(If someone has a link to that, I'd love to see it.)
Sorry to return to my usual bitterness but that's what passed through my mind as I was reading the IHE review of Frank Donoghue's The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. (perhaps more because of my great love of Goya and his dark vision of the world than of anything else.)
I haven't read the actual Donoghue book yet, but the interview goes over the familiar blah blah we all know of increasing costs and corporatization and reliance on adjuncts, with the often-repeated-elsewhere conclusion that tenure and tenured professors are dying out. The keynote is sounded at the end of the article, which I shall post here in all its depressing glory:
Q: What are key steps that could be taken to restore the tenure-track professoriate?
A: The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. Two factors seal its fate. First, the hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. Second, the demographics of American higher education don’t help us either. For 40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward vocationalism. This trend has been accompanied by an equally pronounced shift in enrollments from four-year schools (with English and History majors) to community colleges, where the humanities have never had a strong presence. Tenure-track professors don’t have a place in this new higher education universe. Much as it pains me to say it, I never considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last Professors.
I don't believe that tenured profs will die out completely ---- there's still room for those few endowed chairs at wealthy, private top universities, for example ---- but I could see the balance shifting as high as 90% -10. What would that system concretely look like? How would it feel on the ground? And is this really going to be a case of that metaphor where you boil a frog in water by gradually raising the temp a couple of degrees at a time?
I guess, since there isn't an obvious single thing we can point to and say "that's what we need to do to fix the problem!" it may come to the frog result regardless. Mass panic and becoming immobilized by shock and despair might have the same effect as the frog not noticing.
Imagine a world then --- a college --- where 90 percent of the faculty are adjuncts and 10 percent --- the distinguished senior professors --- have tenure. What would it look like? How would it run? Is there any way we ("we") could be ok with this, any way this could work or be set up so that the adjunct faculty were happy? What do the adjuncts want? What do grad students want?
Of course, anyone who recognizes my little play on Freud's "what do women want?" will remember that he felt they themselves were profoundly incapable of answering that question. This leads to the troubling conclusion that if women cannot answer that question, men must --- that "woman" becomes the object for men to study, the enigma men take pleasure in claiming they can never figure out. Hmm. I'm of two minds on this, as I am on just about everything.
To what extent do we ("we," again) know what we want? What do we really want?
If you were to ask me in spring what I wanted, I'd say, duh! A tenure-track job! Where "tenure-track" actually fulfills the same symbolic hole as "good union job" might in Midwest parlance. By which I mean I want a permanent job with a living wage, where I don't have to worry about getting sick while uninsured and where I don't have to sit on pins and needles wondering if they'd give me enough courses the following term to pay my bills.
But, ok, is that what I really want? Was grad school for me just a ten-year fuckaround like some of my friends traveled the world for a year before settling down to their high school classrooms and corporate cubicles? Ie, that was fun and now I just want some financial security?
The author I'm writing about right now is largely neglected; he could be seen as a fuckup, a failure. He worked long shit jobs for the chance to take some time off and write bizarre messes that nobody else liked and nobody bought and then had to go back to toil at the edge of poverty again. He died before he could make much of a name or have any time to himself to think or to enjoy much of anything. The women in his life thought his writing was shit and mercilessly nagged at him to quit writing and make some money: "how's he gonna eat?" This all probably had some effect on the weird, fucked-up female characters he writes and that I'm obsessing over.
I know criticism isn't supposed to be all about identifications but I see myself on both sides of this author's relationships. And so maybe I've been insisting on and demanding the wrong things here? Maybe I should be embracing the bohemian freedom and poverty, insisting on the time and the freedom and the formlessness, reveling in my position as a parasite, a bit of grit in the economic gears, rather than griping about Roth IRAs and job security? Maybe what I really want is the freedom and autonomy, particularly the academic freedom part of tenure, which I haven't really had much to say about (or think about) before. Because really, if the point of the tt is to have a living wage and steady paycheck, I don't see what the problem would be with turning all humanities-prof jobs into the same thing as high school teachers. (and really, I think the reason we have 90% of our research is because we like to do it rather than it contributes anything worthwhile to society --- it's a perk to sweeten our jobs not a burden of them.)The only problem I have with this was that I set aside all these bohemian, free artistic desires when I decided not to become an artist myself. I thought about it seriously and decided that I'd never be really, really good and gave up on the Lifetime of Sacrificing in Poverty for the Cause of My Art. Grad school and "teaching" was supposed to be my backup job. If freedom and poverty's what I want I can live in my parents' garage or hitchhike across country writing the Great American Novel or just sit around being poor and lazy somewhere and not give even half a fuck for all that shit you gotta do on the job market. I mean, sure, I'd probably contract some horrible venereal disease while living in squalor and compiling my gigantic dictionary of prostitutes' slang, but hey, someday, years and years in the future, some cynical and disaffected grad student would write a dissertation chapter on my work.
So, yeah, I've just run circles around my usual theme and come up with the usual impasse, the usual answers, the usual lack of solutions. On the other hand, I haven't pawned all my clothes and my prostate isn't swollen to the size of an orange. Gotta look on the bright side sometimes.