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At least one time a week I eat lunch in the Student Union, at a table in the cafeteria where faculty from a wide variety of departments meet and gossip, bemoan the weather and the lack of good movies in town, talk each other into healthier activities and that cup of frozen yogurt or bad carrot cake.  I have found it a very useful place to network, catch up on the local politics and university gossip -- who is on sick leave, and who is looking to move on, whether through retirement or a feeling that the grass would be greener elsewhere (because certainly the salaries would be -- we have almost the lowest salaries in my state).  It is a very useful social network, and over the past 20+ years I have enjoyed it greatly, and have spent many enjoyable hours eating and gossiping, activities which have led to professional collaborations, opportunities for my students, and other benefits that are less measurable.

Most of the faculty who sit at this lunch table are part of my "generation" -- they have been there as long or sometimes even longer than I have (I am in my 23rd year here).  And they tend to be part of a real powerful energetic group who were around at the time our university changed its mission from a regional comprehensive to a highly selective liberal arts institution.  But they also remember that change as being the good days, and anything since the 90s is not as good.  

More below the orange butterscotch thingamajig.

We added a lot of faculty at that time, and I was one of those new hires.  It was an exciting thing, when we were hiring tenure track faculty from big name universities (many of whom didn't stay after a few years but went on to other institutions), people who were active researchers, involved intensively in their national and international organizations, who were ambitious and dedicated.  I know, as I was one of them.  We published articles and books, sent our students to elite universities for graduate work, convinced them to travel beyond the US over the summers or for a semester abroad, and to set goals for themselves that were higher than they could have ever imagined before they started at college.  Almost every hire, other than sabbatical replacements, was into a tenure track position.  Our student/faculty ratio dropped from 17:1 to 15:1 or lower.  And these hires, student quality (both the incoming ones and the results they got after graduating), and the low cost from our supportive state legislature helped us reach great heights in the early years of US News and World Report and similar sorts of college rankings, rating levels we have managed to hang onto, because over time the faculty and the students have continued to work hard to maintain quality.

Needless to say, many of these elements are not continued in the situation we have today.  The faculty that were young and hungry have turned into (largely productive) senior faculty, with tenure and higher salaries.  We are tenured full professors as we have been here for 15+ years and we get paid much more than we did when we were hired on.  We don't have the money to hire a lot of new faculty, and the places where faculty are needed are not necessary the places where there are open positions.  There are too many faculty in some disciplines and too few in others, and with full professors tenured into positions, it makes things very difficult for the university to adjust to changing needs.  

How do you make those adjustments?  Hiring new faculty is the easy answer, but unlike the federal government we can't just raise taxes/tuition to increase resources (I am being sarcastic here, in case you couldn't tell).  One of the things the university has set as a goal is to raise the percentage of temporary faculty to 25% (which is much higher than we have been, but less than half the national percentage).  I know that this is bad for those in the temporary lines, but having several departments which have not hired anyone in more than 10 years, where there are too many faculty for the number of courses that are needed, etc., is also not healthy for a university that wants to respond to changes in student demand, etc.

Another possibility is to hire faculty into more permanent positions but who are innately flexible.  This is what the discussion was at lunch, and I was on the side of flexibility.  By that I mean I sided with the rumored administrative position (the thing that was making everyone at the table furious) that departments could join together and share a position, one that would result in someone who could teach equally in two disciplines.  That is something I think would be great but I come at it as someone whose degrees are not in the program I was hired to teach in (I am an archaeologist, whose degree is in area studies -- we have neither archaeology nor area studies departments here at this university).  I was looking for jobs in art history, anthropology, gender studies, area studies, and history programs.  I became a specialist in a department's field because they hired me to teach that subject.  But I could easily have taught in any of the list.  Or two of them.  In some ways a joint appointment would have been ideal.

I am frustrated that this is not seen as a desirable thing.  But I was told that there would be no way someone who could teach in two departments would be the best person to hire.  It does require you to be more flexible in your hiring, but it seems to me that the pool has as much potential to have an inspiring teacher and scholar as limiting your search to a single disciplinary focus.  For example, a specialist in non-western art could have the ability to teach in Art (and Art History), Anthropology, and History.  A medievalist might be able to teach in English Language, Literature, History, and perhaps demography, with a training in Geography.  A specialist in Organizational Behaviour might do Business and Psychology.  Someone in public health could teach Sociology, Geography, and Statistics.  A good researcher would have drawn on a wide variety of disciplines in structuring his or her doctoral project, and a good teacher will be able to both teach and inspire students to learn in a variety of fields.  The breaking down of disciplinary boundaries and the borrowing of approaches from one field into another is a very post-modern approach to education, and one that has not run its course.  I wish we could think outside the boxes, outside departmental silos.  

I was the only person at the table who felt that way, however.  I am not sure if it was my background outside of the very rigid disciplinary structure (my training grew out of Biblical Studies but in its modern incarnation has left those origins pretty far behind),  or my naivete, or defensiveness, or simply contrariness, but I defended the desirability of looking for flexible appointments in this way quite vociferously.  

I am not against having a slightly higher percentage of temporary faculty than we do now, but I understand a hesitancy to set that precedent.  However, if you want to hire in tenure-line faculty there need to be other ways to encourage flexibility that is needed to respond to changing demands from our students over the next 30 years.  What do you think?  If you are setting new position descriptions, what are you looking for?  Disciplinary focus?  Interdisciplinary interests?  Dual expertise?  Does having a different department for an undergraduate major and a graduate one make someone more or less desirable?  Would you feel comfortable having someone without a terminal degree in your departmental subject teach your undergraduates in that major?  

Would you hate to sit and talk over such things as you are trying to enjoy your taco salad for lunch?

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Comment Preferences

  •  People living a life in academia always talk (4+ / 0-)

    about that sort of stuff amongst each other, and if a couple is part of academia, it becomes a focus of most conversations. :-)

    We have some joint appointments where I work, and they rarely work out. It isn't that you can't find great people to teach in those positions, but having someone with feet in two units doesn't really work.

    Do they attend all department faculty meetings? How are courses allocated? What happens if their research in the different areas shifts over time? How is tenure and promotion achieved between two units, particularly if there is competition or other bad feeling between the two units? How is departmental service allocated in an equitable way?

    I can only say that all the joint appointments that I am aware of at my large state University haven't really ended well. The worst ones are when the appointment is not only across departments, but across schools. The biggest downside to joint appointments has to be the political back-stabbing between departments, with that poor person in the firing line of the warring departments. We've lost people in nasty tenure fights that way.

    I wouldn't recommend it unless things are very spelled out in terms of contract, tenure and promotion.

    I don't know what the solution to the problem you put forward is. You have tenured experts in an area where they are not needed. Perhaps they can do things that relate to their expertise but are outside the tight circle of what they've taught in the past.

    One solution, of course, is to close departments or programs, so those people can be let go despite tenure.

    No solution is particularly good.

  •  The thing with joint appointments is that (4+ / 0-)

    in reality they are joint in name only. A professor ends up in one of the departments and is barely involved in the other one. It's difficult to combine tenure with flexibility.

  •  I just received a joint appointment (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman

    but am adjunct, so that works. What does alarm me is tenure-line faculty moving into joint positions -- very common where I am at -- and which then weakens already weakened and understaffed depts which then hire more adjuncts; I would like more tenured faculty in their specific, highly specialized disciplines. Efficiency is the ultimate logic of capitalism. Spreading ones' resources through multiple departments caters to that logic of efficiency in a way that I think is not necessary. Especially when one is already tenured.

    I think we need to force the hand of administration for more hires. The money is there. That, I know. Most of the admin support staff, even low-level support staff, in the higher offices are paid more than most of the full, tenured or tenure-line faculty at my university. Oddly, as an adjunct, my full-time wage will EXCEED some tenured faculty too? But I'm expendable, which has to be appealing to the university: tenured faculty in one discipline present a very, very strong challenge to the university since they can become political involved AND can resist all kinds of things that I will never be able to, per se, without losing my job.

    Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

    by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 12:37:09 PM PDT

    •  Universities are not really nimble, (2+ / 0-)

      as highly-structured and bureaucratic institutions. We have very robust faculty governance which also slows things down (Scott Walker would like to clip that, and is working furiously to make it happen).

      There are lots of checks and balances and it does tend to promote fairly conservative (by that I mean slow-moving and not radical) evolution and response to crisis or new paradigms.

      I am surprised that your adjunct pay is better than some tenured faculty pay, but faculty pay, particularly in humanities, has really stagnated (and was never that high to begin with). So in your case, the appeal of flexibility (and insecurity for you) is at least somewhat compensated. That isn't the case for most part-time people, sad to say.

      •  Yes, in the Humanities (0+ / 0-)

        Exactly. And also, California has had a frozen pay for tenured faculty for longer than adjuncts at many universities, so that's hurt many tenure-track and tenured folks. It's very bizarre. But with the academic job market being so flat, the tenure-tracks are signing on at exploitational wages.

        My friends who teach high school make far more than my tenured spouse, incidentally, who makes less than half of what anyone else we know in his position makes.

        Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

        by mahakali overdrive on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 06:00:53 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  The failure to cross boundries in (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman

    academia is why I've never had much interest in pursuing a career there, even though I would probably do very well. Unfortunately, the whole structure of learning in the USA is predicated on fitting in little boxes and staying between the lines.

    I suck at that. The world is far more interesting where it blends.

    This goes for the k-12 as much as college and graduate level.

    True wealth is a measure of what one gives.

    by WiseFerret on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 01:51:06 PM PDT

    •  Well, what you say is true structurally (2+ / 0-)

      but it is not necessarily true curricularly or within research.

      And, liberal arts colleges are generally better at "blending" than universities are. There are also majors that are predicated on "blending."

      I teach a very specific thing, which overlaps but does not define my research, and which guides course content but does not limit it. I personally think that I and my program blend pretty well. Of course, I teach design in an Art and Design department. The lines are blurry at best, and are generally drawn around technologies and facilities, but not around creating, learning or making.

      •  Interdisciplinary (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        annetteboardman

        It is interesting that funding agencies increasingly encourage interdisciplinary research (in the sciences, at least), and we all know how important the ability to win grants is for getting tenure.

        But as others have said, it is hard to integrate joint appointments and tenure. The few cases where I have seen it done successfully are when the college explicitly has an interdisciplinary major, and the hiree's duties to both departments are clearly stated upon hire. At my school, we minimize service requirements for new tenure-track faculty so that makes things a bit easier.

        The problem is not purely in academia though. In industry (especially R&D), they have "matrix organizations" where your technical boss is different from your management/administrative boss. It doesn't work too well there either as the technical boss often fails to tell your other boss how you have been doing, and its the latter that determines your raises/promotions/etc.

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