The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Everybody Knows the Deal is Rotten...[Humanities Style]

So in April, I posted this little dirge for job prospects in academia for not just law school graduates but for humanities graduate students. The seriousness of the law school's straits really hit home to me when an insider, Paul Campos, created a whole blog dedicated to exposing the extent to which law schools were saddling the unemployable (i.e., redundant lawyers) with the undischargeable (i.e., debt).

Now, in terms of graduate school in the humanities, comes Philip Sandifer (whom I've been reading for his Doctor Who exegesis), on a similar mission:
Which is, as it happens, terribly silly. Academia is not a meritocracy. It’s a lottery, in which the grand prize - a tenure track position - is dangled over the heads of everybody so that we agree to work for the appalling wages that adjunct faculty get. I’ll use numbers from the University of Akron, since I have them ready to hand: adjuncts make up 70% of the Univeristy of Akron faculty, and teach 62% of freshman and sophomore classes. They make up 15% of the faculty budget. The annual income for a lecturer teaching a 4/3 load - i.e. the equivalent of full time - is $20,038, which isn’t even $2000 more than the median income for fast food workers in Ohio.

Meanwhile, the odds on tenure track appointments are astonishingly grim. It’s not unusual for a job to get five hundred applicants. There were, last year, maybe two dozen jobs in my field. This is, to be clear, a change. Academia was not always dominated by part time labor. There has been an active decision at multiple universities to move away from full-time tenured faculty and towards cheaper adjuncts. There has been an active decision to expand PhD programs because PhD students provide extremely cheap labor. There has been an active decision to allow skyrocketing administrative salaries and increased bloat of administration while refusing to expand faculty. There’s been an active decision to favor MOOCs and other such solutions, often prepared by for-profit companies, for the sheer cheapness of them.

. . .

San Jose State University’s philosophy department recently penned a letter objecting to the adoption of a for-profit MOOC using a lecture from a Harvard professor. In it, they point out the staggering perversity of a majority-minority campus watching rich white Harvard students engage in dialogue with a professor while they have no access to said professor for questions. This in a course that is supposedly about social justice. The lesson isn’t how to act like an aristocrat - it’s realizing your place on the social ladder.

This is the sad and tragic fact of teaching. The bulk of the curriculum is obedience and the toleration of monotony - the primary skills needed for the bulk of jobs students at lower level state universities are ever going to have. The value of a college degree is proof that you have the personal responsibility necessary to navigate four years of courses. In the end little more than doing the assignments is necessary. .... Students are simultaneously taught to chase the grade and that the grade is achievable through empty labor. The result is students who are extremely good at school, a process visibly distinct from intellectual thought. My students are better at passing reading quizzes without doing the reading than they are at actually reading and analyzing literature, and it’s difficult to blame them for their chosen skillsets.

And I just can’t participate in a system that gouges those students with crushing debt just to teach them the art of drudgery.
I can't speak to the truth of this myself, of course, other than to say that this rings true according to all I'm reading and hearing at second hand. My own adjuncting was done as a lark, for the sheer joy of the cut-and-thrust of classroom byplay, and the even greater pleasure of seeing younger minds catch fire. Oh, not every night, of course, but, ah, the sheer joy of it when it happened.

Seeing Sandifer, who clearly shares that same love of teaching, turn against an academic career is sad, and his reasons make me wonder at how much talent we're losing in what has become a badly run business that bilks its customers, when it should be so very much more.

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