July 16, 2003

It's Worth It?

[W]e have too much education to be employable outside of academe, and too little experience to be employable in it. We spend hours at conferences, publish articles in journals, and teach multiple courses, but the proportions are always off. And yet, we press forward. Because we know that at the end of 300 pages, Darcy will still marry Elizabeth, and at the end of 200 pages, Pheoby will still be listening, yet we will have noticed an infinite number of things that we never noticed before. And that's worth years of education and thousands of dollars in student loans and no tenure-track jobs.

-- Margaret Marquis and Brent Shannon, We're Happy. Really.

Is it? asks Amanda at Household Opera (via Rana at Frogs and Ravens). Is it really worth years of education and thousands of dollars in student loans and no tenure-track jobs? Well, call me a philistine, because I'm going to answer with an emphatic "No."

Honestly, I hope things work out for this couple, but I have to say that their column really irked me. What is the purpose of such relentless good cheer? Perhaps one could argue that, psychologically, this is a more adaptive strategy than depression and despair? Except that it isn't, really: it would appear that unwarranted happy thoughts only serve to lighten the emotional load as they make their merry way down the path to academic proletarianization. I suppose the truly adaptive strategy is to get just down-and-out enough to prompt some positive action, though not so down-and-out that one is paralysed by feelings of hopelessness. Alas, I myself have not achieved that elusive middle, so perhaps I shouldn't be criticizing someone else's response. On the other hand, since they did enter the public domain with their account of overeducated unemployability, I guess I'm entitled to respond. What I find troublesome about their insistence on the noble worthiness of poverty and underemployment is that it lends support to those who have no interest in reforming the current job system and every interest in maintaining business as usual. By the way, I'm going to assume this couple have no interest in children; the day a child enters your life is the day the penny drops, and hard.

Yes, I'm feeling rather cranky.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 16, 2003 09:58 PM

IA, I agree with you on this one. This couple is too cheery and chipper for my taste. What's scary is that I believe they are sincere. Yes, the feeling of reaching a student is a powerful one, and it is a wonderful opportunity to be able to immerse yourself in a subject that you love, but eventually one's economic situation has to come into focus. I lived in this wonderful poverty for awhile--I was in my twenties--but couldn't imagine doing it now, in my mid-thirties, with a family. If the love of the subject is that powerful, there are ways to engage it while still earning a real living.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Despite having been accused of being over-optimistic myself...um, I'd have to agree with you here. What strikes me in particular about this piece is the upward migration of the rhetoric of "vocation" so common in descriptions of K-12 teaching (and so commonly used to argue that they don't need any more $).

Strictly speaking, though, it didn't sound like they'd spent enough time in postgraduate poverty, as opposed to graduate poverty, to really understand what the former means--she's still in grad school & it sounds like he just finished. Perhaps the CoHE should check back in a few years to see if they still appreciate the nobility of their pursuits...

Posted by: Miriam at July 17, 2003 12:15 AM

As a K-12 teacher who lurks on this board occasionally (especially during summer, when I actually have time to breathe) I, too, am disturbed by the whiff of martyrdom implicit in "vocation." Sanctification of women's work has often been used to justify low wages and status, and I wonder if this isn't filtering into perceptions of adjunct faculty as well.

I'm in graduate school right now. I actually love it, but that's probably because I have no desire to become a professor. Can you believe it? I mean, *no desire to become a professor*. The sheer pleasure of interesting classroom conversation and the logical challenges of writing coherent papers is
(shhh...looking around the room)
actually fun. I guess I'm weird.

I happen to love teaching younger kids and I think it's worthy work. And I decided long ago that time plus the leisure to check out books and read for pleasure is more important to me than racking up academic credentials, which I suppose I'm doing anyway (but slowly). But there is more to life than increasing its speed.

I wish you all good luck.

Posted by: SuzieQ at July 17, 2003 12:33 AM

Are there differences in will? I think so. Do they explain things? Maybe. Beethoven noted that power was the morality of the man who stood apart from the rest, and he also advised the Devil to take your systems of ethics.

I'm not entirely sure what this has to do with academic employment conditions. No electress at all but old Moppa Necessity.

It could be 1977, and Glenn Frey, in the guise of a dean, could be offering all of us tablets of love.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 17, 2003 12:46 AM

Isn't there some kind of rule against mentioning Glenn Frey or any member of the Eagles? Ever? Anywhere? For any reason?

Only in my dreams. I know.

Posted by: zizka at July 17, 2003 01:59 AM

Since this is the most relevant place I can think of for it, I submit to you that no band has a less-deserved poor critical reputation than the Eagles, and that "Lying Eyes," to take one example, is perhaps the perfect pop song.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 17, 2003 02:10 AM

What a very strange piece of writing. What kind of self-absorption can swallow *two* people so completely that they can cheerily insult, one by one, the members of their immediate family in The Chronicle of Higher Education?

SuzieQ is exactly right that this is about martyrdom. They have nothing at stake but differentiating themselves from their oh-so-provincial parents and suffering for their great love is how they do it. Nevermind that in a few years they'll be using the children they're sure to have (how could they not? these experts in vapid cooing) to justify leaving the academy in terms to which we'll be expected to nod approvingly.

Is it worth it? If the chance to write a please-pat-my-head-now-perfect-secret-daddy piece to piss off your real daddy is worth it, maybe. If you love English enough to never write a sentence containing "yet we will have noticed an infinite number of things that we never noticed before," maybe. Otherwise, no, of course not.

Posted by: ogged at July 17, 2003 02:26 AM

I also agree with IA and Kevin. Poverty loses its charm once you have kids and/or hit your 30's. Actually, it lost its charm for me when I was about 12 years old, but that's another story! What I find really fascinating is that the romanticizing of the bohemian lifestyle is usually done by middle class kids. Those of us from a lower class background have always seen poverty for what it really is...it SUCKS! There's no way to whitewash the experience.
I think in grad. school, people seem cheery because everyone is poor, so why not commiserate? But then, after graduation, the mac 'n cheese doesn't look so dignified after all.

Posted by: Cat at July 17, 2003 08:51 AM

I'm with you, Chun -- also "Take it to the Limit".

Posted by: Jeremy Osner at July 17, 2003 09:13 AM

Ogged: classic post. "please-pat-my-head-now-perfect-secret-daddy piece to piss off your real daddy" ha!

Cat: good post, too.

Posted by: JT at July 17, 2003 09:45 AM

Actually, I sort of liked the "give a conference paper dressed in the clothes of the historical period you're studying" idea.

Posted by: William Burns at July 17, 2003 10:00 AM

I believe the Chronicle pays for personal essays and perhaps this one just reflects a Johnsonian understanding that no one but a blockhead ever writes except for money -- and it's ok to write anything that will be paid for! Or, perhaps there's some desire to advertise to potential employers that they would be the perfect hire, content with any situation/salary/other conditions of employment... That would explain the strange (surely they have all the requisite "experience" for an entry level academic job) combination of "over educated/under experience" they claim. Would any reader outside of the Chronicle really accept the idea that a Ph.D. makes one "over educated" for jobs? This assumes that the world at large still respects and even feels awe toward those with Ph.Ds, but I think that's no longer the case....

On the other hand, one could probably write a passable defense of choosing money-poverty over time-poverty. Faced with the choice between graduate school-level poverty and the 40++ hour work week outside of academe, one might choose to have more time, and to stretch out the graduate school experience. After all, in many (most?) graduate programs there's more "job"/support security than there is afterward. Until the degree is in hand, in many programs you don't have to do much to be ensured of a salary that may even include health insurance and other benefits [even access to child care] (especially when TAs unionize).

Posted by: sappho at July 17, 2003 10:14 AM

Sappho -- our program cut funding if you stayed too long and tuition went back up to full (it was reduced when you advanced to candidacy) so I'm not sure how viable the long-haul approach would have been. I do agree that being time rich rather than money rich is more appealing to me, within limits.

Poverty is not fun, even the "poverty lite" I'm currently experiencing (meaning, I have a roof over my head, I eat regularly if not well, I have health insurance (for the moment) and I can afford the occasional extra expense of things like internet access). It is tiring living paycheck to paycheck and praying that nothing calamitous happens. I cannot imagine trying to do this while responsible for a child, or even a pet, for that matter.

Posted by: Rana at July 17, 2003 10:42 AM

Oh, and chipping in one cent on the cheery couple -- who says passion and vocation and love of a pursuit and making a decent living have to be mutually exclusive? If what they do is so worthwhile, isn't it appropriate to stand before society and demand that it gets the recognition it deserves, including material recognition?

(Surely scholars are at least as worthy as pop stars, pro atheletes and corporate CEOs, right? So demand that money comes where our mouths are!)

Posted by: Rana at July 17, 2003 10:45 AM

Sappho touches on something interesting (today's entry in the "sounds naughty but isn't" exposition contest) with the comment "This assumes that the world at large still respects and even feels awe toward those with Ph.Ds, but I think that's no longer the case...". I've noticed that in a great many fields that have changed a lot and which attract a sort of fannish enthusiam, there's a significant population of folks whose mental map is 20-40 years out of date.

I work in genre fiction, so I encounter this crowd of folks who haven't realized that the midlist went away and who have no idea how the fiction franchises work and like that. This strikes me as very comparable to the folks whose idea of how academia works is shaped mostly by the dramatized recollections of people who were teaching in the '60s and '70s. In movies, there is (I understand) a perpetual crowd of folks who think they'll get to make movies the way George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg did early in their careers. And so forth and so on.

In every case, it's a matter of people who are now adults relying on impressions they formed while young, often from sources that were already somewhat out of date. This wouldn't matter much in fields that aren't changing a whole lot - blacksmithing, say, or quilting, where there actually are significant changes because of technology and conceptual innovation but it hasn't radically altered. It's hardest, at least for most of the people I know, in fields that have changed mostly in ways that require the knowledgeable to say "sorry, it doesn't work that way anymore (to the extent it ever did)".

Posted by: Bruce Baugh at July 17, 2003 11:23 AM

Back to the unfortunate invocation of -- gasp -- The Eagles. The words of the immortal Mojo Nixon come to mind: "Don Heley must die."

But for a truly inspiring coincidence between academia and rock, well, punk actualy, I submit for the group's consideration the following: Mission of Burma's "Academy Fight Song."

"That's when I reach for my revolver."

Reading Margaret and Brent inspire such things.

Posted by: Chris at July 17, 2003 12:04 PM

I'm split between telling you my adjunct sob-story (just been informed that despite my "excellent teaching and research profile" I "won't get a job until I have 5 articles forthcoming in journals / a book at the printers") and suggesting that it really isn't worth moaning about a problem which is now endemic in academia and is part-and-parcel of the eradication of the intellectual. Speak to me tonight (after a few pints with my mentor) and I will say "well done, and keep up the pressure, try to get things changed"; speak to me tomorrow and I might say that this whole website is an example of bad faith and ressentiment - that perhaps you and your readership should spend less time moaning and more time writing articles, and you might get that elusive tenure.
And besides, do you really want tenure? All that boring administration, zero time to actually teach and research? Do you know what you're letting yourself in for?
Can you understand the ambivalence of someone who has been trying to get an academic job for a decade?

Posted by: Adrian at July 17, 2003 05:06 PM

Well, when the revolution comes, they'll be the first against the wall.

"We still know what it feels like to have students tell us unexpectedly that they 'loved' something, whether it was a writing assignment, a research project, or The Great Gatsby."

Yes, but do you know what it feels like to have once been someone like this and now to be disgusted by students 'loving' something partly because this mawkish display becomes yet another reminder of your past naivete, and partly because it threatens to lead these poor innocents to the same transformation?

What a train wreck they are.

Props to Adrian's post for asking the $64,000 question.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at July 17, 2003 08:02 PM

The husband completed "a doctoral project"? It's called a dissertation, damn it. And five degrees between them? So what. The husband has a BA, MA, Ph.D. and the wife is A.B.D.

They're writing for a publication read by academics, but act as if we don't know the most basic facts about how the field works. I feel that same patronizing attitude they use for their parents directed at me as the reader.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at July 18, 2003 09:03 AM

It was a twee piece, to be sure, but I'm a bit taken aback by the stream of bile it released here.

Let me propose the following thought experiment. Imagine that this is the *truth* of the humanities market: you can spend your life teaching and writing, but the wage for this will be $20,000 a year. And it's this way not because of evil deans, unjust payous to superstars, or some form of prejudice. Would it not be possible to want that job? And wouldn't the person who did have the kind of attitude displayed by this happy couple? Could it be that they are more in touch with reality than we (speaking for the tone of the thread)would like to admit?

Posted by: BAA at July 18, 2003 10:14 AM

That's an interesting angle, BAA, and I think I might be inclined to agree. As someone about to enter grad school, I'm much more put off by the already-evident social dysfunctions of humanities departments than by the dismal job prospects (although because of blogs like these, I'm doing much more intensive planning that I would have if no one had warned me of the dire situation).

Of course, I'm close to forty and have spent most of life so far accepting the trade-offs of a self-chosen bohemian lifestyle, sometimes making good money in the private sector and sometimes following my less-profitable impulses. If I were 22 and had dreams of a stable middle-class lifestyle, I might be less sanguine.

At least these two aren't lying about the lack of material reward, even if their chirpiness is irritating. A young potential grad student reading it isn't going to come away thinking, "Wow, there's the path to riches!" I'm much less inclined to pardon faculty and graduate departments that slither away from providing hard facts.

Posted by: rose at July 18, 2003 12:16 PM

Be gentle with these two. In my experience, married people who write happy little articles about how they don't mind the obvious glaring stresses in their married life because they are so gosh darn happy with the little joys of their married existence, are usually about six months from divorce or murder. If they'd managed to work a beautiful golden retriever in there I'd have said four weeks.

Posted by: dsquared at July 18, 2003 12:38 PM

As usual, BAA is the voice of reason, but I remain horrified. Leaving that aside, two thoughts:

(a) Long ago I saw some psychological research suggesting that children are more inclined to retrospectively judge tasks to be fun when they have insufficient reasons of other sorts to complete them. (The practical upshot was "$5 if you finish yer math, kiddo" might be counterproductive.) I wonder if the Wonder Twins are another sort of example of this-- i.e., it must be really swell to re-read the novel, else I've arsed up my life but good...

(b) does anyone else find that the Chronicle's little first-person essays are surprisingly bad? I don't mean obnoxious content; they're just badly written. I'll post links if everyone thinks this is nuts.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at July 18, 2003 01:22 PM

Well, now I've got my excuse if they don't accept one I sent them. :)

What I find worrisome about the happy couple is less their passion for their field -- which is admirable -- or their willingness to sacrifice for it -- probably also admirable, though your mileage may vary -- but rather their ignorance about the extent of the sacrifice. They seem to be thinking very short term -- they haven't taken into account what might happen if they have a child, or they or their parents fall ill, or even -- horrors -- there are NO jobs in their fields, let alone jobs that allow the two of them to live in the same city.

Being a martyr is one thing; being a fool is another.

Posted by: Rana at July 18, 2003 01:32 PM

BAA's thought experiment prompted some rethinking about the source of irritation. Suppose the article were like this: "well, we never made more than $30k, even after all these years, but looking back on our careers in the academy, we still think it's worth it, for those moments when students got it, and because no matter how many pages fall out, Ludwig will still say it's all nonsense, and Jim will still be shooting Indians and..." That I find rather touching, so I suspect it's not the values themselves that are setting people off.

I think the source of irritation is the combination of the sentiment and the point of view. Sorry, are you aware, dear couple, that among the Chronicle's readership are people who once felt the way you did, and now regret their choices? You think you aren't future embittered faculty, butcha are, Blanche! Butcha are! or at least you wouldn't know that you weren't, from where you stand. It's this presumption that gives rise to the bile, not the attitudes per se.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at July 18, 2003 02:15 PM

Fontana, D^2, you've helped me understand why, in spite of my avowed intention of not disliking the
authors, I kind of did anyway.

Let me analogize to the classic celebrity couple interview. You know the kind I mean: "we're so in love, we're happy all the time, we have sex for hours, we've tatooed each other's names on our pinky fingers, which we subsequently severed and had made into matching lockets."

Well, why is this so irksome? Not because we hate the very idea of love, but rather that *in the very act* of publically attesting to their love, the hollywood couple display a flightiness and extrovesion hard to reconcile with a lifetime of
committed monogamy. For the very scatterbrained (Julia Roberts, say), a breathy confession of eternal love just signals the break-up countdown.

I think something like this is going on here. Teh exact analogy is mentioned by Dsquared we're poor, but happy, happy, happy to be reading Fitzgerald together). In addition, however, as Fontana points out, the couple displays a crudity of perception (the tasteless snootiness directed at their parents, the clumsiness of the essay) that makes one think they haven't really got a clue about where their life is heading.

Posted by: BAA at July 18, 2003 03:22 PM

Let's be perfectly cynical about this. This piece appears in the Chronical of "Higher" (as in High Times?) Education, the Variety of the upscale division of the infotainment industry? The readership is:

a. admin types. Sends notice to workers: "Not only do we want you to work for next to nothing, we want service with a smile too, dammit." After that what better than a little of guilt-assuagement to wash it all down with?

"You see Tatoo, the peons like to be crapped on.

"Does that mean we get to cut de wages again, boss?"

b. got-it-made profs. see above.

c. people who think reading the CHE will somehow help them get a job. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. I reach for my 2x4...

d. the resentful and un(der)employed. Well, there you go, something to get angry and resentful about. Anger is personalised and channeled toward hate-objects.

At each level, the article succeeds in scoring ideological points for the infotainment industry status quo. It's a propaganda masterpiece.

Posted by: che at July 19, 2003 12:22 AM

Like almost everyone else commenting on this article, I read it with disgust. It was puerile to say the least---and clearly the product of two children of the middle class (again, try real poverty and it will loose its lure very quickly).

What I found most insulting about the article (and there was a lot I found insulting) was the implication that people who are not in academia a) do not love and read great literature and b) the assumption that one will never encounter intellectual excitment outside of academia.
The arrogance (as well as ignorance) of the people writing this article stun me.

I left academia three years ago---and guess what I routinely encounter people who have a wild and strong passion for my subject (history). This morning I gave a talk to people (physicians and scientists) on the history of their profession. These people asked outstanding questions, showed tremendous enthusiasm for history and demonstrated a depth of knowledge I never found in 18 year old undergraduates. Yes, Virginia, people are intellectually curious outside of academia and you can find a satisfying career working with these people!

And, as a final kicker, I was (and am) well-paid to do this job. Unlike when I was in academia (in a tenure-track position no less), I can and do support myself---no help from my middle-class parents.

Posted by: Liz at September 9, 2003 03:46 PM