March 30, 2003

The Comfort and the Terror

What is it that makes History? Well, bodies.
And Art? -- a body that has lost its head.

...And secondly, dear Mary, let me stress:
there's nothing, barring Art, sublunar creatures
can use to comprehend your gorgeous features.
Leave History to Good Queen Bess.

-- Joseph Brodsky, Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots

As a child, I was deeply attracted to the old-style Catholicism, bits and pieces of which I picked up from old catechisms found in the basement, from elderly female relatives with their mass cards and their rosaries (the beads made of wood, hand-carved and polished into a dull sheen by years of devotion), and from who knows how many other vestiges that I could faintly trace out from my cosy little enclave in a dreary little lower middle class Canadian suburb.

I grew up in a Catholic household, with a mother whose recommended response to any type of "suffering" (a scraped knee, the daily dose of cod liver oil) was to "offer it up to the souls in Purgatory." My parents had a crucifix over their bedroom door, which suggested (and this of course was the point) that the marriage bed was, among other things, a sacred space: if sex was a damp, dark secret, it was also a mystery. Blood, sweat, tears, my father's dirty socks, my mother's silver-plated hairbrush, the crown of thorns: an intimation of something vast and terrifying, but also intimate and comforting: the sacralization of everyday life.

Then, too, we had Mary our Mother, who would plead our cause in any case whatsover, and a whole host of saints various and sundry who could be relied upon to intercede for more specialized purposes: St Jude for desperate causes, St Anthony for misplaced belongings ("Something is lost and cannot be found/Please, St Anthony, help look around"). The saints were distant figures and not quite real, and yet they were ever-present at some other layer just above or beyond our everday reality. We spoke of them with familiarity, shortening their names to affectionate diminutives ("Does she go to St. Mike's?" "No, she's a student at St. Pat's"). I attended Catholic school from the tender age of four (St John the Apostle, or, as we called it, and no disrespect intended, St. J. the A.), where we learned that unbaptized babies must go to limbo and where our first-grade teacher warned us that we must always think of the Holy Family: Mary and the baby Jesus, oh and Joseph, too (poor man, always a bit of an afterthought, and cuckolded by the Holy Spirit! he earned his sainthood, surely). I recall distress upon the sudden realization shortly afterwards (an hour? a day? a week?) that I had not been thinking of the Holy Family, they had slipped my mind altogether. "But I can't always be thinking of them," I silently argued: the germ of scepticism?

So I suppose I got the full treatment, such as it was in the post-Vatican II age in which I was born and raised. Ah! but there's the rub. Even as a child I was dimly aware that the Church was not what it had once been, and somehow realized that the full treatment was only a treatment by halves.

Anyway, at the same time (and in conflict with the romance of pre-Vatican II Catholicism), I was a budding feminist. I sang "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" at the top of my lungs in the schoolyard. "Oh, you're not going to grow up to be one of those women's libbers, are you?" my mother worried. I gave her a hard time if, for example, she automatically referred to an unknown doctor as a "he" ("women can be doctors, too, you know, Mum!"). And then there was the Brady Bunch, and denim jackets, and K-tel record albums, and, in short, everything else that made up life as I knew it. Juvenilia: when I was maybe 14, maybe 15 years old, I wrote an essay on "the Protestantization of the Roman Catholic Church," by which I meant, I suppose, the accomodation of the Church to the modern, liberal, secular world to which I clearly belonged. Oh, I was passionate, bristling with purpose, an angry adolescent with a devotion to Mary (but also a subscription to Seventeen magazine). Even *I* knew it was a bit of a put-on. It was a last-ditch effort to salvage my faith from something I had suspected and feared for years: namely, that Catholicism just didn't fit into the main contours of my reality.

Two cheers for Enlightenment.

Last weekend I read Paul Berman's report from the ideological trenches, "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror," on the writings of Sayyid Qutb. I have been thinking of it ever since. Berman wants us to take Qutb seriously as a thinker who is "not shallow" but "deep," and whose "'In the Shade of the Qur'an' is, in its fashion, a masterwork." I think Berman is onto something.

In his "In the Shade of the Qur'an," Berman reports, Qutb wrote that

"all over the world, humans had reached a moment of unbearable crisis. The human race had lost touch with human nature. Man's inspiration, intelligence and morality were degenerating. Sexual relations were deteriorating 'to a level lower than the beasts.' Man was miserable, anxious and skeptical, sinking into idiocy, insanity and crime. People were turning, in their unhappiness, to drugs, alcohol and existentialism. Qutb admired economic productivity and scientific knowledge. But he did not think that wealth and science were rescuing the human race. He figured that, on the contrary, the richest countries were the unhappiest of all. And what was the cause of this unhappiness -- this wretched split between man's truest nature and modern life?"

As Berman reminds us, "a great many cultural critics in Europe and America asked this question in the middle years of the 20th century." And -- if we can let Heidegger stand in for "a great many cultural critics" -- they came up with an explanation not so different from that of the philosopher of Islamic terror: "a great many of them, following Nietzsche and other philosophers, pointed to the origins of Western civilization in ancient Greece, where man was said to have made his fatal error. This error was philosophical. It consisted of placing an arrogant and deluded faith in the power of human reason -- an arrogant faith that, after many centuries, had created in modern times a tyranny of technology over life."

Qutb offered a way out, and a solution: the "renovation of Islam and of civilization all over the world," the founding of "a new state, based on the Koran" and according to a reinstatement of "shariah, the Muslim code, as the legal code for all of society." As relayed by Berman, Qutb's ideas are deeply creepy and they are chilling. They would seem to involve a complete erasure of the boundaries between public and private, and between religious and secular. The sacralization of everyday life, with both its comforts and its terrors.

We should be frightened, Berman insists. But rather than dismiss these ideas, we should take them on, answer them, and refute them:

"But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure?...
...Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding -- one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all."

While I don't claim to have an understanding, I think I might have an inkling.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 10:50 PM | Comments (3)

March 29, 2003

Gone for Soldiers: Motherhood and Military Duty

"We must therefore return to the state of nature, in which, by reason of the equality of nature, all men of riper years are to be accounted equal. There by right of nature the conqueror is lord of the conquered. By the right therefore of nature, the dominion over the infant first belongs to he who first hath him in his power. But it is manifest that he who is newly born is in the mother's power before any others; insomuch as she may rightly, and at her own will, either breed him up or adventure him to fortune...
...And thus in the state of nature, every woman that bears children, becomes both a mother and a lord...[for] among men no less than other creatures, the birth follows the belly."

-- Thomas Hobbes, De Cive

Ok, I don't think the newborn infant is as conquered to the conqueror. Nor do I endorse a view of parental authority that would define the relationship between parent and child as that of master and servant. And I would take a rather dim view of any parent (whether of the paternal or maternal persuasion) who would decide to "adventure" a child "to fortune."
(And of course I don't believe in "the state of nature" except as an interesting thought experiment, though I am sometimes inclined -- and especially of late -- to accept Hobbes's characterization of this state as a war of all against all, where the life of man is nasty, brutish and short, and etc).

Nevertheless, I really like Hobbe's discussion of maternal dominion. And not only because he argues forcefully that male domination is conventional (ie contractual and artificial) rather than natural but also because in his own strange (strangely disturbing but strangely compelling) way, he takes motherhood seriously. Unlike just about every other early modern natural law theorist that you can name, he doesn't begin by supposing that paternal authority is natural. No, no, he says, there are two parents not one, and one of those parents stands in a much closer relationship to the child than the other, and that parent is not the father but the mother. It is maternal and not paternal authority that is natural, Hobbes insists. The birth follows the belly.

How very different from anything you can read on motherhood from the seventeenth century to the day before yesterday. And even since the day before yesterday, you'd be hard-pressed to find much on motherhood that isn't bogged down in dense thickets of sentimentality. Believe me, I've read more than enough on mothering and motherhood, and I am oppressed by the dead weight of desire, and blame, and wishful thinking, and sentimental claptrack and just plain ickiness. The worst is when they attempt to dress it all up in the garb of science. Hello! Can we say "ideology"? The term has fallen out of fashion, perhaps you find it clunky and theoretically naive: in which case, let me refer you to the mothering manuals, where clunkiness and theoretical naivete are the order of the day -- 'go big or go home' is my motto, so why not use an analytic tool that can capture the very essence of the genre? (for starters, I would recommend The Baby Bookby Bill and Martha Sears, but please also read this by Cynthia Eller). Enough! At some point during my son's infancy, I had to stop reading the parenting books. Exit stage left: I didn't audition for this part, and I'm not going to play it. Find yourself another actor, I've got a new role as understudy to Mr. Hobbes.

No, not really. I mean, of course not. I'm no lordly ruler (though I'm not going to make some cutesy "his majesty the baby" joke about how my son is really the boss in this household, because that's just wrong and a little bit icky, too). And yet. There is something refreshingly bracing about Hobbes's utter lack of sentimentality. There is something invigorating in his recognition that the mother has "her own will." It comes as a breath of fresh air after all that stuff written just the day before yesterday, which is all about carefully, indeed obsessively, instructing you in the maternal sentiments that you should already possess by nature, and by the way, if you still have a will of your own, then you are unnatural and probably a bad mother. So I read Hobbes with something like relief, even as I historicize and contextualize and of course reject the notion of parental dominion, with all that this term would imply.

All of this by way of an elaborate prefatory apology for what I want to say, which is, namely, that I don't much like the idea of mothers of infants and small children being sent off on military missions. Not women, mind you, and not mothers of older children. But mothers of infants and small children. Well, so what? Who am I and why should my likes and dislikes have anything to do with policy in this area? They shouldn't. Hell, I'm not even an American (I'm a Canadian living in the US with an American husband and American child). And I'm quite sure that I would not intervene in any way to change the current policy (sign a petition, lobby Congress, vote on a proposition [actually, I can't vote because I'm a Canadian, but if I could, well, I wouldn't]).

But I don't like it, and I'm trying to figure out why. Feel free to call me a gender reactionary. Because maybe that's about right. Maybe I am a gender reactionary in this area. Though I hope not quite as reactionary as the antifeminist Maggie Gallagher, whose "How does one define honor for women in combat?" is the subject of some interesting comments over at Pandagon. "Yet if manly honor has always depended on a willingness to die for one's country," writes Gallagher, "a woman's honor has consisted in living for her children. Where in the logic of war is there room for that reality, the deepest truth I know?" Well, I don't accept this version of "reality," which is very far indeed from "the deepest truth" I know. My "honour" consists in living for my child? Ick-o-rama.

And yet, if I don't, like Gallagher, "inwardly recoil," I am unsettled. The New York Times has an online "Slide Show" called "New Role for Women" with pictures of women in the military. You can get to it from their front page. One of the pictures shows "Private First Class Diana Goodwin [holding] her three-month-old son, Adan, at a departure ceremony for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Tex." I don't know how to link to it, it's a popup without an obvious URL, and so I briefly considered posting the picture here but then decided against it. No, that's too manipulative, I thought, that is bogging the issue down in those thickets of sentimentality of which I so often complain. But the picture disturbs me. It strikes me as wrong for a mother to have to leave a 3-month old child. Not that it is right for a father to have to leave a 3-month old child. But it seems more wrong when it's the mother and especially when the child is only 3 months old.

Am I myself bogged down in those dense thickets? Undoubtedly. So I'm trying to disentangle myself, and I'm struggling to articulate a feminist defense of my position. There is the gender equity line of feminism which says, Women can and should do whatever men do, mothers can and should do whatever is done by fathers. And then there's the antifeminist position which says, a man is more manly as a soldier, a woman more womanly as a mother. But are there no other positions? I also reject the maternal feminist position, by the way, women as peaceful nurturers, mothers as incarnations of the Goddess and so and so forth. For me, that's just more sentiment and ickiness. No, I want to be a little more hardnosed (if not Hobbesian) about this.

But where to start? I suppose I would have to start by pointing to the incredible devaluation of motherwork in this society. Mothers should be valued for the work that we do and we quite patently are not valued. And I don't mean valued in some Hallmark greeting card way. Show me the money: I'm talking cold, hard cash. Actually, what I'm talking about is paid maternity leave, various versions of which we find in just about every other western industrialized nation, including my own home and native land. In Canada, you get 6 to 12 months (which can be taken by either mother or father), it's a form of unemployment insurance. This is huge! this is a huge difference between the US and Canada. One country says, What you are doing is valuable, and valued enough that we will actually devote some resources to helping you do it; the other country says, We will give you cheap Hallmark sentimentality but not a nickel more, and then when you go back to work at 6 weeks postpartum because you bloody well can't afford to stay home, we will blame you for being a selfish and uncaring mother (oh, and don't even get me started on the moralizing over breastfeeding: yes, breastfeeding is a wonderful thing, so let's do something to support it; wondering why they have such high breastfeeding rates in Norway and such low rates in America? I'll give you a hint: one country actually supports mothers and infants, the other does not). Not that maternity leave should be seen as some sort of government "handout," mind you. It's a form of social insurance to which everyone pays in, because everyone will sooner or later reap the benefits (eg, in the form of the work of those future workers who will be funding social security). And it is as nothing to what the unpaid work of mothers and fathers contributes to the official economy. So ok, if there is a universal maternity leave, then the mother doesn't have to leave her 3-month old, whether to work as a cashier, lawyer, teacher, programmer, whatever, or to be shipped out for military service. You have a child under the age of 1? You are excused from the duties which you will later resume, not because you are a delicate hothouse flower or an angel in the house but because you are already performing a very valuable service.

And then I would want to think about the class angle. "More than 630,000 members of the armed services are parents," I read in an article at the Dr. Spock web site entitled "When Mom and Dad Go Off to War," and "among them are more than 80,000 single parents--mostly mothers--and nearly 35,000 whose spouses are also in the armed forces." Close to 80,000 single mothers? I had no idea. Well, probably a lot of them want to be there, I really hope so, at any rate. And why not? It's an honourable career, and they should be free to choose it. But I can't help wondering about the menu of options from which they have to choose. And I can't help thinking about the logic of welfare "reform," and the throwing of mothers into the workforce, children be damned, because those mothers should be working instead of staying home watching tv. But wait? don't the very same conservatives who argue for an end to welfare also endorse -- and more than endorse, urge, exhort, sermonize and moralize about -- the stay-at-home motherhood ideal? Why yes, they do. For nice white middle-class mothers with husbands to support them. Their children need them at home, we hear. But what about the children of those other mothers? Tough break. But it's time to break the cycle of dependency: Get them all out to work. Maybe the kids are next? Victorian values: why not Victorian realities? child labour, children in factories, the whole nine yards. Anyway, I don't know about those 80,000 single mothers in the military, but I'm wondering what were their other options? And I'm thinking that whatever choice they might want to make, they should at least have the option (which they could take or leave as they pleased) of a paid maternity leave so they wouldn't have to leave infants while they go off to serve.

And then too, I have to think about my own class position and the highly privileged infancy/toddlerhood of my own child. Sure, I complain about being an adjunct, but in the grand scheme of things I'm doing ok. More than ok. Maybe I don't have a future in the academy, but a future somewhere I probably do have. My husband is a lawyer, we are affluent and overeducated, we read the New Yorker and chatter about the issues of the day, and there is no freakin' way we would have countenanced my leaving our 3-month old to go off on a dangerous mission from which I might not return, not if we could help it, which as a matter of fact we could. And if I adopted a position which said, Well why not send mothers of infants, motherhood is not sacred, and etc, I think I would be less than honest in doing so. Not because I think do think motherhood is sacred (ick) but because I do think it's important, and I wouldn't want my own infant to be deprived of his mother, and I know very well that I myself would not leave my infant if I had a choice.

I don't know. It's all a bit of a muddle. I am trying to think this through, and to think in terms of taking motherhood seriously as something valued and valuable and important, and am just throwing out some ideas without doing enough to connect the dots. But what I'm thinking for the moment is that, though Maggie Gallagher's position is clearly that of a reactionary, it's not entirely clear to me that the position which says "off to serve regardless of infants and small children" is the only feminist and progressive one.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 04:22 AM | Comments (6)

March 27, 2003

Decline and Fall of the Humanities

For there is no such finis ultimum, (utmost aim), nor summum bonum, (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.
-- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Gary Sauer-Thompson has posted a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to my ruminations on the decline of the humanities within the academy. His comments nudge me toward a realization that I am guilty of just the kind of academic solipsism that I mean to oppose. "How to connect with the common life?" asks Sauer-Thompson.

That is one of the questions that serves as an organizing principle for this blog. It is a question to which I don't and can't claim to have an answer. But it occurs to me that in attempting to address this question, I am -- like so many academics -- beginning at the wrong end. That is, I wonder if I am, if not scorning, then at least discounting "public life in the name of reason whilst living [my] everyday lives within it"?

Well here's the thing: I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of humanities scholars in the hastening of our own demise. I worry that we are actually and quite actively contributing to our own irrelevance. There's a part of me that thinks, Let's leave off the Madonna studies and post-post-[marxist/feminist/colonial/you name it] interrogations and get back to some, uh, basics. Damn, that's hard to think, much less say. I'm a good liberal feminist progressive type, and I don't want to join forces with the likes of Lynn Cheney. But I can't help thinking it, and I can't help thinking that I should probably say it. We need to reconnect to the series of traditions from which we emerged, without which we have very little by way of a sense of purpose. Which needn't (and in my opinion shouldn't) imply some sort of silly rah-rah west-is-best celebration of the best that has been thought and said in America. But if we cannot affirm something -- not mindlessly and stupidly, but in a spirit of critical appreciation (and I do mean critical, but I also do mean appreciation) -- then what the heck are we about, and why?

Academics, writes Sauer-Thompson, "really do have to reinvent themselves if they do not want entrepreneurship imposed on them as scholars by the state and the market." I agree wholeheartedly. And thus far I have focused my attention on the refusal of academics to engage in such a reinvention. Which is to say, I have been looking inward rather than outward, focusing my attention on the academy's sense of its relation to the broader world, rather than on the broader's world's sense of its relation to the academy and of the academy's relation to it. You always hurt the ones you love, or, uh, something like that. But then I have to wonder: Am I attributing too much power or agency to academics themselves? Have academics led the way in the invention of that which needs to be rethought and reinvented? We'd like to think so, certainly. And if we have been the principal agents in the invention of ourselves, then I can be more optimistic about our capacity to reinvent ourselves. But perhaps we delude ourselves: perhaps we have been nothing more than camp-followers all along. Perhaps, for example, the postmodern post-structuralist post-everything turn is not the bold and original programme (or rather -- since "programme" implies a structure and unity that characterizes a pre-post, that is to say, a liberal, sensibility -- series of interventions and interrogations) that its adherents have announced, but is rather a derivative and defeatist reflection of what is happening out there, where all that is solid melts into air.

Again, Sauer-Thompson asks one of the important questions: "Or has the old idea of a liberal education for democratic citizenship been lost?" Yes, I am afraid it has been all but lost. I am pretty much persuaded by Bill Readings, who argues in The University in Ruins that the mission and purpose that once connected the university to the culture at large has been replaced by an empty and meaningless "pursuit of excellence" that connects the university to nothing more than its own increasingly precarious continuation as a well-managed and financially viable institution.

But where did the idea of liberal education for democratic citizenship come from? From within the university, or without? I don't really know the answer to this question, but I suspect it came from without. It's worth remembering, I think, that for centuries the university was essentially theological in its mission and purpose. The culture said, it is religion that matters, and the culture created spaces where theology could reign as queen of the sciences. At what point was theology replaced, or at least demoted, in favour of a more secular mission, that of preparing young men for public life and citizenship? Again, I'm not sure about this (and I'd love to find an historical account that would answer these questions). I would note that as late as the mid-18th century, David Hume was denied a position at the University of Edinburgh because it was feared that his unbelief would corrupt the morals of the young men who would have been his students (as indeed it surely would have undermined morality as it was understood by Hume's opponents). My guess is that the key move was made in the mid-19th century (I am thinking of the founding of the University of London, eg), at about the same time as the emergence of recognizably modern academic disciplines. And again, I suspect that it was the broader culture that defined and created this new mission in accordance with its perceived needs, and not the other way around.

All of which is to suggest that though I am inclined to assign some blame/responsibility to academics for abandoning a traditional mission, in so doing I am probably exaggerating the power of academics, and overestimating the significance of what academics do in relation to the broader culture. The decline of the humanities is perhaps taking place out there, with academics within the academy merely reacting to/reflecting this much broader trend. If the culture really wanted the university to provide liberal education for democratic citizenship, in other words, then that is probably what the university would provide.

Does that sound too pessimisitic? I'm not optimistic, I'll admit. But I don't mean to throw my hands up in despair and take refuge in defeatism. Rather, I want to suggest that the reconnection which Sauer-Thompson recommends needs to take place at both ends, not only from within the academy but also from without.

Another interesting question posed by Sauer-Thompson: "Would not one to way to defend the humanities from attacks from outside the university be to show the usefulness of the humanities ithrough an engagement with the issues of private life." This is something else I want to think about and take up in more detail in the near future. But for now, my answer is Yes and No, with an emphasis on No. Or perhaps, Yes, but not as it is usually or generally done. I started out as an "issues of private life" scholar, with an interest in the history of women in Britain and a fairly uncritical acceptance of "the personal is political" as both a descriptive and analytic tool. I have since moved away from this framework, for reasons both theoretical and pragmatic: that is, I don't think it's true that the personal is political (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't), and I don't think it's useful for feminist scholarship to recreate a kind of disciplinary "separate spheres" -- which is not, of course, what Sauer-Thompson is recommending, as I read him he is recommending the very opposite. And in my own work (on women and civil society in 18th-c Britain), I seek to break down the public/private divide -- by focusing not on the private, however, but on an intermediary sphere between public and private within which women belonged and in which they played a significant role. The private makes me nervous, I guess. Or at least, I believe the very notion of "issues of private life" carries with it a lot of baggage, and cannot be easily detached from the uses (some of them problematic, especially though not only in terms of the liberal tradition that I want to defend) to which this concept has been put in the past 20-30 years of feminist scholarship.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 01:12 AM | Comments (5)

March 19, 2003

The Only Emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
-- Wallace Stevens

I am very new to blogging. Indeed, about three months ago, I actually had to ask someone, "What is a blog?" I had a vague notion that it was some sort of online diary or journal, but beyond that, I was so absolutely clueless that I didn't even realize that blog was a shortened version of weblog. Three weeks ago, I didn't know an anchor tag from a hole in the ground. Yes, I have been online for several years, and I have participated in several listserves and discussion boards. In terms of access to new technologies: why, I've been fully wired and web-ready for years. But until recently, it had never occurred to me that I might learn to do just a little bit more than type, point and click. It literally had never crossed my mind that I might get myself a book on xhtml and try to muddle through the basics.

Well, I'm a bit of a Luddite, I suppose. Though perhaps this is just another way of saying that I'm an ignoramus? I stand in awe of those who know code. I stand outside and wonder, as though contemplating from afar and through a glass darkly the inner workings of some vast mysterium from which I am by definition excluded. But by definition of what, exactly? Partly, of course, by self-definition: I do words, not numbers, English grammar not standards-compliant code. I settled on this self-definition by about the age of 6 or 7, and old habits of course die hard. And I'm sure I will always be a bit of techno-blunderer, though I do now know the meaning of anchor tag.

So I am new to blogging -- late to the party as usual, "always a bridesmaid never a bride" as the saying goes (I've been both, by the way, and it's more fun being a bridesmaid, despite those ghastly polyester dresses). And I am just finding my way through the blogoshere, and at the moment, I am so impressed by what's out there! Yes, there is a good deal of nuttiness and more than a little of nastiness. But there is also something very different indeed: some really sharp stuff by any number of smart and interesting and engaged people. I'm sure they all know code; I stand in awe before them. Myself, I am still trying to figure out how I want to blog and what it is I want to blog about.

I had originally intended to devote this space to a discussion of issues faced by academics, and especially by those of us who occupy that strange space on the margins, where we are in but not of, or perhaps of but not quite in, the academy. There are now some 400,000 of us, and our ranks continue to swell. And yet we remain oddly isolated and alone, and for the most part I think it is fair to say that we lack a shared space in which to discuss the issues and problems that characterize life as an adjunct faculty member.

To be sure, there is a dawning realization -- on the part of many full-time faculty and, more importantly, on the part of those various professional organizations and associations that can give a voice to our concerns -- that the trend toward adjunct teaching staff is indeed a serious problem, and not only for those who occupy adjunct positions but also for the future of the academic professions as a whole. And there is a growing literature (essays, editorials, position papers and the like) that addresses itself to the problem of de-professionalization. There is a good deal of information out there, which I diligently seek out and avidly devour.

But much as I welcome the position paper, I am also searching for something else entirely. What I want, what I would like to see, is a space that is somewhere between the level of the personal and the level of policy (I don't and won't call it the political, for reasons about which I will blog at some other time). I have yet to find this space ("Adjunct Nation" is a start, I suppose, but it is overall too cheerful, too decidedly "can-do" in its stance, to answer my -- perhaps unanswerable -- expectations). And so this blog is my small, my very small, attempt at carving out a space that I otherwise do not find. And who the hell am I? three weeks ago I didn't know an anchor tag from my own bellybutton (now where did bellybutton come from? ah! my 20-month old son is currenlty obsessed by bellybuttons, before long it will be dinosaurs, and before I know it he will be off to college, and who exactly will be teaching him?... )

Anyway, I don't want this space to be just another me-zine, all about me and what I ate for breakfast and what are my complaints: Poor me, I don't get paid enough; Pity me, I lack an office; but damn! my husband makes a mean panckake, and so on. At the same time, I certainly do have some complaints and I would very much like to express them. As I've said elsewhere, the adjunct faculty member is a blot on the copybook, an embarrassment to the profession to which he or she (at least marginally) belongs. And we who are adjuncts internalize this sense of shame and embarrassment, which is one of the reasons, I believe, that we are so reluctant to speak out. So ok, it's my page, and I can say what I like, even if I myself am the only reader, addressing myself, Frances Burney-style, to "Nobody." Though in truth, I would like to attract, among other readers, a half dozen or so of those 400,000 adjuncts out there (many of whom, I've little doubt, have yet to hear about blogging: don't underestimate the backwardness of humanities academics!). So I want to be able to get some things off my chest, but don't want this blog to be a narrowly focused and inward-turning me-zine.

And I am also struggling to find (or perhaps in some small way to help create, though even that is probably too grandiose a scheme) a space that falls somewhere between the "adjunct as entrepreneur" model which I reject outright, and the "adjunct as activist" model which I haven't yet addressed and about which I have some serious reservations. Don't get me wrong: there's a reason why I include workplace: the journal for academic labor on my blogroll. I think this journal is a must-read for every adjunct, and indeed for anyone and everyone who is concerned about the future of higher education in this country. But to say this is not to offer a blanket endorsement of its analyses, tactics and strategies. At some point in the near future, I want to take a critical look at Marc Bousquet's call for "a dictatorship of the flexible" (for whose work I grateful, but about which I am ambivalent; and no, I don't think he is being entirely tongue-in-cheek about this "dictatorship:" again, of which more anon).

So this was my original intention, and for the moment this remains my intention.

But today? Well, today I am inclined to think, What the f*** does any of this matter? And for obvious reasons. Let be be finale of seem, the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Because much as I am passionately committed to all of the above, at this moment it seems silly -- nay, it seems worse than silly, it seems positively wrong -- for me to focus on my paltry little concerns when we are about to drop bombs on some city and Jesus (descending into me-zine mode, because it's my space and I can addres myself to Nobody), I look at my wee son who is truly the light of my life, and there is probably nothing I would not do for him (I resist the cult of domesticity that dies hard in America, sure, but would I give up my life to save the life of my son? I surely would, you want to believe it, baybee, I would do so without hesitation). And Edmund Burke was right about our "little platoons," he surely was right about this. At some level, I have to care more about my own child: a child requires so much of time and energy and investment (physical, emotional, financial and so on) that none of us would be here, I am sure, if parents didn't care first and foremost for their own children. But though my own child must come first for me, it would be morally immature, it would be morally wrong, of me to think that my child really does matter more than anyone else's.

And so I think of 20-month old children in Baghdad, and gee, I wish I had a tenure-track position in the academy, but for f***'s sake, in the grand scheme of things, my failure to obtain such a position in the field of academic history just does not matter. Clio doesn't care, and why the hell should she? It is as nothing compared to the possibility (probability?) that someone else's 20-month old child -- who does, who must, matter as much as my own child -- will die a horrid and gruesome death for reasons which, at this point, are really beyond my ken. At some point in the future, I mean to take on the "graduate students [unemployed and underemployed Ph.Ds.?] are among the blessed of the earth" which sometimes makes me angry, which sometimes makes me feel luminous with anger. But tonight I cannot be angered by that which does not really matter. Tonight I must acknowledge that I and mine are indeed among the blessed of the earth, through no virtue of our own, mind you, through a mere accident of birth, of space and time and geography. And I must humbly bow down before the awful truth that the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 04:49 PM | Comments (7)

March 18, 2003

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten Academic Therapy

Good grief.

Is this really necessary?

"Hoping to avoid lawsuits and rancor," writes Piper Fogg in an article entitled "Academic Therapy," "more colleges use conflict-resolution experts." The article features the work of one Sandra I. Cheldelin, a licensed psychologist, "professional conflict manager," and associate professor at George Mason University's Institute of Conflict Resolution and Analysis, who has "worked with dozens of institutions on conflicts that include ideological rifts, personal spats, and illegal forms of discrimination."

Now, Professor Cheldelin sounds like a wonderful person, the kind of person you want on hand if you host a party, because she can work the room, break the ice, and get people talking. And I'm sure she does a marvellous job working with academics, many of whom are cranky, neurotic and self-absorbed people. And perhaps her services are worth the "less than $1,000 a day, plus expenses" that she charges colleges for "her work as a private consultant."

But as I read the Chronicle's article, it occurred to me that I had discovered a new part-time career opportunity for my mother. No, my mother is not a licensed psychologist. Nor can she boast of official credentials in the area of "conflict resolution and analysis." But as a retired kindergarten teacher (and hey, "less than $1,000 a day, plus expenses" would make a nice supplement to her modest pension) with some thirty years experience in "active listening" and various other methods of "creative" conflict resolution, my mother, I am almost certain, has what it takes to get the job done.

Take, for example, the following case:

"Have you heard the one about the airline pilot who, by accident, announces his longing for a certain flight attendant over a plane's loudspeaker? Well, when a young female assistant professor heard it from a male colleague a few years ago, she didn't think it was funny. She filed a complaint against her fellow professor. The administration at the small, public university investigated but found no evidence of sexual harassment. The problem lingered. People took sides. And pretty soon, the nasty conflict had spread through the university."

And here is an account of its resolution:

"After listening to the professor who was so fond of telling jokes, she told him that it seemed as if he wanted to make people laugh and feel good, and that he clearly was upset that this woman did not feel good. Ms. Cheldelin then went back to the department and said, 'This guy wants to make people laugh, while this woman wants support -- can you help them?'
She asked everyone in the department to come up with jokes that weren't offensive to anyone in the group. She reconfigured the offices of the two professors so that one had to walk past the other to get to the coffee machine. She also encouraged them to find a shared interest. The two professors started a film club and pledged to see movies together once a month."

In other words, Let's all be nice to one another and share all our toys. Does this not sound an awful lot like kindergarten?

Off to call my mother...


As a public service, I will be offering updates on the risk of terrorist attack, as measured by the Department of Homespun Insecurity. Current threat level is: high


Just to clarify:

I haven't heard "the one about the airline pilot who, by accident, announces his longing for a certain flight attendant over the plane's loudspeaker," complaint about which on the part of a young female assistant professor led to the hiring of a "professional conflict manager." I'm sure I would rather not hear the joke, I strongly suspect that I would not find it funny.

But to file a formal complaint over a tasteless joke that is, I've no doubt, sexist and offensive and everything I hope my own son will not grow up to embrace and indulge? Well, call me a marginalized adjunct with some questions about the allocation of scarce campus resources, but I have some real problems with this approach on the part of a fellow female faculty member. Did the whole thing have to go so far that the administration ended up hiring an outside consultant who charged "less than [i.e., just under] $1,000 a day, plus expenses" to resolve a conflict that should have, and I dare say could have, been resolved between the two parties themselves?

For pity's sake, young female assistant professor: You are a grown woman with an earned Ph.D. and a position of responsibility which carries with it some important duties, including that of behaving like an adult even in the face of a faculty member who is behaving like a silly schoolboy. Are you so completely vulnerable and powerless at the hands of a fellow faculty member that you must call in the big guns over a tasteless joke? And did you try other tactics, I wonder? How about, for example, a look of bemused puzzlement which says, 'You poor thing, I wonder why you find that funny'? Or failing that, perhaps the next level of response, which involves carefully cultivating a look of withering scorn that says, 'Back off now, you silly twit, I don't find your joke funny'? Well, perhaps you tried the above and more, maybe even talked to the man and found he was resistant to your arguments. I still don't get the formal complaint.

I don't know. There is such a thing as sexual harrassment in the workplace, and there should be policies in place to deal with this problem. And I am not at all siding with those who make awful sexist jokes and comments and then meet objections to their "humour" with the reply that goes something like "Can't you take a joke? where's your sense of humour?" But at the same time, there is also the risk of trivializing the problem of harrassment with a hypersensitive and hypervigilant stance, and there is also the possibility that policies and procedures against harrassment will be overused/abused. I mean, I'm sure I would find that male professor's jokes irritating, and yet I also find myself irritated at the thought of his being schooled by a professional "conflict manager" in the telling of jokes "that weren't offensive to anyone in the group." And it's not that I think tasteless and offensive jokes are just harmless stuff and that we should all learn "how to take a joke." But there is something so infantilizing about the process, and for all involved.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 02:28 PM | Comments (2)

March 17, 2003

The falcon cannot hear the falconer

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

I'm not inclined to indulge in "apocalypse now" pronouncements. To be frank, I generally take apocalyptic speculation and millenarian vision as signs of a weak, or at least an undisciplined mind. Or, to be more fair, I guess I would say that what makes poetry should not make policy.

But at the moment I have such a feeling of dread and apprehension in the pit of my stomach. I fear that something is about to change, and I greatly fear the change will be not for the better but for the worse. I think Timothy Burke pretty much sums it up in a piece called "Crazy Taxi," where he writes that

"It is like being a passenger in a car driven too quickly and erratically by someone who won’t listen to anyone else in the car. Even when you want to get to the same destination as the driver, you can’t help but feel that there’s a way to go there which doesn’t carry the same risk of flying through the guardrails and off a cliff."

Well, I live in NYC and I was here on 9/11. And for a brief moment, I felt the fear. Don't quite know how to explain it, but if you were in NYC on September 11, 2001, you will know exactly what I mean. I was home with my 2-month old son, my husband had gone to work in midtown Manhattan. And I could not contact my husband (the phone lines were all screw-y) and for a good half hour (maybe longer) the media were reporting that there were four more airplanes unaccounted for (yes, this has been all but forgotten, but for at least a short time, the media were mistakenly reporting that 4 more hijacked airplanes were somewhere in the skies and people here were wondering: What's next? the Empire State Building? the Trump tower?). And my neighbor across the street was standing in the doorway yelling, "I always knew this would happen" (really? well, why the heck didn't you warn us?). And for this brief moment, I felt the fear.

Let me note that I do not consider myself a victim of the attack. I was not harmed, nor were any of my family or friends.

But for me, something did change on 9/11, and not of course for the better. A vast image did trouble my sight, yes, and I caught a glimpse of some horror that I simply had not imagined could ever be visited upon us.

To move away from the imagery of rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem and the like, I suppose 9/11 shocked me into a realization that we were still living in history. Like all good liberals, I had always rather scoffed at Fukayama's "end of history" thesis, and I still reject many of his underlying assumptions not to mention some of his fundamental concerns. And yet. The attack of 9/11 made me wonder: had I indeed assumed that we were living at the "end of history," that is to say, in a safe corner of the world where we (you and me, me and mine) were no longer vulnerable to the great cataclysms and catastrophes of history? Not that I had ever believed we were living in the best of all possible worlds, where all problems had been solved and all conflict had been resolved. But rather, that I had assumed the problems we faced could be addressed within a framework of liberal democracy that I had probably tended to take somewhat for granted. This assumption has been shaken, to say the least.

Anyway, what I now fear (for us, in this corner of the world) isn't really in the order of something grand and apocalyptic (the armageddon, the second coming, the end of the world and so on). What I fear is something on a scale that is both smaller and more insidious: a "normalization," if that is the term, of terrorist attacks as one of the unfortunate but unavoidable risks involved in just being in the world (which world? well, our post 9/11 world). That is, I no longer feel quite safe, and I can no longer go about my business with the false sense of security that whatever messes are happening elsewhere in the world, we in this part of the world will not have to suffer the consequences.

And this is all quite selfish, I know. Here I am not even addressing the impact of war on Iraqi citizens, which is in fact one of the major grounds for my opposition to the war. Here I am being selfish and wondering what it all might mean for me and mine in our corner of the world. I am thinking about that tiny little prickle of fear that I sometimes experience now as I board the subway. I try not to give into it, I don't want to cower in fear as I take the subway. The odds are still very small, I am sure. And yet I now realize, we in this city all realize since 9/11, that we are a possible target. And there is little question in my mind that war with Iraq will make us that much more vulnerable.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 04:25 PM | Comments (0)

March 16, 2003

Tradition versus Traditionalism

Is there a relationship between the hermeneutics of suspicion that seems to govern so much work in the humanities and the decline of said humanities? (I say "decline" rather than "crisis" because I think we are talking about a slow and gradual death rather than an acute and sudden convulsion). I suspect there must be a relationship between the two, though I can't claim to have figured it out. I suppose it's another version of the chicken-and-egg question. Which came first: lack of interest in and support for what we do in the humanities on the part of a wider public, or lack of interest in and support for what we do on the part of ourselves?

It probably cannot be reduced to a simple cause-and-effect formula, and in any case, in practical terms it probably doesn't much matter. In practical terms, what we need to realize is the following: If we ourselves do not believe in what we do and if we ourselves either will not or cannot offer a convincing explanation of what we do and why it is we should be doing it, then we cannot expect the public to continue to lend its support to the work we do in the humanities.

Now, I am not advocating a cynical pandering to the public, ie., Let's pretend to enthusiastically endorse a series of traditions that we secretly despise in the hopes that the state legislature won't further slash our budgets. I am rather arguing that we really and truly should not despise the traditions in which we work and to which we belong.

I am beyond weary of the kind of presumptive hostility that too often passes for critical thinking in today's academy. And I say this not as a conservative but as a card-carrying left-liberal feminist progressive type. And what I want to say is, Let us distinguish carefully between tradition and traditionalism, and support the former while rejecting the latter.

By "traditionalism," I understand a non-critical and even reverential celebration of texts/thinkers/canons that are supposed to be above and beyond the reach of criticism precisely because they have stood the test of time and are now to be elevated (or relegated) to a quasi-sacred space as a collection of quasi-sacred objects. As I see it, traditionalism does not support but rather undermines tradition. The texts we study should not be viewed as museum pieces or sacred relics to be carefully sealed off and placed behind glass, out of our reach and out of harm's way. Rather, the texts we study are ours to do with as we like, and we should feel free to handle them with our grubby hands and to muck around with them as much as we please. If they have stood the test of time, then they can surely bear the weight of our criticism. And they should be approached, I think, as something living and vital, to be passed on from one generation to the next, which is how I understand "tradition."

All of which is to say, there must be some middle ground between uncritical celebration and wholesale rejection. I think we need to work harder at finding this middle ground. To my mind, this middle ground involves an understanding of ourselves as working within a series of traditions into which we would introduce our students. So, for example, we don't (or I don't) pass silently over Aristotle's defense of "natural slavery" because Aristotle is one of the great thinkers and everything he wrote should be enshrined in a space toward which we humbly genuflect with an attitude of awe and reverence. But we also don't (or I don't) dismiss Aristotle as a dead white male whose defense of "natural slavery" must serve as an indictment of everything he said and of all things Aristotelian. What is the point, really, of the summary dismissal? It is easy enough to do, yes, but isn't it just a little too easy? It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Let us do what is much more difficult but also much more rewarding: allow Aristotle to speak to us, even as we speak to him. Not rah-rah Aristotle, but not boo-hoo-banish-Aristotle, either.

I have been thinking about this issue for quite a while. One of the advantages (and they are few and far between) of life on the margins, I suppose, is that it can force upon you a kind of critical distance that you might not have if you were more comfortably situated within. And so I find myself increasingly committed to a defense of the notion of tradition, for a number of reasons and on a number of grounds. But for now, I want to emphasize a very practical and pragmatic point: namely, that if we continue to undermine the humanities from inside the academy, then we really don't have much by way of a defense against attacks on the humanities from outside the academy.


Via dolebludger, a report by researchers at the University of Warwick finds that "Arts degrees 'reduce earnings.'" Graduates in liberal arts subjects - including history and English literature - "could expect to make between 2% and 10% less than those who quit education at 18, researchers at Warwick University found...Professor Ian Walker, leading the study, said: 'Feeling warm about literature doesn't pay the rent.'" So maybe the pomo people are right? Or at least, maybe they're saying something not so very different from those hard-nosed corporate types who dismiss a liberal arts degree as "useless"?

Ok, I don't think a liberal arts degree is "useless." Nor do I think that the main thing in life should be to make as much money as possible. Nevertheless.
People do and must live in a world where there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Now, I have some real problems with the refusal of humanities graduate programs to scale back their admissions in order to achieve a better balance between PhDs and actual academic positions. And my objection to this short-sighted policy (or lack of policy, really) has to do in large part with the damage done to those who delay and defer a good deal of early to mid adult life (establishment of a viable career, marriage, children, etc) in pursuit of a degree that turns out to lead to nowhere. At what point, I wonder, should the same principle apply to undergraduate studies? Should we encourage young people to sign on for degrees that will drastically reduce their earning potential over the course of their lives? Or, at the very least, should we not give them full and fair warning of this salary differential?

Of course, this is only one study. And presumably there might be some who would willingly forego future earnings for the sake of other ideals and other interest. Still, it does make me wonder. Perhaps the liberal arts are close to becoming completely irrelevant, and the humanities as we know it or as we once knew it will be consigned to the museum?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 03:14 PM | Comments (2)

March 14, 2003

Going Corporate: College Presidents Command CEO Salaries

I find myself increasingly impatient with the academic culture warriors. You know the ones I mean: the people from both the left and right ends of the spectrum who continue to argue -- with a level of vehemence that seems inversely related to the continued relevance of their grievances -- that the biggest threats to academic freedom and academic standards stem from the politicized antics of their ideological opponents (whether on the right or the left, as the case may be).

Get with the program, people. The biggest threat both to academic freedom and to academic standards is the corporatization of the university. And when it comes to the concerns of the "culture wars," the corporate model can basically be seen as an equal opportunity menace. Are you concerned about issues of diversity in such areas as student admissions, faculty hiring and curriculum development? Or are you rather interested in resisting recent moves toward a more multi-culti university in the name of a traditional liberal arts curriculum that you fear is in danger of disappearing? Whether the former or the latter, let me assure you that your concerns are equally irrelevant to the new breed of corporate managers. What they want to know is, What will it cost? and, How will it sell?

Don't believe me? Spend some time browsing through the articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Money and Management" section. For a truly instructive example of corporatization, I especially recommend its collection of eye-opening articles on college presidents' salaries. "The Growing $500,000 Club," for example, informs us that while, "until 2000, no more than a dozen presidents of private colleges made that much money in any given year," in 2001 "the number of top leaders earning over $500,000 annually more than doubled." But perhaps even more significant than the high salaries for presidents of top-ranked private universities is the growing trend toward enormous compensation packages for the presidents of public universities. An article entitled "Private Funds Drive Up Pay of Public-University Presidents" offers the following interesting examples:

"John W. Shumaker, the new president of the University of Tennessee system, will be paid as much as $734,000 annually. Mary Sue Coleman, who in August became the first female president of the University of Michigan system, will earn $677,500 a year. Evan S. Dobelle, president of the University of Hawaii System, receives $599,500 annually. And Mark A. Emmert, chancellor of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, received a pay raise in July that more than doubled his annual compensation, from $284,160 to $590,000."

Among the questions this raises is the one posed by Derek Bok, who asks "Are Huge Presidential Salaries Bad for Colleges?" His answer, in brief, is Yes, they certainly are. "The influence of money," he argues, "is already too strong on many campuses, distorting priorities, distracting faculty members, and eroding academic values. Lavish salaries for campus CEO's will only tend to make the problem worse."

Now, I don't have a problem with generous compensation packages for college presidents. But as with most things in life, it's a question of degree. Once we get over the half million per annum mark, and even up into the range of 750,000 to 800,000 dollars a year...well, I think we should all be asking some questions. The more so as this growing trend toward CEO-type compensation for college presidents occurs alongside a growing trend toward adjunct and part-time faculty (a wrong in itself and a very real, though indirect, threat to the maintenance of a full-time tenured faculty).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 04:11 PM | Comments (3)

March 13, 2003

Reshaping the Job Market?

In a recent letter to Perspectives (the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association), Alexandra M. Lord of the United States Public Health Service says some important things that need to be said. I wonder if anyone is listening?

As Lord points out, "Year after year, Perspectives seems to be publishing the same articles on the current academic job market and the poor prospects which confront most new PhDs. Judging by the trends of the last few years, it seems highly unlikely that the academic job market will improve this year or anytime in the future." Lord is irritated by this narrow focus, and so am I.

I am especially irritated by Perspective's tendency to trumpet an infinitesimally small increase in the number of job openings as a sign that the job market is improving. See, for example, "Job Market Report 2002: History Posts Gains Despite Economy;" "Job Market Report 2001: Openings Booming...but for How Long?;" and "Odds for Applicants Improving, According to Survey of Job Advertisers." Note the titles of these reports, and then read the reports carefully with a close eye on the numbers: it doesn't take an advanced degree in statistics to spot the discrepancies between the optimism of the titles and the pessimism of the figures cited. I would also recommend Russell L. Johnson's very useful 1998 Job Market: A Realistic Appraisal), which Perspectives declined to publish.

Alexandra M. Lord wants Perspectives to take another, "more aggressive and more varied" approach to the job problem: Instead of "discussing minute differences in the number of jobs each year," she writes, "Perspectives needs to initiate and publish studies and information on historians who work outside of the university. Although rarely discussed within academia, there are incredible opportunities for historians in policy positions, business organizations, and a variety of other fields—but this information as well as the pleasure nonacademic historians have found in their jobs is never openly or seriously discussed in Perspectives." I think Lord is exactly right about this. The "job market" for academic history is bad, has been worsening for almost a decade, and will probably get even worse before it gets better (if it ever does get better, and it won't improve until those who are in a position to do something about it actually start doing something). Many history PhDs are simply not going to find full-time employment in the academy and will have to look elsewhere. Why not take an active role, Lord asks, in "[placing] historians in business, government, and other professions"?

Lord's proposal is not another version of "a Ph.D. in the humanities can serve as preparation for a wide variety of careers outside the academy," which I discussed a couple of weeks ago. That is, she does not say something like, 'Let's continue to train people very narrowly for academic careers that many of them will never have, and then at the end of the day tell them, Your training has somehow or other served as preparation for a variety of unspecified pursuits about which we can tell you nothing.' Instead, she makes the connection between academic and non-academic job markets and points out that the development of non-academic job markets for historians would help not only those historians who must look outside the academy for employment but also those historians who remain within:

"Moreover, if we educate historians about job opportunities outside of the academy, we can reshape the job market. Scientists can and do command higher salaries and lighter teaching loads because university administrators recognize that scientists have job opportunities outside of the university. If historians can introduce a similar form of competitiveness into the history job market, opportunities, salaries and teaching loads may shift."

This is very different from the current laissez-faire "You've got your Ph.D., now go find your own parachute" approach. And for me, it helps to clarify what I now see as a crucial point about the academic history job market: namely, that the academic history job market is not a "market" at all but is rather a failed labor monopoly. Indeed, I think the academic history job system now combines the worst of both worlds: it uses the language of the market to describe what is effectively an increasingly ineffective and unsuccessful guild system, and then tells those who are shut out of the guild to compete openly in a non-existent external market. And the only way that this job system could become a "market" in any meaningful sense, I believe, would be through the development of a real, identifiable alternative market for historians outside the academy. Legal academics have such a market, as do some scientists working in some fields. And of course, historians will never command the salaries and benefits that law professors can command, because there will never be the equivalent of the Manhattan law firm as an alternative career path that the historian foregoes in order to work in the academy. Nevertheless, there could and should be another, albeit somewhat more modest, market for historians, and I think Lord is absolutely correct to suggest that the AHA should be doing much more to develop and promote such an alternative.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2003

Minding the Gap

I think I crossed a line this morning, and crossed over to the other side. Now, I have been walking on and around this line for some time, and for the past few years I suppose I have been somewhat uneasily perched with one foot on either side. But this morning I decisively crossed that line, and am now faced with the realization that I have reached a point from which there is no return.

I'm talking about the "generation gap," if I may use such a quaint and perhaps archaic (c. 1970?) term. The existence and extent of which gap between me and my students became absolutely and undeniably clear to me this morning as I pondered the fact that three of my female students were wearing what looked to me like sleepwear and underwear.

Well, it's a 9 a.m. class, and today I gave the midterm exam (which gave me plenty of opportunity to observe my students' early morning sartorial splendour), and everyone was a little bit nutty because of the exam and the fact that after the exam we would all be free for the spring break (yippee!), and then, too, the students live in residence halls just a building or two away. So under the circumstances, coming to class in one's pyjamas is, if a bit unusual, not entirely unheard of.

So Student 1's apparel didn't really force upon me the realization of a gap. "Are those the kind of jammie bottoms that I myself like to wear in the privacy of my own home?" I wondered, as I noticed that Student 1 was wearing a pair of plaid flannel pants/bottoms that looked a lot like my own pyjama bottoms. They could be just a pair of extremely casual (and no doubt extremely comfy) trousers, to be sure. But when I noticed her feet, I saw what were unmistakably a pair of suede slippers. No question about it, Student 1 had come to class in her pyamas.

With Students 2 and 3, however, I was not (and am not) entirely convinced that they were wearing something other than street clothes to class. Student 2 was wearing a pair of jammie-bottom-looking striped flannel trousers (or, perhaps, actual jammie bottoms). With a woolen sweater on top (what the J. Crew catalog calls "the boyfriend sweater"), a chenille scarf around her neck, and a rose-printed silk scarf around her head (9 a.m. exam, no time to shower, having a bad hair day, etc.). But she was also wearing something else: on top of the jammie-bottom like bottoms, she was sporting what looked to me like a women's slip. Silky (probably silk, actually, these students have disposable income), with lace trim, in a pale seafoam green colour (though seaform probably isn't the right term, it probably has one of those J. Crew-like names: pool or foam or lake or what have you: some name that evokes water but with only a subtle hint at the actual colour). Student 3 was not wearing jammies. She had on a pair of jeans and sweater. But over the jeans, she had the same type of slip-like thing that looked to me like, well, like a women's undergarment, the kind we call a slip. Hers was a nice shade of pale beige (champagne? no that's too dated, probably considered cheesy now, so perhaps mushroom or cappucino).

Well, here's the thing: I was struck by the sheer fabulousness of these young women's outfits, I truly was. And at the same time, what they were wearing seemed incoherent: that is, it just didn't make sense to me. "Are those pyjama bottoms on Student 1?" "Is Student 2 wearing a slip? Gee, that looks a lot like a slip...Is it an actual slip that she bought in the lingerie department, or is it some new sort of overskirt designed to look like a slip but to be worn on the outside?" And "Is that another slip, or slip-like thingy on Student 3?" And "Is this what they're wearning now?" and "Oh dear lord, I sound like my mother!" And I had a real admiration for their early morning style: they are young and a little bit funky, and they can pull if off beautifully. But also, a wistful sense of loss as I realized that I am now very far removed from what it is that these young women are wearing to class. Not that I hadn't realized this before, but this morning it hit me with a peculiar force: my students belong to a younger generation and I of course belong to another, and older, one.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 06:42 PM | Comments (0)

Adjunct as Entrepreneur?

Jill Carroll has been writing a column ("The Adjunct Track") for the Chronicle of Higher Education for over a year. Though she offers some useful advice on such tricky dilemmas as how to hold office hours without an office, the framework within which she chooses to view the issue of adjunct teaching strikes me as incredibly naive and highly misleading.

Basically, Carroll proposes to replace the "paradigm" of adjunct as exploited low-wage worker with that of adjunct as entrepreneur. As the Chronicle put it in a feature article published in August 2001, "Jill Carroll wants adjuncts to think about themselves as entrepreneurs selling a product to a client." Carroll teaches 12 courses a year at three separate campuses -- and "that doesn't count the continuing-education classes or the literature course for convicts on probation" -- and now earns $54,000 a year. She is, the Chronicle tells us, "a small-business success story."

The keys to her success? The keys are both practical and psychological. "The key, she says, is to develop courses like products: Systemize their production until you can reap the benefits of economies of scale. Make them classes you can teach over and over, without mountains of preparation each time." But successful enterpreneurship begins with a positive attitude: "It all starts with how you think," she says. "I know it sounds very pop psychology, sounds like Oprah. But it's true."

Yes, that does sound very pop psychology. And I'm afraid such pop psychology does not meet my criteria of what could reasonably be considered as "true." Kind of reminds me of that "don't sweat the small stuff and it's all small stuff" stuff. Sure, some of it, probably a lot of it, is small stuff. But it's not all small stuff, and just saying that it's small doesn't make it small.

In her latest column, Carroll reiterates her approach as follows:

"Finally you can pursue the entrepreneurial approach, which is the one I have advocated in this column. It's worked quite well for me and for lots of other adjuncts working in larger cities. This is as much a psychological strategy as anything, in that it chooses to view adjuncts as freelance workers who sell their services to different clients within their market.
Even though we don't set our own rates or get to charge kill fees, approaching the adjunct situation within this paradigm is fruitful for the new possibilities it creates. You hustle up as much work as you can in your area, always improving your quality of service (teaching, grading, whatever), becoming ever more time-efficient and skilled in your work so that you can shoulder more clients, and earn more money, without going insane."

I think this "adjunct as entreprenuer" strategy is nothing more than a compensatory fiction. It is, as Carroll admits, largely a psychological strategy. Yes, you are marginalized, underpaid, unsupported and exploited, Carroll concedes. But instead of allowing this to make you feel bad about yourself and your position (because it will otherwise make you feel very bad indeed, and you might even find yourself "going insane"), you should redefine yourself as a freelance worker, calling yourself an entrepreneur who delivers a "quality product" to a growing base of "clients," and finding a basis for self-esteem and self-fulfillment in the "skill" and "time-efficiency" with which you deliver your product.

Problem is, as Carroll finally admits in this latest column (and I think this is the first time she has made such an admission), the adjunct is not really -- indeed, not at all -- in a position to behave like an entrepreneur: "Even though we don't set our own rates or get to charge kill fees," she concedes. Well, that's a pretty big concession. That pretty much qualifies the notion of adjunct as entrepreneur into the region of sheer fantasy. As Keith Hoeller (Cofounder, Washington Part-Time Faculty Association) pointed out in a letter to the editor in response to its August 2001 article,

"If Professor Carroll were in fact a self-employed entrepreneur with years of professional experience, she would be earning $200,000 a year and not $54,000. She would set her own rates and allow enough to purchase her own medical and retirement benefits; cover her transportation costs, office rent, phone bills, and marketing and promotional materials; and set money aside for periods of unemployment. She would also write her own contracts -- and include hefty cancellation penalties" (Letter to the Editor, Chronicle, September 14, 2001).

Indeed. For all practical intents and purposes, the adjunct is a low-wage worker without benefits who can be hired and fired at will. So in what way can the adjunct be an entrepreneur, except in his or her own mind?

Anyway, is this what teaching should be about? The delivery of units of quality service (lecturing, grading, and etc) by freelance workers with no real stakes in the curriculum, the department, the institutions in which they work? And if this is ok, then why have tenured faculty at all? Why not abolish tenure, eliminate all but a few full-time positions within any given department (cannot entirely eliminate full-time positions, must keep a small permanent base of adminstrators/overseers), and have the bulk of teaching done by part-timers ("free-lancers")? I believe this is the direction in which we are moving, and I suspect there are legions of university adminstrators who would love nothing better than to speed up this process. Call me old-fashioned, but I think this is not a good thing. My problem with the growing use of adjuncts is partly, I will admit, motivated by self-interest: I don't like to be marginalized, underpaid, unsupported, and exploited. But part of it stems from a real concern over the future of higher education, and what the shift from full-time to part-time positions signals about this future.

But I suppose a part of me has to give Carroll her due: in attempting to redefine low-paid, contingent labor as an enterpreneurial strategy, she exposes the commodification of education and the corporatization of the university to sometimes brilliant (though often absurd) effect.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 03:28 AM | Comments (4)

March 10, 2003

Ghosts in the Classroom?

Ghosts in the Classroom (Michael Dubson, ed.), a collection of essays by adjunct faculty, has been on my must-read list for several months. According to one (Canadian) reviewer, these "tales of the American part-timer reveal pain, sadness and rage," but "the overwhelming feeling that I got from reading this set of stories was bitterness." Which is why, I suppose, I am not quite ready to read this collection. I am trying to move "beyond bitterness," I suppose, and I must confess that I not always successful in the attempt. Perhaps immersion in such a collection could help strengthen my (sometimes weak and wavering) resolve to get out of the academy before it's too late? But at the moment, I fear it would only contribute to a sense of sadness and futility that inhibits rather than enables positive action. I don't know.

One thing I do know: I am not a ghost in the classroom. A ghost in my department? Yes, absolutely. I am invisible to most full-time faculty and also (and in practical terms, more importantly) to the staff who run the office, many of whom can never seem to remember who I am and what is my business and even what is my name. Does it sound too sad/bitter/melodramatic to say that I die a small death every time I feign a brisk cheerfulness as I explain to one of the secretaries in the office that I am So-and-So who needs you to please unlock the door to Office Number XXX so that I can hold the weekly office hours for which I am not paid? Something inside me feels like dying when that happens, and yet of course this is small matter, and just a tiny little "death" that is not at all a death, and something that would barely register on any just scale of human injustice and human misery. So yes, that does sound too sad.

And so I remind myself that I am not a ghost in the classroom. My students see me and know me. And when I am teaching I am fully alive and fully visible.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 06:07 PM | Comments (2)

March 08, 2003

Hippety-hop, Hippety-hop, Bang bang you're dead

For anyone wondering why little Johnny still can't read, even after they've upped his Ritalin dosage:

On sale now at a Kmart or Walgreens near you: the military-themed Easter basket, "in which the traditional chocolate rabbit centerpiece has been displaced by plastic military action figures and their make-believe lethal paraphernalia." What's next: the Easter egg hunt as search-and-destroy mission? The good news about this mindless marketing of gratuitous violence: no chocolate bunny equals less sugar, and that adds up to fewer cavities.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 07:51 PM | Comments (0)

Instructors' Status and Grade Inflation

A study by sociologists Melanie Moore and Richard Trahan tests the hypothesis that "lower status instructors with less secure positions are more likely to assign higher grades than higher status instructors with tenured positions." The unsurprising results?: "Achieved organizational status in terms of rank and tenure is significantly related to grades awarded. Instructors with less secure positions give higher grades on average than instructors with more secure positions."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 01:06 PM | Comments (0)

March 06, 2003

Almost 75 Million Americans

74.7 million Americans under age 65 were without health insurance for some or all of the two-year period 2001-2002. This according to a newly released study by Families USA, a health care consumers advocacy group, which based its findings on a statistical analysis of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey for the years 2001 and 2002.

I thought 41 million was really bad. But 74.7 million? How did they arrive at this figure?

Apparently, the standard method of counting the uninsured reports the number of people who did not have any health insurance at any point during the relevant time period. But this does not account for the large number of people who were uninsured for a portion of the period in question. Factor in that previously neglected group, and the number of uninsured rises from 41 to almost 75 million people.

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans (30.1%) under the age of 65 were without health insurance at some point during the two-year period 2001-2002. 24 percent of this figure were uninsured for the entire two-year period. 65 percent of this figure were without health insurance for at least 6 months. 90 percent were uninsured for at least 3 months. Nearly 1 in 3! and this in the richest nation the world has never known.

What would it take to change this? I often wish we had a new Dickens: someone who could expose the injustices and outrages of the new (post?)-industrial order not by antagonizing but by speaking to the sensibilities of the middle class. I've been over on the lefty-liberal side for years, and honestly, a lot of our tactics and approaches just do not work.

As Salon points out, "the ranks of the uninsured now cut deeper into the middle class," which could "spur Congress" to attempt some much-needed and long overdue reforms. I wouldn't count on it, not without a lot of pressure from outside the Beltway. The good news: a new coalition of diverse groups -- including Familes USA, the AFL-CIO, the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Medical Association -- has formed to push the issue of the uninsurance over the course of the next week. Activities include town hall meetings, health fairs, and prayer breakfasts. And apparently the problem of the uninsured will be featured on the tv shows "ER" and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." I guess these shows are our version of Dickens?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 01:44 AM | Comments (0)

March 04, 2003

O brave new world

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education's online Colloquy, there is a discussion of maternity and academic leave policies. It's the kind of thing that makes me feel nostalgic for the Catholicism from which I have lapsed.

The level of hostility toward mothers is disturbing. The fact that it is coming from self-identified feminists doubly so. I have always been one to refute the popular notion of feminism as anti-family and anti-mother. I may have to rethink my position.

Some respondents are taking a hard line: "I'm taking the hard line approach on this one. Having kids is a choice, not a 'right.'" Others concur. Since having babies is now a choice, women should make the choice of planning wisely to carefully time their pregnancies around the academic schedule: "It seems to me that if employees want special 'perks' for having a baby, then they should
be responsible enough to schedule their baby having time, with their department." For at least one respondent, the only responsible choice is to "use birth control" and not have children at all: when some women choose to have babies, she maintains, it creates problems for the "more responsible" women to choose not to.
The unintended consequences of the rhetoric of "choice" in the area of reproduction?

An "old-fashioned feminist" finds it "refreshing" to read the vitriol that is directed against mothers. When some women attack other women for having children, apparently this means we are all freed from having to "follow the script of wife and mother that biology and cultural expectation [once] forced on [us]." We are all free to choose, but there is only one free choice that is compatible with freedom.

Or perhaps women should be "forced to be free"? Some of the respondents seem to think so.

"Naysayer" takes an even harder line, and one that can only be described as loony: "Precious grant money should not wasted on those whose interest is primarily in that which is grunted forth from their own loins." No middle ground here: it is a question of the production of valuable work in one's specialty versus the reproduction ("grunting forth") of a "brat" (uh, that would be a human being) who is without value: "Too many child-free graduate students are in supply, who would rather dedicate their time and energy in cultivating the pool of knowledge in their area of research, rather than first letting brats suckle from their breasts, and then doing the work they were trained to do--the work in which hundreds of thousands of dollars wree invested in them, to produce." If a professor wants to drop out of the "rat race" to become a "breeder," that is fine with Naysayer: let's "drop the no-longer-dedicated, entitlement-minded lump of uselessness" who is no longer behaving like a rat in a maze. Naysayer, who apparently has some issues with the female body, wants women to "Grow some balls," the growth of which would help them to "realize what a drain these entitlement moo-cows are on acedemia." Uh, this is in reference to those "breeders" who had left the rat race and who were thus no longer asking the academy for any sort of "perks" or "entitlements." But why worry over details? The main point in this muddle of unfocused rage and misdirected resentment is clear enough to see, and it is not a pretty picture.

At this point, I am almost ready to run back into the arms of Mother Church.

A recurrent theme: since the university does not provide any support or assistance for the academic who would like to take some time off to sail around the world, then the university should not provide any support or assistance for the academic who would like to take some time off to have and care for an infant. Apparently, the bringing of a child into the world, and the bringing up of that child within this world, is no longer to be viewed as an important aspect in the task of caring for the world. It is rather to considered an entirely self-directed and self-oriented pursuit that at no point should impinge on or inconvenience any other self. A purely private and individual choice, and a choice that is now defined as a kind of self-indulgence. The choice to move from the position of an unencumbered self (the childless or childfree self) to that of an encumbered self (the self who must also care for another self) is now viewed as the ultimate form of selfishness.

O brave new world, that has no people in it!

Forget past, present and future: the past is over, the future is history, and it is all me all the time, and all in an eternal present. This must be, if not the final, then the penultimate phase in the progress of nihilism.

Did I mention that I am feeling a little bit homesick for the Church?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 02:17 PM | Comments (2)


This is an age of immodesty.

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education's online Career Network, Dennis Baron, chair of the English department at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, is writing a series of columns on the tenure review process in his department. One of the candidates that Baron discusses is one "Alison Porchnik" (Baron is a Woody Allen fan), whose forthcoming book manuscript has been evaluated by three external reviewers. Unfortunately, there is a "problem" with the second letter.

The letter, Baron explains, "started out with some general praise: Porchnik identified a 'significant' research problem and produced a 'competent' book. There were detailed examples of Porchnik's strengths as a scholar, and even a comment that a conference paper Porchnik gave at the MLA suggested that she was a dedicated and effective teacher."

The problem? The reviewer had called the book "competent." And in the marketplace of ideas that we call the academy, inflation is the order of the day not only in the area of student grades but also in the area of letters of recommendation and evaluation. Thus, Baron has heard "more than one colleague insist that 'competent' means the work is truly awful."

Though Baron would "hate to see reference letters go the way of movie reviews, where only extreme praise counts as positive," he does not sound optimistic. It may not be long, he notes, "before letter writers find that even 'a bold and imaginative' assessment packs as little of a wallop as 'competent,' and they start penning claims like, 'Alison Porchnik -- the subaltern speaks!' Or worse yet, 'Porchnik: Socko Boffo!'"

Fortunately for Porchnik, her department decides to support her tenure bid despite the label of "competent" that is now viewed by some as a mark of mediocrity. As Baron writes in his most recent column, "[T]he English department's tenured professors think that her scholarship, while not exactly 'paradigm-shifting,' is certainly 'field-advancing,' and vote unanimously to recommend her for tenure." But we are not yet done with the problem of the second letter, for Baron must now plead Porchnik's case with the dean and the College Executive Committee. Among the questions/objections raised by the Committee: "Why weren't there more external reviewers from places like Harvard, Princeton, or Yale?" and "Why didn't all of the reviewers say Porchnik was the best thing since sliced bread?"
Will Porchnik get tenure? Too soon to tell, so stay tuned to Baron's series.

I am struck by the notion that Porchnik's work, "while not exactly 'paradigm-shifting', is certainly 'field-advancing.'" As reported by Baron, the assessment of the English department's tenured faculty reads like some sort of concession: though Porchnik's work is good enough (it does advance the field), they concede that it really doesn't really meet the new and inflated standard of "paradigm-shifting." And I can't help but wonder just how many paradigms these faculty members have managed to shift in their own work.

I suspect not very many. In the humble opinion of this humble adjunct, the new expectation of "paradigm-shifting" work is downright silly. What can it mean? Well, just about anything and everything, and nothing much at all.

I have a sister in the business world who loves to fill me in on the latest lingo, and who is variously amused and appalled by what she calls "the slaughter of the English language" (she was an English major in college). A few years ago, the buzzword was "paradigm," and "let's shift the paradigm" could be heard in boardrooms across North America. Not anymore, of course, because they've apparently shifted the paradigm, and paradigm itself is now obselete.

Well, we academics like to see ourselves as opinion leaders not followers. But don't believe it. We are following the example of the corporate world in more ways than one, a little bit behind instead of "ahead of the curve," admittedly, but desperately trying to catch up. Hence, the use of "paradigm-shifting," which is now 4 to 5 years past its buzzword prime.

But wait, you may be objecting. Why suggest that academics have borrowed the term from corporate America when many academics are obviously well familiar with the work of Thomas Kuhn. Aren't they taking this term from his famous Structure of the Scientific Revolution, first published in 1962?

To which I reply, but surely we academics cannot be quite that shallow and silly? After all, as the title of his work indicates, Kuhn was referring to major transformations (revolutions, even) in modes or structures of understanding. The shift from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican framework, for example. You know: the big stuff. Think "advent of the printing press" and Gutenberg bible and quantum physics and the Internet. And taken in its Kuhnian sense, just how paradigm shifts could anyone expect to see in his or her own lifetime? And how many paradigm shifts could we expect to see in any given scholarly discipline? and how many in any given subfield of specialization? And if hundreds, nay thousands, of academics are now expected to shift the paradigms, then people must be using paradigm in the business buzzword sense, for surely we cannot expect academics to shift their (Kuhnian-sense) paradigms the way they change their socks?

Or can we?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 02:47 AM | Comments (0)

March 02, 2003

The Invisible Adjunct's Anonymity

For reasons both personal and professional, the Invisible Adjunct prefers to remain in the condition of anonymity and invisibility that characterizes adjunct teaching in the post-everything academy. Just call it the Stockholm Syndrome: as a psychological defence mechanism, the Invisible Adjunct has begun to identify with and, more importantly, to cooperate with her captors (uh, employers) in the erasure of her very identity. Unless she can marshall the resources to make a bold and daring escape (the Invisible Adjunct now realizes that it is beyond futile to hope for a third-party rescue operation), she will no longer be capable of asserting an independent and fully visible individuality. Upon receipt of a solid offer for full-time, tenure-track employment, however, all would be forgotten and the Invisible Adjunct would happily reveal her identity.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 02:12 AM | Comments (0)

An Online Adjunct Advertisement

I wonder if the future of academic history can be glimpsed through advertisements for online adjunct teaching positions? Here is a recent example, taken from the Chronicle of Higher Education's online Career Network, where one can find many more advertisements in the same vein.

Devry University Online, the advertisement reads, "invites applicants for history adjunct position." The position "offers the capability to work from any home office in the United States." Any home office?! Well, that's quite an offer, no? But isn't it the job candidate who would offer such a "capability" to the employer/university? Ah well, why be a stickler for details? Moving right along, we find that the requirements for this exciting employment opportunity include an MA in History and "a minimum of 5+ years successful teaching experience." For "successful teaching experience," you may substitute "positive teaching evaluations from students whose grades were inflated." Now is it just me, or is there not something profoundly depressing about the idea that someone who had been teaching for five or more years would be desperate enough to apply for such a position?

Nice to know that Devry University Online is an Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity Exploiter (er, Employer). But they left out one crucial detail, almost a prerequisite for an academic job announcement these days: that is, they forgot to mention that the university is fully committed to the pursuit of excellence.

Off to polish my CV.


When I question the notion that the university is offering the adjunct teacher the "capability" to work from a home office, I am not merely being snarky.

Think about it: The university pays the adjunct a wage to "teach" (if we may use that term to apply to this brave new world of online pedagogy) X number of units to X number of students. Since the adjunct does this from his or her own home, much of the overhead cost of running the course is effectively transferred from the university to the adjunct teacher -- ie, from the employer to the employee. All of the costs of running an office -- heat, electricity, telephone and internet connection, wear and tear on equipment and the like -- are absorbed not by the university but by the adjunct. The adjunct cannot bill the university for these expenses. Indeed, the adjunct's wages for the "teaching" of an online history course will not even suffice to keep body and soul together, never mind covering the overhead costs of the endeavor.

So the employer enjoys the advantages of little to no overhead, minimal investment in fixed capital, and extreme flexibility in its workforce (adjunct teachers are paid by the course and are hired and fired at will). Electronic sweatshop? No, I don't think we've advanced quite that far in the economic restructuring of the university. Sounds more like the proto-industrial putting-out system that characterized the early modern textile industry. The sweatshops came later.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 12:50 AM | Comments (3)

March 01, 2003

Ph.D. as Preparation for Nonacademic Careers?

Call me bitter and disillusioned and downright cranky (no, really; go ahead: you won't be telling me anything that I don't already tell myself), but I am really tired of hearing the following platitude:

"A Ph.D. in the humanities can serve as preparation for a wide variety of careers outside the academy."

To which I always want to reply: Uh, no, you've got the whole thing ass-backwards.

Perhaps you meant to say something like, "If you are capable of completing a Ph.D. in the humanities, then you are also capable of preparing for a wide variety of fields outside the academy." True enough. I won't argue with you there.

If you have the brains/talent/stubbornness or whatever to read a hundred books or so in a few specialized fields, take and pass comprehensive exams in those fields, pursue intensive research on a topic of your choosing, write a three to four hundred-page narrative/account based on that research, all the while perhaps preparing classes on topics about which you know little to nothing, advising students, grading papers and exams, writing conference papers and grant proposals and so on ... well, yes, if you have the brains/talents/stubbornness or whatever to do all of the above, then you surely have the brains/talents/stubbornness or whatever to pursue any number of other careers in the big, wide world beyond the academy.

But to say this is not at all to say that whatever it is you are doing in the academy can be seen as a useful "preparation" for the myriad of other things you could be doing instead. I doubt very much that it is a useful form of preparation. I rather suspect that a more useful (and infinitely less painful) mode of preparation would involve skipping the academy altogether (do not pass go, do not collect $200) and moving directly into the relevant nonacademic field.

As a kind of pep talk for people like me (i.e., underemployed Ph.D.'s working as adjuncts, finally facing the brutal reality of the job "market" in their field and realizing that they need to get the h-ll out of the academy), I suppose I can meet the above statement halfway. But as a justification for business as usual (i.e., 'let's continue to recruit people into our graduate programs even though we know they'll never find full-time work in the academy; after all, they can always find work afterwards as ... well, as something or other, Hollywood screenwriters or something...; can't think of anything too specific, but the Ph.D. must surely serve as preparation for a wide variety of nonacademic careers'), I find it intellectually specious and morally bankrupt.

End of rant. Now where is my toddler? I need to remind myself that life is pretty darn good in spite of the academy.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 05:45 PM | Comments (7)

"Bacchanal of the Bespectacled"

I made the mistake of reading the New York Observer's account of the annual meeting of the Modern Languages Association (MLA) just before attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). Ouch.

It is perhaps a little too snide, but mercilessly funny and frighteningly accurate. The article describes the meeting as "a jittery orgy of power, insecurity and angst" and has great fun with the extreme (and extremely absurd) gap between the literary fat-cats at the top of the profession and the desperate job-seekers at the bottom. Much the same could be said of the AHA, except that historians are a lot dowdier than literary types, so don't look for "bright prints and chunky jewelry" at the historians' annual meeting.

Thomas H. Benton's (or perhaps William Pannapacker's?) account of the MLA is also funny, and I think a little more humane in perspective.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 05:17 PM | Comments (0)

Thinking about graduate school in the humanities?

Don't do it. Do yourself a favor and do not go to graduate school in the humanities. No, not even if you burn with a passion for your field of study that will not be denied. You can deny it, and in my opinion you should.

Now, obviously it is your life and your future, and only you can decide on the path you choose to take. You are of course free to accept or reject my advice as you see fit.

But if you are bound and determined to go to graduate school, please do some research first. Talk to as many people in your field as you can -- and not just to tenured and tenure-track faculty members and to pre-ABD graduate students but also to graduate students who are nearing completion and -- perhaps most crucially -- to those who have recently completed the Ph.D. Do some research on your field, and on the specific schools/departments/programmes you are considering. In terms of the specific departments, try to get statistics on their placement rates. This won't be easy and may not even be possible, because many departments (my own included) do not keep accurate records and present highly misleading information in their promotional literature. But certainly you can find general information on the job "market" in your field. Take a good, long, hard look at the numbers, and keep this figure in your head as you contemplate your future.

As I see it, the humanities "professions" are failed, or at least failing, professions. They have failed to secure the most basic requirements for their continuation as professions. Indeed, in my opinion, no profession that treats its aspiring/junior/entry-level members the way they are treated in the humanities deserves to be called a "profession" at all. And unless they make some radical changes, and soon, I doubt very much they will survive much longer as viable professions.

Now, if you do the kind of research that everyone should do before signing on for graduate studies (please note: I did not do this kind of research, much to my regret), you will probably come across an argument (if I can dignify it with that term), or at least a response, to the current employment problem that goes something like this: Granted, the job market is not great, but nobody is forcing anyone to go to graduate school and, after all, nobody should feel entitled to a job.

And of course it is true that nobody should feel entitled to a job, because nobody is entitled to a job. But I ask you to consider the nature of this response very carefully indeed before placing your fate in the hands of those who would respond in such an irresponsible fashion to a serious employment problem in their own profession.

There are not many other professions/guilds/associations/unions in which the senior members would make such a reponse to an employment problem that had reached the magnitude of the job crisis in the humanities. There are not many other professions/guilds/associations/unions that would stand idly by and allow entry rates to so greatly outnumber actual positions, and that would allow -- indeed encourage -- the widespread use of cheap, contingent labor. While academics tend to be smart, some of them very smart, people, until very recently many of them failed to grasp a basic point that would have been readily apparent to an illiterate silkspinner in medieval Lyons: if you allow the use of cheap, contingent labor, you will depress the wages (salaries) and degrade the status and working conditions of your guild (profession) members, and you will fail to maintain your labor monopoly. Let me emphasize: There is something deeply, structurally wrong with a profession that allows and even encourages the use of cheap, contingent labor.

Well, the grass is always greener, of course. And I am well aware that it's not as though completion of a professional degree in other, nonacademic fields guarantees the degree holder a job. But in most other professions requiring an advanced degree, the gatekeepers to the profession do make an effort to keep entrance rates in line with actual or projected available positions. They don't always get it right, of course, but at least they do try. And not because they are kinder, gentler souls than academics, and are thinking things like, "Gee, wouldn't it be awful to encourage bright, idealistic young people to waste a good portion of their adult lives in a fruitless pursuit?" But rather because they realize that if they allow the market to be flooded with an oversupply of aspiring entrants, they will eventually hurt themselves because this situation will damage the profession as a whole.

Now, let's allow that in any field or profession there might always be more aspiring entrants than actual positions. And let's grant that not everyone who completes a given degree is a worthy candidate for full employment. And let's further concede that some degree of competition for scarce resources can be a good thing. How much competition, and how much scarcity? What percentage of unemployment or under-employment is acceptable? It really is a question of degree.

10 percent? Yes, fine. It seems reasonable to suppose that perhaps 10 percent of those who jump through all the hoops and complete all the requirements might not be suited to full empolyment in their chosen field. 20 percent? Well, perhaps. But here I would start to ask some questions about the profession. 40 percent? Now here we have identified a real problem. Greater than 50 percent? Well, now we are looking at a failed or at least a rapidly failing profession.

"Well, nobody's forcing them to go to graduate school." True enough. And nobody's forcing them to not go, either. But if you are considering graduate studies in the humanities, I entreat you: please take a good look at the numbers and think carefully about the meaning and significance of these figures both for your own future and for the future of your contemplated field.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at 03:37 PM | Comments (2)