June 25, 2003

What is a Labor Market?

My post on Marc Bousquet's* job market argument (ie, there is no academic job market) generated some interesting comments on what constitutes a labor market.

While Chun the Unavoidable is "sympathetic to Bousquet's argument," he does "not see the evidence" for Bousquet's "radically counterintuitive claim." There is, he writes,

clearly a job market. It's not a very good market, obviously; but he has a job, and I see people get jobs all the time....

...If there are jobs advertised each year, as there are, and a candidate who applies receives one, as usually happens, then it seems to me to be a market. Not a very good one, yes, but it's still a market.

Jeremy Hunsinger sees it differently:

just because people get jobs does not mean its a market. Braudel points out that anti-markets occur also, but in anti-markets, there are no markets, just understandings and agreements, often unstated, that business will be done in a certain way, with certain people, and not others. In short, anti-markets are closed systems, a form of systemic plural monopoly. In all likelihood we are probably looking at a tightly woven, historically developed anti-market for most academic jobs, though there may be some real academic job markets in 'hot' fields, where open competition necessarilly occurs because of a lack of qualified applicants.

I'm not familiar with Braudel's anti-market model. As described here, it sounds rather too closed and restrictive to apply to hiring practices within the academy. On the other hand, I don't think we are looking at anything close to a free market, in part because I think tenure is a decidedly guildlike institution which operates differently than (some would say interferes with) the kind of transactions we commonly associate with the market. So at the moment, I'm partial to Bousquet's notion of a failed monopoly of professional labor, though I'm open to other ideas...

A couple of questions:

Given the two-tier system of academic employment, are there two separate job markets: a tenure-track job market and an adjunct track job market? Or are these two tracks rather part of the same market/system?

In terms of adjunct jobs, to what extent are wages and working conditions influenced by the existence of a better class of job (ie the tenure track job) -- e.g., by encouraging people to make economically irrational decisions (i.e., stay within the academy working for low pay and no benefits rather than seek employment outside the academy) in the hope of making it to the higher tier?

*Part II on Bousquet coming soon.


Steven Krause, an associate professor of English literature who describes my blog as "partly sad but true, part pitty party," argues that "academia works like the rest of the world in the sense that when it comes to employment, it all boils down to supply and demand" (permalink bloggered; scroll to Tuesday, June 24, 2003). I beg to differ. Though I certainly agree that "anyone going into a PhD program better do a little market research first to find out what sort of jobs exist on the other side of the rainbow," this whole question of supply and demand strikes me as much more complex than Krause acknowledges.

There is undoubtedly an oversupply of humanities PhDs relative to the number of tenure-track positions. But how and in what ways does this stem from the laws of supply and demand (again the question: what is a market?). The fact is, the erosion of tenure-track jobs is occurring alongside a constant (in some cases even an increasing) demand for teachers. Indeed, adjuncts most often teach precisely those courses for which there is a great demand, while the tenured often teach course for which there is comparatively little demand.

I am reminded of Alex Pang's phrase "a conspiracy of narrow interests:"

What's happened with the academic job market, it seems to me, is something different. It's better thought of as a bad outcome of a conspiracy of the narrow interests of administrators and permanent faculty. Why do I say this? Look at the kinds of courses that are taught by adjuncts: introductory lecture courses, surveys, service-intensive courses like English comp. This isn't because administrators or department heads have tried to create a more rational market, or to match teaching supply and course demand more effectively, but one driven more by convenience and hierarchy: it's a way for administrators to cut costs, and for senior faculty to focus greater love and attention on their graduate students, enrich the collective intellectual life of their institutions, etc.

If you believed that this was happening because of a macroeconomic logic, you'd conclude that universities were operating under the assumption that it was impossible to know, semester to semester, whether there would be enough demand for Western Civ or differential calculus to have anyone permanently hired to teach it; but that it absolutely essential to have lifetime 24/7 access to specialists in [insert favorite absurd example of something]. What SHOULD be happening is the opposite. Since academic fashions change as quickly as any others, but the need for students who can write a decent paragraph and compute the area under a curve does not, universities should have spent the last two decades outsourcing their high-level, theoretical work, and investing resources in a permanent cadre of teachers.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 25, 2003 01:33 PM

Panchreston of the day: All PhD granting programs in the humanities should not admit new students for ten years. The rest will sort itself out.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 25, 2003 03:10 PM

I have to say I really am getting sick of the "you should have known" argument. It sounds remarkably similar to "What did she expect to happen walking in Central Park at night? And wearing that skirt?!" Let's stop blaming the victim, folks.

Whether those of us entering graduate programs in the humanities did so naively or not, this does not absolve those involved in Alex Pang's "conspiracy of narrow interests" (which may be the best way of describing what is going on in higher ed that I have come across). Full-time faculty and administration happily reap the benefits derived from the exploitation of adjuncts and graduate students, and simple supply and demand arguments do not address that very real and very pernicious dynamic.

Posted by: cindy at June 25, 2003 03:13 PM

As I've said before, the existence of tenure track jobs serves as a sort of "carrot" that keeps well-educated people in a perpetual state of hope while making the irrational decision to work as an adjunct. It's much like the city of L.A., where there are an estimated 50,000 actors, but only a few ever make it to superstardom. Because there are only a few full time positions, a sort of censorship emerges. No one wants to rock the boat or actively point out the gross inequalitites of this two-tier scenario, lest they get blacklisted or lose their full time job in this kind of market. I do think that the existence of tenure coupled with the overproduction of doctorates contributes to adjuncts playing along with the game in the hopes that they will get to cash in. I've heard of people who play the part time game for 5, 7, 15 years!

Posted by: Cat at June 25, 2003 03:18 PM

Well, since cindy started it...

I really got steamed at the "pity party" comment. How utterly condescending. When this guy's adjuncted for years and made a decision to leave, then maybe he'll have status to say "hey, there's no real need for the angst."

Until then he can go somewhere very hot. Like, say, Madison WI right about now. And if the coming thunderstorms smack him with a lightning bolt, I don't know how much I'll mourn, frankly.

End rant.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 25, 2003 03:21 PM

Picking up rant, briefly -- yeah, what are we supposed to do, slap happy little grins on our faces and dance around saying "I can't get a job!"?

Maybe if all of us were moaning "I suck, and nobody likes me, boo hoo" "pitty [sic] party" might be warranted, but I simply don't see that. Legitimate complaints and gripes, yes, but not that level of "poor-me-ing."

End rant, part II.

Posted by: Rana at June 25, 2003 03:25 PM

This is just the sort of thing that happens when people start speaking the truth, or revealing things as they are. People don't want to hear it, and say you are "whining." Then you begin to think that maybe you are the only one who takes things so seriously or worse yet, maybe you are crazy. These are all signs that we must be on to something, so keep typing!

Posted by: Cat at June 25, 2003 03:31 PM

The university itself is not a market institution, though it's moving that way and market slogans seem to be in vogue. Universities run on endowments, grants, and bequests, and students pay for their educations with family money, government money and subsidized loans. Students' motives are whatever, including economic motives. But most grad students in the humanities are not market-motivated. Either they're fools, or they have non-market motivations -- or else the ever-popular "both of the above".

At the point where grad schools hire staff, you can draw a circle around the transaction and say "It's the market". And this is true. But what we see is a heavily-subsidized non-market institution choosing not to subsidize some things (the humanities) while subsidizing others (Ed. departments). This is an economic decision and demographically it's inevitable that you'll have too many PhD's unless PhD-granters limit their fertility to more or less replacement level (a few PhD's per permanent faculty career unit.)

But the handwriting is on the wall for humanities PhD's. For me "It's the market", though sort of true, isn't a knockdown argument, since the market is not very good ad supporting certain kinds of activities (including humanist scholarship), and if it was, we wouldn't need any university at all. Maybe we should just say "It's demographics" -- given a fixed level of subsidy, if the average professor signs more than X number of PhD's, some of the PhD's will be SOL.

While toying with the idea of grad school, I've been looking at free-lance writing (another poor-paying career, but much more fun). Here is an exact quote from a very friendly publisher:

"I should stress that we are not an academic press and a healthy dose of 'blood 'n' guts' always goes down well in our market! I don't want to put you off I just want you to be aware of the fine line we try to tread between the enthusiast and the academic."

So "Adjustments Will Have to be Made", but it actually sounds like more fun than grad school.

Posted by: zizka at June 25, 2003 04:20 PM

Krause's attitude makes more sense if you take note of his field: comp & rhet (computer & tech writing, specifically). For people going into that field, the job situation right now is genuinely spectacular--a good friend of mine had sixteen (!) interviews at the MLA, plus two or three others prior to that. He'd be less, um, cheerful if he was in my line of work (Victorian), which is woefully over-populated at present.

Posted by: Miriam at June 25, 2003 04:57 PM

There's a recent economic theory that (much simplified) talks about "winner take all" markets. That seems to me to be more like what happens in academia--the pressures on departments to hire "stars" or "stars-to-be" means that some people get lots of job offers (including tenured folks being "raided") and lots of other people get no offers. Because academia doesn't hire year round, that means that there's lots of temporary work until the next hiring season, by which time there's another crop of stars and maybe-stars (i.e. grads from the "top" programs) and still no room for the rest of the qualified.

Posted by: sappho at June 25, 2003 05:02 PM

Possibly, Miriam, but it still strikes me as just one more example of the "it's okay for me, so it must be okay!" line of thought whose head-in-the-sandedness gets under my skin.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 25, 2003 05:09 PM

I'm unable to say whether the academic hiring scenario constitutes a market or not; I don't have any particular technical expertise in market theory. That said, I appreciate Bousquet's shift from the rhetoric of the "market" to the more loaded notion of a failed monopoly system. It has a certain theoretical and ideological appeal to me.

But at the same time, perhaps there is something like a more traditional market modeled along the lines of supply and demand. The problem is that it is a very self-selecting system, which designates a very small supply side of the equation, and in turn excludes a large majority of holders of the Ph.D. So who gets to be on the inside or the supply side of this equation? Beyond the obvious considerations such as are(s) of expertise, critico-theoretical orientation, publications and teaching experience, departments include in their hiring profiles issues such as race and/or ethnicity, and gender etc., etc. But I believe it doesn't stop here. Over and above these more expected kinds of issues, I feel fairly certain that unquantifiable issues of personality and countenance play a tremendous role in the shaping of the supply side of this "market." I'm sure I'm going to be flamed for this, but I am convinced that there are certain "types" who are immediately desireable to the committees and departments who are hiring. And for those who can naturally *be* this persona, they then a priori constitute the supply side. For those who deviate from this persona, well, we live the effects of that, don't we.

The obvious problem with all of this is that one can never know what the personality profile is. One department may seek quiet, buttoned-up, get-along types, while another actually *is* looking for that politically active radical. (I'd love to kow how Bousquet got his job) But even the "radical" type, probably looks and feels closer to the traditional academic/professor than he/she looks and sounds like someone who writes for Z magazine.

Let me leave off with one anecdote. The self-avowed "marxist" in my department is taking a semester's leave of absence in the Fall, and he/she said to me in April 'my book will be off to the publisher in June and I think I deserve a semester off to spend in Italy'. I wanted to ask if they were going to spend their time organizing low-paid grape pickers in Tuscanny, but I held my tongue -- for once. Instead, I simply said, 'oh yes, of course, good for you'. (motherf***er)

Posted by: Chris at June 25, 2003 05:13 PM

I don't really have anything to add to what Dorothea and Rana said, but that "pitty party" thing pissed me off too, so let me just say I don't understand how supposedly intelligent people can fail to gras that their own happy situation does not represent the norm for all humanity. Grr.

Posted by: language hat at June 25, 2003 09:11 PM

"Because academia doesn't hire year round, that means that there's lots of temporary work until the next hiring season, by which time there's another crop of stars and maybe-stars (i.e. grads from the "top" programs) and still no room for the rest of the qualified."

Bingo! Winner-takes-all is exactly right. There's such a gap between the haves and the have-nots. It's just not like a "normal" market, with subtle gradations and various steps on the ladder: you're either in the clubhouse or you're down in the basement.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 25, 2003 10:26 PM

Anti-markets? That's just meaningless. Of course there's a job market for academics, it just may not work very well or necessarily in the interests of all workers!

The Economics of Superstars is a nice paper in the 1983 American Economic Review by the late Sherwin Rosen. It is quite relevant for thinking about the academic job market.

Also important is the comparison with most other professions - such as law, medicine etc. Tenured professors are just like partners in law firms, and adjuncts are just like associates. And we all know that associates have lousy terms and conditions compared with partners.

Why do these kinds of outcomes emerge in professional job markets? Probably because it takes a long time before the quality of the worker is revealed and because the worker needs to keep investing in themselves for a long time (compared with other jobs).

One pay system that is compatible with this is where the wage:tenure relationship is very steep or maybe even discontinuous. That is, adjuncts get lousy conditions now but have the prospect of great conditions later if they turn out to be any good and keep on working hard.

This clearly could result in perceived 'over supply' since not everyone will get tenure. Look at Wall Street law firms: surprisingly few associates make partner in a Wall St firm, many end up on Main St instead.

A harsh view of this is just that they played the game (an economist would call this labor market a 'tournament') and lost.

Posted by: Gavin at July 3, 2003 05:36 PM

"Tenured professors are just like partners in law firms, and adjuncts are just like associates. And we all know that associates have lousy terms and conditions compared with partners."

I have to strongly disagree. Junior tenure-track professors can be likened to junior associates. But adjuncts are not like junior associates at all, because they are not on the tenure track.

It is true that junior associates at law firms work long hours and put up with a lot of abuse. But they are handsomely rewarded for their efforts (the average starting salary for a junior associate at a New York law firm -- this for someone fresh out of law school and with virtually no experience -- is now in the six figures).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 3, 2003 06:32 PM

It's all relative of course: junior associates
get paid a lot by normal standards, but the rewards of being a partner are much, much higher. Hence my suggestion that the wage:tenure relationship is very steep.

Also, I'm not sure that it matters whether one is explicitly on the tenure track or not. After all, junior associates are on the track but very few of them become partners... while adjuncts are not on the track but some at least must eventually get tenure (it would be interesting to know how many!).

Posted by: Gavin at July 4, 2003 06:33 AM