June 29, 2003

The Celebrification of the Academy

It might surprise parents and students that they don't hear about star recruitment on campus tours, given that it's helping drive up the cost of tuition and fees to $38,000 at top private colleges. The institutions need the revenue to subsidize the new buildings and perks required to recruit these professors. Star compensation at these 'nonprofit' universities can top $200,000 for only a class or two a week, which in turn has widened the divide between haves and have-nots in higher education. Columbia offers fancy apartments with majestic views to woo stars (though not every home is as stunning as Sachs's town house west of Central Park); meanwhile, part-time faculty who do the bulk of the teaching are forming unions just to fight for cost-of-living wage increases.

-- Patrick Healy, College Rivalry

Here's a nice article on "the celebrification of academia" and the lengths to which some departments and schools will go in order to woo and win academic superstars. There's no question that some of these people are indeed stars. At age 39, Niall Ferguson, for example, has just published his sixth book. Ferguson, who is being courted by Harvard and NYU, observes that

'One couldn't imagine all of this happening in Oxford, where there's a kind of gentleman's agreement that we're all equally brilliant...It's extremely bad form to suggest that one person is as vulgar as to be a star. But it's rather sweet and flattering to be told you're good. And it's positively disorienting to be told you're a star.'

But does this new cult of celebrity advance the mission of the university and serve the interests both of the students and of the faculty in general? James J. Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan and author of The Future of the Public University in America, "is one of a handful of education leaders who see this poaching and jumping around as a threat to America's premier higher education system." Duderstadt argues that "it further erodes institutional loyalty among faculty and puts students second, behind scholars' own interests." And while Derek Bok, a former President of Harvard and author of Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, "notes that star hiring is a duty of presidents," he worries that "it can be hazardous to a school's core mission, teaching:"

'The lower teaching loads and big perks are a little unsavory, and they can breed envy,' Bok says. 'Humanists feel more and more declasse. They see resources and salaries shifting to more commercially relevant fields of study. Their loyalty softens. It can bubble over in a visible way, like spending less time on campus with students.'...Someday, [Derek Bok] predicts, professional agents may broker deals with university presidents on behalf of star faculty, much as Hollywood producers and NFL recruiters negotiate with star talent now.

'There are a few professors already,' Bok says, 'you get their voice mail that says if you want to talk to X, you need to talk to his agent, which I find a little off-putting.'

Surely Bok is not the only one to find this just a little off-putting. More to the point, I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees the celebrification of the academy as the flip side of its adjunctification?

Ms Cruikshanks, You were asking about the meaning and purpose of liberal education?...

Thanks to Steve of One Pot Meal for calling this to my attention.


Tom of Publius Minor states that while "a star system in itself" isn't a bad thing, the current academic star system "has exceeded all reasonable limits."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 29, 2003 04:39 PM

The celebrification of higher ed is easy to lampoon, and it does create disparities of status and income (not to mention ego), but it is also a response to market demands. No student ever attended Harvard because its classroom teachers are superior. They attend Harvard because they want a prestigious degree. And the degree is pretigious because Harvard recruits, pampers, and pays for many of the leading research figures in each discipline. When they do so, they compete against Berkeley, Yale, Princeton, and every upwardly mobile state university (UC-San Diego, SUNY-Whatever) with a wad of cash.

But Harvard can't stop doing this, or at some point, they'll cease to be Harvard, and the best students will look elsewhere for a prestigious degree. You may not like this, but if you were president of a major research university, you'd be doing the same thing (or you'd be--quite justifiably--fired).

Teaching is important, of course it is, but excellent teachers are a dime a dozen. Excellent researchers are not. (This is not meant to denigrate teaching, by the way. It's simply a statement of fact.) As a department chair, I can replace a good teacher much more easily than I can replace a top-flight researcher.

I am no fan of the abuse of adjuncts, but it is unusual to see an adjunct with a lengthy or particularly promising publication record. I realize that the demands of being an adjunct place enormous burdens on the ability to publish, but that doesn't make the foregoing statement any less true.

Posted by: Dept Chair at June 29, 2003 07:50 PM

I am no fan of animosity between adjuncts and department chairs, but it is unusual to see a department chair who does not make the requisite noises expressing regret at the abuse of adjunct faculty before offering a specious defense of just such abuse.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 29, 2003 09:03 PM

The celebrification of higher ed demonstrates to me, once again, just how little regard most university administrations have for undergraduate education. The superstar academics will most likely never teach an undergraduate; they will focus on research (whatever that may mean in a particular field) and perhaps teach a few graduate seminars.

Perhaps the long-term answer is for new institutions to evolve which are focused purely on undergraduate education. I'm sure many adjuncts would be happy to accept full-time teaching positions at such institutions and, over time, the superior quality of education would communicate itself to poential students. A brand name without substance can only last so long.

There have been quite a few business situations in which a division of a conglomerate--which had been treated with neglect and even disrespect within that conglomerate--gets spun off and, once on its own, reaches unexpected heights of glory. Perhaps it's time to divest American undergraduate education.

Posted by: David Foster at June 29, 2003 09:07 PM

Actually, my comments above about adjuncts were a little more harsh than intended. Of course, there are some adjuncts out there with strong and promising CVs, but very often they are unwilling to relocate.

When I was a chair on the West Coast, I used to hire adjuncts with Berkeley and UCLA degrees who were simply unwilling to leave California. I can certainly understand why people might not want to leave a certain area, but if that's the choice they make, they can hardly be justified in criticizing the capriciousness of the academic job market.

I think academe is a meritocracy of sorts, but obviously one where there is an oversupply of talent. But that doesn't make it any less of a meritocracy. Any single hiring decision can turn on a number of factors which may seem capricious to the outside observer, and may very well be capricious in fact. But if someone is willing to relocate (even to Mississippi or Utah, if necessary), applies to every relevant job opening, and still cannot get hired after a few years, isn't it possible to conclude that they may simply not be good enough? And again, I don't mean that they're not qualified, simply that they're not strong enough to make the cut. You can be an outstanding basketball player and yet not be good enough to make it to the NBA; likewise, in a highly competitive job market, otherwise qualified academics may also fall short.

Posted by: Dept Chair at June 29, 2003 09:08 PM

what post does this guy imagine he's replying to?

Posted by: vlorbik at June 29, 2003 09:40 PM

Dept Chair,

Sometimes truth hurts, but it is the best way to put an end to all this bellyaching. Adjuncts are losers. Dept chairs are winners. The difference in Merit. Works the same way in our Bordello. By the way, Sir, what are you worth? If you qualify for our $10 mil min net worth, I would be honored to consider you on your Merits as a potential Guardian of Wealth Bondage. If you yourself are a Loser in the Bigger Game, so be it. Life makes Fools of us all, though only some wear the Cap and Bells with their Regalia.

CEO Wealth Bondage
Dominatrix to the Stars

Posted by: Candidia Cruikshanks at June 29, 2003 09:44 PM

It's a mistake to dump on department chair. Miriam too is saying things worth taking seriously.

A large number of applicants for tenure track academic positions in the humanities/social sciences in the United States are not very impressive. They don't write or speak well; they don't have interesting ideas; they have not gone to challenging graduate schools. Academic jobs are not entitlements handed out to everyone who completes a Ph.D.

That being said, the problem on the other side is that the humanities are so internally screwed up that they don't know what they are, what colleges are, what curricula are, etc. So the process does look rather capricious - crapicious? - given the intellectual disarray of various fields.

But there are nonetheless some relatively objective indicators. Have you been asked to provide a sample of your writing, for instance? If you haven't ever gotten a writing sample request, which is an early stage of most humanities searches, that's a bad sign.

Posted by: Vivian at June 29, 2003 10:09 PM

May I say a word in defense of celebrification?

While our generous host notes that [in a zero-sum academic economy] any dollar given to a star appointment comes from the pocket of an adjunct, I riposte that every dollar that goes to according our profession incomes concomitant to our contribution to the culture should be welcome. Is the world better when *no* teachers are paid as stars, or when a few are?

Moreover, it’s worth noting that the article cited treats salaries and tuition as though the latter depended exclusively on the former — an illusion I’ve struggled to dispel since at my first job the president referred to faculty salaries as the only variable line item, as opposed to mountains of “fixed costs” that included his office expenses, athletics, groundskeeping, and so on.

In an ideal situation, we would *all* be much better-paid. For now, I don’t begrudge the stars those salaries. I just wish they made a stronger case for the rest of us.

Posted by: AKMA at June 29, 2003 10:49 PM


If I may, "If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend."

Goes for graduate schools too.

Also, how is it that you're so well informed about the quality of humanities AND social sciences job candidates? Are you a dean? Diligent provost?

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 30, 2003 01:27 AM

"new institutions to evolve which are focused purely on undergraduate education."

I thought we had these, in the form of community colleges and small liberal arts colleges. Or am I mistaken?

Posted by: Rana at June 30, 2003 01:37 AM

Dept. Chair,

Thanks for joining us. It's nice to hear a voice from the inside. If you're a chair in the sciences, what you write about meritocracy is perhaps true enough. But if you're writing about the humanities, then your comments manifest an odd tension: you assume, by writing, that we are readers and yet you also seem to assume that we can't read at all. I could fall over right now and land on something published in the last ten years arguing that Heideggerian "resolve" means something like "steadfastness" or that Plato believed that there is a mysterious supersensible realm of ideas or, even better, that the dialogic form is incidental to the Dialogues. Are we to believe that it's the best of the best who sat with the texts and proclaimed...thus? I wonder.

I wonder all the more when the ones I had pegged as the very best--the ones who could see through and around the texts--begin to acquire their "Esquires" and come to dinner at my house, looking weary but bright, like recovered addicts, and finally laugh about what they did to themselves.

And can you really come to this site, where, after a few paragraphs of our host's pellucid prose, one is certain that she is possessed of greater talent and integrity than dozens of recently hired historians, and seriously argue that adjuncts are adjuncts because they're "not strong enough to make the cut?"

Another odd tension: you mean what you say, but, no, you aren't serious.

Posted by: ogged at June 30, 2003 01:41 AM

AKMA, celebrity salaries become a problem when they become shields for ill-treatment of everyone else. As I rather think they have.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 30, 2003 09:21 AM

Rana...sure,we have many existing liberals arts institutions which are serious about teaching. But we also have many large universities which combine research, graduate, and undergraduate education--and which, from growing evidence, are failing to take the latter role very seriously. It's the undergraduate role of these institutions that may need to be "divested."

Posted by: David Foster at June 30, 2003 10:56 AM

DeptChair..people who disrespect salesmen shouldn't run sales forces. People who think of engineers are nerds shouldn't manage engineering groups. And people who think that "excellent teachers are a dime a dozen" shouldn't be in positions where they are responsible for teaching.

Posted by: David Foster at June 30, 2003 10:59 AM

Should teaching matter to the university? As long as there are stars that can attract smart students, does it matter what happens to the students while they're in school? The world can still trust that Prestigious University will deliver smart workers. The students can still trust that they'll be surrounded by other smart kids and, at the very least, become part of a network of people likely to succeed.

It's not that good teachers are a dime a dozen (they're not), but they may as well be.

Posted by: ogged at June 30, 2003 11:20 AM

David Foster: all managers need to prioritize and place more value on some objectives than others. I don't see what the Dept Chair wrote that was objectionable intellectually, although I can understand why some people would be upset about it.

Have any of you ever read that book "The Winner-Takes-All Society"? Scholarship jumps immediately to mind as one of the fields in which marginal differences between top performers in the field can mean stark differences in their career prospects. It's much like entertainment and sports, in terms of economic renumeration.

Posted by: JT at June 30, 2003 11:47 AM

I am no fan of the abuse of adjuncts, but it is unusual to see an adjunct with a lengthy or particularly promising publication record. I realize that the demands of being an adjunct place enormous burdens on the ability to publish, but that doesn't make the foregoing statement any less true.
--Department Chair

DC: On the surface you appear to provide an answer to the dilemma you pose: 1. adjuncts do not present with lengthy records of publication; 2. adjuncts typically carry course loads that would stop a nervous, hyper-publishing tenure-tracker cold; 3. this is why adjuncts do not present with lengthy publication records. But length is not your only criterion. On my reading, your equation is in fact something like "length" is equal to necessity, while "particularly promissing" is equal to sufficiency. Or, is it the other way around?

The problem, though, is that you offer no indications about how long is long enough, nor do you provide any signs about what fulfills the condition of "particularly promissing." In other words, your categories are empty, purely subjective. A matter of taste, if you will.

Of course, anyone who has spent any time in an academic department or two has heard this kind of speech before. These are the tropes by which academics raise the purely subjective to the level of a priori truth. We all nod when we hear these tropes. But after hearing this sort of thing, and after having read a bit of Nietzsche, Benjamin, de Man, Derrida, Spivak, and Bhabha, to name just a few, one wonders whether the dog is still wagging its tail, or if the tail has indeed taken full control of the dog. Any thoughts, DC?

Posted by: Chris at June 30, 2003 11:56 AM

Staying with the canine metaphor of the last post, I have a second bone to pick. DC, I am an adjunct (more or less). I have two (2) essays already puiblished, also a book from SUNY Press that I co-edited, and two (2) more essays forthcoming. My field is 20th c. Irish and Northern Irish writing, and I am working (slowly) on a book on the postcolonial politics of translation in Beckett. Moreover, for the past three years I've taught at a first tier elite liberal arts college, and I've taught more than just freshman writing. In fact, I have taught senior seminars, numerous surveys, and directed more senior theses than I care to think about at present.

I'm not engaging in self-promotion here. I do have a point/question. DC, by your reckoning, I should have a tenure-track job. (the journals I've published in are good ones) But the fact of the matter is that I don't. And no one can figure out why. Not my former dissertation advisor, not my coleagues, nor my friends. Miriam will perhaps join in here and sugest that my personality is, well, let's just say, lacking ... But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to interviews etc., I'm able to come across a bit differently than I do here.

DC, would you please clarify what "particularly promissing" means? I suspect that this phrase, "particularly promissing," is code for "what is ideologically and culturally palatable and pleasing to *me*."

DC, do you sometimes go by the pen name "Wilcox"?

Posted by: Chris at June 30, 2003 12:15 PM

Allow me to nag again. Musical chairs. Demographics. Market. Adjunctification as policy. Social question. Two-tier. Citizens and helots.

Posted by: zizka at June 30, 2003 01:20 PM

I was originally going to refrain from responding to those of you who replied to my earlier comments because it was obvious that I was making some people angry, and that wasn’t my intention. And to be honest, if I want to spend my time fending off personal insults, I’ll call a faculty meeting. But a number of your posts, particularly some of the later ones, raised issues that deserve a response.

To start with, I was perhaps being overly flippant when I remarked that “excellent teachers are a dime a dozen”. The comment can be (and was) read as expressing contempt for teachers and teaching, and I meant nothing of the sort. My point, which I should have made more carefully, was simply that what we call excellent teaching is not in short supply in the academy. By the definitions of most departments, excellent teachers are those who challenge and engage their students, present their material with expertise and passion, and are, as a consequence, popular instructors whose classes have long waiting lists. Nearly every department, whether in a “teaching” or a “research” institution, has several people who fit that definition, including both regular faculty and adjuncts. And I greatly value their contributions (indeed, I would like to think that on my best days, I am included in their number).

Top-notch researchers, on the other hand, are far less common. So if you are hiring new faculty for a research department (even one that strongly values teaching), the excellent researcher is a rarer and more valuable find than the outstanding teacher. I don’t know why that is the case. It doesn’t necessarily mean that teaching is easier than research. It may simply mean that most people who seek out academic careers are particularly attracted to the idea of teaching, and are less committed to—or even fully aware of—the role of research in academe.

As for the abuse of adjuncts, I have no good answer. As long as gifted teachers are willing to sell their services at the going rate, it is difficult to imagine that the bean counters in administration will do much to increase their pay. I don’t know of any department chair who wouldn’t rather have more tenure-track faculty and fewer adjuncts. I have, I think, always treated adjuncts with respect and tried to make them feel welcome in all relevant aspects of department life, but there’s nothing I can do about the pay and benefits.

Finally, one person suggested that my earlier post was an implied insult to the host of this website, and I gather from her own response that she might have taken it that way, too. If that’s the case, I apologize. One of the reasons I have spent time on this site is because its host is a lucid and engaging writer who regularly presents challenging and important questions. As I pointed out earlier, I fully understand that a number of outstanding scholars end up as adjuncts for idiosyncratic reasons.

Let me confess, too, that I am not a historian. I am chair of a social science department in a different discipline. I cannot, therefore, rule out the possibility that there are some fields (history?) in which the oversupply of talent is so great that there is no appreciable difference in qualification and accomplishment between the people who land tenure-track jobs and the people who don’t. I just don’t consider the possibility to be especially likely.

One more thing (and then I promise I’ll shut up): what do I mean by “especially promising”? Sure, to some extent subjective factors come into play (I cannot predict the future, after all), but I try to limit their importance. An “especially promising” scholar is one who has published high quality work while still in grad school, has letters of recommendation that speak glowingly of his or her research potential, and whose vita shows other evidence of having made the leap from student to scholar (conference papers, advanced methodology training, etc.).

Sorry to go on like this, and thanks for your indulgence.

Chris: No I’m not “Wilcox”.

Posted by: Dept Chair at June 30, 2003 01:45 PM

"I fully understand that a number of outstanding scholars end up as adjuncts for idiosyncratic reasons."

If we haven't thus far shown that the reasons are far from idiosyncratic, I despair of your ever accepting that the truth may be otherwise.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 30, 2003 02:24 PM

DC: I for one appreciate the presence and comments of one such as yourself -- that is, someone on the "other" side. I suspect we have much to learn from one another. The two sides in this issue are definitively divided from one another, so much so that I suspect neither has much of a sense of the other. More to the point, I feel that what divides these two sides -- apart from the obvious issue of power -- can be located in small bits of language that inadvertantly betray systemic patterns of belief, which quickly become constitutive of an overarching ideology.

So, when you say "as for the abuse of adjuncts, I have no good answer. As long as gifted teachers are willing to sell their services at the going rate, it is difficult to imagine that the bean counters in administration will do much to increase their pay" what is evident to me (and probably to most of us here) is that you are missing a good deal of the point. First, you implicitly blame us for taking the work and the meager pay. I doubt that you mean to "blame the victim," so to speak, but you are. As to what you really mean, that is anyone's guess (I do hope you will respond, btw). Secondly, you cast yourself, and your tenured colleagues in a passive and powerless role to lobby and/or effect any change whatsoever. The fact of the matter is that neither you nor your colleagues are powerless, nor for that matter are you and your colleagues passive players in a larger game.

What your posture of passivity ensures, however, is your continued benefit from a system of usury and blunt exploitation. Granted, a reversal o the posture of passivity and powerlessness would likely entail more than a letter or two addressed to the appropriate dean/provost, or a high-minded comment at a faculty meeting. No, it would require a degree of nerve and committment to follow-through in what would likely be a long, drawn-out process of advocacy and political manuevering. And who has time for that when there are essays to be written, research to be conducted, and lectures to be prepared? Better, perhaps, to simply let matters take their course because all will work out in the end. Right?

Posted by: Chris at June 30, 2003 02:33 PM

Chris: I don't know anything about your personality, so, no, I wouldn't say that.

My own campus has a committee which is designing a proposal for new adjunct contracts with more $$$, more security, etc. They've managed to attract a cross-section of faculty (retired, tenured, adjunct), which may be helpful in political terms--I don't know. As I understand it, the committee is the fruit of long agitation on the part of both the chairs and the adjuncts, so it can certainly be done.

Posted by: Miriam at June 30, 2003 04:50 PM

David -- thanks for the clarification about undergraduate teaching. I would agree that large universities are not the best sites for undergraduate education, but currently such education is promoted as one of the raisons d'etre of the university to taxpayers (at least as far as the humanities are concerned; sciences can point to industrial contracts and the like to justify themselves) so I'm not sure that hiving such functions off would be productive in the short run.

In the long run I might agree. I've wondered seriously about the pros and cons of restricting liberal arts education to students genuinely interested in it (as opposed to those who are attending for the credentials needed to obtain employment). On that count, I have yet to come to a firm conclusion either way, and I think I'd have to before I can adequately weigh the merits of an undergrad-free university system.

Posted by: Rana at June 30, 2003 08:19 PM

Scholarship jumps immediately to mind as one of the fields in which marginal differences between top performers in the field can mean stark differences in their career prospects.

And in what do these "marginal differences" consist? Genuine importance of research, or ability to get quoted in the New York Times, possibly even get one's face on the cover of Time? The more similar the situation is to that in the entertainment industry, the harder it is to see how the status of academia as something in some sense "important" can be maintained. What's the difference between "I'm going to that school because Famous Scholar teaches there [even though I'll never have anything to do with him]" and "I buy those sneakers because Famous Athlete is in their ads"?

Posted by: language hat at June 30, 2003 09:59 PM

Language hat: two responses: 1) You are not really responding to the (limited) substance of my post but venting. 2) Scholarship these days seems to be so focussed on narrow specialties that one very much understands the reactions of deans and school presidents wanting some name recognition and popular awareness of its results. Unless you consider the mere appearance of an unread book to be culturally significant, which appears to be dubious to me.

Posted by: JT at July 1, 2003 09:43 AM

Unless you consider the mere appearance of an unread book to be culturally significant, which appears to be dubious to me.

If you can't think of examples of books that turned out to be immensely significant but were unrecognized when they first came out, and if you don't see the inherent absurdity of an "academic" institution prizing "name recognition and popular awareness," I guess we don't have much to say to each other. But I suggest you reconsider your policy of treating opinions that differ from your own as simple "venting." Of course, that enables you to avoid dealing with my question: In what do these "marginal differences" consist? If the answer involves name recognition, then we're talking about entertainment, not academics, and the game has been lost.

Posted by: language hat at July 1, 2003 11:01 AM

I meant "marginal differences" in "genuine importance of research."

Name recognition obviously matters to colleges. I don't see why the very essence of a university has to stand in opposition to popular knowledge. That appears to be implied in your posts.

"If you can't think of examples of books that turned out to be immensely significant but were unrecognized when they first came out"

You know: I can't name any. Please provide a couple of examples.

Posted by: JT at July 1, 2003 01:03 PM

Kierkegaard. Emily Dickinson. Mendel. Edward Fitzgerald (Rubaiyat). Arthur Holmes (plate tectonics). That's just off the top of my head. I have to go out for dinner now; anybody else want to play this game? It's fun and educational.

Posted by: language hat at July 1, 2003 05:51 PM

Migne, the Patrologia Latina? Not "original," but tremendously influential nonetheless.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 1, 2003 06:24 PM

One of the things I have noticed, which has not been brought up, is the issue of the area of interest. Certain areas are 'trendy' or 'hot', and some of them are considered 'cold'. Your publication record in a 'cold' area is likely to be far less impressive, because it is difficult to generate new ideas and also because reviewers see no reason to publish your work. I know because my interests are considered to be 'cold' by my colleagues. Luckily, I'm already tenured.

This is no reflection on the quality of your work or on its value. Rather, it is an effort to 'catch the wave' for the next big thing. I'm not in the humanities, so I can't speak directly to those fields, but this is true in my department and in all of the departments I have observed.

Posted by: rdp at July 1, 2003 06:32 PM

I was looking for books that were specifically relevant to the situation: books by post-war US academics that were at first ignored but then became influential. Funny how I can't name any off the top of my head, but I'm sure that's a function of my ignorance.

Posted by: JT at July 2, 2003 09:22 AM

As someone who chose about 20 years ago to follow a technical career in industry, and is now thinking about the academic world (potential PhD student, potential teacher of technology, etc.) This conversation stirs up a lot of mixed feelings. It reminds me that many of the reasons that I chose industry were good and valid, but as someone who has also tried to engage with ideas (as an amatuer academic in the best sense of it), I am really drawn by the conversations but feel very much an outsider.

I feel the pain of those of you who are doing this in spite of the often pointless and humiliating obsticles places in the way, but neither do I want to throw myself into this situation. What DC doesn't get is that all the bariers and artificial standards cause many of the most promissing prospects to take another path for all sorts of reasons.

In technology, I could make a decent living just by being a quick learner in a semi-mathematical way; which was key for someone whose wits are his main asset. What has become frustrating here is the cycles of the markets and the way hiring managers can only evaluate your years of experience with particular buzzword technologies and they have no way to categorize technology generalists like myself.

Oh yeah, and the star system sucks unless the stars stick up for everyone in the system. MLB players care only about their own fat salaries, and don't make sure all the minor league and farm team players, coaches and groundskeepers get adaquate pay and health coverage. Likewise in the music industry, a few million sellers tow the line for the RIAA, and tens of thousands of quality artists that the RIAA could care less about (other than mining potential million sellers from them) literally starve. Wake up people, you can't have a strong profession if you feed your weaker and developing participants to the dogs.

Anyway, great discussion.

Posted by: Gerry at July 2, 2003 11:46 AM

Well said, Gerry. I was tempted to bring up the baseball analogy myself, but was nervous about how it would go over in this crowd. But hey, Bart Giamatti loved the sport, right?

Posted by: language hat at July 2, 2003 12:34 PM

I'm a HUGE baseball fan: Go Red Sox ...

Gerry: It was either Carry Nelson or Michael Berube who said, referring specifically to English Depts., that "academia is one of the only professions to eat its young."

RDP: I think the issue of "hot" topics and/or fields is an immensely important issue for this (or these) discussion(s). It can be a particularly incendiary topic because -- in English, and I suspect History as well, and Philosophy -- it can (potentially) land upon issues of race and ethnicity that are currently so near and dear to the humanities.

I've mention in other post that I work on post-World War II Irish writing in a postcolonial context. I once received an email a week or so after an MLA interview in which a committee member who was sympathetic to my candidacy, in confidence, explained to me that while my interview was one of the top two they had conducted, the "committee came away feeling that I was *too Irish* in my work." I responded by first thanking the writer for extending his confidence to me, and then said "I'd love to be the fly on the wall of the interview room where the committee says of an interviewee 'he/she is too Indian/Caribbean/Sub-Saharan African in his/her approach'." The writer wrote back to me with the following brief remark: "*Wry laugh*"

Posted by: Chris at July 2, 2003 03:03 PM

Beyond "hot fields", I see the imposition of fashionable methodologies and approaches, to the point of strangling alternative approaches. That's my own personal beef about academia -- the imposition of methodology.

My friends who have gone to graduate school have almost universally ended up parroting a party line which they really don't want to hear criticized, and I think one reason they don't want to hear criticism is that they don't actually believe in it themselves, but realize perfectly well that they're going to have to seem to believe it for a decade or more if they want to have a career at all.

When I was young it was crude forms of positivism, with a challenge coming from structuralism. Then came postmodernism, with positivism still dominant in new forms in many places. The fact that I have problems with all of them doesn't really mean that I'm a contrarian; it just means that a small number of very narrow points of view have achieved an unfortunate stranglehold in academia. I am an eclectic or generalist, which is very, very bad.

Posted by: zizka at July 3, 2003 02:06 AM

Wanted to add something to DC's discussion of many good teachers, far fewer good researchers. Part of the problem here is the current universality, the all but mandatory nature, of course evaluation forms. They've mucked up the whole business of determining who the good and bad teachers are by corrupting the classroom. It's easy to get good evaluations - you give everyone A's. But this says nothing about the sort of teacher you are -- or maybe it does. Maybe it says you're a very bad, cynical one. But the cte. reviewing your evaluations thinks this means you're just great. In all sorts of ways (not just this one) course evaluation forms have Lake Wobegonized the classrooms - all teachers are above average. This makes it easy for DC to claim that most teachers are fine. (I am sympathetic, by the way, to most of what DC says.)

Posted by: vivian at July 3, 2003 12:23 PM

"Part of the problem here is the current universality, the all but mandatory nature, of course evaluation forms. They've mucked up the whole business of determining who the good and bad teachers are by corrupting the classroom. It's easy to get good evaluations - you give everyone A's."

Of course. The relationship between student evaluations (which are really measurements of consumer satisfaction) and grade inflation is something I've covered elsewhere on this weblog. I actually don't believe -- with all due respect, Department Chair (and thanks for returning, by the way, and let me take the opportunity to accept your gracious apology) -- that excellent teachers are a dime a dozen. But teachers who can earn positive evaluations probably are.

But this certainly does not argue against, and rather tends to support, my original suggestion: i.e., that the superstar phenomenon occurs alongside the devaluation of the liberal arts (as exemplified by the treatment of adjunct teachers).

Moreover, to suggest, as I believe you've suggested, Vivian, that adjuncts deserve to be adjuncts and not tenure-track faculty because they are "not very impressive" is also, of course, to support my claim (though admittedly for somewhat different reasons). Academic jobs are not entitlements handed out to everyone who completes a Ph.D.? I think it's important to note that adjuncts do indeed have academic jobs, though in many respects these jobs aren't very good ones. And if we "don't write or speak well" and "don't have interesting ideas" and "have not gone to challenging graduate schools," then what in the world are we doing in college classrooms? If the liberal arts were truly valued, who would tolerate, nay endorse and encourage, the teaching of liberal arts classes by the unworthy and the incompetent? All of which is to say, of course, that I think your position requires you to take a firm stand against the growing reliance on adjunct faculty.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 3, 2003 01:15 PM

Whoops - I think this misunderstanding is my mistake. I wasn't referring to adjunct faculty. I was referring to the general pool of candidates for academic jobs -- people who are not hired yet for anything and are entering the job market. The quality of adjuncts mirrors the quality of tenured and tenure-track faculty -- some are marvelous, some okay, some horrific. Apologies for having been unclear.

Posted by: vivian at July 3, 2003 01:22 PM

This is in reference to comment #32 above (books that were ignored and then became influential). In my own particular corner of the academic universe, William Empson (despite his recognition for such books as Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral) wrote a book in 1961 called Milton's God. This book was excoriated by so-called Miltonists in the USA, and then simply dismissed as a credible work. The book went out of print (as opposed to the more "orthodox" work of C.S. Lewis, whose work on Paradise Lost from the 40s remains in print to this day, despite its manifest intellectual vacuity), and survived as a kind of bogeyman: "this is the kind of work *not* to do on this author, in this historical period, etc." But this has begun changing radically in the last couple of years, as several writers I know of are either in press with, or in late manuscript stages with works that are demonstrably influenced by this long-ignored and reviled book.

Even the already-recognized can put out good work that is ignored for less than purely merit based reasons. A new academic's book may very well be excellent work--the fact that it may be ignored says as much about the ideological commitments of the readership, the distribution system for monographs (including the often exorbitant prices), and what I suspect sometimes boils down to an "I only read books by my friends (and enemies)" style of intellectual consumption on the part of the "established" professoriate.

Assuming that a book is ignored because it is without merit is something like assuming a candidate is not hired because he or she is simply not good enough to be hired. There are many potentially complicating factors that get in the way of a neat cause-and-effect diagram like that one.

Posted by: Michael at July 7, 2003 10:41 AM

'if you play 3rd base and are
signed by a team for the league minimum, your performance over the course
of the season, if good, will lead to bargaining power when you come back
next year to re-negotiate your contract. But in academe, the 'players'
have no bargaining power of this sort. All you may get for putting forth
the effort you put forth last semester is a pat on the back and 'thanks,
best of luck' from the dept. chair.

That is an amazingly apt analogy and a great metaphor for the problem.

In fact, my personal experiences have been that teaching very, very well is a strong negative. I've lost jobs both times I've tried teaching because I taught too well.

Let me expand ...

The first time I was substitute teaching business law and was being considered for part of the program. Unlike most of the current profs, I had a J.D.

The classes came with a textbook that provided weekly tests so that if the teacher wanted to, they could test progress every week with minimal effort.

Routinely, after a week of substituting, they would evaluate potential candidates based on how much learning had dropped off for the period they were teaching. If the drop off was not too bad, that was a positive sign of the individual's skills.

In all of the class sections I covered the grades were up for the period I substituted in. I thought that was a strong positive for me. Next thing I experienced was some incredible personal hostility aimed at me in some social settings where I overlapped with people in the program. People who had ignored me before and who I was not making an effort to interact with, being somewhat passive in those social settings (I felt out of my depth).

I learned, of course, that my performance was seen as threatening.

Years later, I'm in Plano, Texas. I'm asked to teach a class to fill a gap in a program. Post graduate students for the most part, some who had been tenured faculty, many I just realized who are still friends.

Then I taught a second specialty class, adjusting in the areas student evaluations said I was weak in. I prepared two more specialty classes on specific request, and both had full capacity sign up.

Then I discovered that on a scale of 1-9, the average evaluation in the program of faculty was a 4, with some getting less. My average was 8.5.

Next thing I know, my classes were cancelled and I was informed that the program's needs no longer co-existed with mine. By a passing comment by a secretary as the program head did not have the time to tell me in person.

Though he did manage to take a cheap shot at me that rebounded, and found the need to attend four or five times I was asked to guest lecture until he realized I was not stirring up dissent or causing any problems.

He has yet to talk to me, and avoids me when we are in the same room.

I'm learning how to adjust to that sort of thinking. I'm still not sure how I could have avoided stepping in the problems (it is not as if I have great experience in fulfilling my duty to the students while avoiding having them very pleased with me).

In between I made an effort to teach by publishing in a very hot area in my field. That was derailed by burying three children over a five year period (different and unforseen causes for each, no its not genetic, yes, answering questions about it is a lot like an adjunct explaining why they aren't tenure track, yes I've a web page about it at http://adrr.com/living/) though I got to the point where I was actually called and asked to apply for positions.

Now the area is cold (from a hiring standpoint, existing institutions having filled all the gaps) and more formal (so that publishing standards and such have changed dramatically, there now being post grad LLM programs, etc. in the area). I'm back to being "just" a litigator (though I'm a good one, b.v. rated, averaging more than one summary disposition a month, winning trials every year).

I really enjoyed the experience (and still teach, from time to time, Church Sunday School classes and such). It all came back to me, and got me visiting here when I was asked to consider teaching in a program some people are trying to start. Brought up a lot of emotions. Got me reading here to find out what "real" life was like in terms of teaching and hiring, etc., outside of the area I was originally shooting for (which is foreclosed by no longer being hot, by personal failings, and by my agreeing to be the outside editor for Planet Law School's second edition -- I was the voice of moderation, good thing I hadn't found this site here or I would have poured gas on the fire, so to speak, rather than my efforts to tone down the volume. Anyway, even if ADR were hot again, no law school would hire me with that in my background, regardless of my role in the book).

The more I look, the more I realize that teaching ADR in a non-law setting would require emeshing myself into the sort of life and world that all of you are striving in. As a 48-year-old litigator (rather than a 35 year-old one), I think I'm not leaving my day job any time soon (especially since I really like my day job, I'm beginning to look at teaching like an addiction rather than anything else, and the times I teach like an alcoholic taking a drink. Next time I show up in the men's group and the teacher isn't there and they ask me to teach off the cuff with thirty seconds to prepare, maybe I need to say I've sworn off for good, I don't know).

You can seem my vitae at http://adrr.com/smu/vitae.rtf -- at least the way it was before I quit updating it.

Anyway, I've given it a lot of thought, thanks.

Posted by: Steve at February 7, 2004 11:46 AM