Welcome to the Knowledge Factory

The lead article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education Review is titled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

More than 350,000 Americans with advanced degrees applied for food stamps in 2010, part of “an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of Ph.D. recipients, adjunct professors, and other Americans with advanced degrees who have had to apply for food stamps or some other form of government aid since late 2007.

“Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children’s college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.”

And the numbers of impoverished Ph.D.s may actually be much higher than this.

“Leaders of organizations that represent adjunct faculty members think that the number of people counted by the government does not represent the full picture of academics on welfare because many do not report their reliance on federal aid.

“Even as the number of highly educated aid recipients grows, shame has helped to keep the problem hidden.”

Yes, I know that shame well.

How could it be that a highly educated, well-groomed, extremely intelligent individual with everything going for her is so embarrassingly poor?

Why is it that after more than 20 years of teaching college—and doing a very good job of it, I might add—I  still make only $10,000 more now than I did as a freshly minted B.A. starting out in publishing in New York back in the 1980s?

It is very hard to earn a Ph.D., in case you didn’t realize.  It takes many years of study, great determination and self-motivation, the ability to see a major, high-quality independent research project through to its conclusion, generally a book-length manuscript.  It also takes a lot of money, especially in the poorly funded humanities.

By the time one finishes the intense slo-mo marathon of the Ph.D. program, one feels like someone of consequence: someone who has jumped through every hoop, earned lots of accolades, managed to accumulate a great deal of social capital.

And yet all that evaporates in the face of the reality of American higher education today.

Except for a very few lucky ones with good connections or true star quality, most of us discover that it’s a buyer’s market out there in higher ed, and whatever we’ve got to sell is a dime a dozen.

You take that first adjunct job telling yourself it’s going to be temporary, only to find five years later that you’re still doing the same frantic shuffle of trying to teach enough courses, at something like $4,000 apiece, to make ends meet.

If you want to get on with your life and have a child, good luck!  You’d better have a spouse working a real job—because adjunct pay and adjunct uncertainty is not what a family needs as its bedrock.

This is what 70% of American faculty—70%!!—are doing now.

And I am afraid it’s going to get worse.

Just as American manufacturing turned belly-up in the face of the out-sourcing of labor in the globalized market in the 1990s, higher ed is now poised to do exactly the same thing with the professoriate.

Distance learning, the fastest growing segment of the higher education market, will make it possible for a Ph.D. in New Delhi to teach that big section of Chemistry 100 to students from all over the world.  And in New Delhi, $4,000 will probably seem like pretty good money.

Within a few years, I will not be surprised to find that American Ph.D.s are competing with academics from all over the world for the same few positions.

What does it say about us as a society that we not only force our students into deep debt to buy their educations, but also refuse to pay their teachers a living wage?

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There are some alternatives on the horizon, such as the free, online University of the People, a start-up that is attracting a fair amount of attention right now.

Maybe in the future education will be free, entirely online, and totally globalized.  I am not so enamored of bricks and mortar to cast this shift in a wholly negative light.

Perhaps the end result will be that American professors will simply have to up and move to cheaper locales…teaching their classes from an internet cafe in Central America, let’s say, or East Asia.

But we need to be careful, as the transition to online education shifts the sands beneath our feet at lightening speed, that we continue to focus on the most important aspect of any education: the shared excitement over common interests and new ideas that is the hallmark of a good student-teacher relationship.

This excitement can be transmitted just as easily over the internet as in the classroom, as long as the ratio of students to teacher remains humane, and as long as neither student nor teacher is driven to distraction by the bank creditors slavering in the background.

To tell the truth, I am more interested in strengthening local education, rather than following the dangerous globalized outsourcing model.  But I’m willing to play the game, as long as we, the players, are treated with respect as human beings, not wage slaves and pawns.

President Obama, looking for solutions on student debt, should not overlook the issue of contingent faculty labor

The student protests around the country have been focused largely on three key concerns: the high cost of a college education, the resulting weight of student debt after graduation, and the scarcity of jobs.

Put together, it’s a recipe for frustration, if not outright desperation.  Students who lack substantial family support these days have to make incredibly tough sacrifices to get their B.A. degrees, and with no jobs at the end of the tunnel, many are rightly asking–is it worth it?

A lot of thoughtful people have been considering this very question for some time now.  On Monday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, there will be a panel discussion on “The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World,” featuring, among others, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann of Bard College, who just co-edited a book called What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education.

In the book, Lagemann and co-author Harry Lewis argue that colleges and universities need to renew their commitment to fostering ethical, responsible student engagement with the public sphere.  Higher education should not just be a credential to string around one’s neck, the passport to a decent job, they say, but should challenge students to think deeply about their role as citizens and stakeholders in society.

This message certainly seems timely.  If getting a college degree can no longer be valued in purely instrumental terms, as a ticket to a job, then it had better be providing some deeper value, both for the students and for society.

On the same day as the Harvard panel, President Obama will be meeting at the White House with a group of ten influential college and university presidents, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other key players in higher education, to discuss “increasing access and success as well as how to make higher education  more affordable,” according to an article in today’s online Inside Higher Ed magazine.

The article says that “amid an increasing focus on student debt and college prices, the event seems to signal that the Obama administration will make the issue a focus going into the 2012 campaign. In a speech Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on colleges to address rising tuition prices “with much greater urgency.” The House of Representatives held a subcommittee hearing Tuesday on rising costs, discussing a broad range of possible solutions.”

As someone who has been teaching in higher education for more than 20 years, I am of course concerned about the rising costs for students.

But I’m also concerned with the way budgets are increasingly being balanced by reducing fulltime tenured faculty teaching lines.

The phenomenon of using adjunct faculty, graduate student teaching assistants, temporary “visiting” faculty and any other form of contingent labor available is under-discussed, both within the institutions perpetrating these practices, and in the broader society.

Within the institutions, it’s under-discussed partly because it’s so humiliating for Ph.Ds, respected scholars when they present their research at conferences or publish articles, to admit how little money they’re making as adjunct or visiting faculty.  College adjunct teachers are typically paid $2,000 to $4,000 a course.  Most faculty teach 3-4 courses a semester.  You do the math.

Also, there’s the fear factor: if you speak out, your contract may not be renewed next semester, or next year.  There is no job security for what we call in the business “term contracts.”

At the White House meeting, the college presidents aren’t going to want to tell the President that they’re reigning in the cost of tuition by hiring contingent faculty at bargain basement salaries.  But that’s the truth of the matter.

And it’s been very difficult for adjuncts to unionize, in part because the Labor Board in recent years has ruled that college and university faculty are “managers” because we make a salary rather than an hourly wage, and get to set our own hours. Managers aren’t entitled to a union.

There are a host of reasons why it’s bad for American higher education to use cheap faculty labor.  If we want to get serious about student success, as the Obama Administration claims, focusing on contingent faculties would be a good starting point.

A harried professor who’s working at two or three institutions to barely make ends meet is not going to do as a good a job for her students as someone making a living wage with a longterm contract at a single institution.

American institutions of higher education need to model the kind of society we want our students to create when they move out into the world as newly minted young citizens.  They won’t want to be temporary workers any more than their teachers do.

President Obama, if you really want to make a difference, you need to push those college presidents for deeper, systemic changes.

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