Sunday, July 17, 2011

teach naked

"When I started graduate school in 1989, we were told that the disastrous job market of the previous two decades would be coming to an end because the large cohort of people who had started their careers in the 1960s, when the postwar boom and the baby boom combined to more than double college enrollments, was going to start retiring. Well, it did, but things kept getting worse. Instead of replacing retirees with new tenure-eligible hires, departments gradually shifted the teaching load to part-timers: adjuncts, postdocs, graduate students. From 1991 to 2003, the number of full-time faculty members increased by 18 percent. The number of part-timers increased by 87 percent—to almost half the entire faculty.

"But...the move to part-time labor is already an old story. Less visible but equally important has been the advent and rapid expansion of full-time positions that are not tenure-eligible. No one talks about this transformation—the creation of yet another academic underclass—and yet as far back as 1993, such positions already constituted the majority of new appointees. As of 2003, more than a third of full-time faculty were working off the tenure track. By the same year, tenure-track professors—the 'normal' kind of academic appointment—represented no more than 35 percent of the American faculty.

"The reasons for these trends can be expressed in a single word, or buzzword: efficiency. Contingent academic labor, as non-tenure-track faculty, part-time and full-time, are formally known, is cheaper to hire and easier to fire. It saves departments money and gives them greater flexibility in staffing courses. Over the past twenty years, in other words—or really, over the past forty—what has happened in academia is what has happened throughout the American economy. Good, secure, well-paid positions—tenured appointments in the academy, union jobs on the factory floor—are being replaced by temporary, low-wage employment...

"Well, but so what? A bunch of spoiled kids are having trouble finding jobs—so is everybody else. Here’s so what. First of all, they’re not spoiled. They’re doing exactly what we always complain our brightest students don’t do: eschewing the easy bucks of Wall Street, consulting or corporate law to pursue their ideals and be of service to society. Academia may once have been a cushy gig, but now we’re talking about highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich (and their friends are getting rich), simply because they believe in knowledge, ideas, inquiry; in teaching, in following their passion. To leave more than half of them holding the bag at the end of it all, over 30 and having to scrounge for a new career, is a human tragedy.

"Sure, lots of people have it worse. But here’s another reason to care: it’s also a social tragedy, and not just because it represents a colossal waste of human capital. If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore. And then it won’t just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap...

"It isn’t just the sciences that matter; it is also the social sciences and the humanities. And it isn’t just the latter that are suffering. Basic physics in this country is all but dead. From 1971 to 2001, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in English declined by 20 percent, but the number awarded in math and statistics declined by 55 percent....On the work that is done in the academy depends the strength of our economy, our public policy and our culture. We need our best young minds going into atmospheric research and international affairs and religious studies, chemistry and ethnography and art history. By pursuing their individual interests, narrowly understood, departments are betraying both the values they are pledged to uphold—the pursuit of knowledge, the spirit of critical inquiry, the extension of the humanistic tradition—and the nation they exist to serve.

"We’ve been here before. Pay was so low in the nineteenth century, when academia was still a gentleman’s profession, that in 1902 Andrew Carnegie created the pension plan that would evolve into TIAA-CREF, the massive retirement fund. After World War II, when higher education was seen as an urgent national priority, a consensus emerged that salaries were too small to attract good people. Compensation soared through the 1950s and ’60s, then hit the skids around 1970 and didn’t recover for almost thirty years. It’s no surprise that the percentage of college freshmen expressing an interest in academia was more than three times higher in 1966 than it was in 2004.

"But the answer now is not to raise professors’ salaries. Professors already make enough. The answer is to hire more professors: real ones, not academic lettuce-pickers."

--from "faulty towers" by william deresiewicz in the may 23, 2011, issue of the nation (my emphasis added)

an excellent article that I could have written, since all the information, sans the supporting evidence, was known to me by personal experience (and that he entered graduate school the same year I did, and heard exactly the same spiel I heard, both excites me because it proves I am not crazy and my experience is like almost everyone else's, and depresses me because I am not crazy and my experience is like almost everyone else's). I suspect almost anyone who's looked hard the past decades for a college teaching position without the magical phd (or abd, which according to deresiewicz is preferable as they are "people who have [already] entered the long limbo of low-wage research and teaching that chews up four, five, six years of a young scholar's life" and will accept less pay with the lure, which is increasingly disappearing, of a steady lifetime gig, one that often never materializes) could have written much of this. it's a depressing sight, postsecondary education in the 21st century, and less and less alluring. in the course of the article he covers a dozen books, some of which I'm going to have to read.

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