A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Monday, April 6, 2015

If I Ran the Zoo

My last post, in which I shared a paper that I gave at Michigan State University's "Neoliberalism and Public Higher Education" conference, quickly became the most popular blog entry I've ever posted. I was heartened by the positive response, and wanted to follow up on it.

It's important to emphasize that I really do love my job. The day-to-day experience of planning lessons, teaching classes, and consulting with students is immense fun. My colleagues at the writing center are tremendously collegial and pleasant to work with, and there are many ways in which my department is supportive of my professional development. I'm a best case scenario in a lot of ways. Still, as a best case scenario, my experience illustrates what I would characterize as systemic problems in how graduate students are prepared for the job market and how contingent faculty are treated.

So what would I do if I ran the zoo? Here are five things I would change if I could.

  1. Schedule course offerings with a view to maximizing the number of full time, full year faculty hires.

I appreciate the headache that is course scheduling for department chairs. Enrollments fluctuate, professors get sick--all manner of last minute changes affect what courses are offered from one semester to the next, and who is hired to teach those courses. Consequently, some faculty might need to be hired on a single semester or part time basis. But from the faculty member's perspective there is an immense difference between a year of guaranteed employment and a semester of guaranteed employment. Departments could do more to minimize this semester-to-semester uncertainty. One significant step would be to take those big intro-level courses like Freshman Writing that are typically taught by contingent faculty, and offer an equal number of sections of those courses in both semesters. Departments could also offer more opportunities for Graduate Student Instructors to teach upper level classes when professors become unavailable at the last minute. Graduate students' funding sources are more flexible, so if departments offered graduate students opportunities to defer research fellowships and gave them financial incentives to teach courses at the last minute, then departments could rely on them more to fill these vacancies, instead of relying on part-time, short term adjunct positions.

  1. Revise the PhD curriculum to genuinely prepare graduate students for the academic job market and for the work of a professor.

When I was a student, the English Ph.D. program at Michigan involved two years of coursework (during which you took 3-4 courses per semester), one year of studying for and taking prelim exams (during which you took one course per semester), and 2-4 years of dissertation work (during which additional coursework was optional). Ph.D. candidates had six years of guaranteed funding--a first year fellowship, a year serving as a Teaching Assistant to a professor teaching a large 300-level literature class, and four years teaching writing classes--with other fellowships available to extend students’ time to degree and/or replace teaching. There were two 3-credit courses that every student was required to take: Introduction to Graduate Studies in the first semester of the first year, and Pedagogy in the first semester of the second year. In the first semester of the third year, we participated in a not-for-credit teaching circle for an hour once a week, designed to provide practical support during our first semester teaching writing and led on alternating weeks by professors or graduate student mentors. Other than those, the courses were similar to undergraduate seminars, only with longer final papers and longer readings, including more literary theory.

Certain aspects of this program do an excellent job of preparing students for academic work, but there is substantial room for improvement. Introduction to Graduate Studies served mainly as a bonding opportunity for the incoming cohort, and while I value the friendships I made through that course, it did not contribute in a meaningful way to my professional development. The same goes for Pedagogy, a course that I took while concurrently serving as a Teaching Assistant for the first time ever. This was far too early for me to meaningfully understand the theoretical underpinnings of college teaching, for a literature course or a writing course (the later of which I had zero practical experience with).

If I were designing a graduate program, I would have no required courses in the first year, allowing students those two semesters to explore courses in their fields of interest. In the first semester of the second year, I would require all students to take a 3-credit course titled, “Writing for Academic Publication.” The course would be a writing workshop where students would be required to revise a seminar paper written during their first year, and submit it for publication by the end of the semester. Students would be allowed to repeat the course every year if they wished. Given that a publication record is a requirement for so many jobs, it only makes sense to integrate this requirement into the curriculum.

I would keep the funding structure and teaching schedule the same, but make the weekly teaching circles required all year in both the second and third years, so graduate student instructors would have regular, ongoing access to resources and new, diverse ideas for lesson plans, class activities, grading techniques, and classroom management. I would delay the 3-credit Pedagogy course until students’ fourth year, after students had had a year’s worth of experience teaching literature and a year’s worth of experience teaching writing, and after they had completed their prelim exams and begun dissertation work. The purpose of the course would be to examine pedagogy more theoretically, from the vantage point of an instructor with practical experience. The final project of the course would be to write a sample syllabus for a survey course in their teaching field, and to write a draft of the statement of teaching philosophy that they would have to submit for job applications.

With these changes to the curriculum, graduate students would have two of the most important components of a successful job application--a publication and a teaching portfolio--under their belts by the end of their fourth year. But scholarly writing and teaching are only two of the three prongs that comprise a professorship. Many graduate students have little to no experience with the third prong--service. So much of the day-to-day work of academia is attending departmental meetings, developing curriculum, planning events, etc., but graduate students can go years without any awareness of this part of the job. But this one’s an easy fix: nominate all students to positions on committees at the start of every year, and make an expectation of graduate student service part of the departmental culture. This is already standard practice in other departments at Michigan, such as Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

  1. Provide PhD students with substantive opportunities to explore career alternatives.

I occasionally hear stories from older alumni of my PhD program about professors who would scoff at the suggestion that students would want to pursue any career other than a tenure-track professorship at a research university. I’m happy to say that those days are behind us. Professors get how difficult the job market is, and get how unappealing the tenure track life can be, even for those who can achieve it. The stigma of alternative career paths is pretty much gone, in my experience. The only problem now is, nobody knows what those alternative career paths actually are, or how to find them. Professors are at a loss as to how to advise their students who are interested in pursuing nontraditional career paths (either instead of or alongside the pursuit of professorships), and departments are clearly struggling with how to provide resources to their students.

“Alt-Ac” is all the rage, and departments have done some good work connecting students with Alt-Ac career opportunities. This usually means work in libraries, in academic administration, and in publishing. Sometimes it also means teaching in high school. Sometimes it means teaching in community colleges, which really should just be considered “Ac,” since it isn’t really “Alt.”

This is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough. What we need isn’t simply “Alt-Ac” but also “Non-Ac.” I’m frequently told that the skills I’ve developed over the past nine years--research, writing, classroom management, etc.--translate to other professions, but rarely can people tell me what those professions are, where to find them, and how exactly to make that translation from an academic to a nonacademic context. Departments should work more closely with their universities’ career centers, and host regular events connecting graduate students with people in the tech industry, in the advertising industry, in nonprofit organizations, in state, federal, and local governments, and in the myriad other fields where they could potentially find stable, stimulating employment.

  1. Open up (and actively welcome) contingent faculty to professional development resources that are available to graduate students and professors.

This May, Michigan’s graduate school will be hosting a two day seminar titled “What Now? Career Paths Paths for Ph.D.s in the Humanities.” If you follow that link, notice the bold text: “This event is limited to University of Michigan Ph.D. students who began doctoral study at U-M between Summer 2011 and Fall 2013.” As an alumnus and faculty member who is actively seeking more stable employment, seeing this was a smack in the face. Admittedly, this is a program being run by the graduate school, not the department, but it should be open to alumni as well. As for the department, if they are going to rely on contingent faculty who are likely only to be there for a year or two, they should at least provide that faculty with these kinds of opportunities as well.

  1. Consider phasing out tenure.

Hear me out: If we’re going to criticize the problems at the bottom rung of the faculty ladder, we should also reflect on how things work at the top. I’ll be honest, I question whether in the twenty first century the tenure system succeeds at what it sets out to do. It is important to protect academics’ jobs so that they can conduct disinterested research, controversial research, and slow research that requires many years to pay off. But tenure only offers those protections to those academics who are already among the university’s least vulnerable employees: those who have achieved the highest level of respect in their field. For those on the tenure track, the drive to publish undermines any interest in producing genuinely creative and worthwhile scholarship. And for most, the criteria for achieving tenure devalues teaching and service in ways that particularly hurt women and people of color, as well as anyone who actually wants to put effort into their teaching.

I don’t have a better model for how to protect academic freedom, and of course I believe that existing tenure commitments should be honored. But universities would do well to rethink tenure, and either redefine the criteria by which it is achieved so as to fix the pressure cooker that is the tenure track, or stop making new tenure track hires altogether. If part time and semester-to-semester faculty hires were eliminated, it might benefit the university to institute a system where all faculty were fixed-term faculty, with contracts from one to ten years in length.

Obviously some of these changes are easier implemented than others, and all are easier said than done. And of course, someone with different priorities might suggest completely different changes. But from where I sit, thinking about these kinds of changes might help make the university’s English department a more equitable, more secure, and more hopeful place to work.

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