Author's Roundtable 2: Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors

Thursday, October 29, 2009

posted under by Unit for Criticism
Written by Frank Donoghue (Professor of English at Ohio State University)

Since you’ve had a chance to look at a couple of chapters from my book, The Last Professors, I thought I’d offer you the book’s backstory, and then connect that story to some more recent thoughts I’ve had about the present and future of academic labor. It’s fair to say that I would be a contented professor of eighteenth-century British literature had it not been for two events that happened, respectively, 20 and 21 years ago. First, in 1989, I moved from Stanford University, which was in many ways similar to the elite private universities I’d attended as an undergraduate and graduate student (Brandeis and Johns Hopkins), to Ohio State. What I encountered there was a higher education bureaucracy both more elaborate and more transparent than anything I’d seen before.

Suddenly, I had to start paying attention to hearings and debates in state legislature about funding the state’s university system. Though it sounds quaint for me to admit my naivete now, I was shocked by some of the anti-intellectual and anti-professorial sentiments I read and heard—and they came from all quarters. In the early 1990s, the writer of a letter to the editor of the Columbus Dispatch recounted how he’d “spotted” an Ohio State professor mowing his lawn on a Tuesday afternoon; around the same time, George Voinovich, then governor of Ohio, deviated from his prepared remarks at a press conference to rant that “these professors—they just don’t get it!” The implication of both these remarks was the same (and I don’t think I need to reconstruct the local context for either comment): professors don’t really work, so why, if they’re working (or, as it were, not working) at public universities, should honest, hard-working taxpayers pay their salaries?

Then in 1990 I read Charles Sykes’ Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education, a book published two years earlier, in 1988, and inspired by an article written by Sykes’ father, entitled “The Sorcerers and the Seven-and-a-half-hour Work Week.” (We professors are the sorcerers; the 7-and-a-half-hour work week reflects time spent in the classroom on a 2/2 teaching load), Sykes shrieked the very same message that I’d been reading in my local newspaper and hearing from my governor. Beyond my outrage at Sykes’ wild allegations, I was astounded that, in the academy, those allegations were met either with amused silence or very tame counterarguments. Sykes’ book was followed in short order by more prescriptive polemics—Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education. These were books that specify what we professors in the humanities should and should not teach. From that point, at least in my version of the history of academia in the 1990s, the Culture Wars were on, since both Kimball and D’Souza primarily advocated curricular reform, while humanists resisted their frantic impersonations of Matthew Arnold. Those battles lasted for the better part of the decade, but even then I felt that the Culture Wars were a kind of digression, and that Sykes’ central complaint—that professors refuse to behave like ordinary employees—had far greater rhetorical force. So I set about researching the history of that complaint and teaching seminars on academic labor. And here I am today twenty years later.

The central argument of my book is that the ideals of corporate America—productivity, efficiency, usefulness, systematicity, granularity—are more powerful than the more amorphous ideals and traditions around which the country’s universities have been organized. The ideals of productivity, efficiency and usefulness have a long history in our country, and Americans all too often define success exclusively in relation to those ideals. Nearly a century ago, Thorstein Veblen recognized the danger that this equation poses to America’s universities. He writes in The Higher Learning in America: “those principles and standards of organization, control and achievement, that have been accepted in business will, by force of habit reassert themselves as indispensable and conclusive in the conduct of affairs of learning.” My book documents the various processes by which Veblen’s prediction has largely come true.

Certainly the face of capitalism has changed over the past hundred years, but the ideological assault by corporate spokesmen on the humanities has not. Three passages that I quote in my first chapter are representative: Andrew Carnegie famously stated that “college education as it exists today seems almost fatal” in the business domain, and he contrasts the traditionally educated student who is “adapted to life on another planet” to the “future captain of industry . . .hotly engaged in the school of experience, obtaining the very knowledge required for his future triumphs.” Richard Teller Crane, author of “The Futility of Higher Schooling” among other works, wrote in 1911 that no man who has a “taste for literature has the right to be happy” because the only men entitled to happiness in this world are those who are useful.” Clarence F. Birdseye, in his book Individual Training in Our College (1907) advises faculty to ‘imitate a good manufacturer” who “studies more carefully than almost anything the wastes of his factory and the points wherein he can avoid” them. How different, really, are those positions than anti-humanities and pro-efficiency opinions we hear today, often voiced by university administrators. Johns Hopkins’ president, Steven Muller, speaking in 1990 to justify the vast discrepancy between the university’s medical school budget and its humanities budget, quipped, “No one ever died of English.” And increasingly, the favorite buzzword among administrators is “accountability,” a term accompanied by discussions of “outcome assessments” that would meet with Birdseye’s approval.

Not only have administrators wholeheartedly adopted productivity and efficiency as the chief metrics by which they judge our work, but many professors have been seduced by those values as well, and all of our Ph.D. students are socialized to those values every day, in the process that John Guillory has termed “preprofessionalization.”

Lately I’ve returned to two topics that I addressed in my book, but felt I needed to explore in more detail: scholarly publication and academic freedom. Both of these features of our professional lives have been deeply influenced by the corporate values I’ve just touched on, but I admit I’m not close to the point where I could articulate the exact nature of that influence.

The now universal obligation that all of us face to publish, and to publish in volume, continues to baffle me. The 2006 MLA Task Force Report on Evaluating Scholarship for Promotion and Tenure explicitly and lucidly ties that obligation to publish to the straitened job market that began in the early 1970s. Here’s how the report’s authors explain it: The buyer’s market which emerged in the early ‘70s “made it possible for hiring departments to demand more of candidates seeking entry-level jobs, particularly evidence of scholarly potential. . . . Such increased demands on graduate students exerted pressure on programs to adjust their curricula; as they did so, the dissertation was reconceived as the first draft of a publishable book. The appearance of the tenure monograph was thus linked to a reconceptualization of the dissertation. In turn, the expectation that the dissertation would be published after revision made it easier for departments to demand a monograph of tenure candidates” (Report, 29). As a result of this sequence of developments, publication, and potential for publication became the chief metrics of discrimination used by hiring committees; these very same metrics of discrimination were then later used by tenure and promotion committees. The MLA Report doesn’t fully explain, though, how publication, rather than some other aspect of our professional practice such as teaching, was selected for reification--how the monograph became the gold standard for tenure candidates in variety of fields, most notably English and History.

The most basic and critical statistics cited by the MLA report back up its theory unreservedly. Between Thomas Wilcox’s Comprehensive Survey of English departments in 1968 and the MLA’s own findings in 2006, “the percentage of departments ranking scholarship of primary importance (over teaching)” more than doubled, increasing from 35% to 76%. This new emphasis affects all kinds of institutions: 89% of Carnegie Doctorate-granting universities, 44% of Carnegie Master’s, and 48% of Carnegie Baccalaureate institutions “now rank publication of a monograph ‘very important’ or ‘important’ for tenure. 50% of all English departments at doctorate-granting institutions now demand progress toward a second monograph as a requirement of their tenure-track faculty (Report, 4). Though the MLA Report notes the incredible strain these rising production expectations are having both on the infrastructure of the profession and on its individual members, the trend shows no signs of abating. When I recently served on a committee charged with hiring a tenure-track assistant professor, I routinely saw application letters from new-minted Ph.D.s, their dissertations just completed, that outlined second monographs. Some even referred (to my horror I must admit) to proposed third monograph projects. The MLA Report justifiably worries about the potential for a “lost generation” of scholars unable to meet these staggering expectations; it does not, however, seem sufficiently alarmed that the current generation of young scholars has been socialized to think of these expectations as normal.

What are we to do about this? Ernest Boyer suggested a long time ago, in 1991, recommended that we reconceive scholarship entirely, and redefine pedagogy as scholarship. That would be a great start toward resolving the bizarre economy of scholarly publishing, in which all of us are required to publish more and more, yet no one reads what we write: Deborah Rhodes in her book, In Pursuit of Knowledge, cites a survey which reveals that only 2% of all publications (monographs and articles alike) in the arts and humanities, are ever cited. Moreover, many of those few people who read scholarship are either compelled to do so or compensated for doing so: promotion and tenure committees, reviewers looking for an easy publication line on their own vitas, readers for university presses, the outside reviewers in tenure and promotion cases: all of these people are either forced to read scholars’ publications, or are paid small fees to read them.

The scholarly publishing industry and its crucial implications for our own professional careers, constitute a clear and representative example of how we have, however unwittingly, internalized, or, in some cases openly embraced the corporate ideals of productivity, even though our “products” (monographs, articles) have no consumers. We have let our productivity as publishing scholars become the chief metric by which we are judged and rewarded or punished professionally. I argue in an essay in progress that we need to challenge this reward system, which is clearly broken. But think for a minute what our working conditions would look like in the unlikely event that administrators nationwide heeded my recommendation and abandoned the reward system that valorizes published scholarship. Our obligation to do research and publish it serves as the only rationale for all the time we get to spend out of the classroom. Freed from that obligation, would professors then become no different than any other kind of teachers?

The system of scholarly publishing thus puts us in a bewildering predicament. The number of publications has spiraled out of control, I believe, because publishing is our way of demonstrating that we’re productive too, that we’re capable of conforming to one of the key values of the corporate world. Yet no one reads, let alone buys our products, so we should, it stands to reason, change that system and stop using it as the basis for faculty rewards. However, if we do change our research and publication model, we will in all likelihood change our working conditions for the worse: the professor as scholar, possessed of the time and autonomy to do serious intellectual work, is one of our most cherished professional emblems. Yet that emblem has come unmoored from the realities of the writing and reading we do. Publication has become a dire professional obligation whose meaning and function in the academy is now disconnected from its content. The reason for this is that publication has become a competitive endeavor, and as such, a central aspect of the now fully corporate university. And it has become so in all fields, including the humanities, where one might expect to find the most resistance to it.

Let me consider another of our most cherished professional emblems: academic freedom. Perhaps no term in higher education has been more idealized. Howard Metzger calls academic freedom “not only relevant to the modern university, but essential to it—the one grace the institution may not lose without losing everything.” Louis Menand claims that academic freedom is “the key legitimating concept of the entire enterprise” of higher education. Yet I believe that academic freedom has been almost thoroughly eroded in the corporate university as well. In a recent essay with the self-explanatory title “Why Academic Freedom Doesn’t Matter,” I chronicle the decline and fall of academic freedom in American higher education.
I begin with the classically progressive manifesto written by the founding members of the AAUP in 1915, the “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” which asserted 1) that professors are like federal judges: from the moment of their initial appointment the, “no more subject to the control of the trustees than are judges subject to the control of the President with respect to their decisions”; and 2) that professors should also be guaranteed “extramural freedom . . . the freedom to speak . . . without warranty of professional task or acknowledged expertise,” to speak their minds, that is, on any topic.

Almost immediately, in 1916 to be precise, university administrators, represented chiefly by the Association of American Colleges (the AAC), began chipping away at this ambitious and idealistic professional self-definition. Herbert Welch, president of Ohio Wesleyan University, best articulated the administrators’ position. Welch conceded that professors, like physicians, lawyers and clergymen “are responsible only to members of their own craft,” but the preliminary question of whether a professor is “to have any continued professional standing, any right to practice his craft at all . . .is generally decided in all crafts by laymen.” In other words, Welch subordinates the nuances of academic freedom to the material question of who employs whom. For the next twenty-five years, the AAC stuck to its strategy of fixing the procedures by which competence and professional fitness are determined, and how universities could resolve, in a uniform way, questions of the “appointment, reappointment, promotion, retirement or dismissal of members of the teaching staff.” What they crafted was the tenure system we all know today, but I argue that the tenure system itself restricts rather than promotes academic freedom. That system, outlined in the 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” stipulates a seven-year probationary period before tenure must be granted or refused, but it stops short of guaranteeing academic freedom to untenured assistant professors. The “Statement” says only that the untenured should be granted the same degree of academic freedom as tenured professors, but no guarantee is built into the Statement. At this point, 70 years removed from the 1940 “Statement,” that reassurance seems utterly hollow. Only 32 percent of the country’s higher education teaching workforce is tenured or eligible for tenure. Those who are merely eligible for tenure, as well as the ever growing population of adjuncts, who can be fired at will, simply do not fall under the protections of academic freedom

My argument about this icon of our profession is that it has fallen victim to our universities’ labor practices, to employment tendencies that currently result in adjuncts being hired at a rate three times higher than tenure-track professors. As these economic trends continue, academic freedom will mean less and less. It’s already a quaint term.

These defining features of our professional life have, over the last several decades, become intricately bound together, though I must admit that the logic of their interconnectedness escapes me. Largely through pressure from administrators, academic freedom has been linked to the tenure system since 1940, when the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure was released. Somewhere between then and now, tenure, in turn, became wedded to scholarly publication (as it certainly was not in 1940). It seems to me that we need to ask, Why should the principle of academic freedom serve tenured professors so much more effectively than the untenured? Why should tenure be based on the production of scholarship that no one reads?

I can only answer generally that these interconnections create a heavily managed work environment for all of us. The ideals reflected in the concept of academic freedom, the institution of tenure, and the exchange of ideas through publication sound meritorious, but they are also, I believe, instruments by which our work lives are controlled.


Make A Comment