Academia today

So this is going to be slightly beyond the normal purview of my blog (as much as I can still claim to have a normal purview), but I think it’s a discussion worth having when talking about religion in public life.

There have been a string of articles in the last six months talking about the failings of academia as a professional institution. These things tend to crop up from time to time, but at least in my opinion, both the frequency of them and the tone should be enough to give us pause.  Last November, the New York Times featured an insider view on a Versatile PhD group meeting – a real live support group for academics surviving as adjuncts or who are considering leaving academia altogether.  The article was featured with a list of websites and communities offering support for PhDs outside of academia, dramatically entitled “rehab for Doctoral Defectors” [1].

Meanwhile, The Guardian is asking “Are adjunct professors the fast-food workers of the academic world?” and Al-Jazeera English is claiming adjuncts are “academia’s indentured servants.”  Even the Chronicle of Higher Education, an institution that you would think would be doing everything possible to talk up academia as a profession, joined in this month, featuring an op-ed explaining how the two-tier recruitment system is damaging education.  And perhaps the strangest addition to this conversation, Peter Higgs, namesake of the Higgs-Boson particle, told the Guardian that he probably couldn’t survive in today’s academic system.

One of the central themes to these discussions is the rise of adjunct teaching – for people who don’t know, in the past several decades, universities and colleges have come to rely more and more on adjuncts.  These are part-time positions that teach classes, but are not tenure-track, and are generally categorized as temporary (even if some people adjunct at the same place for decades), and so come with no benefits.  Adjunct titles started out as a way to improve collaborations – you made your collaborator an adjunct at your institution, and then she could team-teach lectures with you or work with you in the lab – but now, many PhDs are adjuncts at multiple institutions, teaching 2-3 classes at each (and often temping or working part-time in addition) in order to make ends meet.

Because these positions are non-tenure-track, they’re also a massive black holes in terms of people’s careers – although teaching is one category that needs to be filled out in your CV, you also need to publish, get funding, and develop research projects, all areas where adjuncts are unofficially (or in the case of many funding sources, officially) not allowed to participate.  

But these articles also hint at the larger problem facing academia – namely that even as institutions of higher educations are becoming more corporatized, academics are holding tight to the belief that academia remains a meritocracy, and that tenure (and the level of funding often needed to acquire it) are signs of merit.  Thus, “alt-ac,” the, in my opinion, unfortunate term for “the world of everything else you can do with a PhD besides be faculty,” remains a taboo subject, and is often entered into with a sense of failure.

Personally, I love projects like VersatilePhD, and I love alt-ac.  I’ve worked in university administration for almost as long as I’ve been a student, and it’s had nearly as much of an impact on how I view education (and admittedly, not always for the better – particularly, working in admissions did give me a bit of a ‘how the sausages are made’ view of higher education).  Also, as a religious historian, I’ve always worked alongside two of the largest areas of alt-ac – library sciences, including librarians and archivists, and pastoral work, like ministers, priests, rabbis and imams.  To me, it’s just obvious that a PhD is useful for other things – a PhD teaches you to do research and to write, and there are lots of fields that require those skills.

But I think it’s important for the wider world to get a bit of that ‘how the sausage is made’ view, too.  The reality is that most people who are being trained to do research in this country aren’t going to end up doing research in an academic setting – even the top universities probably only see about 70% of their PhDs in tenure-track positions [2].  Thus, research ends up being like anything else – there’s a lot more potential out there than there is actual material.  Unlike the arts, news outlets, and media in general, however, which have seen huge pushes into egalitarianism since the rise of the internet, academia has been generally resistant towards alternative forms of distribution (this blog notwithstanding) – even though many trained researchers don’t end up working in academia, we still tend to assume that research (or at least, good, unbiased research) comes out of academia, and not from anywhere else.

This is changing – there’s a growing online community for nearly any subject, and loads of cool specialty stuff, from media commons journals to youtube videos on advanced mathematics.  But much of how academics are trained still instills a sense of your research as an extension of you, and these kinds of non-academic outreach strike many of sullying ‘real’ research.  Again, this helps to explain the sense of failure that often accompanies any discussion of ‘alt-ac’ – there’s still that lingering sense that if you were good, you’d be tenure-track.  

It also gives some context for why bad scholarship and bad science can survive for so long – if you’ve been trained to think of your work as an extension of yourself, and your self-worth, then you’re going to approach innovation and criticism not from the point of view of expanding the field of knowledge, but as personal attacks.  For this reason, academics will often grasp frantically onto their established theories in the face of significant opposing thought or, if things are getting lean, jump onto a bandwagon of a new methodology or kind of inquiry, regardless of the stability of that innovation.  Considering that funding (another major aspect of how academics are employed) is generally controlled by private organizations, corporations, or governments, all of which have their own agendas, it becomes much easier to understand how scholarship can so often become corrupted with the same social pressures and biases as anything else.

[1] “Doctoral Defectors” is the name of my They Might Be Giants cover band.

[2] Data on this is only now being collected, but this number came out of a presentation I heard at AAR 2013 on the subject of PhD employment and alt-ac.



About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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