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From the President

(Re)Defining Productivity

Reprinted from the Winter 2009 MLA Newsletter

What some now call the Great Recession is hitting us hard. Compared with October 2008, October 2009 Job Information List (JIL) advertisements were down by 40% in English and by 52% in foreign languages. Our current data suggest a decline on the order of 50% from the number of jobs advertised two years ago, in 2007–08, when the JIL’s English edition announced more than 1,800 jobs and the foreign language edition nearly 1,700. Whether or not these figures are reflected in the national unemployment statistics, we know that many of our members are unable to find work, or enough work, or work at a living wage. Colleagues with contingent appointments—now a majority of the teaching corps and one that is organizing (see, for example, “Our Mission Statement”)—still have minimal job security and often labor in degrading conditions. Tenure-track colleagues are seeing their workloads increase as their numbers shrink, yet as scholars they often face stiffened requirements to produce evidence of scholarly activity still defined in narrowly traditional terms. As in past recessions, colleges and universities are reemphasizing undergraduate teaching even as they cut faculty lines and curricular offerings; this response reflects their dependency on undergraduate tuition, which becomes all-important when endowment income and alumni contributions decline. Some observers believe that this recession, unlike others experienced in academia since the 1950s, threatens to be not so much a period of retrenchment followed by recovery as an opening onto a thoroughgoing transformation of the postsecondary system (see Beyond the Economic Downturn). If we fail to acknowledge the gravity of the current challenges and to address their implications, can we withstand the economic, demographic, and sociocultural pressures that are already weakening and constricting the tenure system? Can we narrow what already appears to be an inexorably widening gap between a postsecondary elite—made up of Research I universities and prestigious, well-endowed liberal arts colleges—and all the other tiers of American higher education?

These questions, sharpened by the current belt-tightening, compel us to focus anew on productivity: how we define it, whether we can improve it, how the costs of improvement might be controlled. The economists Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman argue that increases in higher education costs are best explained in terms of the “Baumol effect” or “cost disease” theory: education resembles the performing arts (see Baumol and Bowen) or personal service industries in which rising costs cannot be readily offset, as they are in manufacturing, by productivity gains, so they tend to occasion reduced services and a consequent decline in quality. Archibald and Feldman conclude that “it is critically important for the long-term health of higher education . . . to find ways to cut costs that preserve the quality of the services we provide” (291). From this standpoint, the humanities look especially problematic, since so much of our work is exemplified by the solitary instructor laboring over individual students’ writing and by the isolated scholar poring over—and in turn producing—reams of text. How can we reckon with the imperative to be more productive when such labor-intensive activities remain the core forms of pedagogical and scholarly production? Let me suggest three avenues for exploration.
  • We can define productivity more thoughtfully and more broadly. For non-tenure-track faculty members, productivity by and large means effective teaching (since teaching is typically the contingent faculty member’s only contractual obligation). For tenure-track and tenured faculty members, effective teaching should also have priority; productivity, now defined primarily as a function of published output in which the scholarly monograph is privileged, should be redefined to emphasize intellectual quality and value impact in the field. Confronted by globalization and the advent of the digital humanities, our profession needs to work on developing (selecting, adapting, and creating) and testing strategies for evaluating a spectrum of productivity that includes pedagogical research as well as teaching, translations as well as traditional books and articles, and publications and experimental productions on digital platforms (see “Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion” for an in-depth discussion of these and related proposals).
  • We can identify successful models or starting points for curriculum development and assessment strategies. The ACTFL model for evaluating oral proficiency in foreign languages has been built around a basic schema that describes what students can be expected to know and do as they advance from novice through intermediate to advanced and superior levels; this organizing principle is adaptable to other skills and competencies. Drawing on cognitive psychologists’ studies of the way learning occurs, the physicist and Nobel laureate Carl Wieman has developed and tested a pedagogy for science instruction with a widely applicable goal: “programs and individual courses should move the student toward expert competence in the subject . . . [which] means acquiring the problem solving approaches and skills, habits of the mind, content knowledge, and beliefs about the nature and relevance of the subject that are like those of practicing experts.” After extensive work in the science of learning, Carnegie Mellon has developed a model that combines a carefully constructed online learning environment with instructor-led courses; this hybrid approach has been shown to produce more effective student learning in a shorter time than traditional instructor-led courses alone (see Smith and Thille; Lovett, Meyer, and Thille). In all three of these examples, sustained metacognitive activity—attention by both teachers and students to the process of acquiring and applying knowledge—clarifies and reinforces the trajectory leading to mastery of the subject.
  • We can rethink graduate education with the complex functions of general and liberal education in mind and with the same attention to learning outcomes that undergraduate programs require. Many graduate programs may need to be realigned to reflect shifting priorities in the field, nontraditional forms of scholarship, and an altered array of career paths. Graduate students can benefit enormously from well-informed exchanges on the ways and means of the profession, as Donald Hall’s work in professional studies and Andrew Delbanco’s pioneering seminar for students from multiple disciplines at Columbia demonstrate. Graduate programs should do more to prepare students for essential tasks they will have to assume and, one hopes, embrace as educators: to participate in general education programs and to teach introductory courses in their field, including beginning foreign language or freshman composition. Students should also be encouraged, as budding intellectuals whose responsibilities as citizens in campus communities and in society will reach far beyond the academic fields they are plowing, to relate their scholarly pursuits to the broader educational context and to appreciate the collaborative work they will pursue with colleagues from multiple fields.
Each project I’ve outlined above would serve the quest for a common educational purpose reflected in the title of the MLA Issue Brief that is part of our Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit: “One Faculty Serving All Students” ( The MLA is planning to develop new Web-based tools to enable members to share ideas and resources as we move forward. Your suggestions for such tools and your comments on this column are most welcome.


Works Cited

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines—Speaking.” ACTFL, 1999. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

Archibald, Robert B., and David H. Feldman. “Explaining Increases in Higher Education Costs.” Journal of Higher Education 79 (2008): 268–95. Print.

Baumol, William J., and William G. Bowen. Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma. New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1966. Print.

Beyond the Economic Downturn. Spec. issue of EDUCAUSE Review Magazine 44.4 (2009): 10–68. Print.

Delbanco, Andrew. “English G6631y: American Higher Education: History and Prospects.” Columbia University. Amer. Studies Program, Columbia U, spring 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

Hall, Donald E. The Academic Community: A Manual for Change. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2007. Print.

———. The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2002. Print.

Lovett, Marsha, Oded Meyer, and Candace Thille. “The Open Learning Initiative: Measuring the Effectiveness of the OLI Statistics Course in Accelerating Student Learning.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education. Journal of Interactive Media in Educ., 2008. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

“Our Mission Statement.” New Faculty Majority. New Faculty Majority, 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

“Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.” Profession (2007): 9–71. Print.

Smith, Joel, and Candace Thille. “Improving Both Productivity and Quality: Targeted, Transformational Change in Higher Education.” Aspen Symposium. Aspen Meadows, Aspen. 17 June 2009. Address.

Wieman, Carl. “A New Model for Post-secondary Education: The Optimized University.” University of British Columbia. U of British Columbia, 2006. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.
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Catherine Porter
2009 MLA President Catherine Porter
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.