Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Review of The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue

During my last few years in academia, I spent a lot of time reading about the state of the profession, which hardly helped my desire to stick with it.  Of the many that I read, none was perhaps more on target than Frank Donoghue's brief and insightful The Last Professors. In it, Donoghue argues that the current generation of professors in the humanities will be the last, and will soon be replaced in most, non-elite institutions by a "casualized" workforce. Unlike other commentators, however, Donoghue argues that this phenomenon has largely taken place already, and that there really isn't a whole lot that can be done about it.

The one knock against the book might be that it's too episodic and doesn't hold together as it should; at times it reads more like a collection of essays than a cohesive statement. That being said, Donoghue makes five very prescient insights worth considering. In the first place, as I just mentioned, he points out that the humanities professor is already a disappearing breed. However, the public and most tenured academics seem totally unaware of this fact. Few people in America realize that most classes these days are not taught be traditional professors, but by adjuncts, "visitors," and graduate students. Because practically everyone apart from the new academic labor workforce is ignorant of the changes that have already happened, almost nothing is being done about them.

The Last Professors also manages to get at the real issue with the rise of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix. It isn't that these fly-by-night companies necessarily take away students from traditional universities, it's that their labor practices and ethos are now being adopted by a whole host of university administrators. They now have models of how to destroy shared governance for good and to cultivate a low paid, "flexible," docile workforce. Tenured professors in the humanities will soon be a luxury good maintained only by the Ivy League and other prestigious universities who can get their students to pay big bucks for scholarly sages.

On an entirely different note, Donoghue exposes the serious issues in the realm of academic publishing, a subject that more academics should be taking seriously. State-level cutbacks have meant cuts for university presses, which have shortened their lists and now only publish books with a potential to make money. At the same time, more and more universities are increasing their research expectations, driving up the number of prospective authors at a time when getting a monograph published is that much harder. With so many professors publishing to get tenure and so many adjuncts publishing in order to get a tenure track job, academic research has become more instrumentalized, and by virtue of its greater volume, devalued and of lower quality.

As those of you who have braved the academic job market well know, a long list of publications does not guarantee a tenure track job. Donoghue might be at his best when laying out some plain truths about the jobs situation. He asserts, quite rightfully, that there is no job crisis because there has been an endemic shortage going back to 1970. We must put aside the hopes that the job market will somehow "recover" or "get back to normal." It has about as much of a chance of improving as I do of becoming queen of Spain. Donoghue correctly connects this state of permanent crisis at a time of growing enrollments to the tremendous increase in adjunct labor in the last thirty years, not PhD "overproduction."

Last but not least, The Last Professors addresses the myths of tenure. In the first place, Donoghue claims that it is being eroded, in large part because of the relentless causualization of academic labor. On top of that, he makes the claim that tenure actually doesn't protect academic freedom because professors without tenure can be fired for all kinds of reasons unrelated to their performance. When I was an untenured assistant professor, the fear of reprisal if I dared speak up about any of the issues I see with my department and university encouraged me to keep my mouth shut.

There are many more notable observations than these in The Last Professors, and I can heartily recommend it to anyone who is concerned over the future of the humanities. However, Donoghue might be a bit bleak, even for my tastes. He doesn't seem to think that anything can be done to rescue the humanities professors, who are meeting their Waterloo. It's not much better, but I prefer to see the current situation as Dunkirk: we humanities scholars have been defeated and are running for our lives, but we still have the hope of coming back victorious. It can happen, but we need to really start fighting. Like the labor movement of yore, faculty need to unite (and I mean tenured, tenure track, and adjunct together) and get in the faces of our more complacent colleagues and ask them, as the old song goes, "which side are you on?" I'm not sure it will happen, but dammit, if we're gonna go down, we ought to go down swinging.


bmi said...

Regarding the second-to-last paragraph: I had a marvelous op-ed piece, based on my academic research, that would have skewered a major move (reported in the national press) that my university made last week. But I couldn't submit it anywhere, for fear that the administration would notice and choose to fire/not rehire me. Goodbye, academic freedom, hello contingency!

ellemarie said...

Thanks for posting this overview of Donoghue’s work. It’s definitely something I want to actually take a look at. I finished an MA in history about two years ago. I started out with the intent to continue on to a PhD, but the issues that Donoghue brings up are ones that also came up constantly in side discussions with classmates, particularly those who were doctoral students made me really hesitant. (The fact that I was working 10-12 hour days at a “nine-to-five” and taking classes PT also played a role. Constant fatigue kind of puts you off the school thing.) I’m now on the fence, and the fact that I turned 30 this year makes it even more likely that I’ll tip toward not pursuing the doctorate.

One thing I saw missing from your synopsis was the devaluation of the humanities in general, particularly within public university systems. I see this aspect of the death of the humanities as a subtext of the second point you note he makes, in that the slashing of humanities funding, elimination of whole degree programs, etc. is also a function of the for-profit college ethos having seeped into the broader higher-ed environment. I wonder though if Donoghue addressed this more explicitly. This issue came up a lot while I was still a student, and the discussions always ended on a depressing note. No one could figure out a counter-argument that would be viable in today’s environment to the notion that 1) undergraduate programs should be oriented almost exclusively toward preparing students for the labor market, and 2) humanities programs are less capable (if not incapable) of doing so (while business, science, economics, or preprofessional programs are inherently [:-/] effective in doing this).