The Implications of the Northwestern Study, or: Oh God Jordan Weissman What Have Ye Wrought

by Rebecca Schuman

I am writing this reaction to Jordan Weissman’s recent article in the Atlantic, “Study: Tenured Professors Make Worse Teachers,” with several obvious (and at times conflicting) agendas.

Agenda One: I’m faculty who works off the tenure track, and I also work very hard to be an extraordinary professor, so I certainly appreciate the finding—flawed as it may be—that college freshmen at Northwestern University slightly prefer their non-tenure-track faculty to their superstars (maybe they all had a class with one professor there who shall remain nameless, but who gave a highly-paid invited talk at OSU last year, and who is just the kind of pompous, inaccessible dickbag who makes people hate tenured professors).

I can’t say I don’t get a bit of smug satisfaction that while the FULLPROFs of the world strut around delighted at how much better they are than the likes of me, the likes of me are the ones who really seem to be connecting with students…by a 7% margin, which, come on, is completely negligible in everything but Presidential elections and hill steepness. So there’s that. So the first thing that compromises my agenda is the realization that even if contingent faculty outperform their tenure-track counterparts by the problematic, rather intangible standard of “inspiration,” we barely do.

Agenda Two: It is an incontrovertible fact that there are spectacularly gifted teachers among the tenured and tenure-track faculty in the United States (here are just a few I have had in my short life). So the cliché that all tenured professors are incomprehensible-research-wanking solipsists who only care about their specialized graduate seminars full of sycophants, is tremendously offensive. This is in direct conflict with Agenda One, in which I secretly rejoice at out-teaching a bunch of research-wanking solipsists. You see why this is complicated.

Agenda Three (and Most Important): The Northwestern study may obscure or outright seek to contradict the fact that the current academic labor system in the United States is feudal, stratified, toxic, cruel, oppressive and detrimental to student learning—and I think if this study had been done at the hundreds of regional and directional state universities where the vast majority of our young people go to be educated, there would be a far different outcome. I’m trying, at all times, to be mindful as well that any participant, including all of the wonderful professors I just linked to and myself, is contributing to this toxic system.

The academic labor hierarchy needs to change, drastically, if we are to preserve anything good about higher education whatsoever.

Because every college faculty in the world deserves what every worker in the world deserves: a fair wage commensurate with their skills and experience; humane working conditions; dignity and respect. I do not believe most adjuncts receive these—I, for example, work for an institution that treats adjuncts better than anywhere I have ever seen (and I earn almost $1000 above the national average per course), and I truly love my students and my colleagues, and I know I am lucky to have an office to use at all (never mind one that used to be part of a convent and thus has its own bathroom!)…but I am typing this right now on a computer running Windows XP…

I have to add 15-30 minutes onto my day each morning for this thing to startup. No joke.

I have to add 15-30 minutes onto my day each morning for this thing to startup. No joke.

…in sight of visibly peeling paint that is almost certainly lead-based (it’s a good thing I usually remember to bring my lunch and have only had to resort to eating paint a few times this semester).

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The Impossible Solution. Hey everyone, guess what? You’d never believe this, but I have ideas about how to re-envision academic labor. And you’d double-never believe this, but they are highly polarizing. This is largely because they include some form (that I haven’t worked out yet, ALL RIGHT?) of the wholesale replacement of the tenure process as we know it, with a different system that still offers whatever passes for academic freedom these days…and as most tenure-track faculty are forced into simpering cowardice, how hard can this be? But I digress.

Whatever the amorphous new Schuman-fantasy system is, it must do away with the stratifications that currently plague the academy, where FULLPROFs and MOOCPROFs are the “rock stars” (think Nickelback, not Springsteen, and think $100,000 a year, not $100 million), and everybody else is either a sad warm-up act or a sidewalk busker (who isn’t allowed to work a day job for fear that someone will accuse him/her of not “loving it enough”).

Here’s something of which I am certain: the reform higher-ed labor so desperately needs can and will not be achieved in the impending MOOCiverse. And here’s something related: Weissman’s article, though it itself does not display any overt oppressive intentions, still has vile, dangerous implications about the acceptability of certain working conditions.

The post-academic Twitterverse was alive with succinct commentary about exactly what these implications are.

Here’s my fellow Chronicle Vitae project hellraiser William “Billiam” Pannapacker:

And Al Jazeera English’s almost-the-same-birthday-as-me-having St. Louisan Sarah Kendzior posted an utterly straightforward critical Tweet…

that prompted this response from the article’s 27-year-old writer:

Meanwhile Claire Potter, the Tenured Radical, weighed in quite judiciously on behalf of my tenure-track and tenured homeprofs, pointing out, among other excellent arguments, seven percent schmeven schmercent: this means almost as many students thought their adjuncts were shitty, too.

And now for the capital-I Implications I promised. I want to believe that Weissmann’s article, at its heart, is positive: it’s saying that many adjuncts, so maligned and so underpaid, are against all odds and rather heroically spectacular teachers. But I am very afraid that this study will not bring about what I want it to bring about: the much-needed democratization and de-FULLPROF-ification of the faculty hierarchy, with the tenure process burnt to the ground and a more democratic, healthier and saner way of protecting faculty expression put in its place.

My pessimism exists because that would only happen in a world that treats the kind of higher education most people in academia value—the one conducted by humans for humans, in the pursuit of a more perfected humanity—as the ideal, and not the corporate profit-based, startup-culture-style “disruption” bullshit model currently favored by the well-paid administrators replacing their instructors with Coursera MOOCs that have a 90 percent attrition rate.

I fear that the result of this study will be trumpeted around universities with much less revenue and much lower adjunct pay than Northwestern, to justify the idea that, as Pannapacker has put it, since children make the best chimney sweeps, we should keep sticking children up chimneys.

“Since professors who work around rat infestations and hold office hours out of their cars make the ‘best’ teachers, we should kill that pesky tenure line and replace it, not with a humane multi-year, infinitely-renewable full-time contract position, but with four adjuncts whose combined wages equal that of a high-school teacher ten years their junior. And they can hold office hours from their 1996 Subarus, while what once were faculty offices get commandeered by a new fundraising office, tasked to support a new UltraDorm/strip mall with Jacuzzi tubs on every floor.” Don’t worry, they actually teach BETTER under those conditions! They like them!

I don’t fault Weissmann, the pip-squeak who wrote the Atlantic article, for not knowing the intricacies of adjunct hell, and I don’t fault the hundreds of commenters who also don’t understand that most adjuncts have zero chance ever of becoming full-time, and thus who insist that it’s the “competition” that makes adjuncts popular (hint: it’s the grade inflation tied to the evaluations that get us re-hired). It’s not really a question of “fault” at this point—it’s a question of coming up with a better solution than these hypercapitalist Sean-Parker-type Ed-Bros do, faster than they do.

Tenure is dying. I would be OK with that if it were going to be replaced with anything humane. I fear it won’t.