Adventures in Ethics and Science

Following DrugMonkey’s lead, I’m going to play along on the meme proposed by Female Science Professor:

What tradition or other general characteristic of academia would you like to see eliminated completely?

According to the rules, which I just invented, the things to be eliminated have to be of a general nature. So, for example, the answer “my department chair” or “my university’s moronic president” are unacceptable unless you want to eliminate the general concept of department chairs or university presidents.

The candidates for disposal can be anything to do with academia, from the most momentous of traditions (tenure) to the most bizarre but inconsequential (academic gowns).

It actually took me a little while to think of a candidate for elimination, but once I did, it really grabbed my viscera. (Actually, technically, what I want to eliminate may be two distinct general characteristics of academia, but at their root they’re so closely related that I think they ought to get the heave-ho together.)

The pretense that the distinction between tenure track professors and “temporary” lecturers is based on anything deeper than economics.

AND

The idea that tenure should require dazzling excellence at research, teaching, and service.

First, the tenure track versus temporary faculty issue.

I work in a university system where a very large number of lecturers are employed. They teach a significant portion of the courses offered, and a disproportionate number of the General Education courses students are required to take to graduate. Many have very large classes and no teaching assistants or graders (even in economic times less rocky than these). A significant number have Ph.D.s (or the corresponding terminal degrees in their disciplines). They are wicked-smart, and many have awesome pedagogical powers.

Despite the fact that they are classified as “temporary” workers, many have been teaching here for decades. But, on account of that temporary designation, they can essentially be laid off (not given any courses to teach for a given semester) without it counting as a lay-off.

Some may say, “But the lecturers are not in the same league as the regular faculty, since they are not expected to do research or serve on committees!” It is true that research is not a required part of the lecturer’s job, but many lecturers do research — and very good research — nonetheless. Indeed, they do it despite teaching loads that would make regular faculty cry. Of the lecturers I know who don’t have a lot of research going, most are “freeway flyers,” commuting between multiple campuses where they teach courses in order to make something approximating a living wage.

In other words, if lecturers were required to do research and given the compensated time in their schedules to do it, there is every indication that many of them would do very well at it.

As far as the committee service, the facts on the ground here are that many lecturers serve on committees at the level of departments, colleges, and the university.

So, let’s just call it like it is: On account of an excess of qualified folks on the market, universities have been able to hire a good proportion of those qualified folks on the cheap, and to do it in a way that affords them relatively little job security. To teach the number of students universities have wanted to teach, universities have opted to swell the ranks of less expensive labor. They’ve counted on the fact that people who work for a terminal degree, who are passionate about their fields, and who are passionate about reaching, will often prefer a crappy academic job over a job in a completely unrelated field.

The economic conditions that swelled the ranks of lecturers are not a sign that the tenured and tenure track faculty are objectively better or smarter than their colleagues who are lecturers. In many cases, they are just luckier. Let’s be honest about that.

And while we’re at it, let’s be honest about the fact that those lucky enough to land those tenure track jobs are not all renaissance men and women, who can simultaneously win awards for their research and teaching and service while being shown off to potential donors.

Some people are whiz-bang at research and merely adequate in the classroom. Other people are amazing teachers whose research accomplishments are solid but not earthshaking. Many people with serious teaching and research prowess feel nothing so much as the urge to drive sharpened pencils through their eye-sockets and into their brains when faced with the prospect of sitting on a committee.

We all have different skills and different interests. Would it be so wrong to let faculty specialize? Why not designate some tenure track slots as teaching-focused, others as research-focused, still others as service-focused, and then put together the right combination of those to get the work of the department, the college, and the university done? (For those of you inclined to object to service-focused tracks for faculty evaluation, don’t forget that the payoff might be never having to be on a committee again unless you wanted to or could be persuaded that serving on that committee served your interests.)

My hunch is that recognition that not all tenured folk are really as well-rounded as the tenure requirements would lead us to suspect gets us further down the path to accepting that lecturers are mostly different from regular faculty by virtue of the degree of their economic exploitation.

Comments

  1. #1 P.D.
    February 11, 2010

    I agree with your entire post, but let me offer a cynical proviso: If scales fall from their eyes and powers-that-be conclude that there is no difference between the tenure-track faculty and the lecturers, then we’re all lumped in as “temporary.” And one need only look at King’s College London to see where that leads.[/cynicism]

  2. #2 Anon
    February 11, 2010

    Some people are whiz-bang at research and merely adequate in the classroom.

    And some are adequate at research (where “adequate” = sufficient for tenure, but nothing groundbreaking), and absolutely suck in the classroom.

    Moreso after they reach tenure.

    My teaching load is double the tenure-track people’s load. I have a well-earned reputation, but no job security beside that. Next year, budget cuts may knock my salary down by roughly 10k, which I cannot afford. My position is not covered by the faculty union, so it is one of the places that *can* be cut, along with the paper clip budget. I don’t do advising, but students come to me because their advisors don’t do advising either. I don’t do research, but I send students to grad school in droves, and *they* do research. My tiny office used to be the room that stored computer paper. Hey, at least I don’t have to share it, which others of my rank must.

    And I have a great job. Yesterday, some of the teaching grad students came to me for advice, knowing that if anyone had been there, done that, it was me. And I was actually helpful (not bitter and envious, like I am now), and made a difference in a few teachers’ and a lot of students’, lives and education.

    Festinger and Carlsmith found that the less participants were payed, the more they claimed they enjoyed an experimental task. My department and university have taken their findings to heart; I cannot possibly be doing this for the money, so I gotta love this job.

    Anyway.

    Thanks for letting me vent just a bit.

  3. #3 Bijan Parsia
    February 12, 2010

    These seem good and are interrelated. Part of what feeds the first thing is the second myth. Into the dustbin with them.

    (My dept. has some of this. Aside from teaching(ish) positions and research positions (though you may have to self fund sorta mostly), our (new) duties allocation process encourages people to request what they are good at. We’ll see how it works out overall (since it’s unclear how it relates to promotion). We still are required to touch the big three.

    (And of course, in the UK there is no tenure, as the KCL debacle shows.)

    What I would love to see die is the PhD requirement. I was much delayed in finally finishing my PhD and I suffered from low wages and tons of anxiety and misery (for over a decade!). But I also switch fields, built an internationally leading lab (as a no-doc post-doc), then got a faculty position. Then my PhD. Thank goodness the UK is still a bit lax on that front or I’d still be screwed.

    One of our (UK style) professors doesn’t have a PhD. Does it make a difference to, well, anything she does? Research, teaching, management, admin…

    I remember tutoring people who had PhDs *in their field* (which wasn’t mine). (Not that I’m such a superstar, I don’t think. But it was a part they didn’t know and I had been interested in.)

    Major research labs could also look at track record a little bit.

    I know “any filter in a storm of applications” is a useful rule, but lots of credentialism gets up my nose. Pick at random!

    (I’m heading more that way on peer review, at least for conferences. *Maybe* have people do an up/down sanity check, plus whatever comments they feel like, then randomly select from the ups. I’m not convinced it would do worse, esp. in non-blind. When I look to cite a paper, I hardly ever consider the provenance (unless there are multiple versions). Conference proceedings help me find related things, but if Citeseer X ever gets its act together, I’d be a bit meh on that too.)

  4. #4 yogi-one
    February 12, 2010

    You have pointed out some of the things that suck in society as a whole: exploitation, taking advantage of people who actually have the integrity and ethics to do a good job at whatever job they get in their field, a crony-system of promoting friends and an absolutely arbitrary status quo that has nothing to do with anyone’s level of talent or intelligence.

    It holds society back, and holds people back when solid performance and ethical behavior go unrewarded and cheating and corner-cutting receive accolades.

    It mediocritizes the system and frequently makes people bitter. You end up with a lot of people who don’t want to come to work, and don’t want to do any more than is necesssary to get through another day. People who don’t value their jobs or their contributions because, well, their employers don’t value their jobs either.

    Garbage in, garbage out.

    It amazes me how company after company gets this horribly wrong. It’s sad to see the same mechanisms at work in the academic community too.

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    February 12, 2010

    Moreover, some folks actually choose non-tenured, believe it or not. My husband has all the qualifications for tenure at his university – degrees from big shiny universities in Boston, the groundbreaking doctoral dissertation, awards, etc… And what he discovered while he was finishing said Ph.d was that his interest was in teaching, not bench science – primarily in the pedagogy of science, both doing it well and how others might do it well – and more importantly, he wants to teach a particular audience, not upper-middle class students at small private colleges that might tenure him with these interests, but low income and 1st generation college students.

    So my husband is non-tenured faculty at a major state university. He teaches several of the largest gen-ed classes in the university – one out of every 4 students at his large university goes through his class. He advises graduate students, he serves on committee and does university service, he does research, he even brings in grants (just brought in one to renovate the university telescope and bring low income urban high school students in to do research on it). But he will never have tenure or job security, simply because the university doesn’t have a position for someone interested in science education.

    I’m his wife, so I’m certainly not going to conceed that tenured folk are smarter ;-), but I suspect the objective evidence isn’t that good for that case either ;-).

    Sharon

  6. #6 Peter R.
    February 12, 2010

    I would get rid of 1) all athletic scholarships, and 2) obscenely high coaches and administrator’s salaries.

  7. #7 Kate
    February 12, 2010

    YES. And once we recognize that the difference between NTT and TT faculty has nothing to do with quality and ability, and that we don’t have a fully functioning (or even moderately functioning) meritocracy, we can work to improve the job security and working conditions of the more casualized part of the faculty workforce. And once they have union representation, it will be harder for universities to use NTT faculty as a way to get around TT salaries or unionized TA positions, which is what is happening at my institution.

  8. #8 becca
    February 12, 2010

    “They are wicked-smart, and many have awesome pedagogical powers.”
    For some reason, this comment made me think of Minerva McGonagall.
    Also, my cynical (and limited-vision) gut response to this question was “get rid of the fiction professors are for teaching” (which is true of the research intensive universities I’ve been at). Your version is both more general, and therefore more accurate, and more diplomatically stated.

    Actually, Bijan Parsia’s comment puts me in mind of a tangential point. As a *society* the greatest myth about academia that needs to be deconstructed is the notion that it is an appropriate mechanism for credential-building for employment contexts. When you’ve got a rich-get-richer system in place, having a whole system that is this expensive in years of people’s lives and sometimes results in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt just to *pretend* you’ve got a meritocracy is immoral.

  9. #9 Hap
    February 12, 2010

    I think improving transparency (whether willing or not) from administrations would help – it would be much harder to argue that you can only afford to pay Ph.D.s $30k a year (with few/no benefits and job security) when you can pay the wife of your chair $60K to organize paper clips. Since administration appears to be where educational costs have gone for students (and not to teaching), it would also be an effective strategy against budget-cutting – if the legislature won’t give more money to the school because they’re figuring it’ll just go to management and not to actually teaching, and the students and citizens/taxpayers also know that, well, telling the students to bang the legislatures for more money seems a much less attractive strategy than the legislators and the students banging the administrators for more money.

    If they decide all the profs are temp employees, well, that would kill the golden goose in a hurry. Why would a successful research prof stay at MIT (where he can pay 60% overhead on grants) when he can go somewhere else and pay far less? (If he doesn’t pay it, but the granters do, well, then the granting orgs. have the same incentives to shift grants elsewhere, with profs following.) Under such a system, grad students will roam with professors, rather than with schools, so that access to better students probably wouldn’t be enough to keep students at a school if the prof is not re-signed. I think the possibility of losing all that overhead (and all the patents the school hopes to get on the prof’s research) would make that unlikely.

  10. #10 Bob Calder
    February 12, 2010

    “Lecturers?” You must mean slave laborers.

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    February 12, 2010

    We had several lecturer-type positions. We advertised a tenure track position. One of the higher administrators told me we could not hire anyone already employed as a lecturer. I thought to myself, “So a position lecturing at our university fouls you up so badly we can’t hire you. We are going to do a nation wide search and hopefully hire the best qualified candidate.” So I didn’t pay any attention to his comment. Turned out that one of our lecturers was the best qualified candidate, and was moved to tenure track.

  12. #12 thomas
    February 13, 2010

    The situation is very different in my department (and probably the whole field: biostatistics). We have plenty of non-tenure track faculty, but they don’t teach (except occasionally).

  13. #13 Jim Thomersom
    February 13, 2010

    Given the current draining of funds from universities, you may face a situation like this. We were considering a person for tenure. The Dean told me that if we did not tenure the person, we would lose the position. The statement was repeated by our Chair to the Tenure Committee. And yes, the person was tenured, but with at least one “no” vote. This is not an academically sound way to go about determining tenure.

  14. #14 Rugosa
    February 14, 2010

    Administrations and bean counters are forever trying to get something for nothing. Universities opted for non-tenured and adjunct faculty over the last twenty years or so to avoid the expense and commitment of tenured faculty. When the general economic crisis hit, the State U I worked for briefly considered firing all the adjuncts to save money – until someone realized they wouldn’t have enough faculty to teach without drastically cutting course offerings. Fewer courses = fewer students = fewer tuition payments.

  15. #15 Rocket Scientista
    February 15, 2010

    Well said– this is exactly the point I was trying to get across over at FSP’s original post. We already specialize so much– why would it hurt to have faculty specialize, and actually to put our money where our mouths are, and value teaching as well as research? It will produce better students and better research and better science in the end. And maybe eliminate some of the ridiculous stress that comes from the tenure review process. Academia seems like it’s teetering on the edge and some sea change like this could make all the difference in changing the face of science in America for the better.

  16. #16 Lab Lemming
    April 11, 2010

    “So, let’s just call it like it is: On account of an excess of qualified folks on the market, universities have been able to hire a good proportion of those qualified folks on the cheap, and to do it in a way that affords them relatively little job security. To teach the number of students universities have wanted to teach, universities have opted to swell the ranks of less expensive labor. They’ve counted on the fact that people who work for a terminal degree, who are passionate about their fields, and who are passionate about reaching, will often prefer a crappy academic job over a job in a completely unrelated field.”

    Here is an alternative perspective on the same problem:
    Terminal degree recipients (TDRs) fail (for whatever reason) to transfer their skills into the wider community/economy, thereby creating a surplus supply of university lecturers. This systemic problem in TDR training for professional transition at a high skill level means that TDR advisors are weakening their own bargaining position by producing excess protegees. If TDRs were better trained for transition into the real world, this problem would go away. However, by in large, such training is generally cursory to non-existant.

    From the institutional point of view, this is a good thing, since it puts downward pressure on lecturer costs through excess supply.