Okay, It’s On.


Let me step back for a moment. Use my indoor voice, as Mrs. Winteringham reminded us in kindergarten.

Some number of years ago, a friend of mine sent a copy of her completed dissertation to one of her committee members, a year or so after its completion. This was in an era prior to PDFs and e-mail ubiquity, so it would have been photocopied and cost my friend thirty or forty bucks, plus mailing. She was still on the job market, adjuncting and sending out applications and working her butt off as young scholars do.

She received, months later, a note from said committee member. I’m going to use a pseudonym here, not to protect his identity —may his grave always be in shadow and his name forgotten—but rather to protect hers. Let’s call him, I don’t know, Smug Lesserlight. Anyway, Dr. Lesserlight sent my friend this handwritten note on a sheet torn from a desk pad:


Dear ___________

(I hope this reaches you.)

Thanks for your note and copy of thesis. I appreciate your kind words.

I hope you still believe it was all worth the while. You worked so hard (sometimes!) and it hasn’t seemed to lead anywhere.



What a foul, wretched bastard. What a misgotten, ill-bred, tone-deaf son of a bitch.

…okay….step back, breathe, indoor voice…

So today, I write to my colleagues on the graduate faculty, those among you who facilitate the transformation of students into scholars. Their future is in your hands. Not merely intellectually, but more importantly as you facilitate their entry into membership. No community welcomes new members without sponsors, a current member willing to do the work of introducing and lending support and making connections and easing the way. Your job is not simply to raise the scholarly bar to the appropriate height; your job is to get them a job. You need to spend more time on that than you do on your own scholarship, now that you’re tenured and inside the gates.

At this stage in your career, you are a builder of your discipline’s intellectual community. Your best scholarship has (likely, at least statistically) already occurred, and now you play a different role, one of mentor and guide and concierge to a new generation. You cannot walk your students to the exit, shake their hands, and be done with it. You need to have worked steadily, for at least the two years leading to the dissertation defense, to be your student’s foremost publicist, making their light shine brightly among your colleagues, bringing them to the right taverns at conferences, making their name into the most desirable brand in your field.

Yes, you are responsible for assuring the quality of their scholarly product. But you are also responsible for giving that seed a well-prepared soil upon which to land.

One of my former colleagues had a monthly dinner at her home for all of her dissertation students, in which they reviewed one another’s CVs and cover letters, in which she worked with them to locate openings and cast their research into the best possible language for that specific program. On the other end, she got them behind some doors that would otherwise have been closed to them, making introductions, building alliances with senior scholars in a position to hire. And sure enough, her students did far better on the job market than those of any of her colleagues. The work of mentorship is knowable, and should be approached with the same rigor as all of your other intellectual life.

So let me say this. If you are clearing out some old papers, a forgotten corner of your desk, and you come across the name of one of your former doctoral students or post-docs… and you think to yourself, “Huh, I wonder what ever happened to her…” and then let that fleeting sadness wash away as you go to lunch with your friends…you have committed academic malpractice. You have sealed your legacy as an intellectual scam artist, selling your students an expensive property and then letting them be foreclosed upon while washing your hands of the whole affair.

As the town hall protesters around the country are saying this week to their elected members of congress… Do. Your. Job.

Knowledge, and the Life of Knowledge, Are Not The Same

I started re-reading an old book from grad school: Order and Skepticism: Human Geography and the Dialectic of Science, by Richard Szymanski and John Agnew. It’s essentially a complaint that human geography at the time (1981) was too easily swayed by interesting models that don’t actually have fully explanatory power. Their notion is that order and skepticism are the paired tools of intellectual life, that we build and then we attempt to break and build anew.

As they note, this is a romanticized view of knowledge creation, science as it would be done by robots. Humans do things differently. This isn’t new information to anyone who’s read Thomas Kuhn, but along with Kuhn, they extensively cite the psychologist Donald Campbell, from his 1979 article “A tribal model of the social system vehicle carrying scientific knowledge.” I’ll do the same.

A scientific community must recruit new members and reward old members well enough so that young recruits will be attracted to a lifelong commitment to the field and will justify the drudgery and painful initiation rites. Journals must be published, purchased, and read. Members must remain loyal to the group and not “defect” to other tribes. Jobs must be found for loyal followers. Social facilitators are needed to keep the group together and must be rewarded for this role, even if this means giving them scientific honors not earned by their cognitive contributions. The requirements  of leadership for coordination and continuity may produce leaders whose decision-making power is used to protect their own social positions and their own scientific beliefs against internal challenge from young rivals. the deeply ingrained social custom of building ingroup loyalty by mobilizing hostility and disgust toward outgroups may be employed as a convenience (and perhaps even occasionally as a necessity) in maintaining group cohesion and continuity.

Given equal ability, it helps a young scientist’s appointment, promotion, grant-getting, and publication to be well connected in the extrascientific real world. It helps if one has good manners and is cultured. It helps, too, if one’s ideas support rather than oppose the dominant interest groups of the larger society. Likewise, it helps if one comes from a high-prestige university. All such contamination violates important norms of science which hold that the contribution to scientific truth should be the only determinant of status within science.

Cooperative people who defer to the majority, who get along and go along with others, and who hold the team together, get preferential treatment even if they are less competent. This is true of scientific communities, too, contrary to scientific norms that encourage vigorous internal criticism even if feelings are hurt and norms demanding that competence rather than likeableness is what should count.

Now, Campbell names this tribalism as a hindrance to science, and indeed it is. But it isn’t necessarily a hindrance to scientific life, an important distinction. We are not isolated free agents in any of the work we do. We work within communities, and the work of holding community together is real work. The work of organizing and managing the community is real work. The work of evangelizing new converts to our tribe is real work. And scholarly capability is direct training for exactly none of those things.

Managing a college is not scholarship; it’s policy and human relations and friendship and inspiration and charisma. Bringing students into fuller engagement, fuller desire for our body of ideas is not scholarship; it’s a seduction, a watchful laying out of rewards and praise and opportunities that lure the feral freshman into becoming the loyal senior.

The problem with meritocracy isn’t just that it’s impossible. It’s also that we don’t know (or at least don’t agree) on what we want people to be good at, and further that we want people to be good at lots of different things which are unlikely pairings. Imagine a baseball manager having to decide which of two rookie shortstops to keep and which to send back to the minors. Smith can catch anything within twenty yards of his position, can turn a double play like nobody’s business… but he can’t hit anything that curves, a guaranteed out, an inning-buster. Jones has hit like a demon throughout spring training, but he’s got concrete hands and no range and a wild arm. Both are good, neither are perfect. So you have to ask yourself a) which skill do I think we can teach? b) which player bolsters the particular weaknesses of the rest of my lineup, and c) which person is going to be a cheerful, upbeat presence on the team, keeping everybody else loose and happy?

Academic life is no different, but we’ve done a much more meager job of thinking though how we select colleagues, so our meritocracy is even more misshapen than that of the Houston Astros. You’d think that smart people would be better at this, but we’re not. We’re just people, after all.




Sterile Hybrids

Mules and hinnies. Ligers and tigons. Zonkeys and zorses. The tiger muskie and the bloodball python. The animal world is filled with inter-species and occasionally inter-genera crossbreeds known as hybrids, from the Latin ibrida or mongrel. A lot of them have come specifically from human intervention, the work of farmers and stockmen trying to gain the best attributes of two different creatures.

A lot of these hybrids turn out to be sterile, most often because the parents have different numbers of chromosomes. Mules, for instance, are almost always sterile, but you can get a lot of work out of them for a lot of years.

[come on, you know where I’m going with this…]

So the stockmen of higher education have also experimented with a lot of hybrid programs as well, which they call “interdisciplinary.” Crosses of social science with architecture (environment-behavior studies), history with engineering (history of science and technology), world languages with anthropology and political science (Asian studies, for instance). They’re fascinating, and they contribute to important new ways of understanding the phenomena around us. But as fun as the mating may have been for the parents, most of these mongrel offspring will ultimately be sterile. The horse parents have their safe home in the horse pasture, and the donkey parents have their safe home in the donkey barn, but the graduate-student mule is born to do lots and lots of really useful work and then to never be accepted within any fertile partner community. As long as the hiring in higher education is done by departments, this will never ever change; the mongrels will be shunned, not really part of any originating herd and unable to develop a viable new species. But they’ll be useful for dragging the scholarly cart.

Image of the Zorse from Wikipedia, originally at http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3645/3322859004_4224a726b8.jpg?v=0.

Moneysynthesis and the Changing Ecosystem of Higher Ed

Where I live in Vermont, there’s been a big move to control farmland runoff into streams. The issue is that all of the fertilizers and nutrients in the soil wind up in the lakes (especially Lake Champlain), creating an imbalance in the plant population that privileges some kinds of growth and inhibits other, longer established communities. It’s not uncommon in ecological systems that the sudden presence of a new nutrient is as jarring a change as the sudden presence of a new predator.

In colleges and universities, as in any business, the fundamental nutrient is money. Just as plants absorb sunlight and create food energy through photosynthesis, organizations absorb money and create employment through a form of moneysynthesis.

Historically, colleges had fairly few varieties of economic nutrients. Tuition was fundamental, of course. Sponsorship was another, whether by a state government or a religious community. And for the more successful colleges, a combination of thrift and gifts led toward the establishment of capital pools that became self-sustaining.**

These three nutrient streams had predictable effects. The first, tuition, fostered fealty to the families who provided it, an assurance that their sons (and later, daughters) would be “properly finished.” The second, sponsorship, fostered responsiveness to the social and philosophical goals of the larger agencies. And the third, endowment, fostered independence—a pool of “f^#@-you money” that allowed a little breathing room from consumer demands.

These nutrient pools were pretty reliable for a long time, and the collegiate landscapes that developed were responses to the particular local proportions of these three feedstocks. But sudden infusions of new nutrients have changed the ecosystem.

  • In 1950, Congress established the National Science Foundation, dumping a vast reservoir of money that privileged the bench sciences. The National Institutes of Health formed a second input stream, and Sputnik scared the bejezus out of everybody. Our fetish for STEM has a direct lineage to this nutrient, the normalization of funded science research as part of higher ed.
  • About that same time, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation (among others) responded to the post-war landscape in a different way, funding the study of international affairs so that we could win hearts and minds during the Cold War and deal with the aftermath of colonial control as Asia, Africa and South America emerged from European rule. So we got Latin American Studies and Islamic Studies and dozens of others, along with lots and lots of language programs.
  • The Higher Education Act of 1965 made various forms of financial aid available to a broader array of students, substantially increasing the demand for college services, and breaking the direct consumer linkage between colleges and their satisfied families (and state or religious sponsors).

The higher ed ecosystem has been fundamentally reshaped by these three sudden, immense runoff streams, and others like them. The resulting balance of species would be unrecognizable to a scholar working in the 1920s. These new resources have all led in their way to the contingency of the enterprise. Adjuncts are neither accidents nor victims of evil; they are the starving overpopulation brought about by shifts in resources.


**Just a note, by the way… We think of the elite colleges as being impossibly well off. But, this guy Zuckerberg who developed what was essentially a fancy message board? He’s worth more as an individual than all of Stanford University, including its real estate. The guy who screwed a video camera onto his bike helmet has a net worth about as much as the endowment funds of the University of Kentucky. Rewards are rarely rational.

Inside Higher Ed

I read Inside Higher Ed quite a lot, get their daily e-mail update. It’s a great headline-level news aggregation tool, not unlike Daily Kos or Truthout. And they do investigative work of their own, as well as posting opinion and career advice. You’ll hear more honesty about the adjunct world in IHE than in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, for instance; it speaks more to the masses in college life than to the leadership.

Anyway, I have a piece in IHE this week myself. You should go read it. You should leave a comment. (I love that TWO of the comments were “You just described my life.” We’re not alone, us working-class kids, we’re just invisible…)

Ecological Storytelling

The death of one is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic. —Joseph Stalin

Nobody knows how many adjuncts there are. But it seems to be at the very least between half a million and a million. And people’s brains just aren’t wired to know what to do with numbers like that. We tend to see, at first glance, a simple array of quantities.

  • One.
  • Two.
  • Three.
  • A few.
  • Quite a few.
  • A lot.
  • An awful lot.
  • Countless.

I mean, it wasn’t until relatively recently in our history that anyone had any reason to think of a million anything. How many sheep could you have? How many apples could your farmhands pick? How many people turned out for town meeting? Somewhere between a few and a lot, really. A million was just an arithmetic trick, something you get by multiplying two four-digit numbers, fun to spend a few minutes working through… but really, in terms of people or things, countless is more true to the experience.

I’ve spent a couple of days working on an introduction to the book, a way to suggest the immensity of the adjunct community and simultaneously the specificity of why it matters. When we say that a million people are disadvantaged in some way, it becomes a bland, generic issue. And focusing on one particular case is kind of unhelpful, too, the “up close and personal” portrait that just puts local color on the surface of the immense problem.

So my experiment (at least in the introduction) is to leave the numbers out of it altogether, and just describe the ecosystem. To talk about the higher education equivalent of the algae that eat the sunlight and the snails that eat the algae and the junk fish that eat the snails and the sport fish that eat the junk fish and the fish market that consumes the sport fish… and not just marine life but also cormorants and raccoons and otters and surfers, all of it fed by winter snowmelt and water salinity and wave action. We don’t have adjuncts because evil college presidents profit from indentured labor; it’s just not that simple.

We don’t need to know how many yellow perch are in Lake Michigan to know what role they play in the ecosystem, and to think about what a perch die-off indicates about the ecological health of the lake. So too for adjuncts; describing their role in the ecosystem may be a more effective way of thinking than character-driven stories (as interesting as Paula the Perch may herself be).

Maybe the model for this story is Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring. What does it mean when there are no birds?

A Crisis of Definition

Throughout this blog and the books it relates to, I’m oversimplifying a bit when I refer to PhDs as the degree that qualifies one for college teaching. There are others. A lot of them pertain to professions that normally don’t have a research component, like architecture. When I finished my undergraduate degree, a B.A. in architecture, I had a fundamental decision to make. If I’d wanted to be a practitioner, I would have turned left at the fork and gone on to an M.Arch, the professional degree; because I wanted to do research, I turned right at the fork and went on to a PhD program. These are not sequential degrees; they serve different functions. And design teachers often have M.Arch’s, even as architectural historians and materials science teachers usually have PhDs.

In college departments aimed at professional life, these sorts of “terminal master’s degrees” are common currency among their faculty. MBAs in business schools, MLSs in library schools, and such. One of the more common is the MFA, the Master of Fine Arts sought out by writers, actors, photographers, painters, dancers, and so on. Although many MFA students hope to be practicing artists in their desired fields, the fallback position is presumed to be teaching. Well, that’s lovely, but the New York Times recently estimated three or four thousand new MFAs in creative writing each year, for an academic job market that totaled 112 tenure-track positions. A three-percent chance isn’t so much a fallback as it is a falldown.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the bell curve of professional success, about the one percent of one percent of one percent who get to make a living in artistic fields. There are lots of wonderful writers, only a microscopic fraction of whom become professional writers. Poetry magazine says they get over a hundred thousand unsolicited poems a year, of which they publish 300. Three-tenths of one percent. And of the 300 poems published in the magazine, how many go into an anthology, or become part of an individual chapbook that gets published? Twenty percent of those? Five percent?

We have this kind of magical thinking about what degrees do. We see that Junot Diaz or Edwidge Danticat or Michael Chabon have MFAs, and we think, okay, I want to be a writer, I’ll get an MFA too. But even if the premise were true, that ALL published writers had MFAs, the converse—all MFAs become published writers—would not hold. Every lottery winner bought a lottery ticket, but not all ticket buyers become winners. All WNBA players played college basketball, but not all women college basketball players will play in the WNBA.

So part of me thinks, is it really a crisis that only a sixth of all PhD holders will ever attain a tenure-track job? It’s not a “crisis” that hardly anybody from music programs becomes a famous musician; it’s just a fact. Maybe the crisis is that we all keep trying, at below minimum wage, working ourselves into oblivion in an industry that couldn’t care less. Maybe we should divorce training from job and just drive for Uber, wait tables, be parents, run for office, and do those things with the grace and joy that academic life has brought to us. Maybe for most of us, being a scholar will be a hobby, something that enlivens us after our workdays have ended and helps us do our day jobs with a bit more elan than might otherwise have been possible.

At least, that’s what the numbers tell us.

Purging What Seemed Essential

My wife and I are both kind of weary of the things we’ve accumulated over the decades, mostly independently before we were married. We may be the only couple you know with two overstuffed bookcases and six file cabinets in the garage.

Anyway, she started a couple of days ago going through things like old tax documents, 25-year-old syllabi… And her labors inspired me today to take one of the four drawers of preciously-collected research articles I carefully accumulated during and after grad school, and to go through them for keepers. A full-depth file drawer, authors carefully alphabetized A through E, probably more or less 300 photocopied articles.

I kept seven.

How much of our scholarship is like that, carefully copied and dutifully entered into the citational system, only to wind up compressed into a fireplace log or a weekly-shopper newspaper thirty or forty years down the line? It didn’t hurt me at all to discard all those ideas, I didn’t cringe for even a second when I got rid of the collected works of Denis Cosgrove and Mike Brill, smart people and all but still…

We have this idea that our jobs matter. But I think they don’t, not all that much. They give us food and rent. What matters is the ways we treat people. If we can use our jobs to treat people well, that’s great. If our jobs are indifferent to the ways we treat people, then we can be indifferent to our jobs. if our jobs require us to mistreat people, I think that requires us to consider changing jobs.

We spend so much energy on our disciplines. The definition of a PhD is someone who’s contributed original scholarship to her or his discipline. And, you know, it’s going into the recycling in the end, however original. What will last are the lives of the people we touch, and the ways in which we helped them be one or two percent happier and more fulfilled. I don’t need a discipline to do that.

The Causes and Impacts of Overpopulation

Let’s start with a raw number. The annual production of new PhDs is occurring at about 250% the annual hiring rate, maybe a little more. So the aquarium is getting pretty overstocked. How do you make yourself noticed among all the pretty fish? (It’s not unlike bachelor’s degrees; now that so many people have one, pretty much every employer regards it as a baseline for their job, even if the job itself may not have changed in the fifty years since your high-school-grad grandma did it.)

The National Academies of Research have done an interesting (and massive) study in doctoral education, attempting to rank all American research doctoral programs in all known fields. The methodology is complex, and seems reasonable, but one of the things to consider before we get to the findings is just how large the’ve discovered the enterprise to be, with over 4,800 different PhD-granting programs located at about 210 institutions:

  • Agricultural Sciences (of various sorts): 317 doctoral programs
  • Biological Sciences: 989
  • Health Sciences: 189
  • Physical Sciences (including Math): 916
  • Engineering: 798
  • Social Sciences: 930
  • Humanities: 866

So we know from economics, for instance, that the good faculty jobs go to only those who got their PhDs from a handful of schools: 25% from two schools (Harvard and MIT), 50% from the top eight. There are 117 economics doctoral programs in the US. If your program is merely good, you’re screwed.

And that was a study from ten years ago! As the oversupply of doctorate holders increases, it’s not merely that those with degrees from lesser schools will get teaching jobs at lesser schools, because those schools too are now receiving faculty applications from graduates of the uppermost programs who can’t all teach at R1s themselves. So smaller and lesser schools all the way down are also selecting faculty who graduated only from the elite programs, not from the merely excellent. I know someone who just got a teaching job in an undergraduate biology program who herself has a PhD from a top-5% doctoral program and served a six-year postdoc with one of the NIH programs. That’s like having Thomas Keller in charge of putting Pop-Tarts into the toaster… it seems like it might be boring before long. So they have to spend money on research infrastructure to keep her interested, drawing the school away from its core undergraduate education mission. (In another decade, she’ll probably have a doctoral program of her own).

Here’s a couple of examples, let’s leave them un-named…

  • a public highest-research university (R1) with eleven doctoral programs. According to the NRC ratings, not one of those eleven programs ranked in the top half of its respective discipline; seven of the eleven were in the lowest quartile of their fields.
  • a public high-research university (R2) with seventeen doctoral programs, again not a single one in the top half of its field, thirteen of the seventeen in the bottom quartile.

Why are those schools still allowed to offer doctoral degrees at all? What exactly are they selling, and to whom? What exactly do its students believe themselves to be buying?

Compare these with:

  • UC Berkeley, with exactly fifty doctoral programs: only one is below the 50th percentile ranking, and half of them are in the top 10% nationally in their fields.
  • University of Michigan, sixty-five doctoral programs, four in the bottom half, eleven in the top 10% (go to Michigan for philosophy, psych, and math)
  • Columbia, forty-seven doctoral programs, ten in the bottom half and ten in the top 10%. There may be some productive winnowing to be done here.

You have to know these things. You have to know that a school’s general reputation isn’t the same as its doctoral reputation, which varies from program to program. And you have to know that most schools have no vested interest in telling you any of it if they want you to go there.

The simple existence of a doctoral program does not mean that the doctorates issued thereby will be recognized as equal currency. Your degree will be read on your CV in components: I have a PhD in [discipline] from [university & department], studying under [dissertation advisor]. Your job chances are dependent on each of those three terms, far more than the fact of your graduate GPA.

There’s a lot of talk about restricting the numbers of people who get PhDs each year, and most of it is framed in terms of reducing the numbers of entrants (again putting the burden onto the individual student or prospective student). Why don’t we talk in terms of putting the burden onto the institution? Why should we have 4,800 issuers of the PhD, when we know that only a few of those will offer productive gateways to faculty life? Why shouldn’t we make each department prove itself every few years to keep its doctoral license?

The Education of Fear

I just finished reading Natalia Ginzburg’s book of essays, The Little Virtues. The title essay is her meditation on education and parenthood, both of which she believes are far too focused on instilling small virtues such as thrift, caution, prudence, tact and success. Better, she believes, to attend to the larger virtues of generosity (of finance and of spirit), curiosity, courage, frankness, and love of life.

The problem is that the little virtues, being little, can easily be made even smaller and thus taught and tested. We can easily tell when someone has “good manners,” by examining how they perform each of innumerable protocols of table service and social interaction. We can less easily tell when someone is compassionate, nor do we know exactly how to teach it.

And I think that higher education has almost fully made the transition from the large virtues to the small. We send kids to college so they won’t be unemployed. We tell them to major in things that are marketable, practical, in demand. We privilege the major over “gen ed” (such a waste of money, after all…), and spend freely chosen electives installing more armor on our already restrictive battle gear. The faculty at Pitt, for example, are up in arms about the possibility of more students having to take two semesters (six credits, five percent of their degree program) of a foreign language. “Adam Leibovich, chair of the department of physics and astronomy, wrote in an email to his faculty colleagues on the eve of a fully faculty vote on the proposal, ‘We need a large turnout of science faculty to have our voices heard so that resources are not taken away from us.’” Every scrap of curiosity and energy must be reserved for the major, the career prep. Possibilities for surprise, for sudden epiphany, are trimmed away.

About fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay that got me fired. (To be more precise, I’d just given four months notice that I was leaving for Duke, but I gave this essay as an invited talk one weekday evening to a group of educators, and the next morning was told that I should leave after a couple more weeks instead.) It was about high school, and the ways in which the education of fear had taken hold so strongly, an education to avoid pain rather than strive for glory.

That was fifteen years back. Now I see the same thing take place in higher ed, which has allowed itself to be discussed as part of the “K-16 system,” a phrase that fills me with loathing. College is, at its best, not job training of any sort, nor preparation for graduate school. College is a time to be surrounded by brilliant, curious people who are not our parents; people who are curious about vast swaths of the world, and thus raise our eyes to new horizons. A time of large virtues, boldly defended.