Friday, January 15, 2010

Oh, The Prospects Are Bleak

In my last non-post, I wrote the following, as a sort of thesis statement of a larger post I might have done if I weren't wicked-busy and overwrought:

Teaching at an institution like mine is not some dream gig, and you will do a ton of administrative work and generally stupid paper-pushing, along with fighting battles you will likely not win, and you will not be leading a life of the mind 90% of the time, and so seriously, people probably shouldn't lump all professors together into one big pile of privilege, because the fact of the matter is, not all tenure-track jobs are created equal, and no, I do not feel guilty for being on the tenure track nor do I think that I should have to do so.

Now that I've submitted the abstract that I labored over for the past 6 hours (and yes, it was only a 250-wd abstract, but I was in a very dark place with it), I can actually write the post that goes with the above.

First, let me link around a bit. It all started with this post from Dean Dad. And then Tenured Radical chimed in, and then Historiann picked up where that post left off. And now here I am.

So let me give a totally reductive and stupid summary of the above. Dean Dad asks, "what kind of idiots would go to grad school in any liberal arts discipline and what could possibly motivate them?" and then TR is all, "Hey, did you see that post by Dean Dad? And here are some suggestions about what grad schools should do." And then Historiann was all, "the comment thread over at TR's was wack and stupid and people need to take some freaking responsibility." (Let me reiterate that I totally realize the above is a reductive and stupid summary. It's just I'm not going to be responding point by point, so I figure stupid and reductive is the most entertaining and briefest way to go.)

So here are my thoughts, in no particular order, having witnessed the clusterfuck that resulted from the above posts to which I linked. And I'm talking as much if not more about the various comment threads as I am about the posts themselves.

  • There seems to be an implicit assumption that students will choose grad school because it's more "comfortable" in some way than going on to get a "real" job. As a woman who chose an academic path when neither of her parents had education beyond high school (and whose parents' siblings didn't even finish high school, and who has cousins younger than she is who didn't finish high school and who survive by working as gas station attendants and such), and who attended a regional undergrad institution where the vast majority of students had no clue that there was anything beyond the B.A., and as a woman who advises a student population from a similar background, I am totally confident in saying that the only people who think grad school is the "easier" choice are people who come from backgrounds where, at the very least, college is a totally normal and expected thing. Seriously, it would have been easier for me to go and get a job in a cubicle. The people I love would have understood it, and I wouldn't have been a freak. For me, and for my students, the thought of pursuing a graduate degree is a big fucking deal, and it is not something entered into out of a sense that this is a more "legible" path than other paths. Sure, I was always good at school. But the fact that I even went to college was a stretch, and the idea of going to more college was pretty much unthinkable. (And that's all any of my family thought it was: "more college." I was ABD and my dad referred to me as a "lifetime student" like I was some fool who hadn't graduated from undergrad. He totally didn't get it.) So it's not like I thought that grad school was the natural path, and I don't think that this is the way that most students who go to regional universities, who are in the first generation of their families to go to college, think.
  • I didn't think, in pursuing grad school, that I was a unique snowflake who'd succeed because of my innate awesomeness. In fact, I thought that I was likely to fail because I had no clue about the culture of academia and I felt like a fraud and a loser who would be expelled at the least provocation. So when I went to grad school, it was not because I thought I was exempt from the market (about which I had been - in a way that was totally unproductive, incidentally, because the person who warned me basically was like, "you're never going to make it and you're a loser," and I was all, "you are a bitch and you can kiss my ass and I'm doing it anyway" - made aware), or because I thought I'd be some sort of exceptional success story. No, I took that path because I figured I had nothing to lose (I mean, seriously, when your parents make like 40K combined, and when you've got friends from high school who are bartending for a living with no benefits, how big of a risk does it seem like it is to take 7 years, with tuition remission, a stipend, and insurance, to read more books?) and that I really had questions that I could only answer and ideas that I could only explore if I took that path. I entirely figured that I would fail, if "failing" means not becoming a professor. And part of the reason I felt that is because people who come from where I come from don't become college professors. I mean, seriously. My mom, even when I was in my PhD program was all "you know, if you can type you'll always be able to get a job." This idea that a job as a professor was some sort of obvious end point for me just didn't exist.
  • I am entirely against the idea of equating education with job training. I know that's how it works in the corporate economy of contemporary universities, but I think it's disgusting to do so. And also really short-sighted and stupid.
  • Faculty have little to no power over budgets. Budgets determine hiring lines and they determine policies regarding adjunct hires and TAs. To act as if tenured or tenure-track faculty have any power in terms of these issues is, seriously, idiotic. When people make the argument that tenured faculty are responsible for the problems with contingent labor, I am... confused.
  • The big elephant in the room for me in all of these discussions about the structure of higher ed (which this is ultimately about, as grad students are part of this current structure, as are the supply of PhDs that we produce in order to staff classes as adjuncts) is incredibly obvious, but nobody wants to say it. The way to fix all of this is to stop pretending a) that a college education will produce a middle-class lifestyle b) that all Americans "deserve" or "have a right to" a college education c) that we can support a general education curriculum (one that is in many ways mandated by accrediting agencies) with the current level of state funding, without limiting access. You want to immediately fix the problem of the "oversupply" of English PhDs? Get rid of the mandatory 2-semester comp requirement for all college students. You want to reduce the number of adjuncts across disciplines, given the situation with endowments and state funding? Limit enrollments to those that can be supported by t-t faculty. Either we throw general education out the window, or we just admit that not everybody has a right to an education. Would such a course have meant that I wouldn't have had access to a college education (let alone grad school)? Yes. Would such a course of action mean that higher education would be the perk of people who were white, male, and privileged? Probably. But at least what we'd have in that case would be a fuck of a lot more honest than the hemming and hawing that we now have about adjunctification and privilege and inequity. Yes, what we've got now is unfair and wrong and whatever. But the reality is that what we've got now is why everybody thinks that college is an achievable goal, why employers think that they can require college degrees even for jobs that really only require the ability to answer the phone and to alphabetize. The short version of this entire bullet is that this conversation is not actually just about graduate education. It's about education generally, and the ways in which graduate education feeds into that. And the easiest answer to these problems is also the most offensive. No amount of advice or "thinking outside the box" about job prospects changes that.
But people really wanted to hear about my job and my reactions to all of this in light of it. The thing that struck me in a lot of the comments to the various posts to which I linked, but most especially in regard to those comments over at TRs, was that those railing against the Privileged Tenured Professoriate seem to think that having a tenured or tenure-track gig means that you don't need to have skills beyond research and teaching, or that somehow if you get a PhD that you're exempt from doing bureaucratic bullshit. Or that somehow if you get the golden ticket to a t-t gig that you will not be a cog in the corporate machine, or that you won't feel exploited by your employer, or that you will somehow have entered employment nirvana. There seems to be a sense that those people with t-t gigs, and especially those who've earned (notice I say earned, for while this profession surely isn't a meritocracy, and while surely a lot of luck is involved, one does still have to earn tenure) tenure, are somehow alienated or insulated from the breakdown of the "social contract" that has occured with this recession/depression. Indeed, all of us folks with tenure or securely on the tenure track skip and canter through sunshine-soaked fields of daffodils and daisies, without a care in the world. And we think Great Thoughts all the time, and our lives are grand.

Once upon a time, BFF told me about an encounter with a student, who told her that he wanted to pursue an academic career because he felt that being a professor would be "both lucrative and rewarding." When BFF recounted this tale to me, we both laughed heartily. I think that most professors across the world would join us. Because you know what? It surely ain't lucrative, and while there are rewarding moments, the vast majority of my life as a professor is not about the "rewarding" moments but rather about being what amounts to a middle-manager. Sure, I've got my own office, which is better than a cubicle (I've had a cubicle in my time) or than sharing an office with 20 other people (I've done that, too). Yes, I have ecstatic and phenomenal moments of joy in this job. I have moments where I feel like I'm doing something that really matters. But the vast majority of the moments that I have are not those.

People say that the solution to the problem with hiring in fields like mine is that professors should teach more. I teach four courses a semester. How many more would you like me to teach? And still have time to do the MOUNTAINS of service (department, university, community, professional) that my institution expects?

People say that tenured folks should take a pay cut, in order to facilitate the hiring of more full-time instructor folks. How much are we talking about, for the work that I'm doing, work that people off the tenure-track don't do? 5K? 10K? You think that the solution to this problem is further to depress the market in this field? In order to get t-t folks for all of the instructor and adjunct positions that we've got, complete with benefits, I'd imagine that tenured faculty would need to agree to reduce their salaries by at least 50%, if not more, which would put me someplace around 25K a year, and I'd be at the upper end of the whatever this new "equitable" pay scale would be. That solves the problem?

None of this takes research into account. I teach at a university, a crappy one, but a university still. We've got an MA program. Research is expected of me, though obviously not the amount or quality of research expected of people at actual "research universities." Do I do this for "love"? This thing that is a total requirement of my job?

Here's the thing. I really like my job. I think I'm really good at my job. I care about my job. I even care about my institution. It would be awesome of all people felt the way about their jobs/institutions that I do about mine.

But it's a job. It involves a hell of a lot that I never experienced in grad school, and it involves a hell of a lot of bullshit that resembles more about my days temping than it does some sort of idealized life of the mind. And sure, there are a thousand adjuncts who'd kill for my job, but I'd argue that they'd kill for it precisely because they don't realize the bullshit that it mandates. My saying that is not me being a diva, nor is it not realizing my "privilege." I realize that I'm privileged in that I've got a job I like and that uses my training, but that makes it no less a bullshit job.

Look. I teach four classes a semester. I'm on two major university committees, a department committee, I do service in the community, and I'm the president of an MLA Allied organization. In addition to all of this I'm an active researcher. The most significant romantic-style relationship I've got is with somebody who lives 2K miles away from me (and seriously, this is barely a romantic-style relationship), my grandmother is in the hospital and I can't get away to go see her, and I've never taken an actual vacation in my life. I've lived in a crappy apartment for the past 7 years, and I'm 50K in student loan debt. Oh yes. I am the exemplar of motherfucking privilege.

But here's the thing: I don't think that I don't deserve what I have because academia is fucked or because my discipline is fucked or because I am basking in some sort of undeserved privilege. I think that I have a job - just like my friend who works in the non-profit world has a job, and just like my other friend who's a photographer has a job, and just like my friend who works in insurance has a job. I work hard, and I did what I had to do, and I got lucky. Yes, I got lucky. But that doesn't mean I should have to apologize for the bullshit job I've got. This job may not be the 2-2 job that my adviser imagined for me, nor may it be an adjunct gig where I'm making 2K a course. Either way, I don't have to feel sorry. The fact that I've got the job I do means that I can do the kind of work that really matters for my students and for an institution that serves that kind of student. For me, that justifies the existence of jobs like mine, even if I'm not an exploited adjunct, and even if I'm not at an upper-tier research university or elite liberal arts college. I feel like the whole conversation that resulted from the posts at DD's and TR's especially indicates that people like me should feel sorry. As if all t-t gigs are created equal, and as if all of them are bastions of happiness and light. Can anybody possibly believe that this is reality? Seriously?

You know what I advise my students who think about grad school? I advise that they should never get a degree in my discipline without full funding. Period. Whatever the circumstances. And then I advise them that the market sucks and that if they're going to pursue grad school then they need to know and really think about it. But I also tell them that if they want it, and they get an offer of full funding for grad school, and they have nothing else they'd rather do, that I'll support them. Because I believe if they want it after all of that then I probably should respect their choices. Isn't that the least my students deserve? Basic motherfucking respect?


David said...

To your point about limiting access to what T-T (and probably living wage remunerated faculty) can provide. I wonder if college wasn't roughly universal, if more pressure would move back to the high schools, so that students graduating from high school would have a lot of the basic skills (esp. reading, writing, math) that most employers now look to the college degree for. If more high students realized that they could go forward with a quality high school education and actually have to pay and earn their way into college if the whole tone of pre-college education would change.

To the broader issue, I think lost in all this discussion is the fact that we need to have opportunities for people to do advance study in the humanities and social sciences that doesn't operate @ an elite R1 level for the purpose of producing the next gen of faculty. Now departments that operate programs (esp. if they are essentially of an extended U/G quality) need to be very honest this is course of study as avocation rather than vocation and that you'd likely have to get a job with other skills, but if you want to read great literature for a couple years or really learn how to study the past or do whatever philosophers do, then come and learn.

j.illi said...

There are so many days that I get frustrated with all the myths surrounding what it's like to be an academic. Like you, I love my job. But like you, there are moments when it's a real struggle, and I feel like hiding away in a closet and pretending that I have no colleagues, who make the incredible amount of administration we have to do ABSOLUTELY MISERABLE at times.

Incidentally, I give my students the EXACT same advice you do about grad school. Glad to know somebody out there feels the same way!

Tenured Radical said...

Nice contribution, as usual. Thanks for chiming in!

Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Totally with you on refusing to feel sorry for having a job and on wishing like hell we could dismantle this myth that a t-t job is all thinking deep thoughts over bon-bons and port in the faculty club every afternoon. Where does this fantasy come from, I wonder?

I think the guilt about having jobs is terribly destructive, though. It fuels this tendency we have to keep our mouths shut and not rock the boat at our institutions, while the actual conditions of our work have declined dramatically in recent years. We need to stop apologizing and start organizing, don't you think?

Year2Year said...

We have a curious obsession with self-immolation in the academy, which is tied up in all of this. Because we are so ready to villainize our a) texts of choice; b) pedagogical (read: hegemonic) stance; c) and institutional position, the professoriate sets itself up for the harsh situations we face. If we ourselves say we're not worth it, then why would taxpayers, politicians, and business people be inclined to believe anything other than a "training" concept of ed? This anti-tt sentiment (which of course favors administrative minds...just sayin') is part of that larger professorial anti-posturing and is certainly fueled by it. Maybe, first, we need to accept that we DO offer a useful/vital role in civilization then stop pretending we need to protest against ourselves. Thus: Doc Crazy need not feel apologetic about her position, nor should any of us.

Christopher said...

I don't think the tenureds should feel guilty about their positions. They played the game and won. Others played and lost. Period. I think the controversy surrounds why the winners won and the losers lost. And why this is so controversial is because unlike, say, a sporting event where we can say well, so and so didn't pitch well, and so and so bobbled that ball, and so and so grounded out with the bases loaded, the reasons why the winners win and the losers lose in the game of academic hiring are inscrutable. Hell, in most cases, the winners can't explain why they won. They just know that they did.

But in the winners defense, while they won at university X, that doesn't mean they either did or would win at university Y. And herein, I think, lies the real source of the noise. To use DD's term, the criteria for academic hiring are not even remotely legible. They change, often at a very minute and subjective level, from institution to institution, from department to department, and that's just the effin' way it is.

Guilt is surely the wrong category to employ here. Luck is the right one. The winners here win because they are lucky, because they are in the right place (interview) at the right time and present to the interviewers the perfect skill set. The point of contention, though, is that the skill set, while including things like mastery of ones field, an interesting and promising line of research, the capacity to develop interesting and engaging courses, the ability to be clear and articulate, also includes secondary or subjective things like the right personality, gender, hair cut, style of clothing, tone and timbre of voice, and so on.

To those of us on the losers track (yes, I'm one) what's infuriating is that quite often it begins to appear that not only do these other, secondary characteristics matter, they often seem to outweigh what I think most would agree are the more substantive criteria.

But it's not the fault of the winners, or at least the more recent winners such as Dr. C. So again, no apologies necessary.

To the other issue concerning whether tenure is a cushy gig, I think the emphasis is misplaced. Given the recent economic turmoil, what's "cushy" is simply to be employed. Nevermind the conditions, the work load, the service requirements etc. The singular "cushy" advantage of tenure is that those with it cannot be laid off. And in an economic climate such as the present one, that is one very cushy advantage.

Let me end by raising an issue I've not seen discussed at any great length or depth. What happened in my city as a result of the economic crisis was a blood letting of the adjuncts and full time temporary hires. We were all laid off right and left, and the full-time tenured and tenure track faculty were re-allocated. Upper level seminars and mid-level surveys were canceled, and the tenureds started teaching all the comp. and intro lit. classes the adjuncts used to teach And guess what? The bottom didn't fall out. I can't help but wonder if this is now going to become the brave new world of the humanities. Well, at least until the trickle of retirement starts to take a measurable toll, which is when the adjuncts will be re-hired ... permanently.

Bardiac said...

Christopher, I've been on a number of searches, and we get to hire one person, though we may interview ten VERY qualified people. The person we hire is qualified. If you're one of the nine, it's hard not to think that you were better qualified. The substantive criteria were met at the first cut, long before interviews happened. The secondary stuff comes in after because there has to be some way to choose between ten very qualified people.

heu mihi said...

Great post--thanks.

To respond to Christopher's point about the shifting criteria determining winners from losers: I'm on a search committee right now, and we have 60 applicants (so far) for a not particularly good job. Of those, many are from very highly ranked institutions; nearly all have extensive, relevant teaching experience; most have multiple publications (including a few with UP books)--in short, at least 30 are easily more than qualified, present themselves well on paper, and are doing truly interesting research. We can hire *one* of those (and interview no more than 10). It is with great pain that I rule people out because they only have experience teaching three of the four classes that I know they'll have to do (even though they could clearly do the fourth), or because they have one less article than someone else, or because they have a blank year on their CVs. So when it comes to what filters out candidates, I'd say that it usually doesn't even get to the secondary characteristics that you identify: it's the glut of highly qualified people, and then those who happen to hit on something that's not in the job ad but will unexpectedly fit well with the institution (e.g. the candidate--not in English--who has also taught writing will be an asset given that we just decided to implement Writing Across the Curriculum).

This is a bit tangential to the rest of the post, but your comment struck a chord. And my experience as a newish faculty member serving on this side of the equation confirms just how much of getting a job is pure luck.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Dr. Crazy, may I just give you a huge hug and say, "Thank you! I love you!" for writing this post?

Christopher said...

"... and then those who happen to hit on something that's not in the job ad but will unexpectedly fit well with the institution (e.g. the candidate--not in English--who has also taught writing will be an asset given that we just decided to implement Writing Across the Curriculum)."

Okay, so secondary characteristics weren't the deciding factor. Fair enough. But your example is even better because the clincher wasn't even in the job description. God, I love it!

Flavia said...

[T]hose railing against the Privileged Tenured Professoriate seem to think that having a tenured or tenure-track gig means that you don't need to have skills beyond research and teaching, or that somehow if you get a PhD that you're exempt from doing bureaucratic bullshit.

Yes! This is exactly what most bugged me about some of the commenters at TR's place, who couldn't seem able to imagine how "wasting time" in a job before going on to grad school (or transitioning to a possibly-entry-level job in another field after not getting one in academia) could possibly be worthwhile or rewarding. Dude, experience is never a waste. I learned shit from temping and working low-level jobs in law firms and publishing that I use every day in my job on the tenure track--and that I value and am thankful for.

Ann said...

I think Roxie's point about the construction of faculty privilege is important. It mitigates against us making noise or rocking the boat--for ourselves, our students, and our contingent and adjunct faculty colleagues.

Christopher's point about employment as "cushy" is an important one. We don't need to apologize for getting lucky--although as you point out, luck is only a part of the equation. In a world where unions can't protect their members from dramatic renegotiations of their contracts, and where workers are asked again and again to take wage and benefits cuts to save their jobs (supposedly), having any kind of guarantee of employment looks cushy from the outside. The solution is not destabilizing our jobs so that they're as precarious as that of most other American workers. Solidarity, not blaming, is what's called for, among workers in general but with respect to the conversations going on about the job market in the humanities, among faculty and grad students in particular.

(BTW, the comments over at my place are all good contributions and respectful--no CF at

Janice said...

Excellent post as usual, Dr. Crazy. I've already said that this conversation needs to tackle undergraduate curriculum and undergraduate expectations.

Students are woefully uninformed about what they can do with a degree and how much extra effort they're going to have to muster to make the leap from getting a degree to getting employment. Whether it's students who walk out with a B.A. or with a Ph.D., if we assume they have all the skills they need to visualize and pursue appropriate employment, we're wrong. Most don't.

At some point I'd like to come back and address the question of administration because it shocked the hell out of me when people think they can somehow be exempt from this as a full-time academic. (Of course, then we also have to confront the flip side that nobody gets T&P based on service.)

But ever since I first expressed an interest in grad school, people have been telling me that there are no jobs. That story became somewhat more muted while I was in grad school, simply because we were focusing more upon finishing than actually thinking we could even apply for jobs, I suspect.

While I'm sorry that so many people feel betrayed and misled that there aren't more t-t jobs out there in the evergreen fields of academia, I can't think of any of us, here, who've ever held out hope of such. Very few of our undergrads or M.A. students go on for a Ph.D. because we are forthright and because we encourage them to examine their own situation (i.e., are they geographically limited, do they hate speaking in front of groups even though they love research).

I'm still thrilled that we added one full-time position to our department a few years ago but I can't see them doing the same anytime soon, even though our enrolments are ridiculous. More likely, when there are financial resources in five to ten years, they'll tell us that we've done so well without that there's no need!

We'll keep fighting (yet one more of the administrative duties Dr. Crazy has touched upon) but we are hardly the powerbrokers in this equation nor are any other of the people posting here, I suspect.

Shane in Utah said...

Great post. Can I quibble with one remark?

To act as if tenured or tenure-track faculty have any power in terms of these [budget] issues is, seriously, idiotic.

True, but: I would like to see more gestures of solidarity from the tenured ranks (which includes me, now). I don't think anyone has been glad to see tenure lines systematically replaced with insecure adjunct positions, but an awful lot of us haven't protested much either. For every Cary Nelson or Marc Bousquet or Steve Watt (there are surely women professors out there visibly and publicly fighting this fight too; they're just not coming to mind at the moment), there are several dozen profs who are happy to pull up the moats and go about their research. Maybe organized protest of the type that Roxie hints at above wouldn't have much effect on improving budgets, but it might at least mitigate some of the resentment that many grad students and adjuncts feel toward the tenured ranks.

Christopher said...

That's a good point about solidarity, Ann. The problem is if you take a poll of the critical mass of tenureds concerning their less fortunate "adjunctified" brethren, I fear, no, I know, the views will be disheartening at best.

Oh, some of the younger ones, e.g. Dr. C., will exhibit some sympathy, (the elders tend more toward disdain and contempt, in my experience) but the problem is that the younger ones are, well, busy. Busy with classes, busy with advising, busy with committees, busy with conferences, busy writing, busy with whatever. And one of the last things they're going to do, in my experience, is stick their necks out for the adjuncts. And why should they? They've got other stuff on their plates.

Then again, I'm actually okay with this. Personally, I'm an adjunct who is fine with being able to just come, teach my classes, do what I'm supposed to, and go. Don't get me wrong. I'd love job security and benefits and institutional approbation and all, but I'm pretty sure it's not in the cards for me. See, I'm a relatively older dude (I'm 47) and I've been doing this now for 10 years. I teach 6 or 7 classes a semester, along with 2 or 3 in the Summer, but of those usually 3 or 4 are lit. classes -- that's how I can teach so much. And when it's all said and done, I make as much as most associate profs! (and to me, teaching 2 or 3 in the Summer is tantamount to Summer off!)

Thing is, if this little house of cards comes tumbling down, I'm fucked. And I fear "solidarity" might indeed be the cold wind that blows my lil' house down. And why, you may ask? Simple. Because of the aforementioned hiring criteria. If tenure were to be expanded (ha!) I suspect committees would go for the shiny new toys rather than the veteran ones. I'm "damaged" goods, right?

I think I'm pretty safe, though. Tenure isn't going to be expanded, and the economy will come around, but the hiring freezes will likely remain in effect. I LOVE hiring freezes!

Shane in Utah said...

Erm... that should have read "pull up the drawbridge." I'm not sure what "pulling up the moats" would entail...

new said...

Oh! I've been reading the responses from tenured faculty to the stress and frustration of adjuncts, etc., and I felt like there must be something else going on there- I hadn't realized it was guilt!

I'm a new PhD, and I am adjuncting while looking for another job outside of academia, and I do have a lot of frustration and anger at the profession. But not what you seem to see, and I don't see what you do in the comments of other new PhDs, etc. Maybe it is just miscommunication that makes this discussion so fraught.

I LOVE what you had to say about your experience applying to and getting into a PhD program- you share my irritation with the idea that I thought a PhD was somehow "easier" or "natural." And that is the same way I feel about the way job-seekers and adjuncts are being portrayed. As one of those who are looking for a job- ANY JOB- I see those with tenure as privileged not because they have an easy job (I have friends with TT jobs, and I see how hard it it), but because, as Christopher said above, you HAVE A JOB. And that job pays you enough to have a crappy apartment, and pay off your student loans, and deal with all the stupid crap that goes along with your job. And the sense of ANY security at all. ANY. The fact that you don't, after 10 years of schooling, have to recoup and find a new career in a terrifying job market makes you seem lucky to me. I don't have a rosy picture of tenured life, I've seen it drive friends into tears and depression and law school. But from my perspective it does put you in a position of privilege within this conversation.

And I don't think people with tenure should feel guilty! Not at all! What makes me angry is the dismissive, condescending tone I see in so many places, that we have nothing to bring to the conversation, and that whenever we attempt to convey what we are bitter about, what we are frightened about, and what we see as some of the problems with this system, we supposedly think we were owed jobs and that tenure is such an easy gig and we should just "get over it". The way that people with tenure seem to be implying that those of us who are suffering in this market are just snowflakes who want the world handed to us. So many people with tenure (or at least TT jobs) are discussing the situation, but whenever we chime in with our concerns and fears etc about what is happening in the profession we are dismissed, often very condescendingly, as people who have nothing to contribute to the conversation when we are living it.

But the fact that people are struggling with guilt and fear about their own positions and that's why they lash out with such callousness and disrespect makes a lot more sense. And makes me a little less angry and bitter to think that you react that way because you believe that we are somehow speaking against your jobs, rather than against the way our perspective has been shut out from the conversation.

Maybe there are those who really do think that this is an idealized "life of the mind" and who look down on the crap work that I've done a lot of working my way through school and trying to survive since graduating, but please don't think that is what we all are saying. There are a lot of new PhDs who are just like you were, but now suffering more than when you graduated because of the economic collapse, and who just want to contribute to the conversation.

Shane in Utah said...

Hmmm. New, I think you should go back and reread the comment thread of TR's post. The blunt rhetoric of "grow up and get over it" didn't enter the conversation until posts like this:

You don't smell the aroma of outraged self-entitlement there? Or even in this one, which is rather milder?

There are good reasons to be disillusioned and angry at what academia has become these last 40 years. But some of these posts feel like they're casting about wildly for scapegoats. Crazy's point is important: tenured profs didn't create this mess (even if I think they didn't fight against it hard enough either).

Earnest English said...

Wonderful post, Dr. Crazy.

One thing that really drives me nuts about the grad-school/lack of jobs issue is the idea that the PhD is really job training. It's not. I spent a lot of time on research at my R1 grad institution, but I also taught a lot -- I had a 2/2 load just like my professors. Now I definitely teach more. I did a lot of service, but I do infinitely more now. I wish this idea that the only thing to do after a PhD is become a professor would evaporate. It seems so odd to me that humanities professors, usually the first people in the world to argue against a college education as job training, don't see that many of the arguments blaming grad schools for the lack of jobs presupposes that getting a PhD in some research area that you love is a professorial job training program. I do wish my grad institution did more to present non-academic jobs as feasible and non-failing options though. And if one is supposed to go on the market before the diss is done, then we're basically saying that people should have no time to reflect on and assess whether they really want to go for a t-t job.

Like you, Dr. Crazy, I don't feel guilty for my t-t job. I feel bad for my grad school cohorts in other fields who haven't gotten jobs. But I also made the practical decision to change fields so I would increase the chance of getting a job. I also took a job that I know lots of people would not find desirable.

Susan said...

Thank you for this, and especially for making explicit the issues of class which I thought were a big deal at TR's. Oddly, though I came from a intellectual family, no one in my family really "got" graduate school. My father finally responded to me not as a scholar, but a writer.... And my mother, who had mostly raised us as a single parent, definitely was of the "if you know how to type you will always be able to get a job". Which was true.

Having become a privileged full professor at an R-1 (albeit one in one of th states where we have "furloughs" to cut our pay) only after many years teaching in a very marginal place where I had a one year contract, I always feel weird in this situation. I haven't quite adjusted to my privilege, and I am stunned by the assumption of privilege by some of my colleagues. (relating to teaching loads, research funding etc.): suddenly the comparison group is not other people who teach humanities, but those who teach science and bring in millions of dollars in grants. My privilege was that when I was denied tenure, I could work part time for some years because I was married to someone who was employed. And because of that, I got a second book out, and eventually got my current job.

I have mixed feelings about access to education -- from my previous gig I'm very aware of how many people screw up young, and can do so much later. And in that sense, I'm all for access. But I also agree that the degree has become a way of judging ability that lets employers off the hook. Oh, she finished college, she'll be able to answer phones. I'm also aware how much of a difference it makes to come from an educated family that values ideas, learning, etc. The problem is that no one has figured out how to do "wider access" without really widening it. How wide is too wide?

Anyway, I have one of those dream jobs. THe only thing I can do is try to serve my students -- undergraduate and graduate alike -- well; and make sure that humanities students know the many things they can do with their degrees that are NOT located in the academy...

Doctor Pion said...

Thanks! I knew I forgot something (DD's blog on jobs) when I wrote a new blog about jobs that was motivated by a great article in IHE about job-hunting at a CC. What I forgot was Dean Dad's contribution. I've added that and a pointer to your awesome article.

You have added a lot to this discussion. Your remark that grad school is only the normal next step (Grade 17, as it were) for students whose parents went to college is spot on. First generation students might see college as Grade 13, but they usually are looking directly at a career after four years. That is expensive enough for them.

Your strongest point is when you tell them that the world where the jobs are is quite unlike the world where they are earning their degree. You put it a lot more bluntly than the analytic approach I took in "part 3" of my old jobs series. A physicist wouldn't think to write about the "unshine-soaked fields of daffodils and daisies" even if I could deliver that line with a finely tuned sarcastic tone!

Yes, I sit in my office thinking Great Thoughts about string theory and quantum gravity. In between 15 hours in the classroom and managing what is going on in seven lab sections.

And thanks for reminding the idiots that you cannot blame the faculty for how resources are allocated in a college. Shared governance doesn't go that far! And you certainly can't blame them for making rational and financially conservative decisions about their own lives.

But I can blame them for not knowing what the market really is. The American Institute of Physics has been looking hard at the data in my field since the crash of 1970. Some faculty tell their students those facts. Others do not, or choose ignorance. I have no idea of the AHA or MLA have the kinds of survey data that the AIP does, but they sure keep it quiet if they do.

However, I think you are wrong about the structural issues ... but I don't know what your college budget looks like. Ours could not sustain the full-time faculty if our enrollment dropped to the number they alone could teach, because that would cut our enrollment and reduce our state funding. It isn't so much that the adjuncts subsidize the rest of the college as it is that the bodies they teach bring in state dollars that sustain the fixed costs (like t-t faculty) of the college. But eliminating adjuncts completely would also cut other costs significantly, because we spend a ton of money managing a large number of people that teach relatively few classes each. It might break even.

PS - My word verification is "uristaxi". Is that what Leon took when he wanted to exodus?

Doctor Pion said...

Two more thoughts:

1) It is absurd to think about teaching a heavier load at your institution or mine, but what if the faculty at R1s and Ivies taught a 4/4 load? For one thing, they wouldn't have time to produce nearly as many graduate students.

2) The budget at my college would look a lot different if we got the same amount of money per student from the state for freshman classes as the Flagship does. We (and maybe you) could put a lot more full-time faculty in the classroom if we had those resources.

Oh, and mainly to some of the comments in TR's thread:

*) We just went through a depression and it isn't over yet. This is not like the 1982 or 1974 recession. The only reason it only seems a bit worse than those overall is because of massive timely stimulus funding. Eliminate that and this will be like the Panic of 1907 or 1893, or worse. But even with that, the job market is still 10 times better than it was in physics in 1970.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that tt faculty should not be made to feel in any way guilty to be employed and I know they are not power players in budget making, I have to concur with New above that the rhetoric of you didn't get a job so fuck off and do something else really, really sucks.

Like you, I didn't not perceive this as the easy way out. I was told I couldn't do it because I'm a loser, to which I replied ummm thanks, watch me. I didn't really have a clear sense of the market--although I would add that the landscape is vastly different in my field than it is in English--but I did know it was a risk. I don't feel betrayed and I do think that is a silly way to look at it. I know I am not owed a job.


It doesn't make me some kind of entitled prick if I'm a frustrated with my crap ass adjuncting gig and if I rant about it from time to time while at the same time insisting on my right to have pursued this line of work.

You aren't saying I'm a prick. I get that. And I do believe you deserve your job. But the attitude I hear in some of these conversations can be pretty damn dismissive. I get the reaction many people have to that. On top of that, graduate school and its aftermath can put a person in some pretty fucked up headspace. Someone in TR's comment thread suggested that perhaps some compassion for the less fortunate was in order. I'm in favor of that.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hi, everybody! Thank you for this thoughtful comment thread, and I'm sorry I've not weighed in - I took the past couple of days off of the internet (for the most part). I was out with BES tonight, and she saw this post, and a bit of the others to which I linked, though she'd not gotten to the comment threads of them all. After she asked me for a basic recap to catch her up, her basic response was, as you might imagine, "um, is there really disagreement about your points, Crazy?" Now, this is because she's my student, and because I've been bombarding her about all of the possible consequences of her choice to pursue grad school. But not everybody has a doomer like me in their corner.

I entirely agree that people going out onto the current market deserve compassion, but I'd go further: I'd say they deserve massive amounts of support. I don't think it's enough to look at what we can do for the next generation of grad students, but rather that we need to deal with those who are currently in this shitty position directly in whatever helpful ways we might imagine. The problem is, I, like most of the tenured professoriate, aren't actually teaching those students or mentoring them as teachers who are responsible for them. I'm not trying to pass the buck here - only to say that it's important to recognize that what we're talking about here isn't tenured vs. job-seeking in some simple way.

(The MA program at my shop does not address a student population that is PhD-bound, I should note, and I should also note that I've actively worked to mentor adjuncts in my department - even before tenure - both directly 1-on-1 in terms of teaching and less directly in terms of agreeing to look over CVs and such. I'm not the only person in my department who sees this as a priority. But given our institution, however great we are, we can't do it all, or even do much that makes a huge difference. Though I will say that we have done our best to mentor our adjuncts who want it our of adjunct land, and we advertise their success at getting the fuck out of our exploitative shop to the administration.)

To Dr. P's criticism about reducing enrollments - EXACTLY. We don't disagree. The state budgets *require* that we teach more students than the tenured professoriate can handle. And then administrations find ways to make that happen, and then here's where we are. I don't think that what I suggested works under current federal and state funding directives (or, more explicitly, laws), nor do I think it works in terms of selling higher ed to the public. My suggestion was more a rhetorical strike at a failure to grasp the complexity of this mess than anything. I don't actually think that this is a workable plan, if that makes sense.

the rebel lettriste said...


I went into my MFA with youthful, SLAC-inflected stars in my eyes, and then promptly indebted myself some additional 35K. What the hell was I going to do with a fine arts degree in motherfucking poetry?

So I went into the PhD for one reason: to put a hold on my massive student loans. If I got a lot of training and education and time to write and a minimal stipend and health insurance, that was gravy.

How I became a medievalist I don't really know, but it wasn't because I wanted forever to live a life of the mind and think marvelously deep thoughts. I wanted a job, I liked what I was reading and writing, and lo, these many years later I have a tt job.

Is it all daisies and sunshine? Not by any means. It's hard: my school is open admissions, a 4/4, and I teach a lot of remedial courses. My book project has stalled, I have no time to do my research, blah blah blah.

It's a damn sight better than starving in a garret, though, I'll tell you that much. Do I get to live in a major city, work with excellent colleagues, commit myself to hilarious and moving students, do research that is somewhat creative, and have some control over my own time? Yes. Is my TIAA-CREF account still growing, despite this recession? Yes.

It ain't perfect. But I worked hard for it, and you're right, Dr. C. I am not going to feel any guilt.

Anonymous said...

Can I just say how much I appreciate this comment thread? You are always a balanced critic of academia, Dr. Crazy, and your readers have clearly adopted a similar approach that makes me a little less disheartened.

Thank you so very much for weighing in on this issue!

FrauTech said...

Great post. I'm def not one of the ones who think tenured profs have too much privilege. My best guess as to why academia has become so overpriced is all the useless administrative 3-figure salary people being hired (I should start saving my emails about the new Vice Chancellor of Wishes Being Horses and all other useless positions being created).

One issue I see is, there are plenty of tenured profs still working into their 70s and 80s who now make three figures (got in before all you unlucky boomers and younger) and really don't need the money, aren't effective lecturers, and still keep working. I understand maybe they enjoy working and enjoy research, but it'd be nice if there was some post-tenure quasi-retirement job that would keep these people engaged but not necessarily at a full salary when they are no longer doing full level research and not teaching very well many days.

I agree with whoever said a re-emphasis on high school would be a great solution. We should also consider opening up affordable career-oriented post-high school paths. Say something you'd start in high school, then go on and finish a two year program directed towards a career. Sort of like CC's can be, but more integrated with high school and more emphasis on a specific career program instead of uselss GEs. Unfortunately this would take some fed or state involvement to really get going, and I think is part of the general need we have to get more industries back in this country, or new industries, or anything. Academia is great when it is the twin-sister to a thriving industry but when industry is dying, and academia has a bit of a bubble going, it is no reason there are a bunch of people clinging to it like a liferaft.

And Dr. Crazy, you proved one of my comments on another blog true when you had to go justify how hard or high real your life was or how uneducated your family was in your pursuit of higher education. I'm just trying to say, everyone thinks they had it hard. Silver spoon kids think they had it hard. And saying "oh no really, I know how hard life can be, b/c i had x, y and z working against me" is a snowflake recipe. So have a little confidence and stop trying to justify yourself.

Laura said...

Good post and good comments. I think one of the reasons I don't/didn't pursue a tenure-track job is that it seems to me that it's like any other job, that it could be as soul-sucking, time-consuming, cog-in-the-wheel like as any other job. Even without much of a research component, I'd guess I'm looking at at 50-60 hr/week job and I have too many other personal obligations for that to work.

Do I feel regret? A little. But the system that exploits so many also gives me the opportunity to work part-time once in a while, teaching different types of students and different subjects, something I might not even be able to do in t-t job. I sometimes feel guilty for wanting to take those adjunct jobs when I know that there are people who want and who take them in hopes of full-time work. The only issue I have with those gigs are that I wish they paid slightly better and came with benefits and I wish they could be more stable, i.e. if the institution needed the same course taught once a year or once a semester, they could hire the same person over a period of years as long as both parties agreed.

You rightly point out that the system is a problem from the bottom up. The job situation is what it is because of curriculum decisions, funding decisions, things largely determined elsewhere and things that are difficult to change.

Prof. Koshary said...

Fantastic post. I also echo Flavia's comment about non-academic jobs after college. I truly hated what I did before grad school, but it taught me some useful skills.

Like you say, just about all of us invested seriously in higher education tend to avoid the increasingly obvious point that, as our entire educational structure now stands, we have long-term foundational problems that no one quite knows how to solve. And, naturally, the mere thought of trying invokes the fear that we will unintentionally make ourselves redundant or otherwise unneeded/unemployable. Better to soldier on with the crappy system in place.

Can't say it leaves a pleasant taste in my mouth, but it seems to be the only dish on the menu...

Dr. Virago said...

I know you're mourning your grandmother and not reading your comments right now, and I have nothing to add that hasn't already been said, but I just wanted to say: I *heart* you for this post.