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Is College Teaching Just a Job?

May 7, 2014, 11:19 am

vintage_circus_posterClearing out a bookcase the other day, I stumbled across an unread copy of The Hedgehog Review that had slipped to the back of a shelf. I was delighted to find, among several interesting essays and interviews, an article by Frank Donaghue that asks the question: “Do College Teachers Have to Be Scholars?” (spring 2012). Part of a provocative special issue on The Corporate Professor, I am sorry to say you cannot click through to it, but here are the answers to the question:

  • No. The connection between teaching and scholarship has been “uncritically yoked” during the same decades that more and more college faculty can expect to work as adjuncts, jobs in which there is generally no time, support or reward for traditional scholarly production. Adjuncting is now the dominant model for college teaching, fueled by the hiring practices of the only faculties that are currently expanding: community colleges and for-profits.
  • No. Tenured and tenure track faculty have accepted the ratcheting up of so-called “standards” focused on articles, monographs, and “impact factors.” However, in the vast majority of institutions, the notion that the teaching life is organically linked to the cultivation of one’s own and one’s students ideas is not a reality. It is one of the “nostalgic memories” that “obscure the real profile” not only of adjuncts, but of the full time tenured faculty who public very little and whose primary job, perhaps, is to manage the adjunct army.
  • Maybe for some people. But the link is instrumental, not organic or intellectual. For tenure-stream faculty, publication = promotion + raises. Adjuncts differ generationally on this issue, Donoghue argues. Younger scholars who still hope that they will land a tenure track job must keep writing because it is the only form of accomplishment that the departments who are still hiring on the tenure track recognize. This group tends to align itself with AFT and AAUP strategies that seek to convert adjunct lines into full time lines, and views publication as staying in the game. However “Older adjuncts, those who have been teaching for a decade or more and have thus been unable to keep up a scholarly profile” worry — quite rightly, in my view — that they would simply be fired, and prefer to focus on more humane treatment as adjuncts and fair evaluation of their role as teachers.
  • No. The idea that plugging away at one’s scholarship is a route out of contingent employment may, in fact, be dangerously delusional for everyone. In this scenario, the scholar-teacher model feeds unhealthy romances among the underemployed about the role of dedication in securing permanent employment. “Exploitative working conditions are equally painful for everyone,” Donoghue writes; “but professionals — and adjuncts get the same professional training as those who end up with tenure — are socialized to view success or failure in personal terms.”  Adjuncts who dedicate themselves to ill-paid lives as teacher-scholars remain adjuncts not because they can’t do anything else (the fact that people with humanities PhD’s actually do find employment outside the academy never prevents commenters at Tenured Radical from asserting that this is impossible) but because “giving up hope signifies something far worse psychologically than a sensible change of careers[.]” As an alternative, adjuncts develop success narratives to justify remaining in a line of work that is demoralizing, exhausting and will never allow them to send their own children to college, much less pay off their own education debt.
  • Yes. The success narrative, which is also encouraged by those on the tenure-track, yokes scholarship and teaching by figuring higher education as a special calling unlike any other. As Donoghue writes, “Many state specifically that a few magic moments in the classroom,” in which ideas are transformative and the torch of high culture is passed to the next generation “are rewarding enough to offset the constant material deprivation.” This is what Donoghue calls “the traffic in prestige,” something that probably keeps tenured people in the game when they ought to consider another line of work too. Conditions of labor and one’s own unhappiness are offset by the social prestige of being a college teacher. “Adjuncts stay on the job because they are transfixed by the idea of the starving artist whose sacrifices are part of a dedication to craft,” Donoghue speculates. Thus, scholarship must continue to matter, even for those whose relationship to writing and publishing is quite distant, otherwise a key ingredient of prestige would be lost.
  • Yes. To administrators obsessed with metrics, and tenured scholars who have bought into this obsession, the only tangible evidence of what college teachers do, other than students processed through to degrees, is scholarly publication and the degree of influence each publication has had.
  • No. There is little hard evidence that most scholarship in the humanities has any impact on students. Worse, it may have little influence on other scholars. Here Donoghue cites Deborah L. Rhode’s astonishing figure that “98% of all publications (articles and monographs alike) in the arts and humanities are never cited.” (Update: A Facebook friend, who I am glad to say has also pasted in the critique below, tells me this figure is from a discredited study, is not original to Rhode and has acquired the status of truth by having been imported into several generations of scholarship. Which probably makes at least one case for the importance of research.)
  • Yes. Donoghue argues that the impact of scholarship on teaching is invisible: when we read to prepare a course or class, or participate in an informal reading group, no citations result. And yet, the work has had an impact, perhaps even more so now that so much work is available online.

So to return to the question: do college teachers need to be active scholars? If we think about scholarship in highly traditional terms, the answer flies in the face of reality: the majority of college students are not taught by active scholars, and some are not even taught by people who have a terminal degree beyond the BA. However, if pedagogy were recognized as scholarship by administrators, we could answer with a resounding yes: but that would mean taking teaching as seriously as we take scholarship, wouldn’t it?

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