Saturday, February 15, 2014

How bad is academia? You can start a story with "I got Tenure" and still have nothing good to say about it.

I got tenure. Next I was promoted to full professor (but not without a fight). But everything has become about our new hires and what is trendy and cool. The fundamentals are not being taught. And there is no building of skill sets. This meant I never knew at what skill level students coming into my classes would be. This doesn't seem to concern anyone else, and I care only because it negatively impacts the program I worked to make successful. Yes, I'm open to change - when there is a reason for it and not simply for the sake of change itself. And not just because our newbies like making me feel out of touch (I assure you I am not). I found myself being told I couldn't teach this or that. The reason? I was told there were budget constraints, when our budget could more than accommodate my reasonable requests, and without impacting the needs of anyone else.

I don't actually qualify for retirement. But I was weary of being treated badly and tired of watching a successful program suffer. I went to our admin and said, I have a simple request. I'd like my colleagues to actually listen/consider what I have to say and behave in a professional manner OR make me an offer regarding retirement. They chose the latter, which is a sad statement of how the university approached such concerns. I worked hard, and was very dedicated.

So I have moved and set up an office where I will work on weaving hamsters. Well, not really, but you get the idea.



  1. With the money they were spending on you, they'll hire three or four people who are "qualified" and not noticeably--to students and laypeople--less capable than you.

    1. I was wondering about that part of the story, too. It sounds like academaniac's former department is, in fact, hiring, but not necessarily hiring people who are as likely to prioritize the communal aspects of department life: working out curricula that build skills, making sure that each person's courses contribute to a coherent program, and students' ability to successfully navigate that program. It's easy to blame that on a differing ethos among the rising generation (snowflakes, see themselves and their particular interests as the center of the universe, etc., etc.), but I suspect we also need to look at the institutional incentives (and disincentives): curricular and department-level administrative work gets very little respect, and intro courses in many places are now taught by people who are incompletely and insecurely attached to the institution. Meanwhile, institutions (at least research-oriented ones, and it sounds like that's where Academaniac was) reward scholars whose research produces results that brings results, publicity, etc. (even though such researchers are far more likely to be open to -- even seeking -- offers from other institutions). And then people wonder why students don't seem to be getting as much out of college any more. It's a problem which Adam Grant made a stab at addressing in a recent New York Times op-ed (which I don't think we discussed because we were busy moving the compound). I don't think he had a complete solution (among other things, he seems to think of teaching as information transfer, when it needs to be in large part, as Academaniac points out, the creation of activities, exercises, etc. aimed at skill building), but it points to some underlying problems which are also evident in Academaniac's story.

      Academaniac, I'm very sorry that your investment of time, intellectual energy, and caring in your former institution ended so badly. I'm glad you got out in a way that seems to have left you more or less financially whole, and ready to turn your energies to new, hopefully better-appreciated projects. That sounds like a wise decision.

      And, of course, I can't help pointing out that those of who never get onto the tenure track will have even fewer options, and less leverage, in similar situations.

    2. The NYTimes piece states, "Contrary to popular belief, students rarely favor teachers who grade leniently — and give higher ratings to teachers who assign heavier workloads."

      This is rhetorically somewhat ingenious. Assume it is true that "students rarely favor teachers who grade leniently." This does not necessarily mean that students do not punish rigorousness. It is possible for students to not favor teachers who grade leniently, but also to punish rigorousness with low evaluations, slander, libel, and retaliative rumors. Just because something is not hot does not mean that it is cold.

      Likewise, let's assume that students "give higher ratings to teachers who assign heavier workloads." Just because a proffie assigns a heavier workload doesn't necessarily mean that the proffie evaluates the students in a rigorous manner--or even based on whether or not the students have learned the material. I have seen more than one department whose curriculum is impressively unwieldy, yet whose students seem to learn/know nothing--the syllabus says that the objective is to perform Rach 3, but the student actually earns an A+ for doing Chopsticks.

      When I first read the NYTimes piece, I thought Grant's proposal of a "teaching-only tenure track" was silly because I imagined that those proffies would inevitably end up as a class of people who memorize and regurgitate info to students without thinking (much like so many of our students do now). How could that be good for academia?

      But kudos to Grant for tackling a complicated issue in such a small space. It's a fucking radically difficult problem.

    3. That NYT piece should be dissected here. Hi Ben, there's a link for you. I missed my chance to comment in the Times too, but it probably wouldn't have been fit to print anyway.

  2. This is why I think those people who speak of institutional "loyalty" are setting themselves up. Corporations are not people, my friend, and the university is a corporation. Loyalty is to institutions what religion is to society: the thing power wants you to believe in but doesn't believe in itself so it can use your own conscience against you later.

    1. Corporations are people (the Supreme Court and Mitch Romney say so)
      Money is speech
      War is peace
      Freedom is slavery...

  3. I understand much of what Academaniac is referring to. While I was teaching, I got the sense that my institution was like a cult. Anybody who didn't drink the kool-aid soon found themselves marginalized and an outcast.

    Worse yet, my last department head (who was in charge for most of the time I was there) was one of that cult's high priests. Conveniently, he used the latest doctrines from the senior administration as an opportunity to advance himself and anyone openly questioning that would suffer. We were supposed to be the model "converts" to whatever nonsense was inflicted upon us.

    I thought it was malarkey and he made sure I paid for it. Unfortunately, there some "disciples" in the department only too willing to assist him.

  4. I'm so looking forward to retirement. That's a sad thing to say maybe, but not having to teach the crappy classes to people who don't want to be there would be a welcome change. Come on State U, give me a nice enough package that I can buy a Walter White/ Kaczynski cabin somewhere nice.