Useless Suggestions for Tenured Profs

I normally really enjoy Karen K’s posts at Professor Is In. There is very little hand-wringing and drama in them, which is something one can rarely find in academic blogging. Her writing is original and hence refreshing.

Today, she disappointed me by publishing an endless and rambling post whose every other word is “privilege.” It’s OK, everybody is a little off after intense New Year’s celebrations, and even a good blogger can do some bad writing. What I find interesting in the post is that Karen makes suggestions as to what tenured professors can do to counteract the adjunct crisis. We are all dying to hear at least one intelligent, useful suggestion in this area but Karen’s ideas are profoundly disappointing. I will spare you the reading of this really poorly written post and give you the list of suggestions she makes:

Slash or halt graduate admissions.

This is a highly problematic suggestion. We are supposed to exclude qualified people from graduate studies simply because we have decided – without even looking them in the face – that they will not find jobs after graduating? How is that not the ultimate in hubris?

When I was 23, a professor tried to ban me from entering the profession. She told me she was acting in my best interest, that the idea of getting a PhD in Spanish literature with absolutely no Spanish and zero knowledge of the literature in question was hopeless, that I was too old to start something completely new, that I was wasting my and her time and my money. It has been 14 years, and I still feel nothing but intense resentment towards this hateful busybody who humiliated me by trying to manage my life. Now she tries to suck up to me at conferences because I have already made a greater contribution to the field than she ever will, and I still seethe every time I see her. This well-meaning idiot could have stolen the only career and the only life-style that can possibly make me happy. How can I now become such a meddler in somebody else’s life?

Make job market training (both academic and non-academic) central to the curriculum

This bothers me, too. We already have to justify everything we do in the classroom by how marketable the imparted skills are. We are already persecuted by administrators for not being very efficient in sales and not doing enough marketing. How much farther are we willing to take the fixation on the job market? I’m not denying that job market training is useful but making it central to a graduate degree is really bizarre.

Reduce time-to-degree of graduate programs

This suggestion betrays a profound misunderstanding of what is going on in grad schools. At my grad school, students organized a union whose central goal is to resist any attempts by the administration to shorten time-to-degree. If you ask grad students to graduate in 6 years, you will have a massive strike on your hands. Please don’t argue with me about this because the intense badgering from the believers in 10-year-long doctorates is one of the most traumatic  memories of my grad school experience.

See and include adjuncts in the running of the department-both formally and informally

Again, this is a very childish comment made by somebody who preaches without ever trying to practice. Before making these inane suggestions, one should just try to ask an adjunct to perform service obligations for free. Please be warned that a person who is paid between $900 and $3,500 per course with zero benefits and no contract is likely to spit in your face if you try to force them to take on any extra work for no extra compensation. I, for one, would not judge them badly for doing that.

Tell the truth about the corporatized funding models in their universities that sustain their salaries and research funds by cutting other labor costs through the exploitation of adjuncts.

Sounds good but kind of pointless. Tell the truth to whom? Who is the intended audience here? I also dislike the idea that exploitation of adjuncts and research funds are somehow linked. There is money both for acceptable, decent salaries for all educators and for research. Let’s fire the football coach plus two thirds of administrators and paper pushers, and the problem will be solved. It isn’t my salary and my subscription to Romance Quarterly that the exploitation of adjuncts is paying for. It pays for the yachts and country-houses of the useless administrators and sports coaches.

Karen’s post is obviously motivated by good, admirable feelings but it is as free of substance as anything else I have seen on the subject.

Do you have any ideas about how the adjunct crisis could be solved? I honestly don’t see any workable solutions that are not based on a dramatic improvement of the secondary education system, as I explained here.

P.S. I hope this will not become a thread on how everybody hates Karen K. I want to talk about issues here, not personal dislikes of specific people. Maybe I should start a thread where we can all dump on people we dislike.

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30 comments on “Useless Suggestions for Tenured Profs

  1. Some of these problems are uniquely American. Foremost among them the time to completion. I did my PhD in the UK and it took two years, normal time is three years. Including my one year MA my total post-graduate studies in London took three years. The program is meant to take four years and many take five years. But, nobody is allowed to take ten years anymore in the UK. In fact technically you can only take six by the extraordinary measure of suspending your studies for a year under a pretext (e.g. health of a family member) and then secretly using that time for research.

    Adjuncts are also a US problem. Until I finished by PhD in London in 2004 I had never heard of adjuncts. It was only while looking for a job in the US (I never even got an interview) that I encountered the term. We do not have any adjuncts at the University of Ghana.

    • Yes, I can confirm the UK length limit: in most universitites you get 3 years, with a possibility of max. 1 year extension to finish (the so-called “write-up period”, which can be 3, 6, 9 or 12 months and which has reduced fees). If you don’t submit after these 4 years, you have to re-matriculate, which involves finding new full funding for fees, if the university is willing to re-accept you at all (so basically noone does this),

      I did my PhD in another European country and it took 4 years, which were limited by funding, so this was a big motivator to finish. I have also supervised several PhD students since and they were all limited to max 4 years through funding on research grants to me as PI. With this, there is an additional obligation: not just of the students to university, but of the PI to funding agency. This means that the students have to finish within the grant time, as completion and publications resulting from that are expected by the agency and not producing them in a timely manner could affect the track-record of the PI/supervisor necessary to remain competitive to obtain further funding in the future.

      • True, but there is a big difference in the substance of graduate education in Europe and the US, because of the liberal arts orientation of secondary and BA-level work in the US. In the UK and Europe, students do much more specialized work earlier in their educational careers (reading German, maths, what have you) that American students don’t. So the first 2-3 years of a US PhD program, at least in humanities and social sciences, are devoted to specialized coursework and reading their European counterparts did in bigh school and undergrad, but is also usually more diversified and broader than in a European program. It’s also worth noting that those 10-year figures usually include 1-2 years of the MA. Which is not to say that there’s not time wasted and that better advising and better structures couldn’t move things along faster for many US-based students, but the degrees are not equivalent.

  2. As I suggested in a comment on Karen T’s post, we might try using the third party comment system to appeal to accreditation agencies. I’ve seen decisions by individual accreditors have major consequences for school policies.

    Are our professional organizations another avenue by which we might address this issue?

  3. About European PhDs: they apply for funding with their dissertation proposal, or tag along with an existing funded research program. Teaching responsibilities are often very limited, if there are any at all. In contrast, many US PhD programs require up to 2.5 years of coursework, comprehensive exams that take a semester or a year to prepare, and only then you can start on your actual dissertation research. At most universities, PhD students teach up to two classes per semester.
    Proposals to reduce time to degree are often based on the ridiculous assumption that you should be able to research and write your dissertation in 2 years.

    • I didn’t do either. US programs need to eliminate the coursework and exams for the PhD. In the UK they put all of the coursework into a one year MA. Also having PhD students teach is stupid. It takes jobs away from people who already have PhDs. So eliminate those two stupidities and you can indeed reduce the PhD program down to two years. Which is btw how long I took and I am probably the laziest person on the face of the earth.

      • ” US programs need to eliminate the coursework and exams for the PhD. ”

        – If that happens, we will have people with PhDs in, say, Hispanic Literature who have read exactly 15 books pertaining to Hispanic Literature. There is no other way to ensure people read at least the basics in their discipline than with coursework and comprehensive exams.

        My extraordinarily rigorous comprehensive exams and the 48 courses I took in my discipline are the basis of my activities as a research scholar today. I don’t understand what value a PhD not based on this comprehensive understanding of my discipline would be.

        “and you can indeed reduce the PhD program down to two years”

        – For what purpose? To have a bunch of unqualified, ignorant people who’d make a mockery of the very concept of a PhD?

        “Also having PhD students teach is stupid.”

        – How will they ever be able to teach with no training? Teaching during a PhD is extremely valuable because it eases one into teaching by taking one gradually through the mechanics of running a course.

      • “In the UK they put all of the coursework into a one year MA. ”

        – I’m extremely wary of using the UK as an example of anything because, in my discipline, the UK’s superstars of Hispanic Studies are people who don’t even speak Spanish. They read everything in translation. Of course, it is possible that other disciplines are doing better.

      • The purpose of a PhD is to show you can write a book length research work. The intensive field reading in the UK is done in a one year MA before the start of the PhD. I am not sure how writing my dissertation in two rather than ten years makes me ignorant and unqualified. But, fortunately my superiors here don’t view it that way. Teaching is something so easy that you don’t need training. I am pretty sure that US PhD students don’t receive any formal pedagogical training either. If you know your subject then you can teach it. You just get up in front of 75-100 people and talk about what you know for an hour and a half and then take questions for half an hour.

        I don’t know anything about people in Hispanic Studies in the UK. But, there have been a lot of great British historians and other scholars of other parts of the world such as Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

        • “I am not sure how writing my dissertation in two rather than ten years makes me ignorant and unqualified. But, fortunately my superiors here don’t view it that way.”

          – Gosh, I so didn’t mean you here. I’m sorry you took it this way. You are obviously a brilliant scholar. But most people are extremely bad auto-didacts and we have to take that into account.

          “I am pretty sure that US PhD students don’t receive any formal pedagogical training either.”

          – We do, actually. We took Methodology of teaching which included very structured, step-by-step introduction into independent teaching. First, we taught in front of small groups of undergrads hired specifically for the purpose of sitting through our bumbling efforts, then we observed several people teach and wrote an analysis of that, then we analyzed and wrote reports on different textbooks in the field, then we had our first controlled teaching of one hour class. Then we had feedback, then the second effort. And so on.

          I took so many courses on pedagogy and methodology of teaching that I could now do research in the field if I wanted.

          “If you know your subject then you can teach it. You just get up in front of 75-100 people and talk about what you know for an hour and a half and then take questions for half an hour.”
          :-) :-) :-)

          I remember taking one course which was like that. It was an interesting experience. :-)

      • I took one class on historiography and research methods as an MA student. Then as a PhD student you have a “tutorial” for the first term which is also on research methods. But, there is nothing in the research track of post-graduate studies in the UK on teaching methods. Nor is there anything in the history department here regarding teaching. Yet, the UK still manages to produce some capable lecturers. There are three of us in my department versus four trained in the US and the rest elsewhere.

      • I am also in the UK and this is not necessarily true. In my discipline, for instance, very, very few people complete the PhD in 3 years. Most take 4 (3 years plus one year ‘writing up’), plus the additional months while waiting around for the viva and corrections. Also, in my field, everyone teaches as a PhD student. The different with the US is that we only teach one or two courses, but it is definitely the norm and, speaking as someone who has sat on a number of hiring committees, it would be almost impossible to get a job without that experience. Finally, we do have pedagogical training in the UK, through the requirement that all lecturers undergo some form of the PGCHE. The difference is that you can opt to do part of it as a PhD student or wait until get a permanent job and do the whole thing concurrently with the first 2-3 years of your lectureship. I’m in English lit, however, so perhaps therein lies the difference between our experiences. For the record, I had two terminal MAs before starting my PhD and completed my doctorate in 2.5 years. Without all of the coursework the two MAs entailed, that would not have been possible. Now, some institutions are introducing what is called an ‘integrated PhD’, which essentially follows the American model of rolling the MA and PhD together. My own institution does not do these, thankfully, but from what I hear the results haven’t been great.

        • ” Now, some institutions are introducing what is called an ‘integrated PhD’, which essentially follows the American model of rolling the MA and PhD together. My own institution does not do these, thankfully, but from what I hear the results haven’t been great.”

          – Ugh, how silly is it to adopt an obviously problematic foreign model? Thank you for your perspective, m.

    • That would be the UK model: no teaching, no courses, 3 years to finish. But the other European countries have a different model: 4 years time limit, out of which the student has to take 1 year of courses. Plus teaching is included, as the PhD is a job (the student is an employee, unlike in UK/Ireland where the PhD student is a student) and 25% of time or more is expected to be spent on dept duties, which is mostly for TAing.

  4. I spent four years in grad school, but that was an unusually short time compared to my contemporaries. I am philosophically opposed to time limits, since research often cannot be forced. I had one professor in my first year of grad school [when I was a physics major] who spent ten years in grad school because his advisor had no funding to replace a betatron donut. Thus, he spent years building one from scratch so he could begin collecting data.

    Some universities are creating jobs called “Continuing non-tenure-track faculty.” Their job is solely teaching and service, with no expectation of research or scholarly activity. I think their pay is around 70% of that of tenured faculty. This is certainly not optimal, but it is far better than the way adjuncts are treated.

  5. As a number of bloggers have now pointed out, any real solutions to the adjunct crisis are beyond the power of TT faculty, no matter how well intentioned. The secondary system (as you suggest), legislators, boards of trustees, etc. are the real culprits. But is there really nothing that TT faculty can do? A few things to consider w/r/t Karen’s (she’s Karen K, BTW) suggestions:

    Slashing/halting graduate admissions is neither desirable nor realistic for all kinds of reasons, but graduate admissions are part of the problem, particularly in departments that rely on graduate students for teaching. Departments accept more students than they can ever expect to place in full-time jobs in order to staff service courses like first-year comp. The legitimate desire of individual students to study a topic in depth has to be weighed against this kind of rank exploitation. This is of course related to the issue of time-to-degree. Students who are expected to teach (for example) two writing-intensive classes per semester are going to take longer to finish than students who are given the resources to focus on their research and not treated as cheap labor. Fewer graduate students with the expectation of a shorter time to degree would require universities to staff courses more responsibly and equitably.

    I’m not clear on what’s childish about the suggestion that adjuncts be included in the running of departments. Should they be asked to do additional work for free? Of course not. But all too often, the “oh, we can’t ask adjuncts to do X–they’re not paid enough” (where X = attend meetings, think about solutions to problem Y, take part in curriculum planning, or the like) means cutting them out of the decisions that affect their working lives. In a department where adjunct faculty do a significant proportion of the teaching, TT faculty have little power to substantially change that state of affairs. They can’t, by sheer force of will, convert those jobs into TT lines or increase salaries. They can, however, make sure the people doing the work get a voice in the institution. That’s not nothing.

    The exploitation of adjuncts and the corporatization of the university are linked through research, but I don’t think anyone sees your subscription to Romance Quarterly as the problem. The problem is that for many institutional administrators “research” has come to mean exclusively “STEM research with practical applications that can pull in hefty external grants.” By this model, humanities research doesn’t even register (among BOTs and administrators) as a relevant thing for the university to pay any attention to. Humanities matters only as a roster of gen. ed. courses that have to be required of STEM majors to maintain accreditation–and those classes can be taught cheaply by adjuncts, freeing up more money for the kinds of “research” that administrators take seriously. (Obviously, I’m painting an exaggerated and grim picture here, but the argument for NOT seeing the academic world this way is one I see my TT colleagues having to make over and over to administrators.)

    • “I’m not clear on what’s childish about the suggestion that adjuncts be included in the running of departments. ”

      – The thing is, I have seen the administration try this a few times but the push back from the part-time teaching faculty was really intense. Like “if this conversation continues, I’m calling my union representative and then a lawyer” intense. I once asked a part-time colleague about her opinion on a matter pertaining to running the department and what I heard was a very aggressive “This is not part of my job duties, please take a look at my contract.”

      Maybe it’s just my university, I don’t know, but I’m seeing such an intense resistance from part-timers to any involvement in anything that is not coming into the classroom and then leaving it at specified times that I’m honestly scared of suggesting they participate in anything else.

      Last semester, the Chair met a part-time instructor in the hallway and asked how things were going. Such a fury was unleashed against him (and me, who wasn’t even in the building at the time) that we spent the next 2 days apologizing for I don’t even know what. So how likely am I to ask a part-time colleague to do anything nor specified in her contract? Not very likely.

      • Oh dear. Well, with experiences like that I can understand your response to TPII’s suggestion!

        Sometimes I feel like people arguing about academia are like the three blind men and the elephant (if you don’t know the story, they try to agree on the nature of the animal they’ve encountered, but one touches the trunk, another touches the tail, the third touches the side, so unsurprisingly they all find each other completely ignorant about what elephants are like.)

        Here’s what my side of the elephant looks like: a department where there is NO contact between TT and adjunct faculty–people don’t even know each other’s names, much less interact socially. The hierarchical divide is deep and rarely breached. Inviting a adjunct rep to sit in on committee meetings that have a grad student rep was a recent (and much welcomed) innovation. As a result, adjunct faculty are depressingly grateful if their opinion gets asked on ANYTHING. It might be relevant that the faculty (both TT and NTT) is not unionized. It’s particularly galling because the current pressing problem is that the department is hemorrhaging majors. Grad students and NTTs teach 70%-80% of the students who take courses in the department and might have something useful to say about how to staunch the flow (particularly the NTTs who have decades of teaching experience, some of them in a variety of institutions), but there is NO department context for soliciting their ideas.

      • And – an important clarification: we don’t have adjuncts at my school. We have part-time instructors with very good contracts, benefits, and protected by the union. They don’t have PhD and have no reason to feel resentful or passed over to give me a TT. And still, here is how they react to the suggestion of extra work.

        I don’t even want to imagine how people who are actually exploited would react.

      • The combination of part time + contract might explain the reaction that you get. If the precise boundaries of one’s role in the department are spelled out, then being asked to step over those boundaries can be a big deal. Adjuncts in my department are full-time, with benefits and a non-exploitative salary. Some have terminal degrees (Ph.D. or MFA), some are ABD. The current administration gives the long timers (> 7 years) de facto permanent employment, but retention procedures for more recent hires are fuzzy and vary from year to year. Still, as adjunct gigs go, it’s pretty good. What breeds resentment in this case is the lack of acknowledgment or recognition of the way the department depends on them. If that acknowledgement brought with it some expectation of (say) committee service, I don’t think it would create the kind of anger you describe.

        Adjunct/NTT/part-timer/contingent pathology probably varies a lot, from department to department, and institution to institution, depending on the nature of the contracts, the institutional history, the presence of a union (or not), the nature of the pool from which such faculty are drawn, etc. That’s why it makes sense for TT faculty to think through the nature of the relationship. In some institutions, like yours, there may be no need for modification (the relationship is spelled out in union contracts specifying its limited nature). In others, there may be room to make things better for everyone, both the exploited adjuncts and the institutions they serve.

    • We don’t have adjuncts but we do have full time instructors with benefits and raises and they outnumber the research faculty. It is hell to get them to attend meetings, let alone do service reliably. But they have the right to weigh in on things, so their refusal to participate really blocks us getting anything done. Also, since they only have MAs and do not do faculty development, they are not up to date nor do they have the kind of training the research faculty has. This makes it really difficult, with them voting and outnumbering us, to make any up to date or fully informed decisions. So, no, I do not favor letting adjuncts and contingent faculty run the department, sorry.

      • “It is hell to get them to attend meetings, let alone do service reliably. But they have the right to weigh in on things, so their refusal to participate really blocks us getting anything done. Also, since they only have MAs and do not do faculty development, they are not up to date nor do they have the kind of training the research faculty has.”

        – Oh yes. This is a huge problem which I don’t know how even to begin to solve.

  6. “The problem is that for many institutional administrators “research” has come to mean exclusively “STEM research with practical applications that can pull in hefty external grants.” By this model, humanities research doesn’t even register (among BOTs and administrators) as a relevant thing for the university to pay any attention to. Humanities matters only as a roster of gen. ed. courses that have to be required of STEM majors to maintain accreditation–and those classes can be taught cheaply by adjuncts, freeing up more money for the kinds of “research” that administrators take seriously.”

    I want to like this almost a million times, maybe more.

    A lot of blame can also be laid at the feet of employers who want job ready worker bees who already have the skills needed at the moment rather than smart people who can be trained.

  7. More students than ever are entering and attending college. This SHOULD mean that we have more professors than ever. Instead we have the “adjunctification” of the university. Honestly I think the adjunct problem is almost completely manufactured by two issues–one structural and one “emotional”/perceptual. Structurally speaking, administrative bloat is at the heart of any “funding crisis” that supposedly prevents institutions from hiring tenure track faculty. At my institution for instance, one “upper-level” administrative salary is roughly equivalent to _four_ tenured faculty lines. That is a huge huge problem. Schools could function with 1) Less administration and 2) Cheaper administration. And though administrative bloat does come up in conversations surrounding academic issues, it is hardly ever a consistent focus of discussion. Anyone who cares about higher education or who are involved in discussions about higher education, should consistently, if not obsessively, focus on the very real problem of administrative bloat. Instead we get endless discussions about “privileged” professors and discussions about how students should stop entering graduate school and discussions about “out of touch” professors who evilly ignore the concerns of adjuncts.

    And this brings me to what I see as an “emotional” or perceptual problem: the general public disdain of tenure/perception that professors are lazy and out of touch. The general public seems to think it’s completely fine to eliminate tenure lines. There is no push back if administrators decide to covert tenured lines in to adjunct lines. Voters in states with large public higher education systems (like Texas and California for instance) don’t make a peep as tenure lines are lost. Parents and students don’t protest when tenure lines are lost. People generally seem to think that tenure is akin to a luxury car: unnecessary and only for the spoiled. And sadly, those people who are involved in public discussions of higher education only fuel this perception. The problem is not faculty. And focusing on faculty foibles (like extending an MLA invitation too late) and describing faculty as privileged and out of touch only fuels this perception.

    Personally, I am getting so tired of attacks on faculty and on the profession in general. Students SHOULD attend graduate school if they desire. People SHOULD be excited to enter this profession. It’s not for everybody of course but this is a wonderful and amazing profession that actually makes our country a better place. But we need tenure to maintain the profession. And I just wish more people talked about the beauty of the profession, about the need for tenure, and about the evils of administrative bloat. Ugh. Rant over. :)

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