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The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education

reviewed by Todd Lundberg & Clifton F. Conrad - February 15, 2013

coverTitle: The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education
Author(s): Joseph C. Hermanowicz
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801899788, Pages: 392, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Anchored in the widely-shared understanding that our nation’s universities are undergoing unprecedented change, the overarching aim of this volume is to explore the social forces shaping contemporary higher education and the ways in which these forces are transforming the academic profession at research universities. To that end, the book opens with an introduction by Jack Schuster that illuminates how the research university—a “venerable institution"—is being reshaped by changes in the nature of faculty appointments and workloads, the widespread use of information technology and for-profit business models, and a highly competitive and global market in which competing social needs have reduced the public investment. The five sections in The American Academic Profession provide a wide range of insights about changes in the faculty role at research universities, insights that are informed by sociological lenses and anchored in primary data in many instances.

The first section in the book focuses on four dynamics that are contributing to "structural and cognitive change": the relationship of the roles of teacher and researcher, movements to reform college learning and teaching, the nature of the social spaces in which instruction occurs, and the norms concerning relationships between politics and research and teaching. Altogether, these chapters describe a profession that is approaching a “tipping point” that may, to use Roger Geiger's phrase, "radically undermine the traditional faculty role" (p. 41). The second, third, and fourth sections document changes in the social context of faculty work, focusing on "socialization and deviance," the "experience of the academic career," and "autonomy and regulation." Contrasting traditional and emergent approaches to defining the faculty role and associated norms and behaviors, these three sections describe the ways in which two pillars of the traditional academic profession—the centrality of the faculty role within higher education and the widely-shared practices that have sustained this role—are under pressure. Contributors, for example, explore the ways in which changes in the make up of the faculty and nature of faculty work along with increased competition and pressures for productivity are altering the form and function of socialization, research, professional recognition, academic freedom, knowledge production, and various norms and activities long associated with the academic profession. As in the first section of the volume, the chapters in these three sections are fueled in no small measure by a narrative bemoaning the erosion of autonomy and authority for the academic profession.

In an almost ironic twist, the two chapters in the fifth section complicate assumptions about the centrality of the faculty role in higher education that seem taken for granted in most other chapters. While acknowledging the erosion of the status of faculty, together these chapters call into question a “golden age” of faculty professional autonomy and authority in the United States while also raising questions about the extent of that autonomy and authority at the present time.

The distinctive contribution of the book lies in the elaboration and interrogation of two major changes in the academic professions and the implications of these changes for faculty at research universities. The first major change is a trend toward the negotiation by multiple parties of activities traditionally considered solely under faculty jurisdiction. Many chapters explore the ways in which both the nature and conduct of research are increasingly being shaped not only by institutions but by stakeholders outside the university as well. Other contributors describe the ways in which faculty are sharing with other stakeholders the setting of academic standards and goals and decisions about what counts as intellectual property and valued research.

The chapter by Gary Rhoades offers a particularly compelling analysis of this trend toward shared professional authority. Focusing on instruction, Rhodes advances a framework for analyzing the ways in which "existing and emergent professionals" compete to define and control educational spaces, faculty roles, learning, and technologies. Rather than assuming that faculty control curriculum and instruction, Rhoades explores the instructional activities over which faculty continue to claim jurisdiction and the instructional activities that have come to be the purview of other groups of academic professionals. He concludes that organizations that represent faculty have distanced the profession from key educational spaces at the same time that organizations representing institutions and institutions themselves have drawn in third parties and technologies to redefine and manage instruction.

The second major change is the growing stratification of academic professionals. The introduction to the volume raises concern about "re-stratification," and most of the contributors acknowledge, at least in passing, the increasingly disparate professional experience of faculty with different kinds of appointments. Findings presented in chapters focus frequently on the effects of the growing number of full-time, non-tenure track faculty and differences across disciplines in understandings of and satisfaction with the academic profession. It is hard to read most of the chapters in this volume without concluding that there may no longer be a dominant academic profession but several—each with its own interests, type of autonomy, and future prospects.

Overall, the chapters provide a graphic picture of the implications of shared jurisdiction over and growing stratification in the profession on faculty roles. If the conventional role included commitments to teaching, research, and service, the emerging role is becoming bifurcated, focused on teaching or research. As academic professionals in training, doctoral students are increasingly expected to develop expertise not simply as scholars and teachers but also as professionals who understand rites of participation in chaotic organizations. Rather than defining their lives in terms of scholarship or "scholarly learning," faculty are under increasing pressure to meet pragmatic demands and find themselves in organizations that cannot meet their expectations for recognition or autonomy as teachers or researchers. The overarching conclusion is that the academic profession is "withering" and, in turn, that it will become increasingly difficult to recruit the talented graduate students to join the profession.

Contributions notwithstanding, the book is predisposed throughout to the underlying theme of faculty “deprofessionalization.” For despite some differing views on what the academic profession is and might be, changes in the profession are construed almost nostalgically as loss rather than as historical transformation. The tendency to view any change to the centrality of the traditional faculty role in the academic profession as threat or loss results in two limitations. First, there is often an implicit assumption that the health of the academic profession depends on faculty continuing with traditional practices. That is, the health of the research university depends on the academic profession remaining unaffected by social forces that have radically altered and even eliminated other professions. Second, there is little attention paid to the ways in which the academic profession might be enriched and enlarged by becoming less "central," namely, but one of numerous professions. Nested in this context, in reading the book we often found ourselves wondering whether the “withering” of the traditional academic profession might signal a propitious time to reimagine the academic profession and concomitantly to see its transformation not as threat but as opportunity. Is it not the time to take the discourse beyond the preservation or erosion of an idealized profession?

To be sure, this volume calls our attention in important ways to the ways in which an occupation has had a dominant position in a historical division of labor and is being transformed. Moreover, in fits and starts the volume—notably in chapters by Rhoades, Newman, Kleinman, and Thelin—opens new lines of inquiry into how the work once carried out by the academic profession might be being reconfigured and redistributed across other occupations and professions. In so doing, this book invites scholarship on the ways in which faculty interact with other professionals on campus and the broad social implications of the forces of change that are affecting the academic profession at research universities.

At the same time, the narrow focus of The American Academic Profession on the status of the profession at research universities provokes us to wonder how this discourse might be extended beyond the cloistered walls of research-intensive universities. Specifically, a companion volume might focus on several lines of inquiry. First, it might seek to represent the situation and status of the various other professions that make postsecondary education possible. Multiple contributors to this volume acknowledge both the important contributions and growing importance of emergent professionals at research universities. Second, a companion volume might interrogate the kind of learning in which faculty and students engage. In The American Academic Profession, learning is often reduced to "the transmittal of skills and practices" (p. 79), a kind of commodity exchange overseen by faculty. Instead, if learning were construed as a situated practice, new research might be better positioned to makes sense of the implications of the withering of the traditional academic profession for the future of research and teaching. Finally, a companion volume might include cases of institutions at which redesigned professions and occupations are carrying on the work of research, teaching, and service.

The American Academic Profession calls our attention to the ways in which the roles and status of research university faculty are being transformed. Across the volume, contributors offer substantial insight into what is put at risk by this transformation. What we need now is a follow-up book that is mindful of what has been lost but also eager to pursue how we might redesign the academic profession for the world of the twenty-first century.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 15, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17026, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 1:06:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Todd Lundberg
    University of Wisconsin - Madison
    E-mail Author
    TODD LUNDBERG is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on general education and the student transition to college. His most recent publications are "Learning to Innovate in Twenty-First-Century Community Colleges: Searching for the General Education Niche in Two-Year Colleges" (2012) and "Establishing a (Virtual) Place for Faculty Collaboration and Development as Educators" (2010).
  • Clifton Conrad
    University of Wisconsin - Madison
    E-mail Author
    CLIFTON CONRAD is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on the study of undergraduate and graduate education. His most recent books include Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners: A College Education for the 21st Century (2012, with Laura A. Dunek) The SAGE Handbook on Research in Education: Ideas as the Keystone of Exemplary Inquiry (2011, co-edited with Ron Serlin). With Professor Marybeth Gasman he is currently engaged in a three-year national study of Minority-Serving Institutions.
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