19 July 2015

Who Decides What the Money is For?

This line from Mad Men has been haunting me, ever since a friend brought it to my attention:

An alternate title for what follows: Why Sara Goldrick-Rabb's Professional Obligation is to Future UW Students, not UW, which Should Be the Same Thing but Isn't.

In academia, the salary or per-course compensation, that is, the money, is for the teaching.  That goes for everyone who gets paid to be faculty.  And also for the things that go with the teaching (research, if you are salaried in a tenure-stream faculty appointment): the preparation, the ongoing engagement with the field, the creation of new knowledge.  And also the things that go into sustaining the department that sustains the teaching (more of these, generally, if you're noncontingent faculty): the service, the committee work, the administrative appointments folded into a faculty workload.

The academic equivalent of that uncompensated space where Peggy finds herself is growing.  As higher ed ceases to be a public good, paid for by tuition rather than state appropriations, the expectation grows that public university faculty will not just teach, serve, and do research for the benefit of the citizens of their state.  Excellence has become too expensive to speak for itself.  Faculty now must be willing to contribute to the PR effort to package those activities as part of a "brand" that can be sold for top dollar to out-of-state and international students.

Unfortunately, state legislators, the upper echelons of academic administration, and the faculty in front of classrooms have very different ideas about what that "brand" consists of, what they are willing to work to achieve that isn't necessarily covered by their compensation.  It's not exactly the "thank you" that Peggy is looking for, but it's in the same realm of ineffability.  For people who aren't paid-to-teach, it's a certain kind of prestige, name-recognition, newsworthiness.  For those who are, it's those moments when, as a result of their work, something exists in the world that wasn't there before: a student's ability to think a complex thought through to uncomfortable conclusions, an online classroom discussion forum where students spontaneously wield arguments borne of evidence they've gained in the course readings, students who didn't think they could do X and who learn that they can. Or beyond the classroom: a new idea, a paper that gets people in the field talking, a book, a discovery.   It's not necessary that these two concepts of surplus value be in conflict in higher ed.  But they are.

In the nonacademic world, most people in the course of a career will find themselves on both sides of the Mad Men conversation: perceived as demanding recognition before they deserve it, withholding recognition that is warranted.  In academia, the conversation of what gets paid for and why is increasingly in the hands of Don Drapers who, unlike this fictional character, are profoundly detached from the creative process, and Peggys who have few options for selling their considerable talents to less complacent buyers.

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