The Last Enclosures

Another day, another “professors only work 15 hours a week” know-nothing shooting his mouth off in the public sphere. Except in this case, David Levy surely knows something, given his professional background and present business interests.

Sometimes, I cut people slack when they believe that the hours spent in the classroom are the only work that a professor does. The profession doesn’t do a good job in general of explaining the work we do, one reason why I started doing my “Pictures From an Institution” series. Even when you can get people to understand that every hour in a classroom requires at least two, more often three or four hours of preparation and design work, they still tend to see the rest of the work life of professors as an optional extra. Sometimes faculty themselves help to create that impression. We all love to disparage administrative or service work, for example. But it’s not an optional extra: most of what faculty do administratively is a necessary part of their work as teachers and scholars. When I meet with my departmental colleagues to talk about our next job search, about end of year assessment of our classes, about the design of our major, about participation in college-wide curricular initiatives, I’m doing my work as a teacher. Those meetings are as much a source of the added-value of my pedagogy as time spent in my office reviewing the readings, designing my syllabi and grading papers. When I meet with visitors to campus, attend guest lectures and events, give a lecture myself at another institution, I’m making myself a better teacher. When I write my weblog or work on my research, I’m working on my teaching. It all adds to that goal.

So yes, we could explain better. And yes, there are faculty who abuse autonomy and do much less work than they should. Give me unfettered access and an invisibility cloak and I’d wager I could find a similar proportion of people letting everyone else carry the load in any workplace. You can always find people who are compensated far in excess of their contributions. Some of them might even be CEOs. The idea that market competition or at-will termination relentlessly identifies and punishes such individuals is a fairy tale. Every complex organization has its parasites who burrow in and adroitly use political and social strategies to retain their place against all scrutiny. This is an inevitable tax that large-scale social institutions have to pay.

But David Levy? He really ought to know about the workflow that goes into high-value teaching. He really ought to know that even with the protection of tenure and considerable autonomy, most faculty in most higher education put in long hours because they believe in their profession. So what’s going on here?

I think it’s fairly simple. You know the classic “First they came for the X, then they came for the Y, and I did nothing, and then they came for me?” schtick? This is one of those stories. In fact, it’s the end of one of those stories. They already came for the doctors and the psychiatrists. They already came for the lawyers. They already came for the accountants and auditors. They already came for all the professions. Professors are the last to be broken on the wheel, the last to be put at their station in the new assembly lines of the 21st Century Service Economy.

The early Industrial Revolution, in the first decades of the 19th Century, was not focused on the giant factories and mass economies that were characteristic of its later height: it was about replacing artisanal and household production through relatively small efficiencies and reorganizations of labor and property. This is what’s happening now to the professions. The professions were the great engines of bourgeois culture in mass society. They were provided human capital by the massification of education but they also provided services to much of society that couldn’t be duplicated or replaced by industrial capital, services that were seen as public goods in newly democratizing societies.

In the early 20th Century, most of the professions came to see autonomy and self-governance as the precondition of providing high-value artisanal service to both elite and mass clientele. The relations the professions created to clients were simultaneously intimate and impersonal. Patients sought doctors they could personally trust but that trust was a product of the doctor’s calling to a vocation with values and obligations bigger than his own interests. Businesses and governments looked for auditors who were independent but also had a skilled and sympathetic understanding of fiduciary workings. And students looked for teachers who were committed to an educational mission bigger than themselves but who also taught out of a fiercely independent and individualized vision of craft. Think of the exalted archetypes of teaching in 20th Century fiction for examples, like Mr. Chips or David Powlett-Jones.

The post-industrial service and knowledge-based economies of the last thirty years have relentlessly chipped away at the autonomy of the professions, because professions are service. They could no more be allowed a semi-monopolistic right to set their own value than artisans and guilds could be allowed to continue to set the value of clothing or printing in the face of early industrialization. I’m not playing with metaphors here: I think it’s a pretty close analogy. And as an analogy, it lets us see both what will be gained and lost if the David Levys of the new economy manage to enclose all the professions, all forms of knowledge work.

What might be gained is simple: affordability, scalability, massification. At some point the Veblen-good pricing of higher education and the post-GI Bill, post-1950 massification of higher education were going to collide. We appear to be at last coming to that point. I’ve long argued that the consumer cultures that grew out of early industrialization had an emancipatory and generative side, that we shouldn’t be telling that story strictly as all dark satanic mills and disenchantment. And it’s equally true that the professions in the mid to late-20th Century had grown arrogant, that their inflexibility could be as deadly and stultifying as the most stereotypical case of inflexible union procedures for changing lightbulbs. We do have to change, not just to address affordability but also to embrace opportunity. In many ways, the technological and material infrastructure of the early 21st Century could have been (might yet be?) a chance for most of the formerly autonomous professions to make good on their public obligations and higher missions in completely new ways.

What’s lost? Well, in a word, quality and individual attention except for the precious few that can pay for the full luxury version of such services. The rich still had their suits tailored at Savile Row after everyone else was buying a mass-produced shirt. But in this case, those values might be more precious and important to the larger human missions of education, medicine, psychiatric treatment, auditing and so on. That’s really what you lose: the sense of vocation, of calling, of dedication to something bigger. The new publics of liberal democracy understood that education, medicine, law, accounting and so on were important to their resilience and thriving in a way that artisanal consumer products were not.

You lose innovation and imagination too because when professionals don’t work for themselves but for the David Levys of the world, they have no more incentive to do more, dream more, create more. It’s no surprise that Levy cuts researchers and not teachers slack: that’s because Levy and people like him are already pretty confident that they can capture the value that researchers produce inside a corporatized university. The mechanisms are already there, including ways of cutting value-producing researchers in for a share of the profits. Teachers, on the other hand, are just for moving the products (students) down the assembly line: any pretenses to the contrary need to be crushed. What do you lose also? Well, the distinctiveness that has made American higher education the envy of most of the world. Just as they’re trying to figure out how to do it the way we’ve done it, we’re going to crush all that and do it the way they’ve done it. One more story of self-inflicted American decline.

And for this reason, maybe we shouldn’t expect that affordability will actually follow as a consequence of the enclosure of the professions. It hasn’t happened to medicine, even as doctors have had to come inside of large corporate structures and work to the tune of the insurance industry. Quite the contrary: Americans pay more than ever for medical care and receive poorer and poorer results for it all the time. It hasn’t happened in law, even as an almost unremarked-upon depression grips the profession and most of its members work increasingly as salaried and highly supervised laborers. Look at the for-profits in education and you can see the same thing going on. The quality is vastly lower even as the poor old scapegoated professors get turned into digital widget makers punching the clock, anonymously pushing their consumer-product students down the line. But the prices? As high as ever even without the overhead of brick-and-mortar facilities and frustratingly autonomous professionals with their own ideas about the mission of education.

So who really gains? Well, I’m pretty sure David Levy does.

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27 Responses to The Last Enclosures

  1. Jay Scott says:

    But it’s true, right? Professors only work 15 hours a day. “Week” is probably a typo.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this, Tim! I think that the phenomenon you describe here goes hand-in-hand with growing administrative bloat at the public university level (I’m thinking of the Goldwater Institute report from a few years ago here – Whether the disproportionate ratio of administrators to faculty is the cause or the symptom of this “industrialization” of academia is something I’m probably not qualified to answer.

    As someone who loves both teaching and research, I find myself more and more inclined to look outside of academia for my career path (much to the chagrin of my supervisor) in part because it seems like I will have more freedom running my own research/design group than I will inside the assembly line system of education that David Levy is advocating. At the same time, I wonder about the extent to which any of these industrialized service models will really persist in a post-industrial world. I think my perspective is skewed here, in part, because some of my recent research is on DIY culture and maker movements, which I see as an important step towards a more artisnal culture of making things (perhaps it’s a step backwards). At the same time, the DIY movement exists and thrives because it is built on top of a significant industrial infrastructure: small batch production, rapid prototyping, and arduinos are all windfalls of the manufacturing systems that we have developed to serve a mass market. So I guess, the question I have is whether or not we will see a similar trend in higher education as it gets assimilated into the industrial production model? Will there be room for an autodidactic counterculture in education that resists the homogenized assembly line of public universities, but which is able to still participate in and partake of the social institutions of higher education?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    My intuition is that:

    a) elite institutions will be able to opt out of the worst of the standardization by virtue of deeper resources and stronger traditions, plus a market niche that depends very much on the perception that they are distinctive. But this is not much different than saying that the very best artisans got to opt out one way or the other of industrial standardization. Or the way that the very best hospitals are often able to innovate in care even as the system pushes them towards making care worse.
    b) standardization of higher education inside the United States will have exactly the same outcomes as it has had in medical care: acceleration of higher costs (as more players find ways to extract surplus out of supplying or regulating the system) with worsening results for clients. This will come to a head roughly as fast as it has with the health care system, that is to say, probably not until it so thoroughly breaks both the system and the wider society that a fix becomes unavoidable. In the meantime, you might see some alternative systems of education spring up, much as they have in medical care.
    c) The rest of the world will probably adopt more nimble, flexible systems for education that produce higher quality just as the US is sabotaging one of its few remaining assets.
    d) Inside of otherwise standardized assembly-line higher education institutions, there will be semi-autonomous pockets that preserve a more artisinal, innovative, creative approach, some of them “tubs sitting on their own bottoms” because of the patronage of some donor or separate endowment. Much as there are sometimes innovative or high-quality pockets inside otherwise dreary standardized medical systems.

  4. Good points! Other thoughts:
    1. Some hours I feel more artisanal (helping apprentices learn their craft), while at many other times I feel we to have been forced to the assembly line.
    2. The Levy “profit-sharing” (false) incentive for professors also applies much more to the kind of research producing possibly profit-making patents rather than to other kinds of research, no?
    3. I think there’s another explanation for attempts to change how much soc sci and humanities instruction works: as you well know, we teach our own forms of skeptical reasoning, including skepticism about our own early conclusions; genuine rather than false _historical_ thinking; and empathy for those you at first may think are not “like” who you think you are. All of these skills are essential for the public sphere in a sane democracy but therefore deeply threatening to those in power. They are also attractive to our students and others who discover them.

  5. laura says:

    OK, Tim, I’m going to be an asshole for a moment. I’m not sure that research and service requirements makes professors better teachers. Nobody is. There’s been no research on this topic. Is a professor who teaches one or two classes a year a better teacher than a community college professor who has a 4-4 load? I don’t know. I usually think that people who do an activity for a lot of hours are better at it than people who don’t do it as much. I know a lot of research-heavy professors who have contempt for their students, because they don’t get any professional rewards from being a good teacher. (All that hoopla a few weeks ago about Goldman saying rude things about their clients? You should hear what professors say about their students.) What do undergraduate gain from a professor who is constantly in meetings?

    I think you’re totally off track with the notion that in the old days, professors sat around and read and wrote and thought big thoughts and then occasionally taught. My dad was teaching college back in the 60s and college teaching was mostly about the teaching. Nobody did research. In fact, the best, most well regarded faculty member on the staff never even finished his dissertation. The Research Professor is a relatively new invention that came up in the 1970s.

    The Research Professor model is on the way out for a lot of reasons. Parents don’t want to pay for professors who don’t teach their kids. High school teachers are actually doing a lot of college teaching now with all the AP classes. More kids in college. Lots of reasons. There will be something good things that will be lost with the transformation of college, but progress might be good, too.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I don’t think that’s being an asshole. These are valid points.

    The first thing is that I would bracket off the question of research on effective teaching, for two reasons. One, because the kinds of research we have on effective teaching practices are at present poorly applied in academia *period*, including by people like Levy. For example, there’s a very considerable body of work demonstrating that lectures are very poor vehicles for transferring information, aiding retention or generally teaching students how to do much of anything. Poor vehicles whether or not the person who is lecturing is a skilled or exciting or knowledgeable teacher. A number of the studies that are out there show in fact that students can rate a lecturer and a class very very highly, much more highly than a class session that does “hands on” work in some way, but that every measurement you can do of learning will show that the lower rated class was more successful. Two, though, I’d bracket off “research into effective teaching” because it’s not really the issue with Levy but it also presupposes that we all agree on what higher education is supposed to be doing, what its purposes are, what we mean to measure as effective.

    I don’t mean to say that in ye olden days, academics thought deep thoughts. Teaching was what it’s about then and now. I’m also a bit suspicious of the more convenient formulations of the “teacher-scholar” in which everyone has to be producing conventional monographs in order to be good teachers. But I think being a good teacher in higher education does involve a systematic practice of curiousity, of inquiry, of constantly refreshing and testing what you know. Research is one way to do that, not the only way, and sometimes not the best way.

    Service, too. It can be make-work but I feel comfortable saying that for myself, it’s one of the ways I get to be a better advisor and teacher for my students. To give one example, I’ve served on a committee that advises the administration on educational policy, curricular issues and requests for faculty positions. I’ve been on it three times, and it meets once a week, which is a pretty considerable time commitment. Being on it has made me much more knowledgeable about both the intellectual territory of other disciplines and their lived, practical concerns. That makes me better able to describe how what I teach fits into a bigger picture and how to advise my students about their choices. This *matters*. It has a bigger payoff for my students in that sense than it does for me–it doesn’t get me general reputation capital in my field and it actually makes some of my colleagues like or respect me less than they might otherwise. (because you have to be involved in decisions they don’t like). Taking this work away from faculty in order to somehow get more teaching labor out of them would undercut their commitment to curricular development, which is *part* of teaching.

    This is where I think it IS very important to recognize that the professions, broadly speaking, had real autonomy in their work for much of the 20th Century, and a lot of respect from their society because of it. It *does* matter that doctors, lawyers, professors, accountants and others have been turned into salaried laborers working for large, impersonal corporations that often could give a shit about the mission or vocation of those professions. The opposite, in which we don’t care about the bottom line at all, is equally dire. But there’s a healthy middle that I think we still have time to choose, or in the case of health care and other professions, to shift back towards.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    One additional thought for Laura. When you switched school districts for your kids and saw an enormous difference, you spent some time trying to figure out the reasons. Funding? Maybe. The social class of the two communities? Maybe. But I got the feeling that what you saw first and foremost was that the teachers and the administrators in your new school actually cared, were deeply committed, really believed in what they were doing, and so made full use of their skills and capacities.

    Well, that’s the point about autonomy. Maybe some people don’t use it wisely, but I think it’s the precondition of that kind of commitment. The things that go into making a fully committed person, a person with a mission, aren’t best reached by putting stopwatches and metrics on people. Efficiency is not the shortest route to quality. It’s not even the shortest route to saving money.

  8. HJ Werlen says:

    This is what came to my (disorganized) mind after reading your “Last Enclosures” article. Aside from the increased corporatization and bureaucratization of the university, the ineluctable transformation of teaching by technology is only visible right now on a rather superficial level (e.g. all beginning Spanish classes at UNC are taught on-line). Within a very short time, we will witness a profound structural change of the concept of “teaching” and the role of professors, e.g. when the idea of the Khan Academy ( will be extended to all levels of education (I watch MIT Open Course Ware lectures on anything from biology to Fundamentals of Material Science). The university in the age of its electronic reproduction need not be all bad and even harbor democratic and progressive features, it will, however, fundamentally change the nature of teaching and learning now associated with university education.

    While I believe (hope) that Swarthmore will have a gradual and critical approach to these technology-driven curriculum and personnel “innovations”, the situation for our colleagues at state institutions and for their students is already dire – from new austerity budgets and the decrease of education funding by the states, paralleled by an increase of debt students have to carry into an economically uncertain future. In the meantime, THE CORPORATION – the name prominently displayed by schools, including ours, serves as a reminder of the increase of corporate influence in schools. Larger schools (and maybe even smaller ones) would like their professors to act like venture capitalists (thus the preference for sciences) whose knowledge production can be sold to the benefit of the school (patents). In addition, well-known schools like to take advantage of “the brand” by enrolling full-paying foreign students and opening up satellite schools in Abu Dhabi.

  9. laura says:

    I do think that autonomy is an important part of being a professional, though I think that you overstate the amount of autonomy in other professions. School teachers, regardless of the school district, have very little autonomy. Doctors have gotten overwhelmed with insurance paperwork in recent years, but I’m not sure that they ever had as much autonomy as academics.

    A good friend of mine started working for a community college in Manhattan. She is teaching a 5-5 course load with 50 kids per class. She sends sad little Facebook status updates that make it clear that she is not getting enough sleep. In addition to this teaching load, she is expected to publish in order to get tenure. That’s just insane. College professors aren’t working too little. They just might not be working in a way that brings value to the undergraduate classroom. Being a fantastic teacher has taken the backseat to other professional goals.

  10. Brendan Karch says:

    I hope this goes down as one of your classics. A great post. As a young academic still hoping to get my foot in the door of this rarefied world of autonomy before it closes to new entrants, I felt that you crystallized a lot for me.

    At Harvard, the model is somewhat different, but far from immune to corporatization. A professor here recently described Harvard’s new mission aptly: to become “a liberal think tank” and cultural center with occasional instruction on the side. Harvard, of course, is in a unique position to monetize its outsized reputation in all sorts of creative ways, which we’re seeing increasingly. In the meantime, the administration balloons in size, and professors clamor for privileges to insulate themselves from new consumer-driven models of teaching. History recently went from a 2-2 to a 2-1+ load (the + being for running a graduate field, teaching a colloquium, or other previously uncounted teaching obligations). This isn’t to denigrate all the profs here — most whom I know work themselves to near-death and are incredibly passionate about their vocation. But I’m not sure how much their extra-curricular labor (new centers, new initiatives, new standing committees) really enhances the core educational mission of the school, or rather simply enhances prestige which the school then leverages in other ways. (Or simply enhances administrative control over their activities, even if they are supposedly the autonomous decision-makers on these committees.)

    And, of course, it goes without saying that the consumers of the education are often leading the push for corporatized models with definable and measurable results. Assembly-line expectations (X grade outputted for Y hours inputted) abound among students, and parents egg them on, wanting a tangible payout for their $200k investment. There have even been cases of lawsuits targeted at teachers who sought disciplinary action against students. Elite private research universities, in this consumerist sense, seem to me not so much insulated from the trends you ominously describe, rather at the forefront. I’d be interested to hear what you think about the complicity of the consumer in this.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I honestly don’t think I’m overstating what’s happened to medicine. When I was a kid in the 1970s, many doctors, especially in primary care, owned their own practices. Think of the whole proverbial idea of “hanging out your shingle” as a lawyer. And so on: professionals were a part of most communities, and in most communities, they were substantially independent in how they conducted their business. They had direct relationships to their clientele. It’s not just paperwork now: most doctors are at least indirectly the employees of insurance agencies who tell them what they can and cannot do for patients, tell them how they have to run their practices, tell them how much time they’re allowed to spend seeing patients, and so on. Many lawyers have come inside larger, more corporatized practices in part or as a whole. Accountancy is vastly more subservient to corporate clients who manipulate its outcomes (a serious issue in the last and probably future financial crises).

  12. Greg Downey says:

    Great post — I’ll echo the comment above that says it’s a classic. Really insightful discussion of the process through which autonomy is being crushed in the profession of the professoriate. We’re in a bit of a different situation here in Australia, but the processes are coming through in strange ways, especially as leadership ‘talent’ (and I use that term so loosely as to constitute farce) is imported from the American system to lead Australian universities.

    What I’m noticing is that the micromanagement of professors (and I’m *only* a senior lecturer) has taken the form of constant administrative and bureaucratic processes with no meaningful positive change in the quality of service to the student, but that seem to be good for meeting administrative key performance indicators (and we know that these KPIs are sometimes linked to their performance bonuses). We seem to undergo perpetual restructures, one year the graduate programs, the next the undergraduate curriculum, the next the creation of ‘research clusters,’ the next their dissolution. Budgets get changed in August to create fictitious deficits, only to learn that, in fact, we’re in surplus in November in our department but our hands are tied to spend it in the things we dis-invested in so that we could meet the earlier crisis.

    The administrative-ism also extends to the creation of new administrators in charge of new efforts (curriculum reform, transformation of web presence, retraining of graduate advisors) all of which seem designed to extract more labor out of staff, most of which add no value or improve the quality of the education. We’ve got a union here to fight it, but the fight is constant, and when bigger battles are under way (over lay-offs or salary negotiation), another administrative ‘reform’ entailing much added labour slips through the net.

    The bottom line seems to be that the ‘new’ university is a twitchy, neurotic, short-term monster that must appear to be doing something to appease… I don’t know who; the board? the administrators higher up? Administrators at the highest level try to make their name by pushing time-consuming reforms that don’t have much benefit, especially given the pain and convulsive change that they entail. Some reform efforts are so badly designed that they collapse under their own weight, before they even reach their conclusion with whatever marginal gain they might bring.

    But the bottom line is that administration is seen to be *doing* something, larding dubious ‘achievements’ onto their own CVs and annual reports, throwing the finite lives of lower level administrators and academics into deep holes. I cannot count the number of hours that I’ve spent on pointless, idiotic top-down initiatives that I can tell from looking at them are pointless. The futility is patently obvious and can only come from the office of someone who has either never taught or forgot what actually matters (I wanted to throttle a ‘learning and teaching’ administrator in a meeting who I sought to ask questions that I thought mattered about the introduction of external or remote students to a class, but all she wanted to talk about was the fact that she thought I did not clearly distinguish my learning ‘outcomes’ from my learning ‘goals’ as the new required format for my syllabus demanded).

    In other words, I think part of the futility is not the actual creation of an efficient institution delivering mass produced products, but the imposition by administrative fiat of unpractical and ill-thought initiatives to ‘improve’ teaching that will have little effect. I keep trying to remind administrators that the reason to give a department a set of KPIs is so that YOU CAN LEAVE THEM ALONE and let the department achieve those goals in the way that it sees fit, not produce more reports, more monitoring, more micromanagement. I LONG for an administration that settles for benign neglect — it’s the over management that’s demoralising me.

  13. Greg Downey says:

    Sorry, went off on that jag and forgot the point that first inspired me to post:

    Absolutely killer last line and link: talk about saving the best for last! Great find, and I hope everyone sees your post just to click on that link and behold the corruption…

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Brendan, I think the consumer is in some sense complicit, but then, the more costly in relationship to middle-class financial resources that we become, the understandable the demand for return-on-investment becomes.

  15. Cedar Riener says:

    Great post. I’m nearly at the end of my attention span on this Levy business, but this is a great post, and I’m glad to have found your blog. This also does seem to be a whack-a-mole of an issue. People have been calling professors lazy and corrupt for a long time, with minor tweaks (ProfScam is now older than most of our students).
    Some of the issues you mention I found to be covered quite well in a book by your colleague at Swarthmore, Barry Schwartz – Practical Wisdom.
    Also, I’m gratified to see that someone else mind also went to the “first they came for” metaphor.
    I wrote a little post on that myself, with reference to how K-12 teachers have been treated lately. I think you and your readers might find it interesting.
    Then, they came for the 3rd Grade teachers, and I said nothing”

  16. Jeff says:

    Great piece, Tim, and in many respects spot on.

    I just want to reply quickly to a point of Laura’s about “the Research Professor model.” I think you defend the role of research just fine, but there is another issue: in my experience that model is precisely *not* on the way out, but in fact being extended. So faculty at lower and lower tier institutions are more and more required to publish, even when it only makes up, say, 20% of their evals. Yes, parents want to pay actual teachers (which of course we are), but they also want those teachers to be world-class geniuses, certified by peer-reviewed publication. There are of course exceptions to this, but in addition to the actual teaching value of research and continued engagement in what’s happening in one’s field, there are continuing and even broadening institutional expectations in this regard.

  17. dsquared says:

    The implicit prediction that the institutional changes of the last twenty years have been terrible news for doctors and that humanities professors have dodged a bullet that might have made their lives miserable is pretty curious. The autonomy you’re talking about is only available to a small and shrinking elite, and it’s shrinking because the amount of resources available for providing higher education is not consistent with the entire labour force enjoying the same conditions as you.

    And with regard to your central premis – that standardisation will lead to rising tuition costs – it’s not exactly either/or, is it? In fact, tuition costs in American universities have almost as bad an inflation problem as healthcare does.

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it’s right that it’s not either/or on tuition increases, and that’s a problem. Mostly I just want folks to understand that corporatization and enclosure of the professions is not the same as the mass production of consumer goods in the industrial revolution, which genuinely made more products available to more people at affordable prices, that what’s going on now will not inevitably lower costs or increase access.

    The point about the loss of autonomy in other professions is that even when they make money from it, they often regret it. I know tremendous numbers of doctors who have been in practice long enough to have worked under more autonomous circumstances and plenty of them are very unhappy with their current working conditions even when they’re making as good as or better a living than they were two decades ago. And I honestly think it does affect both the quality of what professionals do and their capacity to innovate in ways that are costly to the wider society.

  19. Gavin Weaire says:

    Like everybody else, I’ll agree: a classic.

    But one thing: for academics, the autonomous moment was just that, a moment. It existed for only a few decades before it started to ebb. One of the reasons why we’re bad at defending academic independence is that, deep down, we feel that it’s been there since time immemorial. But it really hasn’t. It’s important to acknowledge that – on the one hand because thinking otherwise tends to draw us into assuming that academic independence is above defense, and on the other, because this was an argument that was fought and won within recent times, which suggests that it’s not insane to think that one could fight and win it a second time. (Further, one should think about all the ways in which the structure of the modern university was created to facilitate, not prevent, supervision of faculty.)

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    I completely agree with this, and it might apply to other professions as well. There’s a larger argument still that I am grappling how to deal with: how do we describe the social and economic affordances of the 1950s-1970s as positive models without forgetting all the bad things about that moment? So many times when we invoke a world we are losing or have lost, we’re really talking about that time and forgetting how short a time it was.

  21. Craig Yirush says:

    “He really ought to know that even with the protection of tenure and considerable autonomy, most faculty in most higher education put in long hours because they believe in their profession. So what’s going on here?”

    Ought he? Perhaps before you start speculating about his motives, you should back up your claim that ‘most’ faculty put in long hours with at least a smidgen of evidence?

  22. Timothy Burke says:

    Craig, given that in either case the claim is going to rest on anecdotal evidence and personal observation, I’m confident about my statement on both grounds. I’ve worked at three institutions, spent time at many others, watched academia carefully my whole life. What I mostly see are committed professionals who work long hours, though some of those hours are time-shifted (e.g., faculty grading papers at night, doing research and writing on weekends, meeting with students to advise them at 6pm, etc.) Yes, I’ve seen and known people who are “working to rule”, e.g., who do the minimum. They annoy me and they annoy most of their colleagues and it would be easy to let that annoyance curdle into the kind of narcissistic self-pity party that some faculty and administrators indulge in (e.g., the “I work hard and no one else does” sort of thing). But I just don’t see those people as typical or common in the academic institutions I know. I think they exist in every workplace and despite various fantasies that markets and terminate-at-will policies relentlessly root out free riders, there is copious evidence (some of it not anecdotal) that this simply not true.

    If David Levy has seen something different at the New School, it would be worth saying so. Or if he’s in position of rigorous data that shows that faculty are eating bon-bons and drinking champagne in between their nine hours of weekly teaching, by all means let him share it. Because in the WaPo article, all he’s got is: Faculty teach only a certain number of hours in a week, the rest of their duties couldn’t possibly take more an additional hour per classroom hour, hence the rest of the time they’re goofing off. Stacked against that, I’ll take a lifetime of observing faculty at work, thanks.

  23. Craig Yirush says:

    Anecdotal evidence isn’t worth much – it certainly doesn’t justify the sweeping claims you made in your original post (I could easily give you examples which would tell a very different story). But the real problem is that even if we had better evidence about faculty workloads, it would lack any value because there is very little you can do to someone with tenure if he/she chooses to coast. And it’s that lack of accountability which is the real scandal, especially at state schools where the taxpayers who don’t have jobs for life are footing most of the bill.

    In any case, Levy was only talking about faculty whose main job is teaching (he explicitly exempted research schools from his critique). Given this, I think he’s right that over a twelve month period they aren’t getting anywhere near 40 hours/week, given that the school year is only eight months at best, they have no research requirements, and most of them are probably recycling lectures written years ago.

  24. Timothy Burke says:

    Craig, it’s pretty hard to say, “It’s not worth much” and then step in to offer something like “most of them are probably recycling lectures written years ago”. Either it’s not worth much and we shouldn’t offer it, or it’s worth something and have at you.

    If it’s have at you, well, do you feel like you’re surrounded at UCLA by people who aren’t working very hard? Honestly, I am not saying this in a snarky way. If we’re serious about trading anecdotes, I would really like to know if you feel strongly that you’ve seen something different.

    Fear of the lack of accountability in tenure is only meaningful if you feel that the potential problem is in fact regularly confirmed. Honestly, what impresses me is that people who could carry on with no fear of being held to account actually work their asses off. It’s a bit like the debate that’s starting to unfold in psychology: maybe we’ve been too interested in the highly dysfunctional few, in abnormality, and not paid enough attention to the generally productive or happy multitude.

  25. jeff says:

    “In any case, Levy was only talking about faculty whose main job is teaching (he explicitly exempted research schools from his critique). Given this, I think he’s right that over a twelve month period they aren’t getting anywhere near 40 hours/week, given that the school year is only eight months at best, they have no research requirements, and most of them are probably recycling lectures written years ago.”

    Craig, I think if you read this paragraph as though someone else wrote it, you will see just how speculative its claims are. As a colleague of mine recently noted, “Everyone has a myth about how the other guy’s job is easier.”

    I find in Levy’s analysis a standard American myth at work: that if people pull their weight, they’re rewarded, and if they’re not rewarded, it’s because they’re not pulling their own weight. Occasionally, “cheaters” get away with not pulling their weight for a while, and this is what’s been happening with the lazy teachers at teaching institutions. And of course it makes sense of our colleges “failing” if we can point to a group of ostensibly lazy people and convince ourselves that if only those people worked harder, everything would be fine. But, and here’s where I find something persuasive in Tim’s analysis, when you make these teachers “work harder,” using the long-time-coming culture of audit and “accountability,” you’re only going to make things much, much worse. It’s my friends (and friends of friends) who teach 5-5 loads at community colleges who do the most recycling and give their students the least feedback, because it just isn’t possible to make it otherwise.

    But when you Ford-ify teaching, I don’t know why you would expect any other result than interchangeable widgets. And that’s what you’re going to get.

  26. It’s worth mentioning the experiments in education coming out of Stanford with Sebastian Thrun (with Udacity) and Andrew Ng (with Coursera) each behind similar experiments in online higher education.

    I guess they’re less prominent outside the tech/CS community, but it really seems like David Levy is pretty insignificant compared to what they’re doing.

  27. Jay Scott says:

    Oh, I have an epigram about this bureaucratic notion of accountability: “The justification means the end.” (21 March 1991) Too brief to understand without context, but that’s what it means to me.

    One theme I notice in the comments is that large organizations are much more powerful than individuals or small organizations… and that large organizations tend to be poorly run. Those are both pretty fundamental facts that we can’t get out from under. And I would echo that higher education by and large is in need of reform and will be reformed one way or another (“Veblen-good pricing” vs “massification of higher education”). So people should be thinking of the big reforms they want to promote.

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