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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Junk Analysis of Higher Education by the New York Times

Posted by Marc Bousquet on 03/08/09 at 02:18 PM

Crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com

The most popular interview on my YouTube channel is Play PhD Casino! with Monica Jacobe

Saturday’s report on academic employment by the New York Times hangs on the peg of a fact: in many fields, tenure track hiring will be down this year. Accompanying the story by culture reporter Patricia Cohen is a photograph of a forlorn-looking UT-Austin doctoral candidate in sociology who “after two dozen applications” still “has no job offer.”

Zounds! Shocking! He cut and pasted the addresses of twenty-four search committees into a job letter, and the capable young fellow still doesn’t have a tenure track job? 

By jove, it must be “the bad economy” causing this sad state of affairs!

Indeed so, Cohen informs us, duly noting that half the candidate’s rejection letters mention the economy and that there were “300 applications” to some of the positions the young fellow found interesting.

Cohen’s piece goes on to acknowledge that tenure-track positions “have been hard to come by in recent decades.”

But that’s an interesting locution. She may as well have said “the United States has not had legal apartheid in recent decades” or “Harry Truman has not been president in recent decades.”

In point of fact, Cohen uses this locution as butt-cover because her analysis is dead wrong.  To prop up her thesis (which makes the news peg the causal focus of the story) she uses inapplicable evidence, like the 300 applications (news? not!) and quotes inexpert “authorities” saying ridiculous things.

As a result the reporting in the lead paragraphs of the story is essentially puppetry: after the sad grad student she has NYU grad-union buster Catherine Stimpson pop up to prattle, “This is a year of no jobs!”

Um, no. It’s actually a year of maybe 25% fewer tenure-track jobs. That’s a modest cupful in the overflowing bucket of reasons for the disappointment and possibly nontenurable future of our young sociologist.

Most of the people who won’t get tenure track jobs this year, like last year, and every year since 1968 (that’s all four “recent decades,” but who’s counting?), won’t get them because universities have substituted casual student labor for full-time faculty and staff positions.

Student Perma-Temping, Not “The Economy"
Why did campus employers substitute student workers for faculty and staff labor? 

Because it’s cheaper in salary and benefits, and they prefer to use the money saved on salary to do different things--build business centers and stadiums, or go into venture capitalism by starting e-learning scams, trying to patent intellectual property, and so on.

That means that many campuses have undergraduate carpenters, truck loaders, nurses’ assistants, and nannies, and graduate students working as faculty.

At elite privates, the undergraduate truck loaders might come from the nearby public campus; at community colleges, the adjunct faculty might be graduate students who have gone non-status while hoping to finish their dissertation.

This isn’t good for anyone’s education: the only virtue of the arrangement is its cheapness, and that cheapness hasn’t lowered tuition; it’s simply served to provide money pots for high-rolling administrators to spend on favored projects and the expansion of the business curriculum. It’s also created a need to expand the ranks of management to train and supervise the constantly-churning mass of student and other casual workers.

Fixing this lousy arrangement could provide millions of jobs. Graduate students shouldn’t be teaching their asses off, and undergraduates should be working a lot less too.  Many forms of this “work as financial aid” or extreme work-study are essentially using up and spitting out young people as disposable labor--costing them their chance at degrees, not enabling them.

It wouldn’t cost very much to support students on a kind of GI Bill.

And there sure are plenty of highly-qualified people eager to do the work that higher education employers have handed off to students and other casual employees.

That’s the issue, and it’s time we started holding the New York Times and its “cultural reporters” responsible for accurate analysis.  Indeed, when Cohen reported on the dusty news of the Nixon tapes, recently, she put a lot more effort into getting the story straight, and when she still screwed up, editors at the paper complained about it. In public. In their paper.

Why don’t we hold her higher education reporting--which affects tens of millions of people right now--to the same standards that we hold her discussion of the Nixon tapes, which is at least moderately less urgent?

Ignoring Both Evidence and Testimony
It isn’t just the fact of four decades of student casualization that the piece fails to digest, or the fact that it misrepresents the hundreds of applications for a single position as a) news or b) having anything to do with the economy (unless “the economy” has been plotting against those students for over a decade, when they first went to grad school!).

Even Cohen’s inexpert sources are trying to tell Cohen the truth.  She eventually quotes Columbia’s Andrew Delbanco on the gap between apprenticeship and “insecure laborers,” notes that half of all positions are part time, and pastes in several sentences from one of Bill Pannapacker’s “don’t go to grad school” op eds at the Chron. She even quotes Luke Menand, who like Delbanco is no expert on academic labor, saying that grad students spend too much time working.

However the analysis --or the germ of an analysis--implicit in these comments makes no dent on the piece’s cheerful need to hang on a news peg, ie, that “the economy” did it… in the stock market… with a brass endowment.

But the truth is that campus employers did it… in their administration of higher education seminars… with student labor… and the collaboration of tenure-stream faculty… who were just like most other U.S. senior workers, in collaborating with management to keep their good deal at the expense of young workers.

Was that so hard? Sure, it’s easier to play “the market” explains everything, but that kind of faux analysis is best left to Karl Rove and Fox News.  And for crying out loud, journalists are living the same permatemping as the faculty, under the same quality management gutting the public sphere under both Republicans and Democrats--all you have to do is watch The Wire.

Dear Ms. Cohen
Yes, Catherine Stimpson and Luke Menand have graduate students, but they also have livers without therefore being expert gastroenterologists.

You didn’t have to call me individually, but you ought to have talked to someone at AAUP.  Cary Nelson, Jane Buck or Gary Rhoades could have set you straight, or staffer Gwen Bradley, who specializes in permatemping.  All of the academic unions have reams of data and good analysis of these issues--you didn’t talk to any of them?  At your own paper, Stanley Fish’s obtuse and narcissistic mention of a recent book on the question by Frank Donoghue sold several hundred copies for its publisher, Fordham. Your readers clearly want a real explanation by folks actually thinking about the issue, not random bloviation.

Since you were featuring a grad student in sociology, you could have called one of the premier sociological thinkers in the country and experts in the crisis of higher education employment, Stanley Aronowitz.  Or his colleague at the head of the CUNY union, Barbara Bowen.

You don’t like CUNY? Okay, at NYU you could have called Randy Martin or Andrew Ross. What about Joel Westheimer, who they illegally fired for supporting the grad student union, despite having the support of his entire discipline? Or any of the grad students themselves, who are doing better analysis of their employment than Stimpson.

Let’s do a better job next time, Ms. Cohen. 

We expect more from the New York Times, and given the role that educators play in making that paper a leading national voice, we deserve better. Or else perhaps we should be looking for alternatives.



Do you have a link to the Times article?

By tomemos on 03/08/09 at 04:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here it is:


By Bill Benzon on 03/08/09 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have followed Marc’s pieces here and have read his book, though I seldom comment. My own concerns are somewhat different but closely adjacent to his. (Somehow or another I figured out the academic racket about 25 years and stayed on my low-level civil-service job. Not a very good job, but financially and emotionally a good choice, and I’ve been able to control my own reading in a way I couldn’t have if I’d gone departmental and methodological.)

One point not sressed is the hatred the world of power and wealth has for the humanities, generalism, and non-technical writing for a general audience (NOT a stupid audience: the general audience includes, e.g., physicists reading about history, or historians reading about evolution.) My on alma mater (Portland State University) got some money to upgrade a decade or two ago, and they deliberately channelled the funding to improve the business school and tech programs while giving little or nothing to the humanities and the less-lucrative social sciences and sciences.

Second, the turn away from humanism, generalism, and popular writing coincided with a takeover of the university by the realpolitik state and by certain foundations with axes to grind. Of course, neither the American nor any other university has ever been pristine, as James and Veblen told us a century ago, but something specific happened starting in 1941 or so: the university got on the gravy train. Not just physics and the atom bomb, but psychology, linguistics, and even philosophy and literature got their share of boodle.

Following this, about 1948-1954, the US switched from always at war with Eurasia to always at war with Eastasia, and academics who had too enthusiastically supported the previous ally got their lives ruined for them. During this same period populism was expelled from the ruling Democratic Party, and politics came to be the expert administration of public opinion by credentialed experts in politics.

Populism and humanism are both premised on the possibility of non-expert generalist knowledge, which the university denies. The generalist wisdom regarded capable of having opinions and making decisions on a large scale is effectively conceded only to the high management of large financial, political, administrative, and media bureaucracies, whose education tends to be in economics-finance, engineering*, and such mushy “disciplines” as international relations and business management. (The mushiness / generalism of these disciplines is a bit like the mushiness of the humanities, but these are anti-humanist, anti-populist generalists).**

In short, I agree with Marc on almost everything he says, but would stress more America’s effective bitter hatred of humanism in the context of anti-popul;ar administrative liberalism manned (and womaned) by technocratic experts who are themselves subordinated to men of power.

*Economics has recently taken a big fall, and may be ejected from the table; even those economists who are witting agents of creative destruction and liquidationism will probably be devastated to find that they are no longer useful, since the marks have been wised up and economists’ mystagoguery has lost much of its power.

** Jeff Schmitt’s “Disciplined Minds” shows how the liberal arts, via methodologization and the enforcement of paradigms, were transformed into attendant lords running errands for the ones who really made things happen: professional specialists self-enforce the strict limits that have been imposed on them. (Of course, this was a mere preliminary to turning them all into peons, as it turned out.)

Coincident with the subjugation of the university humanities was the devastation of serious magazine journalism, and I suppose that you could throw in the subjectification of the popular mind via anti-intellectual, personalist forms of pop culture.

By John Emerson on 03/09/09 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I might add that the “Why are the Post and Times so stupid?” genre (DeLong, Dean Baker, et. al.) is totally played. They’re not stupid, they’re bad guys, and they’re not going to get any better. You don’t publish someone with a ten-year track record of disinformation and gross error from mere stupidity.

I realize that this assertion flies in the face of the “shit happens, no one’s to blame, let’s all just get along [and go along]” theory of history. See my URL.

During the era when populist and leftist politics occasionally had some success, the insurgent parties had their own media. Little or nothing can possibly be achieved in a world defined by the Times, the Post, the media and cable networks, and talk radio.

Instead of pissing away more and more money on content-free electoral campaigns, Soros and the others should buy up a bankrupt national newspaper, organize it as some kind of political non-profit, and run it at a loss. Or a TV network.

This seems like a no-brainer to me, but I’m not sure that a single nice liberal has ever acknowledged that this is a good idea when I suggested it. Probably it’s the natural timidity and conventionality of the species, combined with their fear of beginnings and risk and their hatred of the tacky, non-specialist public with its notorious taste for inappropriate food.

By John Emerson on 03/09/09 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

” Or a TV network.”

Al Gore, Current TV.  Can’t get much more populist than that.

After watching what happened with Air America, I’m not so sure that this is a good idea.  It costs a whole lot of money to run one of these things, probably more than what the Soros-style liberal oligarchs are willing to spend.

By on 03/09/09 at 12:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

People have started successful national newspapers and networks in recent decades (Neuwarth, Murdoch, Turner).

But no radical, liberal or Democrat will do it, because radicals, liberals and Democrats are stone losers who couldn’t take a chance or do something new to save their fucking life.

Two unsuccessful examples as a refutation is utter horseshit—don’t you agree, Rich?

(How could anyone we know have ever said something as stupid as that? A conundrum indeed.)

I was really talking more about what needed to happen than about what would be easy to do or what would be a sure thing success, but forget that I ever said anything.

By on 03/10/09 at 12:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, people have started successful newspapers and networks—as media oligarchs.  And those businesses are successful (if they are) because they are politically useful to the power structure.  That’s really the same thing that you say when you say that the media aren’t bad by accident or as individual reporters, they’re bad by design.

But really, aren’t two examples (one not unsuccessful; Current TV seems to be OK) sufficient to disprove the claim that no liberal would dare to try this?  I mean, two liberals did within recent years.  Given the magnitude of how much resources need to be gathered to make the attempt, how many more tries should we be looking for?

By on 03/10/09 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As far as I know CurrentTV was not in tended to be a major network. It certainly isn’t one. To get either a real national newspaper or a real national network going you’d need to spend half a billion or so. A big number, but a single Presidential election costs that much and mostly goes to strengthen our worst media enemies.

As I’ve said, I’m not talking so much about what we cn do as about what we need to do. If you’re dying of thirst, quibbling about whether there’s any water is not productive. I’m trying to stay away from the conclusion that there’s no hope.

By on 03/10/09 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Universities don’t have bitter hatred of humanities.  They have something worse - indifference.

Some of this has to come from a larger society and better communication technologies making specialization more attractive.  But more of it has to come from the democratization of higher ed.  If everyone can go to college on the GI bill, a humanities education is suddenly a lot less useful as a class marker.  You can still study them and teach them, but there’s no longer a customer base of rich people looking to spend money on English professors just to show that they can.

Not sure what can be done about this, but I’m pretty sure that sitting around claiming rich people and/or the government should give their money to your pet cause ain’t it.  That’s the approach used by libertarian space-cadet types, and I can tell you it doesn’t work for shit.

By on 03/10/09 at 08:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s America, not the university, that hates the humanities.

By John Emerson on 03/10/09 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been thinking about this post ever since I first read it and tweeted about it with the tagline, “Marc Bousquet on the NYT’s coverage of the academic job market: it’s not the economy, stupid.”

I passed the link on because I thought that Marc made the extremely important point that universities are using the sliding economy as a cover for reprehensible labor practices that were in place long before Lehman went under.  And, as Marc argues, the NYT ignores the realities of those practices in favor of easy explanations. 

And yet, while that point still rings true, I’m having trouble with the one of Marc’s major claims:

As a result the reporting in the lead paragraphs of the story is essentially puppetry: after the sad grad student she has NYU grad-union buster Catherine Stimpson pop up to prattle, “This is a year of no jobs!”

Um, no. It’s actually a year of maybe 25% fewer tenure-track jobs. That’s a modest cupful in the overflowing bucket of reasons for the disappointment and possibly nontenurable future of our young sociologist.

Where does that 25% number come from?  The IHE has reported that there was a 22 percent dropoff in English jobs, but doesn’t that refer to the number of jobs that were listed last Fall, when it still seemed like the economy could avoid a prolonged recession?  Doesn’t that 25% figure ignore the fact that many of the job searches that were listed wound up being frozen and/or cancelled?  And, when those cancelled/frozen job searches are factored in to the equation, doesn’t that 25% figure—and the refutation of Stimpson’s point—need to be revised?

Look at the list of canceled searches.  “The economy” is not the whole story, certainly, but isn’t it more a part of it than this post would suggest?

By Matt on 03/11/09 at 01:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, Matt--great to hear from you! And thank you for the kind words. You’re perfectly right to zero in on the “maybe 25%” number--it’s only guesswork at this point, and I think it could be worse in language and literature. Though it seems better in some other fields. It’ll be a while before the major disciplinary associations come up with a number.

The issue isn’t that there are 25 (or 35, or 15) percent fewer jobs, though: the issue is more that the managers are taking advantage of a relatively real crisis to do the same things that previously required the generation of fake crises. (They’ve been restructuring every year, and more aggressively when they can: “Never let a good crisis go to waste!")

So from a language and literature standpoint, what’s most revealing isn’t the raw number of cancelled searches, but the number relative to other disciplines.

English studies, despite huge growth in tt rhet-comp hiring, has lost about 1% of its tt jobs in absolute numbers annually for quite some time--nearly the only discipline to do so, while most others kept their absolute numbers stable or grew, (even though their numbers relative to nontenurable hiring plummeted).

English studies is both unique--in the plummeting support for “literature” as the core justification for the discipline--and also emblematic, the canary in the mine, because the rising justification, writing, is happening as a thoroughly managed sub- or para- discipline. So it provides insight into the future of all disciplines in part because the situation can be a bit more extreme.

Speaking of which, gotta run to my managed labor workshop at 4C.

By Marc Bousquet on 03/11/09 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In the institution where I work (big state U), the College of Liberal Arts canceled all but 6 of 47 job searches at the last minute as one response to the state’s budget crisis. We are modeling 8% and 12% budget cuts at the department level, in the library, and across the board. No salary increases at all, potential threats to benefits. And we are also seeing a number of measures taken that are purely power grabs (dissolving the Grad School), or will balance the budget on the back of lowest-salaried unionized workers (charging tuition for the class they used to be able to take for free as a benefit). So while the budget crisis is having an impact on job availability, I believe Marc’s main points, about how institutions will respond to this moment, is on target.

By on 03/11/09 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s the role of for-profit institutions in all this?

Are we headed to a world in which those institutions set the standard for most post-secondary education and that standard will be about sharply focused vocational training?

A few elite private (and perhaps public) institutions will continue to offer a somewhat reduced liberal education, but this will be a very small fraction of the post-secondary pie. These institutions will continue to do research, provided, of course, that it is funded though government and industrial grants.

By Bill Benzon on 03/11/09 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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