(Pre)Modernity and Academe

In between bouts of marking and writing, I’ve been keeping up with the recent wave of talks about tenure, commitments to departments by junior hires and the sense of modernity (or post-modernity) in academic work/life balance and would highlight some of the interesting discussion ongoing at Geeky Mom’s blog as well as Dr. Crazy’s excellent post “There’s Not a Thing in the World Wrong with Looking”.

As a historian, it behooves me to say that the modern/pre-modern divide people such as Dean Dad has articulated is chimerical. The pre-modern university bears little resemblance the tenure-granting institutions of 21st century North American. I would rather see us look to the actual origins of our university system in the last hundred or so years, than spend too much time trying to find equivalences further back.

Medieval and early modern faculty were conventionally clergymen, celibate in the Catholic tradition and, even in Protestant territories, rarely in a position to marry and support a family as a full-time academic. Many held posts that came with bachelor’s lodgings and a slim salary. Rather than a wife at home to prepare a tenure file, the typical pre-modern academic had no family responsibilities to distract from his (and I use the masculine pronoun advisedly) career. Many traveled from one institution or another, wooed by the prestige of the university, the promises of the employing masters (or in the case of a few universities, the students themselves) and any other attractions that could be offered, particularly to celebrity scholars.

Premodern scholars were more prone to travel from one university to another than to be tied for their lifetime to one place. Even the skilled labourer of the Late Middle Ages, to whom one might advisedly compare the specialist academic of the current day, would more likely fit the mold of skilled itinerant (such as a freemason) or guilded master (such as the silversmith or apothecary) whose opposing job experiences (traveling from one site to another as contract labourer and paid a premium wage for their high skill, but having to see to themselves during economic downturns; self-governing craftsman who participated in both trade and city government but were, by virtue of their status, all but tied to one place) could lend us some insight into the work traditions we see today — better than those of the servile labourer whose freedoms were almost nil.

Of course, academic tenure is an anachronistic notion for the pre-modern academic — one’s security lay in one’s possession of livings or other sources of income bestowed by patrons which could be either liberating or confining. Academic jobs were far fewer in number and the goal was first to train other clergymen or, as secular students increased in number, add polish to the sons of the gentle or middling classes. The pay was paltry but the status amongst scholars and the opportunity to research freely? Those were admitted attractions but ones that few would-be scholars enjoyed. Hence the plaintive cry of Walter of Châtillon who wrote to the pope seeking some sort paying position as an academic: “What do the arts give, other than trouble and toil?”

While Walter’s lament still rings true today, understanding the clerical patronage problems of the medieval institutions won’t much help us with today’s conundrum. I suggest that our understanding of the current problems in academic employment and tenure practices might be better found by looking at the socio-economic systems of the early 20th century rather than hieing back to the more distant past. There’s a lot more insight to be gained by looking at the explosive growth in academic institutions from the 1880s onwards, with the rise of land-grant institutions, the development of modern academic specialization and the work culture of North American elites at that time than looking much further back.

The expectations that every professor will have a wife to help type his manuscripts or assemble his tenure file is much more a relic of the early 20th century than going back four hundred years previous. Similarly, the idea of tenure and its development is also a factor of that historical period, so trying to look for insight into our current tenure system in the medieval world isn’t going to give us much help.

What’s more important is the modern/post-modern labour shift in work that’s putting great pressure on academic tradition. We’ve entered a post-modern era of employment in the general society, with hopes for life-time jobs fading in almost every other industry. Increasing number of our workers are daily and aggressively reminded of the contingency of their jobs. To them, the protections of tenure seem more about a life-long paycheck than anything else (such as an encouragement to pursue controversial and long-term research questions). That someone could be so ungrateful for such a rare and coveted sinecure as to look elsewhere seems unbelievable in the eyes of non-academics who, I well understand, would love to have more job security.

Is the tenure system perfect? Hell, no. Is the gaping divide between tenured and non-tenure-track faculty a good thing? No, it’s a damnable exploitative system that’s growing by the minute. But blaming the problems of the current system on tenure is wrong. We need to look at the transformation of the labour market in general and the history of academic labour in particular to understand what anachronistic expectations we’re perpetuating while also looking forward to see where we want to be with our own labour future.

We can’t do that by simply dismantling tenure. We could start by trying to minimize or eliminate the reliance on contingent faculty to teach a growing percentage of our classes. We need also to understand that awarding tenure shouldn’t simply be the last in a long series of hazing rituals and start paying heed to what we actually need in faculty members (as opposed to constantly raising the bar in terms of the sheer quantity of publications expected). We might need to look at tenure, how it’s conceived and awarded, how it can be revised when faculty fail to perform. But all of this requires critical thinking and a huge investment of time and energy even the most devoted of scholars would have trouble mustering. Unless, of course, they have a wife at home, to do the research and synthesis for them!

Suggested Readings:
Aloysius Siow, “Tenure and Other Unusual Personnel Practices in Academe,” Journal of Law, Economics and Organization 14:1 (1998), 152-173.
Stephen C. Ferruolo, “‘Quid dant artes nisi luctum?’: Learning, Ambition, and Careers in the Medieval University,” History of Education Quarterly, 28:1 (Spring, 1988), 1-22.
Roger L. Geiger, To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900-1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Charles T. Morrissey , “Oral History, Memory, and the Hallways of Academe: Tenure Decisions and Other Job Skirmishes,” The Oral History Review, 27:1 (Winter - Spring, 2000), 99-116.
“Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,” Profession 2007. PDF Downloads.

12 Responses to “(Pre)Modernity and Academe”

  1. Cranky Old Man Says:

    “To them, the protections of tenure seem more about a life-long paycheck than anything else (such as an encouragement to pursue controversial and long-term research questions). That someone could be so ungrateful for such a rare and coveted sinecure as to look elsewhere seems unbelievable in the eyes of non-academics who, I well understand, would love to have more job security.”

    If you consider life-long health insurance only the young, rich, or foolish could give such a deal a pass.

    Cranky Old Man.

  2. ancarett Says:

    I have to admit, one of the advantages to living and working in Canada is that the pressures for health insurance through work are less (not absent — OHIP doesn’t cover prescriptions, dental and eye care except for some special exceptions).

  3. Bright Star (B*) Says:

    This historical perspective is really helpful, and it is not a perspective I would have had access to otherwise, so thanks for writing this.

  4. Belle Says:

    Thank you for the lovely post. I’d love to have a living, which would enable me the freedom to locate in a more amenable place without losing my livelihood.

    Tenure is little enough as it is; once you understand that a place can jettison you if they can justify ‘financial exigency’ it’s less.

  5. Chaser Says:

    Very interesting! Many thanks for writing this post.

  6. Susan Says:

    Thanks for this post, and bringing rigorous historical thinking to this subject. It’s rare that we in the humanities apply all our scholarly skills to questions of academic policy, and we should more often. I think the reason that people think of the old fashioned (really modern) approach to university employment as “pre-modern” is that it also included a fair bit of paternalism, which does seem pre-modern to most people.

    Having had both long term contracts and now one year contracts, I can say that the freedom of tenure is amazing. At the same time, I’ve seen people who — in the words of one former colleague — got tenure and a hobby. So I’m all for post-tenure reviews (done properly).

    Oh, and my father is Canadian, lives there, and it also removes one area of worry about parental aging.

  7. ancarett Says:

    B*, Belle, Chaser and Susan, thanks for the comments. If you’re informed, you’re more effective, I say.

    At some point I’d really like to tap the expertise of a colleague specializing in higher education during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It’s increasingly clear that’s a critical time for the formation of the work culture we’re still labouring under, a century later!

  8. Daddio Says:

    Ah, tenure that elusive concept that cycled in visibility throughout my life in academe -over the past now almost 50 years. It always amazed me how many different cloaks it seemed to have but I suppose it is like beauty - only in the eye of the beholder. I throughly enjoyed the historical perspective! I must admit that the negative aspects of tenure were far more evident in my experience that the positive but that probably is because my exposure was in science and engineering and not the humanities.

  9. Professor Zero Says:

    This is a *really* smart post.

  10. In Light « Professor Zero Says:

    […] Jump to Comments Now I am reading Ancarett’s really smart post on the modern and the postmodern university. Myproblem is that I am in Right postmodernity and I long for Left modernity. I understand at last. […]

  11. Professor Zero Says:

    If I had any more free time I’d study among other things Thorstein Veblen’s _The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men_, (New York, N.Y.: Huebsch, 1918, viii, 286 p.) - on his arguments with the President of the University of Chicago, where he worked.

    I think the other place to look is the massive expansion of PhD programs, and conversion of state teachers’ colleges to universities, starting I guess around the 60s to 70s (and ongoing). I was trained by professors who were trained before that era, so it is as though I came from modernity and am in postmodernity (or something like this), blinking, but many people now come entirely from this new era. Its needs and values, and parameters etc., are really different but one is told (sometimes) one still has the conditions and goals of the earlier time (a time I preferred in many ways, because it offered more time for reflection, but which I am definitely not in).

  12. ancarett Says:

    Professor Zero, thanks so much for your comments and the reference. I agree with you that the growth of higher ed is still playing out in strange ways. If we don’t understand the institutions in which we operate, we’re running blind so thanks for adding to the information we’ve collected so far!