Letters to the Editor

You Publish, We Perish

March 02, 2015

To the Editor:

I’m still stewing over Jacques Berlinerblau’s "Teach or Perish," (The Chronicle Review, January 23), which the historian Jonathan Rees rightly called "the worst example of academic victim-blaming that I’ve ever seen." Berlinerblau’s basic claim is that the fall of higher education and its concomitant dependence upon contingent faculty are the results of the fact that "we" have forgotten to teach: "Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students."

To which I must ask, who does he mean by "we"? In what universe is a Georgetown professor, currently teaching only one course, capable of speaking for "us," the vast and diverse collection of people that is the American professoriate, most of whom are swimming in students?

Berlinerblau seems to have some inkling that he’s in a privileged minority: "Somebody’s gotta teach all those undergraduates—they won’t teach themselves! A tremendous debt of gratitude is owed to the so-called losers.… I salute them." After this faint praise, he opines that "many of these hard-working scholars would eagerly shuck aside all those fresh-faced freshmen in exchange for a double zero. As teachers they don’t lack for industry; they lack for passion."

That’s right, folks. "We" losers who teach undergraduates—whether tenured folks teaching a reasonable six courses a year (like me) or adjuncts piecing together eight or 10 courses at several institutions to make ends meet—are simply not passionate enough to get a job at a place like Georgetown.

Then Berlinerblau offers this groundbreaking idea: "I submit a re-visioning of an American college professor’s job description: The successful candidate will be skilled in, and passionately devoted to, teaching and mentoring 18- to 22-year-olds, as well as those in other age groups. Additionally, she or he will show promise as an original and creative researcher."

This would be quite a revelation if it didn’t describe most of "us" already. According to the AAUP, more than half of college instructors are now part-time and three-quarters are non-tenure-track, a turn toward cheap labor diagnosed as "largely a matter of priorities rather than economic necessity." But it is not teachers’ priorities that have changed. According to one study, the first love of many college teachers is still—wait for it—teaching. "We" got into academe not because we wanted to be lauded by a few intellectual snobs with obscure tastes (and certainly not because we wanted to spend our lives in governance meetings) but because we loved our undergraduate professors and wanted to be just like them for a new generation of students.

What has changed are not "our" priorities but those of the nation. Americans don’t care to help educate other people’s children anymore, conceiving education as a private good rather than a societal benefit. Institutions that don’t have a Georgetown-sized endowment, in turn, must change their priorities for "customers" who value good teaching far less than affordable, marketable credentials.

As with global recessions, the people who have made the problem in higher education are not the ones who suffer from its effects. Faculty members at well-funded schools will continue a pattern of heavy research and light teaching (to the tune of about $178,000 per year for Georgetown professors), while lower ranks at less prestigious colleges will be phased out and replaced course-by-course with starving adjuncts.

Berlinerblau’s thoughts might indeed be inspiring if, for the long-term benefit of higher education, the one-percenters in academe were to suddenly and magnanimously give up their privilege and start teaching respectable course loads for no extra pay. Until then, "they" will keep publishing and the rest of "us" will keep teaching till we perish, since our salaries won’t allow us to retire before then.

Kathryn D. Blanchard
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Alma College