Monday, June 16, 2014

Tenure ... or, why don't people like it? Part I: The Life of a Prof

Some people, it appears, don't like tenure. This op ed from respected journalist Richard Gwyn captures the basics: 

University Teaching

I will be frank: this is not a particularly good piece of journalism or even a particularly good op-ed.  If I were using it in class, it is a model of how to *not* make arguments. For instance: it assumes that tuition increases are driven by faculty salary increases (but does not actually look at the ratio of university spending on faculty salaries versus other elements of university budgets), its evidence provides links to links (for example: "As is little known, Canadian professors are the highest-paid in the world, even, astoundingly, 28 per cent better paid than those at public universities in the U.S., no matter all the Nobel Laureates there" ... if you thought that link would take you to table to demonstrate the point ... you would be wrong, it takes to another link that takes you to another link that requires you to buy a book to get the information), and its makes use of sweeping generalization on the basis of a single case study. In other words, one thing we might learn about the jobs faculty do is that journalists might fail our intro courses if they submitted some of the things they write as term papers because they don't meet the minimum levels of documentation or argumentation. 

But, that is snide and catty of me. The critique of tenure is not widespread, but it might be growing. It used to be confined a few voices on the lunatic fringe and faculty could count on their administrators to defend it as a fundamental aspect of the occupations to which they had devoted their lives. The U of S case suggests that tenure and its importance is still recognized but that some administrators (including the outgoing president of U of A) are interested in finding ways to disregard its basic provisions. Their objectives in so doing sound crass when I state them clearly: they were looking to silence or remove potential critics. The crassness, however, is not my restatement but the fact that their objectives were crass and don't have a place in institutions of higher learning. 

This said, I do think we should avoid being snide or catty about this issue. Tenure is important and its importance requires that those of us who support it explain what it is and its importance. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with talking about this issue. Questions (even if misinformed) and discussion are a natural part of a democratic society. So, lets talk a bit about tenure, what people think is wrong with it, and what might be done to address their concerns. I'd like to do this in several parts. First, I'd like to talk a bit about who profs are -- I'll use myself as an example and explain why I think this is important to a consideration of tenure below. In future blogs I'll look at the demands of research and its relationship to teaching at the post-secondary level. Finally, I'll look at what tenure is supposed to do and what it actually does do. My overall conclusion is that a bit of education on this issue transforms concerns about tenure into a non-issue. Reading Gwyn's piece one might get the impression that there is much "sound and fury" here. Their should not be. Tenure is not the problem with post-secondary education in Canada and taking its "off the table" will allow us to focus on what is the problem. 

Before I get to these, however, let me begin by saying that I am a university prof (if you did not know) and I've been one for about 15 years. I don't know what other people think professors do but you might be surprised by its banality. I go to work like everyone else. My office might look a bit different than others. I have more books, for instance, but these are the tools of my trade. Other than that, however, my office is shockingly ordinary. I pride myself on being at work. I leave for work when my daughter leaves for high school. I get in around 8:15 and say until 4:30, when I stroll home (I live in Sackville) to make supper. I spend my evenings doing other shockingly normal things: I watch my kids play minor sports, take them to music lessons, do the laundry, pay the bills, watch the Jays game. From what I can tell, my day is not unusual. 

I get the feeling from reading Gwyn's piece that his image of a professor is that I spend my days trying to avoid teaching so I can do my research. My research is important to me and to my employer (Mount Allison University). They pay me to do it. I like it (most of my research is on different aspects of Canadian cultural history) but it is also my job. If I don't do it, I would not be doing what I am paid to do and my employer would (rightly) have problems with that.

But, during the school year, it is pretty far from all I do. Gwyn does not like lecturing and sees videos as a useful substitute. Perhaps, but lecturing is not all I do. In fact, it is only a small part. I lecture to the large intro class once a week, but most of my colleagues work to make their teaching interactive. I do too. I run small discussion groups for the intro, seminars, meet one-on-one with independent topic or directed reading or thesis students. Moreover, lecturing, or another other form of effective post-secondary teaching, is not just going in to a room and talking off the top of your head. A good lecture communicates important information, it is interactive, logical and responds to student questions. All of this takes time. I teach Canadian Studies and teaching students about Canada requires that I am informed about the things I am teaching. In other words, making up a course takes a long time and requires a lot of work. I like that work, but it takes time because I want to be more than a video. 

Outside of teaching, I do other things. My university requires something called "community service" from me. Again, I am paid to do this. It is not a choice, but an obligation. Generally, again, I like it but it also takes time. It can involve university  governance but it also involve programme advising, reading materials on which students have appealed grades, meeting with students to work through their problems (whatever these might be). Just one example to illustrate my point: one day this past semester I met with a student for three straight hours. She had problems that needed to be addressed. They were and it took that length of time to address them. She was happy when we were done and so was I but I then had the next student meeting, which last almost two hours. So, five hours of my day were taken up addressing the concerns of two students. I don't want anyone to say "what a great guy" but just notice the pattern. These are extreme cases and I should not be congratulated for doing my job but that is my point. I was doing my job. I also have a range of other routine paperwork that needs to be done. I did not make this paper; it is a university rule that I have to "sign off" on pay forms for interns and student TAs. I don't mind doing it but if I don't ... someone is not paid. 

You put this all together and what do you get? Well, you get a pretty ordinary job that takes a lot of time. When we talk about hours teaching, we don't talk about how long it takes to prepare to teach, to meet with students afterward, doing the routine paperwork that needs to be done. And ... you will notice that I have not even gotten to marking. Marking is an amazingly time consuming thing if you want to do it right. Ask yourself this: how would you want your work to be evaluated? Bubble sheets and fill-in-the-blank? That would save a tonne of time, but would it provide a meaningful post-secondary education in the humanities? Would you want commentary? Would you want to know how to improve your work? 

What about the sciences? Well, in addition to everything I do, my colleagues in the sciences run their labs, which is fundamental to both their research and the education of their students. That, too, takes time. My colleagues in music spend evening after evening going to recitals and working with their students. My colleagues in drama devote countless evenings to working with student actors and stage managers. 

My point is this: none of this stuff shows up on the "time cards". The meetings I had with the five students who took directed readings classes from me last semester never showed up as work I did because they are not officially counted toward my contact hours. Thus, someone might say "Nurse was only in class 200 hours last academic year" (I don't know, I have not counted) but that would not touch the surface of how much time I spent with students or preparing to spend with students (for instance, if you are taking a directed readings course ... do you think the prof should have done the readings you are discussing? If you said "not needed" ... how meaningful would you think his or her commentary on your work might be?) or marking student work. In the summers, I work forty hours per week, give or take. During the school year, this figure naturally goes up because there is more work to do. 

Am I well paid? Well ... come look at how I live. I am wary of generalized stats because they don't account for variations and are prone to be thrown off by outliers. For instance, imagine a situation where we have four salaries: #1 is paid $1000.00; #2, #3, and #4 are paid $100. What is the average salary? $325, but 3/4ths of our same made considerably less than the average making the average meaningless from a statistical perspective. (There is also an ethical problem with the "X is paid too much" argument that I will get into another blog.) The better test, for those who want one, is to look at how I live. I have a nice house, a car that is almost paid off, my son has a car but he's 21 and works in the next town. I have a flat screen TV that I bought at Walmart for $325; an iMac in my basement, and a two dogs. I have a nice yard on which my wife has worked tireless for the last 12 years because gardening is one of her passions. But, like others I have a mortgage and my house is pretty ordinary, even if I like it. I'd describe my lifestyle as comfortable and middle class. I don't want for anything but, like a great many other people, I have to think before I make a purchase or go on vacation (this summer we are thinking about whether or not we can afford a brief trip and pay for some needed repairs on the house). There is nothing wrong with that  and that is my point. My lifestyle is roughly the same as my brothers (neither of whom is a prof) or my parents (who were not profs). 

I'll end this Part I here and reiterate my point. Before we demonize profs ... we might want to think about who they are and what they do. The ordinariness of our lives, the regularity of our work, the way in which we try to respond to others needs might strike people as ... well ... ordinary. Knowing this helps up, I think, to proceed to an assessment of the merits of tenure with a clear head. Perhaps I have too stereotyped a view of what others think of profs. The vast majority of us are just trying to do the job for which we are paid and live -- however banal -- a middle class life.  
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