Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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an archeology of the future
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going to graduate school in English

7 January, 2014 - 11:29

Probably the last in this series of posts surrounding the MLA silly season. While senior grad students, recent phds, and others prepare for their job interviews, another crop of potential graduate students are entering the pipeline. A recent post from The Little Professor  responding to some Facebook comments from Michael Berube, suggests that graduate programs should cover the expenses of their students’ job searches (e.g. going to MLA). It’s not really a practical suggestion, but I think her more general point was that doctoral programs should take more responsibility for the relationship between the size of their programs and the job market.

This raises a different question for me though: who has responsibility to whom and for what when it comes to graduate programs?

As many have quickly pointed out, departments do not typically set their own enrollment targets. Now if one wants to make the argument that it is unethical for there to be English majors or graduate programs because they do not lead to jobs, then I suppose we can make that argument. However this applies as equally to the BA or MA as it does to the Phd. It’s just that there is zero expectation of a specific career coming out of the BA or MA. If we want to make an ethical argument to defy institutional enrollment targets for doctoral programs and accept the consequences, then why are we ok with BA or MA programs? Maybe we should shut the whole thing down on ethical grounds. Of course we don’t because we believe that the study of English is good unto itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a particular job.

Why does that change when we get to the doctoral program? The answer is that it doesn’t, at least not at first. You get into graduate school on the basis of your success as an English BA, you submit your best undergrad essay, and you write about your interest in some literary topic. Typically you don’t write about your desire to do the job of a professor: working with students, sitting on committees, responding to student writing, etc. In other words, entering graduate school in English isn’t about pursuing a professional goal; it’s about pursuing an intellectual interest. And then the first two years of graduate school are just a super-charged version of undergraduate life (plus teaching if you’re a TA). One takes classes, reads books, sits in seminars, and writes seminar papers. There’s more reading and longer papers. There’s a higher quality expectation, probably, and also probably more theory. The content shifts a little, but the practices are much the same. How many graduate students pick a field based upon an analysis of the demands of the job market? How many pick courses based upon some understanding of the expertise valued on the job list? I would say the answer is not many.

My point is that typically there is little professional turn in the first two years of an English doctoral program. Students continue to pursue their intellectual interests without giving much thought to how those connect to a professional life, just as they did as undergraduates, and graduate programs and faculty facilitate this through the curriculum they offer. Then we get to the qualifying examinations where students really need to decide on an area of specialization. This is clearly a professionalizing decision as the exams should launch the dissertation project which will in turn define one’s job qualifications. Again though, how many students look at the market and select a specialization based on job trends? And do we even recommend that they do? I would say that we don’t. Instead, the commonplace wisdom is that one must select a field that one truly loves if one expects to complete the dissertation and do well.

It’s a strange piece of advice despite its common sense appeal. As this Chronicle piece from last summer reports, only 50% of entering graduate students complete their doctoral degrees (you can also look at this quantitative data from the PhD Completion Project). Furthermore, even looking at the long-term data, only 50% of those phds get tenure track jobs, and then one would have to ask what percentage of those get tenure. So, given the 7-10 years it takes to finish a dissertation and land a tenure-track job, and add to that the six years before coming up for tenure, we might say of the class of 2014 that somewhere by 2030 hopefully 1 in 5 will have tenure. That’s assuming the job market rights itself, undergrads keep majoring in English, tenure doesn’t disappear, etc., etc. Now those chances may not seem promising, but given that completion rates have never been much better than 50%, the chance of an entering grad student getting tenure at some point has probably never been much better than 1 in 3. So that’s the other part of the argument for pursing what you love, because if you’ll be spending 10-15 years on something that has a very good chance of leading nowhere professionally then you better love it.

It would be interesting to see a survey of incoming graduate students in English to see what they know about their chances on the job market. It’s hard to imagine that they don’t have some sense of the challenges of the job market, but maybe I’m wrong. My guess is that they aren’t making these kinds of economic, cost/benefit decisions. I know I didn’t. I was making a clearly anti-careerist move in going to grad school. I was consciously rejecting the idea of pursuing a corporate job. When I got married (to another grad student), neither of us ever thought we’d be able to buy a home. To that point, we’d both lived slacker, GenX lives as temp employees and students; we weren’t thinking about some other kind of life. Now of course we have that other life. (My wife never completed that program though she has had a successful academic career and is now in pursuit of a different phd, so I suppose the two of us reflect the statistics fairly well.)

On university/department end though, the decisions are all economic. Admissions decisions reflect the demand of applicants, the enrollment priorities of institutions, and the way universities are ranked. If you really wanted to change the way graduate school functioned, then you’d pressure the American Association of Universities to make retention, completion, and placement rates for graduate programs a significant criteria for membership. I know AAU and Middle States pressures for retention and time-to-degree at the undergrad level have made my university sit up and pay attention. What if instead of admitting 10, graduating 5, and placing 2 or 3 I said you have to take those 10, graduate 8 and place 5? You could try admitting fewer students, but only if you really knew which 2 or 3 to cut (which isn’t that easy). Would you change your tactics from pursuing what you love to something more strategic? Would you alter the curriculum to reduce the shock of moving from course-taking to dissertating?

My point is that if there were top-down pressures from the AAU or federal granting agencies to improve performance on the graduate level then this would eventually result in changes in graduate curriculum and the culminating activity we call the dissertation. I don’t know if such pressures will ever arise. And I’m not sure how they would affect incoming graduate students who would enter far more pragmatic programs than they do right now. Or even if such pressures would shape undergraduate programs at least for those who want to pursue graduate degrees.

I even wonder if this is what we really want (and by we I mean both graduate students and faculty). Would we want to create programs were 1 in 2 students ended up getting tenure someday (instead of 1:4 or 1:5) if it meant creating more lock-step programs, restricting the fields and methods students enter, requiring students develop skills demanded by the job market and so on? And if we don’t want to do what is necessary to get better results, then should be stop complaining about the results we do get?


Categories: Author Blogs

what’s the relationship between tenure track hiring and adjuncts?

4 January, 2014 - 08:49

Perhaps it’s just the MLA season, but the it’s the time of year when the dearth of tenure-track jobs and the exploitation of adjuncts often come up in the same sentence. So what’s the relationship between the two? I offer that as an honest question. I’m not sure if there is a national answer to it, if the answers are unique to kinds of institutions (research, liberal arts, community colleges, etc.), or if they are entirely local. We all know that over the last 25 years or so that the number of tenured/tenure-track (TT) faculty have declined and the number of adjunct/non-tenure track (NTT) faculty have increased. It would seem to make sense that hiring TT faculty would therefore reduce the number of NTT faculty. As the director of a first-year composition program, I work with a lot of NTT faculty. Really all the NTT faculty in our department teach writing, either composition or journalism, and the latter are primarily full-time professional journalists in the region.

Here are our current stats. A little over 40% of our composition courses are taught by adjuncts; the rest are taught by TAs, which is a different issue. Of those adjunct sections, more than half are taught by former TAs. That is, our TAships last five years, but hardly anyone finishes in that time frame, so they often take on adjunct positions for a year or two before finishing. We have seven other adjuncts and two NTT faculty who serve administrative roles in the composition program.

So here’s my point. My department is making two TT hires this year: one associate and one assistant. How will these hires impact the number of adjuncts working in the department? It will not. In terms of our reliance on adjuncts, it doesn’t really matter how many TT faculty work in my department. I imagine this is true at virtually every department. You tell me. If your department has grown in the last decade, has that reduced the number of adjuncts employed? Maybe if we decided to hire a TT journalism professor that would make a difference on that end, but not for composition, which is where 90% of the adjuncts work. And while these are local numbers, I think this is a fair description of the role of adjuncts in English departments nationally.

This semester we have 44 adjunct compositions sections, 32 TT-taught undergrad literature classes, and 14 TT-taught graduate classes. To keep these proportions and eliminate adjuncts, about 50% of TT teaching would need to be composition. If we viewed supporting our former TAs as adjuncts as a worthy cause and only wanted to eliminate the long term adjuncts (which wouldn’t make them happy, btw), then composition would be 30% of the teaching, or about 1 course per year for the standard 2-2 load. Of course it would require a significant amount of hiring, probably a 30% increase in faculty. To cover our extra 40 sections a year, we’d need at least 10 TT faculty.  It’s an interesting though purely hypothetical question: would the typical R1 English department faculty member agree to teach composition on a regular basis in exchange for more hires? And then there would be the question of hiring and retention. Of course we want the very best hires; we want to compete for hiring with the best departments in the country. How would this teaching requirement affect our competitiveness? Would the labor-intensive work of teaching FYC (outside of one’s disciplinary specialization) affect junior faculty in terms of their research productivity? Who knows? It’s all hypothetical because hiring would never happen that way.

In addition, there would be a real disciplinary problem and this has something to do with English or maybe the humanities in general. My sense is that elsewhere in the university it is not so unusual to have classes assigned to you and be asked to teach a fairly standard curriculum. In English though it would be simply impossible to ask TT faculty to teach composition from a standard syllabus. Instead, we would inevitably get some kind of writing about literature course. Whatever de/merits we might assign to such a course, it wouldn’t be a composition course.  And this is an expanding problem, where undergraduates not only can benefit from the conventional academic writing composition course but also could use courses that address oral presentation, digital literacy, and writing in the disciplines/professions. We’re only spinning further away from the disciplinary expertise of the typical English professor. You could hire a new class/department of TT professors to teach these courses, but now we’re talking about a real explosion in hiring as you couldn’t have a department of faculty teaching only general education courses. It would mean new majors, new graduate programs and so on. Again, no one is making that investment to solve this problem.

The realistic alternative, and the one that is implemented in many places, is creating full-time NTT positions that have respectable salaries (though not as respectable as TT positions). As far as I can tell this makes sense for us. SUNY has “clinical” faculty that have their own ranks, right up to clinical full professor. There’s no tenure, but there are multi-year contracts. However, if that is the best idea, then it only is further evidence that TT hires don’t impact adjunct hiring, at least not in English. What it tells us is that adjuncts do work in our departments that is considered non-disciplinary. If that weren’t the case, there’d be TT faculty teaching composition in my department (or yours) this semester, just as there are such faculty teaching introductory literature courses.

I wouldn’t assume that the way things work in English or locally in the various departments in which I’ve worked would describe the general adjunct situation in academia. Adjuncts do lots of different things. However that’s probably just another reason to argue that TT hiring can’t be seen as a general solution to adjunct hiring. Any university will require more faculty to teach introductory writing than it requires to research it (or teach more advanced writing/rhetoric curricula). The problem right now is that we have so many literary studies job applicants who find themselves in these composition adjunct positions. They don’t want to be there and they don’t really want full-time NTT comp teaching jobs either. If there was going to be a permanent class of NTT writing faculty as a regular feature of universities, then they would have to be filled by people who wanted those jobs. Assuming they paid well enough, were secure enough, and had some opportunity for advancement, I don’t see why this couldn’t be possible. But it wouldn’t be the same people who are now on the market for TT jobs in literary studies. Those just aren’t the jobs they spent the last decade trying to get.

I suppose where I’m ending up is thinking that we aren’t going to get very far in addressing the inequities of adjunct life by fighting for more TT jobs, at least not in English. Instead, we should focus on making a career of writing instruction into a viable professional life.

Categories: Author Blogs

job market woes and curriculum reform

1 January, 2014 - 16:31

From “The Professor is In” and “Blogora,” the ongoing conversation over the responsibility of tenure-track faculty for the adjunct situation and the job market. The former makes an argument for the privileged position of tenure-track faculty, comparing tenure-track privilege to white privilege. I don’t really care to make an assessment of that argument here. I will note, as I am sure others have, that the end game desired for the former is more tenure-track positions and fewer adjuncts. I’m fairly sure the analogous argument (which would be what–more white people?–) isn’t made. The argument for more tenure lines is basically an argument for more money.  No one is arguing that we cut tenure line pay, increase teaching loads, and put everyone on the tenure-track (or eliminate tenure and give everyone multi-year contracts). Hell no. After all, what is tenure without the much disparaged “privilege” that accrues to it? Still, that’s fine. It’s an argument for more investment in the humanities. OK, what do we get in return for the investment?

Maybe the answer is more single author monographs that sell a couple hundred copies. Maybe but that assumes that there will also be investment to keep those publishers afloat. More realistically the answer is that humanities faculty hires are tied to a student demand for the curriculum they offer. My sense in English is that adjunct faculty are very heavily tied to the teaching of FYC. That is, there aren’t a lot of adjuncts teaching upper division literature courses or even introductory literature courses. In some places, tenure line faculty teach FYC; in others they don’t. Regardless, I think it is fair to say that in English the process of adjunctification has been linked in no small way to the curricular separation of FYC from the rest of the department.

My point is that if one wanted to reduce adjuncts in English, the only way to do it would be to have tenure track faculty teach more composition. That is unless, of course, they managed to offer other courses that students wanted to take. But these are two sides of the same problematic coin. In my 20 years or so experience in English departments, literature faculty generally don’t view teaching composition as part of their profession.  (That’s fine; it probably isn’t.) Instead, they view their teaching responsibility as tied to their field experience (who wouldn’t?), which means teaching in a particular literary period. They already do that, and the student demand for such courses is what it is. More of the same won’t increase demand. So whether one is teaching composition or some other course beyond what is currently being offered, one is asking faculty to teach courses outside their field. Now one could hire new faculty in a very different field that might attract new students (that would be a risk one could attempt), but that would still mean changing a department’s culture. Even if a given professor isn’t teaching a foreign course, the rise of a foreign curriculum is just as disturbing, maybe more so. I’ve seen that first hand as well.

Besides that doesn’t do much to help the grad students being trained in the original field.

So there’s the vicious circle in a nut shell. “Privileged” tenure-line faculty are trained in a specialized disciplinary field to teach courses in that field and train grad students in that field. In my experience, the majority of such faculty would rather go down with the ship than change this arrangement. I’m not saying those are the only options, but given the choice, I’d say I hope you have a life vest (or better yet that you not get on the ship). Changing would certainly take some of the shine off of that “privilege.” But, in general terms, the answer to our problems is deceptively simple.

If you want more money, start doing something someone will pay more money for.

Of course it’s not so easy to figure out what that thing is that we should be doing. We always want to say that the humanities shouldn’t be tainted by such market-driven concerns, that it shouldn’t strive to be useful. That’s fine, until the humanities also starts clamoring for more money for more faculty. Then the humanities has to make some argument to someone about its worth, and ultimately that’s going to come down to students taking classes. Create a demand for curriculum and create a demand for faculty.

Categories: Author Blogs

establishing a technology use policy

29 December, 2013 - 13:27

A friend of mine contacted me about this matter the other day and asked if I had a blog post about it. I thought, what a good idea. Deciding whether/how students should use their devices in the classroom remains a contentious issue in academy. My sense is the prevailing opinion is to outlaw smartphones and similar devices, while the laptop issue is more divided between those who prohibit and those who do not. I did write about laptop policies two and half years ago. Policies haven’t changed much, and neither has my view: most technology policies are established to create the technological conditions of the 1990s, conditions under which our legacy pedagogical practices still made sense.

For me this is not just a pragmatic, pedagogical question. Instead it is a very visible example of our continuing struggle to learn to live with digital media. Students don’t know how to behave in classrooms with smartphones in their hands, and faculty don’t know how to operate in digitally mediated learning environments. As faculty, I think we need to answer the second question first. And there are many viable answers to that question that have to take into account the discipline, the size of the class, the course’s curriculum, and the technologies that are available. I don’t think any faculty member wants their students randomly web surfing, on facebook, texting friends, checking email, etc. The obvious, easy, and commonly-adopted policy is just to ban all access. But that’s a policy that says figuring out how to live and work with these devices isn’t my problem. It kicks the can down the road. It also says the faculty are not responsible for figuring out how emerging technologies can enrich learning, which I believe is not true. I think we are as responsible for that as we are for selecting texts, preparing lectures, and creating assignments and other course activities.

In a fairly straightforward way, we can divide the affordances of digital media networks into two categories: knowledge/data relevant to the course available over networks; applications/devices that expand interactivity and pedagogical opportunities. In the case of library databases, scholarly journals and other websites students might access, I think the use is fairly straightforward: students are using their devices in groups, individually, or in guided discussion to conduct research in the classroom. The second category is more varied as there are many different disciplinary directions here. But a simple one is to think about a CMS or a course blog and the activity of in-class writing. Now students are writing to a networked space, rather than in their notebooks, and the writing can then be shared in class or after. In larger classes, clicker apps have become popular as a way of getting quick feedback. Some more advanced examples:

  • a prearranged Twitter conversation with an outside expert;
  • collaborating on a wiki page or Google doc;
  • writing feedback on a video or a book on YouTube, Amazon, or wherever;
  • participating in some larger social discussion site.

It is true that none of these examples involve students listening quietly to the professor. I’m not suggesting that should never happen. I would suggest that there is nothing magical or ideal about lecturing. Do most students need to develop the ability to pay attention as listeners and readers of print? Sure. They also need to develop the ability to operate in those multi-attentional spaces in which we now regularly live.

My point is that, as faculty, once we take an open-minded examination of the possibilities for digital media networks in our classrooms, we can identify ways that their operation can strengthen our teaching. Based upon that understanding, we can then craft technology use policies. The knee-jerk prohibition of technology is no more thoughtful than the careless, disinterested student who turns to facebook in the classroom. If students are given meaningful activities to perform in the classroom then they are far less inclined to be digitally drifting. Of course some students will slack off. Guess what? There are plenty of students ignoring their professors in tech-free classrooms too. In the end, if the bottom line is that the classroom is a space designed to help our students, then we can think that binding their hands is helping them because it takes away some of the temptations, but an even better approach might be to teach them how to use those hands.

Categories: Author Blogs