Wednesday, January 17, 2007

 

Villains

In the comments to yesterday’s post, it became clear that some of the crabbiness out there results from a faulty assumption: if something bad is happening, it's because someone bad is making it happen. There must be a villain somewhere, and he must be defeated; once that happens, all will be well. Too much righteous outrage, deprived of an outlet, is bound to curdle. Best to find someone to embody all that is wrong and beat the crap out of him.

But it doesn't always work that way.

It's true that certain disasters can be traced to certain, well, deciders. In those cases, it's possible to draw a relatively straight line from the decisions of a single person to a series of horrifying outcomes. But those cases aren't necessarily representative.

I've seen it on my own campus. Last week, one of my chairs called me, utterly indignant, complaining that “someone” had approved exceeding a section cap without her permission. (The fairly clear implication was that I was the miscreant.) Upon doing some detective work, we found a glitch in the online registration system by which a student, acting in good faith, could slip into a closed class. While it answered the direct question – and we're working on patches for the glitch – I could see a certain emotional dissatisfaction with the outcome. She wanted the moral high ground in a fight, and a system error just didn't have the same emotional payoff as an accusation of wrongdoing.

(One of my favorite scenes in film was in the Henry Fonda version of The Grapes of Wrath. In a scene I don't remember being in the book, a farmer brandishes a shotgun at the man on the bulldozer who is about to raze his farm for defaulting on the mortgage. At the key moment, the man on the bulldozer reveals himself to be a neighbor who is just doing his job. Jobs are hard to find, so cut him some slack. Frustrated, the farmer asks “who do I shoot?” Exactly.)

To me, one of the great intellectual contributions of the social sciences in particular has been to shift attention from a search for villains to understanding larger underlying structures. If you want to understand changes in, say, the distribution of wealth, you don't just look at a few plutocrats or the personal attitudes of selected elites. You look at the processes for the production of wealth, changes in taxation, shifts in technology, rising and declining industries, union membership, and so on. Individuals count, obviously, but they make their decisions in the context of shifting constraints that they themselves often don't understand and certainly don't control.

So why has higher education moved so aggressively toward a mostly-adjunct faculty? Who do we shoot?

The idiotic answer is 'administrators,' as if we get commissions from the salaries we would have paid to full-timers. The simple fact of it is that deans, among others, work within given budgets. My college, for example, has a higher adjunct percentage now than it has ever had. It is also running a yearly operating deficit of over a million dollars. Its state allocation for this year is lower than it was in 2001, even before correcting for inflation; in that time, health insurance costs have roughly doubled. None of these is my doing or my preference. Were it up to me, we'd be rolling in money and I could hire a cohort of new faculty of my own generation and younger. It's not up to me. That's the point.

Add to those constraints the realities of increased utility costs, public impatience with continued tuition hikes, a salary scale determined by seniority and a very senior tenured faculty, and you have serious fiscal issues to face. Those issues can be handled well, badly, or not at all, but they can't simply be wished away or taken as the 'true colors' of a power-mad manager showing through. Time spent blaming individuals for systemic issues is time wasted.

How to reverse the trend? If the 'villains' theory held water, all we'd have to do is cashier the current lot of administrators and replace them with, I don't know, Cary Nelson or something. Then the new deans would wave their magic wands, sprinkle some pixie dust, and distribute the millions of dollars that would magically appear.

The shame of it is that educated adults actually think this way.

I'm not counseling 'defeatism,' as one commenter suggested. I'm counseling coming to grips with Objective F-ing Reality. 1965 is long gone, and it's not coming back. The economy has changed in multiple and confusing ways. The political discourse has changed, too. Better to spend time thinking about (and enacting!) alternatives for the future that might prove both worthwhile and sustainable in the new environment than to lament the loss of the old in ever more strident terms. One relatively intelligent writer opined that freedom is the insight into necessity. What he meant, I think, is that there's no such thing as the escape from necessity or the conquest of necessity. It's always there. Only coming to grips with it will allow room for real agency.

The decay of the existing order – and make no mistake, it's decaying – has a silver lining: it creates room to try something new. The rise of the proprietaries, whatever else you might think about it, shows that “growth” and “higher education” aren't mutually exclusive, even in parts of the country where the population isn't growing much. Maybe it's time to take some very serious looks at the proliferation of graduate programs in already-crowded disciplines. Maybe we should take a look at different ways of credentialing, or at ways to shorten the absurdly-long training period for faculty. (A couple of years ago, I proposed a for-profit model that would compete on the high end. I called it “Mercedes U,” and issued an open call for any venture capitalists to email me. The offer still stands. Yo, VC's! Over here!) I don't know what's coming next, but I'd guess that it's not 1965. And that's not because some supervillain absconded with all the money. Don't bother looking for him. There's productive work to do instead.


Comments:
I found your writing to be rather insightful.

I happen to attend a community college called Montgomery College in Maryland. Fortunately the State and county officials are committed to maintaining current funding levels (I think) where I am. Though, there is a projected budget shortfall for the state of Maryland until at least 2012, so I don't know how that will affect things.

My college is fairly enterprising, with several vocational training programs as well as the usual academics.
 
Thanks, DD, this is a very insightful post. I'm going to send excerpts of it to some of my colleagues.
 
I do agree with this view. Higher education isn't a monolithic, top-down enterprise. It is the product of millions of actors making local decisions, within a constantly changing framework of prior constraints and emerging trends.

It isn't fair, in the same sense that capitalism in general isn't fair. Speaking as an evolutionary biologist, I can say that it ain't just a feature of human societies, either. It's a shame that our training was meant to adapt us to a world that no longer exists, but that's life. All those 50-year-old middle-manager company men who got laid off in the 1980's were screwed the same way.

(Although any 60-year-old professor who doesn't recognize how much things have changed is still a gormless twit.)
 
While I recognize that this isn't your intent, your position in this post seems to me to be at once an explanation for, and an acceptance of "beige."

I think we're all dealing with reality here. It's just that we inhabit very different realities. If mine, as an adjunct, is essentially a dead end with no hope of anything better, no raises, no health benefits, etc., and no incentive beyond keeping my job, well okay, beige it is.

The standard for continuance as an adjunct, as we all know, is good evaluations. And as any adjunct who has been around for a while also knows, getting good evals is fairly easy to arrange.
 
I found this post to be interesting. I like the idea of villains, especially when they are us - one of the things that has made the adjunct system so horrible, at least in the humanities, is the tremendous overproduction of Ph.Ds (don't get me started on MFAs), thus creating a job market where 150-200 people are applying for non-tt &/or adjunct positions.

I happen to live in a state where we can't find enough doctors, nurses and engineers, and yet our University's newest grad programs are a Ph.D. in anthropology and an MFA in creative writing.
 
Second Line, I guess that depends on what you're looking to get out of adjuncting.

If you're looking for the opportunity to teach for pay, you've got it. Enjoy!

If you want a career, something that isn't a dead end, you don't. And you will not get it by adjuncting longer.

Think of it as if you were a musician. You are good enough at it that you can get a paying gig two or three times a week, enough to keep a roof over your head. If what you care about is the music, and that alone, why be unhappy? Do your best, play your heart out, live the dream. You're making a living, at least a small one, at something a lot of other people wish they could do.

If you want music and a steady job with health benefits, you may need to do your gigs at night while you do something else during the day to pay most of the bills. No shame in that, especially if you also kind of like your day job.

The one thing you shouldn't do is play in the same joint, night after week after year, hoping someone will notice you and offer you a recording contract. And then being miserable when it doesn't happen. Will playing worse get you what you want?
 
Concerning the alleged amalgam of angsty adjuncts from yesterday’s comments. Where exactly are these “idiotic” suggestions that administrators are off twirling their collective moustaches and plotting world domination?

1 - Dr. Crazy gets peeved when “administrators act like I'm not working my ass off.”

2 – Shimmy mentions administration in the context of DD’s off-the-cuff comment about having a “month off with pay,” pointing out that those who “felt umbrage” with such flippancy should not be easily discounted.

3 - I referred to administration when I submitted Jerome Karabel’s “The Chosen” as evidence that, historically, administration seldom takes the lead in matters of redirecting the university. For example, changes to admissions policy and curriculum were advocated by faculty (well before 1965).

4 – I made a second reference to administration when I stated that “Beige” will be the legacy of market forces that administrators will be “stuck with.”

5 – Second Line suggested you, like many administrators, take the “long view” and will depend on a workforce of doddering retirees and clueless newbies with freshly minted PhDs. This doesn’t exactly strike one as an image of Charlie Chaplin twirling a giant globe in “The Great Dictator.” It looks like you will soon be up to your eyeballs in “Beige.”

Villains? Maybe Straw Men. Claiming that the emergence of complex market forces are at work is not news. None of us graduated from Turnip Truck U. We understand exactly what is going on. Yesterday, I mentioned two books that discuss that issue in detail. There are many others. But it’s always the same: Adjuncts suggest that the system is broken. People cop to the Nuremberg defense, lecture us about what we already know, and then summarily tell us, “Go away kid. You bother me.”

Okay. See ya in the hallway. I've got reading to do.
 
Anyone starting a new Ph.D. program in anthropology should be shot! Anthro has been over-producing Ph.Ds for at least two decades. On average, there are seven new Ph.Ds in anthro produced each year for every job opening!!

Stop the madness!!
 
Random thoughts:

It is certainly not 1965, but it is better than it was in 1972 when the hiring rate for physics profs went from 90% of each PhD crop going directly to a faculty job (or maybe one post doc before getting a teaching job) to 3 of 1000. (Or something like that, AIP has the details.)

Retirements of people hired in the 60s are opening up many more jobs than one saw in the 80s when I got out, but bean counters remember what happened when the baby boom tailed off and will not hire full replacements because they know the "echo" will also end. That is not villany, it is prudence.

It is OK for PhD production to exceed tt Uni hiring rates if there are ft teaching or corporate jobs in that area. Its even OK if the job market includes 10-15 year year-to-year research faculty positions, since you can always change careers at that point.

This discussion shows how tricky it can be to maintain a collegial "shared governance" discussion if you are in a situation where funding is falling (maybe even when enrollments are growing), particularly when some of the people being impacted are not even at the table.

We have two tiers of adjuncts with a higher pay scale for those who have done a specific set of professional development activities and demonstrate excellence in their work.

PS - I actually don't get the "Holiday Break" off with pay. In a technical sense I am unemployed except for the days I am supposed to "work". Contracts are bizarre, even for full timers.
 
Quick Aside:

CCPhysicist's point is one that I noticed as well:

I don't think anyone get's "Summers off with pay" or even "holiday break with pay."

As I understand it (at least at all the non-government schools I have known) faculty are hired on a 9 month contract and paid over 12 months. Those three months of pay were earned during the semesters previous to that summer. Some schools even give you the option of 9 months pay over 9 months (seems silly, but they do that.)
 
"Gormless twit." I like that. I'll admit that I had to look up "gormless," but hey.

In response to The Professor's point about pay: faculty are on contract for ten months, but only teach for nine. They get a month off with pay. The option of not getting paid over the summer is one of those "perfect world" options. Essentially, if you have superhuman discipline, you could bank the excess for 10 months and earn interest on it, instead of making what amount to an annual interest-free loan to the college by drawing salary for 12 months. The flaw, of course, is that it takes tremendous discipline to do that.

As for inferences, I stand by what I wrote. Whether the tone strikes you as off or not, I'd hope that the main message -- that the poor pay and treatment of adjuncts isn't likely to change anytime soon -- gets through.
 
I don't understood why teachers who have an annual contract for X$ and a work schedule with large amounts of unscheduled time get so peeved at the idea that 'downtime' isn't nice. The real question should be does your job take about 2250 hours a year? If so than you're working a full time professional schedule.
 
So you spread your 9 months over 10. One of our pay options dishes out the money for our 165 (IIRC) day contract with partial months! You get a few weeks worth at the end of August, regular checks (with full pay in December), then a dollop in May. Genius!! With special course pay, it is possible to have different amounts in almost every pay check!

On different thought, you need "DROP" at your college. This is a clever economic incentive to force people out. You retire, but not really. Your retirement pay goes into a bucket of money that you get when you really retire, all in exchange for a date certain (5 years or less) when you really retire. Builds a 403(b) for the faculty member from the deferred retirement pay, and lets the college plan for the replacement.
 
The idiotic answer is 'administrators,' as if we get commissions from the salaries we would have paid to full-timers.

At my school board, the top administrator (appointed by the province) was rewarded for increasing workload while holding salaries constant (which means a cut once you consider inflation). There wasn't enough money for us, but they got a performance bonus and a handsome promotion...

Sometimes it is the administration.
 
If something's broken (or nearly so), we can 1.) walk away 2.) shake our heads and wring our hands or 3.) try to fix it. I prefer the last option.

So what to do? Join a union (and if one doesn't exist, form one. You too, Dean Dad). If you're already a member of AFT or NEA, pressure our leadership for a merger. Your union dues will help lobby state legislators (because that's where the money comes from) and Congresspeople (ditto) to provide adequate funding for higher education. Several million teachers and administrators can be a powerful political force. Out here in California, the strongest union in the state is the California Teachers Association. We're making progress--and, sure, it's slow--on the adjunct faculty dilemma. But we're making progress.

None of this is new or sexy, and none of this will happen overnight, but what's the alternative? "Don't mourn, organize" and "An injury to one is an injury to all" are cliches, but they're just as true today as they were decades ago.

Philip
 
The only setting in which adjunct unions stand even an iota of a chance is in state supported institutions. Private universities and colleges, if they smell even a vague whiff of union organization, will lay off those involved. This makes that nascent organization proces nearly impossible. One would have to secretely approach a critical mass of adjuncts and convince them to become involved. But all you need is one adjunct who disagrees, or who is reconciled to their lot, to spill the beans to the depat. chair or whomever, and that will be that.
 
second line: You're probably right. I work in a state-supported community college, so my perspective and experience is different from yours.

However, even if I were an adjunct in a private institution, I think I'd still try to organize a union--for all faculty members, though, not just adjuncts. First off, I'd work with either the NEA or AFT, and I'd rely on their deep pockets and legal staff to defend me if I were fired--it's against the law, after all.

I was an adjunct for 15 long years, but I always believed that my advocacy efforts gave me job protection rather putting me at risk.

Philip
 
I think that administrators are part of the problem. Not as villains, but as ... well, I don't know what to call it. But it does seem that every few years, every CC, college, and university I've been associated with (as student, adjunct, visiting faculty) has added another layer of administrators. More deans (and coordinators, and directors, and whatnot), needing more staff, more office space, and just generally using more resources. If I could see a way that this was benefitting the students, I wouldn't mind, but mostly it seems to be of use in pleasing the trustees and/or the government. And there are the deans, coordinators, directors, and whatnots, earning money that surely the school could be using to help the students (even if it's not by paying me more or hiring more people actually in the classroom or counseling or whatever). I know that deans, etc., actually do things. But it seems odd to me that evry place I've ever been needs more administrators and fewer instructors.
 
I actually can think of one villain, and that's whoever decided to make the quality-cost tradeoff that students demand -- that is, whoever decided to make adjuncting pay so little that only "Beige" is a reliable taker of the job.
 
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