An elegantly evil idea

One can easily find suggestions for how to change the academic job market for the better. Only seldom, however, does someone come up with an idea guaranteed to make the situation worse.

The idea is one that I had while out for a walk this morning. I saw a catalogue for the local community college hanging from someone’s doorknob and thought, “Maybe I could teach at a community college some summers for extra money.” Then I thought, “Maybe it would be beneficial to do even leaving aside money, to expose me to a different type of student and stretch me as a teacher.”

Finally, however, I was inspired with an evil version of this same basic idea: tenured professors at prestigious schools should occasionally be granted a sabbatical in which it was understood that they would teach at a local community college or another similar institution. Their home institution would subsidize their salary during this period, meaning the community college would save money at the same time as it got a boost in prestige. What better way for major universities to give back to the community, right?

The problems with such a seemingly well-intentioned idea are delightfully manifold. First, by taking these teaching slots, they will be taking work from other academics who desperately need it — and who would likely do a much better job, given that they have more experience with such populations. Meanwhile, at their home institutions, they would be opening up the possibility of greater reliance on contingent academic labor in their absence. (Perhaps an enterprising university could set up a “society of fellows”-type institution to fill precisely this gap!)

On the other hand, the result on the side of the prestigious academic is almost certain to be negative. One possibility is that the “slumming” academic would feel a great deal of self-satisfaction at having so nobly sacrificed, etc. — or else they would find the work to be so difficult as to increase the sense that teaching is a burden that must be avoided at all costs. In either case, the sense of the tenured, prestigious academic as somehow “separate” from the everyday frontlines of education would be reinforced. Indeed, even in the slightly more favorable outcome of self-satisfaction, one might see sentiments along the lines of “these adjuncts don’t realize how great they have it!”

In short, this policy would victimize one class of contingent academic laborers, further undermine the institution of tenure in prestigious institutions, and increase the gulf separating the Chosen Few from the majority of their (supposed) colleagues — all the while most likely hurting the quality of education for the very population the policy aims to help.

And this is where you come in, readers — surely I haven’t thought of everything here! Surely I have missed some obvious perverse consequence of this hypothetical initiative, or else have not designed it for optimum damage.

4 thoughts on “An elegantly evil idea

  1. As a veteran of teaching at community colleges (I think I have taught at four different community colleges in three different states), and as a general fan of the whole concept of community colleges, the fact is that I find community college students to be very satisfying to teach and I enjoy and use the diversity of the classroom.

    What would be interesting would having a faculty exchange with a community college, where community college profs could have the experience of teaching more “traditional” students, which I actually think would make them appreciate the mission of the community college even more. Students at the “traditional” colleges would have teachers far more used to teaching hands-on with little or no pretentions about publications, with the vocational focus really being teaching as its own end. This is a generalization, but I think it’s a true one.

  2. Hi Adam, government tried to do this in Turkey, and Istanbul’s elite academics using their hands in the assembly and the court, made justice reject the law in order to ”protect scientific integrity” sigh.

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