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« Ban that question | Main | Even I have my limits »

January 27, 2008


Mr Punch

Yes, (c) is the most interesting -- but it doesn't go far enough, because "tenure track" itself is to some extent an illusion. Suppose you're a young geneticist; you get your PhD, and want to move toward tenure. Tenure will be based on research. The job offers are (1) assistant professor, with a significant teaching load; or (2) post-doc, full-time research, more money. Which do you take? At best, you could go either way.

Rich Puchalsky

Ah, yes, doing work out of love. This is the same exact problem faced by people who work for nonprofit groups in general, especially advocacy groups -- you are supposed to be doing the work out of "love" (i.e. some form of political or pseudo-political agreement). It's so well known that it has been quantified. It's generally accepted that if you work for a nonprofit, you will get 2/3 of the money that the same work for a profit-making entity will get you, and the difference is supposed to be pay in the form of satisfaction with your work.

One of the many reasons that Ralph Nader was heartily disliked among the people who worked with but not actually for his organizations was that he ruthlessly ignored this tacit agreement. He'd basically play up how important the work was, and how people shouldn't be interested in getting paid for it, and use his star quality to get people to work for $6,000/year or something. I never could take him seriously on work issues.

Marc Bousquet

Hi, Miriam. Thanks for this thoughtful (and prompt!) reading. You've captured several of the core themes of the book, and raised some good points. You're right, of course, about administrator salary.

Folks that want to learn more about the way that affect benefits employers should read things like Andrew Ross's "The Mental Labor Problem" and Dana Fisher's _Activism Inc_, which shows the horrendous permatemping of undergraduates working for causes.

The point about contingent faculty is a thorny one. Like most contingent faculty issues, there's no consensus on it even among contingent faculty leadership. This is not surprising, since contingent faculty _are_ the faculty--including grad students, they could be 80% of the total. Increasingly "tenure stream" means "administrator candidate pool."

The thing is: contingent faculty turnover is 30% a year. No real-world plan to restore tenure-stream lines would really be displacing these folks.

Additionally, no responsible plan to restore tenure-stream lines would permit it. Folks working at the institution can be tenured as part of the process.

There are lots of ways of thinking about this. First, individuals that have been on the faculty for teaching contingently, can be tenured on the basis of teaching if that works for the individual and the institution: tenurability has not historically, is not now, and does not in the future need to be equated with research scholars only.

Second, for the many who are en route to PhDs and are/would be research scholars, there's plenty of precedent and opportunity to provide paths for conversion.

Lots more to talk about--including the fact that "tenure," as we think of it, is a lousy form of job security. It's too arduous, too arbitrary, relatively insecure, and vulnerable to demagoguery and institutional policy manipulation (ask scholars of German and Italian literature how tenure helped them when their departments were abolished!)

The tenure enjoyed by police officers and kindergarten teachers is generally superior.

More on tenure in a couple of weeks over at HTUW. Thanks again for this kind reading, Miriam.
Solidarity, M

Marc Bousquet

Craig Smith

Marc makes a lot of good points here (because the post does—because the book does!). We have been trying to think through the conversion and job security issues a lot over at FACE Talk (as well as the overall systemic reform being discussed here). AFT is putting forward legislation in a lot of states explicitly looking to shift work into the tenure-track and also calling for qualified (however the institution defines that) contingent faculty to have priority consideration in hiring (and better pay and benefits for contingents--but I want to focus on the conversion and potential job loss issue).

As Marc says, much to talk out here as it is complicated, but I do think it is important to distinguish between 2-year and 4-year institutions. Two-year institutions have large numbers of contingent faculty, but there is also better movement between contingent positions and tenure-track positions, although those “conversion numbers” look better when you look at the two-year system than when you look at a particular institution. Obviously one reason they happens is because of the degree and research requirements at community colleges are not what they are at 4-year institutions.

But I think the point Miriam lands on with MAs and ABDs (particularly in the 4-year sector) is really critical. We know that in the contingent faculty ranks at 4-year institutions, a significant number of contingent faculty do not have PhDs. So won’t they lose jobs if we create more tenure track work? One answer in moving work back to tenure track positions, as Marc points out, is that it will happen through natural attrition—and we have some pretty good evidence that if the system continues to work as it does now, that is probably right--but not completely. There are, of course, faculty members who have taught for a long time and if their position was put on the block to be converted to a tenure-track line, they would not qualify for that position. That is why we have to, as Marc says, protect against job loss in moving work back into the tenure-track.

Another solution is not to obsess about research as Marc suggests and tenure folks for the work they are doing and that the university apparently needs and values, but I am not so sure I want to accept the structural disaggregation of faculty work rather than push back on that. But I have gone on long enough here and will hold that thought. Thanks for the post (and the book of course!).


Miriam, I don't quite get the "(elsewhere)" in your point b). Many institutions fill adjunct lines with their own grad students, no? UB English hires grad students as adjuncts once they've finished their first five years of grad school.

I'm with Puchalsky (when he's right, he's right) in lauding your, and by implication, Bousquet's, attention to the "Affect" issue, which played such a big role in, say, Stimpson's opposition to grad student unionization. Demanding loyalty to the corporation on affective grounds is an old reactionary tactic which it's really disturbing to see nominal progressives (Nader among 'em) endorse.


Josh: you're right that such hiring happens at some institutions, but others simply cut their grad students off from teaching altogether.

I won't say where I am!

This may sound really Scrooge-like to some but I'd like to get rid of M.A. faculty unless they are those who have actually defined a career for themselves at that level and are involved in professional development of some kind, keeping up in the field, etc.

Graduate students tend to be good as faculty since they are engaged in the field, ditto PhDs for various reasons. But we tend to employ as permanent instructors these stale M.A.'s who are very far behind on almost everything and do not think of the job as a professional would. They get raises and benefits, so they're making as much or more than the assistant professors, but the administration sees them as more malleable and so on, which seems to be why they like them.

Students who didn't do well in high school like these instructors because they don't really teach at the university level ... but they make it very hard to attract majors, since with these people teaching our discipline does not look challenging or interesting. Conversely, when students *do* get to be taught by a graduate student or a research faculty member, expectations are so different that they get really shocked and figure they aren't capable of doing the major.

I would *so* like to convert *some* of those instructor lines into tenure track. Also because to amuse the instructors we let them teach junior and senior level courses, while we teach freshmen ... which means we *do* have enough upper division offerings to support a PhD.


Key in this discussion is John Lombardi's article "Deconstructing Faculty Work"


Fascinating discussion. I'm an M.A. who worked as an adjunct and attest that I never really put into my field what a PhD or someone more serious about the field I taught in would have.
However, I was a damned good classroom teacher!

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