The Op-Ed That Won’t Go Away!

I really do not get the vitriol directed at Mark Taylor’s op-ed that we discussed here briefly last week.  Elsewhere, in more insane corners of the academic blogosphere, Taylor has been characterized as naive, out-of-touch, anti-specialization, bent on asserting religion’s hegemony in the intellectual world, and in general a moron who never should’ve been given space in the New York Times — I trust that everybody slinging mud at the Times would turn down their invitation on general principle to write an op-ed.

Marc Bousquet’s column in the Chronicle of Higher Education is apparently ground zero of criticism, and he does everybody a service in making Kugelmass’ screeds completely unnecessary.  Consider yourself fortunate.  While I’m very sympathetic to Bousquet’s work in general, and even think he makes very good arguments here, some of his central points ring hollow to me.  He pounces on Taylor’s lede: “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market.”  Bousequet rightly points out the major problems with this observation, but fails to notice that Taylor’s argument is not wed to his (in my estimation, half-assed) criticism of the labor-situation in the contemporary university.  It seems to me Taylor wanted to do something with the Detroit analogy, and simply didn’t follow through on it very well — something I think happens throughout Taylor’s oeuvre.  It would’ve  been far more effective if he’d just stuck with his observation a little later: “The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations.”  This actually seems to get at the point of his op-ed, and actually seems very uncontroversial — indeed, based on his own column, it looks like Bousquet actually agrees with this!  If this is the case, I don’t see how Taylor’s inflated notion of how much adjunct professors make p/course undercuts his point — Bousquet makes a big deal out of this, but it may simply be that Taylor’s perspective is skewed by his present pay-grade or that Columbia maybe pays really well — time to dust off the CV!)  If anything, the reality on the ground (i.e., that adjuncts get paid much less $5000 p/course) would support Taylor’s broader point that adjuncts are badly utilized. Who, besides administrators (aka, the Enemy), disagrees with this?

Now, obviously Taylor’s contention that the tenure system is to be blamed for this is not readily apparent for all to see.  It is, to be sure, a radical and controversial suggestion, and arguments could definitely be made in defense of tenure.  Indeed, as mentioned above, I think Taylor errs in beginning his argument from the point of view of labor.  He may have sympathies here, but it doesn’t seem this is where his heart is at (certainly not in the degree to which it is for most on this blog or, apparently, Bousquet).  As Adam K. pointed out in a conversation this morning, Taylor very likely would have a problem w/ the current setup even if the labor situation was fine.   Some have “argued” that Taylor makes this point in the spirit of following a fad.  This is ridiculous.  I’ve followed Taylor’s evolution as a thinker since my first year in graduate school, with various degrees of intensity and agreement, and think it accurate to say that if he is guilty of anything it is creating fads, not following them.  Taylor is not jumping on tenure because it is the cool thing to do; more even than his concerns for the exploitation of adjuncts, I would argue that his attack is a natural outgrowth of his philosophical inquiries, esp. as they relate to complexity theory.  Of course, some might say complexity theory itself is already faddish, but I challenge you to show me how it has seriously affected the structure of the contemporary university and/or its curriculum.

Now, personally I have no problem with his take on inter- and cross-disciplinarity, or the restructuring of the university.  Taking aim at over-specialiation is not the same thing as destroying specialization; and interdisciplinarity does not mean the end of disciplines.  As I argue in my dissertation, itself awaiting publication in the woefully misguided academic publishing system, thus participating in the ridiculous game of meritocracy, specialization and disciplines in a complex system would not be eradicated so much as they would actually emerge (and yes, decline) organically.  Again, one could certainly disagree with this notion and come up with solid arguments against or to supplement it, and invite you to do so here, since it doesn’t seem to be happening anywhere else.

7 thoughts on “The Op-Ed That Won’t Go Away!

  1. (Random comments to follow, rather than “solid arguments”) While I don’t agree with everything Taylor said, I think much of his discussion is rightfully provocative. I have been surprised at how many people have defended the university against Taylor’s suggestions (in another forum–not this blog), but I suppose those who have “made it” are fine with the current system.

    In regards to (over-) specialization, I think we need to move toward a more inter-disciplinary approach, as Taylor says.

    Also, as a random venting comment: I make way more as a TA this year than I did as an adjunct last year (at a different university). There is something greatly disturbing about this. Incidentally, Marquette has now decided to give full benefits to its adjuncts. This is due to the persistent work of one of our Jesuit profs, Daniel McGuire. You can read about his efforts here:“Seeking the Path to Adjunct Justice at Marquette University,”
    24 THOUGHT & ACTION 47 (2008).

  2. I wonder to what extent the need for adjuncts is a “dangerous supplement” inherent to the tenure system itself, even when it’s working at its ideal level — that is, you will always need to fill certain curricular gaps that a faculty of specialists can’t cover. So you might bring in someone from the “civilian” world or someone from another school or something like that to fill the gap. But what happens when your specialized faculty feels increasingly discontent teaching the intro courses? Then what’s the harm of having grad students do it, right? Where it gets really toxic, of course, is when the corporate model of cost-cutting and flexibility is imported into the university — but it couldn’t have been imported if there wasn’t already “room” for it in the structure itself.

    In other words, perhaps the university was always-already going to turn into adjunct hell — precisely because it focuses on the production of monadic specialists who can’t see the big picture. That’s why I think that the professoriate is not a profession — all the formal institutions of professions aside, they lack the solidarity specific to a cartel that has to maintain its monopoly over its primary source of income (i.e., university teaching). Doctors and lawyers publish articles, do research, do pro bono work, do lectures, etc., etc., etc., but they never lose sight of where the real gravy train is. Professors, under the actual existing present regime, constitutively and necessarily lose sight of it. Taylor is one of those people, so he has the blinders we’d expect. But maybe something like his plan could lead to removing some of those blinders. MAYBE.

  3. I’m a little concerned about the direction of using the rightfully damnable reality of adjuncting against the tenure system. Isn’t this exactly what The Employer is actually aiming for. Turning laborers’ weapons at each other rather than against the true source of the problem? I mean, I suspect that labor is a much smaller chunk of the pie than building new, technologically advanced buildings in most universities.

  4. I don’t see why anyone without tenure would defend it. There are the knee-jerk freedom of speech and thought arguments, which nobody really believes. Tulane fired 1/3 of the faculty, the dead wood, after Katrina. The tenured faculty only exists if they can get somebody to do half of the department’s teaching for a fraction of the pay, which is the equivalent of a raise. Bosquet is right, tenure is disappearing. The best scenario is if tenure is replaced with unionized teachers on contract. That is just a matter of time . . . as a union organizer said over at IHE (I couldn’t find it again) some colleges are so dependent on adjuncts, a strike would in fact shut the school down. I don’t usually support unions, but in some cases they are appropriate.

  5. Update: word is the reaction to Taylor’s op-ed has almost been record-setting at the Times, and consequently he’s been asked by to do a book-length treatment of his column. So it is truly the op-ed that will not go away.

  6. Good post.

    “Taking aim at over-specialiation is not the same thing as destroying specialization; and interdisciplinarity does not mean the end of disciplines.”

    I think there are definite benefits that could come from the creation of interdisciplinary, problem-oriented departments. But why go so far, as Taylor does, to say that permanent departments should be eliminated (or have to pass some sort of benchmark)? I think such departments could complement the permanent ones.

    I wrote a longer response to Taylor’s piece here:

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