The music writer Sasha Frere-Jones wrote on his blog a couple of months ago that there’s a German word schlimmbesserung which means “a supposed improvement that makes things worse.”

And maybe it’s just that I’m old now and reminisce about how much fun it used to be to watch the three channels we could get on the old black-and-white Sylvania… but I really do think that we’ve moved well into schlimmbesserung in a lot of areas of our lives.

Higher education has a lot of it. Let’s take our current infatuation with High Impact Practices, which as a friend says were probably brought down from Sinai on stone tablets by George Kuh and presented to Carol Geary Schneider. All of the HIPs (god save us from another acronym), from undergraduate research to service learning to first-year seminars, were native to some landscape somewhere. A professor who tried it out in her classroom, a department that wanted to take an interest in its surrounding community. But like bamboo or kudzu or the giant hogweed, they were imported all over the place, regardless of the merit of the native species in the other mature landscapes, and spawned offices and programs and vice provosts that crowded out the reproduction of the faculty.

Every discipline has its own content knowledge, which is shared across its members by journals and conferences, passed down from one generation to the next through mentorship and coursework. And although we don’t often think of it that way, academic administration is its own discipline and its own content, with its own journals and its own conferences, passed down from one generation to the next through mentorship and professional development. And the administrative discipline has been the source of some of the most hypercompetitive of the invasive species.

“There’s nothing more dangerous than a dean just back from a conference,” it’s said, and a lot of the danger is the intellectual spores that travel along with her, infesting the new soil and changing the ecosystem in ways that can’t be predicted for years. All faculty in all disciplines go to conferences and get new ideas all the time. The difference is that, upon return home, most of those new ideas are quarantined for a long time inside one person’s scholarship, one person’s classrooms. With administrators, because they have such promiscuous partnering across the campus, those ideas spread from patient zero to pandemic much more quickly.

This is not to say that any of the HIPs are bad things; when done well, and for the right reasons, they’re remarkable. But the degree to which they’re presumed good, without consideration of unintended consequences, has brought about a blindness to the ways that we spend our money, the ways that we don’t, and the values that ought to underlie those decisions.

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.


Apologies for the New Look

It’s like New Coke. You take something everybody loves, and mess with it for no reason.

So when I opened Wordpress a couple of days ago, it asked to update the theme I’d been running—the sort of visual template package that organizes site elements. And I didn’t pay close enough attention. The prior updates (and it gets updated every couple of weeks or so) went from like 1.8.6 to 1.8.7, little bitty tweaks. But this one was a new version, a 2.0. And once it applied, the site was a shambles. The only thing visible was the header and the menu. No content showed, regardless of which page you clicked on.

So we’re driving a loaner this week while I figure out how to fix the other one. Same great content, but in a generic can.

And that leads to the content portion of today’s program. Technology (like all forms of progress) is usually seen as both inevitable and beneficent. We all want the latest, we love being able to sign the credit card thing with our finger at the restaurant, we love asking Alexa about tomorrow’s weather or to play some limp jazz for our dinner guests. But that stuff isn’t just magic. Somebody’s got to write and test the code, make sure the hardware supports it, and get in there and fix it when it breaks. And I know usually it breaks from operator error, I get that, but that’s why we have IT specialists. I don’t WANT to know how my software works, and I don’t care if they make fun of me behind my back for not knowing some simple workaround. I have my job, you have yours.

Every institution of more than a dozen or so people now has an IT person, or persons, whose job it is to make the magic be invisible, and to step in whenever it kludges up. And the purchase of all that hardware, and all that software, and all that networking equipment, and all that bandwidth, and all the people who support it and make it run and update it, that’s all a cost that businesses didn’t carry forty years ago. Does it make us more productive? In most jobs, you’ll never know the answer to that, because productivity is a concept borrowed from pace of manufacturing, the number of transmission linkages you can make in an hour. What makes a teacher more productive? Not wasting time on e-mail or loading homework assignments onto the LMS, I can tell you that.

When the ubiquity of the desktop computer became inevitable back in the early ’90s, one of my research colleagues said that it had brought about the era of the $100,000 a year typist. The old steno pools that supported millions of families were gone, replaced by the senior manager wasting hours a day on low-level work that she would have given to a secretary if she’d still had one.

I’m telling you, WordPress updates can make you a Luddite. Technology is wonderful, it really is, but it also lost a TON of jobs for the less educated, and it adds a significant and more highly paid cost center to almost every business. I’ll leave it to the accountants to decide how the balance has played out.


Mission Creep

I once knew an architecture professor who studied shopping malls. He studied them not because they were especially interesting, not because he himself loved to spend time at some random SouthPointe Galleria or Olde Towne Centre. He studied them because they had one single variable for success: dollars of sales per square foot.

  • Widen the concourse: does $/SF go up, or down?
  • Add multi-level parking: does $/SF go up, or down?
  • Change the mix of food-court tenants: does $/SF go up, or down?

He wasn’t interested in some larger human questions of satisfaction or pleasure or blah blah blah. He had an objective measurement to be pursued with monomaniacal precision.

I’ve spent some time in non-profits, both within and outside higher ed. Their missions are more complex than those of the for-profit environment, and include all kinds of social and personal outcomes that are a lot harder to measure, or even to state. But in the end, they still need the dollars in order to survive and fulfill those other missions.

This introduces a tension; every college has to be a business with sufficient revenue, even as it has to pursue goals that have nothing whatsoever to do with revenue. And since it’s ALWAYS possible to spend more money to pursue the quality of education, most schools are perpetually adding programs and then scrambling to pay for them.

Fortunately, there are no end of generous people and agencies willing to support these initiatives… kind of. These generous souls, whether individual donors or family funds or major foundations or federal agencies, have social goals of their own; they’re giving money to some college in order to further their own complex missions. And so every negotiation over a grant or a gift becomes an imperfect alignment of values. Without constant attention and focus, the college can be distracted from its core mission through the necessity of fundraising, each new initiative making us a little different than we once had been. After ten or twenty or fifty years, we become unrecognizable.

In the for-profit world, this doesn’t matter even a little bit. The executives of US Steel once were asked how they could continue to make steel in the face of so many plant closures; they replied “We don’t make steel. We make money.” There’s no complex array of core values there, just the one. So it’s easy for them to divest from one area and pick up another, to shift from sheet metal to structural steel to iron mining. McDonalds doesn’t make hamburgers, they make money. And they’ll do that with McNuggets and Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait and McCafé® Shamrock Chocolate Chip Frappé. Maybe next year, they’ll sell McPhones and McSoap and McGin ‘N Tonic. Doesn’t matter. Money has no mission except its own.

In our contemporary zeal to “run government like a business,” colleges also have invested in the fluid, the exchangeable, the temporary. Each new program on its own makes a lot of sense; as a portfolio of programs, as a system of programs, they change the school irretrievably. We build the plaid university, and then wonder why everyone is so overworked and confused about the mission.

Every new initiative changes all the other parts of the ecosystem. There are new committees and coordinative challenges. There are requirements for space and equipment, demands placed on accounting and HR. There are course releases to fill, travel and memberships to fund. And at the end of the project, questions of permanence—is this thing valuable enough for us to continue it on our own dime? Does it become a new member of the community, or did it migrate through us and then depart? How far did we stray from our mission to bring it on board?

These programs also add to the impermanence of the higher education workplace. We get a three-year grant, and add “soft-money employees” and a few post-docs that we can shed without regrets when the funding dries up. The permanent faculty member gets the glory (in promotion credit, and in publications and reputation); the others get to not be hungry for a little while longer while they do their temp jobs with one eye on the classified ads.


Adjunct Bait

We have some Hav-a-Hart traps that we use around our garden. We throw groundhog-favored foodstuffs into the back of the screened pen (apples and melon rinds work well), and when the unsuspecting whistlepig wanders in, he has to step on a plate on his way to the fruit, and the door closes behind him. Then we pick up the whole trap, drive it to our neighbors’ homes, and let it out into their garden to keep ours safe.

[KIDDING!!! Just kidding. We take them quite a ways into the woods, of which there’s plenty around here, no closer to anybody else’s food.]

But the general idea is that Ms. Whistlepig thinks she’s getting a nice snack, not realizing that she’s about to have an unpleasant journey. Every trap requires the right bait.

As I’ve been talking with contingent faculty for this project, one of the things I hear quite often is this sense of being baited. Some school opens up a few courses and implies (in some vague and therefore legally defensible way) that they constitute a “position” and that success at these courses can lead to a permanent faculty line “soon.” So the happy, excited teacher has a great semester or a great year, and the department chair tells her what a great job she’s doing and how happy they are to have her. She gets those two courses again, plus maybe another one. At any other job, this would be a clear sign that she was being groomed for promotion, just as the whistlepig smells a canteloupe and thinks it’s a lovely dessert after the pea plants have been eaten.

And so the trap is baited, so the trap is sprung.

An adjunct position could, possibly, be converted into an offer of a tenure-track line. And my cat Ed could, possibly, be offered a spot in the starting gates at the Preakness. I mean, it COULD happen, but it won’t.

Tenure track job openings, even at a fifth-tier school, a Southwestern Central Nevada A&M State Tech, are the subject of national searches. They don’t hire people on spec to try them out. You don’t work your way up. An adjunct teaching position is exactly and only that, an offer to teach a specific course for a specific semester for a specific dollar amount, with no guarantee of further relations. You’re not only not guaranteed the job if it ever materializes, you’re likely diminishing your chances by a) accumulating more time since your dissertation and thereby going stale, and b) being seen as “just a teacher” and thus a diminished scholar.

But the bait is so, so appealing. It’s fun to be back in the classroom. It’s gratifying to have an e-mail address ending in .edu. It’s heady to have the chair tell you how highly she thinks of your work, and to read the students’ pleasure (in you and in their own capabilities) in your course evaluations. Magical thinking takes over, and we invest years in a half-promised permanence that we believe we might somehow earn.

I have a friend who was a highly-regarded adjunct at a major Eastern university for three years. So highly regarded, in fact, that they asked her to serve on the search committee for the tenure-track line that her chair told her not to bother applying for because she was, after all, just a teacher.

Every cult, from Amway to Scientology, has a series of loyalty tests that the initiates never quite can pass, but come so close that the next round surely will get you there. But it never will.

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.




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.

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.