From THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION February 19, 2015
“But no decision we ever made could have been more catastrophic than this one: Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students. The decision—which certainly hasn’t ingratiated us to the job-seeking generation—has resulted in one whopper of a contradiction. While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.“
My undergraduates’ career plans are a peculiar mix of naked ambition and hair-shirt altruism. If they pursue investment banking, they do so not merely to make money. Rather, they wish to use their eventual wealth to distribute solar light bulbs to every resident of a developing nation. They’ll apply to the finest law schools in hopes of some day judging war criminals at The Hague. Countless want to code. They dream of engineering an app that will make tequila flow out of thin air into your outstretched shot glass. My students, I suspect, are receiving their professional advice from a council of emojis.
There is one occupation, however, that rarely figures in their reveries. Few of these kids hanker to become professors. Maybe that’s because undergraduates no longer believe that the university is where the life of the mind is lived. Or perhaps they are endowed with acute emotional intelligence; they intuit that their instructors are sort of sad and broken on the inside. It’s also possible that the specter of entombing oneself in a study carrel does not appeal to them.
I guess they must also read those headlines, the ones suggesting that the liberal arts as we know them, and the scholars who toil within, are about to get rolled. I rehearse, with light annotation, some of these headlines here. Tenure-track positions in the humanities are—poof!—continually evaporating. Contingent faculty make up around 75 percent of educators in postsecondary institutions. To read an account of a part-timer’s daily grind is like reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Then there are the stories about MOOCs, “outcome based” online start-up colleges, and other forms of curricular disruption. Awash in VC cash, such initiatives portend the final, ignominious breakdown of the professorial status quo. They augur a future when even fewer (underpaid, contingent) scholars will serve swelling numbers of students. Job markets are fluxing into oblivion, and I surmise that our young charges have taken notice of that, too.
With all due respect to the it’s-not-that-bad crowd, it’s bad enough. I’m going to assume it’s bad enough for a 53-year-old adjunct. I’ll venture that it’s pretty unbearable for the grad student whose debts mount while her job interviews dwindle. I know it’s pretty depressing for the countless tenured professors who often tell me that they will not advise their best undergraduates to pursue doctorates. What does it say about a profession when its most successful members stand ready to discourage apprentices—apprentices who, I hasten to add, do not exist?
We humanists are at an inflection point, careering down the steep gradient like terrified campers on a mammoth water slide. We accelerate into the bottomless future, arms flailing, mouths wide open, eyes closed, gowns streaming behind us. Where’d our caps go? How did it come to this? How did such an august body find itself in this undignified position?
Like the downfall of an empire, the collapse of something as complex as the professoriate defies simple monocausal analysis. There is, undoubtedly, a multitude of factors that account for our plight. Many are beyond our control and culpability, like decreased public funding for higher education and America’s inveterate anti-intellectualism.
That said, we can and should be held accountable for all sorts of inanities. If the nation’s humanities faculty consulted a life coach, even a representative of that peppy and platitudinous guild would conclude that we have made some bad decisions. It was not unwarranted to pose political questions in our research. We erred, however, in politicizing inquiry to the extent that we did. There is nothing wrong with importing theory into studies of literature, art, cinema, and so forth. It was ill-advised to bring so much theory—and almost always the same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of it—to bear on our vast canon of texts and traditions.
But no decision we ever made could have been more catastrophic than this one: Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students.
In many ways, we resemble the ailing magazine, newspaper, and taxi industries: crippled by challenges we never imagined, risks we never calculated, queries we never posed. Here are some questions we didn’t ask but really should have: Was it sustainable to configure a field so that the quality and (mostly) quantity of peer-reviewed research became the unrivaled metric by which status and advancement were attained? Ought we to have investigated whether there exists a point of diminishing returns—a line beyond which too much publication, too much specialization, becomes intellectually counterproductive? Why did we fail to examine the long-term impact on both students and scholars of having the latter so singularly focused on publishing? Why did we not promote the ideal of professors equally skilled in both research and instruction? Why did we invest so little thought in puzzling through how teaching excellence could result in tenure? Was it wise never to train graduate students how to write clearly, speak publicly, and teach effectively?
For a guild that prides itself on research, we sure didn’t invest much effort into what the corporate folk call “research and development.” Who was thinking about the consequences of our inadvertent drift away from students in the final decades of the 20th century? And who’s thinking about it now?
We’re moving from an era in which we prized accumulating knowledge to one in which we equally prize its transmission. Professors are failing to deliver, as it were. This leaves us fatally exposed to challenges that are unnerving and in some cases unprecedented.