Thursday, May 10, 2007

Farm Teams

Growing up in Northern Town, I followed the local minor league baseball team. It was the AAA affiliate of a major league team, meaning that it was one step below the majors. Players there were almost ready, or almost good enough, or on the cusp. Once in a while, an obvious rising star would stop by on the way up for a brief sojourn before leaving for the majors, never to be seen again. (I saw a future Hall of Famer – you've heard of him, even if you don't follow baseball -- there during his brief stop in AAA. In baseball fan terms, real bragging rights attend to that.) And sometimes players who would absolutely dominate the league in AAA would crap out in the majors. Brighter minds than mine have spent careers trying to determine the whys and wherefores, since millions of dollars are at stake in distinguishing the true future star from the future washout.

Following a minor-league team requires a sort of Zen detachment. You want the team to be good, but not so good that all the players get called up. But then you feel guilty for wanting them to miss out on their career aspirations, so you wish them well anyway and just suck it up when their replacements play like a bunch of asthmatic nuns with vertigo. For an 11-year-old, that kind of emotional discipline doesn't come easily. I like to think it's an early life lesson.

(For that reason, I sometimes wonder about the emotional health of Yankees fans. Leaving aside the sociopathic rages of the team owner, I wonder about the ethical lessons taught by a team that can simply buy anybody it wants. But that's another post altogether.)

In watching a few of the end-of-semester events this time around, I was reminded of my AAA rooting days. Students who are completing their programs this month are finally getting really, really good at what they do, and the faculty have to let them go. Come September, a new crop will show up making all the same rookie mistakes this crop did back when it started. And the professors have to pretend not to mind.

If you go to every public performance every semester – and heaven help me, I do – you can see them grow up before your very eyes. Students whose initial performances could be described as 'tentative' or 'earnest' gradually develop technique, confidence, and a kind of comfort that's hard to fake. By the time they finish with us, they're pretty darn good. Then they leave.

It's easy to disparage minor league ball if you compare the level of play to the best of the majors, but it's also missing the point. Major league ball is supposed to be the top of the game. Minor league ball is supposed to be developmental. (That's not to deny that some people bounce around the minors for years and never break through at the major league level, or that those folks have a place, too. After all, even a team with only 5 or 6 real prospects still needs 25 players. But development is the point.) Similarly, it's easy to compare the grads of a cc with the grads of a four-year college and find them lesser. Of course they are – they've had two fewer years! It's an invalid comparison. Besides, we take everybody, so sometimes to appreciate what we do requires some sense of 'before' as well as 'after.'

As much as I like the farm team metaphor applied to students, though, I loathe it applied to faculty.

In some departments, a practice has developed over the years whereby chairs implicitly promise long-term and loyal adjuncts that they'll be first in line for any full-time positions. They then expect the adjuncts to cover for full-timers' absences, go above and beyond without pay, and so forth, to stay in the good graces of the chair. When those positions come along, the chairs conduct searches according to unwritten criteria and, whaddayaknow, the favored folk win. The new full-timers understand that they 'owe' the chair, and the practice of covering for each other lives on.

I've actually heard semi-principled arguments for this. One tenured full professor actually said – and I'm not making this up – that he prefers hires where he has “kicked the tires” already. When I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked him how he ever expected to bring in new stars that way. He didn't have an answer for that.

We've tried introducing some procedural integrity to searches, only to run headfirst into chair opposition. If searches are truly open, and external candidates get a truly fair shake, then what will the chair have to lord over adjuncts? Who will cover for absences? How will the chairs ensure undying loyalty? If you take 'spoils' out of the system, the entire 'political machine' model collapses. Which is sort of the point.

To my mind, graduate school is long enough. (Honestly, it's too long, and too abusive. The tires get kicked too much as it is. But again, that's another post.) When you emerge with a spanking new doctorate, you're ready for a full-time job. You've moved on from the minors, and you're ready to start. To add the expectation of years of adjuncting and chair-pleasing before even getting a shot at a full-time job – effectively, yet another level of apprenticeship -- strikes me as adding insult to injury. In practice, it simply restricts the pool of future faculty to people who already live here. I can't see a valid academic argument for that. I love the minor leagues as much as anybody, but enough is enough.