The students and professors aren't the problem; the university system is
September 8, 2015 5:44 PM   Subscribe

 
....in the US.
posted by dhruva at 6:13 PM on September 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's just anecdote vs. anecdote, but doing math in a public academic institution in the US doesn't feel at all like this to me. It feels great.
posted by escabeche at 6:14 PM on September 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


... most online students get Blackboard — a cumbersome and inefficient program that only a bureaucracy could love.

That's about the nicest opinion of Blackboard I've read. It really is a horror.

I often wonder what would happen with colleges if businesses would kick this addiction they have with requiring a degree for every damned pissant position. Heck, how about businesses go back to training people to fit the job, and stop expecting colleges to churn-out an endless stream of cubicle-ready droids.

Oh, and restore allowing student debt to be dismissed via bankruptcy.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:16 PM on September 8, 2015 [56 favorites]


I mean e.g.

"I learned that the public outreach in which I engaged — that is, publishing in popular magazines — had ruffled certain feathers."

I've been publishing in popular magazines for 15 years, since before I had tenure, before I even had a tenure-track job, and I have never heard boo. His experience is his experience, but it isn't universal.
posted by escabeche at 6:16 PM on September 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Is there a place where academia is thriving as a system, dhruva? I'm listening.
posted by sciatrix at 6:17 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Man chooses career at age 17. Turns 30, not sure why. I see no reasons given. What would he prefer academia to be?
posted by one_bean at 6:21 PM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


escabeche- Speaking as a Classics grad student I have definitely heard of writing in more popular venues being taken as a mark against a scholar. Could it be a STEM vs. Humanities distinction? At the very least, if it isn't universal I would take it to be common enough.
posted by Bromius at 6:21 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


where academia is thriving as a system, dhruva?

Not thriving as such, but a lot the reasons he posits in this article are characteristic of the US system, not Academia as a whole.
posted by dhruva at 6:26 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Between a friend with a tenured position in a philosophy department and the legions of askmes here describing grad and post-grad hell, Oliver Lee's take sounds more generalisable than escabeche's. Toxic systems are never perfectly toxic, but the signs of systemic problems in academia have been obvious for many years now.
posted by fatbird at 6:34 PM on September 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


I know the author. His position is actually being terminated as a cost-saving measure, according to some sort of "productivity index" the new university president is introducing. His job is going to be merged with two others and all courses will be taught by a single faculty member.
posted by daisystomper at 6:35 PM on September 8, 2015 [22 favorites]


I know the author. His position is actually being terminated as a cost-saving measure, according to some sort of "productivity index" the new university president is introducing. His job is going to be merged with two others and all courses will be taught by a single faculty member

That seems like incredibly important context to the question why he is leaving academia
posted by one_bean at 6:38 PM on September 8, 2015 [47 favorites]


daisystomper, that reminds me of this sad story from the UK, about a PI at Imperial who committed suicide after basically being put on a performance improvement plan because he wasn't bringing in enough grant money, even though he was quite productive in terms of his publication record. The situation in the USA is not so great, but from what I've heard, in the last few years, STEM faculty positions in the UK have particularly suffered due to inappropriate administrative uses of those types of metrics.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:43 PM on September 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


On one hand, it's easy to be annoyed by this article. Dewy-eyed newly minted prof learns that there are politics in academia! That student education is not priority number one! That being a great lecturer doesn't actually mean dickall in terms of student engagement!

On the other hand, academia isn't really about education. Nor is it truly about scholarship, or even science, except insofar as you can point to high impact publication stats, or the number of patents filed, or the number of companies spun out.

Academia is about status. It's about shibboleths to show employers you have jumped through the hoops and are one of the gang. It's about keeping those alumni dollars flowing, to build those grand new buildings and lure those high-impact researchers to keep building your institution's reputation. It's about the name brand. Hence the high-powered athletic departments, the entire staffs devoted to advancement, the merry-go-round of highly compensated presidents.

It may be the sign of a sick system, and I am not a historian, but I'm starting to suspect it was ever thus. After all, we have the schools named after the robber barons like Carnegie and Stanford to reform their names.
posted by Existential Dread at 6:44 PM on September 8, 2015 [20 favorites]


So if I'm reading his timeline correctly, he graduated with his PhD in 2012, meaning he graduated with his law degree in 2007 and his bachelor's in 2002.

Basically, the system under which he got his liberal arts PhD is the same system as today. He's already benefited from a liberal federal loan program. He's closing the barn door behind him.
posted by muddgirl at 6:48 PM on September 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I do think it's a little funny that he pins his personal inflection point on realizing that a college student was watching Netflix during his lecture. I mean, that is definitely flagrantly, hilariously rude -- but even the best lecturer on the face of the earth can't expect to hold the attention of every single 18-year-old college student with wireless broadband and the impulse control of an actual blob of mercury. Taking it as an indictment of your entire profession, or as a sign that the traditional lecture is dead and we should all be teaching in MOOCs (where presumably even more people will be watching your lectures while streaming Netflix in an adjacent pane), seems a bit overwrought.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:01 PM on September 8, 2015 [19 favorites]


This person is supposed to be one of our brightest minds (as measured by his rapid ascension to tenure)? His insights sound about as piercing as the ramblings of a PHILO101 19 yr old who just learned what solipsism means.

How, for one, did he avoid the politics in his grad programs? They are as acidic and dispiriting as teaching once you finish (maybe he had no idea everyone hated him?).

This is a bit of a derail, but the bouncing rotation of administration and house cleaning for no apparently reason is hardly confined to academia. Try medicine.
posted by syncope at 7:03 PM on September 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


Leading with his big surprise about academic politics was an indicator of bad things to come, and it didn't disappoint.

How the hell can someone be involved with universities for that long and not recognize a central fact of academic life? Who was his thesis advisor, Mary Poppins?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:08 PM on September 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


Not thriving as such, but a lot the reasons he posits in this article are characteristic of the US system, not Academia as a whole.

No true academician...
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:08 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know the author. His position is actually being terminated as a cost-saving measure, according to some sort of "productivity index" the new university president is introducing. His job is going to be merged with two others and all courses will be taught by a single faculty member.

Ah, so not so much tenure track as don't slam the door on your way out track. I wonder if they knew it was coming when they offered him the position.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:11 PM on September 8, 2015


I wonder if they knew it was coming when they offered him the position.
I watched administrators and donors who had championed my career be shown the door, or at least swept under the rug, by an incoming presidential administration…
Probably not. Sounds like there was some regime change after he arrived.
posted by grouse at 7:14 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I understand the angst, but I'm a little awe struck that this dude managed to get alllll that way through before noticing these problems. Like, was he always sitting in the front row of seats when he went to class and didn't notice his classmates were playing Bejeweled, then Farmville, and Candy Crush...

...just how many generations of slacking off in class is he behind?

Echoing and expanding from above, this really sounds like he has been working since he was a teenager with laser focus on achieving something which isn't actually a real thing. This is not uncommon because teenagers are ignorant, idealistic, and arrogant by nature. What's uncommon is the privilege to pursue...

discontinuity

Wait he's getting fired? Oh wow. Oh man. What the fuck is this article? *dies*
posted by ethansr at 7:20 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


He's got some good points about the consummerization of undergraduate education and the ridiculous obsession with the bottom line in higher ed. Not revolutionary, but still true.

I mean, the university I'm at, a public, well-regarded, land-grant institution, just hired a new president with no experience in academia, an MBA former executive of Boston Market, who lied on his CV, who had just 2% of faculty and student support, all under the vague notion to take the university from 'great to greater.'

The dude's personal story and naiveté aside, he's not wrong.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:22 PM on September 8, 2015 [18 favorites]


Wait he's getting fired? Oh wow. Oh man. What the fuck is this article? *dies*

You may think your insights here are crystal clear and hilarious, but I can assure you they are neither. What, exactly, is your issue, here?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:23 PM on September 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Like, was he always sitting in the front row of seats when he went to class and didn't notice his classmates were playing Bejeweled, then Farmville, and Candy Crush...

I was an undergraduate in a similar generation as this guy and none of this stuff existed. Certainly people were slacking off, but taking a laptop to class (for legitimate reasons or not) was rare. More common would be people doing a crossword puzzle in the student newspaper. More distracting would be people reading the newspaper, unfolding the broadsheet and crinkling it in a showy display.
posted by grouse at 7:31 PM on September 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


OK, reading further, he is also pessimistic about MOOCs, though it's a bit of whiplash to go from advocating that people watch Youtube videos in their basement to say that online education doesn't really work.

Speaking of whiplash, I also wasn't expecting a conclusion nearly this radical (we should defund academia at the Federal level altogether!). I would need a lot more evidence than he has presented to be convinced that this is a good idea.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:33 PM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


What, exactly, is your issue, here?

Dunno about ethansr, but let's consider:

Article title: "I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here's why I'm walking away."

Article reality: "I'm being let go and I'm pretending it's voluntary."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:40 PM on September 8, 2015 [20 favorites]


just hired a new president with no experience in academia, an MBA former executive of Boston Market

It's worse than that -- Harreld presided over the disastrous change from Boston Chicken to Boston Market. That's right: a guy who wasn't even able to handle broadening his work responsibilities from selling fried chicken to selling fried chicken, meatloaf, and mashed potatoes is now running a state university.
posted by escabeche at 7:49 PM on September 8, 2015 [31 favorites]


There are some completely valid points in that essay; it's a shame they had to come in a Vox box.

I, um, played a lot of BounceOut in law school. A lot. And now I'm a tenured professor of law at a flagship state university. Which is to say, I have sympathy for students who don't always pay complete attention to everything happening at the front of the room. I also deal with university politics on a daily basis, which I don't love, but honestly, name me an office job without office politics. I worry about moving too much to online education, and I worry about not moving enough to online education, and I worry about the financial structure of higher education, and about the jobs our students get, and a lot of things. But I go to sleep happy and I wake up happy, because I love this job. I love my students; I love my colleagues. I love the reading, I love the writing, I love the process of explaining things, and I especially love the questions that make me see things in a new light. All is not darkness and gloom here.
posted by grimmelm at 8:04 PM on September 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


Article title: "I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here's why I'm walking away."

Article reality: "I'm being let go and I'm pretending it's voluntary."


Yeah...I don't know why he says in the article he's quitting his job. The reality is, if anything, more damming evidence of the point he's making. He's a talented teacher and historian and it's really a shame if he does in fact leave academia for good.
posted by daisystomper at 8:08 PM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I often wonder what would happen with colleges if businesses would kick this addiction they have with requiring a degree for every damned pissant position.

This policy is a direct consequence of Griggs v. Duke, which ruled that disparate impact tests required substantial business justification. IQ testing has generally been shown to be an efficient and strong predictor for job performance. It's also been shown to violate the EEOC tests for disparate impact, so if you want to use one, you need to demonstrate the business need. But it's pretty much impossible to give a precise reason why a person with an IQ of 110 is acceptable, but not 109. Or hell, even the difference between 95 and 94.

Conversely, there's a pretty easy argument for requiring a college degree. Demonstrates commitment, learned things, etc. Plus, it's all or none; no mushy ground that will inevitably open you up to a lawsuit. More pessimistically, it's also a lot harder to disprove the business need, though progress is being made on that front as the CLA is demonstrating little movement on test scores over the course of a degree, and incredibly high correlation with SAT scores.

So how colleges respond to this hypothetical shift in hiring policy depends on why employers move away from the college degree filter. If it's because they no longer believe college education can survive the business justification of disparate impact, then perhaps universities start taking undergraduate education outcomes seriously, rather than a distracting moral obligation in STEM and a funding necessity elsewhere. If it's because IQ tests are allowed again, well, I don't think history professors will be able to make their mortgage payments anymore. STEM might take a hit in enrollment, but Professional Engineering creds. require 4 year degrees, and any losses in science / math / cs undergrad just means more space for more research assistants.
posted by pwnguin at 8:21 PM on September 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


This article is a hot mess, I agree; it's what you write when you're mad and sad and soooo angry and tired. But my wife had this professor for a history class she didn't want to take last year (older transfer, what do you mean I'm not done my gen eds, etc) and he is the real deal; he's a good professor and honest to god just wanted people to learn some history with some social context, and I hate like hell that anyone good has ended up this jaded. (I am right in line behind him and am getting my ass out of the classroom as fast as I can). He also had a shitty year with mass cheating, and it's easy for folks to say "what do you expect" but that shit still gets old after awhile.

[I'm on the phone with her right now and she is cussing a blue streak: "he actually made me want to learn, what the hell."]
posted by joycehealy at 8:47 PM on September 8, 2015 [22 favorites]


Wait he's getting fired? Oh wow. Oh man. What the fuck is this article? *dies*
posted by ethansr at 7:20 PM on September 8 [1 favorite +] [!]


Dunno about ethansr, but let's consider:

Article title: "I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here's why I'm walking away."

Article reality: "I'm being let go and I'm pretending it's voluntary."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:40 PM on September 8 [2 favorites +] [!]


Mock the guy for the dreck that he wrote, not that his position may or may not be being eliminated. That's not really sporting.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:48 PM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


For reals, daisystomper.

Given that there is some dispute as to whether or not he is actually being fired and whether or not it's fair game anyway, let me add some nuance.

I am completely empathetic with his disenchantment about the praxis of ((North) American) academia. I've had more than one moment where I have contemplated the abyss. He isn't wrong that governance in universities is broken, he isn't wrong that classes aren't structured to engage students, he isn't wrong that what are seen as popular solutions to these problems often make things worse, but he is categorically wrong in claiming that anyone should be denied an undergraduate education as a consequence of his disappointment with his professional experience.

Even worse, it sounds like part of the justification is that he's really sore that people weren't paying attention to his class; ergo they are credential grubbing plebs. It's petty, cruel, and perhaps indicative of how much he missed the point of the experience. This is exactly the sort of privilege that needs to get called out. And if he's getting fired, then he's the one who is grasping at credentials which makes the whole thing way too intensely tragicomic. If only he'd played more Snake on his Nokia.
posted by ethansr at 9:40 PM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


he is categorically wrong in claiming that anyone should be denied an undergraduate education

Yet he has a valid point about a whole raft of schools that exist only to milk federal grants by exploiting those same anyones by offering them the degree they shouldn't be denied, at a future cost of crippling debt.
posted by fatbird at 10:04 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Without the carrot of easy access to student loans, enrollments would shrink. Universities would be forced to compete on a cost-per-student basis, and those students still paying to attend college would likely focus their studies on subjects with an immediate return on investment."

Jaded and/or exhausted and/or knowingly or not, it seems to me that he's touting exactly the same "solutions" to the university "problem" that have gotten Wisconsin state schools in dire straits since Scott Walker decided (or his backers decided for him) that the mission of state schools is not "the search for truth" and "improv[ing] the human condition" (the original language of the state system's mission), but "to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs."

Namely: fewer students should be entitled to attend college, and those who are entitled should be those who can pay for it themselves; and those who can pay for it should be pursuing "studies [of] subjects with an immediate return on investment." And, in addition, state schools should not be "insulated from market forces" (quoting this time from a Milwaukee "free-market" think tank). Walker and his ghostwriters couldn't have written this "think piece" better themselves.

Walker and his backers also, not coincidentally, are pushing hard to end tenure in Wisconsin state schools.

Yet he has a valid point about a whole raft of schools that exist only to milk federal grants by exploiting those same anyones by offering them the degree they shouldn't be denied, at a future cost of crippling debt.

Yet his conclusion to that point is, in essence, to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As he says, he's aiming for "something that looks long and hard at the structure of the present university system and tears it up from the foundation, if that's what it takes."
posted by blucevalo at 10:17 PM on September 8, 2015 [10 favorites]



>> Article title: "I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here's why I'm walking away."
>> Article reality: "I'm being let go and I'm pretending it's voluntary."

> Mock the guy for the dreck that he wrote, not that his position may or may not be being eliminated. That's not really sporting.


A statement was made in this thread that his position is being eliminated. If that is the case the headline of his article is grossly misleading.

I honestly hope someone was mistaken and his position is not being eliminated. Several people have stood up for him which means a lot more to me than an essay that may have been written at a bad time.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:45 PM on September 8, 2015


I used to be really super gung ho about college and thought it was awesome. Hah. Now I am burned out myself. There's so much trauma and drama and politics going on all the damn time and in the end I keep thinking, you spent $$$$$$ so that you can't be ruled out for a job for not having any degree--now they'll just rule you out for not having a SPECIFIC major instead.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:07 PM on September 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Fatbird, certain qualifications are necessary, even if I believe that the author's poor professional experience in academia isn't really much of a warrant for anything, especially keeping people out of college.

I'm all for keeping people out of certain colleges like Corinthian's ilk, but the question of where to draw the line is difficult. The Art Institutes are a great gray zone, as are the myriad technical schools. Law schools are having their moment. Yet the author is railing against liberal arts education, a position which seems improvident.

In the end I am for reframing the question in terms of what sort of schools people should go to rather than whether or not they should go to school. I'm also pretty certain that the market forces that got us into the problem will get us back out. A generation of postgraduate credentialed menial laborers will be much more sophisticated consumers when shopping for their own children's education.
posted by ethansr at 11:22 PM on September 8, 2015


This article would have been fine without the personal boasting alternating with whining. This is why you make other people read your drafts. I lost it when he tried to make a case that actually college professors are unnecessary anyway. If that's what you really believe then why am I supposed to feel bad that someone was not paying 100% attention to your amazing lecture. He could have wrote a great article about how everyone involved in academia is fucked as is academia itself because academia has corporation cancer. But instead we're picking apart his personal whine fest.
posted by bleep at 11:30 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean e.g.

"I learned that the public outreach in which I engaged — that is, publishing in popular magazines — had ruffled certain feathers."

I've been publishing in popular magazines for 15 years, since before I had tenure, before I even had a tenure-track job, and I have never heard boo. His experience is his experience, but it isn't universal.


Well it may certainly be true that this author's transgression would not have been one had you done exactly the same. But that's the wrong comparison. The exercise is to reflect on whether there was something you would have liked to have done that would have ruffled feathers in your institution, in an analogous way.

I would argue that those in a position of privilege or success have a particular problem, and perhaps I would add responsibility, of checking if there is an element of survivor bias that is operating to color their perception of experience.
posted by polymodus at 11:57 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


ethansr...just how many generations of slacking off in class is he behind?

pretty much since the invention of lecture.
posted by yeolcoatl at 12:28 AM on September 9, 2015 [14 favorites]


All of his anti-academia arguments are economic -- how graduates will contribute to the economy, how a degree will or will not help them-- that shows a basic mindset problem that he has. A liberal arts education was supposed (at some golden moment) to be a means of personal development, the humanities supposed to broaden human horizons. The failure of academia is its transformation into a factory stamping out workers. I wonder what his second-grade school teacher mother thought about her job. Was she training workers or helping people to develop?
posted by CCBC at 12:33 AM on September 9, 2015 [11 favorites]


From the article:
Do you know how else you can prepare to make these vague creative contributions, much more cheaply and efficiently? By sitting around in your parents' basement and reading great works of literature.

This argument sucks. It's analogous to the argument that we don't need libraries because we've got the Internet. Ugh, this dude sounds like Peter Thiel
posted by cnanderson at 1:31 AM on September 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


To be fair, it is great chicken and mashed potatoes.

Also, to be fair, it is U of Iowa.

(I kid, I kid. Though I do like the chicken and potatoes.)
posted by persona au gratin at 3:09 AM on September 9, 2015


This piece has not gone down well on academic Facebook, as you'd probably expect.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:12 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


The failure of academia is its transformation into a factory stamping out workers

I agree with this, but from the other side: the current working world is incredibly harsh and competitive, and college is fantastically poor preparation for it (both in material covered, and in cost). Trying to turn a school system that was fundamentally designed for upper class white males who had the privilege of spending their lives studying art and literature into a place that can help people become doctors and scientists and businesspeople is just making everyone involved unhappy.

There is no point in forcing someone who is deeply in debt and just trying to get a minimum credential to get a job to spend three or four thousand dollars studying philosophy 101; they're just going to resent it. Let them study to get a relevant career now, and study philosophy later in life when they might actually gain from it.
posted by miyabo at 4:32 AM on September 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well, it is notable that he is leaving outright rather than applying for other history jobs (hah, what other history jobs?).

Academia feels pretty dire right now. I am working on job applications for the literally two jobs that I am qualified for this year, trying to explain to my grandparents that no matter how special and clever they think I am, there is physically no way for me to get one of these jobs. I am totally resigned to this fact - I was more or less aware of the situation when I started grad school - but it's hard convincing myself it's worthwhile sometimes, never mind convincing family that I'm pretty sure I didn't waste my life. And now, off to teach anthropological theory to some Enthusiastic Undergrads!
posted by ChuraChura at 4:52 AM on September 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


Lewis Menand had a good New Yorker article on the differing views of Why we have college
posted by cnanderson at 4:54 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


In the course of one week at my school (where I'm an adjunct) I had these two experiences within a week:

1) Rare adjunct faculty meeting: 70% of our students are not meeting basic composition skills. We full-time faculty are trying to figure out why you adjuncts are not getting the job done

2) hanging out with fellow adjunct and my saying, 'hey X, how are you doing teaching [intro to lit course]? Because I cannot for the life of me get the majority of students to actually read Hamlet.' X sez, 'you have to cut your expectations down by half.'

Then he started muttering about we're not allowed to assign novels anymore. And my brain was all 'gonna stop listening before i start crying, dum dee dee'

Our students come from West Philly. They are criminally underserved since like day one in the public ed system. But the mandate at my community college is to keep butts in seats. Anytime there's a downturn in admissions you get people acting like their dog died, and then keeping the students happy and in class and not torturing them with Hamlet or novels is job number one.

So, I'm sorry this guy had some dude watching BB in his class. I'm sorry he got screwed over by politics. But what is happening to poor lower-income students, as we have more fucking charter schools and more fucking Common Core bullshit combined with colleges losing their way because of the Scott Walkers and other evil shits is the real tragedy.
posted by angrycat at 5:16 AM on September 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


Well, it is notable that he is leaving outright rather than applying for other history jobs (hah, what other history jobs?).

I have been expecting this to become a thing -- for people frustrated with endless post docs and visiting positions, or who are tenure track but hating it, to start leaving academia in large numbers. So far I am not seeing it in the people I know, with just a few exceptions, and my guess is that the filter is happening during and just after grad school; once someone goes into academia they seem to stick with it, even if it makes little financial sense.

But if the job market stays this bad, and the overall trends discussed above stay poor, at some point people with other options (well-paid spouse, degree in a field desired by business, or able to take an agency job, say) will start heading for the exits. That exodus will itself be a major transformation of the academic world, because for decades it has relied on a huge surplus of eager PhDs ready and willing to take on all of the challenges and inequities of the current market.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:17 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


So far I am not seeing it in the people I know, with just a few exceptions, and my guess is that the filter is happening during and just after grad school; once someone goes into academia they seem to stick with it, even if it makes little financial sense.

For what it's worth, especially amongst other folks like myself (full disclosure, masters degree, but didn't do a phd, I've been teaching for 8 years), I think a lot of folks are staying in academia, but getting out of teaching. We've been leaching folks out to various staff and administrative roles (the same kinds of work that TT and tenured folks can do, but in our case, we have to leave a job and take the next one and hope that if we need job #1 back ever, someone's going to need someone to teach 4 sections of 101, whereas someone with tenure can just be like, hey, lend me out to the honors college for a year or three, boss) [and yes, I know in most parts of life, you can't just be like hey, can I have my job back and to be able to even complain about that is privileged; academia is a weird weird place. I'm trying to move into a more research oriented role, thanks to a friend with tenure and who is good at writing grants, and I'll be working on a phd that lets me get out of here entirely if I want (though it'll have to be a good offer, I'm in one of the states that hasn't managed to bankrupt its retirement system).

So around here there's a lot of staying in academia but not necessarily in a classroom role, and there's some advantages to that; let's not forget that tasty loan forgiveness (35 payments to go, woo!) We're still supporting a system that isn't working filled with students who need to be doing anything else right now (and I was one of them! College when I was 28 was so much better than at 18. College for my wife at 38 then it was at 18.) But there's a lot more distasteful things I could be doing, so... here we are.
posted by joycehealy at 5:38 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


why should academia be different from anything else in this rotten country?
posted by ennui.bz at 5:41 AM on September 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


I think this article conflates two different issues that are only somewhat related: that the University system serves its students poorly, and that academia as a career has major problems. Both of those problems would be helped a lot by better public investment in education (you know what might remove those perverse student loan incentives? Direct public funding of the damn schools!!!). But both problems are probably more complicated than "needs more money," and should each probably be addressed more directly. It's possible to imagine ways to make academia the job better without meaningfully improving student outcomes; similarly, a lot of possible improvements to student life don't really involve improving faculty careers.

Since the author has apparently just recognized both of these things (after a remarkably successful career so far), and may be leaving only semi-voluntarily, he's still lost in a personal storm of Everything Sucks And Must Die, thus the wacky proposals like cutting federal student loans which actually help students. Having gone through my own periods of shocked, despairing and angry, I'm willing to cut the article some slack on that basis. Just because there's no good way to write a Disillusioned Rant doesn't mean they shouldn't be written.

(I personally ran away screaming from a PhD program about five years ago, after spending four-plus years slogging through it, and left only when a year-long stall in my research helped me figure out I was fucking miserable. I definitely went through a long period of Academia Must Die, but I know enough first-gen graduates to recognize that the system does some good despite it all. I'm still glad I don't do it for a living anymore.)
posted by fencerjimmy at 6:03 AM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's just anecdote vs. anecdote, but doing math in a public academic institution in the US doesn't feel at all like this to me. It feels great.
posted by escabeche at 9:14 PM on September 8 [14 favorites +] [!]

also. I have a PhD (2009) in mathematics. I published a paper based on my research in a decent journal, gave some talks in Europe where my research is more prominent. I "work" as a handyman/painter/under-table-carpenter and am desperately impoverished.

If things "feel great" it's because you, as you have been painstakingly socialized in academia to be, are so totally focused on yourself and your own career that you aren't aware of the world you actually live and work in.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:09 AM on September 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Crom knows academics sucks hard (again) but it has sucked before. Many of the arcane traditions of academics were put in place to help correct historical suckage, as participants saw how it constantly drifts to satisfy it's own ends -- the system that solves the problems of the system, in the Illitchian manner.

So, I have a little hope that a correction is coming. My fear is that modern academics is tied up with magical neoliberal philosophy and mushy post-post-modern notions of value.

The whole structure might be headed for a correction. Perhaps it'll come in time before we wreck everything.

Civilization is hard, and we are still new at this. But, as we've learned, there are only so many trees and mammoths on the plain before we figure out how meaningful things like trees and mammoths are.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:12 AM on September 9, 2015


More common would be people doing a crossword puzzle in the student newspaper.

FWIW, when I became editor-in-chief of my college's newspaper in the mid-'90s, I met with a representative of the Faculty Senate, who had two requests: Don't publish anything I knew to be a lie, and don't start putting a crossword in, for exactly that reason.
posted by Etrigan at 6:23 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm also pretty certain that the market forces that got us into the problem will get us back out. A generation of postgraduate credentialed menial laborers will be much more sophisticated consumers when shopping for their own children's education.

Ugh, there is so much assumption built into this flippant marketastrology, quite aside from the ugly dismissal of the suffering of a generation as mere information to make a consumption decision with.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:35 AM on September 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you do a very small amount of digging, you'll learn that this guy is some kind of Federalist/libertarian/etc. It's no surprise, then, that his "conclusions" echo these typical conservative talking points- get government out, college isn't for everyone, let the market fix this, etc.
posted by cushie at 6:42 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


A statement was made in this thread that his position is being eliminated. If that is the case the headline of his article is grossly misleading.

Can't both statements be true? As a tenured professor, his position could very well be safe provided he doesn't leave it. As soon as he leaves, there is no obligation for the University to keep the position.

I too didn't think it was was a particularly well-written piece, but his point about the perverseness of the university business model, which seeks above all else to maximise income from student fees and government funding, is spot on. The STEM fields, which I'm more familiar with, also suffer from a defunct system that incentivises educating far more PhDs than there are positions in the professional world. Considering the very narrow applicability of the skills learnt, the debt incurred to get the education in the first place, and the lack of superannuation throughout, there are way better ways that somebody can spend their 20s! And flooding the market with PhDs does nothing for the stability (and ultimately the reputation) of the field.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:42 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Campus newspaper? Hahahahah, such a quaint and funny idea that is!

We lost ours already, no wonder the kids have to resort to watching Breaking Bad!
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:01 AM on September 9, 2015


This little gem leaped out at me.

"No matter how bad things are for the adjuncts, they're effectively non-people to their ostensible colleagues."

Hmm, worked for several years as an adjunct (and made a decent enough living at it). Several full-time tenured faculty were helpful mentors, and some still are. I eventually moved from adjunct to contracted full-time non-tenure track at one institution. Spent some time in the wilderness at another (with much more "prestige," but that almost sent me fleeing back to AdjunctLand). Now, it's my turn. I am the tenured one who is helping recruit the part-timers and spent a good part of this afternoon writing some course descriptions for the incoming hires and for my fellow tenured profs. These specify autonomy for adjuncts as instructors as one of the goals of the department. My department head and I struggle to find the best team of adjuncts we can and view it as one of the most important things we do.

All of this might just have something to do with the fact that the adjuncts in this non-USian system have serious job security and earn a decent salary. Most of them will be with us for the long haul (we hope). Paradoxically, we also hope that many of them are the kind of teachers to go on and develop careers that may take them away.
posted by Gotanda at 7:05 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Can't both statements be true? As a tenured professor

He wasn't tenured. The byline says he is (was?) an assistant professor.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:14 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I haven't had the time to read through all of this yet, but - in this weekend's NY Times Magazine - Why We Should Fear University, Inc. (against the corporate taming of the American college).
posted by ChuraChura at 7:27 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Do you know how else you can prepare to make these vague creative contributions, much more cheaply and efficiently? By sitting around in your parents' basement and reading great works of literature. Yes, lectures and classroom discussions might help open your mind to new possibilities, but so will skillfully produced videos that are freely available on YouTube. Expert oversight is valuable — but how valuable is it really? I imagine most people wouldn't fork over $50 an hour for the privilege, regardless of their respect for the stellar minds whose contributions to society can rather easily be accessed and understood for free.
Try putting that on a resume, though.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:27 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


It was a weird jumble.

My biggest observation: not one word about his scholarly interests or professional publications. But he did mention that he loves to podcast and flout the dress code! Maybe his heart really isn't in it?

I don't think he, or anyone, is saying that smart people who want a college education should be denied one, or even denied meaningful taxpayer support in getting one.

The problem is that we permit (and, to a certain extent post Griggs, as noted above, compel) employers to have a a generic BA tick-box for most well-paid jobs able-bodied men do and almost all well-paid jobs that women and not-ably-bodied men do.

And this produces the second order problem of the dual social imperatives: push everyone into college regardless of their interest or aptitude, and spend unlimited amounts of taxpayer money on college because it would be unjust to deny poor kids access to the middle class.

And this produces the third order problem: colleges and universities who increase their costs and enrollment to absorb as much of this flood of money as they can, instead of keeping their costs low as possible to steward taxpayer money and student-loan-borrower money, and limiting their enrollment to those who can benefit from the education offered.
posted by MattD at 8:15 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


So far I am not seeing it in the people I know, with just a few exceptions, and my guess is that the filter is happening during and just after grad school; once someone goes into academia they seem to stick with it, even if it makes little financial sense.


But the alternatives can make even less financial sense. Even adjuncts make more than I do, as an ABD cobbling together part-time work (including as a barista) outside academia. I've only now gotten a decently hourly wage by going back into an academic position (albeit only 10 hours/week, sometimes less).

I've applied for full-time admin positions, but no one seems to care that I'm intelligent, well-informed, have designed databases and can write well, because I have no official admin experience and a very, very spotty employment record.

if I were a PhD, rather than ABD, I would jump at the chance of an adjunct position, because it's still better than Starbucks.
posted by jb at 8:29 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


and I'd get to talk to people about land drainage and common land systems, which is the really important thing in life.
posted by jb at 8:29 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


flout the dress code

There isn't one. I don't mean that in some generic lack of dress codes in academia, I mean that UT Arlington posts its faculty handbook and school policies online and there is no dress code. It's conceivable that the history department might have one but they don't put their handbook or bylaws online that I could find.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:55 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Clvrmnky -

So, I have a little hope that a correction is coming. My fear is that modern academics is tied up with magical neoliberal philosophy and mushy post-post-modern notions of value.

Take a look at the recent Harpers magazine. Whole article on the neo-liberalization of higher ed.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:58 AM on September 9, 2015


miyabo: I think there are lots of reasons to make students study Phil 101, or Shakespeare, or (fill in your favorite class that isn't obviously about job training). First, some of the skills you develop (writing and thinking clearly) are useful in many jobs. Second, universities, especially public ones, are in the job of turning out good citizens in a broad sense. That includes ones who are able to make the widgets we need. But it also includes ones able to contribute to other moral, aesthetic, and cultural states of affairs the society deems good. Third, there may be (a few!) people (like me!) who go to college as (say) a business major having no idea what philosophy is, and who really find themselves enthralled by the subject. And they may go into that profession.

We shouldn't give up on our--frankly phenomenal-- higher ed system because of high prices. We should fund it better.
posted by persona au gratin at 9:55 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Another academic drop-out here. I relate to a lot of the observations in the article.

I noticed decades ago that most of the big state universities, and even most of the "state" schools, have enrollments in the tens of thousands...some near 50-thousand. What this means is the first few years of school = sitting in lecture halls with 500 or so students listening to a professor lecture, then perhaps an hour or two during the week with 50 other students and a grad student (or "grader" online).

I would also add that in my case, better than half of the students were not interested in the material, learning, or engaged in class...but just wanted their "ticket punched" -- get the degree and get out.

And as far as social sciences/liberal arts, the joke there was "Oh, ______ major? Do you want fries with that?" It was the barbed way the science majors would tell the liberal arts majors that their degree wasn't going to get them a decent job in today's work world....
posted by CrowGoat at 10:27 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Second, universities, especially public ones, are in the job of turning out good citizens in a broad sense.

Nowhere is this actually mentioned in the law. In fact, it's pretty clear the main focus of land grant universities is practical education:

[E]ach State which may take and claim the benefit of this subchapter, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

So to the extent that public universities are in the job of producing good citizens, it's a mission they've adopted for themselves. After a quick check, it appears my current land grant employer's own mission statement doesn't mention citizenship either. As best I can tell, 'producing good citizens' is an artifact of the university system's religious training heritage, and subsequent secularization. Setting aside the feasibility of producing a state or nation of 'good' citizens, it's also quite patronizing to those who don't pursue a degree-- are they then 'bad' citizens?
posted by pwnguin at 10:50 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, this is a really amazing article (nyt) about historically black colleges and the amazing things faculty can do when they're truly invested in their universities and student bodies:
American schools have not absorbed the lessons that historically black colleges have to teach about how to better develop and support talented students stifled in poor communities across the land. Too many universities, he said, are content to recruit the most privileged and high-­achieving students in the United States and other countries. He said he saw historically black colleges ‘‘as the conscience of the nation.’’ But, he added, ‘‘I am not as sanguine about whether this nation fully understands the role we play — what we’ve done for this country with so little.’’
posted by ChuraChura at 11:01 AM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Second, universities, especially public ones, are in the job of turning out good citizens in a broad sense.
Nowhere is this actually mentioned in the law. In fact, it's pretty clear the main focus of land grant universities is practical education…


The University of Texas at Arlington is not a land-grant university. The law that describes the responsibilities of institutions of higher education in Texas is Tex. Education Code § 51.354, "Institutional Responsibility":
In addition to specific responsibilities imposed by this code or other law, each institution of higher education has the general responsibility to serve the public and, within the institution's role and mission, to:
(1) transmit culture through general education;
(2) extend knowledge;
(3) teach and train students for professions;
(4) provide for scientific, engineering, medical, and other academic research;
(5) protect intellectual exploration and academic freedom;
(6) strive for intellectual excellence;
(7) provide educational opportunity for all who can benefit from postsecondary education and training; and
(8) provide continuing education opportunities.
posted by grouse at 12:51 PM on September 9, 2015


Philosophy majors actually are in the top five majors for median mid-career salaries.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:52 PM on September 9, 2015


No, of course they're not bad citizens. That's an awful misreading of what I said.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:53 PM on September 9, 2015


And sure, it's a duty that the people have entrusted to universities since the Morrill Act. It's also the case that most public schools aren't land grant schools. So citing that act from 150 years ago strikes me as a non sequitur in several regards. Better to look at individual state laws/university policies.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:00 PM on September 9, 2015


If colleges wanted to turn it good citizens in the broad sense, they'd have them volunteer in poor neighborhoods, get involved in local government, and observe things like criminal trials and party caucuses (in addition to taking classes). But they can't charge tuition for that.
posted by miyabo at 3:16 PM on September 9, 2015


they'd have them volunteer in poor neighborhoods, get involved in local government, and observe things like criminal trials and party caucuses
My school's community-based learning expo was TODAY. Undergrads take courses where they do exactly this, often working with graduate students from our graduate school of social work.
posted by cnanderson at 4:03 PM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Philosophy majors actually are in the top five majors for median mid-career salaries.

I want to believe this, but this chart seems to indicate this is not the case.

What I have observed very anecdotally is that history, philosophy, etc majors from top-tier liberal arts schools and Ivies often do well. Law, consulting (the big management consulting firms famously love Ivy League humanities majors), advertising, top NGOs, etc. are full of these types of majors. But those kids are usually going into college with a ton of privilege as it is. They can often afford to do the unpaid internships or expensive degrees (law) that these careers require. It's not surprising that they would do well, salarywise.
posted by lunasol at 4:43 PM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I was extra snarky upthread about his political naivety and on reconsideration I need to back off from that.

It's one thing to know that politics exist and it's another to understand their depth and role in your life. If you haven't grown up with some sense of how to play they can leave you flummoxed even as you watch them torpedo your life.

As an example I hold up my own father, who grew up in a ghetto and ended up leaving academia in his twenties due to constantly being passed over for tenure track positions. In retrospect it's clear that his upbringing just didn't prepare him for that particular political environment -- he could see things happening but he didn't know how to deal with them effectively.

(he kinda overcompensated after that and his advice on how to be a ruthless bastard turned me into the cynical powerhouse I am today. On the other hand, twenty years after leaving academia he returned directly into a tenured position as a chairman with a mandate to reform a completely dysfunctional department -- in short, academic politics on steroids. So there's hope for this guy yet.)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:01 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Since everyone seems to have missed this:

"position is being eliminated" is not the same as "employment is being terminated." The person who said his position was being eliminated unmediated added that his job was being MERGED with two other jobs.

He is not being fired. He has tenure track, so that would be difficult. His responsibilities are being shifted. He didn't lie; he seems to be clear about this in the article.
posted by koeselitz at 6:55 PM on September 9, 2015


He has tenure track, so that would be difficult.

When someone is on the tenure-track (as opposed to actually being tenured) it's relatively easy to terminate their employment. In most places it happens automatically if you don't get tenure.
posted by grouse at 7:22 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


The author doesn't seem to grasp the purpose behind a university. It is not educating students, any more than a business's purpose is hiring and training its employees. No wonder he is disillusioned. He went through a selection process to be an employee and believes that is the underlying purpose. His real purpose is to create and disseminate new knowledge and to ensure the perpetuation of that enterprise by creating new employees to further that end. That this has been lost is sad, because it means that politicians can demagogue to their heart's content about how universities need to train youth for business or professional careers and so should dance to the tune those stakeholders pipe, while justifying withdrawing funding because the universities are "wasting their time" researching and teaching things like history and literature. I'm a tenured professor in a relatively hard science area, but even I can see the folly of this line of thinking. If we want to debilitate ourselves as a society, the first thing we need to do is destroy the finest university system in the world and cede our superiority to some other, more deserving country, one that values pursuit of new knowledge as one of the very highest public goods.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:03 PM on September 9, 2015


You're right; I was misremembering some data I'd seen that left out engineering. It still had the salary above other humanities at $81,200, which isn't too shabby.
posted by persona au gratin at 9:04 PM on September 9, 2015


grouse: “When someone is on the tenure-track (as opposed to actually being tenured) it's relatively easy to terminate their employment. In most places it happens automatically if you don't get tenure.”

Not really – not in my experience and observation, anyway. Tenure-track is a legal contract stipulating that the candidate will be evaluated seriously for a tenured position. At most public universities, you have to be either officially not-hired or officially censured or reprimanded in some way for some serious breach of the contractual requirements. It's not the kind of thing where a new university president can just void that contract and say "sorry, we're letting you go" without giving an actual reason.
posted by koeselitz at 1:11 PM on September 10, 2015


I think y'all are just glancing past each other about what "relatively easy" means.

Firing a tenure-track professor is harder than firing J. Random Private Employee, because often they'll have one three-year contract to take them to third year review and a second three-year contract to take them to the tenure file. If they have annual contracts presumably they could just not be renewed.

But firing a tenure-track professor is still easy relative to, say, firing a state or federal employee because all you have to do is say "Not good enough" at third-year review or promotion, and there are always reasons to be found why someone isn't good enough.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:24 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was offered a number of tenure-track contracts, and not one of them specified that they would have to give me a reason if they did not renew my contract. Usually there were committees as a matter of policy but the committees only made recommendations to executives such as deans or presidents who could totally ignore the recommendations.

And as ROU_Xenophobe points out, even if a written reason were required, it's easy to say that the professor did not publish enough or get enough external funding or anything else, since the benchmarks are not set in advance.
posted by grouse at 2:40 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Firing a tenure-track professor is harder than firing J. Random Private Employee, because often they'll have one three-year contract to take them to third year review and a second three-year contract to take them to the tenure file. If they have annual contracts presumably they could just not be renewed.

I don't know what is actually the most common situation, but I have seen one year, two year, and three year contracts for people in tenure track positions, providing at least one and potentially quite a few contract renewal points before tenure.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:35 PM on September 10, 2015


Either way, it doesn't sound like this guy was having his contract terminated at all.
posted by koeselitz at 7:35 AM on September 11, 2015


If he has a contract expiration this year, the deadline for UT Arlington to renew his contract for next year is 31 August. It is an interesting coincidence that this piece was written just a week after that.
posted by grouse at 11:38 AM on September 11, 2015


Given the date of this recording, I'm guessing he's still on payroll. At least until someone finds out he put FERPA protected student information on a video on the internet.
posted by pwnguin at 12:26 PM on September 11, 2015


I meant that they would have to tell him by 31 August 2015 if there won't be a job for him in September 2016.
posted by grouse at 2:25 PM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, that's quite far out. Interesting. Especially given how my union contract that ran out last July only tentatively reached agreement yesterday. I guess brinksmanship is less important when the stakes are low.
posted by pwnguin at 5:16 PM on September 11, 2015


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