We can do anything in order to get it done.

We can do anything in order to go on to the next thing.

And we can do anything in a way that reaches for transcendence.

I played pool today for an hour and a half, after a couple of hours yesterday as well, both days on my own. I haven’t played much lately, mostly because I’ve been writing so much but also because I lost all my partners when I moved to Vermont. There’s one poolroom in the entire state, a couple of hours away. There are a couple of people here in town whom I can persuade to play once in a while, but they don’t play for the same reasons I do.

I play pool and write fiction because they are, for me, the most reliable sources of a state that I can only describe as transcendent. Losing concern for myself and my capabilities or lack thereof. Losing concern over “correct” outcomes, and paradoxically generating better outcomes than I could ever have otherwise approached.

And although I don’t do it anymore, teaching used to be that way for me as well. I taught in the humanities, mostly, and so wasn’t responsible for ensuring that students could reliably graph x = 3y – 9. Instead, we talked about big ideas. I gave what could only plausibly be called a sermon, and then we worked our way through what some intelligent person had written.

When we imagine that education has outcomes (which it should), we attempt reliable sequences for achieving them. But when we imagine instead that education is a daily experience (which it is), we craft moments of heightened, collective attention that are their own justification.

I would like to make the case that undergraduate education, as preparation for meaningful adult lives which include but are not limited to our jobs, should focus far more fully on the connoisseurship of heightened, collective attention. Concerts, gallery exhibits, scientific experiment, great food… All things that lift us above ourselves and show us something greater. Leave the job training for another day; college is about something different. And I believe, with some evidence from personal experience and from psychological research, that focusing on the quality of the experience gets us more effectively and more reliably to skills than focusing on the skills themselves ever does.

I want a pool monastery, where the likeminded can gather to use our simple tools for greater good. I want a college that heightens the daily joys of life, without regards to the amassing of credits or the blessings of some disciplinary accrediting body. I want transcendence.

Contract or job?

The gig economy is getting some pushback from workers who claim that they’re actually employees rather than contractors, and thus deserve some of the rights normally afforded to workers. Notably, Uber has lost such a case in England, and in 2013, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against an employer based on six criteria:

  1. does the employer exercise control over how the work is performed?
  2. does the employee risk profit or loss depending on his/her managerial skill? (Note that key word managerial. Not technical, but logistical and supervisory.)
  3. does the employee provide materials and equipment necessary for the job?
  4. does the service provided require a special skill?
  5. how permanent is the presumed working relationship?
  6. to what extent is the service provided a core element of the employer’s business model?

No legal case is a clean 100% slam-dunk; that’s why we have lawyers and judges. But look at this list and think about the lives of adjunct teachers.

  1. The college sets the curriculum, often sets a lot of the course content (especially for lower-division courses), sets the time and location and number of students.
  2. The teacher’s contract is renewed based primarily on showing up, lack of complaints, and student performance. Is this a managerial skill or a content skill, or something other altogether? Not too much different than the criteria for Starbucks baristas, after all.
  3. The teacher does not provide the campus, the classroom, or the learning management software. The lab teacher does not provide the lab equipment nor the experimental materials. The music teacher does not provide the instruments nor the music stands nor the CD player.
  4. The teaching of upper-division specialty courses by one-off adjuncts requires a special skill: contract law, say, or clarinet performance. The teaching of lower-division general education courses is much more commodity-based, with thousands of people in the Boston metropolitan area who could provide freshman comp or a western history survey.
  5. Again, the professional who stops in and teaches a specialized course every so often is really a la carte. But lots of schools have armies of reliable adjuncts whom they turn to over and over and over for those core classes.
  6. Classroom teaching is the fundamental product of the higher education business model.

Call me crazy, but I think that rather than fighting for better stipends for adjuncts, unions would be better served by filing a federal suit claiming employee status for a sizable proportion of adjuncts.

Just for fun, here’s the Form SS8 that the Internal Revenue Service uses to determine contractor or employee status for tax purposes. Fill it out and see what you think.

Producers and Consumers

Products are made. Products are consumed. And how we think about a product depends on which of those worlds we stand in.

What does it take to buy a college course? Well, it takes three things.

  1. It takes the intellectual history to be allowed into that course (whether through qualifying for college admission or having taken the pre-requisites for upper-division courses).
  2. It takes a certain amount of cash, ranging from $138 for a three-credit course in a California community college up to about $5,500 for a three-credit course for a full-tuition student taking 15 credits a semester at Columbia.
  3. It takes (according to accreditors) an average of 135 hours of time invested, 45 hours in the classroom and 90 hours of independent work.

What does it take to produce a college course? That’s a much more complicated equation, including compliance with a vast number of regulations, designing the curriculum within which the course exists, operating a finance department to help students manage payments, operating the campus (whether ivy-covered brick buildings in New England or a server farm in Finland), staying abreast of developments in the relevant discipline, and running a police force and a recreation program. The cost of actually paying a trained human to guide the class is only a small component of the overall expense of course provision.

The cost of paying that human is also one of the only parts that a college can control. And they do that as well as they can, in the same ways that any manufacturer does. They reduce wages, through piecework and through hiring only the qualifications they really need. They standardize processes, with a handful of permanent faculty setting the curriculum that contractors provide. They increase the expected output rate, through increasing class sizes. And they have unspoken but real expectations for managerial overwork, through salaried positions that are unaccountable for overtime.

In 1934, the Industrial Workers of the World published a document called “Unemployment and the Machine,” which includes the following statement:

In 1909 it required 303 man-hours to make one car; in 1929 the time had been reduced to 92 man-hours and in 1932 and 1933 the time is still less.

According to Motor Trend magazine, that’s now down to about 30 on average. CAD/CAM design, robotic assembly, the purchase of preassembled components, just-in-time parts provision, all of that adds up to fewer hands on the car while it runs down the assembly line at Ford’s Dearborn Truck or Honda Manufacturing of Alabama. The majority of the work is done off-site, by engineers and process managers and components vendors.

So too in college provision. The average public four-year college had the same number of employees per thousand students in 2012 that it did in 2000 (about 185). But the makeup of that staff has shifted away from full-time faculty and non-professional staff (technical, clerical) toward part-time faculty and professional staff (student services, academic support, HR and IT). The factory floor is only the visible (and shrinking) element of creating the product.

The University of Michigan and Ford Motor Company aren’t that far apart, in geography or in labor economics.


Pyramid Scheme

I had a really interesting interview this afternoon with a scholar who, for over thirty years, has taught in a writing program at a major research university, a giant school with more undergraduate students than the entire population of my hometown. And this writing program is staffed as follows:

  • about 100 course-by-course adjuncts
  • about 30 full-time but non-tenure-track adjuncts
  • about 120 grad students
  • one… yes, ONE… tenured faculty member who is the program’s director.

I mean, are you f*%#(ing kidding me? That’s not a university, that’s Mary Kay Cosmetics! I hope that those grad students have all taken statistics and understand at least something about probability…

I grew up in Western Michigan, so I know something about Amway. (Oh, children, you’re ALL about to learn some things about Amway, now that Betsy DeVos is going to be the Secretary of Education.) The religious appeal to purity and vigor, and the intimation that your inability to rise to the top is somehow due to your own moral failure, which you can never quite erase. The millions of “Independent Business Owners” funneling nine and a half BILLION dollars upward to the handful of corporate owners. Tell me how a program with one tenured faculty member and 250 serfs is different than multi-level marketing.

I taught in a program some number of years back that, although not quite as egregious in proportion, was similar in structure. One tenured director. One “Professor of the Practice” on a multi-year non-tenure contract as the associate director. And about thirty post-docs, all of us devout, believing that our talent and our goodness and our earnest efforts would surely gain us a seat at the table one day. I know what it means to be a member of that cult, to believe in the face of all evidence, to persevere, to serve. I know what it means to take a 50% pay cut and move across the country to be allowed back inside the academy after six years in the secular professions. To be grateful to give up a career, to give up economic comfort, in order to once again be a member.

Part of me still wants it. Like any addict, I know that I’m only provisionally recovered. That kind of faith is in your bones, and reason can only bleach it away somewhat. The imprint is still there, faint, hauntingly imprecise, all the more venerable for its openness to dreams. I worked as a college administrator for seven years after that postdoc, because I couldn’t bear to be away from my beloved community even after it had set me aside. Because I couldn’t walk away.

All cults work the same way, taking us away from friends and family, demanding more effort and more sacrifice and more devotion, only to find that we remain the same tantalizing distance from the next promised level. And the sacrifice normalizes itself into more sacrifice, the devotion becomes its own reward, the burn of the hunger is as good as the meal.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Nope, not a vaudeville duo. Rather, an 1887 division of social-group types by the German proto-sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. Gemeinschaft (more or less meaning “community”) is a group of people who work to maintain bonds with one another, who know one another well enough that a sense of belonging matters for its own sake. Gesellschaft (more or less meaning “society”) has to do with social organizations that are instrumental in nature, relating to one another more through roles (shopkeeper, customer, supervisor) within which individuals are interchangeable.

Gemeinschaft, one might imagine, places limits on the size of community that can actually sustain those bonds of affection and collegiality. The K-12 school reform leader Deborah Meier used to talk about what she called the 20/20 school—20 teachers, each with 20 students. At that scale, everybody knows everybody. Once you’re up to the size of the University of Alabama, there’s nothing to hold a sense of community together except football.

With 20 million people involved in higher ed, we’re naturally going to be employing some pretty mighty economies of scale. Even my gargantuan alma mater Berkeley, at more than 35,000 students, has got plenty of room to grow to reach the University of Minnesota (about 51,000 students on campus) or Ohio State (58,000). And once you get up to the level of a system, like SUNY (470,000 students) or Cal State (460,000), you’ve moved well into the world of gesellschaft relations. A world in which raw economic calculus demands cheap labor, with no room for intervening affection to humanize decisions.

Back in the day, my dad worked in a huge factory. One afternoon in the late 1960s, 800 men were laid off at a single stroke, two weeks before Christmas. It took him almost a year to get another job, at a little machine shop that employed a dozen men. On the day he was hired, the owner pointed to a tree in the back lot, and said, “That’s for guys who talk about starting a union.” But with twelve people and one owner, there was never any need. He made more money, and had more fun, working at Michigan Machine Tool than he ever did at Continental Motors.

How many of the problems we face in higher ed are really problems of scale? More on that to come.

Alternate explanation

I just re-read Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. You should, too, though you should be prepared for a deeply inside-language analysis that privileges critical theory over looking around. But one of the things that I’m still puzzled by is a question that isn’t discussed at all. Who, exactly, benefits from low-wage faculty, and in what ways do they benefit?

I mean, it’s fine to go on about Fordist and post-Fordist and neoliberal strategies (and in response, strategies of labor resistance), all of which are analyses drawn from profit-based industrial economics. It makes sense for Walmart to hire people at minimum wage, and hold them to thirty hours a week to avoid vacations and benefits, because every dollar that isn’t spent on an “associate” just goes into the funnel to the corporate masters in Bentonville. I get that. It’s ruthless power dynamics, but it’s simple.

But what’s the motive in a not-for-profit environment? Sure, college presidents make a ton of money, but in real capitalism terms, it isn’t much. There aren’t any eight-figure and nine-figure salaries for college leaders, as there are in venture capital; there aren’t any higher ed leaders on the Forbes list of billionaires. So we have to subtract that motive, that every dime saved on the worker goes to the CEO and the shareholders. The numbers just don’t add up that way.

We have to think closely about motive before we presume ill motive. As Hanlon’s Razor has it, “Never attribute to malice what could be attributed to neglect and misunderstanding.” So if we dispel the avarice narrative, a version of the “great man” version of history in which the tycoon voluntarily abets suffering of customer and worker alike, then we’re left with a much more systemic and cultural story to tell, and one that we’ll have to think together to adapt.

Professional Boundaries

What can lawyers do that paralegals cannot?

  1. They can establish the attorney-client relationship
  2. They can offer legal advice
  3. They can sign papers and pleadings on behalf of a client
  4. They can appear in court on behalf of a client
  5. They can set and collect fees
  6. They can earn a national average salary of $133,000, as compared to an average paralegal salary of about $52,000.

What can RNs do that LPNs cannot? Basically, they can enter your body through any natural or artificial opening, and I’m going to leave it at that. Except that they can earn a national average salary of about $70,000, as compared to an average LPN/LVN salary of $43,400.

So what can faculty do that adjuncts cannot? (Aside from making, on average, $57,000 as assistant professors instead of the national average of $2,700 per course?)

  1. They can participate in the ongoing life of their program or institution, through:
    • Hiring new colleagues
    • Reviewing those colleagues at promotion and tenure time
    • Choosing new graduate students
    • Setting the larger course of the curriculum
    • Engaging in budget deliberations
    • Serving in or being consulted by the faculty senate
  2. They can participate in the ongoing life of their discipline, through
    1. Being supported in the pursuit of their scholarly work
    2. Being supported in presenting and publishing the outcomes of that scholarly work
    3. Serving as mentors to upper division undergraduates doing senior theses or undergraduate research, or serving as doctoral committee members or chairs

These restrictions are often presented as liberations—”You won’t be responsible for research or service, just teaching.” We can also, by so doing, liberate you from decent wages and benefits, liberate you from any sense of permanence or mutual responsibility, and liberate you from any further academic contact with the very best students in your intro course who want to be able to take more classes with you in the future.

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

Difficult Questions

Not difficult as in complicated, like the force of windload on a high-rise building. But difficult as in contentious, as in perhaps uncharitable, as in perhaps unanswerable at any rate.

  1. There are about 18 million undergraduate students in the US, up almost a third since 2000. How many of them, really, are good enough to be in college? That can’t be answered until we decide what college is for.
  2. There are about a million and a half instructional personnel in US. How many of them, really, are good enough to be college faculty? That can’t be answered until we decide what college faculty ought to be good at.
  3. There are about 4,700 degree-granting colleges and universities in the US. How many of them, really, ought to be here? That can’t be answered until we decide what a college ought to be responsible for.
  4. There are about 55,000 people per year receiving PhDs from US universities. How many of them, really, are among the intellectual elite of the nation? That can’t be answered until we know what we want a really smart person to be able to do.
  5. Americans collectively hold roughly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, more than auto loans ($1.1T) and credit card loans ($730B), but way less than the $8.4 trillion in mortgage debt. How many of those student loans, really, represented a wise investment of money? That can’t be answered until we know exactly why we’re buying college costs.

You can’t talk about higher education without getting into some of the most fundamental questions of social life. I mean, if you go into your neighborhood tavern and ask one person after another, “What should a college be responsible for?”, you’re going to get a dozen different answers, very few of which will include supporting pre-professional sporting teams or harvesting billions of dollars from the National Science Foundation. But in that array of answers lies the crux of our problems. We haven’t thought carefully and publicly about what college is for, what individual schools should be responsible for, what faculty should be good at, what the PhD designates, or exactly how our educational spending breaks down by category.

This coming project, ostensibly about adjunct faculty, is going to have to open the doors onto vast, unresolved questions. Not to answer them—wicked problems have no answers—but to make it clear that our tame answers aren’t sufficient, and that dozens of mutually exclusive tame answers have gotten us where we are today.

The Barber’s Wisdom

Every six or eight weeks, I go to the next town over and stop in for a haircut. It’s a one-chair barbershop in a ratty 19th century commercial building, behind the laundromat and across the street from the convenience store.

Jeff has three kids. One just got his PhD, one teaches high school physics, and the third is an academic librarian. Jeff is none of those things himself, just a barber with a coffee table of magazines (golf, hunting, cars and motorcycles) for the waiting crowds. Dads bringing their sons in for their monthly buzz cuts. Retirees keeping their hair tight enough to fit under feed caps.

Jeff’s thwarted a couple of armed robberies by just being alert to what’s going on outside his shop, once calling the cops and delivering careful descriptions of two people carrying a bag out of a branch bank. Said bag had purple smoke coming out of it, a pretty decent giveaway that something was awry.

Jeff may not have a PhD himself, but he’s no dope.

Last time I was in, a couple weeks back, we were chatting about the new solar-generation project and such, and he was talking about the things he’d seen change in our area. I asked him how he got into barbering in the first place…

Well, I was never much for school. I didn’t like to read, didn’t like doing homework. My brothers went to college, and I knew I didn’t want to go. But my folks said I gotta do something. So I went over to New Hampshire and went to barber college. Then I moved to Western Mass and worked there for a year or so, and I thought, “I don’t really like it here, I’m gonna move back to Vermont.” So I came back up here and rented this spot, been here since 1975. Never signed a lease. Fella that owns the place, he pays the heat and I pay the lights. Worked out good so far.

Back when Jeff started his shop, a little less than half of all high school grads went to college. Now it’s nearly 70%, because of our mythology of “college for all” and “21st century workforce development” and such. And I wonder… how do we make more room for Jeff? How do we help kids become intelligent, productive adults in ways other than four more years of classrooms? Even trades are now most often taught in “trade schools,” sometimes of high cost and dubious merit, since unions have been decimated and have had to reduce their apprenticeship programs.

My wife is writing about a man who grew up in this area in the 19th century. He was apprenticed at age 10 to a wood turner, and ultimately became a highly talented maker of spinning wheels (along with owning a sawmill). He had what by all accounts was a good life, ten kids and a good member of his Quaker community. It’s easy to think of this as antiquated, but many of us even now are the first in our families to go to college. My own father quit school at 14, probably seventh or eight grade, and got a factory job to help support his family. That was enough to build a forty-year career as a machinist, to buy a house and raise four sons.

Being good in school ought to be only one of innumerable life paths, not the 70% model. We need more options, more definitions of successful adulthood, like the independent barber who anchors his community and sent all three of his own kids to college and beyond.

Flooding the Market

Just got back from some chores, looking through the mail. My wife (Ph.D. Environmental Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center, 1982) got an alumni solicitation letter from the psychology program’s new-ish “Acting Executive Officer,” crowing about the status of the program and asking for dough. Along with the bragging points about $25M in recent funding from the federal alphabet science agencies (NIH, NSF, NICHD), they had this glowing bit of news:

Over the past 5 years (2012-2016), we produced 337 Ph.D.’s, many of whom are receiving this letter now as alumni! Congratulations, and I hope that your careers have been successfully launched.

Well, first off, “hope” is not a strategy, as the saying goes. Does the psych graduate program actually DO anything to make sure that its doctoral alumni have successfully launched careers? Probably not so much. But second is just the raw numbers. This acceptably good program, ranked 44th out of the nation’s 185 doctoral psych programs by the National Research Council, has produced an average of nearly 70 new PhDs a year? Into a job market that accepts only a few hundred new tenure track hires? And you’re PROUD of that? It’s like training gladiators to be fed to the lions. As Marc Bousquet says, the PhD is now correctly understood as the END of one’s academic career.

The National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates shows 3,765 new PhDs in psychology in 2014. These people entered a hiring pool that the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s JobTracker research project estimated at 326 tenure-track positions at four year schools for the 2013-14 academic year. That’s one faculty job for every eleven and a half new scholars!

But grad students make cheap teachers, cheap lab assistants, and keep a 44th-ranked doctoral program afloat so that its director can send out fundraising letters and its faculty can rake in research funds. Really, it’s not much different than a payday lending operation; a way for those already wealthy to scrape a few more dollars out of the pockets of the desperate, leaving them on the streets when they’ve run dry.

And they wandered in
From the city of St. John
Without a dime
Wearing coats that shined
Both red and green
Colors from their sunny island
From their boats of iron
They looked upon the promised land
Where surely life was sweet
On the rising tide
To New York City
Did they ride into the street

See the glory
Of the royal scam

Steely Dan, 1976