Last week I wrote a response to this column by Professor Irvin Winsboro, taking issue with his argument that the uncertain academic job market should be driving more Ph.Ds to take positions without job security (like his university's untenured "continuing multiyear appointments") – and that graduates have their priorities wrong if they don't.
But there are other kinds of insecurity at play in his column. As I mentioned to Jess Nevins in the comments to the last post, Winsboro expresses dismay that his university didn't receive more applicants, yet he also mentions – parenthetically – that they didn't place an advertisement in Perspectives, the central clearinghouse for jobs in history. I've seen this same phenomenon at my university, and it boggles the mind: if you don't place ads in the largest and most prestigious job forum, how many applicants should you expect to get?
The insecurity reaches its most perfect (and typical) manifestation as Winsboro engages in that classic academic practice of turning his institution's structural flaws into virtues. (Nobody can rationalize better than an intelligent person stuck doing a rotten job.) He makes frequent reference to the business-model university's "teaching-centered mission" and its interest in candidates with "demonstrable teaching and interpersonal skills" – all good things, essential things for this profession, but also academic codespeak for universities that prioritize heavy course loads and ballooning class sizes to process the maximum number of students for a minimal cost.
Florida Gulf Coast University, Winsboro's institution, would seem to be a stark example. He writes that its "student enrollment now stands at 6,400, and is expected to grow to 15,000 within the next six years." But a check of the FGCU website lists only three history faculty members for this growing campus of 6,400. Either this campus is wholly dependent on adjunct labor, or on class overcrowding, or on teacher overload, or it doesn't require much in the way of humanities courses for its students; or, I suspect, some combination of the four. When Winsboro writes that graduate students and their faculty should focus on developing teaching skills, he also means they should expect to do nothing else with their careers.
It's difficult even to write these paragraphs; how do you attack the teaching mill without sounding like you're attacking teaching itself? This is the fundamental genius of the rationalizers. They pass off the business-model university's exploitation, of teacher labor and student tuition alike, as their own dedication to the higher calling of educating young minds. And the more young minds you try to educate – say, 6,400 divided by three – the more virtuous you are.
The rationalizers rarely consider, or at least rarely mention, that under this model the students get short-changed as much as the teachers do. Are they going to learn as much when their teachers have 150 students, as opposed to 100 or 70, and consequently only have enough grading-hours to assign and comment on two-thirds or half as much work? Are they going to learn as much from a faculty comprised of that self-selecting set of scholars willing to work longer hours for lower pay and no job security?
Winsboro's answer to the latter is that the job crisis ought to be a windfall for exploitative universities because it means they should attract more applicants who would disdain to take such jobs in fatter years. And he says applicants ought to get on the bandwagon now:
Given the propensity of legislatures and new or reconstituted boards of trustees to embrace the "business" model of education, it is fair to assume that the non-tenure cohort of history hires will rise demonstrably in future years. […] Job seekers need to more seriously consider continuing MYA openings in their searches for employment. Not only do MYAs receive fewer applications, as the FGCU example shows, making one's chances of being hired better, but they can also be expected to become even more common as schools continue to shy away from new tenure-track appointments.
This, finally, is why I find Winsboro's argument so repugnant. His answer to the academic job crisis and the erosion of job security is to lie back and take it. Make it worse, in fact, by feeding the business model that's hurting both teachers and students by deprofessionalizing college education. I hope graduates continue to reject such exciting new career opportunities.