Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Blog XLII (42): A Dickensian Environment

Today's post is an article that I originally recommended to people in Blog IV on April 6, 2009. Anya Kamenetz's article "Wanted: Really Smart Suckers: Grad School Provides Exciting New Road to Poverty" originally appeared in The Village Voice on April 20, 2004. It raises many of the issues I have been trying to discuss in this blog. Here is the article:

Here's an exciting career opportunity you won't see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it's time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession's ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off.

Welcome to the world of the humanities Ph.D. student, 2004, where promises mean little and revolt is in the air. In the past week, Columbia's graduate teaching assistants went on strike and temporary, or adjunct, faculty at New York University narrowly avoided one. Columbia's Graduate Student Employees United seeks recognition, over the administration's appeals, of a two-year-old vote that would make it the second officially recognized union at a private university. NYU's adjuncts, who won their union in 2002, reached an eleventh-hour agreement for health care and office space, among other amenities.

Grad students have always resigned themselves to relative poverty in anticipation of a cushy, tenured payoff. But in the past decade, the rules of the game have changed. Budget pressures have spurred universities' increasing dependence on so-called "casual labor," which damages both the working conditions of graduate students and their job prospects. Over half of the classroom time at major universities is now logged by non-tenure-track teachers, both graduate teaching assistants—known as TAs—and adjuncts. At community colleges, part-timers make up 60 percent of the faculties.

Average teaching loads for grad students have increased, while benefits are often cut off after five years. Humanities TAs are paid stipends ranging from less than $10,000 at a public school like SUNY-Buffalo to $18,000 at unionized NYU. Adjuncts, more and more likely to be recent post-docs who couldn't find a better position, earn less than $3,000 a course—usually without benefits, and far less than the $60,000 yearly national average for full-time professors. Meanwhile, the debt burden has grown: The average holder of a graduate degree spends 13.5 percent of his or her income paying back loans (eight percent is considered manageable). Fifty-three percent of those holding master's degrees, 63 percent of those holding doctorates, and 69 percent of those holding professional degrees are over $30,000 in debt. If they end up as "marginal employees," the academic freedom and security of tenure is replaced by a constant anxiety and alienation.

But the Internet means no isolated community has to stay that way. A new group of tortured, funny, largely anonymous websites are providing an outlet for academics who feel like they're getting spanked by their alma mater. They have names like Invisible Adjunct, (a)musings of a grad student, Beyond Academe, and Barely Tenured, and they address the emotional just as much as the practical consequences of competing in, and losing, the academic job-market lottery.
Founded in February 2003, Invisible Adjunct quickly became one of the most popular such blogs. Dozens of regular posters followed discussion threads like "The Old Boy Network" and "Is Tenure a Cartel?" Invisible Adjunct's author—call her IA—is a New Yorker in her late thirties with a Ph.D. in British history, an adjunct for the past two years. "I've spent all these years and I've failed," says IA, who entered graduate school in 1993 and received her Ph.D. in 1999. "You agree to do this five-to-seven-year low-paid apprenticeship because you're joining this guild. And if you end up as an adjunct you think, wow, I'm really getting screwed over."

The also pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton was a frequent contributor to Invisible Adjunct's blog and has penned a series of cautionary columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is even more blunt than IA. "The premise of graduate education in the humanities is a lie: Students are not apprentices preparing for a life of scholarship and teaching," he says. "They are a cheap source of labor and status for institutions and faculty and, after they earn their degrees, most join the reserve army of the academic underemployed." Benton, a professor at a small liberal arts college, warns his students about trying to follow in his footsteps. "My experience as a working-class kid who finally earned an Ivy League Ph.D. is that higher education is not about social mobility or personal enrichment; it is one trap among many for people who are uninitiated into the way power and influence operate in this culture."


Grad school applications are up slightly over the last decade, as unemployed college grads seek a haven from the job market. Every winter, a new crop of bright, bookish, maybe slightly fuzzy-headed kids, the kind who cover the sidewalks of the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, decide they're sick enough of the 9-to-5 grind to borrow some money and go back to school.

Unlike trade schools, most graduate programs do not offer prospective students detailed data on job placement, which varies widely from program to program. Tri-State Semi Driver Training School in Middletown, Ohio, for example, guarantees a job before you even start driving, while the American Language Institute in San Diego promises lifetime placement assistance to its teachers of English as a foreign language. Your local Ivy League English department can't offer the same deal: Last year, the Modern Language Association expected some 965 Ph.D.'s to be granted, while only 422 assistant professorships were advertised, a drop of 20 percent from the year before. In the foreign languages, there were only 263 positions advertised (for the 620 Ph.D.'s projected), a drop of one-third from the previous year. The MLA estimates that students who entered English programs in 2003 had a 20 percent chance of coming out with a tenure-track position. The situation is better in history, where the number of new Ph.D.'s in 2003 almost equalled the number of new jobs, after a decade of "overproduction," with growth coming in trendy specializations like the Middle East.

But numbers like these do little to deter the best students. "Top undergraduates are arrogant; they lack perspective," says Benton. "They've been fawned over all their lives, and they think grad school is there to help them realize their potential, not to use them up and toss them out."

Dan Friedman completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University this spring after 10 years. He now teaches at a private high school in New Jersey, making twice the $25,000 he was offered as a university part-timer. He says that as a TA back at Yale, he tried to warn his favorite students. "I've had a few bright students, majors, who are often interested in carrying on and I've said to all of them, 'Don't do it.' I really wanted them to stop and think. And without exception, they thought I was joking. Only one of them came back to me—she ended up at NYU—and said, 'Now I know what you were talking about.'" Friedman says, however, that he isn't sure he would have taken his own advice back then. "I didn't know what I was getting into. It would have been different if I had known. You're committed to your subject and you think, I want to study literature. You don't think of yourself as a 40-year-old trying to support a family."
As a scholar of contemporary theory, Friedman quotes a cultural critic's perspective on the economic impact of the love of learning. "As graduate students get more and more exploited, people believe in it more and do it despite the difficulty." He refers to the 2001 book The Invisible Heart by feminist economist Nancy Folbre, which describes how the work that is most important to a society tends to be the most undervalued. "Teachers, nurses, people who do things they really care about, get shafted."

Devotion to the academic world, however, is not necessarily healthy. "People develop this identity," says IA. "They say, 'This intellectual work is who I am.' And it's hard to give that up. Even though there are two jobs in your field this year and 300 candidates, it still feels like you've failed."


Ironically, defining herself as essentially an academic cuts off the humanities Ph.D. student's best shot at making a decent living: a job outside the academy. Last year, Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo created the website Beyond Academe, whose purpose is to profile history Ph.D.'s, like themselves, who've found satisfactory employment while still practicing their discipline—with museums, nonprofit foundations, government agencies, or as researchers for companies."I've been stunned by what people have said at some of the blog sites," Lord says. "They seem o believe that working as an adjunct and earning $19,000 and having no health insurance is preferable to working outside the academy. I think this prejudice is even stronger with people in grad school now than it is among older faculty." For her own part, Lord has no regrets. "I was a single New York woman teaching in a small rural own in Montana. I could go days without speaking to my colleagues, and all my social contact was with 18- to 20-year-olds. I felt that I had sacrificed my personal life for a professional career and I didn't see a reward." Now a public historian in Washington, D.C., Lord has peers she can talk to and makes $37,000 more than she did as a enure-track professor.

The Invisible Adjunct is herself headed beyond academe. After making a final pass at the academic job market, she is leaving the academy, and her blog, behind this spring. "I'm finishing up my semester of teaching and then I'm just going to have to figure out what my next move should be."

Like Lord, Friedman has no regrets at leaving the ivy-covered walls. He currently teaches literature and an interdisciplinary seminar to high school freshmen four days a week and coaches soccer. "The best phrase I've heard for us is the intellectual lumpenproletariat," he says, using the Marxist term for the ground-down members of the underclass who lack the class consciousness for revolt. "If something happened to empower those people, there would be an incredible efflorescence of culture in this country, because there's more of them now than there ever has been. But they are too busy scuttling around getting shitty jobs."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Administrative Note 8

I want to let everyone visiting this blog know that I will be unable to make a post next week. I will be doing official travel and my access to the internet will be irregular and uncertain. Please return to the blog on February 23 for another essay.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blog XLI (41): In the Name of Kant

An editorial entitled "Learning" that appeared in The Charleston Gazette of Charleston, West Virginia on January 25, 2009 notes with sorrow current trends in higher education. It raises important questions about the quality of the education that students receive. It argues that students suffer from the use of adjuncts just as much as the part time instructors. Here is the editorial:
There is profound satisfaction in knowledge, in learning just for the joy of understanding humanity and science to develop an intelligent worldview. "Dare to know, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote--strive to be a lifelong seeker of better information, deeper wisdom.

Higher education once focused strongly on this goal. But a gloomy new book,
The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, claims that wisdom is being pushed aside by modern schools rushing to train young people while operating on skimpy budgets.

Only one-third of college faculties now are tenured professors or tenure-track teachers, the book says. Most classes are taught by part-time adjunct instructors paid much less than real scholars.

Cash-strapped universities don't "hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers," author Frank Donoghue, in the English department at Ohio State University, writes. Today, new hires include three adjuncts for every full timer.

Humanities topics such as history, literature, philosophy and the like are crowded out by career-track courses--vocationalism," he calls it.

In a New York Times essay about the book, Stanley Fish says the saddest example is the new for profit university that serves only "to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment... The mode of delivery--a disc, a computer screen, a video hookup--doesn't matter so long as delivery occurs. He quotes the fonder of online Phoenix University: "Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for 'expand their minds.'"

College-going has boomed enormously as America's plunges into the Information Age, which requires high-tech training. Processing millions of students is an industry that must be done with industrial efficiency. Author Donoghue says academia never can return to the era of full-time scholars carefully instilling generalized wisdom in small clusters of young thinkers. This is sad. But perhaps many of today's graduates will discover, later on, that it's deeply reward to study, purely on their own, pursuing the life of the mind.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blog XL (40): Less Than A Third

Today's entry is Stacy Cowley's article, "Outlook Grim For Prospective Professors; Disappearing Job Postings Prompt Ph.D.'s to Mull a Career Change." This feature appeared in the January 21, 2009 issue of The Village Voice. Cowley's reporting raises important issues about employment possibilities for the newly minted Ph.D. and suggests that many--actually most--Ph.D.s should look for employment outside of academia. Here is the article:

The American Economic Association's job board recently sprouted a brand-new section: cancelled listings. Newly minted economics Ph.D.'s and postdocs looking for their next academic job will instead find pages and pages of frozen and suspended searches, more than 50 in all. It's the same story for classicists and archaeologists checking the American Philological Association's listings, which now start with a roster of misery-a rundown of all the positions that no longer exist. Job hopefuls in psychology, film studies, creative writing, and sociology have created wikis to swap news about spiked listings, a death register that includes opportunities at Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard, Hofstra, Fordham, and nearly every open search in the SUNY and Cal State systems.

Never mind a hiring freeze. For those seeking jobs in academia, next year is looking more like a nuclear winter.

"Last year, about a quarter of the positions I applied for had their searches canceled, and last year's market didn't look as bad as this year's," says one aspirant, art historian Sandra Cheng. "I'm wondering how many of these positions I'm applying for are actually real."

Now a visiting assistant professor at Pratt, Cheng got her Ph.D. in May at the University of Delaware and has a résumé filled with fellowships and grants. She's seeking a traditional academic livelihood: research, travel, and teaching, at a university with
tenure-track positions. But after a year of job-hunting and piecing together part-time positions, Cheng is wondering if the career she envisioned still exists.

"I do sense a permanent change," she says. "I wonder if this is the last leg for the tenure system."

At the American Historical Association's annual conference/job fair, held in New York earlier this month, researcher Sterling Fluharty presented a paper about the job market in his field with a blunt conclusion: "Job seekers in history need to think more about their employment prospects in non-academic fields." A grad student at the University of Oklahoma, Fluharty mined data and found that less than a third of those who earned a Ph.D. in history between 1966 and 1992 were tenured faculty as of 2003. Even before this year's market meltdown, the move away from offering full-time, tenured positions was accelerating. By Fluharty's calculations, within the next decade, 55 percent of all university history faculty members will be working in part-time positions.

As professionals in fields with weak demand head back to grad school to sit out the market for a bit, grad students are investigating their own options for staying out of the job fray. Katy Pearce, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in communications at the University of California Santa Barbara, had planned to wrap up her studies this year. But when she returned from a stretch of fieldwork in Armenia, she found that "everyone in my program that was expecting to go on the job market this year all bailed. They just weren't seeing anything being listed."

Pearce's program guarantees funding for up to four years, so she decided to delay graduation, focus on burnishing her publishing credentials, and hope hiring prospects in 2010 look brighter. But as schools cut back their undergraduate enrollments to bridge budget gaps, she's wondering if the demand will be there for new grad students and for professors to teach them.

"At the last conference I went to, I heard that one of the jobs that opened at Northwestern, 400 people applied for. Usually, 100 apply," she says. "So many assistant professors have gotten cut. For those of us just getting our Ph.D.'s, how can we compete against people who have already been an assistant for a year or two?"

Those odds have Cheng reconsidering her career path. She's thinking about detouring away from art history and going into academic administration-universities are businesses, and businesses always need managers to run them. But if she does stick with teaching, she'd like to land a school where she can concentrate on undergraduates. Cheng is queasy about the idea of encouraging future art historians along into a field unable to absorb them.

"For Ph.D.'s in the humanities market, it's almost like we really shouldn't make any more, because there's such a backlog of doctorates floating around out there and we don't have the jobs," she says. "The programs want more grad students to keep their departments floating, but is it really ethical, I wonder?"