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.
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.