Saturday, December 9, 2006

Deadwood in the Liberal Arts and Sciences

Deadwood is an expression referring to tenured faculty that have reached the point of burn-out and unfortunately it has occurred before they can retire early. These professors feel entitled to their paycheques (and let's face it what they do can hardly be called a job) because, back when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, they did some amazing things, they developed new courses, had an active research program and served on committees that shaped the policy and direction of the whole University.

Now, well now is another story. They gather in each others offices and gnaw the dry bones of old arguments. They deliver their courses as if someone pulls a string out of their back and the lectures just roll out of them. They, in fact, have unlimited time at their disposal and keen intellects so that they can quickly move from "harmless old farts" to very dangerous foes. Their enemy is change, their call to arms is merit and their moto is tradition.

All Universities have them. They are a necessary evil of the tenure process. Indeed, the whole idea of tenure almost requires that the same system that is designed to form new faculty will leave some of them mangled and in the healing they become twisted versions of what they were before.

The problem that is particularly evident in the liberal arts and science university is that the committees that meet to review the files on tenure applicants are often multi-disciplinary. This means that each time they meet there is a requirement to re-define all the terms about what a peer reviewed article is and what value a book has to a chapter to a review to a journal article to a conference proceeding to a conference presentation. All of this becomes uniquely defined by the academic backgrounds of the committee members.

We all know, that in all situations, academics will draw the line between right and wrong, adequate and inadequate just microscopically less then their own position in the discipline. It is the very arbitrariness of this setting of standards that can get applicants upset. In the liberal arts and science tradition strict formulae for research + teaching + service are not favoured because they will always end up favouring activity of one sort over another or imposing the norms for one discipline over another.

That is where the deadwood grows.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.