Friday 11 September 2015

When Tenured Professors and Administrators Are On the Same Side

I was disappointed to read a recent note in The Atlantic titled “No One Cares That You Quit Your Job,” in which the author showered derision on people who had left careers in academia and written about their decisions in a growing body of reflective essays known as “Quit Lit.” The author, tenured Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Ian Bogost, mocked these “quitters” with statements like, “Why should anyone be impressed that somebody else can quit something? Much more impressive is figuring out how to live with it.” There is a temptation to take the bait here and respond with anger to Bogost’s lack of sympathy (and even contempt) for a struggling generation of professionals. Yet I think it’s much more productive to focus on what Bogost’s comments (and others like them) obscure about the state of academic labour today. In short, Bogost fails to acknowledge that he and tenured professors like him reap significant material returns on the people his piece singles out for derision.

To begin, we need to establish that the vast majority of people who end up writing “Quit Lit” pieces have never held tenure-track jobs like Bogost; they have instead worked as poorly paid part-time instructors with no job security, or they have left their PhD programs before graduating out of despair at their prospects upon graduation. Second, we need to highlight a crucial distinction that comments like Bogost’s either neglect or willfully obscure: there is a fundamental difference between the expression of frustrated professional aspirations and the criticism of an exploitative system of labour. Yes, Quit Lit might contain a lot of the former; but it emerges predominantly from the latter. The two are without doubt intertwined in complex ways, but the problem with responses like Bogost’s is that they treat Quit Lit solely as the whining of wannabe intellectuals who simply can’t hack it in the elite world of tenured academia. In doing so, they absolve tenured professors from having to confront the systemic exploitation of part-time labour from which these professors benefit on a daily basis.

Simply put, tenured professors would be living much more difficult lives if it weren’t for an entire generation of part-time instructors who have come to shoulder more than 50% of many universities’ teaching loads. These instructors work for a fraction of the cost associated with a tenured professor and they enjoy no benefits or job stability. A combination of factors (including the encroachment of neoliberal ideologies, declining government revenues, the explosion of undergraduate enrolment, and the decline in university per-student funding) has left universities looking to cut labour costs. Without a massive pool of part-time instructors to shoulder most of these cuts, tenured professors would be facing a much more aggressive attack on their tenure and benefits from university administrations. Yet both tenured professors and senior administrators are content to pass most of their shared material burden onto these part-timers.

So here’s where we get back to the insidious underbelly of Bogost’s contempt for those who write Quit Lit. Whether Bogost personally supports or fights tooth-and-nail against the growth of part-time academic labour, the fact remains that he systemically benefits from its existence, and yes, from its continued production. In other words, he is caught up in a system where he has a direct incentive to graduate more PhDs—not so they can become tenured professors, but precisely so they can become poorly paid part-timers.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter where you stand on the relative intellectual or professional merits of those who write Quit Lit or those who remain part-time instructors. What matters to the system we’re talking about are the sheer numbers. We know now that only 18.6% of PhD graduates in Canada go on to become full-time professors; although even this depressing stat doesn’t count the students who leave graduate programs before finishing out of despair at their job prospects upon graduation or because of soaring debt, and it doesn't distinguish between full-time contract faculty and tenured faculty. The numbers are tougher to pin down for an American context, yet we can assume that a clear majority of PhDs do not land tenure-track work when we find that 76% of all instructional staff appointments in the US are non-tenure track; the remaining 24% includes an entire generation of tenured professors who were hired 20-35 years ago, making the number much more generous than the reality facing new PhD grads. Yet PhD programs continue to behave as though the production of future tenured professors is their primary mission. This supposed mission is explicitly contradicted by the numbers we have before us, which once again leads us to a dark conclusion: the real mission of today’s PhD programs is to create more part-time academics, not tenured ones.

I don’t mean to demonize tenured professors on a personal level. In fact, the majority of the tenured professors I know have been extremely supportive of my decision to leave academia and have treated me with a level of respect I would wish upon anyone in my situation. That said, we need to acknowledge that these professors work within a system that incentivizes them to graduate more PhDs to produce more part-time instructors. Yes, producing an all-star tenured academic will bring positive exposure to a senior professor and her/his department. But attracting more PhD candidates and sending the majority of them out to become part-time instructors benefits the tenured class in a much more immediate and tangible way. Many departments have done an excellent job of obscuring this fact, however, by criticizing the neoliberal takeover of university administrations and blaming this takeover for all of the part-timers’ woes (when they’re not busy blaming the part-timers themselves, like Bogost does). Yet the tenured members of these departments could refuse to work en masse until their universities instituted strict caps on how many courses could be taught by non-full-time faculty. To date, we’ve seen more comments like Bogost’s than we’ve seen political action of this nature.

On a personal level, I often feel deeply disappointed with tenured professors who criticize late-year PhD students or part-time instructors for being uncommitted or whiny. No one is disputing the fact that academia is a difficult world that has always (to some extent) frustrated the aspirations of many would-be professors. Yet when I hear tenured professors excusing academia’s exploitative part-time labour situation without acknowledging how they directly benefit from it, I can’t help but feel like I’m listening to staunch conservatives blaming the poor for their own poverty. “If the part-time job market is so awful,” they might say, “then just walk away.” But it’s unreasonable to expect a person with dreams of a tenure track job and 10+ years of postsecondary education to give up on these dreams immediately. Letting go takes time. How much time, you ask? Probably 3-7 years, which is exactly how much time the system requires to extract their part-time labour before replacing them with a fresh crop of eager PhDs that our university departments continue to produce.

Now to be fair to Canada's university faculties, it wasn't necessarily their idea to start graduating more PhDs in the first place. In the major educational centres of British Columbia and Ontario, for example, the recent boom in graduate school attendance was actually an initiative of governments that hoped to boost innovation by producing more people with advanced degrees, even though these governments had few if any plans for what to do with these people once they’d graduated. During this same time, public funding for Ontario universities only increased nominally while undergraduate enrolment grew exponentially, which meant that per-student funding dropped. This decrease has put an increased strain on university administrations that, to be fair, have come to demand much more of tenured professors when it comes to their administrative and teaching obligations. Yet it is quite clear that the burden of these budget constraints has been disproportionately felt by part-time instructors. And why wouldn’t it be? University administrators looked one way and saw long, bitter struggles with tenured faculty; they looked another and saw a group of PhD graduates who were eager to work part-time to maintain their institutional affiliations, and therein, their aspirations for tenure-track jobs. The glut of PhD graduates produced by a shortsighted government policy gave university administrators and tenured faculty a relatively easy way to transfer their shared material constraints onto someone else, and now it’s safe to say that both groups have become dependent on it. 

When we question the systemic pressures underlying today’s academic labour market, we find that the intellectual aptitude, professional commitment, or work ethic of today’s PhD graduates are completely irrelevant concerns. Regardless of how we ended up where we are, we all need to take responsibility for the system we’re confronted with and for our own complicity or resistance to this system. Despite what professors like Ian Bogost might think, we need more Quit Lit essays from people looking to build solidarity around their decisions to quit academia. We need to do whatever we can to disrupt the supply of new part-time instructors that allows academia to follow the same model as McDonald’s, burning out cohort after cohort of new PhD graduates and replenishing them from a cheap labour pool it continues to knowingly produce. Yes, some tenured professors will help us in this cause; but don’t expect this help to come in a large-scale way anytime soon. On a systemic level, part-time instructors have no friends among university administrators or tenured faculty, because both groups profit greatly by the existence of these part-timers and both have a vested interest in the continued production of them.  

Thursday 10 September 2015

A Note to the High-Achieving Student: Give Yourself Permission to Muddle

When I first graduated with a PhD in English Literature, I was plagued by the sense that no one in the non-academic job market cared about my achievement. After dozens of unsuccessful job applications, it became apparent that my education would not be enough without workplace experience to back it up. Like many, I assumed that “experience” was considered crucial because it indicated that workers had acquired job-specific skills and a professional knowledge base that made them immediately valuable to a prospective employer. Yet after working in the non-academic world for several years, I have realized that the “experience” that employers are looking for has less to do with a person’s skills and knowledge base than it does with the mode of learning that emerges through workplace experience.

On a general level, I believe that learning follows a trial-and-error model in the workplace much more than it does in the exam room. On any given workday, an individual can make a number of small or large mistakes, and good managers will respond by ensuring that the individual understands those mistakes and learns how to avoid them in the future. In contrast, the scholastic mode of learning (particularly for a high-functioning student) follows a perfectionist model. Parents of “A” students are not likely to say, “Just see how you do on the next test and learn from your mistakes.” Rather, they are much more likely to tell their children not to make any mistakes in the first place, especially when having a competitive GPA and applying for major scholarships doesn’t allow students the luxury of trial and error learning. This perfectionist emphasis, I argue, constitutes a fundamental point of difference between traditional scholastic learning and workplace learning. Having an impressive transcript might demonstrate your intellectual aptitude, but having work experience shows an employer that you’ve had the opportunity to learn from workplace mistakes and that (more importantly) you’ve already made those mistakes someplace else.

To illustrate the difference between a perfectionist and a trial-and-error-based “muddler,” I am drawn to Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide. This book was actually pulled from stores when Lehrer was accused of fabricating quotes in a previous text, yet I believe it still offers valuable insight in one of its passages on computer intelligence. In this passage, Lehrer recounts the story of Deep Blue, the set of IBM mainframes that defeated chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue was capable of processing more than 200 million possible chess moves per second, while Kasparov (a world champion) could only process five. Of course, Deep Blue carried the day and defeated Kasparov 3.5 games to 2.5 (with a .5 point reflecting a draw). Yet this match was a rematch of a contest that Kasparov had won 4-2 in the previous year. Computer enthusiasts around the world lauded Deep Blue’s eventual victory, but many people in the world of computer programming were forced to ask, “Why did a machine with 40 million times the processing power of its human opponent win by so narrow a margin?” The answer lies in the limits of a perfectionist mode of learning.

Deep Blue was designed to make the “perfect” chess move every time it played. But in doing so, the computer had to completely recreate the chessboard and process millions of moves each time its turn began. It could not learn from experience and it required an enormous amount of energy to run its calculations over and over. The computer used so much power, in fact, that it required “specialized heat-dissipating equipment so that it didn’t burst into flames.” Kasparov’s brain, on other hand, could draw upon decades of experience to limit its attention to a small series of possible next moves. He had honed his craft through a long process of study and muddling, while Deep Blue was the ultimate perfectionist.

Surprised with the limitations of Deep Blue, a computer programmer at IBM named Gerald Tesauro designed a new program to become the ultimate Backgammon player. However, he encoded one crucial feature into its software. Unlike Deep Blue, which was designed to make a perfect move on every turn, this new software was designed never to make the same mistake twice. The program could not even beat an elementary Backgammon player when it was first tested. But after it was put through millions of simulated games, the program became far superior to Deep Blue while using a minute fraction of the processing power.

Talk to any number of high-achieving students today and you’re bound to meet a few anxiety-stricken Deep Blues whose brains are ready to burst into figurative flames. The mental health consequences of perfectionism have been well documented and they (like too many social problems) disproportionately affect young women. Yet the intense pressure never to make mistakes encourages this mode of learning throughout most formal schooling processes. It’s only relatively recently that educators have begun to embrace the trial-and-error aspects of Active Learning on a broad, formalized scale, and this is a development that I celebrate.

Now that I’ve talked about the virtues of muddling, I need to talk about its vices. Just as there are drawbacks to an overemphasis on proactive learning, there are potential disasters awaiting us if we start telling everyone, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn it after you mess it up a few times.” Some mistakes are difficult if not impossible to rectify, as we find every day with the ongoing destruction of our environment or any number of other issues we fail to address in a sufficiently proactive way. One needs look no further than the great tragedies of western literature to find countless examples of people who did not learn their lessons until it was too late. In fact, I strongly suspect that the enormous emotional power of tragedy comes from our fear that we ourselves might be doomed to learn our most valuable lessons only after our mistakes have become irredeemable.

I believe that on some general level, perfectionists thrive within formal education because their tendencies are well suited to a test-based system of merit that punishes more reactive approaches to learning. This dynamic helps explain the thesis behind a book like Why A Students Work for C students and Why B students work for the Government, by Robert Kiyosaki. In this book, Kiyosaki claims that “A” students thrive in school but less so in the “real world” because they are adept at working within a meritocratic system with clear rules and significant benefits for perfectionists. “C” students, however, are more likely to be self-directed muddlers who thrive much more once they enter the less formally meritocratic world outside of school. While I do not wish to argue for or against the veracity of this thesis, I mention it here to highlight how at least one bestselling author has connected this perfectionist/muddler distinction to the biases found in traditional education.  

My purpose in writing this piece is not to turn a generation of perfectionist students into one of muddlers. Rather, I hope that this piece can get those perfectionists to reflect on the ways that formal schooling and rewards systems have pushed them to adopt a mode of learning that can create significant mental health problems and poor self-image in the long run. By better understanding these forces and by seeing the value in trial-and-error learning, I hope these students can find a renewed sense of self worth and hope for the future as they enter the world beyond that of formal schooling.

Monday 27 July 2015

Excerpt from Existing Novel: "Lune"

A New Arrival
Cracked palms. Blueblack fingers. Jean Comeau gripped the axe by its frosty handle and brought it down against a trunk of perfect granite. The cedar’s sap was still frozen, but the spring thaw was on its way and it wouldn’t be long before the season’s first timbers floated millward down the nearby river. Jean’s puffing face and ursine body might have struck onlookers as clumsy or even dull-witted. But he was in fact a formidable scholar of Christian scripture and the most skilful hewer within thirty kilometres of the Albertville timber camp. His task was to mount the trunks of felled trees and hack them into square timbers, measuring his cuts with nothing more than his fierce, discriminating eyes. Despite this skill, though, most men in the timber camp looked on Jean Comeau with a mixture of resentment and fear. The man took a furious pride in his power to hew away nature’s mistakes, and it did not matter whether he saw these mistakes in timber or in his fellow men.
Forty feet to Comeau’s right stood a young teamster who observed with folded arms as each of Jean’s strokes split more bark from the frozen tree. The boy tried to keep his face grim against the sawtoothed cold. It was his first winter working at the timber camp and he was eager to prove himself to men like Comeau. He’d spent his childhood in a one-room shack farther south on the river, where a life of malnourishment had filled him with veneration for the thickbearded timbermen who laboured near his home. He admired most those nimble river-drivers who danced across the springtime logs that often buoyed within perfect view of his home’s only window. Poverty had cursed him with a humiliating lack of equilibrium, and he had recognized at a young age that he would never acquire the grace needed to negotiate the boneshattering logjams that still claimed the limbs and lives of so many better men.
Like his body, the young man’s mind lacked balance. It stumbled from thought to thought unable to stand upon any concept for long before the thing would slip out from underneath him. Ideas pounded through his skull like a swelling river, jamming one moment and bursting forth the next. On gloomy afternoons like this, the boy felt spiteful toward men like Monsieur Comeau and found pleasure only in the fleeting moments when it seemed as though the old man had split his tree too deeply. But Comeau never took long to wipe away his mistake, along with the boy’s frostbitten sneer.
A lone crow landed between Comeau and the young man, gargling its stark caw. Both men turned toward the bird as it dug a pit in the powder and fluttered its wings, scattering snow over its head. The young man glanced back up and froze to find Monsieur Comeau holding him with glittering eyes—
He bathes himself in the Lord’s melting ice, Comeau said, jabbing his axe toward the bird. And he yearns like all living creatures to cleanse himself of the blackness that never washes away. Comeau paused and waited for the young man to complete his thought, as though the proper reply were evident.
Until kingdom come, sir.
Comeau shook his head and sunk his axe again into the felled tree.
The young man watched and waited until Comeau had finished. When the moment arrived, the young man stepped forward and presented Monsieur with a wet piece of caribou meat that he’d fished from one of his coat’s filthy pockets. Comeau took the purple pulp without a word and began working through its fatty sinews.
You would like to learn my trade, Comeau said while chewing.  
Yes, sir.
It is a difficult skill and there are many things to know about these woods. I do not know everything about this world, son, nor do I hope to. Comeau scanned the surrounding forest and snapped his eyes back onto the boy. But what you can know with certainty is the word of God, which contains more knowledge than any schoolhouse ever will.
The younger man could only nod.
Comeau snorted a shard of frozen mucus and swallowed. You cannot know everything, he added. But you can know everything that is important.
The young man grimaced. In all his years of Sunday church and daily devotion he’d never heard his parish priest or even his Monseigneur speak with the kind of stony certainty Comeau did. The young man craved that same kind of assurance and began to fantasize about reading the Bible, becoming as impenetrable as the man who stood before him. He glimpsed a horizon within reach, a meeting of earth and sky that promised to steady his trembling mind and banish uncertainty and fear from his soul forever. Jean Comeau could all but hear the young man’s thoughts.
Make Him your rock, boy, for He is a perfection that no axe will ever split. Once you know Him, you will know Truth.
The young man smiled childishly. He met the black, searching pupils of Monsieur Comeau and felt his hands warm against the cold.
Everything that happens is supposed to happen, he said.
Why haven’t you been working this past half-hour?
The question struck the young man like a blow. The river in his mind thawed and surged wildly over its banks.
Sir, I—
Comeau glared.
I was part of the team that cut down this tree. The young man pointed to the hewn log at Comeau’s feet.
 You did not cut down a tree, boy. You cut down a cedar. Crude words are for crude minds.
But sir. You just said that everything I need to know is in the Word of God. Why scold me for such a small mistake? Where in the Bible does it say the difference between a tree and a cedar?
Comeau sprang from the snow and cuffed the boy so hard that his ears rang and his tongue tasted metal.
 You are just standing about and not working, boy. That is sloth. You have also questioned one of your elders, which is vanity. What other mortal sins do you plan on committing this afternoon?
The young man rubbed his ear and turned to slink back to the cabins of his timber camp, confused tears standing in his eyes. The glowing coals of Comeau’s gaze burned into his back as he went. The young man knew that some of the burlier men at his camp would have tried to return the old man’s blow. But he could not forget the stories he’d heard about Comeau when he first arrived into the timber camp – stories that told of Comeau beating the fiercest teamsters to the edge of death. The young man disappeared into the forest like a lost child and never saw Comeau again.

Sunday 26 July 2015

"A Different Kind of Friend": Excerpt #2

You might think I’m being a bit of a bully. But why shouldn’t I be, after the stuff you’ve done to me over the years? Oh that’s right; you barely remember. You probably can’t even recall those feelings that came over you when you did what you did. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that nothing came over you. You saw an opportunity to do something to me, and when you reached back into your mind for that part of you that was supposed to stop you, it just wasn’t there. I can see you now, waking from the whole thing hours later as though something had possessed you and then vanished without a trace. As though the real you had gone away for a while.

The hard part is that those kinds of episodes only happen once or twice a year at most, which is just long enough for you to convince yourself that they won’t happen again. But you know what? I honestly don’t blame you, because you don’t deserve blame. Blame is something a person has to earn.

You’re probably getting impatient by now. You want me to make a beginning, because there’s only so long I can expect you to hang around if I keep going on like this.

So why don’t we go back to when you were a kid? Why don’t we start with you and your childhood companion Roddy heading into the woods behind your family home? Why don't we start with the sound of cicadas ringing in the trees?

No? You don’t want to start there? I figured. But rest assured that we’ll get back there eventually. After all, you’re the one who spent years thinking that what happened in those woods would somehow explain everything that came  afterward. That was just a fantasy like everything else. But yes, we’re still going to get back to those woods eventually.

Let’s begin with you heading off to university. I think it would be fitting if we made a beginning by going back to your first false epiphany – at least the first one you can remember. It was your freshman year, and somehow you thought you could spend the rest of your life offering pure, godlike love to everything in existence. Maybe you read a book on Zen Buddhism and missed the point – but that’s okay because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re that age. Let’s start with you sitting cross-legged on your dormitory bed, staring into some book that suddenly made you feel as if you’d finally figured everything out, that made you believe with every cell in your body that universal, all-encompassing love was not only possible but inevitable. Let’s go ahead and play out what happened afterward.

I honestly understand that you might not want to make a beginning from your own life. You’d probably prefer it if I told some story that might distract you from it all. But I can’t do that and you don’t really want me to do that. Some part of you knows that you owe me, so I’m going to ask that part of you to step forward for a while as I make a beginning.  

Saturday 25 July 2015

Excerpt from "A Different Kind of Friend"

You know me.

You fucking know me.

Or maybe you don’t. At least not anymore. Hell, a person spends that many years trying to forget someone and they’re bound to have a little success. At least I’d like to hope so. Wouldn’t you? I’m not talking about the forgetting part. I mean the success part. It’s nice to think you’re entitled to some level of success if you try hard at something for long enough. But listen to me now, rambling like an idiot. All of this is to say that you know me. At least you should.

You probably don’t remember the first time you met me, and I don’t blame you. Few do. But there’ve been times when you looked me straight in the eye and spoke to me, sometimes through a haze of gin or in one of those moments when you were so fucking down you were thinking of ending it all. I was there, and you knew me then.

There were so many times you thought things were getting better, that you were getting better. You’re such a sucker for fantasy. Always so quick to think, Oh geeze, if I could just get to point “X” I’d be happy. Of course you know that’s a pathetic lie. But here’s something you probably don’t know. I feel for you. I honestly want you to find something in all of this. But don’t ever expect me to wish you happiness. That’s one thing I’ll never do, because happiness is impossible and wishing you happiness would only make me an enabler. I’m not here to point you down the same old empty road that’s always led you back to this place. I’m a different kind of friend.

You spend so much time these days coming up with all these bullshit ideas about who you are. Sometimes you think so highly of yourself it’s sickening, and of course those moments are always offset by the ones where you think you’d be better off dead. But the warm, hypothermic truth is that you’re not anyone or anything in particular, and even if you were it wouldn’t matter.

Do you remember the time you were chatting up that guy at Boondoggles? He asked you if you were afraid of dying, and you told him you assumed you’d already died years before.

The word patience comes from the same root as the word passion. I’m going to need you to think about that for a while.