Academic Combat and Jobs

Fri, 3 Jun 1994 12:31:30 -0700

I think I should clarify a bit what I said yesterday, since a couple of people
seem to have taken me a bit too seriously. If you recall, I suggested
(entirely tongue in cheek) that the way to fix the job situation was to get all
current faculty members who have reached more or less what used to be
retirement age into the same room, then bomb or burn the place. I then more
seriously asked why some of these people haven't retired as they had been
widely predicted to.

I think everyone understood that the bombing/burning part was not serious, but
I think at Mike Salovesh and John O'Brien, at least, took me to be seriously
suggesting that those people should be forced into retirement because of their
age. John O'Brien suggested that everyone who has been in an academic position
for 15 years should voluntarily retire. I don't agree. There are many senior
faculty who are productive and even invaluable.

On the other hand, I expect every one of us knows a professor or two who no
longer does research, does little or know advising of graduate students, and is
not a particularly good teacher either. In my experience these unproductive
people are always relatively senior. I don't know whether this is because they
were once productive and just burned out, or because they never were very good
but almost everyone could find a job until the mid 1970s or so. I do think the
tenure system provides too much protection for such people, though. Tenure is
supposed to protect academic freedom, not incompetence. So I do wonder if the
tenure system should not be modified a bit to include periodic performance
reviews (say every 5-7 years) of tenured faculty. I don't think these reviews
should be anywhere near as rigorous as the actual review for tenure, but should
rather just assure that some minimum level of productivity is maintained (i.e.,
even if a senior faculty member no longer does research, if they can at least
show that they are moderately effective teachers that ought to be good enough).
Of course, having seen at least one ineffective faculty member promoted to full
professor (apparently because having more full professors makes the department
look good) I am not sure that such a review could be carried out in a
reasonable manner. In any case, though, if the minority of faculty members who
are truly ineffective could somehow be encouraged to retire, that would help
not only those who seek jobs, but the discipline as a whole.

Mike Salovesh, on the other hand gives some pretty convincing reasons for not
retiring. Unconscionably low pensions and the knowledge that the line would
just be lost anyway being the most persuasive.

Rick Wilk suggests things are getting better. That may be true for cultural
anthropologists, and it is encouraging news if true. I am an archaeologist
though (but with more than average exposure to cultural anthropology), and, if
anything, I think things were a bit worse last year than in the previous few
years. The AAA Newsletters jobs listings certainly suggest that there were a
lot more jobs for cultural anthropologists, but there are probably a lot more
cultural anthropology PhDs as well. On the other hand, archaeology, at least
in the U.S., offers a lot more non-academic jobs than cultural anthropology (at
least relative to the number of PhDs). Many archaeologists are quite content
to work in contract archaeology, and my recently-lost job was contract work.
Still, there are a number of reasons why academic positions are preferable for
some people, including me.

As for someone owing me exactly the job I want at a large salary, that is not
what I am asking for. I just want a reasonably fair shot. I have enough
confidence in my own ability to know that I could be really good in an academic
job. But so could a lot of other people who haven't been able to find jobs. I
still contend that the market for anthropology jobs, and maybe all academic
jobs in the social sciences, is distorted by political processes. There is
plenty of demand for anthropology courses, and on most campuses not enough
faculty to meet the demand in a reasonable way (i.e., without sticking hundreds
of students in one class or hiring temporary faculty at slave wages). As long
as the process (of deciding how much money universities get and how much of that
goes to anthropology) is political, rather than free-market driven, I think we
are all going to have to become better politicians.

We need to make the case to the general public that teaching anthropology is
important. I like the suggestion that we be more vocal about who has
anthropology degrees and what they are doing. One of the nurses that helped
deliver my most recent child (6 weeks old now) mentioned that she had an M.A.
in anthropology. Of course she only told me this because she heard that I
worked for the anthropology department here. I wonder how many other people
know what her training is?

I also think that those anthropologists who have power in academic situations
should actively promote junior scholars. Some already do, but I am not sure
that everything that could be done is being done. Although my last post could
have been interpreted as a call for generational warfare, I don't really want
that to happen. We all need to work together to promote the discipline, and
higher education in general, in a number of different ways.

Finally, I didn't go into anthropology because I thought the job opportunitties
were great. Someone once said, about becoming a writer, that you should only
do if you can't not do it. I probably could have found other things to do
early in my education, but sometime around the end of my first year of
anthropology classes, I was an anthropologist, and could no longer choose to
not be one. I will remain one, come what may, but there are a number of
reasons why it is better if I have an academic position, both for me, and
arguably for the discipline of anthropology (I realize that this may be a bit
conceited, but if I didn't think I could contribute, what would be the point).

Jim Allison