Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cold, hard economics or humanist-Romantic personal development? You decide. From the Magical Realist.

I'm friends with many English students and professors. As happens every few months, articles about the "soft" value of the English major/graduate work (as opposed to the "hard" value of the sciences ... insert your own sexual joke here) get passed around in a kind of self-congratulatory circlejerk. Most of these are accompanied by someone's very original thoughts about how "critical thinking skills" are taught in the humanities (and not anywhere else, natch) and how wonderful and important their job is. As someone who rolls their eyes at the language of self-actualization and fulfillment, it's a special kind of "colleague misery."

The latest culprit is Paige Ambroziak's "No One Promised Us a Job" in the Chronicle. The author analogizes getting a tenure-track university position with playing sports at a professional level:
"Getting drafted by an NHL team, of course, doesn’t promise secure and stable employment with that team. Playing a sport, becoming an expert, living and breathing it, doesn’t guarantee you a professional position playing that sport."
So how does that relate to academe? No field guarantees job placement. Highly skilled and talented athletes, as well as committed and exceptional students, may have better chances than mediocre ones, but they still don’t get guarantees. You may argue that athletes don’t spend money on degrees in their sport and, therefore, aren’t in debt when their training is finished. That simply isn’t true. Organized sports cost an exorbitant amount every year. Sure, for most athletes the expense is over time, but it’s a financial burden nonetheless—one that is rarely, if ever, reimbursed."
What say you, denizens of CM? Fair analogy or not?

To me, I think the analogy works for the most part, but not to justify the current market conditions for wannabe proffies. It just tells me that the sports industry is shitty too.


  1. Well, the larger culture certainly rewards dedication to sports at any level, including amateur/recreational, much more clearly and abundantly than any engagement with the pursuit of knowledge.

    The factors that knock people out of the game are also quite different: while one bad (physical) injury can permanently sideline even the most brilliant athlete, the reasons why would-be scholars fall from the path involve very different, more personal sorts of setbacks. Normal life circumstances--starting a family, finding a partner, needing to earn a living--are FAR more likely to complicate an academic trajectory than an athletic one. And once the athlete demonstrates potential to achieve at the highest level, the system seems far more willing to find a way to keep that person around--as a coach, a commentator, or whatever else. Bailing on the upper echelons of academe, however, basically means blacklisting.

    It's also way easier to sort out objective merits when dealing with physical effort: an athlete can either make the tough shots or she can't. He either meshes with his team (or defeats his opponents solo), or he doesn't. She produces appealing stats, or else she's cut from the team/tournament. Academe is far less black-and-white; what merits praise in the mind of one person or place might be grounds to cut for another. The element of subjectivity is omnipresent and impossible for an individual to overcome.

    So, OP, to sum up my tangled reaction to your question, I can acknowledge *some* parallels between athletics and academics, but they are not nearly analogous enough to take this metaphor as seriously as it seems to want to be taken.

  2. I think you're more likely to get a concussion in hockey (part of why I stopped watching), but with the number of times my head hits the desk, it's becoming a toss-up.

    I remember reading the article, and I think the comparison is in the winnowing process that occurs from teh lower levels to the higher levels, while everyone dreams that they will be the one to make it to the show. A gazillion timbits peewee players becomes a few thousand Triple A players becomes a few hundred in the major leagues, becomes just a few who are good or dedicated or lucky enough to hoist the Stanley Cup with a primal scream.

    And we tend not to think about what happens to the ones that don't make it. Someone entering junior league sports because they are 'going to make it in the majors' is probably deluding themselves (cf Hoop Dreams) just as much as someone entering grad school and assuming that a tenure track job will be waiting for them at the end. But those who play junior sports because they love it and it enriches a multifacetd life probably do OK. Those who come to grad school for that reason probably do OK too.

    In The Game, Ken Dryden commented that he always assumed as he grew up that hockey would one day end - that he would eventually fail to make the next cut and go on to something else. He went through the university system, rather than the junior leagues, and actually took advantage of the education it afforded. For all my reservations about college sports, they do offer those trying for the majors the chance of an education to fall back on. (Many of them don't make use of that opportunity of course.) But the junior leagues don't even offer that much.

  3. I'm sorry but I've grown weary of these various and sundry attempts to divert attention from administrative flaws and minimize the challenges faced by workers.

    I don't buy the sports/academe analogy.
    (We'll ignore for the moment how many up-and-coming athletes use the unofficial farm team system in academia as their stepping stone, diverting resources from actual academics!)

    There are, on average, two dozen major league professional teams in the predominant sports. In the US, according to the Carnegie Classification, there are 108 very high activity research universities, 99 high activity, and another 90 doctoral/research universities. So nearly 300 academic major league "teams". (Not sure if SLACs count as major or minor league.) Bottom line, there are many more places for an academic.

    Have the major leagues begun slashing payroll costs by reducing the number of "star" (tenure-track?) players with marginally paid/supported day players (adjuncts)? The minimum salary for any player is $295,000/yr (NFL); $300,000/yr (MLB); $490,000 (NBA); $525,000 (NHL). How many 20+ year veteran tenured professors make that sort of money? How many first-year assistant profs?

    Sports provides entertainment.
    Academia provides enlightenment and, in many cases, breakthroughs which improve the lives of many.

    When some of the biggest thinkers begin being treated like the celebrities that the third stringer on a pro team is THEN this analogy might make some sense.

  4. I love all of the comments made so far; they're very insightful and well-written. But I do think that the analogy is a good one on the surface, as some people don't really understand how few jobs there are for academics compared to how many people go to grad school. So while there are certainly gaping flaws in the analogy, it makes a very important point that some students might not have been exposed to (which is, of course, a huge problem in itself).

    1. Oh, I'd agree with being honest with students that academia does not provide a guaranteed career path ... but then again, what does?

      However, I do take issue with the tone and characterization in the original essay in trying to compare the challenges in succeeding in professional sports versus academia.

    2. I think R&G is right that the basic metaphor is the winnowing process that happens in sports and academia (and in the theater and the arts and engineering and any other activity that one wants to turn into a profession that involves competing for spots).

      That the market forces that dictate pay and the number of jobs aren't identical across those various endeavors isn't really the issue.

  5. I think the sports analogy is apt, up to a certain point of course. One of its failings is that those who get a college education in the liberal arts, assuming that they learned something, will have employable skills relevant to many jobs. If the English major doesn't become a professor, there are lots of other options for employment. An athlete who knows his sport inside and out might become a coach but there's not much else available. Sports teaches other skills (leadership, team work, etc) that are also helpful in a job but I'm just thinking of quantifiable skills here.

  6. Well, OP, you lost me at eye roll.

    Do you know why we constantly have articles that encourage the circle jerk for the humanities? Because the PtB are constantly pitting the humanities vs. the sciences for resources, tenure lines, you name it. Humanities departments have been taking it in the rear end for well over a decade because they're seen as "useless" because they don't teach "skills." I'm not even going to get into it any further. You know exactly what I am talking about. Every couple of years we get those articles touting the death of the humanities, only to get articles a few months later about why CEOs hire English majors.

    Far better would be for you and your soft, limp colleagues to get together and actually talk to one another to form a strategy to foil the divide-and-conquer message we're all sick of hearing. Your friends in the English department would probably love it.

  7. So a coach is like an administrator???

    Until the pay and adoration/fan base is comparable, I'm not buying the analogy.

    1. Why would the pay and adoration need to be comparable across these different desired career paths to make the analogy at least usable?

    2. I was being flippant to be silly. Sorry that did not come across.

      But since you asked seriously, I will answer more seriously: I could be a professional athlete for 5 years and retire for life; that short trajectory wherein one is only viable for a brief youthful time, is different from academia, where one is not solely appreciated for a brief time (the urgency makes it different; one need not be as frantic to be recruited by age 30 in academe). Yes, a job to pay off student loans would be good, but one's viability as a professor doesn't go down with age. Moreover, no academic career is going to be one admired and applauded by millions of fans, therefore making the reasons for becoming an academic different from the reasons for becoming an athlete (yes, it's a limited skill to be an athlete & they don't all do it for the glory, but the goal there is personal aggrandizement and personal goal meeting, in the form of winning. My goal as an academic is to support others who seek success through education). Their purposes (entertainment vs. education) make them incomparable to me. The two careers have opposite goals. Saying that two careers have low levels of employment don't make them comparable to me. To compare movie stars to competitive athletes makes more sense to me. Yes, discipline and hard work and a lack of job openings exist in each career, but that's true of many (most?) careers.

    3. PS. I recognize that age is a problem so am not discounting that younger people are recruited over older ones. I am just saying that an athlete's viable time to shine isn't quite the same as an academic's.

    4. PPS. I would also contend that while I was being flippant about adoration, that's part of why I don't buy the analogy. I get booed by students when I do my job well, which is to hold them accountable for the work that they produce. They don't WANT to be disciplined and educated; they want a grade for simply showing up. Athletes, when they do their jobs well, win. And they get applauded. They also get paid well for winning. When we do our jobs well, we get called in to the Admin's offices because we aren't making students happy by dishing out A's for free.

    5. All of those points still ignore the basic analogy that there are far fewer spots in athletics and academics than there are people who want those spots and that there is stratification of the spots that exist. That's mostly what the piece is about, along with the idea that people devote huge chunks of their youth to academic study or athletics because they deeply enjoy at some level their field of study or sport of choice. Yes, the reasons why people enjoy their chosen pursuits are different, as are the financial outcomes and potential career lengths, but those differences make the analogy imperfect, not irrelevant.

      No one fails to understand this winnowing concept when it comes to sports (or music or acting or plenty of other pursuits)—that some ballplayers make it out high school to college, some out of college into AAA ball, and some out of AAA ball into the Majors—but that idea of progressing through increasing competition, which necessarily leaves some people behind, is not a basic part of the discussion of academic jobs. Perhaps that's because, as mentioned in a comment above, academic performance is in some ways more difficult to assess, leaving room for argument about ability, and academic stratification is less obvious than that of MLB’s farm system.

      But that process happens to academics and would-be academics. It’s not a perfect process—unworthy people move on and worthy ones don’t, and the process isn’t so linear—but in the aggregate, it’s very similar to how any selective field operates, with more talented people moving on and less talented ones staying behind (or getting out entirely). Some people are left playing rec league softball or joining book clubs instead of collecting a paycheck for that thing they really enjoy. That’s not a travesty, and it doesn’t mean that the high school ballplayer or underemployed grad student wasted his or her youth. Continuing to unrealistically define one’s worth or to chase a dream that will never come true, however, might be, and far more academics are in a position to do that than undertalented and/or aging athletes, and that’s actually where the usefulness of the analogy emerges: it provides a reality check on one’s aspirations and goals and on one’s abilities and commitment to a passion; it forces one to acknowledge the very real possibility that the type of academic job he or she wants may simply not be available.

    6. Oh, OK. I still see that all of these points would also work for any other career.


      So I'm going to make an analogy that working in academics is like working in the food industry. Because many people want to be chefs and yet there aren't enough head chef positions to be found.

      Or working in academics is like working in my uncle's box factory. He only has two positions open, and while I'm qualified for both, someone else is MORE qualified for both.

      Or working in academics is like deep sea fishing. Many people want to get on the boat and are qualified, but it only holds 15.

      I think you get my point. To me, a good analogy is one that isn't applicable to all other fields, because then it becomes less analogous and more general truth. It's not that I can't see that there are similarities, but those similarities apply to all other work arenas, thereby negating the unique connection between athletics and academe, which is why I said this analogy didn't work as well for me. If it works for you and you gained insight, that's great!

  8. I've long believed that getting an academic job isn't much different than getting one anywhere else. Based on many of the profs I knew in grad school, it's largely political and based on who one knows.

    If it was based on what one knows, many post-secondary institutions would have to close because they couldn't get enough staff to remain in business, because some of the profs I dealt with were either incompetent or nearly so.

    BTW, the author of the article had one thing wrong. Hockey isn't culture here in Canada--it's more like the state religion.

  9. I like to think of the tenure game these days as more like trying to make it as a successful actor. And by "successful" I mean being able to pay your bills and have a decent quality of life.

    Truthfully, the odds aren't all that bad with humanities profs as they are with actors and sports heroes, and once you're in, you're in. I read somewhere (maybe here!) that over the past ten years about 58% of those with doctorates managed to get tenure-track jobs. That number will shrink, probably, to--my guess is about 33%--and stay there. I'd rather hitch my wagon to a possible career as a prof than a possible career as a professional athlete (though if I were facing that decision at this point I would do neither). You can control quite a bit more about your academic trajectory than you can with an athletic one.

    And obviously there's nothing wrong with getting a doctorate because you love reading and writing. And it's not my business what Ms. Ambroziak is going to do with her degree if she doesn't get a tenure-track job.

    But if she wants one, she'd better get started publishing. A bit of googling brought me to her webpage, which, if current, reveals that she has one paper published in a graduate student journal of art history, a personal webpage of sci-fi/horror book reviews, and two novellas--of the unreviewed, self-published Kindle ebook horror variety.

    After viewing this, I fear that this essay may be a reflection of her own unconscious realization of the inevitable--a justification and balm for it.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  10. The analogy doesn't work at all for me, because it confuses something that is at best tangential to the functioning of a civilized community and at worst (i.e. the present moment) actually threatening to undermine said functioning -- sports -- with something that's much more basic -- education, including, in our present knowledge-based economy, higher education. Admittedly, the American economy would probably suffer a serious setback if someone banned pro and college sports tomorrow, but that's just a sign that they've grown way out of proportion to their actual usefulness. If all the colleges closed down tomorrow (perhaps because they woke up and discovered that proffie wages had gone so low, the proffies had all decamped to jobs at Walmart, leaving nothing but administrators), we'd have a really serious problem. Or, to put it another way, I'd say that the sports economy, unlike higher ed, is a bubble, but not one, sadly, likely to pop anytime soon. Sports are the modern-day circuses that keep the masses more or less quiescent; shitty mass-produced food -- fast and otherwise -- is the bread.

    Because education is a necessary, not a frivolous, activity, it's reasonable to expect that the workers who make it possible make decent salaries, just as all the others who keep necessary societal functions going do (or at least should; I realize that proffies are by no means the only underpaid/overworked folks out there). It's unreasonable for someone to think that getting a Ph.D. will automatically lead to a Nobel Prize, or a MacArthur Fellowship, or a college presidency (probably the more plausible equivalents, in sheer numbers, of a pro sports berth), or even a named chair. But it's not in any way unreasonable for a Ph.D. who has no trouble whatsoever finding teaching work to expect that work to be available as a full-time position with benefits and a salary at least equivalent to that of a K-12 teacher, or -- what the heck -- an equally-educated and experienced administrator at his/her own school. Comparisons to cops and firefighters - jobs that require less education, but are considerably more physically demanding/dangerous -- also strike me as fair, as do analogies involving mid-level government and private-business workers who do unglamourous but absolutely necessary work, and medical workers (nurses, primary-care doctors) in similar positions. Proffies who want tenure-track, decently-paid jobs are not expecting to be celebrities; they're expecting to be decently compensated for performing a necessary function in an advanced civilization. An analogy that suggests otherwise actually makes me pretty angry.

    1. Thank you for being much more coherent than I in expressing what I was trying to say!