"The Talk"

[Note: apologies to folks in advance whose posts I'm about to mischaracterize in order to make a point. Readers, be advised that the links may not actually represent the tone of what they link to (though if you look at the comments on most of the posts, you'll see what some of what I mean with this post...)]

Today's the one year anniversary of The Doctor Isn't. And many of the same difficulties I struggled with a year ago are still here. But there's an interesting thing happening that I didn't know about (maybe it wasn't happening last year, maybe I was just a bit too insular): academia is going through its own struggles. And so, tongue in cheek as always, I find today's post particularly appropriate.

That said: a "Dear John" letter to academia.

Dear Academia,
I'm sorry I can't do this face to face, but I can't seem to get you to return my calls or to invite me out for coffee, so I'm afraid this is how it has to be. I cannot help but notice that we've had trouble lately, and we seem to be growing apart. We want different things. Everything you do screams that you have trouble with commitment.

I love you, Academia. You should know that. You've given me so many good things. But I've watched you struggle and stagnate. Worse, I've seen you struggle with an sort of sad romantic version of who you want to be. I don't understand why you can't just be who you are. Maybe we're all that way. I don't know. Your friends keep telling me how you suddenly want to be "Mr. Corporate" - living your life like it's high finance.

"It'll make life more efficient," you say. "It'll make things better."

But efficiency isn't our problem, Academia. Neither is competition. Those are just beautiful but misleading words. They'll sway you, but they won't make you feel any better. And they won't make me stay.

Trying to change our relationship won't make you feel better about yourself.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't having my share of problems with our relationship. You've caught me looking and asking "What if?" I'd be lying if I said this was the relationship I thought I was getting into. I guess we all really do make ourselves someone different when we're first getting to know each other.
Still, it's painful to watch this midlife crisis. Most middle aged institutions go through this - wanting to slim down and flirt with younger (business) models. But I hope you'll stop to ask yourself what that choice costs you. Those models are lovely, to be sure, but they don't live like you do. Sure, you'll be able to keep up for a little while, but eventually it's going to wear you down. Do you really want to enter the dog-eat-dog world they live in? What efficiency exactly do you need? What competition can you stand? Will it really make you better? Do you really think it will make us better?

The (brass) ring isn't the problem. The problem is that you've decided you want a whole different world, not even a different relationship. You think getting rid of the ring will make me and everyone compete to be with you, but it just means we're likely to seek out the security that ring symbolizes somewhere else. And then where will you be?

I hope I'm getting through to you. I hope you'll listen. Becoming like those corporations you so admire won't make you better. And it won't make me love you more. Think about it.


8 Responses to “"The Talk"”
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Belle said...

Uh-oh. This is scary. Does this mean you're leaving? Or?

I'm lousy at reading between lines, and worse at Dear John letters.

April 8, 2008 at 12:32 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

No one should be good at "Dear John" letters, and the lines on this one were probably hazy at best.

I'm not leaving, but I'm looking. Part of why I'm thinking about leaving though, I think connects to this weird mentality about academia. On one side, you've got the people who insist you drink the kool-aid and take whatever you're offered (as seen in the great Gumdrop debate) and on the other, you've got people who are telling you what you're offered is bad for everyone else.

More than anything the was an attempt at the mocking one of the notions in the recent "get rid of tenure" moments - there's been an underlying idea in the "pro-removal" camp that what academia needs to do is become more corporate/business like in its dealings.

Socially, we've pretty much swallowed the assumption that business is better. I want to know why people think that's the case for academia. The standard reasoning behind assuming the private model is that it will either increase competition or increase efficiency. I can't imagine anyone's arguing that we don't have enough competition among schools and for jobs, so it must be efficiency, right?

I know the standard arguments about private business leading to more efficiency (there are some holes in that belief, but we can accept them for a moment) because we still haven't said what it is that academia is inefficient at? Are we not turning out enough college students? Are we not publishing enough journals that only we read?

April 8, 2008 at 4:47 PM
kermitthefrog said...

I don't support the get-rid-of-tenure position, but I think proponents of the contract model see not overall inefficiency, but inequities in the distribution of workload (esp. teaching and service) over all faculty. If this is right, there's some irony in changing to a (businesslike) contract model in the service of ensuring equality (not v. businesslike at all). But I haven't been following with all my attention, so perhaps this misstates the case.

April 8, 2008 at 5:25 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I don't think you've misstated the case at all. In the argument against tenure that I've seen, the focus in most cases is about how exploitative the process is.

What I'm thinking about isn't just the tenure objection, but a general current towards corporatization that links up nicely - maybe accidentally and definitely quietly ('cause hegemonic forces usually are) - with the contract model.

April 8, 2008 at 5:31 PM
kermitthefrog said...

Indeed. What worried me was when my graduate dean acknowledged that the school had ramified some of the more "exploitative" working conditions of the past, without giving any credit to the (non-recognized) union for that. Talking like a corporation without recognizing the grad student union = not a good harbinger of things to come.

April 8, 2008 at 10:53 PM
Dr. Crazy said...

Just to be clear, my post was entirely about the fact that I think doing away with tenure is idiotic and a totally bad idea. Not because people should drink the kool-aid and accept whatever they get, but because the alternative is ultimately destructive of higher education. I'm sure you got that, but given the company in which you cite me....

April 8, 2008 at 11:02 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

That's the part I put the disclaimer up about.

I've been kicking back and forth how to re-edit this post because I do think - even with the note at the top - doesn't feel quite right to me. What I was shooting for was a quick way to link to lots of posts in the midst of my own attempt at humor about it in the midst of this year of weirdness about academia.

Part of what I loved about your post - and the reason I had to link to it some way - was that it points out a lot of the structural questions that are left unanswered in the rush to remove tenure. Also you're witty.

April 8, 2008 at 11:07 PM
Rent Party said...

Brilliant post. And I've always found that fitting academia into relationship metaphors clarifies what is going on.

On the workload distribution issue: non tenure track people where I am only teach one more course than the tenure track and tenured people, and they don't have research or service responsibilities. They also don't teach so broad a range of courses. Now, they do have more total students per person, and they don't get the satisfaction of teaching more advanced things. But then again, they didn't do PhDs and they didn't have to move away from home to have a job. Yet all in all, I am not sure the division of labor is so terribly unfair.

April 14, 2008 at 11:51 PM