In case you’ve had your head under a rock for the last week or so, an emeritus Sociology prof wrote an article for the Weekly Standard slamming how his career has been easy street where he got paid for “self-cultivation”, got tenure, did almost no work and is now making a 6 figure salary. This was followed a few days later by a response from three department chairs for his department and his response to them. It would all be funny if it weren’t sad.
The original article argued essentially that he was drastically overpaid for the work he did and what he contributed to the world, and further that sociology, along with most social science fields, are nearly worthless in the grand scheme of things due to its extreme left-wing ideological leanings, esoteric concerns and lack of practical impact.
The responses have varied. My first thought was that, while correct about higher ed’s ideological leanings, that doesn’t make all of the arguments presented from those ideological perspectives invalid. My 2nd thought was that he must have been a crappy teacher / researcher / mentor. (At least the first part is born out at ratemyprofessor.com. His research productivity is far in the past – a quick google scholar search shows nothing new in more than 10 years. I pity his graduate students who are now getting tarred and feathered by association.)
What does keep coming back to me as I read through this whole thing is how his experience, right or wrong, is based on getting in to an academic position at a specific point in time (when there were far more opportunities than PhDs applying for them), rose through the ranks at a school that was trying to become a major player and therefore was offering salaries and benefits to attract the best, and has coasted ever since.
The harm I see in this article is that it gives a perspective on the academic life that DOESN’T EXIST ANY LONGER. Are there people out there who have had this experience? Some. Not as many as the conservative blogosphere would like to think, but definitely some. But for a new graduate or a newly tenured faculty member, the life he describes doesn’t exist. The R1 I attended expects every faculty member (tenured or not) to bring in enough grant money to cover their own expenses as well as those of any PhD students they want for research assistants. Chair (who got tenure about a year ago) still takes only one day a week off, and only because his lawyer wife (another 60+ hour per week career) insists on it. Granted, he has the freedom to do his work on-campus, off-campus, or even out of the state/country if he plans it well. But reading yet another bad paper from a grad student is no more fun just because you are doing it in a coffee shop. And compare Rubenstein’s load to that of the instructors at a community college who make less (lower prestige) and teach as many as 6 sections per semester of students who are often ill-prepared and have life-stories that will make you sob.
Rubenstein was lucky to be born when he was, enter the field when he did and lock in the benefits that he got. Academics of more recent vintages have a very different experience. The worst damage he has done is in the implication throughout much of his article that his experience is the norm. It’s not even the norm for his generation of scholars, let alone those that have come along since. In the process, he commits a major research error (sample size of one) and makes the fight far harder for those academics who follow.