“In the Ghetto”

The best student I’ve ever had will be starting graduate school this fall. He’s been admitted directly into the Ph.D. program at Flagship U in Real City, and he has the talent and work ethic to have a much more impressive career than mine, if that’s what he wants, and more importantly, if someone gives him the chance.

I’m conflicted about it, in some ways. I have no doubt that he belongs in the academy — but I have significant doubt that anyone belongs there, these days. The odds of getting a tenure-track gig in the humanities are as thin as a loan shark’s sympathy, and grow thinner each year. We’ve seen cohort after cohort of bright, talented, passionate people get tossed into a sort of shadow academy, the world of the adjunct. These people (many, again, as bright and talented as I am) exist from term to term, from contract to contract, making a few thousand a course, if that. They’re the migrant workers of academia. The waste of ability is tragic, both for the adjuncts themselves and for their students, who are taught by people spread far too thinly to give them the attention they warrant.

There’s no indication things are likely to get better, but there are some ideas floating around that could help. Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black examine a few of them, and suggest that the road to a humane academic employment structure should (and perhaps must) pass through the boardrooms where the trustees of our colleges and universities conduct their business. I agree, if for no other reason than that trustees can apply pressure to administrators (who profit from cheap, disposable labor) that the tenured faculty (who also benefit from exploited adjunct labor in numerous instances) cannot. What is it the kids say? Oh, yeah — read the whole thing. Maybe one of these days, my star student will thank you for it.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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8 Responses to “In the Ghetto”

  1. Jeff says:

    Prospective grad students really should attend a couple of their field’s big professional conferences. For me, Kalamazoo in the mid-1990s was depressing but enlightening: I saw that if and when I hit the job market, I’d be competing with hundreds of people who were more fluent in the relevant languages, had better mentors, already knew the right people, attended more prestigious schools, etc. (I also got to see that terrifying stratum of clueless grad students who consider themselves brilliant even though they somehow fail to notice just how much competition they face…)

  2. Susan E. says:

    I wish I had not read this post, especially after a horrendous conference experience. My spouse and I pray that one of us will get something full time and with health insurance.

    • profmondo says:

      I hope y’all do as well — although I enjoy seeing you at lunches. The two of you are smart, funny, and talented, and it’s wrong that you and so many like you (and like me, and like my student) are dependent on being noticed by the right person in the right place at the right time. Hang in there, and take what comfort you can in the idea — no, in the fact — that win or lose this round, you both are just as good as the folks who do grab the brass rings.

  3. ricki says:

    Yeah, I think people need to be more aware, as they’re approaching the end of their BA or BS degree, of what employment options are out there (Though right now, the answer seems to be: not much. No matter what field).

    I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea that some have pushed, which is: let’s shut down most of the graduate programs in the country, to ensure that only the shiniest of shining stars go to grad school. I’ve known a few people who didn’t “need” an M.S. or Ph.D., but who were in a position to pursue one (one person owned his own consulting business and wanted the degree for his own feeling of achievement, another was the spouse of a prof, who, once her kids were grown and out of the house, decided she really wanted a Master’s after all…)

    Irrational optimism does tend to spring a great deal in 20-somethings, though, and maybe we do need to do something about convincing people of the real problems of the academic job market right now. (I really, really hate how many departments have gone to “disposable” adjunct labor. Not just because of how the adjuncts are treated…but in a lot of cases they are getting people who are not as qualified as a more “permanent” faculty member would be, or in some cases, it seems, people who don’t give as much of a hoot. And sadly, my own institution – most of the Comp I and Comp II classes are adjunct-staffed, and I’ve heard complaints from students about a few of the adjuncts.)

    I don’t know. In my blacker moods I wonder if there will even still BE institutions of higher learning in a few years, or if we’ll be down to places like Harvard and Yale and the really big state schools, and everyone else – students and profs – will be SOL. Which scares me, because I don’t really have a huge skill-set for earning money outside academia.

    “Will teach for food”?

  4. Jeff says:

    Ricki, the problem is, for more than a decade, the Internet has been abuzz with honest information (and revelatory personal narratives) about the risks of pursuing an academic career. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered these issues, both as straight news and in its opinion columns, while also offering searchable job listings that let you see the odds you face a few years down the road. A wide range of non-academic publications–the New York Times, USA Today, The Economist, the Boston Globe, the Village Voice, and others–have made the general public aware of both the surplus manpower in academia and the adjunctification that’s resulted.

    Still, no one cares. Parents don’t care that their kids are being taught by adjuncts; university administrators don’t care that they seem exploitative to the disgruntled souls who crow about this issue; and the waves of ostensibly intelligent young people who fling themselves at grad school never, ever end.

    I don’t know how all this is going to shake out in the years to come, but I think one of the saddest things about the whole mess is that easy access to information about academic careers and years of widespread public discussion haven’t made a lick of difference.

  5. dave schutz says:

    Who you know is – the professor you aspire to be. And, feel you could be. All of your intellectual ancestors made it into the academy. So, why shouldn’t you? Somebody will.

    I tend to think of academic as sort of like interior designer, or actor. Or tin-pot dictator. You see a lot of colonels attempting to march on the capitol, most get shot by the existing regime. A few turn out to be Castro, or Qaddafi and have thirty kids and a gold plated palace, Barbara Walters interviews. Many are called and few are chosen, and there will be a lot of wastage. Then there’s locksmith, or forensic accountant, or eighth grade math teacher – many more of those called make it through to the winner’s ring, but when the forensic accountant walks into the room, people don’t gasp and ask for autographs.

    There was a very brief period in the fifties, early sixties, when we were expanding our higher education system hugely, when everybody with a plausible PhD could get hired somewhere. And everybody starting out in a job made enough to afford an apartment. And the world was fresh and new. This was partly because the generation before had been laid low by Depression and World War, and the rest of the world had been bombed flat. So assumptions got reset about the way things ought to be.

    If you can’t possibly imagine being anything other than an academic, even with your eyes wide open that it’s one chance in eight, maybe it’s worth the gamble that you will, if you fail, end up scrabbling for a library check-out clerk job when you are forty, single, unmarriageable. If not, forensic accounting is a perfectly honorable thing to do, and it will probably support a three bedroom house and a spouse and a couple of kids.

  6. Pingback: Challenging the B.A.? | Professor Mondo

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