Posts Tagged ‘Clay Shirky’

A recent discussion on Crooked Timber centers on whether higher education is due for a scandal. Daniel Davies argues that scandals typically involve things that are taken for granted in one domain being discovered by the public. Given this, Clay Shirky suspects that low teaching loads might lead to such a scandal. He writes:

What the public doesn’t understand (and what many academics don’t understand that the public doesn’t understand) is that the social compact between taxpayers and selective public colleges has been re-written. Up through the 1960s, state schools committed most faculty to teaching most of the time, while directing only a few institutions to hire and promote based on research. (Clark Kerr, PBUH, designed his famous Master Plan assuming that very few California schools should be able to offer Ph.D.s)

This limitation proved unsupportable. After WWII, research was where both the money and prestige was. This shift in our self-conception coincided with the spectacular but unsustainable support we got from the states after Sputnik. For fifteen glorious years, academies were funded as if we ran missile systems instead of monasteries. We used the money to reduce our teaching loads (in the old Carnegie model, a 4-4 load was considered full time) and allowed course release for anyone who brought in additional research dollars.

When our Cold War funding began to ebb in the mid-1970s, rather than go back to the classroom, our selective institutions began calling up an army of TAs and adjuncts to shoulder the teaching load, a transition so enormous that contingent faculty is now the majority, and we tenured faculty the minority.

As long as college was still cheap, and a degree consistently raised income, the public was largely indifferent to the increased reliance on contingent faculty to fill the gap left when we reduced our teaching loads. That period is ending. Constantly rising tuition and the emergence of a Bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite for middle-class life is exposing the American academy to a degree of scrutiny and skepticism that little in our history has prepared us for.

Shirky argues that recent events to increase teaching in the North Carolina system are emblematic of this sort of change.

The problem for colleges and universities is that as they have reduced teaching loads for faculty members, they have increased demands for research. Although I have a 3-2 teaching load and small classes, then, the demands for publication are much higher than at my previous institution where I taught a 3-3 load, where they were slightly higher than those at institutions with 4-4 loads (or higher). More publications are associated, somebody must assume, with more prestige (even if this is more closely related to endowments), making our institutions worth the high cost of attendance. I would argue, though, that publication expectations and teaching loads are out of alignment. I teach one fewer course per year than somebody in my position thirty years ago, but my publication expectations are an order of magnitude higher. As I wrote in my post on academic false consciousness:

Because administrators want to increase the rankings of our institutions, they want each generation of faculty to be better than those who came before. They want us to publish more and in “better” journals while teaching more students with fewer resources. They want us to become internationally-known experts in our fields while denying sabbatical requests that would allow us to finish a book. And we do it. … Administrators have continually raised the bar for tenure-track faculty members and rather than refusing to play their games, we buy into the idea that the administration’s view of the world is real and meaningful.

It seems like the logical result would be to reframe the expectations of faculty at many institutions, increasing teaching loads and decreasing publication requirements. It seems that there is room for a college or university to find success by increasing teaching loads but maintaining small class sizes and drastically reducing publication requirements, making its message to parents that their children will always have small classes and never be taught by an adjunct. This sort of change, though, would require faculty and administrators to be on the same page. Anybody who has sat through faculty meetings can also attest to the fact that logic is not always high on the list of things that are on display.

In my view, the institutions that are going to successfully navigate the transition that higher education is undergoing will be those that can most quickly figure out who they are and how they can best fulfill their niches. Those who try to continually operate under the rules of the old system likely have bleak futures.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about the impending doom of academia via your news feed.

Read Full Post »