THE IMAGINARY TOWER

Posted in Rants on March 26th, 2012 by Ed

The best part about being a professor in this country – I can't speak for any other – is that no one really understands what we do but everyone knows that we're doing it wrong. Don't get me wrong, we should be open to criticism from the public, elected officials, and so on. But in exchange, critics should make at least some effort to understand how academia works and how it's structured. The failure to do so leads media figures and armchair critics to make mistakes like pointing out the salary for full professors at Top 50 universities without realizing that the overwhelming majority of teaching is done by temps – adjuncts, visitings, grad students, etc. – and 99% of the institutions of higher education in this country are nowhere near R1 schools in terms of salary. Sometimes this is done with the intent of misleading a public that doesn't know any better. In other cases it's probably legitimate ignorance that "Full Professor" is a title worn by only a small percentage of instructors at any school.

I have grown accustomed to the fact that academics understand how academia works and most people outside of it do not. That's OK. I don't know much about how your job or field works either. That's why I don't make a habit of telling you that you're not working hard enough, that you make too much money, or that I have some brilliant ideas about how to radically change your industry. I do expect, however, that people within academia will understand it. At the very least. But there are some people who don't.

They are called administrators. Here's one who has been given an audience in the Washington Post for reasons that have not yet revealed themselves:

With the 1970s advent of collective bargaining in higher education, this began to change. The result has been more equitable circumstances for college faculty, who deserve salaries comparable to those of other educated professionals. Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.

Not changed, however, are the accommodations designed to compensate for low pay in earlier times. Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions. For example, Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: "Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty." While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

Near the end, he shares this knee-slapper:

While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth. And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

Yep, that's what I do over summer and winter breaks – I go on vacations and I work at my other job. I'm a chimney sweep.

We could pick apart this douchebag's argument all day and it would accomplish little. Anyone who titles a piece "Do Professors Work Hard Enough?" is just dangling bait. And of course anyone who has spent five minutes in academia understands that if salary is the problem, grab the machete and start chopping away at the administration. I mean, god knows we need six assistant Deanlets and Vice Presidents of Instruction for every academic unit. And god knows they earn every penny of that $250,000 they take home every year. Yes, let's ignore that for now.

The biggest problem, and most academics will be loath to admit this, is that it's not hard to find examples that prove this author's point. Every department in every university in this country has that faculty member, the one or two tenured people who do absolutely nothing to justify their salary. You're either fooling yourself or oblivious to your surroundings if you think everybody's busting ass in your department. I have encountered tenured faculty who average about ten hours per week (if that) on campus. It happens. Of course, most of us Ph.D. holders work like mules for salaries that we're embarrassed to tell our friends who have high school diplomas. There's always that one asshole who decides that tenure means quasi-retirement and who knows how to milk the system.

In other words, academia is exactly like every other profession. Most people work hard. Some people are lazy sacks of crap.

We know how much right-wing media figures love to indict large groups of people based on anecdotal evidence. Even one case will do. That's just lazy journalism. In fact, based on this column I think we need to start asking whether our editorial writers are working hard enough. I've heard stories about burned out hacks who churn out WaPo columns in 45 minutes using only a cut-and-paste database of conservative talking points.

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THE OLD GUARD

Posted in Rants on January 24th, 2011 by Ed

A hypothetical scenario for a college professor.

Bob is a graduate student. One semester he gets seriously depressed and misses several weeks of class. For reasons beyond anyone's comprehension, I, the professor, cannot simply talk to Bob and come to an agreement about how to handle the work he missed and his grade. The obvious choice would be to give him a grade of Incomplete and require him to make up the work later, but I determine that the course is just too important and he has fallen irredeemably behind his cohort – which means he should be withdrawn from the class and required to take it again. Instead I decide to email the entire cohort of graduate students to poll them on what should be done with Bob. I say, "One of your classmates has depression and missed a bunch of class. Should I give him an A, B, or C? Should he get the grade he had at the time he stopped attending? Should he be given zeroes for his missed grades and given a final grade accordingly? Help me out here!"

Look at that story. It's like a game: circle all of the things that are illegal, against university policy, or just plain inappropriate. I revealed personal information about one of the students to his classmates, information that is likely to embarrass him. Of course they all know who has been absent, so efforts to "anonymize" the situation are silly at best. I decided to poll students about a grading decision that I should make based on established university policy – after all, it is not likely that this is the first time as student has ever missed classes for personal reasons.

The only thing that could make this more inappropriate – with the potential exception of the phrase "One of your classmates has a burning chancre on his penis" – would be for the professor to discuss the details of this situation with the whole grad cohort in class. With Bob in the room.

While this is not the most realistic hypothetical, if you replace "depression" with "pregnant" and "Bob" with a female this is essentially what happened in a graduate program at UC-Davis. A pregnant female student had her personal situation and grade opened up for discussion by a male professor who, despite being fully tenured and with many years of experience, has apparently never had a pregnant woman in his class. Or perhaps even met one.

There are several problems here, not the least of which is an ancient, tenured asshole who probably longs for the days when a male professor could tell female students "This is a man's field. Go study anthropology" without consequences and with the unanimous approval of his colleagues. The bigger problem is the extent to which academics (and other people in highly competitive fields in the non-academic world) are not-so-subtly dissuaded from having any sort of life outside of academia. While I'm sure that many departments are good about the issue, female graduate students are usually informed in indirect but certain terms that having a baby in grad school – heck, any time before tenure! – is not a good idea. It is an inconvenience during grad school and a burden on the job market. After all, who wants to hire a woman who will constantly be taking breaks to breastfeed and leaving at 5:00 to spend time with her children? That's valuable research time! (Male academics who have children, on the other hand, are simply expected to ignore them. Mommy can take care of them. You can stay in the office.)

Academia expects us to have no life whatsoever outside of the campus, although professions like teaching, law, medicine, and nursing (to name a few) are similarly difficult on people during the typical marriage-and-kids years of one's life. That the professor's actions here were inappropriate and probably illegal goes without saying. That graduate programs and attitudes toward young faculty try to shame and punish people who dare to, you know, have a child before it's biologically too late is more disturbing. The message is clear: your job is the most important thing in your life and everything is secondary to the demands of your employer. You know this is wrong and that you should prioritize your family and life over your job. That said, the fact that employees in this country have no power whatsoever (especially in a lousy job market) has a strange tendency to subsume any holistic sense of self-interest and promote one that is defined solely as the need to do whatever is necessary to keep one's job.

Sure, universities could push back against these pressures in our society…but given that the upper tiers of the profession are composed of people who were educated in the 1960s Old Boys' Clubs there is little interest in doing so. Have fun working at Borders after we deny your tenure, Missy. Hope those kids were worth it!

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NPF: THE (OPEN) COVER LETTER

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 29th, 2010 by Ed

Any job applicant, especially in academia, has been drilled at great length about the importance of the almighty Cover Letter. A good one moves an application out of the pile and a bad one moves a file to the trash. A masterful Cover Letter truly is a thing to behold – that is, if you are lucky enough to see such an elusive creature in your fleeting years on this planet. They are reputed to cure cancer with a mere touch of their cotton-bonded stock.

After many attempts at securing employment in academia, I have decided to discard my highly professional, edited, and thoroughly serious Cover Letter. I have been reassured that it is appropriate, but it is failing to deliver the desired results. In its place I have decided to go with a letter that actually sounds like me. Those who know me will doubtlessly label this a poor strategy. However, with the sheer volume of applicants on the market (200+ for American Politics positions) I might as well throw the Hail Mary and see if brutal honesty can help me stand out.

For my fellow academics, rest assured that I am about 63% serious about sending this out with my applications from now on. I mean, there has to be at least one person somewhere in this profession with a personality and a sense of humor who will appreciate this. Someone destined to end up in the middle of every 200-deep pile of applications might as well take some risks, no?

October 30, 2010

Prof. Joseph M. Blow
Chair, American Politics Search
Department of Political Science
University of Anywhere
Pigsknuckle, IA 75018

Members of the Search Committee:

I am writing to apply for the American Politics position at University of Anywhere. I am currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Giant Southeastern Public University and I received my Ph.D. from Giant Midwestern State University in 2009. At this point I am supposed to indicate what specific attributes of your University make it a place at which I want to work. I would rather not patronize you. Let us be frank: I am applying because you have a job opening and I need a job. I have no reason to think that your department is anything but a fine place to work, but I would apply for a tenure-track job on a burning oil rig at this point.

In fairness, the search committee, if using standard search committee logic, has no reason to hire me. With the sheer number of un- and under-employed people in our profession, your pile of 150-some applications has numerous candidates who are superior to me. If you decide based on pedigree, you have plenty of Harvard and Stanford people to choose from. If you are simply counting publications, there are applicants with more than me. If superstar letters of recommendation are your thing, there are applicants who can beat me on that count as well. In fact, everything about me as an academic is average. Decent track record, decent Ph.D.-granting institution, decent recommendations, decent research agenda, decent teaching…well, honestly I'm pretty well above average at the last one but let us not pretend that teaching is a factor in hiring decisions at research universities. I would emphasize my teaching experience but I'd gain as much from telling search committees that I have an impressive stamp collection. Let us just say that if you need it taught, I can teach it and do a pretty good job of it. The 15% of your undergraduate student body that actually pays some attention to academics will like me.

Attached is a description of my research agenda, my teaching philosophy (including evaluations, which I did not cherry-pick to remove the venomous comments), and samples of my work, both published and in progress. You will not read any of this stuff because no rational person is going to read 60-plus pages from hundreds of applications. Frankly I am surprised you've read this far rather than glancing at the University logo in the letterhead and moving to the next file.

I could waste everyone's time talking about projects, publications, teaching awards, and all that stuff we are supposed to brag about in a Cover Letter. But there are now dozens and dozens of people on the market who have those things so it makes more sense for someone like me to take a different approach. So, here's the deal. I work hard, I care about students, I'm devoted to turning out publishable research, I won't be looking to leave for a "better" department as soon as I arrive, and I am not psychotic or interested in departmental politicking. I actually have a personality, albeit one that may not be to everyone's liking, and thus I am neither painfully socially awkward nor a venom-spewing asshole. I mention this only because these characteristics describe such a vast portion of academia. If I get a chance to speak with you about this position you'll find my work pretty interesting and my interest in teaching sincere. Best of all you won't walk away feeling like you had to spend an hour with Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man or a sociopath who erred in choosing Political Science over the joint MBA-JD program. As an added bonus, if you interview me you'll be interviewing at least one person who isn't using your institution as leverage to get a better offer elsewhere.

It would be great to hear from you, but as with any application there is a 99% chance I won't. In that case I wish you luck with whoever you decide to hire. There are all kinds of supporting materials attached on the off chance that you care to read them. I wouldn't recommend it, as doing so will kill your chances of plowing through 150 applications in the 30 minutes before your next class and that three hour late afternoon faculty meeting. I would offer more sympathy for the fact that search committee work has been added to your many other responsibilities but, hey, you're the one with a job. And I'm crazy enough to want to join you.

Regards,
Edward _______, Ph.D. 2009

This is clearly a good idea.

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THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

Posted in Rants on February 15th, 2010 by Ed

The overwhelming majority of Americans don't understand academia. That's OK. There is little reason that anyone outside of it should. It's unfortunate that people like to assume they understand it whenever they feel like ranting about "the ivory tower" and those summabitchin' liberal professors with their fancy book learnin'. It's a basic misconception, for example, that tenure means someone cannot be fired. False. Tenure means that faculty can't be terminated without cause. In other words, their employment is no longer at-will. Tenured faculty can also be terminated if a department is disbanded (which happens more often than you'd think, and will probably happen a lot more with the sterling economy).

The academic world is buzzing over the Amy Bishop case at University of Alabama-Huntsville. If you managed to miss it, a faculty member denied tenure shot six colleagues. Three died. It has since come to light that she murdered her brother in 1986 and used her father's influence over the affairs of her small town to have it written up as "an accident." She was also the prime suspect in the 1993 mail bombing of a superior at Harvard with whom she quarreled. We may rightfully question what kind of background checks UAH purported to do on this person before hiring her, but to understand the whole picture of this tragedy I think it is important to understand a few things about academia.

This post gets lengthy, but the point is brief: the only shocking thing is that this doesn't happen more often.

By the time a career academic goes up for tenure, she is likely between 35 and 40. She has spent her entire professional life (and half of her life overall) feverishly pursuing the singular goal of getting tenure. In many fields this person in her late thirties has so fully committed to academia that she is unemployable outside of it, although this is not quite the case in Bishop's field (biology). She has given up the prime years of her career – years that could have been spent getting a professional degree or breaking into/establishing herself in a line of work – to make $11,000 per annum in grad school for six or eight years. My point is simply that being denied tenure is a crushing blow to an academic and easily as traumatic of a life event as divorce, bankruptcy, or the death of a loved one. Anyone denied tenure is going to be in a precarious emotional state. For an individual who has pre-existing issues with, well, being crazy it is easy to see how a tenure denial could push him or her over the edge.

We are not all ticking time bombs on the verge of going on Whitman-esque shooting rampages, but tenure denial is serious enough that some forethought by administrators should go into handling these situations. In my view some very simple changes could reduce the odds of this kind of tragedy to near zero.

1. No one should ever, ever be present at his own tenure hearing. At any level of the process. It just should not happen. Prepare your tenure file, submit it, and wait. No one should be permitted to attend the meetings, and in fact many departments forbid it. There is no good whatsoever that can come of having the untenured professor present when the decision is made.

2. Colleges need to be much more aggressive about eliminating the subjectivity in the tenuring process. Academics have been griping about this for a century, but it's true: one powerful enemy with a grudge can sink a tenure case. Kissinger once said the fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Tenure isn't small, though. It's someone's career. And a bitter old faculty member smoldering over some imagined slight or sign of disrespect 10 years ago can, in some instances, effectively prevent someone from getting tenure. Standards for research productivity, grants, and teaching effectiveness should be clear and transparent, and denials for reasons outside of that ("collegiality", i.e. not being a complete asshole/psychopath) should be clearly documented from multiple sources. The situation has improved over the years but there remains too large of a subjective element in the tenure process. A lot of people come out of the process feeling like it was unfair; in some cases they are right.

3. The signaling process should make people who are unlikely to get tenure aware of that fact well in advance. This happens quite a bit. People who are in denial or simply not getting it might press on anyway, but department chairs and tenured faculty need to be persistent until the message is received: "You are not going to get tenure. It is in your interests to move on."

4. University administrators are usually a parade of the lame, the halt, and the ugly. Usually failed academics with enormous egos and no interpersonal skills. Well, someone in the administration must be responsible for telling tenure rejectees, "We want to help you find a good position at a smaller school where you can get tenure" and meaning it. Even if the rejectee is universally loathed, someone in this bureaucratic, back-stabbing world that has rejected him must extend the olive branch. Every effort must be made to downplay the message "You are not good enough" and emphasize "Look, it didn't work out here but you have options and we will support you."

5. University-provided psychiatric support should contact tenure candidates throughout the process to offer assistance. Do not rely on emotionally strained people to be proactive and seek help.

6. Most departments have one or two unreasonable, antisocial, violent, or delusional people. And we can all spot them from a mile away. We know who the potential spree killers are. My first year in graduate school, one of my fellow newbies was perhaps the most obviously disturbed person I've ever met outside of a courtroom or institution. A former cop (we could only assume that he was "asked to leave" that line of work) who dabbled in the world of private military contracting, my alarm was going off the first time I shook the guy's hand. After a predictably bad year in the program he emailed a rambling 120-page manifesto to the entire department listserv and quit. The chair of the department awarded him a master's degree, mostly, I suspect, to prevent him from coming back and shooting everyone. My point is that everyone in the department knew this guy was a little off (or worse). Fortunately my department chair was on top of the situation. But let's say the chair or the university was clueless. It would be my responsibility as a faculty member to contact the police on my own and demand that the situation be addressed. When institutions fail, individuals have to act. Pick up the phone. Start a letter-writing campaign to the local paper. Make the university recognize that you have a legitimate and documented reason to believe that a colleague poses a threat.

I'm not implying that tragedies like this can be eliminated; the bomber will always get through, after all. Someone who is a stone-cold lunatic can commit acts of violence despite the best preventive measures. That said, a better understanding of the stakes and potential flash points can reduce the odds significantly. Tenure denial is psychologically and professionally devastating. Combine that with the tendency of academics to be a little weird and antisocial to begin with and the recipe for disaster exists. Yet taking the basic, low-cost steps I've described here could make the process so much smoother. Like a death or divorce, tenure denial might feel like the end of the world to an academic, so every reasonable effort must be taken to emphasize that life, not to mention one's career, can go on. If UAH recognized that Amy Bishop was a problem – and certainly some of her colleagues must have come to that conclusion – it is in all of our interest, professionally and personally, to create a system that deals with such problems before they reach this point.

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