More than a numbers game

There is a labor crisis in higher education.

The myth of the well-compensated, insulated, and out of touch professor has a powerful grip on the American imagination, but in fact applies only to a few people, even among those lucky enough to have a tenured position. (The real money comparatively speaking is in administration, unless you happen to be a coach.) Most professors, including those on the tenure track, are not well-paid, particularly relative to their level of education. Setting that issue aside separate, albeit related issue, the larger crisis is that courses are increasingly being taught by adjunct professors with too little pay, no benefits, and no job security.

This is not new. The old line was that you should inquire how much of the teaching at a school is done by graduate instructors, and adjuncts are the latest iteration of the same forces that cause schools to fill credit hours with cheap labor.

In the sense that many, though not all, schools have bi-polar mission of teaching on the one side and world-leading research from their (full-time) faculty on the other, this split makes sense. As much as research influences teaching and vice-versa, both take time to do well. In the humanities, too, research generally doesn’t make money, but remains a benchmark for the university on various external rankings, which, in turn, is part of the pitch to bring in students. The solution is generally to bring in cheap labor to fulfill the teaching mandate, thereby creating a surplus that can be paid to the full-time faculty in the form of salary and research support, including travel and reduced teaching loads. Simple.

Only not so much. With state divestment from higher education, the financial burden for operating a university is frequently being passed on to the students, now branded as the consumers, in the form of tuition, fees, and, eventually solicitations for donations as alumni while they are still paying off loans for the initial investment. And at the same time, significant teaching loads are passed to underpaid and overworked contingent faculty. This is not to say that contingent faculty are bad teachers—-many are excellent—-but that while the cost to the student goes up the combination of financial precarity and insufficient resources impedes the ability of many of their teachers to help them reach their potential. Something like 75% of all faculty teaching in colleges are now non-tenure track positions, working under a range of titles and for a median pay of 2700 dollars per course.

These economic issues are fundamentally important to the future of higher education, a top-heavy system that feels many days like it is teetering precipitously. It is a matter of when, not if, something is going to give.

But that is not what prompted this post.

In response to a recent report on the issues surrounding contingent labor and a report that 79% of anthropology PhDs do not gain employment in tenure-track positions, I saw the inevitable response that the solution to this problem is to reduce production of PhDs. The idea is that this is a crisis created by supply far outstripping demand, which is true enough, but doesn’t acknowledge the underlying structures that are shaping demand.

The optimistic, if morbid, line even when I started graduate school in 2009 was that it was just a matter of waiting for the rapidly aging generations of professors to give up their posts one way or another. Not that the job market would be easy, but that there would be a wave of jobs that would make it easier. Before long it became apparent that the great recession of 2008, which struck right as I was graduating from college, marked an inflection point for higher education. Many of those older faculty members were clinging to their jobs not out of malice, selfishness, or obliviousness, but because they believed that their positions would not be replaced when they left. They were right. Their courses are taught by contingent faculty and the tenure lines largely boarded up and forgotten. This is the new normal.

These systemic changes are not unique to higher education, I should add. I’ve recently been reading Sarah Kendzior’s A View From Flyover Country where she talks at length about the seismic changes to the American economy after 2008 as companies looked for ways to remain profitable to stockholders. Universities are a little bit different because many schools are among the institutions most affected by government divestment, but there are many broad similarities.

Nevertheless, I am not in favor of a widespread slashing of graduate programs.

First, reducing the number of PhDs is not going to solve the labor crisis. There is already a long line of qualified candidate. In 2012, two schools, Harvard University and the University of Colorado received backlash after stating in the job ad that candidates more than a few years after graduation need not apply. Moreover, cutting positions in graduate programs does nothing to address the structural factors underlying the decline of tenured positions. In fact, cuts to graduate programs could conceivably accelerate the cuts to full-time positions because graduate programs are one of the justifications to keep tenured faculty.

Second, the remaining graduate programs would invariably exist in a handful of elite schools, which already produce most of the graduates who win the tenure-track job lottery. This list of elite schools is not immutable, but tends to favor those that already have large endowments. As is true elsewhere in American society, fluctuations to financial fortune tend to be much larger for schools without these inheritances.

In theory, limiting graduate education to wealthy schools would create a more ethical environment in terms of pay for graduate students, as well as provide them adequate research support, but it also develops scholars and teachers in an environment radically different from where most professors work—not to mention that their students will be coming from. Like with my comments about adjuncts above, this is not meant to denigrate people who go through elite institutions, many of whom are deeply concerned with issues of precarity, austerity and who do not come from privileged backgrounds. At the same time, reducing spots reduces the opportunity for people who are not already introduced to academic life, either during their undergraduate education or through individual mentor-ship, usually by someone with connections to those schools. Similarly, for as much scholarship comes out of people working in top-tier programs, they cannot cover everything. As in any number of fields, visibility and representation matter. A retreat toward the proverbial ivory tower reinforces the perception of a barrier between the intellectual elite and everyone else.

There are deep ethical issues with how graduate program in the humanities approach training, regardless of what the future of the professoriate looks like. There needs to be greater acknowledgement and preparation for so-called alt-ac jobs, and a support system in place to help people find employment with livable wages. That is, there is needs to be a reconsideration of the purpose of graduate school, with teaching in college being just one potential outcome.

(To be fair, this is easier said than done and I see programs coming to grips with this reality and beginning to implement changes, but too little and too slowly, and without enough action to counteract the emotional trauma of the current system.)

But there is also a larger point. People pursue advanced degrees for all sorts of reasons, including interest. This is a good thing. I may sound impossibly, naively idealistic, but I want to live in a society that supports and values education not out of a desire for credentialism but because these opportunities are where creative innovation is born. Eliminating graduate programs beyond those in well-funded schools makes sense if you look at the problems facing higher education as a simple supply-and-demand numbers game, but in fact threatens to realize some of the worst stereotypes about academia.

College and Industry

LMS tech support, freelance construction contractor, camp counselor, grocery store cashier/stocker, quick service restaurant manager, QSR assistant manager, history/classics/political science tutor, adjunct instructor, teaching assistant, research assistant/editorial work, furniture mover, visiting assistant professor.

I think that is every job I’ve held since I was 18. Going back further, I could add data entry, housekeeping at a resort, and some other odds and ends. This is something that some people on academic Twitter have been posting in response to this Times Higher Education opinion piece. In short, the author declares that “Too many academics have spent most, if not all, their professional lives within universities,” and therefore:

  1. all potential professors should be required to undergo a year-long internship before they begin teaching.
  2. And all academics should be required to return to work in industry every three to five years as part of their professional development and career advancement.

My Twitter feed was abuzz with outrage at this article, I think for good reason. Scholars in the humanities reacted to the article online responded by pointing to their work experience and then, in so many words, asking what industry the author propose they take their rotations in. That said, I wanted to unpack some assumptions about higher education, because I also don’t disagree with the top level idea: that it is necessary to find ways to support and improve college education.

First, there are a set of assumptions in contemporary discourse about college, if not the article explicitly, about how being a professor is not “real work,” which encompasses several broad categories that all come back to the cult of amateurism surrounding college. I am obviously poaching my core idea here from the issue of whether college athletes ought to receive greater compensation for their labor, but this cult extends beyond NCAA rules about amateurism. There is a perpetual cycle of hand-wringing about how college students are spoiled and insulated from the “real world” that they will face after graduation, whether in the service of lamenting “kids these days” or the failures of higher education. And if college is not the “real world” for students who are set adrift in their “Odyssey Years” (as David Brooks called it in 2007), then it cannot be the “real world” for their professors, either.

About those professors. There is a persistent myth of overpaid and unfireable professors who are detached from the goings on of that mythical real world. Compounding this problem is that many, if not most, people with advanced degrees have made sacrifices for their field by spending years on meager stipends in graduate school. A common explanation for this is that their research amounts to a passion project. Even glossing over the fact that most professors, myself included, are contingent employees with limited benefits, most tenured professors are not overpaid, either for their level of education or their time. Professors are expected to be experts in their field, prepare, teach, and grade for classes, mentor students, perform world-class research in their field, develop outreach programs, and serve on institutional and professional committees, just as a baseline.

And yet there is also a bias that underlies this op-ed, namely that there is a distinction between “doers” and “teachers.” In the 2000 film “Finding Forrester” featuring Busta Rhymes, a gifted young writer (Rob Brown) is persecuted by his teacher (F. Murray Abraham) and is accused a plagiarizing the work of William Forrester (Sean Connery) until it is revealed that the teacher is a bigger failure as a writer. The argument, then, is that teachers are people who couldn’t hack it in their particular field. (The film makes no concession to the fact that most authors have a day job that may or may not involve writing.)

The author doesn’t go so far as to call professors failures, but she strongly suggests that there there is industry on the one hand and higher education on the other. “Professor” should not be a career, but a position that needs to be cycled through because it results in the professors being out of the loop. This model might be viable for some positions in some fields that rely on industry connections, but, at the same time, universities and colleges often work in tandem with industry in those fields already, with the schools providing cheap labor and resources. Where the model doesn’t work at all is in the humanities, where so much of the research is performed by scholars in higher education. In these cases, mandatory years off not only don’t improve the student education, but actively hurt it.

Higher education is an industry. It employs all sorts of people from maintenance staff to food service professionals to fundraisers and secretaries, but there are two groups without which it cannot exist: students and professors. Work as a professor is not manual labor and has its own schedule, but it is a form of modern white-collar employment.

Of course, the valorization of “real work” cuts both ways. There are plenty of examples of academics who simultaneously look down upon and feel nostalgia for labor that they would never do.

While we’re here, many students are employed, either by the university in the vicinity, and juggle those responsibilities alongside their coursework and professional development opportunities. College has its own set of rules and expectations, but thinking about it as something other than “the real world” is a lazy trope long past its expiration date.

Finally, a word about the point of education. The author concedes that “higher education is not all about career advancement,” but her basic thrust is nevertheless that disrupting the status quo for professors is the only way to ensure students “find their professional niche, alongside the robots.” Humanities and a liberal arts education that teach citizenship are given barely a sentence in the conclusion, without any recognition that these are disciplines that teach the sorts of analytical thinking and communication skills that perhaps most correlate to coexistence with an increasingly automated economy.

By all means, increase resources and opportunities for pedagogical training alongside research support, and find ways to ensure professors stay abreast of the latest developments in their field. As for the internship, there are already years of graduate school, so finding a way to work more pedagogical training into the curriculum ought to be doable. We should not excuse those professors who are oblivious to the difficulties facing students, but the rest of this proposal is a one-size-fits-all solution that frames the virtues of the liberal arts as incidental and therein lies the bigger problem.

A question of sorts about tuition

College is too expensive, and for every glowing report about the financial returns of a college degree, another blows apart those numbers by showing that particular schools and particular careers that, by grace of family connections, artificially inflate the numbers. At the same time, U.S. Taxpayers are disproportionately subsidizing the elite universities with large endowments— schools that spend more money managing their portfolios than on scholarships. The jobs of Presidents hang on their ability to pull in large donations. Most colleges are simultaneously seeing increased selectivity and increased enrollment and are crafting incentives to push those numbers higher still. I don’t want to get bogged down in most of those perks and whether they ought to exist or distracted by other cost-saving measures taken by schools or even question where all that money goes. I’ve been lead to believe that universities function through dark rituals carried out by accounts and involving large piles of imaginary money. Yes, I am being glib, but since I know just enough about it to make wildly inaccurate generalizations, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I will focus on the extension of in-state tuition and tuition freezes, because there is something I find troubling here.

On the issue of tuition freezes, I have just one comment: the phrase itself is a red-herring. Promises to eliminate or freeze tuition do not keep down the price, but adds incentive to call the bills something else, usually fees. The itemization of the bill is a nice addition, but it also represents rhetorical chicanery when some of the fees can plausibly be argued to belong in the tuition pile. For instance, in graduate education, there are instances where students with tuition waivers nevertheless pay a fee for every credit they take. Fees or tuition, the result is the same: costs rise.

My working hypothesis on the split between in-state and out-of-state tuition is that the out-of-state rate represents more or less the full tuition rate, while the in-state is a lower rate because it is subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. This is not to say that there is a 1:1 correlation, and there is the added variables of federal funding and donations, but, in general, this seems to be a reasonable model. Likewise, though I haven’t seen it stated outright, it seems likely that state taxes that go to supporting state higher education institutions are done with this sort of implicit assumption in mind. States are, by and large, reducing their financial support for higher education, for a variety of reasons, which forces out low-income students and results in more cost increases for families.

Working with the model, though, and the fact that states still do help subsidize education, there is another anomaly that has me turned around: the extension of in-state tuition to out-of-state students. The University of Missouri participates in the Midwest Student Exchange Program, which reduces the cost of attendance for students in surrounding states and I have seen other proposals to reduce out of state tuition. The purpose, of course, is to attract ever-more students to the university in order to get more tuition dollars and, as for-profit institutions can attest to, means milking federal funding for all it is worth. International students bring in even more money.

I am sure that I am being overly simplistic with all of this, and it is linked to and symptomatic of all sorts of other issues in the finances of higher education, but I can’t help but wonder if the mad race to bring in students has the side-effect of making these institutions large businesses that happen to reside in a particular state, blurring the lines between where the students come from in order to lure them in. I do wonder if maybe it would be useful to frame the state funding for higher ed specifically as a benefit for in-state students. On the other hand, maybe I am making mountains out of molehills.

The Academic Scandal at UNC


Tegularius beheld the landscape and, lo,
corruption of college athletics sat,
a plague upon the land.

Once pristine halls of learning,
overflowing with the bounty
of peerless intellect and civic virtue,
now wept from open sores,
tears of brawn.

Former monks of the mind,
they of keen vision, untroubled
by brutish pangs of flesh,
now brought low by the base distractions
of the masses.

The NCAA stalks their halls.

As many people have probably heard, there has been a scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill where, over the course of two decades thousands of students, about half of whom were athletes, took “paper classes” or “independent studies” and received disproportionately high grades. What happened was wrong and a failure on the level of pedagogy, administration, and ethics and there is going to be hell to pay on account of it. But there is altogether too much self-righteous finger-wagging going on right now at what is being construed as “the problems of big-money college athletics.” There are problems with college athletics, and there are problems with what happened at UNC, but the two do not completely overlap.

Some basics, taken from the executive summary of the report.

  1. An administrative assistant in the African American studies program, now retired, with the best wishes of the department chair developed the idea of “paper courses.”
  2. The students enrolled in these courses did not have to attend lectures or meet with a professor, but just turned in a term paper.
  3. The assistant “graded” the papers herself, usually reading only the introduction and conclusion, allowing for a significant amount of fluff or plagiarism. She then assigned disproportionately high grades.
  4. The grades artificially buoyed the GPA of many students, which allowed many athletes to stay academically eligible.
  5. thousands of students benefitted from the program, 48% of whom were athletes and half of those athletes were football or basketball players.

The report, or at least the summary is well worth reading. The news coverage has focused on how members of the athletics staff directed struggling student-athletes to the program to keep them eligible and how the students received excellent grades for shoddy or plagiarized work and one that (sort of) finds it troubling that the UNC officials are “eager” to pass the problem off as an sports one rather than an academic one.

My issue with this characterization is that the courses were open to all students. Athletes made up a huge percentage of the enrollment compared to their percentage of the student body, but the courses were not primarily intended to keep student-athletes eligible. In fact, the courses were designed to help types of at-risk and struggling students: sexual assault victims, people with mental illness, underprepared student-athletes, and students from challenging backgrounds. Although the assistant was described as a passionate supporter of UNC athletics, the inspiration came from her experience as a student where the professors (in her mind) unfairly catered to the “best and the brightest” of the students, leaving everyone else to struggle though. The department chair who took a lax approach to the independent study courses evidently also sympathized with the plight of student athletes because of two of his former students were expelled for academic reasons. One was murdered shortly after expulsion. The other went to jail.

Once the word got out about the program, institutions within the school such as fraternities and athletics departments took advantage of the classes in large numbers, with the result that many fraternity members “accidentally” minored in African American studies–something that the administrative assistant did not like, but wasn’t something that could stop without putting an end to the entire program.

I should reiterate: this is a failure of academics, administration, oversight, ethics, etc, etc. BUT: the students who the programs were designed to help are the students most in need of help and are often left behind by academic programs for cultural, environmental, and institutional reasons. This does not justify what happened, but neither is this only an example of corruption spreading from college athletics into the academy. There are blame and failures to go around, and the exploitation of a deeply flawed, but well-meaning system is not limited to the athletic department. The intent was to keep students enrolled so that they could benefit from the promise of a better life provided by college.

In fact, what troubles me the most is that those same people who the designers of the program intended to help remain at risk, while people who didn’t necessarily need the help benefited from it. There needs to be systemic overhaul on account of what went down, but imagining the academy as a virtuous entity, its integrity encroached upon by money-sports are willfully ignorant and are using the athletics as a scapegoat. Too, this vitriol is often a product simply of not liking sports. Thus they try to sever the connection between athletics and sports. There are a number of problems, but one of the big ones is not the relationship of money-sports with the academy, but the relationship more broadly of money with the academy.

Let me conclude with this. I have an extreme dislike of the rhetoric about democracy, but one of its core principles is an equal opportunity for education. At-risk and underprepared students, whether they are athletes, from inner cities, from poor backgrounds, non-native english speakers, or have mental health problems, are the hardest to ensure that right for and are the ones in need of most support. UNC’s program is not the answer, particularly because it circumvented learning rather than enabling it. Everyone, students, teachers, administrators, support staff–as well as legislators who fund college systems–need to create an environment in which any person who wants an education can get one. Of course it isn’t that simple. Students need to be proactive about their own learning and professors need to be more open to helping underprepared students, but it starts with the environment.

–I am also interested to hear other reactions to this story. The athletics angle is pretty well covered by the national media, but I am willing to hear out the case that athletics are the real problem here.

An end of semester thought

Another semester come and gone, or almost. I have a student primed to come in an collect his final exam tomorrow and I am expecting a grade complaint to ensue, but the other context of this post is that I had a student email me last night or early this morning thanking me for being “stricter TA than the others” because it helped her mold her study habits, her reading, and her writing. The student who sent me that message was a delight to have in class (I actually enjoyed that entire section quite a bit, even if the classroom itself made me sometimes feel like Yuri Petrova while I taught), and I did appreciate the way that she phrased her statement that I was a hard-ass, suggesting that I had expectations about what the students should have prepared before class and what we needed to talk about in class rather than that I was a malicious grader.

In a sense this is another “grade inflation” piece following after “confessions” of grade inflators, a piece about grade compression” instead of inflation, this response to the slate Confessions piece, and this from the Harvard Crimson, dated June 5, 1997 that cites a controversy from four years earlier when a professor at Harvard said in the Harvard Magazine that the causes of grade inflation stem from affirmative action in 1969. The way this latest bout of frustration has swirled across social media† has seemed to strike a nerve with academics. People have stumped for their cause of choice, whether that they are not paid well enough to “waste” time arguing grades, standardized tests (and the ensuing results-based education), customer-model of higher education, the desperate need for good teaching evaluations to keep a tenuous employment,‡ etc. Each also has his or her own response…and no one has a feasible solution. What I have been thinking about, rather, is the aura of mystery that surrounds grades.⚔

I can only echo the frustration expressed elsewhere about the student demand for making the grades and what exactly the grades mean. I really don’t care about grades, even though I dutifully assign them throughout the semester, but, like most teachers, it is a dreaded activity. But I am musing about the perception of grades versus reality. In most of my sections my average test score ranges from about a 77 to an 82 simply based on the class makeup and parameters of the exam and caveats about small sample sizes apply–outlier sections will sometimes skew a little bit lower or a little bit higher than that general range and 81 or 82 is probably the most common average I have seen. Mind you that I am talking just about the tests, and there is usually between 10 and 40 percent of the grades that rely on written responses, attendance, etc, for which a student gets full credit simply for completing the task.± The result of these extra points are that students who follow through with the course work have a final grade somewhat higher than their test grades. Even when the students have read the syllabus, many assume that their grade is exactly as it reads on the tests (an observation, nothing more).

I also don’t particularly like to talk about overall course averages because there is a non-negligible chunk of the students who don’t come to class, miss tests, miss in-class quizzes, and don’t complete response papers…these are most of the students who fail the class. With those students in the equation, the course average may dip below that of the exams, but often pulls it back to even with them. Students who do the work are rewarded for it, those who don’t can sometimes float by on exams alone, but if their exams are borderline, slip below into failing range.

I TA for an intro American history class and have been an adjunct,¥ and rarely have full authority over my own course design and final grades, but my students usually walk away from my classes believing that I am a hard grader, and this is something I worry about. I am fine being known as a somewhat demanding instructor so long as it is coupled with the knowledge that I will reciprocate whatever effort the students put in and work with them to master the material. I would also like to be known as a fair grader, though I know that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. My fear boils down not to fairness, though, nor that I am some kind of boogieman set on the earth to terrorize students, but that my expectations are punishing my students. I do not believe this to be the case, but the recent talk of how other professors and other TAs grade makes me wonder–and in a system that prioritizes results over process, is it simply a cop-out to hide behind the syllabus outlining student responsibilities when they cry foul at the end of the semester because missing work has harmed their grade?

I tell myself that I am about average in terms of actual difficulty; I try to challenge my students every week knowing, but often not revealing until the very end of the course, that the students are doing “fine”§ in my class–hey, the grading parameters are in the syllabus. My students may believe me to be some sort of Devourer-of-GPAs, but in the final calculation doesn’t bear that out, even if I made them work to receive the desired grade.

Of course I could be the one bearing the brunt of the punishment from this perception since if I make it seem that I am not handing out top grades across the board–whether or not any possible “deficiency” (that which I call grading) is buttressed elsewhere in the grade–then the perception is that I am punishing students, keeping them from the sterling GPA that they want. Here perception, not reality, is what matters and a perceived lack of inflation/ease/compression/whatever is a sign of curmudgeonly vindictiveness and a signal that that instructor is the GPA-Devourer at fault for whatever bureaucratic issues the student faces. More directly, unless the student has been engaged with me throughout the semester they probably don’t know that they are doing better than the tests might indicate before they fill out their course evaluations.


† I love most things about Twitter, but its ability to enable internet pitch-fork mobs, ardent Jacobins, and devout Crusaders in defense of their perceived (and sometimes correct) injustices is terrifying.

‡ Of course, those evaluations come in before the final grade, so perception is everything. More below.

⚔ Many students say that they prefer multiple-choice, but the grades are actually lower on them, from which many levels of interpretation may be read.

± There may also be prompt-based papers the students have to complete, but they typically are in the same range as the exams and don’t change the calculation about amount of attendance/response/etc points.

¥ Not every student attended every class, but everyone did all the assignments, so I didn’t quite have this problem in that class.

§ Fine can mean that I don’t care about the grade, but in this context it really means that the student is doing much better than they think they are in terms of the overall grade.

Academics

An academic books I read the other day had the word “Crepuscular” in the very last sentence of a chapter. After puzzling at the sentence for a minute without knowing the definition, I decided that it made no sense and looked up the definition. It means “dim” or “of or like twilight.” Suddenly, the entire sentence made sense…and it turned out that the author was trying to say that without that particular historian, we would know little of the time period because no other sources survive. That’s it. Instead he had to write a sentence about how the knowledge of the time period would be crepuscular.1 It was reminiscent of a line from The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss) wherein Kvothe, the main character, comments that a particular philosopher writes as though he is afraid someone might understand what he is saying.

A day later, another academic book went on an extended lament about how the publishing industry does not particularly like academic books because they do not sell well, and, in instructions for a textbook he was writing, the publisher had recommended a causal tone, short sentences, small words, and that he not use foreign phrases in order that the students who would have to use the book would find it approachable.3 This seemed to be a sign that the academy was losing in a larger culture war, overtaken by transient fads and (shock!) the unwashed masses.2 Moreover, he claimed that this attack on intellect has breached the bastion that are academic journals. Suffice to say that I was not sympathetic to his lament.4

Somewhere along the line developed the notion that for something to be “smart” (in all its ambiguity), it must also be all but unintelligible. After all, if just anyone could understand your point, how would we know that you are smart? Sometimes books are difficult to understand because they are presenting really difficult ideas and topics, but more often they are merely jargon-y and obtuse for no particular reason–something that the previous author seemed to regard as a virtue. I venture that it is not, particularly in a field that is designed to educate people. Have a good vocabulary is a virtue, but so too the ability to convey information clearly and concisely.

The glorification of obtuse writing is something that is bought into by both the initiated academics and the lay-person. Several months ago a smart person who is not in graduate school asked me what I study, adding a request as an afterthought that I use words that he is capable of understanding. During the conversation he asked good questions and then, after I had finished, he remarked “I understood all those words!”

This was meant partly in jest and certainly not as a slight or even really praise toward me, but it was telling that after a short conversation with an academic that phrase was at all relevant. At the same time, I often feel that academics are defensive about their position in the world and therefore worship complex writing because it “proves” that we are smarter and better than other people. The need to cater to people who are not readily versed in a battery of French phrases and Latin terms offends the sensibilities because those people are forcing us to stoop to the level of everyone else. I think, though, that this says a lot more about our insecurities than it does about our intellect. It is perfectly acceptable to have a level of assumed knowledge as a prerequisite for academic work, but the idea that the ability to explain your ideas diminishes their intelligence is false. If anything, the ability to explain a complex or new idea in such a way that is intelligible makes that idea smarter.

I think that we would be better served working on our ability to explain our ideas than on writing another essay that is only comprehensible to insiders or (worse) complaining that the real world is cramping our style.5 This does not mean that there should not be books about the musicality of Theocritus, the poetics of Homer, or other obscure topics. These books should exist, but they should also be written in such a way that the uninitiated do not get a headache trying to read the title.6 Hoarded knowledge, hidden knowledge is of no use to anyone.


1 Later in the book he used “vertebrate” as a verb, in that “x vertebrated y with z.” The meaning of this was easy to come by, but I rolled my eyes at it nonetheless.
2 Okay, fine, he doesn’t actually seem worried about the non-bathers taking over the academy, so much as the people who do bathe, but who would rather watch the movie version, read Twilight, and get drunk while they stumble toward a degree and a mid-level bureaucracy position for a career.
3 I refer everyone to Orwell’s rules for writing at the end of Politics and the English Language, with particular emphasis on numbers two and five.
4 I have actually surprised people by supporting the publishing of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey because from a business perspective, the return on those books keeps companies in business and able to publish academic books. There is not a 1:1 correlation, but there is some.
5 I do not agree with them entirely, but Hanson and Heath in Who Killed Homer? are populists in this respect, too.
6 The Violent Body: Marxist Roots of Postmodern Homoerotic Mysticism and the Feminine Form in St. Augustine’s Confessions is actually a relatively benign example of this type of book.

Assorted Links

Some articles that caught my eye in the last few days, including one about higher education that touched a nerve.

1. Why the Scientist Stereotype is Bad For Everyone, Especially Kids – An article that addresses the white, male, bearded, bespectacled, and awkward/deranged stereotype for scientists, as well as the misconception that science is boring. As usual, he argues for a paradigm shift that makes science fun and interesting and results in a better educated workforce.

2. Why Would We Want a Less Educated Nation/ Defending the PhD – A blog post by Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, that discusses some of the many issues of Humanities and Social Sciences PhD programs. Among them include the attrition rates, job markets, and resistance to change while also maintaining the insistence that those who do not achieve a tenure-track job are failures. In many ways, she is trying to appeal to education and intellectualism for its own sake as a way to create and perpetuate an educated society. Commenters universally critique her for being naive here, and the post does come across that way. Perhaps more insidiously, despite the (I believe) well intentioned nature of the post, it also comes across as somewhat condescending and as a self-help session for those people who already seek post-graduate degrees in the humanities. It does call for an expansion of the fields that hire PhDs, but not really encouraging more people to attain those degrees (at least right now). I am sympathetic to the plight–I am, after all, in it–but other than removing stigma of non-academic jobs and, to an extent, changing what is taught by PhD programs, most of the changes are on sectors not in academia.1

The case can be made that there would be a trickle-down effect that would eventually result in more people going to graduate school and yes, a better educated nation is an admirable goal. Yet, I suspect that there are a wide range of environmental and societal issues that must be addressed in order to lay the foundation for the changes that she calls for. So, yes, removing the stigma of non-academic work is necessary, but focusing on the highest level of education, without even looking at whether or not people actually want to go (particularly since we have been conditioned to consider school a drag) is naive.


1 She does manage to write the post without directly attacking Republican legislators, Fox News, or any of the other usual suspects for a case like this, but the attempt to stay high-minded actually feeds into the charges of naivete and condescension.

3. ‘Me too, Me too!’ – A look at some of the dedicated educational centers abroad that are trying to forge professional connections with the top universities in the world.

4. Spoiled Rotten – An article from the New Yorker that looks at the spoiled manner of “American” kids. There are some thought-provoking points here, but there are also some underlying assumptions that are not laid out.

5. A Few Words About Breasts – A piece written for Esquire in 1972 by the late Nora Ephron, republished online.

6. Men Can’t Have it All Either – A Response in the Atlantic to the story by Anne-Marie Slaughter that questions some of proposed changes that Slaughter proposes and points out that what Slaughter identifies as a woman’s issue is really an issue that affects both men and woman in the modern world.

7. Europe is on Big ATM, and Only the Few Know the Code – A post by Charlie Pierce that compares the formation of a central European Treasury to a system with no nations, but only banks.

8. EU Unveils its vision for the future of monetary union – A story about the future of the Monetary Union that sparked Pierce’s comment.