Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Teaching, Research, and the Academic Class System

There's a great post over at Quod She, in which Dr. Virago discusses the joys and burdens of the academic life. Her discussion is especially valuable, it seems to me, because of its honesty. Dr. V admits that we academics have it pretty good in terms of self-management and the enviable ability to spend large chunks of time just thinking. She also refuses to gloss over the fact that not all academics have it quite as good as she does. She has not only a full-time position with (I assume) a relatively light teaching load, but she also has the hope of imminent tenure. Perhaps the most significant admission in the post is that the academic world is based on a pernicious hierarchical system, with tenured profs (preferably at R1 schools) at the top and adjuncts, lecturers, and, it must be admitted, community college faculty at the bottom.

Anyone who works in academia is aware of this class structure, and very few people are happy about it. Even those at the top of the pile will bemoan the exploitation of adjuncts, who often teach an impossibly large load with extraordinarily little pay and no benefits. The common line is that the adjunct-ification of higher ed is the work of unprincipled administrators who approach academia from a business-model perspective and thus prize the bottom line over educational quality. That reading is largely true, of course, but it occurs to me that there are many other factors at work, some of which implicate the very faculty who make these complaints.

To explain, let me offer my experience: whenever I attend conferences, I'm always somewhat wary of the inevitable moment that happens whenever some of my colleagues find out that I teach at a community college (this fact is not immediately apparent from the name of my institution). I'm glad to say that I've almost never faced outright disdain for my academic identity, even from colleagues at top-tier schools. They seem genuinely grateful for the work I do, though I suspect that gratitude is tinged with more than a little "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-I" schadenfreude. But almost universal in their responses is utter amazement that anyone could teach a 5-5 load, much less try to produce scholarship while doing so. When I tell them that I often end up with a sixth class and that I almost always teach classes in the summer as well, they virtually swoon. And, following in the spirit of Dr. Virago's honest appraisal, I have to admit that I often approach these more "privileged" academics with bemusement. What would I do, what could I do, with a 3-2 load? How do these people fill their days?

The answer, of course, is that they engage in research and writing to a far greater extent than I ever could hope to. I read about their "research days" on blogs like Dr. Virago's. For that matter, I read the scholarship that they produce on such days, and my own understanding of my field is constantly enriched by their work. I believe in scholarship, though I'm well aware of the arguments against it. In fact, I consider it a point of pride that I remain active in scholarship despite the fact that it has no real bearing on my career. Not that it's easy. I have to be content with a very slow research schedule, producing one or two conference presentations each year, along with an occasional publication. If I had a lighter teaching load, obviously, things would be different.

But would things be better? Would my time be better spent in research than in teaching? I'm not sure. While I can conceive of arguments on each side, one point is certain: if my institution offered me a 3-3 load to accommodate my research agenda, it would have to hire adjuncts to fill the classes I would otherwise be teaching. At present, adjuncts teach less than 10% of the classes in my department (and, of course, we have no graduate students to serve as glorified adjuncts), a number far below the national average, as I understand it. Essentially, we only hire adjuncts to cover classes that are added late in the registration period, after the full-time faculty have already been assigned their requisite five classes apiece. The 5-5 load, in other words, allows an institution like mine to rely almost exclusively on full-time faculty, a fact which I see as a plus for almost everyone involved.

Institutions that offer tenured and tenure-track faculty significantly lower loads, then, have to rely on adjuncts to a somewhat greater degree. Oh, I suppose they could simply raise tuition dramatically so that they could afford to hire plenty of tenure-track faculty (or they could start paying adjuncts a wage comparable to that earned by full-time faculty), but the only realistic solution is to hire cheap, available labor to cover those extra classes. In a manner of speaking, we subsidize scholarship and research on the backs of extremely low-paid teachers.

I don't blame those folks on the tenure track directly. Most of them, I know, feel bad about the situation faced by adjuncts and many work to remedy or at least improve that situation. Some of them, in fact, probably wouldn't mind shifting a little bit of their focus to teaching instead of research, but they're up against ridiculously high tenure requirements and so have little wiggle room. I know I was shocked when I found out that some top schools require the equivalent of two books for tenure (as if one book weren't enough). Again, I have no philosophical problem with the idea of academics writing books instead of teaching classes. I'm simply trying to point out that there are costs to priorities like these, and the academic class system that Dr. Virago discusses is one of those costs.

What would I do about it? I certainly wouldn't argue for the community college model across the board. Professors at research schools should be engaged in research, those at teaching-oriented universities should be less so engaged, those at community colleges should focus on teaching almost exclusively. But could we make relative shifts in focus that might at least alleviate some of our current reliance on adjuncts and the like? Maybe. What would happen, for example, if every professor with a 3-3 load moved to a 4-3, with a concomitant decrease in scholarship expectations? We'd need slightly fewer adjuncts, and we'd have slightly fewer articles. Is that a worthy trade off?

Some may argue that the loss to the world of scholarship in such a model would be significant. I'm not sure I buy it, though. As much as I believe in research, I also know that some percentage of scholarship is produced because it has to be, because those who produce it need another line on their CV. Surely I'm not the only one to have read multiple articles by the same author that make closely related arguments. Surely I'm also not the only one to have wondered whether these two articles could have been combined into one, had the author not felt the need to have a certain number of articles published before tenure time. I won't even mention the practice of publishing bits of a forthcoming book as individual articles. Could we do with a 15% reduction in the number of scholarly articles or books published each year? I think we probably could.

Some may argue that increasing teaching loads will result in a loss of quality in the classroom. This argument is especially insidious. The idea that classes taught by faculty with a 2-2 load are, by definition, better classes than those taught by faculty with a 4-4 load simply reinforces the hierarchy of the existing class system. Community college faculty get it at both ends in this argument. Since we don't do much research, we're scholastically inferior to our colleagues at research universities. But our massive teaching load also apparently means that we're inferior teachers, since we couldn't possibly devote as much attention to each class as our colleagues with lighter loads do. And adjuncts come off even worse, since they often teach more than five classes, with no time for scholarly activity.

My suggestion is unlikely to get much traction, I know (and I also know that I'm jumping into the lion's mouth by even making the suggestion). So maybe a better place to start is simply to realize that, to some degree at least, the emphasis on scholarship, the luxury of having those "research days" during the week, contributes both to the economic system that exploits adjuncts and to the hierarchical structure which implicitly denigrates those who can't afford that luxury.

That doesn't sound bitter, does it?


Dr. Virago said...

Wow. Just wow. This is a great post and I have much to say about it, but it's late and I think I might have so much to say that it should be it's own post. Thanks for your equally honest response to my post.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Thanks, Dr. V., both for the comment and for the original post. I look forward to reading your further thoughts, whether here or at your own space.