As an undergraduate, how many of your classes were taught by professors, how many by graduate students, and how many by adjunct lecturers?
The answer partly depends on your alma mater and its location along a continuum of resources. For example, community college courses are more likely to be taught by adjuncts than by full professors, while most courses at elite schools are taught by senior scholars.
But college type is only one determinant; another factor is time. The more recently one attended a college (save but a few), the less likely one was taught by tenure-track professors. That is because tenure is eroding. And as tenured professors retire, their teaching responsibilities, when not shifted to grad students, are increasingly handed over to adjuncts, who perform the same duties at less cost to the administration, and whose proliferation on campuses everywhere threatens the very existence of tenure. Not literally a “crisis,” the tenure problem has century-old roots. But it has deepened over the past three decades, and in response most public and some private universities have been pulled in antithetical directions, toward the Ivy-grade prestige that their inclusive admissions policies disallow, and toward the for-profit model, now swelling, that offers accessible and expeditious vocational preparation.
That, at any rate, is the thesis presented by Frank Donoghue in his book The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham UP, 2008). Donoghue, an associate professor of English literature at the Ohio State University, writes from out on a limb, since his background is not properly university administration but literary careers in the eighteenth century. Which is not to say he was unprepared: Donoghue mentions the “various incarnations of [his] seminar on academic labor,” thanks Stanley Fish for introducing that topic to Donoghue “long ago,” and provides a rich bibliography (over 175 items) to suggest the cast of his research net.
There may be a better book for quickly bringing today’s readers up to speed about the complexities of tenure erosion, but I doubt it. As concise as it is erudite, The Last Professors provides nourishing food for thought for those with a vested interest in the humanities.
It also provides plans of action, in sketch form (pp 135-end). “Professors of humanities,” Donoghue concludes, “can resist their extinction only by shifting the focus of their attention in two important ways.” First, healthy skepticism of the corporate model, to prevent its “tenets from becoming articles of faith for everyone: students, society at large, even disempowered humanists.” The second action is for humanists “to balance their commitment to the content of higher education with a thorough familiarity with how the university works.” Reading Donoghue’s monograph is a great start.
Action will be required – not just words – for the erosion of tenure to slow or reverse. But the humanist’s words are often the humanist’s deeds. Here’s to Frank Donoghue for taking action, for publishing a compelling account of a topic surely on the minds of many academics. And here’s to further action, to the future readers of that book.