Friday, April 06, 2012

performativity, tenure, and administrative power

Reading excerpts of The Postmodern Condition with my class, I was reminded of Lyotard's claim that the drive toward system efficiency has gaps - spots where the efficiency criterion creates inefficiencies. I tend to think of the lack of content in education as one of those efficiency gaps. From the system's standpoint, my job is to generate enrollment. Beyond that, what I actually do in my classes is irrelevant.

So, I might teach a fairly standard curriculum on Professional Ethics or Logic or whatever, or I might spend almost all of class time on radical political thought, leading several of my students to become loud activists against exploitation. Oops! The performativity criterion created the potential for counter-performative discourse.

There's another area where this is happening. Tenure has long been identified as a source of inefficiency. Tenure is a check on the maximization of arbitrary administrative power. Faculty with tenure are supposed to have a right to due process with regard to decisions to terminate them. If this is true, then administrators would have to invest resources in the effort to fire tenured faculty they want fired. An obvious solution to this problem is not to hire tenure-track faculty, and indeed, this is exactly what university administrations have done for 35 or 40 years.

Tenuous-track faculty have no due process rights worth speaking of. Perma-temped faculty are fully commensurable units of managerial power, and hiring them in lieu of tenure-track faculty has the added effect of minimizing the number of tenured faculty who offer any institutionally-protected resistance to that power. From one standpoint, this could also look like an erosion of protection of academic freedom, on the hypothesis that tenure protects academic freedom.

The problem with that interpretation is that, under performativity, tenure does not protect academic freedom at all, since in order for a faculty member to earn tenure, that faculty member must produce according to the standard of performativity. The research areas must be sanctioned by performativity, the teaching and other work the faculty member does must meet efficiency standards, etc. No faculty member has academic freedom.

The perma-temping of university faculty continues apace. But while this is going on, the real performativity standard applied to university "teaching" - generating enrollment - creates the very spaces needed for the subterranean discourses of dissent. This is because, from the system efficiency standpoint, education has no content - or, rather, the content is irrelevant. The faculty in the best position to produce these discourses are the faculty the system considers most efficient as "teachers."

Of course, we're doomed anyway, but the tenuous-track faculty are in a much better position with regard to that, too, since we have never imagined we were anything but doomed, while our unfortunate tenure-track colleagues dangerously misrecognize their own positions and roles, and waste so much of their energies insisting upon academic standards for managerial decisions that can no longer be relevant.

1 comment:

heavy hedonist said...

From a student POV, it means that the most interesting teachers are always leaving, and the blandest, push-you-through--the-mill teachers are there forever. But how many students actually want an education vs a diploma, anyway?

Wanting that was one of the burdens of being an older student.