Wednesday, May 28, 2014


It’s the Little Things…

Having worked in the community college world for the past eleven years, I’m used to a certain tone-deafness about community college from “opinion leaders” in and around higher education.  I’ve heard it referred to in lists of “alternatives to college.”  I’ve read the pieces on “undermatching” that equate community college attendance with failure. And normally I content myself with simple rebuttals, because I see the admirable truth on the ground every single day.  Most of the time, I’m content to put the information out there, and let it make its way on its own merits.  

But once in a while, I just can’t.  This one really grinds my gears.

Yesterday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece detailing the new MLA report recommending that Ph.D. programs in the humanities make it easier for students to complete more quickly. (Hat-tip to Anne Kress, from Monroe CC, for pointing it out.  I would have skipped the article completely.) In an attempt to parry criticism for rushing students more quickly into an already oversaturated market, the MLA is trying to raise awareness and acceptance of alt-ac positions.  In that context, the article said:

"The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong," said Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the report and is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. "What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths."Departments should be more clear with students from the start that tenure-track jobs are becoming harder to find, Mr. Berman said, and should also explain to students what else they could do with a language or literature Ph.D. Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges and high schools, working at cultural institutions such as heritage museums and libraries, and putting skills to use in the private sector.
It’s worth a close read.  “Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges…”


Many states (including both Massachusetts and New Jersey) have tenure systems for community college faculty.  For that matter, many states have tenure systems for high school teachers, too.  Let’s get the basics right.

I don’t necessarily blame a professor of comparative literature at Stanford for not knowing that, but I would expect a chief author of an MLA report on the academic job market to know that.  If the folks proposing radical changes to graduate education in the name of the job market don’t know that, well, good luck with those changes.

To be fair, it’s not clear from the article whether that exact construction came from Professor Berman or from Vimal Patel, the author of the piece.  But either way, I would have expected someone at the Chronicle to catch it.  Covering higher education is what they do.  The fact that many community college systems have tenure should not be news to them.  It should be just as commonplace and obvious as the knowledge that IPEDS graduation data only covers a small minority of community college students in the first place, so basing any sort of policy decisions on it would be preposterous.

I would expect anyone grounded in the realities of higher ed to know that.  

Or, at the very least, to say what they actually mean.  

Your move, Chronicle.

I would expect someone with a PhD to know enough to sense the boundaries of his area of expertise and to keep his mouth shut when treading into areas of relative ignorance. We also have tenure at my college, not to mention a fairly supportive and collegial atmosphere with our current crop of administrators.

I worry just how much of that ignorance gets passed on to PhD students at top universities. He also seems to think that a PhD is enough to teach at any high school in the country.
Right. Our large, high ranked high school does have a few PHD's on staff, but they were teachers first, then pursued their disciplinary doctorates.
It is generally true that tenured faculty members at research universities will look down their noses at any career option other than a tenure-track gig at a research university. In particular, they will frown on any student who wants to teach at a community college or even at a teaching-intensive four-year college. Any job other than research at a prestigious university is no job at all.

But it is also true that tenure-track jobs at research universities are exceedingly scarce and will be difficult to find, which means that recent PhDs who seek academic careers will have to “settle” for jobs that are much more teaching-intensive. Unfortunately, the research universities do not prepare their students very well for the academic career options that are really out there.

The current glut of new PhDs is largely to blame for this mess. This is not likely to change anytime soon, because faculty at research-intensive institutions are very reluctant to even consider proposals to reduce the numbers of graduate students that they accept, even when faced with the limited career options that are out there. This is not really done in order to preserve academic standards, but is primarily done for selfish economic reasons.

These faculty members depend greatly on their graduate students, who do most of the work on their research projects. A high-level tenured faculty member at a research university often does very little of the actual day-to-day research on their research projects—most of that work is done by lower forms of life such as graduate students, post-docs, or even by assistant professors on the tenure track.

It is often true that just about all that senior faculty members actually do is sit in their fancy offices and write research grant proposals. Just like a candidate running for political office, a large fraction of their time is consumed by fundraising, leaving little time left over for actual research.

Based on the prestige earned by the work done largely by their graduate students, these senior professors spend their time on the government dime flying back and forth to prestigious conferences held in exotic locales. It is often true that they add little more than their names to the papers written by their graduate students. As a friend of mine once said—graduate students do most of the work, whereas the senior professor who is the principal investigator on the grant gets most of the credit.

This system is basically corrupt and it encourages the granting of more and more PhD, even when faced with the grim job prospects for most of them. Under this system, the output of graduate schools isn’t really papers, books, and grants—it is new PhDs.

Thank you for pointing out this article and for the comments. In addition to being completely ignorant of tenure systems in community colleges and high schools across the nation the stance that a career in teaching at a community college or high school is a good alternative to a traditional tenure/research position. I have had many colleagues and professors that have actively and consciously pursued teaching or administrative positions at community colleges because they want to teach, not because it was a good alternative. Hopefully this new wave of PhD's that are settling for positions are not forcing out the people who are truly interested in that career path.
I don't know if you have ever seen PhD Comics, but a couple of them from the last few months sum up the fact that the primary concern of the lead investigator is staying ahead of the cycle needed to keep the grant money flowing:

and two of the most recent ones, with id number 1712 and 1710.

That reality (where your job is as much about talent management as it is about generating new ideas that get grant funding) is why some are happier at a PURELY teaching college than one that is a wannabe research institution (high teaching load and an ever increasing demand for research).
Even teachers of my college are also pursuing PhD along with teaching us and I think its the best option to pursue their career while already teaching.
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