The Last Professors

Last week in New York Times Stanley Fish wrote about Frank Donoghue’s recent book, The Last Professors. Fish doesn’t so much review the book as summarize it, noting briefly and unhelpfully at the end that he timed his life perfectly so as not to be shut out of the professoriate. I won’t repeat the summary, but it’s worth reading, as is Donoghue’s book.

I would only add a couple of points that Donoghue raises but Fish doesn’t engage. To me, one of Donoghue’s most vexing suggestions is the connection he proposes between the research mission in universities and their current corporatization. Research expectations ballooned, he suggests, as universities competed for ranking scores. In some ways, Donoghue astutely notes, this pressure became particularly intense at state schools that could not rely on traditional forms of prestige. (As part of their alternative they also “branded” themselves through sports teams.) This research inflation certainly rings true from my own experience: when I started as an assistant profession at Florida State University in 1990, one could earn tenure on a book OR a series of articles, an option that had completely dissolved by the time I left twelve years later. Junior faculty, in fact, in the old days were encouraged to write articles so as not to put all their eggs in one basket.

At this year’s MLA, the Delegate Assembly voted to request that the Executive Council form a committee to address the situation of increasing reliance on adjuncts. In the many discussions I have seen over adjunct labor, the issue of the research mission rarely comes up. But if you follow Donoghue’s argument, there is a direct connection: the research mission increased demands on the faculty on a competitive model. This and the excessive reliance on contingent labor are part of the same demand by a professional class of administrators for a corporate-style “constant improvement,” in one case for prestige and in the other case for cutting costs.

But even though Donoghue is distressingly convincing that these developments come out of the same educational-industrial complex, it also seems that at some point those two forces would collide. Unless the climate changes radically, any institution that abandons research will lose considerable prestige. Donoghue’s answer, in part, is that certain kinds of institutions have indeed stopped competing for prestige and focus exclusively on offering practical skills in exchange for tuition (Phoenix University, for example). But it’s hard to imagine this happening at more elite institutions. Universities and colleges between Harvard and Phoenix, then, will continue, I imagine, to be pulled between the two models, maintaining at least some tenured/tenure-track positions to advance institutional ambitions. Further, the contingent workers who teach most of the classes will need still some kind of advanced degree, so there will be the need for at least a few tenured professors to teach in graduate programs.

Of course, the model of a tiny graduate faculty enabled by a mass of underpaid adjuncts is cold comfort. Some unlikely alliances might be in order. While a speed-up in the research production line may have had less to do with the ideal of advancing knowledge and more with attempts to move rankings, the possibility of becoming more Harvard-like and less Phoenix-like might continue to appeal to some administrators, some parents, and some students. Further, while learning outcomes assessment has undeniable ties to corporate-style quality management, recent studies have suggested that, as one would expect, students taught in departments where many instructors do not have secure positions learn less. This case can only be made, however, by studying outcomes.

For Donoghue, though, we have already reached the point of no return. What do others think?

Even though Fish doesn’t offer much of a response to Donoghue’s findings, it is still interesting to see this issue discussed in such a high-profile venue.



8 responses to “The Last Professors

  1. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for bringing the Donoghue to my attention. Interesting that an 18c scholar would write this book. Where does he teach, I wonder?

    I don’t pay much attention to Fish at this point, because he’s someone who never seemed to grasp the point of being a “public intellectual” the way that, say, Bruce Robbins or Gerald Graff do. Getting a bigger platform has only revealed his limitations as an intellectual, which is a shame considering how much a better person in his position could accomplish (Berube?).

    But I do feel that universities like mine are exactly the ones in FD’s crosshairs, because there is genuine confusion about their mission. I just wonder whether FD’s division of the world into the no-prestige service universities and the all-prestige-all-the-time hyperrich private universities is really representative of the present, or an accurate prediction of the future.

    From my vantage point, my own very young university has just launched its “drive to Tier One,” and one of the factors that gives me some hope are the very real economic and demographic pressures that are working on our behalf. This results in the “research inflation” you mention at FSU, but it also means that universities cannot abandon the prestige model if they want to cash in on the federal research dollars or corporate dollars that everyone is chasing in the face of declining state contributions to higher ed.

    So the prestige model is not going to just disappear from public higher ed anytime soon, even if institutions like mine find themselves squeezed. The real question will become what role the humanities play in these institutions’ definitions of prestige? And that of course means thinking seriously about undergraduate education, the liberal arts, all the stuff that gets shunted aside in many of these discussion. And this is where we get back to faculty members’ own responsibility to push back on the corporatization of the teaching mission and the adjunctification of their own units.

    So the corporatist, instrumentalist trends are there, but I wonder if there are countervailing forces that will limit their infinite extension into the future? At the very least, it’s possible to imagine political forces that could oppose them: parents and families unhappy with their kids receiving their education from an entirely part-time faculty; grad students, lecturers, and adjuncts simply unable to work in such dismal circumstances; faculty unwilling to go along with such practices.

    There are no forces that will necessarily change these trends, but I see nothing that compels people to maintain the status quo, either.


  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Frank Donoghue teaches at Ohio State University, so he’s in the middle of this. I thought the book was at its best in describing the confused mission of state universities.

    In many ways, I found the research inflation at FSU to be positive as well, although I also see the point that such changes involve an often-pointless competition (rankings are very hard to move) and a kind of work speedup. I think the MLA report addressed this in arguing for institutions having a variety of missions, but that’s not necessarily a welcome idea all around.

  3. My current institution (for another semester, anyway…) is caught in the crosshairs Dave mentions as well. I suppose it’s not surprising that at the school that ranks NUMBER ONE in the country in favoring athletics over academics in the budget, we would experience atrophying research budgets and tenure-track lines in the humanities even as enrollments balloon and research expectations remain high. Some senior faculty members recently remarked to some junior faculty that when they joined the department, everyone taught 3-3 and never thought twice about it, suggesting that teaching load increases in these desperate times wouldn’t be so bad. Those junior faculty members were too classy to retort that when their senior colleagues came up for tenure, they were not expected to have a book “on the shelf, not on contract,” as we are now.

    I find it tragic that a flagship state university finds itself in this condition, but the ghost in the machine seems to have no concept of humanities scholarship powerful enough to counter the corporate model. Even though the university’s leaders refuse to relinquish the title of “research-intensive institution,” and so keep tenure requirements closer to Harvard than to Phoenix, at least in the humanities we’ve already been told that in our research as in our teaching we will have to “do more with less.”

  4. Athletic budgets are annoying aren’t they, especially when all we hear about is scarcity in other contexts. The other big item for administrators seems to be shiny new buildings, even while tenure lines go unfilled and classes expand. I suppose the buildings are easier to justify than the athletic programs.

    The only way to counter these trends, which are national trends anyway, is for the faculty, especially humanities faculty, to push hard on the principles of good governance, budget transparency and faculty input into budget priorities. Believe me, these are not easy things to accomplish, and even successful places demand vigilance. But this is where the discussion has to begin, I think.

    In my opinion, if tenured faculty don’t want their departments, junior faculty hires, and tenure lines to disappear down the corporate sinkhole, then this is what we need to do. Nothing limits administrators’ behavior besides the certain prospect of hell breaking loose when faculty hear what’s going on. And sometimes even then administrators don’t care, or are protected enough not to worry about faculty opinions. But as far as I’m concerned, faculty organization, awareness, and responsiveness remain the only way for public research institutions to maintain their academic mission.


  5. Kirstin Wilcox

    I’m struck by Ezuroski’s phrase, “concept of humanities scholarship powerful enough to counter the corporate model.” As an adjunct I am in some ways insulated from the corporatizing pressures being brought to bear on the humanities: I get assigned my courses and I teach them. So I don’t know what the faculty/admin interactions DM describes look like or even how they get framed. I can’t help wondering, though, if the model of humanities scholarship that currently shapes research expectations is really the best one for these debates.

    I’m struck by the profound disconnect between the research I’m expected to produce to advance beyond adjunct status (a book that will have a print run roughly equal to the number of academic libraries serving grad students and be read by a handful of specialists in my field) and the dimensions of my job that my students (and the broader community my institution serves) thinks are important: teaching students to be more careful readers, more critical thinkers, and more fluent writers. Having been well socialized in academia, I see the connections–but explaining them to “outsiders” often involves a long and not altogether convincing conversation.

    I suspect that if the case for funding the liberal arts is to be made to corporate/administrative types, it’s the latter part of the job that will need to be emphasized. But within the disciplines, I see little serious or institutionalized conversation about whether or how humanities research and the front lines of gen. ed. liberal arts teaching can intersect more obviously and productively. Those within the disciplines seem to assume a certain “trickle down” effect, and advocate for retaining a structure that continues to reward the publishing of books above all else. But I can’t help but wonder if it might be time for faculty to consider redefining humanities research (what it looks like and what it’s for) before economic exigency takes away the old model without putting something new in its place.

  6. Kirstin Wilcox

    Upon rereading, I realized that the entirety of my post may have been summed up what DM said earlier:

    “The real question will become what role the humanities play in these institutions’ definitions of prestige? And that of course means thinking seriously about undergraduate education, the liberal arts, all the stuff that gets shunted aside in many of these discussion. And this is where we get back to faculty members’ own responsibility to push back on the corporatization of the teaching mission and the adjunctification of their own units.”

    Next time I’ll wait for the second cup of coffee to kick in before I start preaching to the choir…

  7. Hi Kirstin,

    I think I’m on my 3rd or 4th cup, and it’s only 11:20 in the morning. But I really like your point about the gap that’s crept into our definitions of humanities scholarship, and how little connection there sometimes seems to be between the teaching we do (that I still do, even when I am not in meetings) and the stuff we’re expected to publish.

    But your point is well-taken, and I wonder whether departments are able to follow the recommendations contained in something like the MLA reports on scholarship, without falling into very serious conflicts with deans and chairs and provosts.

    Departments themselves are often divided about what constitutes “true” research or scholarship, and this is occurring while support of, and access, to most of the traditional forms of publication are drying up nationally.

    But there are competing models, and whichever one gets accepted and institutionalized by departments and faculty themselves will have a lot of consequences for everyone.


  8. Laura Rosenthal

    Your insulation from the corporatizing pressure are I think an expression of the corporate model that Donoghue is talking about (others make this point as well). This model favors adjuncts because of their structurally limited ability to contribute to decision-making in the university.
    So maybe the reason the divide you are talking about doesn’t get talked about enough is because those who experience it the most have insufficient opportunities for input into decisions about university priorities, etc.