The Great Stratification of Higher Education

tags: higher education, professoriate



Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He has recently inaugurated a new book series, co-edited with Chris Newfield, called Critical University Studies, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Imagine a diorama in an American Museum of Occupations showing the evolution of the professor. The exhibit starts in the early 1800s with an austere, black-suited man in a minister's collar, perhaps looking over the shoulder of a student at a rustic desk, with a Greek text open in front of him. In the next scene, from around 1900, he morphs into a pince-nez-wearing gentleman in starched collar and cravat, at a podium delivering a lecture. The professor of 1950 adopts the rumpled bearing of a tweed jacket, pointing with his pipe to a poem or a physics equation on a chalkboard. In the next frame, circa 1990, she wears jeans and is sitting in front of a computer screen.

How would the diorama represent the professor of 2020?

Some observers predict that she won't exist: In the memorable phrase of Frank Donoghue, a professor of English at Ohio State University, we are living in the age of "the last professors." Less apocalyptic commentators say the professor has experienced "deprofessionalization."

Both views try to capture the squeeze on professorial jobs, but they misrecognize fundamental aspects of the changes that have occurred. Rather than extinction, we have seen the steady expansion of academic labor over the past century, and rather than "deskilling," we are undergoing more rather than less professionalization. What has been going on is what sociologists call "differentiation" and "stratification."

We are in the era of the Great Stratification....



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