Scholarly independence?

15 May 2014 § Leave a Comment

I am no longer on the faculty of the college at which I taught for almost a decade, or on any college or university faculty, which makes me an “independent scholar.” Well, I’m not independent, in the sense of unaffiliated, because I have several affiliations that have always been far more important, and longer-lasting, than my association with my former place of employment. I am still just as much a part of a broad set of research communities: historian-philosophers of science and the burgeoning digital HPS community; librarians; philosophers of science; scientists at AMNH and elsewhere; the cadre of professional philosophers taken as a whole. Free Open Source Software developers. The diversity of these affiliations reflects the state of the art in the humanities and sciences: hybrid vigor.

For many people, as it was for me, teaching at the college level is a form of intellectual enslavement. The 4-4 load is the most persistent and debilitating shackle. The provost grants especially well-liked junior faculty a one-course reduction, for one semester, once only. Maybe the deans owe the department chair a favor. Asking for more than this is a form of insubordination. Lack of office space and money for research multiply the detrimental effects of the 4-4 load. Senior faculty positions are sinecures. Most senior faculty settled into their jobs years before I went to graduate school, and books like The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language are known by myth or rumor. These same faculty are leaders of tenure and promotion committees. No one should be surprised to learn that despite a deep field of candidates across all the areas of specialization, new hires are mediocre. The deans and provosts are drawn more and more from a class of career administrators, having less and less experience teaching and little or no commitment to the values informed by the liberal arts. The Athletic Department is pleased to receive special treatment. When an athlete on a team especially important to the school cheats or plagiarizes, the coaches step in, and the dean suggests a “compromise.” It’s agreed that the student did something wrong; some mitigating circumstance is invented. For instance, it’s found that there is some ambiguity about whether the student’s activities fall far enough outside the norms of academic integrity to constitute much more than a misunderstanding on the student’s part, or there is some vagueness in the assignment’s instructions, and it is deemed that the student might have reasonably believed him- or herself permitted to cut and paste a Wikipedia article into his or her essay. The paper or exam is to be “re-graded,” the ill-gotten portions understood as integral to the student’s work. Indeed, this special treatment can be extended to any student who complains loudly enough. Stating such facts as those I have reviewed in this paragraph is usually attributed to sour grapes. No one wants to hear someone complain, and no one likes a sore loser. Notwithstanding being a sore loser or motivated by sour grapes, all I have done is state facts that apply generally, and they seem to me to be relevant. I take this as a corollary to “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Apparently there is the need to have little boxes for one another: adjunct, full-time faculty, associate professor, “independent scholar.” When I register with the APA, or subscribe to a journal, there is a box for “institutional affiliation.” David Chalmers sent a letter to everyone on the PhilPapers mailing list suggesting that each of us urge our institutions to pay the subscription fee. Apparently studying philosophy is only done in colleges and universities. I have the impression that the institution one is associated with, if there is one at all, is used to assess the quality and relevance of a person’s work. That’s the worst kind of ad hominem assessment. I was sometimes asked, while I was finishing my PhD, what I was up to, besides writing; if I responded with “teaching,” the response to this was often something like, “but not full-time, right?” or “it’s an adjunct position, right?” as if a course taught by an adjunct is less worthwhile than the same course taught by an assistant professor, or as a way of condescending to me—surely I cannot have found a tenure-track position! The narrative takes the shape of a Thomas Hardy novel. The fellowship graduate student from a well-known institution who ends up driving a taxi. He had so much promise! What happened? The landed gentry have tenure-track jobs at Ivy League schools, Big 10 schools, or other prestigious institutions; faculty in the rest of academia are serfs. People qualified enough for a faculty position, but who end up in administration, directing an honors program or advising undergraduates, are negligible. Serfs need servants too. They are certainly not faculty, as genuine faculty and PhD students will readily acknowledge, and I can’t see how such positions advance anyone’s interests in scholarship. Do they come with the library privileges granted to faculty? Access to the same computing resources? Is research taken into account in re-hiring or advancement decisions? Teaching is sometimes included in the job, but this is never a central purpose. The view that a librarian is a “failed academic” is frequently voiced by faculty members, most never having thought of systems for organizing information as anything more than what results when people who don’t understand alphabetical order are given the job.

Even so, these positions are generally viewed favorably relative to jobs outside of the college and university, the domain of the independent scholar, a classless individual, pitiable, fortunate enough to be granted admission to conferences or have their work published. These people have failed. I have absorbed the values at large in academia, and it’s hard for me not see it that way. Even at unremarkable colleges at which excellence is not valued, tenured and tenure-track faculty strut around as though they deserve recognition of a special distinction, just for having a faculty position. After all, academia is of special importance, because a college degree still carries social prestige, and is still viewed as a ticket to the white-collar work force; and academia is the sector of society responsible for generating knowledge and protecting the knowledge we have from bias and perversion. The latter opinion is probably a creation of the faculty themselves. Even though it’s not so unreasonable, if a little narrow, faculty people are generally more motivated to believe it by an independent sense of their own importance than by a genuine understanding of how or why they serve this purpose. This explains why so many faculty people insist on talking about politics as though from a position of objectivity, as opposed to talking about the subject in which they were trained, and which, presumably, they really can speak about with authority. Part-time faculty and full-time faculty not on the tenure track provide a service to the college, teaching, but that is all. It is a mercenary service. It’s uncomfortable to be around them because, not having been admitted to the Ivory Tower, but not having disassociated themselves from it, one senses desperation. The pay is so low, it’s for dilettantes who don’t require an income, such as women who don’t need to work because their husbands make enough money for the family, or else adjuncts who won’t give up on finding a tenure track job, and who make ends meet by living with their parents, building up credit card debt, or maintaining a standard of living they would have laughed at as college students. Some of them remain, holding out for a full-time position in the department. Department chairs are happy to allow adjuncts to persist in the belief that a position will open up, and that the department would want him or her for the job. Like all other non-tenure track faculty, as do those denied tenure, they eventually leave. Fortunately, there is no need to worry about them once they’re gone. “Oh, you say he took up investment banking or went to law school? Probably a better choice for him anyhow.” Feigning knowledge of these worldly professions is evidence to a professor of his or her own sense that he or she is not cut off from the life of those “outside the academy,” while at the same time retrenching the secure privilege believed to be accorded only to those inside it. The ethos is precisely contrary to what is expressed by soldiers by “leave no one behind.”

Almost everyone I know who has left academia, whether as a graduate student or faculty member, tenure-track or not—tenured or not—is happier, indeed, genuinely happy. This should not come as a surprise, given even the weakest views about rationality and a person’s capacity for action. If staying in academia would have made them happy, they would have stayed; and in many cases, those who stay do so because it makes them happier. It’s an obvious consequence of a policy of maximizing one’s marginal utility. I find the utility function for people who stay in academia eminently curious. There are so many drawbacks to the job that I can’t help but think that it’s the special feeling of distinction they prize the most. I wonder if my problem is that I was not motivated strongly enough by a prior sense of entitlement and distinction that, on finding out that this is the central payoff of the job, it ceased to appeal to me. I learned the hard way what is more important to me: independence.

Academic departments seen from a project management perspective

2 February 2014 § Leave a Comment

The proliferation of project-oriented work groups in the corporate and non-profit world stands in contrast to the organization of colleges and universities into academic departments. Good project management establishes clear channels for communication and coordination among members of the group. The project management plan takes into account the needs of all stakeholders, including users of any products resulting from the group’s work. Groups are composed of individuals whose skills complement one another’s. They are expected to take initiative and solve problems as they arise. The group uses digital tools to facilitate communication and share resources. The nature of a project is to have a definite endpoint. Along the way, benchmarks, preferably quantitative and open to the view of all stakeholders, measure whether the project is on track. The project plan includes plans for what to do when things get off track. The project manager is accountable for the group’s progress. Others outside the group are accountable for supporting the project. Reality is rarely so neat, but these anyhow are some of the ways project-oriented work is supposed to be carried out.

The academic department is a permanent organizational unit with objectives which remain stable for its lifetime, and recur on a regular basis. As anyone who has had to work out a scheduling conflict with a department chair, an academic department is designed with an indefinite time line in mind: there are no provisions whatever for adapting to the needs of students or faculty.

An academic department can function indefinitely with no leadership whatever. Students enroll in classes each semester. The chair must make sure there are enough sections, but no effort is required to recruit students. Classes are scheduled and apportioned to faculty. The deans require reports of various kinds. Standards, such as learning objectives and the mission statement, are established by the department itself, which collects data used to evaluate its performance. The chair must make sure the department stays under budget, but the budget is an artificial construct used to apportion resources to the department, which cannot run out of money. No collaboration is required. Input from faculty concerning major decisions can be obtained by email. There is no need for faculty to share syllabi or discuss pedagogy. There is no special requirement that faculty in the same department co-author books or papers. The department can function adequately even if faculty see each other only a few times each year. Senior faculty are at liberty to ignore junior faculty. There is an ample supply of new ones, should new hires leave the department for greener pastures or else fail to be granted tenure.

Nothing follows from any of this about whether academic departments should be transformed into project-oriented work groups or made to adopt practices in such work groups. For instance, it is probably nearly impossible to quantify teaching successes or good mentoring. Requirements of intellectual freedom are incompatible with direct oversight by administrators or faculty in other departments.

Academic departments should, nonetheless, be held to high standards of excellence. More in later postings about that.

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