Commentary

Time for a Teaching-Intensive Tenure Track

June 02, 2015

In our recently published book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, we argue that the crisis in American academe has nothing to do with the intellectual content of research and teaching in the humanities, and everything to do with the labor conditions of most American college professors. We therefore propose, as a way of undoing the deprofessionalization of the profession of college teaching, a teaching-intensive tenure track for nontenure-track faculty members with Ph.D.s and good teaching records.

We know it is difficult to measure teaching, and we do not recommend that departments rely solely on student evaluations. Teaching can and should be evaluated not only by students but by extramural peer observation, by review of syllabi and course plans, by examples of professorial feedback on student work, and by careful review of professors’ own accounts of their classrooms.

Not surprisingly, our proposal has met with mixed responses. The most predictable is the complaint that our plan is too utopian or ambitious: that tenure was meant only for research faculty who can be evaluated by a national or international body of their peers, and that a teaching-intensive tenure track would dilute the very meaning of tenure. This view is not merely blinkered but mistaken; the academic freedom tenure ensures is as important for teaching and shared governance as it is for research.

We agree with the American Association of University Professors report "Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions," which offers a decisive rebuttal to the idea that tenure is intended solely for research purposes ­— as well as an array of models for a teaching-intensive tenure track. As for the charge that our plan is ambitious, we certainly hope so — and we hope that administrators and faculty senates eager to improve their colleges are similarly ambitious.

Some people oppose our plan on the grounds that it would somehow prevent contingent faculty members from doing research. This is a serious misunderstanding. We are trying to move contingent faculty members onto a tenure track without requiring research from them.

But our proposal has met with resistance on another front, as well, on the grounds that it is "elitist." Because we give preference to holders of terminal degrees (Ph.D.s in most fields, M.F.A.s in creative writing and the visual or performing arts), and because we insist that including nontenure-track faculty members in personnel decisions and departmental governance can go badly awry, we seem to some observers to be opposed to the democratization of the academic workplace. Here’s the tricky part: We are opposed to democratization.

With the best of intentions, some departments have decided that every member of a department deserves a vote on every aspect of the department’s operations. This leads not to democracy but to a kind of feudalism, in which contingent faculty members are compelled to vote for whatever plan or whatever person seems likeliest to rehire them when their current contracts expire. Or to a kind of patronage system, in which a department head can hire rafts of contingent faculty with no review process — in one department, we have found, this included the head’s former undergraduate student, who had no postgraduate degree whatsoever — who then become beholden to that head for continued employment. Or to a totally incoherent system, in which contingent faculty at one institution vote on departmental affairs (including personnel matters) even though many of them teach at two or three other institutions and might have a conflict of interest.

Quite apart from the injustice of asking contingent faculty to engage in committee work that may make their precarious positions even more precarious, there is another problem here — that of pretending that all faculty members in a department have gone through the same professional vetting process. We do not see the virtue of asking people to weigh in on a national search or a tenure-and-promotion case when they have never taken part in a national search or any other form of professional review.

We believe that our systems of professional review are actually substantial and meaningful. Anything that undermines those review systems contributes to the deprofessionalization of the profession. Perhaps the most depressing thing we have heard on this front was the assertion of a leader of a union of contingent faculty who opposed the expansion of tenure-track lines on the grounds that this would increase the numbers of "our" cohort at the expense of "his."

This, too, is why we would give preference to faculty members with terminal degrees. One of us has been told that it is "absurd" to think that a Ph.D. is the appropriate credential for college teaching. But isn’t something critical gained between the one-to-two years of extra coursework typically required for the M.A. and the work of synthesis and integration required to complete Ph.D. or M.F.A. projects making original contributions to one’s field? And isn’t that training just as important for the success and confidence of our faculty in classrooms as in laboratories?

Professors teaching introductory composition or introductory foreign-language courses often complain that their work is devalued, consigned to the lowest tiers of the profession (and the lowest tiers of the pay scale) by the widespread belief that anybody can teach such courses regardless of the level of their professional training. They are right. We agree that this belief is pernicious and deeply wrongheaded; this belief is paradoxically strengthened by people who insist that there is no difference between a master’s degree and a doctorate, and who continue to hire people without terminal degrees and without any form of professional review.

We acknowledge that many institutions, chiefly but not exclusively community colleges, do not and will not prioritize faculty members with Ph.D.s. We are not proposing a one-size-fits-all program. But we also believe that underhiring — not the so-called overproduction — of Ph.D.s is at the core of the crisis in graduate education. We tell our undergraduates that they need a Ph.D. to teach at the college level — and then we turn around and hire people without Ph.D.s off the tenure track. When our former students put in the long years of hard work (and pay the steep opportunity costs) to earn a doctorate and then find themselves unable to get jobs because many jobs are already taken by M.A. holders, or when they find themselves in departments that make no distinction between the doctorate and the one-or-two year master’s degree, they are surely justified in concluding that the Ph.D. was a tragic waste of time and effort.

We do not believe in "elitism." We do not believe that academe operates on merit alone, or that merit can be gauged simply by the letterhead of someone’s degree-granting institution. But we do believe in professionalism, and we believe that our profession has been deprofessionalized by our own sometimes well-meaning but nonetheless misguided practices. And we believe that our proposal for a teaching-intensive tenure track, granting priority to the holders of terminal degrees, represents the most plausible way of restoring a measure of professionalism to the profession.

Michael Bérubé is a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, and Jennifer Ruth is an associate professor of English at Portland State University.