Saturday, August 28, 2010

college Faculty Professionalism – Ethical Responsibility and Precarious Work Pt. 4

4. Ethical responsibility in the context of contingency and bureaucratization

In his contribution to the AACU report, Gaff discusses the erosion of the professional claim of the professoriate, and develops a set of general proposals for restoring the social contract underwriting the professionalism of college faculty. In this regard, the effort parallels studies of professions that have appeared for over a decade. Among the factors contributing to the decline of the academic profession, Gaff notes in particular the heavy reliance on temporary and contingent appointments of college faculty. Indeed, institutions of higher education at every level rely on contingently appointed non-professor faculty workers to do the bulk of undergraduate teaching, throughout the United States.

Without considering here the question of why contingent, temporary appointments have become the overwhelmingly most common employment status of college faculty, I would like to conclude by further discussing the paradoxical status of the majority of college faculty, and what it could mean to state principles of ethical responsibility for “the profession” as it really exists today. I am borrowing from Michael Davis the notion of “bureaucratized” labor, as he developed it in a discussion of engineers’ ethical responsibilities. In the Epilogue to his book, Thinking Like an Engineer, Davis considers the impact of large organizations on the work and ethics of engineers:

Large organizations exist to do large jobs, doing them by dividing them into manageable parts. If these parts are too small, engineers assigned one of them could not determine what effect their work would have on the public health, safety, welfare or even on their employer. Their work would be “bureaucratized,” in one of the uglier senses of that ugly word. If most engineering work is bureaucratized in this sense, engineering ethics must either be irrelevant to most engineers or consist of matters tangential to engineering as such – for example, treatment of other engineers. Engineering ethics – as now constituted – presupposes a world in which engineers generally know what they do. (Davis, 177f)

I argue as follows: colleges and universities are large organizations under whose auspices the routines and conditions of faculty work take place. The 40-year trend of college faculty deprofessionalization, increasingly precarious employment status, and so forth, corresponds with what Davis calls “bureaucratized” work. The full scope of the work of college faculty – teaching, research, scholarship, curriculum development (through faculty governance), peer review – has been divided. For instance, at most elite research institutions, the large number of teaching faculty are outside the tenure-track, while the “professors” teach little, supervise some, and do a great deal of research. At for-profits, faculty are often hired to do piecework, not paid for research or scholarship at all, and have no control over curriculum.

The AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics addresses “professors” of 1966 vintage, and not the bureaucratized faculty of the present. If we must abandon the fantasy of professorial authority and autonomy imagined in that document, because that document’s presuppositions about the world are false, must we also abandon the notion that there could be a meaningful professional ethics for college faculty?

Davis suggests that under conditions of bureaucratization, engineering ethics would either be irrelevant or “tangential” (and, it seems from Davis’ tone, superficial in both scope and intention). For the majority of college faculty, I believe the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics is indeed irrelevant, in its present form. It is hard to imagine a situation in which a conflict between a precariously employed faculty member and a well-paid administrator would be resolved by reference to the Statement’s principles. In any case, no prudent lecturer would take that chance.

Yet I don’t believe we can, or should, abandon the notion of a meaningful professional responsibility for college faculty, one that would realistically address contemporary working conditions. In Davis’ discussion, I see two areas for potential development of a new faculty ethics. The first draws from his wording about the presupposition built into codes of ethics, namely, that members of a profession “generally know what they do” (Davis 178). I would like to make the provocative suggestion that many members of “the profession” are ignorant of what they do – that is, ignorant of the real working conditions of faculty, including themselves. This is doubly significant. On the one hand, since any reasonable claim to professional status depends on a claim to expert knowledge, a profession whose membership does not know what the profession does has a weak claim. Facing, studying, and understanding what faculty do – what faculty really do, and how they do their work, and under what conditions they do their work – would be fundamental to further claims to be able to judge that work, to know how to use that work for the public good, etc. On the other hand, it is difficult for the majority of college faculty to acquire this knowledge, not only because of their difficult working lives and institutional obstacles to organizing and learning about and from one another, but also because of the difficulties of organizing across the US, across disciplines, and so on. The more faculty know about faculty work, the more strongly we can assert a claim to expert knowledge, the more we can substantiate a claim to work for the public good, and the more we can demonstrate that we do indeed serve that good.

The second area for development I see in Davis’ discussion regards the “tangential” ethics of how professionals treat other members of the profession. The status of people who work as faculty in colleges and universities is significant for their working lives and their relationships to one another. For faculty, how we treat other members of our profession could not be more significant both as an ideological force and as a factor in developing solidarity. Accepting that there are worthies and unworthies who work as faculty serves the division and bureaucratization of faculty work, and dismisses the demoralization of the majority of the faculty as somehow merited. On the other hand, faculty addressing one another as peers, as members of the same profession, would constitute the faculty – the whole faculty – as just that kind of self-consciously organized group who could speak with genuine authority about who they are, what they do, what they value, and to what standards they hold themselves.

As William Sullivan has stated, the renewal of the social contract between professions and the public must involve dialogue. In the case of college faculty, there has been precious little of this, and most of that driven by the same ideology that has led to the deprofessionalization of faculty in the first place. My observation is that the public in the United States is generally ignorant of the working conditions of faculty, but also of what exactly it is that faculty do. Only if college faculty, at all levels, have and avail themselves of opportunities to understand and articulate that for themselves as well as in dialogue with the public, can there be any meaningful notion of professional ethical responsibility of college faculty.

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