Teach or Perish (CHE)

My undergraduates’ career plans are a peculiar mix of naked ambition and hair-shirt altruism. If they pursue investment banking, they do so not merely to make money. Rather, they wish to use their eventual wealth to distribute solar light bulbs to every resident of a developing nation. They’ll apply to the finest law schools in hopes of some day judging war criminals at The Hague. Countless want to code. They dream of engineering an app that will make tequila flow out of thin air into your outstretched shot glass. My students, I suspect, are receiving their professional advice from a council of emojis.

There is one occupation, however, that rarely figures in their reveries. Few of these kids hanker to become professors. Maybe that’s because undergraduates no longer believe that the university is where the life of the mind is lived. Or perhaps they are endowed with acute emotional intelligence; they intuit that their instructors are sort of sad and broken on the inside. It’s also possible that the specter of entombing oneself in a study carrel does not appeal to them.

I guess they must also read those headlines, the ones suggesting that the liberal arts as we know them, and the scholars who toil within, are about to get rolled. I rehearse, with light annotation, some of these headlines here. Tenure-track positions in the humanities are—poof!—continually evaporating. Contingent faculty make up around 75 percent of educators in postsecondary institutions. To read an account of a part-timer’s daily grind is like reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Then there are the stories about MOOCs, “outcome based” online start-up colleges, and other forms of curricular disruption. Awash in VC cash, such initiatives portend the final, ignominious breakdown of the professorial status quo. They augur a future when even fewer (underpaid, contingent) scholars will serve swelling numbers of students. Job markets are fluxing into oblivion, and I surmise that our young charges have taken notice of that, too.

Some observers contend that the headlines are overwrought. The academy has endured crises before and has adapted. And who’s to say that faculty members had it so good in the past? Ever read a campus novel, like John Williams’s Stoner or Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe or Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution? Do those fictional scholars of bygone eras seem existentially content and professionally fulfilled?

Those novels chronicled some well-known infirmities of our vocation (e.g., infinite hours, philistinism run amok, Midwestern college towns). Those problems continue to vex. Couple them with the grim headlines and it becomes difficult to remain optimistic. With all due respect to the it’s-not-that-bad crowd, it’s bad enough. I’m going to assume it’s bad enough for a 53-year old adjunct. I’ll venture that it’s pretty unbearable for the grad student whose debts mount while her job interviews dwindle. I know it’s pretty depressing for the countless tenured professors who often tell me that they will not advise their best undergraduates to pursue doctorates. What does it say about a profession when its most successful members stand ready to discourage apprentices—apprentices who, I hasten to add, do not exist?

We humanists are at an inflection point, careering down the steep gradient like terrified campers on a mammoth water slide. We accelerate into the bottomless future, arms flailing, mouths wide open, eyes closed, gowns streaming behind us. Where’d our caps go? How did it come to this? How did such an august body find itself in this undignified position?

[full piece here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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