As long as I have your attention: one more addendum on the state of the job market and decreasing tenure-track jobs in “the humanities”

Boy, mention Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman in a post about a fight on the Chronicle of Higher Education site and the hits just pile up! All of this and some tweets from Elizabeth “@badcoverversion” Keenan about trends in higher ed and non-tenure-track hiring and a whole bunch of tweets from Schuman this morning! Follow the link/follow Schuman to get the whole story, but here’s a screen-shot of those Schuman tweets:

A lot of what Schuman and her various followers are talking about is the job market in higher education, the tenure-track “haves” versus the non-tenure-track “have nots.” I get that. As I mentioned before, I have had survivor’s guilt in the past and I think it’s always a shame when anyone doesn’t get what they want/think they’ve earned/think they deserve. In my experience, a lot of people start PhD programs with wildly rosy world views about love of the field but by the end, after all the work and jumping through all the hoops, they want a freakin’ job. I understand that.  And I’m certainly not going to defend “the system” overall, in part because a lot of it is obviously not defensible, but also because there is no one “the system,” as I am attempting to detail here. Anyway, that’s what is motivating this addendum on my take on the job market– that and some procrastination from other things.

I think there’s reasonably clear evidence that there has been a decline in the number of tenure-track jobs in universities, especially in some areas like Literature, foreign languages, Classics, Philosophy, usually lumped together in the media as “the Humanities.”  This trend has been going on in U.S. higher education for at least 30 years and, on a macro-level, it is depressing and distressing. I think it’s become increasingly depressing/distressing in the last couple of years because of the attention higher ed has received about student loan debt, about things like MOOCs, about decreases in state funding, about “assessment,” etc., etc.

That said, I think there are a lot of subtle things about the world of non-tenure-track work in universities that complicate the narrative of “winners” and “losers,” of the “haves” and have nots.” All of what I’m saying here is anecdotal or based on my observations, so your results may vary of course. More or less in chronological order:

  • After I finished my MFA in 1990, I was an adjunct until I started my PhD program in 1993. But I was always a part-time adjunct, just teaching a section or two of first year writing at night while I had a “real job” as a temp and then as a PR Rep/Tech Writer for a now defunct state agency in Richmond, Virginia. I knew people who did the full-time/part-time/”road scholar” thing back then, but I always thought that was a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. It’s still a bad way to approach the world of part-time teaching,  I advise anyone I can to not do that, and I think anyone who does do this in the hopes of cobbling together work that will somehow lead to a tenure-track position is kidding themselves.
  • When I was in my PhD program between 1993 and 1996, I saw firsthand the strange irony of Comp/Rhet as a field. I knew plenty of PhD students in literature and American Culture Studies who thought it was foolish to study Comp/Rhet because all you’d end up doing is teaching freshman composition. But PhD students in Comp/Rhet were getting tenure-track jobs teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing and doing quasi-administrative work, and while most of us went into the field because we actually liked FYComp, we didn’t get much of a chance to teach it because we were assigned to other things. On the other hand, a lot of those folks who really wanted nothing to do with FYComp ended up teaching part-time or in non-tenure-track positions where a lot of the teaching load was/is– you guessed it!– FYComp. Like I said, it’s a strange and ironic field.
  • I started my first tenure-track job at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon in 1996. Ashland is a stunningly beautiful town about 14 miles from the California border. People used to come through town and stop in the English department office to drop off a CV and to plead for any kind of part-time teaching because they would do anything to be in Ashland. There were folks who had been teaching part-time at SOU for decades because they just could not fathom living anywhere else. When Annette and Will and I moved from there to southeast Michigan because of much better future job prospects (Annette was never going to get anything but part-time work there and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my position), people thought we were insane.  Anyway, my point here is a lot of people end up as part-timers/non-tenure-track faculty because they decide to put other “lifestyle” changes ahead of an academic career. So be it.
  • I’ve been at Eastern Michigan University since 1998. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and still has an enormous number of students who want to be K-12 teachers and administrators. It’s an “opportunity-granting” institution that has always had a bit of an identity problem because it’s less than 10 miles away from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My department– English Language and Literature– has had between 45 and 50 faculty for at least 45 years, which is to say that I don’t think we’ve really seen much of a decline of faculty lines in the department. But I have seen two trends that might make it seem that the department has gotten smaller. First, up until about 30 years ago, 30 or more of the faculty in the department were specialists in literature; nowadays, that number is about 17 (depending on how you count it). This is because there are now more faculty who are specialists in other fields within English Studies– Comp/Rhet, Children’s Lit, Linguistics, and Creative Writing– and also because our department has the unusual arrangement of including journalism and public relations.  Second, the nature of tenure-track work has really changed at EMU (and I think everywhere else) in that a lot of faculty are also quasi-administrators. This has always been the case in Comp/Rhet with WPA work, but I think it has become even more wide-spread.
  • The definition of “part-timer,” “adjunct,” “non-tenure-track faculty,” “lecturer,” (etc., etc., etc.) is a lot more complicated than the discussion I’ve read from some of these critiques from Schuman and others. Twitter “discussions” can be pretty ham-handed because of the 140 characters thing, but I haven’t read things a lot more subtle on Schuman’s blog either.
  • As the very useful Adjunct Project makes clear, there are of course part-time teaching positions (aka “adjunct”) where people get paid per course. According to the site, EMU pays “English” part-timers (that’s almost exclusively FYComp) $3375 per class, Washtenaw Community College pays around $2500, and U of M pays between $5500-$7985 for “English” (I’m not sure, but this might actually be in Literature) and $7500 for the Sweetland Center for Writing (tutoring and probably also FYComp– again, that’s just a guess). So even what it means in terms of money (and presumably qualifications) to be part-time at 3 institutions less than 10 miles apart from each other varies tremendously.
  • Then there are also full-time/lecturer/non-tenure-track positions at all of these places. We have them at EMU, and they’re unionized (as are the part-timers at EMU, actually), the pay is so-so, they get benefits, and they are more or less permanent jobs. I know there are similar positions at Wayne State because we have some recent MA graduates working in them. As I understand it, the University of Michigan has several layers of non-tenure-track positions. I know a couple of people reasonably well who have positions there that might as well be on the tenure-track. My point is simply this: it’s much more complicated than “either/or,” it’s much more complicated than “haves/have nots.”
  • So, to sum up and to respond to Schuman’s tweets above there in reverse order:
    • If you never assumed you were going to “beat the odds,” then why all the rage now that you have indeed not “beat the odds?”
    • The Comp/Rhet “bubble” isn’t a bubble; it’s simply about supply and demand. I think the market is tighter now than it was a few years ago because of the “Great Recession” and because there are perhaps too many PhD programs in the field, but it is still a field where people find jobs.
    • The reason why “the Humanities” thing bothers me so is because it just simplifies a more complex problem. I expect MSM to do that, but I find it depressing when people who I would assume know better do that. But no need to bow to Comp/Rhet; just acknowledge that there is no field called “the Humanities” and speak in more specific terms like German, like American Literature, etc.
    • No doubt you have to be devoted to the field to study it, to dissertate about it, to continue to engage in scholarship about it, and to teach it. I’m not arguing that people ought get into Comp/Rhet just for “the job.” But what I am saying is that anyone pursuing graduate work in a field which they love but also a field in which there are no jobs is setting themselves up for the rage and disappointment you have. This is one of the main reasons why I didn’t get into a creative writing PhD after my MFA: I knew the job(s) wouldn’t be there and I doubted my abilities and my talent.
    • And by the way, it seems to me that PhD programs in fields like German are perpetuating a sick and inhumane system by taking on students even as foreign language departments are closing down. If you want to address people who really could do something to “change the system,” talk to them.
    • It’s hard to pin down exactly the “systematic problems that made the field bad” and I’m not trying to ignore them. But short of a paradigm shift regarding funding for higher ed in the U.S. and an equally huge shift in what higher education is for– education/democracy rather than training/”a job”– I don’t see a solution.  Other than closing down some PhD programs in fields that are no longer in demand.
    • I find it strange that someone who so often takes on such an aggressive and angry voice in her writing about all kinds of things and in all kinds of places thinks I’ve been smug, full of scorn, and conducting a personal attack. Sorry you feel that way.

In which I needlessly weigh in on academic searches and “the humanities”

I’m not entirely sure why I feel compelled to post about this, but here’s a meandering response to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman that started with “Naming and Shaming: UC-Riverside English Gives Candidates 5 Days’ Notice,” continued with a response from Claire “Tenured Radical” Potter with “Job Market Rage Redux,” followed by many other posts by Schuman (too many to link to/summarize) responding in various ways, along with this post from Chuck “Dirigible Humanities” Rybak and this post from A Post-Academic in NYC about how there is no academic “profession” (about which I am reminded of a problematic argument from Baudrillard about how The Gulf War Did Not Take Place). Anyway, a few thoughts.

  • Whenever anyone in either the mainstream or the “education” media says “humanities,” they do not actually mean “the humanities” in the sense of including disciplines/fields like Art, Political Science, History, Gender Studies, Communication, etc., and they certainly don’t mean Composition/Writing and Rhetoric Studies. What folks writing about the “crisis in the Humanities” (or more specifically, the job market in “the Humanities”) mean is Literature– English mostly, but (as is the case with Schuman) other modern languages like German, French, Italian, etc. This is an important distinction. I can’t speak with any expertise about what it’s like to get an academic job in History or Poli Sci or whatever, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the academic job market in Comp/Rhet is a completely different animal than the job market in Literature.
  • The job market in Literature (and here I am speaking of English specifically, but I feel relatively confident in guessing it’s like this in other modern languages as well) has been shitty for a long long time.  When I graduated from college in 1988, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I was torn between getting into an MA/PhD program in literature or an MFA in fiction writing. I ended up in an MFA program because of the opportunity/assistantship at Virginia Commonwealth and because my GRE scores in literature were horrible. In that program, I was exposed to this field I’d never even really heard of as an undergraduate called “Composition and Rhetoric” that I thought was interesting in a variety of different ways. And besides that, I had figured out by about 1990 or so that the job market in literature was just too bad/too risky for my tastes. So I started a PhD program in Comp/Rhet in 1993.My point here is this was 20 years ago. TWENTY. And for those who were really paying attention to these things, the fact is tenure-track jobs in literature have been increasingly harder to come by since the 1960s.
  • So when folks like Schuman or Post-Academic in NYC or others express “rage” about the terribleness of the job market in literature, I have to wonder what it was they thought they were getting themselves into when they started down the PhD in literature path in the first place. I mean, I had (and I guess continue to have) a lot of “survivor’s guilt” because I’ve been able to land a couple of tenure-track jobs, mainly because I’m in a field that is considerably more employable than lit. But at the same time, I think a lot of their anger– and Schuman is angry, no doubt about it– comes from this realization that they didn’t beat the odds, that they fooled themselves (and/or allowed themselves to be fooled) into believing that they were somehow immune from the job market laws of supply and demand.
  • I think Schuman is right in her complaint (which I link to above) that is is bad form for the UC Riverside people to give their candidates only five days notice for the MLA interviews.  (Though way back in 1996 when I was on the job market for the first time, I had several interviews set up with less notice than that.) I think Potter is right regarding her analysis of the rage from Schuman et al. But what I think odd is the lack of questioning of the basic process, the face to face MLA interview. In the last seven or so years, I’ve chaired three searches and been on a couple of others, and we did the screening via phone conference calls (that was like five or so years ago) or via Skype.These late 20th century technologies (especially Skype) make the face to face screening interview at a centralized conference like MLA as ridiculous as asking candidates to arrive at the cotillion in a horse-drawn carriage. There are downsides of course, just like there are downsides to talking to people on the phone rather than in person. But we saved a ton of time, a ton of money (both on our side and on the candidate’s side), it’s dramatically more comfortable and pleasant, and we’ve been able to conduct successful interviews. No MLA, no thank you.
  • Most academic searches take about a full year and in many cases because of delays and asking more than once, several years. In my experience, dealing with “Academic Human Resources” (aka, the “wonks” outside of academic departments) can be ridiculously Dilbert-like and difficult to predict or control. I could go on, but my point is this: I have no idea what was going on at UC Riverside, but I guarantee you that no one on that committee said “Hey, let’s mess with folks and only give them five days notice.  That’ll be fun!” So for Schuman and her commentators to suggest they’re doing this on purpose for some reason is some combination of stupid and naive.

The end of the semester and a response to “The End of the College Essay”

A lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Sure, everyone understands the pressures students are under, but non-academic-types might be surprised by the extent to which faculty are swamped and otherwise stressed out this time of year. Everything is due and then there’s all that grading.  I was at a department XMas function last night, and there was many a weary colleague taking a break from the final climb up Grading-Grading and More Grady-Grading Mountain.

Actually, it surprises me how much grading and work so many of my colleagues seem to leave until the bitter end of the term.

The writing classes I teach don’t have finals and I learned a long time ago to assign essays so that students get my feedback (and have a sense of their grade) long before the very end and to save finals week for revisions.  That’s pretty much what happened in my Writing for the World Wide Web class this term: I finished all the grading for that last night and they have until Tuesday to revise things if they want.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #1: Overall, the class turned out pretty good and in some interesting ways. This is the first time I’ve taught WWWW in person and not online in several years, and I have to say it’s as strange of a shift for me to go from online back to a face to face class as it was when I made the shift in this class to the online space a few years ago. That was one struggle. The other was the last couple times I’ve taught the class it was in the 7.5 week summer format. The short semester can make the whole experience feel overwhelming for students and for me, but when I took the 7.5 week class and expanded it to the regular 15 week semester, it felt positively airy and even underwhelming.

I was also a lot less of a “hard ass” in this class for some reason, and I can’t really say why. Part of it was because it was a small and chummy group, a lot of it had to do with the fact that the class was face to face. I routinely get the worse student evaluations for online teaching and I think that’s pretty common for everyone who teaches both f2f and online.

A good class, but there are a few “back to basics” moves I think I’m going to make the next time I teach it, probably this summer (or “summer 1” or really spring). Codecademy is great, but it’s not enough HTML/CSS, so I will probably be going back to one of the various big “how to make web sites” books like the Head First series so students really have to puzzle through the code a bit more; I’ll probably have a unit where we’re working specifically with a WYSIWYG app (though not Dreamweaver– too expensive and too much) to make some sites, and some more about modifying/using a CMS like WordPress (which is really the only one I sorta/kinda know). Along the way, I’ll probably keep the “Semester of Social Media” assignment because I think that’s been pretty effective, though I’ll probably retire Shirky and some of the other reading. /tangent

In grad classes that involve a lot of reading, I usually have a final to keep everyone honest.  I typically make some kind of essay/writing assignment due at the last class meeting, I distribute a take-home final at that last meeting, and while I’m waiting to collect their finals, I read/comment on/grade whatever they handed in. I collect the finals and power through them in one reading session, and I’m usually done with grading by the middle of the day after they are due.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #2: That’s what I’m doing/procrastinating about with this blog post right now, reading essays from my graduate students in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology class. An interesting group. The class started pretty much full with about 13 students in it (the cap on our graduate courses is 15) but it quickly dropped down to 8, with 7 finishing solid. I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.

In any event, it’s an online class, something that is not completely without controversy. I don’t want to spend too much time defending the merits of an online graduate course now, but I will note that the class web site has over 1500 comments on it.  If I very conservatively average those comments as being 50 words apiece, that’s about 75,000 words, or the equivalent of a decent-sized book manuscript. That’s a lot of writing about rhetoric from a small group of students to accomplish in less than 15 weeks, and if one of the marks of success of any writing class– from freshman comp to PhD seminars– is that students write a lot, then it seems to me a format that requires students to write for all interactions can be successful.

The next time I teach this, it will probably be face to face (we try to alternate that with some of these courses) and I will probably try to include for the second part of the term a book-length work. This term, I was thinking about assigning Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, but I chickened out because a) I haven’t finished reading it myself, and b) what I have read (I’m through the lengthy intro and first chapter) is quite good but potentially too much for my MA students. I did assign the introduction though and that went over fairly well. So maybe it’d be worth spending more time with the whole book? Or another very current book on rhetoric and (even indirectly) “science/technology?” /tangent2

Anyway, this all brings me indirectly to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman’s Slate piece “The End of the College Essay.” It’s an intentionally and intensely angry/attention seeking (and in that sense, quite successful) piece about student papers. Schuman’s (unsubstantiated) assumption is that students hate writing them and that she hates reading them (certainly a more substantiated claim). Here’s a typical paragraph:

Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

and this:

When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”

Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

Read the rest of it if you want more of this kind of thing, a lot of hate on students, a lot of hate on the work, etc., etc.

First off, this is what I mean about how a lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Having read some of pan kisses kafka, I think this is generally Schuman’s writing voice/shtick, and I hope it is an affectation and she isn’t really this “on the edge.” But when the end is here/near and people like Schuman (especially part-timers teaching too many classes at too many different places) are staring at a big stack of papers that represent all they have and haven’t accomplished as a teacher this semester and that stack is all that is between them and their meager holiday vacation, well, sometimes people lose their shit and throw open the window and shout at the world “fuck all of this!!!” And by the way, if you don’t want to read Schuman’s essay, “fuck all of this!!!” is a pretty accurate summary of it, in my opinion.

So in that sense, I feel her pain but it is just part of the job. I can only offer these previous thoughts and advice on grading. I’d especially recommend the timer because if you’re spending 15 hours reading final projects, you’re spending too much time, unless you have 120 students, in which case you have too many students.

Second, congratulations to Schuman for “discovering” what I think has been the conventional wisdom among composition and rhetoric scholars for decades: writing is a process and assigning “research papers” with no discussion of audience or purpose, no discussion or support for process, and no opportunity for feedback from readers is a waste of time. It’s lazy teaching that invites lazy student responses.

And personally, I hate the word “paper.” Besides the fact that I haven’t collected the physical, pulp-based substance called paper from students in at least a decade, to me the word “paper” in this context has the connotation of bureaucracy (as in “doing paperwork”) or policing (as in “show me your papers”). I much prefer the term “essay” because of its connotations of “try,” or the term “project” because there is hopefully not just one single document but rather a series of assignments and steps along the way that lead to some final presentation or essay.

Anyway, her blog post “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy” (which should be “My Un-Paper Pedagogy” but she, like most, clumsily assume that “paper” and “essay” mean the same thing) crudely sums up the conventional wisdom that I have learned and practiced as a teacher and a comp/rhet specialist for the past 25 years:  assignments with clear audiences and purposes, focused class peer review workshops, one-on-one conferences to talk about drafts in process, etc., etc. Better late than never, I guess.

And third, Schuman really seems to hate her students. That’s bad for them, but it’s also really bad for her. She ought to stop that.

Okay, on to finish my semester and that pesky MOOC book….

Thurn’s “fall” and other MOOC notes of late

Not only am I racing to the end of the semester right now; I’m also racing to the end of the “MOOC book,” Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Online Open Courses. With any luck, I’ll be able to blog about the release date soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to write up a post that is sort of/kind of notes for MOOC things I’m reading and planning on writing about soon.

First off, the “big news” about MOOCs lately is the fall of Sebastian Thrun. This CHE piece covers most of it with links, “Academics to Udacity Founder: Told Ya.” The upshot of it is there’s a lot of academic schadenfreude being savored over Thrun’s admission that MOOCs don’t work like he had hoped. For Invasion of the MOOCs, I’m going to write a brief afterword that tries to touch on some of the things that have happened since this project first got started and a lot of these essays were originally written. In brief, I think the lesson about Thrun is more complicated than “told ya.”

The fact is Thrun dramatically over-promised the potential of MOOCs, either out of a huckster’s desire for headlines, pure hubris, naiveté about what it takes to teach at risk students online, or (most likely) some combination of all of the above. But that just means that Thrun was wrong about what he thought (or hoped) would be the use of MOOCs; that doesn’t mean MOOCs are automatically now useless. After all, when personal computers were first being contemplated back in the 1970s, folks thought that one of the main reasons why people would want a home computer was to replace boxes of recipe cards. Frequently the original purpose of a technology turns out to be flat-out wrong– and of course the original MOOC folks would have never made such ridiculous promises anyway.

Speaking of which: Audrey Watters has a handy article here, “Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013: MOOCs and Anti-MOOCs.” It includes a nice “history” of the past year, a ton of links, some great quotes, etc. I thought this was useful:

Barely a week has gone by this year without some MOOC-related news. Much like last year, massive open online courses have dominated ed-tech conversations.

But if 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” For what it’s worth,Gartner pegged MOOCs at the peak back in July, while the Horizon Report says they’re still on the horizon. Nevertheless the head of edX appeared on the Colbert Report this year, and the word “MOOC” entered the Oxford Online Dictionary – so whether you think those are indications of peak or trough or both or neither, it seems the idea of free online university education has hit the mainstream.

Besides being smart, that just gives you a taste of the links/connections to other MOOC articles out there. Good stuff.

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at this yet, but the MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) “is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a set of investments intended to explore the potential of MOOCs to extend access to postsecondary credentials through more personalized, more affordable pathways.” I do know that they sponsored a conference this past weekend. Jim Groom has a blog post about it here (via Stephen Downes) and Inside Higher Ed has an article here called “Confirming the MOOC Myth.” Judging by the comments and some of what Downes had to say about a study from the University of Pennsylvania that found that there’s not a lot of engagement in MOOCs (shocking!), sounds like there are a lot of different views of the still moving future of MOOCs.

Finally (and also a link from Stephen Downes’ site) comes “MOOCs: the C***** word is the problem!” by Donald Clark. His basic point is that the problem with MOOCs is the notion that it’s a “course” and it ought to be thought more about content. This is more or less what my contribution to Invasion of the MOOCs is about, and I know mine is not the only piece in that book that makes a similar argument. So Clark is in good company, I suppose.