Imagine a diorama in an American Museum of Occupations showing the evolution of the professor. The exhibit starts in the early 1800s with an austere, black-suited man in a minister's collar, perhaps looking over the shoulder of a student at a rustic desk, with a Greek text open in front of him. In the next scene, from around 1900, he morphs into a pince-nez-wearing gentleman in starched collar and cravat, at a podium delivering a lecture. The professor of 1950 adopts the rumpled bearing of a tweed jacket, pointing with his pipe to a poem or a physics equation on a chalkboard. In the next frame, circa 1990, she wears jeans and is sitting in front of a computer screen.
How would the diorama represent the professor of 2020?
Some observers predict that she won't exist: In the memorable phrase of Frank Donoghue, a professor of English at Ohio State University, we are living in the age of "the last professors." Less apocalyptic commentators say the professor has experienced "deprofessionalization."
Both views try to capture the squeeze on professorial jobs, but they misrecognize fundamental aspects of the changes that have occurred. Rather than extinction, we have seen the steady expansion of academic labor over the past century, and rather than "deskilling," we are undergoing more rather than less professionalization. What has been going on is what sociologists call "differentiation" and "stratification."
We are in the era of the Great Stratification.
We have tended to see the professor as a single figure, but he is now a multiple being, of many types, tasks, and positions.
Given that there are more than 1.4 million college faculty members in the United States, it is clear that they are not disappearing. But the all-purpose professor has faded. We have tended to see the professor as a single figure, but he is now a multiple being, of many types, tasks, and positions. And instead of the traditional idea of a community of scholars, all roughly equivalent, we now have a distended pyramid, with a huge base of people whose primary job is teaching, often entry-level courses; a layer of specialists in particular fields and researchers who may hardly even teach above them; and a thin spire of administrators commanding the peak.
The diorama of the year 2020 might represent a group. Like a health-care advertisement featuring a team of smiling staff in scrubs, it might show one professor sporting a black turtleneck and a little gray, next to a Chuck Taylor-shod grad student to signify a little youth, an assistant director of the writing center on the side, ready to help, and a professor-administrator in a navy suit smiling behind them. It takes an academic program.
The spread of academic labor follows the trend of other professions. The idea of the professional usually evokes a generic image—the old-fashioned family doctor, for instance, who hung out his shingle—but now we have a much more variegated system of alpha and beta practitioners. And rather than the ideal of being independent and roughly equivalent to their peers, most professionals now work in hierarchical bureaucratic structures.
Along with the greater differentiation of tasks over the past 50 years, we have experienced a progressively steeper stratification of academic workers. Sometimes people complain about professionalization and blame it for problems in academe, but we should recall that the movement toward professionalization after World War II advanced almost all fields and reflected a more equitable society, certainly more than at any point in the past century. The academic profession was an open avenue to the middle class; now it seems more like a confusing intersection with expensive tolls, one lane leading to a rewarding career, another to uneven pavement, poor conditions, and dead ends. You're not sure which you're on until you've already gone down the road.
The 20th century was, among other things, the century of the professional. At its start, "professional, technical, and kindred" workers mustered roughly 4 percent of the work force. Through the 19th century, most Americans worked on farms, and the major labor category in government statistics, other than agriculture, was "maker."
That steadily changed through the 1900s, and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 31 million Americans now work in "professional and related occupations," which account for 22 percent of those employed. That vies with "sales and office occupations," which enlist some 33 million, as the predominant category, and exceeds "service occupations" (roughly 25 million), "production, transportation, and material moving occupations" (16.5 million), and "management occupations" (15 million).
However, the numbers don't simply translate to expanding fleets of highly paid doctors, lawyers, and professors. The category includes those from professions with less status, such as registered nurses and schoolteachers, along with the alpha professions. (Nurse aides and dental assistants, however, are in the subsidiary category of "service occupations," and "professionals" like police and firefighters are counted in "protective services.") The professions have become more ordinary, not quite blue collar but not necessarily white collar, either.
The characteristic that links them is that they typically require a bachelor's degree and often a master's or higher, and typically a rigorous form of accreditation. (For instance, RNs require a degree from a nursing program as well as a license, and even humble schoolteachers are encouraged to get a master's within five years in many states.) A special body of knowledge, conferred in higher education and affirmed by a professional organization, still distinguishes professions from other occupations.
Medicine provides a good illustration of the changes since the 1970s, when academic jobs began their current phase of evolution. While physicians and surgeons have increased at a faster rate than that of the general population—from about 260,000 in 1960 to 691,000 in 2010—the greatest growth has been in beta healthcare professionals. Nurses have increased from 600,000 in 1960 to 2,737,000 in 2010, nearly a fivefold increase, about double the rate of doctors. In addition, new intermedial professions have developed, such as nurse practitioners and physician's assistants, which began as formal programs only in the late 60s. By around 2008 , they numbered about 128,000 and 84,000, respectively, and both are expected to double by 2025.
Think of it this way: When was the last time a doctor gave you a shot? (I can remember: It was in 1964, when I was 5 and had a bad case of poison ivy, and the doctor did not have a light touch.) Now nurses do that, and if you spend time in a hospital, you are as likely to see a physician's assistant or nurse practitioner as a doctor.
We tend to think of professions as continuous, but one of the lessons of from the Pulitzer-winning history The Social Transformation of American Medicine, by Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs, is how changeable the nature of doctoring has been. Another lesson is how medicine has become a managed profession, administered by hospitals and HMOs since the 1980s. That has resulted not in deprofessionalization, but in greater specialization. And while less autonomous, doctors still receive high salaries.
As higher ed has undergone some of the same changes as medicine, a complicated web of academic labor has developed. For the student, the result is similar to the patient seeking health care: When she enters college, she only occasionally encounters a full-fledged professor; she is more likely to see beta professionals—the adjunct comp teacher, the math TA, the graduate assistant in the writing center, the honors-program adviser, and the staff members who run the programs.
It is not that professors have disappeared. In fact, there are some half a million with full-time, tenure-stream jobs. Their jobs have changed, though, and in some respects they have paralleled physicians in becoming increasingly specialized, relieved from teaching to do research, or teaching only advanced courses, or administering, whether directing the writing program, founding the new center of interdisciplinary studies, or stepping out to become an assistant dean.
Still, it's important to remember that most professors do a good deal of teaching—particularly those at community colleges, four-year colleges, and master's institutions. We take research universities as the standard, but they are not really typical of most people's experience. Since the early 1800s, the American system has included a capacious range of institutions, although the aim in the postwar years was toward parity, state systems striving to be as good as the Ivies. Now there is greater disparity among institutions, further intensifying the disparity among professors.
Another dimension of academic labor has been the swelling numbers of administrators and other professionals, as the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg details in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011). Whereas there were about 250,000 administrators and professional staff members in 1975, about half the number of professors, by 2005 there were over 750,000, easily outnumbering tenure-stream professors.
The chief difference from medicine is the steep drop in pay, benefits, and job security for those who hold beta positions. Over the past 40 years, we have witnessed the rapid growth of contingent professors—part-time, adjunct, nonpermanent—who now account for three-quarters of college teachers. While health-care professionals in beta positions earn decent wages—nurses average about $65,000 a year, and nurse practitioners and physician's assistants over $90,000—and usually have secure jobs, the majority of college teachers hold part-time appointments, typically paid $2,000 to $3,000 per course, and have no job security.
The rise of contingent faculty is frequently explained with the knowing invocation of "supply and demand," but let's put that notion to rest once and for all. The demand for higher education has increased relatively steadily over the past century—from about 238,000 enrolled students in 1900 to 598,000 in 1920, 1.49 million in 1940, 4.1 million in 1960, 12.1 million in 1980, and over 20 million now—so there is a palpable need for college teachers. Just as there is a need for health-care workers.
I am not suggesting that health care has attained a utopian labor system—not to mention that, if we were to extend our examination to the full range of labor on campuses or in hospitals, we would also have to look at secretaries, housekeepers, grounds crews, and the many other workers who keep the institutions operating. But the example of nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician's assistants shows that it is possible to build a more rational and fair system of professional labor than we have. The market, after all, is not a natural force but a human arrangement, based on a social contract, protected and encouraged by law as well as regulated by it.
Rather than a horizontal community of scholars, or even a pyramid with reasonable steps of rank, the American university has adopted its own harsh class structure: the mass of the contingent (and other workers) struggling at the bottom, tenure-stream professors in the middle class speaking for the university's intellectual values and productions, and superstar faculty and administrators in the upper class setting its direction and taking the greatest rewards.
Graphically, it is not really a pyramid any longer, but a large, pancake-shaped bottom tier barely above level, a visible middle layer above it, and finally a barely visible aerie rising above them.
The shape of academic labor is profoundly unbalanced.
It is perhaps no surprise that higher education is a fractal of the winner-take-all society, but how much disparity are we willing to accept?
We might argue that stratification is a natural development of social systems as they become larger and more differentiated. But such severe economic stratification is another matter, and it arises from the agreements and contracts of people. For the resigned or cynical, it is perhaps no surprise that higher education is a fractal of the winner-take-all society, but how much disparity are we willing to accept?
And shouldn't those of us in a humanistic institution, presumably charged to inculcate humane values and preserve the best of our culture, support and enact fair labor practices, certainly above a living wage and with secure terms?
The comparison with medicine, however inexact, suggests a few ideas that we might be able to use. It is worth bearing in mind that health-care professionals maintain their employment conditions in part through their professional organization, and particularly for nurses, unionization. And each sector is organized according to its particular tasks and on its own terms.
One idea is to take the model of nurse practitioners and physician's assistants and formalize credentials for "teaching practitioners." There has been a good deal of discussion about reforming the Ph.D., particularly about shortening the time to degree. For instance, in a much-discussed essay, "How to Make a Ph.D. Matter," first published in The New York Times Magazine in 1996 and elaborated in his book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Norton, 2010), Harvard University's Louis Menand proposed that we consider shortening the Ph.D. to "a determinate length," like a law degree, which is customarily three years. His reasoning was that, if so many people were not getting full-time jobs and were taking nearly 10 years to finish, then we need a more pliable Ph.D. But perhaps we need other degrees besides the Ph.D.
In the residual model that we have, everyone works to attain the same all-purpose degree for very different jobs. We should consider if we would be better served to have an intermedial degree—more advanced than the M.A., which seems more a preparatory than terminal degree for academics, but less lengthy and more practical than the current Ph.D. In turn, the Ph.D. could be reserved for specialist positions, advanced researchers, or field experts.
There has also been repeated discussion about the lack of teacher training in Ph.D. programs. Just a few weeks ago, Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, declared in The Chronicle, "The most glaring defect of our graduate programs, however, is how little they do to prepare their students to teach." Perhaps there might be a degree track that emphasizes new modes, techniques, and technologies of instruction.
Nurse practitioners and physician's assistants, who undergo two to three years of postgraduate training, can diagnose and prescribe for many conditions, as well as refer cases to physicians. We might imagine a system of teaching practitioners who design curriculum and have job security, rather than filling their jobs in the ad hoc way that we do now. It is not merely for their sake, but to stabilize the experience of college for most undergraduates, which in turn might help remedy attrition.
My belief is that we should have a horizontal model of academic work, one that both honors the tradition of a community of scholars and carries out the practices of unionism, seeking cooperative control of the workplace. But it seems as if the strongest move for "non-tenure-track faculty" is to develop their own recognized credential and job track. It would afford a species of professional control. Those of us who hold professorships should support this effort because the obvious exploitation of college teachers devalues our own jobs, as well as violates the spirit of the university.
The development of the "knowledge economy" has been touted as great progress—everyone will be an educated professional! You won't have to get your hands dirty, and you'll be highly paid! But that relies on the myth of the halcyon professional. Instead the knowledge economy has ushered in a deeply stratified society.
What good is knowledge if it brings us gross inequality and unfair terms for a majority of those who work, or with whom we work?
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He has recently inaugurated a new book series, co-edited with Chris Newfield, called Critical University Studies, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.