Thursday, August 12, 2010

Abolish Tenure?

At Slate

I haven't thought about this question enough. I've got that's good and all. (Though, to quasi-quote Richard Russo, getting tenure at my university is rather like getting first-place in a sh*t-eating competition...)

But should we abolish it?

Well, I know of people who get tenure and then never publish another paper nor re-write a lecture (nor, I suspect, read a book or paper in their field...) ever again.

But I've also seen just unbelievable abuses by the administration--an un-tenured (part-time) instructor fired largely because of an unsubstantiated (and, the evidence suggests, false) accusation by one Muslim student of an anti-Muslim utterance; an un-tenured prof fired by a notoriously irrational and bitchy dean for no reason other than: she didn't like him. A whole department (physics, no less), eliminated because the department Chair stood up to a fascistic university president (tenure wouldn't have helped there--that's why they got rid of the whole department: if the department is eliminated, you can fire tenured profs. Protests stopped this from going through, incidentally...and the local Ministry of Truth soon re-wrote history...and guess what? It never happened!!! Funny...I was there and and could have sworn I remember it...)

The Slate story suggests replacing an emphasis on publication with an emphasis on teaching. This would be good, at least in the humanities, where "research" (i.e. scholarship) probably ought to be rarer, and teaching is more important. It makes sense to emphasis research in the natural sciences, and to a rather lesser extent in the social sciences...but not really in the humanities. But it doesn't have much to do with tenure.

And, unfortunately, we still don't have very good methods of evaluating teaching. We still rely on student evaluations and, though I get good ones, let me tell you, those are bullshit, and they are largely responsible, I believe, for the erosion of standards in the university (since some profs curry favor with their students by making their courses easy and entertaining). A better way to evaluate teaching is to have one's colleagues sit in on class...but that method has its own obvious problems.

Note that, if we did get rid of tenure, it might very well force universities to pay more--job security is a plus, and if it goes away then, other things being equal, people will demand more money.

Anyway: I don't know.


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