Friday, March 26, 2010

Reflection 2: Response to "A Very Special Marketplace"

I wrote a commentary in response to the above-mentioned article by Thomas Benton, which appeared in the March 19 Chronicle of Higher Education. But as luck or whatever would have it, I wasn't able to post my comment on the Chronicle website itself (and I did try), so I'm posting it here.

It is true, as blowback notes, that “those who have power and position” in academe, i.e. those who should be making needed reforms happen--even more particularly, those who continue to allow the obvious exploitation of adjuncts, lecturers, and at my own institution, even junior faculty members--probably won’t change unless forced to from somewhere on the outside. But I do wonder who that “outside” could be. It would seem that the most obvious power force that could take on the villains would be students and their parents. But the sad truth is that students and their parents don’t know what’s really going on behind the scenes, and those in power who--to use blowback’s words again--“continue to distort the truth for their own self-serving interests” like it that way. And even if--as is the case at my institution--students know there’s something going on, and ask questions of those in power about what’s going on, and don’t get any real answers, they still don’t know they have the power to change things, and those in power like it that way.

In all of the debate about needed reforms in the academy, little has been said about the fact that no university could, or would even have reason to exist, without students. And yet what students really want from their university experience is rarely given much serious thought. Every university will say in its mission statement that students and education come first, but more often than not, it’s an outright lie.

When a professor who consistently has poor teaching evaluations can get tenure on the basis of publications, but a faculty member who is inspirational and motivating, and consistently has excellent teaching evaluations can’t get tenure because they had such a heavy teaching load that they had to make a choice between giving students a positive learning experience and publishing a book that will spend most of its time gathering dust on some library shelf, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When what got a faculty member tenure 15-40 years ago would not get them tenure now, and yet they have tenure, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When the number of adjuncts--who have no benefits and no real reason to be especially loyal to any of the institutions where they work (and can they really be blamed when they spend most of their days traveling from county to county, just to piece together a living, much of which will go right back into the cost of commuting here and there and there and here?)--is twice the number of tenured/tenure-track faculty, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When lecturers, adjuncts, and grad students who are doing 50 or more percent of the teaching that gets done at a university and making 50 or more percent less than tenured faculty, that mission statement becomes a lie.

When junior faculty members aren’t getting tenure because they have heavier teaching loads than tenured faculty at the same institution, have no support from or advocates among tenured faculty (“it’s not my problem, I have tenure”), or take on extra service that tenured faculty don’t want to do anymore (service which is quickly forgotten or considered irrelevant when tenure application time comes around), or aren’t given sufficient, or even realistic, release time for scholarship, that mission statement becomes a lie.

As for the Humanities, do they really even exist anymore? How often they seem to be reviled and scorned as useless, impractical, unnecessary; and many schools of the Humanities are being downsized because they are “deficit departments.” And sadly, as my own experiences have begun to demonstrate, even those in the Humanities, and especially those who have position and power, have forgotten who they are. If the original purpose of the Humanities was, at least in part, to be the conscience of the university, of the world, that purpose has largely been lost. If the original purpose of the Humanities was, at least in part, to teach people how to be ethical and humane to all people, that purpose has been lost. It seems that neither capitalistic America nor the university wants a conscience any longer.

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