29 March 2014

Will Nobody Think of the College Students (Especially the Non-Majors)?

It's not, ultimately, about the Ph.D's.  It's about the college students those Ph.D's are trained to teach.

Let's grant the following:

  • Getting a Ph.D. in whatever field doesn't entitle anyone to anything. 
  • Fulfilling, meaningful work is available outside academia. 
  • Researching and writing a dissertation can hone transferable skills. 
  • Grad school can be fun, regardless of where it takes one. 

Are there still people out there who think that there's "something wrong, something dreadfully wrong, with leaving the ivory tower"?  Perhaps, but when I stand up to be counted among "these people who complain about the fact that we don't just make tenure-track jobs for everyone with a Ph.D.," it's not because I think "PhDs can’t possibly work outside academia like the rest of the hoi poloi. They shouldn’t have to, what with their lily white hands and all."  No, there's other interesting stuff to do out there in the world, and anyone who surfs around the academic blogosphere will quickly find people who have made their way out of academia and are doing it.

Should departments be more receptive to the idea that their graduates may not work in academia? Absolutely, but that's a more discipline-specific solution than many acknowledge.  The Grumpies are responding to a commenter, "Miriam," who points out that, despite the reality that "User experience research is cultural anthropology," many anthropology departments (unlike STEM departments) are unwilling to acknowledge corporate and public-sector applications for their research methods.  That does seem an oversight, one attributable to knee-jerk snobbery.  There are fewer obvious applications, however, for doctoral-level research in history, philosophy, and literature.  Turning doctoral education in those fields into training for corporate and public sector jobs would entail radically reimagining entire disciplines, in ways that the people running graduate programs are poorly prepared to do, even if it were desirable.  And is it?  Other pathways to those jobs exist without diverting resources from higher education.

The Grumpies see the oversupply of humanities Ph.Ds as an inevitability:
So yeah, it would be lovely if, as a society, we took money from Exxon (and you know they’d take it from children’s mouths before they cut corporate welfare) and funded education again, but that won’t solve the problem of the humanities labor market, because the more attractive you make those positions, the more people will want to have them. There will be more jobs, but there will be even more applicants for those same jobs. Heck, even if we cut off all production of new PhDs, folks with humanities PhDs who had given up would return to academia if there were a demand for their services.
Elsewhere in the same post, the Grumpies argue that
But… maybe tenure isn’t all that. 
Maybe, sometimes, it’s worth grabbing that golden ring and throwing it away. 
One of us lives with someone who made the jump (though before tenure), and he’s so much happier.
But setting aside how academia can be both overrated AND so desirable as to warrant abandoning other employment, why is it so unimaginable to tackle the academic labor question at both the supply end and the demand end?

In the utopian world where Exxon profits go to higher education, let's staff lower-level courses with tenure-track faculty instead of Ph.D students, convert adjunct position into tenure-track positions, and only admit as many students into Ph.D. programs as are needed to maintain staffing levels.  Will those humanities Ph.D's come flocking back once they realize that the tenure-track job consists of FYC and required gen eds., with little prospect of teaching senior majors, much less grad students? I honestly don't know.

Hell, let's go nuts here, and make sure that the Ph.D. students we do admit recognize that they are being trained for the profession of teaching college students, and let's structure Ph.D. programs to reflect that outcome.  Let's acknowledge that many humanities departments are, in fact, largely service departments.  Let's recognize that the centrality of research to many tenure-track jobs in the humanities is a fiction sustained by the rank exploitation of adjuncts and graduate students.

But maybe if the academic humanities, from the lofty heights of the Ivies to the most hardscrabble of community colleges, shared a vision of first-rate undergraduate education as the goal--rather than the production of more Ph.D's and monographs--those future Exxon execs coming up through their classrooms would see more value in it.

22 March 2014

On Race and Reading Aloud

I'm sure I'm not the first instructor to have this quandary.

How should a white instructor, who speaks standard American English with the accent of northern white privilege, read aloud dialogue written in dialect, specifically African American Vernacular English?

I love to read aloud, and I love to read aloud in class.  It gives students a shared experience of a certain chunk of text and it reveals the aesthetic pleasures of a text in ways that get lost in the heat of class discussion.  When I'm teaching in my field, eighteenth-century Anglophone literature, reading aloud is crucial tool for helping students approach unfamiliar forms of English.  They can grapple with the Sterne's self-referential ellipses, Wollstonecraft's layered dependent clauses, the seemingly interminable sentences of any writer much more effectively, once they've heard them.  Hearing where to place the emphases, getting familiar with the underlying rhythms of the prose style, makes a huge difference.  Of course, I don't affect an English accent--the students don't expect it, I couldn't pull it off, and it would be weird.

17 March 2014

The Academic Job Title that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Over at "Tenure She Wrote," hashb8ting raises the question of what her students, collaborators, chair, and advisees need from her in order to feel that her work is "good enough."  Such framing is vital to being "The 'Good Enough' Professor" (her title, in this case, not mine).  As she explains:
Without someone else’s perspective on my work, I would always assume I’m underperforming: there’s always a paper that needs resuscitation, or a grant that needs improvement, or an advisee who could use more attention.  
The adjunct is rarely subject to this kind of institutional scrutiny: good enough to teach for a semester or a year is good enough, as far as the higher ed employer is concerned.  Of course, good enough to swing such a job is, by definition, not good enough for the employee, who generally would prefer a job that is not subject to the caprice of adjunct hiring.  The underemployed adjunct never feels "good enough."  There is always room for "better": there is just no institutional structure to recognize or reward "better"--so "good enough" is often "never good enough."  And yet one is hired back to teach, year after year, because by someone's metric, one is "good enough."

But it doesn't always work that way.

14 March 2014

Exploitation Is the Problem, Not Entitlement

Having a Ph.D. doesn't entitle anyone to a tenure-track job, argues nicoleandmaggie over at Grumpy Rumblings of the (Formerly) Untenured.  After all, if the world owes no one a living, it certainly doesn't owe one to people who have freely chosen to spend 6+ years studying and researching in a highly specialized field for which there is no demand outside academia.

The language of "entitlement" ignores the role that would-be Ph.D's play in the supply-and-demand of academic hiring.  Humanities programs are notoriously skittish about offering placement statistics for their Ph.D programs, and for good reason.  Many of them take on board more graduate students than they can hope to place in tenure-track jobs because they need the students to teach and TA lower-level classes.

Rather than talking about what people with Ph.D's are and aren't entitled to, we need to be talking about the staffing of college classrooms, and the kind of instruction that college students are entitled to. People with Ph.D's may not be entitled to faculty jobs, but college students are entitled to instruction at the hands of professionals with an ongoing commitment to their subject matter and to higher education, not Ph.D. students destined (whether they know it or not) to be cheap and temporary academic workers.

13 March 2014

How Boy Professors Are Different from Girl Professors

My theory of how students make sense of professors:  Whatever conception of "God" students bring with them to college gets applied to their male instructors.  Whatever conception of "Mom" they bring with them to college gets applied to their female instructors.  Students are, on the whole, more likely to accept that God will, on occasion, be angry, distant, vengeful, than that Mom will behave in these ways.  A Mom who isn't unfailingly nurturing is a source of dismay. Any characteristics (race, ethnicity, gender ambiguity, relative youth, disability) that complicate students' ability to assimilate male instructors to God and female instructors to Mom is also a source of dismay.  Over the course of a productive semester, good students will gradually break free of these preconceptions and come to engage with instructors in terms of their authority and knowledge.  Getting to that point, however, involves working around these unspoken, unacknowledged assumptions.

So it should be no surprise that the conversation about what to call college instructors continues.  Will Miller, responding in Inside Higher Ed to Katrina Gulliver's article on first names, says it shouldn't matter anyway: that an instructor should be able to convey authority independently of any form of address.  (Response from the twittersphere: easy for a white male administrator to say!)  Students are quicker to apply the "professor" label to some people than others, based predictably on gender, race, and age (not necessarily in that order).  The more it stretches students' mental capacities to accord the instructor standing in front of them the same aura of authority that they would attribute to a tweedy, bearded man, the more crucial it is that they be asked to stretch in that way.  But yes, not all instructors are created equal.  Rebecca Shuman points out in Slate that college students are confused about who exactly is teaching them anyway, and with good reason: adjunctification has unsettled old categories, multiplied academic descriptors, and boiled away the jobs that used to be filled with the tweedy bearded types.  Perhaps we worry so much about titles because we no longer know how to recognize the selves we were trained to be.

07 March 2014

Are You Kidding? There's a Lot in a Name.

Back in January on this blog, I remarked, "ask adjunct faculty how they wish to be addressed by students, and chances are they'll still be talking five minutes later."  Turns out, it's not just adjuncts. The most-commented-on article in yesterday's Inside Higher Ed was about the ethics, politics, and pedagogy of first names in the classroom.

There's nothing I can say about my own practices that hasn't been said in one of the 89 comments on the article. I am, though, having a hard time coming up with any other profession in which forms of address are such a live issue.

What is it about academia that makes us so concerned with what we are called?

College teaching is a profoundly unstable space these days.  Dependence on adjunct teaching is eroding its rigid hierarchies, and respect for the profession has been declining in inverse proportion to the time it takes to get a Ph.D. and the effort required to land a job and tenure.  The issue at the heart of the first-name debate is the issue at the heart of many contentious higher ed conversations: do we cling to the structures of prestige that have traditionally framed our work, or do we bend to the pressures that threaten to transform higher ed beyond recognition?  Every warm body standing in front of a classroom or monitoring the LMS has to be called something, and the collective weight of those names is what we are.

STEM Teaching Tricks: Ways to Avoid the Shit Sandwich?

image from http://www.hilaryhodge.com/category/uprising/
Over at Teaching Nonmajors Biology, there's a excellent post on post-exam assessments, with lots of examples, links, and explanation of the various bells and whistles such assessments can entail.  The basic idea is to walk students through an analysis of what they got wrong on any given exam and why. A worksheet in the form of an "exam wrapper" gets students to face the gaps in their study strategies and identify ways to fill them.  (H/t Small Pond Science for clueing me in to this blog!)

I've been doing something similar with the writing students do for my classes.  Before they hand in an assignment, I give them a worksheet that asks them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their response to the assignment, as well as any additional information I should know about their writing process.  These worksheets often end up being the prompts for my own final comments on their papers. It turns out (to my surprise) that students can be very self-aware writers--they often recognize the problems in their papers before they hand them in, but don't know how to solve them.  When their assessments of their work deviate from my own, they often reveal students' confusion about the relationship between college paper criteria and effective writing (no, big words and complicated sentence structures don't necessarily make a good paper).

05 March 2014

Does Your Syllabus Have a Trigger Warning?

So first there was this: the New Republic's article about "trigger warnings" moving from the blogosphere to class syllabi.  The subtitle, "Can It Be Stopped?" conveys the tone of the article: maybe not, says Jenny Jarvie, but it should be:
Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.
And then there was this response in Salon: "Trigger Warnings on Campus: What the Critics Are Missing." What the critics are missing, according to Katie McDonough is that "trigger warnings are an imperfect but sometimes necessary band-aid on the open and gaping wounds plaguing college campuses — rampant sexual violence, for starters. Singling out trigger warnings as the greater problem in need of addressing is, perhaps, missing the point." Trigger warnings, McDonough argues, will not solve the problems of sexual violence (among other things) on campus, but they do help to create spaces where the traumatic experiences students bring to the classroom are acknowledged.

I fantasize about a local ordinance requiring unlicensed Chief Illiniwek gear to have a trigger warning printed, in big letters, on the back, like the warnings on liquor and cigarettes. Same with the upcoming festival of binge drinking known hereabouts as Unofficial St. Patricks Day (the workaround local bar owners have devised for the unfortunate timing of the real St. Patrick's Day which falls over spring break, when students are out of town).

So while my institution benignly waves on genocide and substance abuse, what responsibilities do I have for the triggers embedded in the material I teach?

It's important to note what a "trigger warning" is NOT: it's not an explicit authorization for students to steer clear of material that might unsettle them and it's not censorship-in-advance of material on sensitive topics. Rather, it strikes me as a solution--one I had not considered--to a very real problem: making class discussion open to all participants. Whenever I teach texts that involve scenes of sexual violence or substance abuse or racial violence, I am always uncomfortably aware that some students have more personal insight into these topics than others. That material that, for some students exists on the same plane of unfamiliarity as Candide's trip to El Dorado is for other students, a pressing daily reality. I know this because students tell me, later, in office hours, why they hung back in a particular discussion, why they were reluctant to speak, why they decided to skip class that day.

The fiction that all students meet the course material in the same place is necessary for creating discussions that are ultimately about the material and not about the students. Inviting students to talk about their own experience can--most people learn the hard way--give discussion a tone of group therapy that most instructors are not trained to manage productively and that diverts energy from the course content. But it's also a fiction that gives students no framework for meshing their own painful experience with course material that touches on it. A trigger warning might not, ultimately, change anything about how a particular text gets taught, but it will frame the teaching of the text with the fact that violence it depicts is real, with real-world effects.

03 March 2014

Just How Hard Is It to Get Your Living Room Accredited?

Although billed as a solution to the adjunct crisis, "Home College: An Idea Whose Time has Come" solves a number of other problems as well: the rising cost of college, concerns about quality, the desire to make the resources of the SLAC more broadly available.

Home-schooling is not just for the narrow-minded religious right!  It crops up in liberal academic communities where parents who know what effective learning looks like get concerned that their kids aren't experiencing it in the local school system.  There's a tiny private school for girls where I live.  It was started by a group of parents concerned about their daughters' unhappiness at middle school.  They banded together to share expertise and collaboratively home-school their kids, and their cooperative effort gradually solidified into an institution that now charges tuition and hires teachers.  I've long wondered if such an arrangement would work for post-secondary education, particularly in the community where I live, where there are a lot of underemployed Ph.D's in a wide range of fields.

Would the students miss out on a more standard away-from-home college experience?  Of course.  But most of us know plenty of smart people who have gone through life without it: they commuted from home for college, or they transferred from a community college to a four-year institution, or they came to college later in life.  Would "home college" be a suffocating cocoon of parental hypervigilance? Certainly it could be--but it could also make possible a wider range of community involvement, travel, and work experience.  Wouldn't it simply replicate the structures of privilege that already give most faculty brats a step up in the world?  No more than any four-year college would--and I would hope that the would-be faculty cobbling together such an arrangement would look for ways to extend the benefits of the micro-classroom beyond their own networks.

Obviously, it's a possibility that rises or falls over the issue of transfer credits and accreditation.  No matter how much you learn through intensive study at your kitchen table and the local library, no one cares if you can't package that knowledge as a credential.  But why not bounce this idea around? Everyone agrees that the future of higher ed is going to be unrecognizably different from its past. Most of the projected solutions go big: technology- and institution-driven ways to scale up learning and hold down labor costs.  Perhaps we should also be thinking small.

02 March 2014

41% or 76%?

How bad is the adjunct crisis?  Is it a crisis?  It's bad, argues Matt Bruenig, but not that bad.  He traces the 76% figure from Miya Tokumitsu to Sarah Kendzior to the NY Times, finally tracking it back to its source: this graph, from the AAUP's "Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2012-13":

So rather than claiming, "76% of instructional staff are adjuncts," it would be more accurate to say "76% of instructional staff are not tenured"--and as Bruenig points out, that 76% combines the 41% of "part-time faculty" with 16% "full-time non-tenure-track faculty," 19% "graduate student employees" and, most damningly 7% "full-time tenure-track faculty."

But the claim that "41% of instructional faculty are adjuncts" is also misleading, as is the frequent conflation of "part-time" faculty with "adjunct faculty."  Not all adjuncts are part-time.  Not all full-time faculty get the protections, salary, and institutional validation of tenure-stream faculty.  Nor should graduate employees be set entirely apart from the exploitative labor practices of higher ed. Programs that accept more graduate students than they can place on the market in order to staff lower-level courses are exacerbating a labor problem, not solving it.  Some institutions also devise non-faculty designation for instructional staff who teach service courses, particularly foreign languages, so some people who deliver instruction and look for all the world like "faculty" may slip through the cracks of a survey like this.

The real question, though, is not one that can be answered by a survey that counts bodies and job titles.  Who is actually teaching college students?  This set of numbers flattens meaningful distinctions between teaching loads and student contact hours.  Full-time plus part-time non-tenure-stream faculty make up only (!) 57% of the warm bodies employed in higher ed, but they may well be doing far more than 57% of the teaching offered by their institutions.  And how large a percentage is too large?

The Paradigm Shift Behind the Paywall

When Cathy Davidson urges me on Twitter to read "Why Higher Education Demands a Paradigm Shift," I hop to it.  And like many snarky commentators on Twitter, I immediately discover that it's in a Duke University publication, behind a paywall.  No problem there! Adjuncts may not get 21st-century wifi or tech support, but they do get 19th-century library privileges, and my privileged library subscribes to Public Culture.  Like every 21st century knowledge worker, I have my own laptop and home internet, so I'm in.  Of course, I can't hyperlink to this article, so note that the quotes below are from Cathy Davidson, "Why Higher Education Demands a Paradigm Shift," Public Culture 26:1 (Winter 2014): 3 - 11.

So why does higher ed need a paradigm shift?  According to Davidson (and this sounds right) it's because the old paradigm of the research university was already giving short shrift to the humanities:
I see liberal arts and the humanistic mode of analysis as at least part of what the management apparatus of the research university was designed to minimize. Once liberal arts or general education becomes something to pass through on the way to the goal of specialized, professional expertise, it morphs from eternal verity to general point of entry.