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Citizen Metaphors: Dead Wood

Let’s say you get tenure after all the stress and agony of the review.  What then?  Party down, take a holiday, reward yourself, bestow thanks and blessings upon your significant others.  Then take a deep breath and gaze out upon the landscape stretching before you inside the gated walls of academe.  Most likely, this is where you’ll be living for the next thirty-five years.  And the question is: what kind of life will you have?

I have traveled a good deal in academia—for almost forty years, truth be told—and I’ve been amazed to encounter so many unhappy people.  Not all, certainly, but enough to wring your heart.  Who made them serfs of the soil?  You would think that job security, a good income, and relative prestige would make anyone happy, but experience shows that tenure is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. Indeed, many associate or even full professors seem to run out of steam, content to teach their classes and draw their salaries without publishing or even taking an active role in governance.  Many desk chairs seem padded with fading laurels.  No wonder so many on the outside view tenured faculty as coddled and privileged, shielded from the political and economic perils that torment the rest of us.  Those who seem to be reaping permanent benefits without doing much work are scornfully referred to as “dead wood,” another master metaphor that, like “peer review” and “academic freedom,” speaks volumes about our condition.

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Dead wood.  It’s pronounced with a sneer by junior faculty, with a sigh by administration, and with a shudder by tenured professors.  The young resent the palpable double standard as their elders hog resources and privileges while resisting evaluation and sending the scut work downhill.  Administrators, frustrated by sloth, obstructionism, and truculence, gnash their teeth as deadlines press and decisions pile up.  The tenured, meanwhile, cling to a fragile sense of entitlement, acutely aware of critical glances and whiffs of suppressed contempt.  No wonder so many begin to suffer from low self-esteem and a creeping fear that they, too, may have passed their peak, may already have begun to rot invisibly from within.

In the spirit of inquiry, then, let’s gently unpack this metaphor.  Dead wood is rigid, barren, and heavy.  The tree supports it, but it does nothing to feed or nurture the tree.  It puts forth no blossoms or leaves; it bears no fruit; in short, it does no useful work.  Moreover, it’s not growing; it’s not green but brown or gray, weathered and naked to the wind, no more than a “bare ruined choir where late the sweet birds sang.”  It’s a lost cause, a hopeless wreck, a relic of the past.  Each term of the metaphor carries its own pejorative charge.  “Dead” suggests fixity, inertia, hopelessness, a bitter end: no second chances here.  “Wood” suggests rigidity, stolidity, even idiocy, making a strong contrast to elasticity and grace: think “dumb as a post” or “a wooden expression.”  No wonder calling someone “dead wood” feels like a cruel, if not unusual, punishment.

Now consider the opposite case: living wood.  Interestingly, academe offers no catchy metaphor for staying alive. Living wood puts forth green leaves and fruit.  But when applied to people, “green” often connotes inexperience, clumsiness, or ineptitude, all of which we frown on here in the ivory tower.  Think “greenhorn,” for example: it’s an image from the frontier, from the world of hard physical work in the outdoors.  Plus, it’s a manly term, gender-inflected.  (Strike two!)  Nevertheless, if we think of living wood as green, the shadow of dead wood so to speak, then more hopeful possibilities emerge.

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In the botanic world green suggests life, growth, change that branches out in all directions, adaptation, exploration, and discovery; we all know how trees and other plants grow toward the light.  Orchardists speak of “bearing wood,” meaning branches that produce blossoms and fruit.  Those on my apple trees, for example, begin to bear after three years; properly tended and pruned, they can produce for decades.  In contrast, unpruned limbs put forth suckers and sprouts in all directions and bear only small gnarly fruits.  After a few years, most of these shoots begin to die off; the limb grows leggy and tangled.  Eventually, a disease like fire blight enters through a dead twig and migrates through the sapwood, killing the limb and eventually, if not cut away, the entire tree.

A well-pruned fruit tree looks good: flourishing, symmetrical, green all over.  It appears to be leading a healthy and balanced life.  Pruning channels sap to the bearing wood and controls rankness by eliminating suckers; the limbs stay short and sturdy while the fruit grows  larger and more abundant.   A well-tended tree has no dead wood and lots of bearing wood.  It reflects good husbandry  (memo to chairs and deans!).  This is what we mean by those who appear to lead a convincing life:  you will know them by their fruits.

“Dead wood” may be a cruel metaphor for a depressing condition. But it does not have to be our fate.

Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

Since I began pursing a PhD in 1990 there has been astonishing growth in the hiring of college and university faculty. According the Department of Education (DOE), between 1995 and 2009 the academic workforce has grown by fifty percent. However, ninety percent of those positions were non-tenure-track faculty. As a result, in this fourteen-year period, the percentage of tenure-track faculty has dropped from eighty to under fifty percent. This erosion of tenure-track positions raises a number of challenging questions about higher education, the system of tenure, and the nature of faculty work. For someone like myself, a department chair at a medium-sized public college, the erosion of tenure-track faculty in postsecondary institutions raises other issues as well.

At a recent campus forum that was called to address concerns about the College reductions in the number of courses taught by adjunct faculty, we were asked what we thought the fundamental issues affecting community relations at the College. Forum participants called attention to problems with communication, a lack of respect across staff and faculty groups, and a culture that exploits adjunct faculty. While these things may be true, my response—and some people, I learned later, were surprised by what I said—was to call attention to the failure to understand (and take part in) a culture of shared governance.

My point was that the decisions the institution had made over the past ten or more years were designed to reduce our reliance on adjunct faculty. Contrary to what many claim, however, these decisions were based, at the same time, on valuing the many contributions of adjunct faculty. But the value these contributions were running up against the work we were doing to increase the number of tenure-track lines. In making my case, I reminded my colleagues why active participation in the life of the College is so essential to the work we do to create better working conditions for faculty and learning conditions for students. For everyone who participated in our College’s embrace of a 4-credit course curriculum knew that the change would result in fewer course sections—in fact, the number of course sections would drop by about 25%, or 500 sections each year. Department chairs and other faculty who choose to attend faculty meetings knew that the Provost had made a commitment to hiring a certain number of tenure-track faculty each year, too. In fact, the President had published a letter to the campus that outlined this initiative that would place us among our public liberal arts college peers with at least 2/3 of courses taught by tenure-track faculty. (The initiative from the President’s office was in part a response to a NEASC recommendation following the College’s Self-Study.) From 2006 to the present, in fact, we added 43 new positions—from 181 to 224 tenure-track faculty. This is a trajectory that goes against national trends, and I am hopeful that the new administration can sustain these gains.

Yet a friend, who happens to be an adjunct faculty member at the College, noted that hiring more tenure-track faculty would not necessarily improve the College. While I agreed that there is little data to support the institutional initiative to increase the percentage of tenure-track faculty, I disagreed with him that we should be arguing for temporary and non-benefitted positions. Though in disagreeing I found my way to the question I was facing as tenured member of the faculty and a department chair: can one value adjunct faculty at the same time one is working to diminish the number of adjuncts at the College?

Perhaps the best answer is yes and no. One the one hand, increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important for a number of reasons: 1) we end up advocating with the administration for more stable positions with competitive salaries and benefits; 2) we endorse the mutually constitutive relations between scholarship and teaching by making scholarly work a contractural obligation for faculty on the tenure track; and 3) we hire faculty from a national pool of applicants with a terminal degree and with different expectations for teaching and advising, scholarship, and service. On the other hand, in making decisions to cut adjunct lines, and reduce long-serving adjunct faculty from full- to part-time positions, we are actors in a system that offers little employment stability to those who do not have a tenure-track position and who have chosen to take a job as an adjunct.

Increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important. Our collective bargaining agreement specifies that tenure-track faculty will generally teach 24 credit hours per academic year and may be assigned a maximum of 21 advisees; engage in ongoing study and professional development, participation in professional organizations, work with campus committees; spend hours spent mentoring students as well as evaluating their work; undertake activities supporting quality teaching that may include setting up and breaking down labs, ordering and inventorying supplies, maintaining equipment, supervising student assistants, and coordinating multi-section courses and other dimensions of academic programs. We need people do do this work so that we can do this work well.

From the standpoint of shared governance, a higher percentage of tenure-track positions allows us to move beyond a stakeholder model of governance to an actual model in which the faculty accept both the authority and the primary responsibility to reach decisions in our areas of expertise, including the shape of the curriculum, our subject matter and our methods of instruction, the nature of our research, and the dimensions of student life that intersect with the educational process. Instead of functioning as employees of the institution, then, the faculty is recognized as a body of professionals with specialized training and knowledge who are in turn uniquely qualified to exercise decision-making authority. In identifying the understanding of roles faculty must assume in a genuine system of shared governance I was also making a case that many of my adjunct faculty colleagues are not prepared to make: an argument based on participation in and understanding of the structures and  systems in particular educational institutions; and an argument based on an understanding of the kinds of decisions that involve the implementation of long-term institutional goals.

I’ll continue to do my best to make with these decisions in a transparent, compassionate and respectful way. Yet it is neither simple nor easy when I am sharing difficult news with an adjunct faculty member in my own department whose work has for many years benefited our students and whose professional competence I deeply respect.