Decisions, decisions, part 1: what’s in store?

I wrote this as the first of two posts, back in 2010, not long after I started the first incarnation of Speculative Diction blog. I started writing these because I’d started following the higher ed news more closely, and I was thinking through the process of the Ph.D. and what kind of paths we’re encouraged to take throughout that process. This has since become one of the threads in my dissertation, where I’ve interviewed doctoral students about the nature of “success” in their academic contexts.

Link to the original post from September 5, 2010: Decisions, decisions, part 1: What’s in store?

Almost every day I take time to read the higher education (PSE) news from Canada and around the world. And every day a cluster of common (and inter-related) themes tends to dominate the articles and blogs.

One of those themes is: How many (or how few) tenure-track jobs are there availablefor new PhDs in various fields? Can we give tenure to “adjunct” (contract) faculty whose working conditions are insecure? Given the lack of tenure-track hiring, should we be encouraging and preparing grad students for careers outside academe? And inevitably the questions arise–should we retain the tenure system in universities? Can we keep it, and if so, how and why? What purpose does it serve, and for whom?

I’m going to try not to repeat too much what others have already said, since the discussion has been a regular one over some time and many of you have been following it with interest. What I write here is profoundly influenced not only by what I “study” (post-secondary education) but also by who I am, since the question of tenured academic employment is more than merely theoretical for me–it’s about actual life choices I need to make in the immediate future. My personal perspective is that of a PhD student who will need to decide, within the next couple of years, about either focussing on an academic track or looking for work outside the PSE system (and possibly returning to it later in my “career”–if I’m lucky).

I feel deeply conflicted about this issue. On the one hand, I love the “ideal” of the academic life: I love teaching and would like to be able to do research of my own (and even write the book I have planned). I was drawn into grad school because I loved the conversation, the learning, the sharing and development of knowledge and ideas that occurs when academe is at its best. And I like participating in the continuance of the university itself, in decision-making within the institution.

But then again, close observation of the academic environment over the course of about 7 years has led me to doubt the reality of the “life of the mind”, to question its continued existence in its (past and) current form, and to think through the privilege that is necessary merely to have access to such a life, let alone to live it through the university. I feel more trepidation and doubt now that I did at the end of my BA. What kind of career might be possible for someone like me in the increasingly competitive environment of the university–and would I want it?

I do love teaching but I frequently feel frustrated by the context of teaching, wherein I’ve often felt stressed and compromised and have seen many others in the same state. Universities have continued to expand during the last 30 years in spite of relative declines in funding; the growth in undergraduate numbers has meant an increase to the amount of teaching work, and this task has been transferred to inexpensive contract faculty rather than to new tenure-track hires. Universities are now dependent on such faculty, and on inexperienced graduate students, to carry out undergraduate teaching at budget rates–in spite of the potential for negative effects on the learning environment.

Even as the need for teachers has increased, research and publishing are still the main means to reaching desirable tenure-track jobs. For those unable to score such a position immediately after the PhD or post-doc fellowship, the “hamster wheel” of contract teaching can take up all the time that might have been put towards writing. Gender also matters: not only is teaching itself feminised, but as a female entering my 30s I will face difficult choices about family and career–choices that often put women at a disadvantage in the university workplace, wherein we already earn less on averagethan male scholars. Contingent faculty also have much less input–if any at all–into the way the university is run, so they are shut out of decision-making processes that affect them.

The question of “tenure or no tenure, academic work or not” is not only about choice of jobs. Academic training involves 10 or more years of post-secondary education, which can mean stalling the supposed milestones of adult life (buying a house and/or car, having children, building a long-term retirement plan and so on) until your late 20s or early 30s–unless you had a healthy amount of economic privilege to begin with. This is a significant investment of time, money, and other resources. If you’ve managed to accumulate a mound of student debt during your time in university, then you’ll also be trying to find ways to juggle that with your regular living costs. In other words, you’ll want a steady, reasonable income, not the tenuousness of contract-to-contract teaching work.

The lack-of-tenured-employment problem is not just a short term one, a “dip in the market”. On the contrary, it is bound up with the structural changes associated with massification that have occurred in universities over the course of the last 60 years or so. For a while, the potential problems were allayed simply by injecting more public funding into the system (from the 1960s to 1970s), and hiring more full-time professors, as a means of increasing accessibility for previously excluded groups. But the recessions of the 70s, followed by 1980s neo-conservatism and (here in Ontario) the Harris Conservatives in the 90s, have made fiscal instability the norm. Hence contract faculty also serve as conveniently expendable labour when budgets shrink.

The future of tenure as a system is shaky, primarily because of these structural issues. As our PSE systems are stretched to their limits, old ways of doing things have come under attack not only by those marginalised by the existing, unequal tenure system but also by increasingly influential “stakeholders” outside the university. Tenure was a system that functioned reasonably well when universities were elite institutions with few undergraduates and even fewer graduate students, but in Canada at least, the beginning of the end of that arrangement came in the 1960s. And it’s somewhat ironic that while universities have become more “accessible”, tenure is now becoming much less so.

Even as contract faculty form associations to lobby for their rights, we see regular stories from the United States and elsewhere about PSE institutions making it easier for themselves to dismiss tenured faculty as well. So changes to tenure are already becoming an issue that affects everyone, one that needs to be resolved fairly and sustainably and in the near future. If we don’t come up with a more equitable solution by design, then the situation is likely to degenerate along the current well-beaten track–with persistent inequalities between a small, elite group of well-paid research professors (and increasingly, administrators), and the non-permanent faculty who pick up the expanding teaching duties necessitated by mass post-secondary education.

None of this looks to me like the kind of situation on which I want to stake my own career and livelihood. And I think the “rational” decision would be to choose some other field. But my love of learning–and of helping others learn–is not necessarily rational, though I do have a healthy desire to see things change for the better and to put my own energy toward that goal. As always I’m walking a line between intuition and “reason”, frustration and elation, helplessness and empowerment, and looking for some happy middle ground on which to build a launching pad, a castle, a jungle gym, whatever seems necessary. Of course that must be done whilst successfully navigating the way through the PhD process, but I’ll get to that in my next blog post.

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