Thursday, November 14, 2013

Change? Yes. Academic Career dying? No.

Someone tweeted at me this story by Alex Hope about the changing academic career.  I kind of scoffed as I retweeted it, and now folks are retweeting my tweet as if I buy it.  So, I thought I would be clear about what I agree with and what I disagree with.  I do not have a RT not equal to endorsement line on my twitter profile because I RT all kinds of stuff, some with sarcasm or snark, and some with support.  The blog and also subsequent tweets are handy ways to clarify where I stand.

The piece argues that "the academic career is dead."  What is meant by this?  I guess someone tied to an institution since the author says:
the academic of the future will not be tied to an institution but be a thought leader, communicator and teacher undertaking a range of activities on a freelance/contract basis – and that the world will be a better place for it.
Really?  So, universities will disappear?  Or will only hire people on short-term contracts?  The former? I seriously doubt. The latter?  Maybe, as adjuncting has become the hip trend of the past decade or two--universities save money by hiring temps.  They also happen to gut the souls of universities, as temps have much less invested in the institution, even if they may teach as well or better than the tenured and tenure track folks.  Universities depend on the full time profs to run programs, provide a variety of services, engage in research, and, oh, yeah, bring in research money. 

Indeed, if there is one thing that will guarantee that profs will continue to stick around and that tenure will endure, it will be the reality that universities and colleges get a heap of money from research grants and contracts.  Do temps bring in research dollars?  Not much as far as I can guess.

So, there is an institutional logic for these institutions to continue to have some tenure-track/tenured positions.  There is also something else--that universities are communities of scholars, not just buildings and administrators.  The pursuit of knowledge (yeah that is mighty high falutin) is a social endeavor, and universities, by bringing together students, professors, post-docs and other folks, facilitate the processes by which we can learn and argue and develop.  Yes, some scholars can work in isolation, but the social environment of universities is incredibly important for most work. 

Hope is certainly correct that many PhDs will not be employed by academic institutions, as we are over-producing PhDs and not providing enough tenure track positions.   But I think Hope stretches the concept of "academic" so that it loses much of its meaning.  Perhaps he should focus on intellectual or something else, as academics are inherently tied to the institutions where the teaching and research takes place. 

The academic career may be more difficult and more risky now, as many folks do not get tenure track positions.  But there are still tenure track positions and people do get tenure.  These long term job commitments allow people to engage in long-term research projects, that include the years of grant applications, years of research, years of revising and resubmitting potential articles to journals and potential books to presses.  Things might become a bit faster if we drop the presses out of the business and publish everything online.  But grants and research will still take time.  The normal academic career gives people longer term incentives than the contract worker. 

I do agree that the academic career is changing somewhat, as we now have more outlets to communicate our stuff, including blogs.  But there is actually less change that suggested in this piece, as profs have consulted and multi-tasked for decades.

Anyhow, this piece is getting more attention because it says that "the academic career is dead."  On this, I must agree with Mark Twain: rumors of this death are greatly exaggerated.

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