Friday, February 3, 2012

9 Academic Freedoms of non-tenure: a rebuttal

I don't often read Inside Higher Education these days. I used to gobble it up, but I've found that a lot of the content seems to be off-base opinion (and when there is real news, the RSS feed doesn't give you anything but the title, so I refuse to take that bait - give me at least some content).

In any case, I came across a blog post by Joshua Kim the other day with the topic of 9 Academic Freedoms Of Not Having Tenure, and it piqued my interest.  I have to say that initially I was happy to have a tecchie blog on IHE but over the years it seems to me that Josh just writes for the sake of writing.  This article could have been much more, but I read it more like a sour grapes grapes† ; and one that perpetuates certain observations of academia that we should all be fighting to change (thus the connection with #change11).  So here is my rebuttal of his 9 "freedoms"‡

1. The Pleasures of Being a Generalist
There is a myth in academia that you can't be a generalist, and Josh certainly does his part to perpetuate it.  Sure, faculty do get fired because of their specific specialty however this is true of other non tenure track jobs as well.  The people who get hired as generalists don't get the pay and recognition perks that they would get as specialists, but just because you are hired as a specialist in something it doesn't mean that you can't dabble and experiment in other fields.


2. Social Media vs. Journals
This is a false dichotomy, and people who are interested in having social media contributions count as scholarship really need to be able applying and getting tenure positions because it's only then that the system will change. Scholarship takes many forms, but the journal is the most prolific form.  If we want to get change to happen we need to make it happen, it won't happen on its own. If you like to blog non-sense, go ahead, but it won't count as scholarship - but if you have valid scholarship to share with the world as a public academic it should count as scholarship for tenure/promotion purposes.


3. Portability
It is true that as a tenured person you don't have the mobility that non-tenure people have, but don't blame tenure for this.  If you've been with a company for a very long time, even in non-tenure environments, getting up, picking it all up, closing shop and moving is hard regardless of tenure.  This portability issue is a red-herring.  Regardless of your job you can always pick up and leave - it's just a fact of life.  In academia I would posit that it may be getting easier because if you can switch your teaching load to be from a f2f environment to an online environment you may be able to retain tenure, and work for the same institution remotely. It just depends on where the institution's goals meet your goals.


4. Family Friendly
Tenure track isn't particularly family friendly?  According to whom? Tenure track is what you make it to be.  You look at the requirements that you are given to get tenure, and you do what needs to be done. I would say that tenure track could be more family friendly because you don't need to be away from home from 9 to 5 (or in my case 7:00 to 19:00 if you include commutes) because you only need to come into campus some days a week for teaching, office hours and committee work.  The remainder of the work can be done from home.


5. Change Agency
The claim here is that you can push the boundaries if you're not on the tenure track - what a load of bull. Anyone who's ever worked in any environment knows that norms do get adhered to or there are consequences (unless you're doing stuff under a nom de plume) - the industry or field doesn't matter, there are always norms and as such peer pressure.  Sure, tenure does require certain concessions in terms of creativity and leeway if you want to get tenure, however you can and should push those limits once you get the (limited) protection that tenure gives you.  Tenure is not a deterrent for pushing the limits and boundaries - as a matter of fact it's a license to do so because (theoretically) you can't be fired because you are exercising your academic freedom!


6. Skills and the Marketplace
The notion that academics aren't keeping their skills up to date is ludicrous on face value. Being an academic (yes even the tenured ones) means that there is continuous learning happening and application of that learning.


7. Cross-Disciplinary
The lack of cross disciplinarity if something that  was an issue in academia, and it may still be; however just like item #2 it's up to the tenured folks to make changes. If you don't like that there isn't cross disciplinary research and collaboration don't just complain about it, do something about it and be ready to deal with any promotion (or potential lack of) consequences that come from it. This is how change happens.


8. Cross-Industry
Again, please, this is a corollary to #7 and #2, if you want to meet people from other industries (like tech and publishing) you are more than free as a tenured person to do so.  If you think that tenured folks should be able to do this but can't then start change from the inside and make it acceptable. Don't just complain about it. There are quite a few faculty that go to things like NERCOMP, EDUCASE and Campus Tech conferences.


9. An Unknown Future
This is a rehash of point #6 - tenured academics aren't stagnant - the good ones don't know that comes next, just like the good non-tenured folks in any job.  Every job and every industry has dead wood in their ranks and it's unfair to categorize the entirety of a certain profession by that dead wood.



Sour Grapes reference in case you don't know what it means or where it comes from :-)

‡ note: I am not tenured, I do not have a PhD - but I have my eyes set on both at some point in my career.
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