Interdisciplinarity, crisis, and the future of academic institutions

Since the 2008 financial “crisis” (and it’s hard to keep calling something a crisis when it continues for 5 years), tenure track jobs have fallen by about 40%.  Many with PhDs are jobless, on welfare, working in tenuous positions, trying to find work in different sectors, or moving from one job to another—be it an adjunct position or more steady multiple year teaching contracts. Admittedly, the job market has been constricting since the 1980s, but now, there are fewer  jobs elsewhere to mitigate the effects of fewer academic positions.

I have been relatively lucky in this market compared to some.  I have had two positions since earning my PhD that have treated me with respect, decent wages, and health insurance.  These were harbors in the storm that many of my friends and cohort have not been lucky enough to find.  That said, I have racked up hundreds of dollars in fees to my dossier service and spent countless hours over the last three years preparing job letters and sending dossiers to potential employers. This has netted me two campus interviews and one phone interview.  In the meantime, I teach introductory courses to bright-eyed freshmen, take care of my family, research and write in whatever time I have left.

The personal financial troubles of visiting professors and adjuncts are compounded by the larger constriction of university funds. The 2008 crisis devalued endowments and investments for many universities.  While used to fighting for funds and support, humanities, social science, and interdisciplinary departments found themselves fighting for survival within their universities.  Funding was cut to many programs, and in some cases, entire departments were suspended. Technologies like MOOCs and machine graded essays moved in to fill in the gaps between fewer professors and tuition income pulled in by larger classes.  In some cases, both visiting and tenure track professors create online classes that threaten to replace them in subsequent semesters.

The important question for me—as the vagaries and cruelties of this new post-employment academic market have been addressed in nearly all ways elsewhere— is how this affects junior scholars who are attempting to craft an interdisciplinary research career in this tenuous and competitive market.  I have spoken of cabinet of curiosities in earlier posts as a way to imagine IR, but how does this measure up when hiring departments want people doing “real” IR?  What does this mean more broadly for projects that cross or question disciplines?  Research projects that grapple with the interconnected, global, rhizomatic, and immanent world filled with hybrid forms, spaces of flows, and networks are more crucial than ever. Does this new environment suffocate these important research plans?

So, perhaps getting jobs is harder in this market, but what about the future of the university with fewer tenured professors and (perhaps) fewer interdisciplinary humanities and social science projects? Traditionally, the university has been a space for intellectuals to speak subversively without fear or reprisal—especially important is job protection.  An adjunct or visiting professor will likely not even have the time to be a public intellectual.  There is no research leave or course buy out with grant money.  In fact, we are here to teach the classes for tenure track and tenured professors while they pursue their research careers.  They loan us their offices and we fight for time and space to do our own work while teaching, and, more often than not advising and serving the institution that offers visiting professors multiple one-year contracts. But this seems to me as part and parcel of the bigger problem looming over academia as an institution: neoliberal business practices imported to the university uncritically and whole-heartedly by a burgeoning administrative class. The safe space of the university is disappearing and it is unclear what will follow. In theory, I might be okay with a long term teaching contract with little to no research requirements, but what about the public intellectual who should be engaging with civil society and sharing publicly funded research?

The students certainly suffer under this new system, but this may not seem apparent to the students at first.  This is not to say that visiting and adjunct professors are “easy,” in fact, this seems to work in the opposite.  Visiting professors bring new research, disciplinary rigor, and generally plan their classes with the goals of the department and the university in mind.  Young undergraduate scholars may not have the opportunity to create long-term mentoring relationships with their professors, or even more simply, cannot choose them as their department advisors.  Long term, will they be able to request letters of recommendation from their overworked tenured advisor who teaches classes of 250 or from a visiting prof that now works at a different institution? Maybe two or three different places?

The open questions with which I would like to end: What will the university as an institution look like in the next decade or two?  Will tenure still be an option?  What departments will ascend in this neoliberal future?

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4 thoughts on “Interdisciplinarity, crisis, and the future of academic institutions

  1. Stef, whew, this is a big question. Here is my read. As the number of students attending American colleges starts to go into decline and as the return on investment continues to be questioned (despite, in many cases, the concern is overblown), my guess is that this will happen:
    1. We will see an even more clear and potentially divisive split between research faculty, who will in the future chiefly do research, and teaching faculty, who will do nearly all of the teaching at research universities. In small colleges, I think they will continue to hire top-notch scholar-teachers, but this will likely only work if they are able to draw international students from abroad to fill their classes and help-out the bottom-line.
    2. Tenure is a funny. The stability it offers me, even since only May of this year, has been profound. I can feel it, daily. My writing is better and bolder. My wife actually mentions that I am nicer to be around. In all, it is wonderful. However, the tenure has not at all reduced my productivity, and, in fact, appears to have had the opposite effect … the only difference is all that time I spent stressed-out, I now spend more productively at home with my family or at my desk writing. Thus, I think we’ll see one of two scenarios emerge:
    A. Tenure beings to fall away. This will likely lead to bad outcomes for all involved. Faculty members will be even more Machiavellian in their job choices and allegiance to any given college or university. Students will be failed too; thought, as you mention, this is less obvious. For them, the reduced price of teaching through adjuncts SHOULD COME AT A REDUCED COST, but for students, unless the professor says so, it is opaque … they don’t care if their faculty member has a steady job or not, they just want to learn, to get the grade, or some combination between. Either way, however, they should be LIVID that the cost of teaching is going down on a national level while their cost of learning increases with each year. Also, the associated stresses on American faculty will be ruinous, if my last six years is any indication.
    B. Tenure will be split. Different kinds of tenure for different kinds of faculty, as consistent with my comments above. Teaching Tenure. Research Tenure. Not sure if this is a solution either, but it might be a viable compromise at this tough time.

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  2. Universities will likely continue with two trends; increased focus in the sciences on research, not classroom teaching, and especially research with outside (and often corporate) funders pre-attached, science&engineering depts are already competing for researchers who follow the money and have no interest in being bound to/by institutional politics, and the rest of the academy will be geared towards employment training and not in some general/Romantic way but more like community colleges where students are already paying to be trained for specific placements/careers. There really hasn’t ever been a place in the US for interdisciplinary work, the depts (and tenure) are too siloed for that but if folks can show how they can add to the research/career-training Borgs to come than there may be some wiggle-room if you like doing research with a direct marlet value like those folks now doing sales-anthropology for tech firms and those embedded in the military. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone I care about but such is life in our times…

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