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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Ditching the Majority

No group helps itself by always favoring its fortunate few - or by using them as the index of its condition.

College language and literature departments are a case in point. The Modern Languages Association devoted some discussion at its convention this year to the plight of the adjunct faculty member. When the plight of adjuncts initially surfaced ten or fifteen years ago, they were considered an unfortunately minority - "freeway flyers" on their way to something better later on. By the middle of this decade, faculty began to realize that adjuncts had become a majority. Inside Higher Ed covers some of the statistics the MLA panel presented. Overall, well over half, and perhaps as many as two-third of higher education instructors are temporary and/or untenurable.

Education hasn't abolished tenure: it's just downsized it and hollowed it out. This degrades tenure into a minority privilege. It makes it easier for society to ignore the knowledge that comes from those who have it, and to discredit their ideas as the fruit of a pampered elite.

In fact, there is a direct correlation between reducing faculty security and reducing quality of instruction. One measure is graduation rates: According to a Chronicle of Higher Education summary (October 27, 2006) of a study by Daniel Jacoby, "colleges where nearly 80 percent of the instructors worked part time had graduation rates of only about 20 percent. As the proportion of instructors who worked part time declined, graduate rates rose."

There are two crises here. The first is that literary and cultural study is being slowly and steadily unravelled. It can no longer reproduce itself. It is losing the working conditions that allow the research that would help a world riven by cultural crises of every possible kind.

The second is the quality of the education received by the vast majority of the public. We are reducing it in the period when higher ed is supposed to be the foundation of prosperity and even survival. Why?

The MLA should declare a professional emergency and start creating concrete programs for reversing this 35-year-old decline.

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