Friday, May 23, 2014
A Post-ac, Para-ac and Alt-ac walk into an Alt-mod…
With social media craze and higher education crisis as parents, the hashtags #alt-ac, #post-ac, and #para-ac refer to people classified by their work, education, and attitude toward the academy, who opt or aim for careers across the public and private, employee and entrepreneur work spaces within and without higher education, and who by some lights are laying foundation for a new academy.
Until recently I was unaware that I might be classified as an “acer” – as in “hacker.” Like many others I do not fit nicely under any one of the three hashtags, though best fit is a reluctant post-ac. For a decade I worked as an adjunct until five years ago when romantic and labour market forces left me without even this tenuous access to faculty work.
But no matter the subtleties of classification, Nowviski describes us as innovators, iconoclasts, entrepreneurs, and explorers. Unbound by convention we are thick-skinned and courageous. We are driven, self-motivated, self-reliant and innovative. And when faced with disintegrating traditional academic employment options we are inspired to create personal and systemic alternatives.
Disintegration of the current model for higher education - a triad of institutional service providers (universities and colleges), public institutional funding, and union represented institutional employ – is characterized by its reduced public funding, rising costs, exploitation of academic labour, inadequate/inequitable access, venture capitalist inroads, unbundling of education, unprecedented mass education through technology, and escalation in academic entrepreneurialism.
In this climate it is no surprise that the initially isolated (re)actions of acers have coalesced into reform aimed at the education, research, publication, community service and employment aspects of this failing institutional model.
The blog, How To Leave Academia, notes that at least alt-acers see “the working conditions of adjuncts as an issue of pressing importance to the future of higher ed, and as an issue that addresses troubling class/labor divisions among tenured faculty, contingent faculty, and staff/service ‘alternative’ academics.”
Precisely because the traits and trials shared by acers are excellent material for movement beyond the pale of institutional, union represented faculty employ I ask us all to consider two questions:
1) Suppose there was in place an alternative model, or #alt-mod, for higher education that facilitated the education, research, and community work of academics through independent private practice directed and protected by professional association and social contract - as occurs in the work lives of attorneys, dentists, accountants or psychiatrists - would you or someone you know choose such a professional academic career path?
2) Independently of institutions and for your field – be it philosophy, biology, composition, history, statistics, or some other – could you finance such a professional practice based solely on revenue equivalent to the current average advertised tuition of US institutions, with no additional appropriations for operations or capital repair and construction?
My answer is, yes, I would choose this labour arrangement and, yes, I could finance a professional practice on tuition alone.
To better inform your response consider that this model is foundation for a new academy with opportunity for all interested individuals to provide traditional faculty services from without the limited, exploitive employ of higher education institutions. Through professional licensure and private practice academics exercise entrepreneurial control over their work, including (but not limited to): where, when and how to provide service; what students, research and community service to take on; how much to charge for service; publication rates; and peer partnership.
Though it could the professional #alt-mod need not replace the alternative career paths of acers or the institutional facilitation of higher education, but presents a attractive complement with economic advantages to institutions and society. It is simply another path that some might find appealing in the exercise of their right to earn a living, while improving higher education for students and society.
I applaud acers for their innovative (reform) efforts but the product cannot be described as disruptive. All innovation in higher education has been of the sort Christensen calls sustaining – in this case perpetuating the university and college as principal service providers. By contrast the professional model has real potential to disrupt higher education. With respect just to the working and material conditions of academics consider this short list of disruption:
1) Institutional employers are not required.
2) Institutions are vendors for professional academics in private practice.
3) Faculty unions are not required.
4) Professional prerogative uniquely determines the value proposition of services.
5) Quality assurance and improvement are conducted at the immediate point of service.
6) Access to face-to-face academic service is improved and unlimited.
7) Tenure does not exist.
8) Professional prerogative determines the source and scale of revenue/income.
The main disruptive force of the professional model is its paradigm shift in service from institutions to individuals. Disintegration of the institutional model is already forcing us toward entrepreneurialism, with academics selling their services in course development, research, evaluation and consultation on an individual basis. What I suggest is that this be done as other professionals have provided their services for over a century, under professional social contract, in a model where institutional facilitation and employ are merely options - not the only option.
As an attorney or accountant any qualified individual licensed by the state through a profession can arrange to offer their services to the public for a fee. I suggest that the same be made true for academics.
It is financially feasible that I own and operate my own academic practice in philosophy without the need of a university or college facilitator. I could also partner with other academics and even open something like a university or college, but owned and operated by the academic partners, say as a co-operative or arrangements similar to those found in secondary charter schools owned and operated by teacher partnerships.
This is an entrepreneurial academy that operates outside or alongside the institutional box.