There’s a fascinating conversation going on in two different posts on Invisible Adjunct (post 1 | post 2) about the celebrification of academia, and the potential costs of such a star system. IA herself (now that’s an interesting bit of gendering; why do I automatically assume that IA is female? Did I read something on the site that suggested such a pronoun use, or is there something gendered in the hierarchy of academia itself?) has put forward the theory that there’s a distinct connection between the rise of this star system and the parallel “adjunctification” of the academy, and that all of this is connected to the widespread devaluing of teaching at the university level, as well as the fall in the public sense of the value of a liberal arts education.
I want to second this notion, and I know that a number of my grad-school colleagues would do so as well. We were enrolled during a period when our Private University in the Public Service went on a major buying spree, snapping up superstars right and left. With a few notable exceptions, those stars did not teach — or rather, while they did preside over classes, on both the graduate and the undergraduate levels, it was clear that their raison d’?™tre at the university was not fundamentally about the students. They led their classes, but had slews of teaching assistants who handled all that messy grading. They spoke occasionally with graduate students, but only those who had already demonstrated their own star potential. They certainly did not Advise. Thus, the burden of real instruction, and particularly undergraduate instruction, and especially the extra unremunerated labor that such instruction brings, increasingly fell upon junior faculty, adjuncts, and graduate teaching assistants.
I find myself in an odd position with regard to this conversation, which I suppose is why I’m posting my thoughts here rather than in Invisible Adjunct’s comments. On the one hand, I’m without question one of the blessed: in a stroke that I can attribute to nothing but stupid luck, I got the job of my dreams right as I was finishing my dissertation, and have been here since. I can sympathize with those whom this system genuinely degrades into a second-class citizenry, but I can never empathize, as I just haven’t been there. On the other hand, I’m employed by a Small Liberal Arts College that is very keenly focused on undergraduate instruction and hands-on (and labor-intensive) interaction with students. We are also very conscious of the decreasing esteem in which such an education is held in the culture at large and very concerned to minimize our reliance upon adjunct labor. (This last should not necessarily be taken as a token of our virtue; an over-reliance on adjuncts can hurt one’s rankings among the other SLACs, a fact never too distant from our thoughts.) Working at a place like this, I have a measure of protection from the colder economic realities experienced at many larger universities, but a deeper investment in and commitment to teaching itself — a commitment that vastly diminishes the likelihood, because of the stresses on my time as well as the assumptions made by many in Research I schools about the lack of scholarly “seriousness” among faculty so committed, of my ever graduating into the realm of the academic elite. (Witness my manuscript-shopping travails in the previous post. How much easier is it to get your manuscript read when your letterhead says “Research I” than when it says “SLAC”?)
Which is not to say that I’d ever want to be such a Star. I’m committed to the choices I’ve made, I love this place, I adore my students, and I thank my lucky stars every day to have landed here. But it’s hard not to feel oneself a bit preterite-ized when the Elect are given so many demonstrable signs of their Value.