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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tenure is for dreamers

(Photo credit: fmosca)

An online opinion column in the NYTimes has a entry today, "Vocationalism, Academic Freedom, and Tenure," in which Stanley Fish reviews a book titled “The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” by Naomi Schaefer Riley.

He describes the key arguments in Riley's book:
The standard rationale for academic freedom is that the business of the academy is to advance knowledge by conducting inquiries the outcomes of which are not known in advance. Since the obligation is to follow the evidence wherever it leads rather than to a “pre-stipulated goal” (a phrase Riley takes from my writings), researchers must be free to go down paths as they suggest themselves and not in obedience to a political program or an ideology. That is why (and again she is quoting me) “the degree of latitude and flexibility” that attends academic freedom is “not granted to the practitioners of other professions.”
But, Riley observes, “a significant portion of [the] additional degrees that colleges have added in the past few decades have been in vocational areas,” and those areas “simply do not engage students in a search for ultimate truths,” but instead have pre-stipulated goals. “Do we need,” she asks, “to guarantee the academic freedom of professors engaged in teaching and studying ‘Transportation and Materials Moving,’ a field in which more than five thousand degrees were awarded in 2006?”
Riley makes the same point about “vocational courses” that have been around for a while. Freshman composition, for example, “does not demand that faculty ask existential questions.” Ditto for courses in “Security and Protective Services,” and “Business Statistics.” These are, she says, “fields of study with fairly definitive answers” and it would be hard to argue that they are “essential to civilization.” Those who teach these and similarly vocational subjects “don’t really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them.” 
He points out that her work is essentially a two-pronged argument against tenure. On the one hand, in many subjects, the faculty don't need tenure because they are not addressing "controversial" questions or even fundamentally "new" questions. On the other hand, those that are addressing such questions are not doing much that is relevant to society's needs, and are instead engaged primarily in writing convoluted papers on obscure topics. In fact, they're not even fit to teach, and are better off being replaced by non-tenured faculty who are well prepared to teach general courses. In Riley's world, then, there are two kinds of faculty: those that do relevant research, but don't need tenure because their work is not controversy-generating, and those that do irrelevant research, who don't deserve tenure because they serve no useful purpose for society.

So it turns out that the very people who, under traditional definitions and standards, would be protected by academic freedom and tenure, shouldn’t be in colleges and university classrooms in the first place because they are selfishly pursuing their own narrow interests and contributing little to the well-being of either students or society. The entire machinery of tenure is based on the imperative “to say something new,” but, Riley contends, there aren’t very many new things to say, especially in the humanities: “With thousands of PhDs being minted every year, topics are drying up by the minute.”
Wouldn’t it make more sense, Riley asks, to hire broadly educated persons who made no pretense of “advancing knowledge” to teach most of the courses? “Wouldn’t someone who has spent more time on that broad education and less time trying to find some miniscule niche on which to write a dissertation be the better teacher for most of those classes?”
In other words, let’s get rid of the research professors for whom academic freedom and tenure make some sense, at least historically, and have a teaching corps that understands itself to be performing a specific task (the imparting of basic skills to undergraduates) and can be held to account directly when their superiors determine that their performance is inadequate. In short, we need more instructors who don’t merit tenure, and once we have them Riley’s conclusion is inevitable: “There is no reason why tenure shouldn’t be abolished at the vast majority of the four thousand degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States.” There is no reason because every reason usually given in support of tenure and academic freedom has been shown to undermine itself in the course of this quite clever argument.

Fish does not agree with this argument of Riley's. He says that

it demonstrates the practical and political necessity of defining academic work in a way that justifies the resistance to monitoring by external constituencies. 
What Riley shows is that vocation-oriented teaching, teaching beholden to corporations and politically inflected teaching do not square with the picture of academic labor assumed by the institutions of tenure and academic freedom. She says that, given the direction colleges and universities are going in, faculty members have little claim to the protection of doctrines that were fashioned for an academy that holds itself aloof from real world issues, either political or mercantile. 
I say, and have been saying for years, that colleges and universities should stop moving in those directions — toward relevance, bottom-line contributions and social justice — and go back to a future in which academic inquiry is its own justification.
This is certainly an interesting, contrarian, viewpoint, at a time when Deans and Presidents all over are making the case that universities should be more responsive to society's needs, and are soliciting funding for specific research areas.

I am not sure I agree entirely with either Riley or Fish. Riley's arguments appear shallow and unconvincing: they show little appreciation of the connections between an educator's passion for teaching and his/her practice of free inquiry, and exhibit a similarly limited understanding of the practical reasons why someone working in a vocational field like transportation engineering might still want tenure (in all fairness, I should note that I have not read her book; my comments are based entirely on how her work is portrayed by Fish).

I do find myself more sympathetic to Fish, because of his support for the academic enterprise. Where I part ways with him is his view that colleges and universities should not move towards greater relevance and engagement with society. He has fallen for a false dichotomy. It is not a question of either / or. The academic world spans a wide range of disciplines, with differing objectives and rationales.  We do not need to choose between academic inquiry that is directed towards specific ends, and academic inquiry that is its own justification. We can, and should, support both kinds of academic inquiry. And if tenure is (and I believe it is) useful for faculty in pursuing either of these, whether directly by allowing freedom of expression, or indirectly, as is often the case, by providing them an attractive environment of stable employment that compensates for the relatively low pay they often receive compared to a more monetarily rewarding but less inquiry-oriented job in industry, then it is worth preserving.

What tenure and academic freedom and research funding (both private and public) ultimately buy for us as a society is a large body of dreamers. Some of these dreamers, indeed, spend their lives developing the cure for a disease that affects millions or technologies that bring us together, which is wonderful. Others, however, plod along for years sincerely and wholeheartedly investigating an obscure subject that only a few of their colleagues completely understand or care for. And that should be lauded too. What these dreamers have in common is a deep faith that it is fundamentally worthwhile to seek after knowledge, to learn, to discover, to reshape old ideas into new forms, to seek wisdom, to think, to build, to create, to demonstrate, to read, to deliberate, to reflect, to write.

Their dreams, not necessarily in a flashy or immediately obvious way, but often quite subtly and indirectly, not necessarily in leaps and bounds, but slowly and steadily, not necessarily individually, but as an aggregate collective, sustain and nourish the spirit of humanity. Their dreams inspire curiosity and improve our understanding of matters big and small and obscure and pertinent. Their dreams open up new possibilities. Their dreams expand our horizons, inch by inch, in every possible dimension.

This is neither to say everyone who deserves tenure gets it, nor that everyone who gets tenure deserves it; but to the extent that this is the case, what is called for is a reform of the process by which tenure is granted, not an eradication of the very concept. 

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