Monday, September 24, 2007

Plenty of Academic Freedom- just none for us

Like I said, I just assume that I won't be allotted any measure of ''academic freedom'' in my professional life, at least, not until I get tenure. And yet, tenure is being phased out in American academia in favor of contract positions, so I might never get tenure. What's the difference between a tenured professor and a contracted instructor? You can treat the latter like a temp because they have no job protection. Also, you can pay them a third of the salary. This is why they're so popular these days in corporate academia.

The result is that students are increasingly being taught by people who are afraid to challenge them in any way, which is of course what they and the administrators want. Case in point- Steve Bitterman has been teaching at Southwestern Community College since 2001 without any problems. This semester he is teaching Western Civ, which naturally involves teaching about religions. ''But when he got to the Bible on Tuesday, a student walked out of the Osceola section when, Bitterman said, when he wouldn’t agree with her that the story of the Garden of Eden was historically true. Several other students appeared disturbed by the incident, he said. From their questions and statements, he believes that they are evangelical Christians.''

The students and their parents complained, not to mention threatening lawsuits against the school. How did the admins respond? They fired Bitterman. Of course, the nice way of putting it is that they ''won't be renewing his contract''. But the end result is the same- the first time an issue of academic speech arose, they caved.

Universities are also hiring people who won't challenge the close-minded beliefs of their colleagues. Case two- the AAUP is speaking out on behalf of Phil Mitchell who has been teaching history in Colorado for 17 years under contract, and who is also being fired. The reason? He was too critical of his department and his conservative politics rub department members the wrong way. As someone who's more liberal than conservative, I love having conservatives in our department because they make discussions interesting. There's nothing more sleep-inducing than attending some seminar or conference in which everyone is a lefty and so they make the same tired ''Rumsfeld'' jokes to win over the crowd, regardless of whether or not those jokes have anything to do with what they're presenting. And then the ''discussions'' are about as thrilling as listening to Star Trek nerds discuss the finer points of Leonard Nimoy's eyebrows. Ideologically-exclusive departments produce lazy thinkers.

Of course, the end result of all of this is just blandness- a history department doesn't have to be exposed to a conservative and students don't have to be told that the Bible isn't a historical source. It's an ugly fact of academia that tenured professors aren't losing any sleep worrying about the rights of instructors. But instructors have no academic freedom whatsoever because they can be fired the second that they offend entitled students or close-minded colleagues.

Would anyone like to hear my speculation on why academic departments can be so politically one-sided, or why there's so much grade-inflation in the required courses at universities?

Postscript: Reading this again, it reminds me of why I don't post on this topic more often: it's damned dismal stuff. The one bright side of this is that I'm planning to apply for jobs in Canada.


Holly said...

Hmm, I've been thinking about your posts about academic freedom/lack thereof, and I have to ask some questions. Please assume the usual disclaimers about things coming out confrontational; that's probably just how interesting conversations happen.

Can you put a specific name to the freedom that is being lost? There are few industries where a person will be hired on a basic evaluation of (a) we think you're going to upset people and harm the financial underpinnings of our organization, and (b) possibly damage the image we're trying to create for the group here.

I know that contrary views, alternate perspectives, and causing students to Think About It used to be a big part of academic culture... but right now, that's waning. Is this the academic freedom that's being lost? Because it seems to me that these things would've been the agenda, when they were happening. Now, the agenda is something else, and as a consequence, something else is happening.

What I suspect is the real thorn here is that university is no longer the ideal venue for that manner of disseminating ideas. I know I was disappointed to learn I wasn't going to GET that, and I'm sure for someone who has chosen a career in academia as a means of GIVING that, it's doubly upsetting.

One reason that's not popular is that it doesn't necessarily prepare people for the life they're going to have. If you go to college and learn to think for yourself, and be judgmental, discerning, and willing to consider new information as it comes in, and then you go get a corporate job, or a government job, the first thing they'll tell you is to keep all that to yourself, and instead, do what you're told to do. If opinions are required, your supervisor will supply one. Now you have a bad situation, where your college graduate is supposed to be a better employee because of their higher education, but they're asked not to make use of that education, because the corporation got big by having a formula, and they would more or less like to stick with that.

At the end of the day, that challenging mental environment may really only useful for shaking out new candidates for the next generation of academics. Unfortunately, because the current academic generation is polarizing, between the corporate security model and the critical thinking model... it will start to look like the only people who want to be critical thinkers with a career in academia are serious masochists. There will come a day when an MBA is more of an academic credential than a PhD.

And, yes, that is dismal. But I would say a person with a real commitment toward communicating information, ideas, and thinking techniques to students will have to find a balance point between serving the needs of the employer, and cultivating critical thinking. Universities are no longer the best venue for that, but there is no shortage.

Maybe being a dedicated academic will become more like being an artist.

Have you considered the possibility that historians get the worst of it, because other fields are less urgent in their current-events agenda quotient? Because it's one area where it is virtually impossible to discourage tinkering. "Re-interpretation of events" ... the facts get re-interpreted until they're totally altered. (See: history texts in Japan for a prime example)

OK, I'm just rambling at this point. Hopefully this makes a tiny bit of sense, I think the point got made somewhere near the top.

Rufus said...

It's funny- I've never been offended by your tone, but sometimes I've worried that you'll be offended by my tone. So, I'm thinking we're both alright.

Anyway, I've got two semi-related thoughts on this.

1. It seems that what we do involves at least two different things: teaching and research. There could be more. But I think we might just have to accept that teaching really has changed; that the agenda has shifted from challenging students' perceptions, pushing them to think critically, etc. to making sure that they have a satisfying 'educational experience.' If anything, I think this is the 'value added' after tuition has skyrocketed.

So, I think this might indeed be where we're at now. Admittedly, my university is probably not be representative, but I'm thinking that state colleges, at least, are this way. It might be the nature of the corporate university.

Therefore, it could be best to focus on 'academic freedom' in regards to research, where it really does matter that we're not told what ideas we can explore. I think the public will eventually get sick of this sort of consumer-driven education, and I even retain hope that the next generation will get sick of this stupid binge and purge culture that they live in and want something more. Until then, I think that we should keep our noses clean professionally.

2. A related problem is that those people who are 'sick of those damned tenured radicals' and who are pushing for academic reforms don't do a good job of distinguishing between areas of academic work.

They say that they want professors to stop using their power to force the kids to parrot their own political beliefs. This is, of course, probably not happening much anyway, but it's hard to argue against. Nobody likes a bully. But then they blur research and teaching. So, someone like Norman Finklestein, who stands accused of doing 'combative' research, whatever that means, gets also accused of 'indoctrination', in spite of his actual teaching record.

I've even seen people accused not of doing poor research or mean-spirited research, but of doing research in areas that are too political. Here's a fairly bizarre article about a subversive adjunct-
The idea that a literature professor who studies political rhetoric did something wrong in doing a Master's thesis on Foucault is as strange and stupid as calling Foucault a 'Maoist philosopher'. And the rest of the article is as weird and vindictive as that. The real problem seems to be that the guy attacked these people in print. Maybe it's best to just stay out of it, as they say.

In fact, it seems to me that the best way to survive this weird climate is to pretend to be a moderate conservative in public situations. I think we have three choices:
1. Keep our heads down until we make tenure.
2. Teach at a university that values its instructors.
3. Play a role in public that satisfies the public, which should ensure that we can research whatever we want to.

In fact, to a large extent, this is what everyone does in their workplace- they pretend to be an ultra-professional who has very few convictions, but generally agrees with their boss's convictions. In this case, the public is our boss, at least, in their minds.

And, of course, this doesn't even get to those PC students who think that everyone older than them is racist, sexist, and anti-gay. I think instructors at UC Berkeley might have to play moderate liberals.

It's enough to make your head spin.