Academic Labor: A Response to Bérubé and Ruth

BY MICHAEL DECESARE

On Thursday, I posted Michael Bérubé’s and Jennifer Ruth’s rejoinder to Maria Maisto’s and Seth Kahn’s review of their book The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Academe, May-June 2016, 47-50).

Below is Maisto’s and Kahn’s response to Bérubé’s and Ruth’s rejoinder. Please continue this important conversation in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.


We are grateful for the opportunity to have this dialogue with Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth. We thank them for their response, particularly because it helps us to clarify the terms of our agreements, which are many, and disagreements, which are few but significant.

In a nutshell: we agree that patronage hiring is bad, but think that they’ve missed an important point about how it got that way, and don’t agree that their proposal is necessary to solve it; tenure is important, but don’t agree that terminal degrees, while important and valuable, are inherently connected to it.

Put another way, we agree that large-scale changes are necessary (to borrow their word), but don’t agree that the harm which they acknowledge their proposal does to current contingent faculty is an acceptable price to pay to ensure the viability of the profession—in fact we see that aspect of their proposal as undermining the ethical foundation of the profession. Our critiques and counter-suggestions, some of which they misunderstood or overlooked, seek to build on what we see as valuable in their proposal: its clear commitment to finding solutions to the contingent employment crisis and its argument for the importance of due process, academic freedom, and shared governance—what we see as the substance, if not the current practice, of tenure.

We’ll begin by acknowledging that we didn’t address patronage hiring in our review. So: we agree that patronage hiring is bad. (So are other forms of ad hoc hiring—casual, over-the-phone or by-the department-administrative-assistant hiring.)  It’s not just bad because it is unfair to people who are not getting a fair shot at employment opportunity or because it represents a disinvestment in tenure. It’s also bad because it is a major reason for the existence of the “adjunct stigma.”  People who have gone through a more formal hiring process will always be susceptible to bias against people who have gone through a less formal hiring process, even if the informally hired person could have easily passed the formal hiring process had they been given a chance. Patronage and ad hoc hiring poison institutions.

With that said, much of the point we’re after is that their proposal isn’t the right way to address that problem. A much simpler solution is to hire systematically, support equally, evaluate rigorously, and pay fairly, grandfathering in all current contingent faculty who have demonstrated by their service that they deserve to be there as much as any other faculty member who may have a tenure line or a terminal degree. We can do both of those tomorrow without having to argue about terminal degrees or job descriptions or tenure at all; in fact, we included such a recommendation in the CCCC Statement on Working Conditions for NTT Writing Faculty (we co-chaired the Task Force that wrote this statement). This would be a way to affirm that the problem with patronage/ad hoc hires isn’t the quality of people who get hired that way—an unfortunate first impression of Bérubé and Ruth’s proposal.

In fact, in her chapter on patronage, Ruth acknowledges that the system of casual hiring and evaluation “is by no means the contingent faculty member’s fault” but rather the fault of “the TT faculty and administrators who let the academy grow dependent on casual hiring and low wages instead of investing in the kinds of processes and that confer professional legitimacy” (117). We agree, and are arguing simply that punishing contingent faculty for what we all agree is a systemic flaw doesn’t make sense, especially when there are ways to address the systemic flaw without the punishment.

We are glad Bérubé and Ruth acknowledge that contingent faculty often prove themselves to be competent, even excellent instructors in spite of how they were hired and what their working conditions are, and that TT faculty and administrators must be held accountable for their role in creating and perpetuating this system.

At the risk of being provocative, we would suggest that these two acknowledgments perhaps indicate that the systemic and structural problem with the patronage/ad hoc system is not the absence of terminal degrees, but has arisen within the ostensibly “rigorous process of peer review” that has allowed tenured faculty to keep perpetuating such an obviously flawed system (this is not a blanket critique of tenure, by the way). This process has, after all, allowed the emergence of tenured faculty who become the patrons and the managers who leave the hiring to others—who implement or tolerate the patronage system and don’t take a stand against other exploitative contingent faculty employment practices, as Bérubé and Ruth do. Many of these tenured faculty “let” contingent hiring practices persist because they misunderstand, as we argued by invoking Gaff and Hamilton, that tenure was not intended to protect individual career advancement at the expense of colleagues but rather to protect and promulgate the principles of collegiality, academic freedom, due process and shared governance that should protect all faculty.

Punishing contingent faculty for how they are hired (by continuing to deny them access to essential tools of the profession including professional compensation, academic freedom, due process, and shared governance) is, we hope Bérubé and Ruth agree, an egregious extension of blaming the victim. Fixing it by giving only terminal degree-holders access to tenure may also be illegal, as we explain further down in this post.

Next, we have to register our surprise that Bérubé and Ruth have characterized us as anti-tenure and anti-terminal degree. As directly as we can put it, nowhere in our review do we argue for totally ignoring the terminal degree or abolishing tenure. The statement that seems to have triggered Bérubé and Ruth’s impassioned attack on our alleged anti-terminal degree proclivities is our questioning of whether terminal degrees are currently a prerequisite for “high quality teaching and research.” Because they agree that terminal degrees are not evidence of teaching ability, we surmise from their discussion that it was the inclusion of “research” that caused them to conclude we are opposed to terminal degrees.

Maybe it would help clarify our position to put it this way: what we know from decades of evidence is that many faculty without terminal degrees are fine teachers; therefore, requiring terminal degrees for teaching-intensive positions seems superfluous (and possibly illegal). We aren’t contending that terminal-degree holders are worse teachers, but that imposing a requirement when that requirement doesn’t speak to the actual work of the position doesn’t make sense—or certainly isn’t necessary. While we would agree that being able to do research can enhance teaching, we think it’s important to distinguish research that any thoughtful teacher might do (which many people without terminal degrees are already doing) from research currently required for tenure (which many faculty without terminal degrees are also doing, but sometimes without the same level of training).

Truth be told, we would find the proposal less problematic if they didn’t distinguish between teaching and research-intensive positions at all. We appreciate that Bérubé and Ruth make clear that their proposal is motivated as much or more by concern for graduate education and the value of the PhD as by the situation of current contingent faculty, and that they are trying to address all of these issues in one proposal. “[T]hat is our bias,” they say,  their “own skin in the game– we want to preserve (with modifications) some semblance of the current system of graduate education. Yes, we do.” While we aren’t inclined to take a yes/no position on the question of preserving graduate education, we aren’t convinced that protecting graduate programs at the expense of current contingent faculty is the right thing to do. Their “skin in the game” is different from ours. In our positions as faculty and activists, on committees and task forces within our professional organizations, we work every day with the people who would pay the price for this proposal. And just like Bérubé and Ruth don’t apologize for prioritizing graduate education (nor do they need to), we don’t apologize for prioritizing the well-being of our colleagues.

Nor do we see any reason that these are mutually exclusive choices. We would like to know more about what “modifications” Bérubé and Ruth would advocate for graduate education. We posit at least two, for the sake of conversation.

First, as we’ve seen people arguing recently, doctoral programs need to do more to prepare students for teaching-intensive careers. Not only does that require more actual training/support in pedagogy and curriculum, but it also requires some change in the culture that discourages candidates from applying for teaching-heavy jobs (like Seth’s, which is a 4/4 teaching load, plus 35% scholarship and 15% service requirements). In other words, if there’s going to be a connection between PhDs and teaching-intensiveness, that needs to be woven into PhD programs explicitly. In the meantime, holding people responsible for not having training that most people don’t have doesn’t seem to solve anything.

Second, graduate programs need to offer access to current contingent faculty so that the contingent faculty can reap the benefits. We made this point in our review. At no point did we say, or imply, that there’s nothing to be gained from more graduate education. But demanding it entails some responsibility across the profession to help the people who apparently need or want it the most to get it. We can hear some readers saying that if non-PhD-holding faculty want PhDs, they should just go get them. That position ignores the reality of many contingent faculty lives: the severe financial stresses that casualized, part-time employees face across all economic sectors, amplified by the debt that many contingent faculty carry from the graduate training they already do have, and by the demographics of gender, particularly, and age and race that we raised in our review. (This point is far from being “muddled,” by the way; there is plenty of research documenting the feminization of contingency as well as the increased likelihood that contingent faculty who are women are less likely to have terminal degrees. This is why the New Faculty Majority has a project on Women and Contingency.)  If the lack of PhDs has enabled higher education to systematically exploit contingent faculty as a class, then helping contingent faculty get PhDs seems much more a fair response to current contingent faculty than simply to replace them with newly hired PhDs. Otherwise, as we’ve been contending all along, people who deserve better because of their commitments and work they’ve already done simply get left behind.

Our critique, therefore, is not of tenure, nor of terminal degrees, in themselves, as good. We clearly agree that tenure-eligible positions are better—in terms of shared governance and due process and academic freedom—than non-tenure-track contingent positions. We also agree that PhDs are valuable. We just do not agree that PhDs are necessary for quality teaching, or that requiring PhDs for teaching-intensive positions follows. Again, we would agree more readily with their position if they didn’t specify teaching-intensive as the frame for more tenure-track positions. That specification simultaneously puts prospective new hires into unnecessary competition (about which we’ll say more below) with current contingent faculty, and concedes the most concrete rationale for the PhD—its necessity to job performance.

Interestingly, we have recently discovered (in support of our argument that we need to pay attention to labor law in proposing any solutions to the contingent faculty crisis), that instituting a requirement such as the terminal degree for tenure-line teaching jobs may well be illegal, according to the EEOC’s Compliance Manual on Compensation Discrimination. The EEOC explains that superior compensation cannot be justified on the basis of pre-hire qualifications that are inconsistently applied and that have proven inconsequential, including  through longstanding satisfactory performance without them. In other words, where the responsibilities of teaching-intensive tenure line positions are essentially identical to those of teaching-intensive contingent positions, if the terminal degree is not required for the contingent positions, then it cannot suddenly be required for access to the tenure line positions either. As the EEOC states, “continued reliance on pre-hire qualifications is less reasonable the longer the lower paid employee has performed at a level substantially equal to, or greater than, his or her counterpart.”  We expect that the EEOC would find this definition applies pretty accurately to faculty without terminal degrees re-hired year after year—sometimes for decades.

The absurdity of what Marc Bousquet famously calls “permatemping” is why we are glad that Bérubé and Ruth acknowledge our point about “our profession’s obligations to currently-serving contingent faculty members.” We disagree with their characterization of our position as “overrid[ing] any concern about the current system of graduate education,” though we acknowledge we didn’t discuss graduate education in the short space of our review of their book. In fact we see the recent attention to “alt-ac” careers and the stronger alliances between graduate students and contingent faculty advocating  for the profession as a welcome development in graduate education—it gives us hope that the new generation of tenure-line faculty will understand, better than previous generations have, that advocacy for contingent faculty is service to the profession and an integral component of their professional development.

Happily, we all seem to agree that academic freedom and due process are essential to good teaching. Thus we are baffled by Bérubé and Ruth’s contention that we are anti-tenure. Our fundamental objection to their proposal is not tenure, to the extent that tenure protects due process and academic freedom for all faculty, but instead to construing it as a reward to some faculty for individual merit. We object to their insistence on tying tenure exclusively to the terminal degree, whether people apply for tenure-line positions fresh out of graduate school or through some kind of conversion path from contingency.

We agree that due process and academic freedom, which are supposed to be secured by tenure, are essential components of the profession and protect research and teaching; that’s why we do not understand why Bérubé and Ruth would propose a solution that continues to deny access to these rights and protections to the majority of faculty, who sometimes happen not to have terminal degrees. Bérubé and Ruth put a great deal of faith in the notion that departments will opt to respect current contingent faculty under AAUP guidelines concerning longevity, tenure, and academic freedom. We’re less optimistic, largely on the grounds that if units were going to respect contingent faculty that way, they already would. Out of respect for students, the protections traditionally provided by tenure should not have to be a reward for faculty with or without terminal degrees but rather the final step in a reasonable hiring and evaluation process that includes appropriate support for faculty throughout.

Finally, a note about Bérubé and Ruth’s clarification of their controversial statement indicting the “curious anti-elitism of the left.” The explanation is welcome because it illuminates a subtle but important difference in how we conceive of the relationship of tenure to labor. We would suggest that they misunderstand the argument of at least some of those whom they call the “anti-elitist left.” These folks do not oppose tenure (due process and academic freedom) as being in itself a special privilege that no faculty member should have because people in other industries don’t have it; the argument included in that passage is not one either of us has ever heard any self-professed “leftist” make. Instead, these folks (who may or may not be “leftists”) understand tenure (due process and academic freedom) as labor rights particular and necessary to the profession of college teaching, in the same way that air quality protection is a labor right particular and necessary to mining, or to working in a nail salon.

What we think these anti-elitist folks object to is the notion that only (tenure-line) college faculty, not miners or nail salon workers, have any sort of labor right particular and necessary to their profession. That’s the anti-elitist piece that we affirm—college professors aren’t the only workers who need rights particular to their work. In this way, college teaching really isn’t any different from any other kind of labor, nor should it be. Finally, we think that most people would agree that it is wrong, whether or not it is elitist, to reserve this labor right—access to due process and academic freedom, which is particular and necessary to all college teaching—for an arbitrarily defined group of workers in the industry (those on tenure lines) rather than for everyone who teaches college.

To put it more succinctly, Bérubé and Ruth seem to construe tenure as an individual reward that should be “earned,” traditionally on the basis of terminal degree status and research productivity, which they would like to see extended to terminal-degree holders who teach and are hired properly. Our notion of tenure, following Gaff and Hamilton’s excellent explanation of the way that contemporary faculty have misunderstood the history and purpose of tenure, is that tenure represents a social contract and should therefore be tied primarily to the fact of employment as a college teacher, not to terminal-degree status.

In the end, our question to Bérubé and Ruth (and others who are concerned about the issues) is: if it is inevitable that any solution to the adjunct faculty crisis is going to cause harm to some people, why is it OK that the people who will be harmed are the adjunct faculty who applied for and took teaching positions in good faith, many of them naively or with the encouragement of both well-intentioned and cynical faculty and administrators, rather than tenured faculty, departments, and institutions who implemented what they knew were unethical, exploitative practices? Is that the kind of professional ethics we really want to practice? We simply disagree that “not changing the condition of” faculty without terminal degrees does not translate into harming them. Bérubé and Ruth’s concession to current contingent faculty to is allow them to keep their jobs—the very same jobs that are bad enough to have provided the exigency for their argument in the first place. That’s not good enough. At the very least, we could work toward establishing funding for the dignified retirements and for PhD study we recommended. In short, why should any adjuncts be required to lose their jobs in order to save the profession when they are not the ones who created the crisis?

What we object to, based on our understanding of professionalism and professional ethics, is inconsistency, injustice, and inequality, which we think their proposal as currently constructed restructures rather than redresses. We obviously disagree on the relative weight that research, teaching, terminal degree status, and teaching experience should have in determining whether a faculty member should move from precarity to a status guaranteeing due process and academic freedom in higher education. If they want to make entry into the profession different/better than it has been up to this point, we have no quarrel with that plan. However, we simply cannot agree with a plan that punishes current adjuncts for the mistakes of those who hired them and those who have benefited from their work.

We hope we can persuade Bérubé and Ruth that the social contract at the heart of higher education and faculty work demands that this work must be protected by due process and academic freedom no matter who is doing the work or what their pre-hire qualifications might have been (remember, we argued earlier for evaluations that are fair, rigorous and systematic—so we’re not arguing that the simple fact of having been hired is enough to justify keeping it; there must be evidence that people are doing well enough). But by continually re-hiring contingent faculty, institutions profess to the public that these faculty are qualified to teach, and if these institutions don’t provide all of these faculty with due process and safeguarded academic freedom whether through tenure, collective bargaining, or some other yet-to-be discovered method, then they have betrayed the public as much as they have betrayed the faculty members and students these faculty teach.

23 thoughts on “Academic Labor: A Response to Bérubé and Ruth

  1. I’m going to have to research this conversation more, but I’m wondering what would be wrong with a tenure teaching track that simply adopts a pay scale system to accommodate varying levels of credentials? So, person A has a MA or MFA and earns a certain amount, and the terminal degree holder earns a higher amount to compensate for the extra credential, yet both have professional working conditions.

    At any rate, I think it’s already been established that contingent faculty are overall more experienced in the teaching-intensive lifestyle already; they are just not being compensated fairly for their work, and due to having little to no due process, academic freedom, or shared governance, students and taxpayers are cheated. Also, contingent faculty are already pretty well mobilized and have a natural kinship-by-exploitation with students, grad students, and organized labor on campus. Given these conditions, the combined forces are capable of demonstrating great negotiating power and would probably not react well to a top-down deepening of the academic caste system already in place. When it comes down to it, I think it’s really about the labor in itself. If two potters make equally durable and aesthetically pleasing vases, to pay one potter less than the price of the materials it took to make it just because she doesn’t have a certain credential would, in my opinion, only be justifiable to the person/people who would benefit by getting away with the theft. I’m more inclined to support all potters coming together and raising the floor for all.

  2. Our colleagues Maria and Seth persuade us that in asking people to focus on specific reforms, we have risked distracting them from the bigger picture, which is and must be that due process and academic freedom (which we think is only real if backed by job security) underwrites the social contract not just between universities and their faculty but between universities and the public. Faculty have credibility when doing their jobs whether in teaching, service, or research only to the extent that they are not beholden to any person or group other than their own similarly independent peers, intellects, and consciences — just as, to take one example at random, doctors only have credibility when the prescriptions they write don’t carry financial kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies. This should be built into the jobs and we violate faculty rights when we violate this contract between universities and the public.

    They also remind us that we know very well who created this mess: the tenured faculty and administrators, all of whom might have used their powers within the university to refuse to build a shadow workforce without the pay, involvement in governance, and job security they need. We violated the social contract, again and again, adjunct section by adjunct section. And should the people we hired be punished for our negligence? And shouldn’t we ourselves have to pay a cost to repair the damage? The specific issue that we have narrowed in on as a real disagreement — whether priority for positions should be given to terminal degree-holders or whether already-teaching faculty deserve priority regardless of credentials –is a complicated one with complicated implications, for the people already teaching and for graduate students and the schools that train them. Who can deny the argument that Miranda Merklein makes above — that a potter making the same pot as another deserves the same pay and labor rights whether she has the same credential or not? Conversely, who can deny the argument that the social contract between the laborer and the public rests in part on the presumption that various trades and professions are training and regulating their members adequately? that the doctor we see for that prescription has the training we assume she has? (We note that no one licenses doctors or architects who have completed most of their degree programs.) But this question will have to be decided by each department for itself. How are the faculty who run the department — that is, if we’re honest, the ones with job security — going to repair the social contract? What can they live with? Stiffing the people they’ve already hired or stiffing PhDs who will never know of the jobs that they should have been able to apply for? And to create the better jobs themselves — with equitable pay and access to tenure– what can these faculty live with? Higher courseloads or bigger classes for everyone so fewer people are hired overall but more people hired the right way and with the labor right of access to academic freedom that their jobs require? Shrinking enrollment and playing hardball with administrators until money is coughed up for better jobs and swallowing the unpleasantness that will come with that (no money for course releases, travel, etc.)? The specifics of budgets and battles will not be decided by online debates but within each department. Each department must ask themselves these questions and there is no better way to start that discussion, we think, than by reading Seth and Maria’s final sentence: “by continually re-hiring contingent faculty, institutions profess to the public that these faculty are qualified to teach, and if these institutions don’t provide all of these faculty with due process and safeguarded academic freedom whether through tenure, collective bargaining, or some other yet-to-be discovered method, then they have betrayed the public as much as they have betrayed the faculty members and students these faculty teach.” If you can’t argue with this — and we can’t — then don’t you need to accept the challenge to reform yourself?

    –Michael and Jennifer

  3. My perception is that contingent faculty across the country are pressing mightily for reforms, from the bottom of the caste system up. We are especially indebted to activist leaders like Maisto and Kahn. But who is listening in our ‘every man for himself’ culture where higher ed employment is perceived as a meritocracy? If we can get to the idea that the wealth (though limited) needs to be shared, that each faculty member actually matters and that their work has merit, we might be able to start fixing the terribly broken system that is higher ed employment. It is good to place the responsibility on individual departments, but where is the pressure point? I think it needs to come in government regulation, the EEOC as Maisto and Kahn suggest, for instance. The individual departments have shown that they will not do it on their own.

  4. What power do English departments–or any department in the humanities–have in the corporatized university?

    Does not might make right when not even tenured professors have real job security without some sort of legally-binding contract that is enforceable beyond professional standards or regulations? I guess I don’t see how anything can be resolved in a vulnerable department on its own.

    • Just to say: I agree with “classical warrior” that the real pressure for change is coming from contingent faculty themselves and activists like Seth and Maria. I can’t agree with you, Miranda, that departments have no power in the corporatized university. As long as a department has a budget and control over hiring, there are many things tenured faculty can do to make their departments more ethical, equitable, and expand access to academic tenure.

      • [While Maria and write the review and reply together, this one is just me. I wouldn’t put her on the hook for what I’m about to say. :)]

        Miranda, I’m with Jennifer on that–there’s more power than it seems, at least in most places. The skill and willingness to use it vary widely.

        And that I think is where “real pressure for change” needs to focus more than we probably have–on departments, getting them to do what they already can do but aren’t. Some of that is about convincing individual faculty to think (and decide/vote) differently on policies. Some of it is about working to integrate equity issues into the everyday lives and discussions of departments so that it’s not just “activists” and “malcontents” who are “making trouble” when we talk about this stuff.

        In what might sound pretty schadenfreude-laden to some people, I very much hope to live to see the day when the academic labor culture has shifted so far that people who refuse to be involved in creating/sustaining equity/equality are the ones whose names we know, instead of the people trying to do it right.

      • Whether departments have power or not to make ethical changes in support of contingent faculty, and I think that varies widely by institution, my point is that they have shown that they are not particularly interested in doing so. They BELIEVE in the 2-tier system because it reinforces their own merit. I cannot identify myself because I have worked in a hostile workplace for a very long time. Call me cynical, but I think we need government regulations to protect academic laborers. We cannot count on our departments and tenure-line colleagues to do so.

      • I am thrilled to see this conversation happening, at last! Thank you, Seth, Maria, Jennifer, and Michael. I just want to add briefly that I’ve adjuncted at 6 institutions, and was FT at one other, and taught as post-grad at another in the UK. Unlike some others, Jennifer treated me as a professional: with dignity, respect, and thoughtful hiring from merit based vetting through to steady appointments of Lit & Comp, grad and undergrad levels. She personally hired me, though I was already an adjunct in the system, and she also invited me to participate in department meetings, should I choose to.

        She exercised her power as chair to provide every professional decency she could given the design by failure of the contingency system. Was it perfect? No, but I also made the most $ of my adjunct career under her management and employment was stable, usually 3/3/4/3. This came to an abrupt end when she stepped down and a new chair opted to hire his own people. I didn’t fight it at the time because I was hurt, broke, and scrambling to find other gigs so I could pay rent. I regret not fighting, though. I guess I’m making up for that, now, fighting for others.

        I do have a PhD and I learned a lot about pedagogy, research, and academe in general attaining it. This is not to say that many MA holders aren’t excellent teachers and researchers: they clearly are. I think any redesign will court trade-offs, though. There are simply too many contingents in the system and we need to convert many of those appointments to tenure-track positions. Rigorous hiring and review practices must be standardized, and this will likely weed out the hobbyists, the poor performers, and those who really are not qualified to teach courses. There is a lot at stake for student debtors (85% of undergrads take on some form of debt: federal and/or private), and I’ve seen too many administrators and faculty with too little skin in the game. That needs to end. Jennifer got this and never backed down. She challenged the status quo with grace and fierce intelligence; she’s a game changer.

        I’m not just singing her praises, I’m optimistic that her vision, coupled with Michael’s, will work if/when implemented. If their little book of excellent ideas is put into play, professional equity, job security, quality, and dignity is on the horizon. Like Seth says, and I agree, it probably won’t happen anytime soon because this massive ship will take time to about-face.

        Talk. Organize. Take it to the streets! Whose schools?

      • The big thing in the corporatized university is not having that kind of control over own budget and hiring any longer. It’s possible to hire FT instructors with benefits as opposed to a patchwork of part-timers without, I have found, but it is only sometimes possible to hire to TT as opposed to contract because shared governance is no longer what it was. We’ve even had candidates presented to us by administration as opposed to find them as the result of a search based on a job description we designed. Right now we are looking at (a) continuing to pursue moral suasion, (b) filing grievance, and (c) labor action as the only posssibilities. This is to get more TT hires, not to get benefits/raises/offices/FT work for contingent faculty, because those things, we’ve already got.

  5. Well, I sure hope that you two are right, and it’s possible that I’m a bit cynical given what I’ve witnessed in English departments from CCs to R1s (although your being right in this case would mean that I’ll have to find a new line of work!).

    If this power does exist, that immediately puts tenured faculty on the line for securing equitable conditions for contingent faculty. I’m sure adjuncts across the land will be pleased to know that you are ready to take the reins.

    • On the line? I certainly think so. Ready to take on the responsibility? Less saccharine about that. I doubt your line of work is going anywhere for a while.

      • Not saccharine. I should read my own posts before I post them.

        I don’t expect large-scale shifts to happen quickly. At the same time, if I didn’t have any faith in them happening at all, I wouldn’t try.

  6. Strange. Many of the same people who are arguing against terminal degrees for faculty hiring were up in arms about a month ago when a university in New Jersey shuttered its faculty-run writing center and replaced the mostly-adjunct staff with student employees. Apparently you don’t need a PhD to be a decent teacher…but you better have a Master’s Degree before you even think of tutoring somebody in remedial writing!

    • Phil, you are putting forward a false analogy. The remedial writing centre issue appears to be one in which an unethical employer has displaced employees with less expensive and less experienced students. It has little to do with degree credentials, and a lot to do with employee rights and the fact that experience on the job usually leads to better performance of that job.

  7. I’m going to come back and read more carefully, but I’m on several committees that spend a lot of time discussing these issues and there are a few points in this discussion that I, personally, find crucial. The first is that non-tenured faculty are, as a group, markedly distinguished in the diversity of their experiences, educations, skill sets, and knowledge bases. This presents a marvelous opportunity for maximizing flexibility and individualized adjustments that play to each person’s strengths. Some may thrive in a “tenure-lite” role that affords them opportunities for research, others may want to focus on enhancing specific pedagogical approaches. But phrases like equally supported and treated the same give me pause. I’d think the last thing that would make working conditions better would be to try to push this huge amorphous group into one mold. I’ll confess that I also worry about the value of terminal degrees being diminished. (Though I write as one with a foot in both camps…I’m “already here” and have been teaching a long time — so am not the fresh ingenue straight out of school hitting a competitive job market, but I do have a PhD). While it’s possible to be a phenomenally great teacher without as much training and scholarship, it is harder. I know that I am a better teacher when I have time to think about research, academic debates, composing, and participating in scholarly discourse. Research and teaching can often reinforce each other so everyone needn’t be one or the other (though some may want to compartmentalize and there should be room for that). Those who went to get the terminal degrees also engaged sacrifices and delayed the commencement of accumulating seniority and benefits that their FT peers started while they were still undergoing a good deal of rigorous training and learning. So, it should count for something in the mix. Aware that I may sound like a throw back to the sixties, I think it really matters that we focus on treating everyone as individuals with different gifts and needs at least as much as we focus on “rigorous assessment” and equality in all things. During periods of upheaval, there are chances for some moderate changes uniquely tailored to the individuals involved. Positive evolution doesn’t always have to mean sweeping, generalized reforms (or dumping a bunch of people straight out the door, or freezing out new PhDs, or paying everyone a uniformly low salary). More subtle changes could work. The less that people feel locked into regimented tiers (“tenured research fellow” vs. “serf-like lecturer”) the more they may collaborate, relax, and grow more innovative and creative in themselves and together. In my experience, we lecturers are not serfs. We are just different (sometimes that difference is actually beneficial, as when we can focus on teaching or service for extended periods because we don’t face the tenure up/out research clock…frankly, I’ve frequently felt relieved that my “seven year review” wasn’t some dramatic pivot, but merely another step in the more gradually unfolding development of my career). But there’s a whole, whole lot of talent floating around both tenured and non communities and I hope we can find ways to nurture and capitalize on all that expertise, providing opportunities for everyone to find their own niche, do their own thing…and maybe even discover the rewarding, contributive careers we all envisioned when we first imagined becoming professors.

    • I’m glad you were able to get these posted, Mary! Two of your points I want to address–

      1. Fully agree with the last one that more rigorous hiring and evaluation protocols need to happen in alignment with better jobs. There’s a chicken/egg problem trying to figure out which has to happen in order to catalyze the other, but you’re absolutely right to offer the caution. When we wrote that, I was thinking very much in my own local context, where our union contract has provisions for converting NTT faculty into tenure lines, and my department’s long process of figuring out how to hire more systematically in order to avoid many of the problems this thread has raised. We’ve converted 8 NTT faculty into tenure lines (some with terminal degrees, some without) and I’m thrilled to have done it, but I can’t say we didn’t get lucky to have hired these particular people through a process that wasn’t nearly as regular or transparent as it could have been.

      2. Your point about terminal degrees offering their holders opportunities to advance and improve that non-terminal-degree-holders don’t get: yes. We both believe that at least in the abstract, terminal degrees can and should train their holders to do work that people can’t do as well without them. We would love for people who want them to be able to get them (keep in mind that I also have a PhD, and the last thing I want to do is undercut the value of what I learned from getting it). What we’re challenging throughout this whole exchange isn’t the potential value of a PhD; it’s the *necessity* of its connection to job security and academic freedom. With that said, in their rejoinder, when Michael and Jennifer make clear that one of their priorities is to protect graduate education and to think about how it can change, we think they’re asking a really important question–what could terminal degree programs do differently to prepare people for different sorts of jobs? As we say as a kind of aside in this reply, but can certainly elaborate some, at the top of that list is a change in the culture that privileges research-intensive faculty positions and belittles teaching-intensive positions (like mine). If we’re ever going to make new terminal degree holders happy with the prospect of 4/4 teaching positions, we have to start by not making them feel like failures for taking those jobs, or like they’re suffering from a lack of ambition if they actually want those jobs.

      • Will write more thoughtfully soon, but am so enthusiastic about your last series of points! That’s a huge issue of discussion here in our college. The traditional icon of professorial success has always been the tenured one with lots of award-winning, notable, books, who gets to be called distinguished professor while the “lecturer” can feel a massive sense of self-doubt. I struggle often with resenting minor things like my shared office or the lack of professor in my title…but then I get really down on myself and think that there’s a reason I don’t have those things and it’s ALL my own fault: I failed to write the great books and “win” the fame. I truly did “escape” a good deal of stress and turmoil by avoiding the tenure clock and pressure. So I’ve sort of come to accept that the people willing to take the big risks and toil over research should get some compensation. But (on the flip side!) I recognize that I’ve been teaching five classes per semester since I graduated….so don’t really have the time and opportunities to develop a cohesive research agenda. I also remind myself that I *chose* this fun and flexible job (I truly do adore my position — it’s incredibly varied in terms of what I do, it’s rewarding, I’m treated with great support and kindness…I’m a lucky one). So, to cut to the chase, I, too, think the key is getting away from the dualistic attitude that you’re either a “real professor” with oodles of books published, or a serf-like subordinate. There are so many ways that roles can be adjusted so that faculty can teach a lot and be pedagogically focused, but, perhaps still have some time for research bundled into their positions. It’s that specter of the old style distinguished prof being the only model of success that desperately needs adjusting. Instead of pulling apart to emphasize the difference between the researcher and the teacher, it would be great to sort of mix us all up according to our different talents and interests. If I only knew really how to do that, then I’d be on to something…for now this is all great food for thought:-)

  8. Ack! My extremely long comment didn’t post. I’ll try again tomorrow. I do just want to add an apologetically flippant “be careful what you wish for” regarding the shifts away from more casual, less formalized hiring and evaluating practices. Just to belie the suspicion that I must be a BIG slacker to want loose practices….I’m really not (truly!). I was an extremely qualified applicant and genuinely go above and beyond my job description with great regularity. My concern is what if the more cumbersome hiring and assessing practices evolve *without* the improvements in pay, course loads, opportunities for research and innovation, etc., that make a job desirable? Then we’ve lost the one relaxing aspect of our situation and replaced it with forcing folks to cart about the countryside in series of long interviewing processes in serious quests for jobs that might end up with little room for advancement and independence. So I’d maybe go for the advancement…then the rigor (?)🙂

  9. Mary, you make a great point about tightening up hiring practices without improvements in pay, etc. We now have thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of long-term contingent faculty over age 50–are they supposed to compete in the arena with new PhDs for the jobs they have already been doing for many years? Of course the new PhDs shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should long-term contingent faculty. We need a humane, transitional approach that results in a “one-tier” faculty (as you suggest) which honors equal pay for equal work (allowing for part-time faculty), and includes faculty with non-doctoral degrees on a salary grid that gives a significant bump to those with PhD or equivalent degrees. Research, in all its myriad forms including course development, shouldn’t be cut off from teaching–that is what it means to be an academic. It doesn’t seem like rocket-science to me. Our administrators are paid good salaries to figure these things out. We just need to continue to encourage them to be humane about it, and not treat us all as “disposable” faculty.

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