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CLUELESS
October 20, 2009 - 9:29am

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UD

Stanley Fish, in his latest New York Times blog post, unwittingly demonstrates why there's so much, as he puts it, "hostility toward [professors] and their practices." Let's take a look.

The responses to last week’s column [in which Fish argued that courts should defer to most internal academic decisions at universities] sent a clear message, and that message is bad news for the academy. The perspectives represented were various, but they converged on a single judgment: the academic world is marked by venality, pretension, irresponsibility and risible claims.

Why does Fish begin by calling this news? Anyone who follows the news -- our highest profile university's ongoing scandalous investment story; outrageous compensation for many coaches and presidents; the increasing use of forms of technology that transform the classroom experience into an online data dumping experience; claims that 1,200-student lecture halls bristling with clickers and PowerPoint and laptops provide a valuable educational experience -- knows that this attitude isn't news, and that it isn't without some justification. Many American colleges and universities are excellent (Harvard, of course, remains so, despite its financial greed and irresponsibility); our best schools dominate the international rankings. But many are quite bad in quite a large number of ways, and it is his readers' experience of those schools that lies behind their comments.

Academics are of course aware that there is a certain amount of hostility toward them and their practices, but they like to attribute that hostility to the public relations efforts of conservative critics who, they contend, construct caricatures that are too easily accepted by the public. But the comments I received come from readers of all political persuasions and from both inside and outside the academic world, about which almost no one had a good thing to say.

Almost no one, from any perspective, had a good thing to say. From my perspective as a blogger who has focused on universities for years, this result is unsurprising. In fact there's intensified hostility against the academic world at the moment because the economy's so volatile, with many out of work or anxious about being out of work Americans scrutinizing with special care permanently employed university professors. What does Fish say about tenure?

Why not then get rid of tenure altogether, as several posters urged? If you did that — if all employment in universities were employment at will — the anxiety, uncertainty and low salaries now experienced by the ever-growing army of adjuncts would be experienced by everyone, and, as a bonus, political meddling would quickly become the order of the day.

No serious critic of tenure's arguing for the at will thing, and Fish shouldn't have taken that version of the complaint against tenure seriously in his defense of it. Richard Chait, who has done thoughtful research about the issue and whose ideas about reform are taken most seriously by most observers, has never argued for the abandonment of tenure, but rather for experimentation with various forms of long-term, well-paid contractual employment alongside, for some faculty, traditional tenure. Fish has a straw man going here.

And let's think about what Fish has just said about tenure. Where did that ever-growing army of adjuncts come from? Did it just start racing down from the hills, spoiling for a fight? One of the reasons it's there, and ever-growing, is that tenure has locked into lifetime guaranteed employment quite a few bad teachers, or inactive researchers, who in a less tenured-up world would have opened space for younger, more vital scholars and teachers.

As it happens, UD's a defender of tenure nonetheless -- on the political basis Fish mentions -- but it does no good to pretend cluelessness as to the perfectly understandable bases of people's hostility against the practice.

One of Fish's readers complains about "“bait and switch” tactics when university bulletins list classes that have not been offered in years." Fish responds:

[C]atalogue copy is prepared yearly (sometimes twice yearly), which means that universities are almost always “lying” about their programs. Let’s say a student applies to a department because it offers a specialty he is interested in, and he arrives to find that the key players — the ones he wanted to study with — departed last month. It’s hard to see why he should have a legal remedy. There is really no one to blame...

Has Fish not heard of the computer? Students rarely get course information from slowly prepared print media; everything's online now, including catalogue copy, so there's no reason why it can't be updated rapidly and constantly. Again, I agree with him that legal remedies for complaints about this are absurd; but he's not acknowledging the reality of universities. The problem's not the slow publication of information.

You want to know the problem? Look at Brown University. Look at the University of Virginia.

Brown students have been complaining, as I noted on my blog a few years ago, that they "routinely encounter multiple course cancellations at the beginning of each semester. The Brown history department, for instance, recently cancelled thirteen courses (because of a 'wealth of research opportunities,' its chair boasts). Political science, economics, and a number of other departments, while not as successful in pursuing research opportunities, also turned out impressive numbers of faculty dropouts."

As for Virginia, I'll quote again from a University Diaries post:

"[The] University of Virginia goes Brown one better, boasting not only large numbers of professors who disappear from courses at the last minute, but an entire department – economics – in which no one teaches more than three courses a year. So this semester, for instance, in the economics department, “two faculty members retired and seven other full professors announced their intention to go on research leave at the same time.” Which meant cancelled courses, or courses taught by adjuncts. But that's not all.

To lure and retain economics faculty members [writes the student paper], the University has begun to offer additional benefits [to this department] not available to the faculty at large… . One such change includes cutting the teaching load from four courses a year to three because professors are attracted to the opportunity to do more research. Cutting teacher course loads creates an additional strain on the number of students who are able to take economics classes. In order to make up for fewer classes taught by full-time faculty, the University has adapted by bringing in adjunct professors… .

Three courses a year being the maximum course load for economics at U Va, some professors will certainly teach fewer than that. If they can whittle it down to two, for instance, in the same semester, they’ve won a semester’s leave every year."

Fish concludes his post by throwing his hands up. No amount of self-criticism and self-correction on our part will help:

There is a general sense that academics have cushy jobs they don’t even perform, that they inhabit a wonderland of “privileged sleaze” and display an “overweening sense of entitlement” [Fish is quoting from reader comments here]. [One commenter] speaks for many when he proclaims, “We simply don’t need a cosseted privileged class able to demand lifetime job security in exchange for some hypothetical intellectual function.” They just don’t believe that the yield of maintaining us in a protected enclave is worth the enormous cost.

Rather than throw up his hands, Fish could start somewhere very modest -- say, with the Friday business. Why don't any academics teach on Fridays? (Well, a few -- including UD -- do. Not many.) Why are most faculties all bunched up on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10 and 3? If Fish wants to know why a lot of people think academics aren't working, he could visit (but he wouldn't be there, would he?) the halls of any academic building almost any time on a Friday and get his answer. People do have eyes, you know.

 

 

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