Monday, April 29, 2013


Structural Problems, Individual Solutions

Yesterday, Lee Skallerup Bessette posted a thoughtful piece on resources for “alt-ac” careers and what I’ll call incumbent adjuncts.  Her point was that many of the resources currently being developed for graduate students who are looking into non-faculty roles would also be appropriate for many incumbent adjuncts who also need to make a living.  (For the record, I agree wholeheartedly.)  In the very first comment to the piece, a less thoughtful reader opined that adjuncts should just stop whining; if they were any good, after all, they wouldn’t be adjuncts.

I’ll give the commenter points for eschewing euphemism, but that’s about it.  The comment reflected a dangerous ignorance of the realities of the academic job market, for starters.  From this side of the desk, I can attest strongly that we get plenty of impressive candidates for most positions, and that the final hiring decision frequently boils down to which flavor of excellent would best complement what you already have.  Some outstanding people get turned away.  I’m acutely aware that my own career started with an amazing stroke of luck; really, the only thing separating me from freeway fliers was having caught that first big break.   I’ll take credit for having worked hard with the cards I was dealt, but getting that one great card was luck. There, but for the grace of God...

But the issue with the comment went beyond arrogance, ignorance, or bad manners.  It exemplified the “individual solutions to structural problems” habit that has captured far too much of the discussion around higher ed.  And it occurs at every level.

Many of the folks who would rightly recoil at the “if you were any good” comment will themselves make comments like “if only we got rid of administrators” or “administrators are clueless,” and miss the contradiction.  The latter is the same move as the former; in both cases, individuals are falsely held to be the source of, and solution to, everything.  (I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s line, “sweet, sweet alcohol.  The source of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”)  Characteristically, The Onion captured the flavor of this move with a headline declaring that the recession is lingering because candidates keep blowing job interviews.

That’s not it.  The recession lingers for structural reasons, jobs are lacking for structural reasons, and administrators’ options are constrained for structural reasons.  If we miss those reasons, we’ll never come to grips with the actual issues.

Getting to the root of structural issues is harder work than just blaming someone for whining, or for just being there.  It requires letting go of the intoxicating thrill of moral outrage, and instead accepting the possibility that it isn’t really -- or at least, entirely -- a story of heroes and villains.  And that doing away with something bad may require letting go of something good.  Sometimes they’re connected.

Once we accept the idea of structural explanations, then the whole concept of “deserving victims” falls apart.  The academic job market didn’t fall off a cliff in 2009 because graduate students suddenly got worse.  So blaming those erstwhile students for faring badly in the market doesn’t make sense.  To the extent that it’s possible to find other pathways for some talented people to contribute to their chosen field and support themselves, by all means, let’s do that.  Probably, some people will decide to find other ways to make a living; there’s no shame in that.  But let’s stop playing heroes and villains, deserving and undeserving.  Ultimately, it’s not about that.  And it’s arrogant and unseemly to pretend that it is.

Actually, wanting to reduce the number of administrators, or reduce the power of administrators, is not about blaming individuals. It's about recognizing that as long as there are people in these roles, there are many factors that will cause them to act in the way they are acting. Instead of blaming this particular VP-for-whatever, the problem is that we have a large class of VP-for-whatever folks, and these issues are being overseen by them rather than by people whose primary roles and daily experiences are those of the faculty.

We'd be blaming individuals if we said "You know, this would all be better if we had a different Dean."
Also, regarding alt-ac:

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are as many alt-ac jobs as TT jobs. There probably aren't, especially if the future of the university really is leaner and more efficient, but let's say that the things that alt-ac folks do undergo expansion while traditional classroom teaching shrinks. That may be optimistic, but let's make an optimistic assumption to get some insight into what's going on.

In an era of 100 applicants per job, would doubling the number of available jobs really help?
I wonder at what point in an adjunct’s career when they finally come to the realization that they have made a bad career choice.

It may come at the time when they finally come to terms with the fact that they are only of ordinary ability. They are never going to be superstars with a whole raft of publications in prestigious journals and a couple of trend-setting monographs to their credit. Every time they send out a CV to apply for a full-time gig, they never hear anything back. Whenever they go to a conference, the job scene there is reminiscent of a Depression-era longshoreman’s hiring hall—hundreds of job seekers milling around and only a dozen or so positions available. They finally recognize that they are unlikely ever to be able grab that brass ring of a tenure-track full-time position and they are probably doomed to freeway-flying for the rest of their lives. They will never be able to start a family, they will never be able to afford a house, and they will never be able to retire.

Time to throw in the towel and try something else, they finally realize.

I am currently unhappy at my non-tt position.

Alt-ac is not easy if you are geographically bound, in reality a couple of connections have offered to help with opportunities abroad, but it is not feasible.

My local problem with Alt-ac is that I consistently considered over-qualified, and I am perfectly fine with taking a salary cut, joining a lower-pay track, and I am not challenging for housing in my area.

If the job does not require post-graduate skills, the number of suitable applicants, well hmm, triples.

As for the admin track, in my area, I suspect the fast-fail came a-knocking, so their jobs are preserved a little longer, rather than close down departments or eliminate majors.

I do view the admin positions as unproductive, because 90%, if not 100%, of their initiatives are simply not feasible and have not the slightest chance of becoming profitable.

Sadly, those of us left in the classroom, have an added pressure to teach more and more different classes because there are all these admins who no longer teach.
I witnessed two big wigs fight over my schedule and the picture I had in my mind is that they were cannibals. I resolved the issue by saying that, since whatever was left over would be taught by adjuncts, I get to pick what I will teach. What they were really fighting for is that they did not want to be bothered to recruit and vet adjuncts.

There are few others in my similar demoralized position as well.
I would agree that the problem is structural with regard to the poor hiring market for faculty. One issue (among many) is the over-production of PhDs. Academic departments are completely complicit in this ("we need a graduate program for the prestige," or "who will TA for us" or "we need research assistants") and give little to no thought about the end result of that many PhDs on the job market. There's sort of an institutional mindset of "it'll work itself out" or "if you're good, you'll get a job." Not at the scale of 300+ applicants per job. What you need to get is "lucky."

One additional quibble on the Homer Simpson quote... It's actually "To Alcohol: the cause of--and solution to--all of life's problems!"
I agree 100% that the alt-ac push should include part-time faculty as well as current grad students.

I think you, and others (including the person from Adjunct Justice), misread the tough love that Anonymous12 posted. A call to leave the adjunct world based on the reality of structural changes in academia (nicely outlined, I might add, from state funding to the importance of grants to the cost of benefits) is a very real call to action. I mean, exactly how is a petition to the US Secretary of Education going to produce a pay increase for an adjunct at a private (or state run) non-profit college? Don't they know that the Board of Trustees control all budgets and policy making at the college?


If you are a full-time non-tt instructor at a major university (which usually has a salary and benefits and teaching load similar to a tt position at a CC but without the service duties), you must know that you are exceedingly unlikely to be considered for a new tt opening (if any appear) or you aren't paying attention to the usual search for young blood (with a Young Investigator grant) or a senior star.

If you have been teaching part time for a decade and not gotten a nibble for a job opening from the people who know you best, they are most definitely telling you something even if they aren't helping you find an alt-ac career because they really need your labor at low rates to keep the college running.
Alex @9:20PM doesn't seem to understand that alt-ac means jobs outside of academia, so it doesn't matter if academia is getting leaner or not.

For example, it is the case that "alt-ac" constitutes the majority of jobs for physics PhD grads (and has for nearly a century except for a decade or so after WW II) but it is still difficult for physics grads to learn about the options because their professors are mostly ignorant of anything but academia. It isn't about creating more jobs in business or industry (although it might be about keeping them from being exported or given to low-wage imported workers), it is about knowing how to get one! It must be much worse in more "evergreen" disciplines.

I'm aware that most scientists work outside of academia. I'd always heard that referred to as "going into industry." I'd only heard the "alt-ac" phrase in the context of non-faculty jobs within the academy, e.g. student affairs, pipeline programs, instructional technology, etc.

If there are people using the phrase "alt-ac" to refer to jobs outside the academy, fine, but when I read articles on alt-ac jobs on Inside Higher Ed it's always the sorts of college/university jobs that I mentioned above. The person who administers a STEM pipeline project inside academia is in an alt-ac job, the person who works on oil pipelines for an engineering firm is in industry. That was my understanding of the phrasing.
At the risk of sounding harsh, I think there is some kernel of truth with comments like the one you mention: there are some examples of adjuncts for whom their position is the result of poor choices. For example, I know several adjuncts or people who have left academia who never even considered leaving where they currently live. One of my friends only applies for positions (in a humanities field) near here - meaning she applied for approximately 3 jobs this year. I think we need to be WAY more clear about this to people: if you are place-bound, DO NOT enter academia.

On the other hand, I also recognize that many adjuncts are screwed by the system - their position is through no fault of their own. What we need to see if that blanket statements from either position (all adjuncts are stupid or all adjuncts have been screwed) don't apply to everyone (indeed - blanket statements rarely ever do). And we may need to offer different advice to people in very similar situations as different things are holding them back.
It exemplified the “individual solutions to structural problems” habit that has captured far too much of the discussion around higher ed. And it occurs at every level.

Great post. But I will qualify the quote above by noting that a bunch of individuals who act in a similar way become a structure (or a market, or whatever term you prefer). In the case of academia, a lot of individuals choose to go to grad school when doing so is, to be blunt, stupid.

They're acting against their own best interests for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this comment. Nonetheless, the grad school system, whether you think it's exploitive or not, only works because so many people are willing to enter it. The day grad schools can't fill their slots is the day we'll see real change.

Law schools are a good example: law school admissions have finally fallen off a cliff, thanks to most 21 – 26-year-olds realizing that law school is, for most of them, stupid. One can euphemize this sentiment in an array of ways, but the sentiment still remains.

Now, academia is not as pernicious as law school, at least for people who aren't paying; I'm part of the problem, but at least I ended up +15K at the end of every year, instead of -$30K or more. Still, the principle is the same.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?