With college enrollments growing, tuition soaring, and administrators reaching for their chain saws to cut costs, the role of the tenured professor is under fire as never before.
"The days of the royal professorship are, like, so over," proclaims Aventa Clew, chief of human resources at Awed State. "Who can even afford a tenured faculty member when we're outsourcing jobs to Cuba, or wherever I'm thinking of?" The Awed response, anxiously watched by schools across the country, is to create "a more intermediate pedagogy," as Awed Dean of Conservative Arts Iona Bentley put it, "somewhere between instructors and serfs."
Starting next fall, the bulk of incoming students will be taught by a new cadre of professionals called assistant assistants, teachers whose sole responsibility will be in the classroom: no office, no bathroom privileges, and most important, no benefits. A sub-category to assistant assistants may be recruited from the ranks of the new never-graduate students, a guild of craft-persons, particularly medieval studies types in the history department, dedicated to staying within the walls of the academy.
At lower-cost institutions, those who can't quite teach but merely impart information to students will be hired as drones, moonlighting from their regular jobs as greeters at Wal-Mart. The new ranks may take hold soonest in Texas, where the Leave No Teacher Behind initiative has been implemented in a chain of retraining camps.Of course, drones can be prerecorded, an idea that has not gone unnoticed in education departments across the country.
At C.I.T.M.T., the California Institute of Too Much Technology, employing the same animation techniques that made The Polar Express such an enhanced miracle of sound and motion, the computer labs have started to produce virtual professors. The v.p.'s, as they're known in the trade, can perform functions that traditional pedagogues can only dream of: executing a brutal savate kick to emphasize a point about physics, or morphing into Grendel while reciting Beowulf. The newest version, Prof5000, can execute 100 pedagogical decisions a second while also composing an abstract and serving on a committee for academic freedom. In the works are plans to produce virtual students, as well, and miniaturize entire endowed buildings to the dimensions of a computer chip.
When polled, C.I.T.M.T. students said they didn't think it would affect their learning experience. "If I'd wanted a human teacher," scoffs one sophomore engineering student who did in fact ask to be named, "I'd have gone to a community college."
Will the C.I.T.M.T. administration ever be replaced by a machine? "Of course not," said one C.I.T.M.T. official. "Our work is far too important for that. In fact, we're hiring 17 new deans next year."
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).