The bubble within the bubble

April 15, 2012, 10:49 pm

This op-ed from the Times Higher Education raises an important point about the demands placed on the personal lives of academics:

Robert Markley has made it to the promised land, securing a tenured post at a large research-intensive university that would be the envy of a thousand early career hopefuls.

But it’s not all milk and honey. He is on his second marriage (and attributes the break-up of his first directly to his work), sees his new wife only during holidays and on occasional weekends, and spends up to 40 per cent of his income on the travel and two homes that make even this possible.

The professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is among the scholars in our cover feature who go to extraordinary lengths – and accept extraordinary personal sacrifices – to “make it” as academics.

This chilling quotation sums it all up:

Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at University College Dublin, has argued that the idealised academic has no ties or responsibilities to limit their capacity to work. “To be a successful academic is to be unencumbered by caring,” she says.

When you see the term “higher education bubble” thrown around, it usually refers to an unsustainable cycle of rising tuition and debt combined with a lower and lower return on investment. Students are becoming unwilling to pay more money for a certification they are finding less and less worth it. But after reading this piece, it seems there’s a secondary bubble at work, involving workers in higher education and an unsustainable cycle of rising demands on the personal lives of professors and up-and-coming Ph.D.’s.

While Robert Markley may be an outlier, I’ve heard many stories of faculty colleagues who routinely spend 90+ hours a week doing work, and seeing spouses and family only for an hour or so a day at the dinner table before disappearing to grade or work in the lab until 2 AM. And these stories are not from people in R1 universities — quite often they’re working in small liberal arts colleges and regional universities. It seems not to depend on the size or type of the institution.

Small liberal arts colleges can actually be some of the worst offenders in this. In some places, faculty quality gets implicitly tied to the degree to which one sacrifices freedom and time — faculty who volunteer to teach 16+ credits a semester and stay on campus doing review sessions until 11pm are seen as “more caring” than those faculty who don’t. And as I discovered last year during my job search, there’s a shocking mission creep among SLAC’s toward a more research-intensive focus among new faculty, with some positions advertising for people with strong research backgrounds in specialized technical areas with the expectation of conducting large-scale undergraduate research on top of a 4/4 teaching load. A colleague recently said to me that small liberal arts colleges can eat productive people alive, and I’m beginning to believe it.

At some point, if this continues, two things are going to happen.

First, faculty are simply going to burn out and be of no use either in the classroom or in research, or else they’ll just walk away from the profession, and the only people left to teach those courses will be people who are either professionally or emotionally incapable of doing a good job. Or they’ll be staffed by careerists who have made an art of strategically making pedagogical choices that are better for the professor than they are for the students while making students happy enough in the moment not to notice.

Second, the Ph.D. pipeline will dry up as smart young people with the desire to work in higher ed will realize that it will boil down to a choice between their career and the rest of their lives, and choose the latter.

Either situation would be a secondary “bubble” bursting that would seriously damage higher education’s mission and possibly accelerate the bursting of the primary bubble as the quality of instruction bottoms out. Universities can do something about this — just being mindful that faculty (including adjuncts!) are human beings and will perform their work better to the extent that they lead balanced lives is a step in the right direction. There are plenty of places that believe this and act on it. Faculty, both new and upcoming, can correct the bursting of the bubble before it happens by simply choosing those institutions rather than the more prestigious ones. What good is tenure, anyway, if you’re too burnt out and dehumanized to enjoy it?

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