Universities and Balance

Monday, 20th February 2017

From Feb. 20, 2017


Eric Schliesser‘s post on attitudes toward one’s academic life is interesting. It’s not really about work/life balance, but about ways we face what we do. I think, though, that there might be more going on here than the options he provides. I’ve been in institutions that have a religious background, for instance, and have seen an option D: work is like a religious calling, a vocation in the classic religious sense, in which case it is really none of the options he sketches out. It’s done because it is an extension of one’s view of life. This need not be an explicitly religious calling, of course – I’ve seen academics engage what they do as if it was a calling, even though they are in secular institutions and are themselves not religious at all.

I think some of this is because the university still has echoes of its (in many cases distant) religious past, when it comes to work. Faculty are not exactly employees, nor are they exactly independent contractors. Therefore, they are not assigned work by those who know more than they do, nor are they contracted to do specific jobs for specific pay. The university is a Gemeinschaft, depending on the good will and commitment of its members. And yet, more and more its administrations see themselves as running a Gesellschaft, while continuing to benefit from the Gemeinschaft model. In other words, when it comes to asking more of faculty, I have often heard that I/we ought to want to do something because it is “for the good of students”, or “for the good of the department”. There’s a sense of a public here, a community to which we are all contributing.

But the thing about a public is that it runs both ways. We contribute to the public, and the public is supposed to support and sustain us. It is not, in other words, a fundamentally individualist view, but a social view, a real community that depends on a sense of higher and shared purpose. That’s why I say that some, still, see their engagement with the university as a vocation – they still see themselves as working within that space.

As I say, though, most administrations do not see themselves as engaged in that space, except to use it to their own advantage. I have often been struck by the lack of a robust incentive structure within universities. If we want to think about a faculty member’s engagement with the university in contractual terms, it is clear what we owe. We owe the terms of our contract – teaching, research, and service – as defined by annual evaluation documents that are typically set out within departments. That’s it. So, what happens if someone does so much in one or more of these areas that they vastly exceed the requirements for the highest category (in my university’s case, “Outstanding”)? I have known people to do enough in a single year to achieve three or more outstandings, on the evaluation criteria. Some do this in more than one category.

What incentivizes this? Nothing, usually. Some do it because of their sense of vocation. Some do it for other reasons. But I rarely see any university actually incentivize excellence at this level, even though they benefit a great deal from it. The rewards are internal to the person. If this is a Gemeinschaft, a person might think that they are contributing to the public, or put another way, to the common good of their community. They are sustaining the intellectual life of the campus, or something like that. That’s behaving as if they are responding to a calling, not to an incentive.

So, while this blog post does nicely lay out some of the options from an individual point of view, that is, the reasons why someone engages the academic world in the manner they do, it doesn’t outline the space in which that engagement happens, and the differences between peoples’ views of where they are, and furthermore the ways that the slippage between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft work in favor of an increasingly fragmented and factory-like university, precisely by using the sense of vocation that some faculty continue to feel.

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