Once more, the English department at my Southern liberal arts college will send a team to the Modern Language Association meeting to search for an African American. Oops, did I say that? I mean, an African-American ist -- someone who specializes in research and teaching African-American literature. This search, three years running, has become the most vexing aspect of departmental life, at least in part because of the department’s well-meaning but misguided goal of hiring a black candidate. When the applications come in, there is a more or less unspoken attempt to read the color of the candidate based on the colleges they attended, their names, or their committee work.
The MLA interview can occasionally feel like the dating game, as a series of previously promising candidates enter the room all too whitely. (Even more perplexing are non-white candidates of another race or ethnicity researching in African-American literature, but that’s another subject) However, a lot can happen in a 40-minute interview. After engaging with serious scholarship on African-American literature and culture, it is hard for the interview team to sustain emphasis on the candidate’s body over the candidate’s body of work. So, at the end of two days of intense discussions with ABD’s and newly-minted Ph.D.’s, the interview team comes up with a short list of four very bright, energetic, productive candidates with tremendous research and teaching potential. Odds are that the majority of them, like a majority of the pool, will not be black, and so the real work of the search begins: trying to convince the rest of the department to take these folks seriously.
My department’s dilemma seems paradigmatic of a phenomenon of scarcity throughout the profession: Our significant commitment to diversity, and the historical importance of having a person of color in an English department in the South runs into the reality of a dearth of black Ph.D.'s in the humanities. According to a recent report by the Association of Departments of English, over the last three decades only 2.5 percent of all doctorates in English were awarded to African Americans. The numbers skew higher in recent years and according to field, but experience confirms that when the candidates step from behind the curtain and into the interview room for the first time, the majority are white. Complicating the search, the field of African-American literature is one of the most exciting, advanced areas of humanities scholarship, in recent years drawing from globalization studies, legal theory, and comparative literature in addition to traditional Americanist methodologies. The top 20 African-Americanist candidates are likely to compete for general Americanist jobs as well as field specific jobs, and if only a few of these are black, the competition among departments is intense. Over the last two years, our department’s top offers have ended up at prestigious research schools, most with well-established programs in African-American and/or Africana studies programs. (Meanwhile, we have never been able to get a consensus on second-choice white candidates.) How can we possibly compete?
Perhaps I should ask, why do we compete? Why are we so committed to hiring a black candidate, against all odds? Many of my colleagues take pride in the fact that they worked hard to hire the first-ever African American in the department over 30 years ago, precisely by creating a position in African-American literature. Back then, fighting for the position as a means to diversify was a bold political move on a largely white campus, anchoring the English department’s reputation for progressive politics. Subsequent hires over the years have significantly increased our campus diversity, though our retention is poor. Across disciplines, our university has been a great first job for African Americans, and too often a springboard for an even better second job. Perhaps we should be proud that a small liberal arts college has managed to “place” so many of our minority faculty at competitive research universities. Our “alumni” faculty are happily employed at top-ranked research schools throughout the country. (There must be a way we can use this as a recruitment tool!).
In any case, it does seem that we have progressed from the point where a job offer from a small Southern school represents an all-important helping hand to minority scholars. It may now be the case that we need them and the fields they represent more than they need us. After all, what do we want from our minority hires? Surely not token representation. What if we could move beyond this liberal left-over and create an academic environment where minority faculty research and teaching is well integrated into the mission of the university, rather than as an extra within any given department? This would mean building interdisciplinary programs in Africana studies, postcolonial and globalization studies, and ethnic studies -- fields that productively bring together faculty regardless of race, that are also the common “homes” for students and teachers interested in exploring minority cultures. The point is not to insulate minority faculty in mini-communities of color, but to create occasions where research and teaching on the lives, culture, and histories of marginal people are not marginalized. Typically, our most outstanding candidates for the African-Americanist position -- black and white -- were trained in programs with interdisciplinary resources and field-expanding faculty networks. What if we could envision a similar role for them here, at our small campus?
If your commitment to hiring a minority extends no further than throwing open the doors and hoping one walks through, then it is really no kind of commitment at all. At best, it is a naïve strategy that still presumes the employers’ market of the 70’s and 80’s; at worst, it’s racist, prioritizing color while neglecting the significance of the position itself. Ironically, it is precisely the position that ought to be the focus of the search. While well-meaning liberals fight for the body of the African American, those of us who work in ethnic studies recognize that a parallel battle still rages over the body of work -- canons of literature and curriculum -- classes, not to mention the student body. Yes, there are half a dozen reasons why it is significant to have a person of color at the head of the class. But at what cost? To not offer the class at all for lack of a brown body? Besides exposure to black faculty, all students need to at least have the chance to learn the literature and cultural and social contexts of African Americans. We must recall that there is a wider world beyond the university, and that we are training students to go out in the world and be good stewards of culture, and public models of progressive change. Surely graduating a few dozen students every year who have studied African-American literature and culture is a worthy accomplishment -- and no less so if they were taught by a white person.
Even more progressive than the acquisition strategy of diversification would be a contribution strategy: What if we kept figures and took pride in the number of minority students we were able to attract to our classes, graduate with our majors, send off to Ph.D. programs? What if, rather than trying to gather up what comes out of the pipeline, our department was contributing at the other end; or even better, breaking open the narrow funnels of entry in the first place, by offering our students curriculum and institutional support for comparative cultural study, African diaspora research, and cross-disciplinary opportunities to study African American literature and culture in a global context? Grow the field and broaden the field, bring in new people, I say. Practically speaking, classes in minority literature attract minority students, regardless of the professor, and this attraction may in fact be a lure into the profession for the very brightest of them.
Let’s face it -- there are precious few minorities entering the job market any given year, and the odds that you will hire one are not good. So search inward. Find on your campus the next generation of minority scholars. Provide classes for them (and don’t assume that minorities can or will only study literature of their own ethnic group). Educate them. Tutor them in the thrills of research. Encourage the best and most capable to consider graduate school. Contact friends and acquaintances in Ph.D. programs -- make cold calls for god’s sake -- on behalf your best minority majors applying to grad school and help grow the field. And who knows? Maybe some of these students will actually want to come back and teach for their dear old alma mater upon completion. Meanwhile, it’s still OK to hire the white person.
David Joseph is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English.
Submitted by Rob Weir on December 4, 2007 - 4:00am
The days are shorter, there’s a nip in the air, and the malls are piping in the fa-la-la music. For higher-ed heads it can mean only one thing: Hiring season has started. Forget twinkling pines, Chanukah candles, Kwanzaa feasts, or even the aluminum pole of Festivus -- late fall and early winter is the time in which the dust is blown from moldering vitae, slumbering hiring committees are awakened, and deans are besieged by departmental Savonarolas predicting a looming apocalypse which can only be averted by additional faculty hiring. If all goes according to plan, instead of preparing holiday feasts, faculty members will busy themselves booking flights and hotel rooms for January conferences (which, for some odd reason, are more likely to be in Chicago or New York than someplace rational, like Miami or Honolulu). Cattle calls will ensue and, if the hiring committee members are like most, they will make their one nod to the holidays they just missed: They’ll be seduced by a shiny new bauble and purchase it for their departmental tree. Come the fall of 2008, the newly minted Ph.D.’s will arrive on campus ready to adorn the branches of academe.
I mention this because just about one year ago the popular media sounded alarmist notes about how “gray” the academy had become, especially at top research institutions and elite colleges. Predictable anecdotes were bandied about, sprinkled with a few carefully culled statistics -- apparently we should be alarmed that 2.1 percent of tenured profs are over 70 -- and the call for mandatory retirement policies was righteously asserted. (Odd how the phrase “age discrimination” was so astutely ignored.) Let me play Grinch and put forth a radically different idea: Research universities and elite colleges ought to get grayer, not younger, and for two compelling reasons: quality and cost.
Full disclosure: I am in my 50s and toiled in the second tier for over a decade before growing tired of the grind. I chucked a tenured post and took a leap-by-choice back to adjunct work that was more challenging and interesting than what I had been doing. I hold titles such as lecturer and visiting assistant professor by an act of will, so don’t cry for me Argentina. But I’ve also been at enough different types of institutions to know that the really good ones ought to be hiring people like me rather than bright, new baubles.
Let’s start with what should be (but seldom is) obvious: Over time academics worth their salt accumulate knowledge, have become experts in their fields -- and have the vitae to prove it -- and know how to teach. The latter point cannot be overemphasized. According to the Department of Education, 60 percent of students graduate from a different college or university than the one in which they first enrolled. Surprisingly, cost and homesickness are not cited as reasons for transferring as often as bad teaching, lousy advising, and desire for a more prestigious education. It does not take a mathematical genius to figure out that a failed assistant professor hire can cost his or her institution tens of thousands of dollars in lost tuition fees; at elite colleges that number quickly leaps into six figures, not to mention future losses related to alumni giving.
With due respect to the many wonderful and talented novice assistant professors, one is more likely to encounter shaky teaching among rookies. Higher education, unlike nearly all other levels of education, usually requires no formal training or practice teaching as a prerequisite for instructing undergraduates. The vast majority of newly minted Ph.D.’s have little classroom experience beyond serving as a teaching assistant and in some fields -- most notably the hard sciences -- many graduate students working on research grants have had no direct student contact at all.
Another reason why young professors are often so-so teachers is simple: They’re too busy producing the research necessary to secure tenure. Since they’re bright people they pick up -- often by trial and error -- the tricks of the teaching trade, but if they’re at a university or elite college, they’d better crank out papers, articles, and books or teaching evaluations are moot. And they’d better be on a handful of time-consuming campus committees to boot.
Like too many things in higher education, we’ve structured things backwards. Young folks can sharpen their attack knives for the next remark, but if the academy ran according to logic, nearly all new hires would begin their careers at colleges that place more emphasis on teaching than research. Freed from publish-or-perish pressures, they’d be able to craft their teaching skills more quickly and in the company of seasoned mentors. They’d also produce the research necessary to go to the next level in a less-pressured environment. In certain fields -- math and physics, for example -- one could make the case for letting young scholars work in the private sector before we even expect them to begin teaching. Although the data of researchers such as G.H. Hardy and Thomas Kuhn have been challenged, a significant percentage of important findings nonetheless occur before mathematicians or scientists hit 40. As for humanists, yes, it’s harder to give conference papers or get a book out if your teaching load is 4/4 instead of 2/3, but this is where we grizzled vets turn off our empathy. I published four books in years in which I shouldered loads of 4/4 and 5/5, and I’m not so vain as to believe I’m exceptional. The bottom line on this is simple: If a college wants good teaching and a distinguished faculty, go for those with a proven track record.
If that’s not persuasive, try the economic bottom line. According to the American Historical Association, in early 2007 the average starting salary for an assistant professor was just a tick over $48,000, whereas an associate professor begins at roughly ten thousand dollars more. Forget the ballyhooed star system; in routine hires it makes economic sense to hire older professors. How often have we seen this? A new hire -- roughly 30 years of age -- is made on the basis of his or her “cutting edge” research. Enough is published so that, approximately seven years later, that individual is tenured and promoted to associate professor. Academe being what it is, by then the research isn’t so “hot” any more, but that prof is still on the books for another 28 to 30 years.
Consider an alternative scenario. Let’s say the same college decides instead to hire a 55-year-old with tons of experience and publications, and that person agrees to come in at an associate professor’s salary. If we factor in annual raises of about 4 percent (generous these days) and assume that the individual with be made a full professor in five or six years, the college will invest roughly $800,000 in salary on said individual before he or she reaches retirement age. It would take 13 years for the 30-year-old to reach the same level of investment, but remember: They’re still aboard for quite awhile and you’ve got to keep compounding bumps for raises and promotions. For less money than the costs of a full career for a new Ph.D., an institution could hire two experienced associate profs sequentially, plus have money left over for several adjuncts.
So why do some deans tell hiring committees not to look at Ph.D.’s minted more than five years ago? Beats me! Logic would dictate that, metaphorically speaking, this holiday season hiring committees ought to stay away from the mall and head for the used bookstore.
Rob Weir is a reasonably well-adjusted freelance educator and writer living in western Massachusetts and making the rounds of local colleges. He plays hard to get, but would probably say "yes" to the right suitor.
As has become the annual tradition, the American Historical Association is out with its report lauding the health of the academic job market in history. The report, culled exclusively from job listings in Perspectives (an AHA publication) and Ph.D. completion statistics reported by history departments, shows that there are more available positions than there are historians produced. Other disciplines issue similar reports. While the AHA report may be viewed favorably by some such as scholars in Asian history, the most underpopulated field for historians, for others it reflects a general lack of concern from the association for the untenured and the graduate student. And the problems discussed here apply to many other disciplines as well.
As a national organization and the most powerful entity in the historical job market, the AHA has done surprisingly little to help the newest members of their profession. On the whole, historians pride themselves on their concern for social justice. In 2005, for example, the Organization of American Historians uprooted its annual conference and moved it to another city in a show of solidarity with hotel workers. When it comes to the plight of the discipline’s own working class, the unemployed job seeker, this compassion and concern is absent. In its place is an annual report from the AHA talking about how good it is for some. For others, there isn’t much the AHA can do. I find this lack of action, especially when compared to what is normally shown for the less fortunate, disheartening.
While the AHA can do nothing to overcome the dearth of tenure-track positions (which is a reality that deans, trustees, and legislators control), the association has a great deal of control over two things: job market statistics and the interview process. These areas, which some might say are of secondary concern, have made the job search a very inhospitable place. For one, the association could conduct a statistically sound study of the job market based on an actual survey of departments and job seekers. Drawing attention to the total number of jobs and the number of Ph.D.’s produced in the past year overlooks the fact that visiting faculty and independent scholars are also on the market. A more thorough census would provide better information to AHA members and possibly even a snapshot of many other employment concerns, including how the positions stack up in terms of pay, tenure-track status, and other key factors.
More importantly, the organization could do a number of things to reform the poorly designed hiring process that leaves applicants floating in a limbo of uncertainty throughout much of November and December. The lack of communication between search committees and job seekers is so common that it is now taken for granted along with death and taxes. Job applicants no longer expect any professional courtesy. While this results in a good bit of anxiety for anyone on the market, it can also lead to undue financial hardships that could easily be avoided. As a former editor of the H-Grad listserv and one currently searching for a tenure-track position, I can safely say that these concerns are pressing on the mind of most applicants.
The key to these job market reforms is the AHA itself. As the group most vested in the hiring process, it has done little to actively rectify some of the more egregious concerns with the job market. I have compiled a short list of changes that could be adopted with one vote at a business meeting. And most of these changes would benefit not just the AHA, but other disciplinary associations, especially in the humanities, where good, tenure-track jobs are not widely available. While this will absolutely not correct the disparity between job seekers and open positions, it will go a long way towards making the process a more fair and equitable institution.
1. Take a more accurate census of the job-seeking population annually. There is a glut of history Ph.D.'s. Everyone knows this. Yet for the past three years, the AHA has been trumpeting the idea that the job market is improving based solely on data that have no correlation with the actual situation. The AHA, like other associations, bases its data on job applicants solely on the number of new Ph.D.’s, ignoring the fact that so many of the past few years’ new doctorates remain either unemployed or in temporary positions, off the tenure track and with low pay and benefits. By only counting the new Ph.D.’s, the figures for job-seekers are significantly lower than they should be. The research being produced by the AHA needs to be more accurate so as to guide job applicants and graduate students as to their chances of finding a position. Since candidates who utilize the AHA Job Register at the annual meeting have to be registered as a meeting attendee, the AHA should include a census form with the conference registration. Questions such as "Are you a job seeker?," "What is your area of specialty?," "Have you ever had a tenure-track position?" and “How many years have you been on the job market?” would give a more accurate picture of just how truly dire the job market is. A follow-up survey every April would round out the study and enable applicants to assess their position in the market for the following fall. Job seekers could then make career choices based on tangible facts, rather than hearsay and propaganda.
2. Make the Job Register service a privilege that has to be earned. The AHA has a good deal of influence on the job market but has yet to utilize it in any significant way. Since most tenure-track positions are advertised in the AHA Perspectives and interviews are conducted at the AHA annual meeting, the AHA should mandate certain conditions that must be met before interviewing and advertising space is sold. If those conditions are not met, the AHA should deny departments the right to use their facilities and their ad space, thus adding substantial cost to the interviewing institutions. University HR departments and academic deans, often cited as the reason search committees are unable to communicate with applicants, would either allow the departments to comply with these provisions and foot the bill for a more expensive interview process. Lack of communication and the posting of identical positions without a hire for three or more years are two of the problems that stand out at the moment, but the usage could be expanded in future years to address new situations as the AHA sees fit.
3. Require that search committees inform applicants of their interview status via e-mail 30 days before the annual meeting. Graduate students, visiting lecturers, and independent scholars are, on the whole, not independently wealthy. Traveling across the country to stay at an upscale hotel in a major city just after the holiday season is a lot to ask, especially if a candidate has no interviews. Applicants, though, are at the mercy of the search committees, some of whom notify interviewees a week or less before the annual meeting. Applicants are forced to either keep their rooms and plane tickets past the cancellation date in the hopes that their phone will ring or pay higher airfares and higher hotel rates for last-minute bookings. Letting candidates know their interview status a month in advance would alleviate that situation and prevent the least paid of the profession from shouldering the heaviest and most burdensome travel costs. The AHA should set guidelines that search committees must let all job applicants know whether they will have an interview at the AHA 30 days before the annual meeting or face some sort of Job Register sanction up to suspension from its benefits for a set period of time as determined by the AHA.
4. Establish a general listserv for search committees and job seekers. Search committees are notorious for their lack of communications. Job seekers have pooled their resources into a number of academic career wikis, but these can be misused and are dependent on the truthfulness of the poster. The AHA can alleviate this uncertainty by creating a listserv and mandating that those who use the Job Register would agree to notify the AHA by e-mail at important phases of the job search process. Which steps those are would be open for negotiation, but everyone, committees and candidates alike, would know what those benchmarks are ahead of time. The AHA, and this is the critical step, would aggregate these notifications and send them out via a daily listserv to all job applicants who choose to subscribe. Under this system, for example, all who applied for the position in Pre-Modern China at Boise Valley State could know that the search committee has made AHA invitations, has made invitations for on-campus interviews, or that Dr. Damon Berryhill had accepted the position. Job applicants, who usually have no idea how the searches are progressing, would be more informed when fielding other offers and would no longer need to contact each institution directly for updates. Participation would also be in the hiring institution’s best interests, as it would reduce the need to communicate one on one with job candidates (a very time consuming task for search committee members) but still create a much more open system of communication for job seekers.
It is frustrating to me when scholars who have spent years examining the forces of reform and progress will take no action to better the lives of their fellow historians. Individuals who have studied the great reformers and crusaders of the past will simply throw up their hands and exclaim “its just the market!,” when confronted with horror stories of graduate students and visiting faculty on the hunt for tenure-track jobs. These people do nothing as if, by some sort of divine incantation, the injustices of the hiring process are set in stone and beyond human control. This is the attitude that needs to change the most.
It is worth mentioning that graduate students make up the largest constituency group of the AHA membership. As the H-Grad listserv and the academic careers wiki continue to gain popularity, it will not be much longer before job seekers figure out how to organize themselves and make their voices heard one way or another. One anonymous poster on the job wiki for American historians has already suggested that all job seekers flood this year’s business meeting and vote no on every provision until the AHA takes up job market reform. The leadership of the AHA should adopt these reforms, or at the very least make a reasonable effort to study them, in order to make the job market a more tolerable place for the profession’s newest members and to take the first steps toward a more equitable and open hiring process.
Michael Bowen is assistant director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and a visiting lecturer in the history department at the University of Florida.
It’s different sitting on the other side of the table.
Last fall, I was on the job market for the first time. This fall, having been hired as an assistant professor, I found myself on a search committee interviewing candidates at the American Historical Association convention. For me, this was a startling turn of events. In reflecting on my experiences on both sides of the table, I am surprised by how much they differed and by how much I learned being an interviewer.
As a candidate, I grossly overestimated the amount of mental space search committee members devoted to me. I remember being certain that I was not a finalist for the job I now hold because none of the search committee members came to my presentation, the day after my conference interview. I remember thinking, “If my interview went well, surely, they will send a representative to my panel to further evaluate me.” I see now that was preposterous. As a search committee member, I didn’t even register for the conference or glance at the panel schedule. I knew I’d be inside a hotel room interviewing job candidates all day.
As a candidate, I also misjudged the level of scrutiny my application would receive, as well as the overall tenor of the conference interview. I spent hours preparing for all sorts of hard-hitting and obscure questions about my dissertation and previous experience. I was almost disappointed when the questions were never posed. As a member of a search committee, I followed the lead of my more senior colleagues and asked open-ended questions (“Tell us about your project,” “What might you bring to our university?” “What courses would you most like to teach?”) that allowed the candidates to steer the conversation and strut their stuff.
All in all, I came to view the conference interview less like an oral exam and more like a cocktail party, minus the cocktails. Sitting on the other side of the table, I actually had fun meeting the candidates. It was a treat to hear more about their fascinating projects, intriguing experiences, and hopeful plans for the future. Toward the end of our marathon day, I remarked, to the surprise of my colleagues, that I was disappointed we had only two candidates left because I was having such a good time meeting them all. A far cry from last year.
As a recent-candidate-turned-interviewer, I vacillated between advocating for the candidates and winnowing the pool on behalf of the department. Was it my role to ameliorate the process for applicants or rigorously scrutinize them to ensure the best fit for the department? To what extent did membership on a search committee make me complicit in the often absurd demands placed on job seekers? Could I do anything to make the process less grueling? This internal debate played out in the way I approached my presence on the committee. At first, I felt more allegiance with the candidates -- even when they were represented simply by folders in the file cabinet -- than with my departmental colleagues. My contributions at our initial meetings tended to translate the candidate experience for the other committee members and lobby to make the process more humane. The issue that I felt the most strongly about during our deliberations had to do with timing: I pushed to have our 30-minute conference interviews scheduled 45 minutes apart so that candidates did not have the awkward hallway run-in with other contenders for the same job, but this proved impossible due to the committee’s scheduling constraints. I settled for having tissues, throat lozenges, and water readily available, which, as a recent candidate, I knew might come in handy.
Serving on the search committee also forced me to grapple with the uncertainties and anxieties of the job market from a new perspective. Who was I to evaluate job candidates, many of whom had credentials far superior to mine, when I had so recently been in their shoes myself? To get around this dilemma, I focused on fit -- which applicants best matched the stated job criteria and which ones had specialties that would add the most to the department -- and I did my homework, carefully reading files, letters, and writing samples. In this regard, my experience on the search committee validated conventional wisdom: Most job searches are primarily about fit, not about determining who is the smartest scholar, or the best researcher, or the most engaging teacher (even if discerning these things would be possible).
When I left the hotel room after our conference interviews, I stopped by a reception hosted by my Ph.D. alma mater and ran into several friends who are currently on the job market. “What was it like to be an interviewer?” they wanted to know. And, what advice did I have for them? So, for what it is worth, I’ll share my response.
1. Do your homework about the university and the department to which you are applying. Be familiar with course offerings, faculty, programs, and major university initiatives. At some point in the interview, you’ll be invited to ask questions. Use this time to inquire about specific items of interest, rather than general questions that could be easily answered with a quick visit to the Web site. When a candidate asked about specific course sequences or opportunities to collaborate with other university centers and programs, I knew she’d carefully thought about what she might contribute to the university. Such preparation not only shows your interest, it also enables the search committee to imagine you as a colleague.
2. If there are any updates to your CV or any syllabi that you did not include in your initial application, bring printed copies to leave with the committee. This was not something I did as a candidate, but, as an interviewer, I was impressed when applicants said, “Yes, I look forward to teaching the introductory survey, and here is a sample syllabus I have developed for it;” and
3. Smile and be yourself.
These are hardly original suggestions, but, from my point of view, they made a difference.
Serving on a search committee so soon after my initial foray on the job market required some mental gymnastics. And perhaps this is why I was invited to be part of the committee in the first place – to force me to shed my graduate student skin and to facilitate the transition to professor. While my colleagues frequently solicited my opinion and enthusiastically welcomed me to the fold, my original plan was to be seen and not heard. I soon found, however, that I am constitutionally unable to keep my mouth shut, and I began voicing my opinion, including disagreeing with senior faculty members, and even making jokes (though these contributions were often followed by bouts of, “Why did I say that?”). As the semester wore on, though, I tired of trying to be on my best behavior at all times and grudgingly accepted that all I could do was be myself.
Ultimately, I am not sure what my presence added to the search committee, but I do know what serving on the search committee has meant for me. As anyone will tell you, the first year as an assistant professor is hard. Really hard. Maybe even harder than being on the job market. And, for me at least, it has been filled with lots of existential questioning, such as: Who am I? What am I doing here? Have I done the right thing? A strange thing happened during the conference interviews when candidates asked questions of me. In speaking on behalf of the university, explaining its various programs and campus culture, I actually began to feel like I belong here.
Kimberly A. Hamlin
Kimberly A. Hamlin is assistant professor of American studies and history at Miami University of Ohio.
Raymond leaned back in his desk chair and let out a deep sigh. He was beginning to accept the fact that he wouldn't find a job this go-round. He reached into the bottom left drawer of his darkly patinated, sturdy old wooden desk and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey. He poured two fingers of his familiar solace into an unwashed coffee mug, and surveyed his future.
It was already April. He could easily defend his dissertation and officially receive his Ph.D. this spring if he wanted to. But since it didn't look like he was getting any job as a real professor, it might be a better strategy to wait and graduate next fall or spring. Some schools might look askance at his job applications next year if he had unaccounted-for post-Ph.D. time on his vitae. And, lord knows, schools were all too eager to find any perceived imperfection. It helped them weed out some of the hundreds of applications they received from the hordes of jobless Ph.D.'s. So, he decided, he shouldn't officially get the degree yet, unless something developed quickly on the employment front.
But what would he do next year? He'd been a graduate student for seven years, and, barring some last minute need for an emergency replacement, his department wasn't going to give him another teaching assignment. He just might get part-time teaching work at one of the several universities in the area, but there were no guarantees. He might well end up working at a grocery store, or a bar, or, if things went really badly, at a convenience store or fast food place. He shuddered, thinking of the injustice of one of the bright young minds in his field selling beer and cigarettes to the scum of the earth, or asking some imbecile if he wanted fries with his order.
Raymond stared out the window of his office for a few minutes, morosely sipping his whiskey and imagining the very worst possible scenarios.
When he turned back to his computer, he was surprised to find a job listing glowing on the screen with what seemed to be an unusual luminosity. It was all the more peculiar since he was sure he'd turned off the computer before pouring his drink. Yet there it was.
Job Listing #666. University of Hell at Seventh Circle. Visiting Assistant Professor, two years (with possibility of converting to tenure-track position at culmination of two-year appointment). Beginning September 2009. Teaching load of forty-three courses per semester, with no more than thirty-nine preparations (i.e. instructor will teach more than one section of some courses). No official committee duties, but will be expected to contribute occasionally to departmental administrative work. Competitive salary, given local economy. Candidate must exhibit evidence of strong potential for both research and teaching, and significant flexibility in his/her expectations. For further information, repeat the name “Mizrakreth, Chair of Hiring Committee” three times.
Raymond stroked his chin thoughtfully. After a minute he began chanting “Mizrakreth...” After all, it couldn't hurt just to get a bit more information.
Patrick looked up at Raymond. “What do you mean, 'University of Hell?'”
“You know, Hell. They apparently have some colleges down there.”
Patrick took his feet off the chair that students used when they visited during office hours, then kicked the chair a few inches and nodded at it, as an invitation to sit. “So your question is whether I think you should apply for a job in Hell?”
“Yes, right,” Raymond said, seating himself.
“Hell, the site of eternal torment for the souls of the damned.”
“Given that particular description of the place, an obvious answer seems to suggest itself.”
“No, come on. Seriously.”
“Do you have some reason to think that I'm not being serious when I recommend that you not freely choose to enter Hell?” Patrick asked.
“I know, I know, I dismissed it too at first. But put aside your preconceptions for a minute.”
“They're pretty deeply ingrained.”
Raymond ignored the comment, and explained, “Sure, it's Hell. And that's a minus. But at least it's an academic job. I mean, yes, there's the damnation and torment aspect, but at least I won't have wasted the last seven years of my life. I'll be using my education, you know?”
Patrick scratched at a spot in the middle of his forehead, and slightly scrunched his face. “How can I express this? You seem not to be recognizing something ... this is ... it's, it's HELL! People don't want to go to Hell! Very significant numbers of people restructure their entire lives so as to avoid going to this very place that you're eagerly traipsing off to! Are you crazy?”
Raymond's neck and cheeks flushed slightly. “Sure, you can afford to be a snob, with your job already in the bag. We can't all get cushy, hot shot jobs like yours,” he said, rising from the chair. “Excuse me for not living up to your lofty standards.”
Patrick held his hands out, palms up, and said, “What are you talking about? I got a one-year job at Eastern South Dakota State College. I have to teach four courses a semester. It'll be hell!”
Raymond bit his lower lip.
Patrick cleared his throat, “Uh, not literally Hell, of course. Sorry.”
In the silence that followed, Raymond reseated himself. Staring at the floor, he said, “I guess four courses a term is a lot, compared to some places.”
“And, ah, what's the teaching load in Hell?” Patrick asked.
“It's pretty heavy.”
“More than four?”
“More than five? Ray, how many courses do you have to teach?”
“Thirty-something, forty-something, I forget.”
“Thirty or forty per YEAR?”
“What are you talking about? Raymond, there are some professors who go through an entire, long, fruitful, distinguished career and then retire barely having taught forty classes! It's not humanly possible to teach that many per semester!”
“But it's not that many preps. Mizrakreth said that sometimes you only have to prepare twenty or so courses, then for some of your courses you just teach the same material from the same notes.”
“And Mizrakreth is...?”
“Chair of the hiring committee. A mid-level sub-demon. He seemed pretty upfront about the whole thing. Admitted it was a heavy teaching load, but he pointed out some advantages, too.”
“Well, of course, it is a job in humanities, and you know they're not easy to come by. Besides that, the teaching could be a plus in a way. I'll teach a bunch of different courses, and that can only look good on my vitae. And it sounds like, in recent years, there's more of a trend for people to get good jobs after working a year or two as visiting professors, instead of right out of grad school.”
“So it's a temporary job?”
“Oh, sure. A two-year. I wouldn't want to live there forever. But you have to pay your dues nowadays. And I assume I could leave after just one year if I really don't like it.”
“Does the contract say that?”
“I haven't actually seen the official contract yet. There's a lot of red tape down there, apparently. Mizrakreth said it would probably be okay, we'd have to play it by ear.”
“I'd get it in writing,” Patrick advised. “They might be sticklers.”
Raymond nodded. “Anyway, from what Mizrakreth said, it's not as bad down there as the media makes people think. They've really been working on improving the place.”
“Wouldn't that defeat the whole 'eternal torment' business?”
“Look, a lot of places have worked on being more livable. Cleveland, Pittsburgh,” Raymond said. “Newark, I think.”
“None of which are located in the netherworld per se. Nor designed for the express purpose of providing unremitting agony for the residents. I hardly think Hell is that interested in urban planning, or sprucing things up.” Noticing Raymond's dour look, Patrick softened his tone. “At least don't sign anything until you've visited the campus.”
“That's kind of a problem, actually. They don't have the money to bring people in for on-campus interviews for temporary jobs. If it was a tenure-track job, that'd be a different story. The economy down there hasn't been so good lately.”
“So what's the pay, anyway?”
“Well, Mizrakreth wasn't sure. It's not really his decision. The administration'll decide, based on my experience, etcetera. But he assured me it'll be competitive.”
“Read the fine print, okay?”
A pudgy, youngish man with curly blond hair walked into the room and set his backpack on a desk by the door. “What's up?” he asked.
“Raymond's thinking of applying for a job in Hell,” Patrick answered.
The pudgy man paused, looking at their faces to see if they were joking. After a few seconds, he asked, “Tenure track?”
“Naw,” Raymond answered. “Two-year.”
“Those can be rough. You just get settled in, you have to move again.”
“It could be converted to tenure-track after two years, though, if everything works out.”
Patrick raised his hand and said, “Which of course would mean spending more time in Hell.”
“Still,” the pudgy man said, “Tenure-track is tenure-track.”
“Karen, we need to talk,” Raymond said.
He was sitting on her couch, holding the last slice of the pizza they'd ordered. She sat in her favorite chair, nearby. They had just finished watching a syndicated rerun of The Simpsons. Karen turned to look at him, and, as always, he was struck by the intensity of her gaze. It seemed like all illusions would wither under the force of her intelligent, gray eyes. He wondered, not for the first time, if he was crazy to leave her. Though he truly cared about her, he comforted himself with the thought that there'd be other women. What was important right now was not to hurt her any more than was unavoidable.
Setting down his pizza, he asked, “Remember that two-year job I told you I applied for, a week or so ago?”
“Sure. The Hell job.”
“Right.” He hesitated. “They offered it to me, and I think I'm going to take it.”
She nodded slowly.
Raymond continued, thoughtfully, “So, we've talked before about what we'd do if I got a job somewhere. I guess what we decided was that it depended partly on how far away it was and how workable a long-distance relationship would be.”
“And Hell is really far away,” Karen said. “I guess it is, anyway. Is it another dimension, or what?”
“Yeah, a different plane. So, I guess it seems to me that we shouldn't try to keep up a monogamous relationship. In the end, it doesn't seem like a good idea to me. But how do you feel about it?”
“You're right,” she said after thinking a moment. “And it's not like we haven't seen this coming. To be honest, I can't say I'd be that enthusiastic about visiting you down there. I think the best thing is probably to say we don't have any commitments.”
“None at all, you mean?” Raymond asked, then quickly added, “Right, you're right. No commitments. Although it's not as if I have plans to meet a lot of women in Hell or anything. How much dating could there be?” He absently picked up the slice of pizza and took a bite, then added, “I suppose that in Hell in general, there might be some orgies and things, but nothing appealing.”
“Didn't you say it was in the seventh circle of Hell?” Karen asked.
“Right. University of Hell at Seventh Circle.”
Karen slightly shook her head, and said, “Probably no orgies there. Lust, carnal sins, that stuff's supposedly on the earlier levels. Second or third circle, I think.”
“Really? It's all divided up like that?”
“Well, I don't know this. It's just vague memories of stuff I've read. The seventh circle is supposedly for violent criminals, murderers and the like.”
“Also, it's hot. Flaming cinders falling from the sky, river of boiling blood, burning deserts. Again, 'supposedly.' This is all just hearsay.”
Raymond had been chewing his bite of pizza for a long time. Now he swallowed.
Karen put her hand on his reassuringly. “Like I said, this is not reliable information. Maybe it's not like that at all.”
Raymond nodded stoically.
“Do you like succubus?” Karen asked.
“Succubus?” Raymond asked. He tilted his head, and said, “Well, sure, you know I like...”
“No, that's not what 'succubus' means,” Karen said. “They're some kind of female demon. Actually, maybe the plural is 'succubi.' They might be available.”
“I don't know about that,” Raymond said. “But I'm not even thinking about women down there. I'll be so busy teaching, I won't have any free time.”
“The regular women, I mean the damned ones, they'd probably have some complexion problems. You know, blisters, charring. From the heat. If they have bodies at all. Maybe they're not corporeal.”
Raymond sat silently for a while, then picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth.
Karen reached over and squeezed his free hand and said, “Sorry. Let's not talk about it any more.” She moved to sit next to him, and put her arm around his shoulders. “I hope things work out for you, Raymond. I really do.”
Raymond ran into the mouth of the cave to escape the swirling firestorm. Burning flakes of ash had completely ruined his sportcoat. He'd been shielding his pile of syllabuses by hunching over them as he ran, but now they spontaneously burst into flame from the ambient heat. He dropped the syllabuses and blew on his fingers, muttering “Damn!” He quickly looked around, not sure if he might incur some special penalty for saying that word here.
His students were already there waiting for him in the cave/classroom. It didn't look like a promising bunch. There were indeed a great many unpleasant blisters, and various other wounds and scars. Some students were chained to their iron seats, and Raymond could hear and smell their flesh sizzling. They produced small streams of either smoke or steam, which would no doubt distract the other students. Most everyone was moaning, which also did not contribute to the learning environment. There were three students whose eyes had been gouged out, leaving gaping, bloody sockets. Raymond couldn't see how this was related to the heat, and guessed they must be transfer students. To accommodate them, Raymond made a mental note to be sure to repeat all his main points in a clear voice, even if he wrote them on the board. In the corner was a humanoid-looking tree. Its bark smoldered, and it groaned.
Raymond walked to the front of the room. He tried to introduce himself, but was drowned out by ghastly wails from beyond the rough-hewn rock wall. He put his mouth near the wall and shouted, “Excuse me!” repeatedly, and then, “Hey, we're having a class here!” He accidentally brushed his lip against the wall, and jerked his head back in pain. A blister was already forming on his lip from the hot stone, and his shouting hadn't affected the racket next door. In the second row, a woman's hair caught fire.
“Tough crowd,” he said under his breath, and shook his head. Then, “Two years, two years.” He tried very hard to remember if converting the job to tenure track was his option, or the administration's.
Richard Dean wrote this story well before applying for his current job at the American University of Beirut, and also before applying for his previous job at Rutgers University. By no means is he comparing either place to Hell.
It’s a brave new world for tenure-track faculty members, graduate students, and postdocs these days. New and aspiring professors enter an academy in which the traditional boundaries defining faculty work, the “Big 3” of teaching, research and service, are blurred and, in many cases, disappearing as modern scholarship becomes increasingly collaborative, cooperative, and integrated. For example, not only do we pull the most recent research results into our class lectures but, increasingly, we actively involve our undergraduates in the research enterprise. Institutions of higher education appear to promote this redefinition of faculty work by encouraging professors to weave together aspects of teaching, research and service, especially in areas that lend themselves to collaborative inquiry and scholarship. In some cases, grant competitions and other types of administrative support are in place to foster this integration, but there’s an elephant in the room.
Faculty searches at many institutions of higher education already acknowledge this shift, actively seeking candidates who are multi-disciplinary in their training, teaching, and service interests, and who are used to blending these activities. For many incoming faculty members in the sciences, the silos that defined training and teaching 15 or 20 years ago have given way to team-based approaches to graduate training, postdoctoral mentoring, teaching, and field and laboratory-based research. Similarly, the training model for many social sciences includes traditional research methods and data-oriented training merged with community outreach opportunities and service learning. Frequently, these experiences are interdisciplinary, bringing together interests and scholars that deepen understanding of an issue and provide more comprehensive data or possible solutions. These trends would appear to be entirely positive.
Enter the elephant.
Colleges and universities are sending very mixed messages to faculty members on where integrated research, teaching, and/or service work fits in their progression through the reappointment, tenure, and promotion systems that literally make or break their careers as professors. Many colleges show that they support and encourage integrated work, for example, by providing administrative and financial support for such activities through internal grants and centers, but when the time comes for reviews, professors find themselves in the position of essentially defending their activities. This is because many existing review criteria are designed with the “Big 3” in mind as separate factors, as a result of being formulated at the first half of the last century in terms of an academy that focused on itself as a free-standing intellectual center and less on being a resource for and an integral part of the communities that surround and support it.
When faculty members approach the review process at our university and elsewhere, the value of faculty work that blends the “Big 3” is unclear and difficult to measure. In some cases, integrated faculty work, especially integrated research and teaching, is seen as an aberration that requires justification, additional documentation, and assurance of the value of the activity in question. Indeed, the degree to which this message is unequivocally delivered varies somewhat, but as a general rule, a Google search of Web-accessible review criteria for many types of academic units returns requirements for justification of integrated or collaborative work. Examples of the types of validation required include but are not limited to:
Detailed explanation of why the integrated work can be classified as both research and service, and what proportion of the work falls into each category.
In the case of multi-authored or multi-participant projects (and this is common for integrated work), descriptions of individual contributions of all collaborators.
Explicit justification of why an integrated or collaborative approach was used.
Assurance that the integrated work is occurring in addition to the candidate’s activities in the traditional divisions of faculty work, especially in the case of research.
Clearly, part of the purpose of these guidelines is to assure that candidates are, in fact, making substantial and relevant contributions in research, teaching and service, and are not “double dipping” when engaged in and reporting integrated work. Moreover, when more than one individual is involved in a project, there can be concern that participation and responsibility for the project is not spread equally. It could be argued, however, that integrated work and collaborations produce positive outcomes that can be measured in ways besides the number of journal publications, student course evaluations, or the number of committee reports generated, many of which are not captured in traditional review guidelines.
For example, the definitions of contributions to a scholarly field can be expanded beyond the traditional disciplinary divisions and the journals associated with them for generations. Instead, equal weight can be given to relatively new but high quality venues dedicated to collaborative and integrated research, teaching and service. A great example of such an area is science education, in which science faculty conduct research on K-12 science education and classroom approaches. Additionally, work products, activities, and outcomes occurring outside traditional journal publications (i.e. applied work with non-profit organizations, governments, communities, or civic organizations) can be given greater weight in the review process.
Importantly, the collaboration that often goes hand-in-hand with integrating aspects of teaching, research and service has garnered significant support from several respected groups in higher education, and provides an additional challenge to faculty evaluation. This sentiment is well-articulated in a 2005 National Research Council report on fostering “independence” in emerging scientists: “An 'independent investigator' is one who enjoys independence of thought -- the freedom to define the problem of interest and/or to choose or develop the best strategies and approaches to address that problem. Under this definition, an independent scientist may work alone, as the intellectual leader of a research group, or as a member of a consortium of investigators each contributing distinct expertise. Specifically, we do not intend 'independence' to mean necessarily 'isolated' or 'solitary,' or to imply 'self-sustaining' or 'separately funded.'"
This definition is fundamentally different than the definition of independence that is used in many review documents which are based on the way we conducted ourselves as faculty members 20+ years ago. It is certainly different from the definition used, formally and informally, by review committees in many universities, and does not fit especially well with the team approach that often characterizes integrated teaching, research and service among our best and brightest faculty. The traditional definition is of a solitary, funded, scholar, recognized in his or her own rite as a contributor to the discipline, who does research, teaches, and serves in the silo of his or her discipline and institution and keeps each area of his or her job (teaching, research, and service) strictly separated.
It could be argued that in a world without the digital, data, and real-time communication and knowledge access capabilities of today, engaging in collaboration or attempting to integrate research and teaching, for example, was much riskier, and had the real possibility of diverting a pre-tenure faculty member’s attention, resources, and focus. Without electronic media, for example, the lag time between current research findings and the classroom or lab was much longer, and would conceivably be somewhat of a diversion from the focus of a course or project.
Today, however, the world is a very different place, and it is entirely possible for faculty members, regardless of career point, to collaborate, cross disciplines and time-zones, and get the on-demand data and communication they need to develop highly effective integrated research, teaching, and service activities and projects that provide incredible experiences for students and show, unequivocally, the value of the university. Doing this successfully can be a career-building centerpiece for some of our most innovative, committed, and promising faculty. As institutions, we strive to recruit the brightest, most promising faculty, many of whom are doing wonderful integrated research, teaching, and service work. It’s time for us to meet them halfway by creating review criteria and systems that reward this new definition of independence. Are review committees really so rigid that they can’t handle one list that combines research, teaching and service rather than three lists?
Mary Coussons-Read and Tammy Stone
Mary Coussons-Read is a professor of psychology, an associate dean at University of Colorado at Denver and the founder of Powerful Mind Coaching, where she coaches parents in academia and blogs about the trials and tribulations of balancing home, a research career, and academic administration. Tammy Stone is an associate professor of anthropology and an associate dean at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Successful universities and academic systems require career structures for the academic profession that permit a stable academic career, encourage the “best and brightest” to join the profession, reward the most productive for their work, and weed out those who are unsuited for academic work. We have been struck by the dysfunctional nature of career structures in many countries -- with disturbing negative trends -- and would, only with a small sense of irony, suggest a ranking for career structures that guarantee to fail to build a productive academic profession. Our serious point is this: Without a career structure that attracts quality, rewards productivity, and permits stability, universities will fail in their mission of high-quality teaching, innovative research, and building a “world-class” reputation.
Taxicabs and Non-Tenure Track
A few examples will illustrate how poorly designed or badly implemented academic career structures can have a severely negative impact on the profession -- and ultimately on the future of higher education. Many look to the United States as the world’s leading university system and to the American professoriate as highly productive. The American “up-or-out” tenure system is seen as a rigorous but effective way of ensuring careful selection while at the same time providing a clear career path. While the system has been criticized for downplaying teaching and sometimes imposing unrealistic time constraints on junior staff, it is widely seen as effective.
The problem is that fewer than half of new academic appointments in the United States are made on the traditional “tenure stream”; most new appointments are either part-time or full-time contracts. While the situation is somewhat better at the top institutions, this new arrangement makes an academic career impossible for participants of this new system. While this policy may save money and increase flexibility in the short run, it will have a highly negative impact on the American academic profession. The first increasing difficulty involves attracting the most qualified individuals to academe and constrains young researchers while autonomy should be provided at an age when creativity and innovation are usually at the highest levels.
Argentina may come close to the top rank for irrationality and complexity. Although the large proportion of Argentine academics have low-paid part-time appointments (the original “taxicab professors”), the minority who have full-time appointments face a bizarre career path. If a faculty member wishes to be promoted to the highest academic rank, he or she must submit to a “ concours” where the position occupied by the incumbent is open to applicants from all over the country or indeed the world. In other words, these academics are not promoted on the basis of their performance but may instead have to struggle for “their” job against other applicants. The only saving grace is that the system is often so inefficient that the concours is not organized and the incumbent is promoted anyway. Needless to say, the concours system produces immense stress among academics and deters many from entering the profession or from applying to proceed upward in the ranks.
In France, the access to a first permanent position as maître de conférences occurs rather early compared with other countries (on average prior to the age of 33 years) and opens the path to 35 to 40 years of an academic career. These recruitments happen after a period of high uncertainty as in almost all disciplines the ratio of “open positions per doctors” has worsened, while the doctoral degree is still not recognized as a qualification by businesses or the public sector. Recruiting a new maître de conférences thus constitutes a high-stakes decision. But currently university departments have about two months to examine the candidates, select some of them, hold a 20- to 30-minute interview with those on the short list, and rank the best ones. Despite the highly selective process that the first candidate on the list successfully passes, this new colleague is rarely considered as a chance on which to build by the recruiting university. Not only is the salary based on a national bureaucratic scale below the average GDP per capita for France, but new academics are frequently not offered a personal office and may be asked to teach the classes colleagues do not want to offer or to accept administrative duties. The difficult road toward the doctorate leads to a rather disappointing and frequently non-well-remunerated situation, thus undermining the attractiveness of the career.
In Germany, the access to a stable career occurs much later than in France, at 42 on average for a first tenured position as professor. From the doctorate to the professorship, most young academics spend many years in the Mittelbau -- as postdocs, research assistants, or other positions. Survivors of this long and uncertain period of apprenticeship became autonomous professors who negotiate the number of assistantships, thus replicating as professors what they experienced in the Mittelbau. For sound reasons, a 2002 reform was intended to oppose the negative consequences of the long period of apprenticeship and to increase the institutional control over professors. Merit-based salaries where thus introduced for all new professors. The resources they receive when they are recruited cover three to five years and are renegotiated according to their performance. However, most academics find the new income system less satisfactory than the former. On top of that, the reform creates quasi tenure-track positions for young scholars, who thus become more independent from senior professors.
It is too early to tell if these new positions will lead more easily to professorships as there are currently fewer than 800. This turnabout may discourage academics in the traditional Mittelbau, who still experience the control of professors but know that if they themselves become professors the long apprenticeship period may be undermined by an autonomous apprenticeship; professors would also face income conditions that are simultaneously less attractive.
Several European countries -- including Germany, France, and Russia -- retain a system that requires a second doctoral dissertation to be completed before a person can attain the highest academic rank, thus adding mid-career stress and maintaining an old arrangement that may have worked in the days before mass higher education but is now dysfunctional and widely criticized.
What Academe and Young Academics Need
We are not prepared to offer our mock ranking since it would be difficult to award a top rank to a single impaired academic career system; there is much competition. In fact, global trends indicate that the path to an academic career is becoming more difficult and less attractive. This pattern will not help the improvement of universities worldwide.
For an academic system or a university to be successful, it requires an effective, fair, and transparent means of ensuring that an academic career is possible, that a professional and transparent process is attractive for scholars, and that an evaluation system is in place so that merit can be rewarded and appropriate selections made. Scholars entering the profession need access to a clear and achievable career path and assurance that high standards of performance provide career stability and success. Procedures must be rigorous and meritocratic, and institutions must have confidence that only competence will be rewarded.
At the same time, evaluation systems must not be overly complicated. Mobility within academic systems is desirable. The various aspects of academic performance -- including teaching, research, and service to the university and society -- must be assessed, although the balance among these elements may vary according to the mission of the specific institution. Career stability and a guarantee of academic freedom must be ensured. An American-style tenure system performs this role, but there are other arrangements as well. Evaluation systems, of course, need to take into account national traditions and realities. One thing is clear -- universities and systems that score high on the dysfunctionality rankings will find it difficult to succeed in a competitive world.
Philip G. Altbach and Christine Musselin
Philip G. Altbach is Monan University Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Christine Musselin is professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Sociology of Organizations, Sciences Po, and Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France. A version of this article first appeared in International Higher Education, which is published by the Boston College center.
Lily Tomlin famously quipped, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” While I am loath to think of myself or some colleagues in rodent terms, success (or winning), as popularly understood within the professoriate, exacts a price from those in the race, “winners” and “losers.”
For better or for worse, the goal of the graduate school race, winning a tenure-track assistant professorship at a certain type of college or university, frames the pre-professional experience of most students of English and foreign languages. What graduate programs boast in scholarly training, however, they often lack in institutional training -- that is, in guiding future faculty members to see and experience positively the variety of professional identities rooted in diverse academic cultures, specifically the cultures of teaching-intensive colleges.
New Ph.D.’s in tenure-track positions at teaching-intensive colleges and universities rather unfairly have to learn on the job the role of assistant professor at institutions whose cultures do not mirror those of the Ph.D.-granting universities they just left. Once the elation of securing a tenure-track appointment subsides, the same fortunate minority who emerge from the job crisis having won the race now cope with a second job crisis, one involving the cross-sector transition from research-intensive to teaching-intensive institutions.
The year I completed my doctorate, fall turned to spring, the job market turned from four- to two-year colleges, and I turned into a community college professor, one with few strategies at the ready to brook the physical and emotional toll of a 5/5 teaching load as well as a 2- to 3-course summer load. The word “graceful” does not come to mind when I think of my personal cross-sector transition from graduate school’s paradigm of reflection and knowledge production to my community college’s standard of commotion and spirited knowledge transmission, all in a microcosm, the College of Lake County in Illinois, of a macrocosm in which 12 percent of full-time faculty hold doctorates.
As a minority in terms of degree attainment, the impulse to bring the best of my doctoral education to a community college inspired several projects: an internship program to bring graduate students to our campus before they entered the job market, thereby getting a sense of at least one community college’s day-to-day life; specially designed themed composition courses that moved away from traditional rhetoric to more current theoretical orientations, social-epistemic chief among them; and, perhaps most important to initiating a national dialogue about academic cultures, a collection of essays from foreign language and English Ph.D.’s.
Intuitively knowing I was not the only faculty member struggling to bring humanistic intellectual ideals to a teaching-intensive college, I wanted to read of other Ph.D.’s who became successful public intellectuals in academic settings that, generally speaking, neither afforded them the time nor resources to articulate their stories, to publish accounts of their transformation from “scholar” to “teacher-scholar.”
Thus was Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life born. A collection of essays from faculty who have built rewarding careers at teaching-intensive colleges and universities, Academic Cultures creates a space for faculty who often remain silent in academe once they leave graduate school -- again, for lack of time and resources. To be sure, as the job crisis in English and foreign languages continues, we need detailed narratives from people who have adapted their doctoral habits of mind to the needs of schools ranging from tribal colleges, to border colleges, to comprehensive colleges, to non-elite religiously-affiliated colleges, to high schools.
Just as Ph.D.-granting departments depend upon faculty members to design curricula that will meet the needs of graduate students, so do all departments, whether they grant A.A.'s, B.A.'s, M.A.'s, or certificates. Aeron Haynie, a Victorianist at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, a comprehensive university, asks in an essay an important question of professors: “Shall we devote more concern to ensuring that students read certain authors ... or to developing their skills in critical thinking, reading, and writing?” The same question can be asked of professors across higher education, whether humanists or scientists. Haynie concludes that “our profession needs to clarify what we teach and how it might be useful to a larger public that exists in the varied cultural contexts in which colleges themselves reside.” To clarify connections between the humanities and real communities, our profession needs to hear the voices of humanists practicing in all sectors of higher education, especially those colleges and universities with greater ties to the community, with a greater need for public intellectuals.
The K–12 system already links theory to practice, the humanities to communities, because primary and secondary schools are integral parts of the communities they serve . Colleges of Education and state regulations mandate the student teaching experience, in which candidates learn first-hand how to apply knowledge to the classroom, all the while enjoying the benefits of mentors, meetings, and college classes devoted to supporting students as they navigate the choppy waters of taking the lead in a classroom.
Ph.D.’s in secondary schools can take the lead in translating the language of advanced study in a discipline to praxis, as Stephen da Silva does at a private high school in Texas, where he taps into a mainspring of positive challenges. “When I began teaching high school,” Da Silva comments in his essay, “I rather arrogantly imagined that I was regressing. Instead, I have entered a profession that demands that I grow.” Although we do not expect high school faculty members to produce conventional research, the broad community of Ph.D.’s, scholars all, need not accept the silence of those who are busy with large class loads, large class sizes, and community activism. The political stakes are too high.
As past director of the Writing Center at Concordia University of Oregon, Lynnell Edwards makes literal da Silva’s growth metaphor in the title and content of her essay “Grow Where You’re Planted.” She candidly articulates both the nourishment offered by an evangelical institution’s call to community as well as the deprivation that comes from wondering “more than once whether I keep this position simply because it is a full-time job, something more and more scarce in the humanities, or because the work I am doing here matters at some level beyond my own intellectual and professional satisfaction.” Grappling with the dissonance between the institution’s values and her life’s work remains a paradox that Edwards finds vitalizing. “Ultimately, having had to reckon with the dilemma is what gives meaning to the life.”
Others find work in contexts with more harmony between their personal beliefs and professional practice. Keene State College professor Mark C. Long, for example, acknowledges those, like himself, who “have managed to make satisfying professional lives in less than ideal circumstances by setting aside the conventional narrative of the profession.” That conventional narrative, shaped as it is by expectations of moving from the position of a student at one Ph.D.-granting department to the position of an assistant professor at another Ph.D.-granting department, excludes faculty members who consider it their good fortune to have traveled between and among diverse academic cultures.
How can we broaden notions of career success beyond the hierarchical Carnegie classification system of colleges and universities, research-intensive or not, to include considerations of the social impact of an institution, of the extent to which a work life fulfills professors, or of the match between the talents of Ph.D.'s and the needs of certain college, university, and/or community constituents?
Indeed, narrow definitions of career success limit professors’ self-definitions and their potential as public intellectuals. Humanists have devoted too little attention to the relations among the profession, higher education, and society. As Vladimir Lenin noted, “One cannot live in society and be free from society.” Demands from external stakeholders for accountability in the professoriate make active teacher-scholars a necessity for the future of the humanities.
Time and again I find colleagues like Robert Chierico, Fabiola Fernández Salek, Evelyne Norris, and Virginia Shen, who demonstrate to Ph.D.’s the meaning of accountability: teaching, service, research, and public outreach. They live in society, creating innovative undergraduate foreign language programs at Chicago State University for an urban student body consisting of “more women than men, many part-time students who work full-time, many students from low-income backgrounds, and a good number of returning students.” Echoing the themes of professors as change agents, of colleges as fundamental elements of communities, this team of professors works toward enabling student success by “delivering a high school–to–college transition program for minority students, providing special Spanish courses for native speakers, ensuring a strong study-abroad program, and offering a complete range of foreign language [courses], including ... Chinese and Arabic.”
As future faculty members prepare for the job market and as their professors who know best the rigors of research-intensive careers consider the market into which they are sending students, I hope they regard diversity in postsecondary education as a strength of the system rather than a problem to redress. Discussions with future English and foreign language faculty should include all the academic cultures in which professors establish gratifying careers. Listening to practitioners from teaching-intensive academic cultures (tribal colleges, community colleges of all sorts, art schools, baccalaureate colleges, and master’s colleges and universities) unsettles the provincialism of professors inhabiting different academic cultures, exposing them to a rigor unknown within the doctoral department.
My intended audience for Academic Cultures -- graduate faculty, doctoral program directors, and graduate students -- will find expressed in the essays of this anthology the unifying foundational ideals of higher education, albeit with different context-dependent definitions: teaching, service, and scholarship. While unity expressed in diversity is noble, change in graduate education is nobler.
Research is important, as is the dissertation. Teaching fellowships and assistantships serve graduate students well, on balance. But a physician would not dream of practicing medicine after having spent time in one medical school and one portion of the medical system. Much can be said for rotations, and doctoral candidates might do well to follow the medical school model by teaching at a range of institutions during their course of study. Graduate coordinators or directors can facilitate partnerships with local colleges and high schools, which would entail giving up some graduate student labor but gaining intellectual breadth.
If faculty members and administrators from different sectors of higher education communicated more systematically across academic borders to express distinctive features of their institutions, we might progress toward Ernest L. Boyer’s goal of “ diversity with dignity in American higher education,” thus affirming the various ways Ph.D.’s express their intellectual leadership within their careers and, of great consequence to the public intellectual, to their students and home communities.
The 20-plus-year job crisis in the foreign language and English professoriate has persisted beyond the shelf-life of “crisis.” Simply put, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor, the creation of compromise full-time non-tenure-track positions, and the continued overproduction of Ph.D.’s fall more neatly under the term “reality” than they do “crisis.”
Wandering the halls of the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco last month brought to mind the two years I attended MLA conventions, waited in drafty hotel hallways for interviews to begin, and, looking back, participated, sadly enough, in an academic ritual Dante could not have imagined in his visions of hell.
And my baptism by fire led to no job prospects.
After considering applying for a paid training program to obtain a bus driver’s license in Ohio rather than work for less money as an adjunct instructor of English, I concomitantly considered applying to the spring two-year college market. Although this is changing somewhat, community colleges’ budget cycles often mean their faculty positions are advertised and filled in the spring. I received four interviews and three job offers, the best of which I took, and the benefit of which placed me at the front of a classroom rather than behind the wheel of a bus.
All this is to say, do not despair. The four-year job market may pass you by, the MLA may be a memory now, and the coveted research-intensive universities may find others for 2/2 teaching loads, but you can pursue a life of the mind in other settings that may not be utopian.
Let’s first look at the landscape of higher education before I discuss the promises and pitfalls of community college faculty life. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classifications, 4,391 colleges and universities serve over 17,000,000 students. Only 283 of 4,391 institutions are classified as research universities (very high or high research activity), and/or doctoral/research universities. To their credit, these 283 universities enroll 28 percent of students, according to the 2004 IPEDS fall enrollment figures. By contrast, some 1,814 associate’s colleges -- including an additional 32 tribal colleges, which generally offer two-year degrees -- enroll 39 percent of American postsecondary students
In terms of faculty characteristics, full-time faculty degree attainment at the community college level remains heavily tilted toward the master’s, with 71 percent holding terminal master’s degrees while 13 percent hold doctorates. For the adjuncts who teach over two-thirds of community college courses, a definite pitfall of the system, only 5 percent hold doctorates.
Although statistics tend to bore humanists, I offer an overview of higher education to highlight points of interest to the Ph.D.’s in foreign languages and English who imagine themselves laboring only in the academic culture in which they took their doctorate. This spring, 1,814 two-year colleges and 32 tribal colleges may well need your expertise.
I have heard people lament, “As a humanist, I am not trained to teach five courses per semester to the under-prepared introductory student, thereby crowding out time for research.”
My response: “Think.”
To cite myself as an example, the state of New York paid for my master’s and the state of Ohio paid for my Ph.D. My training as a humanist helped me become a public intellectual whose politics and personal ethics demand that I give back to and reform the very system that helped me reach this stage in my career. Higher education is so diverse, two-year colleges themselves so diverse, that I cannot possibly speak in sweeping terms about any of them.
I can say that many of my colleagues are brilliant. I can also say that, as Emily Toth/Ms. Mentor writes, everyone who moves from graduate school to academic positions will have moments where they think, “I am surrounded by idiots.” Usually such moments represent the newly hired faculty member's overreaction to some errant words from the mouths of department misfits, committee losers, or administrative malcontents. Knowing that teaching is a messy prospect, I look for perfection neither from teachers nor students, and, I assure you, I am at my college for the students rather than for the misfits, losers, and malcontents. Proudly under-educated and provincial faculty give higher education a bad name.
My students motivate my research in unexpected ways, leading me to create a nationally recognized preparing future faculty program, to securing a spot at a week-long seminar at the United States Institute of Peace, to publish two books, to take students on grant-funded field trips, and much more.
To be sure, the high attrition of students at my community college demoralizes me. Then again, the ability of students to reach a high bar inspires me. Each semester represents a personal emotional roller coaster, at turns terrifying and fun. The fun should be restored to students’ intellectual lives, as well. Many have experienced schools as sites of degradation, yet they persist. Maybe you can relate.
But myths die hard deaths, and some myths about the community college sector contain kernels of truth. Faculty do teach a great deal. Graduate students may find the prospect of a 5/5 (or higher) load unthinkable. Sometimes I still do. However, I have taught a variety of courses during my tenure -- Critical Thinking, Introduction to Humanities, British Literature I and II, as well as many, many composition courses, online and face-to-face. Dabbling once into a basic skills course gave me enough pause to leave that work to my more talented colleagues. In short, thinking of course topics, of themed composition courses (our faculty regularly offer advertised composition classes in the graphic novel, gender and sexuality, protest literature, banned books, writing for education majors, and the like), rather than of course load mitigates some of the trepidation faculty experience in the face of a 5/5 teaching assignment. Learning communities, team teaching, and special projects may well reduce one's course load, depending upon local administrative policies, as may union contracts that weight composition classes as 4 credits rather than 3 because of the grading required of instructors in writing courses.
Teaching as much as we do can be intellectually stultifying. Community colleges pride themselves on innovation and responsiveness, excellence in education at an affordable price, but even the architecture of many two-year colleges speaks more to utilitarianism than to fostering a life of the mind. Bucking a full-time position in an academic setting for part-time work in a university setting may well be more intellectually stultifying.
Consider, too, the facts of salary, tenure, and benefits when looking beyond myths of the two-year college, one of which holds that faculty do not earn wages comparable to the four-year sector. Given the community college movement's early alliances with high schools, many have graduated pay scales or step systems based upon education and years of experience. I move up a step on the pay scale each year, enjoy adequate health care fully funded by the college, earn 15 sick days and receive 2 special emergency days per year. By law, tenure in Illinois runs on a three-year clock, and the peer-review process is formative rather than evaluative, leaving a pre-tenure candidate feeling more nurtured in her/his classroom practice than harassed. Combine all of this with a generous retirement package, and one invariably concludes: I work a lot and I'm paid for the work.
The adjunct path often leads to the work, sans the pay and benefits. To take concrete examples, of two-year colleges with ranks, the AAUP faculty salary survey for 2007-8 lists assistant professor pay ranging from a high point of $85,000 (Westchester Community College, New York) to a low point of $34,500 (Lackawanna College, Pennsylvania).
Myths aside, I encourage an empowered faculty role in the life of a college. The same should hold true of one's own career path. If the college at which I work has given all it can to me, and if I have contributed all I can to the college, I have no reservations parting ways. Should administration seem like the sector within which I can most impact students, I will pursue administrative jobs -- either at my current college or elsewhere. Tenure involves a college's commitment to employing me for life. I make no such commitment to stay employed at one school for life. More philosophically speaking, I tell my students that education always opens doors, and I believe the same of my Ph.D.
The Ph.D. confers upon a holder a certain cultural cachet. Whether to use this cachet in service of community college students, many of who will be first-generation and working-class, is not a decision to be made lightly. But if said students are to move along to four-year colleges and universities, should they so choose, they need professors with deep capacities for instructional flexibility, critical thinking, political savvy, and communitarian values. That might be you.
Again, do not despair about the dearth of university jobs with 2/2 loads, and, more importantly, do not fall prey to contempt prior to investigation — the surest road to ignorance. Visit community colleges, visit their classrooms, discuss career options with two-year college professors, and let go of the notion that 6,795,850 students gather in America’s two-year colleges to waste faculty members’ time, to dawdle, or to fail.
My faculty position is not utopian, but I defy anyone to tell me I would have traveled the world to academic conferences on subjects ranging from James Joyce to online teaching, encountered 3,600 students over 10 years, gained insight into the ways people’s minds work, contributed to a community, and have a stake in higher education were I in that bus or on an adjunct track, waiting year after year for a university position that may never materialize.
Sean P. Murphy
Sean P. Murphy is professor of English and humanities at the College of Lake County.
Even old news can be dismal, and that is the case at hand. For about 40 years, by my calculation, American universities have been admitting too many candidates for doctorates in the liberal arts and the social sciences and, startling attrition along the way notwithstanding, have produced too great a supply of Ph.D.'s for a dwindling demand. There are proposed remedies for this injustice that prepares people exclusively for work that will not be available to them, but I want to address a different problem. What can we do with, and for, the Ph.D.'s and those who dropped out short of the final degree that will be useful for them and, not accidentally, provide a benefit to the nation?
Those who have earned or at least pursued doctorates in the humanities or social sciences, or professional degrees in law and business, whom I want to include in my argument, have learned how to learn, how to conduct research, and in many cases have acquired a second language. Field work or study abroad may have further informed them about other cultures. Thus, although their training has been geared to turn them into replicas, if not clones, of their former professors and reportedly has not prepared them for competing in the world outside the academy, they have useful skills, which could also be marketable. The question is how to bring them to market.
My proposal is for a national program that combines some of the elements of Works Progress Administration programs from the Great Depression, the Peace Corps, and the Fulbright Awards. I mention the WPA not because we have entered another depression — so far so battered, but also so far so good — but because its various programs took the unemployed and found them work which, with some notorious exceptions, the nation needed done. And this effort included support for writers and artists. The Peace Corps and the Fulbrights, with their histories of sending Americans abroad (and bringing foreigners here as Fulbright scholars) have proven their intellectual worth, their pragmatic value, and their foreign policy bona fides. I am, however, suggesting them as models of successes, not as templates.
Volunteers for this new program, after training most plausibly sponsored by the State Department, would be sent abroad, chiefly to developing countries where they could teach at high levels, in some cases study (especially languages), and work in civil programs according to their abilities and training, for example, in court administration and in the organization of self-help associations and business start-ups. The actual work will need to be directed by the skills of the volunteers, not from an arbitrary menu of projects or by ukase, though selection of the volunteers for the program will have to contribute to the shaping of its execution.
The work, as I imagine it, would not replicate or overlap with the work of Peace Corps volunteers. First, the program would recruit from the limited pool that I have described. Second, the work needs to be white-collar — educational at a high level, administrative, or organizational; volunteers will not be making bricks or laying water pipes or teaching in primary and secondary schools. Third, depending on the interest of the host country and the volunteers, periods of service could be longer than the 27-month tour in the Peace Corps. Fourth, mastering a new "strategic" language will be a primary requirement of volunteers, no matter their specific daily work — a point I will return to shortly. Fifth, at the completion of a tour, volunteers will be encouraged to maintain the linguistic skills and the cultural information they acquired while abroad. This may be done through the kind of employment they find, ideally in government service, but industry and academe could serve as well. (I say encourage rather than require because we no longer have conscription, and the unwilling are never very happy or useful.) It seems obvious to me that banking people competent in language against a future when their skills will be needed will be a good investment.
The short-term benefits are clear enough. Like the Peace Corps and the Fulbrights, the program has the potential to increase the familiarity of a generation of young Americans with other countries, their languages and cultures. Like them, it is a way of conducting soft diplomacy in which the character of the participants could complement and, I expect, enhance our national policies and interests. Those who expand knowledge or help to improve civil institutions tend to command respect, even affection, while revealing — perhaps to the astonishment of many abroad — that Americans are not the horned minions of the Great Satan. These are the expectations that the program I suggest must have, maintained rigorously with supervision and review. I have no interest in a program that enables young or even middle-aged people to find themselves or that simply keeps them out of the job market for a few years.
The longer-term benefits are, I think, more interesting and more valuable. If, as I have said, mastery of language is a primary requirement, returning volunteers will be available who know languages that are neither widely taught nor spoken in the United States; one principle guiding the placement of the volunteers should be the importance of the languages spoken where they are posted. Thirty years after we learned, in the aftermath of the assault on the American embassy in Tehran, that the Central Intelligence Agency did not have a single Farsi speaker there, we still have intelligence and military services that sorely lack people who can speak and read the languages of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine, has recently pointed out that only 13 percent of CIA employees speak a second language. He tells a more bleak story. In March of 2009, the administration wanted a "civilian surge" of 300 experts in language and administration to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. A month later, State and USAID could not find the people, and the over-committed military commands had to find the staff.
The program I am proposing, had it been established five years ago, might have been able to provide that missing expertise, at least a good part of it. Assuming only a couple of thousand volunteers a year in the program — a number that could certainly grow as it ripens and perhaps broadens according to needs — it would be manageable and not very expensive. As benchmarks, and these are only points of departure, the practices and the budgets of the U.S. Scholars Program of the Fulbright Awards and of the Peace Corps are instructive. Both offer transportation to the host country and "maintenance" or "an allowance" based on local living costs; Fulbright expenses are higher because their scholars generally live in high-cost countries. The Peace Corps offers deferral of student loan payments and in some cases cancellation of Perkins Loans, both of which would be attractive to the volunteers I have in mind.
If, then, we want a rough-and-ready baseline of costs to fund a pilot program of, say, 1,000 volunteers to begin with, we can simply take the approximate cost per volunteer for the Peace Corps, since I envision them living in conditions more like those of Peace Corps volunteers than of Fulbright students. This offers a cost per volunteer of about $45,000. Given the number of unemployed academics, recruiting this many should not be difficult and would permit selectivity.
When the economy improves a bit, imagine some of the alumni of this program entering academe not bitter from four years of adjuncting without health insurance, but energized by new experiences, and bringing unusual combinations of knowledge to their universities. Imagine if every English or history department had someone who had recently lived in the Middle East or Africa?
There is another benefit that could actually respond to a serious, if only simmering or festering, problem heading right at us now. In the next several years, approximately 250,000 federal employees, many of them at the top as GS-15 or SES workers, will be retiring. How to replace them or, more to the point, where simply to look for their replacements, is already proving to be vexing and nerve-racking. My belief — it is more than a hunch — is that many of these returning volunteers would be interested in federal service or perhaps in service with state governments, which also are facing the same problems of baby-boomer retirements as the federal government. They will already have been exposed to the terms and the values of working as public servants. They will have acquired, at the government’s expense, new skills and may have a sense of obligation or loyalty, which would be welcome. Perhaps offering student loan forgiveness or reduction in return for government service after the tour abroad would be a strong inducement.
Many, if not all, will have the academic credentials that public agencies routinely look for. If the program I propose could be established soon and quickly grow to several thousand new recruits every year — and recruits are available now and will continue to be until we change our policies of graduate education — we would have made a respectable down payment on this human capital obligation. Instead of mortgaging our future, as many programs often appear to do, we could actually be paying down the mortgage by drawing on the skills we have banked.
Beyond the value of sending “missionaries” or soft diplomats abroad, the two additional goals I have presented — the acquisition of strategic languages and the restocking of the public sector — are distinct, but not at odds with one another, nor do I worry that having more than one goal clouds the mission or makes the program unwieldy: both are worthy and important, and neither excludes the other. Moreover, by turning to the supply of unemployed or underemployed men and women, we will be putting to work minds that have been trained and skills that have been raised at great expense. This may seem an exercise in good works and foreign policy, but no less, in my opinion, a matter of thrift and profit for the nation.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University.