Monday, April 29, 2013
Structural Problems, Individual Solutions
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.
We'd be blaming individuals if we said "You know, this would all be better if we had a different Dean."
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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