Friday, April 17, 2015

A Frightening Thought

I’m not going to call this a Friday thirsty, because I can’t quite remember the rules, and I don’t want to aggravate Cal, but there is a question at the end, and contemplating it just might drive you to drink.

I was thinking a bit more about an exchange we had a few weeks ago about whether reducing the number or size of grad programs would be a good thing (and, if so, which ones should be reduced or eliminated). Personally, I’m inclined to think that declining grad enrollments (whether deliberately planned by institutions, imposed by declining demand, or a combination of both) are at least as likely as a decreased supply of people willing to be longterm adjuncts to play a role in reshaping the academy in the coming decades.

However, I had a terrible thought.  In these conversations, we tend to assume basically static institutional and instructional structures: if adjuncts and/or TAs become scarce, we assume, higher ed institutions will have to improve conditions – pay, conditions, percentage of tenure-track or at least full-time jobs – until they’re good enough to attract people we currently consider qualified to do the work (mostly those with relevant Ph.D.s and M.A.s).  It’s the basic law of supply and demand, right?  The same one that’s been used against us all these years?

But stop and think a minute about how your dean, provost, and/or president (and all those vice-presidents), and the people they pal around with, think.

If they’re like most administrators and their kibitzers, they want to disrupt the academy, streamline it, make it more efficient, generally tear it down and rebuild it.

So, faced with a shortage of traditional teaching labor, would they actually make the changes necessary to make teaching-intensive jobs in more or less their present form more attractive to qualified potential instructors?  Or would they view the shortage as an opportunity to do something new (perhaps something they want to do already):  put the first two years online and use more advanced undergraduates as “learning consultants”?  Require that all intro classes – including writing and foreign languages – be taught as enormous lectures?   Implement machine grading of all work?  Something even worse?

Seriously, take a moment to think about it.  What would your administrators try to do if they could use a shortage of traditional teaching labor as an excuse? What horrible thing are they trying to do already that could be accelerated and/or excused by a shortage of teaching labor? 


  1. A totally legitimate fear. For many administrators the "course in a box" model is the desideratum. Live instruction (I think the term of art is synchronous) by an actual tenured faculty member will become the exclusive domain of the elite private universities and SLACs. Everyone else gets a peer facilitator.

    How's that for pessimism?

  2. Based on our entire chain of command's concern about keeping general education sections plentiful and full (which is often contradictory, obviously), I think there's definitely concern that *someone* will try to undercut our base enrollment. Mostly we're competing with other departments for gen ed seats, but also (and increasingly) with community colleges and even 'dual enrollment' courses at high schools for which college credit can be earned (not to be confused with AP courses, which are a whole other boondoggle sucking tuition dollars from the system).

    In short. the slow-motion disruption of the system is underway. The question isn't 'will they attack our work and employment' but 'how do we effectively resist'?

  3. Resistance is futile Dresner. You either become a dean or get put out to pasture.

    1. I already feel like a Peter Principle experiment, thanks.

  4. Big Thirsty can ONLY happen on Thursday.
    Friday Thirsty on Friday.
    Weekend Thirsty is allowed, but slightly frowned upon.
    Sunday Thirsty HAS to be about spiritual matters.
    Early Thirsty is M, T, or W. (And M shouldn't be used.)
    Twin Thirsty has to be 2 questions and CAN'T be on Thursday.
    No Undergrad Thirsty, or any other type of made up fucking Thirsty.

    - from Cal's Thirsty Rules, also in the (in)complete history.

    1. Thanks! I probably could have found them pretty quickly if I'd bothered to look, but I was feeling lazy, and, besides, it's fun to tease Cal about his rigidity re: the thirsties (especially since he seems pretty laid-back about most other things. Hey, we all have our limits.)

  5. I was having a conversation with my department head this week about jobs and additional skills that could be useful for me. The department uses enough adjunct hours to hire TWO full-time positions, but there is no money for such craziness. Administration even convinced faculty to decrease retirement benefits and forgo raises to "save" money. Never mind anyone suggesting pay cuts to those earning North of $150,00.

  6. I think the major factor in what the admins might try to "disrupt" is what wider society will accept. By that I mean the taxpayers/legislatures who support (or more often don't) public education and the students/parents who sign up to pay tuition. Admins are very interested in what these two groups think.

    On the one hand, many of those off campus think of academics as some sort of cross between the Paper Chase and the Big Bang Theory. Their bumper stickers announce proudly that their kid beat up your honour student, and their fondest wish is to see education run like a widget factory (err. I mean like a business) and make those lazy profs work for a living.

    On the other hand, the rising protest of heavy student loans for worthless degrees (I'm looking at you, Corinthian) is starting to get noticed. I suspect the message is at least getting out that you have to get a decent education for your tuition dollar, not just get put through a mill. That is likely to constrain some of the admins' wilder fantasies of disruption. It won't be pretty, but I hold out some hope. The fact that the elites will still want a traditional education with small class sizes, and that no technology (not books not MOOCs) had made that obsolete might act as some sort of a brake.

    It's likely the key factor is how well we manage to maintain some sort of egalitarian society in the first place, and that's beyond even the admins' control.

    1. This is pretty much how I'm thinking (and the only answer I can offer to Archie's pessimism, which I share). I do think the tuition-payers (students and, especially, in families with college-grad parents, parents) have a pretty clear idea of what they want from college, and it involves personal attention/interaction with actual, degreed, professors, not the assembly line.

      On the other hand, they also want athletics and fancy dorms and dining halls, all of which hike up the price of attending without providing any additional value in the classroom, and they also want plenty of out-of-the-classroom special attention from student services and psychological services and career services and maybe even librarians, and sending a few surplus vice presidents and deanlets back to the classroom (or, preferably, on to the corporate world where many of them belong) isn't going to make as much a dent in the faculty/administration imbalance as they, and we, would like.