Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth. The Humanities, Higher Education, & Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
I expected not to like this book. I’m skeptical of tenure as a practice and while I like the humanities and the idea of “academic freedom,” I’m skeptical of most of the defenses people offer for them. Berube and Ruth do not completely allay my skepticism. But they have forced me to rethink some of my assumptions, and their book displays a refreshing honesty.
Berube and Ruth argue that in the US, there’s a “crisis” in the humanities and by extension in the university. But that crisis is not quite what most people think. It’s not declining interest. Berube and Ruth argue that while majors and enrollment in the humanities peaked in 1970 and declined sharply afterward, most of that decline had leveled off by ca. 1980 so that the last 40 years or so have seen continued and consistent interest in the humanities from undergraduates.
The real problem, Berube and Ruth say, is the weakening of tenure and universities’ increasing reliance on contingent faculty. For the last 20 or 30 years, universities and tenure-track professors have hired short-term adjuncts and contingent full-timers, in order to meet teaching needs without devoting the hard work and resources necessary to do national searches and without making the necessary sacrifices to earn new tenure lines for their departments. The result in most humanities departments is a large number, usually a majority, of faculty who are hired outside the open, competitive process used to hire tenure track professors and who can be fired just as easily.
Those developments lead to less dedication to universities and to less academic freedom all around. Contingent employees have few incentives to remain loyal to their institution, which might non-hire them whenever it’s convenient to do so. The smaller number of tenured professors now feel cowed by what they perceive as administrators’ cost-consciousness and neo-liberal prerogatives. The contingent faculty have less (or no) academic freedom, and their lack of academic freedom means they cannot participate in university governance in any meaningful way. True shared governance and true academic freedom can exist only among peers. True peer status comes only with the security of tenure, which is won only after a “through the eye of a needle” vetting process that ensures the tenured will be professional and committed.
So far, you and I have heard this story before. We’ve also heard some version of Berube and Ruth’s end-solution before, too. They want to create more tenure lines and create incentives for teaching.
But Berube and Ruth offer something new, too. The new tenure lines they propose are teaching-only, with no research or publication requirements. Their appendix explains one model to achieve their goal. Quickly–within a year–convert all full-time contingent jobs to tenure-track, teaching-only positions. People who are already full-time contingents will have to apply in competition with others in regional or national searches. The authors would make some exceptions and allowances for contingents who have been employed for a long time.
Something else that is new, or that I don’t see very often, is Berube and Ruth’s refusal to blame it all on “the administrators.” They acknowledge that someone needs to ensure that budgets are balanced and that laws and regulations are complied with. The authors instead place more responsibility on those who now enjoy the privileges of tenure. Those on the tenure track could do more. They could choose the less easy path of teaching more courses, instead of hiring adjuncts, when there is a shortage of instructors. They could request and expect fewer exemptions from teaching. They could expect and demand fewer accommodations for spousal adjunct hires.
Finally, Berube and Ruth are honest. They acknowledge that their plan will hurt many adjuncts and full-time contingents, especially in the short-term. They want to re-professionalize academia, which means preferring PhD’s and other terminal degrees, such as MFA’s, to MA’s. That preference means competent MA-holding instructors won’t be rehired. The authors apologetically but frankly admit their plan means some of the most vulnerable people in academia stand to lose out.
Two small missteps
As pleased as I am with what Berube and Ruth have to offer, I feel compelled to state where I think they fall short. I make these points because they distract from the authors’ argument and because correcting these missteps (or addressing my reservations about them) might gain more public support for their teaching-only tenure lines proposal.
Misstep one: the “we’re not as bad as they say” defense
One chapter, written primarily by Berube, purports to defend the humanities. That chapter doesn’t quite seem to fit in with the rest of the book, which despite its title seems more about university governance and job opportunities and not so much about how the humanities are supposedly under attack.
At any rate, the defense this chapter offers is against the complaint that the humanities are too theory-laden and too concerned with race, class, gender, etc., and not concerned enough with universal values. Instead, Berube refutes that claim. He demonstrates that the questions the humanities asks are good ones. He does a good job here.
But on some level, that defense misses the point. While there truly are philistines and anti-humanities ideologues among us, not all people who question the degree of humanities funding are seeking to defund it wholesale. Berube’s argument doesn’t tell us how far we should want to go or how much we should expend in supporting the humanities. In a world of tight budgets, pension crises, and politicians unwilling or unable to raise taxes, we sometimes have to decide whether to spend that extra dollar on the humanities or some other worthy candidate, like medicaid, infrastructure, or mass transit . False dichotomies? Maybe. There are certainly candidates for that extra dollar that are more obviously less worthy than humanities education (sports stadiums come to mind). But sometimes good things that deserve funding can’t be funded as much as we’d like.
I suppose Berube (and Ruth) would answer that’s besides the point. They’d like to see more funding, but their main argument isn’t about money. It’s that the humanities as an enterprise is worth defending. The key to defending it is healthy universities. The key to healthy universities is academic freedom, which permits professors to offer controversial opinions, to maintain high academic standards for students, and to engage as equals in university self-governance. The key to academic freedom is tenure.
Misstep two: the “we don’t want to be like McDonald’s employees” trope
Berube and Ruth sometimes succumb to making flip and condescending tropes about service workers when describing the precarious conditions facing contingent faculty. For instance, at one point [page 11], they say
…the profession of college teaching has been hollowed out as full-time, tenure-track positions have been converted to highly precarious positions (both full-time and part-time) that offer no possibility of tenure–which means, basically, all the job security of Wal-Mart or McDonald’s.
Not quite. Even semester-only adjunct jobs–with their low pay, with the possibility the course may be cancelled the day before class, and without a guarantee of future assignments–even those jobs are contract jobs for which termination, during the time of service, must be for some cause or reason. Even more so with full-time contingent jobs, in which I understand the contract usually lasts at least for one academic year or calendar year. That’s not quite the “at whim” situation McDonald’s and Walmart employees face.
I don’t know exactly how often the “appeal to McDonald’s” trope is used on behalf of academic workers, but I’d like to see a study on it. That trope suggests a grievance that someone with such an undeserving job might be worth as much as or more than someone with an advanced degree. I believe that most–perhaps in some cases all–people who use that trope sincerely care about the well-being of such workers. No one at any rate would probably cop to having contemptuous feelings even if they do. But I believe that the language conveys a message of contempt for such workers even though that’s not the intention.
Maybe you interpret such language differently. And there are more important, and more pervasive, reasons that populist appeals against “tenured professors” gain the traction they do. But this “McDonald’s”-style trope doesn’t help. It’s an unforced error that advocates for tenure and the humanities make too often.
Guild tripping and patronage baiting
The “McDonald’s appeal” is an exception, though. The gist of Berube and Ruth’s argument is to eschew the “workers of the (academic) world unite” framing. They want to save academicians as professionals and not as workers. While the authors support (some) faculty unions and are sympathetic to adjuncts and full-time contingents, they nevertheless argue that as far as academia is concerned, salvation comes primarily from strengthening the profession and not from labor organizing.
Berube and Ruth want a guild, in which members of the profession limit entry to those whom they deem qualified. They equivocate on the point. They don’t use the word “guild.” They eschew the term “elitism,” saying their proposal “is not elitism; it is professionalism” [page 134, italics in original]. But it’s clear they want to guard the special privileges that tenure offers and retain their prerogative to decide who gets those privileges.
True, they wish to expand the number of tenure lines. They want to rejigger those lines to promote teaching priorities and therefore be available to a larger number of scholars. And they are willing to grandmother and grandfather actually existing full-time contingents into the system. All that suggests that the guild, for now, is taking applications. But what will happen if–contrary to the authors’ claims–it turns out there really is an oversupply of PhD’s?
“Guild,” like “elitism,” is a loaded word. So is “patronage system,” the term they use to describe the emergent contingent “tier” in academia. However, there’s a similarity among what those three terms suggest. Becoming a member of the academic guild requires–or at least is made much easier by–getting admitted to the right schools, securing the better advisors, and tapping into the professional networks that can eventually help you land the interview for that tenure track job. It’s not the same as patronage, but it’s not so wholly different.
The “patronage system,” meanwhile, can be considered an alternate route for the opportunities that the standard tenure-track vetting process forecloses to those with fewer connections. I say this with a little taste of crow in my mouth because I have in the past criticized political patronage systems and yet the rationale for those is similar to what I’m positing here.
More to the point, one defense we can bring to the “patronage system” is similar to a defense that tenured professors bring to the tenure system. That defense is, the participants still have a devotion to the goals of the profession. Anti-tenure people like to talk about lazy professors who abuse their privileges, and the counterpoint is, “you don’t understand–these people are dedicated to scholarship and teaching, and they work hard, much more than the ten hours or so you’d think from their teaching schedule.”
Now, Berube and Ruth, with their use of the word “patronage system,” suggest (to put it less than charitably to them but consistent with their overall point) that what’s being created with the contingent tier of academia is a bunch of yes-persons who profess loyalty to the lords (chairs, assistant chairs, and well-connected faculty) of the local academic department/fiefdom. And my counterpoint is that the employers care less about building patronage empires and the contingents care less about pleasing sponsors than they all do about delivering quality education and maintaining standards, they should all read multiple reviews on education.
There are exceptions, to be sure, just like there are tenured professors who abuse tenure. And in both cases those exceptions are predicted and made possible by the incentives in the system. In the case of tenured faculty, the incentive is the supposed job security that tenure offers. In the case of contingent labor, the incentive is indeed the lack of freedom and the quasi-patronage relationships Berube and Ruth identify.
Berube and Ruth’s argument is at its strongest, in my opinion, when they talk about instructors’ commitment to their institutions. Full-time contingents and, especially, semester-by-semester adjuncts have few incentives to be loyal and committed to the university that might non-hire them next semester or next year. Their proposal to strengthen and expand their guild is one way, and to my mind an arguably good one, to re-instill a sense of commitment. It’s at least a discussion worth having. It´s very good to have an open mind, there are many techniques to learn how to use your subconscious mind. Many people have used them and they have achieved great things.
Alternate visions still possible?
I’m not on board yet. The guild just seems too closed off to people without the right connections, and I fear Berube and Ruth’s proposal won’t liberalize access enough.
I also wonder, without knowing, how the authors’ arguments might scale among the different types of colleges and universities. R1 schools, teaching colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and private universities might all have different constraints. This objection Berube and Ruth anticipate, allowing that each institution needs to decide how and in what way to adopt their proposal. I just suspect that sometimes contingent labor is a more justified way to go, and I’m not quite as dedicated to the humanities as a profession.
I see professionalization as an (imperfect) tool, not as an end goal. If humanistic inquiry is something that must be fostered and strengthening the professions tends to that end, then we should consider strengthening the professions. But we should keep our eyes on the prize. We–or I–don’t want to limit or overly privilege access to that inquiry to the professions. If the humanities mean anything, it’s that they represent something we all could, theoretically, engage. There are probably many explanations for the continued interest in humanities courses that Berube and Ruth document, and one of them surely is that you don’t have to be a professor to participate.
I’m more inclined to flirt with alternative visions. I’d consider multi-year contracts or “clinical faculty” tracks. The latter don’t offer tenure, but do offer a bit more job security than contingent jobs. One advantage to multi-year contracts and clinical tracks is that they open up more opportunities for those who might not otherwise be eligible for tenure track jobs. That outcome, as Berube and Ruth argues, threatens to “de-professionalize” academia. But I’m not convinced that the extra hurdle of a 6-year or longer PhD program necessarily makes one a “more professional” instructor. Another advantage is that without having to commit to tenure, departments no longer have to make that ONE MOMENTOUS CHOICE between granting someone a job for life or firing that person and prejudicing his or her chances against getting a like job elsewhere.
Needless to say, there are disadvantages, too. My alternate vision would undoubtedly lead to less job security and less academic freedom than tenure-lines would. “Clinical” faculty can still be let go, and if a university decides to violate the terms of a multi-year contract, the contractee will probably have few resources to challenge the violation.
Contracts and “clinical” positions would also tilt university governance to the prerogatives of administrators. While I, along with Berube and Ruth, refuse to caricature administrators as evil, narrow-minded, and venal bureaucrats, administrators do have different incentives and priorities from those of instructors. Those priorities, while not bad in themselves, need a counterbalance.
To be clear, I’m not fully decided for these alternate visions. Berube and Ruth give me a lot to think about, and their argument about tenure lines creating loyalty to an institution particularly resonates with me.
As with all reviews, mine distorts the authors’ argument. Berube and Ruth spend more time than I did above distinguishing between semester-by-semester adjuncts and full-time contingents. They express much more sympathy for the plight of contingents than I acknowledge above. They acknowledge contingents’ professionalism more than you might think by reading my review. And despite their criticism of the choices made by academic departments, the authors say that one reason departments keep adjunct positions open is because they sympathize with adjuncts’ difficulties. No one really likes to see people they work with get canned.
I should acknowledge where I’m coming from. I’m a full-time contingent who wasn’t hired by an open competitive process, and my university is facing some pretty severe budget cuts and layoffs. While I have a terminal degree, it’s not the same degree generally required in the profession where I’ve landed. All of that means I have an economic and personal interest in opposing Berube and Ruth’s proposal.
I find my workplace much more professional than the stereotypical “patronage system.” While I don’t believe I have meaningful academic freedom, I find that my employers and supervisors treat me more than fairly and expect honest, competent work, not obsequious loyalty. (For what it’s worth, my department is not centered primarily on teaching or research. Its job is to support students and scholars and sometimes cultivate relationships with members of the public. It’s legitimately debatable whether and in what ways my position even should require academic freedom.)
Finally, I’m skeptical that tenure is a good thing. While I have good reasons for my skepticism, some of it is visceral rather than rational. As an undergrad and grad student, I saw too many examples of the professorial swagger, contempt for students, and outright abuse of tenure privileges. It’s true that those examples can be explained either as simply the fleeting displays of human weakness we all show from time to time, or or as the actions and attitudes of only a small handful of persons such as you’d see in any workplace. But those examples–along with the “profession’s” and the home departments’ apparent refusal or inability to correct or address the even most egregious cases–make me reluctant to man the front lines in defense of tenure.
Even so, I find my current tenured coworkers to be especially hard-working and dedicated professionals, and they all deserve the privileges that come with their positions. My unequivocally positive view of them suggests that if I had worked more closely with some of the bad examples I mentioned in my last paragraph, I might very well have found more to praise and less to fault.
With those admissions out of the way, I’d like to say I appreciate an honest look at alternatives from academia’s current problems, and that’s what Berube and Ruth offer. Their argument certainly needs to be at the table. And I suggest you read their book.