Saturday, April 12, 2008

Academic Taylorism

There's a very interesting post over on Larval Subjects about the academic assembly line:

These days, one of the more frustrating and tedious aspects of working in an institutional setting such as a secondary school, a college, or a highschool has been the shift to constant mechanisms of “quality control” that are implemented from year to year, semester to semester. What I have in mind are the constant calls to codify things such as student learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and curriculum across the body of educators. These mechanisms, in turn, lead to endless meetings, professional development seminars, and piles of paperwork that often have little or no connection to teaching or what really takes place in the classroom.
This post reminded me off another article on Deconstructing Faculty Work that highlighted the ways in which faculty work has become fragmented and subdivided in some damaging ways. It has now become commonplace for faculty to characterize themselves in their annual reports by how much of their time is spent on the various institutional components of teaching, research, and service.
We constructed the artifact of faculty assignment; a quantity set at 100 percent, and then partitioned that assignment into sections assigned to teaching, research, service, and other duties. Although most institutions do not explicitly quantify these assignments, the work recorded in our faculty annual reports make clear that we parcel out our actual effort into categories defined by what we do for teaching, for research, and for service. Our administrative work became defined by the released teaching effort traded for the administrative effort, further subdividing our faculty work. ... We designed accountability systems to measure the cost of teaching as an item separate from research so that we could calculate the return on the investment in teaching separately from the return on investment in research. ... These became the measurable quantities for effective optimization and management in our increasingly accountable world.
I myself am a 50% teaching, 25% research, and 25% service employee this year. My job is structured such that my full-time teaching load of 4 courses per semester is subject to reassigned time for various other duties, typically including one course a semester reassigned time for research (if I continue to publish well) and sometimes release time for other administrative chores. It has ceased to strike us as strange that we should be subdivided in these ways and to think of our work lives as the assemblage of discrete tasks, rather than as the life's work of a single person.

This subdividing of tenured and tenure-track faculty also tends to facilitate and justify the use of contingent faculty. It is the logical extension of a system organized around the outcomes of specific, and seemingly unrelated tasks.
For the institutions, however, the deconstruction of faculty work offered a great incentive to reduce their commitment to an inflexible work force of tenured faculty and increase their investment in short-term, highly efficient faculty dedicated to specific purposes for specific periods of time and whose productivity and performance could be reliably maintained.
If the teaching me, the research me, and the administrative me cannot actually exist separately and independently of one another, then it makes a certain administrative sense to seek specialized workers whose functions can actually be compartmentalized in exactly this way. Of course, I actually only do any of these jobs well because I do all of these jobs. But that complexity makes faculty assessment and management much more difficult. The pernicious fantasy of the fungibility of faculty work is only perpetuated by the current ways in which we evaluate faculty.


  1. "Of course, I actually only do any of these jobs well because I do all of these jobs."

    Yes, and this is what people do not "get."

    Great post.

  2. hey Lump,
    I don't want to be disrespectful, but in all seriousness - what does research have to do with teaching? I mean, I'm all for people having enriching intellectual lives and I could see how that enhances teaching (I'm told that there used to be more programs than there are now for continuing end and enrichment for high school teachers, on this very rationale), but I think the connection to teaching probably varies a lot. I ask this in part because I'm at a large research institution where there's definitely a tension between research and teaching but where the part that gets shortchanged more often (it seems to me) is teaching much more than research - which means the students get shortchanged. Know what I mean?
    Again, not trying to be disrespectful or hostile.

  3. I think the short answer is because research is the only thing that justifies having students in the first place. Studying with a person who’s read the book is different from studying with the person who wrote the book. And even though most faculty don’t teach their own writings, it’s still the existence of those writings that make them individuals worth studying with. In part, I think the tension between teaching and research exists precisely because they are viewed as separable things. This makes it into a zero sum game where every hour I spend writing is an hour I could have spent in the classroom or with students but didn’t. Or vice versa. It depends on who you ask as to which of the two gets shortchanged. For many faculty, it’s the research that suffers since it doesn’t exist on the daily calendar in the way that classes and department meetings do. For others, it’s the teaching that suffers due to research demands. Like so many issues in higher education, I see this as a labor issue. When you have too few workers doing too much work, then there will be shortfalls. If you really want higher education done right, then fund it. Hire more tenured faculty and you won’t have the shortages.

  4. There is empirical work evidencing the absence of spillover between teaching effectiveness (in a performative sense) and research profile (ditto, as if anything else were still possible in print). Students have become largely instrumentalist enrolling mostly to get employment and are rarely interested who 'wrote the book' - indeed in Hong Kong and China my experience was that they were greatly suspicious of any faculty recommending their own work. Education, or research, for its own sake by way of intrinsic reward or service to humanity is an Enlightenment ideal to which 'yes we can' is no kind of help. First surely we'd have to stir enough people to care and how on Earth do you do that these days?