Teaching, Tenure, and Academic Freedom

In The New York Times a couple of days ago, Stanley Fish offered an article with the title "Vocationalism, Academic Freedom and Tenure."  He is responding to a book, The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For  by Naomi Schaefer Riley.  He writes:

What Riley shows is that vocation-oriented teaching, teaching beholden to corporations and politically inflected teaching do not square with the picture of academic labor assumed by the institutions of tenure and academic freedom.

I agree with Fish in part when, in response to Riley's point, he writes:

I say, and have been saying for years, that colleges and universities should stop moving in those directions — toward relevance, bottom-line contributions and social justice — and go back to a future in which academic inquiry is its own justification.

But I do think he views things to narrowly.  Academic inquiry is not simply its own justification, but is a necessary basis for higher-level teaching, which itself is not the "thing" his article (and, I assume, Riley's book) imagine it to be, but is itself a dynamic requiring academic freedom every bit as much as research does.

My own father lost his job (he was not yet tenured, having been there for only two years) at Hamilton College in 1970 because of teaching, not scholarly work.  He had introduced a Mastery system where students knew exactly how many modules they needed to complete to get a C, how many more for a B, and how many beyond that for an A.  He based this on what he had expected, in the past, for those same grades.  His goal was to assist the students in getting as much as possible out of his classes.

Too many of his students got A's.  He was accused of being too easy a teacher.  His argument that the students had all earned A's was not accepted, and his contract was not renewed.

For teaching to evolve in the face of a changing world, and to assist students who have to negotiate that world, there has to be room for experimentation in teaching, as much as in research.  When teachers try new things, students learn more and better--even when those new things fail!  This paradox has to do with the very nature of learning, and of research, which is itself a process of learning from failure--both one's own and that of others.

The whole point of tenure is to encourage intelligent risk-taking for the sake of knowledge and the future--for the sake of the student.  Without it, our educational institutions become timid and bound by the past.

Tenure, you say, contributes to this, too.  And you are right: there are those who, when they get tenure, do nothing but try to keep the institution as it was, protecting themselves.  And you are right.  But tenure as a protection for academic freedom should never be seen as simple job protection, anyway.  Tenure should provide protection for those doing things, not for those doing nothing.

Fish does not connect academic freedom to pedagogy.  He writes:

Tenure, like academic freedom, depends on a certain picture of what goes on in college and university classrooms — high-level discussions tied to cutting edge research into intellectual problems.

But it also depends on how those discussions are approached, something he ignores completely.

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