What The Academy Is

May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

After I posted this blog’s mission statement, my mother, with her usual insight, reminded me that “the only academy that a lot of us know about is Starfleet.”  As usual, I can count on her to remind me to communicate with more clarity and less pretension.  (If you’re reading this, thanks, Mom!)   I’ll follow her advice and tell you what I’m talking about when I talk about the academy.


In short, it’s the collection of people who work as researchers and teachers at colleges and universities.  We often call ourselves “academics.”  I’ll try to make the basic outline of the academy clearer by talking about academics.  There are four basic types:


Tenure-Track and Tenured Professors: These are full-time, salaried teachers and researchers at universities and liberal arts colleges.  Professors have a range of official obligations which also usually depend on the type of institution that employs them.  Those working at research universities tend to have lighter teaching loads than their counterparts at liberal arts colleges so that they can do more research.  Professors in engineering and the experimental sciences also frequently do managerial work.  Any large lab at a university is run by a primary investigator, or PI, who is usually a full professor.  The PI designs studies and experiments and directs a large number of postdocs and students who carry them out.


These positions are usually very competitive.  This is partly because they carry lots of social prestige, especially within the academy,  Their competitiveness fuels their prestige, which, in turn, fuels their competitiveness: a vicious cycle.


More importantly, tenure-track positions come with generous benefits and financial security.  Tenure-track professors periodically come up for raises, promotions, and eventually tenure (a condition which makes it very difficult for the college or university to fire them).


The university at least officially awards or denies them these benefits on the basis of their teaching, department service (ie: doing bureaucratic work like serving as department chair or working on committees), and research publications (which are either articles published in scholarly journals or books published with university presses).  Universities tend to weight research more heavily, while liberal arts colleges put more emphasis on teaching.  Hence, professors tend to focus most of their energy on these activities.


Visiting Assistant Professors, Lecturers and Postdoctoral Fellows: Like tenure-track professors, these are full-time salaried university employees who teach and do research.  Unlike tenure-track professors, they do not get regular raises or promotions.  They also often serve only for a short, pre-arranged period: a few years at most.  In the experimental sciences, departments hire most postdocs to provide expert labor in somebody else’s lab.  In other disciplines, departments use these positions to handle teaching loads (particularly for big introductory classes which nobody really likes teaching– ie: basic calculus in Mathematics), form connections with promising young scholars, accommodate former graduate students who are still looking for a tenure-track job, and provide work for academics’ academic spouses.


Adjunct Professors: These academics are paid to teach on a course-by-course basis.  They tend not to have benefits, job security, or a decent salary.  Many of them work other jobs or adjunct at multiple universities.  The Great Crash of 2008-2009 caused many colleges and universities to freeze tenure-track hiring for a few years.  (In fact, many are only just beginning to hire again).  These colleges and universities still had to offer courses to their students, so they hired adjuncts instead.  This growing ill-paid group of scholars has become a professional scandal.


PhD Students: In some ways, the word “student” is misleading here.  Although they take classes, most PhD candidates are really more like apprentice professors than undergraduate students.  All of them do research, and many of them teach.  Most credible PhD programs  actually pay their students to do these things by offering them stipends or teaching assistantships and research assistantships.  Much like medieval and renaissance apprentices, graduate students advance in their profession by creating a “masterpiece.”  The masterpiece is always a major research project, but its form varies by discipline.  In anthropology and the humanities, it’s usually a dissertation– a scholarly book with novel arguments.  In mathematics, it’s a major proof (or collection of major proofs).  In the experimental sciences and social sciences, it’s usually a major research paper or  a collection of several major research papers.  Graduate students’ independent research efforts are usually directed towards making this masterpiece.


So, these four groups of people make up the academy.  It’s a rough sketch at best, but I hope that it will make matters clearer when I start talking about the fields of inquiry that people in the parts of the academy closest to mine actually work in.


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