Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Graying of the Faculty

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today-- "The 60's Begin To Fade As Liberal Professors Retire"-- that touches on a number of issues surrounding what appears to be an impending "generational shift" in the American professorate. According to the author, over 54% of full-time faculty in the United States were over the age of 50 in 2005 (compared with only 22% in 1969), which means that well over half of our current faculty were at least adolescents in the 1960's. The article mostly focuses on this fact, and emphasizes an alleged generational difference between older and younger faculty members in terms of their "ideological" (by which the author seems to mean, primarily, "political") commitments. Older faculty are "ideologically committed" and younger faculty aren't, the story goes, because much of the older faculty spent their formative years embroiled in the social and political maelstrom that was the 60's. As that older "liberal" generation grays and eventually retires, the influence they exerted in shaping the face of the American professorate is transferred, mutatis mutandis, to the less ideologically committed and more moderate generation of junior faculty.

I'm not entirely convinced that it is accurate to describe the younger generation of faculty (according to the article, "younger" means "between 26-35") as lacking ideological "commitment," though I can appreciate the significant differences between the manner in which such commitments are manifest in the 60's generation and how they are manifest in people of my generation. But that's an argument for another day. What really interested me about this article was that, in the course of describing these generational differences between faculty, the author mentions--and then quickly passes over--several phenomena that would serve as legitimate explanations for it. Here are two in particular:

First, there has been a tremendous increase in female faculty-- almost 40% of the total in 2005, compared with a mere 17% in 1969. Of course, I don't cite this statistic as a way of suggesting that women are "less ideologically committed," but rather to point out that the "old" makeup of the professorate was overwhelmingly constituted by men who had the luxury of fully indulging their ideological commitments, at least in part, because their non-ideological commitments (like the care of a home and children) were being handled by someone else.

Second, shrinking economic support for higher education and the increasing shortage of tenure-track jobs have dramatically changed the professional part of what it means to be a member of the American professorate. The younger generation of faculty are described in the article as more conscientiously "careerist," as if those sorts of utilitarian commitments have replaced what would have been our legitimate "ideological" commitments because we were molded in the cushy, mostly peaceful and relatively prosperous days of the 90's. It seems to me to be a real mistake to assume that some sort of autonomous re-prioritization of values is the reason that junior faculty are more "careerist," rather than attributing that phenomenon to the very real economic and professional pressures under which junior faculty now labor.

To be fair, the article does acknowledge these two points. It just doesn't seem to give them the weight they merit, I think, especially since they are far more helpful in elucidating the real effects of an impending generational change than some romantic re-creation of "the 60's radical professor." All due respect to those illustrious radical profs, of course.

One last thing: I hope that the 60's generation of professors doesn't retire too quickly, because I think there is one very important thing that they know, and we will soon need to know, which will probably bind us together more than anyone has yet anticipated. That is, they know what it's like to have "veterans" as students. It is a fact that, in the coming years, more and more college students will be entering the classroom after exiting a war. They will be radically different people, with radically different experiences of the world, than we junior professors were or had when we were in college. (You can listen to three of them tell their stories in "Iraq veterans on campus.") I've only had three students "back from Iraq" so far in my teaching experience--2 at Penn State and 1 here at Rhodes--but I could already see an inkling of the tremendous disconnect not only between their lives and mine, but also between their lives and that of their classmates. I'm sure that, at this point, the endless analogies between Vietnam and Iraq can seem tiresome... but I think this is one for which we have not yet fully prepared.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for pointing me to this article and for pointing out much of what it leaves unsaid.

You know how I feel about hippies, so I'll refrain from that here.

One thing that you implied, but that I want to exply (if that's the word I'm looking for), is the fallacy in assuming that if younger faculty are not committed in the same way that older faculty are, then they are not committed.

I will refrain from making any remarks about the sexual politics od academic departments, but do need to emphasize that virtually all of the support that I've received from faculty in trying to figure out how to balance work and young children has come from women across the supposed generational divide or, occasionally, much younger men (to give you a sense of how clueless 60's era male faculty can be here, some of them have tried to cheer me up about next years joblessness by pointing how much more writing I'll be able to do, since presumably I'll be sitting at home drinking cocktails and not knee deep in diapers...)

Now, on to professionalism: I've really appreciated the recognition of some older faculty members for how much more competitive the academy is than it was --- (I just finished reading From Dissertation to Book, which is a great resource that I wish I had read 4 years ago, and the author makes the point that this is equally or more true in getting books published than it is in hiring --- and at a time when tenure requirements are becoming much stricter.) One faculty member in his 60's is hilariously open about his belief that he wouldn't be able to land a job now. Others have recognized how much tougher we have it by saying things like: "Well I never would have taken a job at X (or in X shitty town), but I guess you don't have that luxury." But a lot of them seem to forget it.

The veteran point is a good, but sobering one (although if McCain has his way we won't have to worry since veterans will no longer benefit from the GI Bill). Early on in the war, I had 2 students who were in the Marines and just back from Iraq: one of them was one of my favorite students ever; the other was seriously fucked up.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Ok, I hope I didn't sound bitter and apologize if I did. The Ideas kids were pieces of work today (sleep strike) and I think I was in fact knee deep in diapers.

But after a couple of cocktails and So You Think You Can Dance, I'm feeling much better.

Still no writing though...

Booga Face said...

Glad you brought this up. Your critique of the article is exactly right, I think, and it reminds me of how poorly the mainstream media represents our profession. The NY Times should know better, since it has so many professors writing columns for it.

Just to add on to the point you already made. A lot of the old men in the system had wives who did quite a lot of their work for them -- researching, typing, proofreading, and even writing, or at least being an interlocutor. So, not only was the market less demanding, but they had this informal assistance. And you can even see this in the acknowledgements in their books, where the more honest of them say "um, er, OK, I admit it -- my wife did half of this." I first discovered this when I was a graduate student who won an award given by the widow of a distinguished scholar. I had lunch with her several times, and she would talk her adventures with her husband, and was fascinated by how much she contributed not only to her husband's work but to other's as well.

And I appreciate Ideas Man's observation that women faculty are more willing to help graduate students deal with family issues. The Modern Language Association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession (whose meetings I attended a few times) was putting together a statistical study on this very issue. It was noticed that there were quite a lot more women English professors now, but they seemed to all be stuck at the associate level. The question raised was why? Anecdotal evidence indicated that more demands were placed on their time (including informal stuff such as them actually helping students). So, they have been putting together stasticial data to see if it corroborated the anecdots.

Basically, what we're talking about here is the "affective labor" that Antonio Negri has discussed. Jane Juffer has a great chapter on this and on the hypocrisies of the university's refusal to recognize that faculty members are also parents in her book Single Mother.

Meanwhile, I'm tempted to go on a rant about how tiresome the same-old, same-old "back in the 60s" refrain is. But I won't, because I blogged about it already a few months ago here:

anotherpanacea said...
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