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.