Sunday, June 2, 2013

Lotteries, Meritocracies, Tables, etc.

This is one of the better attempts to describe the underlying problem with the current academic job market I've seen in some time (and also works well as a follow-up to/context for Maybelle's recent post, with its nose-to-the-bakery window/place at the table metaphor.  Besides, it uses the ever-popular snowflake metaphor, though in a more positive way than it is usually employed around here).   Here's the part that resonated most strongly for me:

There are comments on Lee Skallerup’s Bessette’s essay suggesting the blame lies with the individuals pursuing these jobs, for not seeing the writing on the wall, or recognizing the PhD glut, or thinking that they’re “special snowflakes” when they’re not.
Here’s the thing though. Someone like Lee Skallerup Bessette has already proved she’s a “special snowflake.” She has a full-time job. She’s a dedicated and even innovative teacher. The problem is that she, like so many others, has a job in a system that doesn’t provide sufficient or equitable compensation and it’s wearing her out.
Who can blame her?
By accepting that the jobs we want are the result of a “lottery,” we give a pass to the fact that we’ve created a system where anything short of winning that lottery is unsustainable.

This description of the current situation seems right to me; as others have pointed out, our problem is not so much a shortage of work as a shortage of decent, sustainable jobs.   The result is an increasing class divide in higher ed. Unfortunately, those outside (and to some extent inside) the academy who are trying to "disrupt" the current system (did anybody see this description of 2018 utopia which sounds more like a dystopia to me, penned by Randy Best, and Jeb Bush, who is apparently now dabbling in edupreneurship/higher ed "reform"?!?) seem to envision an even more stratified system, all in the name of "efficiency" and serving underserved populations, of course (even though there's good evidence to suggest that underprepared, first-generation college students are precisely the populations who are least likely to benefit from scaled-up, homogenized approaches, and most likely to benefit from individual attention and a curriculum created and regularly revised by faculty who know them and their needs well).

I wouldn't mind seeing the present structure of the academy disrupted myself, but in the opposite direction, (back?) toward a system where most professors are both full-time and tenure-track.  I suspect that might entail somewhat heavier teaching loads for the average tenure-track professor,  and the acceptance of differing and/or variable loads for tenure-track professors in many departments (a situation which sounds stranger than it probably should).   I also suspect that the impact on research might not be as great as those who have fought for lower teaching loads fear, since the current stratified system means that TT faculty are increasingly overloaded with service shared among an increasingly smaller proportion of the total faculty, including the need to find, hire, supervise, evaluate, occasionally fire, replace, etc., etc. an ever-growing, ever-churning contingent work force (using a lot of contingent faculty may be cheap in strictly dollar terms, but there are hidden costs, and not just to the adjuncts).

And, of course, it would be expensive (even with higher teaching loads), and I have no idea where the money would come from.  Higher tuitions clearly aren't an option, and a return to substantial subsidies from state legislatures doesn't seem like a realistic option, either.  A call to fire a significant proportion of the administrators might have political legs, but probably isn't as practical as it sounds.  Insisting that the great majority of administrators hold Ph.D.s, be fully qualified to teach, and experienced in teaching, in an actual field -- not "higher ed administration," but something that fulfills a core undergraduate requirement -- and do so regularly, might be a valuable weeding technique, though, not to mention a way to reconnect faculty and administration to each other (and administration to the on-the-ground reality of teaching actual students).  But that probably isn't all that realistic, either.  I guess it's harder for me, positioned as I am in an actual university, to imagine a level of disruption that would be great enough to fix the current problems, but not so extreme as to tear the institution entirely apart.

Still, like Maybelle, I still want to see a real place at the table (a nice big table, or perhaps a series of medium-sized round ones, with frequent table-hopping and decent, well-cooked plain food for all) for more of us, not the present situation, which has all too many subsisting on cheap, mass-produced slop (while striving not to dole out same to students), another group looking longingly into the windows at even that scene, a few partaking of a hurried but half-decent meal in a reasonably pleasant environment (while discussing how to improve conditions in the food court below, but finding they have little real power to effect change), and a very few hidden away in some private dining room, making the actual decisions while dining on far more sumptuous fare than the rest.

At the moment, however, I notice that most of the commenters on the original IHE post are much more interested in talking about job searches, and to what degree the selection process in such searches is fair and/or based on merit, than on addressing the larger context described above. That strikes me as about par for the course (and a pretty good indicator of how hard the problem will be solve).


  1. It's assumed that the system not only isn't working properly but that there are people inside it who want it fixed.

    Unfortunately, after my years of teaching at my former employer, I believe there are many who want it to remain broken. To reform the system would threaten their authority and the power structure in general. Those alone are regarded as sufficient grounds for them to defeat any attempts to change things.

    As well, there are many snake oil peddlers and parasites (sometimes known as "consultants") who make a nice living off the system as it is right now by ensuring that what doesn't work stays that way, masquerading what they do as positive "change".

    To make sure that the status quo remains, any questioning of it, let alone reformation of any kind, is seen as dissent and that could have drastic effects on one's career.

    1. I think you're right. As I said above, I'd take the reluctance to discuss the issue in the comment stream as a measure of how badly many faculty members (especially those already in tenured positions) don't even want to think about the larger picture. I can interact very happily with TT faculty as long as I talk about my research, or even about the details of teaching (i.e. about context/activities which we share, even though my research is not officially part of my job), but I've found they (whether immediate colleagues or faculty at other universities with similar systems) really shy away from discussions of the larger context. At times, the subject-changing (and/or the jumping in to say "oh, yes! we've been creating more non-TT full-time positions; aren't they a wonderful alternative to adjunct ones?" just as I was about to describe some of the problems with my position) doesn't even seem to be conscious, even though it's a clear pattern. They just really, really don't want to think about the situation (other than to believe that somehow, perhaps when the economy improves, it will all work out).

    2. Huh. I wonder if I do that. I'll watch for it.

  2. I doubt tenure will survive as anything approaching a norm. But that's not, necessarily, bad. It depends on what shows up as a replacement. I've seen quality schools begin to develop a "teaching assistant professor" track separate from the standard (research) track. I've seen schools hiring significant percentages of faculty as full-time Instructors on renewable contract with benefits and reasonable salaries. This is good diversity, offering reasonable stability and support for the faculty and flexibility for the school.

    I've also seen schools supporting insane growth with a boom in "postdoc" slaves paid a pittance to teach 4/4 loads and ever-expanding pools of adjuncts (One of whom managed to pick up 9 courses a semester around town. 9! And his annual salary was under 40k).

    Neither of these is the status quo. The entire system is in flux, and what will come out the other side is a wonderful question. It is not a question that the instructors affected stand much chance of having an impact on.

    1. @Alan: I agree, though I worry that the end of tenure will increase even more the rewards for quickly-produced, flashy, scholarship, and continue to erode support for the slower, less showy work (archival/editorial work, basic science) on which the other stuff depends. One can easily think of parallels outside academia: favoring new building projects over the maintenance of basic infrastructure, capitalism focused more on stock prices/quarterly returns than long-term growth/soundness of products, blogging/commentary that threatens to replace but is actually dependent on traditional journalism. It will also, of course, increase the temptation to move toward a teaching system with a few highly-paid senior faculty supervisors, and many young, poorly-paid "instructors." That, too, strikes me as a loss, since knowledge of what students need, and how it can best be provided, is most effectively built, in my experience, on the day-to-day observations of on-the-ground teachers, and their conversations with each other. Big data/broader-ranging studies can provide useful contexts for such observations/conversations, but they aren't a substitute.

    2. On non-tenure-track teaching tracks: I've found myself on one of these (more or less being built around me as I go, which gets interesting at times). It's a possible alternative model, but increases the temptation to value cheapness (i.e. young, inexperienced instructors) over experience. That's apparent in the idea of a "teaching *assistant* professor" track -- obviously, if the institution is truly taking teaching seriously as a professional endeavor, the track can't stop with assistant professor. It also has to do more than create teaching associate and teaching full professor titles (the point my university has reached); it has to provide the same wages and opportunities for professional development (e.g. service built into the work load; course reductions for intense curricular work and/or writing about same for publication; support for enough research to allow the professor to stay current in hir field; sabbaticals) to the NTT faculty. A "teaching track" isn't a track unless it allows for the possibility of a full career.

      My ideal would actually be to have both teaching and research faculty follow the same tenure (or non-tenure) track, but with a different balance of teaching/research/service for each. Ideally, I'd also like to see people be able to switch back and forth (or change balance) in the course of a career. That would take some new thinking, especially in departments that have mostly given lip service to valuing teaching (and haven't really thought through the question of how to evaluate it effectively -- a real challenge). And it would also require humanists, at least, to be ready to defend the value of their research, since administrators would be likely to look at non-grant-getting "research" faculty with an even more doubtful eye than they do already. I suspect that's actually one hidden objection to treating teaching faculty as equals to research faculty: getting rid of the pay disparity would also get rid of one tangible (and perhaps self-reinforcing) sign that research is important.

  3. Economists talk of a tournament model, which is similar to the lottery mentioned here. It's been applied to academia frequently, though I've usually seen it mentioned in the context of STEM disciplines (probably because those are my field).

    The gist is that it does promote major breakthroughs, but does so by (a) enticing large numbers of people to compete mightily (read: work their asses off) and then (b) throwing away large numbers of very skilled people who didn't quite win the tournament.

    1. That one works, too. I'd also note that it doesn't seem to consider teaching a significant part of the picture. I assume that "winning"=publishing influential papers, and being "thrown away" might well = teaching micro/macro forever, even though that's a tremendously important activity in many universities (maybe one of the most-taken course sequences), and also one which has considerable societal influence. As the recent flap over Keynes highlights, it matters how people in a number of walks of life think about economics. One could make a very strong argument for the institutional and societal value of teaching basic economics, and for rewarding the faculty who do it accordingly.

    2. Actually, it doesn't work. It's an excuse for not properly vetting people to begin with or doing so on the cheap.

      The first company I worked for after I got my B. Sc. was like that. It didn't spend too much time investigating whether or not an applicant was suitable. It simply hired whoever it seemed to like and it let attrition weed out those who couldn't cut it. I myself left a few months after I was hired.

      Almost all of the people I knew while I was there were gone within 10 years. Those who remained and, presumably, the company really wanted in the first place, were quite an unsavory lot.

    3. Okay Rand/orG I'm officially doubly impressed. You're in STEM AND you wrote the magnificient Howl parody last week? As a humanities person who can at best manage an occasional snarky haiku, I'm utterly humbled.

  4. Very interesting and well-argued thread with lots of food for thought.


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