Author’s Roundtable 2: Frank Donoghue,The Last Professors
Guest Writer: John Claborn

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by John Claborn (English)

Monday night’s (Oct. 26) author’s roundtable and lively discussion with Frank Donoghue proved sometimes bleak and less often hopeful, but consistently provocative. Donoghue began his talk by recounting two formative moments that set a professor of eighteenth-century British literature on the path to writing The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. The first was his move from Stanford University, a financially secure institution insulated from state politics, to Ohio State University, where attacks on “professors who don’t really work” were rampant and budgetary constraints occupied faculty and administrators. This gave him a private/public double perspective on higher education, and it reminds us that he writes with an eye specifically to the problems of public schools like the University of Illinois. The second moment was his reading of such books as Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education and Roger Kimble’s Tenured Radicals in the midst of the then-emergent “culture wars” of the 1990s.

Joining an ever-expanding genre of books on the deplorable state of academic labor in higher education, Donoghue’s The Last Professors dismantles what may be our last comfort: the rhetoric of “crisis” used to characterize the plight of the humanities. “Crisis” suggests that current problems sprang up in the recent past and, therefore, they just may resolve themselves somehow in the near future. Instead, Donoghue reframes this crisis as “an ongoing set of problems” (1) in a “long dialectic between business and higher education” traceable back to the nineteenth century (23). Humanists, he shows, are still simply rehearsing the same debates put forth by Matthew Arnold and Andrew Carnegie in the Victorian era—debates about the usefulness of people who study and teach literature to corporate America’s bottom line. As history has shown, Carnegie’s utilitarian ideals of productivity and efficiency have proven more powerful than humanist ideals (though to be fair to Carnegie, he aspired to be a “man of letters”). By mapping a genealogy of corporate vs. humanities discourse within higher education, Donoghue challenges us to reformulate the debate’s key terms and move beyond the “rhetorical rut” of Arnoldian defenses of humanities education.

Donoghue then moved on to a critique of the “publish or perish” tenure system and academic freedom. He argued that the increased emphasis in recent decades on publication for determining tenure has lead to a “scholarly publishing industry” that places enormous pressure on upcoming generations of scholars. Productivity measured in terms of articles and books is symptomatic of corporate values, even though only about 2% of these “commodities” are ever cited. To conclude, Donoghue summarized arguments advanced in his new article, “Why Academic Freedom Doesn’t Matter,” in which he traces the history of how the principle of academic freedom became linked to the tenure system.

Each of the responses from Dave Morris, Antoinette Burton, and Dianne Harris, as well as the ensuing discussion, centered on current, concrete struggles within the university. Many good questions were raised: how can we find ways to critique corporate values without reverting back to empty arguments for the intrinsic good of critical thinking? What is the value of scholarly work when it rarely reaches a non-specialist audience and when it is viewed primarily as a means to obtaining tenure? What kinds of leadership exist, or should exist, to organize both full-time faculty and the exploited adjunct multitude into coalitions capable of combating regressive administrative policies? How do we make local coalitions formed around local problems more national (and international) in scope that can effectively address larger systemic problems affecting, say, Ohio State University, the University of California, and the University of Illinois?


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Martha said...

Thanks for your insightful synapses of the evening and the issues John - I had to leave shortly after the Q&A began and was sorry to miss the audience's discussion: something I imagine is often the point of making "provocative" claims about the state of the humanities in higher education.

Louis Menand has an excerpt from his new book, "The PhD Problem," in Harvard Magazine this month that someone emailed me the link to - taking up this same question of vanishing tenure, but looking through it from the process of PhD professionalization: "One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time-to-degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own. The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, overproduction of Ph.D.s also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor. These circumstances explain the graduate-student union movement that has been going on in higher education since the mid 1990s."

Taken from this viewpoint, and from the perspective of someone who is ABD... what keeps us all from walking away? from staying in the program? Even if we know we're playing against the odds.