Replacing a System, but Not the People
In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, former MLA president Michael Bérubé proposes a New Model of Tenure, one that on its face is extremely rational, that appears to be an agreeable means of returning security, academic freedom, and professionalization to higher education’s labor system.
While I admire Dr. Bérubé’s efforts and intentions, I also think his proposal suffers from what my friend and colleague Kevin Mahoney calls “abstracted thinking about labor.”
Yes, in the abstract, Bérubé’s proposal is a solid one. But he does not here take into consideration what will happen to the actual people, the Mas and ABDs who have been teaching at institutions in the current system, sometimes for 10 or more years, were universities to adopt his plan.
The proposal needs to include, as an integral and principal part, a means of protecting the faculty who are already in the system. Protecting those who have taught our classes, taken last minute- appointments, and lost money when we tenured took a class from them last-minute Protecting those who have been at our colleges and universities for years with rotten compensation, little or no benefits, and, at times, the disdain of the tenured elite.
Now, he admits that this IHE article is not sufficient to explain fully the proposal, and encourages readers to check out it forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, coauthored with Jennifer Ruth, for all of the details. Perhaps I am jumping the gun, and my issue with his plan is dealt with, and well, in that text. I hope so. For the sake of anyone who might jump on this particular bandwagon without reading the book or without thinking about its concrete effects on the current teaching force, I offer some food for thought.
Bérubé notes that in his book, he and Ruth “propose a teaching-intensive tenure track for contingent faculty. It would constitute an extension (and, we think, a revitalization) of the tenure system, with tenure awarded on the basis of successful teaching, as determined by tenured colleagues within the institution. It would thereby give contingent faculty members access to meaningful peer review -- and substantial job security.”
Hear, hear. Yes. I am in agreement with Bérubé so far. We do need to reward teaching in higher education, value it far more than we do, and to extend the protections of tenure to those for whom teaching, not research, is the crux of their work.
I appreciate, too, Bérubé’s assessment of why tenure is needed. He agrees with the AAUP that without tenure, academic freedom is crippled. Even with a multi-year contract, non-tenure-track faculty will have to reapply for their jobs on a regular basis, can still be “nonrenewed” (aka fired) because an admin, WPA, or senior faculty doesn’t like their teaching style, their criticism of the department, their research findings. He quotes the AAUP’s “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions” statement, which argues that positions without tenure, “while improving on the entirely insecure positions they replace -- offer limited conceptions of academic citizenship and service, few protections for academic freedom, and little opportunity for professional growth.”
Again, yes, sir.
But the rub is in his nagging question: “What is to be done about the deprofessionalization of the profession?”
His proposal for teaching-intensive tenure is one that only applies, you see, to those with terminal degrees, the real “professionals” in higher ed. Here is where we part ways:
“Our teaching-intensive tenure track would give priority to the holders of terminal degrees (including M.F.A.s in creative writing and the performing and visual arts…. The deprofessionalization of the profession is underwritten by the undermining of the Ph.D. It is telling that more rigorous professions such as law and medicine have no similar arrangement by which people who completed most, but not all, of the credentializing process are licensed to practice.”
I agree that the PhD has been undermined, and that a return to a system that defines it as the standard would have its advantages. But the proposal (in the article—perhaps it is covered in the book) does not address what happens to the legions of MAs and ABDs currently in the system. This is not some small detail, to be worked out in a book’s appendix or considered after an institution has adopted a teaching-intensive, terminal degree based system of tenure. Without consideration of the concrete ways in which his proposal—any proposal to reform labor practices—will affect the real, human beings in our classrooms, without some foregrounding of the discussion in grandfathering or protecting our current faculty, I cry foul.
Consider the contract instructor who has been teaching at your institution for ten years. Maybe that’s you. Were your uni to adopt this proposal, an admin might say,
We have realized that we are mistreating our adjuncts, and that we were undermining the doctoral degree and our own majors by not exclusively hiring faculty with the terminal degree. So, good news! We’re replacing all of our adjunct jobs with teaching-intensive tenure-track jobs! Isn’t that great? Since you have an MA, though, I’m afraid, we have to let you go. Bye.
At this point, many of our contingent faculty colleagues have been teaching for decades. After years of poverty-level wages, most don’t have the resources to return for or complete the terminal degree. They have loads of teaching experience that won’t necessarily help them to get alt-ac jobs. And now they will be unemployed. Legions of them.
This should not be a matter to be figured out later. People's lives and livelihoods should never be an afterthought.
I asked him directly about this issue when I posted the link on Facebook this morning. His response, which he said was necessarily limited by a bad internet connection, is that the second-to-last paragraph "addresses the concern." That's where he contends that contingent faculty who have taught for seven years can keep their jobs.
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Oh, my. That's me.