In September 1970, Richard Nixon ordered a commission on campus unrest. He was facing continued protests against the Vietnam War; at one of these protests, in May, National Guardsmen had killed four Kent State students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ad hoc group led by former Pennsylvania governor William Scranton concluded that the moment demanded heavier security enforcement and surveillance to deal with the clamor and unhappiness. Since then, most campuses have followed through—spending more and more money every year on police forces that often harass students of color and people from local communities, prompting growing calls for reform or abolition. This is particularly true of the walled gardens of elite schools in places like Cambridge, Hyde Park, and Manhattan, which are generally eager to mark off their territory from surrounding environments. This is a rigorously managed, securitized campus devoted more to entertainment and corporate-friendly research than to free learning—a kind of Potemkin University. And this is the university that we have now.
But the fight for a different university—and different role for teachers within it—is not over. A few years before the 1970 Scranton Commission, the classicist William Arrowsmith confronted a familiar landscape. Schools already relied on underpaid instructors, many of them graduate students, to fill courses; instead of paying solid wages or offering job security, administrators handed out teaching awards to flash a token commitment to undergraduate learning. But this wasn’t real support. Instead, Arrowsmith remarked, “If you want to restore a Druid priesthood, you cannot do it by offering prizes for Druid-of-the-year. If you want Druids, you must grow forests. There is no other way of setting about it.” This vision entails a university organized around the long-term needs and desires of the many, primarily those who labor in the classroom (students and teachers), and staff whose work supports teaching. It would be a small-d democratic institution, devoted to, and materially supportive of, learning and scholarship, instead of fundraising from corporate donors and football boosters. This university might never have fully existed, but, perhaps, it could.
The struggle between these two different universities is made clear in Jonathan Zimmerman’s ambitious, fine-grained history of college teaching, The Amateur Hour. Zimmerman’s book articulates a persuasive—albeit incomplete—critique, which is both material and pedagogical: despite their rhetorical commitment to teaching, few universities have given their faculty the kind of consistent support and coherent professional training that would ensure all instructors are good at their jobs. Relying on what Zimmerman calls “folkloric traditions rather than codified ones,” the profession contains too much variation in terms of the instructional quality students encounter. (As such, Zimmerman’s thesis follows what David Gooblar, whom The Amateur Hour mentions, has articulated in The Missing Course, a more theoretical, less historicized work.) “Teaching remains a game of chance,” Zimmerman asserts, “conducted mainly by people who are not systematically inducted into it.”
In turn, few teaching-stream faculty are compensated with fair wages and meaningful workplace protections, and “the lack of tangible career-related returns on teaching remains the central barrier to improving it.” Since the middle of the previous century, American schools have relied on armies of badly paid contingent workers, a wandering corps of non-tenurable professors, many of them still graduate students, which now constitutes almost two-thirds of the professoriate. The managers of universities might talk a good game about teaching, but they don’t treat workers like they believe it. As one administrator joked in 1967, “You don’t get an international reputation by giving a great course at Berkeley.”
Zimmerman, however, lays much of the blame not on the administrative class and governing boards that control budgets and hiring, but on professors: “We balk at making it [teaching] into a professional project, which would require us to master new knowledge, and apply it in our own classrooms.”
As someone who teaches in an undergraduate writing program—where rigorous pedagogical reviews are a yearly occurrence and collaboration between instructors is routine and extensive—I wondered who “we” comprises. But for Zimmerman, too many of “us” are romantics about our jobs, unwilling to accept training from anyone, because we see ourselves as brilliant individuals leveraging charm, charisma, and intellectual mystique. “The more that teaching was imagined as a personal act—indeed, as a function of personality—the less it could be organized, standardized, or changed.”
Again, this raises questions: Is teaching “imagined as a personal act”? And do most college teachers resist professionalization? Have the teaching and labor patterns of the past persisted, or is the present radically different?
What Was the Classroom?
Unfortunately, The Amateur Hour does not have much to say about teaching after 2000. From the 1990s (when 40 percent of the professoriate was already working off the tenure track) onward, most of Zimmerman’s commentary on the present century is siloed in an epilogue (supplemented a bit by the book’s introduction). This is disappointing, because Zimmerman is so good on the 20th century, introducing a granular historicist framework that supplements more theoretical writing on pedagogy and intellectual production. He elegantly traces and unpacks trends in labor, campus politics, classroom practice, and the composition of student populations but mostly fails to pursue them to the 2000s and 2010s. As such, a reader is left wondering how the now apparently permanent austerity conditions at most schools and the entrenchment of a quasi-corporate administrative class have shaped—or not shaped—what goes on inside classrooms.
Historical recurrence is at work throughout The Amateur Hour. Certain themes continually resurface as tensions between stakeholders inside colleges and universities (faculty, administrators, governing boards, staff, students) and outside them (politicians and publics), all with different, sometimes-overlapping visions of higher ed’s mission.
These tensions are especially evident in the post–World War II era, when American higher education truly became the mass phenomenon envisioned by the framers of the 1862 Morrill Act, which set aside government land for state universities. By the beginning of the 21st century, where Zimmerman leaves off, US higher education would be a highly technological, thoroughly neoliberalized, intensely monetized and managed universe that provides little material support to the people who carry out what is supposedly every university’s mission: create, critique, and transmit knowledge in ways that support the flourishing of student minds.
What’s old is new. And that is, it turns out, deeply disquieting, if you put Zimmerman’s monograph in conversation with other scholarship on teaching and the modern university.
Campus modernity has patterns. Professors and students have, for instance, long complained about ballooning classes, an “academic Gigantism” comprising giant, dull but cost-saving lecture courses. “Most of our administrators,” griped one Tulane professor in the 1930s, “captivated as they are by American ideals of bigness, are leading us toward depersonalization, disintegration, [and] elephantitis.”
Friction between labor and management has been perpetual. Particularly, professors have been skeptical of administrative potentates who controlled budgets and embraced metrics like student evaluations of teachers. Indeed, course evaluations—whereby “students invoked their rights as consumers rather than as citizens; since they were shelling out money for college, the argument went, they had a right to judge its quality”—have remained a flashpoint in class struggle within the institution. This embrace is in spite of a mountain of scholarship showing how much pernicious racial, gender, sexual, and class bias they entrench.
The Cold War push for evaluations indicated another point of tension—that between students and teachers. Many undergraduates feared that their professors didn’t care enough about teaching to do it well; as one complained, quaintly, in 1938, “What did we pay our $26 for?”
Professors, meanwhile, often fretted that students were grade-grubbing conformists who saw education as a commodity, a ticket to a high-paying job or suitable wedding. A professor at the University of Arizona in the 1960s whined that he was “tired of babysitting intellectually inadequate marriage majors.” Often these faculty anxieties were infused by the elitist canard that “too many” of the “wrong” kind of “unprepared” people were attending college. This fear boomed in the 1960s, when national undergraduate enrollment increased from 3 to 5 million in a few years and a new community college opened, on average, every week.
Antagonism between students, professors, and management intensified during the Cold War, when political pressure on faculty—coming almost entirely from the right—reached a noxious pitch. Dark-money slime operations like today’s Campus Reform aren’t new; their roots are in the red-baiting repression of the 1950s. Frequently, students would be enlisted as classroom spies by reactionary watchdog groups with names like Youth for America and Students for America, and administrators rarely tried hard to protect faculty who came under fire, including times that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI got involved.
The managers of universities might talk a good game about teaching, but they don’t treat workers like they believe it.
By the 1990s, a petri dish of ultraconservative, amply funded groups was entrenched in its perpetual mission of “exposing,” harassing, humiliating, and, if possible, ruining the careers of leftist (or even just liberal) professors. In a way, this network forms a kind of shadow university. Want to criticize racial capitalism, or the police, or the Pentagon? Eager to bring up white privilege? If you don’t have tenure, better be careful. “Academic mythology held that professors were free to say whatever they wanted in their own classrooms,” Zimmerman explains. “But reality told a very different story, severely restricting the scope and meaning of ‘discussion’ in college teaching.”
But the greatest threat to academic freedom and variety was arguably the labor situation. Much has rightfully been made of the ongoing adjunct crisis, where most of America’s college teachers work precarious jobs, but the exploitation of wage labor—from graduate TAs to adjuncts with doctorates—started in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, it has gotten much worse, becoming the hegemonic employment model for higher ed. The old line about how professors are not employees of the university, they are the university, no longer holds in most places.
In fact, we have about the same job security as the shift managers at the campus Chipotle, which is to say—not much. And you can’t pay rent with cultural capital or professional prestige.
The use of graduate students—“America’s substitute college teachers”—in the classroom, where undergraduates frequently considered them poor instructors, ramped up during the 1960s. At the same time, more part-time, or otherwise non-tenure-track, teachers were hired. This “legion of the academically disenfranchised,” as one scholar calls them, would only grow throughout the back half of the century, juiced by the neoliberal policies and austerity budgets of the 1980s and ’90s. In the long wake of the Great Recession, they have become the overwhelming, seemingly permanent faculty majority.
There is about a one-in-three chance that any given professor will be on the tenure track. This is true even at the wealthiest institutions. You can imagine what kind of prospects the pandemic brings.
Yet, The Amateur Hour stops short, having little to say about the current century. As such it is only a partial (though good) “history of college teaching.” Perhaps my complaint is uncharitable, because, after all, Zimmerman can’t cover everything. But he could have explored something in depth. We are talking about 20 years of history here.
One has to supplement Zimmerman’s work with other texts in critical university studies. Thankfully, there is a rich tradition that gets supplemented every year. There would, in this canon, be Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake (2016), with its critique of how public universities were colonized in the Reagan years and beyond by a privatization-obsessed, corporate political consciousness. Newfield’s foundational book weaves in with other works about the dismantling of institutional publics. These include Henry A. Giroux’s Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (2014), Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier’s Austerity Blues (2016), and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed (2017), the latter a classic study of for-profit traps like the University of Phoenix.
Benjamin Ginsberg, in The Fall of the Faculty (2011), traces the shift to the “all-administrative university” and the coextensive transition from faculty as constitutive elements of the university to the professor as managed employee. Following this stream of critique, Adrianna Kezar, Daniel T. Scott, and Tom DePaola have mapped out the 21st-century labor form of the university in The Gig Academy (2019), where professors are handled like Uber drivers—as rootless knowledge contractors. (Their work builds on Marc Bousquet’s 2008 classic How the University Works.) And recent pedagogy critiques like John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write (2018), David Gooblar’s The Missing Course (2019), and Kit Nicholls and William Germano’s Syllabus (2020) situate, to varying degrees of success, classroom instruction within the vast American university system.
But there is a lot we still don’t know. We lack an extensive, coherent, explanatory pedagogy that doesn’t just react to neoliberal imperatives but theorizes, imagines, and enacts futures beyond them. Apolitical attempts like Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) aside, we still don’t truly understand how the best teaching happens under the real material conditions of the austere contemporary university or college. What needs to be new? And what do we already know works?
Given this absence, perhaps the most tantalizing section of The Amateur Hour is about the age of experimentation in the 1960s and ’70s. Progressive schools like UC Santa Cruz, Hampshire College, and Evergreen State College emphasized small classes, student research, open Socratic inquiry, and courses without grades (the last concept is now the subject of a fascinating collection of essays, Ungrading). Granted, some conservative faculty griped about a lack of rigor and seriousness, but there was a sense across higher ed that teachers needed to be both extensively trained and given freedom in the classroom.
We need a materialist pedagogy, one that links classroom practice to the political economy of the university as an institution.
At the same time, however, this was, as we have seen, the beginning of the adjunct crisis, and the shock waves of the Vietnam War were everywhere, producing a psychological environment not dissimilar to the world of climate crisis, rising authoritarianism, police violence, and socioeconomic precarity that today’s students inhabit. As one undergrad told an interviewer in the late ’60s, “Everybody is fatalistic. Nobody really expects to be alive in ten years.”
Zimmerman claims that, throughout the past century, “most faculty development happened out of sight” in colloquial and informal spaces. The ever-expanding academic universe of conferences, symposia, seminars, livestreams, journals, books, and social-media conversations devoted to teaching would seem to counter that claim at least somewhat. Still, he is right that there remain critical spaces to be filled.
We need, for instance, more classroom-practice studies like The Teaching Archive, a recent collection of documents (e.g., syllabi, lecture notes, reading lists) from literature classrooms of the past century. Ideally, pedagogy scholars would widen the circumference of their archival work to include curriculum from other disciplines, particularly those taught by people who aren’t as well-known as T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks. Faculty narratives—teaching memoirs and autobiographies—are also necessary, particularly by younger faculty who entered the profession after the Great Recession.
We need, most of all, a materialist pedagogy, one that links classroom practice to the political economy of the university as an institution. Thankfully, we already have an exploratory example of such a critique, Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity (2016), which, in the editors’ words, “responds to a felt sense of crisis … in postsecondary writing education that is wrought by the intensifying sway of neoliberal logics in US higher education, compounded by stepped-up austerity measures in the wake of the 2008–2009 economic crisis.” One hopes for more writing on how neoliberalism’s constituent privatization and capitalization infect—and can be resisted by—the work of teachers, the primary stewards of higher education’s ostensible mission. We should listen to those Druids when they talk about the forest.
The former University of California president Clark Kerr remarked that while professors were frequently liberal in their politics, they tended to be deeply conservative about challenges to their professional habits and practices. As Kerr put it in 1983, student agitation often led to proposed curricular reform, but this reform usually “died in the faculty clubs.” What Zimmerman calls the “born-not-made-doctrine” of Good Teachers hampers systemic and individual development, as does the ethos of professional independence and individualism.
Again, I think that’s only partially correct, given the range of research, critique, and conversation about pedagogy in the past 20 years. Granted, I can’t speak for tenured research-intensive faculty, but the majority of us who do the majority of the teaching care deeply about improving our work. Even Zimmerman admits this near the book’s end, observing, “There is also considerable evidence that college teaching has improved over the past few decades, in part because of the new institutional focus on learning theory and best practices.”
Zimmerman shows the structural impediments to high-quality teaching but also demonstrates what skilled faculty are capable of when schools support them. The fact is, we know a lot about what works, and we can build new pedagogies on the basis of things like smaller class sizes, livable wages, alternatives to letter grades, and unionization of faculty and graduate students. Do we want a university built around managers and cops, or around students and their teachers? That is the question, and The Amateur Hour, despite its shortcomings, helps us see it.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.