Don’t Judge a Book… oh, go ahead.

One of the most delightful aspects of working on The PhDictionary was receiving a copy of the proposed cover design. I was just delighted by every bit of it. (If you look on the back cover, down by the edge of the spine, you’ll see “Book and cover design: Matt Avery.” I love the fact that he was credited for his brilliant work; too many people involved in good projects are not.)

But when I look at my bookshelves, in the sections having to do with intellectual life in general and higher education in particular, the visual landscape is less engaging. About 15 years ago, I had a chapter in this book:


I mean, really. Is that a pepper mill? The top of a gavel? A McDonald’s hamburger in a compression tester? Why those shapes? Why those edges?

And why those colors?? The dense intellectual work signaled by Theoretical Perspectives in Environment-Behavior Research: Underlying Assumptions, Research Problems, and Methodologies is kind of undercut by the sparkle-pony lavender, no?

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We seem, in academia, to forget that ideas have aesthetic and emotional merit as well as intellectual merit. I can’t tell you the number of academic books I’ve seen that have solid-color covers with sans serif text; or have some six-dollar clip art in half transparency under way too many words. Academic writing is discouraging before you ever even have a chance to encounter the ideas, because it’s packaged in the equivalent of the labels they use for FEMA emergency rations. You aren’t going to enjoy this, the cover promises, but it’s good for you.

Trade School

In his funny, funny book Class (Ballentine, 1983), Paul Fussell makes regular mention of the class insecurity of those not born to power, and the often inept ways that they (well, okay, we) attempt to purchase the trappings of higher-class life, usually misreading the cues and heading down well meaning but unhelpful paths. And of course, higher ed comes under particular scrutiny:

In A Nation of Strangers [author Vance Packard] writes cheerfully, “in 1940, about 13 percent of college-age young people actually went to college; by 1970 it was about 43 percent.” But no. It was still about 13 percent, the other 30 percent attending things merely denominated colleges. These poor kids and their parents were performing the perpetual American quest not for intellect but for respectability and status. (152-53)

Really, though, who goes to college for intellect? Those relative handful of kids who can afford to take four unproductive years for a life of the mind, knowing that they’ll land on their feet. Why does everybody else (now over two-thirds of high school grads) go to college?

  • Because they’re supposed to, it’s 13th grade
  • Because their friends are going to college
  • Because there aren’t many meaningful alternatives; 18-year-olds tend not to have lots of career options at hand
  • Because they don’t want to enlist in the armed services
  • Because there are more and more seats available, and more and more college recruiters making the pitch
  • Because high school guidance counsellors have defaulted to college as the only meaningful post-high-school option


  • Because they think it’ll get them a job.

You, fair-haired doctoral student, are a freak. You love ideas. You’re enamored of your field, you find it endlessly curious and rewarding, you evangelize it at every turn. But your students, and their families, and the US Department of Labor, and your state’s governor, and probably your college’s senior administration, are all looking to you instead for marketable expertise that can be reliably installed in even the most uninterested and unprepared minds. That’s why they’ve collectively borrowed well over a trillion dollars, to try to invest in some degree of job security in their adulthoods.

I taught a course a couple of years ago, for master’s students in their third semester and beyond. There were ten students in the course. At the end of the semester, I gave three of them a well-deserved A in the course. But in the post-semester depression that so often occurs, I looked back at their work, and realized that my A students were writing about as well, and thinking about as clearly, as my B-level freshmen at Duke fifteen years earlier.

And it’s not their fault. It’s a two-generation redefinition of what college means, what college is for. We have opened an extraordinarily expensive and wide-ranging array of trade schools.

Ready to be a dandelion?

I’ve just been pointed to science fiction writer Cory Doctorow’s blog post in which he claims that the characteristics of intellectual work in the Internet age (ease of duplication and transmission, immediacy of reach, lack of reader focus and followthrough, an immense ocean of choices) means that artists of all stripes need to stop thinking like mammals and start thinking like dandelions.

My own job title is Director of Metaphor, so I’m immediately taken with the audacity of this idea.

His argument is as follows.

  1. Mammals have scarce young. Each one represents a vast investment of time and attention. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s tragic.
  2. Dandelions have thousands and thousands of seeds, looking for any opportunity to take root and get fertilized. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s no big deal.
  3. The modern media environment is a dandelion-friendly environment.

I shall now quote, thereby doing my part to spread Doctorow’s seedlings (eight years after the fact):

Dandelions and artists have a lot in common in the age of the Internet. This is, of course, the age of unlimited, zero-marginal-cost copying. If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, the net itself will take care of the copying costs. Your fans will paste-bomb your works into their mailing list, making 60,000 copies so fast and so cheaply that figuring out how much it cost in aggregate to make all those copies would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the copies themselves.

What’s more, the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have — given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday find its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing.

A lovely idea. No words about income or anything, but still, nice to be noticed. Artist Dies of Exposure, and all that…

It takes some degree of bravery to just give work away, whether through a blog or through adjunct teaching or through posting your novel online. It also takes some significant and unspoken degree of privilege, because your bank is not going to accept a big pile of “like”s and “+1″s when the mortgage is due. I “like” my bartender, too, but I still have to give her six dollars for a pint of IPA. And that requires income, income that the dandelion model is deeply shy of for its individual seedlings (or, in intellectual terms, content providers).

I’ll close with the opposing viewpoint, from the New York Times and Tim Kreider (who presumably got paid for writing this):

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

Feel free to amend as necessary. This I’m willing to give away.


Another Burden of Administrative Life

I have half a dozen experiences a day that convince me all over again why I’m grateful to not be an administrator in higher education any more. But a new one occurred to me today. Or rather, over the past couple of weeks but they coalesced into an idea today.

As scholars, we are rewarded for (and probably choose our paths because of) our obsessiveness. We get the methods exactly right. We run the data set a dozen times because something just feels funny about it. We search out that last reference, go through the bibliography again to make sure that we’ve italicized and dated everything correctly, craft that sentence a third time to make it musical and not merely clear. We craft the sequence of the semester to make it an aesthetic experience instead of a pile of testable ideas.

As administrators, not only do we have way too many projects to do any of them as well as we want, we also have to get them done through the proxy of colleagues who are occasionally neither as talented nor as diligent as we might hope. This is the universal fate of any manager, of course, but a particularly galling step for managers who are most comfortable as intellectual perfectionists.

One of the great learnings of any administrator—and perhaps the hardest one to master—is to let things go out the door when they’re not quite as ready as you’d hope. You can’t be the last resort, finishing everyone else’s job to your own standards, because you simultaneously make yourself crazy and hinder their growth. You either have to turn it back to them and say “this is unacceptable, here’s why, here’s what you need to do, and I have to have it back in 48 hours…” or you have to sigh and let it go.

And that’s emotionally difficult, because it’s YOUR department or YOUR school or YOUR university… and you feel the pressures of having your reputation carried at least in part on the shoulders of others.

Here’s a one-item test to see if you’re ready to be an administrator. Think of a project you have responsibility for, and say the words—out loud—”it’s good enough.” If it makes you cringe even a little bit to say that, you should avoid administrative life, as it will be a poison to your system.

Empiricism in the Service of the Already Known

I’m working on another book proposal now, and as part of that, have been reading bits and pieces in a new literature. And one of the articles I’ve come across is this one: Amir, Rabah, and Knauff, Malgorzata. (2008). Ranking Economics Departments Worldwide on the Basis of PhD Placement. Review of Economics and Statistics, 90:1, 185-190. Based on already accomplished mathematical rankings of economics departments (based on numbers of publications in high-impact journals), this study examined the faculty of those economics departments to see where they got their doctorates.

And gosh, it’s pretty darn circular.

Nearly a quarter of the 2,100 faculty at these top-tier schools (as of April 2006) got their PhDs from only two econ departments: MIT and Harvard. The top eight contributors (adding, in order, Stanford, UChicago, Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, and Northwestern) had more faculty at top economics schools than the combined next fifty schools.

And while it’s nice to have your knowledge supported by people who can do calculus, we’ve already known this. As I said in the book’s entry on program rankings, your first job will ALWAYS be a step backward on the hierarchy of colleges. As one of my friends said of another colleague, “A PhD in Anthropology from UMass? It’s no surprise she’s still on the market…”

From the outside, we don’t recognize that degrees, like diving routines, are multiplied by their perceived degree of difficulty, and the perception varies by community. We think of the PhD as a thing, as a fixed term for a person who’s made an original contribution to the body of scholarly work. It’s crucial to realize that the way your degree will be read is “PhD in ____ from ____,” and that all three terms are contributors to your academic future.

And you, prospective scholar, get to do all the investigative work on your own. You have to imagine the kinds of schools you’d like to teach at. You have to pick a few and make a list from their websites of each of their tenure-track faculty members, and find out what school each of them got their own PhD from. And then you need to apply to those PhD programs who were the greatest contributors to your own desired community.

There’s a lot of discussion about “the overproduction” of PhDs given the current job market. We could just as easily talk about “the underconsumption” of PhDs given the massive scale of collegiate and graduate education today; those twenty million students (!!!) in higher ed have to be taught by somebody, after all. But the underlying fact is simple; the program from which you get your PhD will be the best department you will ever see. You have entered a system of downward mobility.

Now let’s be clear. You might actually WANT to work at a teaching focused school, working with undergraduates who come from other than 1% families. And if you’ve chosen a doctoral program that’s too elite, that desire has to be hidden from your own faculty, who can’t imagine a scholarly life at anything other than their R1 comfort. Why should they spend their time on you when you’re only going to try to get a job at some backwater college? You’ll never edit the journal that might publish the next generation of their students… you’ll never be a grants officer at the federal agency who’ll push funding opportunities toward their lab and their postdocs. (Again, I’ve heard exactly these things from friends who’ve been hired at teaching oriented colleges, that their advisors essentially shunned them once they learned of their intentions.)

You need to know, friends, that there are departments in your field that are the equivalent of the Maserati Quattroporte, and departments that are the Mitsubishi Mirage. Although all of them may offer something called a PhD, only a few of them will ultimately be currency that you can spend.


31 and 38

I’ve been writing a lot of fiction in the past few years, mostly stories of men who’ve reached a point of comfort and stability in their lives, and find it a little hollow. And without my intending it, all of my protagonists have been the same two ages.

  • Robert is 38.
  • Clay is 38.
  • Jerry is 31.
  • Tim is 30.
  • Colin is 38.

Gosh, projection much?

When I was 31, I was just finishing my undergraduate degree at Berkeley. I’d done marvelously well, was writing architectural criticism and cultural features for a newspaper, and was hired immediately by an architectural energy-analysis company in San Francisco. My then-wife was working in accounting at a major local hospital. I could have chosen the professional track, and I’d totally be comfortable and well paid today. Instead, I was already planning for grad school two years later.

When I was 38, I’d just finished my PhD, and was quickly coming to the realization (as I just read in another context over the weekend) that my diploma was just a very fancy receipt that had no further currency.

So for me, 31 and 38 are markers of vast upheaval, and my fiction seems to be a catharsis, a way of revisiting those moments and making them work. The most important lessons are the ones we learn a thousand times, a kind of close-at-hand reincarnation that gives us the same problem once again and a new chance to solve it.

Flawed Scorekeeping

You may have noticed this week that the US Department of Ed is advising that the Accrediting Council for Independent Schools and Colleges be removed from the national roster of higher education accrediting bodies. This move has thrown a total shockwave throughout accreditation circles, and the six regional accreditors are now moving toward a common scorecard, or dashboard, or whatever metaphor is hip this year.

And while it’s crucial to throw the scammers and the grifters out of higher ed, this proposed scorecard is going to make things a lot worse. It examines things like graduation rates, debt at graduation, percentage of students in default… all good common-sense things to investigate. The problem is that, as is often true, these are all measures that the most elite schools will do terrifically on, and the schools that attempt to serve the 99% will look much worse on.

Let’s take graduation rates (by which they mean UNDERGRADUATE graduation rates, because nobody wants to talk about the scandal of 50% non-completion of doctoral programs at R1 schools). A school in which students don’t need to work, in which they all come in as freshmen and leave as a cohort of seniors and nobody transfers, in which financial aid helps overcome bumps along the way, is going to look pretty good. A school in which the students who come in as transfers don’t count in the graduation rates, a school from which a number of students transfer away and finish elsewhere, a school that serves low income students who make slower and more interrupted progress through their degree programs… those schools are going to look bad in the calculation, even if they serve their students well and most students actually finish degrees.

Indebtedness at graduation? Schools with big endowments for tuition discounting and schools with well-to-do families are just fine in that regards, thanks. Schools that serve first-generation students? Gosh, those students have to borrow money to go to school, imagine that.

Earnings after graduation? If daddy’s a broker and mommy’s a bank VP, little Lancelot is likely to do pretty good right out of the gate. If daddy’s an unemployed auto worker and mommy’s a waitress, it’s going to be a tougher climb, especially if their child majors in elementary ed and not economics.

Regardless of how bad these methods are (nobody would ever get a dissertation proposal approved if they used these methods, trust me), the accrediting bodies are freaking out, and pushing their member schools all of a sudden to get them data on the spot to make them look good, and it’s just an ugly week out there. It’s feeling worse than the Spellings Commission ten years ago.