Monday, February 13, 2017

Academia in our moment, not sure if an army of adjunct perma-temps give the academic culture a good platform from which to denounce the new era

More than a decade ago Kyle Gann blogged about what he called the Musicology Ladder.

...   I was primarily not thinking of musicologists, but of theorists and composers, who seem loathe to subject to analysis any music not granted paradigmatic status. And I was also thinking not so much of “academic taste” as much as “acceptable topics of  research.” I’ve never quite gotten over how perplexed my fellow grad students were that I lowered myself to write an analytical paper on Bruckner.

Still, while I haven’t spent much time consorting with musicologists, I have spent enough to learn what a strict composer-based hierarchy the world of musicology is. I was once on a panel with some big names, and highly complimented a famous scholar on his book on Muzio Clementi, which had been a great help to me. He seemed almost irritated that I had brought it up, as though it were some secret from his past that he didn’t want mentioned in front of his colleagues. He had now written a book on Beethoven, which meant he had climbed a couple dozen steps up the musicology ladder. And I have learned in that world that to have written the first book on Nancarrow was a miniscule accomplishment, almost negligible, compared to writing the 67th book on Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms. In the world of music historians, your stature is exponentially proportional, not to the quality of your research and writing, but to the prestige of the composer you can claim to be an expert on.

I've vented at this blog a time or two on how difficult it was to find any monographs on sonata forms in the guitar literature. There are precious few.  There have been a couple of nicely done doctoral dissertations since 2012 or so on the topic but that's a depressingly recent vintage. 

The general impression I've gotten from some of Gann's lucid rants about academia is that too much of contemporary American academia is less about teaching or scholarship than what I'd have to describe as the semblance of a prestige racket. 

Sure, in the age of Trump we can get an assurance from Rebecca Schuman over at Slate that, more than ever, academia is important.  A bit too predictably there's linkage to the plight of adjunct faculty and then there's this conclusion:

Perhaps the answer moving forward, then, is not to join in the mockery of jargon, but to double down on it. Scholars of Yiddish studies are happy to tell you the thousand-year-old language developed as a kind of secret code so that its speakers could talk freely under the noses of their oppressors (and, yes, sometimes mock them). Perhaps academic jargon could serve a similar purpose. Yes, perhaps the last hope to problematize fascistoid nonprogressive edges, so to speak, is to reterritorialize the oppositional vernaculars. But perhaps that was the point all along, and jargon has been lying patiently and usefully in wait for all this time, a secret code in search of a foolish tyrant.

Translated into more vernacular parlance, the beauty of academic jargon is that it is opaque to those not currently fluent in it. To translate the thrust of this idea, academic jargon may play a necessary role, as the dog whistle to left-leaning academics who want to talk against the current administration without doing so in a way that could jeapordize funding of programs.  The trouble is that as some old author of yore might have put it, some ideas are so stupid only intellectuals can believe them.  The idea that the current administration represents a virulently anti-academic mindset could probably be agreed upon by a whole lot of people across the political spectrum. 

It's just that the trouble is even within an ostensibly left academy there's not exactly a consensus that right-wing billionaires are the whole problem.  Sure, there's any number of pieces about the emergent alt-right but what seems to have been slightly under-discussed in intra-left coverage is that if you go back and look at which movements gained momentum within what's call the alt-right these days, which groups were these?  To go by press coverage, white nationalists and devotees of Ayn Rand.  Huh, where were all these people before?  Did not evil Republicans and conservatives exist over the last half century?  Certainly they did but how is that it's only been in the last twenty odd years the alt-right has been able to develop?

At the risk of reminding people of something a whole lot of people might already know, the groups in the alt-right that gained traction kinda ... look like the groups William F. Buckley and others kicked to the curb in the mid-20th century.  If a person were willing to entertain a conspiracy narrative it's almost as if the alt-right represents a kind of political revenge or payback oment for those groups that tried to have a role in mainstream conservatism but got deliberately sidelined for their views on race or their explicitly and reflexively antagonistic view of the state.  Now there could be any number of criticisms leveled at how and why someone like Buckley did this.  That said, there's a sense in which the center-left might want to remember that not having someone like Buckley around to deliberately keep the alt-right from becoming viable is the kind of thing that's hard to appreciate until that kind of person isn't around any longer. 

The dilemma of the adjunct faculty is, if anything, a self-incriminating complaint to articulate from within academia, though not necessarily for the adjunct faculty themselves.  Biblioblogger Jim West was pretty direct and specific:

The adjunct crisis exists because too many departments have too many PhD students. The only cure is for departments to offer PhD’s for the number of jobs there actually are.
Creating 500 PhD holders when there are only 30 positions suitable for those PhD’s is not only immoral, it is driven purely by economic considerations on the part of the University.

Student debt would be, potentially, less of a crisis if universities stopped offering to take on students for advanced degrees who, on balance, stand no real chance of getting gainful employment within the academy because those tenured spots don't exist.  Now, sure, arts people and academics can be upset Trump got the Electoral College vote.  And there will be no end in sight to proclamations that theater, for instance, should stop staging Mamet.  The idea that theater is socially important is a little tough to buy, personally, but artists can take stands for what they believe in.  But some of us made the awkward discover decades ago that if we had, say, a degree in journalism, there were vanishingly few real-world options for using that degree within the industry.  The dissolution of the conventional press over the last twenty or thirty years would be a separate post if I felt like doing that. 

An op-ed like this about the decline of the regional press has a few things to commend to it.  This blog spent the better part of six or seven years compensating for the failure of the local press to adequately cover the life and times of what was once Mars Hill.  It takes very little to preach to this choir on the failures of the local press due to a lack of stable institutions or a steady job market.  Yet the double bind remains, while the conventional press faltered big time in 2016 it's not as though blogs or bloggers are taken seriously apart from some exceptional cases.  Perhaps like the academy the formal, institutional press has a propensity to only take itself seriously. 

There was an award handed out recently, actually, and the recipient of that award gave a little talk, linkable thanks to ArtsJournal.  The topic was the adjunct faculty problem..
We cannot blame this professional anemia on scarce funding. The largest adjunct-faculty increases have taken place during periods of economic growth, and high university endowments do not diminish adjunctification. Harvard has steadily increased its adjunct faculty over the past four decades, and its endowment is $35.7 billion. This is larger than the GDP of a majority of the world’s countries.

The truth is that teaching is a diminishing priority in universities. Years of AAUP reports indicate that budgets for instruction are proportionally shrinking. Universities now devote less than one-third of their expenditures to instruction. Meanwhile, administrative positions have increased at more than 10 times the rate of tenured faculty positions. Sports and amenities are much more fun.

But the problem goes deeper than administration as well. It’s systemic. The key feature of adjunctification is a form of labor-market polarization. The desirability of elite faculty positions doesn’t just correlate with worsening adjunct conditions; it helps create the worsening conditions. The prospect of intellectual freedom, job security, and a life devoted to literature, combined with the urge to recoup a doctoral degree’s investment of time, gives young scholars a strong incentive to continue pursuing tenure-track jobs while selling their plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This incentive generates a labor surplus that depresses wages. Yet academia is uniquely culpable. Unlike the typical labor surplus created by demographic shifts or technological changes, the humanities almost unilaterally controls its own labor market. [emphasis added] New faculty come from a pool of candidates that the academy itself creates, and that pool is overflowing. According to the most recent MLA jobs report, there were only 361 assistant professor tenure-track job openings in all fields of English literature in 2014-15. The number of Ph.D. recipients in English that year was 1,183. Many rejected candidates return to the job market year after year and compound the surplus.

It gets worse. From 2008 to 2014, tenure-track English-department jobs declined 43 percent. This year there are, by my count, only 173 entry-level tenure-track job openings — fewer than half of the opportunities just two years ago. If history is any guide, there will be about nine times as many new Ph.D.s this year as there are jobs. [emphasis added] One might think that the years-long plunge in employment would compel doctoral programs to reduce their numbers of candidates, but the opposite is happening. From the Great Recession to 2014, U.S. universities awarded 10 percent more English Ph.D.s. In the humanities as a whole, doctorates are up 12 percent.

Why? Why are professional humanists so indifferent to these people? Why do our nation’s English departments consistently accept several times as many graduate students as their bespoke job market can sustain? English departments are the only employers demanding the credentials that English doctoral programs produce. So why do we invite young scholars to spend an average of nearly 10 years grading papers, teaching classes, writing dissertations, and training for jobs that don’t actually exist? English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want. [emphasis added]


I really wanted to get into academia in my late teens and early twenties.  A mere two or three years out of college with an undergraduate degree and I just about gave up all hope of a master's or doctoral study.  Ten or eleven years ago I looked into things again and discovered that basically the whole prospect was a waste of time.  Grad school in music involves jumping through a lot of hoops, generally necessary hoops but not all of them may have been, strictly speaking, completely necessary.  A certain local program is pretty solid but without an undergrad degree in music you're off the table for any consideration.  It wasn't worth it to get an undergrad degree in music from scratch, which was the only option on offer (for want of a better way to put that). 

A few years ago I looked into continuing education for non-musical stuff and discovered that there wasn't really a lot by way of financial aid if you already got an undergraduate degree and had neither married nor served in the military nor brought a child into the world.  If you were divorced there were options, or a parent, but if you managed to not bring babies into the world through a formal or informal pair bond, good luck.  It began to seem that whatever advantages a degree theoretically conferred on the job market didn't even hold up in theory.  The more time goes by the more grateful I have become to have been unable to participate in academia and it's not because I lost my love of learning.  I'm incubating a blog post or maybe two about ways to imagine structural space in three-dimensional terms to create a model for synthesizing ragtime and sonata form based on manipulations of the syntax and vocabulary of the respective idioms.  It's been fun.  When I read academics or music journalists try to write about music the usual idiotic bromides abound, something about how writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  It's one thing if Richard Taruskin says too much academic music writing is bogged down by the arcane shop talk of theorists; it's another to bask in some kind of cult of hidden knowledge on the possibilities of overlap between blues and fugue based on some reverse of the Herderian mythology about truly German music. 

I read the above statements about the adjunct faculty situation and one of the things that comes to mind is that if the university system is so morally bankrupt as to keep taking in students whose advanced degrees can't possibly land them well-paying jobs in academia itself how do these fools think they have a moral high ground from which to condemn Trump?  If the academic culture that abuses adjunct faculty is as it has been described then academia is overrun with a surplus of labor in a way that all but vitiates talk about the problems of late capitalism or neoliberalism.  If anything academia as a prestige racket for those who believe their readings of performatives of dissent exempt them from being part of a ruling elite is the apotheosis of the problem or can we just forget the history of how leftist revolutions have a track record of culminating in the liquidation of intellectuals?  If there were to be a leftist revolution in which intellectuals didn't get liquidated that'd be great!  I don't even self-identify as particularly left but the trouble is that the history of the left and right alike has its share of scholars getting disappeared in one form or another. 

It's hard to shake the sense that modern people are basically totalitarian ideologues in contemporary technocratic societies and that this isn't really a question of left or right or red or blue but of the nature of the human condition as we now have it.  After a decade in and around Mars Hill and seeing how the partisans for and against behaved and argued it was impossible to shake the sense that humans are social creatures and that we are, to put it crudely, kool-aid drinkers by nature.  It's never a question of whether or not we're going to drink the proverbial kool-aid, it's what flavor we'll down and why.  In an era when it seems as though people across the spectrum want a race war or a class war or a civil war that they can claim they didn't start the people who seem least able to speak with a moral high ground these days are, unfortunately, academics.  The idea that if you just go to a decent school and get a degree you'll land a solid job seems like a  hat trick.  The discourse of privilege would seem to be off limits to anyone with enough college education to know what the term is.  Perhaps the performative of privilege assessment is itself the indicator of privileged status.

Kevin Birmingham's polemic is nothing if not direct, the assertion is that the adjunct faculty disaster is entirely the fault of the academic culture that has cultivated it.

You can't trust these people to stand up to Trump, can you?  Sure maybe the majority of academics are at least not at, say, for-profit universities, but is the prestige racket of the state school without its own problematizing dynamics of commodifying students and giving them a panacea of ideology through which they exempt themselves from the recognition of their own privilege?  Or is handing out more degrees than the job market can accommodate a way to level the field there?  Maybe the kids who get higher-five-figures or six-figures into student debt feel like victims because they really have been exploited but not merely by the creditors.  After all, if you don't choose to go to a school do you borrow money for the school?  Of course you don't. 

If the great need for academic jargon is the need articulated over at Slate then that need is for dog whistles.  There's no way to sugar coat that, really.  While the left has a few writers writing about right-wing dog whistles, dog whistle politics can exist anywhere where guilds want to hold on to what's theirs even if a few people have to be sacrificed along the way. 

I really didn't want Trump in the office, but when I read the self-exonerating op-eds of academics it's sometimes too easy to understand why the ostensibly uneducated resent the holders of college degrees.  Maybe those of us with college degrees don't get despised for having college degrees.  Some of my dearest friends are high school dropouts and we've got no problems talking about ancient Middle Eastern military campaigns or comparing Cicero to biblical texts on friendship or watching Batman cartoons.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and propose that people won't begrudge you your education if you don't wear it like a badge that tells them they have to think of you as inherently better than them.  Wisdom and even intellect are no the same as formal credentials.  If the academy wants to take a stand against someone like Trump dropping the charade of the prestige racket may be one of the things that needs to happen.  Otherwise academia will stand against Trump (at this point probably not really) while taking on students who go into debt in the hope of getting jobs that don't even exist and at that point people in academic institutions speaking against someone like Trump fooling people with impossible promises to fulfill unrealistic dreams will look like tenured/administrative pots calling the kettle-in-chief black. 

Sometimes it feels like people with graduate degrees can't joke about Sarah Palin and the bridge to nowhere--it sure seems like the level of adjunct teaching going on these days suggests that the average graduate degree earned has become its own bespoke bridge to nowhere for that person who went and got the degree, courtesy of American higher education.  The creepy thing about academia seems to be that it doesn't recognize that the most damning evidence for what's endemic in late capitalism and the contemporary dynamic labor exploitation may be the very nature of contemporary higher education itself. Or at least to go by what some in academia seem able and willing to say about it in the last ten years ... it sure seems to be hard to avoid getting that impression.

1 comment:

Cal P said...

This is all too real for me.

The problem is that university faculties are hardly Left, at least not in the traditional sense. They are the quintessential limousine liberals. They have cocktail parties, drive BMWs and talk about Derrida or Foucault, and then drive back to their home in the suburbs. They don't actually live in a world any different than, say, the Tea Partier or rightish middle management.

I think the categorization of left and right usually misunderstands real divisions from perceived or false divisions. Clinton was way more "conservative" on issues of war and economy than Bush Jr., but she waved a rainbow flag and got some pictures snapped with inner city youth and now she's Left. This is basically the academy. It's high-minded rhetoric that disguises (and sometimes self-deceives) the fact that it's not much different than the corporate world. It's a game of smoke and mirrors and I really get exhausted from all the hysteria about Trump. I think academia is one of the branches of the technocratic priesthood of America, and no one likes it to be told that your robes are profane and you are a streetdweller just like the rest.

"Wisdom and even intellect are no the same as formal credentials." If I were a little more unstable, I'd tattoo that on my right arm.