College and Industry

LMS tech support, freelance construction contractor, camp counselor, grocery store cashier/stocker, quick service restaurant manager, QSR assistant manager, history/classics/political science tutor, adjunct instructor, teaching assistant, research assistant/editorial work, furniture mover, visiting assistant professor.

I think that is every job I’ve held since I was 18. Going back further, I could add data entry, housekeeping at a resort, and some other odds and ends. This is something that some people on academic Twitter have been posting in response to this Times Higher Education opinion piece. In short, the author declares that “Too many academics have spent most, if not all, their professional lives within universities,” and therefore:

  1. all potential professors should be required to undergo a year-long internship before they begin teaching.
  2. And all academics should be required to return to work in industry every three to five years as part of their professional development and career advancement.

My Twitter feed was abuzz with outrage at this article, I think for good reason. Scholars in the humanities reacted to the article online responded by pointing to their work experience and then, in so many words, asking what industry the author propose they take their rotations in. That said, I wanted to unpack some assumptions about higher education, because I also don’t disagree with the top level idea: that it is necessary to find ways to support and improve college education.

First, there are a set of assumptions in contemporary discourse about college, if not the article explicitly, about how being a professor is not “real work,” which encompasses several broad categories that all come back to the cult of amateurism surrounding college. I am obviously poaching my core idea here from the issue of whether college athletes ought to receive greater compensation for their labor, but this cult extends beyond NCAA rules about amateurism. There is a perpetual cycle of hand-wringing about how college students are spoiled and insulated from the “real world” that they will face after graduation, whether in the service of lamenting “kids these days” or the failures of higher education. And if college is not the “real world” for students who are set adrift in their “Odyssey Years” (as David Brooks called it in 2007), then it cannot be the “real world” for their professors, either.

About those professors. There is a persistent myth of overpaid and unfireable professors who are detached from the goings on of that mythical real world. Compounding this problem is that many, if not most, people with advanced degrees have made sacrifices for their field by spending years on meager stipends in graduate school. A common explanation for this is that their research amounts to a passion project. Even glossing over the fact that most professors, myself included, are contingent employees with limited benefits, even most tenured professors are not overpaid, either for their level of education or their time. Professors are expected to be experts in their field, prepare, teach, and grade for classes, mentor students, perform world-class research in their field, develop outreach programs, and serve on institutional and professional committees, just as a baseline.

And yet there is also a bias that underlies this op-ed, namely that there is a distinction between “doers” and “teachers.” In the 2000 film “Finding Forrester” featuring Busta Rhymes, a gifted young writer (Rob Brown) is persecuted by his teacher (F. Murray Abraham) and is accused a plagiarizing the work of William Forrester (Sean Connery) until it is revealed that the teacher is a bigger failure as a writer. The argument, then, is that teachers are people who couldn’t hack it in their particular field. (The film makes no concession to the fact that most authors have a day job that may or may not involve writing.)

The author doesn’t go so far as to call professors failures, but she strongly suggests that there there is industry on the one hand and higher education on the other. “Professor” should not be a career, but a position that needs to be cycled through because it results in the professors being out of the loop. This model might be viable for some positions in some fields that rely on industry connections, but, at the same time, universities and colleges often work in tandem with industry in those fields already, with the schools providing cheap labor and resources. Where the model doesn’t work at all is in the humanities, where so much of the research is performed by scholars in higher education. In these cases, mandatory years off not only don’t improve the student education, but actively hurt it.

Higher education is an industry. It employs all sorts of people from maintenance staff to food service professionals to fundraisers and secretaries, but there are two groups without which it cannot exist: students and professors. Work as a professor is not manual labor and has its own schedule, but it is a form of modern white-collar employment.

Of course, the valorization of “real work” cuts both ways. There are plenty of examples of academics who simultaneously look down upon and feel nostalgia for labor that they would never do.

While we’re here, many students are employed, either by the university in the vicinity, and juggle those responsibilities alongside their coursework and professional development opportunities. College has its own set of rules and expectations, but thinking about it as something other than “the real world” is a lazy trope long past its expiration date.

Finally, a word about the point of education. The author concedes that “higher education is not all about career advancement,” but her basic thrust is nevertheless that disrupting the status quo for professors is the only way to ensure students “find their professional niche, alongside the robots.” Humanities and a liberal arts education that teach citizenship are given barely a sentence in the conclusion, without any recognition that these are disciplines that teach the sorts of analytical thinking and communication skills that perhaps most correlate to coexistence with an increasingly automated economy.

By all means, increase resources and opportunities for pedagogical training alongside research support, and find ways to ensure professors stay abreast of the latest developments in their field. As for the internship, there are already years of graduate school, so finding a way to work more pedagogical training into the curriculum ought to be doable. We should not excuse those professors who are oblivious to the difficulties facing students, but the rest of this proposal is a one-size-fits-all solution that frames the virtues of the liberal arts as incidental and therein lies the bigger problem.

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