April 25, 2003

Should Virgil Starkwell Have Been Promoted to Full Professor?

"The university had hired Starkwell in the late 1960s, when faculty jobs were plentiful. The story goes that the dean at the time drove around to the big graduate schools in the Midwest and the Northeast, offering jobs to anyone with a pulse and a dissertation nearing completion.
Of course that's not what actually happened: There were real faculty searches then, just as there are now."

-- Dennis Baron, "Promoting Late Bloomers"

Virgil Starkwell was hired back in those halcyon days when there was a chicken in every pot and a tenure-track position for every Ph.D. who wanted one. Ok, so the dean didn't really drive around to graduate schools handing out tenure-track jobs to anyone whose vital signs were good and whose disseration was three-quarters finished. And of course there never actually was full employment for Ph.D.s within the academy: the golden age was never that golden, golden ages never were. Still, once upon a time, during the boom of the late 1960s, "faculty jobs were plentiful" and one of those jobs went to Starkwell.

Virgil Starkwell is the subject of the latest in a series of columns on tenure review that Dennis Baron is writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education. (I blogged about Baron's Alison Porchnik case here; we now learn that Porchnik did win tenure despite her failure to "shift the paradigms" of her area of specialty.) This is an interesting and even, in its way, an entertaining series. Baron offers an inside view of the many (the very many) perils and pitfalls of the tenure review process, and he does so with wry humour. He also displays a sense of decency that some of us worry is in rather short supply in today's academy. In other words, Baron is not only the chair of an English department, he's also a mensch.

Starkwell managed to get tenure, Baron explains, just about the time that standards for tenure were tighening up (they are now much tighter still: though I don't know firsthand, of course, my numerous sources inform me that the standards for tenure now hold junior faculty members in a vice-like grip). But he seemed destined to become one of the "'lifetime' associate professors, stuck at that rank for the rest of their careers." He was, Baron writes, "one of several department members hired in the golden years whose research seemed to stall out after he got tenure." In short, Starkwell didn't publish. But neither did he perish. Instead, he become "a solid department citizen." Though he was, Baron concedes, "a little retro perhaps, when it came to new turns in the curriculum," he was "always a beacon of personal integrity," who could be relied on to "deal fairly and efficiently with colleagues and students" and who had "managed to head just about every department committee as well as serve in a number of key administrative roles."

One day, "after 20 years of scholarly doldrums," Baron recounts, "like Rip van Winkle awakened, Starkwell burst through his writer's block." He started publishing: peer-reviewed articles, a scholarly reprint of a poet's work, a monograph with "a second-tier university press." And then, "with a service record that was legendary, a revived scholarly career, and retirement not too far off," Starkwell decided to try for full professor.

Not suprisingly, objections were raised. Among the questions asked by the review committee were: "Why now?... Why not wait to see whether this burst of energy would be sustained? Did we really want to promote a consistent underperformer?" While some were willing to reward Starwell's "new productivity" with "a handsome raise" that might spur him on to continue, they worried that "promoting him would cheapen the title of full professor."

With the help of a sympathetic dean and a couple of external reviewers, Baron managed to push through Starkwell's promotion. Virgil Starkwell is now a full professor.

Should he be?

Not that I have any say in this or in any other matter relating to faculty hiring and promotion (if I did, you can be sure I would vote to give myself a tenure-track job), but I'm inclined to say Yes, they made the right decision.

Of course I am well aware (only too well aware: welcome to my blog) of some of the problems this type of case raises. And of course I am bothered by just such problems. A Starkwell hired a generation later, it's fair to assume, would not be coming up for promotion to full professor, because a Starkwell hired a generation later would never have made it to the level of associate. Publish or perish? Yes, and what's more, in today's academy it is also possible to publish and perish. There are academics on the margins who have published more than Starkwell published during those twenty years, and who have even published more than Starkwell came out with after his scholarly awakening. I personally know a few of them, perhaps you do too.

Is it fair that someone who didn't publish for twenty years now makes it to full professor while others who publish -- and who do so without the very real and material and psychological aids of an institutional home, an office, the help of support staff -- cannot even make it onto the tenure track? No, it is not. It is patently unfair: the two-tiered academic labour system that is now firmly entrenched within the university is an unfair and an unjust system.

But there are systems and then there are individual cases within those systems. And it hardly seems fair to penalize an individual for these vast systemic problems. Not when he has been a solid citizen and a "beacon of personal integrity" for twenty years, and has then topped it all of with a late but no less impressive flurry of publication. Moreover, not giving Starkwell a full professorship probably wouldn't do much to redress the job problem: since he would still be there as an associate, refusing him a full professorship wouldn't open up a tenure-track job for a junior scholar.

Then again, I have to wonder: are there adjuncts teaching in Starkwell's department? Well, it's looks as though there might be. It's hard to know for certain, of course, when dealing with such thorny and delicate issues. Many departments are rather shy about their reliance on part-timers, they like to hide their "extra" faculty, which is where we get our invisible adjuncts. But certainly there are quite a few "lecturers and instructors" (look under "People," then look under "Lecturers and Instructors") in addition to the regular faculty (in addition? well yes, adjuncts -- though it looks as though a good deal of teaching is done by these "lecturers and instructors": at what point should we say that the regular faculty are in addition to the adjuncts?). Anyway, some of these additions are obviously graduate students, so we won't count them. Marc Bousquet would say we should count them ("The myth is you work for four or five years as an apprentice, then find a full-time job," Bousquet said. "The reality is that you work 10 to 12 years as a part-timer, then find another line of work.") I'm pretty sure Bousquet is right about this. Cary Nelson, too, would undoubtedly say that we should count them, and Nelson is in fact a regular faculty member of Starkwell's department. But for the moment, let's not count them: Let's agree to the agreeable fiction (it is highly agreeable, though alas! largely a fiction) that these Ph.D. candidates who teach so many courses are serving an apprenticeship that will allow them to move up through the ranks from the lowly grind of graduate student life to the lofty heights of full professorship. Still, even taking out the graduate students, it looks like there might be a few, perhaps more than a few, post-Ph.D adjuncts teaching in this department. And what are they publishing, I wonder? And how much are they being paid to teach those courses? (actually, I don't wonder about this one, I already know the answer).

So it's all a bit of a muddle. Virgil Starkwell was hired under one set of rules, and then the rules changed, and though he spent years not following the new rules, he did make a 20-year contribution of another sort before making a real and apparently successful attempt to catch up with the new rules. And then there are the adjuncts, and another set of rules altogether. I'm still inclined to think they did the right thing. But I can't help thinking about the adjuncts.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 25, 2003 12:48 PM