Wednesday, May 19, 2010
“Some of the Worst-Paid High-School Graduates in the Country”
Over at the Atlantic, business editor Megan McCardle lit up the Beltway blab-o-sphere by posing an interesting question: If “almost every” tenured professor she knows has a “left-wing vision” of workplace issues, why do they accept the “shockingly brutal” treatment of faculty with contingent appointments?
Her perception of leftism among the faculty leads her to think that our values “should result in something much more egalitarian.” So, she asks, how is it that higher ed sustains “one of the most abusive labor markets in the world”?
Good question. One answer, of course, is that the faculty aren’t “leftists” at all, but American liberals, whose commitments to equality are relatively clear in matters of ethnicity and gender, but hopelessly confused when it comes to class and workplace issues generally.
Arguably most of the policy failures by contemporary liberals in matters of ethnicity and gender can be traced back to their blind spot regarding issues of class, labor, and the workplace.
As I’ve noted before, to produce crashing silence in a lecture hall packed with doctorates, all you have to do is ask, “Why are police departments more diverse than English departments?"
Super-Exploitation and the Myth of Faculty Leftism
McCardle speculates that the material condition of the contingent faculty ("some of the worst-paid high-school graduates in the country") has caused the “leftward drift” of academic politics: ie, that working in a tiered workplace has made typical academics adopt egalitarian values. She’s completely wrong about that, since it was exactly the other way around: the faculty’s non-leftism (their liberal comfort with inegalitarianism in economic and workplace matters) helped bring about the system of majority contingent appointments.
Nevertheless she makes a couple of very helpful observations.
She’s especially good at pointing out that the tenured are also victims of this system. She notes that even the fortunate ones on the tenure track are “virtual prisoners” of their administration until tenure (a point now reached for humanities faculty roughly two decades after entering grad school, or in one’s forties!):
And that’s before we start talking about the marriages strained, the personal lives stunted, because those lucky enough to get a tenure-track job have to move to a random location, often one not particularly suited to their spouses’ work ambitions or their own personal preferences . . . a location which, barring another job offer, they will have to spend the rest of their life in.
This leads to the best observation in McCardle’s piece: that many faculty are clueless about worker rights and experiences in nonacademic workplaces. In faculty lore, nonacademic workplaces represent “an endless well of exploitation where employees are virtual prisoners with no recourse in the face of horrific abuses."
McCardle believes that most academics translate their own experiences and those of their colleagues enduring contingent appointment--of super-exploitation and “monolithic employer power"--and “naturally assume it must be even worse on the outside."(emph. original)
She’s right on both of these points. Contrary to the assumptions of most observers, faculty in the tenure stream have seriously harmed themselves and the profession by their lazy complicity with the two-tiered system of majority contingent employment. And they foolishly excuse their complicity by assigning blame to any cause but their own failure of responsibility to the profession.
This insight--of professional laziness by the tenured, who are working hard on many things, but not at defending the profession--leads to one of the obvious, clear answers to the crisis of the professoriate.
We’re experiencing a failure of professional control over the terms of professional work, what actual labor economists call a “failed monopoly of professional labor."
Traditional professions exchange strong (even “monopoly") control over their terms of work for a public-service mission, an arrangement that has been undermined and all but abandoned under neoliberalism and its ideologies, including the bogus analytical lens of “job market theory.” Sadly, the most common response to McCardle’s piece was the triumphant crowing of the half-smart, sprinting forward with their cliched faux analysis featuring--you guessed it--an oversupply of persons with doctorates, etc etc: “It’s simple! Too few jobs, too many PhDs! It’s simple! It’s simple! Ha-ha! I win! Shut up, whiny girls with your whiny degrees that nobody sees on Sports Center! It’s simple!"
Of course I’ve debunked the inanity of the “overproduction of PhDs” thesis many times before. There is zero such “overproduction,” since what has happened is a restructuring of demand. Regular readers know that structured demand means that work formerly done by persons with doctorates is now done by persons with an m.a. or less. This revolutionary shift was accomplished intentionally, by university management, all without much opposition by the guild of tenured faculty. Like most other senior workers after 1970, the tenured collaborated in the creation of multi-tier workplaces… trading away the future of the young for their own comfort.
The persistence of “job market theory” despite its obvious inanity is partly due to its narcotizing effect on the guilty consciences of the tenured: “Oh, it’s not my failure to defend the profession, it’s The Market."
This doped-up intellectual response carries through the whole standard hamster wheel of the conversation about academic employment: “Gollleeee, cousin Jim-Bob, I wonder if we should put down our jugs of corn liquor and issue one of them caveat emptors to the young folks? Wouldn’t want them messing up their graduate-education purchasing decisions! Don’t want to get offen my porch, though. Guess I’ll just share my wisdom regarding this here tough job market with any young folks who happen to stop by and ask."
So American faculty aren’t leftists; they’re liberals, deeply influenced by market ideology and fantasies about meritocratic education outcomes (wonderfully unemcumbered by data). They work in institutions that manufacture and legitimate steep economic inequalities that hamper the progress of other egalitarian commitments in ethnicity and gender.
But even liberals can run a profession--when they put their minds to it.
Maybe it’s about time we stopped gassing on fatuously with outdated Fordist analogies, as if we could capture professional responsibilities and realities by pretending graduate schools are factories. Or that professional working conditions and standards are set by “markets” rather than by managers.
Maybe we should ask ourselves, “What obligations do professionals have to the profession, to other professionals, and the society we serve?"
And: “Where are we obliged to act collectively and draw the line with management on these issues? Did we cross that line about thirty years ago?"
It certainly wouldn’t hurt if we asked our professional associations to think this way as well.
"McCardle believes that most academics translate their own experiences and those of their colleagues enduring contingent appointment--of super-exploitation and “monolithic employer power"--and “naturally assume it must be even worse on the outside."(emph. original)
She’s right on both of these points”
I don’t know if this is a humanities view or I’m just at a weird place, but in science, every I know thinks of industry as the EASY way out. We tend to think you do less work (9-5 and done!) and make more money out there. So we think of the ‘outside’ as LESS bad than the ‘inside’. But we’re still all liberals.
So, Marc, I just received the Arts and Sciences alumni quarterly of my alma mater, Johns Hopkins. The cover story? Here it is: “Paragons of Productivity: Why today’s postoctoral fellows are more crucial than ever to the academic enterprise.” I haven’t done much more than glance at the piece, which proudly pointed out Hopkins had the first post-docs in the nation way back before the 20th century. The article features two current post-docs, one in the sciences and one in the humanities. The humanities guy is in comp-lit and managed to snag the only comp lit job advertised this year—at Hopkins. He described his post-doc year (or maybe it was two years) as an ideal situation.
And my impression is that that’s the drift of the piece, that the post-doc thing is a really good deal for the post-doc. Why? Because there are fewer and fewer regular faculty positions, for one thing. And that means that the post-doc has a chance to get the book out, or the articles, and get a leg up on snagging one of those few remaining positions in a year or two. There’s no smidgen of awareness that it’s the proliferation of post-doc positions that’s eliminating the regular faculty lines.
A few things. A decrease in demand for Ph.D.s seems to me the same thing as an overproduction of Ph.D.s. There is no Platonic ideal number of Ph.D.s the world needs. So if universities are hiring fewer Ph.D.s, and if universities are producing the same number of Ph.D.s as before, then it’s at once an overproduction of labor and a decrease in demand for that specific type of labor.
Of course, this is only true if my assumption is true: that universities use more ABD and non-Ph.D.s for adjuncts than they use full Ph.D.s.
If that’s the case, the issue becomes: what can Ph.D.s offer that (usually) ABD adjuncts can’t offer?
In the Humanities, the answer has historically been “nothing.” Tenured faculty are notoriously bad teachers. People argue that adjuncts are as bad because they have no connection to the students or institution, but in my experience, adjuncts are still better teachers because they have to be in order to keep their jobs.
Now, Ph.D.s and tenured profs offer scholarship that few adjuncts have the time to complete. But humanities scholarship brings nothing to the table. Undergrads don’t attend University X because its faculty write books on Shakespeare and the Internet, on Derrida’s grammophonic imagery, on Heidegger and Nazism. (This isn’t true for creative writing programs.) And Mark Bauerlein and written a good deal about how English scholars in particular sell few books to begin with these days, so it’s not like that scholarship is even contributing much to the collective knowledge of the field. No one reads the crap, so why produce it?
Most humanities students wind up as K-12 teachers, non-profit grant writers, lawyers, ad copywriters—and baristas. So why is the vast majority of humanities scholarship so distant from what they should be teaching their students? Why not write about why and how to teach Edith Wharton instead of writing another book on Wharton and race?
So what benefit is there for a university to hire more tenure-track Ph.D.s?
I agree with some of what you say, Luther, but it sure seems like you didn’t read Marc’s paragraphs about oversupply/overproduction. Are you seriously arguing that the question of the necessary credentials to teach college English can be understood with a simply supply/demand analysis?
But, never mind; on to details. This: “adjuncts are still better teachers because they have to be in order to keep their jobs” is problematic: unfortunately, nobody cares about adjuncts enough to accurately measure how good they are at teaching. “Adjuncts are more keenly pressured to get good student evaluations because they have to in order to keep their jobs” would be much closer to the truth; but let’s not pretend that adjuncts are carefully monitored in a way that helps them to become better teachers.
I’m reluctant to argue that adjuncts with PhDs, or late in the ABD process, are necessarily better or worse than t-t profs with PhDs. Who could prove it, either way? But at a systemic level, I don’t think that the reduction of formal credentials required to teach undergraduates is a good thing.
And there are other facts about non-tenure-track academic labor to consider. I can do things teaching 3-3, with adequate institutional support, than an equally talented and committed adjunct can’t do teaching 5-5 at two different institutions.
The “benefit” of hiring “more tenure-track Ph.Ds”, at the level of teaching, would also be achieved by greatly improving the work conditions of non-tenure-track labor. What would be the nature of this “benefit”? People are more to likely find teaching the humanities fulfilling, and to achieve their fullest potential as teachers, if they are treated like human beings.
[As for the degree distribution of non-tenure-track labor, btw, increasingly at non-elite institutions grad students are teaching even upper-level lit courses, but that’s still not widespread. Basically, imo, the non-tt workforce teaches comp and gen ed required classes, with a smattering of surveys....]
People have to produce that crap to get tenure, and at least a fraction of them are quite cynical about it, sometimes to the point of hiring people to write the papers for them (per a s.f. writer who said he did that for money at one point in his life).
Famous writers hired by departments to teach one or two classes a year are frequently worthless to their students, especially if they have tenure and don’t have to really do anything except be famous.
This was an absolute pleasure to read...in a laughter of the damned sort of way. Pointedly insightful critique much appreciated.
and at least a fraction of them are quite cynical about it, sometimes to the point of hiring people to write the papers for them (per a s.f. writer who said he did that for money at one point in his life).
Cynical? Sure. The other part, hiring people to write scholarly articles, etc. sounds like bullshit to me. Can you give some more details on that?
The person in question is now himself a tenured academic without having finished a BA. I got the impression that his clients were not necessarily native English speakers, but he didn’t go into great detail, other than to say he’d written at least one MA thesis and other graduate school papers for students at an Ivy League university. And it was probably over 30 years ago.
My brother used to write original term papers for undergraduates while in college and was quite put out that while his own papers got As, the work he did for others generally got Cs (admittedly, this was for undergraduates). I explained that the professors understood that the style he used wasn’t consistent with the style in the papers but didn’t have any way to actually prove anything, so just gave the out of character papers Cs.
A cleverer student yet would probably re-write a hired original paper in his or her own words. One of my colleagues at my last college said he watched a student re-write a paper against plagiarism software tests until she got the paper to pass the screening (if this one is true, he could access earlier trials even if they weren’t submitted). He said he didn’t quite know what to do, but figured she’d learned something about writing in the process.
I would seriously doubt that this completely stops in graduate school, especially for people who need a graduate degree as a professional credit rather than people who want to be scholars.
I know from one of my ex-agent’s accounts that Carl Sagan didn’t write the novel published under his name, though that’s not a professional publication. (His wife wrote it and according to friends in NYC, not connected with my agent, she’d written earlier works for earlier lovers).
I see. What I thought you were talking about was a SF writer claiming that he had written scholarly articles for English professors or such who didn’t feel like doing it themselves. To get tenure, etc.
Do you think that this *never* happens? Especially in today’s two tiered system for aristocrats and house servants? Making the stakes *that* high and the failure to get tenure *that* painful don’t bring out the best in human behavior. Marry one’s smartest graduate student and put her to work would be one way to do it.
If it’s all churning out papers for tenure trading stamps and nobody actually reads 90% of the work published (I think I’ve read that only 2 to 10 percent of all papers published are actually cited by another paper, though this doesn’t mean that 90% aren’t read at all), then what are the curbs on hiring the work done? Or rewriting something until the earlier writer’s style disappears?
Peer review? Everyone except the best scholars are in the same predicament in the humanities—they’ve got to crank out the publications whether they contribute anything genuinely useful to their fields or not.
I used to hear other adjuncts waxing hysterical about getting their first books published. I told one of them that publication really wasn’t that big a deal, it was someone’s bet that they could make money off an audience, not an affirmation of someone’s innate quality as a writer. She said I wasn’t in a position to talk because I was published. Yeah, but my credits were in science fiction and so didn’t count in academic circles, and we were both adjuncts, after all.
I left my last college after three years of promises for maybe I could make $34K a year with benefits on year to year contracts.
The school hired as an auxiliary a woman who hasn’t sold a novel yet, and who probably will never sell more than one or two, who simply isn’t doing cutting edge work though it’s not bad work.
After I left for a tech writing job, I found out that the majority of the department thought I was too much of a writer (and they were probably right) to be their colleague. How could I possibly teach creative writing if I wrote and sold science fiction?
At least as far as creative writing graduate programs go, the profession is probably unsalvageable. Good undergraduate programs suggest that their students not go the MFA route, at least not without significant publications that will get them into a first rate program. We’ve all met Iowa MFAs who were less than first rate, too, who also were working as adjuncts or back in graduate programs for Ph.D.s and working as TAs. John McPhee told one of his students at Princeton to skip the MFA and get a job working for a newspaper. She works or worked for the Inquirer and has several novels out.
I knew that it didn’t matter whether I was a better writer or a worse writer than the higher academically ranked people at my last school. We were not colleagues.
Scholarship and popularizations by scholars in various fields has been useful to me as a writer. While an undergraduate, I took a graduate course in lexicography because the professor was really a grand teacher and a serious scholar. I don’t think the first rate scholarship and good teaching are that easily separated. If we do separate them, we don’t just have a two tier class system for academics, whether teaching is devalued or not. We create an even more rigid two tier class system for students—those who can go to places with first rate working scholars and writers who work with undergraduates (UPenn, Princeton as examples) and those who end up being taught by people who believe the world has unfairly neglected them and who frequently commit educational malpractice by failing to teach their students things useful to helping the students’ achieve their goals (like not teaching POV to people whose goals are to write commercial fantasy). Their students aren’t potential colleagues and apprentices who will be their peers one day; they’re this crop of people who will never be equals with their teachers. I’ve been an undergraduate at both a second tier state university and at Columbia General Studies. Even though Columbia GS isn’t Columbia College or Barnard, the difference in treatment and expectations was marked.
Nobody should be broken to teach four courses a term and paid so little that they have to work summer sessions to live comfortable enough. And adjuncts don’t even have that.
I don’t know how you fight the pricks on this one, and I’m not planning to fight them myself. I care about the health of scholarly work, across a number of disciplines, because I need it for my own work. John Carey on John Dunne, Barthe on photography, Guthrie’s biologist reading of cave art, the book Mammalian Radiations, Wayne Booth’s work on the rhetoric of fiction—these things made me as a fiction writer, such as I may be.
I suspect the good work will continue despite the sludge and the proliferation of works published for no other reasons that to fill out tenure trading stamp books. I wish more people had experiences like mine at Columbia and fewer experiences like mine at East Carolina University, where the faculty with the best degrees were crazies or drunks who couldn’t get tenure anywhere else.
I’m also not convinced that the best people end up with tenure and the least scholarly end up as adjuncts or continent faculty with benefits. Departments hire people like the others in the department. Much better only comes in as the famous person from the outside that they need for prestige reasons.
People with real writing abilities are often better served not going straight into graduate programs but working on their writing, getting some experience outside academia, working on a newspaper, writing technical manuals, getting an MBA or getting technical or programming skills and exploring places academics don’t usually go to.
I don’t think scholars necessarily have this freedom, but Chip Delany went from doing scholarly work because the ideas intrigued him to getting an academic job without the degrees, so it’s possible.
(Fortunately for you all, I’ll be out of town next week and will try to say less in the future, but I’m rather passionate about how ill served ideas can be tied to the tenure track).
fewer experiences like mine at East Carolina University, where the faculty with the best degrees were crazies or drunks who couldn’t get tenure anywhere else.
I taught at East Carolina, you know.
It’s McArdle. You could at least get her name right.
Rebecca, I’m gonna pile on, because I think you’re basically bullshitting here. Your motivation may be genuine discomfort with academia; it may be justified loathing of academia--but your initial comment made a claim you can’t possibly prove, and rather than try to prove it, you’re spraying bullshit all over the place in an effort to conceal the issue.
What does Carl Sagan plagiarizing a novel have to do with academics hating scholarship and hiring others to do it for them? As for your sci-fi example, I wonder: this is the plot of a 60s Robert Silverberg novel, right? Protagonist, a guy who can read minds, writes term papers for NYC undergrads. Decent book; but again, evidence that undergrads buy papers is not, uh, exactly evidence that professors hate doing scholarship.
To summarize: the reason I’m piling on is that your original comment was bullshit; everything else you’ve said doesn’t change that. And I’m pissed because you utterly derailed the discussion: nobody ever responds to Bousquet’s threads, and the topic interests me.
Given the pressure on graduate students to produce for a faculty that’s progressively more and more remote from their students, I would not be surprised if this wasn’t more wide spread than people were willing to admit. B. It wasn’t Silverberg.
http://www.essaytown.com/dissertation_help_dissertations.htmlis rather suggestive.
The thing is that most of the arguments about why academia works the way it does are based on either Marxist politics operating from positions of considerable weakness in this culture (including Bousquet’s own) or on equally simplistic market economy. The universities expanded because a BA became required for most supervisory and managerial work. Everyone wanted a piece of that pie. Is the solution Marxist, market economy, or what?
I’d say that people need to work out their own salvations and to avoid programs taught by people they’ve never heard of (either the professor isn’t that prominent or the student isn’t as familiar with the field as should be the case.
As long as the culture values management skills over craft skills (and I’ll put art in that category) and rewards managing complex system over time more than training cohorts (teaching), combined with what tenure is (permanent job security with little oversight as long as the person makes their classes), then this isn’t going to get fixed systematically. I think everyone knows that, including the Marxists.
I think some scholars love scholarship, but I’ve seen enough for whom scholarship is a way to get a job without having to work that hard after getting tenure. The situation at lower level colleges is worse—more people are the people who had a book or three out in 20 year careers than are the active scholars who have a book out every three or four years (or someone like Delany who does a novel almost every year).
Jonathan, I think the best faculty at places like that are not the Columbia U or Harvard Ph.D.s. My favorite teacher was an Emory graduate student, probably ABD.
Some of this feels wrong in the way that women wanting quotas for women in various positions feels wrong. The roots of the problem go far deeper than universities being managed to the advantages of management. Some of it is that tenured faculty either approach this as a Marxist solution—treating the class of contingent faculty as needing improvement as a class—or they treat having contingent faculty as useful to them personally, as a way to avoid teaching non-majors.
The contingent liberal arts faculty, by and large, didn’t get those jobs because they wanted them in and of themselves. They got them with the idea of moving up. Once they’re treated as a class whose condition needs to be improved, they could be making more money, but they’re now no longer going to be in line for tenure absent some heroic efforts on their part (see Helen Vendler’s career).
So, while the contingent faculty would be treated better if universities did a socialist/Marxist move and raised their salaries and gave them benefits, they’re not any less the scut workers.
Then there’s the problem of departments who want to offer graduate degrees because of the prestige of it rather than any usefulness to their students. Many of these places can convince themselves that they’re doing the same thing as the first rate schools or the second tier schools because they’re offering the same courses. However, those courses are not taught by imminent practitioners in their fields.
People end up at crap graduate schools as students for all sorts of reasons—often, it’s the local school and they’re married. So they start out as not in scholar track because of where they got their degrees, and only the really exceptional will escape that.
Obviously, some people overcome not even having an undergraduate BA.
The problem with many academic Marxist solutions is they have to create an permanent collectively assessed underclass, a subset of the masses, in order to raise it.
I think this one solves itself by more people going for other careers that are equally lives of the mind (law, medicine, computer tech work, engineering, technical writing).
And a good chunk of the potential for the more egregious kinds of dishonesty could be eliminated by sending even the best potential scholars out to actually teach in high schools for a while before bringing them back to doctoral programs. Or have people work as journalists, software writers, something that allows them to see the life of the mind outside an English department.
But I don’t have any power, either.