Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas Break

"I'm wiped,
I'm so tired..." -- Kristin Hersh, "Your Dirty Answer"

I'll be taking a blog break for the next week or so, resuming around the new year. It's time to give The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl the undivided attention they deserve.

Best wishes for peace, love, justice, and contentment.

And brownies.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

In Praise of Repression

Since the semester ends this week, everyone’s nerves are frayed, including mine. This is when I most appreciate the value of emotional repression.

Repression gets a bad rap. It’s considered ‘unhealthy,’ ‘inauthentic,’ insincere. Calling someone ‘repressed’ is a serious insult.

Phooey, I say. What a wonderful world it would be, if more people would learn to put a sock in it.

The strong, silent type was ‘repressed,’ and a good thing, too. Learning to suck it up is an important life skill. Learning not to throw our feces in anger separates us from the apes. (And yes, intelligent design folk, we came from apes. To my mind, the best refutation of intelligent design is the platypus. What the hell is that thing? A mammal that lays eggs? I think of it as God’s typo. But I digress.) Learning to think before speaking, to consider that others don’t especially want to (or deserve to) deal with your own petty failings, is part of maturation.

Deaning requires advanced repression skills. By the time students get to my office, they’ve already been frustrated by their professors and their professors’ department chairs, so they’re pretty worked up. They show up loaded for bear, and before I can even begin to suss out what it is they’re actually upset about, I first have to talk them down. It’s sort of like hostage negotiation, only without weaponry.

It’s a multi-stage process. First, get them to calm down enough so that they’re speaking in sentences. This frequently involves a tricky combination of distant civility (“have a seat”), sympathy (“I’m sorry you feel that way”) and, at times, boundary drawing (“if that’s your attitude, you can address me as Dr. Dean”). All of this could be considered insincere, in a way, but I don’t think sincerity is really the point. I show more respect for the student by putting aside my sincere annoyance and actually trying to engage the student’s better nature.

Once we’re actually ‘using our words,’ as The Boy’s teachers say, there begins a delicate dance of the seven veils, as I try to separate the self-justifying fibs from the wishful thoughts from the nuggets of truth. “The professor wouldn’t let me do a makeup.” Why not? “She’s mean.” I’ve never known her to be mean. Have you missed any classes? “Well, yeah.” How many? “I don’t know.” Have you missed other assignments? “Well, yeah.” And so it goes.

The box of kleenex on the desk earns its keep this week.

The question that frequently stops them in their tracks is “what would you have me do?” They often haven’t thought that far. That’s where good repression comes in.

Good repression is functional, in that it gives you time to think through the consequences of the nasty revenge fantasy that keeps trying to hatch in your brain. It can keep you from making an idiot of yourself, as with road rage. Really good repression actually helps you reach a higher ethical plane, as you start to get a sense of your place in the big picture. (As the singer Steve Earle once put it, “I know there’s a higher power out there, and it ain’t me.”)

You can’t learn to repress if you don’t have frustration. This is why I object so strenuously to helicopter parents always hovering around. Let the kid fight his own battles, and even lose some of them. Learning to lose the right way, to maintain your ethics and your dignity as you dust yourself off, is a major life skill. A kid who learns that in college has learned something real.

To be fair, repression gets easier with age. Marriage does wonders for the naturally repressed. During my single days, if I saw a lovely creature and did nothing about it (which was pretty much standard behavior), I would chalk it up to a character flaw, castigate myself for failing to embrace life, and spend the night staring at the wall, convinced that I would die alone. Now, the same behavior isn’t wimpy at all – it’s the manly self-sacrifice of a loving husband and father! Woo-hoo! (It also allows me to harbor the cherished illusion that I had a shot in the first place. It’s my illusion, and I like it.)

To be fair, in my office, I get a skewed sample of students. I don’t see the kids who are successfully sucking it up, since it wouldn’t occur to them to go to the dean in the first place. So a quick ‘thank you’ to all you professors out there who teach the valuable lesson of repression, of dealing, of sucking it up. There’s only so much one dean can do.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


It's exam week, so the halls are lined with students sitting against the walls, sometimes in silence, sometimes on cell phones.

Yesterday, as I passed a student on a cell phone, I heard her clearly say:

"I can't hear you. Finish peeing and call me back."


The Quotable Boy

Work issues recently have been much too sensitive to blog about. Luckily, The Boy is an unending source of quotes.

Describing his sister’s runny nose: “She’s drooling boogers!”

(After farting) “It’s fun to be disgusting!”

“Work is boring.”

“Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, but we’ll eat the cake.”

“Me and Ashley are gonna get married.”
Did you ask her parents?
“I forgot.”
Ask them tomorrow at school.
“Okay, but I’m gonna miss you guys.”
Why are you going to miss us?
“When we get married and get our own house.”

Watching Oprah, with The Wife:
“I like cheerleaders.”
What do you like about them?

"When you're in an airplane and you fly above the clouds,
how come you don't see God and Jesus?"
They're higher up than that.
"There's no gravity in heaven?"
That's right.

The older I get, the more I define heaven as the absence of gravity.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


A post by Danigirl about family Christmas traditions got me thinking about lutefisk.

Anybody who grew up in a Scandinavian household will shudder involuntarily at the mere mention of the word. Lutefisk is whitefish (usually cod) soaked in lye for an extended period, then soaked some more in cold water, then smooshed with some sort of indescribable white stuff (I think butter is involved), then served to helpless Swedes (or Norwegians). Although linguists haven’t settled the debate, the most popular explanation of the name is Old Swedish for “you’ve got to be *()*^$!! kidding me, I’m not eating that!”

How many times has this happened to you: you’re eating fish, and you say “you know what this fish needs? Lye!” Me, neither.

If you ever had a Stretch Armstrong as a kid, and it cracked open and the gooey stuff oozed out, you have a pretty good sense of the overall feel of lutefisk. It’s one of the few cooked fish dishes that could accurately be described as slippery. If you’ve ever hocked a loogy into a kleenex, then taken a good, long look at it, you’ve got the idea.

It’s vile beyond belief.

Every Christmas, the Swedes in my family dutifully track down, boil down, and try to choke down an ever-decreasing quantity of the stuff. A few years ago, a single pound of it sufficed to feed a gathering of sixteen people, with some left over. (To protect family honor, I won’t even discuss the rice-pudding-and-almond experiment of a few years ago.) Part of the sport is watching the expressions on people’s faces. This is why I don’t watch Fear Factor. Those people are amateurs.

Swedish food generally isn’t known for being, well, edible, but lutefisk is awful even by those low standards. (I’ve never heard anybody say “Swedish is the next Thai.”) Yes, the veal loaf is dreadful. No, I don’t know why they insist on pickling herring. Yes, glug is a purple that doesn’t occur in nature, requires open flame, and tastes suspiciously like nyquil. But this is the worst. I suspect that lutefisk is what drove the Vikings to look for Canada.

Yet, somehow, it’s part of the tradition. I’d be disappointed if it didn’t make its annual appearance, or at least, if we didn’t try to pass off some edible doppelganger instead. Choking that godawful fish down is a sort of annual hazing ritual – to stay in the tribe, you have to make the sacrifice. No sacrifice, no tribe. And the tribe matters, especially as I get older.

So this Christmas, we’ll break out the dala horses, set purple alcohol on fire, and gag down the nastiest fish known to man. The Boy will refuse to eat it. The Wife will reflect on the superiority of Irish food (!). My sister-in-law will long for her native Texas, where they’d add crawfish, cilantro, and salsa, and call it a day. I’ll calibrate my serving with a nanometer. And all will be right with the world.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Should I Save Myself Until Tenure-Track?

A faithful correspondent writes:


I am an adjunct who has applied for one of three FT postions this fall at my school. I have a year of adjunct teaching under my belt. I applied for and, today, was offered a FT position at a not-for-profit. As an adjunct, I have to waitress 2 nights/week to make ends meet, and even then, I am remarkably poor.

What I really want to do is teach full-time. I really like teaching. I love my students, and for the first time, I feel engaged and challenged at a job. I have an MA in (my field) and have held several corporate jobs, which were always a drag. I was constantly late, not motivated, etc.

In contrast, I love the details about academia, even at the cc level. I love that the bottom line of teaching is getting students to learn (usually). My students seem to really like me and my evaluations are generally very positive. It may sound cliche, but I honestly think I may have found my calling. I know there are politics that muck things up, but the end result makes the downside tolerable for me. In the corporate world, the little things (meetings, the dress code, etc) irritated me. For the most part, these things don't bother me in academia. They either make sense to me or don't apply.

After I was offered the (non-profit) position, I talked to my dept. head. She said I am in the running for one of the FT positions, but--obviously--she could make no guarantees. She said my name was one they would be passing on to the hiring committee, but, ulimately, it was their decision. Fortunately, one of our well-respected profs just wrote me a letter of recommendation.

My questions are: if I take the (non-profit) job, in your estimation, will that hurt my chances for getting one of the full-time positions next fall? Would it be better for me to be around this spring and summer? Or would people understand that I had to take the job for money and still be willing to hire me?

I know the answers may vary based on the people involved, etc. But, in your opinion, what do you think? If I'm serious (and want to appear that way) about teaching and have my best possible shot at one of the positions, should I continue as an adjunct and eat ramen noodles? Or can I make a bit of money selling my soul in hopes the hiring committee will call me for an interview?


I can understand the hesitation to take the non-profit position, since it runs counter to the sacrifice-everything-for-academia ethos in which we’re inculcated. But I strongly recommend that you take the non-profit job.

I don’t see why taking the non-profit job would disqualify you for the faculty position. If anything, it forces the college to make a choice. The economic logic of ‘why buy the cow if you can get the milk for almost free?’ works against loyal adjuncts; if your loyalty can’t be assumed, then they know they have to step up or risk losing you.

The dept. head sounds commendably honest; she’s telling you that the job is not a sure thing. Believe her. Don’t give up hope – it sounds like you have a pretty good shot, although anything can happen – but don’t give up the opportunity to support yourself, either.

From a hiring perspective, I can’t really see how taking the non-profit job would work against you. At most, if you gave absolute last-minute notice about backing out of Spring classes, that might hurt, but I’ve never heard of a college blaming an adjunct for finding a full-time job. (It has probably happened somewhere, but I’ve never seen it.)

Flipped around – if they did hold it against you, that would tell you something useful about the attitude of your prospective employer. When you’re doing the ramen noodle thing, any job looks better than no job, but once you’re ensconced for a while, dysfunctional office politics can really wear you down. If they’re dysfunctional enough to punish you for trying to feed yourself, better to find that out now. Take care of yourself, and let the chips fall where they may.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Friday, December 16, 2005


Every once in a blue moon, I read something that makes me stop in my tracks and say “uh-oh.” It happened the first time I read about the University of Phoenix, and the first time I read that Lieberman decided not to contest the Florida recount.

This week it happened when I read a piece in IHE that connected a couple of dots I hadn’t connected before, but recognized immediately.

I’ve written before on the similarities between higher ed and health care. Basically, both are labor-intensive industries that adopt technology regardless of economic efficiency. Hospitals adopt expensive technologies to save lives, and pass the costs on where they can. Colleges and universities adopt technologies when the industries for which we prepare our students do, so they will be ready. If the graphic design field goes from t-squares to AutoCAD, our costs climb exponentially, but we suck it up. Companies adopt AutoCAD for perceived efficiencies; we adopt it simply to be current. It doesn’t help our ‘efficiency’ at all, but if we didn’t use it, we would quickly become obsolete. So we pile on the technology, and pass on the costs where we can.

What the IHE piece added to the puzzle was the observation that over the last twenty years, the big news in the world of hospitals has been non-profit hospitals being bought out by for-profit companies, and turned into for-profit enterprises. After all, the inefficiencies of health care present profit opportunities to the first folks who streamline them, the hospitals need the money, and the entrepreneurs have the money.

Wait for it...

Slowly, a few marginal non-profit colleges are switching sides, getting bought by for-profit companies. In the words of the bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is.

I’ve worked in for-profit higher ed before, but the company for which I worked grew its own campuses. It didn’t buy up existing nonprofits and convert them. Still, having worked in the for-profit side, and having moved now to a more traditional, public-sector college, the differences are staggering. In the for-profit model, a certain clarity of purpose can lead to a certain ruthlessness on the ground. Many of the niceties of academic life fall by the wayside, in the name of increased efficiency. Summer vacations, tenure, ‘faculty governance,’ research support: all eliminated. Layoffs are part of the business model; I personally had to lay off a friend. It was one of the ugliest moments of my career, and to this day, I can tell you word-for-word what I said. If I never have to do that again, it would still be too soon.

Having crossed over into traditional higher ed, I can say that the inefficiencies are legion. A capitalist with a sense of mission could make this a very different, much more efficient place, in ways that most faculty don’t begin to understand.

Faculty and others who decry managers focusing on efficiency haven’t grasped this yet. We traditional academics will have to make a choice. Either we can get our act together, or some very wealthy and impatient people will come along and do it for us.

Many Southern and Western states are decreasing their support for ‘public’ higher ed to token levels, granting the campuses greater ‘autonomy’ in return. Follow the trend to its logical conclusion: separation. Upon separation, what’s to keep a struggling college that badly needs a major infusion of cash from selling itself to venture capitalists?

Banks used to run on ‘bankers’ hours’; now they’re 24/7 operations. Doctors used to golf on Wendesdays; now managed care has ‘rationalized’ the profession, arrogating the resultant profits to itself. What’s so sacred about higher ed? If doctors and bankers couldn’t defend their ways of life, what makes us think professors can?

Cost pressures, internal inefficiencies, and high public demand – takeover target?

We can’t keep increasing costs to students at the rate we have, and we can’t stop (or even slow) the rate of technological change. The public sector is pulling out its support, and even going half-adjunct hasn’t balanced our budgets.

We are in very deep trouble.

Barring some sort of unforeseeable political sea-change, higher education now is about where the health care sector was in 1980. I’ve seen this movie, and I don’t like how it ends.

If we don’t get our stuff together while we still can, things will get very, very ugly.


Thursday, December 15, 2005


I grew up in an area where it snowed far too much. It was great when I was 8 or 9 – I can remember hiding in foxholes in the snow in the front yard – but it got a little annoying as I reached driving age. College was in a different state, also quite snowy.

My adopted home state isn’t quite as severe, but it still gets walloped from time to time. One grad school winter, when I lived in an apartment where the only parking was on the street, we had 15 snowstorms. For each one, we had to move our cars under threat of being towed. After about a dozen storms, I figured out that to tow my car, they’d have to dig it out first. I decided to let them. Liars!

As a cc, we don’t have dorms, so all of our students commute. Faculty and staff also live hither and yon. Our President is blessedly enlightened about prioritizing life and limb over classes, so we have our share of snow days. During the semester, snow days are a blessing.

But then finals hit.

What do you do if you have a snow day (or worse, two) during finals week?

On the one hand, you don’t really want thousands of 19-year-old drivers hurriedly negotiating icy hills while stressing about exams. On the other, you can really throw a monkey wrench into semester reporting, fairness, etc. This year, finals week is right before the Christmas break, so we really can’t add days. Friday the 23rd is the makeup day, which could probably absorb some (but not all) of the fallout of one snow day. Two snow days, and we’re completely SOL.

Can we really reschedule exams into January? Is it reasonable to move exams online, if the courses themselves weren’t online? Is it fair to ask faculty to calculate grades without finals? Is it fair to give some classes (but not all) extra weeks to study?

“Let’s hope it doesn’t snow” doesn’t strike me as a policy.

What does your school do?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Wearing the Juice

My brother, who is not to be underestimated, sent me a link to a psychology journal article about people who are so incompetent at a given task that they don’t even know they’re incompetent. Apparently, there are certain ‘meta’ skills, such as self-awareness, that can only be present in the company of a basic level of technical awareness. Absent that, people make mistakes like:

In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras. (source)


As a manager, this is physically painful to read. When people have shortcomings of which they’re aware, it’s possible to train them. When they have shortcomings of which they’re unaware, several possibilities exist:

- they never thought of it, they’re glad to have it pointed out, they’ll get right on it
- they never thought of it, they don’t consider it important, please go away now
- they deny it and move on
- they indignantly deny it, dig in their heels, and question your motives

You’ll notice that three of these four possibilities are negative.

The last response, which is the most common, is also the most frustrating. It casts the manager as the villain and the underperforming employee as the victim in a bizarre psychodrama.

It’s worse when you’re relatively new to the scene, you’ve inherited the employee, and the previous managers all pretended not to see him when he wore the juice. Now, in addition to tweaking insecurities, you’re also breaking precedent. What a horrible person you are! How dare you?

Now imagine that the juice-wearer in question has tenure. And a litigious temperament.

I think I need something a little stronger than juice…

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How Do You Know a Good College When You See One?

“There are market tests for institutional performance.” – Stephen Karlson, Cold Spring Shops

Well, yes and no.

How do you measure how well a college is doing its job?

I read two thoughtful pieces today that directly conflicted on this question. One was the entry over at Cold Spring Shops, quoted above. It was a piece on the long-term need for colleges to maintain high standards so employers will continue to value the degrees they award. The other was Jim Collins’ recent article/monograph (it’s an article, but he sells it as a monograph – who says business writers aren’t sharp?), “Good to Great and the Social Sector.” There, Collins suggests that the standard measure of institutional success for businesses – money – doesn’t work for nonprofits, since that isn’t their mission. Collins instead settles on reputation as a sign of success, which strikes me as shaky. Reputation is, at best, a trailing indicator.

Neither quite seems to get it right, but I don’t have a well-thought-out alternative at hand, either.

The academic prestige hierarchy (a version of Collins’ ‘reputation’) is almost purely based on inputs, rather than outputs. Pour lots of research money and some high-SAT undergrads into a university, add a good football team, and voila! Selectivity of admissions correlates very strongly with academic prestige, regardless of what the teachers in the classrooms actually do. As a former professor of mine put it, “we don’t often turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear.” Give me a college full of valedictorians, and I’ll give you a great job placement record, even if the undergrads spend all four years majoring in beer. I’d wager any sum you please that the best community college in America has a higher attrition rate than the worst Ivy.

(Actually, that suggests a good exercise: Quick, name the five best community colleges in America! If you have no idea, you see the problem.)

Employers’ reactions – what I take to be CSS’s preferred measure – are also fickle. I saw that directly at my previous school. During the late-90's boom, we couldn’t produce graduates fast enough; one of the major drivers of attrition then was employers poaching students before they graduated! When the bubble burst, so did our placement record. The faculty did not meaningfully change in two years, but the market did.

More to the point, employers’ reactions are often based on watered-down versions of the academic prestige hierarchy anyway, laced with personal ties. It would be lovely to assume that employers keep close tabs on the outcomes assessments at the colleges and universities and hired accordingly, but most don’t. Most employers don’t have access to that kind of information (keep in mind, most employers are small, distracted, and busy). Yes, a few elite technical programs in very specific fields may command specific respect based on quality, but those are very much in the minority. Outside of that rarified stratum, one degree largely resembles another. (If that were not the case, the University of Phoenix could not have grown as quickly as it has.)

So, how do you know if a given college is ‘good’?

I have my own biases, but that’s all they are. I prefer schools that know their own mission to those that don’t; community colleges, potted Ivies, and R1's, as different as they are, at least know their missions. The Midtier States of the world often don’t. I prefer schools that don’t limit themselves demographically, but I freely concede that, say, Wellesley probably offers a better history major than Midtier State.

Others have their own biases: some swear by women’s colleges, others use football prowess as an indicator. Some prefer all-undergrad campuses, others use graduate program prominence as a proxy indicator for the quality of undergraduate teaching (a colossal mistake, imho).

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve struggled with ways to improve the reputation of my own cc. It’s pretty well-respected in its community already, which is great, but there’s always room to do better. The problem is that I honestly don’t know where reputations come from.

Vox Blogosphere, Vox Dei: how do you know a good college when you see one?

Monday, December 12, 2005


From what I’ve read about the situation at Tulane, I have to applaud. According to the piece in IHE, dealing with the aftermath of Katrina has cost more than anticipated, so the administration has chosen to declare fiscal exigency and restructure, eliminating entire programs.

That’s the right way to do it.

Too much of academia is wedded to incrementalism. When a fiscal crunch hits, it’s far too common to see the same few cost-cutting moves, over and over again: freeze travel, freeze hiring, freeze library purchases, but leave every program intact. It’s the equivalent of the teenager watering down the whiskey in the liquor cabinet so Dad won’t find out. As long as all the bottles are still there, and you don’t look too close, all seems well.

Slight watering-down is a reasonable response to a mild, passing crunch, such as might happen when there’s a spike in heating costs or an overrun on a construction project. It’s a terrible response to a long-term and/or severe problem, such as deliberate public disinvestment in higher education or runaway health insurance costs.

The incremental approach is politically easy to sell on campus, since the people hurt by it (i.e. prospective future hires) aren’t around at the time to protest. (They exist – a quick glance at the academic job market of the last two decades is proof of that – but they aren’t organized at the right pressure points to make a difference, unlike incumbent faculty.) But it leaves the causes of the crunch intact, effectively guaranteeing that it will happen again.

Repeated incremental cuts (repeated or sustained hiring freezes, say) wind up drastically reducing the quality of each program, since any program has a certain minimum staffing level beneath which it cannot go and still exist. Can a given English department go from, say, 30 faculty to 28 and still function? Yes. Can a Ceramics program go from 1 to zero and still function? No. So ‘freezes’ become ‘flexible freezes’ (slush?) because to do otherwise would be to chop programs.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, I’ve never seen cuts restored. New hires can only be justified as replacements, and not every departure gets replaced.

Incrementalism saves some difficult conversations, buys time until some well-situated people retire, and makes no headlines. It’s easier. Reducing staff ‘by attrition’ means not having to fire anybody, not having to take on the unions, and not making waves; it also means not solving the problem. (And, for the record, it means systematically screwing the next generation. There's something wrong when deliberately eating your young is the 'moderate' course of action.)

The “comprehensive” model of colleges and universities – all things to all people – simply isn’t sustainable in this political and economic climate. Rather than doing everything just a little bit worse every year, I’d prefer to see colleges make the tough choices while they still can. Pick a niche, and go with it. Pony up the resources to do that niche well, and make the cuts elsewhere, even to the point of entire programs and the tenured faculty who teach in them.

Behind closed doors, every administrative colleague I’ve ever had (myself included) will admit that some programs at a given school are stronger than others. Some of those strengths are public knowledge, but most aren’t; you can read all the websites and catalogs you want without ever seeing a college say “we teach x, but not very well.” In flush times, the thing to do may be to try to beef up the weaker programs. But when Katrina hits, it’s time to retire the euphemisms and face reality. Different schools will pick different niches, and rightly so: an honors college here, an art school there, an engineering school over there. That would be more sustainable, more honest, and (I think) ultimately more socially beneficial than continuing to maintain the fiction of comprehensiveness, each year a little less convincingly.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Boy Coins a Phrase

As we were getting ready to go sledding, and The Boy was struggling with his snowsuit:

"Daddy, wait! I have to get my warm on!"

Get your warm on.

Works for me!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Choosing Not to Look

At my previous employer (a for-profit college), the single aspect of the job I hated the most was on Tuesdays, when a report would show up on my desk (and the other managers’) showing the top 25 class sections that semester for student attrition. I was supposed to ‘ask’ the instructors of those sections in my departments to ‘shed light’ on the high drop rates, and to keep notes about which instructors showed up on the list most frequently. Persistently high drop rates were cause for termination, and both adjunct and full-time faculty were terminated when they couldn’t bring the rates down.

I hated that. I hated it because as a professor, I saw firsthand how much student attrition has nothing to do with the quality of teaching. (Most of it had to do with transportation, work/family hours, money, family crises, or substance abuse.) As the institution started to struggle financially, the squeeze on instructors tightened. Some, I’m told, consciously lowered their grading standards to keep themselves off the list.

(I also hated it as a social scientist. The list would show up every week, with little change from week to week. So the same section would top the list several weeks in a row, creating a perception of ongoing crisis among my colleagues. For all intents and purposes, it created a feedback loop. I tried in vain to explain to my colleagues the concept of horses having left the barn, but they just didn’t get it. Finally, I told my boss I didn’t want to see the report anymore until the last week of the semester. He agreed, more out of courtesy than understanding.)

When I fled to public higher ed, part of the appeal was the established culture of respecting instructors as instructors. I don’t get a weekly (or even a yearly) list here. I don’t know who has high drop/fail rates and who doesn’t. Tenured faculty only have to do student evaluations once every five years, unless they’re up for promotion. Students complain much less here, since their expectations haven’t been inflated by an admissions/sales force working on commission. When they do complain, it isn’t a given that they’re right.

As a faculty brat myself, and a former professor at some fairly rough-and-ready places, the idea that I could manage without having to browbeat or micromanage faculty was incredibly appealing. While I do get frustrated here sometimes, I don’t have a weekly hit-the-roof moment like I did there. I could actually treat faculty the way I liked to be treated, and not be accused of failing to do my job.

In traditional higher ed, there’s a general culture of ‘choosing not to look.’ In most cases, it’s either harmless or beneficial. I like that professors here can dress pretty much as they see fit, as long as they don’t get charged with indecent exposure. (At the for-profit, ties were mandatory for male professors. Women got away with turtlenecks.) Here they can (and sometimes do) look kinda funny. They can dress funny, indulge odd enthusiasms, screw up paperwork, and exhibit a general indifference to most of the niceties of organizational behavior, and get away with it. It’s part of the appeal of the job.

But there’s a catch. All that discretion, all that freedom, is premised on a foundation of professional responsibility. A professor who blithely or egregiously ignores that professional responsibility is much harder to call on the carpet here. At the for-profit, which didn’t have a tenure system, a professor who, say, read his negative performance review aloud to his class during class time could be unceremoniously shown the door. (I’m not making that up.) Here, not. There, a professor who made a habit of simply not showing up could be told never to bother showing up again. (Again, I’m not making that up.) Here, only with outsize difficulty.

Tenure was intended to protect the freedom to do one’s job. It was not intended to protect freedom from one’s job.

In theory, it’s easy to describe extreme cases and then just start the process churning. The problem is that the culture of choosing not to look makes it uniquely difficult to get the kind of information you’d need to make an adverse employment action hold up in court. Do we make a practice of monitoring the start and end times of every class? Of course not. Do we have faculty punch in and out? Of course not. So how do we know that one absentee is actually unique?

Very frustrating.

Choosing not to look only works when both sides act in good faith. When one side doesn’t, choosing not to look makes correcting a problem nearly impossible.

My plea to faculty? Please, please, please, act in good faith. I don’t want to have to start micromanaging again. Let me choose not to look.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Fugitive Thoughts

Late semester event-driven exhaustion renders me incapable of completing a thought. So, a few thoughtlets that have been rattling around for a while, unresolved:

- How does Carrot Top have a career?

- Why are no two ties the same length? Couldn’t tiemakers agree on a few standard lengths?

- Why can’t I buy tv channels a la carte? Why do I have to subsidize Fox News in order to watch Jon Stewart?

- How can The Boy repeat “I’m hungry!”156 times before dinner, then not eat?

- Why don’t baby wipes have a red-stripe ‘warning wipe’ before they run out? The packages are *(*)#$&% hard to open, and I’d rather not wield sharp instruments with The Girl on the changing table.

- Rita Cosby – how is this woman on television? That voice is a joke, right?

- If our teeth are as high-maintenance as dentists would have us believe, how did humanity make it this far?

- Hybrid SUV’s. They’re sort of like reduced-fat Twinkies, or lite Spam.

- Tattoos over the butt. Sorry, I just don’t get it. Yes, I’m over 35. You will be, too.

- Leg cramps at 3:00 a.m. God gives a wedgie, just for sport.

- Senator Joe Lieberman. Why? Why? Does anybody think this man is a good idea?

- Tony Danza. I’m completely mystified.

- The Wiggles. If you have young children, you know what I mean.

- Students? Who end every phrase? With a question mark?

- What is it about geese and college campuses?

- Is Maureen Dowd necessary?

- Essay question: Kristin Hersh and Lindsay Lohan put out cd’s recently. Given the existence of a just and benevolent God, explain their relative sales.

Coffee...need coffee...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Vanishing Adjunct

A freeway-flying correspondent writes:


I'm adjuncting at State College, which is the one a step below The University of State (if you know what I mean). They have a laboratory school on campus for pre-K thru 5. It's attractive because our city's public schools suck, and this is a private one that costs MUCH less than other local choices.

So, I was hoping my faculty status could get my kid/s in. Faculty kids get to skip the routine wherein everyone else applies as early as possible and then crosses their fingers in hopes of lucking into a spot. When I asked a lab-school secretary about my status in September, she said "you should be fine."

Last week, husband and I finally tour the place. Assistant principal says No, you may not count, because you're not in the "real faculty union." That night I sent him an email asking for a "ruling" ASAP. Haven't heard back yet.

Only today, I received word from my chair that I will have a course to teach next semester, as the Dean finally approved someone else's release time, so I will take over his course. Here's the problem…I also have a course to teach at U of State next semester. The ONLY reason I'm interested in the SC course is to get my kid in to the lab school. If the asst principal tells me it won't help, I am sorely tempted to back out on the SC course. Why teach one class apiece at two different schools? Other than the pay and prestige, ha ha ha ha.

I know that it is last-minute. My guilt is compounded by the fact that it's already at maximum enrollment. But my guilt is lessened by the fact that I was only officially awarded this course today.

So, if I get a negative ruling from the lab school, do I still have to teach there next semester because of the short notice? Or do you give me green light to back out?

In another part of the email, she writes that a piece I had done a while back on dealing with the fallout of adjuncts who back out at the last minute gave her the idea. So now I’m corrupting the youth. Great.

I’ve long thought that the way academia treats its adjuncts is immoral. (The line I used to use in my adjuncting days was ‘for what I’m paid, they’re lucky if I show up sober.’ Which I always did, btw.) A structure that makes sense for dealing with the retired professional who wants to teach the occasional class as a hobby has taken over half of academia. And I’m acutely aware of how it looks and sounds when a dean, with a manager’s salary, lectures an adjunct on workplace ethics.

All of that said, when I did the freeway-flyer thing, I always kept my commitments. I figured that even if I was being externally undervalued, I always had my professionalism. There were times when it felt like complicity with my own exploitation, but at least I could sleep at night.

Can you back out? Yes. Should you? From a manager’s perspective, I’ll tell you that adjuncts who back out at the last minute burn bridges; I didn’t go back to them again after they had pulled that trick. (At my current school, the department chairs hire the adjuncts.) I won’t argue that adjunct pay is adequate, that you were treated right by State U, or that child care and public schools in America don’t need to be taken much more seriously, but those are all much larger issues than can be solved by you flaking on a course. And there is the matter of the students...

Honestly, I’d reframe the question. Are you likely to leave the area altogether in another semester or so anyway? If so, you can probably afford to burn that bridge. If not, you’d be foolish to.

Current and former freeway-flyers out there: what would you do?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Ceremony Season

It’s that time again. Time to write off the evenings and weekends, wear a suit every day, and spread engaging-but-safe holiday cheer. Ceremony season is upon us.

Although I’ve done it enough times now to know the drill, there’s something about ceremony season that always makes me feel a little guilty. At some level, it just doesn’t feel enough like work. It’s certainly tiring enough – I start in the office like a regular work day, but get home in the wee hours – but at any given moment, it just looks like sociability. Say hello to folks, enjoy some chicken in white sauce (always, always, chicken in white sauce; I think it’s an anti-vegetarian conspiracy), make and maintain connections.

The cruel trick of ceremony season is that it comes at the same time as:

- holiday shopping
- family gatherings
- grading/exam time for faculty and students
- suddenly unpredictable nasty weather

So the faculty and students are on their last nerves (check out the number of faculty blogs devoted to procrastinating grading!), the family is claiming more attention, and the shopping days are dwindling – what better time to throw in snow days and late nights?

Paradoxically, the work that looks the least like work is often the most draining. The Wife is struggling valiantly to keep a lid on things as we get closer to Christmas, and it’s hard to be convincing saying things like “sorry I have to be late again, honey, but the President’s party really isn’t optional.” When she’s trying to corral a crazed ferret of a boy and a girl of random gait, that sentence just doesn’t work. Which I understand, but which doesn’t change the fact of obligations.

I’m thinking of issuing a deanly decree that next year, all performing arts events must have at least one weekday matinee performance, just so I can go home at night.

This weekend we sandwiched a wedding in there, too. It was nice, and I was glad to be there, but neither of us was worth much the next day. I guest-performed at a concert, which was great fun but also great stress. This week, multiple social events and contract negotiations. And the faculty and students are on their shortest fuses of the year.

Some cheese to go with the whine: one of this weekend’s errands involved buying toys for the local Santa to bring next weekend on a fire truck. As far as The Boy is concerned, the two coolest things in the world are Santa and fire trucks. (Throw in Spider-Man, and The Boy would actually, physically explode.) When Santa gets here on the fire truck, and The Boy hits the ceiling with glee, I’ll exhale and even smile.

Until then, it’s full-on WASPy repression. Keepin’ an even keel, cap’n...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Is There Power in a Union?

A professional-staff correspondent writes:

I'm a member of the staff association at my school. We meet regularly, both among ourselves and with various members of the administration to discuss problems that the staff is facing. We have also met regularly with the Board of Trustees. We have generally asked for very practical things--mandated evaluations, more transparent procedures, easy access to policies, harassment training for employees. Our requests have seemed to fall on deaf ears. These discussions have been going on for years about these same issues. Needless to say we're getting a little frustrated. Recently, someone on the committee raised the possibility of unionizing. It does seem to be the only option. What do you think of this option? Alternatively, what suggestions do you have for getting a response, or preferably some action, on our requests and future requests?

There are times when I have to be very conscious of which hat I’m wearing. As a dean at my particular college, which has multiple unions representing just about everybody other than managers and adjuncts, I don’t have a problem with unions. As a dean generally, I’ll roll my eyes in solidarity with deans everywhere who have to deal with the inevitable procedure costs unions bring.

As a manager, it doesn’t faze me at all to negotiate pay and benefits. It’s the work rules that rankle. I’m beginning to think it’s because the folks who have the drive to start unions, and the folks who usually rise to the leadership, tend to be capable, competent, and generally trustworthy (at least in my experience – I’m not talking about the huge, established industrial unions here). The problem is that they think everybody in the union is like them (and every manager gleefully quaffs the blood of the innocent), so they push for rules that would be reasonable and fair if everybody were as conscientious as they. Of course, not everybody is, and you can wind up with rules that prevent taking out the trash, so to speak. Managers then spend inordinate amounts of time developing work-arounds to compensate for the rigidities of the contract. A contract built on the assumption that every manager is arbitrary and every worker virtuous is a lousy contract.

Depending on the culture of your school, unionization could be met with anything from indifference (best case) to a purge (worst case). If other parts of your college (i.e. the faculty) have unions, that should help. It’s technically against federal law to fire people for union organizing, but it happens, especially during Republican administrations.

You might be able to free-ride on the threat of unionizing by letting the threat leak. Leave a few documents lying around, start a whispering campaign – if the administration thinks that unionization is a live threat, it might make a few strategic concessions to make unionizing seem less necessary. (Then again, it might just clamp down, depending on local culture.) Then you jump in as the ‘reasonable’ alternative – address our clearly-valid concerns, and we’ll work with you to keep those evil (fictitious) organizers outside the gates. Entire industries have done this, and it can work. I’ll leave the discussion of its morality to subtler minds than mine.

Another way to get attention, without resorting to the ‘u’ word, would be to construct a few worst-case scenarios around the procedures or rules you find objectionable, and start dropping a different word: litigation. In my experience, managers are far more scared of lawsuits than of unions, since lawsuits are much more likely to happen. Best case, again, find some viable threat and offer to buy it off with procedural changes.

Faithful readers: what do you think? How could this play out on your campus?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Interview Tips

A female (it’s relevant) correspondent writes:

I will be interviewing for a tenure track job at a local community college
at the Large Annual Convention in my field. Do you have any suggestions on
how to prepare for the interview? I'm not sure what to expect so I'd
appreciate any insights (including into what I should bring and wear!).

My field is (a language). The position description specifically says they are
seeking a generalist with a focus on language teaching. I am ABD from a
respected university (one of the top, but not an Ivy), currently adjuncting
at a local liberal arts college while teaching (a language) part-time to
elementary students and finishing my teaching certification.

I have a general policy of not giving women fashion advice. The only fashion rule I’ve found useful for interviews is to never wear something for the first time to an interview. It will look a little too new, making you look like you’re trying a little too hard. Other than that, I’ll have to ask my female readers to leave tips as comments.

The candidates who have come off best, in my experience, have been the ones who turn the tables; treat it like you’re interviewing the college. Not in an arrogant way, of course, but assume that you’re worthy, and try to suss out whether the job is worthy of you. How do they do academic advisement? How well-developed is their assessment program? In what direction are enrollments moving? Has there been a lot of internal turnover, especially at the higher levels? Are there other women faculty in the department, and if so, approximately how many out of how many? (If you’d be the first, be prepared for an extra advisement load as everyone else’s female students seek you out.) How are the textbooks chosen? How long has the department chair been the department chair? Is the faculty unionized?

Taking this approach can help in several ways. First, it shows you as both confident and knowledgeable, and makes you seem less a supplicant. (Desperation is not attractive, as I spent my teens learning.) Asking about the employer seems more confident, and less arrogant, than talking about yourself. Second, it gives you a better idea from the outset as to how comfortable a home the college would be. Third, other candidates won’t do this, so you’ll stand out in a positive way. Finally, if you take at least some control of the agenda, you make ambushes less likely.

A few years ago, when I was looking to leave my previous school but hadn’t yet found my current one, I had an interview at a small college I’d never heard of in a city I immediately liked. (It was one of those day-long gauntlet visits where you talk to a dozen different people single-file, trying desperately to seem fresh as you answer the same questions over and over again.) Somewhere around the third or fourth questioner, I thought to ask whether the faculty was unionized. He answered “not yet...” For the rest of the day, I asked everybody why I got that answer, and the conversations became lively, revealing, and far more informative than they otherwise would have been. When I got back home, I decided not to accept the position if offered. (As it happened, within a few months, they had sent the VP packing, and been written up in the Chronicle for mismanagement. I’ll take “Dodging Bullets” for $100, Alex!) The city still seemed great, but the college as it stood then would have been a nightmare.

In terms of materials, I’d stick with the basics: c.v., business cards, a sample syllabus. If they want more, you can always send it later. Don’t lose valuable discussion time rifling through a pile of documents; the rifling makes a bigger impression than the document will. Keep it simple, clean, and professional.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Ask the Administrator: What I Really Want to Do is Direct...

I need the blogosphere’s help on this one. A correspondent writes:


Here's a brief recap of life since I graduated with high honors from Elite Liberal Arts College with a degree in English, concentration in Film Studies. Got a job in film production in Big City, hated it, after several months got another job working for an antiques dealer, which I loved. Having written my thesis about domesticity and interiors in cinema this made a certain amount of sense to me. So inspired was I that I went on to get an MA in design and decorative arts history at a small but well-regarded and well-connected graduate school in Big City. Super grades, and now I'm a curatorial assistant at a hip and groovy museum in Big City. Sounds peachy, right? Well, I make $15 an hour and yet everyone tells me I'm "so lucky!!!" to have gotten a curatorial job before I had even finished my MA (thesis due pretty soon, then all done.) I find myself reading lots of academic blogs lately and (since there seem to be relatively few "curatorial blogs") sympathizing with the plight of eternal adjuncts. I'm doing what I love, but at 28 I'm getting a little sick of being entry level and paying for my own health insurance. There is a possibility that I'll be converted to a full-time employee in the next few months, but even then it won't be a living wage.

One of the strategies I've been considering for my next job leap in this field is a job directing a university art gallery; museums tend to be extraordinarily stingy with benefits, but I wonder if the same is true for non-faculty positions at universities? I have only just begun to to investigate this.

Earlier this year I applied and got in to the Ph.D. program where I'm getting my MA. After much deliberation, I declined, partly because I have no desire to teach whatsoever and I discovered that curators in my field(s) of interest at all but the foofiest of institutions can usually do just fine with an MA and some good experience. What do you think?

First off, congrats on dodging the Ph.D. bullet! If you really don’t want to teach, and the job you really want doesn’t require a doctorate, then you are wise to avoid it.

Generally, college or university jobs with the title ‘director’ are their own ceiling. ‘Directors,’ as far as I’ve seen, rarely advance any higher within the college, since they are usually in charge of a self-contained fiefdom, like a writing center, the IT area, or financial aid. So any advancement would probably have to come by switching institutions, rather than by climbing within one. That said, since you seem pretty clear on not wanting to teach or even be involved in higher ed except in a museum director capacity, having a relatively low institutional ceiling may not matter.

For the most part (at least here in the Northeast – I’ll have to defer on other regions), college benefits policies for full-time employees tend to be pretty uniform across job title (other than, say, President). Salaries vary, but benefits tend to be standardized. (This is one of the reasons that the lack of benefits for adjuncts is such a deeply disturbing issue on campuses.)

At my undergrad and grad institutions, museum directors were major figures who made real salaries. At my cc, we have a very small gallery in the library, and the curator is a faculty member in the Art department who gets a stipend or course reduction, depending on that year’s budget.

Faithful readers – how are museum directors treated on your campus?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Entrepreneurial Option

In many industries, people with skills and/or drive are able to venture out on their own. If a given employer doesn’t treat them right, they can hang out a shingle and start their own company. In rapidly-changing industries like high tech, even some monster companies (like Google) are younger than some still-in-process dissertations.

Academia isn’t really like that. If I can’t find the right college or university for me, it’s not like I can simply start my own. The barriers to entry are much higher than in many other industries, both for regulatory reasons and by virtue of simple curricular coverage. I suspect that this is one source of the malaise so common among academics – unlike so many others, we can’t really go into private practice without starving, and we can’t start our own enterprise. If an established shop doesn’t fancy our wares, we’re out of luck.

A few for-profit chains have sprung up, but they usually did so either with tremendous initial private backing (the U of Phoenix, with John Sperling) or by coming under the wing of a major corporation (DeVry, for many years under Bell and Howell). These weren’t the academic equivalent of a few kids in a garage hitting it big; they were more like Lucas and Spielberg financing their own movies ‘independently’ of the studios.

As my regular readers know, established shops have both limited funding and tremendous blind spots. That’s before we even get to the standard human frailties, the constraints of tenure, etc.

Writing doesn’t have quite the same barriers to entry, but academic publishers are relatively few and far between, strangely persnickety, increasingly fad-driven, and very lightly read.

I suspect that part of the chronic academic anxiety about blogging has to do with the unprecedented lack of barriers to entry. If knowledge isn’t certified, how will we know if it’s good? We’ll actually have to read it!

Well, yeah.

A blogger like Bitch, Ph.D. or Aunt B. (of tiny cat pants) attracts attention solely through her writing. Not through institutional prestige, personal fame, or the intimidation factor of being Important; just through writing well enough (and often enough) to be worth reading. That’s all. Just through sheer craft. (Danigirl, of Postcards from the Mothership, has just been nominated for a well-deserved writing award for her blog. You go, Danigirl!)

I started blogging out of frustration with the literature of managing higher ed, most of which is sheer drivel. I had no intention of dutifully footnoting all of the drivel to try to add another unread article to the pile; I actually wanted answers to the dilemmas I face every day on the job. I wanted to read something useful. Whether it brought a vita line or not wasn’t (and isn’t) the point. In order to get that conversation started, I hung out a virtual shingle and started posting. Now people actually send me ideas (at ccdean at myway dot com! Keep ‘em coming!) for posts, which is both useful and incredibly gratifying.

Note the irony: in order to pursue new knowledge, I had to do an end-run around academic publishing. This raises the question of the point of academic publishing.

The folks on the outside who constantly chide academia for not running like a business are welcome, at any point, to suggest ways to lower the barriers to entry enough to make real competition possible, to let the underemployed but highly talented youngsters compete on a level playing field with their tenured elders. Seriously. Send any ideas to ccdean at myway dot com. I’ll even post them, if you permit.

Google succeeds so brilliantly by capitalizing (pun intended) on the wisdom of crowds. The blogosphere applies the wisdom of crowds to ideas. It breaks the lone-genius-in-the-library model, and replaces it with something like conversation.

So I’m throwing down a challenge to the crowd. How do we take the next step: to apply the wisdom of academic crowds to actually teaching students, and getting paid to do it? Even idea mcnuggets are welcome, since one of the side benefits of the blog format is that people can synthesize other people’s contributions into something new. Anything useful is welcome!

A Four-Year Old Postmodernist?

Last night, as I was putting him to bed after he had been completely insufferable all evening, The Boy declared:

"Dad, when I'm bad, I don't mean it!"


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Staff Infection

A correspondent who works in the Accounting area of a college writes:

I want to comment on your discussion of the lack of positive incentives (or
presence of perverse incentives) throughout academia and the futility of
trying to run a college like a business. It applies to staff, too.

You'd think that it would be easy to run the business office (controller,
cashier, student loans, etc.) of a college like a business, but it doesn't
seem to work in practice. The "corporate culture" of academia seems to
pervade even the business-like staff areas. In summary, good work product
is rewarded with more work assignments, while bad work product is rewarded
with fewer work assignments with no loss of pay or prestige. Tidy work
areas are stuffed with more people, files or stored items to the bursting
point while those who keep untidy work areas are rewarded with more space.
Efficient use of resources (people, equipment) causes fewer resources to be
allocated to the efficient employee, while profligately wasteful use of
resources causes more and more resources to be allocated to the wasteful
employee. All the while raises are a flat percent across the board and
there is no hope for advancement.

"Well," you think, "just get a job somewhere else. At least you have more
options than someone with a Ph.D. in history." Unfortunately, that's not
really the case. I'm an accountant and not-for-profit and governmental
accounting is a very small niche. If you work in the field long enough to
gain any expertise, you have resume stain. Skill at writing university
financial statements and completing IRS form 990 (for not-for-profit
corporations) does not translate to employment writing corporate financial
statements and completing IRS form 1120 (for for-profit corporations).

Since I come out of the academic side, I admit that I hadn’t thought of this, but it’s consistent with what I’ve seen. Generally speaking, nonprofits pay less than for-profits for comparable work. (The only exception to this that I’ve seen, annoyingly enough, is for-profit higher ed, which pays terribly. I received a substantial raise, with the same title, going from a for-profit college to a cc – possibly the only case in recorded history in which a cc was the more lucrative option!) Nonprofits attract qualified employees in other ways: agreement with the mission, certainly, but also a more relaxed and/or stable work environment. A high-stress nonprofit will have a terrible time keeping anybody who has other options, since if you’re going to be stressed out anyway, you might as well go to the corporate sector and at least be paid better.

At least in the U.S., a substantial percentage of the non-profit side of higher ed is public (either county or state – as far as I know, our only federal public colleges are the military academies). That means that employees of these colleges are, technically, government employees. Government work is famously lower-paying than private sector work, but the traditional offsetting benefits of more time off and greater job stability/security tend to keep people around despite the salaries.

The downside of enhanced job stability, of course, is decreased job mobility. Less churn means fewer openings, so folks disenchanted with East Podunk State College have a tough time finding similar openings at other colleges. (It also places an unhealthy premium on conflict aversion, since simmering resentments could simmer for an awfully long time.) What my correspondent noted, that I hadn’t fully appreciated, is that certain kinds of work are sufficiently different in the corporate world that refugees from academia aren’t taken seriously.

At my college, on the rare occasions when a staff member leaves (usually upon retiring), there’s always an exit interview. I’m told that the most frequent gripe at the exit interviews is the lack of room for advancement; since nobody ever leaves and the institution isn’t growing, most employees have no realistic prospect of moving up. Again, the contrast with the corporate world is striking. There, your job is never really secure, but advancement can happen fairly quickly in the right circumstances.

(It’s sort of like the children’s table at family Christmas dinners. Until a few years ago, the cutoff for leaving the children’s table in my family was 65. A single generation held on for a long, long time, and nobody could move up until it moved on.)

Locally, the mechanisms that have evolved for keeping staff happy in the face of relatively low salaries and very low ceilings are time off and evaluation inflation. Since we don’t have merit pay, managers routinely rate average performance as excellent in order to boost morale. Over time, ‘excellent’ becomes normal, and criticizing people becomes nearly impossible. Add a union to the mix, and meaningful supervision is pretty much only by the grace of the supervised.

Although tenure doesn’t usually exist in staff positions, I’ve seen the culture of tenure bleed over into them. I’d love to change that, but the initial investment of substantially increasing salaries is concrete, and the long-term payoff of increased efficiency is (mostly) hypothetical and hard to capture. It could be done, with extraordinary political leadership and loose purse strings, but I’m not holding my breath.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Who Would You Hire?, or, Merit in Action

I’ve been reading a lot about ‘Merit’ lately. It’s offered as an all-purpose explanation for academic decisions – admissions, hiring, setting funding priorities, etc. It’s used as a trump card to defeat context – in all cases, hire according to merit, and all will be well.

But merit is always contextual. Put differently, it’s not just about the candidate.

I’ll make it concrete. Assume you’re the hiring decision-maker at Hypothetical State. You’re hiring for a tenure-track position in English. The position involves some teaching of composition, though the majority of the courses are literature and/or film. The department search committee sends you three finalists:

Earth Mother: ABD from Respectable State, “almost done,” lots of composition experience at multiple colleges, great committee work and collegiality, likable personality, teaching awards, a few conference papers.

EuroDude: Ivy Ph.D., book contract, references from gods, great job talk, contacts/experience in film industry, slightly icy personality, minimal teaching experience, has never breathed the word ‘composition’ or taught outside Ivy U.

Sisyphus: M.A. from They Have a Graduate Program? State, longtime internal adjunct, trailing spouse of bigshot at Nearby U, faithful to the department for 15 years, plays well with others, taught everything from soup to nuts, no plans for a doctorate, never published.

Which one has the most merit?

The only intellectually honest answer is: it depends.

In a community college setting, I’d lean towards Earth Mother. Student success is our reason for being, and she is the likeliest to improve that. If Hypothetical State is mostly about teaching, and especially if it has retention issues, she’s the best.

At a research institution (or, more commonly, a wannabe research institution), EuroDude is the easy winner. Degree in hand beats ABD every time, and a book contract beats a sharp stick in the eye. Arrogant? Who cares? He’ll need it to navigate the snakepit of departmental politics. Besides, he’s the only one who has shown the potential to get tenure.

Sisyphus could carry the day in a fractious department. If the department is divided into warring camps, or if the dean and the department are engaged in a war of attrition, Sisyphus could emerge as the dark horse, compromise candidate. The department won’t meaningfully advance (or even change) with that hire, but a political firestorm could be avoided. There are times when this is the most prudent route. A manager might be saving political capital for some other high-risk, high-reward project coming up, and might elect to keep his powder dry by taking the safe route here. If hiring Sisyphus makes another, more important decision possible, then Sisyphus is the best choice for the college as a whole. (Sisyphus would also be a compelling choice if the college had recently been burned by a few ‘flight risks’ flying. At least s/he could be assumed to be place-bound).

Alternately, you could look at it negatively: what would a manager be accused of in each case? In hiring Earth Mother, I’d be accused of ignoring both excellence (EuroDude) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring EuroDude, I’d be accused of ignoring teaching (Earth Mother) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring Sisyphus, I’d be accused of lowering standards and inbreeding.

Comes with the job.

A few key points:

- The needs of the department are usually defined, in part, by hiring decisions made 20-30 years ago when the market was a very different animal. In a true meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. Since incumbents have tenure, they don’t have to.

- Needs depend on the self-definition of both the department and the college. Is the college changing its mission? Is it “raising its academic profile,” or focusing on retention? Does the college even know its mission? (Most don’t.)

- Geography can play a role. A trendy urban school might take a flyer on EuroDude, figuring that location would cancel out ‘flight risk.’ A suburban or rural school that hired EuroDude would have to assume that he’d leave when something better came along. If a department can’t be sure that it would keep the line when he left, his candidacy would be doomed.

- I haven’t even mentioned hiring for diversity. That variable makes this exercise even more fun.

- Two of the three candidates will think that something they did caused them to fail. They will both be wrong. It’s Not About You.

Who would you hire, and why?

Friday, November 25, 2005

I Could See That...

We tivo-ed "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," and watched it today with The Boy.

The Boy insisted, repeatedly, that Peppermint Patty is a boy.

I could see that...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Over the River and Through the Woods...

To Grandmother's house we go, for Thanksgiving.

So, two entries today. Tomorrow, we feast.

Best wishes to all for the holiday.

Ask the Administrator: How to Measure Advisement?

Bardiac, true to form, asked a great question. If performing academic advisement is part of a professor’s job description (which it is, at my cc), how do we measure whether they do it well or not?

Some measures are fairly easy, if indirect. Does the professor usually show up for office hours? Do we ever see students there? Does the professor show up on in-person registration days? Do we ever get that professor’s signature on change-of-major forms or course-substitution forms?

The problem with these measures, of course, is that they’re vague at best. It’s possible for office hours to consist of social chatter, rather than real advisement. It’s possible that advisement can be erroneous, causing more problems than it solves. Change-of-major and course-sub forms could show active advisement, earlier mistakes, or even new mistakes.

(We also have a group of faculty who get stipends for showing up at in-person advisement sessions during the off-contract times of year. Presence in that group is generally smiled upon, although one could certainly argue that extra pay is its own reward.)

These measures worked tolerably well when advisement and registration were entirely in-person. Now that registration is increasingly on the web, though, measuring advisement is trickier. I certainly don’t want to start snooping through faculty email accounts to see how much they’re helping students that way – the issues there are too many, and too ugly. But without some sort of monitoring, I have no way of knowing which professors are actually carrying the load, and which free-riding. (Confessions of free-riding are few and far between.)

Failing to monitor, effectively, leads to failing to reward. Failing to reward, over time, leads to failure to bother in the first place. I’m concerned that we’re kind of running on historical momentum, force of habit, from the days when everything was in person. That’s fine, for now, but it’s probably not sustainable.

Does anyone out there have a system that effectively rewards faculty for active, distance advisement? How does it work?

How Economics Did It (as near as I can tell)

In the earlier discussion of the oversupply of Ph.D.’s, a few folks chimed in that Economics as a discipline seems to be immune to the labor surplus that hits just about everybody else. I asked the blogosphere how that could be, and got a few responses. (Stephen Karlson, of Cold Spring Shops, was particularly helpful.) Broadly, the answers I’ve received came down to:

- Greater external (non-academic) demand for graduates. The deregulation of the financial services industry led to the development of all manner of new financial institutions, many of which rely on academically-trained economists. If industry started snapping up English Ph.D.’s, that market would improve, too.
- The rapid rise of Business schools. They snapped up economists for their faculty, drawing from the same pool that economics departments did. Again, an external, local spike in demand works wonders.
- The inherent dreariness of economics as a discipline. It draws fewer people in than, say, literature or history, so the opening of the pipeline is smaller. Add to that the lesser popularity of Econ 101 (as opposed to Lit 101 or History 101), and you have less call for adjuncts to cover endless numbers of intro sections. Since graduate departments in economics don’t have to bring in as many t.a.’s to cover the intro courses, they don’t. (To be fair, much of the ubiquity of freshman composition derives from its status as a gen ed requirement. Very few places list econ 101 as a gen ed requirement.)
- A reduction in external ‘soft’ funding in the late 70s and early 80s led to a reduction in the number of grad students admitted, and the departments never really recovered.

Maybe. These are certainly more plausible than the ‘cartel’ theory, which would require both implausible foresight and an implausible lack of cheating.

Still, none of these explain why other disciplines continue to overadmit so drastically. The only compelling explanation I’ve seen, which several commenters volunteered, is that departments need the cheap labor of t.a.’s, whether there is any realistic prospect for those folks to eventually land faculty positions or not. (To the extent that’s the case, the ‘apprenticeship’ model for grad school is moot, and the argument against grad student unionization is equally moot. If they’re admitted primarily for their labor, then they’re workers, with a consequent right to organize.)

A few correspondents took issue with my Easter Bunny scenario (in which external forces, such as states or accrediting agencies, force a reduction in graduate admissions) on the grounds of implausibility. I rather thought that referencing the Easter Bunny was a way of acknowledging implausibility. Perhaps not. One of my pet obsessions, which regular readers are probably tiring of by now, is the lack of positive incentives (or presence of perverse incentives) throughout academia. As long as individual institutions see the economic benefit of overadmitting, they will. As professionals, I think we have a moral obligation to the next generation to disabuse it, lest it be abused. The most effective way to stop overadmitting is to stop overapplying. That’s probably whistling in the wind, overall, but we might be able to save a few bright young minds from going over the cliff. (Don’t mix metaphors like that at home!)

One commenter even accused me of being anti-education, on the grounds that surely no thinking person could possibly advocate fewer advanced degrees! I spat my coffee when I read that one. That’s just wrong. I’m not anti-education; I’m anti-abuse. The graduate education system in America has become abusive. It needs to be changed. Education is supposed to be about developing untapped potential, not about training for marginality. If we can get the structure right, then people will be free to go about their studies without worrying constantly about finding jobs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Three Words That Strike Terror in my Heart

"Dogpile on Daddy!"

I swear The Boy is made of lead.

It's okay, I didn't need those vertebrae anyway...

Ask the Administrator: Inter-discipline and Punish

A Western correspondent writes:


I'm finishing up my dissertation in an interdisciplinary grad
program, and I'm on the job market. My experience so far has been that
despite departments' talk about valuing interdisciplinarity, all of them
want candidates to have degrees in their departmental field. Additionally,
in the interdisciplinary programs where I might otherwise qualify to teach,
almost every job call emphasizes a certain fashionable subject that has
nothing to do with my dissertation or extensive teaching experience. What's
an interdisciplinary (and apparently unfashionable) applicant to do?


This is one of the most annoying traits of the academy. While research is supposed to be new, groundbreaking, exciting, paradigm-shifting, high in fiber, and generally exquisite, it also has to fit into neatly-defined departmental boxes. A candidate defies the boxes at her peril.

Something very close to this happened to a close friend of mine from grad school. He did a dissertation that blended subfields of our discipline that don’t usually get blended. As a result, he has had a bear of a time on the job market – the folks in subgroup A think he’s really from subfield B, and vice versa. Since jobs are allocated according to pre-existing slots, someone who falls between them doesn’t make the first cut. Despite having a dissertation topic that made some very smart people sit up straight, he frequently lost out to mediocrities with easily-defined research.

In my own case, a certain (okay, inborn) indifference to fashion meant that even though I had studied all the fashionable folk, I didn’t do my research on them. I found an idiosyncratic topic that appealed to me, and apparently to almost nobody else. A peculiar career has followed.

From a dean’s perspective, the motivation for hiring the clean fit is simple: risk aversion. If I need someone to cover courses in, say, medieval Europe, am I better off hiring someone with a doctorate in medieval history, or a cultural-studies grad whose dissertation topic included medieval Europe? The question answers itself. I can’t trust the interdisciplinary one to stay on the reservation. Given tenure, her research could veer off in a completely different direction (always a risk with independent thinkers). The mindless thought-bureaucrat, on the other hand, won’t leave me high and dry. The courses will be covered. All will be eerily still.

If I knew I could keep every ‘line’ in my budget no matter what, I could afford to roll the dice on some offbeat hires. If they don’t work out, just deny them tenure, replace them, and move on. But when replacements are spotty, I can’t afford to get cute with hires. A bad hire might not be replaceable, and then I’m really in a bind. (Ironically, that means that the elite, affluent places are the only ones that can take risks. Transgression becomes a class prerogative. This is the kernel of truth to the ‘liberal elite’ canard.)

In a way, this is similar to the eternal, annoying undergrad question always asked of liberal arts majors: what are you going to do with that? Choosing to take the intellectual high road by following a topic wherever it leads, regardless of the disciplinary boundaries, involves a certain short-term risk. The first job will be harder to get.

Does that mean all is hopeless?

Not really. Folks of an interdisciplinary bent seem to find homes on the extremes: either very large places, or very small ones. Very large ones often have ‘centers’ that focus on particular subject areas without disciplinary boundaries. Very small ones need people who can cover multiple fields, since they’re so short-staffed. It’s the mediocre middle that won’t know what to do with you.

If you manage to break in, though, you will have a higher ceiling than your more traditional peers. Unlike most others, you’ll be able to talk across fields. You’ll have at least a glancing familiarity with the ways in which other disciplines see the world. Although you may have a hard time getting that first job, the path to management should be easier, if you should choose to take it.

(That’s why so many baseball managers are former catchers. Broadly speaking, there are two camps in baseball: hitters and pitchers. Hitters don’t understand or like pitchers, and pitchers don’t understand or like hitters. Catchers have to understand and like both to succeed. Catchers aren’t usually the star players, but they’re disproportionately represented in managerial ranks, since they alone can talk across camps.)

In the short term, I’d recommend focusing on the extremes, and emphasizing range. Show the small school that can’t hire very many people what a bargain it’s getting by hiring someone with range. They tend to care less about fashion, anyway. At my old school, when I was on faculty, I taught courses in several different disciplines; that’s what got me the job in the first place (and that exposure has been invaluable as an administrator). It will make for a tricky and often frustrating search, but the long-term payoff could be quite high. Good luck out there!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Ask the Administrator: I Want Kids!

A female correspondent (it’s relevant) writes:


I graduated from one of those smarty-pants New England schools and moved to the Midwest to attend a Ph.D. program in sociology at State University (this was such a perceived “step down” that someone at my undergrad school accused me of making the school’s degree less prestigious by virtue of the fact that I was attending SU). However, now, several years later (and with a master’s degree in sociology), I am on the verge of leaving SU’s program for (surprise!) a teaching credential program with a concentration in secondary ed social studies.

I am a very strong student in the sociology program (publications, conferences, etc), but I’ve been struggling privately the last few years. I had real trouble with my prospectus - I simply couldn’t find a deep theoretical conflict around which to frame my research, although I was interested in a growing subfield of sociology. My advisors were of little help, and my prospectus defense was a disaster. Several months after that, I admitted defeat with the first idea and resolved to try again with a slightly different tack, also with little help from my advisors…

During this time I also married my grad school classmate. I really felt that things changed for me in the department after that. I felt like other professors saw me as a future trailing spouse more than a future colleague. Instead of talking about my dissertation, I found myself discussing job market strategies with professors who weren’t even on my committee (I never initiated these conversations. Ever).

And, of course, the job market is grim, etc. Worse, our department suffered a TA-ship funding cut after several years of large entering classes, which meant that I might have to take out loans to pay my tuition. In our department, younger students get funding preference, which leaves the older students bereft just as they need the money most in the dissertation writing years. The small probability of finding an academic job meant that I would run a significant risk of being unemployed when the loans came due. Add to that the lackluster dissertation idea, and changing directions seemed more and more attractive.

Additionally, I wanted a family (without the stigma of being a junior faculty mother) and time without the constant publish-or-perish stress of a tenure-track job. Teaching high school social studies would allow me to marry my interests in social science, working with young people, and a desire for a more sane life.

All the same, I feel like a total and absolute loser and failure for leaving graduate school. I come from a family where everyone has an advanced degree (many lawyers and doctors), and my family definitely disapproves my decision to leave (or “quit,” as they say). None of them has a degree that required a dissertation, and they all seem to feel that I am “so close to finishing.” While I don’t feel like this is the case, and I still don’t have a dissertation idea, I sometimes wonder if I am making a terrible mistake by leaving. I’m sure I could force myself to write a passable dissertation, but I wonder what the point of such misery would be when I know now that I do not want an academic career. Should I just buckle down, get a dissertation idea, and write? Nothing seems less appealing to me right now, but I wonder if not completing the Ph.D. is something I’ll be regretting personally and professionally for the rest of my life.

Second, I’d *really* like to have a child, but I am not sure when the best time to do this is. Assuming I don’t continue with my Ph.D., I’ll be entering ed school in the fall. Should I:

a. Have a baby in the six months after ed school ends and before the next school year starts, and as my husband is completing his Ph.D. [I’d try to find a full-time teaching job for the fall, unless my husband had found an academic job, since one of us will stay home with the baby]. The downsides of this plan are that I’d be pregnant while in school, I might have to student teach while pregnant, and that I might have to do job interviews while pregnant (and I worry about employment discrimination). The upside is that my husband could provide the childcare if I were working as a teacher, and we’d get to have the baby earlier (which is a big plus).
b. Complete ed school and work as a teacher, while waiting for husband, now with Ph.D., to get a job, first through an academic job search and then (if unsuccessful at that) a private-sector job search. At which point I’ll be, well, older than I am now.

If you were my dean, what would you advise me to do? Would your advice be different if you were not speaking as a dean, but as a father?

There are really two issues here: whether to bail from the Ph.D. program, and how to plan having a child.

My answer to the first question is yes, you should bail from the Ph.D. program. You’re obviously unhappy there, the dissertation isn’t exactly calling you, and the world doesn’t need another uninspired sociologist. Does that make you a failure? Let’s see: you got an advanced degree, you figured out what you really want in life, and you met the love of your life, with whom you established a nourishing relationship. I know a lot of people who would kill to fail that well. Family pressure is real, but you’re the one who would actually have to live the consequences of your decision. Besides, taking out more loans to finish a dissertation without a topic doesn’t make sense at all.

The question about having kids is tougher. It’s really, truly not for me to say what you should do, but since you asked, maybe I can offer some ideas to consider as you think about it.

First, have a talk with someone at the Ed school about how portable their particular state certification is. I know that certifications are often state-specific, so a credential earned at Midwest U may or may not be worth much wherever you end up. If your husband is planning the usual 50-state search (or anything close to it), rolling the dice on a state-specific credential may not make sense. (You might also want to ask about sociology as an acceptable discipline for social studies. Since No Child Left Behind changed the definitions of ‘qualified,’ some districts may insist on history instead.)

Second, keep in mind that timing a pregnancy to a particular month is a tricky business. You can certainly pick the moment to start trying, but there’s no guarantee that the first try will succeed. It might, but it might be the second, or the fourth, or the tenth, that finally works. Building a scenario as delicate as trying to hit (say) the beginning of summer assumes that absolutely everything will go right on the very first try. It might, but there’s no guarantee.

From my own life, I will just say that there’s no such thing as the perfect time. All else being equal, times when there’s a steady income, health insurance, and a committed partner in the picture will almost certainly be easier than when they aren’t, but beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. (The ‘no perfect time’ rule holds for career decisions, too. I took my first administrative position when The Wife was pregnant with The Boy; in some ways, it was a stupid thing to do, since my hours increased just when I was most needed at home. That first year, it wasn’t at all clear that I had made the right decision (and TW would back me up on that!). But I knew I was trapped otherwise, and administration was my way out of a dead-end teaching career. Had I waited for the perfect time to move up, I’d still be waiting.) For what it’s worth, I say that if you both really want to have a child, have a child. You’ll find a way, as parents always have.

I’m just old enough to remember when people still argued about women entering the workforce. One of the arguments in favor was that taking the moms out of the houses would force workplaces to become more family-friendly: shorter hours, good quality day care on site, etc. Anyone else remember that? It (mostly) hasn’t happened, of course, and parents are forced to make some awful choices. My impression is that it’s worse for women than for men – the biological clock certainly ticks faster, and it’s easier for a man to hide an impending birth – but the work speedup of the last twenty years has hit us all.

If the endless speedup is going to change, it will have to come from people (both women and men) being willing to reject unreasonable circumstances, and insisting on being both professionals and parents (both deans and dads). If that means enduring some static from the uninformed, well, it’s worth it. Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Graduate Admissions, or, Economics and the Easter Bunny

In response to yesterday’s post about the abusive nature of graduate education in the US (and Dr. Crazy’s thoughtful response to it, which I strongly encourage you to check out), Bardiac made the forehead-slappingly obvious point that the real problem is the failure of gatekeeping at the point of graduate admissions.

In a nutshell: in response to a question from an ambitious undergraduate, I strongly discouraged pursuing a career as a history professor. My reasons were several, but they boiled down to the terrible odds of having anything approaching a decent life. Dr. Crazy, in her response, correctly pointed out that dissuading folks from less-advantaged or less traditional backgrounds from pursuing academic careers would have the effect of reinforcing the lack of demographic diversity on college faculties. That’s not good, but it’s not good to keep graduating 10 candidates for every job, either.

Bardiac hit the nail on the head by calling out graduate admissions as the most promising place to start making change. As long as we keep overproducing Ph.D.’s, the law of supply and demand tells us that they will be paid poorly. (And the law of supply and demand is especially unforgiving when current incumbents have life tenure. The worst of both worlds!) If we care at all about making it possible for people without independent wealth to make livings as scholars and teachers, the first thing we have to do is correct the labor market imbalance. And the most logical way to do that, barring the abolition of tenure, is to severely restrict the number of candidates graduate programs can admit (and, equally importantly, severely restrict the number of graduate programs in existence).

How to do that?

First, we need to recognize why colleges want to be universities, why third-tier schools want to be second-tier schools, why Master’s programs want to be doctoral programs, etc. There are very, very powerful incentives for individual institutions and departments to “raise their academic profile.” A department that ‘moves up’ gets lighter teaching loads for incumbent faculty, more graduate student labor to do the scut work (freshman composition, survey courses, lab work, etc.), more prestige, and more money. Faculty in that area are freed from tedious undergrad courses, and allowed to teach graduate ‘seminars’ in which they essentially have talented, eager-to-please apprentices to help them do their research. What’s not to like?

Institutions that move up gain prestige (which pays off in a higher caliber of undergraduate, which leads to higher retention rates, which leads to higher tuition revenue…). They also gain research funding, but most importantly, they gain cheap labor. The big state universities couldn’t survive if they paid full-time salaries to everybody who teaches freshman comp.

What makes this system so insidious is that getting to be exploited is presented as a sign of personal merit.

I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial; this wasn’t part of some nefarious master scheme cooked up by evildoers to waste as much talent as humanly possible. It just worked out that way.

To Dr. Crazy’s query about the ethical responsibility of anyone dispensing advice within this system, I second her goal of transparency, and I’ll add one. We have an ethical responsibility to stop rewarding the production of what the market tells us is useless labor.

We need to storm the accreditation agencies, the legislatures, and the talk shows. If you really want to talk about wasted tax money, talk about states that have ten different graduate programs in the same discipline. I’ll take it farther: other than the really huge states (say, California), limit the public Ph.D. granting universities to one per state. (California, two.) And refuse all public resources (financial aid, etc.) to private universities or colleges that add new graduate programs.

According to Brad DeLong and Cold Spring Shops, Economics as a discipline did something close to this twenty or thirty years ago. By somehow establishing an informal cartel and drastically limiting graduate admissions, they were able to prevent a job crunch for their grads. (To be fair, I suspect there’s more of a private-industry market for econ grads, too.) Question for the economists out there – you know who you are – how did your discipline do that? Are there techniques that other fields can/should copy? (And aren’t economists supposed to loathe protectionism and cartels? Hmm…)

To address Dr. Crazy’s valid diversity concern, we could mandate class-based affirmative action at those institutions that are allowed to have graduate degrees at all.

So Flagship U could keep its doctoral programs, but Eastern Teachers State U couldn’t. Faculty at Eastern Teachers State U would actually have to teach undergraduates. Graduates of Flagship U would eventually actually have chances to get jobs. Ambitious undergrads who get turned away at 21 could find something more productive to do. We wouldn’t need as many unread journals, the hideously-exploitative teacher factory would shut down, and undergrads would actually get taught by the faculty their tuitions pay for.

Also, the Easter Bunny would serve cookies. But a dean can dream…

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Stopping the Cycle of Abuse

A young Midwestern correspondent writes:

I am a History-Secondary Ed major at Midwest State and will be finishing my student teaching next fall.

As this is early in my career, I still have many options open to me. I know I will teach high school history for a few years, but already think I’d like to pursue a career somewhere in higher education, either at university or a junior college. I’m fully aware that grad degrees are requisite, but outside of that, I’m really in the dark about entering the higher ed world. So, my questions are:

What advice do you have for someone considering these areas,
at this early stage in their life?

What would you have done differently?

What books, journals, magazines or people should I consult to prepare me?

At the risk of alienating my entire readership and everybody with whom I work, I’d strongly advise against targeting a career as a college history professor. That’s not to say that adjuncting would be out of the question – those opportunities look to be plentiful for the foreseeable future – but I wouldn’t give up the day job.

The reasons have nothing to do with your ability, about which I know nothing. They have to do with the job market in the field, the length of training involved, and the opportunity costs.

The job market for history professors is dreadful, and has been for a generation. In fact, you can strike the word ‘history’ from that sentence and replace it with any liberal-arts discipline without invalidating the meaning. It’s absurdly difficult to find full-time work on which you could make an adult wage. I consider that unlikely to change, since the combination of increased vocationalism among students (the single largest undergraduate major in the US is business), cost pressures on colleges, and the repeal of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty means the only way for colleges to cut substantial costs is through hiring freezes.

Oddly, the same is not true of high school teachers. Since (at least to my knowledge) there’s no such thing as an adjunct high school teacher, and since high school curricula are much more prescribed and classic than college curricula, history teachers who retire actually get replaced. (There’s a GREAT dissertation in this for some ed.d. I’m just sayin’…) Your chances of finding an actual job as a high school history teacher are far better, and tenure in public high schools usually comes much faster than at most colleges.

The length of training for college professors is dysfunctional, archaic, and abusive. Ph.D.’s in liberal arts disciplines usually take about 7 years (including the master’s), though that can range anywhere from 5ish well into the double digits. That’s after four years of college. Master’s degrees are much quicker (2 years or so, usually), but it’s increasingly difficult in many states to get a tenure-track job with only a Master’s, even at the two-year level. (Admittedly, this impression may stem from my location in the Northeast. Credential creep may not have hit the heartland quite as hard, yet.)

During those (let’s say, 7) years of graduate school, you will live on a pauper’s income, falling farther and farther behind your peers who got real jobs after college. If you go straight through, let’s say you hit the market at 28. Even if you score a tenure-track job your first time out (which is highly unusual), that’s 7 fewer years during which you were building up equity in a house, stashing away money for retirement, and generally enjoying life. (The cost of income foregone is what economists call ‘opportunity costs.’ Most academics try very hard to repress this knowledge, since it’s profoundly depressing.)

(A more realistic scenario would have you hitting the market multiple times, bouncing from one-year temp gig to one-year temp gig, before landing a tenure-track job. Each new job would involve a substantial geographic move, often across time zones.)

So at 30 you finally land a tenure-track job that pays about the same as what you could have made as a high-school teacher at 23. Of course, if you became a high school teacher at 23, you’d have tenure by 30, and probably several years’ worth of equity in a house.

A more life-friendly option that would still allow you to teach in a college would be to get the high school teaching gig, use tuition remission to get a Master’s degree in history while you’re working there, and then sign on as an adjunct at a nearby college. It’s not unusual for high school teachers to adjunct at cc’s in the evenings or on weekends; it gives them some extra income, and a chance to stretch their pedagogical wings. More importantly, it allows them to have lives.

I know that one of the first commandments of academia is Thou Shalt Reproduce Thy Own, but I can’t in good conscience. If you manage to get a fellowship to Harvard, then by all means, knock yourself out. But if your graduate institution is likelier to be Midwest State or its equivalent, don’t. Just don’t.

I don’t know what I would have done differently. Had I not moved to the state in which I went to grad school, I wouldn’t have met The Wife, and my life would be unimaginably different. My career path has been idiosyncratic enough that to generalize from it would be silly, so I won’t. But I certainly don’t recommend this to anyone who could imagine himself happy any other way. The chain of abuse has to stop.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.