Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Pigs and Pythons

Like so many other cc’s across the country, mine was founded in the Golden Age (mid 60’s – early 70’s), and most of its full-time faculty was hired within a few years. (It’s so common that I can reveal that without meaningfully compromising anonymity!)

Social scientists have a lovely phrase – “a pig in a python” – to describe a generational cohort moving together through the years. The image captures the faculty here pretty well. At this point, the pig is getting near the end of the python, and (predictably) it isn’t pretty.

The location of the pig has become especially relevant recently, with multiple full-timers falling seriously ill within days of each other. Statistically, it’s not that odd; in that large a group with that high an average age, absenteeism due to health should be expected to climb. The problem is that the pig is so clearly defined within the python that there just aren’t that many people around who can step in when someone gets sick.

Aside from the obvious humanitarian concerns, extended faculty illnesses are unfortunate due to the quirks of academia: expertise in given courses isn’t always shared across entire departments, semesters can’t be adjusted much once they’ve started, and the harm from switching instructors ten weeks into a semester is substantial. In much of private industry, ‘cross-training’ is the norm: a good manager will try to ensure that any given job function has multiple people who can cover it, both to cover for absences and to help make more intelligent operational decisions. In academia, that often doesn’t make sense. If my Japanese instructor gets sick, I can’t just tell my French instructor to step in, no matter how good a sport she might be. I also can’t conduct a full national search for a replacement, since Board of Trustees approval takes a month and I have two days.

It gets weirder. Under FMLA, seriously-ill employees are entitled to 12 weeks. Imagine that the illness strikes two weeks before the semester starts, and the semester is 16 weeks. Assuming that all goes well for the professor, she’s back right in the heart of the semester. At that point, I’m tasked with conjuring enough face-saving makework to justify a full-time salary for the full-timer, while the adjunct actually teaches the classes for an embarrassing fraction of that, since switching instructors at that late date would be grossly unfair to the students. In other words, I have to effect an almost complete separation of work from pay.

Your tax dollars at work!

Honestly, I’d love to see an amendment to the FMLA that addressed semesters, rather than weeks. Then again, I’d love to see a lot of things.

Sometimes it’s even worse. Sometimes, in consecutive semesters, we have to hire the same adjunct as a temporary full-timer to cover for different absences. Then one of the absentees retires. It’s tough to conduct a real national search when LoyalAdjunct is just standing there, but we have to. And it’s even tougher when the search turns up someone better than LoyalAdjunct, especially if LoyalAdjunct has made friends in the department. An emergency hire becomes permanent, based more on geographical convenience than quality. Or, a war ensues between my office and the department. Either is bad.

The pig-in-a-python problem goes far beyond my campus, and far beyond illness leaves. Since salaries are determined mostly by seniority, our average salary is much higher than you might think, even as our entering salaries are low enough that we lose potential hires. Entire pedagogical and research movements have come and gone in the time that some departments here were between hires, leaving no trace here. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does mean that certain departments have become like the fabled Japanese snipers in palm trees who don’t know the war is over. It leads to some odd interpersonal dynamics, too. Since the average age of full-time faculty is as high as it is, people have become (unthinkingly) accustomed to assuming that anyone under 50 is an adjunct. One of the highlights of my first month here was a full professor asking me, to my face, if I was an adjunct. (When I clarified that I was the new dean, the look on her face was priceless.) On those rare occasions when we make new hires, they often find themselves the youngest in their new departmental homes by multiple decades.

The real danger of the pig-in-the-python, obviously, is what happens when the really meaty part of the pig comes out. Will the python have an appetite for new hires, or will it continue to snack on the fast food of an all-adjunct approach? Stay tuned…

Two thoughts regarding your post, much of which I think is sensible. First, it would seem incumbent on "good managers" in academia to ensure that maybe the French instructor could step in and teach Japanese. Maybe a good academic manager would get her the training (i.e., pay for it) to see that she can potentially cover multiple types of courses. Would she teach Japanese as well as French? No, but she could handle it for a year. Academic managers are mostly awful at performing the real management tasks that make the business model work. Second, how exactly do you want to change FMLA? Is it that you want to make a weak law even less protection for workers?
I speak both French and Japanese. Believe me when I say that the idea of cross-training faculty in areas like that is insane. That's like taking a lawyer and asking her to "fill in" as an auto mechanic. The skills required for both jobs take a great deal of time to learn and don't have a hell of a lot in common. (I couldn't teach either language worth a damn, in case you're wondering.)

How can you "handle" teaching a class when you don't know the subject matter? How could you answer student questions or give help? How could you do what a teacher is supposed to do?

As someone who works in the business world, here's a dirty little secret: most managers and most jobs are more interchangeable than you'd think. The exception? Technical jobs. You can't expect a longtime C++ programmer to be easily replaced by the guy who specializes in electrical engineering.

Academics are, in many ways, technicians. Though to the outside it seems like any dolt with a library card could teach English, it ain't necessarily so. There are years and years of training that make someone good at those jobs, and you can't blithely replace such folks with unrelated disciplines.

I'd say that "real management tasks" should focus on doing the possible, not coming up with ineffective solutions based on inappropriate parallels.
It's not, of course, just happening at commmunity colleges. Higher ed in general expanded dramatically between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, andmany of those hired during the expansion are now about to retire.

Our history department will lose 6 (out of 8) faculty members between 2003 and 2007--it's already started. I went from being the "junior" economist on the faculty to being the "senior" economist in two years. (And I'm in my late 50s.)

My institution has exacerbated its own problem by resolutely refusing to hire new PhDs when positions come open, instead hiring mid-to-late career people with "track records." The median age of our full-time faculty is 58. Half of us will be gone in 7-8 years.

Makes me glad I'm no longer an administrator.
I'll echoe Doc's last line: I'm glad I don't have your job, DD. I see this exact phenomenon happening here, and it's just ugly. Good luck to you!
My institution's in a similar position. I find myself, at 42, the senior professor in my department and language stream! We're spending a lot of time and energy on hiring and supporting new hires (a critical part of the equation that's often overlooked -- you need more than new computers and an office for new faculty, you need mentoring in all aspects of the institution, extra library acquisition funds to support new research/teaching areas, teaching-release time to support research, etc.). And, meanwhile, I have the administration breathing down my back wondering where my next publication is!
it's not just on the faculty end either, at my cc we have lots of staff who were hired 20-30 years ago. at 5 years I'm a short-timer...and when I started, I was the youngest person in my area by a decade, and the next older was a full decade younger than anyone else in the dept!
Two thoughts.
One of my officemates just got called on to fill in for the next 12 weeks and we were honestly surprised that the full-time faculty member's syllabus was one page long. No dates, no details. No wonder my students are so thrilled that I give them a schedule and stick to it. I guess it's only the adjuncts that have to submit syllabi to the deans (or that there has to be any content in them). So my officemate is not even using her highly developed syllabus and book choice - she has to adopt whatever the prof on sick leave chose.

Second thought: maybe retiring could be an option at some point?
We have the same phenomenon; at 45, I'm something of a junior, but my seniority is rising fast.

Hey, I think it would be great were French profs to "handle" Japanese classes "for a year." We can also put the health insurance crisis to rest by asking HMO dermatologists to handle cardiac surgery.

My guess is that when the pig exits the python, the snack-y adjunct-heavy diet will prevail.
Having taught language for a decade now, I know that there are actually substantial similarities between languages. Training a French professor to teach introductory Japanese would take a long time (i.e., years), but it's not at all the same as training a psychology prof to teach Japanese. Experienced language learners and language teachers have a facility for other languages. It really could be done if the academic managers wanted to.

Maybe the example (yours) was a bad one, though. It would be much more difficult to train a biologist to cover art, say, or a history prof to cover physics. But a French prof to cover at least elementary Japanese? I actually know some people . . . .
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