get away with having a higher percentage of classes taught by graduate students. But some of the schools making doctoral cuts this year gave compassion as their reason. Catherine R. Stimson, the dean of Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, was quoted in Inside Higher Ed: Given the state of the academic job market, she asked, referring to would-be doctoral candidates: “Is it fair to bring them in?”

First, lower tiered universities can “get away” with having a larger contingent labour force?  This just seems wrong to me.  I’m too lazy to cook up the stats (in fact, if anyone wants to send me some I’d be grateful), but um…remember the whole move to unionize the graduate students at Yale in the late 90s and beyond? Wasn’t there something to the effect that almost half the classes at Yale were taught by adjuncts.  Wishful thinking, at best.  There are still the “teaching assistants,” I would imagine.  Compassion? Bullshit.  Very disingenuous.  The next paragraph suggests that the “market” (such as it is) was always pretty bad and cites the retention rate for doctoral programs (which mirrors the retention rate for undergraduates, by the way):

As Peter Berkowitz recalls from his time as a graduate student and professor at Harvard and Yale in the 1980s and ’90s: “The departments knew that something like half the students they admitted to their programs wouldn’t get Ph.D.s.” And, says Mr. Berkowitz (who is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution), “something like half of those wouldn’t get tenure-track jobs.”

The article spends a couple of paragraphs detailing the move to an adjunct labor force and notes the myth of supply and demand, but here’s the part that put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth:

Not surprisingly, these adjunct faculty members are feeling exploited and getting angry. In recent years, their concerns have been taken more seriously by the American Association of University Professors, which now has committees engaged in rigorous hand-wringing over their ordeal. Marc Bousquet, the author of “How the University Works,” sees a couple of key ironies in the academic job market: Getting a Ph.D. now often means the end of an academic career rather than the beginning of one; and the American university, which claims to be an egalitarian institution, relies on people who can only afford to take badly paid adjunct teaching positions because they have another source of income, either from a spouse’s job or a second job of their own.

One response may be: So what? Is there any compelling reason that universities — as self-interested as any institution — should reconsider their employment policies? Why not staff classes with adjunct labor? Why not give customers the same product at a lower cost?

The last question points to a bigger problem, though: Is it the same product? Who knows? Higher education has gone so far off the rails in recent years that parents and students hardly know what they are supposed to have learned in a freshman composition course or in Sociology 101. And as long as there is a degree waiting at the other end, they hardly care.

Is it better for everyone to have FT TT profs that are involved and active participants on campus (that you know, actually have an office) rather than schizophrenic adjuncts cobbling jobs together and driving all over the place to do so?  Of course, but to imply that the blame for dwindling expectations and quality is to be placed on the adjunct labor force strkes me as rather problematic.  However, I do share the same sentiments expressed in the last sentence, I see it all the time.  Radical Compartmentalization, I’m afraid, and really, how far does the BA get those students outside the meritocracy, really?

4 thoughts on “So you want to be a Professor?

  1. I think because going to graduate school involves a bit of an elevated self-judgment (and, god forbid, narcissism), everyone thinks it’s going to be the other students that will “fail”…

  2. Well, I went to college because I liked it better than the alternatives. Then I went to grad school because I looked at the alternatives and thought, what the hell. When I finished my doctorate I applied for academic jobs because I preferred them to the alternatives, and when I didn’t get one I picked up adjuncting work for three years because frankly, it was better than the alternatives. Then I got offered a permanent job. Not a great one, but better than the alternatives. And here I still am, until something better comes along I suppose.

  3. Pingback: Mark C. Taylor: Provocations? « Perverse Egalitarianism

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