It’s pretty clear that those of us in the academic racket should be thinking about the changes likely in our line of work, and what we should be telling future aspirants.
The auguries are not good in some respects, though of course there will be great variety depending on field, with areas like my discipline of history far more vulnerable than some. Institutional variety, already great, may increase as well, with more segregation between the big research centers and others.
There will clearly be pressure on earnings, even aside from the current economic crisis. For-profit institutions have discovered how to combine technology with really cheap labor costs to generate a lucrative if not usually high quality product, and their model will affect academic professions generally. One has to expect an increase in institutional reliance on adjuncts, already a trend, but also a growing number of fulltime positions with relatively high teaching loads and few research expectations.
Again because of costs and changing expectations, the percentage of slots in tenure track will surely go down. I don’t know if tenure itself will be attacked, at least in certain kinds of institutions, but it may be undermined.
All of which prompts several thoughts. First, American academic life has been pretty privileged for a while, particularly on the salary side, compared to academic situations in other countries, and the advantage may be reduced without necessarily being eliminated—it’s important to maintain some perspective.
Second, academics themselves might usefully consider some changes that would protect some advantages while introducing greater flexibility—modifying tenure, for example, to allow some adjustments after a certain age, instead of maintaining high labor costs throughout a successful career. We might rethink our kneejerk commitment to lowest possible teaching loads, in favor of recognizing that some modest adjustments might reduce pressures for more drastic change.
Third, we certainly need to be realistic in advice to young aspirants, and update our training goals in the process. It really is important to consider demand levels in key disciplines, to avoid massive overproduction and frustration if not worse. This has to be part of our advice and indeed our self-discipline as training institutions. It is desirable as well to expose academically-bound graduate students to a full understanding of the academic professions, beyond the characteristic training in research—particularly, of course, to give them a chance to know if they like teaching. We need also—and this could be a new plus—to expose them to further uses of technology and to the potential excitement of teaching innovation, since these may (should) become more prominent career features in future.
I hope that—and here I’m not predicting, just hoping—we do manage to preserve some of the core attractions of academic life, even amid probable change and, by some measures, deterioration. Flexibility of schedule may lessen without disappearing (unless the decision is made to pass over to the dark side, administration). Opportunity to pursue a life of the mind throughout a career need not disappear. The excitement of working with students may shift, through technology, but it need not lessen. We should not be overselling our advantages, as against other job options, but we need not ignore them. We should be helping aspirants to prepare for change, and we should be willing to accept and guide some adjustments that will make change more palatable.