Thursday, January 16, 2014


Friday Fragments

A tip o’the cap to the late Russell Johnson, best known as The Professor on Gilligan’s Island.  On behalf of academics everywhere, we all thought you deserved to be mentioned by name in the opening theme song.  “...and the rest…” just wasn’t right.


Lee Skallerup Bessette’s piece in IHE yesterday was notably thoughtful, reflective, and well done.  I won’t try to summarize it, other than to say that it brings an honest, flawed, first-person voice to issues that are often addressed in much more absolutist ways.  It’s always possible to find some platform from which to criticize.  It’s much harder, and braver, to acknowledge one’s own context, and to move forward anyway.  Her best stuff involves coming to terms with difficult truths in humane ways.  It’s well worth the read.

In contrast, I was amazed to read of a panel at the MLA at which professors in graduate programs in English argue for...wait for it...even more graduate students in English!  They tried to pass it off as some sort of audacious gesture, but the politics of it are silly.  Other than sheer, blinding self-interest, the closest they came to an argument for their position amounted to a sort of vicarious calling of a bluff -- generate enough unemployable adjuncts, they seem to assume, and the jobs will just have to appear!

Um, no.

That’s not how it works at all.

The point they’re missing is that the ready availability of adjuncts in one discipline, as opposed to others, makes full-time positions likelier to go to the others.  If it’s relatively easy to hire good adjuncts for English, and nearly impossible in Nursing, and we can only afford to hire for one, Nursing wins precisely because of the availability of good adjuncts in English.  

In other words, supply (of adjuncts) depresses demand (for full-timers).  Continuing to increase the supply will continue to depress the demand.  

That may sound horrible -- and in a certain way, it is -- but from the employer’s standpoint, it makes sense.  The gain in usefulness from a new full-timer in a discipline where good adjuncts are scarce is far greater than the gain in usefulness from a new full-timer in a discipline full of good people.  

I’ve never been a fan of the “heighten the contradictions, bring the crisis” theory of politics.  As Keynes correctly noted, the market can stay irrational a lot longer than you can stay solvent.  But at least when the sacrifice is self-inflicted, I can respect the convictions behind it.  Painting yourself as brave for sacrificing other people is something else altogether.  Color me unimpressed.


ICYMI, here’s a fun piece in which a reporter from New York magazine asked me to fact-check the show “Community.”

We are not 8-bit.  I stand by that.


The Boy mentioned this morning that the girls in his school collect scented hand sanitizer.  They trade bottles, and hang them from their backpacks.  Apparently, pomegranate is a favorite.

That would never have occurred to me.  


And I’ll end with another tip o’the cap, this time to Kristin Hersh, whose “Hips and Makers” came out 20 years ago this month.

It didn’t make her a star, and I’m not even sure it’s her best work -- for me, that’s “Sunny Border Blue” -- but it’s remarkable, arresting, wise, and haunting.  “Your Ghost” is lovely, but “The Letter” really rewards a close listen in a quiet room.  The whole album does, for that matter.

She’s touring again, this time with Throwing Muses, and she’s still making music that is entirely her own.  (The Muses’ new album features a sneaky earworm, “Sunray Venus,” that took over my brain for a week.) The popular music world might long ago have consigned her to “...and the rest” status, but she just keeps going.  It’s hard not to root for that.  

Your fact checking of Community was great! I'll add that the Dean there is the least realistic character, way more than Pierce.

And "ditto" on ethics or the lack thereof at the MLA meeting.
If there were a convincing case to be made for increasing (or even maintaining) the numbers of PHD students in the humanities, the last source for it would be tenured humanities faculty. Their case is invalidated by their self interest.
Dean Dad, let me say again, your Friday posts help make Friday the best day of the week. Thank you for blogging!

Great point on MLA.
DD, I share your admiration for Kristin, but Sunny Border Blue? The Grotto tugs at my heartstrings more.
Try reminding a tenured English professor with that mindset just how many of us mid-career non-tenure track professors there are already out there, and how much we would still like a shot at the tenure track, if such positions might possibly be opening up. It makes for a remarkably short and awkward conversation.

Ostensibly, of course, the reason is that those of us who have been on the contingent track for some time should realize that our Ph.D.s are stale, and be accordingly resigned to our current status (rather than thinking that maybe if we've proven that we can handle gargantuan teaching loads and still do a bit of research, that might suggest that we could give new Ph.D.s with less teaching experience a run for their money, given similar pay/course load conditions). In reality, I suspect the problem falls closer to home: concentrating on converting a lot of current contingent faculty to TT status doesn't create grad students for current TT faculty to teach.
So when an academic department is offering one FT professor's worth of adjunct-taught sections, how does that not become a FT position? This is what I wonder after reading Lee Skallerup Bessette and Rebecca Schumann. When adjuncts are consistently teaching a professor's worth of classes, why would administration not just convert that to a viable FT line?

Immediate rebuttals -- enrollment can be unstable; health benefits are too expensive; the faculty union is already too large and powerful. But it's still a good question, I think.
Dear Uncle Matt,

It depends on how you interpret "full-time."

If you mean "full-time, tenure track faculty," then the issue is that adjuncts are typically paid less on a per-course basis than full-time, tenure track faculty. Thus, it is still substantially cheaper to have the courses taught by adjuncts.

If you mean "full-time, non-tenure-eligible faculty," then it comes down to two issues:
1. At some institutions it really is that the cost of benefits is enough to make the cost too much.
2. At other institutions they don't see themselves as the sort of place that has full-time, non-tenure-eligible faculty. The full-time tenure-track faculty see this as a threat, and will vote to not allow this sort of job category.
Back when I was teaching at college, the union had it written into the contract that anyone teaching a full-time load was to be treated as full-time. Administration responded by hiring two occasional instructors for what would have been one full-time job. The department head explained to me when hired that I wouldn't be teaching more than every second semester, because that way I wouldn't be given full-time status.

I'm not a lawyer, but it seemed to me that if you had an occasional lecturer teaching a full load of intro programming every semester, then you effectively had a full-time intro programming position. I guess the wording didn't support it, or none of the occasional instructors had the money to hire a lawyer and fight it. Still strikes me a duplicitous, even years later.
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