The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dark Sarcasm re the Classroom

For most of my life, I wanted to be a law professor. The scholarly life has always been one which attracts me, but the possibility of combining that with some civil rights/civil liberties advocacy, well, that fused my intellectual and practical aspirations.

Except, of course, for the bit about teaching part of it not happening. Bit of a drawback, that.

I had thought of academia outside of law, too, though. In my last year of college, one of my best professors took me out to lunch and urged me to consider pursuing a Ph. D in English Literature, and I was sorely tempted. I told him I'd been accepted to law school, and he scoffed, saying that law was a proper career for a pedant.

A quarter of a century later, I can see that there's some truth in that. But there's also some truth in my reply, that a career in law can offer opportunities to oppose injustice, to help people to serve the common good. I've known many attorneys who have done just that, and even in my first year of law school, I met a remarkable troika of lawyers who did just that--William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Arthur Chaskalson, who spent some time at the law school in my first year, and who, by great good fortune, I was seated with at several events and got to know a little bit. I have found much rewarding in in practicing law.

That said, the two careers I contemplated, and the one which I have lived (legal prctitioner and academic manqué) have one thing in common: They all appear to be headed for the endangered species list. Brian Tamanaha and Paul Campos are all over the high (and non-dischargeable) debt levels and increasingly dire career prospects facing law graduates (desperate times, really), and the blowback has already begun to squeeze the schools. It's not looking good out there for lawyers, or for law professors down the road.

On the other hand, job prospects in academia for humanities students? Not so much. And Part 2 (with a reading list, this time!). And in the four years since? Still awful, courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
Research on adjunct working conditions paints a picture of inequality between them and their tenure-track counterparts. A 2010 survey of non-tenure-track faculty members by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce showed low median compensation rates for adjunct faculty, at $2,700 per three-credit course, with little, if any, compensation based on credentials and minimal support for work or professional development outside the classroom. (At four courses per semester, that's $21,600 annually, compared to starting tenure-track salaries that average $66,000, according to data from the American Association of University Professors.)
But adjunct faculty now make up the majority of the higher education work force. As recently as 1969, 78 percent of instructional staff comprised tenured or tenure-track professors, with adjunct faculty making up the rest, according to information from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. By 2009, the figures had nearly flipped, with a third of faculty tenured or on the tenure track and two-thirds ineligible for tenure. Of those non-tenure-track positions, just 19 percent were full-time.
While adjuncts have been common at community colleges since the enrollment boom in the 1960s-70s, their numbers have surged at four-year undergraduate institutions during the last decade. Part of that is due to increased hiring of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty (by 2003, a majority of full-time hires were off the tenure track, according to the Delphi Project), which can be a good deal for some professors who want to focus on teaching, said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University. But conditions for adjuncts trying to “eke out a living” by teaching courses here and there – a phenomenon more commonly seen in urban areas than rural – are far worse, he said. “I feel for them.”
Economics -- namely decreasing state and federal funding -- and changing institutional priorities are driving the trend away from tenure-track hiring, as universities devote more resources to research (internal spending on research and development increased from 11 percent to 20 percent of private research university budgets from 1970 to 2000) and student services, and away from instruction and other costs, Ehrenberg said. According to his research, some student services are linked to higher retention rates, while the benefit of proximity to world-class researchers is an “open question.”
As Rebecca Schulman rather pragmatically points out:
No, you will not get a job—not because, like Kafka’s mouse, you went in the “wrong” direction, but because today’s academic job market is a “market” in the sense that one stall selling fiddlehead ferns in the middle of a strip mall is a “farmer’s market.” In the place of actual jobs are adjunct positions: benefit-free, office-free academic servitude in which you will earn $18,000 a year for the rest of your life.
But how did this happen? Colleges and universities have more students than ever—and charge higher tuition than ever—so whither the humanities professorship amid all the resort-like luxury dormitories and gleaming student centers? Is the humanities professorship extinct because at this very second, thousands of parents of wide-eyed college freshmen are discouraging them from taking literature, philosophy, foreign languages or history (the disciplines that comprised a college education in its entirety for thousands of years, but whatever), even though quite unlike humanities Ph.D.s, humanities B.A. degrees are actually among the most hirable? Or is it, as Rosenbaum and others have suggested, that the overproduction of obtuse torrents of jargon has caused my profession to hasten its own irrelevance?

Who cares? None of this will be sorted out in the five to 10 years it takes you to get a Ph.D. So don’t. Sure, you may be drawn to the advanced study of literature like my late grandmother to her three daily packs of Kools—but in the 1950s, smokers didn’t know any better. In 2005 when I began my own Ph.D., I should have known better, but I didn’t. Now that you know better, will you listen? Or will you think that somehow you can beat odds that would be ludicrous in any other context?
So the question arises, what is happening in higher education? Now, far be it from me to praise David Brooks, but I think here he is in touch with the zeitgeist:
Are universities mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them? Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?

My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do.

Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote....

Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.
Guess what doesn't even make the cut in Brooks's schema? You guessed it, what Schulman describes as "the disciplines that comprised a college education in its entirety for thousands of years," or, as Werner Jaeger, encapsulating the education of the ancient Greeks would put it, padeia, "the shaping of Greek character through a union of civilization, tradition, literature, and philosophy." (See Clara Claiborne Park's more recent (1982) appraisal and critique of Jaeger's magnum opus.) The point of education is education, not merely equipping the student for her or his role in the market economy; that kind of technical equipping vision of education smacks a little bit of the feared "Huxlean Nightmare" predicted by Collins and Skover in the 1990s. Up through my own law school years, most of the academics I met believed, however wryly, in the dream of an expanded base of education until it became effectively universal; education as finding and unlocking the potentialities of each student, as well as equipping them professionally. With enrollment at an all-time high, universities with unprecedented resources and means of disseminating and sharing information, they nonetheless seem to be by degrees, dwindling into an extended orientation course.


trueanglican said...

As a bachelor of arts who has now reached full antiquity (A.B. 1955!), I couldn't agree more. In college I learned how to think. At work--news reporting and editing for the most part--I learned the ins and out of work. To my eye, the curse of higher education is administrators, starting with the president. I have just discovered your blog and am having a wonderful time with it.

William MacKaye

Anglocat said...

Many thanks for the kind comment, and for sharing your perspective; welcome!