Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Speculative Postmortem

Like nearly everybody else, I saw Rebecca Schuman’s piece eviscerating the University of Illinois at Chicago for posting a job ad for someone with a Ph.D. to direct, and teach in, a German language program for $28,000 a year.  If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend checking it out.

Schuman does some quick math on the length of time the various components of the job would probably take if you did them just well enough not to get fired, and calculates that it adds up to more than full-time.  I quibble with one element of her math -- coordinating courses is not the same as developing courses -- but her larger point clearly stands.  

She followed it up with some lurid fan fiction based on how such an ad might have come about.  

She’s a better humor writer than I am, so I won’t try to compete there.  But I’ve been in enough tense discussions about resource allocation for programs and positions in which I had to make a decision and catch flak for it that I thought I’d try my hand at portraying how such a thing might have happened.  (The obligatory disclaimer: this is based on experience in the industry, not at UIC.  I don’t have any inside information specific to UIC.)

Chair: Our German language program director left.  We need someone to step in.

Dean: I’ve got ten position requests on my desk.  I can fund two.  Is this more important than (names several others)?

Chair: But it’s a replacement position!  The money is already in the budget!

Dean: No, that money was already scooped up to fill the deficit.  Every new person counts as a new hire, even if they’re just replacing someone.

Chair: That’s ridiculous!

Dean: The state, in its infinite wisdom…

Chair: I know, I know.  But if this isn’t filled, there won’t be anyone to keep those classes from going off the rails.

Dean: Should we close the program?

Chair: There’s no time.  We need a quick fix.  September will be here before you know it!  Besides, the classes are full, and we need the enrollments.

Dean: Hmmph.  Will any full-timers do it for a course release?

Chair: (withering stare)

Dean: Worth a shot.  What about adjuncts?  If we split the funding for a position between this and (names another), would that be enough to entice an adjunct to step up?

Chair: (strained voice) Maayyyyybeee…

Dean: It’s better than nothing…

Chair: I guess…

Dean: Of course, to satisfy HR/union/state requirements, we’ll have to post the thing.  But I can’t imagine anyone from outside jumping at this.

And the rest is history.

Schuman is clearly right that the job is absurd on its face, and I agree that anyone who doesn’t already work there would be well-advised to steer clear.  It’s not the sort of job to relocate for.  But if there’s a freeway-flying adjunct already teaching there, I could see her making the rational decision that it’s better than otherwise.  

Our narratives aren’t all that far apart, really.  Hers is a comedy; mine is a tragedy.  In mine, basically well-meaning people are trying to patch a ridiculous situation with the budgetary equivalent of baling wire and bubble gum.  The end result isn’t pretty, and doesn’t come anywhere close to the kind of job for which graduate students spend years of penury earning doctorates.  But it doesn’t rely on an assumption of cluelessness, malice, or whim.  It’s a story of conflicting imperatives making a terrible option the least-bad one.  

That sort of thing happens more than one might like.

Admittedly, I’m assuming good faith.  Someone along the way may just be a sadistic jerk.  I can’t dismiss the possibility, but I’d hate to assume it.  If that were the entire problem, the solution would be easy enough: fire the jerk.  But if the problem is structural -- and based on the national job market, it has to be -- then swapping out the admins won’t help.  It’s not about them.  

None of this is to defend the position, or UIC, or, heaven knows, the state of Illinois.  It’s just to say that if we start to come to grips with how well-meaning people could do this, we might actually start to make progress on fixing it.  Thanks to Rebecca Schuman for catching this one and calling attention to it.  If this is the bloody flag that rallies the masses for more funding for public higher ed, I’ll take it.