Academic Calvinism

by Henry on April 27, 2004

Eugene Volokh points to a very good Chronicle article on Invisible Adjunct’s decision to call it a day. The piece does an excellent job in capturing why her site was important. Adjunct faculty often find themselve systematically excluded from the collegial supports that allow tenured and tenure track faculty to chat, compare situations, and figure out common problems. It’s hard to engage in corridor talk when you’re a non-person. Invisible Adjunct’s site created a very real space for conversation.

As it happens, I was talking about Invisible Adjunct with friends this weekend, trying to figure out why so many tenured and tenure-track faculty are dismissive or hostile towards adjunct faculty. Some tenured or tenure track commenters on IA’s site were quite convinced that the distinction between adjuncts and tenure track faculty reflected the judgement of the market on their respective quality as academics. This is Max Weber’s thesis on the origins of capitalism replayed as farce. Weber argued that Calvinist theology provided capitalism’s tutelary spirit. Calvinist beliefs in predestination led believers to distinguish between the elect and the preterite – those who were destined to go to heaven, and those who were destined to go to hell. Because it was impossible to be sure whether they were going to ascend to paradise or to burn, Calvinists sought evidence that they were favoured by God through accumulating goods without consuming them. If you did well in worldly affairs, you could take this as a sign of God’s favour.

This may or may not be a good historical explanation. Still, it captures a set of attitudes expounded by some (although certainly not all) exponents of free markets. In many important respects, markets are political creations – they reflect differences in the bargaining power of different social groups. If you’re a freshly minted humanities Ph.D., even if you’re a wonderful humanities Ph.D., you’re going to have real trouble in finding a tenure track job because there are many, many others just like you. It’s easy for employers to exploit you – and you have relatively little recourse when they do. Some few get good jobs, but they’re lucky as well as talented. [1] It is almost certain that there are other, equally qualified individuals who don’t get jobs, simply because they didn’t get the lucky break (and lucky breaks are rare when you’re in a group with a systematically weak bargaining position).

The Calvinist illusion is that luck has nothing to do with it – markets reward virtue. Success in selling your wares is the only necessary proof of one’s innate superiority. I imagine that some tenured and tenure track professors are quite convinced that their privileged position is an appropriate reflection their academic virtue. Indeed, to the extent that most successful professors are good at what they do, they’re right – the problem is that there are almost certainly many others out there who are equally talented, but just haven’t gotten the breaks. Calvinist reasoning isn’t unique to academics (take a look at some of the comments in this thread to see it in its raw form). But it makes for lousy reasoning and self-serving arguments that markets produce the best possible outcomes in the best of all possible worlds (which isn’t to say that there aren’t more subtle and thoughtful arguments for free markets out there).

fn1. The centrality of luck to academic success – connecting with the right person at interview, getting friendly reviewers for an article in a good journal at the right stage of your career – is grossly underestimated.

{ 35 comments }

1

Marco 04.27.04 at 7:22 am

After slogging through an MA and a PhD at good schools and having had nothing but adjunct work offered to me, I’m doing a certificate of education this year. Which is proof I suppose of my lesser quality and resolve compared to higher-class beings, but at least when I get through the year I’ll get paid every week and even get a few benefits. This $8 000 per semester teaching, writing and marking a course for 80 people malarkey is just not on.

Time to write the book, I suppose.

2

des 04.27.04 at 11:29 am

But surely everyone knows by now that the underlying problem is irresponsible oversupply of PhDs in the humanities?

Since the institutions responsible for this dumping don’t foot the bill for it, and in fact benefit from the cheap labour they produce, the dumping isn’t going to stop any time soon, of course.

The argument that the marks should wise up is a forlorn one for all purposes other than self-righteousness – criminal gangs and show business all prosper from the an over-developed willingness to believe that _you_ are the special someone the world has been waiting for.

3

liberal japonicus 04.27.04 at 12:26 pm

But surely everyone knows by now that the underlying problem is irresponsible oversupply of PhDs in the humanities?

Nah, the underlying problem is that people don’t really want to grow up. (I realize this sounds a bit insulting, but bear with me for a minute) I remember an article that pointed out that a lot of these pizza and Red Bull powered dot.coms, where the fresh out of college workers basically slept at their offices, and the atmosphere was like the coolest dorm and this is part and parcel. University is often a great time, especially if you came from a place that didn’t have much in the way of intellectual stimulation, and a lot of us (I include myself in this) didn’t want to leave, so it is not simply weighing the earning potential, but also looking at the chance that one can keep living like a student.

This does not absolve the universities from their responsibility in the whole mess, utilizing a cheap labor pool while touching up donors to fund their endowment, but it makes it a bit more understandable why the ‘marks’ keep coming. In fact, it explains why so many people are willing to put up with a life of being an adjunct.

4

an american academic 04.27.04 at 2:14 pm

Based on my experience as a tenure-track academic at a large university in the US, I think the dismissive attitude tenured types often have toward adjuncts isn’t Calvinism, but the values of the modern academy. We’re taught that scholarship is everything and teaching should be an afterthought. Adjuncts (for the most part) just teach. As a result, adjuncts tend to have low value not because they are not worth as much in “the market” (something most academics don’t believe in anyway), but because they do the low value part of the job but not the high value part of the job.

5

Carl Caldwell 04.27.04 at 2:28 pm

Henry’s comments about the ill treatment of adjuncts and the role of luck in hiring are accurate. The comment by Des about the irresponsible oversupply of Ph.D.s is less convincing.

First, not everyone who receives a Ph.D. is a good job candidate. Luck may help determine which of those who have done good work happen to give a good interview or attract the attention of a search committee; luck won’t, in general, help those who have done substandard research or who show that they haven’t grasped what academic work is about. And into this latter group fall a good many applicants for academic positions.

Second, the jobs one is talking about here involve tenure–or what amounts to a commitment to secure pay throughout a person’s working life, and even more important a commitment to deal with this person, day in day out, for decades to come. “Oversupply” means that a department has some ability to avoid bringing a person for the next forty years without risking having a bad colleague–any more than the department has to in any case.

As Max Weber noted almost ninety years ago, hazard plays a major role in university appointments and one runs across mediocrities all too often in academic life. But he also wrote, somewhere, that the nature of the academic appointment makes competition for these jobs necessary. Conditions haven’t changed.

None of this contradicts the fact that many universities employ excellent teachers and researchers as ill-paid adjuncts–and indeed, that many large, public institutions in particular use their graduate students to teach huge courses at low pay. Tenured faculty, graduate students, donors, and undergraduate students all have good reason to complain about these practices, and should.

6

an american academic 04.27.04 at 2:29 pm

One caveat– I don’t teach in the humanities, so perhaps my experience is not representative.

7

David Salmanson 04.27.04 at 3:15 pm

I have to take issue with Liberal Japonicus on Grad School being a continuation of undergrad, at least in the Humanities. At most high powered programs in the US, those who think it is just more of undergrad leave after the first year. Sites like IA and others make it abundantly clear that it is not a continuation of undergrad. Most of the people who finish their degrees never bought into this in the first place, and almost all were hoping to get academic jobs, publish, teach, advise in some combination.

8

zaoem 04.27.04 at 3:25 pm

I accept the notion that luck has something to do with academic success but fail to see how this excludes academic ability as a powerful determinant or how it makes academics calvinistic if they believe that their ability is what got them where it did. Surely, getting jobs is not just the luck of the draw, but rather a function of ability, personal and social qualities, connections, some other systematic factors and a healthy portion of random error. Are you more Calvinistic the more you believe that your success is related to the systematic portion of this function?

9

James 04.27.04 at 4:00 pm

“But surely everyone knows by now that the underlying problem is irresponsible oversupply of PhDs in the humanities?”

This is only part of the equation (a big part no doubt). It is a combination of *oversupply* of PhDs and *undersupply* of tenure jobs (by this I mean the choice of utilizing around 50% adjuncts/part-timers instead of fulltime/TT positions.)

If humanities departments increased the split to something around 75/25 (tenure to adjunct) and limited PhD output to what they can afford to fund only, this might go a long way to at least reduce the job crisis.

I admit that perhaps this is not possible given the current financial situation of universities (esp. state ones), but it seems to be something we should be working towards.

10

shai 04.27.04 at 4:11 pm

OT but:

” … remember an article that pointed out that a lot of these pizza and Red Bull powered dot.coms, where the fresh out of college workers basically slept at their offices”

that always happens when there is a rush to be first to market. young people just happen to be more willing to go along with unreasonable deadlines. still, i have seen 60 year old product managers sleeping under their desk at 5am. it just happens more often when your stock options might be worth a small fortune.

11

Henry 04.27.04 at 5:18 pm

bq. I accept the notion that luck has something to do with academic success but fail to see how this excludes academic ability as a powerful determinant or how it makes academics calvinistic if they believe that their ability is what got them where it did.

The point I’m trying to make is that many successful academics fail to acknowledge that there are other equally talented people who didn’t get their lucky breaks. And indeed view the adjunctification of the academy as just deserts – those who work as adjuncts wouldn’t have been able to hack it as tenure track academics. In some cases this may be true, but in other cases it certainly does not, and the implicit division between tenured and adjuncts maps very neatly onto Calvinist notions of the saved and the damned.

12

Ralph Luker 04.27.04 at 6:13 pm

Poor John Calvin gets blamed for lots of things. Now this. The bracing theological underpinnings are rather fully washed away and — voila — all we have left is the drek of presumed merit, entitlement, and grievance. I think Luther got it right. Works do not avail to salvation. It is shere unmerited grace. Knowing that, I work.

13

Lindsay Beyerstein 04.27.04 at 6:29 pm

I have a practical question. Can an adjunct pull herself out of limbo by publishing?

I imagine Invisible Adjunct(s) trapped in a hand-to-mouth cycle which leaves no time for her own research. But surely a PhD should grow stale when a candidate hasn’t published anything in years.

But let’s say an unusually energetic adjunct keeps writing and publishing. Would such a person stand a better chance of breaking the Adjunct cycle?

14

chun the unavoidable 04.27.04 at 7:03 pm

Most professors publish little, if anything. It’s quite interesting how few people seem to realize this.

15

Lindsay Beyerstein 04.27.04 at 8:19 pm

Publication is critical to hiring and promotion. Some people slack off once they get tenure, but that’s another issue. Those “slackers” and their publishing colleagues serve on the hiring committees that determine who stays in adjunct limbo and who ascends to the tenure track.

Adjuncts should organize, not just to demand better pay and benefits, but also to create opportunities for the professional growth and advancement of their members. The adjunct system is especially cruel because it forces people out of research. These people become invisible because research is the source of visibility.

A strong adjunct union could sponsor fellowships, stipends, travel grants, etc. This kind of support exists for grad students (who will soon be fresh PhDs competing with the adjuncts.) The challenge is to transform the image of adjuncts from “failures” to “farm teams.” Not everyone can go right into the major leagues. Some people have to work their way up. We need to modify the system in order to help adjuncts remain competitive while they wait for the right tenure track opportunity.

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liberal japonicus 04.27.04 at 9:56 pm

I didn’t mean to suggest that grad school was a continuation of undergrad in terms of educational experience: rather, I am suggesting that it is the ‘life’ students (and faculty) lead that is attractive. At a lot of places, the wage for tenured faculty is not all that great, so we have to try and understand why there continues to be such a massive oversupply of candidates.

While I don’t want this to be taken as blaming the victim, there has to be a reason why people will work so hard for the relatively limited chance of success. A lot has to do with luck and this behavior is partly a sophisticated version of what drives people to Vegas, but there is an attractiveness to the schedule, the constant interaction with people dealing with a subject that you feel in control over, the intellectual stimulation. I think it was Bertrand Russell who commented that there was a period in life that was downright childish when one was convinced they (and their circle) were always right and everyone had it all wrong, but if one had never experienced that, they had never really experienced true intellectual happiness.

Unfortunately, this sort of analysis can be taken by those who are either outside the academy or tenured within it and held up as justification for not changing anything, which I don’t think should happen. But if we think that the situation is simply imposed by the university employers, we miss a big part of the dynamic.

17

Nasi Lemak 04.27.04 at 10:54 pm

It’s not just that a continuation of life in the academy is appealing to someone who has been a successful undergraduate student. I think, also, life outside of it can seem less appealing from inside the academy than it really is; hard to evaluate how difficult or how demanding a job in industry or finance or publishing or whatever will actually be. It’s also difficult for undergraduates to see what academic life is really like for faculty; I know I had, and I know my current undergraduates have, a bizarrely idyllic view of what actually goes on. So for all of these reasons I think it can be a line of least resistance to get carried away with your degree, end up doing several, maybe even get a job and get published, and never have really thought it through. And hence no surprise over-recruitment to graduate degrees is quite easy to maintain.

18

chun the unavoidable 04.27.04 at 11:06 pm

I’m astonished by the ignorance of actually existing conditions here. Obviously, most professors publish little–if anything–their entire academic careers. Most institutions of higher learning require little, if any, publications from their faculty for tenure; and, of those who do, publications decline drastically once tenure and then promotion to full professor is achieved.

19

Timothy Burke 04.27.04 at 11:18 pm

Publication norms vary widely between disciplines and even more widely between tiers or hierarchies of academic institutions. Taken over the totality of academia, Chun’s characterization is right; for the top two or so competitive tiers of institutions in many disciplines, it’s not right.

In any event, publication is not enough to break an adjuncting cycle. In fact, publication, even scholarly publication, undertaken even partially outside of regular employment by an academic institution will probably be ignored by most search committees even if the work itself is quite excellent. The average search committee uses a bunch of undiscussed filters to discard the maximum applications with the minimum effort, and these include “number of years on the job market”, “lack of a current academic post”. Notoriously candidates who apply for posts without an academic “home” somewhere are desperate to get access to someone’s letterhead–they will often seek non-paying fellowships that offer nothing besides letterhead and library privileges in order to be sited somewhere legitimate, even while they may also be adjuncting busily away elsewhere.

20

Lindsay Beyerstein 04.28.04 at 1:16 am

Timothy, thank you for that honest assessment. These practices are scandalous. I’m a junior grad student, so I guess I’m still pretty naive. Nobody has ever warned me about this abject discrimination against adjuncts. I knew that people who didn’t get tenure track jobs faced an uphill battle. But I assumed it was just because their research was no longer supported.

I would have thought that search committees would be impressed by a candidate who kept publishing while slogging away in the adjunct wilderness. Why isn’t it enough to publish in peer-reviewed journals? This worse than Calvinism–if getting published by the Elect isn’t considered presumptive evidence of being among their number.

21

Matt Weiner 04.28.04 at 1:22 am

I believe and hope (for selfish reasons) that there’s a big difference here between adjunct positions and non-tenure track positions–as a visitor I have an office, access to letterhead, etc., and hope that my applications don’t get automatically circular-filed. (I also get benefits and a salary that is enough to support myself and my cat.) Any people with hiring committee experience willing to talk about any differences here?

22

Bill Tozier 04.28.04 at 1:45 am

On oversupply: When I was starting graduate school the last time (back in the early 1990s), there was an explicit Silver Platter argument offered up by the Dean/President who welcomed us to Penn. We were the generation of students destined to replace the fading tenured demographic, the dead wood leaving by one route or another.

Instead, we were the dead wood. Or something. The attrition rate in my cohort in the Biology Department was… hmmm, counting me and a couple of transfer students who came in late, about 85%. Of the few that I kept up with who graduated, one is tenure-track and two have disappeared.

My response, in hindsight: Thank god they kicked me out.

Of course, I write this on the eve of returning to grad school. But this time… well, let’s say that the negotiated terms are turning out to be different for somebody like me. As a friend told me recently, hearing my evangelical threats about Changing Things: I’m signing up to try to revolutionize the meat-grinder from the inside….

Some of us never learn…. (“I ran into a door. It’s nothing.”) Ahem.

On Lindsay’s naivete: I often tell young grad students of my acquaintance: Always visualize starting grad students as inner-city kids practicing to be basketball stars. That’s almost exactly the correct picture socially, statistically and economically….

23

Timothy Burke 04.28.04 at 3:42 am

We had the “there’s going to be a wave of retirements” speech too in 1989. And I think it was sincerely meant–it was based on a common body of information and projection that most grad professors had seen. Little did they know that what was coming when people retired is that positions would either not be filled at all, or would be filled with adjuncts.

Matt, yes, I think for many search committees, there is a big difference between someone on a 1 or 3-year contract to teach a regular load who has a presence in a department and an adjunct. And there’s a social difference, too–contract professors are often treated where they work as peers, as “real people”; adjuncts are not.

24

Do I sound bitter? 04.28.04 at 6:39 am

I am a tenured professor in a large humanities department at a top ten University. I went into the profession because my parents were academics and because I did very well in my undergraduate classes, so my professors strongly encouraged me and gave me some palaver about how mediated the working world was anyway. So I went to grad school, did well, got a great job, got tenure. I am now 36. I am completely burned out, exhausted, fried–in a deep almost soul-shattering way. I worked like hell to get tenure, but the life I now lead involves a whole lot of grading student papers; fending off attacks from my bitter and shitty tenured colleagues, all of whom act like big babies because no one can fire them; endless meetings about mind-numbing administrative matters; and very little actual intellectual exchange with the aforementioned shitty baby colleagues or with anyone else for that matter because we’re all too damned busy and burned-out. Oh, and have I mentioned that my salary is about what it would have been if I had become a low-level financial analyst right out of college? Also because there is no market per se I can’t just go get another job, so my salary will go up incredibly slowly if at all. So if any of you reading this are thinking of going to graduate school in the humanities, stop. Lash yourself to the mast. Do anything else–law, business, publishing, daytrading, retail. Get a job. The life you think you want to lead in the academy doesn’t exist.

25

Do I sound bitter? 04.28.04 at 6:39 am

I am a tenured professor in a large humanities department at a top ten University. I went into the profession because my parents were academics and because I did very well in my undergraduate classes, so my professors strongly encouraged me and gave me some palaver about how mediated the working world was anyway. So I went to grad school, did well, got a great job, got tenure. I am now 36. I am completely burned out, exhausted, fried–in a deep almost soul-shattering way. I worked like hell to get tenure, but the life I now lead involves a whole lot of grading student papers; fending off attacks from my bitter and shitty tenured colleagues, all of whom act like big babies because no one can fire them; endless meetings about mind-numbing administrative matters; and very little actual intellectual exchange with the aforementioned shitty baby colleagues or with anyone else for that matter because we’re all too damned busy and burned-out. Oh, and have I mentioned that my salary is about what it would have been if I had become a low-level financial analyst right out of college? Also because there is no market per se I can’t just go get another job, so my salary will go up incredibly slowly if at all. So if any of you reading this are thinking of going to graduate school in the humanities, stop. Lash yourself to the mast. Do anything else–law, business, publishing, daytrading, retail. Get a job. The life you think you want to lead in the academy doesn’t exist.

26

Marco 04.28.04 at 9:34 am

Dude, you sound twice as bitter as I do!

27

Zizka 04.28.04 at 4:17 pm

I was a regular at IA. Basically, reading IA led me to forget about the PhD. I’m somewhat of an anomaly in having published in refereed journals without one. My guess is that IA would not improved her hiring chances with publications unless one publication created a tremendous buzz. I’ve actually thought of ghost-writing stuff for ambitious career-track people who want to get some numbers on the board.

The fine points of the reasons for the attitudes of the tenured (or some of them) toward the non-tenured are unimportant. The haves normally feel contempt for the have-nots, and any ideal whatsoever will do to justify the contempt. In the old days, someone might derive his whole (arrogant) identity from the fact that his great-grandfather had been awarded a large estate for winning a major battle.

The restructuring of academia via adjunctification has various causes / motives including oversupply. One issue I don’t see raised enough is that this amounts to a serious weakening of the University’s committment to fostering scholarship, as opposed to just teaching.

When right-wingers talk about the arrogance and complacency of the university elite, I routinely defend the university, but I understand what the right-wingers are saying. Because of tenure, the university (more than any other institution in our society except, I suppose, The Supreme Court) is dominated by invulnerable and unchallengable statusses. And pushing the argument to the limit, I’d say that there are plenty of Scalias in the system.

My other somewhat-related pet idea was that professionalization, restriction of access, and the dictatorship of hiring committees ahve led to a methodological narrowing to orthodoxy of many areas of interest to me, above all philosophy.

28

Lindsay Beyerstein 04.28.04 at 7:55 pm

This is for “Do I Sound Bitter?” You make a lot of great points, but II think you’re overlooking some of the advantages of academic life.

I went out and got a job in advertising. One year out, I make a better living today than I would as a tenured faculty member The road ahead is a smooth series of promotions. I’m told I’ll never have to worry about finding work again. (I’m not so naive as to believe all the puffery of my colleagues, who are, after all hired salesmen. But the gist is plausible.) This is an easy, amusing, stable career. So why am I desperate to get back into academia?

Because I love my subject. I love teaching. I want to get paid to write and teach about things that interest me. I’m willing to make sacrifices in order to do it. The academic life is deeply meaningful to me. My day job is just fluff. (I’m NOT saying that all non-academic life is fluff, or that academia is globally better or more noble or whatever. That would be absurd!) I’m just saying that being a professor, for all its faults and disadvantages, is closer to my ideal of the good life than any other alternative.

I know marking student essays is a drag, but at least you get to pick what they write about, and set the standards by which you grade them. Endless meetings with pissy colleagues? You’ll find those anywhere. In fact, most white collar jobs seem to consist entirely of attending these meetings. Attacks? You’ve got tenure, so at least your colleagues are scheming to get you fired, as they often to in the corporate world.

I’m not naive about the daily grind of academic life. My dad is a professor who has worked 14 hours a day, 6 days a week for 25 years. He swears he wouldn’t quit if he won the lottery, and I believe him. Nobody would consider his life idyllic, but he’s probably the happiest person I know.

29

Rana 04.28.04 at 10:25 pm

I’ve bookmarked this post over at the new Invisible Adjunct channel:

http://topicexchange.com/t/invisible_adjunct/

30

do I sound bitter? 04.28.04 at 11:29 pm

Thank you to Lindsay Beyerstein for your thoughtful and upbeat response.

I think it is perfectly rational to pursue an academic position outside the humanities, although the job markets in sciences are dismal. But if teaching and writing are what you like (and I love them), then the legal academy is an excellent bet. Your starting pay will be much higher, and your chances of getting a job much better. Go to law school, clerk for a judge or two, and then apply for jobs. I think your father must be a saint. I look around at my colleagues, the ones in their 40’s and 50’s, and see a group of very disillusioned angry unhappy people–people who feel that life really hasn’t matched their expectations. They are so smart, have worked so hard, know so much, so why are they grinding along on their pitiful salaries, living like graduate students, and putting up with constant hazing by colleagues and administrators? Many of them cling to the anti-worldly pieties that got them into the profession in the first place, but those pieties sort of sound ridiculous since the profession is no less worldly than any other. Some of them just drink. Some go off the deep end altogether. I truly do not want to end up a bitter mean crazy drunk, so I try hard to focus on the things I love doing, like teaching which is, yes, a wonderful wonderful thing. Good luck.

31

Charles Rostkowski 04.29.04 at 11:21 pm

I am amazed that this graduate school scam is still going on. I went through the meat grinder in the early ’70s and quit a PhD degree program in history at a second tier school in 1973. I believe only 3 of the 10 who started with me stayed on to get a degree and find jobs. Most of us saw at the time that we were slave labor and held low opinions of the graduate school faculty so we fnally gave up. I still have a copy of the letter I wrote to the prof who asked me why I was leaving ( it was sort of a exit interview). And the reason I gave then was “There simply will not be enough jobs!” Now 30 years later that grad students are finghting the same battles just astonishes me. How do graduate faculties do it? How do they attract students to programs where falure is almost certain. What got me (when I was 25) was how attractive the life of a prof looked. But once outside the academy I discovered life was much more challenging and, after a few years, my decision to leave was the best thing I ever did.

32

rubiana 04.30.04 at 5:39 pm

I wanted to note that I generally agree with the “oversupply” argument and to also mention that the “great 90s’ retirement wave” argument was around in 1984 when I began grad school. I also have to say that 1. I’m one of the lucky ones who found a TT job and 2. that I also explicitly looked for a teaching rather than a top-tier research job. I teach at a small liberal arts college and I relocated transcontinentally to do it. It was my choice, not one I’d ever tell anyone else to make. I tell most of my students that finding an academic job is almost impossible and fortunately most of them don’t plan on going on for Ph.D.s. Do I worry, fret and complain about my job? Of course, everyone does, everywhere. But I spent a lotta years doing other jobs and every now and again I reflect on my complaints of those times and I wouldn’t do anything other than what I’m doing. But I also know just how completely dependent on “luck” finding a job is.

33

Steve "The Happy Academic" Krause 05.01.04 at 12:30 am

Four kind of harsh thoughts:

* In enjoyed reading the IA blog quite a bit and I do wish her the best in her pursuit of a career beyond academia. But I always thought that her posts varied between spot-on analysis of the academic life and, well, whining. I used the phrase “pity party” one time, and while that was perhaps a bit strong, I don’t think it is entirely inaccurate.

* When folks here and elsewhere say things like “nobody told me this would be hard,” well, I don’t believe them. I too heard the stories of coming retirements back in the 80s, but I also heard a lot of warnings about the difficulties of the academic life.

Nowadays, the jist of the advice I give to students and anyone else that will listen is “don’t go, but if you’re going to go, be aware of the challenges if you choose a field like literature.” I know a lot of my colleagues give this same advice. I think what happens though is that the potential PhD students who get this sort of negative advice block it out because they have really made up their mind and/or they think “yeah, but those bad things won’t happen to me.” And then a few years down the road, when they can’t get a full-time teaching job in their field, they tend to only remember the folks who told them to go to school and they tend to forget the warnings.

* We shouldn’t just lump “the humanities” together into one (supposedly) unemployable pile. It just isn’t that simple. For example, in English studies, it is very difficult to get a job as a literature specialist, particularly in American literature (well, at least in the US). On the other hand, folks who do what I do, composition and rhetoric studies, tend to find jobs. And for folks in English studies who do things like tech writing, things involving computers, and/or English education, it is currently a “sellers” market.

* Cheer up, “do I sound bitter.” In my experience (though I must admit that I don’t teach at a fancy-shmancy school, I don’t have much of an academic pedigree, and I do actually teach quite a bit in my current tenured position), having a job in academia is a hell of a lot better than having a “real job.” So unless you’re independently wealthy, I would encourage you to appreciate what you have. Maybe you should take a summer to do some temp office work or take a job at a Starbucks; I suspect if you do, you’ll feel a lot less burned out about the academic job.

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Dave 05.02.04 at 2:37 am

_In the old days, someone might derive his whole (arrogant) identity from the fact that his great-grandfather had been awarded a large estate for winning a major battle._

In the old days, it was also possible for someone else to acquire that estate by defeating the current tenant in a major battle.

Perhaps academic departments could use a similar mechanism?

_William (the Adjunct, as he was then known) had the support of the Regents and Presidential approval. Having prepared his invasion force, he took over teaching duties unopposed on 28 September, and within a few days, raised grants at Hastings…_

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JES 05.04.04 at 5:21 am

Agreed about not lumping the humanities together. Ditto other fields. In fact, what’s happening now is that people in lower-prestige fields are doing quite well. But that’s another story.

To “do I sound bitter”: look, if you’re tenured, and you’ve got a decent job, there is an awful lot you can control. If you really are at a top 10 research university and can’t find a friend to have lunch with once a week or once a month to talk about ideas, it’s your problem, not the system’s. I’m sorry. Intellectual communities are made and sustained by hard work. I know, because everywhere I go I have to build one for myself.

I know all about petty miserable colleagues who commit bizarre and cruel acts at unending faculty meetings. And everyone hates grading. But when I am in the classroom, when I am prepping class, when I am meeting with students, and when I am doing my own research and writing (and these four things still take up the bulk of my time), if I am not having fun, it is largely my own fault. I learned that is the only thing I can control in the business, and so I control it. As for grading and committee meetings and the shitty compensation, well, every job has its downside, and a professor’s salary is still enough to live on — outside a few major cities.

So I’m on the tenure track and I can’t complain. Well, I can, but I shouldn’t. I should be fighting for the rights of my exploited colleagues in the adjunct and graduate student ranks, and I enjoy doing it.

Over and out.

–JES

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Academic Calvinism

by Henry on April 27, 2004

Eugene Volokh [points to a very good Chronicle article on Invisible Adjunct’s decision to call it a day. The piece does an excellent job in capturing why her site was important. Adjunct faculty often find themselve systematically excluded from the collegial supports that allow tenured and tenure track faculty to chat, compare situations, and figure out common problems. It’s hard to engage in corridor talk when you’re a non-person. Invisible Adjunct’s site created a very real space for conversation.

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