Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Transcending Macro to Micro: Lines of Research that can assist in Understanding the Manifestation of Neoliberalism in the Lives of Faculty

by Leslie D. Gonzales, Assistant Professor, College of Education, Michigan State University 


             Scholars of higher education have developed a large body of scholarship that addresses faculty careers. Within this scholarship, there are consistent themes: the importance of disciplinary background in forming faculty views of the world and their work, how the type of college or university where one works bears down on the roles and expectations that a faculty member is expected to fulfill (and supported to fulfill). Higher education researchers have also illustrated how faculty careers are not immune to the bent of the wider political-economy, most often characterized as neoliberal, market-centered, commercialized, or austere (see Harvey, 2005 for history of neoliberalism). In fact, neoliberal critiques abound, not only in the U.S. but also throughout Australia, England, Canada, Mexico and many other countries (Apple, 2013; Torres & Schugurensky, 2002). Most of this research demonstrates how the professorial role has been unbundled, de-professionalized, and transformed (sometimes in the face of resistance) into a distinctive entrepreneurialism (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004).
            Within the neoliberal critiques, studies show that faculty tend to work long hours in order to keep up with growing work load demands; that their work is increasingly understood for its fiscal or cultural resource generation; and that evaluation of faculty work is contingent on their ability and willingness to self-surveil and document what they do with their time (e.g., What was their percentage contribution to a manuscript; How many students did one graduate; How much revenue was generated via one’s course offerings?) (Gonzales & Núñez, 2014). As with most institutionalized patterns of valuation and resource allocation, the effects of the neoliberal turn are often disbursed unequally with female faculty members, individuals of racially or ethnically minoritized statuses, those working in disciplines further from the market, or faculty employed by institutions with fewer resources and limited infrastructure feeling the brunt of inequality. Indeed, Among those most effected are contingent faculty who teach a vast majority of undergraduate courses across American colleges and universities, and who are poorly paid, marginalized, and find themselves with limited or inconsistent access to teaching and learning professional development opportunities and materials from employing institution(s).
            To date, the field has learned a great deal from studies that use a neoliberal lens to explore faculty careers. However, as just suggested, this research has tended to document the ways in which faculty expectations and/or productivity/output patterns have changed, and how those changing expectations often reproduce inequities along the lines of discipline, institutional type, gender, and race (Misra, Lundquist, & Templer, 2012; Niehaus & O’Meara, 2015; Renzulli, Reynold, Kelly & Grant, 2013; Treviño, Gamez-Mejia, Balkin, & Mixon, 2015). Beneath or perhaps behind the pressures to publish and to demonstrate tangible outcomes are daily seemingly invisible or small micro level processes and experiences that the neoliberal moment also bears down on, but which are currently under-examined. To this point, Bastedo (2012) urged higher education researchers, and especially organizational theorists, to take a close look into “educational work” (p. 10) as it unfolds in a daily, perhaps even mundane, way. The goal of this post is to explore three ways of doing so, and I begin, drawing from the work of Anna Neumann, by asking if and how we might shift to studying faculty careers not only or primarily as a producing enterprise, but as a learning one.

Understanding the Faculty Career as a Learning Enterprise

            In her work, Anna Neumann (2009) encourages scholars and college and university leaders to remember that the work of faculty hinges on continual learning—an idea that is often muted in the desire to understand outputs, outcomes, and productivity. Although, the focus on output or productivity, in general is important and connected to an overarching concern with how the neoliberal bent positions colleges and universities, and in turn their faculty, as market competitors, there is also much work on the part of faculty that goes into “producing,” which the field knows little about. Specifically, the field knows little about how faculty members, embedded in (and producers of) the productivity culture, extend their scholarly learning: how they form and explore ideas, test out or articulate their thoughts as they grapple with old and new theories and developments. Given this gap in knowledge, there is merit in exploring such phenomena, broadly, and also in trying to understand how faculty learning efforts fall out differently among different groups of professors, such as those on and off the tenure-line, across gender lines, among faculty members who hold racially and ethnically minoritized status inside an institution constructed by and for White, wealthy males and for those who have come to know the world with Western-centric ideology and epistemology.
            Indeed, history has shown that women, women of color and communities of color, more broadly, create and engage in productive learning outside of mainstream apparatus. Martinez Aléman (2000; 2010) illustrated how the learning experiences for young traditionally aged women and women of color differed (in terms of space and content) from that of young male students, and also from that of the other female group. Espino, Muñoz, and Marquez Kiyama (2010) shared how their friendship and bond has been central, indeed integral, to their intellectual development. With the power of these examples in mind, we need more studies that systematically focus on how faculty commit and recommit to learning over the course of their work lives, the ways in which community and friendship play a role in allowing academics to form ideas, to talk out loud about their work in ways that allow them to be vulnerable, and what such efforts look like across gender, race, familial composition/commitments; disciplinary affiliations; appointment types; and across different institutional types. Such work would not necessarily shed light on productivity, as it is typically defined in the current neoliberal moment, but it would remind researchers and leaders that meaningful productivity must be fed by scholars’ ability to extend their learning.
Deploying Intersectionality to Trace the Differential Effects of the
Neoliberalism on Faculty Mobility
            As already alluded to, cultures (e.g., disciplinary norms, normative dispositions toward work, professionalism) and structures (e.g., appointment types, hiring processes, tenure and promotion guidelines) do not operate in the same way for all faculty members. Faculty members enter academia as raced, gendered, classed, and otherwise marked bodies. However, beyond the personal and biographical markers that faculty carry, they also enter academia with particular forms of capital such as that attached to the type of institution where they completed their doctoral work, unearned capital attached to the cache of their major advisors, their methodological experiences/stances, and myriad other forms of privilege that are not well documented in current research regarding faculty hiring or mobility. In other words, like the hidden curriculum that many scholars have documented in the context of K-12 schooling, there are hidden and not well understood forms of capital that allow/constrain movement within academe (Margolis, 2001). It is notable that that women and racially and ethnically minoritized women and men, occupy the majority of non-tenure-track positions (Finkelstein, 2015); that racially and ethnically minoritized people are more likely to graduate from a non-Ivy League school, and more specifically, from a Historically Black College or University or a Hispanic Serving Institution as documented in emerging work by Dongbin Kim.
            When one holds these latter pieces of information in one hand, and then considers the fact that the majority of tenure-track hires are drawn from a tiny portion of doctoral-granting universities as noted here and here, it becomes evident that understanding faculty hiring, promotion, and mobility patterns demands an intersectional approach: one that accounts for personal identity markers; organizational/field markers or forms of capital; and also academic markers (e.g., research topics, methodological approaches) as each of these markers holds a certain value in this neoliberal context.
            By incorporating this three-dimensional approach to studying the composition of the academic labor force, higher education researchers might be able to investigate the manifestation of neoliberalism differently: perhaps as the layered reproduction of hierarchy, where scholars of color or otherwise minoritized (class, college generation) scholars, most likely to graduate from non-Ivy League institutions are fed into ranks of a labor market that are not promising pathways to mobility. While neoliberalism is currently understood for its de-professionalizing and unbundling effects on faculty roles, there is a need to understand how neoliberalism works in tandem with the deeply institutionalized logics of the field of higher education in ways that hamper access and mobility within the professoriate.
Emotions in Academia
            One final line of inquiry that might be developed within the broader neoliberal critique deals with emotion. At ASHE 2015, my colleague David Ayers and I put forward a new theoretical framework to explore the labor experiences and expectations of community college faculty in this neoliberal moment. We borrowed from an eclectic set of literatures, including institutional logics, nuanced discussions of neoliberalism, and emotional labor (Hocschild, 1983). In developing our argument, we recognized that one of the most powerful expectations for contemporary faculty, particularly those working in under-resourced colleges and universities and in the least secure of positions, especially contingent labor, is that of emotional labor. Our argument differs from recent writing that stresses the emotional toll and anxieties absorbed by non-tenure-track faculty (and faculty, writ large), and instead focuses on the idea that faculty members, especially those working in under-resourced settings, like community colleges, are expected to remedy structural inequities that stem from austerity politics and neoliberalism through their passion, commitment, and creativity. Adopting this vantage point, researchers might consider how calls for creativity and passion are actually attempts to draw on the emotional resources—particularly the passions—of those who attach a deep sense of purpose to their appointment as teachers, researchers, or academics, writ large.
            There are other ways that emotional labor might be studied within academe while holding in mind broader political-economic contexts. For example, the personal identity markers—gender, race, class, sexuality and so on—discussed throughout this post often seep into the work that faculty do, how that work is perceived, and how they, in turn, strive to position that work (see Gutierrez y Muhs, Niemann, González, & Harris, 2012 for many examples). Scholars whom occupy one (or multiple) marginalized statuses and whose work is explicitly focused on critical questions concerning race, equity, power, inclusion, and Whiteness receive several warnings about the risks of such work: they will be perceived as overly political; as one-dimensional; as subjective or biased. Such critical work is imperative to understanding the inherently political production of knowledge, and how knowledge shifts and expands over time, but the field has yet to investigate how scholars engaged in this work negotiate, recoup, and thrive in spite of threats to or warnings offered about their intellectual viability. In other words, higher education researchers might consider exploring how scholars, who are engaged in critical— or less mainstream work (in any discipline)— move through and subvert the warnings they receive, but also what it takes to sustain such scholarly agendas. Such movement, it seems, would require a great deal of emotional energy, and as such, is deserving of close study as yet another way that neoliberalism collides with power and politics in the production and evaluation of knowledge.
Closing Thoughts
            Although the field has a well-established body of work concerning the academic profession, there are many questions and angles that remain unexplored. My hopes for this post were to motivate new ways of thinking about the study of faculty work and roles, such as what lays behind productivity (learning), how the opportunity to enter and be mobile within academe hinges on hidden curricula attached to historical and structural inequities, or perhaps what is expected or what it takes—emotionally—to move through academia today.


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