Two Thoughts on “Volunteer Faculty”

It must be after the end of the school year because why else would I have the time and/or motivation to write not one but two blog posts in less than one week! In any event:

Just the other day, an associate dean of some sort at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale sent around an email to department heads (available in full in a variety of places, including here on the blog School of Doubt and also via “The Professor is In” Karen Kelsky’s Facebook page) floating the idea of “voluntary” adjuncts to help do some various kinds of academic work for free. Supposedly, this came from the SIUC alumni association, and the renewable “zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments” to do stuff like:

…service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

I have to say my first reaction to this was “this must be a joke and/or hoax,” because it kind of had the markers of “fake news:” an outlandish story that is also very easy for people to believe, especially people who are already upset about the decrease in tenure-track positions and the rise of increasingly bad part-time adjunct positions. But it was/is real, though, as SIUC tries to clarify here, it’s an experiment not meant to replace teaching faculty and all that.

Needless to say, the response from academics who actually have to get paid to do work was not positive. I think John Warner exaggerates more than a tad when he suggests that we should mark April 24, 2018 as “the day public higher education was lost,” but I get his point. The mere suggestion that the work that faculty (both on and off the tenure track) do can be done as well by eager volunteers was enough to piss a lot of academic-types off, and with some justification. I do this work because I love it, but I’m not a volunteer.

So, toward that end (especially for readers who have already read and thought about these SIUC statements and reactions like Warner’s), I thought I’d offer two somewhat related thoughts:

First here’s an overly optimistic, generous, and forgiving reading of this call for “0% adjuncts”  (and I freely admit this is probably too optimistic, generous, and forgiving). Maybe what the SIUC administration was trying to do was to systematize a way for qualified alumni to “give back” to SIUC, and to do so in a fashion that gives these alum credit for their volunteering. So, let’s say that I had a PhD from SIUC and for whatever reason, I was interested in/being recruited to be on a couple of dissertation committees for current students. I guess if I was a 0% adjunct faculty member, I could then do that. Maybe?

Now, I don’t really know why SIUC needs to go through this rig-a-ma-roll. I mean, I’ve been a reader on a dissertation for another university and I didn’t have to do any kind of appointment gymnastics; maybe it’s different at SIUC. Maybe there are some alumni in some departments who perceive this as perhaps helping them in their current positions and/or to find better positions. But again, I don’t really know.

As a slight and related tangent though, faculty do end up working for “0%” on a lot of different things. People who do review work for journals generally do not get paid for that labor, and people who review books before publication don’t usually get paid very much (if at all). I’ve been paid before to do tenure reviews, and I have agreed to do one this summer for free as a favor. So extending the invitation for this kind of volunteer work to alumni serving on various committees is perhaps a misplaced reading of the next logical step.

Also related (and overly generous and forgiving on my part): perhaps the goal here is to go back to the work adjunct faculty are supposed to be doing. I think in an ideal world, all adjunct faculty in all fields would be professionally active in whatever they do and they would teach a course or two at a university mostly as a way of “giving back” to the profession and the institution. I have a friend of mine who has been a journalist for several decades and he teaches a bit part-time about reporting, and I think this is his view of the value of this work. I am imagining a scenario where a doctor or a lawyer or a similar professional teaches a course at the university, again to give back and to share their “real world” expertise.

Of course, this is not what most adjuncts are now.

Second, I am reminded of the advice I have heard about freelancing: never work for free. I’ve never made any real money freelance writing (though one of my goals in the next few years is to try to make as much money freelancing as I used to make teaching in the summer; we’ll see what happens). But one of the main pieces of advice I’ve read/heard from freelancers is you should not ever agree to work for free. Here’s a long piece about by Yasmin Nair from a few years ago, pointing out that some big organizations (like HuffPo) only pay (at least some) of their freelancers with “exposure.” Maybe that’s useful if you’re just starting out or if you have a message you want to get out to the world; but otherwise, it’s not worth it. And it’s especially not worth writing for free for entities/publications that make money in part by not paying for content.

Now, I think this is easier said than done in a couple of different ways. For one thing and as I already mentioned, academics do a lot of work not necessarily “for free” but for little or no compensation. If we stopped doing not directly (or poorly) compensated work like writing articles, writing books, giving conference presentations, reviewing for journals, editing journals with minimal resources, reviewing tenure cases, sitting on dissertation committees, and so forth– the wheels of the academic machine would grind to a halt.

For another thing, what am I doing right now? I’m not getting paid for this. It’s worth it to me because I write in this space to get stuff out of my head and (potentially) out to interested readers, and there have been many things I have been able to do– some of which even paid me!– as a result of the writing I do here. The same goes for the book I’m working on right now: I’m never going to make any real money from it– at least not directly. But besides personal satisfaction and another item to put into my (already full) tenure and promotion basket, maybe this work will lead to some other opportunities, some of which might actually translate to compensation or even money.

So I’m not saying that there are no reasons to work “for free” in academia, and the line between working for free and not is a lot more fuzzy than whether or not a check is in the mail for that work. Nor am I suggesting that this ham-fisted proposal for 0% adjuncts ought to be read as just “normal business” because it is clearly not that. But I am saying that the conditions and practices of academics doing work for free (or at least not for money) was not invented by this odd email.

What’s even more sad is I am quite sure that there are SIUC alumni with terminal degrees who are so desperate to do something– anything!– to find some way into an academic position, and that includes signing up to be a 0% adjunct.

Miscellaneous End of School Year Blog Post

I haven’t been writing here much lately (obviously). A lot of it has been I’ve been busy. A lot of it has been because I’ve had nothing I wanted to say– at least not here. A lot of it has been intensity of the school year.

The year started before the fall semester with me meditating over the realization (as the result of a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for ten years) that I’m both getting old and I’m in all likelihood “stuck” at EMU. Also before fall got going, my former department head cancelled a graduate class in the writing program I was coordinating without bothering to tell me. Then this same department head took a different administrative position at EMU, further kicking up the mess of naming an interim department head, someone who is doing a decent enough job but who might also be “interim” for years and years. The faculty union and EMU administration continue to be embattled over various arguments, and, without going too deep into the weeds, I ended up to once again spending too much time trying to argue for courses counting as four credits rather than three, and increasingly, this all feels like it’s all going to shake out in a year or two so that we’re more or less still teaching a 3-3 schedule, which means that all of the arguing about this for the last two or three years will have just been a giant waste of time. My colleague and friend, Derek Mueller, is taking a new job at Virginia Tech, a career move that probably makes sense for him, but a move that will certainly leave a hole for those of us who remain, a hole that will probably take years to fill. More or less out of nowhere, the EMU administration announced in January budget cuts and staff layoffs, including of one of my department’s secretaries, a woman who had been at EMU for around 20 years. The administration also cut a few sports to save money, though there is some debate as to whether or not those savings will be realized, and, of course, the big sports remain untouched. Meanwhile, EMU hired a couple more assistant football coaches, presumably entry-level sports coaching positions that pay more than I make after 20 years and after a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for the last decade. Oh, and EMU also sold its parking rights to a company with weird agreements in a variety of states, and the money that EMU has earned from this deal (I guess around $50 million?) is likely to be used in large part as collateral to borrow even more money to build sports facilities. I wasn’t teaching in the fall (more on that in a second) and I began the winter term of teaching more ill-prepared than I have been since I came to EMU, and it was unnerving to say the least. The department politics of the semester more or less concluded in another last crazy meeting of the school year, and my school year concluded without any summer teaching– a class I was scheduled to teach (which I am certain would have run) was cancelled before it could be offered.

So it’s been bad, one of the worse school years of my career, the hardest I can recall since my first year on the tenure-track way back when. On the other hand:

I was on a Faculty Research Fellowship in the fall, an award from EMU that bought me out of teaching. While I used (donated?) too much of my time back to EMU to do the quasi-administrative work of being program coordinator, I did “finish” a draft of a book manuscript about MOOCs (another reason I haven’t been writing as much here in the last year). The reviews came back earlier than expected, and while they did not recommend immediate publication without any changes (I assume that never happens), they did recommend publishing and they made constructive suggestions for the revisions I’m working on right now. Liz Losh’s edited collection on MOOCs came out in fall and I have a chapter in it. I quickly wrote and published a little commentary piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To),” which even includes a staged photo of me “teaching” “online” while wearing my bathrobe. The only downside to that piece is IHE has still not paid me, nor have they ever specified how much they’re going to pay me. Hmm. Despite a chaotic start, my teaching turned out well enough, I think. I tried to pull off an experiment of a collaborative writing assignment in the online version of Writing for the Web that ultimately (I think, at least) turned out to be not entirely successful but kind of interesting. Among other things, it resulted in this collection of readings and annotations from my students about social media. It is rough rough work, but I did learn a lot about what to do (or not do) the next time I try an assignment like this, and there is a lot here that will be useful for teaching next year. And as an important tangent: one of the things that’s really nice about being an increasingly old fart a senior and seasoned professor is I can try assignments like this and not really have to worry about what the student evaluations might mean to someone or my Rate My Professor ratings or whatever. I can get away with making things “break,” I can be a lot more honest with students now than when I started, and I also know better how to fix things when they break. So I have that going for me.

And just like that, I’m officially done with EMU things until late August (though of course I’m not really done). I would prefer to be teaching starting in May because, well, money. But I have to admit I do like the free time.

The first job (really, the only job) for the next month or so is to finish the revisions on the MOOC book, though I should probably say “finish.” I was talking with my father a couple weekends ago about nothing in particular and I mentioned I needed to finish my book, and he said “didn’t you say you finished that back in December?” I realized that yes, I had finished a draft, but now there is “finished” the revisions, and there will almost certainly be another stage of “finished” after the reviews on the revisions come back that will involve copyediting and Chicago Style (shudder) and indexing and…. Anyway, it really won’t be finished finished until it comes out in print, and that could be a while.

But once that gets off my desk, then I want to turn to other things. I had been saying for a long time that this MOOC book is the last scholarly bit of writing that I might ever do because I want to try to pivot to writing more “popular” things that people might actually read (commentaries on stuff I know about but for the mainstream press, maybe something pitched to a more popular audience, maybe something like the work Steven Johnson has done for years) and/or fiction (which I am under no illusions will find much of an audience) and/or more blogging. Derek and I were just talking about this the other day, that maybe it’s time to go back. Maybe blogging again– as opposed to just posting stuff on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other platform– is like the internet version of a new interest in vinyl.

So, how hard do I actually work?

The answer for anyone in a”tl; dr” mood: when I was in my PhD program, I probably worked 60 or 70 or more hours a week, which is why I was able to finish my doctorate in three years. When I was tenure-seeking and then associate, I probably worked more like 50 hours a week and a lot in the summer. Now that I am full and fuller/uber, it’s more like 40 hours a week (with a lot of multitasking and a lot of work at home) and a lot more time off in the summer.

Here’s the more complicated version prompted by a recent article in The Atlantic, “How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?”

Continue reading “So, how hard do I actually work?”

Potter is not wrong, it’s just…

Clair “Tenured Radical” Potter seems to have struck quite the nerve with her Inside Higher Ed column “Angry About Adjuncting? The radical move might be to quit.”  The gist of the column is basically in the title: adjuncts who are angry and bitter about their working conditions ought to quit and seek employment outside academia. Lots of comments on the column and social media I saw more or less echoed the sentiment of “The Dude” in this exchange with Walter: Potter is not wrong, she’s just an asshole.

Actually, no— I don’t think Potter was being an asshole. I think she was trying very hard in her column to be kind with her mostly sound advice. It’s just not exactly the kind of advice adjuncts want to hear, especially if one is an adjunct and feeling trapped, depressed, desperate, on the edge of financial ruin, living in their car, contemplating sex work, etc. 

Seth “Here Comes Trouble” Kahn had a good blog post about this, where he points out the problems of Potter’s “just leave” advice (though I don’t think that’s exactly what she’s saying). He’s right– it’s not just that easy to give up sometimes because of personal and emotional investments, not to mention because a lot of adjuncts are “stuck” geographically or for family reasons or what not, plus a lot of adjuncts are “golden handcuffed” to the work in that it’s just barely enough money to get by and they don’t want to risk losing that. Though I think Seth kind of agrees with Potter too.

I’ve blogged about adjunct work and the job market frequently over the years because it has been a concern/topic in the academic media since I started caring about academic career things almost 30 years ago. I used to read the excellent Invisible Adjunct blog regularly. She (it was an anonymous blog) left academia and closed down her blog in 2004, and I do wonder once in a while how things turned out for her. I hope well. My point is none of this is new and there was never a golden age for being an adjunct, either real or imagined.

So while I realize that Potter’s advice might make her sound like she’s being an asshole, she’s still mostly right. I guess though I would add three other thoughts, all of which I’ve written about many times before:

  • Being an adjunct should be a temporary thing. Unless you can afford to work part-time because of life circumstances, being an adjunct should be a “transition” to a career and not a career in itself. Of course, this is advice to heed at the start of one’s adjuncting career, not after being in it for 10 or 20 years.
  • Don’t quit your day-job; make a gradual transition. I was an adjunct between my MFA and PhD studies, but I taught at night and had an office job during the day. This was really important for me professionally because I got a chance to see at least a taste of what a “real job” was like and also could (sort of) pay the bills and had insurance and such. But I think this advice works the other way too for the full-time/part-timer: that is, while I think there is a certain purity in Potter’s advice of just quitting, it seems to me the more sensible thing for the adjunct trying to leave academia is to try to ease into non-academic work a bit more gradually.

I should add that I am not speaking from experience on this one because I’ve been a professor/had the same job for about 20 years. But I will say that entering my fifties and the state of affairs at EMU has made me at least contemplate briefly a different career. I guess if I was serious about leaving my job, I would start by researching career counseling services, or maybe even temporary employment services. That’s how I got a “real job” oh so many years ago.

  • Higher Ed generally (and composition and rhetoric specifically) needs to find ways of cutting our dependence/addiction to cheap teaching labor. I blogged about this here with my “Modest Proposal” about MOOCs; in brief, I think my field needs to stop requiring every single college student to take first year writing. For me, this is not an argument about the value of the course because I think it is valuable. But the universal requirement perpetuates the exploitation of part-time instructors. In other words, part of the solution is of course on the “supply side” of things, which is what Potter’s advice and the call for decreasing the number of PhD students in the humanities (especially in fields like literature) are trying to address. But Higher Ed and the profession also needs to address the demand side of the equation as well.

The random opportunities of an alt-ac career path

Somehow– I’m not really sure how– I have found myself on an electronic mailing list for the Kimble Group, which is a “recruitment search firm focused on the hiring needs of Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses nationwide.” I must have clicked on something at some point, maybe at one of those moments where I think that I’ve “had enough” of academia or something, I’m not sure.

Anyway, here is a selection of the hundreds of different jobs these emails have suggested I apply for:

  • Substitute Teacher/Paraprofessional
  • Assistant Manager, Checkers Drive-In
  • Team Leader-Optical Dispenser-OptimEyes
  • Licensed Cosmetologist-Detroit Airport Spa
  • Assistant principal, Secondary (Detroit Int’l Academy)
  • Food and Beverage Supervisor, MGM Grand
  • Detroit Red Wings – Red Patrol Member
  • Executive Producer, McCann Detroit
  • Disk Jockey
  • Assistant Professor of Journalism – Public Relations
  • Medical Assistant
  • Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies – Filmmaking
  • Detroit Tigers Foundation Intern
  • Medical Assistant-Infectious Disease
  • Assistant General Manager, Taco Bell
  • Division Head, Hematology/Oncology – Henry Ford Health System

And so forth.

To be fair to the Kimble Group people, I think I was getting random job suggestions like this because I never updated my profile, though that was because I never quite understood how I started getting these emails in the first place. Once I did update it to stuff I could probably actually do (freelance writer and content strategy, for example), I did get an email for jobs I could kinda/sorta apply to.

Still, it’s amusing to me to think that what the Kimble Group was doing was sending me their best guesses as to what someone who has been a college professor for 21 years might be qualified to do, which is to say everything, anything, and nothing all at the same time.

Writers Having to Work for A Living, a #firstworldproblems

The Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times includes a couple of essays in the “Bookends” section under the collective headline Do Grants, Professorships and Other Forms of Institutional Support Help Writers but Hurt Writing? Siddhartha Deb (who I think is a professor at The New School) laments bitterly how creative writing/artist like Deb are increasingly expected take on the duties and responsibilities for being a professor:

Unless teaching at one of a few select places, writers are increasingly required, apart from their teaching duties, to attend meetings, serve on committees and be on email 24/7. They are also expected, in an era when students are customers, the university a brand and everything a matter of opinion, often to put aside whatever knowledge and expertise they might have acquired in order to assuage the varying sensibilities of their customers. Otherwise, as in the case of the poetry professor in Wisconsin attacked for teaching material with L.G.B.T. content, one might be taken to court in order for an F to be changed to an A.

In the second short essay, Benjamin Moser (who has been a translator and a columnist or editor at Harpers and The New York Review of Books, just to name a few places) also laments bitterly how “writing” doesn’t pay. He writes “Many writers enjoy teaching or journalism or translation or editing, but many do these jobs because it’s hard to survive on writing alone. Money clearly communicates the still-prevailing attitude: that writing is not a real job.” Moser goes on to suggest, basically, that society ought to simply pay writers (again, of the capital L “Literature” variety):

But literature is not made by society. It is made by individuals who, like anyone else, have bills to pay. Those whose job it is to enunciate other values often find themselves punished for the attempt, though we all need those values: Nobody wants to live in a world whose only measures are financial.

So does the world owe writers a living? We have grown so used to subordinating everything to money that the question seems absurd. But it is easy to imagine a society in which art — like health care and education, care of the poor and the elderly — is a public good: in which we delight in work and workman both.

Oh, boo-hoo. Two writers who have careers and jobs that most other writers would literally kill a sibling to obtain are complaining that it is a shame they have to labor to support themselves, despite the fact that they are artists, God-Damn It! Boo-hoo-hoo.

Coincidentally, the next piece I came across on the NYTimes web site while looking for the link to this piece was this column by Tracie McMillan, “Who Do We Think of as Poor?” McMillian begins with an anecdote about how when she was working on a book– ironically enough about poverty!– she went on food stamps to make ends meet.

In any event: yes, “creative” writers (more on “creative” in a moment) are not and never have been paid just for making art. If robots automate so much of the workforce that a basic income becomes a thing in advanced capitalist states, then that might mean there would be lots of people who could afford to do whatever they wanted, including make art. Short of that, the basic challenge of artists has been balancing a way to make art and pay the bills.

Maybe it would be a good idea to pay all artists to make art. On the plus-side, there might be a lot more happiness in the world if more people were spending their time making art. On the down-side, I am sure the world would have a lot more shitty art. Regardless, pretty much every novelist or poet that you can think of either had a day job, was an academic (which is also a day job, though a somewhat odd one), was independently wealthy, or had a patron of some sort. I’m reading a book about Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises right now and it’s pretty clear that in the early years, Papa sponged off of his first wife’s trust fund.

But I guess this pair of essays irritates me for at least two other reasons. First, one of the most annoying academic colleagues out there is the one who treats the position as patronage instead of as a real job. At the kind of university where I work, we need faculty members who are going to participate fully in the job, which does indeed mean meetings, advising, grading, paperwork, and all of the other real job stuff of being a professor. So while I understand the appeal of a job where your responsibilities are basically to do whatever you want, I can speak from experience that it’s kind of a pain in the ass for the rest of us to deal with these folks.

And for the record: all of my current colleagues who teach creative writing are fully engaged and involved faculty members, so I don’t have any of those folks in mind at all. But I have had (still have?) colleagues who take this approach and not all of them have been (are?) in creative writing.

Second, these two essays assume a narrow and frustrating definition of “writer,” an attitude that persists even among some of my students who are majoring in Written Communication. Journalists, editors, and translators are all writers. Social media writers/editors, content managers, technical documentation specialists, advertising copy editors, and so on are all writers. And I’d argue that if you are any good at teaching rhetoric and composition courses, you’re also a writer– or you had better be someone who seems themselves as a writer.

Maybe the problematic term here is “creative,” which in English departments means writing in the form of poetry, fiction, and drama. Separating creative from other kinds of writing  suggests what the rest of us practice and teach is not creative, which is clearly unfair. A better term might be “art” writing in the sense that writing a novel or a poem is more about making something to be appreciated, as opposed to writing that attempts to do things or persuade an audience. But that distinction doesn’t work either since of course art also is always trying to persuade and do things, and there are plenty of examples of writing that became literature only after readers and scholars decided to call it literature.

Regardless, anyone who has a guest column in The New York Times and who has received support for their writing as academics or from grants and then whines about how the need to work hurts their writing has got a whole lot of #firstworldproblems.

How to respond when a non-academic wants to talk about how you “don’t have to work in the summer”

I’ve been meaning to write something about summer work in academia along the lines of what Alex Reid did back in mid-April. But I hadn’t gotten around to it until now (and this post took me over a week to write, off and on), I suppose because I was on a vacation for three weeks in May, right after the Winter term ended at EMU. That’s not meant to be ironic or anything in terms of a post about “work” in the summer; it’s just the way it is.

Alex was initially responding to an article in CHE (now behind a firewall but I think I recall at least skimming it) called “Making Summer Work” that was offering advice to academics about how to make their summers “more productive.” Alex’s points are all spot-on, about how it’s weird that professors are characterized by the rest of the world as having cushy/lazy jobs as it is– and you don’t work in the summer!– but how professors themselves focus on the intensity of the 60+ hour work week and how it just keeps going and going and going in the summer too. It’s a losing battle; “[n]o one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their ‘summers off’ productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.”

I can relate to all of this. Back when I was in graduate school and when I was just starting down the tenure-track, my mother (or some other well-intended but not academic-type) would say something like “it must be nice to have such a long summer vacation like that” and I’d go on a tirade about how there was no such thing as time off in academia!

Now I’m a lot more likely to say something like “Why yes; yes, it is nice,” or “Yes, though I don’t get paid to work in the summer.” Though it’s still complicated.

For starters,  I used to teach (e.g. “work”) in the summers. I didn’t teach two summers ago because I was on sabbatical, but other than that, this summer is the first since I came to EMU in 1998 where I am not teaching and thus contractually not obligated to do anything. Summer school here is divided into two 7.5 week terms, and I usually taught two courses during one of those terms– or sometimes three courses, one in one term and two in another. The reason I taught in the summer is simple: money. EMU pays faculty 10% of their base salary per summer course. You don’t need to know my salary to know that being able to make 20% of my base salary for teaching two courses in a little less than two months is a good deal.

I’m not teaching this summer for two reasons. First, summer teaching at EMU– at least in my department, but I think this is broadly true across the university– has almost entirely dried up. Second, I’ve gotten to the place financially where I can afford to not teach/work for EMU for the summer. I mean, I’m not saying I’m never going to teach in the summer again because never is a very long time and I still like money. But I’m not planning on it.

Then there is the definition of “work.” I work all the time (including in the summer and while on vacation) doing stuff like planning classes, meeting with students, reading academic things, and writing academic presentations/articles/books/blog posts because I’m a professor and it’s my job, but also because this is work I enjoy and it brings me a great deal of personal satisfaction and meaning. It’s not the kind of “work” that Tim Ferriss has in mind in trying to avoid in the 4 Hour Work Week, the kind of work one does only for the paycheck.

So all those caveats and qualifications aside, yes, I do not have to work in the summers. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I don’t get paid to work in the summer when I’m not teaching, so I only do “the work” I want to do. This summer, I’m working (too slowly) on my MOOC book, I am reading things that might be interesting for future projects, I’m meeting with students about their MA projects, I went (briefly) to the Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay this past week, and I might even agree to go to a meeting or two. “Work” I won’t be doing includes program review/assessment documents, attending official department committee meetings (there aren’t any in the summer because I’m far from the only one who won’t do that), doing writing program administrator stuff, responding to irrelevant paperwork requests, holding specific office hours, and so forth.

The “contractual obligated” part of things with the EMU faculty union is taken quite seriously around here. I was in a discussion on Facebook with someone at another institution about all this and this person insisted that faculty should think of themselves as year-round employees no matter what. I understand that perspective, but that is not part of the local culture. I had a colleague a few years ago (this person has since retired) who left at the end of the winter term, did not come back until the fall term, and was completely absent in the summer. This person had an auto-reply on their email that said “email me back in the fall.” I was on a university-wide committee several years ago and whatever administrator wanted this committee to meet in June. The only way that faculty on that committee would agree to that meeting was to be paid a couple hundred dollars each to show up– and by the way, that was clearly a waste of money since nothing got done at that meeting anyway.

Besides, my base pay really is for eight months of work a year. I’m not complaining about my salary, but I also know that if I was an administrator and working 12 months a year, I’d be making much more money than I’m making now. The same is true if I had a “real job,” too. As an academic, I already do too much work for free; that doesn’t need to include the summer.

Anyway, to sum-up:

  • If you’re a graduate student or tenure-seeking/relatively new faculty member, you legit probably don’t have your “summers off,” at least not entirely. You’re probably doing something like writing a thesis or a dissertation or something to help your tenure case, and perhaps teaching as well. Work at this stage of your career is a mix of pleasure and pain, and it’s undeniably harder to explain to non-academics how you actually do have to work in the summer. Try “yeah, but if I don’t finish my thesis/dissertation/homework, I won’t be able to graduate next year;” that might work. But try to take at least some time “off,” even if that only means reading academic stuff while sitting in a park someplace once in a while.
  • If you’re newly tenured and a non-academic tells you “it must be nice to have your summer off,” reply “hey, I’ve been working my ass off for the last 10 years finishing my PhD and then getting a tenure-track job and then getting tenure. So yeah, it is nice having a summer off finally!” Seriously, take some time off. Do those home repairs/remodeling you’ve been putting off until you got tenure. And/or go on a trip, take up golf, etc.
  • If you’re an established academic-type, tenured and promoted and such, and you’re still working 16 hour + days, including in the summer: why? Why are you doing that? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the work, but no one is going to think any less of you for giving your garden some attention. Except for those non-academic-types who think you never work; just tell those people that having summer off is really nice, thank you very much.

That horrible and strange article about writing by John G. Maguire

I have some time on my hands right now. I am completely done with the 2016-17 school year, I am not teaching this summer (and thus not contractually obligated to do much of anything until late August), I won’t be teaching this fall because of a research fellowship, I’m trying to work on finishing a book about MOOCs, and, just to top it all off, I am currently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and thus don’t really have that much to do). So I have some things I can/want to write about right now. But I’ll start with this really horrible and strange article about writing instruction from The Washington Post.

“Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help” is a post/article from WaPo’s “Answer Sheet,” which is essentially their education “beat” page. The byline is Valerie Strauss, but it’s really a post by John G. Maguire, who describes himself as a “man obsessed with clear writing” who has been teaching writing in one form or another at a bunch of different places over the years. He has no training or scholarship in writing pedagogy, and, as far as I can tell from his resume, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor. Maguire is the author of a textbook called “College Writing Guide” and a champion of a method he seems to believe he invented called “Readable Writing.”

Frankly, there is not really much of anything in Maguire’s article that is accurate. There’s the uncritical citation of the book Academically Adrift, a study with some clear methodological shortcomings; there’s the claim that first year writing courses are about all matter of things but not writing sentences. There’s a quote from someone named Phillip Mink about how the college writing profession has stopped teaching style, which comes as a bit of surprise to me since I’ve been teaching a class specifically about style (albeit at the 300 level) for going on 20 years now at EMU. There’s this unsupported claim that students don’t know how to write sentences, and so the solution to making first year students into “readable writers” is to teach them how to write sentences, presumably at the expense of everything else.

As a slight tangent: I’ve been teaching writing and/or writing for a long time now, and I think when people (like this guy, like professors in other departments, etc.) say “students can’t write good sentences or good paragraphs,” that’s not quite what they mean.  By the time they get to college, the vast majority of students can indeed write grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, though not necessarily particularly “good” sentences and paragraphs. So when people like Maguire or whoever say “students can’t write,” I think we need to parse that out and ask for some more details.

Anyway, there’s a lot of appropriate outrage and frustration on Facebook, on the WPA mailing list, probably on some blogs, etc., and also in the comments on the article itself. I’ll just add three other things to the discussion:

  • It is incredibly annoying that Main Stream Media routinely runs these sorts of pieces written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, Maguire has taught writing for a long time, and expertise in teaching writing is a bit more fuzzy than expertise in something like cancer research. Still, would it really be that hard for WaPo and similar publications to stop and think about the qualifications of someone like Maguire to speak in such sweeping terms about teaching writing? And can you imagine a newspaper publishing a thought piece on the shitty state of journalism written by someone without any demonstrable expertise in journalism (other than reading it?)
  • At the end of the day, what Maguire is really trying to do here is sell his textbook. So really, what the WaPo did for him is run an advertisement in the form of an op-ed piece. I hope they charged Maguire appropriately.
  • In earlier drafts of my failed textbook project The Process of Research Writing, I actually made reference to The Karate Kid for reasons similar to Maguire. I think a good way to teach lots of things (like research writing) is to try to break it down into smaller parts, exercises to be practiced before attempting to do the whole thing at once. This is what textbooks generally do, but my references to The Karate Kid fell flat because (surprise, surprise!) students nowadays don’t necessarily know a movie that was made 15 or more years before they were born.

Bruni should visit and write about the other 99%

There have been a number of articles/commentaries lately about the delicate and precious and “PC” state of today’s college students, mostly written by people who haven’t spent time on a college campus since they graduated 20 or 30 or more years ago. For the most part, these critiques haven’t phased me much, in part because one of the historic constants in critiques about education is the terrible state of “today’s students,” whether that “today” is in 2017, 1917, or 517 BC. As an aside and a nice round-up column that refutes many of these critiques, I’ll refer you to John Warner’s “On Political Correctness as the New Campus ‘Religion'” in Inside Higher Ed. Spoiler alert: Warner is spot-on when he points out that “Political Correctness” is not the “religion” on “today’s” (and yesterday’s) college campuses; rather, it’s sports.

But for some reason, I found this piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” particularly irritating.

Bruni is ostensibly writing about a protest that got out of hand at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, author of the book The Bell Curve and a racist the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white nationalist,” came to campus to have a “debate.” I’m not going to rehash the specifics of that event because those accounts are easily found elsewhere by Googling “Charles Murray Middlebury” and in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with Bruni: campuses should be a place to foster pointed debate about uncomfortable issues, no doubt about it.

Though I do disagree with one observation Bruni makes in passing about the specifics of this incident: “A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it.” First off (and I’ve seen this same point made elsewhere), the idea that “any student group” can automatically invite anyone they want to an official campus event is nuts. Of course the administration should do some basic vetting of campus speakers, especially if the college/university is paying for it and/or hosting the speaker as an official event. Second, if a college is going to allow someone who has been labeled by a credible advocacy group as a “white nationalist” to come to your extremely liberal campus to speak, then that college might want to prepare with additional security and the like.

But what Bruni really is complaining about is the so called “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of all college students. You know, the kids today.

The internal logic of this piece irritates me. For example, in his second and third paragraphs, he writes:

Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.

They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.

Well golly, aren’t you really describing the middle-aged to senior-citizens amongst us who have caused the polarization of politics in this country for the last couple of decades? Isn’t this the demographic that has a dangerous inability to compromise, fueled and exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and then the alt-right and now Trump? Honestly, can you really say with a straight face that the “kids today” ought to be “reacquainted” with the ability to see the world from different perspectives– even perspectives that are potentially offensive– relative to the generation in charge right now?!

Then later on, Bruni quotes from the CNN commentator Van Jones (who, as an important tangent that perhaps speaks to Jones’ judgement, is the same guy who lost all credibility with me when he said “Trump became president” during a speech in which Trump’s main accomplishment was he was able to sound like a normal human for an hour). Jones said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

Okay, but (setting the violence at the Murray event aside), isn’t this exactly what the students/participants at that event did? They were confronted with some hateful ideals and they dealt with it. Wouldn’t just sitting there and listening politely been a sort of passivity that seems at odds with that?

But I guess the part that just gets me the most is this paragraph:

Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.

Please.

Why is it that whenever the MSM wants to make sweeping generalizations about higher education, they always seize upon things that happen at the most elite and exclusive institutions in the country? Why are all of the examples of students generally being “coddled” drawn from colleges and universities that cater to the 1%?

Consider the statistics from The New York Times on the economic diversity of students at Middlebury versus where I work, Eastern Michigan University. The median family income at Middlebury is $244,300 a year, which is fourth highest among all 65 “elite colleges.” The median family income at Eastern is $75,800, which is 204th among all 377 “selective public colleges.” Our students are closer to the students Sara Goldrick-Rab describes in this article I happened across today on Twitter, “Student Aid Perspectives: The Case for Expanding Emergency Aid.” Among other things, Goldrick-Rab cites a study of “70 community colleges in 24 states (which) revealed that 33 percent of those students had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger, and 14 percent were homeless.” I don’t think our numbers at EMU are as high as reported in that study, but I do know we have students who are homeless and we have students who rely on the EMU food pantry.

I could go on, but the point is this: Bruni et al are literally making a generalization about college students today based on the 1 %. That’s dumb.

If Bruni et al really wanted to see if we were facing a dramatic “wake-up call” because of the demands students are making and ideological conformity gone too far, then they’d show up at a place like Eastern once in a while and look around. Oh sure, we have elements of what Bruni is getting at on our campus, but it’s not exactly “the norm” nor is it particularly new. We’ve had some protests on campus this year too, some as a result of Trump’s elections, but most as the result of a racist graffiti incident that happened in fall 2016 (I’ve blogged about that here and also over at EMYoutalk.org here). The student-led protests have not been without controversy, but for whatever reason, they aren’t “the problem” these commentators have with campus climates.

The truth of the matter is many of our students are not particularly “young” (we have a lot of returning students at EMU, so it’s common for me to see a twenty or more year range for even a small class), and we don’t have a lot of students who are likely to be the “future leaders” of a Middlebury or what-have-you. We have a lot of students who are up to their eyeballs in debt who are are working a couple of jobs, trying to have some version of a family life, and going to school full-time. When you come from a family where the median income is what it is, you don’t have a lot of time to be coddled and you don’t have the safety net of Mumsy and Paw-Paw to finance your lifestyle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone making sweeping generalizations about higher education in this country nowadays actually had some connection with average/in-the-trenches/middle-to-working class universities and colleges?

Why are academics so “liberal?”

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an interview a few days ago with Charles C. Camosy called “The Case for Trading Identity Politics for ‘Intellectual Humility,'” which more or less came about as a result of Camosy’s Washington Post “PostEverything” column “Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch.”  In brief, Camosy, who is conservative and a a professor of theology at Fordham University, argues that academics are too liberal and out of touch to understand why anyone would have voted for Donald Trump. Further, if academia doesn’t change it’s ways, the situation is only going to get worse.

In the CHE piece (sorry, behind a firewall), he argues that we need more “diversity” in terms of the liberal/conservative spectrum:

I don’t mean a quota coming down from the administration or anything like that. But for instance, in my own department, we looked around and didn’t see a lot of people of color. So we said, We ought to make an effort in hiring to have more diversity. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind — for departments to look around and say, Well, how much intellectual diversity do we have? Do we have even one conservative?

I don’t even like the liberal-conservative binary. I just want a person who really doesn’t have the views of the rest of us, who challenges us, who forces us to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different, who forces our students to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different.

He goes on:

One reason why racial justice was such an important issue in this election was because colleges and universities started that conversation, and it filtered down to the rest of the culture. That was a very good thing. So if we also make a commitment to other kinds of diversity, that will also filter down to the rest of the culture. We won’t see such enclaves of people over here — millions and millions of people — thinking something so diametrically opposed to people over there.

That’s a big part of my work as an academic ethicist: to show that these kinds of us-versus-them, right-versus-left, life-versus-choice binaries are too simplistic. People are much more complicated and interesting than identity politics allows us to imagine.

Fair enough, though as I’ll get to eventually, I’m not so sure that that last point about upsetting simple binaries is a position that would resonate with most conservatives.

Anyway, in the Washington Post piece published right after the election, Camosy is more blunt. He argues:

The most important divide in this election was not between whites and non-whites. It was between those who are often referred to as “educated” voters and those who are described as “working class” voters.

The reality is that six in 10 Americans do not have a college degree, and they elected Donald Trump.College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump. This is an indictment of the monolithic, insulated political culture in the vast majority our colleges and universities.

He goes on:

Higher education in the United States, after all, is woefully monolithic in its range of worldviews. In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.

I disagree with most (though not all) of this, and before I get to the real point here, why are academics so liberal (or are they so liberal?), I think there are three important things to always keep in mind about the outcome of the presidential election:

  • Clinton’s campaign did not spend enough time in working class/blue collar places in the midwest, and arguably, she forgot the James Carville prime directive of “it’s the economy, stupid.” Hindsight is 20-20, though as this New York Times piece from the day after the election points out, there were forces within Clinton’s campaign– including Bill!– who argued that she should be spending some time courting these voters and not concentrating on urban areas. And yesterday the New York Times had this piece recapping a “debate” between aides to the two presidential campaigns where Kellyanne Conway said “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for the white working-class voters? How about it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about they had nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message?” I hate to say it, but I think she has a point. But the point here is that Clinton’s loss is as much about her campaign mistakes as it was with any dissatisfaction from working class voters.
  • The exit polling data suggests that yes, level of education was an indicator of who voted for who– 51% of high school or less and 52% of some college or associate degree voters went with Trump. But it also shows that 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump (compared to 45% for Clinton), 67% of white college graduates without a degree voted for Trump, and 75% of of nonwhite voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. There’s a bunch of other data to sort through here too, but the point I’m trying to make is for Camosy (or anyone else) to suggest that race was not as an “important divide” in this election than education is just plain wrong.
  • Always always remember and never ever forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and by what seems to be a large margin. Yes, Trump won with the electoral college, and yes, this seems good evidence that the most significant divide in this country right now is between urban and rural areas, a divide characterized as much by race and income levels as it is by education– not to mention basic geography. Also remember that the margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin combined  was under 80,000 out of like 12 million votes (Phillip Bump has a commentary/analysis about this in the Washington Post here), which isn’t exactly an overwhelming mandate even in these rustbelt states. And yes, I agree the Democratic party as an organization is in disarray and needs to think a lot harder about how to appeal both to voters who are interested in “identity issues” and to voters interested in “economic populism” (and as a slight tangent, here I’m thinking of this post from Freddie deBoer, someone I often don’t agree with but I think he’s right here).

However, people who voted for Clinton (and all the “liberal values” she represents) and/or against Trump are still in the majority in this country. That doesn’t mean much when it comes to Trump’s cabinet appointees or the frightening policies he might be proposing and it probably means even less if your a Muslim in a particularly red part of the country, but it does mean a lot in terms of how the citizenry can respond. The man who will be president didn’t actually “win” because a significant majority of eligible American voters either didn’t vote at all (which in my book is even worse than voting for Trump) or they voted for Clinton, and of those who did vote for Trump, I have to assume that there is some difficult to determine but still healthy percentage who didn’t so much vote for Trump as they voted against Clinton, and/or who voted for Trump as a protest. That’s depressing, that the winner didn’t really “win,” but it also means that those of us who voted for Clinton are far from alone. Or let me put it this way: the first presidential candidate I voted for was Walter Mondale. That was an entirely different kind of loss.

But I digress. Why are academics so “liberal?” Continue reading “Why are academics so “liberal?””