Reflections on Life in Academia
This life in academia is actually my second career. I am a combat veteran who came to academic life after spending most of my youth in the Pakistan army. In the process I also made the transition from my primary culture, Pakistan, to that of the United States. Thus, even when I try not to think of my two careers in comparative terms, sometimes I cannot help but think of my life in academia in comparison with my life as a soldier.
While this is a reflective essay about my own life in academia, it is also addressed to all of you out there who are planning a career in academia.
First, I must state outrightly that there is only one group in academia that is in fact the raison de’atre of my career: my students. I find my students to be kind, generous, and deeply interested in learning. Every day I walk into my class, they give me hope and inspiration.
The profession itself, on the other hand, is a totally different story. (The Chronicle of Higher Education also offers various reflective articles on the profession) Bear in mind that my reflections are grounded in my experience in the humanities and may translate differently for those in other fields.
I find life in academia to be an extremely isolating; academy is a place where we all seem to be busy competing for the scraps that university administrators throw at us. The sad part is that most of us have internalized the system of power so deeply that we are not often aware of why or how we are doing certain things. We accept the inherent inequalities of our system as natural and most of us only try to perform our role within these predetermined, unjust, and exploitative boundaries.
Take a look at varied gradations of faculty at any institution of higher learning: we have tenured/ tenure track faculty, contract lecturers, adjunct faculty, and graduate teaching fellows. Out of all these, the tenure track faculty are considered the heart of any department: they have higher salaries, lower teaching loads, and more access to departmental resources. In symbolic terms they also receive a higher degree of departmental and institutional recognition. In most cases, these faculty members also develop an implicit sense of their own superiority.
Now this sense of superiority can only be maintained through willful acts of ignorance and only a little bit of math is enough to dispel such views. But since we are humanists, facts usually tend to be pretty unwelcome in our world. But let us take a look at a hypothetical situation.
Let us assume that the funding model in your state is based on student retention and not just enrollment. This means that you get your state formula funding against the number of students you can retain over a certain period. The quality of instruction and faculty engagement play a huge role in this retention. Now, let us ask what role do tenure track faculty play in this vital function?
So, let us do some basic math. Let us assume a department with twenty tenure track faculty and twenty lecturers. The former teach two courses per semester and mostly teach upper division courses: courses for juniors and seniors. The lecturers teach four courses per semester and these are mostly freshman and sophomore courses. This means that if the classes are capped at twenty five, a TT faculty member will teach fifty juniors or seniors, while a lecturer will teach 100 freshmen or sophomores per semester.
Now, we know that the highest level of attrition at college level is within the first two years, and if we want to improve retention we will have to have a highly motivated and well trained instructional pool. But in practice we have assigned this job to the least paid, overworked and often unappreciated class of faculty: the lecturers! Note also that the TT faculty’s role in student retention, crucial to the viability of the institution, is minimal. They are teaching students who have already decided to finish their degree!
But despite these facts, the people who contribute least to the university’s financial future are often found strutting around the department, as if they are the ones holding the proverbial sky on their shoulders.