Category Archives: academic life

not a productivity crisis, not a cost crisis, but a disinvestment crisis

After my exchange a while ago with Yglesias here and here, I’ve continued to mull over Matt Y’s neo-liberal “solutions” to higher ed, which still seem entirely focused on questions of “standardization,” “productivity” and “delivery systems.”

The irony, of course, is that at this point in time, I can’t think of any viable political movement, left or right, that would want to associate itself with “market forces,” “market efficiencies,” or the wisdom of CEOs, besides nominally Democratic economists and soon-to-be-former university system presidents like Mark Yudof.  And, of course, Matt Yglesias, who still believes, for reasons he has never been able to explain, that markets remain a terrific way to think about higher education.

It is in this context, where the conventional wisdom seems never to consult those who actually work in higher education, that I really enjoyed Michael Konczal’s  WaPo article about the “21st Century Retreat from Higher Education.”  Konczal’s point is that the current crisis of higher ed derives not from the behavior of students or faculty, but the mutually reinforcing behavior of politicians and administrators.  Disinvestment and privatization have gone hand in hand to render our educational institutions unrecognizable in terms of their educational missions.

Konczal’s overview, which deserves to be read in full, serves as an antidote to the  conventional wisdom about these issues, because he lays out some of the most salient issues before us:

  • that the events of the last few years represent a worldwide retreat from a goal of universal access to higher ed, or a notion of education as a public good;
  • that privatizing administrators like the UC system’s Mark Yudof represent a large part of the problem, both in terms of the management of those systems, and in their credibility as stewards of the public good in this political climate;
  • that it is politicians’, regents’, and administrators’ initiatives towards disinvestment in, and privatization of, higher ed, and not runaway “costs” (in the form of faculty salary or financial aid) that are shifting the expenses of research universities onto the backs of students and their parents;
  • that these moves disproportionately favor the marketable sciences over the humanities, but only to the extent that their research products can be quickly sold off to insiders for profit;
  • that the liberal arts are currently being redefined under this regime  as a kind of branding device, only this time as a bait-and-switch that uses the language of the liberal arts to lure students into ever-growing debts for lectures or distance ed courses that bear little relation to the ideals of a non-vocational liberal education.

It is the ubiquity of debt that is  undermining the language of the liberal arts nowadays, more surely than any conservative critique, because the long-term burden it creates makes it increasingly difficult to argue that a liberal arts education represents a form of “openness” or “freedom” rather than self-constraint.  But the decision to treat education as a matter of market-based “preference” is itself a “preference” we may wish to rethink, in light of the spectacularly bad decisions and dangerous consequences of market behavior over the last few years.



How Professors Think

Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment studies the process of evaluating and awarding grants in multi-disciplinary committees.  In this well-written and relentlessly object study (in the sense that Lamont has no ax to grind as far as I can tell and treats her subjects with respect), the author mainly I think is offering a counterpoint to Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that academic awards constitute a system of self-reproduction.  Instead, Lamont finds that even though evaluators certainly see the application through particular lenses, they nevertheless in general make a sincere effort to discover quality.  This process, however, takes place contextually through a series of negotiations in which a variety of factors shape decisions.  But while Lamont argues that the fate of each proposal is shaped by some amount of luck and that certain factors such as gender, location, and prestige of the applicant’s institution can work either for them or against them, faith in the fairness of the system is crucial to its operation.

One point that struck me was the importance of prestige, which shouldn’t be a surprise although it’s interesting to “overhear” committee deliberations that accept prestige markers so wholeheartedly.  While committees seemed to make efforts to distribute awards across a variety of institutions when it came to borderline cases, a prestigious institution and letters from prestigious scholars seemed to make a pretty big difference.  Part of the reason for this seemed to be the desire of committee members to impress each other as they engaged in deliberations.  At the same time, Lamont points out, this does not necessarily make the whole process a “fix” since employment by a prestigious institution and approval by a prestigious scholar can be genuine evidence of accomplishment.  Further, it is only one factor among many.

Lamont makes one point of particular relevance to literary scholars:  in multi-disciplinary competitions applicants from our field fare poorly.  (Historians, by contrast, do very well.)  She does not attribute this to a general disrespect for literary study but instead to a “crisis of legitimation.”  She characterizes literary scholarship as a field in decline, evidenced in part by its decrease in the production of PhDs.  (This was interesting to read, of course, since so much of the discussion around MLA has been about overproduction.  Just to be clear, though, she takes the decline as an indicator of the state of the field and does not necessarily recommend changing it.)   I have often assumed that most fields have key points of disagreement, but this turns out to be less true than one would think, according to Lamont.  Literary scholars who serve as judges remain in her observation deeply divided over both theory and multiculturalism.  Since the field doesn’t seem to have a central, agree-upon standard of quality, applications for funding are less likely to be successful.

Of course, we have heard a lot lately about the troubled nature of our field.  Usually this comes from two different directions: on the one hand, many call attention to the employment crisis, the increasing reliance on adjuncts, new burdens being placed on faculty, and decreasing undergraduate enrollments.  On the other hand, traditionalists object to the collapse of a particular cannon, interdisciplinarity, and identity politics.  Lamont’s study, though, offers something of a fresh perspective.  Without focusing on the economic issues or entering the canon wars, she sees a crisis of legitimation that seems to be damaging in a different, less-discussed context.


back to school special: on being postacademic

I found this post discussed at Perverse Egalitarianism, and found it very brave for this writer to lay out his view of the systemic unhappiness, emotional disengagement, and micropolitics of departmental life.  This passage rings especially true for me, when I watch our junior faculty learning about our departmental and institutional history:

The scariest thing a young faculty member experiences is not, as is conventionally supposed, the “need to produce” and therefore her/his experience is not aided by the “mentorship” of an experienced scholar.  Rather, the young scholar’s fear stems from the fact that no one in the department is talking to each other about scholarship.  Faculty are socializing, going out, schmoozing all the time, and the ideas that supposedly drive the work they do are not being discussed.  The mentor, if assigned, will try to teach the young faculty member how to navigate the minefield of the department, but that is exactly what is alienating. .  The mentor, especially when well-intentioned, may be the model for what is wrong, not an aid in coping.  Indeed, if the mentor is really similar to the young faculty member in terms of ideology or social identity, the mentor may be a model for what the young faculty member does not wish to become.

This was one of the surprises for me when I crossed the line and became tenured: how hard it is to mentor people in a way that doesn’t just invite them to join our shared sense of alienation.  The PE comments are worth scanning, too, especially this one:

There is an odd disjunction in the academic. I have never encountered so many supposed-to-be-happy sad persons, all working in a rather lively youth-embued enivornment. To put it to a polemical extreme, it is as if Kafka has written about how Disneyland is run. In my brief time in academia I encountered people largely disappointed with themselves, frustrated with their position, or happy to the meager degree that they were able to exercise a very small measure of local power (however benignly thought of). It seems an industry of personal unhappiness in the most banal of senses, very much for the reasons the author above describes. A Tantalus world of well-intentioned, ideal, intelligent people.

A bit further down, Shahar, the initial poster had this to say (the thread  goes on long past this point, but this makes for a good full stop):

I’ve said it before, but ultimately, pushing all the logic of self-declared, self-important “projects” along with the self-serving “global” ethics of the profession aside (eating berries in Zagreb and all that), at the end of the day the best we can do is fuck with our students and cook up interesting paths for thinking. And I mean that in the best of ways.


higher ed policy blogging round-up

For those who care about such things:


i will be finished when i am dead . . .

This may sound grim, but let me explain.  I found a link to this Notional Slurry post on the back end of the blog, where I sometimes  see how others arrive at this site.  I found its comparison between the perspectives of specialists and generalists compelling, since today’s the day when, ugh, I hand in another year-end review of my activities .  There’s a certain New Agey quality to this post, as with most of the stuff that comes out of the programmer/geeky side of the web, but I think its point about the gap between the “intellectual life” and one’s job description still holds true.  I also like this point about the way that “delay” is a product of others’ expectations about performance:

In what way am I delayed by paying attention to more, different, inarguably interesting stuff? Gratifying stuff?


Am I delayed? Don’t be stupid. I’m busy. The only person experiencing “delay” was, if she existed, the customer wanting the thing I was doing at the workbench originally.

By this argument, the only real “delays” are experienced by the people who call them by that name. A delay is something that comes with an obligation to perform.

I find myself on both sides of this divide, because I appreciate the focus and high-level conversation of the specialist, but there are times when I feel that such concerns are not what I am interested in, but only what I am supposed to be interested in.  Sometimes distraction really is distraction, but I like NS’s idea of trying harder to find the common thread that strings together one’s “distractions,” to see where your real interests lie, and to pursue those interests more directly, with all the concentration one can manage.  If the book-form is not completely obsolete, it must represent a sustained record of thought reflecting (upon) one’s real interests, one’s real concerns, one’s real insights, offered in a way that will make them useful to others.  Life is too short otherwise.


adela on the new forms of socializing

Apropos of our latest Facebook discussion, Adela at twofold talks about the new technologies of socializing that are out there nowadays, and why Facebook still bothers her.

Some of this sounds interesting to me, but still, my reaction is ehhh.  I spend so much time in real meetings that virtual encounters of any sort lose their appeal.  I don’t really need any more interactions.  But I think that these technologies become more appealing once people you know from other contexts are available online.


The Last Professors

Last week in New York Times Stanley Fish wrote about Frank Donoghue’s recent book, The Last Professors. Fish doesn’t so much review the book as summarize it, noting briefly and unhelpfully at the end that he timed his life perfectly so as not to be shut out of the professoriate. I won’t repeat the summary, but it’s worth reading, as is Donoghue’s book.

I would only add a couple of points that Donoghue raises but Fish doesn’t engage. To me, one of Donoghue’s most vexing suggestions is the connection he proposes between the research mission in universities and their current corporatization. Research expectations ballooned, he suggests, as universities competed for ranking scores. In some ways, Donoghue astutely notes, this pressure became particularly intense at state schools that could not rely on traditional forms of prestige. (As part of their alternative they also “branded” themselves through sports teams.) This research inflation certainly rings true from my own experience: when I started as an assistant profession at Florida State University in 1990, one could earn tenure on a book OR a series of articles, an option that had completely dissolved by the time I left twelve years later. Junior faculty, in fact, in the old days were encouraged to write articles so as not to put all their eggs in one basket.

At this year’s MLA, the Delegate Assembly voted to request that the Executive Council form a committee to address the situation of increasing reliance on adjuncts. In the many discussions I have seen over adjunct labor, the issue of the research mission rarely comes up. But if you follow Donoghue’s argument, there is a direct connection: the research mission increased demands on the faculty on a competitive model. This and the excessive reliance on contingent labor are part of the same demand by a professional class of administrators for a corporate-style “constant improvement,” in one case for prestige and in the other case for cutting costs.

But even though Donoghue is distressingly convincing that these developments come out of the same educational-industrial complex, it also seems that at some point those two forces would collide. Unless the climate changes radically, any institution that abandons research will lose considerable prestige. Donoghue’s answer, in part, is that certain kinds of institutions have indeed stopped competing for prestige and focus exclusively on offering practical skills in exchange for tuition (Phoenix University, for example). But it’s hard to imagine this happening at more elite institutions. Universities and colleges between Harvard and Phoenix, then, will continue, I imagine, to be pulled between the two models, maintaining at least some tenured/tenure-track positions to advance institutional ambitions. Further, the contingent workers who teach most of the classes will need still some kind of advanced degree, so there will be the need for at least a few tenured professors to teach in graduate programs.

Of course, the model of a tiny graduate faculty enabled by a mass of underpaid adjuncts is cold comfort. Some unlikely alliances might be in order. While a speed-up in the research production line may have had less to do with the ideal of advancing knowledge and more with attempts to move rankings, the possibility of becoming more Harvard-like and less Phoenix-like might continue to appeal to some administrators, some parents, and some students. Further, while learning outcomes assessment has undeniable ties to corporate-style quality management, recent studies have suggested that, as one would expect, students taught in departments where many instructors do not have secure positions learn less. This case can only be made, however, by studying outcomes.

For Donoghue, though, we have already reached the point of no return. What do others think?

Even though Fish doesn’t offer much of a response to Donoghue’s findings, it is still interesting to see this issue discussed in such a high-profile venue.