The Academic’s Handbook

A. Leigh Deneef, Editor
Crauford D. Goodwin, Editor
Duke University Press, 2007, 416 pages. $24.95

reviewed by Mark Drozdowski

When I finished graduate school six years ago, I wasn’t eyeing
a traditional career as a faculty member. Had I been, I would
have found The Academic’s Handbook quite valuable.

This rather meaty volume, now in its third printing (the first
edition debuted about 20 years ago), considers everything a budding academic should know about professorial life. It’s aimed
primarily at newly-minted Ph.D.s who’ve just landed on the
shores of academe, but it also speaks to graduate students ready
to shove off. In this sense, it’s both a primer and a warning shot
across the bow.Over the course of its some 400 pages, the book
presents a collection of essays from experienced faculty and administrators, along with others who managed to escape. Most of
the contributors, including the two editors, hail from Duke, which
published the volume. More on that later.

Let’s first dig into the book’s guts. Most new faculty, claims
the preface, “emerge from the nation’s premier graduate schools
with very little specific knowledge about how colleges and universities really operate or about what academic life in such institutions is all about.” I suppose that’s true, though it’s hard to
believe that someone who has spent, oh, let’s say, 12 years in
higher education knows next to nothing about the enterprise.
But we’ll agree with the book’s assertion for the sake of argument and move along.

It begins with a taxonomy of the higher education system. We
see there are research universities, from which readers have likely
hailed, and an array of other four-year institutions and community colleges. Here again, I’ll forgive the “Higher Ed 101” approach; some readers may be international students, and therefore relatively uninitiated. The editors don’t waste much ink on
this anyway.

Instead, they focus on the challenges facing new faculty and
faculty wannabes. The first matter of business is landing a job.
Enter the initial warning shot. One author tells us that Ph.D.
students should continually question their career goals given that
not all will transition to teaching. The terminal degree, we are
reminded, “should never be viewed as a career answer, but rather
as an opening of career options.”
The book assumes most readers will covet a faculty position,
however, so most of the content relates to that desire. Some chapters cover the nuts
and bolts of this pursuit—writing cover
letters, fashioning
CVs, matters of sartorial choice, asking
the right questions,
giving sample lectures, conversational
etiquette, and so
forth. That much
could be reviewed in
a one-hour primer
offered by career
services. But it’s a
proper reminder of
some of the more
mundane issues that
fall off radar screens.

Other chapters wax philosophical about subjects such as tenure, academic freedom, grantsmanship, institutional politics and
culture, research and publication, and the lot of women and minority faculty. Tenure, we’re reminded, does not guarantee lifetime employment and surely does not “insulate the tenured from
any and all forms of subsequent evaluation.” Yet it remains a
worthy goal, especially if speaking your mind without fear of
recrimination figures in your long-term plans.

New faculty are encouraged to become involved in the life
their institutions, from academic advising to mentoring graduate students to serving on committees. The latter satisfies the
academy’s thirst for participatory governance, though newbies
should heed yet another warning: “Young professors who participate in governance extensively may do so at their peril,”
claims one author. Why? Opportunity cost, for one. Says the
author: “[E]very minute diverted from research is time not devoted to achievement of the primary requirement for advancement.” What’s more, we’re told that such service is “given little
weight in assessing a junior colleague’s worth or promise.” But
feel free to volunteer.

And what of that other pesky duty getting in the way of research? You know, that teaching thing. Most authors recognize
the importance of good teaching, and a couple of chapters offer
tips on delivering lectures and leading class discussions. Also
covered are topics such as grading and dealing with plagiarism.
Underlying these chapters is the sense that teaching remains a
second-class citizen in the quest for tenure, and that pedagogical habits aren’t instilled during graduate school. All too true, I
suppose. That’s a clue to my primary misgiving with this book.
Guess it yet? Here’s another hint: The author of the chapter on
teaching in “small colleges” writes that it’s “not unrealistic to
envision early career years in a small college setting as a preface to appointment at a research university…, [but] it is not wise
to make very public proclamations of such intentions.”

You know where I’m headed. The book assumes readers 1)
are products of research university graduate programs; 2) teach
at one or aspire to; 3) are tenure track; and 4) value the primacy
of research over teaching and service. In other words, the book
speaks to a fraction of new faculty and all but ignores those
who’ll spend their careers comfortably ensconced in community colleges, state colleges, small private colleges and universities whose mission exhorts teaching over research. A good
portion of the book addresses refereed journals, the scientific
community, grant-funded research and academic book publishing. Again, think Duke; 23 of the 33 contributors are or have
been affiliated with that university, either as faculty or administrators or both. Doesn’t that betray the book’s orientation?

As such, adjuncts aren’t given much thought. One author calls
them “a cohort of insecure and poorly paid jobbers.” How flattering. Another author claims that “[t]emporary positions involving teaching of even a single course a semester are likely to stall
your research progress.” And therefore thwart tenure, naturally.
Yet another chapter posits that “The image of hordes of academics desperately accepting multiple poorly paid part-time
positions as their only source of employment is certainly overdrawn, but we have no data sufficient to clarify the extent of the
phenomenon.” Oh, it’s extensive. Trust me.

To be fair, those same authors present a useful chapter on “offtrack vetting,” as they call it. That is, teaching careers off the
tenure track. Using Duke as an example, they describe “recent
moves to professionalize the non-tenure-track positions at a
number of distinguished research universities.” For about a decade, Duke has featured “professors of practice (POPs),” scholars off the tenure track who focus on teaching excellence. Duke’s
psychology department, in fact, counts several POP psychologists among its faculty. (OK, so I embellish….) Similar arrangements, we learn, exist at Northwestern, Michigan and Berkeley.

“General interest in part-time positions appears to be growing
nationally,” say these authors, who call such positions “commonplace and desirable.” They conclude that “the frequent public
criticisms of non-tenure-track positions as ‘second class’ at the
individual level and ‘points of erosion in the overall system of
tenure’ at the macro-level amount to little more than rear-guard
objections to inevitable social change.” Let’s be clear: they’re
not discussing adjunct positions but full-time, quasi-permanent,
“teaching-focused” appointments at research universities. One
more exception to the rule.

So if you’re eyeing a tenure-track faculty position in a research
university or are newly in one, here’s your Bible. If you’re not, or
you’re realistic about your chances of landing one of those (read:
slim), digest the book with these constrictions in mind. You’ll certainly find valuable information about academic culture, governance
and departmental politics, and you’ll be reminded that development officers like me control the grants process (thanks, guys). Most
readers of Adjunct Advocate, I suspect, will feel as though the book
relates to a different audience.

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  • AdjunctNation Editorial Team: @Jeffr thanks for pointing out the distinction.
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  • Freddi-Jo Bruschke: An excellent description of this editorial.