The Bureaucracy of Learning

I once found a student report in a high school hallway. Three exams: 100, 100, and 93. Two homeworks at 50 points apiece, neither turned in, 0/100. Total score: 293/400, C–. So what part of this record is irrelevant? The exams, which could be aced without ever doing homework? The homework, which didn’t contribute to performance on the tests? Or the grade, which tells us nothing whatsoever?

I once knew a young man who could draw better than anyone I’d ever met. He was occasionally taking figure drawing and watercolor courses at the local community college, far more talented than any other person in the room. One day, he left class halfway through drawing one of those bio-lab plastic skeletons. I asked why he was leaving. “If I finished, I’d just have a good drawing of a skeleton. Don’t need that.” So of course, his community college transcript was littered with Fs and Ws. So what part of this record is irrelevant? The talent, which wasn’t performed consistently enough to put into the gradebook? The three-hour course session, during which he’d put in more than enough practice after an hour or so and was learning nothing new? Or the grade, which tells us nothing whatsoever?

I’m writing this after filling out a form for a presentation I’ll be giving in May. I’m intending it as an aesthetic experience, an opportunity for the participants to think about the world and about their work and about their colleagues in a new way. An opportunity to be productively unsettled. That riskiness is at the heart of why I’ve been invited.

But the host organization also needs to offer professional continuing education units for it, and so I have to fill out a sheet that labels which category the CEUs will fall within and the minimum of four learning objectives for the session.

Which part of this record is irrelevant?

We collectively spend trillions of dollars a year on higher education. I know that it can’t be left to magic, to hope. I get that. But the things that I do as a teacher are not enhanced by categorizing which stack my units fall into. The things that our students do are not enhanced by counting educational minutes, or assigning them at the end with a character from a truncated alphabet that attempts to encompass the full merit of their experience.

Every law is the response to a crime. Every code is the response to a cheat. Every regulation is a response to someone’s laziness or carelessness. And all of us now pay for the sins of our predecessors. The attempt to trim off the bottom also places an unspoken top, a standardization that works counter to the lived miracles that education can bring.

We seem to be working in education with a dour view of human nature. As the Methodists’ Book of Discipline puts it, “Original sin … is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” We must be eternally vigilant against each teacher, against each school, against each student, lest they fall to sin.

And by so doing, we lose the possibility of grace.


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…)

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.

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.

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

Stack of Futility

I took my trash and recycling down to the local transfer station this morning, chatted with Glen our dumpmaster about our coming plans for large waste and scrap metal collection day (a town official’s work is never done). One of the things Glen does is to take things that others might get some use from, and keep them on a shelf next to the office shed so that somebody might take them home.

I spotted two stacks of CDs, about twenty-five in each stack, and said to Glen, “Let me have a look through those. You never know what I might come across.” And as I went to browse, he said, “Yeah, those are all demo CDs of bands that got turned down to play at Harvest Moon.”

And I stopped dead, couldn’t even look at them. Harvest Moon, a music weekend held every year in our Vermont town of 750, is a lot closer to a village potluck than it is SXSW or Outside Lands or Lollapalooza. And here’s this pile of work from fifty musicians, all of them trained and practiced for years, at the dump because they weren’t deemed strong enough for a small town music fest.

It’s one thing to read the numbers. It’s another thing to see the pile. No writer, no artist, no academic, should ever be faced with the evidence stacked against them. It’ll break your heart.

Eighty Dollars an Hour!!!

As a member of the select board in my small town (and the board clerk), I receive a stipend of $700 per year. I’ve never actually done the arithmetic, but as close as I can tell, that comes to about a buck or buck and a half an hour. The $700 sounds pretty good (and frankly, coming as one lump check, it’s handy at Christmas), but the hourly rate is much less appealing.

I have a friend who, because she had more than 30 hours of college teaching experience, was hired to teach one course at a unionized school for about $80 an hour. Wow!!! $80 an hour! I’ve had some pretty good jobs in my life, but I’ve never ever gotten close to $80 an hour.

Let’s check that euphoria, though. That’s $80 per contact hour, as a convenient way of figuring out a pay rate. A three-credit course (a 15-week class that meets three hours per week) is 45 contact hours, which means that the stipend for that course is $3,600. But the accreditation expectation for a credit hour is an hour a week in class and two hours of student work outside class. And every teacher I’ve ever known has worked WAY more hours than any one student. Between writing the next session’s notes and grading papers or tests and writing e-mails of encouragement or praise or threat of failure, I’ve personally never had fewer than five hours outside class per one in. But let’s be conservative, and say that the 45 contact hours per semester comes to 180 actual hours of labor (one in-class per three out-of-class).

All of the course prep—the creation of the syllabus, the selection of the readings, the coordination with the department chair over learning goals, the coordination with the IT department over getting materials onto the course management system—lies outside the 15-week window, and is work provided for free. Let’s be conservative there as well and say another 80 hours. Then there’s the end of the semester—the grading of final papers or final exams, the agonizing over assigning final grades, the collection and archiving of student work for the accreditation visit. That also is outside the window, more free work. Let’s say another 80 hours for that. Plus the generic e-mail crap that happens in every organization, more or less non-stop: another 40 during the semester? (That’s two or three hours a week, which seems pretty low.)

So the fact is that those 45 contact hours are a fiction that conceals about 350 to 400 hours of work. And a $3,600 pre-tax stipend, which doesn’t carry any benefits like health care or retirement contributions, spread over 400 hours of work comes to $9 per hour. Where I live, in Vermont, that’s just shy of the minimum wage.

Now, of course, if I teach that course a second time, and I’m a sloppy teacher who doesn’t care about my work, then I’ve already got the syllabus in the bag and just change the dates; I’ve already got the reading list, regardless of which readings were helpful last semester and which ones weren’t; I’ve jettisoned almost all of my serious homework for quizzes; and I’m reading my lectures off the same notes I made for last year, because I don’t really care if they’re listening to me or not. So now, at that least-effort scenario (which probably wouldn’t get me re-hired, by the way), I might get my workload down to maybe 250 hours for the course. Whoa, baby! I’m all the way up to $14.40 an hour!

And this is for the most educated workforce in the nation, the adjunct teaching population who’ve amassed PhDs and EdDs and MFAs galore and had it come to naught. People stick with it because they love teaching, or because they don’t want to let the dream die, or because it’s just humiliating to know that you can actually make more money at Dunkin Donuts.

Oh, and that $3,600 for the course is actually pretty good nationwide. The AAUP reports that the median for a three-credit course nationally is $2,700. So take everything I’ve said and figure three-quarters of that.

Wait, what?

One of the joys of being on my small community’s selectboard is that you never know what the next meeting is going to bring. Buy 440 cubic yards of gravel? No problem. The ATV club wants permission to operate four-wheelers on North Street? Sure, we’ll consider that. Property tax rates, counting votes, painting the cemetery sign, we got it all covered.

And right now, we’re looking to hire a maintenance worker for our highway crew. (Applications close Monday 8/15, get your materials in soon… Come on, you think you’re getting a faculty job? Get ready to be a plow truck driver.) And one of the applicants, under the kind of equipment he knew how to operate, included the fact that he could run a backo.

backhoeI love that. A backhoe (this thing on the right, sometimes called a bucket loader, depending on which end you’re looking at) is the ubiquitous piece of light construction equipment that every town and every landscape contractor and every utility company owns. And when you say it on a Vermont jobsite, it totally sounds like “backo.”


I work with a lot of faculty on writing instruction, and invariably someone will complain about how badly their students spell. And I always try to explain that our students have grown up with auditory media, with TV and YouTube and text spelling, and they just don’t have as much experience as we do in looking at words on a page. Whereas I have read millions and millions of words that I can define and spell but can’t pronounce.

This is the fate of the self-raised scholar (excuse me, the autodidact). We are perpetual prodigies, overachievers, always playing above our level and always knowing we could be caught out as impostors at any moment. And one of the traps we’ll catch ourselves in is mispronouncing some word in a way that labels us as rubes. We’ve read it, we know it, but we don’t hang out with people who use it in conversation, and so we may never have heard it.

So here’s a quick pronunciation quiz. Don’t look at the bottom, play it fair, and see if you’re fit for the faculty lounge.

ITEM A: The word “hegemony” is pronounced:

  1. HEDGE-a-money
  2. HEGG-a-money
  3. huh-GEM-uh-knee

ITEM B: Your college’s president is throwing a “gala.” Does that most closely rhyme with:

  1. paila? (as in, “We’re gonna need another paila joint compound up here, Larry!”)
  2. holla? (as in, “Yo, Larry, holla back when you get this!”)
  3. palla? (as in, “Yeah, Larry’s an old palla mine from way back.”)

ITEM C: Someone writes that your research is “sui generis.” When you read that to your dissertation chair, you pronounce it:

  1. swee generous
  2. soo-eye gun-AIR-is
  3. soo-ee je-NAIR-is
  4. soo-eye generous

Scoring: The last answer in each list is preferred. If you didn’t get three for three, we have an opening on the road crew. (An extra point if you know that different syllables are emphasized in hegemony and hegemonic.)

Learning to Teach

I remember being a TA for ARCH302, Architecture and Human Relations. It was my second year of grad school, and I got to give three or four of the semester’s lectures. And because I was still pretty new to the field, and because I didn’t trust either my knowledge or my speaking skill, I spent three weeks writing each one, and then read it. It was the equivalent of playing from your sheet music on the stand.

Now, for a huge lecture, I’m comfortable spending a day writing a few pages of notes to keep me on track, and to remind myself of key phrasing. I’ve done a 90-minute talk to six hundred people, glancing at my notes every forty seconds or so to make sure I wasn’t skipping something important, and gotten rave reviews. I couldn’t have done that in 1992, but it was comfortable and familiar by 2013.

I’m comfortable leading a seminar, walking in with nothing but the book we’ve all read and helping a dozen people find new things they’d overlooked. Helping a student examine why she thinks some passage mattered. Helping a student make a connection between this book and the article they read two weeks back.

Twenty years of practice has to be good for something. But I apologize for some of the sessions I practiced on along that path.

It’s not talked about much, but teaching has a lot of parallels with musical performance, one of which is that you have to learn it. And there’s no practice sessions, no private tutors, no high school band where you get to be awful on the way to being better. You learn through public performance, by giving the teaching equivalent of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with all the missed notes and poor timing of any fourth grade trombonist.

College families don’t really know this, either. They don’t realize that some of the courses their golden child will take will be taught by the teaching equivalent of Evelyn Glennie, and others will be taught by the teaching equivalent of the kid down the block who just got a guitar and an amp for his thirteenth birthday.

For those of you learning to teach, be prepared to do it poorly for a while. If you come with good intentions, your students themselves will help you find the boundaries, will show you what worked so that you can recover from what didn’t.

For those of you experiencing a bad teacher, please remember that it may not be his fault. Nobody’s taught him how to do this. He may be picking up his first piece of sheet music and stumbling his way through his first recital. If you come with good intentions, it’ll help him figure some things out and be better in November than he was in August.

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.