Thursday, May 23, 2013

Our Part of the Structural Problem

I've been thinking about some of the post-academic blogs I've seen.

I'm supportive of people who choose to not go to grad school, leave grad school, leave academics after grad school, or leave academics at whatever time.  I think folks should pursue their happiness in whatever way they want (with the respect for other people, golden rule sort of caveat).

That said, these blogs and the responses sound pretty angry.  It makes sense that their angry.  I get that.  But I also feel like there's a lot of anger directed at folks like me: people who managed to get a tenure track job, and especially those who've gotten tenure (as I have).  And I'm not sure I get that.  Or maybe I'm just really uncomfortable with that.

I've been thinking, and I can see a lot of ways that people at PhD producing programs might be more helpful, especially by recognizing the value of non-academic work, by helping grad students prepare for a variety of potential jobs (or supporting a career center that will help with preparation), and by encouraging grad students and graduates to pursue what makes them happy.  I also think that they might work to reduce the number of students accepted to graduate programs, though this isn't totally unproblematic. (see Note 1)

What about those of us at regional universities and colleges, or less than elite SLACs?  What are people like me supposed to do to contribute to a solution or make things less abusive?

Yes, I think most of us advise students that grad school is no brass ring and so forth, and the students who really want to go to grad school want to go and do go, and I'm okay with that.  They should do what they want as long as they have basic information about the toughness of the job market and such.

Beyond that?

Someone might suggest that everyone in my department should take a pay cut and use the extra money to hire an adjunct to a tenure track position.  But that's not realistic.   (Note 2)

What about converting adjuncts to TT jobs?
We just don't have the money to fill the tenure lines we have open because no one would come for the money available, and the administration won't give us more because the legislature is making more cuts.  Again.

I think we do a pretty good job hiring.  We usually tenure folks we hire unless they take another job, which they sometimes do, since we're in flyover country, don't pay well, etc.  But when we get 100+ applicantions for a position, and 50 of them are pretty much qualified, then that's still 49 people who won't have our job.  (Though at least one candidate is likely to have turned us down in favor of another job, too.)

So I don't know what folks like me are supposed to do.  But I do know that there are a lot of folks like me at non-PhD granting universities.  And I think a lot of the anger is directed at everyone in a TT position, but it seems mis-aimed at those of us at non-PhD granting schools.

Note 1:  In my grad department, if they'd reduced my incoming class from 28 to 20--if I recall the number correctly--, for example, they'd have probably done it by eliminating the opportunities those of us from non-elite undergrad backgrounds.  There were maybe four of us from public universities, and I'm guessing only one would have been in.  The other three, probably not.  That includes me.  I think grad programs should accept more, not fewer, students from non-elite undergrad programs.  I'm clearly biased about this.

Note 2: My university has just done a couple levels of equity raises (this year) to try to staunch the bleed of faculty leaving for other jobs because it costs more to hire a brand new TT faculty member and convince them to come here than it does to keep an associate prof with tenure. (This is a place that hasn't had cost of living raises or any other raises apart from promotions for a long while, and that has had pay cuts already via benefit losses.) That is to say, my university can't always convince the candidates it wants to hire to come here for what we can offer.  (And often enough, if a faculty member leaves, that tenure-line is empty for more than a year, and sometimes lost altogether.)


  1. I have many thoughts about the current firestorm as someone about to finish their dissertation and considering an alt-ac career. I've read pretty much all the blogs and the responses and participated in a lot of discussions on those blogs and responses and on twitter, too. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm bitter about the current state of academia (my blog is called "Acaderanged," after all), but I don't think that we, on the whole, are angry at people who did get a TT job.

    I don't pretend to speak for everyone, obviously, but I think the anger comes in when someone in a TT job subtly or not-so-subtly implies that a person has to jump through a specific set of hoops to get a TT job and that, when those hoops are jumped through, they must not have been jumped through to a high enough standard, otherwise that person would have gotten a job. Some people have a "well, I did it, so you can, too, you just must not be doing it well enough" mentality and that is what I find offensive. The failure of people to recognize a broken system is offensive and, in general, I think the anger is directed at the broken system. We aren't angry or jealous because we've been told if we jump through all of these hoops, we will certainly get a job. We're angry because we built a circus, filled the seats, lit the hoops on fire, and wowed the audience with our flaming hoop-jumping abilities, only to turn around and be forced to struggle to cobble together enough classes taught at a bargain basement price in order to come close to making a laughable living. Adjuncting for a couple of years seems to have become the next hoop to jump through and that's not acceptable.

    Grad students can (and should) try many different ways to prepare for the job market, whether it's the academic one or not, and if students aren't doing that, they have no one to blame but themselves. If, however, grad schools continue to churn out the same PhDs through the same programs since the New Left was actually new, all the while weakly objecting that they can and do prepare students for life beyond the academy, those objections become nothing but lip service and that makes me angry because it again implies there is something inherently wrong with us as failed academics who are not worthy of admittance to the "hallowed halls" of academia.

  2. Anonymous10:00 AM

    Jodi's points are good ones. I'm a longtime contingent faculty member (as there are a lot of different levels, let me clarify that I'm relatively privileged; am full-time and get benefits, but teach more than my tenured and t-track colleagues for much less money, and am ineligible for raises and promotions). My colleagues all work hard and are fully deserving of their positions; I don't hold their status against them. What does rankle is when I a) get solicitous advice about how exploited I am; b) am told by colleagues that I should consider moving on to a t-track job; and c) have to respond when a well-meaning senior colleague suggests that I might want to start working on a book, as that would certainly lead to a better job. I am capable of a) assessing my own exploitation; I've been b) doing national job searches for more than a decade; and c) my first book is already out of print and I'm well into a second. Please; if you are tenured and give a damn about contingent faculty, then please stop assuming that we are in this position because we're inadequate, naïve, or stupid. Want to know how to support us? Ask.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your responses. I find them helpful.

    I think it's really important for everyone to recognize that the system is broken and that it's no one's fault if they don't find a TT job, or if they don't want one.

    And being honest that there aren't enough jobs is also important.

    Anon, I also want to thank you for making me rethink my assumptions about whether my non-TT colleagues want a TT job or whether they've chosen their path for their own reasons, and I should respect that path.

    Thanks again, both of you.

  4. Anonymous5:09 PM

    Someone is to blame, though. It's not an accident and I think some of the time, I'm just not sure whose fault it all is. It's complicated. So frustration gets directed at TT and tenured folks, who probably aren't to blame.

    That said, I've been patronized, ignored, and screwed over by lots of well-meaning TT and tenured folks and that sometimes colors how I see things. Unfairly, I would add.

    With all that being said, everyone employed by my current school makes a living wage. Everyone. I appreciate that. I'm not sure I'd want to work somewhere where that wasn't the case--as for instance a college or university that relies on adjunct labor.

  5. I'd echo most of what Jodi and anonymous (who sounds like zhe is in a position similar to mine) said (though fortunately I've escaped most of the well-meaning advice, perhaps in part because several people in positions similar to mine have had books out for years, with no movement into TT positions). A lot of the anger does tend to be evoked by the explicit or implicit assumption that merit plays a greater role than luck in determining who ends up with a TT job (both are, of course, at play, but luck/chance/fit/timing plays a huge role in determining who among the many qualified applicants for any one TT job ends up with said job).

    The other tricky factor at my institution is that there is a clear connection between the university's push to become an R1, and a related move to a 2/2 load for TT faculty, and the growth of jobs like my own (4/4, non-TT, paid considerably less than TT, and focused on teaching core courses), and the use of adjuncts. It also seems likely that the push to pay "competitive" salaries to new TT hires is helping to widen the pay gap between TT and non-TT faculty. So, even without large doctoral programs (we have a few small, well-considered ones designed to lead to non-higher-ed as much as higher-ed employment), there's a pretty clear class divide within the department, and reason to suspect that at least a few more of us might have decent jobs if the department (and others of its kind) had stuck to a 3/3, more teaching-intensive model.

    Remarks in faculty meetings over things like the relative cheapness of funding TT leaves (adjunct wage x 2 for a semester, x 4 for a year) also don't help.

    But those are potential causes of anger for someone who's still *in* the academy (though not where she'd like to be). It's harder to see how the above would apply to people who've left (though much of the above would apply even more for adjuncts, and it's entirely possible that many people who did leave spent time as adjuncts).

  6. I think I was pretty bitter and angry before I finally got a TT job after four years on the market. Now that I'm on the TT, I now see so much more clearly that TT faculty are not the enemies. TT faculty would really like everyone to have a full-time job with benefits and living wages. The administration won't make it happen, or maybe can't make it happen, because of money.

    There are also a lot of people who don't retire until they are 70-80 years old. One tenured faculty member at my school is finally retiring this year at the ripe old age of 86. I'm not sure if the people who don't retire have financial obstacles to retirement or what, but I for one would like to retire ASAP. There are an awful lot of books I'd like to read for fun, but it looks like retirement is when I'll time to read them.

  7. Anastasia, Do you think your having turned down a TT job affects your take on things?

    Contingent Cassandra, Yes, luck/chance/fit/timing have everything to do with getting a job.

    Fie, I think TT folks don't want to think of ourselves as the enemy, for sure.

  8. It seems to me that it's important for TT folks to act as advocates for adjuncts in whatever ways they can -- in particular, advocating that adjuncts get as much reliable work as possible AND get their class assignments in a timely manner, so they know if they need to pick up another job. This can be as simple as a discussion with the department chair passing along good comments from students or simply making your choices about courses to teach in a timely manner, thus not holding up the scheduling process.

    When (IF --I guess, knock on wood) the economy gets better, advocating for adjuncts to be included in the same union as the TT folks is super important. One of the only things that makes me love my union is that, when times were good, they insisted on equal pay per course for adjuncts teaching 4 or more credits -- This means that if I teach a course OR if an adjunct teaches the course, it costs the college the same amount of money.

    Further, adjuncts in my system are provided health insurance based on the proportion of a full-load they teach (generally a 5/5) -- so, in semesters when an adjunct teaches 5 courses, their health insurance coverage is the same as mine. My union also advocated for a rule that requires 70% of the teaching to be done by full-time folks as well as a rule that automatically converts an adjunct into a TT spot when they teach 6 consecutive full-time semesters. The last one has been closely watched by some deans, as they'd rather do a search etc... but, at least it's there.

    I also think, but I'm not sure, that adjuncts are eligible for sabbaticals -- although that's not at all clear.

    Oddly enough, due to the salary dognut created by changing the way prior experience is counted when placing a new hire on the salary scale, I now there are adjuncts who make more money than I do... and I don't feel too badly about the security I have.. because the gap is significant. Think about it this way, I was limited to credit for 4 years of prior experience when I was hired, that limit no longer exists. We haven't had step increases in at least 6 years -- SO, if someone taught the same 10 years as I did in another system and was placed on the salary scale, they'd be put in at step 10 while I'm at step 5...

    I'm guessing that the TT folks gave up some raises and other things to get this done, but I find it well worth the sacrifices...

    Sadly, now is not the time to advocate changes like these -- we're about to get our first raise since I can remember... at least 6 years... maybe more.