May 29, 2003

Sweatshop U?

Stephen Karlson of Cold Spring Shops raises some interesting questions with reference to some recent discussions (here and also here) on the academic job market:

...but is the research calling really the type of market in which a tournament is most efficient at identifying talent (and Cornell's Robert Frank has written some gloomy stuff about that kind of market) or is the job of teaching and grading really so burdensome that it has to be farmed out as sweated labor? Or has the enterprise of higher education mutated into a credentialling mill in which a University of Phoenix that produces no original thought sets the pace for the rest?

He also comments briefly on today's discussion (at this blog, over at SCSU Scholars here and also here, and at EconLog) on the economics of tenure and promises that a "rant comes later tonight."

One quick comment: when faculty find teaching a burdensome distraction from their "real" work, I think something has gone horribly awry. Of course it is not surprising that this is increasingly the case, given the increased demands of publication. But if I may speak frankly (and I guess I may, since I'm speaking on my blog), a good deal of what is now "produced" by humanities scholars is just shite. Not all of it, mind you, but too much of it. Quite simply, the "publish or perish" imperative pushes people to produce work before they are ready. In this respect, I think the fashionable gibberish of which critics often complain can be seen as a kind of shortcut and substitute for the type of thoughtful and well-considered work that scholars might produce if they had more time. Anecdotally speaking, I know of many scholars in my field who hardly look at the journals anymore, because there is so little worth looking at (for an interesting, and shockingly candid, exploration of this theme, see Timothy Burke's "Why Journals Suck"). But given the oversupply of candidates and the degradation of the job market in many humanities disciplines, it is all but inevitable that publication will carry greater and greater weight, for this is one area in which evaluative criteria can be based on something quantitative.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 29, 2003 01:19 AM

As an ABD in English, I more and more got the impression that you could only say so many things about Pride and Prejudice or Othello or The Vanity of Human Wishes, and most had been said well before my time. The problem with publishing is that there is an economic need among those aspiring to professional advancement to say something arguably new on subjects that have been picked over for generations. This was Stanley Fish's great career achievement.

The fact is, however, that most publication, performed with this aim in mind, is so recondite that it is useless for anything but careerist purposes. I would say that this is an indication of late-stage decadence in the academic profession, and likely will be looked upon as such by future cultural historians.

This was in fact one of the signals to me about 30 years ago to bail out of that career path, a decision I've never regretted.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 29, 2003 03:17 AM

"I would say that this is an indication of late-stage decadence in the academic profession, and likely will be looked upon as such by future cultural historians."

The idea of "late-stage decadence" has also crossed my mind.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 29, 2003 03:29 AM

"Just shite". That's rather good. And I'd have to say you are quite right. Publish or perish has generated a surprisingly mediocre body of work in many fields..More and more writing less well about less and less.

Posted by: Dr_Funk at May 29, 2003 04:31 AM

Actually, I would dispute the idea that humanities scholarship is any more decadent now than it ever has been. (You find this sort of commentary in Victorian discussions of higher education, for instance.)

And it is of course not true that nothing new has been learned about Austen or Shakespeare over the last--to use John Bruce's timeframe--thirty or forty years.

There is often a direct relation between humanities scholarship and teaching. After all, one of the points of such scholarship is to re-establish connections between older texts and modern students and concerns.

Finally, why single out the humanities? Can anyone really pretend that the social sciences are any better off? (Just for fun sometime, ask a quantitative political scientist what she thinks about qualitative studies.) And if people like Marcia Angell--a former editor at the New England Journal of Medicine--are to be believed, a significant amount of pharmaceutical and biomedical research in both universities and private industry is crap, too. (And crap in exactly the sense IA uses it: Pointless busywork that doesn't advance knowledge in any way.)

It is too bad that more research isn't better, and that the current methodological pluralism in many disciplines makes peer review even more dysfunctional than it sometimes is. But I don't think the reason is careerism or bad faith, or even--to invoke the other specter often mentioned--precipitous professionalization.

Posted by: Jason at May 29, 2003 01:26 PM

"when faculty find teaching a burdensome distraction from their "real" work, I think something has gone horribly awry." I suppose so, but I don't agree that all research and publishing is done for fear of perishing. I like teaching but I often think of research as my real work because it is mine. I can read and write whatever I like. Teaching is more constrained, partly by the ability and the interest of my students. Many of them only take courses with me because they have to and are not really very intellectually inclined at all. So teaching becomes a kind of cross between what I think of as actual teaching and PR/stand-up comedy. Teaching students who don't want to learn (they are not ALL like this, but many are) feels quite unreal, even if you do it well. And I do enjoy teaching. But I sometimes feel that I have more integrity, that I'm being more purposefully creative, when I'm doing research. Teaching can seem more or less pointless, partly because it's so hard to tell how well you're doing it. When you sense that you have helped wake someone's mind up it feels good, but it's hard to know whether this sense is an illusion.

Posted by: Duncan at May 29, 2003 03:28 PM

Jason says, "And it is of course not true that nothing new has been learned about Austen or Shakespeare over the last--to use John Bruce's timeframe--thirty or forty years." Well, I guess there's always something new, always something that hasn't been said, but there's the economic concept of marginal utility. What is the marginal utility of one more article on any member of the canon?

This is also, I think, a reason that the "canon" has been expanded to include Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour. I know these have been done; I'd be interested to hear if Robert Ludlum is in there now.

Duncan talks about the unpleasant side of teaching. This was one of the signals that told me it was a good idea to leave the business. I'm sorry to read posts from people who sound as if they actively dislike that part of the work. You're darn right many students are unmotivated. It was an important experience for me to see that some of my peers in various low-level and part-time teaching jobs were enthusiastic about the work and seemed to relish spending time with some of the least promising students, fully realizing how little success they were likely to have. Comparing this with me, I saw it was possible to have a level of dedication I didn't have. These are the little signals it's worth listening to in life.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 29, 2003 04:07 PM

"But I sometimes feel that I have more integrity, that I'm being more purposefully creative, when I'm doing research. Teaching can seem more or less pointless, partly because it's so hard to tell how well you're doing it. When you sense that you have helped wake someone's mind up it feels good, but it's hard to know whether this sense is an illusion."

Yes. I know that my research is good, interesting and valuable, both because other people have told me so and because grad school, if nothing else, gives you a sense of how to evaluate research. Teaching feels more like a black box. Granted, I try to make it as transparent as possible, with the use of student feedback cards, evals, self-evals, colleague visits, etc. but I find it hard to believe in my own competence here. I must not stink -- my students don't slam me mercilessly in my evals and no one's complained to the chair -- but am I good at teaching? I have very little clue here.

Then there's the issue that a lot of teaching involves explaining the (to you very well known) basics to people who have yet to learn them. This can be rewarding in its own way, but it's a different sort of reward than that which you get from struggling through a tricky new idea yourself.

It might be different teaching graduate students, though. I've certainly noticed that it's more interesting to teach "adult learners" than younger students, charming though the latter can be.

Posted by: Rana at May 29, 2003 06:04 PM

In response to John Bruce: there's least promising students and there's least promising students, if you see what I mean. Nobody would "relish" trying to teach my least promising students. They are lazy, stupid, anti-intellectual, and very rude (if not threatening). Now, I haven't had any like this for years, and I only ever had about one a year or so at most, but I don't think my aversion to them shows that teaching is not for me. I like teaching, as I think I said. The problem is more this: when a class is fun, I wonder whether that's all it was; when a class seems productive, I wonder whether this is my imagination. Most of my classes seem both fun and productive to me and, as far as I can tell, to my students. But we know how many facts students forget in later life. Who's to say the same isn't true of critical thinking skills developed, imaginations fired, etc.? And on the (relatively few) days when it isn't fun, then I sometimes wonder what the point of it all is. On the other hand, when I'm learning and devloping new ideas, I never wonder whether it's worthwhile. Perhaps what I originally meant is that teaching involves compromise, since you need to meet students somewhere about half way. Research isn't like this so I think of it more as MY work (rather than OUR work). This is one good thing about research that teaching doesn't really offer. Teaching higher level students might be different, but I have my doubts. That's not to say teaching has no up side. I wouldn't want to give either up.

Posted by: at May 29, 2003 06:23 PM

Thomas Szasz once defended (though damned if I can find the reference) judging academics teaching ability on their publication record with this argument:

We may not know or be able to judge all aspects of what makes a good teacher, but one of the elements, perhaps the most important, is surely that he/she knows stuff about his/her subject that he/she can impart. A measure that someone knows more about a subject than other people is the eagerness with which third parties are prepared to publish their thoughts on it. A longer publication record in journals with higher submission rates indicates greater editorial eagerness. Hence greater knowledge, hence something more to teach.

I'm not sure I can easily refute this argument.

Posted by: jam at May 29, 2003 06:28 PM

I singled out humanities because that's the area I know. I certainly don't mean to suggest that it's all worthless, not by any means (though that may be the effect of my post, written in a cranky mood). And I agree that scholars should have a real engagement with their research and writing, which is an important part of academic work. But I still maintain that there's too much stuff published, that the publish or perish imperative favours quantity over quality, and that too much of what comes out is ephemeral at best.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 29, 2003 06:32 PM

I agree that this argument makes sense up to a point. But I think we can reach a point where so much is published that the very fact of publication no longer carries the weight that it once did. Perhaps a better measurement would be how often the published work is then cited by other scholars (highly impracticable, of course, and probably all but impossible to implement).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 29, 2003 06:38 PM

So what I'm reading here is that teaching can be much more challenging, perplexing, emotional, scary, exhausting, (in other words harder) than research. Hmmmmm...imagine that! I guess our profession isn't a cakewalk after all!

Posted by: Cat at May 29, 2003 07:03 PM

Certainly in English and related fields like comp lit, you-name-it studies, etc., what is published in journals is by and large jargon-laden, politically correct, deconstructionist twaddle -- I've heard the overall style described as "writing meant to intimidate", presuming that the reader is fully familiar with the jargon, the allusions to correct attitudes, and so forth.

I don't have first-hand experience with trying to get something clear and useful published in such an environment, but I would assume that journals that adopt the postmodernist style and approach would not normally publish material that might shed real light on a particular author in a traditional way.

So in many fields, I would say that publication is not an indication of how well a teacher can make something clear; it is more an indication of how well the teacher adheres to the current groupthink -- and the teacher's adeptness at touching all the stylized professional bases.

This puts a penalty on valuable qualities like independent thought or careful analysis.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 29, 2003 07:26 PM

Cat: that sounds like a response to me (or am I getting paranoid?). No one who teaches would deny that it is hard. I was trying (perhaps not very successfully) to explain why it can seem less REAL than research. There's no tangible result, or even a clear feeling of success (or of failure). So when people think of teaching as a distraction from their real work I don't think there's NECESSARILY a problem, since I find such feelings understandable despite the fact that I am quite committed to teaching (I wouldn't give it up even if I won the lottery). It is burdensome for all the reasons you give. It does get in the way of doing research. And, this was my point, it can seem less like real work than research. None of this is to deny that it can be fun, etc.

Posted by: Duncan at May 29, 2003 07:59 PM

I wasn't targeting anyone in particular, just enjoying reading about how people feel towards teaching and bouncing those comments off of the public's perception of teaching as not being work. As far as I'm concerned, any job that involves dealing with people and their contrary ways is much, much harder than research (try waitressing and then try research and tell me which one is more draining). When I do research, I can shut myself away from people, and (usually) I don't argue back like people do, etc. I guess comparing research to teaching is fruitless because they are different kinds of fruits! But I'm heartened to see the comments I'm seeing here. It shows the reality of classroom teaching and how much it can make one feel uncertain about so many things. We need to be talking about this issue. I especially liked the comment about the black box. You don't ever REALLY know what students are thinking, and that can be scary! I still wonder if there isn't an alterior motive behind any degree of student friendliness. You aren't ever really sure of where you stand, or even what a "good" teacher is. Most of us can evaluate research with some degree of accuracy. The realness issue is also compelling. For me, the very reality of teaching is the tough part. Research often seems unreal, yet I have more control over it than I do over people. For me, the "unreal" (abstract world of reserach) is easier to handle than the "real" or the frontline aspect of working in the classroom.

Posted by: Cat at May 29, 2003 08:32 PM

Anyone know anything about the rise of journals as a forum for publication of academic work? I often have a hunch that philosophy is especially susceptible to some kind of historical argument - that quite recently, philosophy was done in a different way, without so much emphasis on (journal) publication. I don't know about other disciplines, though. I think philosophy professionalized a bit later than some others.

Posted by: Josh at May 29, 2003 08:57 PM

(That it was done differently recently being some support for there being another way to do it, at all.)

Posted by: Josh at May 29, 2003 10:41 PM

Adding on to my earlier thoughts about the black box and in response to subsequent observations...

I think additional parts of the trickiness that is teaching are (1) there are so many variables (esp. in the form of students) involved (as Cat noted), and (2) there's often little basis for comparison. On point one: there have been too many days where I have worked very thoughtfully and carefully on a class lesson only to have it be a dud, and others where I literally came up with an activity on the way to campus that was a roaring success. Under such conditions it's hard to believe that my skills as a teacher have much to do with what goes on in the classroom. Add in the simple fact that some students will succeed no matter the situation, and some will fail no matter how much you try to work with them, and you begin to wonder about how relevant you actually are.

However... one thing I have done on occasion is ask the students to team-teach one class per semester, with me quietly nudging things "behind the scenes" to make it all work. On these days, I become very much aware of all the work and skill and experience that goes into a successful class, because if I'm not on the ball, it all goes in the hopper pretty quickly.

I like the point about research being largely under one's own control. YES. That is a significant part of why I love doing it. That, and the simple fact that holing up with weird old documents that no one's looked at for 80 years is just cool.

That coolness, however, doesn't excuse the researcher from the very real obligation (in my mind, anyway) to explain clearly why other people would and should find this information interesting. Research for research's sake is certainly fun, but not necessarily good scholarship.

Posted by: Rana at May 29, 2003 10:53 PM

John Bruce misrepresents several things in his last 2 posts about research in English:

1. The status of the canon. While it is true that the canon has opened up some, this process doesn't work in the way he describes. For those of us who still think in terms of canons, Zane Grey and Louis L'amour haven't made it, except possibly in "the canon of popular writers," which is a different question. Other scholars dispute the legitimacy of canons in the first place, and so they would also find preposterous the idea that ZG or LL "made it in." So, in any case, whatever one's perspective on the canon, those writers haven't made it, nor has Robert Ludlum.

2. It is true that work utterly ignorant of the theoretical debates of the last 30 years would be unlikely to find a home. *However*, such work would be pretty miserable. That doesn't mean one has to subscribe to these theoretical arguments!!

3. The ubiquity of postmodern theory and/or deconstruction in English or comparative lit, either as disciplines or in the journals, at any point in the past 15 years. And relatedly, the relationship between either of these theoretical approaches and a clear style.

4. The relationship between deconstruction and political correctness. It's not really possible to be both at the same time. They arise from antithetical models of representation. (I'll also make the unpopular claim that political correctness doesn't really exist, at least not in the way that is meant here.)

Scholarship in English and comparative literature--or any of the languages--always seems worse than it is, especially to outsiders, because it pales by comparison with the literary work it is our privilege to profess. That doesn't mean the work is collectively bad, useless, needlessly jargon-laden, or whatever. (Obviously, individual critics may be worthless.) It's quite often useful to scholars and teachers in the field--i.e., to its intended audience--in the same proportion that research in other fields is useful to their practitioners.

Posted by: Jason at May 30, 2003 01:41 AM

When, back in graduate school, I got a good sense of the Deadly Jargon journals accurately described by an earlier poster, I almost left the profession. Then I discovered the existence of what I'd call intellectual quarterlies: Salmagundi, Raritan, Partisan Review, Hudson Review, and quite a number of others. I ignored the jargon journals, began publishing in these other places, which value clear writing and thought (and even have a few readers), and have never looked back.

Posted by: chantal at May 30, 2003 07:05 AM