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April 29, 2004



Even though I'm not as closely tied to this as I am several of your other posts it's still engaging reading. I'll pass this on to some coworkers that might be interested in it.

Matthew Rossi

While I admit a lot of what drove me out of Grad School was my own unsuitability for it, a lot of it was the attitude you dismantle here. They literally use TA's to teach their classes for them at some schools, so that they can go on with the important stuff like publishing their work... when did teaching become a subordinate task at colleges?

Answer - a long time ago now.

Dave Van Domelen

The problem is that it's squeezing from both ends. It used to be that you could divide post-highschool education into two rough groups based on how faculty were expected to use their time: teaching schools and research institutions.

The research institutions have a LONG tradition of farming out the teaching to postdocs, grad students and instructors who are essentially temps. When you write your grant, you include money to buy out of some or all of your teaching responsibilities, and the university uses that money to hire someone. Sure, you need to do some teaching to get tenure, but once you have tenure you're pretty much expected to teach less and research more.

At teaching schools, research is almost treated as a hobby, and it used to be that faculty were there to teach (and advise, etc). The primary faculty occupation was interaction with students. Unfortunately, teaching schools have learned that they can get almost the same caliber of applicant when they open an adjunct position as when they open a tenure-track position. They won't be getting the people who shoot for the research institution anyway, so why throw in costly things like tenure and benefits? A lot of smaller teaching colleges have gone over almost completely to adjunct faculty in recent years, because qualified people will accept that kind of abuse just to be able to have a job in the field they spent years studying. Whereas adjunct jobs used to be relatively rare and seen as stepping stones to tenure track (just get a little more experience, flesh out the resume), now they're terminal positions...you keep working at adjunct job after adjunct job until your interest in the field dies.

Fortunately for me, physics hasn't quite caught up to the adjunctivitis trend yet, although the waves of PhDs from other nations seeking work in the past decade have bumped us along that track. (I'm not personally on tenure track yet, but that's more due to my errors in jobhunting than the market itself. I started too late in my graduation year to get the good jobs, and then got stuck with a position that gave me little opportunity to improve my resume...just this side of a two year paid vacation, it was. Fun in its way, but not what my career really needed.)

What really bugs me about this whole adjunctivitis syndrome, however, was that it was NOT a response to hard economic times at the state level. It got rolling in the (relatively) Fat Nineties, when states were cutting taxes and keeping education budgets (especially higher education) all but frozen. To deal with not getting any of the fat of the land, schools started getting creative, by which I mean stingy. And then when things slumped in 2001 and no one wanted to raise tax rates to keep up revenues, the "leaning that way" turned into "tumbling headlong into that ravine". Spring semester 2003 was particularly fun for me, since I had to fill all our TA-level positions without being allowed to hire anyone new to replace those who graduated, dropped out, went on reseatch money, etc. The budget had been slashed deeply two or three times in 2002 in advance of the election, you see (incumbent governor was not running again, so stuck like glue to his pledge to never raise taxes, no matter the damage it caused). When you have a semester of scrambling to even cover TA stuff, moving to a higher percentage of adjuncts to save money becomes REALLY attractive to administration types.


More chilling tales of academic horror. It's interesting to hear your take on adjunct labor, Dave, since I had assumed the sciences were more immune to (though not unaffected by) the job crunch. And you're absolutely right that the problem was created in the Fat Nineties, only to be exacerbated in the Lean Nils. Many of our profession's problems can be laid squarely at the feet of the feckless and cowardly state legislatures, afraid of spending money in the good times and suicidally averse to raising revenue in the bad ones.

But a lot of it can also be laid at the feet of the universities. I don't share your horror at faculty research, Matt... as Dave notes, not every university model is oriented towards faculty teaching. (The humanities are still far more teaching-oriented than the sciences, even at major research universities; the English professors at Maryland all taught two courses a semester.)

The problem is that research universities are still operating under an "apprenticeship" model that no longer functions. The implicit social contract of TA labor is that this short-term exploitation will build teaching skills and result in a full-time job, but the latter is no longer true. Yet the universities crank out Ph.Ds anyway, because it reduces the faculty teaching load and saves them money (and stocks those plum graduate classes that professors prefer to teach, a triple bonus).

The resulting glut has kept graduates from finding jobs, and has also created a large pool of highly qualified adjuncts (we might call them "journeymen," to maintain the bankrupt apprenticeship analogy, except many of these journeymen never get the chance to become masters) who can't find tenure-track or even, all too frequently, full-time jobs.

Matthew Rossi

Well, you know my horror isn't so much at research as it was at a particular professor who was too busy reminding everyone he'd won a Pulitzer once to actually bother to show up for the four classes he was assigned to reach. Research is fine, but in some fields (like, say, MFA Writing Programs) you're not doing it: you're expected to produce the work that you're teaching the kids to do. Which is fine... but what often happened was that this clique of self-congratulatory 'writers' formed, who would publish each others stories and poems in each others lit mags, show up for a few Iowa-style fiction or poetry workshops, and shovel the rest of the workload onto TA's. Forget adjunct faculty... there were three professors in the program, a rotating spot they would give to whoever they knew in the area who needed the work for a semester (you'd never see that person again after the first day of classes, either) and then the TA's. It was ridiculous. If the only time you see the teachers is during the three readings the department gave a semester, what exactly is the reason for having them? So they can sign off on the few classes that even graded students for tests they didn't even bother to show up to hand out to the students anyway?

I accept that my experience was particularly bad, but it still bubbles up when I think about it.

David Van Domelen

Marc: Physics is better off than most of the sciences. Biology is getting pretty heavy adjunctivitis from what I've heard, especially with the growing view that biology grads are the ones who couldn't get into med school, and biology PhDs are people who aren't driven enough to have gone for an MD.

I don't think we have adjuncts in the usual sense in our physics department, but our research associates get paid poorly enough that there's a strong incentive for these "just out of grad school and trying to improve their resumes" people to grab some teaching assignments. When I was at Ohio State, though, there were several lecturers who were just "instructors", which is another way to say temp. Probably better than adjuncts, though, since I think those instructors got better benefits.

Matt: One of the "nice" things about the sciences is that the threshold for *publishable* crap is a little higher. There's still some back-scratching going on, but most of it involves co-author spots, since the review process makes it harder to ram through your buddy's stuff. Instead, two people working on similar projects will write short bits of each other's papers, doubling their publishing credits without increasing real work. Whether this works depends on how corrupt your tenure/promotion committee is...most of them try to place less value on tricks like that, but I'm guessing there's departments where people look the other way in exchange for their publication stunts being overlooked later on.


Matt and I have talked about this many times before (many, many times), and I think we'd both agree that the problems with his grad school experience began with the letters M, F, and A. (Come to think of it, so did many of mine.) Not having been through the teaching side of it myself, I have a hard time getting riled up about MFA programs for their exploitative labor practices when I'm too busy berating them for churning out assembly-line dime-store minimalist shit. I'd like to think your experience was outside the norm, but the vanishing prof phenomenon was common even in Maryland's program. Fucking writers.

Yesterday I remembered another reason I found Scholes's column so puzzling. About four years ago, right before I was considering going on the market, Maryland sent a small army of PhDs and ABDs onto the market and virtually none of them got jobs. This was an anomaly, attributed by a faction of professors (including our placement director) to the ABDs going out too early, before they were able to talk meaningfully about their dissertations let alone show up with a degree in hand. For a couple of years "Wait until you're done" was the department gospel, one I zealously adopted until I realized the department would happily ignore it in its own hires, if it meant they could land Ivy Leaguers with connections.

But that small hypocrisy aside, the experience contradicts Scholes's account completely. (This is anecdotal evidence, I realize, but I'll take my isolated anecdote over his fictional projection any day.) The department was urging us to hold back until we were more competitive, while students were desperate to get out of the program and begin the job search, because they believed the market was so bad they'd be searching multiple years anyway.

Matthew Rossi

I have a hard time getting riled up about MFA programs for their exploitative labor practices when I'm too busy berating them for churning out assembly-line dime-store minimalist shit.

Well, yeah, but we weren't talking about that. You know I could go on and on and on and on about that... how many phone calls have devolved into that discussion? Man, I love Raymond Carver and Tom Jones as much as the next guy, but could we stop trying to turn everyone into them?

David Van Domelen

A friend pointed me at this when I mentioned I was going to a GTA Of The Year Awards banquet tonight:


Dominic Guglieme

Howdy, first post. Dave pointed me here.

Reading this thread made me think of something I have seen this past year. I am an older undergrad, and am finishing a BA in English.

At the CC level (200 and lower) professors (mostly adjunct) encouraged students to take classes/majors based on utility. In other words, I was warned that as an English major, I needed to be ready for a tough job hunt. But, utility was key.

I notice here (at my current school) utility is not a factor. (Never mind that if nothing else, students often have loans to pay out.) There is no drive to get a job based on one's degree. Likely, this is due to the fact that there are too many humanities degrees being produced at the moment. There is no pressure to produce graduate candidates etc.

Oddly, the lack of jobs has led to a less competitive (at least in undergrad) dynamic. There is no sense, either with students or instructors, that one must find a job (either within or out of academia). Some that I talk to a happy to work retail, so long as it is a book store. And, to make matters weirder, I (and those like me) am considered strange, or even morally defective for having ambition to do well.

This distaste for utility/merit can also be found in instructors. I do not know how many of you have heard of theory, but it is a terrible thing to behold. The basic idea is that the writer of a test (be it fiction, or philosophy or whatever) does not know as much about said text as the reader does. (In other words, you guys know more about what this post means than I do.) A graduate friend of mine tells me it is not much better at his level.

Now, most of you seem to be science/math based guys, but there is something to keep in mind. Humanities due have utility. Most information is distributed/stored in written form. The ability to write and read is critical to advancing human understanding. The current trends in the humanities are more likely to harm prospects for increased understanding (as said trends are away from the idea that understanding is even possible).

This countries strength is in its information economy. But, in both sciences and humanities, there are more disincentives to work.

If anyone is interested in reading more about information as strength, check out some Ralph Peters articles at the usawc page.



Thanks for writing, Dominic.

Your post reminds me of a conversation I had last week with a very bright transfer student, who wants to major in English and wanted to know what jobs would be out there for him. I had to explain that while the humanities offer an important and flexible set of skills, they don't offer a direct, obvious career track the way some other majors do, unless, perhaps, you're interested in law school or graduate school, and then I naturally had to tell him that graduate degrees in English are used almost exclusively for teaching (a phenomenon Jason Kimble laments.)

I'm not certain that there are too many humanities degrees being produced, on an undergraduate level; the overproduction is happening with Ph.Ds and squeezing out college teaching jobs. Since there's no single predominant career path for a humanities BA I think it would be hard to measure such overproduction, if it exists at all; if no curatorial jobs are open, those graduates could look in publishing, etc. Certainly I think the country and the world would benefit from more citizens having a solid grounding in the humanities; the lack of jobs you describe may arise more from the abysmal state of the economy.

Some members of the university do express a palpable distaste for converting humanities programs into career-oriented vocational-education tracks, as John at Commonplacebook memorably gripes.

On the one hand, I agree with everything John writes; he has an acute understanding of why the humanities matter and what his fellow graduates seemed to be missing. On the other, speaking as a professor from a university with many first-generation and non-traditional students, I've also seen how the vocational training John dismisses is not everybody's common inheritance. Many students need such training and either aren't seeking it out or aren't being forced to capitalize on the opportunities college does provide for professionalization.

I can bemoan the corporate university's objective of producing a skilled, compliant worker corps until I'm blue in the face (I think at some point I would be obligated to sing about "houses of ticky-tacky"), but when I come home from work I'd be much happier if all of my students exhibited even the most basic professional skills and behavior. I agree with John that university English programs shouldn't be redirected towards internships and technical writing; but I teach at a university in which most instructors, I gather, do not even ask their students to be in class on time or to write their own papers.

Professionalism and professionalization, in other words, much as I deplore certain of their encroachments on the humanities, are class entitlements.

David Van Domelen

Not picking on Nick here specifically, but some of the spelling in his post demonstrates a problem that cuts across the academic domains: it is not necessary to master the basics of a field to succeed at the cutting edge. English majors with dodgy spelling and grammar. Math majors who have trouble balancing their checkbooks. Physicists who don't really understand Newton's Laws any better than high school students do. Historians who have to sing the Schoolhouse Rock version to remember the Preamble to the Constitution. And so forth.

We DON'T really test on basic skill sets. We assume everyone picks up the basics and only test on the fine details. I didn't really understand the basics of physics until I was in grad school, but because I'd mastered the appropriate high level stuff on an algorithmic level, I scored really high on all the tests and got into a strong grad program.

David Van Domelen

Okay, bad form to follow up to myself, but a thought occured to me just after hitting "Post".

Do you know where your towel is?

Douglas Adams facetiously made the argument that so long as you had one piece of personal gear (the towel) that you could show off, people would assume you had everything else and would lend you the one or two things you happened to lack. Even if they ended up lending you everything BUT a towel.

As long as you can discuss post-modern theory, feymann diagrams, semi-riemannian manifolds or whatever, they don't ask you to demonstrate you can add, or spell, or grasp any of the basics.

Dominic Guglieme (Nick)

Okay, gotta take this one point at a time.

First, a (rather egocentric) defense of my spelling. The simple fact is that most of my posts/emails (here and at other boards) are made rather hastily. It is not intended as an insult to other posters, but there is a time issue. (Example: Right now, I am taking a break from preparing a "History of the Book" final presentation.) For something like a resume' or cover letter, I am more careful.

In terms of correspondence, so long as my case is reasonably clear, I tend not to worry overmuch.

I tend to gripe about sloppy writing when it is excessive. One recent example was a book Dave and I both read recently (Hardwired, by Scott Ciencin). That was a bit of franchised fiction (Transformers). I have nothing against franchise fiction. But, the writing in Hardwired was juvenile. I can forgive some mistakes, but Ciencin was writing at an 8th grade level (in both content and mechanics). At one point, he actually used the word "blooey" in an explicative sentence.

And, in fairness to David, he has more right to gripe than most anyone I know, as his posts and whatnot tend to be pretty clean.
I cannot really address the Kimble article, as I could not find it. (Read some interesting comic reviews though.) My point about too many humanity degrees is from a sense of utility. Higher Ed is costly, in both time and money. A great many students attend classes with financial help from Uncle Sam. (Thanks to those who pay taxes.) Now, for that kind of public investment, it is not unreasonable to hope that these students would plan to get jobs of some kind. I agree that humanities allow students to have options. This is especially true as we are still drifting more and more towards an information based economy.

But, there is no intent on the part of many students to get information related jobs. Some do, but many do not. They have unrealistic (useless) ideas about utopian civilizations, and in other cases, begin to apply the rules of fiction to reality. So, in other words, they are sucking up resources (money, space in a class) to produce nothing.

A grounding in humanities is not bad in and of itself, but nor is it good in and of itself. Like I said above about fiction over reality..... Human understanding relies on not only having facts, but being able to sensibly apply them. I have sat through many classes where basic common sense is ignored.

I can read and learn on my own. In fact, I make it a point to do so. But, I need that magic bit of paper only a college can give me in order to be able to sustain myself with a proper job. Without a degree, I could be no more than a well read carriage pusher at the local supermarket. (And, frankly, as I am well read, that kind of work is pure torture for the simple fact that I know how much more there is to life.) It could be argued that going to school keeps me from reading/learning.

Humanities cannot over specialize (internships, tech writing). But, the drive should be to produce students not only able, but also willing, to get jobs that put what they learn to productive use. I like arguing and processing information. So, I see publishing and education as viable fields that I can produce in.

I wonder what John at commonplace plans to do with his degree.

Attending class is a difficult criteria. Many students have jobs/families, and cannot always make it to class on time. Provided that they do the assignments, and show insight when they are in class, I do not hold absences against them. (And, I do work as a TA, meaning I see this from both sides of the podium.)

Back to Dave's post-

Testing/teaching the basics is tedious. Nobody wants to do it. Frankly, I hate working the basic composition classes. I sit through freshman level lectures on mechanics. It is boring. The instructors who manage to run a class on that subject are worthy of the greatest respect.

I recenlty took a professional editing class (to polish my mechanincs) this past semester with one of the most skilled and knowledgable profs at UMB. Even she admitted that grammar was not the most riveting subject (though she taught it well). I want to argue ideas, not place commas.


I would hesitate to say that somebody is "sucking up resources" just because I don't approve of their post-graduation plans. Firstly because that's their business; secondly because often, someone's college major bears no relation to the career they end up in - most businesses only care that they have the degree. While there are too many students who attend college out of a sense of obligation rather than any real desire to be there, that's usually more of a problem for them than for me.

Finally, a graduate who doesn't take an "information related job" is not wasting public resources any more than the government is wasting your taxes if they spend part of them to build a road you never use. The road's only a waste if nobody uses it. Public investments are measured by what they contribute to the public good, not by how they benefit particular individuals, and education is one of the best investments a society can make. (For one thing, consider the higher future tax revenue the government will pull in from all those citizens with higher-paying jobs whose prerequisite is a college degree.)

As for the smaller stuff - and there is no stuff smaller, more significant, or more annoying to me than class attendance -

I'm not talking about the working student who can't make it to a few classes because of a job obligation or the parent who has to look after their sick child. I'm talking about the 18-year-old full-time student who lives in a dorm five minutes away and ambles in ten minutes late every day, or who only shows up five days over the semester (first day, day before midterm, midterm, day before final, final) and still manages to lose three sets of syllabi in the intervals.

Before I can mourn the university's "professionalization" I have to first worry that my university is allowing too many students to coast by on habits no professional adult should have. Unfortunately, in the meaningless quantifier-obsessed "culture of excellence," we can have both the overspecialized programs John bemoans and an utter failure to instill any sense of personal responsibility. I worry about how some of these kids will fare once they have to get jobs; I don't think they realize that the university tolerates their behavior only because they (or their parents, or Uncle Sam) are paying for their seats.

(By the way, one reason we have to check attendance so assiduously is to ensure that students aren't collecting scholarships or student loans for semesters in which they never attend any classes. That's squandering a public investment.)

I wanted to address your earlier comments about theory, but that would be another long post. Suffice it to say that any accounts that treat "theory" as a uniform body are vastly oversimplified. There is no one "basic idea" behind literary theory (to say nothing of theory in other disciplines), except perhaps that you ought to have an argument when talking about literature beyond evaluating its aesthetic merits - which strikes me as one of those useful skills that literature programs ought to be cultivating.

Finally -

"I recenlty took a professional editing class (to polish my mechanincs)"

I'm not picking on you here, honestly, but there must be some corollary of Murphy's Law that says any post about editing, spelling, or grammar correction will always have some sort of editing, spelling, or grammar error, often in the same snetence.


You said "same snetence" on purpose, right, Marc? You know, to get the error out of the way so you wouldn't make it elsewhere? Brilliant! That's what I'd do.

I'm following this discussion with interest because I'm not yet a grad student but may well be eventually, and I'm interested in these issues. One of the drawbacks to not being in school anymore is not being able to read things like the MLA Newsletter and my beloved Chronicle of Higher Education.

I was very much a liberal arts/humanities person, though I spent one year at a local public university while dealing with health problems. I majored in the highly marketable field of Classical Greek Language and am now gainfully employed, which allows me to pay off student loans, and very good at what I do despite its lack of connection to anything even vaguely Hellenic.

This argument about the purpose of higher education is one I've encountered frequently, and I've found that students at both the large, cheap public school and the small, expensive private one didn't really differ on the whole in their feelings that they were there to get a degree for the sole purpose of getting a job and that any learning was basically secondary or maybe just a bonus. I was horrified by people who said there was no point studying Anthropology (on the last day of said class) because they'd never have to use it in The Real World. Maybe they thought that working in a standard business means never having to deal with anyone from outside Kentucky? It didn't make much sense to me.

I had a completely different approach, one my professors seemed to prefer. I took classes in any subject I found interesting, always skipping the 100-level, and did well and enjoyed myself. I had a lot of advantages other students don't, though, a strong high school education with a lot of AP credit that let me test out of basic courses, as well as a self-taught background in most of the humanities fields. I knew that I had the skills and orientation to be employable, and so the education I got had no bearing on that except to make me a more well-informed and well-rounded person.

I'm not sure about this idea of a teacher who hates teaching. I'm not a teacher, as I've said, (although I don't think I'm good for much else) but I've spent plenty of time with my professor friends at my university and am myself the product of an unholy alliance between a Math professor and an editor. My dad teaches at the large public school I mentioned, and it's not a research institution at all. In fact, when a national journal was located there for a few years, the local newspaper ran an expose that the journal's editor was being paid to do something other than teach! Clearly all the professors I had and knew at both schools (neither of which use TAs) were there because they loved their subjects and because they wanted to pass on this love or at least the subject to their students. I certainly love doing research, but especially because my field has been losing ground I think it would be silly and selfish to think that any research I did would be absolutely more important and satisfying than getting other people interested in the field. For me, the best approach would combine both.

The last point, I think, is that I'm always terribly sad when people consider grammar or spelling optional or unimportant. I think if you're going to look at your education as some sort of technical endeavor, you have no excuse not to make clear communication one of your foremost concerns. And if you look at it as a form of self-improvement, which I suppose was sort of my approach, then you still need to make sure you have the grounding to make your interesting ideas accessible to others. Having worked as a writing tutor and worked for an English professor, I see what awful writing goes on in colleges, and I really don't know what to do to fix the problem. I avoided English classes almost completely because it horrified me to see such bad writing and critical thinking and awareness of language among students who chose to be in a field in which those things are entirely primary. This is something that drives me crazy more than almost anything else.

I realize I'm way, way off-topic at this point, which is why I'd avoided responding til now, but I've been wanting to say some of this since Marc initially posted, and at least now it's out of my system.

Dominic Guglieme

Yeah Marc, there is some kind of Murphy effect on spelling in posts about spelling.

On the topics of attendance, and resources our debate seems based on misunderstanding. You more or less cleared up the attendance question. But, resources....

My problem is with people who go to school, and see nothing wrong with working a dead-end job after they graduate. If they are content with dog's work, there is no need for them to go to school at all.

As far as financial assistance goes, I would argue that it should be merit based (for anyone with 15+ credits). In those cases, people who skip classes (and thus get lousy grades) would not get money.

Marc is right about the idea that students are lacking in responsibility, or a sense of......

A good portion of my classmates simply skip class when they do not want to go. Never mind that it costs somebody (them, mommy, daddy, or a certain rich Uncle Sam) about 50 bucks per class. (State school's are cheap, but still costly.)

As for what Rose said:

There is nothing wrong with taking classes to figure out what one wants to do. That is perfectly fine. But, the idea should be to find a good job that one can do, and enjoy.

Personally, I would not bother with anthroplogy unless it was required. But, were it required, I would take it for the purpose of finishing a degree. I do not feel a moral duty to attend school. However, if I want to get a real job and to live well, school is a utilitarian need. I admit to falling into that "learning is a bonus of going to school" category. I did enjoy some business law classes a while back. I was considering law school (which requires careful editing, yes, yes,) but decided against it. But, I can still use some of what I learned in those classes.

I see nothing wrong with learning. In fact, I cannot stand those who avoid learning. But, school is not an intrinsic part of learning, nor vice versa.

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