Current Thoughts

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.

Filling In the Plaid

The American Institutes of Research has for a few years been running what they call their Delta Cost Project, in which they’ve tried diligently to investigate college costs and college spending. One fascinating data point we see is that employees per thousand students have remained pretty stable across time at different kinds of institutions. Take public master’s-level colleges, for instance, places like Grand Valley State in Michigan or Bridgewater State in Massachusetts, schools that we often call “regional comprehensives.” In 1990, those kinds of schools had 160 employees per thousand students; in 2012, 173. But even though overall employment didn’t rise all that much, the categories of employment changed a lot. The average full-time faculty per thousand students actually dropped a little, from 48 to 46. Non-professional staff (clerks, groundskeepers, maintenance workers) dropped quite a lot, from 62 to 45. Executive, administrative and managerial staffing also fell a little, from 11 to 9.

The two growth areas were part-time faculty, doubling from 21 FTE to 40 FTE per thousand students (remember, each FTE means two or three human beings picking up a course or two each); and “professional,” which means people in financial aid, student affairs, and co-curricular services, rising from 20 to 35.

I’ve long thought of higher ed as being in an era of transition, from stripes to plaid. Historically, the divisions that mattered were the vertical strands of departments and divisions, the academic communities who offered courses and majors. But there’s a growing community whose bands run orthogonally, the “cross-cutting initiatives” of offices of undergraduate research,  writing across the curriculum, service learning and community engagement, dozens of others. All of these were originally things that a few individual faculty members did, of their own volition. But somebody decided that those practices should be more widespread, more institutionalized, and created an office with a director and staff. Over the past twenty years or so, these horizontal bands have come to have a meaningful impact on the vertical pattern, making a plaid that’s increasingly dense.

An example, from a small private college in the upper midwest. This school had long prided itself on its study-abroad focus, but that had been operated by one professional staff member and one support person. Now, there’s a director, two assistant directors, three program managers, and an office coordinator, plus ten part-time student workers. Each of those is a twelve-month employee. Those seven permanent employees probably earn about as much as five assistant professors, more or less. And the choice to allocate resources that way has to be acknowledged as a choice, as something that could be done differently.

There’s no right answer to the patterning of higher education, no optimal ratio of vertical faculty to horizontal co-curricular staff. Both have important roles to play in students’ intellectual lives. But we need to be aware that both dimensions exist, and that their proportions are changing. And we need to recognize that doctoral education only designs its participants for one of those two dimensions; you don’t need to be a scholar to run a powerful study-abroad program. As the horizontal bands grow, as vertical employment declines and becomes more contingent, the changing patterns make the PhD an even riskier career path.

What Is College For?

We live in an era of multifunctional devices. Computers with phones and cameras. Watches that measure your step count. As a wag once put it, if you can nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, you can sell it to somebody.

So it’s no surprise that colleges are also, increasingly, multifunctional devices. They act as forces for economic mobility for individuals, and workforce development for regions. They act as extensions of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and they provide minor-league franchises for the NFL and NBA. They allow teenagers to become adults, and provide credentialing and screening for various professions. They cement the privilege of the privileged, they give voice and opportunity to those without.

A few years ago, Louis Menand wrote an article for the New Yorker about the confused roles of college, and the confusion caused for those who participate in the enterprise. And it influenced my thinking quite a lot, at least in part because it was a good premise left so incomplete. To borrow the subtitle of his article, why do we have college? He offers two reasons.

  • It sorts by talent. Millions of kids graduate from high school each year; which ones are academically best? The selective schools will tell you that by whom they admit. The simple fact of getting into and getting out of Yale or Stanford is more important than what you did there. We pretend that the precision of the GPA matters, but really, there are only three categories of college performance: drop-out, unremarkable, and remarkable. So if you multiply the selectivity of your school by which of those three categories you achieved, it tells the rest of us everything we think we need to know about you on your first resume, and allows HR departments and grad-school admissions officers to quickly cull the herd.
  • It is an enculturation device. It provides training in “the things that people like us should know,” an army of missionaries bringing the unwashed and half-finished into civilization. It offers familiarity with western civilization’s greatest hits, from Plato to Plath.

But Menand misses more than he hits. Here are some others.

  • It takes kids away from their families. One of the functions of education has always been to surround kids with adults who aren’t their parents, and thus to give them alternate models of adulthood.
  • It provides challenges to independence. High school is about compliance within complexity, and came to the fore during the great wave of industrialization, when factories needed men who could fit unquestioningly into whirling, dangerous mechanical processes. College is about choosing what to do and figuring out how to do it, managing your time and finding your own resources, failing and recovering along the way. By doing this, it prepares its students for more complex and fluid professional work.
  • It provides networks. One of the sorting mechanisms of college selectivity is to place kids into groups of kids with similar prospects in life, so that by the time they’re thirty, they have a huge contact file of friends they can call on for business and collegiality. They offer suitable dating and marriage pools, prepare their graduates for the appropriate country clubs and chambers of commerce.
  • It offers productive unemployment. Like the depression-era WPA and CCC and the contemporary armed services, colleges are a massive social support for people not prepared to enter the workforce. Just as child-labor laws were enacted at least in part to protect adult employment prospects, colleges take twenty million people out of the population defined in employment statistics, and holds them out of the way for a little longer while the grown-ups make a living. It reduces employment competition even as it helps those not yet competitive to feel okay about it, to have a named role within the system.
  • It challenges cultural stability. College is where burgeoning adults are trained to question, where students move from the comfort of knowing to the thrilling confusion of not-knowing. It introduces students to complex social and cultural problems, helps them move from narrow to broader interests, helps them see that they have a role in issues that are “not their business.” We think that higher ed is about gaining knowledge, but it’s also about choosing a world of dissatisfaction with the things we think we know, and bringing that aspiration for more into all of our stable systems.
  • It offers an on-ramp to adult responsibilities. It is a halfway house to first apartments, responsible drinking, responsible sex, productive time management. College allows kids to screw up in ways their parents never would, even as it stands by and helps to clean up the mess and reinforce the life lessons that come from mistakes.

So why does this list matter? It matters because how we define college has everything to do with how we define the role of the faculty. If we focus only on the specific content delivered within the specific three-credit box of a course (a model not so different than high school, after all), then all we need is a low-paid temporary worker who’s qualified to offer that box of goods. But if we see college as something more systemic, as an intervention into individual lives and collective culture, then we’d shift more toward a stable, permanent body of faculty members who know and embrace those larger roles over the duration of a student’s experience, a reliable family of non-family who recognize that their own value is far more than simply the things they know.

PIE Chart

In a highly viewed article published on LinkedIn Pulse, Beth Crocker of Crocker Finance gave some advice to women in the business world. And while I think there’s plenty there that’s useful to think through, there was one part that I really wished I’d known better at a much younger age. She refers to it as “stop focusing solely on getting an A on the project.”

Man, the only thing I knew how to do was get A’s. I thought that academic life was like baseball, and that if you hit everything that was thrown at you, you’d be guaranteed to be in the majors. So I learned how to hit fastballs and cut fastballs in quantitative classes, how to hit knuckleballs in seminars, how to hit curves and sliders in lit reviews and qualitative research design. You could not get a pitch past me. Still can’t. And yet…

In her essay, Crocker quotes some business guru Harvey Coleman as saying that career success is based on Performance, Image, and Exposure (or, because business gurus can’t go two sentences without an acronym, PIE). Coleman further does some faux-quantification to assert that career success is 10% performance, 30% image, and 60% exposure. But I think it’s not quite so additive.

Performance is like milk quality from the dairy. There’s a baseline you have to hit, and after that, nothing else matters so much. Being a few standard deviations above the baseline isn’t any help. And once that baseline’s achieved, the P variable falls out of the mix altogether, leaving you only with I and E.

There’s only so much you can do about the image part; chromosomes play a pretty big role, although at least you can dress like the people who might hire you. And the exposure comes as much from others as it does from your own activity; you need to be showcased, brought into the inner circles. If your dissertation advisor or postdoc lab supervisor isn’t bragging about you on a regular basis to the most important people in the field, then she or he just isn’t doing the job. If she or he isn’t introducing you to colleagues at conferences, isn’t pushing you to the front of the stage, that’s a dereliction of duty.

So for those of you who are in a position to lead the academic growth of others, remember that their great performance is an awesome starting place, but that your responsibility to polish and promote may have a larger impact on their career than anything they can contribute themselves. Another A won’t help much.

There’s a great story told by the late Abner Mikva, a US Representative and federal judge, about his early days in political life. He walked into a Chicago ward office and said, “I’d like to volunteer to work for Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas.” The boss looks at him and says, “Who sent you?” Mikva replied, “Nobody sent me.” And the boss stuck the cigar back in his mouth and said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

Academic life is like that. They don’t want nobody that nobody sent.

Evidence? I don’t need no freakin’ evidence!

One of the most amusing data points I’ve seen in the past few weeks (aside from “It looked like a million, a million and a half people”) comes from our friends at the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). As reported in their Institutional Policy Report 2014, nobody really has a firm idea of how many postdocs there actually are…

Historically, institutions have not kept accurate records of postdoctoral scholars, although more and more institutions are doing so today. As a result, it is not clear precisely how many postdoctoral scholars are currently employed in the United States, but the NSF estimates there are between 30,800 to 63,400.

That’s funny. Isn’t the NSF supposed to be all scienc-y and stuff, all about measuring things down to the nanometer? 30,800 to 63,400 is a pretty big range. Also, with that kind of imprecision, it seems disingenuous to have any numbers at all after the comma… I mean, 30,800? Really? If you’re going to be off by 100% or more, it doesn’t seem necessary to have that many significant digits. They might as well have said “an awful lot.”

Anyway, the NPA put forth a counter-number.

The NPA’s member postdoctoral offices estimate they serve about 79,000 post-doctoral scholars; this number is thought to be closer to the true total, though still incomplete.

“About 79,000.” Much better phrasing. The “about” there is crucial, because it lets us know that we’re still in the realm of ballpark figures.

One thing the NPA does know with precision is how many university offices of postdoctoral services there are: 167, up from “less than 25” back in 2000. And why does NPA know that? Because those institutions pay NPA dues, and therefore deserve recognition.

(To return to an earlier theme, this is another example of institutional money not in a classroom. Each office of postdoctoral services eats up at least one staff position, probably reasonably well paid; they might actually put on services, which cost money; each school pays an NPA membership fee; the annual meeting—March 17-19, in San Francisco—is a minimum of $400 per person to register and $240 a night for the hotel… the symbionts are feeding well, even as the host complains of anemia.)

Anyway, why don’t we actually know how many postdocs there are in the US? Why don’t we know how many adjuncts there are, really? (The fudging of those numbers will be its own small chapter in the coming book…) Because no one in power is served by knowing those numbers. We don’t collect data that we don’t want to know.

Policymakers are proposing all kinds of metrics for undergraduate institutional success, from retention and persistence rates to graduation rates to indebtedness after graduation to rate of return on investment as demonstrated by average wages. All possibly useful. But they utterly ignore metrics for graduate education or the experience of scholars after graduation. Almost 40% of financial aid goes to grad students (even more if you count institutional aid like TAships and RAships and waivers), but the status of the grad student, adjunct instructor and postdoc researcher are out there in the plus-or-minus 100% range, even as they account collectively for a massive component of our institutional landscape.

I saw a pair of socks in a shop yesterday, as my wife and I stopped on our way back from the Women’s March in Montpelier VT (with its own police estimate of 15,000 to 20,000 attendance). They were cartoon socks of a slovenly guy in a lounger watching TV, and the text on the foot read “Let her have her way… she’s probably right anyway.” And underneath, the care instructions for the socks said “Wash warm, tumble dry medium heat, or whatever.”

In our understanding of the adjunct and postdoc communities, we’re definitely relying on the vocabulary of “or whatever.”