Spotlight: 'Rip Van Winkle' Returns to Academia

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"After more than 20 years in devoted service to corporate interests," David Hiscoe decided to return to academia, his first love. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, he writes about what he found. To his chagrin, the problems that first persuaded him to leave academia are, if anything, greater than before. It all comes down to the decision, he says, to "trim expenses by outsourcing the teaching--the core of the undergraduate experience--to grad students and adjuncts." Here's his story:


That last fiber landed on a Friday afternoon during a conversation with a bright grad student in her mid-20s. ... She was, she explained, doing her first teaching assistantship and was finding it hard to juggle her own course work with her desire to build a flame under her students. I tried gently and with a pleasant lilt in my voice to explain what was most likely in front of her--the years of 80-hour workweeks, the compromises she'd be expected to make in her family life, the monastic poverty, and the fact that 10 years down her path, the teaching slot she wanted would be happily filled by teaching assistants just like her.

I didn't even begin to crack her optimism. In my estimation, she had close to no chance of ever landing an academic job. And the cause was simple: The powers that be had made a calculated choice (if gradual, and usually without much thought to the long-term consequences) to outsource teaching to graduate students and adjunct faculty members.


The percentage of college faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure track sank to 31 percent in 2007 and has probably fallen below 30 percent by now ... Work pressures have mounted enough that some profs are outsourcing their grading to Bangalore. I could go on. But you know the story ... Just for fun, I checked the Web site of the English department where I was once an instructor (a job I loved, by the way). In the early 1980s, it employed four of us full-time, nontenurable staff members. The departmental site now lists 17 for a student population that hasn't come close to doubling in the last three decades.


The company I worked for developed telecommunications gear, often revolutionary telecommunications gear. ... A decade ago, the company brought in $30-billion a year and supplied gear to 70 of the companies on the Fortune 100 list. It looked to me too big to fail, that it would be around for another 100 years. But despite its moment in the sun, the company declared bankruptcy two weeks after I moved back into academe ... How all that happened is complicated, but I can tell you one simple truth from my experience out there: The values of the executives who steered that ship of disaster look very similar to the values of those among us who think that the way to sustain the great tradition of public higher education is to trim expenses by outsourcing the teaching--the core of the undergraduate experience--to grad students and adjuncts.

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