Category Archives: academia and scholars

Public intellectuals and pastry cooks

So Nicolas Kristoff wrote a piece for the NYT entitled Professors, We Need You. The piece set off a lot of reactions from academics, which have ranged from takedowns to critiques. The column is pretty easy to pick apart because it claims to refute anti-intellectualism at the same it reinforces the same lazy tropes always leveled at intellectuals, thereby echoing and reaffirming the status quo of anti-intellectualism: nobody listens to professors, and it’s all the professor’s own fault for clinging to outmoded thinking (secluded monks in an academy) incoherent writing, except for the anointed few like Jill Lepore (because, you know, there’s no competition in writing for the New Yorker and we could all do it if we just tried.) And all those communist lefties in the academy. They are a problem. Economists are ok, though, because the Republicans like them.

As Erik Voeten points out, public intellectuals are actually here, and many of us do work very hard to make our work and our fields accessible to people outside of our field, including voters. Just because Kristof isn’t bothering to read us, it’s not as though we don’t exist.

Moreover, the “blame the academics” approach willfully ignores an important point that Easily Distracted made: it’s not easy for anybody to be heard, let alone heard correctly, in today’s political world :

Kristof might ask–using himself as a test–what exactly is dependent upon this input that he thinks is lacking. If what he means by accessibility is “I want professors who agree with what I already think, and I want them to say so clearly”, that’s very different than saying, “There’s something I don’t understand, something I can’t do, something beyond my knowledge”. The former is just hunting for a few more bits of costume jewelry to burnish the finery of the powerful. The latter would be a welcome invitation, but given that it starts with humility, don’t hold your breath.

Indeed. Why are economists such elevated darlings in the political economy? Because they are really that much more rigorous and objective than a philosopher or historian? Or is it because they promise the powerful access to even more magic beans?

There’s also the fact, as Corey Rubin points out over Crooked Timber, that Kristof’s examples of “good public intellectuals” are two very, very privileged women, Jill Lepore and Ann Slaughter, who come from the most exalted spheres of the academy–Princeton and Harvard. The platform from which they are approaching the media with their material is one helluvalot different than most academics who, by the very numbers, have transformed into a predominantly temporary workforce teaching four to five classes a semester for low pay. These are not the conditions by which people glide into the same level of influence as the Jill Lepores of this world.

Finally, there are exceptional journalists with whom it is a pleasure to talk to. Then there are dolts who, if you ask them to keep two ideas, let alone ideas in tension, in their head at once, their eyes glaze over. Which brings us back to the point from Easily Distracted: if you don’t want complexity, and all you want is a solutions factory from the academy, there are plenty of academics and “independent researchers” who will bludgeon you with their simplistic solutions to schill themselves as celebrities to sell their books. We could probably, in fact, use less, rather than more, of that. Urban decline? Forget the messy and complicated problem of racism, schools, and policing. Lemme tell ya about the magic of bike lanes! That’s the fix you need! And that’s the fix you want because it’s tangible and requires you to change not all if you don’t feel like it. (And remember, I think bike lanes are awesomesauce. By all means. I’ll even the buy the green paint. But Los Angeles strikes me as a city that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and while I’m sure bike lanes do improve many wonderful things, it’s the not the thin of the wedge there.)

Urban problems, just like most social problems, are unpleasantly complicated and take entirely too much time to explain, let alone address. And not many people seem to really want to hear it. Boil it down. Make it easy. Make it something fixable in three easy steps that don’t require me to pay money, change the way I think, or suggest that me and people like me aren’t wonderful in every way. The problem is fat people and Republicans (or Democrats, depending your Sacred Outlook.)

As Socrates would put it, be a pastry cook.

And that’s the major reason I get impatient with myself and the opportunities of public intellectualism. It’s the basic problem presented in Plato’s Gorgias. Sophists were public intellectuals. Throughout the course of the dialogue, it becomes more and more apparent that Callicles loves the demos, both out of genuine patriotism, but also because he loves fame. He loves the attention of playing to crowd. And playing to the crowd has limits in terms of knowledge creation. It rewards rhetorical trickery of the type that Polus engages in (vivid, emotional, polemic) and in tames intellects, like that of Callicles, because he dare not risk saying something unpopular.

It also has me recalling my Thucycides, which I have been rereading in my spare time. I haven’t read Thucydides since high school, and cracking it open again after reading Josiah Ober’s wonderful discussion in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens has me thinking about the role pretty speech and fame-seeking had in fragmenting the Athenian polis after Pericles.

Nor does it help that ambitious universities want to score the big name who can engage with media on media’s own terms. There are better and worse outlets, and understanding that landscape is yet another communication problem for the contemporary academic to solve, along with the 50+ complicated people who show up twice a week to (I hope) engage with the learning community that academics are meant to foster. The for-profit media is a tough place; the nonprofit media can be a backwater and a choir. You do the math as to what that means for academics with complicated ideas.

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How far off campus should universities be responsible for?

Attention conservation notice: In loco parentis arguments always come up around colleges, but I very much doubt colleges ever were the innocent places that they are in prelapsarian narratives about higher ed. However, if we aren’t going to see our mission as shaping young lives (I do, but that’s me), then other influences will step in. But: when dealing with risk assessment and privileged young men, why aren’t we confronting that privilege and belief about personal invulnerability just as much as admonitions to universities that they shouldn’t allow students to live off campus?

My own beloved USC has been caught up in this question, as they were sued by the parents of two students fatally shot off campus. The case is heartbreaking, but I keep bumping up hard against the fundamental problem that the murders happened off campus, in my neighborhood, West Adams. If the students had been shot in Venice (it happens), then would USC still be perceived as at fault? USC doesn’t own my house or belong to my neighborhood association. Perhaps they should, but…where would the geographic boundary of their perceived responsibility end?

These students were from China, and I think there is a lot going on culturally as well;as one of my brilliant students pointed out, gun violence in the US really has no analogue anywhere else, and students should know this before coming here.

In our case, it’s particularly confusing because at the same time the parents were suing USC, it was signing very expensive community benefits agreement for a relatively small development north of campus. So the parents were suing the university for…failing to gentrify a neighborhood that was accusing it of gentrifying. When you are big, powerful, relatively wealthy institution, these contradictions form the world, and my heart is not bleeding, really, for anybody but the family and friends who are devastated, but I am having trouble wrapping my head around what USC should do and should have done differently.

I find myself thinking about these issues this morning because I read Caitlin Flanagan’s yucky piece of commentary in The Atlantic Cities on the Dark Power of Fraternities this morning in the Atlantic. Clearly intended to be one of those long forms that everybody fawns over for its insight, it’s incoherent and self-indulgently long, and I almost gave it up at various points. The piece begins with droning on and on for paragraphs about a set of stupid injuries that occurred at a frat party, exploiting exactly the lurid and puerile details that she supposedly wants us to worry over. She claims that fraternities are shaping America’s leaders, which is a point, but there are many issues at play in that, like the self-selection of families who want to send their sons into that and the upbringing/acculturation that occurs before frat life.

In any case, the violence and lawlessness that Flanagan so gleefully relates is not the fault of parents, the fraternal organizations, but universities, their “knock-knee’d overlords” (wtf does that even mean?):

To begin with, the fraternities involved themselves very deeply in the business of student housing, which provided tremendous financial savings to their host institutions, and allowed them to expand the number of students they could admit. Today, one in eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a Greek house, and a conservative estimate of the collective value of these houses across the country is $3 billion. Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).

Yes, but, erhm. These are comparatively affluent students, by Flanagan’s own assessment. I’m pretty sure there are developers who would have served the demand for nice off-campus housing.

That said, if the universities annexed those houses and then leased them to the frats, at least the houses would be to university safety standards. Of course, there’s always the chapter getting national permission to buy another house off-campus, but the university could refuse to allow any off-campus house to affiliate with the university.

I do wonder about Flanagan’s perception that on-campus housing is the be-all and end-all. If college is adulthood with training wheels, then living off-campus has a role to play in that. I do understand the point, but we have moved away from company town ideas about institutional responsibility. If a Google employee gets drunk and falls off his balcony in a tony San Francisco apartment complex at a party with other Google employees, is it Google’s fault for not supplying housing on its campus for its workers? She discusses this as a matter of choice:

The answer to this question has been steadily evolving ever since the 1960s, when dramatic changes took place on American campuses, changes that affected both a university’s ability to control student behavior and the status of fraternities in the undergraduate firmament. During this period of student unrest, the fraternities—long the unquestioned leaders in the area of sabotaging or ignoring the patriarchal control of school administrators—became the exact opposite: representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow. Suddenly their beer bashes and sorority mixers, their panty raids and obsession with the big game, seemed impossibly reactionary when compared with the mind-altering drugs being sampled in off-campus apartments where sexual liberation was being born and the Little Red Book proved, if nothing else, a fantastic coaster for a leaky bong.

American students sought to wrest themselves entirely from the disciplinary control of their colleges and universities, institutions that had historically operated in loco parentis, carefully monitoring the private behavior of undergraduates. The students of the new era wanted nothing to do with that infantilizing way of existence, and fought to rid themselves of the various curfews, dorm mothers, demerit systems, and other modes of institutional oppression. If they were old enough to die in Vietnam, powerful enough to overthrow a president, groovy enough to expand their minds with LSD and free love, then they certainly didn’t need their own colleges—the very places where they were forming their radical, nation-changing ideas—to treat them like teenyboppers in need of a sock hop and a chaperone. It was a turning point: American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing.

Welcome to neoliberalism where all institutions, including public ones, are supposed to be run like businesses.

Another point strikes me as worthy:

Moreover, fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way. At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters. Furthermore, fraternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students. When Mom is trying—against all better judgment—to persuade lackluster Joe Jr. to go to college, she gets a huge assist when she drives him over to State and he gets an eyeful of frat row. Joe Jr. may be slow to grasp even the most elemental concepts of math and English (his first two years of expensive college study will largely be spent in remediation of the subjects he should have learned, for free, in high school), but one look at the Fiji house and he gets the message: kids are getting laid here; kids are having fun. Maybe he ought to snuff out the joint and take a second look at that application Mom keeps pushing across the kitchen table.

This is the sort of paragraph that makes me want to send both Flanagan and her editor back to college themselves. The first is an assertion that frat members are generous with alumni donations. She states it confidently. So she must have numbers. Where are those? Why isn’t that a whole paragraph itself? It strikes me as a very important point.

The second is a pretty good, vivid, colorful image that again strikes me as somewhat confused. Let’s dispense with one problem with focus–the digression about what he should have learned in high school. Damn straight–I’m 100 percent with Flanagan there. God how I wish that public schools were teaching for free what they could be, but they can’t because of so many issues it makes my brain catch on fire to think of them. (And many of them unrelated to things that school administrators and teachers can control.)

Then there’s the real point she makes: frats sell college to Stoner Steve. But what does that mean? Stoner Steve is ill prepared for college, lazy, and unmotivated. We get that.Ok. But I’m not sure it’s a terrible idea for him to go to college. I could see his story turning out a lot of ways. He gets in with other stoners and gets worse and sets himself on fire. (Bad.) He gets in with guys whom he respects, and whose approval therefore craves, because they contain all the manly man misogyny he has harbored for years of having a mother tell him what to do while bitches withhold sex he deserves by right, and his peers exert influence on him in ways that his mother and a college prof never could: get drunk and party, but make sure you get an A in intro to marketing or you won’t get into B school and your life of treats, toys, and sex will come to an end. The social mores coming out of that are a problem, but not necessarily for Steve himself. Loathsome, yes, but not entirely bad for Steve himself.

So the college does not admit him because he’s a lazy stoner, and he stays home and gets stoned with the same friends he gets stoned with now, or by himself since that is possible, too?

Should a college town like Iowa City or Blacksburg just give up having a mayor and city council and have their universities just run the whole show? A company town. Why not? It’s not like those universities don’t have, by far, hegemony in local politics anyway.

I’m puzzled, and I don’t know what I think. I do know that I haven’t been persuaded by Flanagan’s mess of an article, which makes me angry largely because I think she had the opportunity to write something important and she went for cheap shots with labored jokes to be all-too-clever instead. Her core point, which is that when people were more controlling of young people, fewer young men set themselves on fire. I suppose that is true. But one does wonder about the state of the world when an institution has to be responsible for dashing the bottle rocket from an 18 to 22 year-old’s hands. Shouldn’t, at some point, his friends and his own sense step in?

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Smart vs. Pleasant, aka the best career advice ever, from the movie “Harvey”

You may quote me.

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“I tried to write faster, but it wasn’t any fun for me” Donna Tartt on writing

I’m less of a worshipful Donna Tartt fan than many, but I am willing to grant that she’s in the 97th percentile in terms of quality, which means way the hell better than me on her worst day. She produces a book every decade. It’s her speed. Here is talking about that with Charlie Rose. Now, there’s entirely too much Charlie Rose and not enough Donna Tartt, but she’s still very wise and very wonderful.

Like Tartt, I have to be alone to work, it’s that simple. Maybe you can only write if you have somebody willing to read your stuff. Figuring out what makes the process work for you is a lifelong challenge, but it’s important if you want to get work done.

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What professors do, the long list

Bruce Railsback has a pretty comprehensive list.

He’s missing the travel that a bunch of this entails.

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The real problems of policy schools

Attention Conservation Notice: Policy schools have a bunch of problems, but the WashPo writers missed or mischaracterized most of them.

Additional note: for some reason, my ability to proofread today appears to be more in the toilet than usual. A thousand apologies. I’ll keep editing for clarity.

So this op-ed from the Washington Post has been making the rounds, and it’s irritating me a great deal, largely because one of the authors, Naomi Schaefer Riley, just bothers me. Everything she ever published in the WSJ set my teeth on edge, so I am hardly an unbiased reader–my fault, not hers. This piece is a larger echo of her other complaints about universities writ large, except she’s not complaining about tenure (which, as I explained yesterday, is a bit like worrying about Bigfoot at this point; tenure has eroded, and it’s about a millionth as important as people like Riley like to make it.) Their critique comes down to:

1. An overemphasis on global and national problems rather than state and local;

2. Academic research has little to say about day-to-day management problems of government (I’m going to have to break this gently to my public management colleagues, as they spend all their time worrying about the institutional problems that lead to and/or resolve day-to-day management problems), particularly in the over-emphasis on economics.

3. These schools aren’t training people to go into government (only a small percentage of Kennedy school grads go to state and local government), etc:

4. And these schools are a mishmash of home disciplines which causes an identity crisis:

Many schools have begun to look like a mishmash of the academic departments from which their faculty members hail — such as political science, economics and sociology. But those people may have no more or less interest than colleagues from their home departments in shaping actual policy. Of course, many of these schools draw at least some faculty members from politicians who have lost elections or wonks whose parties are out of power in Washington. But such celebrity instructors are short-timers and do little to draw the academic faculty — which dominate the schools — out of their bubbles.

Easiest potshot in the world: those academics and their bubbles.

There are shades of truth in all these, but these are problems to be found just about everywhere in governance and politics. There is an overemphasis, for example, on national and global issues in the media. Universities emphasize scholars that can demonstrate “high impact” and that means attaining federal grants, getting hits in the highest impact journals, getting picked up by national media. “I helped make main street in Schlubbville more vibrant and walkable” is nice, but it is not going to get you promoted in most major research universities.

And that is actually the problem with this op-ed. They are far too focussed on treating the east coast schools like the Kennedy School and Woodrow Wilson as what’s out there for policy schools. So, in no particular order, here are the first few reasons why this emphasis leads them astray:

1. They conflate public policy and public management, and while these topics are related, they are not the same thing. Public policy tends to be general and focussed on content areas, public management tends to focus on institutions and individuals who enact policy (and my field, planning).

2. The highest ranked public policy schools are not always the highest ranked public management schools. USC has hired on a bunch of folks who study the federal bureaucracy, but plenty study state and city management as well. But they are not likely to be found in the brand name policy schools like Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson or even Taubmann.

3. Public policy and public management graduates often do not end up in the same jobs, though sometimes they do, and training public managers is a different smoke than the 1970s version these folks seem to think it is. Even though we are all supposed to lay awake nights worrying about gummint employees, the number of people in the federal bureaucracy has remained largely the same since 1962, and is smaller now than it was then. Managerial jobs at the state and local level, which is what these writers seem to be worried about–employs a much larger percentage of people, but the actual numbers of ranked positions open has gone down even as employment in the sector has gone up–many are field positions rather than managerial positions: Driving snow plows, walking a beat, teaching 3rd graders. In the mean time, nongovernmental employment for many policy grads (and for many public management grads) has emerged as an important part of the labor force: with the push to privatization, many managers in state and local governments are basically contract managers for experts housed in private consulting firms. Or, alternatively, many have moved into the nonprofit sector. So that idea that policy and management schools should be producing experts for government is not necessarily correct–it’s only a part of the labor market. Many of our policy grads go work for politicians; they are staffers for particular people rather than managers for public institutions.

So that’s the problem with their assumptions in my read.

My problems with policy schools in no particular order:

1. They are housed in very expensive, very exclusive, very elite private schools. This is not, as I said, true of public management programs, where places like Virginia Tech, Texas A & M, and Indiana have shined. But it policy schools are in the expensive privates, which reinforces a cycle of affluent families sending students to Ivies where they then funnel into positions of influence in politics and public policy. The authors of the op-ed lump Brandeis, Wilson, and Dewey together, but these men held very different views on how to manage complex problems. In Dewey’s case, it wasn’t to set up elite teams of experts; Dewey treated democracy as a method in epistemology that could and should be used to inform policy in the public interest.

2. This problem means that policy schools are not intellectually diverse, nor are they likely to be socio-demographically diverse, and those two problems commingle. You can’t swing a shovel without hitting a million old white dudes who want to tell you all about their public policy expertise. And it’s fine to have them represented, but they don’t need to be the only people in Congress, in the bureaucracy, on the TV and on book covers.

This isn’t some politically correct plea for diversity for its own sake, though I do think diversity for its own sake has a great deal to recommend it. Instead, it’s a Deweyan imperative for governing cosmopolitan cities, states, and nations via democracy.

I’m not likely to cry too many tears over conservatives who complain that there aren’t enough conservative proffies in policy schools (see the straight line between and elite university and the American Enterprise Institute noted in the op-ed). There are plenty of cozy relationships between universities and both right and left wing think tanks (a growing labor market for our graduates) even if the average professor is likely to be Democrat. But ones that espouse particular conservative ideologies hit the lottery: Condoleeza Rice, Greg Mankiw, Milton Friedmann, etc etc. The reality is, there are few true radicals in either direction on most policy school faculties because social science doesn’t lend itself to radical or reactionary positions (one of the advantages of the social sciences, actually).

3. But that’s a problem, too: these programs are completely dominated by social scientists and lawyers who act like social scientists, and in particular, economists. The infighting between economists and political scientists and sociologists is entertaining to those of us who actually hold policy-related, multidisciplinary PhDs, but it’s less interesting that the larger problem of: don’t the humanities and sciences also inform policy? And they do; they just do so from departments rather than policy schools. Bioethics is a big deal for public policy, but few policy schools have bioethicists. Med schools do. So do philosophy departments. So do religion departments. The attempts among social scientists to exclude such explicitly normative considerations from public policy schools leads to inherent dysfunction and arbitrary limits because of the nature of the beast–public policy and its roots in the ‘public interest’–are inherently normative. The tendency to draw a strict line between public policy and things like bioethics seems founded more in disciplinary allegiances than defensible in terms of relevance to public policy.

Which gets me to a much more serious identity problem for policy schools; the line between what is and what is not public policy. If we do take Dewey seriously, we must get to a point of believing that the entire university is called to the betterment of human society in such a way that the arts and sciences inform public as well as individual life within that public. There is also a less abstract problem: technology, commerce, and cultural questions tends to get less attention in public policy schools than their actual importance to public policy would merit as technology is viewed as the purview of the sciences and engineering, commerce the purview of business schools, and culture the purview of the liberal arts.

Leo Strauss noted that political science has not done much to stop political conflict. Whenever I read op-eds like this one and get me to thinking about where policy belongs in intellectual life, I always go back to John Henry Newman:

Reflect, Gentlemen, how many disputes you must have listened to, which were interminable, because neither party understood either his opponent or himself. Consider the fortunes of an argument in a debating society, and the need there so frequently is, not simply of some clear thinker to disentangle the perplexities of thought, but of capacity in the combatants to do justice to the clearest explanations which are set before them,—so much so, that the luminous arbitration only gives rise, perhaps, to more hopeless altercation.

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Grad student unions, Rick Perlstein, and the Lawrence Welk Show

Attention Conservation Notice: If academic labor wants to unionize, it is probably better to do so across institutions rather than one-by-one, if the outcomes for so-called “winners in the game” (tenured professors) are any indicator.

Rick Perlstein has been writing about higher education and organizing over at the Nation.

There’s a reason why Perlstein is on a crusade about the academy and is notably silent on his own industry’s exploitation of young writers. The former sells and gets eyes on the page, and the latter would bite the hand that feeds him and possibly irritate an editor. Just as there are hundreds and hundreds of applications for every single tenure track job, there are plenty of young writers lined up to freelance for The Nation. Doctor, heal thyself.

I don’t say that just to throw some shade at Perlstein. It’s more along the lines of: yeah, contemporary capitalism, where all labor is two seconds away from being under the bus.

Perlstein wants to take down the math professor who told students to cross a picket line of adjuncts to get to class, and he wants to castigate a professor for writing an email to his graduate students telling them that their open letter to the department for why they were organizing is a risky career move.

Yes, some misguided souls might note that when a student pays what they do for tuition, offering class despite the picket line can be defended on moral grounds, too, though I personally would not have had students cross the picket line. And still other misguided souls might think that it’s entirely possible to support and organize a grad student union without writing your faculty to rub their noses in it. But, hey, I’m just a patronizing anti-union proffie.

Perlstein’s column includes this bit:

And their dominant tone was that same clueless arrogance we see above. One, a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, allowed that while things could be improved, and “I would like to see more tenure-track jobs and fewer adjuncts,” academia was still after all a meritocracy. He argued that “[f]riends like your autodidact”—he was referring to the example I gave of a recent PhD from one of the greatest universities in the world, who wrote brilliantly and insightfully, was a natural-born teacher and applied to a hundred jobs to no avail before realizing “tenured employment is almost unimaginable” because of his undeveloped suck-up skills—“ will slip through the cracks if, despite actual excellence, they can’t muster what the academy considers evidence of excellence…. I think of a tenure-track job like an actor getting a job at a repertory company, or a baseball player being hired to play baseball full-time—there are just too many people lining up to do such jobs to give them to everyone.”

This was supposed to be a defense of the system.

A person more interested in journalism and less interested in scoring points and calling people names would probably get that the original statement was hardly supposed to be a defenseof the system, ours or any other. It was meant to be a description of the cut-throat job market professors live in:

1. Yes, even very talented people do not get the jobs their talents merit.

2. Yes, sucking up is a skill in the academy–the way it is *everywhere*, in every institution;

3. But even if you are talented at both research AND sucking up, it’s entirely possible a person won’t get a tenure-track job which is, apparently, what Perlstein thinks his buddy is entitled to (since when?); and

4. In order to get a tenure-track job, you will have to be extremely lucky; probably move to a highly undesirable location; eat crap during job interviews; and if you are fortunate enough to get a job, you will have to eat crap for many more years as a probationary faculty member.

And, alas,crap-eating doesn’t end with tenure. I’m sorry, but that’s true. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world. Universities can and do punish unproductive scholars after tenure. Even well-renumerated deans spend all their time sucking up to donors.

Tenure track jobs are not the cushy realm of reflective scholars who stroll with students across the quad pretending to be Aristotle. We are branded, careful to build to and maintain that brand. We divvy out minutes spent with graduate students (and other students) in 15 minute intervals because we are on a production line, and the hour of my time you want means an hour less with my family because if I try to take that hour out of my research time, I will a) get fired if I am assistant professor and b) get unbelievably shitty raises if I am a tenured associate.

We have spent years and years listening to people claim that universities need to be more like businesses, and I just roll my eyes when I hear this. Are you kidding me? Universities are businesses now. Tenure track faculty have watched tenure erode in a matter of about 15 years. It’s over. So all of you who think tenure is the root of all evil can just relax and move on. So calling for an end to tenure is like calling for an end to showing reruns of the Lawrence Welk show on PBS. Eventually, enough of us will die off, replaced by people without tenure, and by people who have no interest in polkas.

Professor’s wages, too, have fallen in real terms, or in some segments of the markets, grown very slowly.

The demands for getting, and keeping, a full-time faculty job go up, up, up, every single year.

And all the above happened…with unions for faculty in many institutions. Now, maybe it would all be so much worse without unions. But…solidarity means what, exactly, in a world where companies like Microsoft openly say they won’t hire fresh-outs, and half or more of our professional school graduates work in free internships for multiple years?

All that said, fine. I’ll honor the picket line. If there’s a chance unions help get benefits, wages, and limits on working conditions, I’m in. But I doubt it. But I’d also sure be happy to be wrong. I strongly suspect that adjuncts in some markets fare way better than adjuncts in oversupplied urban markets, and so organizing across institutions might actually be a better strategy than organizing at individual institutions, so that the leverage in one location could help at others.

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Scrivener and me

Oh, how I love the storyboarding and outlining in Scrivener. Here is my current work in progress.

Screenshot 12 2 13 12 54 PM

My storyboards consist of the topic sentence for each paragraph. Once I have those, writing goes much more quickly.

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Implementation woes and ACA

I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said, other than, for the love of God, you people. Anybody who didn’t know that the Affordable Care Act was going to be difficult to implementat was kidding themselves. I did wonder where the big roll-out was in terms of public education a couple months ago. We did a better job with rolling out mandatory seat-belt laws, but in fairness, that was less ambitious. But still, that means more prep, not less. Perhaps I just missed it, as I was focussed on other things, but right now progressives should be seething. They played chicken with the Tea Party types and forced a shutdown over a program that clearly wasn’t ready for roll out. That’s bad. Ack. ACK.

The problems:

1. The health care industry is unbelievably complicated. Most people have no idea what their insurance really covers–or how expensive charges can really get–until the very worst happens.

2. The ACA is more complicated than it should be. It’s a plan with many moving parts, as we say. There’s not much we can do about it due to the horse-trading nature of most legislatively created programs, but still. That doesn’t help.

3. But no, people, the ‘way it was’ before the us attempted to provide health care wasn’t sunshine and roses, either. Just because things were fine for you doesn’t mean it was fine for society, unless you are Margaret Thatcher, and you plan to live your life in such a way that you die disliked even by your own party and appointees. (I think that’s a fair statement.) Your political and economic community matters even if the only political factors you care about are taxation and liberty.

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Finally, good reporting on an adjunct’s life and death

Attention conservation notice: if the humanities really aren’t about job training, that holds for the PhD level of training as well as undergraduate.

Earlier this year, most of us probably read Death of an Adjunct when it was swirling around the internet a month or so go. Writing for Slate, LV Anderson opens up the story by doing actual journalism (whoa! So refreshing when that happens!) about the life of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Instead of the victim and object of pity the first op-ed portrayed her to be, Anderson gets at Vojtko and paints her in many dimensions. It has been a very long time since I’ve seen writing I admired more than this in Slate. There are three takeaway points

1. Margaret Mary Vojtko lived as she wanted to live, within the constraints of gender, her income, and unjust institutions. She seemed to have been fiercely independent and wanted what she wanted and didn’t want what she didn’t want. She appears to be have been a difficult old woman. This difficulty does not, I should note, ameliorate the obligations that the rest of us have to care about her and support her. It just makes more real the idea that caring and supporting is difficult, and contemporary society makes it easy–very easy–for people to shrug off the opportunities they have to help and care. Duquesne’s policies are lousy, but she had family, too, who “didn’t speak to her for months.”

2. There are multiple Catholic approaches to poverty, but the university here epitomizes one that social policy scholars have critiqued. Sigrid Kahl argues that institutional Catholicism, with its focus on works, sees nothing wrong with those who are impoverished. So unlike the stigma associated with poverty in American and English protestants (God hates you and loves me!), those raised in Catholic tradition happily offer charity to individuals. But the institution does not necessarily work for the major structural reforms that serve to alleviate poverty. (See Kahl, S. (2005). The religious roots of modern poverty policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant traditions compared. Archives Européennes de Sociologie (European Journal of Sociology) 46(1), 91-126.)

3. Adjunct unions can make a difference in their pay and benefits packages.

Unstated throughout is something I really wish to note: nobody pays any real attention to the oversupply of PhDs in the humanities even as they remark upon it (as is done here), and even though Margaret Mary Votjko herself did not hold a PhD. That is, not only are there more PhDs than open jobs, but there are people like Votjko with master’s degrees also in that job pool. That’s impossible. So what’s the answer? I’ve heard various answers from various quarters, and none of them have to me to seemed like good answers, a lot like the unionization answer. Unionizing vis-a-vis an oversupply doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy in the long term, but I could be wrong, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong here.

One answer is that programs in the humanities should accept fewer candidates.

But which schools should eliminate their programs is a tough question. Let the Ivy leagues keep their programs to populate all the other programs, since those are the only places that produce people who get jobs? There’s some value to diversity. And no department wants to give up their program as it signals a loss of status in the hierarchy of universities. There are many takes on why departments hold onto PhD programs, and none of them make sense to me, as most PhD programs lose money for departments and universities. But I have to admit that PhD education overall is still a bit of mystery to me, despite my having one and working in academic departments. One claim is that departments couldn’t function without PhD students: professors supposedly steal students’ work and use them as veritable slave labor.

I personally have experienced none of this. I worked with Randy Crane at UCLA, and he was lovely to me even though I was a difficult young woman. I can see how lab work might turn exploitative, but for me, students take up time and resources and I don’t actively seek them, wonderful though they are. Instead, I am confronted with young people who love the subject and want to have more education in it, and would love to do the job I do. Denying them those things because they may not get a job at the end seems awfully paternalistic and even mean to me. Why can’t a person give themselves that time and a shot at their dream job, even if that shot is a long shot? Nobody is telling people their sons and daughters shouldn’t have music lessons, lest they later yearn to be musician in a hard labor market for musicians.

Instead, humanists create a contradiction in their own arguments for the humanities in their own expectations about jobs. Humanists routinely argue about the inherent value of the humanities–and I agree wholeheartedly–for undergrads. It’s not job training, we say. But then, at the end, if there is no secure university job for humanity PhDs, it’s tragic rather than expected. Mary Margaret Votjko strikes me as exactly fitting this contradiction. She also studied nursing. She could have pursued nursing as a job and her various interests in languages as a vocation had she really wanted economic security. She didn’t do that because she wanted what she wanted.

It strikes me as much more reasonable to caution people about how hard it is to get and keep university jobs, let them make their choices, and also encourage the idea that the avocation of the humanities is not your job ticket even with a PhD.

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