Monday, January 11, 2010

Last Call at All-You-Can-Eat Academy

It's a strange thing to live in California and read that folks in the north and south of our state have experienced fairly potent earthquakes these past days. Here in Scotts Valley, the memories of Loma Prieta are fresh [check out a freaky YouTube video from the event]. Yet neither Jenny nor I felt as much as a tremor during this week's jolts. Even so, the quakes illustrate something to me, a sign of secure things slipping away.

Consider then my especially odd position as a college professor. My job is to help students find their footing in a complex world of challenges and opportunities. By helping them engage in the energetic push and pull of college life, I help enable their journeys beyond the gates, ultimately hoping to watch them set their paths toward some meaningful future. The problem is that the future may be much harsher than anything they've been promised. For both undergraduate and graduate students - heck, for all of us - tectonic plates are churning.

Thinking on this, I remember attending a professional conference a few years back and participating in a panel designed to help students get the most out of graduate school. The gathering was organized to share inside tips and practical realities that don't appear in the brochures, and the audience was packed with smart young folks eager to join the fast track. Most of these students were contemplating bright futures as professors of communication studies.

It's an article of faith that students planning to join the ranks of the tenured and tenure-track professoriate attend conferences like these, meeting would-be mentors and other assorted luminaries in hopes that wisdom and maybe a little networking-mojo might rub off on their own job-searches. They are told that conference attendance is part of the long but stimulating path toward a job as a communication professor (or some other related job in the humanities). It's not easy, but the path leads somewhere worth going.

And since several of the panel participants were current or former leaders in the field - we're talking Association presidents and the like - the atmosphere in the room dripped with enthusiasm and potential. We'd come to talk about the future.

So we commenced to offering our comments, sharing a semi-guided conversation that tacked between predictable bromides and occasionally unscripted words of useful advice. We all seemed fairly well in sync, even me: a relatively Young Turk as compared to the seasoned pros who were the panel's real draw.

I felt confident enough in my role at the panel that when one student asked about academic job prospects after grad school, I responded promptly - not with pleasure but with a directness that seemed appropriate, given the nature of the news. I said something like this:
Grad school can be a wonderful experience, but you need to know one fact: The opportunities to land a tenure-track job are poor, and those chances are growing worse. Many universities are cutting tenure lines, replacing them with an accordion-style workplace composed of an adjunct pool that expands and contracts with the economy.

What's worse, master's and doctoral programs are producing more students than jobs, and many folks who complete their degrees will never get tenured employment in the academy. There may be "jobs" - one here, one there - and adjunct instructors can cobble them together sufficiently to pay the bills. But no one should blindly go into this market with the illusion that a graduate degree guarantees anything.

This is not to dampen your hopes or mock your efforts. Jobs are out there, and folks continue to earn tenure and enjoy a decent middle-class life at many colleges and universities. I did; so can you. But it's not easy, and it's going to get harder.

College administrators, often pushed by boards of trustees and similarly politicized groups, may indeed be using changes in the economy to dismantle the tenure system to create a more presumably compliant workforce, a cadre of interchangeable workers whose academic rights and responsibilities become replaced with the Keep-Your-Head-Down survival instincts demanded by the most dismal types of corporate regime.

So, work hard in graduate school - get teaching experience, network at conferences, and publish - and you may yet land your dream job. But plan for alternatives too. The academic market is changing under our feet. The old reliable foundations are going away, and no one can promise you a future of lifetime employment...
In many ways, I was differentiating between two types of Academic Future. One is an All You Can Eat buffet: Just show up, wait your turn, and eat your fill. The other is a Thanksgiving Feast where every year someone removes another chair from the table. The former Future is a vision of plenty. The latter Future is a vision of scarcity.

Certainly, my memory does not serve to reproduce my remarks exactly as I delivered them, but I recall precisely how several of my fellow panelists followed up on my dour description of the menu of options faced by graduate students today.

They eviscerated me.

Luminary after luminary took their turn assuring the students that I did not speak for them or for the field. "Jobs are available," they said. "The trends are precisely the reverse of what you just heard. Universities are growing all over the country, and veteran professors are retiring at a rapid rate. There may never be a better time to get a job!" [Again, these aren't actual quotes, just paraphrases from an admittedly faulty memory]

Thereafter I observed a palpable change in the atmosphere. The students who attended the panel in search of wisdom and assurance seemed much happier after hearing that my remarks were so clearly wrong. The experts in the room, long-tenured professors looking back on decades of experience and promising the Big Picture, had managed to set the world back on its foundations. The conversation went on, sparkling with promise and pleasantries. Tips were offered, stories were shared, futures were solidified.

I tried to stay in the game, joining the dialogue when I felt I had something useful to say. I had no intention of being a spoiler, and truthfully I felt embarrassed at being called out so publicly. I'd read the same articles in Chronicle of Higher Education as the other panelists; I'd seen the same towering piles of applications for each treasured hiring opportunity; I'd observed the expanding pool of hardworking adjunct instructors chasing after the same teaching opportunities, with increasingly low pay (particularly when counting for inflation) and shrinking benefits. And I imagined that a significant economic downturn would merely exacerbate the problem. Things seemed bad for too many people, and they could easily get worse.

Looking back about four years ago at that conference, I had no idea just how bad things would get.

Anyway, the meeting ended and I offered my best effort at collegiality, saying goodbye to my fellow panelists. I remember feeling that I'd somehow angered one or two of them, that I'd done something worse than say the wrong thing. I shook a couple of hands, but I couldn't wait to escape those dismissive looks. The luminaries were off to the next panel or the next party or the next escapade (surely together, I mused) and I departed the room alone. I felt like a fool. It was time to slink off, find a nearby dive, and disappear.

A couple blocks away I stood in line to find a seat at a greasy spoon-type diner, still nursing my guilt and embarrassment. I thought I'd told the truth, balancing it with some assurance but also a necessary degree of reality. "I did," I said, "and so can you. But it's not easy, and it's going to get harder." Those words coursed through my ears. I felt that I'd been honest, but that I'd hardly let slip some sort of secret. Doesn't everyone know just how tough the job market is getting?

Was I wrong?

As I choked on that question, three or four people, each wearing the overly precise stare of a grad student job hunter, walked by me and then stopped. I couldn't recognize anyone, but I somehow knew they'd attended the panel. My mind swam with frustration. A rising young professor, I made an ass of myself in front of my senior peers, and now these grad students were here to watch me wallow alone in my own shame.

Then one guy looked me squarely and said this: "Thanks for saying it. No one else would."

I can't say that I felt much better at that comment. But I felt a little better. And that was enough.

Remembering that conference and that moment afterward, I find myself re-reading Thomas H. Benton's January 30, 2009 Chronicle article, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. In his piece, Benton lays out a nuanced critique of the delusional structure of today's grad-to-market machine - an argument I wish I could have articulated as effectively some years back. I can't agree with every element of Benton's essay, but this fellow (even writing under a pen-name) undeniably drops some powerful truth-bombs. Examples:
"The reality is that less than half of all doctorate holders - after nearly a decade of preparation, on average - will ever find tenure-track positions."

"Most undergraduates ... seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect - a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete - and, as a result, they don't make any fallback plans until it is too late."

"[H]umanities Ph.D.'s, without relevant experience or technical skills, generally compete at a moderate disadvantage against undergraduates, and at a serious disadvantage against people with professional degrees."

"Even if the long-awaited wave of retirements finally arrives, many of those tenure lines will not be retained, particularly not now, in the context of yet another recession."

"The minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery."
I think about essays such as Benton's - and my own experiences trying to share a similar vision - and I realize just how strange it seems for both of us, each enjoying the benefits of tenure, to convey the bad news. I've heard critics who dismiss these warnings as little more than self-satisfied bits of economic tourism. We may be seen as "slumming," visiting the realities of the academically disenfranchised, boo-hooing a bit about their tough lot, but still fiercely maintaining our grip upon personal safety while doing pitifully little to challenge the forces that perpetuate the problem. Indeed, we are part of that problem.

I appreciate those rebukes, and I admit that it's much easier to be a truth-teller when safely secured in my own little bubble of tenure and promotion.

Still, writing these words is more than an empty exercise in back-handed self-congratulation ("My, my... I got this gig somehow despite it all"). In fact, I've never put much stock in the so-called security of my line of work. And I fully expect that my life will change substantially in ways I do not plan or prefer. Like an earthquake, it could happen a decade from now or in the next moment. Should such a shattering event rock my foundations, I'd like to think that I'm not so locked into this life that it'd be impossible to live some other way, in much more humble circumstances if necessary.

Perhaps that's a perspective that comes from being married to a Mormon. To members of her faith, prayer alone is not the key to salvation. Keeping a year's supply of food storage is also part of the deal, just in case. God helps those who help themselves, she is taught. She's right.

All of us - those of us currently fat and safe, and those already feeling the rumbles of collapsing girders - are wise to recognize the tenuous nature of our situations, to contemplate the profound changes marching across the world. An unsustainable culture of always-on, always-improving, always-expanding humanity is confronting a shrinking age of limitation and retreat. Things are changing fast. Maybe not entirely for ill, but certainly in directions we cannot fully anticipate.

Of course, possibilities remain that we may somehow prolong the metastasization of the society we seek to join and perpetuate, as evidenced by our "All-You-Can-Eat Academy." And I hope that Doomsters such as Benton and myself are proven wrong in thinking that the tablecloth is being ripped under the plates, that the Boomsters are correct in forecasting an ever-growing table for all those willing to wait in line ("All you have to do is work hard - but don't worry. It's not that hard").

I'd love to be wrong.

But it seems to me that one day we'll look back on these years and ask ourselves, "How long did we think the endless buffet could last?"

Read More: Katz, S.N. (1996, October 6). What has happened to the Professoriate? Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(7), B8-B11.

Update 1: Conn, P. (2010, April 4). We need to acknowledge the realities of employment in the humanities. The Chronicle Review.

Update 2: Sadly dead-on video: So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities

Update 3: The Economist: The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time - for some pertinent quotations, check out my blogpost, Academic Market Update.


Anonymous said...

Andy, you were courageous to tell the truth as you saw it. One might speculate that the Big Names on that panel have something significant to lose if students no longer pursue grad school... tuition payments, student credit hours, advisor stipends, application acceptance rate rankings, et cetera ad nauseum. They have a vested interest in painting a rosy picture.

detroit dog said...

Wow. This is a really great post, and took lots of guts for you to write.

I'm with you all the way regarding college job prospects, especially in the humanities. There may in fact be lots of Boomers retiring soon, but those positions won't be filled that way again. My friends and I in grad school 20 years ago noticed that only adjuncts were being hired 'most everywhere. One of my best friends is the daughter of an internationally renowned photographer, grew up with all kinds of contacts, graduated from the right schools, and still couldn't get anything more than adjunct. Humanities programs are being dumped everywhere -- Michigan State just ended it's Classics program!! Full-time work in Academia is *very* difficult to come by and will get worse. Perhaps Administration is the way to go?

Well, I'm sorry you felt sheepish for a while there, but the fact is, you spoke your truth and gave a realistic view.

Oh that we should all grow up and get our dream jobs!