Dr. Karen’s (Partial) Rules of the Job Talk

I’ve been asked by many readers to write about the Job Talk. I’ve resisted doing this because I believe that by the time you are writing your job talk, any meaningful advice has to be completely personalized. In other words, general rules about job talks would have to be so general as to be of minimal value. And valuable rules about your job talk can only be delivered personally.

I read job talks as part of my work here at TPII, and I’m convinced that on one occasion at least, my intervention saved a candidate from certain failure. She went on, with a new job talk revamped to showcase her authority and expertise, and proceeded to get the offer.

This morning, when asked again for a post on job talks, I began to think about what I corrected in that particular case, and a few others. I realized that I did correct for some errors that are relatively common, and that these corrections might serve as rules that could be of value to others. These rules will never replace personalized critique, but they may help you to avoid the worst and most embarrassing mistakes.

So, in no particular order, I present a preliminary list of Rules of the Academic Job Talk.

1.  Banish the following words:

  • seek
  • hope
  • try
  • wish
  • believe

Refer to my post: “Do or Do Not. There Is No Try.”

2.  Banish the following phrases:

  • is worthy of study”
  • “deserves study”
  • merits study”

The fact that you are studying it proves that it is worthy of study. Saying these words makes you sound like a junior grad student trying to convince a skeptical advisor of the value of a dissertation topic.

3.  Be thoroughly formal and professorial

This is not a chat. This is a formal presentation of research. It is meant to showcase your expertise and authority, not demonstrate that you are “nice.” Do not write the job talk as if you are “talking.” An example would be:

So then I’m going to ask the question, ‘what would happen if we look at x instead of y?’ And when I do that, a very interesting thing comes up, which I’m sure that you can anticipate, which is that focusing on x puts the whole topic of z in a new perspective….”

Instead, you will write:

Focusing on x instead of y reveals a different perspective on z, and it is on that perspective that I focus in this talk today.”

In addition, use formal words exclusively. This is not the place for slang and casual language.

4.  Minimize your use of “us” and “we.”

I’m not saying you have to jettison them entirely, but based on my experiences with job talks, they are vastly overused, and are a central element of the excessive chattiness that I describe in rule #3.

5.  Use humor sparingly

Search committees and audiences always appreciate knowing that you have a sense of humor, but the job talk is not the place to demonstrate it. One small witticism, if it arises naturally from your materials, or some mishap in your presentation, is certainly appropriate. But beyond that, let your sense of humor emerge in your conversations throughout the day; in the job talk, give your research the serious delivery that it deserves.

6.  Use visuals, but don’t over-rely on them.

Academic audiences are generally ambivalent about PowerPoint. They appreciate visuals as much as anyone, but they also resent the “dumbing down” that often happens in a PowerPoint-centric presentation. Be sure that the text stands alone as academic written text, and is not subordinate to slides. In other words, don’t stand in front of the screen and say “and next, in this slide, we see that….”

7.  Leave visuals that you do use on the screen for long enough that the audience can thoroughly assimilate and respond to them.

One of the most common errors that nervous speakers commit is snapping through visuals too quickly. You may have seen these slides 127 times, but your audience is seeing them for the first time. They need abundant time—several minutes most likely—to thoroughly study and assimilate the information on the slide.

8. This goes without saying, don’t read from the paper.

While this may seem to contradict Rule #3 and possibly Rule #6, it does not. You can remain strictly professorial and formal, and still make abundant eye contact, gesture broadly, and in some cases move about the stage or podium area. It is imperative that you draw your audience in and also closely monitor their reactions to what you are saying. For both of those to happen, you must watch them. Know your talk well enough that you don’t have to read it. Also, anticipating nerves, print the talk out in large font and doublespace, so that it’s easy to read, and also don’t be afraid to put stage directions into the text (“point to screen here”; “offer ‘spontaneous’ remark about xxx here”, etc.)

9.  Make sure the talk speaks to the job being advertised.

Candidates can be so obsessed with their own narrow project, on the one hand, or so over-amped about trying to be all things to all people, on the other, that they often miss the mark in pitching the talk to exactly the position being filled. If it’s a 19th century literature job, then should your talk be about postcolonial literature? No. Should it be about Fielding? No. Should it be about 20th century adaptations of Dickens? No. It should be about some aspect of actual literature written in the actual 19th century. Do interesting things, but don’t forget that they have curricular needs that they are filling.

10.  Get to the point. And stay on point (Brits, I’m talking to you).

Don’t spend 7 pages in prefatory remarks and caveats. You should be into the main topic of your talk by the end of the first page. Make sure that the evidence mobilized and arguments advanced actually speak directly to the topic, and make your core central point.

11.  Articulate an argument.

One of the most startling things about working as The Professor has been discovering just how many young scholars, across the university, cannot articulate a central argument of their research. You should be able to give the core argument of your project in a single sentence. That sentence should be prominently placed in the beginning of your job talk. You will then use evidence and logic to prove the legitimacy of your argument. And then you will conclude by reminding the audience what you argued, and then briefly gesturing to the wider implications and ramifications of that argument.

12.  Be aware of your body language.

I worked with a stellar client who was the real deal, the whole package—brilliant project, fabulous teaching, terrific intellectual pedigree. And then we did a run-through of her job talk on skype. Who was this person? Her typical self-assurance was nowhere to be seen. Her hands fluttered like little fish. She bobbed and swayed. Her eyes darted side to side. “No, start over, try it again!” I said. “No, you’re still doing it!” Three times we went through it. I hung up feeling anxious indeed. Turns out, of course, she totally killed it, when it counted. Thank god. But she told me afterward, without that skype practice she never would have realized just how much she let her nerves show through her body language. You need a level gaze, head high, a firm stance, strongly planted feet (no winding or twisting your feet below the podium), squared shoulders, hands calmly on the podium or gesturing.

13.  Have a strong and inspiring finish.

Do not dribble away with “so, yeah, uh, I guess that’s it…. uh, so, yeah, does anybody have any questions…?” leaving the audience to squirm in their seats and wonder when to clap. Finish strong. Asssertively. With a clear falling tone in the final words, then a pause, and then a confident gaze with half-smile taking in the whole audience, and a strong and gracious “Thank You.” Then another pause for applause, and then, “I’d be happy to take questions” (or acknowledge your introducer rising out of his or her seat to mediate questions for you).

14.  Finish on time.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the fastest way to lose a job is to go over-schedule. Searches are grueling and exhausting and inconvenient for departments. The faculty are dragged out of their already over-taxed schedules to sit in your talk. They have things right up to the start, and more things immediately after the finish. They need your talk to start on time and end on time, period. Zero tolerance for mistakes here. Practice 10 times at home until you can say with total certainty that the talk will never, under any circumstances, go over your allotted time.

15.  Don’t forget your conclusion.

All academic writing needs a strong conclusion, and it is the element most often forgotten. Academics often forget that academic speaking is a form of performance. And as with all performances, the build up to the conclusion, and the conclusion itself, are in some ways the most important elements. The finish sits in the air, vibrating, and stays with the listeners for some time. It’s true that in an academic talk, questioners often jump in aggressively; nevertheless, a strong finish, more than almost anything else, demonstrates the speaker’s confidence and elan.

16.  Be prepared for the Q and A.

In my years on searches, it was the Q and A that most often destroyed candidates. Given enough time and help, most people could pull together a decent talk, but it was the Q and A that separated the wheat from the chaff. Remember that by the time you give the job talk, you’ve already proven that your work, on paper, is good. What the job talk proves is that you’re intellectually vibrant and dynamic, that you can defend your work against challenges, while remaining open to intriguing new scholarly possibilities and conversations. Remain friendly, good humored, and affable, but not cringing, obsequious, or pandering. Remember to thank the questioner with words such as “that’s an excellent question,” or “thanks for bringing that up,” or “that’s actually an interesting point.” Call on the most senior people first; they will expect it. Try to avoid calling on graduate students, who often ask questions that are off-point or self-aggrandizing. Master the art of academic jiu jitsu; when directly challenged, acknowledge the value of the questioner’s point, but then turn the focus away from their agenda and back to your own. In other words, never, ever respond “oh, wow, I really wish I’d had time to talk about that and it’s a total oversight that I didn’t include it, I’m really sorry about that…” Instead respond, “you raise a valuable point and it’s certainly one that I considered. However, my findings showed that the primary issue her is in fact xxxx, and so it was to that that I turned my greatest attention.”  

Having reached the Q and A, I will stop here.  I may add to this post as time goes by, and I remember elements of the job talk that need discussion and dissection.  Readers, feel free to add your own comments and suggestions.  

 

 

 

 

Be Professorial

If you had asked me, prior to my opening of The Professor Is In, what I imagined would be the biggest communicative challenge of young job candidates, I would have said, “being excessively pompous and pretentious.”

And I would have been wrong.

The fact is, I’ve learned after conducting some 100 Interview Bootcamps, the biggest problem that young job candidates have is not sounding pompous and pretentious enough.

It’s really the oddest thing.

Client after client, setting out to attain the position of professor, reveal themselves to be completely unprepared to sound actually….professorial.

I spend an inordinate amount of time telling Interview Bootcamp clients to, first of all, pause.  Pause, and stroke your metaphorical beard.  Nod sagely.  Think deeply.  Inhale.  And then—and only then—respond to the question.  This is the classic professorial move.  Learn it.

I tell them to slow down.  The slow, deliberate delivery is a core professorial conceit.  Professors don’t race breathlessly through their words.  They savor them.  They relish them.  The h-y-p-e-r-articulate them, the way Ross used to do on Friends.  Watch here, at 3:57, where Ross hits his stride on the subject of evolution. (sorry this isn’t embedded; i tried!)

Ross from Friends on Evolution

Like Ross, cherish your final consonants, because they are your allies.  Contractions, however, banish.  What are you, an undergraduate?

Practice saying this:  “I. Am. quiTE convinceD that they. Are. correcT in their assumptioNS, although [heh heh—conspiratorial laugh] I mighT dispuTE soME of their con-clu-sioNS.”

Gesture widely, expansively.  Opine.  Assert.  Dare I say it, explicate.

I would never have dreamed that I’d be telling graduate students to be more pompous, but in fact, that’s exactly what you need to be.

What most young job candidates lack, that actual professors have in spades, comes down to one thing:  self-importance.

Remember, if you’re setting out to be a professor, the first thing you have to do is act like one.

 

Pregnant on Your Campus Visit–A Crowdsource Project

Today’s post is a Special Request post for a reader who wishes to know how to handle pregnancy and the job search, particularly the campus visit.

This is a subject about which I’m not really qualified to write. I was never pregnant while on the job market. I was pregnant as a second and fourth year assistant professor, and I certainly have opinions about that.

But the demands of the job market are different, and frankly, the stakes higher, for the pregnant job candidate. There are so many assumptions about pregnancy, motherhood, and women that come into play when the highly cogitized realm of an academic department comes face to face with a conspicuously pregnant job candidate, assumptions that rarely work in the candidate’s favor.

Basically, bodies tend to make academics uncomfortable, and the pregnant body is hard to ignore.

I would suggest that at some point after the invitation has been made and the arrangements well finalized, you mention to whomever you’ve been corresponding with that you are pregnant.

“By the way,” you might write, “I just wanted to mention that I’m 6 months pregnant. This will not impact my visit in any way; I mention just so nobody is too startled when I arrive.”

My concern about springing a pregnant belly on an unsuspecting search committee or dinner group is that the truly minimal social skills that characterize so many academics could lead to wildly awkward or inappropriate (if well-intentioned) comments. Forestall that possibility with advance warning.

It is my observation that by and large, and particularly as more and more women enter the academy, departments do manage to successfully host pregnant candidates and take them seriously as contenders for the job. I’ve had clients who have also been pumping breast milk at the time of their campus visit, and asked for, and received, accomodation by the department.

Having said that, I’m certain that there are horror stories. And I want to hear them.

My purpose in this post is to solicit stories from those who have actually been there.

Readers, would you share your pregnant campus visit tales and advice, both good and bad, successful and not?

I’d like to create a resource here that will be useful to everyone confronting this challenge, both candidates themselves, but perhaps also the hosting departments, who may be just as desperate for reliable information about potential pitfalls and challenges.

I and my Special Requester thank you in advance.   

Can I Ask For Feedback After a Rejection?

Yes.  Yes you can ask for feedback after a rejection. 

While I don’t recommend you do this indiscriminately to all jobs to which you applied, if you were invited to a campus visit, then yes, it is in my opinion appropriate to respond to a rejection with a very brief and unemotional email to either the Department Head or the Search Committee Chair something along these lines:

“Dear XXX,

I want to thank you again for hosting me at your department.  I understand the position was offered to another candidate. I am writing now to inquire if you have any feedback that I might take from the visit to improve my candidacy as I move ahead in my job search.  I would be most appreciative of your honest constructive critique if you see elements of my candidacy that could be improved.

Thank you for your time,

XXXXX”

 

Now, to be truthful, I suspect that the norm here is that you will not get a response.  I think that faculty members may well feel awkward, embarrassed, ashamed, annoyed, or just plain too busy to respond to this honest request for help. 

In addition, the issues may well have little to do with the candidate personally, and more to do with “fit.”  But sometimes there really is feedback that can be offered, without damaging the integrity of the search, which a candidate can take away and learn from.  “Your job talk was poorly organized and needs work”; “You seemed unprepared to answer questions about basic courses that you’d teach”; “You’ll want to get better at showing an interest in the job itself and the people with whom you’re talking”; etc.

If I had *ever* been asked for this kind of feedback from an unsuccessful job candidate, I would most definitely have responded.  Indeed, I longed to be able to offer feedback to many of the particularly clueless job candidates who lurched through our doors.  But it is a thing that cannot be offered gratuitously.

The important thing here is not to sound needy or resentful or emotional in any way. You cannot express disappointment and resentment or personalize the rejection  (“I really don’t see where I could have gone wrong”; “I don’t understand why the other candidate was better qualified than me”; etc.).  A firm neutrality that you may be far from actually feeling is the key to an effective approach here.

I will reiterate that sometimes the answer is “You were great; in the end our decision revolved around the best fit for the department.”  That may seem unhelpful, but it does require you to ask yourself if you really did, in reality, express your potential fit as well as you could have.  Be your own harshest critic in these things.  Take the step to find out who did get the job, and think about their profile and whether it has strengths that yours lacks.    And take steps to fill any gaps.

The job search process is, for most, about learning from rejections.  As painful as it is, assume that there is something concrete to learn from every rejection and make every job application that you send out better and more focused than the one that preceded it.

 

 

 

How Would You Mentor Graduate Students? Another #Facepalm Fail

Today I was doing an interview bootcamp and came upon yet another #Facepalm Fail of the academic interview.

The #Facepalm Fail is: “How would you mentor graduate students?”

Actually, this might not rise to the level of a full-size #Facepalm Fail, because it will only be asked in certain contexts–interviews for jobs in departments with graduate programs.

Nevertheless, you should be prepared. One of the hardest mental shifts to make in the grad school –> job market transition is from being a graduate student to being a person in charge of training graduate students.

And yet make that transition you must.  This is a question that virtually all interview bootcamp clients bomb.  

Here, in brief, is how to respond to that question:  

“Graduate students at different levels will have different needs. First year graduate students will be struggling to simply adapt to the demands of graduate school, and for those students, I would focus on helping them navigate the expectations of the program, its requirements, and basic academic reading and writing skills.

Mid-program students who are involved in establishing their dissertation projects will need assistance in formulating an original research project, and then gaining a command of the theoretical schools of thought and the various methodologies necessary to conduct it. Teaching skills in grant-writing are also important at this stage.

With more advanced students I focus on academic writing skills, and also work with them to plan ahead for conferences and presenting work in public.

As graduate students finish the program I would focus on the job market and other professionalization skills such as fellowships, the job market, and networking. Overall I want to support students in both their scholarly growth as well as their professional development.”

Would that our own advisors had actually done–or even thought of doing–any of this!

The Ins and Outs of a Professional Academic Website (Guest Post)

Today’s post comes to us from Roger Whitson of the Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC) at Emory University.  Roger kindly stepped forward when I asked for a guest post on the often asked questions: Should I have a professional academic website? And if so, what should it do?  I’m so pleased to have this post to both answer those questions, and demonstrate with lots of live links how to go about creating such a website.  Thanks for this, Roger!
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I have to admit, I’m a little biased. I have been interested in personal and professional websites since around 1996, when I created my first website in college. I enjoy having a web presence. I like the idea that my friends can contact me and keep up with what I am doing. And I admit that I’ve said things I definitely wouldn’t want a job committee looking at online. When my colleagues tell me that they don’t want to have a professional website, I can understand the fear they have of saying or doing something that will come back to haunt them.

So, why am I an advocate of creating a professional website? As a member of the Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC) at Emory University, I believe academics should use digital technology to their benefit. Part of using digital technology positively is understanding and taking control of our online identity. It is almost impossible to not have an online identity these days. If you have ever responded to a blog post, you already have an online identity. If you have participated in a message board, or created a Facebook account, or wrote an amazon review, you already have an online identity. For me, it isn’t a matter of staying completely off the grid, it’s a matter of consciously crafting your online identity so that it most effectively presents who you are to potential employers.

Why should I have something other than my academia.edu site? Certainly, academia.edu might be enough for some academics simply wanting to have a single academic presence online. But, for those of us interested in business opportunities, non-academic and alternative academic jobs, other online services are important. Scholars are increasingly communicating on Twitter and writing blogs about their teaching and research. Different disciplines and fields might approach these technologies differently. Someone interested in the digital humanities and computer science, for example, may need to have a more robust digital presence than someone working in a more traditionally print-oriented field. Every year, DiSC conducts a very useful workshop on using online services like academia.edu, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to control what happens when someone searches for your name on Google. Here is a video of that workshop. I like to have a professional website, because I can control almost every aspect of that site. I, then, use sites like academia.edu and LinkedIn to point people to my professional site. Having more sites that you can control also gives you more control over what people see when they perform a Google search on your name. Take a look at me. Professional websites, LinkedIn, academia.edu, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites tend to score very high on Google search results.

What should my website do? I see my website as an online hub for my accomplishments and current projects. I include a copy of my CV, using a paper-sharing application called Scribd; a brief account of my research and digital scholarship; my teaching portfolio, with a teaching philosophy, student evaluations of my work, sample syllabi, and links to student projects; embedded Prezis of my most recent conference presentations; and videos presenting my teaching and research. I feel that my professional site allows my job applications to come alive. Not only do employers see that I presented on collaborative reading and annotation in the classroom at the 2012 Modern Language Association conference, they can read that presentation, and see a video of me giving an introduction to the presentation at the MLA. Finally, I like to keep a blog on my personal website. This allows me to quickly point people to changes in my CV, like receiving an award, being quoted in a magazine, or accepting a new job.

What should my website look like? The design of your website is important. It helps to characterize you as a professional and an academic. Since I am interested in technology, scholarship, and teaching, I wanted a site that looked contemporary and gave evidence for my digital skills. The rounded edges, the overall clean and non-cluttered design of the site, and the multiple links to other social networking sites show that I am heavily invested in social media and design. I also wanted my site to establish my name (“Roger T. Whitson”) and my visual identity. If you look, I have the same picture on my header, on my Twitter profile on the right, and on the favicon displayed in the URL bar. This photograph is also repeated in many of the social network sites I frequent. Further, I try to use the same username (“rogerwhitson”) on those same sites. The point is to create and maintain a consistent message about my identity. Fellow DiSC member Brian Croxall does the same thing. The design of a professional site gives you a good sense of an academic’s professional identity. Doris Bremm has a minimal online website (including only her CV, a brief page about her Spring 2011 class, and a discussion of a film series she curated), whose design visually reflects her dissertation’s focus on visual art. The pixelated background to Zach Whalen’s site references his scholarly interest in video games. Anne Pollack’s site features diagrams of hearts and pictures of researchers in order to foreground her work in biomedicine and pharmaceuticals.

Where do I go from here? There are several different platforms you could potentially use when designing a professional site. Some scholars use a simple WordPress.com site. In fact, DiSC also has a very useful workshop on creating a WordPress.com site. I like WordPress because it is an easy platform to use and is open-source. Further, WordPress.com sites usually take very little time to set up, you can choose from many different themes, and update them when you want. I downloaded my own WordPress package from WordPress.org and use a site called Hostmonster to be able to have my own domain name. While WordPress.com hosts websites, WordPress.org gives you the WordPress program to set up your own website whereever you want. Some people are fine with having  http://yourname.wordpress.com, but I like the idea that people can easily remember my URL (“http://www.rogerwhitson.net”). You can pay for WordPress to host your domain name, but there are further advantages to using WordPress.org. These include the ability to extend the functionality of your website using plugins. I use several plugins on my site including Blackbird Pie, which allows me to embed Tweets into my site; WordPress GoodReads Bookshelf, which displays images of the books I’m currently reading; and Vimeo Quicktags, which allows me to embed videos uploaded to the Vimeo site easily. Some scholars also use Drupal, code websites themselves, or hire a professional developer but these are solutions that are often too complex and/or expensive to really help individual scholars. I am also able, should I decide to do so, to change the design of my theme by using CSS in the Editor on the WordPress dashboard.

Ultimately, the choice to create a professional website depends on a number of factors: who is your potential audience? Are the schools you are applying to invested in digital technology? Does your professional identity include technology in any significant way? While many academics may not want to create a professional website for precisely these reasons, controlling your online presence is becoming increasingly important as employers gain skill in using digital technology. Creating a professional website is one of many tools you can use to make sure the message potential employers get from the web is the message you intend.

Two Societies–Separate and Unequal: Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide

On Tuesday I posted the first of two posts on the New Faculty Majority Summit on Contingent Labor in Higher Education that took place in Washington,DC this past weekend.  That post was, as I said then, in a descriptive vein.  I promised a second one in a more meditative vein.  This is the post that reflects what I was actually preoccupied with most of the time I was sitting in the Summit.  And that is:  how far all of this is from the world I knew as a tenure-line and tenured professor.

One phrase kept coming into my mind throughout the day.  The phrase was:  “two societies.”  Two societies, that is, separate and unequal.  Or, in its original form, from the Kerner Report of 1968:  “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The Kerner Report, as it is known,  was a study commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots.

When it came out, the report was a damning indictment of white America and its abandonment of the black community.  It became an unexpected best-seller.  Its Introduction summarized its findings:

Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.

This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.

To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.

The alternative is…the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.

This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

Setting aside any astonishment, in 2012, that a government-sanctioned committee would produce a document that included these words, I suppose it’s obvious why I found that phrase “two societies—separate but unequal” resounding in my mind the day of the Summit.  How much of a stretch is it to apply this to the tenure-line vs. NTT faculty context?  Let’s try it and see.

Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of university life; they now threaten the future of every university.

This deepening status division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for an administrative and pedagogical resolution.

To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the university community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic educational values.

The alternative is…the realization of common opportunities for all within a single higher educational context.

This alternative will require a commitment to action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every university administrator and faculty member it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

The vital needs of the university must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new funding models enacted.

This is a truth I know in my bones.

The fact is, as a tenure-track and tenured professor, I never gave adjuncts a second thought.  They and their circumstances, their needs and goals, were of no concern to me.  I knew on the one hand that the job market was brutal, and that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that I should have ended up employed on the tenure track, or that others of my acquaintance would not.  I did not believe that I was significantly more brilliant than others who ended up unemployed or adjuncting.

At the same time, by virtue of the fact that I DID succeed in gaining a permanent, full-time, tenure track position at Ph.D.-granting departments at a R1 institution, I was in the elite class.

I hasten to add that I didn’t feel “elite” particularly, and certainly not elitist, which is counter to my basic ethos in life.  And I was painfully aware of how, at the perennially cash-strapped University of Oregon, I enjoyed far, far fewer resources than peers at Ivy Leagues and upper crust institutions.

But on another more core level, I was elite indeed.  Because I was in the top tier—a tenure-line faculty at Ph.D.-granting departments at a R1 institution with a low teaching load and access to excellent funding for my research and writing.  I was being paid a (barely) liveable wage with benefits to do what was ultimately the work of the mind—to publish my research for the benefit of the discipline, and to teach it for the benefit of students.

At the time my identity hinged almost entirely on that elite status.  Not consciously, mind you.  It wasn’t that I felt others were inferior.  It was that they were irrelevant.  I was a player, and they were not.  I was in the game of academic status and competition and they were not.  I was credible, I was legitimate, I was competitive (for grants, awards, and honors) and they were not.   The people I “saw” (ie, who were visible to me) were the others who, like myself, were in the competitive status game.

Now, I hasten to add that even labeling that context a “competitive status game,” is to descriptively fail.  Because at the time, in that world, it wasn’t conceived of as a game but as sober and serious “work.”  It also didn’t feel competitive in an immediate sense since collegiality was common, and collaborations were also possible.

And above all, status was never, ever openly discussed.

So “competitive status game” is what I call it only now, with the benefit of hindsight.  At the time I was simply totally engaged in the impulse to produce and to get ever-increasing recognition and rewards for what I produced.

It was grueling, but it was also deeply, profoundly gratifying, and frankly, pretty fun.  After all, I did love what I did.  I loved my field, and my work, and my intellectual mission, and my pedagogical coolness (I was one of those young, hip assistant professors so beloved of the undergrads).  I loved campus life, and tooling about importantly heading off to conferences and meetings. I loved meeting colleagues for coffee and talking intently.  I loved, really inordinately loved, being able to write off for free desk copies. I felt powerful.  My world was, in short, completely absorbing. I had drunk the Kool-Aid.

And so it seemed to be for my colleagues, especially the junior ones.  We made wry jokes about looming deadlines, recalcitrant funders, and intractable reviewers.  But those jokes were the language that communicated our membership in a single tribe.  We were the people who “mattered.”

And to a large degree we were treated as such—the people who matter—by the members of administration who actually noticed us (which were not many).  We were, after all, the capital-generators, the content-producers of the university industry. Without us and our “research productivity” and grant money, the university had nothing to brag about or use to solicit endowment gifts.

So our idiosyncracies and self-absorption were more or less tolerated and enabled by the managers/administrators in charge of capitalizing on our talent.

I go into this detail to try and give a sense of the habitus of what was, ultimately, a position of enormous privilege.  And as with all positions of privilege, this one was invisible to us, its holders.  Because we only “saw” and engaged with others equally privileged, those outside that world were rendered invisible.  They were not people who mattered.

I’m not proud of this.  But I bring it up to articulate, with difficulty, my sense that because we occupied two societies, the tenure-line and the non-, the needs and concerns of the non- were utterly invisible to me.

More to the point, looking back now, I do not know how I could have found any place of common interest with NTT faculty at the time, or indeed through most of my career, extending well past tenure and even into my administrative career as department head. As a department head wrestling with criminally inadequate program funding (albeit in a department that almost never hired adjuncts because we had a pool of graduate students for our grunt-work), I mainly just wondered how fast I could find one when needed.  I don’t know when a space for common interest would have arisen, in what context, or what would have compelled it.

What did eventually happen was this:  as my absorption in this world declined for a constellation of reasons both personal and vocational, my ability to “see” those off the tenure-track increased.  When I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid (and this was a painfully slow, difficult, and shame-ridden process indeed), the rotten structure, the crumbling edifice of the whole system became visible, and in fact, inescapable.  A growing friendship with a NTT faculty member on campus, and hearing her story and daily experiences, brought it into relief. After a time I couldn’t see anything BUT those who are excluded and marginalized by the system of privilege I had once uncritically inhabited.  And that status began to stink, and I didn’t want it anymore.  By the time I had the opportunity to leave, I was ready.

What astounded me most then was the dawning realization of my previous total lack of critical perspective on the academic world and its structures of privilege.  After all, all of my scholarly “work” had been dedicated to the critical analysis of social privilege and power.  How was it that someone totally committed to a “critical” ethos was able to spend 15 years in a profession and never turn that critical eye onto it?  How was it that power and class status were something I analyzed, but not something I inhabited?

Let me hasten to add that I was well-versed in the issues of white privilege and class privilege as they applied to myself in “society.”  I was very conscious of my backpack.  It’s just that I did not make the connection to the equivalent privilege and status in *the university setting* itself.  Status differentials there –outside of the authorized ones of assistant-associate-full-dean-provost-chancellor—were invisible to me.

I think they are invisible to most tenure-line faculty, even the most avowedly Marxist.  As the Japanese proverb goes, darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse.  There is something profound at the heart of the university enterprise, particularly in the liberal arts, that mystifies its members to the structures of money and power that organize it.  I don’t know what it is.  But it apparently persists long after the economic justification for it has evaporated.

The Kerner Report went on:

Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it.

Indulge me a moment longer in this exercise of translation:

Segregation and poverty have created in the adjunct ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most tenure-line faculty.

What tenure-line faculty have never fully understood—but what the adjunct can never forget—is that the educational institutions are deeply implicated in the ghetto. The educational institutions created it, educational institutions maintain it, and educational institutions condone it.

Tenure-line faculty enjoy a position of sanctioned ignorance about the conditions in which the NTT labor, and the degree to which tenure-line positions and salaries, not to mention funding for research, are paid for by the labor of others who may be going without health insurance, adequate medical care and food, and sufficient money to pay for rent and clothing in the same month.

“We have no adjuncts here” say faculty and administrators on campus after campus, apparently believing it, according to Adrianna Kezar, Associate Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, who spoke at the Summit.  To acknowledge adjuncts’ existence next to you on campus, doing identical classroom work but getting paid 1/20th of the salary, is to acknowledge that what you do is a form of employment with an economic rationale. And to acknowledge the existence of a shadow economy on your campus, the underbelly of the university ideal.  Is this why so many tenure-line won’t meet the eyes of NTT they pass in the hallways?

As one tenure line assistant professor at the University of Oregon said to our campus union organizer, “please don’t come talk to me about a union.  If you make me think about how little I’m paid and how little I’m respected, you’ll take away the last, the very last illusion that I’m clinging to—that this is more than just a job.  Without that illusion I don’t think I can go on.”

While I think that tenure-line faculty are not actually privileged enough, in the present moment of the neoliberal university, to be able to afford not to have common cause with the NTT faculty, I believe that few of them are prepared to relinquish the sanctioned ignorance (or willful delusion) that derives from their invisible (to them) privilege.  Based on my former career and experiences, I believe that like Lyndon Johnson, most –with some notable exceptions—will continue to deny the existence of the two societies in their shared community, and hold fast to the status quo.

 

Seeing the Invisible Adjunct: Thoughts on the New Faculty Majority Summit

I am the last of the Social Media Team from the New Faculty Majority Summit on Contingent Labor in Higher Education to get up my blog post about the event in DC this past weekend.  This first post is in a descriptive vein.  My second, on Thursday, will be more meditative, as I think about the NTT issue against the backdrop of my former tenured status and career.

Josh Boldt, Lee Skallerup Bessette, John. A. Casey, Jr., Eliana Osborne, and Brian Croxall have all posted thoughtful discussions on their respective blogs of the Summit’s inspirations, provocations, and possible limitations.  I urge you to click on these links and read their work.  There is also the summary of the event posted in the Chronicle.

[Michael Berube, President of the MLA, added his column on 2/1/2012 in Inside Higher Ed.  A must-read.]

For myself, I was impressed and energized by the Summit. I don’t recall a conference in which every speaker was so passionate, eloquent, entertaining, and on-point. There was urgency here, and the outpouring of decades of rage, grief, impatience, and outrage.

The Summit itself was dedicated to Doug Wright, a long-time, beloved university teacher in Salt Lake City.  As NFM President Maria Maisto told us, Doug taught steadily and mostly full-time for some 20 years, not on the tenure track, at several institutions in Salt Lake City. Although beloved by his students and colleagues, he lost his job in a restructuring, and lost his health insurance.  Shortly afterward, Doug contracted cancer, and bankrupted himself trying to pay his medical bills before he died.  His story is told here.

Such human costs of the adjunct economy are mostly invisible.  For me, one of the primary achievements of the Summit was to demand their public visibility.  The small and large humiliations and desperations that accompany the adjunct experience, and the impact that this labor insecurity has on the learning conditions on campuses, are at the very heart of our contemporary university environment.

I want to share the insights into the “hidden costs” of a reliance on adjunct labor as they emerged throughout the day, as reflected in my Twitter stream, and amplified where appropriate.

Educational Costs

Leadership doesn’t see any connection between faculty status and student learning. The university is a black box.   Learning happens, nobody knows how….  There is an incredible lack of awareness, particularly among higher administrators.   On campus after campus I’ve been told, “we have no adjunct faculty  here.”  Adrianna Kezar, Associate Director, Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis  (KK: does anyone else hear eerie echoes of, ‘we have no gays in our country’?  More on that Thursday.)

Liberal education is at stake. Not a “just in time” educational experience of rushed, expedient classes that will fit into an over-crowded schedule between part time jobs, but education in fundamental thinking skills. Carol Schneider, President, Association of American Colleges and Universities

Interventions in student success and retention fall on the shoulders of contingent faculty. But those faculty are not heard from. There is no recognition of the problems for NTTs working with the most vulnerable students–last minute hiring, lack of resources/office space, no continuity, no email. The students who need the most resources are getting the least.  Heather Wathington, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, University of Virginia

We have to think about recovering the soul of higher education and correct the bloody-minded imbalance between ever-escalating research expectations and teaching. We will never return to the former conditions of higher ed employment. The Sputnik era of expansion is over…. It is naïve to think that NTT and TT faculty have common interests.  They don’t, and will diverge more over time.  They don’t care about you!  Heck, they don’t care about their own students! A few semesters ago at Princeton no tenured faculty member  in the Economics department was teaching an undergrad class.  Stanley Katz, Director, Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies

The turn to contingent instructors is a core pillar of the privatization of education. Having our colleges staffed by contingent faculty undermines our ability to have a quality education.  They’re not available after hours,  we can’t get them on the phone, there is no continuity from one semester to the next.   It’s a culture of transactions instead of transformations! It’s ridiculous. Change must come.  Victor Sanchez, President,U.S.Student Association

Political Costs

Tenure is the guarantee of academic freedom.  The majority of faculty now work without academic freedom. Without the space of academic freedom, what is the purpose of the university? Claire Goldstene, Professorial Lecturer, American University

The real problem here is not money but power. Power means the courage to speak truth in class. Most faculty can’t speak truth today because they lack the protection and power of tenure.  Any NTT who says they teach in exactly the same way as a T-T colleague is delusional, or too clueless to be trusted with a class!  Joe Berry, Labor Historian and Author, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education

What are the reasons people don’t respond to the contingent issue? For one, because they say, “welcome to real life; all American workers are contingent.”  Instead of commonality there is competition for a piece of the pie.  Breakout Session

Human Costs

The irony is that poverty-level wages are paid to faculty at colleges, which continue to be touted as path to middle-class status. Gary Rhoads, Professor of Higher Education,University of Arizona and Director, Center for the Future of Higher Education

What happens with the academic ponzi scheme when the margin call is made?  What happens when the students realize college education actually means lifelong debt, and its promise of upward mobility is fraud?    Rich Moser,  Senior Staff Representative, Rutgers AAUP-AFT

As an adjunct, my experience was closer to barista than to a professor.  And baristas don’t need to re-apply for jobs every 15 weeks….  We need to use art to get these stories out to people who wouldn’t read the Chronicle or a snarky blog by a disaffected adjunct. I know adjuncts on food stamps, homeless, living in van, dying without insurance. I know adjuncts who committed suicide.  The visual images of an adjunct facing his empty fridge, her car held together with tape, his shoe with holes in the sole…make a powerful intervention. Debra Leigh Scott, Adjunct and Independent Artist/Filmmaker.

My full-time colleagues often will not greet me or meet my eyes in the hallway. I am introduced by my department head not as colleague, but as ‘friend.’  I do not socialize with this man!   Commenter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some have complained that few concrete action points emerged from the Summit.  I think that’s thinking too narrowly about what constitutes action.

First, I think we gained insight.  It is utterly ineffective to make a moral argument to administrators about the inequities of adjunct labor qua labor, but what emerged in the discussion is the insight that if we can make a clear connection between the dependence on NTT labor and problems of student learning and retention, administrators are far more likely to both listen and take steps to change practices.

This means raising the dreaded spectre of “quality.”  As several speakers were at pains to say, adjunct teaching, due to its “just in time” and inconsistent nature, and its lack of protections, is not the equivalent in quality to tenure-track teaching. This is not because adjuncts are less talented, but because they are given far, far fewer resources and far more chaotic conditions in which to work.

It also emerged that accreditation can possibly be used to shame campuses into dealing with NTT faculty. This is not at all simple or consistent, but if NTT faculty are given access to accreditors, and the real costs of over-dependence on contingent labor is made visible, it is possible that the accreditation status of the institution will be affected.

And last, adjuncts have been invisible in the way that all marginal and subordinate groups are invisible to the powerful, privileged and mainstream. The tenure line faculty have no reason to “see” adjuncts (and indeed a constant refrain concerned the refusal of the tenure-track to actually make eye contact with the non-tenure-track, echoing one of the primary practices of everyday racism), and the undergraduate students don’t have the ability to grasp which of their professors are adjunct and which are not.  And as with all marginal and subordinate groups, visibility and identification is the first step to challenge, resistance, and change.

As Debra Leigh Scott suggested, the real-life stories of adjuncts, the true poverty-level wages that so many of them labor under, need to be shared.  Tuition-paying parents, and students themselves, need to be made aware of the compromised nature of the education for which they are paying six figures a year.

Scott is at work with partner Chris LaBree on a documentary about adjuncts called ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. In America, telling the stories of adjuncts who live in their cars, rely on foodstamps, and face the threat of homelessness.  Unfortunately, many adjuncts have been too afraid to come forward to be featured in the film.  They fear for their continued access to employment.

It strikes me that an ethnography of the contingent –immediate, on the ground, but preserving anonymity–could be a powerful tool for making the needs and conditions of this workforce visible.  I’d like to urge any anthropologists reading this to consider it.

And to conclude, a critique of my own.   During the day a query came in over Twitter from @Literarychica:  “How many adjuncts are women?  Lots of potential for analysis there.”  We agreed that impressionistically, women do seem to predominate among adjuncts.  @Literarychica remarked, “if that’s the case then gender (as well as race/ethnicity) should be part of the conversation.”

Indeed they should.  This was quite a remarkable absence in the program.  Certainly the adjunct experience is profoundly gendered since so many women end up adjuncting as the trailing spouses of tenure-track men (not that the opposite doesn’t occur—it does, but less often), or as arose in my Twitter feed, choosing to adjunct in order to have the flexibility to stay primarily at home with young children.

Now that the Contingent/Adjunct/NTT/New Faculty Majority movement has an edifice and some momentum, it’s important to remember the lessons from other rights movements—there is no one “adjunct” identity, and we need most of all to see and hear from the many different kinds of people that have become the unacknowledged, hidden-in-the-open majority of our university teachers.

Live Post from #NewFac12 National Summit in Washington, DC

Hi folks, I’m on the Social Media team for the New Faculty Majority which has put on the National Summit on Contingent Labor in Higher Ed today in Washington, DC, in conjunction with the AACU meetings.

8:19 AM:  I am going to be putting up thoughts on FB/Twitter, and some thoughts here as well.  This post will grow over the course of the day.  STay tuned.

8:15 Gary Rhoads the first speaker.  Causes of reliance on conting. labor?  Core part of new knowledge regime in US higher education, which constructs college/univ as corporate enterprise, and faculty as employees.

“Just in time” students matched by “just in time” faculty—less time on campus, piecing together an over-stressed schedule of work and study, distracted, under stress….

Irony:  poverty level wages to faculty who teach college—-the path/entry point to middle class status.  YES!

Contingency worst in the institutions that serve first gen and minority students….  reinforcing the class divide between the rich and the rest.

8:35 Claire Goldstene:  Henry Kissinger said that academic battles are so fierce because so little is at stake, but in fact, in this case, the stakes are high.

Academic freedom is at stake.  Academic freedom is tied to tenure.  The majority of faculty don’t have tenure.  Thus the majority of univ. faculty are not working under conditions of academic freedom.

Is the univ. about academic inquiry, or is it about lowering costs and increasing revenue/fundraising?

As Naomi Klein said in Shock Doctrine, the current economic “crisis” shields a range of adjustments in higher ed toward a corporatist logic above all else.  But the assault on tenure and the crisis of cont. labor is not the last few years!  It’s a decades long process.

Privatization of production of knowledge.

Universities under assault from the forces of neoliberalism that have a 40 year long history.  The loss of tenure and academic freedom diminish the chance that progressive ideas and resistance to neolib will come from the academy.

This is not a NEW crisis–it is a 40 year old history of an assault on progressive ideas as expressed through progressive thought in the university setting.

8:45:  Carol Schneider, President of Association of American Colleges and University.

Asks people in univ. leadership in audience to raise their hands…..  about 5 hands go up, in a room of 200.

“Not enough!”  The crisis on the ground that all of you as adjuncts understand intimately is not even seen as a crisis or seen at all by univ. leadership.  Absolutely true.  When I was dept head, the needs of adjuncts were not on my radar.

Q and A:  800 lb gorilla in living room is overproduction of Ph.D.s.  It is shameful that department after department tries to grow their Ph.D. programs without a thought to the existence of jobs for those Ph.D.s

Gary Rhoads response:  Right now colleges are in crisis trying to meet the skyrocketing demand for college ed.  The solution is not to dis-invest in faculty and staff, it’s greater investment.  Austerity budgets and cutting costs are not the solution; we need MORE full time faculty to meet the demand.  (applause)

Panel Two:  Promising Practices, Proposed Solutions

Adrianna Kezar:  I am on the tenure track but have been on my univ. committee at USC on contingent fac; I’m the only tenure-line faculty who has been, for the past decade.

Incredible lack of awareness!  On campus after campus, people tell me: “we have no contingent faculty.”  I have to call them out. (KK:  This is astounding to me, and yet not.  Anyone else hear the parallel with: “we have no homosexuals in our country.”)

Motivation to change is largely missing.  Recommendation made by one group in isolation; we don’t engage with multiple stakeholders.  This summit is exciting because engaging multiple stakeholders.

Leadership do not see connection between faculty and student learning.

Maria Maisto, President of NFM:  tells us the motivations of the conference to respond to the Presidents’ Climate Commitment for Colleges and Universities.  And tells the sad story of Doug Wright, a long-time adjunct who lost his job in a restucturing, lost his health insurance, got cancer, bankrupted himself paying his bills, and died.  Please read about him here: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/11/30/adjunct

Jack Longman:  British Columbia is a fine place to be an adjunct.  There is a single salary scale that covers both FT and PT/NTT faculty.  Seniority is the determining factor.  Americans have trouble grasping this.

Anne Wiegard, President, NFM Foundation:  My struggles with faculty unions constantly surprise me.  However, staff are our allies and need to be included.

Q and A:  Transparency is key here.  The constant refusal is :there’s no money.  In fact, there is plenty of money.  Taxpayers have a right to demand information about uses of their funds in the higher ed system.  And the information can be used to defend rights of NTT.  The role of salaries is NOT the main reason for the escalating college costs.

Panel 3:  Regulatory and Organizing Strategies.

Rich Moser: Senior Staff Rep, Rutgers AAUP-AFT

Coalition-building is key.  It builds a community of interest based on enlightened self-interest, while acknowledging the conflicts of interest that are real and alive in the room.

The inside/outside approach—insiders mobilize to get the outsider dissent legitimated and funded.

Joe Berry, labor historian and author Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts for Change.

I am giving some tough love:   Insiders may extend a hand of charity, but they don’t understand the needs of the disenfranchised.  The disempowered must agitate and mobilize, and there is work to be done to speak with the NTT about their fears.  Fear is the greatest obstacle.

The unexpressed fear is more powerful than the expressed fear, so get the fears out and on the table.  And ask them—how secure are you if we do nothing??!

>Lunch<  I get to chat with John Casy, Lee Bessette, and Brian Coxall!  Cool!

And I get to finally meet in person Scott Jaschik, Editor of Inside Higher Ed.!  He rocks.

 

Panel 4:  Changing the Culture

Heather Wathington, Western Interstate Commission of Higher Ed and UVA Asst Prof in Higher Ed.

The needs of reform to reach and improve college experience of first gen and most vulnerable students fall on shoulders of NTT faculty, who have the fewest resources to deal with them.

While the NTT faculty are very high quality, they lack resources such as consistent email and office space, continuity of access to their students to provide a connection after the class, they are hired last minute and may not be able to create the best courses, etc.

Changing the culture will require changing the micro-practices of the NTT hiring process.

 

Debra Leigh Scott:  Adjunct Professor and Independent Filmmaker and Artist

My job is more like a barista than a professor.  We are closer to server culture than academic culture.

I wrote a play about my daughter, who is a corporate lawyer and whose first year starting salary was 5 years of my best salary combined.

We discussed this, and she ultimately said to me, “you should have done something else.  You didn’t have to struggle like this.”

I said, “I trained for a decade to do this work.  It was meaningful to me.”

She said, “you dragged me along with you in your poverty.  I refuse to be so poor.  It’s why I chose the path I did.”

When the play was performed audience members came up afterward and asked if it was really true, how poor I was.  This kind of artistic intervention will change the culture.

At another dinner at my college, an adjunct and I were at a planning dinner event.  My colleague ordered water, not wine.  The tenured faculty said, “oh come now, you have to have wine!”  When he ordered the cheapest wine, then they said, “oh come now, you can’t drink that drek!  You have to order a good wine!”

Why didn’t he want to do this?  Because he’d looked at the prices on the menu and knew he could not afford both.

Ultimately, he made an excuse and left early, without ordering dinner.

I was mortified, horrified….and also, “damn I wish I was filming this!”

Having the visual evidence of this interchange would show the real condition of adjunct workers.

I know adjuncts who have lived in their van, lived on food stamps, died without insurance, killed themselves.  Their stories need to be told, and told through art, not just blog posts by disaffected adjuncts and in the CHE.

Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director, Center for Community Change.

There is a move underway to roll back the 20th century.  Workers rights, unions, being a welcoming country to immigrants—trying to undo all of these gains.

There is an attack on the poorest workers in the country, the marginal worker.  in response, there have been direct action campaigns

Stanley Katz, Director, Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, and 2011 National Humanities Medal Recipient.

I am actually on a contingent contract–renewed year by year.  Nevertheless I have an excellent salary, reasonable assurance of permanence, and a beautiful office.

I went to grad school in 1955; while I was there, Sputnik happened.  Jobs exploded.  nobody in my generation had to apply for jobs—there were never enough applicants to fill all the jobs there were.

In my view, we will never return to the former conditions of employment in higher ed, as we had in 1955.

We are under extreme threat to roll back the gains of the 20th century as Deepak said.

Q and A:  Can we really not go back?  I’m not sure we know that.

Supply and Demand on the Academic Job Market: Thoughts on Obsolete Professions

On Tuesday I attended a card-signing event on campus that was the formal launch of the voting process for the University of Oregon faculty union.

The faculty union has been a long time coming, and this time it looks like it might actually happen. I had already signed my union card of course.  I attended the reception because I was curious to see the turnout. There is more resistance than I ever expect on college campuses to unionization efforts, even among ostensibly leftist or radical faculty. It pisses me off.  

The turnout was pretty good.

While I was at the reception (where I got an earful about the shameful erosion of our health benefits this year—likely costing a typical family of four an additional $1600 annually just to start, not counting any catastrophic medical events) I found myself in conversation with a rep from the AAUP.  I told him all about the upcoming New Faculty Majority Summit, “Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education.” and its connections to faculty unionization efforts.

We got to talking about my business, The Professor Is In, and about the crisis of Ph.D. hiring. I spoke about the shame of Ph.D. departments and faculty that continue admitting graduate students all the while knowing the majority of them have no chance of work in their field. My AAUP friend demurred. “It’s not an issue of oversupply,” he said sternly. “Departments don’t have control over the size of their Ph.D. programs. That is determined at the Dean’s office.”

I told him he was wrong, of course. In my departments we certainly had control over the size of our graduate admissions each year. The Dean’s office didn’t dictate a minimum size! On the contrary, it dictated a maximum, by virtue of chronically inadequate TA and fellowship funding. We could easily have admitted fewer students each year, and funded the ones we did admit better. Did we choose to do that? Absolutely not. We continued to wheel and deal and finagle to leverage the maximum number of new Ph.D. admittees out of the circumscribed funds we controlled.

Never, ever, at any time, not even once, was there a discussion of the question: do these Ph.D. students we’re admitting have a reasonable chance of using their Ph.D.s for employment after leaving our program?

That question was entirely irrelevant to our deliberations. The ultimate professional fate of the graduate students had absolutely no significance in their value to us as faculty.

Instead, their value to us as faculty hinged on:

  • Our egos. The “best” (ie, most successful and famous) faculty members had the most students. The quantity of a faculty member’s Ph.D. students boosted the faculty member’s status vis-a-vis colleagues and conferred bragging rights.
  • Our teaching needs. The department quite literally could not run without the teaching labor of the graduate students. In one of my departments the entire first, second, and third year language programs in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (some 30,000 credit hours annually) were handled entirely by graduate students.
  • Our legitimacy. A department without a Ph.D. program is a second-class department nationally and on campus. A department with a smaller Ph.D. program is a “lesser” department than one with a larger Ph.D. program. No faculty member would willingly work to reduce the size of the department’s graduate program, because it would reduce the status of the program, and thus the status of the faculty members associated with it. Ultimately, it would reduce the standing of those faculty members for things like raises and research funding.

You can’t blame individual faculty members for the crisis,” said the AAUP representative. Au contraire, my friend. You can. You should. Until individual faculty members individually and collectively confront the ways that their own economic self-interest and social capital is fundamentally tied to the recruitment of Ph.D. students who have little or no chance for meaningful, permanent academic careers, this exploitative system will not change.

Some people argue, of course, that the problem in academic hiring is not an oversupply of Ph.D.s, but an “under-demand” of tenure-track lines, given the wholesale shift from tenure-track to short-term adjunct labor.

It is true that demand has plummeted. But so has demand for blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Would anyone have sympathy for a system stubbornly determined to turn out thousands of blacksmiths and switchboard operators a year? Why this defense, then, of a system that turns out thousands of unemployable Ph.D.s?

The difference in the case of the academy is that apparently the evaporation of demand is hidden, even to the workers themselves, who have somehow let themselves be hoodwinked into believing that the academic workplace needs them, and will  provide them with permanent, meaningful, reasonably compensated work.

Nobody is facing or telling the truth here. Certainly not the self-interested faculty. They have no incentives to do so.