An Old Plaint, Renewed

There’s a real lack of professionalism alive in our academic departments, an atittude that cares more for the nicety of bureaucracy and its rewards than for our academic goals.


What’s so startling about that?


But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fought, or that it doesn’t deserve the pointing out.

Two of the problem areas, release time and department service, should remind us of how we professors ought to be viewing what we do, as opposed to the way we are actually looking at things. Or, rather, as some among us are actually seeing our activies (the majority of professors are conscientious and caring–but I’m not talking about them).

There’s a grant program at CUNY that provides release time for research. A good idea… a necessary signal of support for scholarship, aside from the real help it gives. Yet faculty members are encouraged to apply not because it can really aid their efforts, but because it gives release time from teaching. That is, the goal becomes the lessening of the teaching load, not the assist to research. People are actually advised to create project proposals so they can get the release time. “If you do this,” people are told about many, many campus activities, “you can get release time.”

That’s backwards. The release time should be granted to support activities that real professional academics would be doing anyway.

Another way that CUNY supports faculty scholarship is through generous release time over the first years of employment. I used six hours last spring to finish Blogging America and will use three this coming spring so that I can work on the conference Ann Seaton and I are organizing, “Race and New Media.” Thing is, I am taking the release time to help me do better what I would do, no matter what, not simply because I can.

The emphasis on release time also makes teaching seem a burden, not one of the dual centers of our professional activity. ‘One should do anything to get out of teaching’ seems to be the the underlying assumption. Following from this, release time comes to be some sort of perk, frequently doled out by department chairs as reward, the tasks sparking the release proving far less than onerous.

In some instances, people turn release time into private fiefdoms, making a sketchy yearly show of activity for what is really a way to reduce their workload. As a result, things that should get done don’t get done, the release time actually becoming a roadblock where it was supposed to provide smoother pavement.

One of the side-effects of release time is that quite a number of more senior faculty are able to withdraw from intense involvement with their departments. Well, the actual number of these people may be small, but the impact can be large—for these people sit in judgment on promotion of their juniors. On people some of them hardly know at all.

This is one of the factors that has led to the ridiculously bloated reports on activities needed for promotion—some of them running to 600 pages or more. If the “peers” don’t see one every day, don’t know what one has been doing, they have to be informed somehow.

The reports, unfortunately, have become the driving force behind activity in many departments. “Do this, and you can put it down as department service.” “Save every piece of paper; you’ll need them for promotion.” Here again, the cart is put before the horse. The report is supposed to be documentation of professional activities that should be a natural part of academic life. Instead, too often, the report becomes the end, the goal—and not simply a description.

This, coupled with the fact that some senior faculty members are so removed from departmental activities that they know little about their junior colleagues, can have tragic consequences.

I know one young professor, a leader of the junior faculty in his (very large) department, an informal mentor to all of the people who have followed him into the department, a man who has made a significant contribution to the way lower-level courses in the department are taught through his (often unseen) contribution to pedagogy, who was recently turned down for promotion, putatively because of a lack of department service.

His service, you see, could not be so easily documented. It was personal, and the personal doesn’t fit into the bureaucratic, for it cannot be reduced to a form.

The tragedy is that his department may well lose one of its most dynamic younger members, making him a victim of bureaucracy where professionalism should have reigned.

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