Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Blocking the Inner Voice in Faculty Life

I've been an assistant professor all of two months, and I love my job. I'll probably laugh at that sentence come spring semester, when I begin my 3-3 teaching load. But for now, I am happy with my courses, impressed by my students, and feel welcome within my department. In other words, I have good reason to be thankful.

This doesn't mean that there are no challenges. Each day, I learn something new, and I spend a good deal of energy simply trying to understand administrative processes and departmental history. There are other challenges as well. Psychological challenges. When I started this job, I promised not to let it rule my life. I decided that if I can't achieve some semblance of balance and be a professor, I'll find a new line of work. Achieving balance by itself requires a great deal of effort. It's not as simple as working less. And balance doesn't just mean exercising, which seems to be the "solution" proposed in many advice columns. I've been a runner for years, and hitting the pavement isn't a guaranteed ticket to emotional wellbeing.  No, achieving balance is a complicated struggle, usually waged in my mind.

I have to fight against an inner voice demanding that I give more of my time and energy to work. This inner voice, I think, is an amalgam of external messages that I internalize. Messages from my graduate school advisors about how they earned respect. Messages derived from comparing myself to colleagues. Messages about what it takes to win tenure. Messages about staying relevant and earning prestige in my discipline. The reason I fight against this inner voice is that I recognize it is at odds with my authentic self. Prior to entering academe, I cared more about differentiating myself from others than competing with them. Status was not a motivator for me, and I never would have imagined selling my soul for a lifetime job. So, I try my best to block this inner voice in order to give room for my authentic self to emerge. Here's a few illustrations of this process based upon recollections from the past two months on the job.

1. I went out of town a few weeks ago to visit my family. When I went back into the office, a colleague dropped by and asked me about my weekend. The inner voice suggested I respond as follows: "It was great, but I didn't get any work done. So, I'm stressed and will be grading all day today." I checked this impulse and instead replied: "It was great. I didn't get any work done, but it was worth it." The thing is, I would never tell a colleague to feel bad about prioritizing family over work. Why should I not apply that same value to my own life? When I block the inner voice, I make an effort to enjoy and own not working.

2. I met with my department chair recently to talk about my goals for the upcoming year. Typically, these meetings are designed to review faculty members' performance the previous year, in addition to goal-setting. Since I'm new, there was no performance to review. My chair explained that tenure criteria related to research had been changing over time. It was no longer the case that one peer-reviewed publication per year was sufficient. Her advice was to make sure I was using the time gained from my course release this semester to publish. After this meeting, the inner voice told me: "Cancel your plans to go to the wedding this month. You've got to get moving." I almost immediately went home and asked my wife if we could skip out on the wedding and visit our friends some time in the future. I pushed aside the inner voice and told myself: "You did not become a professor to live like a hermit. Structure your time in the coming weeks, meet your writing goals, and recognize that you are better at research when you feel fulfilled." I did my best to keep my writing projects moving forward, and I tried not to beat myself up when unexpected things came between me and research. As it turned out, the writing was good. Oh, and I went to that wedding. When I block the inner voice, I work at my own pace and at a higher standard.

3. Just the other day, I pulled into my driveway, turned off the car, and just sat for a minute. It wasn't a particularly taxing day. I didn't teach or attend a slew of meetings. But I was exhausted. I knew I had about 45 minutes before I needed to start dinner. I kicked off my shoes and headed toward the couch with every intention of taking a nap. As soon as I closed my eyes, the inner voice whispered: "You have 45 minutes before anyone else gets home. Look up those articles you didn't get to and start reading them." Sadly, I gave in to the inner voice in this instance. I got up, opened my laptop, and started typing the URL for the library homepage before my authentic self intervened: "You have already worked a full day, remember? You started at 8:00 this morning and worked strait through lunch. Why is this more important than giving yourself a rest?" I didn't get around to taking that nap, but I was annoyed enough with myself to learn a valuable lesson. When I block the inner voice, I recognize that I am already working hard enough.

These are just three illustrations among many. I don't always block the inner voice. Frequently, in fact, the inner voice is the only voice I hear. Nevertheless, I'm struggling--dare I say, working--to do faculty life my way. And I hope sincerely that other professors do the same. Don't talk about how busy you are. Don't complain about not working over the weekend. Don't suggest that a normal work week is insufficient.

I recognize there are factors at play here, factors seemingly beyond our control. Courses need to be taught. Committees need to be staffed. Emails need to be read. Families need to be fed. The work needs to get done. But I believe there are many moments in which we have an opportunity to make choices about the type of faculty life we want to make possible. And I think that life might be better for everyone in academe if we all block the inner voice.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Role Do Faculty Play in the Corporatization of Higher Education?

Yesterday, I wrote a post about recent claims that administrators in higher education increasingly have corporate backgrounds. This trend, it has been argued, explains a range of phenomena related to the corporatization of higher education, such as treating students as customers and hiring adjuncts. I challenged this argument in two ways. First, I gave reason to question the idea that administrators increasingly have corporate backgrounds. We don't actually have data (to my knowledge) that confirms this. Second, I suggested that while presidents are easy targets, responsibility for the corporatization of higher education does not fall on the shoulders of a single actor. Instead, I offered that all of us in the academy are complicit.

David Perry, an academic and writer whose work I admire, read the post and took issue with this last point. He tweeted:

In particular, he thought the argument would be more compelling if I could cite concrete examples of faculty contributing to the corporatization of higher education. So, I decided to think on it and write this post. What role do faculty play in the corporatization of higher education?

First, let me get all dissertation-y and provide a working definition of corporatization. I think of corporatization as an example of privatization within higher education (as compared to privatization of higher education, in the sense of state liberalization of a largely public higher education sector to allow for private providers). Bruce Johnstone provided one of the most comprehensive definitions of privatization within higher education. It's a good working definition for this post. He wrote:

Privatization...refers to a process or tendency of colleges and universities (both public and private) taking on characteristics of, or operational norms associated with, private enterprises. Although the term is not a precise one..., privatization connotes a greater orientation to the student as consumer, including the concept of the college education as a "product"; attention to image, competitor institutions and market "niches"; pricing and the enhancement of net earned revenue; and aggressive marketing. Priviatization also suggests the option of management practices associate with private business, such as contracting out, or "outsourcing"..., aggressive labor relations and minimization of payroll expenditures, direct decision-making and "top down" management, widespread use of audits and accountability measures, and an insistence that units...contribute to profitability.

Scanning through this definition, most of the practices seem far removed from what we typically associate with the academic profession. Faculty members push against any effort to think of students as customers, they lash out against "top down" management and promote shared governance, they question the utility of many of the products purchased to improve workflow, and they frequently don't champion accountability measures (think of post-tenure review). So, at first glance, my colleague is probably right to say that faculty should not bear responsibility for changes they did not enact. If anything, many faculty should be recognized for their efforts to oppose corporatization. Such opposition helps explain the irrefutable and mounting tension between faculty and administrators.

Yet, I still had the nagging sense that pointing the finger at administrators--and often a single administrator--is too simplistic. So, I offer here some tentative explorations of how faculty share some responsibility for corporatization. These ideas, many of which are inspired by higher education research, have been in my brain oven all of 12 hours, so feedback is heartily welcomed. I'll state here and reiterate that my position is not that faculty are to blame for corporatization. Here we go...

1. Faculty are administrators, administrators are faculty - Despite claims of the CEO-as-administrator, many leaders in higher education still follow a trajectory that started on the lowest rungs of tenure-trackdom. The administrators that are so heavily critiqued by faculty were often once faculty themselves. This means that either: a) some dramatic transformation happens when faculty become administrators that alters their thinking and precludes any identification with faculty or b) conditions in higher education create challenges and constrain possible solutions, meaning corporatization arises as faculty-administrators try their best. In any case, the point is that it's difficult to draw a clear line between faculty and administrators.

2. Faculty are people, people like nice things - This may rub a few people the wrong way, but the amenities arms race has been going on for a longer period time than many faculty realize. I wonder if opposition to new buildings was as vociferous when funding was more generous. I've heard plenty of faculty complain about their offices and classrooms. I think many would welcome the opportunity to work in new facilities, even if this required a tuition or fee hike. I went on a campus tour with new faculty once, and they were just as giddy about new recreational facilities and Starbucks in the library as students. In other words, faculty enjoy and come to expect amenities on campuses just like everyone else.

3. Faculty research, research requires money - Faculty are status addicts. The one activity that almost universally delivers status in the academy is research. In order to fund their research, faculty have courted corporate donors. Now, this is not true of all faculty. I'm in education - ain't no corporations funding my work. Select faculty members have also oriented their research to intersect with market demand. They view their discoveries as intellectual property that can be protected through patents. And they look to license these patents or use them to create spin-off companies. Although we are still probably talking about a minority of faculty at certain institutions, data shows that the number of faculty-entrepreneurs is rising (shout out to Slaughter and Rhoades).

4. Faculty are no strangers to adjuncts - To say that the adjunctification of the academy is a purely administrator-driven process is ludicrous. Faculty vote on professional degree programs taught by adjuncts. Faculty buy out courses knowing the courses will be taught by adjuncts. Faculty become department chairs and even hire adjuncts. Faculty marginalize adjuncts. (All the preceding, it should be noted, creates a distinction between "faculty" and "adjuncts." I don't agree with this distinction, viewing all faculty as faculty, but I use it here for clarity.) I've read article after article about how faculty know about the treatment of adjuncts, realize the number of adjuncts is rising, and do nothing.

These are just a few ideas. Again, my point is not that faculty are to blame for corporatization. Rather, my position is that this has been a group effort, born of a pervasive mindset--what many have called neoliberal governmentality. We can think of corporatization as a car speeding down the road. Faculty aren't in the driver's seat, and they may even be in the back urging the driver to slow down, but they are still in the car with everyone else. A response to my argument might be that faculty are simply reacting to conditions they did not create. There is validity to this response, but I think it too easily absolves us all of some part in the changes to higher education. Others might suggest that while faculty are complicit in corporatization, just like administrators, students, parents, and staff, they have played a smaller role. I think this is also true but doesn't take them out of the show altogether.

If we want to prevent the corporatization car from speeding down the road, we can't simply point a finger at the driver. Nor can we swap out the driver and put a faculty member in their place. It'll require a group effort because it was a group effort that led to the journey in the first place. In the words of the late Howard Zinn: you can't be neutral on a moving train.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Former CEO as College President? Not So Fast

Are America's colleges and universities increasingly run by former CEOs? The answer is: honestly, we don't know. We don't have the data. However, that hasn't stopped a number of observers from suggesting that higher education has gone to hell in a handbasket chiefly because its leaders are introducing norms and practices derived from time spent at corporations.

For example, in her recent piece for the National Post, Rebecca Schuman included the following as one reason that, since the late 1990s, higher education has been in a precipitous decline:

...universities — especially public institutions, ever-starved of tax revenue and ever-more-dependent upon corporate partnerships and tuition — started hiring CEOs as administrators, most of whom gleefully explained that they would start running these public, nonprofit entities like businesses.

She linked the rise of the CEO-as-administrator to treating students as customers and adjunctifying the academy. Consequently, luxury dorms have been built in response to customer demand and academic freedom has been dismantled as more and more work is completed by faculty outside tenure-trackdom. In other words, two of the most controversial developments in higher education in the last decade, namely the amenities arms race and the increasing reliance upon contingent academic labor, are products of the encroaching presence of former CEOs in leadership positions at colleges and universities. Schuman is not the first and probably won't be the last to make this claim.

Now, it's certainly possible that there has been an uptick in the number of institutions recruiting people with business acumen for leadership positions. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Given that institutions increasingly must consider marketing, branding, and making money to compete and meet rising costs, there are obvious advantages to hiring someone who was previously responsible for marketing, branding, and/or revenue generation at a large organization in a competitive marketplace. Many academics have never done these things. This has not stopped several institutions from demanding that their next president come from the ranks of the faculty. And it should be noted that, even if said president were a historian of the nineteenth century south, faculty members have made fantastic leaders for as long as higher education has existed. But I digress. 

While I agree that the employment backgrounds of college and university leaders can help us understand the nature of change in higher education, we should be wary of easy answers. Before we jump to conclusions about the CEO-as-administrator, we need to collect data. (*Dibs* I'm planning to do this in the near future.) Even armed with this data, however, we can't claim, as so many do, that former CEOs are the cause of corporatization and its attendant maladies. In the short term, we might be able to assess the degree to which a certain employment background (academic v. private sector) among administrators relates to variables like the proportion of part-time faculty. All of this is a long preface to this key point: corporatization is absolutely an issue in higher education, but I'm not certain we should look to the employment history of administrators as an explanation.

I would, rather directly, look to strings attached to money coming from corporations. For example, the Center for Public Integrity has been reporting about large sums of money that the Koch brothers have donated to various colleges and universities nationwide through their charitable foundation. The money has often gone to fund research centers or faculty positions that promote free-market ideology and the shortcomings of government intervention. I would look to the political economy of education policy-making, which has subverted the notion that higher education is a public good that demands investment of public funds. And I would look to the pervasiveness of market rationality in virtually every facet of the academy. 

This last point merits reiteration. Although presidents are easy targets, the reality is that all of us are complicit in the corporatization of higher education. It is, by now, a deeply ingrained mindset. Which is to say that change is going to require a great deal more than ensuring that college leaders are not corporate big shots. It is going to require a long, hard look in the mirror. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

There's So Much Awful Advice for New Faculty

It's the beginning of the semester at most colleges and universities nationwide, meaning it's also advice season for new faculty. This is the time of year when The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed publish a string of pieces from older, wiser faculty to help us novices survive tenure trackdom. I've decided to stop reading these pieces for several reasons I'll share here. And it's not because I know everything I'll need to thrive.

First, a chunk of the advice is completely common sense. It's not just common sense to me. It's quite literally common sense. Included in this category are the suggestions that we learn the culture of our departments and try to be nice to our colleagues. I'm not sure anyone, in any profession, would walk into a new job thinking: "I'm going to completely ignore what's going on around me and try to be a jerk." So, I'm not sure that this advice really needs to be verbalized. If there are people who approach a new faculty job this way, chances are they are too self-absorbed or socio-pathic to read advice pieces and take them seriously.

Second, a chunk of the advice is contingent upon the institution type. Writers of advice pieces will understandably draw upon their own experiences to spin humorous cautionary tales or chronicle how they saved a new faculty member from an embarrassing blunder. I understand this approach: you write what you know. But what you know doesn't necessarily speak to where I'm at. You may be talking about teaching generally, but your ideas are informed by lecturing to 300 undergraduate students, not developing online modules for working adults. Let's face it: there are few universal rules when it comes to being an academic. We work in a fabulously diverse occupation, rending most advice useless in practice.

Third, a chunk of the advice treats academe like a secret society or game demanding a particularly nuanced strategy. And, trust me, I get it. The stakes are high. There are unwritten codes. This is a unique profession in which your colleagues vote on our promotion. But at the end of the day this is a job. Every job that I've held was political and stressful. I trusted my instincts and stayed true to myself. If I can't do that as a faculty member, why would I want to work in this department, institution, or field? I recognize that "being myself" is a privilege, but it shouldn't be. It should be the only advice given and the only advice we, as new faculty, accept. In some ways, the narrative that treats academe like a game and new faculty as clueless rookies does more harm than good. If we all treated this as a job, even if (as many others have noted) it is a calling, it would be easier to walk away at the end of the day and draw clear boundaries. We would put up with a lot less foolishness.

Lastly, much of the advice leaves me feeling more panicked than prepared to succeed. I start worrying about things that, honestly, probably don't matter all that much. I think about whether I'm being nice enough or getting too friendly with my students. Before long, I give in to the perennial academic pastime of overthinking everything, which means I'm not thinking about the really important things, like editing that manuscript or developing that creative discussion idea. I swirl around in a tornado of self-doubt and tenure fear.

So, I stopped reading the advice pieces, electing to believe in my ability to learn and make incremental improvements. Truthfully, I wish that some older, wiser faculty would give up writing them. If you really want to write something for fellow faculty members, share pedagogies that you found effective. If you're feeling the itch to mentor a new faculty member, swing by their office or invite them to coffee. Find out about their life and aspirations, then give them personalized advice. If it's really about our success, and not somehow about you, then I would think this approach is more effective than writing an op-ed.