“I Quit Lit” and the new “Departure Eulogy”Posted: November 7, 2013
“I Quit Lit” and the new “Departure Eulogy”
Professor Xie resigns to protect adjunct faculty
by Teri Shaffer Yamada
Recently, some slightly satiric joking about a new academic subgenre— “I Quit Lit”— has appeared in the columns of Slate, the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere in the blogosphere. Actually Zachary Ernst’s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower” (Oct. 20, 2013) deserves careful consideration. (1) A fine and thoughtful writer, Ernst’s dismay at leaving his philosophy position is visceral; but his love of teaching cannot outweigh negative consequences from the structural dysfunction of his institution. He writes:
What makes me pessimistic about my own university and public universities in the United States in general is that their inability to adapt isn’t due simply to bad leadership or an unfavorable economy. It’s based on structural features that are self-reinforcing. Poor leadership drawn from huge corporations, an incentive structure that favors narrow specialization, and hostility to potentially disruptive research, all reinforce each other. Those of us whose interests don’t fit into that structure have some difficult decisions to make.
A 2013 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education—“Attitudes on Innovation: How College Leaders and Faculty see the Key Issues Facing Higher Education”—shows that many faculty share Ernst’s concerns about the future of the academy. (Executive summary)
Faculty members, in particular, are pessimistic about the future of higher education. Only one-third of faculty members say higher education in the United States is headed in the right direction, compared to two-thirds of presidents (see Figure 1). Among those most uncertain about the future are faculty members in the humanities (where departments have seen declining enrollments), those at public research universities (which have seen sharp cuts in state subsidies), and those who have been teaching more than 20 years. The faculty most optimistic about the future are those teaching in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—where government support has been high for much of the last decade.
A must-read survey, it explores the perception gap between faculty and academic leadership, a gap that hinders constructive change.
As the youngest and brightest tenured faculty flee from an organizational structure that cannot easily transform itself, the elders who form the largest percentage of the remaining tenured faculty approach retirement. What structurally remains is a hollow layer of smaller departments and programs on the verge of collapse, years of budget cuts and retirements having eviscerated tenure lines. As more adjuncts are used to fill in where tenured professors once were, the discussion about power—who runs a program in this situation—needs to be thoughtfully addressed. Or, it the silent decision just to eliminate this layer of the Humanities?
Notably, Stanford University has recently recognized this problem exacerbated by declining student enrollments. The question—What to do about it?—for less endowed universities leads to a hard, potentially controversial discussion. Better to have this tough debate in the open where some strategic planning could be embraced by faculty and administrators as opposed to a silent, slow death of so many programs like philosophy and physics, religious and ethnic studies departments, and even foreign language programs—many are now experiencing a prolonged death, or the fear of one, occurring without any discussion at all.
But I digress, my real intent was to add a new subgenre to the “I Quit Lit” oeuvre: the departure eulogy. In my case, it will be for the Chair of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at CSU Long Beach, Prof. Tim Xie. A fine man and wonderful colleague, a nationally renowned linguist and expert in Chinese language pedagogy, he has recently submitted his resignation as Chair along with a retirement letter to the university in order to save several of our highly valued adjunct faculty, skilled Chinese language instructors, from economic devastation when all lecturer courses were eliminated in the Chinese program due to imposed restructuring. Prof. Xie is a ‘survivor’ of the Cultural Revolution in China. Midst the gallows humor of who may die first from stress, we have discussed the failure of democracy and shared governance at our own institution: his closing comment, “I thought America was different!” So I say on behalf of my fellow colleagues, we will deeply miss this noble and talented man.
1. Equally compelling is Sarah Kendzior’s “The Closing of American academia: The plight of adjunct professors highlights the end of higher education as a means to prosperity.”
Further Reading on the structural critiques of academic organizations
Henry A. Giroux, “When Schools Become Dead Zones of Imagination” (Aug. 17, 2013)
Wellford Wilms, “How Kafkaesque Bureaucrats Are Ruining Education” (Aug. 19, 2013).