Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Life of a Prof, or Tenured Blues ... Part II

In a previous blog, I began what will be a series that addresses issues relating to tenure an academics working on post-secondary institutions. The impetus to this discussion is a column by Richard Gwyn that decries tenure as part of a more general critique of academics. In my last blog, I tried to suggest that Gwyn's critique is important not because everyone believes it but because it might be a growing position: tenure is a problem that stands at the root of a broader series of problems with post-secondary education. His argument is that academics are no longer participating in national debates, focused too much on their research, are paid too much, and are devoting too much time to arcane research as opposed to teaching (and participating in national debates). In my last blog, I tried to suggest that part of Gwyn's problem is that he simply does not understand that work day of the average prof. Most of us, I argued using myself as an example, are pretty ordinary people doing an ordinary job to the best of our abilities. I have a middle-class lifestyle and spend most of my time on matters that are directly related to my job. Most of these -- to hammer a point likely into the ground -- are shockingly ordinary but that is what we are paid to do. Most of what we do doesn't show up on a cost/benefit analysis conducted on a macro level of universities. It involves things like providing feedback on student work, preparing for class, and meeting with students.  But, I also think Gwyn's comments are valuable (even while I disagree with them) because they allow us to have a more open discussion of the merits of tenure and what profs do for a living. This blog, the last one, and others in this series are intended as offerings in that discussion. What I'd like to do is go through Gwyn's argument and look at different parts of it to suggest where he "got things wrong" but also open an avenue of discussion for how things might be improved.

This is easier said that done because there are some conflicting claims in Gwyn's piece. For instance, he faults professors for being too involved in their research but then chides the same profs for not participating in national debates to which their research might be applicable. How can, one might ask, someone participate seriously and effectively in the public forum is one does not do good research? Do we want people participating in public debates who are uninformed, particular if they are profs? In other words, good research, I'd argue, is a prerequisite for participating in public debates yet it seems to be one of the things Gwyn does not like.

I will leave this level of analysis for another day. In this blog, my objective is not address the issue of participating in national debates. Gwyn's argument, as he present it, runs as follows: "In the fields of history and politics, where I can claim some knowledge, academics willing and able to take part in national debates have just about dwindled down to two retired historians, Michael Bliss and Jack Granatstein, and to political scientists such as Tom Flanagan and Donald Savoie. Most of the rest act like medieval monks secure in their cells."

Its a pithy argument, replete with colourful imagery. But, is it accurate? There is no doubt that Bliss and Granatstein, Flanagan and Savoir are "out there." It is would be difficult to watch CBC TV and not see them. But, are they it? Is there no one else? And, more importantly, I am not at all sure what "willing and able to take part in national debates" means. I'm not trying to play semantic games here. I am honestly confused because participating in "national debates" is actually not part of my job and, as I pause to think about it, I am not sure how I might actually go about doing it. In seriousness, what am I supposed to do: call up CBC and "put my on the air," and say  "I'm a prof and I want to comment on X." How would you, if you were a journalist, respond to that kind of invocation? The odd thing is that as a regular columnist Gwyn has more control over whether I become involved in that kind of national venue than I do. He could interview me, for instance, or convince the folks at the Toronto Star to run my blog as a regular column. 

I don't want to use myself as an example for everything and so I'll refer to the work some of my colleagues do below but I will use some of the things I've done over the years as examples. It seems to me that Gwyn's contention can be subjected to several levels of argument. First, do only four profs in Canada actually participate in national debates? Second, what does "able" mean? Third, what role should profs play in national public policy issues? I'll suggest that on each of these levels, Gwyn's argument is inaccurate. Moreover, this inaccuracy is odd because it highlights not the problems of profs but the failure of Gwyn's own research. More on this below because I don't want to make this a just a critique of Gwyn. Instead, I want to use it to illustrate a broader issue I have with the "profs are bad" argument he is making. 

First, do only four profs (an exaggeration to prove a point, to be sure so we obviously would not hold Gwyn to precisely that number) participate in national debates? Well, I'm not one of those people that CBC calls for an interview on a regular basis. I will be honest. I don't like being on the news. I don't think I'm good at it and the type of slow moving, "perhaps we should think about issue X, here are some other ways to look at this matter, we live in a democratic society and so the finale result debates on what Canadians might actually want," responses I give make for good media. I participate but my participation is often to correct (in a professor-like way) misconceptions or misreporting, raise other avenues for people to consider in a democratic society, suggest (as I am doing here) that we subject statements to  analysis to see if they hold water. Is that participation? 

I have been "on the news" a number of times. I've done a few interviews for radio and print journalism (in areas about which I can speak with some knowledge), spoken to a provincial Green Party AGM, I've tried to keep up this blog over the years and now send out tweets on what strike me as important public issues. I've written a few pieces over the years for non-academic audiences. But, I've also done a few other things. For instance, myself and my colleagues organized a conference (supported by Enterprise NB and ACOA) on regional development in Atlantic Canada; Gwyn actually spoke at a conference I helped organize a fair number of years ago now (and, he did a great job) on citizenship and national identity. This past year, my colleagues and I organized a conference on place and culture and, again, a number of years ago, I was part of a multi-university team that organized a conference on rural economic development. I've also done some work for the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research Centre in Nova Scotia, organized a workshop on Specific Land Claims, and participated in an Atlantic Policy Congress focus group session on treaty education. Over the years, at Mount A, we've brought in a range of speakers to talk to our students (usually to a packed auditorium) including a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, a Commission of Official Languages, and high ups in the PCO, former minister, among others. 

In short, when I sat down to look at this list, it did not seem to me to be so bad. Sure, I was not on TV regularly, but since I'm not good at that ... why would I do it? It would be a waste of time for the audience, and for journalists, and detract from national debates. Instead, I've done what I could and worked to engage national issues of importance. I've just not done so in a very public way. Instead, I've tried to bring different communities together (civil servants, business people, labour activists, and academics, in the case of regional development). Is this a failure on my part? When I looked at it, I ended up deciding that it wasn't. 

OK, someone might say, Nurse, you're not Bliss or Foucault but I can concede that you've done some things. They might not be high profile but they are time consuming and publicly oriented, addressing a range of issues from treaty rights to the character of democracy to economic development. Fair enough. You, our rhetorical "someone" might continue to say, are not usual. In fact, a university administrator said precisely this to me two weeks ago as he was articulating concerns similar to those offered by Gwyn. The fact that you do things, he said, does not let those people who are not doing them "off the hook."

And, that is a fair statement but the question of its accuracy is still not demonstrated. Indeed, the way in which Gwyn -- and this administrator (whose a good guy) -- put this issue assumed that faculty were not participating in the public sphere. Why should we make that assumption? In fact, making that assumption might say more about those who make it than it does about professors. One of my colleagues spoke on the radio once per week over the last year, usually on historical issues (I might note an area where Gwyn thinks profs could make a contribution). He had, as it were, a regular gig with a regional radio station. Another colleague who works in the economics department has written a fair amount in local media on tax issues. He's also been invited -- and accepted -- to conduct work for a provincial royal commission and a federation of municipalities. I can concede -- and I think my colleague would -- that tax policy might not be the most exciting issue, but that is beside the point here. He is engaging the public forum in the ways he can. A former colleagues of mine -- who unfortunately moved on to another institution for reasons that I won't get into here -- has produced a number of acclaimed and internationally screened documentary films on climate change, among other things. Does his work count? A final example, a good friend with whom I work regularly here at Mount A has been extensively involved in public education curricular reform and the use of technology in the classroom.

This is not intended to be a definitive list but it is designed to illustrate my point. None of these people (I've left their names off because I did not want to draw attention to them) showed up on Gwyn's list and all are intensely involved in public issues and trying to make a difference by using their expertise. In short, on the basis of my sample, I'd say Gwyn's argument -- that faculty are not willing or able -- to participate in public policy issues is not correct. They might not be on The National every night but they are doing things on a regular basis. If we were to conduct a more extensive search -- say for professors who have been on CBC radio in the last year -- my bet is that we'd get a very long list. 

The question, then, actually much different from how it was phrased by Gwyn and my friend in administration. The issue is not "why are faculty not involved?" But, why do people assume that faculty are not involved? Why does someone like Gwyn -- an intelligent, respected and generally good journalist -- assume that faculty are holed away in monastic cells? 

I honestly don't have an answer to this question. It is, to be sure, a failure of research. After all, I am not all that difficult to find, nor are my colleagues. If someone wants to know what I do in the way of public engagement, all they need to do is ask. So, why didn't Gwyn ask (I obviously don't mean precisely me here since there is no particular reason he would ask me)? I'd actually like to hear what other people think on this question. Why assume that faculty are behaving a more than a bit like a-social recluses who ignore the "real world" when it does not appear to be true? 

Part of the problem, and likely only part, is that most people don't know what profs do. They make assumptions and those assumptions are there confirmed by the people in their circles. We all do this. I complain about the Jays management all the time to my friends who share my views; hence we end up confirming our own views. But my complaining about the Jays is not a public issue or debate or even in the least important. Making a public statement about the failure of post-secondary education if one has a platform and is a respected public commentator is. Some level of accuracy and some level of research might be expected. It seems to me that this is, partly, the real problem. Those complaining about what profs do -- or, don't do -- are so certain they are right that they don't bother to check their facts. 

Which ... brings me back to research, its importance, and why we should not castigate research too quickly. If we actually do the research ... we might find out that our views need to be modified. We might find that profs are making contributions all the time in different but often little-seen ways as befit their skills and abilities. And, if we did the research, we might find a way to avoid a fruitless debate (that is, one that begins from an error in assumption) and have a more productive one. I think Gwyn wants to have a productive debate. In future blogs ... I'll try to intuit what that is.  

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