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Monday, April 27, 2009

More Drivel From the New York Times

Posted by Marc Bousquet on 04/27/09 at 12:14 PM

Crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com

Today the Grey Lady lent the op-ed page to yet another Columbia prof with the same old faux “analysis” of graduate education. 

Why golly, the problem with the university is that there aren’t enough teaching positions out there to employ all of our excess doctorates Mark C. Taylor says:  “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist).” Because there are just too many folks with PhDs out there, “there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.”

Um, nope. Wrong.  The New York Times loves this bad theory and has been pushing it for decades, but the reality is clear.

In fact, there are plenty of teaching positions to absorb all of the “excess doctorates” out there.

At least 70% of the faculty are nontenurable. In many fields, most of the faculty don’t hold a PhD and aren’t studying for one.  By changing their hiring patterns over the course of a few years New York or California--either one--alone could absorb most of the “excess” doctorates in many fields.

The problem isn’t an oversupply of qualified labor. It’s a restructuring of “demand” so that work that used to be done by people with doctorates is being done by persons with a master’s or a b.a., or even by undergraduates. During the whole period of time that the New York Times has been pimping junk analysis of graduate education (that there’s an “oversupply” of doctorates), the percentage of faculty with doctorates has been dropping, not rising. 

The piece is hilariously out of touch--noting the rise of adjunct labor, the Columbia philosopher of religion and author of twenty books wrings his hands that per-course pay is “as low as” 5,000 dollars a class. 

BWAAA-HA-HA-HA-HA!

Reality?  Annual income for many adjuncts is about 5,000 dollars a year. On pay that can be lower than a grand per class.

They’re on food stamps.

But sure, you’re right. The problem is that we need to end tenure. When we end tenure, the market will insure that these folks are paid fairly, that persons with PhDs will be able to work for those wages. 

Oh, crap, wait. As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure.  With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track, and most of teaching work being done by them, by students, and professional staff, tenured appointments are basically the privilege of a) a retiring generation b) grant-getters and c) the candidate pool for administration. 

How’s that working out? Well, gee, we’re graduating a very poor percentage of students. Various literacies are kinda low. We don’t have a racially diverse faculty, and women, especially women with children, are far more likely to have the low-paying low-status faculty jobs.

Nice! Let’s get more of that!

It’s not just his inadequate grasp of the facts. Taylor’s whole analysis is wrong. His idea is that higher education is too Fordist. ("Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning,” he intones.)

But higher education isn’t too Fordist--it’s actually the brilliant, innovative post-Fordist employer par excellence.  Every other employer wants to employ its people on the model of the campus--to get people who work for love, as perpetual students, eagerly discounting their labor in hopes of a future reward that someone else will provide.

I dunno if we should end the university as the New York Times or Mark C. Taylor claims to know it. 

But we really oughta end the university as the rest of us know it--as not merely exploitative, but as a creatively super-exploitative employer.


Comments

Though I have no dog in this fight, so to speak, I would offer this observation from the sidelines: let market forces settle the problem. In other words, even if it were true that graduate school output exceeds the employment opportunities, perhaps the graduate schools need to reevaluate their mission and their capacity. In other words, if you are in the business of making and selling washing machines but everyone has a washing machine, then you have a problem because of excess, unsold inventory. Perhaps graduate school programs need to think more in terms of capitalism and market-forces than in terms of “everyone deserves a job” (my quotation marks).

By R. T. on 04/27/09 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

whew.  I knew you’d have something worth reading up about this!  Thanks.  The whole article was infuriating—the airiness about everyone else’s tenure being worthless (with him nearing the golden years of his own), the Fox-news worthy “a whole dissertation on the citations of Duns Scotus have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?!?”, the proposal for “problem-centered” temporary workgroups in place of standing faculties of anything.

His Wikipedia page appears to be a self-authored paean to his own suppleness; note especially the private education company he founded with a “New York investment banker”.  Le sigh.

By on 04/27/09 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I’m rather sympathetic to his “dissolve the disciplines” line. That is a problem. But I don’t buy his line about “there’s too much specializin’ goin’ on.” Knowledge progresses, and that means there’s more to know, more details to be organized into coherent patterns. That requires specialization, but specialization of new kinds.

As for the rest, it does have a whiff of “I got mine & too bad for you all.”

By Bill Benzon on 04/27/09 at 05:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

R.T.—to the extent that you are genuinely interested (as you don’t seem to have read Marc Bousquet’s post closely), your position assumes that the “demand” side comes from a position of good information and a range of choices.  It does not.  Parents would be surprised, and students are surprised, to find out how often they are taught by “flexible” faculty.  The cost of education keeps rising while the heart of education from the student perspective—the classroom experience—is being cheapened with large classes, temporary hires who are often gone by the time students need, say, reference letters, and an institutional experience that doesn’t prioritize teaching and learning (though it may claim to do so).  To the extent that “premier” kinds of educational experiences are available, people make huge sacrifices to access them; but they can’t express a preference for an options that don’t exist, or are disappearing *despite people’s preference for them*.  Even if one were to adopt your “free market” attitude to higher education—which I think would be a grave mistake—it is worth recognizing that markets can function imperfectly on both the demand and the supply sides.  If people have bad information or no choice, “the market” is not telling you much about their real preferences.

Bill Benzon—to me, “dissolve the disciplines” as the key to a great university is like “good communication” as the key to a great marriage.  Sounds great, but anybody who has a practical sense of what makes those institutions actually work will nod politely and avoid wholesale implementation of that advice.

By on 04/27/09 at 06:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To the extent that I my comments have been so poorly received, I humbly withdraw my comments. I seem to have spoken out of turn.

By R. T. on 04/27/09 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<iSounds great, but anybody who has a practical sense of what makes those institutions actually work will nod politely and avoid wholesale implementation of that advice.</i>

They don’t “actually work.”

By Bill Benzon on 04/27/09 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with your argument about filling teaching positions with people with doctorates or graduate students is that it is great for them, but is not necessarily good for the students. The reason why people with lesser academic credentials are hired for these positions, besides being merely monetary, is often they are very good teachers. An adjunct professor or “instructor” does not hang around very long unless he or she gets good feedback. There is a flaw in university education system that doesn’t get much face time here- doctorates do not automatically yield good teachers. Unfortunately.

By on 04/28/09 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is the problem not a lack of the kind of mandatory transparency that comes from equal opportunities legislation?

I remember a number of students over a year away from turning their doctorates in getting full time jobs based upon their relationship with members of staff (someone would get a research grant and they’d hire their pet/chief disciple).  These posts were never advertised.  Even internally.

Had those jobs been properly advertised then presumably people with PhDs would have applied and so a more qualified candidate would have been hired.

So if jobs that previously went to PhDs are now going to grad students and undergrads, I would have thought the culprit would have been a lack of transparency because, all things considered, even if it’s a shitty job wouldn’t a PhDed person be more qualified for it?

I know that in the UK, public sector companies are forced to advertise all jobs externally so as to head off potential charges of racism or discrimination.

By Jonathan M on 04/28/09 at 03:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

mks: Yes, adjuncts and contingent faculty often are very good teachers.  But they cannot be as effective as they ought to be when they are not making a livable wage, have no benefits, and must commute to multiple institutions to pay the bills.  You say that, “An adjunct professor or “instructor” does not hang around very long unless he or she gets good feedback,” but they do not necessarily hang around long anyway.  Their employment status is so tenuous that they often don’t even have their own offices.  This is bad for education, bad for teachers, bad for students.

By on 04/28/09 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim Burke has a post on the interdisciplinary aspect of Taylor’s article:

http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=805

By Bill Benzon on 04/28/09 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bousquet seems to be agreeing with Taylor more than he’d like to: “At least 70% of the faculty are nontenurable. In many fields, most of the faculty don’t hold a PhD and aren’t studying for one.  By changing their hiring patterns over the course of a few years New York or California--either one--alone could absorb most of the “excess” doctorates in many fields.

The problem isn’t an oversupply of qualified labor. It’s a restructuring of “demand” so that work that used to be done by people with doctorates is being done by persons with a master’s or a b.a., or even by undergraduates. During the whole period of time that the New York Times has been pimping junk analysis of graduate education (that there’s an “oversupply” of doctorates), the percentage of faculty with doctorates has been dropping, not rising.  “

In other words, there are grad students (lots of them) taking jobs from people with doctorates (also lots of them). There are other people without doctorates (who may well be doing a better job for all sorts of reasons) taking jobs from people with doctorates.

So in what way is it fair to would-be professors to create more people with doctorates in hand and expectations that that will get them a job? Because when Marc Bousquet is simultaneously governor of New York and California he will gloriously require that all instructors at the collegiate level have a Ph.D. in hand? </snark>

Seriously: I don’t see how anyone can argue with the point that too many people applying for too few jobs depresses wages. And I’d come to this article looking for someone grappling with the real interesting part of Taylor’s argument--that rethinking the disciplines is a way to keep the academy vibrant and truly educational.

By Dingbat on 04/28/09 at 06:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t a wholesale replacement of adjunct positions by tenured positions going to result in dramatically fewer job openings in the near future?

If you have 100 adjuncts who teach five years before giving up and leaving the field, you will get 20 adjunct openings a year.  If you have 100 tenured professors who teach 25 years before retiring, there will be 4 tenured professor openings a year.  With 25 tenured professors and 75 adjuncts, there will be 1 tenured position and 15 adjunct positions open each year.

If you change those 75 adjunct positions to tenured positions at the natural replacement rate, you’ll have 16 tenured openings a year for five years, then 1 tenured opening a year for the next 20 years, then another batch of openings, etc.  In reality not all tenured professors will work 25 years before retiring, but there will still be a long period of no job opportunities.

By on 04/28/09 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem is that you have something like several thousand MFA graduates a year, none of which expect to be adjuncts for life, most of whom won’t publish a significant work in their field to get beyond being adjuncts or a slightly higher grade of contingent faculty, almost none of whom will be in line for the one course a term gigs or even the two course a term gigs that will allow them to do writing. 

They’re not necessarily good teachers; they’re just very cheap and every year, both in this country and in the UK, universities produce more and more of them.  We had people who had short residency MFAs teaching where I used to work.

Adjuncts and auxiliaries aren’t limited to teaching four courses a quarter or semester and frequently were teaching at two schools, more than a full load at least one term a year.

Nobody expects them to become scholars, to teach majors.  English Departments have to deal with required freshman comp. courses and farming those out to adjuncts and auxiliaries is the way those courses get covered.  I don’t know if other disciplines have to deal with required courses that almost all incoming freshman have to take—and imagine that if they do, they also handle it the same way.

People who want careers as scholars don’t want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary teaching classes that demand so much personal time on individual students who may be interesting people, just not interested in English literature and not convinced that they’re not already good writers.

There’s been an attempt to sell creative writers as the best choice for teaching bonehead English—and I think it’s quite mistaken since most creative writers who are good enough to have publications weren’t like the students they’re going to have to work with, and MFAs without publications weren’t smart enough to go for Ph.D.s.

The elephant in the tent is that nobody ambitious wants to teach freshman comp and enough people can do it acceptably that teaching it well is like being a first rate writer on a suburban weekly—not really required for the job.  Many schools use freshman comp to weed out students who really can’t cope with college rather than teaching classes of 20 to 25 (or more) how to write significantly better (something done best in individual tutoring sessions regardless of students’ abilities).

If adjuncts were hired with benefits, the low rate of pay would still mean that many of them go on to other things.

I suspect that many places have adjuncts who’ve been there 10 years or more.  Most of my colleagues were still there when I left.

As one of my professors at SUNYA said, having a graduate program was a win/win deal for the tenured faculty.  They could teach graduate students and they didn’t have to teach freshman composition.  Many graduate programs exist on one famous person and a lot of others who haven’t done significant work in their fields, who haven’t published since they got tenure, but they put Ph.Ds. and MFAs out there.  MFAs are particularly money-makers for universities.

Best advice is to do anything other than teach freshman comp.  If a person loves teaching, high schools pay better.  If a person wants to be a candidate for a good creative writing position or a scholar’s gig, working with freshman is not a career credit.  Thinking it is costs a lot of people a lot of time in their lives.

Universities get away with staffing freshman comp with contingent faculty because people think they’ll be the exceptions and get the book published and get the better jobs.  The workload makes getting the books done difficult and not everyone is going to do a book that makes a significant contribution to a field.

Pay at the Ivies tends to be higher—$5,000 isn’t out of line for those, but schools in the Philadelphia area offered as little as $1,200 a semester course.  I’d suspect that the annual average is more like $15,000 to $20,000 a year than $5,000.  Some schools in the NY state system are unionized and have benefits.

If Ph.D. programs demanded a high level of active scholarship from faculty and potential for scholarship from the graduate students, and didn’t use graduate programs to staff classes the tenured faculty didn’t want to teach, then we’d have fewer Ph.D.s in the first place. 

Using graduate students as cheap and often unsupervised labor without giving them either training in pedagogy or in research skills creates a class of people who tend to be the next generation of adjunct or contingent faculty teaching classes that nobody really cares about.

I told students thinking about going to graduate school that if they hadn’t heard of at least a third of their potential teachers, either they didn’t know the field well enough to be applying to graduate school or the school lacked real contributors to their fields and wasn’t worth going to.

By on 04/29/09 at 11:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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