Pandora’s Plan

The low rumble of discussion over the last few years about the process of assessing the needs in various departments has finally broken out into an invitation to faculty to send in their own thoughts about future needs to the provost. As any academic knows, there’s only one process that can create more ill-will than full-scale academic planning of this kind, and that’s planning for some kind of institutional contraction. It’s why many faculty and administrators at both large and small institutions often prefer to carry out such planning in a more ad hoc manner. It allows everyone to come away from any given decision about any given faculty line with their own assumptions and visions of the future intact.

A process of planning, on the other hand, requires either one coherent vision winning out or the construction of some kind of chimeric vision and a Rube Goldberg process for making choices–the latter being the more common result. You either end up with people feeling like losers–and sometimes those people turn to long-term guerilla warfare against the new plan as a result–or with some unwieldy and programmatically incompatible process that will just serve as a fig leaf for future ad hoc decision-making.

I’m being overly gloomy: it’s possible, especially at a small relatively consensus-oriented and friendly institution like Swarthmore, for almost everyone to take the high road and end up feeling comfortable and enthusiastic about the results.

My temptation is immediately to climb up on my own favored soapbox, because I think there’s really only one sensible way to think about institutional needs. Before I do that, it’s worth exploring the alternative underlying systems one might use to coherently assess what a liberal arts faculty needs to have in the future. (Some kind of system is how you avoid pure political brutalism, in which a few strong departments mobilize and get what they want first and foremost–at least on paper.)

System 1: Herd instinct. Find out what the most commonly represented fields at peer institutions are, find out which ones we don’t have, and let those absences guide you. The Swarthmore Department of History has no historian of England, for example, but it’s extremely common field to have even in small institutions.

Problems: defers the explanation of why those fields are important to other institutions. Still leaves you with a huge set of unrepresented fields to choose from, and with no winnowing procedure save relative degree of commonality at other institutions.

System 2: Consumer demand. Look at which departments have the most majors, or the most challenging ratios of faculty to majors, and service their needs first and foremost. Or look at which fields prospective students most seem to want, or find most attractive. Or look at which specific fields of study are drawing the most demand and get more faculty in those specific areas.

Problems: Easily for both faculty and administrators to manipulate demand. Considering that you hire a faculty member to a tenure line for a lifetime potentially, dangerous to effectively make a 30-40 year commitment around a short-term spike in demand. Students tend to demand particular majors on false premises (e.g., the belief that an economics major is the only way to move on to an MBA). If taken seriously as a premise, should also lead to reductions or eliminations of unpopular programs and subjects even when there is strong consensus on the part of faculty that those programs are intellectually important to a well-balanced curriculum. (Classics, for example.)

System 3 Urgency and Utility. Collectively decide what unrepresented fields of specialization are lacking that the faculty, administration and students recognize as having a kind of “perfect storm” convergence of general importance, newly urgent necessity, and significant practical and intellectual importance. This is pretty much what Swarthmore uses as a principle governing both ad hoc and long-term planning for new positions or redefinitions of old ones, with the addition that we also regard diversification of the faculty as important.

Problems: I think this is ok, but I do think that you get some pretty chimeric end results at times–significantly divergent metrics of urgency and need being used to justify a range of planning decisions. That’s largely because it’s impossible to see how we or anyone else could have a meaningfully shared yardstick that would allow us to talk about the relative weight of a new position in Engineering on one hand versus a new position in Middle Eastern politics on the other. At some point, you tend to get appeals to “demand-side” issues thrown into the pot to try and slide past the fact that there are going to be relatively incommensurable ideas on the table about what’s important. The end result tends to reinforce disciplinarity in the end–divisions tend to say, “We’ll give you one if you give us one”, and unusual or dissident positions within any given academic division tend to get pushed aside. Also, again, taken seriously, this kind of process should lead not just to addition but reallocation of positions–that you look at fields whose importance has declined and try to move the resources invested in them elsewhere.

System 4 Money. If a department or division can bring in the money for a position (either from grants or alumni), let them have it. Otherwise, let them eat the crumbs from the table. Not really applicable here–but this is effectively how some large research universities do academic planning.

Problem: This is where academic politics get brutal and unrestrained–a race to capture any and all sources of funding, and a lo tof things of value fall by the wayside inevitably in the process.

My own soapbox preference isn’t any of these. I think my colleagues get tired of hearing it from me, I know I’m bloody predictable, but this is where a small liberal arts college ought to be doing something completely different. I think every one of those other systems, even attempts to come to a community consensus about a small number of urgent needs, consigns a small liberal arts college to being a bad little university. Because each of those processes except for the last one takes you into planning thinking about all the things that you lack: they end up being a catalogue of absences.

I much prefer to think that a place like this is the size that it is on purpose, that its size is a strength that is not just pedagogical but intellectual. What do we need that we don’t have? Not more specialists in various fields, however urgent those specializations might be. We need people who help to knit us together, people who connect specializations, people who create connections as an instrinsic result of the kinds of research and teaching they do. “Science studies” or science policy scholars. Big-picture specialists on human evolution, population genetics, sociobiology (of the subtle kind). Broadly humanistic intellectuals whose specific areas of interest range over philosophy, literary criticism, history, linguistics, and so on. Cognitive scientists. Experimental economics. Fields of research that are interstitial and connective by their nature, pursued by individuals whose own projections of their development are towards generalization and broadening.

I don’t think you can just name such fields as specializations and be done with it, either. If you plan for such positions, you had better plant them in fertile soil. If you just dump such faculty in established departments, chances are some of them are going to hit a lot of hostility from people who have much more disciplinary ideas about specialization. You really have to plan to go in this direction, have an overall design, not just tell two departments to get together and build their own Frankenstein monster out of bits and pieces. That kind of process tends to end up with the resulting positions getting re-dismembered at tenure time.

I think I’m going to have to wear one of those shock collars people put on barking dogs to keep myself from saying this kind of stuff too much once the fall rolls around. Most everyone round these parts knows I think this way: the trick is going to be to persuade some of them to think this way too.

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6 Responses to Pandora’s Plan

  1. bbenzon says:

    Here’s my idea of how to achieve (what I think is) your objective, though I figure there’s zero chance of Swarthmore (or any other school) adopting such a plan. The idea is to change the criteria for academic promotion.

    Assistant professors are hired as they are now, on the basis of excellence in a specialty as demonstrated by a Ph. D. in whatever field — plus whatever publications and teaching experience one has.

    Tenure (at whatever rank) requires that one can place one’s speciality in a broad intellectual context. Just how one makes this demonstration is not at all clear to me and, in any event, would entail a somewhat subtle judgement call. Perhaps one teaches a broadly-defined introductory course in some field of which one’s speciality is a subset. Or perhaps one writes a book appealing to the general audience. The idea is that you can’t get tenure simply on the strength of excellence in a specialty. You have to know, understand, and be concerned about the wider fabric of knowlege.

    To get a full professorship you have to demonstrate accomplishment (e.g. publications in appropriate journals) in some specialty that is distinctly different from one’s Ph. D. specialty. Just what is mean by “distinctly different” is, of course, somewhat problematic. But the idea is that someone who, for example, did a disseration on Charles Dickens, cannot get a full professorship simply by demonstrating accomplishment in Dickens studies, nor even in the 19th century British (or even American) novel. This person must also demonstrate knowlege of, e.g. evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, experimental economics, physical anthropology, and so forth. I figure this requirement will drive folks nuts. But, my sense is that our deepest and most productive thinkers do this sort of thing automatically. It’s time we routinze this style of intellectual career and make it a requirement for achieving a full professorship. Obviously doing this requires that one invest a considerable amount of time in learning a new mode of thought rather than in publishing more or less the same ideal three times a year for three or four years running.

  2. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    I called the Chairman of a local history department recently and explained my ideas for helping undergrads and graduate students find work and jobs outside academia, leveraging their skills as researchers, analysts and writers. I thought that perhaps having spent the last 21 years doing exactly that, I might have some experience in the subject that I could pass on.

    He wrote back and said essentially, “Well, we don’t have any teaching positions open right now, but thanks for asking.”

  3. Ralph says:

    Tim, Let me ask a devil’s advocate question about your position. No offense intended, of course. How is your position _not_ one of saying: “What Swarthmore needs is more Tim Burkes”? And, assuming my respect for who Tim Burke is, can an institution really plan for a future that way?

  4. Sherman Dorn says:

    I think you’re forgetting the role that teaching plays in the intellectual development of faculty. Almost everyone is trained to be a specialist in research, but the realities of teaching pushes one in interesting directions, depending on institutional needs. As a friend of mine says, a survey course forces you to make broad, outlandish statements that you’d never make in a dissertation or (probably) a first book. At liberal-arts colleges more than at large institutions, the focus on the intellectual development of students (and their demands on your time and attention!) draws any conscientious faculty member into thinking more broadly than one would if you could stay comfortably within your own specialty in a large department. Even if you’re unhappy with the process at Swarthmore, I assure you the outcome works far more sensibly than at many other institutions, in part because being AT a liberal-arts college changes one’s perspective. (I say this looking at the other side, having gone to Haverford as an undergraduate, going to Penn as a grad student, and having taught variously at Rutgers-Camden, U. Delaware, Vanderbilt, and now the University of South Florida.)

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually, I am largely happy with the process at Swarthmore, Sherman.

    Re: Ralph’s comment.

    This is another reason I don’t want to go overboard here, because to some extent the argument is taking my own career trajectory and saying, “More please”. Now I don’t think I’m unique in feeling that I’ve been able in a place like Swarthmore to move back to what I consider to be the intellectual and emotional roots of my attraction to academic life in the first place: there are other faculty here and at other small liberal arts institutions who feel the same way, and I think Invisible Adjunct’s site helped to tap into a deep well of similar sentiments and desires. I think for that reason alone it would be interesting to actively pursue this vision institutionally rather than just stumble into it.

    But at the same time I’m on record many times as suggesting that academia needs more pluralism–not just the somewhat tedious complaint that what we need is political or ideological pluralism, but far more methodological pluralism. I think even an instititution committed to generalism ought to have a strong mix of dedicated disciplinary specialists–in fact, people who can make a convincing case for the value of deep specialization as an approach to knowledge. There is a good, sound, principled case to be made for that: my main beef might be that too many academics assume that case as a default, and give it relatively little thought–they rely on institutions to enforce that vision rather than making it an active, declarative credo.

    I’d also say that there are generalists like me and then there are “connective” specialists and they’re not quite the same thing. Someone who works on science policy, sociology of science, philosophy of science, is not necessarily a generalist. But even as specialists, they return a distinctive value to a small institution. I think if you forever conceive new opportunities in a small college as a catalogue of disciplinary absences, you really are self-defining as an inadequate little university. If on the other hand you say, “When we need new things, what we need are people (specialists or generalists) who bridge gaps between departments”, I think you’re not defining yourself in terms of disciplinary areas of insufficiency. And I really don’t think of myself as such a person–a person who bridges a specific gap. I’m much more of a dilettante–much more careless, much more whimsical. In that respect, I wouldn’t say to try and find more of me: quite the contrary.

  6. I like the idea of the “connective specialist” — I even think we have a couple of them here. When they end up in a department they do get a little stifled (course offerings alone dictate some of that — at a school our size it’s hard to teach more than one course a year outside your department’s offerings). How do we house/review/promote/(eventually)replace people like this?

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