Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Professing nothing

Last spring, I paid about $150 for two tickets to sit about four rows from the field to watch the Atlanta Braves open their baseball season against the Washington Nationals. Normally, I pay $32 for two tickets in the upper-deck to sit near the air traffic controllers tower at National Airport, get to the park early to watch batting practice and never make it up to my seat. Since the Nationals are grateful for anyone to attend their games, the ushers never ask you for your ticket. On that day, I decided to play it straight, go against my family's roots in Jewish retail and pay full price. Worth every penny. But I'll tell you this: I would have been pissed if the University of Virginia or a local high school team had showed up instead.

Towards the beginning of summer, I paid some serious cash, about $100 a ticket, to see my favorite all-time rock band, Yes, for what was probably the 25th or 30th time. Of course, I knew Jon Anderson wasn't there, but I will pay whatever I can to sit as close as possible to Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White. And these guys, creaking and, in Squire's case, staggering on stage, can still play rings around musicians a third of their age. Had some prog-head emerged from his basement to perform his F# minor scales for me instead, or some other wannabe air-guitar player even attempted even to simulate a Howe guitar solo I would have stormed the stage and, after my release from jail, demanded my money back.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see the movie, "The Help." She gets in for free because she's that hot, and I usually have to pay a little extra because I'm not. I have mixed feelings about the movie, since I grew up during that era in the South. But you can't argue with the performances, though. Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Alison Janney and Octavia Spencer are all remarkable. Had I paid to see this movie with this cast, and instead been treated to actors and actresses that were not billed in the advertisements, I would have been pissed. And I would have been doubly-pissed had this been ten years ago and I had a baby sitter on the clock.

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$53,236.

That's the retail price for an undergraduate to attend one year of college at American University. That assumes you pay full tuition, live on campus and participate in the university's meal plan. It does not include travel, clothing (a big expense at AU), books, parking, getting around town, drugs, alcohol and so on. On our website, we tell our prospective students that are faculty-student ratio is less than 20:1, that our professors are "engaged" in the world and with their students, that we have a "world class" faculty that has done everything from building nations from scratch to saving the world from itself. And these are just the modest professors on campus. Many, many more are busy governing and instructing the country, when not busy advising presidents and various heads of states, or rescuing the economies of less-developed countries or countries that don't even exist quite yet, creating new languages or assessing non-verbal social interaction between gay insects in Madagascar. Some have even managed to find foundations and government agencies to fund their intellectual endeavors, allowing them to disappear for a semester, a year or sometimes even longer to collect their data, construct their hypotheses, put together panel discussions and write articles and books for the dozen or so people who share their interests, all of whom are scattered in universities around the country competing with their fellow scholars for the very same academic sugar-daddies (and, to be fair, sugar-mommies) and publishers.

What our world class faculty is not doing, at least in my department, is teaching. Think about this for just a minute: in what other business do customers pay for a product that they are not going to receive? Not only that, but in what other business to customers support a workforce whose status increases the less they do what advertise they are in business to do? Go back to the top and add this example: you decide to travel to New York to see a Broadway show because you saw an advertisement in the New York Times featuring a superlative cast. You travel to Manhattan, perhaps even fly or take the train, book a hotel for a couple of nights and set aside some time to take advantage of everything New York has to offer. You show up at the theater, only to discover that the billed cast isn't there. Rather, they're up the street, performing in a workshop for other top-billed actors and actresses, trading stories and perhaps even secrets of the trade. Meanwhile, you're watching their understudies while still paying top-tier prices. Granted, understudies on Broadway are very accomplished stage performers, and no doubt endured a brutal apprenticeship just to make it as far as they did. But that’s not what people are paying for when the lights die down on Broadway.

In my department, the professors who are not on tenure tracks, who are paid the least and have job (in)security to match do more than 60% of our undergraduate teaching. These professors are either (1) adjunct, which means they teach one or two courses a semester but no more than three in an academic year. They range from accomplished individuals like Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and living historical figure to some Washington “professional” yanked off the street a week or two -- or day or two -- before a semester begins to fill a class that some other adjunct bagged at the last minute. That person may or may not have the highest degree in his or her chosen field, and wants to teach because it is “fun,” or having made money in some "real" profession, decide they can now afford to teach, like it's a hobby of some sort; (2) one-semester or one-year temporary appointments who teach either three or four courses per semester or six or eight per year, depending on a department’s needs at any particular time; and (3) lucky enough to have received a multi-year contract of three to five years, renewable based on good performance and behavior, which gives them a reasonable degree of job security, if not in academia at least compared to the non-tenured world that exists beyond our walls. But not even these professors are equal people in academia, or at least in my department. They are generally not allowed to vote on departmental matters, even though they are sometimes asked and often do serve on university or departmental committees. Moreover, they are generally not eligible for a promotion in rank and, most of all, the possibility for tenure. They are considered “teachers” and not “scholars.” They can, of course, attempt to publish in professional journals and with academic presses. But that is just for a sense of accomplishment, sort of like setting a personal goal to run a marathon in a certain time at a certain age. Good for you; but no one’s watching.

Jobs that Professor Type 1 and 2 have are often called “replacement” positions for people like me, tenured professors who are on sabbatical, have received an external grant to work on some research project or have had their teaching load reduced because of their prolific scholarship. In the academic world, the more “productive” you are as a scholar, the less you generally have to teach. In contrast, no matter how well you teach, you will never receive an equivalent benefit. As with most things, the more time you put into your teaching the better you will generally be, assuming you begin with some degree of ability. The more time you spend on your teaching, the less time you have for your research. And that means you’ll never be as “productive” as a mediocre teacher who publishes lots and lots of work. That work or may not have any real significance or even qualify as real scholarship. No one but themselves and some colleagues will probably ever read it, save for the students they assign their work to read. But it allows departments to “count” it as a publication, and that is how most departments measure their status within their academic discipline. Look at it another way: a reduced teaching load is not a reward for productive scholarship; rather, a “normal” teaching load is a statement that you are an average scholar. Getting an extra course tacked onto that is punishment for not engaging in or generating any scholarship at all. Think about that a minute: colleges are sending the people they claim are the least productive, the least “on top” of their fields, the least imaginative and capable of anything creative into their undergraduate classrooms. How do some of my colleagues view people like me, tenured full professors who, at this stage of their professional life – and honestly, at the beginning and middle – believe that college teaching is a luxury and a privilege and that trying to teach their undergraduates about they know -- and sometimes what they don't know -- and how to make their way in the world is the most important thing they do? I got this question, although not from someone in my department, late last spring from a young professor: “Do you still consider yourself a scholar, or do you consider yourself mostly a teacher now?”

About three or four years ago, my university made an explicit and conscious decision to become a “research institution.” This, after making a decision about a dozen years before to become a liberal arts, teaching-oriented university. Translated, this means as long as you are relatively competent in the classroom – not necessarily good or even better – you will not diminish your chances for tenure provided that you have an outstanding research record. In my department, the teaching load for a new tenure-track assistant professor is 1 / 2 for the first year. That means they teach one course during their first semester and two in their second. We hired two new assistant professors to join our department this year who are teaching around or below 35 undergraduates, as one is teaching a graduate course in research methods and, as such, no undergraduates at all. Last year, we hired two new assistant professors who taught a total of 25 students in their first semester. Like this year, one taught a small class of graduate students and the other taught a small undergraduate class of around or below 35 students. Sure, they’ll teach more next semester; but they probably won’t teach more than 40 students. In contrast, the non-tenure track professors I described above are teaching anywhere, assuming they have three courses per semester, anywhere from 90-140 students, depending on the sections and enrollments. And because they’re good teachers – remember, that’s why they were hired, it’s a good bet they are at the higher number rather than the lower one. They also make a lot less money.

What’s the incentive for us to offer such a minimal teaching commitment to our new faculty? Competition, from what I understand. We can’t compete with the “best” institutions in our disciplines if we don’t offer “competitive” teaching loads, which means that we have to entice our new hires by minimizing the time they “have” to spend teaching undergraduates. This doesn't speak well of political science as a discipline, as we receive around a hundred and usually more applications for our entry-level tenure-track positions. From there, we whittle the pool down to three or four. And generally our department is only happy with one. Sometimes we put searches over for another year because we're not happy with what's out there. And these candidates come from the "best" graduate departments in the country. Can you imagine if medical and law schools trained their students to enter their profession and no one would hire them, not for reasons of supply and demand, but because they weren't very promising? We have far too many students in graduate programs around the country "training" for jobs they will never get. Part of the reason is that there are so few tenure-track jobs out there. But another reason, and one more substantial than many will admit, is that the Ph.D students we're training don't have very much to say. What they do have to say they really aren't very good at saying. And very few view the opportunity to teach as something they really want to do. In most elite Ph.D. departments, any student who openly says that he or she wants to teach at a small, liberal arts college will not get the attention and support as students who spend the better part of their waking hours fretting over their dependent variables.

Many of our young professors, but not all, would prefer to teach graduate students, the better to impart the mysteries of political science to our own graduate students, almost none of whom will ever get a tenure-track job in higher education. Since 2002, we have placed exactly one student from our department in a tenure-track position. Last time I checked, our department ranked 89th out of 125th of Ph.D. granting departments nationwide. Nonetheless, we are putting more and more resources into our graduate programs, as that somehow provides incentive for the best graduate students at other universities to come to ours. Personally, I think this propagates the illusion that we are doing something really important in our professional journals and similar outlets, and that political science is real profession. Not college teaching, mind you. Not being a college professor. Being a political scientist – that’s a real profession. Then again, so is event planning. Really. It is. Look it up.

None of this matters to the decision-makers and committees involved in our hiring process. Last year, our committee consisted of three professors who did not teach a single undergraduate during the fall semester. One taught four graduate students, another 16 graduate students; and one didn’t teach at all. You need not graduate from the Paul Drake Detective Agency to conclude that a committee like that isn’t too concerned about getting a committed, energetic undergraduate classroom teacher.

Potential professors we bring to campus are not required to teach a class during their day and a half of interviewing. Instead, they meet with various professors to discuss their “research agenda,” and we give them a chance to ask us questions about who we are and what we do. Interviews culminate with a research presentation, which is generally a summation of the article, dissertation or book that attracted our hiring committee to them in the first place. So we spend the most time on what we know most about our applicants, and the least time on what we know the least about our applicants – what they’re like in front a group of undergraduates. A few years ago, I suggested that we build in time for our applicants to teach a class. Eyes rolled. Too disruptive to the interview process . . . will interfere with my course syllabus . . . students might not like the applicant (well, good then) and, best of all, it would require the applicant to prepare more and put more pressure on him or her. Good. If someone is about to offer you a job for what might be the rest of your professional life, having to put a few more hours to prepare for it isn’t such an unreasonable demand. Suffice it to say my suggestion never went anywhere.

Very few, if any, applicants ask us, or me, anyway, about our class sizes, what are students are like and the kinds of courses they will be able to teach. Their questions are geared towards resources available for research and how little time they’ll need to spend in the classroom. Practically, I don’t blame them. This is the system. Jobs like mine are rare, and you do what you need to do to get the part. I’m sure there are plenty of talented actresses who would rather not to slum on Cinemax after dark; but they need to work and need to eat. So they do what they have to do.

Perhaps I’m too old and cynical. After all, I’ve been doing this 23 years now. Sadly, I enjoy it more than I ever have. I look forward to the first day of the semester. I love engaging those students who come into class determined to “get me” or prove their mettle. I don't care who I teach and when, as long as it's after 10 a.m. I love meeting new kids whose intellectual curiosity and creativity makes me wish I had it together at their age. I love hearing from people I taught 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago whose email begins, "Hey, professor, I just want you know that I'm not that skinny, obnoxious jerk I was back then. Now, I'm fat, rich and obnoxious. Just kidding. Just fat and rich. Thanks for setting me straight back then." Those 75 minutes I spend in each of my classes twice a day on Mondays and Thursdays – yes, feel sorry for me – are reasons 1 through 75 I continue to do what I do. But what I do know? I’m just a teacher.

1 comment:

Bill DeBaun said...

"I never gave them hell. I just gave them the truth, and they thought it was hell." - Truman