Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Timidness of Academic Solutions to the Phd Crisis

with 15 comments

By Wiz

I’m constantly amazed at how many academics can brilliantly and boldly interpret what is currently wrong with our university system, and yet are nearly incapable of offering any but the most timid and passive solutions to the problems. The latest in this line is Peter Conn, a professor of English, who writes this mercilessly pessimistic article about the state of the humanities.

By and large, Conn’s description of the modern university system is dead on. When you combine the growing casualization of the university job market– fueled by a “Star” system which lavishly rewards one highly paid rock star professor at the expense of 10 poorly paid adjuncts and TAs– relentless budget cuts in public education, a growing disregard for the value of the humanities as a way of thinking of the world, and the rapid growth of a for-profit higher educational system, we’re left with a very bleak future for the humanities, and for those of us stupid enough to try to make our career in it. The most stunning fact to me is that the median age for tenured faculty has now risen to 55. That means the younger generations of academics simply aren’t getting tenure track jobs (not to mention, the academic protections that go along with it.)

As if to rub it in our faces, the article right above Conn’s on the Chronicle’s list of most popular is about how some universities have started outsourcing the grading of papers to Bangalore. Pretty soon we’ll be begging to keep those shitty $3000-a-semester courses.

But if Conn’s analysis is insightful, his proposed remedies are decent, but painfully inadequate. He calls for a couple of small superficial tweaks– smaller phd cohorts, more openness and accountability about job placement, and increased resources for students who want to work outside of the academy — and one utopian change to society (that “we should also do everything we can to strengthen the place of the humanities in American education and, indeed, in American life.”). Each of these are fine, in themselves, but no one can seriously think they will stop the bleeding.

I won’t claim to have all the answers to these problems. But I will suggest that the time has passed when we could appeal to the university system as an essentially sound system whose problems can be solved entirely internally by an appeal to its own better nature. In other words, Conn’s solutions- besides the last one, which seems nice but entirely unhelpful to me- are all about changes to the structure of particular university policies. This, of course, assumes a mostly well-meaning university that is currently simply arranged incorrectly, simply has adopted the incorrect set of policies and needs to be enlightened about better ones. The simple fact that most universities profit tremendously from, for instance, the over-reliance on adjuncts should belie this notion.

But even if the university were willing to adopt Conn’s suggestions, for reasons of its own enlightened self-interest, we would still be left with the underlying long-term trends that Conn himself identifies so well. Nothing Conn suggests will arrest the growth of casual labor in university education, none will increase state budgets to education, or reduce the inequality between professor pay (see this Gerda Lerner piece for this, especially the graph at the bottom).

What is missing, in Conn’s suggestions, is any language of power. Until we come to grips with the fundamentally unequal power relationship between, on one hand a tiny group of unelected college administrators (normally culled from the financial world), and on the other hand, the mass of students and teachers who actually comprise the living breathing university, we won’t have any sense of how to go forward.

That means talking about unions for grad students, adjuncts, and, where possible, professors; it means a vigorous student movement that holds the administration accountable; it means a citizen population that refuses to balance state budgets on the backs of educators. Most importantly, it means creating a real democratic university, in which power and resources are not horded by the few and privileged. This is radical, but not utopian.

Take, for instance, the creation of unions for educators at places of higher education. Besides raising the wages and improving the condition for teachers, they provide a very concrete political voice for the interests of educators at state capitals. In other words, they lobby for us. At the university level, they comprise an alternative power structure that the university administrators have to deal with, thus re-distrubiting at least some of the decision making power in a university to a democratic organization. Student rallies and occupations can help bring attention to a wider public, of the powerlessness of students, and the defunding of public education– both essential first steps towards our broader citizenry stepping up its commitment to public education.

One of the worst ideological constructions in American life is the idea of the “Ivory Tower.” Putting aside the way in which it sanctions a gross anti-intellectualism, the notion that the universities are distinct privileged places cordoned off from the “real world” has contributed, perhaps more than anything else, to an obscuring of the fundamental inequalities and exploitation within university settings. And, even more so, it has prevented too many academics themselves from acknowledging their own marginal position within it, and fighting to change it. As our current NLRB chair has said, even the Ivory Tower can have a sweatshop in it.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 7, 2010 at 12:45

Posted in Academia, Intellectuals

15 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure how to reconcile the “sweatshop” analogy with the long queue of people looking for entry into (even bad) Ph.D. programs. I can understand it in a third-world country where the alternative to a sweatshop is subsistence agriculture. But when the median salary for a college grad is around 50k/year, it’s hard to argue that the people who voluntarily pass that up are getting a raw deal.


    April 7, 2010 at 15:16

  2. A couple of responses: 1. We have a 10% unemployment rate, effectively 16%. The fact that people are competing for jobs or positions in grad school is hardly surprising. 2. Sure, individuals, upon accepting a position in grad school forfeit higher wages that could be achieved elsewhere. That A. is often because they hope to be one of the lucky few who get great academic jobs, and B. is no excuse for the universities to pay them poorly. C. Econ 101 to the contrary, it is a rare person who really bases his or her life around maximizing their economic output. Thank god, let’s not encourage that. 3. Whether or not there are better jobs out there, the fact is that as a class, educators in higher ed have seen their collective situation deteriorate remarkably over the last 30 years. If we want to remain among the people who can make 50/K a year, we have to organize to ensure those trends are reversed. 4. You will always miss the picture if you think narrowly in terms of individual applicants. Each may or may not be acting rationally in accepting a grad school position, but the point is that the collective situation (the objective reality created by thousands of actors) is one in which universities benefit tremendously from a bottom heavy job market in which there are very few tenure track professors on top, and a huge mass of adjuncts and TAs holding them up from the bottom. 5. Even if you don’t care about the conditions for TAs, certainly that doesn’t seem like a sustainable and healthy way to run what are supposed to be institutions of higher education 6. Organizing for more just campuses is not contradictory, but in fact complementary, to the process of organizing to better the conditions of third-world workers. (example: student protesters who fight sweatshop made school clothing).


    April 7, 2010 at 16:14

  3. Isn’t it obvious that there are too many graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences, and too many graduate student slots, resulting in: A) excess TA’s i.e. cheap labor, and B) excess PhD’s i.e. schlimazels willing to put up with nontenured adjunct positions, i.e. more cheap labor? So, the logical thing for any union to advocate would be to reduce the number of graduate programs and graduate student positions. But is that something a graduate student union could commit themselves to?

    Dan Schneider

    April 7, 2010 at 17:37

  4. Dan- there might be too many many graduate programs, but that is a separate issue from whether the universities are exploiting the TAs. You’re making an assumption that there are too many TAs because they’re poorly paid. Maybe they’re poorly paid because of unequal bargaining power (because the university has the market power to pay the TAs poorly). In that case, the logical thing is for the union to just advocate for higher wages. By your logic, unions would always just advocate for a reduction in workforces.


    April 7, 2010 at 19:06

  5. Another aspect: Of course all this ‘throwing up of hands in the air’ is done by humanities professors and their graduate students. While equal bargaining power is needed, there are also deeper structural issues regarding the development of the humanities and sciences over the past thirty years. The fact that the line between industry and university has become blurred results in large part from the Bayh-Dole Act in the early ’80s which basically allows recipients of fed funds to secure patents and profit from them. Hence the creation of technology transfer offices at universities whose one motive is profit motive, hence the infiltration of a bunch of private-sector MBAs into the university, and hence the valuation of the sciences and the devaluation of the humanities, because the humanities don’t make money in this scheme. Never mind classic humanities arguments for their worth in critically thinking through the implications of these rapid scientific advances for society, of course. There needs to be a fundamental change in the way that knowledge is valued and shared across disciplines and to achieve this government policy needs to be changed so that universities no longer act as patenting offices throwing biscuits to scientists (and leaving the humanities in the dust) to develop new technologies at a rate faster than you can say “Bob’s your uncle.”


    April 7, 2010 at 20:48

  6. Ok.. I’ll bite

    1. The unemployment rate is much lower for college graduates, and probably even lower for those with the grades to think about grad school. Furthermore, the “problem” of low wages for TAs and lots of adjuncts was just as bad in the late 90s as it is now (according to the stats you linked to), and that was a period of the incredibly low unemployment. BTW, the unemployment rate of those with PhDs is actually only about 2/3 of that of those with just a Bachelor’s degree, so that might be part of the story. In any case, the outside option of a college grad is way above a sweatshop and way above the majority of Americans.

    2. Are any of A-C the same reasons people take jobs in sweatshops? But even dropping the silly sweatshop rhetoric, are any of these good reasons for society to subsidize these jobs at above-market wages? It seems to me that will only increase the number of students that decide to go to grad school, and I thought the premise was that there are already too damn many to employ them all as it is? Or do we have to also erect higher barriers to entry (10 year PhDs?) Sounds like classic rent-seeking to me.

    on C, I guess you weren’t listening in Econ 101, because we all know there is a lot more to a job than the wage. In fact that’s the point… even if the wage of being a TA/lecture/prof is lower than being a middle manager, it’s a hell of a lot more fun and interesting. By some people choosing one over the other, we know they’d rather have the interestingness than the cash. Of course they’d prefer to have both, but life is all about trade-offs.

    3. Again, if it’s just about rent-seeking, then fine. But excuse me if I don’t get too agitated about the fate of people who are doing something that they prefer over making 50k/year.

    4. I don’t know how to evaluate a state of affairs other than by looking at how the people are affected. You want me to believe that the fat cats administrators and tenure track faculty are living high on the hog at the expense of the poor, down-trodden, graduate students. I’m simply pointing out that these guys aren’t doing so badly- in fact, they seem to be doing better than people who don’t go to graduate school (since they could have been one of those guys and chose not to), and those college graduates do pretty well (50k/year median).

    5. This is non-responsive as to the question of whether the higher ed. underclass is getting a raw deal.

    6. Huh? This sentence has the word “sweatshop” in it, just like your post and my response. That’s pretty much the only relationship it bears to either of them.


    April 8, 2010 at 00:02

  7. Just to chime in from across the ocean: we have academic unions and they seem to help generally. I think the situation here was worse to begin with (i.e. graduate TA positions here now get paid more….bringing them to the level of about $2000 a year). That said, their bargaining power is pretty weak, since everyone is willing to be a scab and striking university professors are never regarded kindly. Personally, I wish there was a consistent retirement policy so that jobs would free up (I know it would’t be 1:1, but it would be something).


    April 8, 2010 at 07:45

  8. Response coming. I’ll say for now that unions are AN answer, but I don’t think that they’re THE answer. More soon.


    April 8, 2010 at 08:12

  9. I disagree with much of the subjective analysis here. But I write to note that one of the factual premises is wrong: there are no “relentless budget cuts” in public education. In the last couple of years, there have been cuts in many state university systems due to state budget crises in the recession, but this is not a long term trend. From 1993 to 2007, state and local spending on higher education grew from $88 billion to $204 billion, a 62% increase after adjustment for inflation.

    Josh Barro

    April 8, 2010 at 08:22

  10. […] a comment » Wiz is worried. Academics like Peter Conn have identified the problem in the humanities, but doesn’t have […]

  11. Too many people with PhDs in the humanities…a problem that lots of poor countries with 50%+ poverty rates would love to have I suppose.

    There’s a hilarious disconnect between what MOST humanities academics actually dedicate their lives to and spend their time doing–i.e., pursuing bewilderingly recondite and ultimately self-serving avenues of inquiry (so that they can claim to have done ‘original research’, so that they can get their PhDs, so that they can then have a nice life writing papers that advance the football of human thought one nanoyard, attending countless back-slapping conferences where they dish about all of it to no ultimate purpose, publishing in countless trade journals whose existences are justified by the self-serving ends just alluded to)–and what The Humanities are actually for, for the majority of human beings.

    As far as The Humanities are concerned, the majority of human beings would be well served by getting exposed to some philosophy, some poetry, and some great novelists, and by getting some solid, basic historical and sociological grounding. Most of that could and should be imparted by high school teachers with no extravagant pretensions of expertise. What the world really needs, now, besides love sweet love, is problem solvers for the giant problems we face, and the great majority of humanities hangers-on really have no interest in that. They’re not interested in making the world a better place FOR the humanities; they’re instead involved in a kind of escapism in the name of an ideal quiet life reading books, with job security, in a place where they’re surrounded by bright, spoiled young people who are equally uninterested in solving the world’s great problems, because they too would rather just read a lot of books and spend their lives burnishing their smarts. And lots of them are now disappointed that this escapist pursuit isn’t as rosy and bulletproof as they’d like it to be…

    It’s cultural decadence, basically. It’s not that all these rabbit holes that are humanities dissertations shouldn’t be pursued–who doesn’t love maximum knowledge and depth in any topic–but it seems silly to pretend that there should be an ever-growing market for them, or that they’re somehow vital to the future of civilization in light of what civilization is actually contending with.


    July 2, 2010 at 07:20

  12. A) massive and unwarranted generalization

    B) doesn’t the same apply to any number of professions?

    ie, NGO work: “They’re not interested in making the world a better place FOR humanity; they’re instead involved in a kind of escapism in the name of an ideal exciting life writing policy briefs and flying around the world, with job security, in a place where they’re surrounded by bright, spoiled young people who are equally supposedly interested in solving the world’s great problems, because they too would rather just write a lot of books and spend their lives burnishing their smarts. And lots of them are now disappointed that this escapist pursuit isn’t as rosy and bulletproof as they’d like it to be…”

    or Banking: “They’re not interested in making the world a better place FOR humanity; they’re instead involved in a kind of escapism in the name of an ideal rich life buying yachts, with job security, in a place where they’re surrounded by bright, spoiled young people who are equally uninterested in solving the world’s great problems, because they too would rather just making money and spend their lives burnishing their CVs. And lots of them are now disappointed that this escapist pursuit isn’t as rosy and bulletproof as they’d like it to be…”

    or working in government…or newspaper journalism…or any number of professions that arose in the Victorian era and are finding it difficult to adapt to a changing world? I agree that there are plenty of self-indulgent humanities profs., but there are just plenty of self-indulgent people generally.


    July 3, 2010 at 17:01

  13. Of course it’s generalization, and for that rings no less true than your examples of banking and NGOs. It’s hardly unwarranted, though.

    Point #1: it’s not that the humanities are inherently more self-indulgent than the next field, it’s that an otherwise worthwhile field that is structured to serve the interests of its initiates disproportionately to those on the outside who could benefit from them, deserves a job crisis and needs to change its priorities. If that hasn’t been the case in banking, so much the worse for us.

    Point #2: a field that is structured to serve a small minority of its initiates disproportionately to the great majority of its initiates, doesn’t necessarily deserve a job crisis but needs to be restructured fairly. If that also hasn’t happened in banking, so much the worse for them.

    And possibly for us as well, by extension. Whatever the case in banking et al, it so happens that in the humanities addressing either point will require addressing the other as well. The status quo of point #2 is a prime cause of the missed opportunities of point #1. People who are too busy fighting for the disproportionately few decent jobs in a field that rewards exclusivity (specialized research) at the expense of inclusiveness (teaching, outreach), and who can’t really get by otherwise, will be forced into giving less consideration to the overall mission of their field if they want to succeed in it.


    July 12, 2010 at 14:10

  14. […] Wiz and Weiner have both addressed the crisis of the humanities and I broadly agree with their proposals. Given the increased influence of corporate funding on university-sponsored scientific research, which seems to have resulted in the university’s efforts to mimic the corporation’s business plans and the downgrading of the humanities, unions are needed to push back against profit- and rank-oriented administrators. […]

  15. […] down what’s wrong with many of the well-known critiques. We’ve been through some of these arguments before at PhD Octopus, so I won’t rehash them here now. Instead, I’d like to […]

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