Magazine article Radical Teacher

The Decline of the Professions: Introduction

Magazine article Radical Teacher

The Decline of the Professions: Introduction

Article excerpt

"A Lawyer and Partner and Also Bankrupt" is the headline of a story in the New York I \Times, as we begin this introduction. When the firm in which the 55-year-old man had been a partner collapsed, he joined another prominent firm, but took a backward career step, from full, equity partner to "service" partner. Service partners "do not share the risks and rewards of the firm's practice," have no clients of their own, have no job security. These "partners" are, well, employees. There are more and more of them: 84% of the largest firms have service partners now, up 20% since 2000. Law firms are consolidating, cost-cutting. There has been a decades-long drop in the percentage of lawyers who make partner. Now the number of associates is declining, too (Stewart). These are all people with law degrees; no wonder law school enrollment drops, as the traditional career becomes a rarity, and ever more highly trained labor becomes contingent. That is without mentioning the army of paralegals and others with lesser credentials, or the commodifying of legal documents and do-it-yourself services on line. One of us asked his country lawyer about these changes. The attorney said, in effect: by the time I retire, law practices like mine will be defunct.

Those of you teaching in the arts and sciences will note similarities. The paradigm of an academic career-doctoral study, then a well charted ascent through the ranks, culminating in 25 or 30 or so years as a full professor, and tapering off with many years on an ample pension-was never guaranteed or anything like universal, but was a reasonable aspiration for a college graduate who loved physics or sociology or art history. Now, getting the Ph.D. guarantees roughly nothing, except a load of debt. In history and literary studies, 3/4 or 4/5 of entering Ph.D. students want to be teachers and scholars on the tenure track at colleges and universities. Roughly half of those who complete their degrees in a given year will move directly into such jobs. Some of the others will eventually make the tenure track, after adjuncting for a while. Some will be contingent faculty members forever. And some will find other lines of work. Starting over in a different profession might look good. Law school might look good, even as news about the marketability of its "product" grows dire and as stories of bankrupt senior not-quite-partners make the New York Times.

Consider the same picture now as a snapshot of an occupational labor force. Of those teaching in colleges and universities, around 75% are contingent workers: short contracts, no assurance of renewal, low pay, maybe health insurance but probably not, no pension fund, little if any say in faculty governance or in the making of curriculum, maybe no office and no phone, maybe several other jobs off the tenure track. Many adjuncts have Ph.D.s; many have M.A.s; and many, like real estate agents, computer programmers, or dietitians who moonlight at community colleges or for-profit universities, have no degree that traditionally qualified people for college teaching. It is a lot like the legal work force. In both professions, the old, secure and privileged core has been shrinking for decades, and the periphery of part-timers, adjuncts, contingent workers, service partners, and so on (the names proliferate) has grown. Some of the peripherals have core degrees, many (e.g., paralegals) do not. A larger and larger part of the profession's work is done on line. By whom, one might ask? By poorly paid pieceworkers; by the student or client herself. And cui bono? The for-profit employer of piece workers, or the administration at Defunded State U., or ... More about that, soon.

This issue of Radical Teacher puts on display more examples of professional decline. The ones just mentioned have to do with weakening the semi-monopolies that strong professions maintained in specific areas of work: the adjudication of disputes (law), and instruction in colleges and universities. …

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