How would the diorama represent the professor of 2020?
Some observers predict that she won’t exist: In the memorable phrase of Frank Donoghue, a professor of English at Ohio State University, we are living in the age of "the last professors." Less apocalyptic commentators say the professor has experienced "deprofessionalization."
Both views try to capture the squeeze on professorial jobs, but they misrecognize fundamental aspects of the changes that have occurred. Rather than extinction, we have seen the steady expansion of academic labor over the past century, and rather than "deskilling," we are undergoing more rather than less professionalization. What has been going on is what sociologists call "differentiation" and "stratification."
We are in the era of the Great Stratification.
the all-purpose professor has faded
instead of the traditional idea of a community of scholars, all roughly equivalent, we now have a distended pyramid, with a huge base of people whose primary job is teaching, often entry-level courses; a layer of specialists in particular fields and researchers who may hardly even teach above them; and a thin spire of administrators commanding the peak.
The spread of academic labor follows the trend of other professions. The idea of the professional usually evokes a generic image—the old-fashioned family doctor, for instance, who hung out his shingle—but now we have a much more variegated system of alpha and beta practitioners. And rather than the ideal of being independent and roughly equivalent to their peers, most professionals now work in hierarchical bureaucratic structures.
Along with the greater differentiation of tasks over the past 50 years, we have experienced a progressively steeper stratification of academic workers. Sometimes people complain about professionalization and blame it for problems in academe, but we should recall that the movement toward professionalization after World War II advanced almost all fields and reflected a more equitable society, certainly more than at any point in the past century
A special body of knowledge, conferred in higher education and affirmed by a professional organization, still distinguishes professions from other occupations.
As higher ed has undergone some of the same changes as medicine, a complicated web of academic labor has developed. For the student, the result is similar to the patient seeking health care: When she enters college, she only occasionally encounters a full-fledged professor; she is more likely to see beta professionals—the adjunct comp teacher, the math TA, the graduate assistant in the writing center, the honors-program adviser, and the staff members who run the programs.
It is not that professors have disappeared. In fact, there are some half a million with full-time, tenure-stream jobs. Their jobs have changed, though, and in some respects they have paralleled physicians in becoming increasingly specialized, relieved from teaching to do research, or teaching only advanced courses, or administering, whether directing the writing program, founding the new center of interdisciplinary studies, or stepping out to become an assistant dean.
Still, it’s important to remember that most professors do a good deal of teaching—particularly those at community colleges, four-year colleges, and master’s institutions. We take research universities as the standard, but they are not really typical of most people’s experience.
The chief difference from medicine is the steep drop in pay, benefits, and job security for those who hold beta positions. Over the past 40 years, we have witnessed the rapid growth of contingent professors—part-time, adjunct, nonpermanent—who now account for three-quarters of college teachers. While health-care professionals in beta positions earn decent wages—nurses average about $65,000 a year, and nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants over $90,000—and usually have secure jobs, the majority of college teachers hold part-time appointments, typically paid $2,000 to $3,000 per course, and have no job security.
The rise of contingent faculty is frequently explained with the knowing invocation of "supply and demand," but let’s put that notion to rest once and for all. The demand for higher education has increased relatively steadily over the past century—from about 238,000 enrolled students in 1900 to 598,000 in 1920, 1.49 million in 1940, 4.1 million in 1960, 12.1 million in 1980, and over 20 million now—so there is a palpable need for college teachers. Just as there is a need for health-care workers.
the example of nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants shows that it is possible to build a more rational and fair system of professional labor than we have. The market, after all, is not a natural force but a human arrangement, based on a social contract, protected and encouraged by law as well as regulated by it.
Rather than a horizontal community of scholars, or even a pyramid with reasonable steps of rank, the American university has adopted its own harsh class structure: the mass of the contingent (and other workers) struggling at the bottom, tenure-stream professors in the middle class speaking for the university’s intellectual values and productions, and superstar faculty and administrators in the upper class setting its direction and taking the greatest rewards.
The shape of academic labor is profoundly unbalanced.
We might argue that stratification is a natural development of social systems as they become larger and more differentiated. But such severe economic stratification is another matter, and it arises from the agreements and contracts of people. For the resigned or cynical, it is perhaps no surprise that higher education is a fractal of the winner-take-all society, but how much disparity are we willing to accept?
And shouldn’t those of us in a humanistic institution, presumably charged to inculcate humane values and preserve the best of our culture, support and enact fair labor practices, certainly above a living wage and with secure terms?
One idea is to take the model of nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants and formalize credentials for "teaching practitioners." There has been a good deal of discussion about reforming the Ph.D., particularly about shortening the time to degree. For instance, in a much-discussed essay, "How to Make a Ph.D. Matter," first published in The New York Times Magazine in 1996 and elaborated in his book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Norton, 2010), Harvard University’s Louis Menand proposed that we consider shortening the Ph.D. to "a determinate length," like a law degree, which is customarily three years. His reasoning was that, if so many people were not getting full-time jobs and were taking nearly 10 years to finish, then we need a more pliable Ph.D. But perhaps we need other degrees besides the Ph.D.
We should consider if we would be better served to have an intermedial degree—more advanced than the M.A., which seems more a preparatory than terminal degree for academics, but less lengthy and more practical than the current Ph.D. In turn, the Ph.D. could be reserved for specialist positions, advanced researchers, or field experts.
Just a few weeks ago, Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, declared in The Chronicle, "The most glaring defect of our graduate programs, however, is how little they do to prepare their students to teach." Perhaps there might be a degree track that emphasizes new modes, techniques, and technologies of instruction.
We might imagine a system of teaching practitioners who design curriculum and have job security, rather than filling their jobs in the ad hoc way that we do now. It is not merely for their sake, but to stabilize the experience of college for most undergraduates, which in turn might help remedy attrition.
My belief is that we should have a horizontal model of academic work, one that both honors the tradition of a community of scholars and carries out the practices of unionism, seeking cooperative control of the workplace. But it seems as if the strongest move for "non-tenure-track faculty" is to develop their own recognized credential and job track. It would afford a species of professional control. Those of us who hold professorships should support this effort because the obvious exploitation of college teachers devalues our own jobs, as well as violates the spirit of the university.
What good is knowledge if it brings us gross inequality and unfair terms for a majority of those who work, or with whom we work?
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