Saturday, March 01, 2008

Want/Need/Love II: A Response to Craig Smith

Reading over Craig's careful unpacking of some of the assumptions underlying my "two out of three ain't bad" question to Blogoramaville on tenure, I'm struck again by how productive his proposed starting point is. To those who tend to like my thought-experiment proposal for the way it expands tenure to protect the people who currently make up the majority of the professoriate and better value their work, Craig points out that "you would be arguing that the types of positions currently being employed were, to a certain extent, 'acceptable,' but the current treatment of the people in those positions is not." On the other hand,

if we were trying to push back against contingency and specialization (what I usually call disaggregation), we would not want to be arguing for creating permanent jobs out of lower paid positions or more positions with narrower responsibilities. Rather you would be focused on moving more people into stable full-time positions with a wider mix of responsibilities.

What I find so productive about this starting point is Craig's awareness of the multiple ways these options could be characterized--working within the status quo vs. heading back to the future, pragmatism vs. idealism, accepting vs. transforming current staffing patterns, the good vs. the perfect, settling vs. dreaming, and so on--and his attention to the limitations not only of either option, but also of the dichotomy itself.

Now, of course, I have just been talking about working within the status quo or moving back (forward?) to a model based on a corps of full-time faculty. And, as with most simple dichotomies, it is not this simple--the path forward surely involves doing some of both and the mix is the key. However, I do think it is important to keep some idea about what we are assuming when we have this discussion. Not in the sense that we have to decide which of these perspectives represents our position, but, in fact, because of just the opposite. How can we work on both simultaneously and not get overly committed to one of these perspectives which so often seems to lead to a downward spiraling argument?

In the spirit of Craig's post, then, let me try to identify a few other assumptions and dichotomies--in addition to the ones on his list like "people vs. positions, short-term strategy vs. long term goals, collective bargaining vs. legislation, and local realities vs. public policy"--we may well have to think through in the course of our discussion.

First, we are assuming tenure is something worth keeping in academia. Tenured Radical has made a few arguments against tenure that are worth considering in later posts.

Second, we are assuming that tenure as an institution is something that can be reformed, transformed, abolished, or replaced with something better. Given that institutions are in some sense designed to resist change (whether we think of that in the "good" sense of conserving valuable traditions or the "bad" sense of resisting needed improvements is another matter), we also need to think about strategies for making what we want to happen happen.

Third, we should avoid assuming that "we" are the only ones with a stake in the discussion--students, alumni, administrators, trustees, parents, taxpayers, legislators, corporations, unions, and the general public that's supposed to benefit from the institution of tenure--all care quite a bit about what happens with/to tenure and will seize the opportunity to wrest control away from "us" whenever possible. So in addition to thinking strategically about getting results, we also have to be sure we're thinking strategically about blocking others from getting the results they want that we don't want. And since "we" are only provisionally a "we," given how many kinds of faculty positions actually exist, we also need to think about strengthening and broadening coalitions, converting opponents into allies, and so on.

I'm running out of time here at onechan's yochien, so I'll keep thinking about assumptions and dichotomies. But I want to close by talking about the kind of people I used to work with who, in retrospect, helped inspire my original question. One used to teach composition, world literature, creative writing, and science fiction, among other things, at my university as well as at the community college to the south of us. Although he didn't have a Ph.D. and had no intention of getting one, he had done a dual MFA/MA which involved a significant amount of research in his areas of specialty. Morever, he was a gifted teacher who knew how to communicate with and inspire the students from the area who made up the vast majority of our students. When he didn't make it to the MLA interview stage in a creative writing search we were doing years ago, he decided to take on a full-time position at the community college rather than keep adjuncting with us. Another dropped out of her Ph.D. program but continued to research and publish in her area of specialty while teaching composition, world literature, and Native American literature. She, too, left after we hired a tenure-track Native Americanist in our department (although there were other, personal, factors that played a greater part in her decision). So part of my asking the "two out of three ain't bad question" is to ask whether these colleagues and friends might have decided to stay and continue contributing to the work of the department if they had had better options for pay, security, and advancement.

[Update 3/2/08: Whoops, in my rush to finish I forgot to mention Assumption #4, which is that we'll be able to leverage the funding needed to reform or transform higher ed's staffing structures. This gets to the question of who pays for higher ed and how it should be financed. And not just for higher ed in general, but for the many different kinds of institutions within it.]

1 comment:

cps said...

Okay Bruce--one unwieldy post up in response to this one--sorry, I got going down a winding path and couldn't get off! I will try to get reoriented by the next round.