Farewell to Academia
Years of defending academia and the value of a college education reared up inside of me, ready to make an impassioned speech. I wanted to tell him not to. And… I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Because he was right. I could not in good conscience tell one of my best students that it was worth the loans. And in hindsight, that was the moment I decided I was well and truly done with academia.
I had been going to take one last stab at the job market this fall. With the Flood book done and maybe one or two more articles in process, and maybe even a book deal on an edited version of my dissertation. Just to answer the question, one last time, of whether I could make it in academia.
Which is, as it happens, terribly silly. Academia is not a meritocracy. It’s a lottery, in which the grand prize – a tenure track position – is dangled over the heads of everybody so that we agree to work for the appalling wages that adjunct faculty get. I’ll use numbers from the University of Akron, since I have them ready to hand: adjuncts make up 70% of the Univeristy of Akron faculty, and teach 62% of freshman and sophomore classes. They make up 15% of the faculty budget. The annual income for a lecturer teaching a 4/3 load – i.e. the equivalent of full time – is $20,038, which isn’t even $2000 more than the median income for fast food workers in Ohio.
Meanwhile, the odds on tenure track appointments are astonishingly grim. It’s not unusual for a job to get five hundred applicants. There were, last year, maybe two dozen jobs in my field. This is, to be clear, a change. Academia was not always dominated by part time labor. There has been an active decision at multiple universities to move away from full-time tenured faculty and towards cheaper adjuncts. There has been an active decision to expand PhD programs because PhD students provide extremely cheap labor. There has been an active decision to allow skyrocketing administrative salaries and increased bloat of administration while refusing to expand faculty. There’s been an active decision to favor MOOCs and other such solutions, often prepared by for-profit companies, for the sheer cheapness of them.
This creates a difficult dualism. On the one hand, the only way to describe the overall labor conditions of universities is “sickeningly abusive and corrupt.” On the other, the fact of the matter is that most faculty are pretty decent folks. My mentors at both my PhD program and my Masters program were wonderful people who I admire. And yet the institutional corruption infected both. It was simply expected of PhD students in certain fields that they would devote substantial amounts of time to propping up aging faculty members unable to handle their job responsibilities anymore, and nearly impossible to avoid losing at least a year of one’s graduate study to such tasks. I watched in bemused horror as students were quite literally expected to help faculty members clean their houses, all in the name of mentorship. And again, this wasn’t consciously abusive or exploitative. These were all good people. It’s just that the system they were working within compelled such structures. In the end, that’s what graduate students are for: the stuff too menial for real scholars to do.
My Masters program was no better – a one year program at the University of Chicago that offered no scholarships, essentially no hope of getting into a PhD program straight out of it (since your applications are due before you’ve even finished a quarter, and thus have no graduate school training), and cost $30k plus living expenses. The result is over $50k of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and that cripples my finances even at the reasonably high combined wages my partner and I make. One might reasonably ask why I signed up for such a program. The answer is simple: I was a senior in college and it never occurred to me that an institution as respectable and renowned as the University of Chicago would run what is essentially an elaborate con on me.
Which is perhaps as good an explanation as I can offer. I cannot bring myself to work in a field where one of the leading institutions habitually cons twenty-one-year-olds to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars that can, in all likelihood, never be paid off. Because that’s the new normal. And given that I did get into academia out of an interest in a job that constituted public service, it’s not a normal I can live with.
One might ask how the situation got this bleak. Academia, after all, has been thrashed disproportionately in the Great Recession. One explanation – and a reasonably compelling one – is that it was an appealing target for the political right. Education and leftist voting patterns correlate, so dismantling the education system ought provide dividends for them at the ballot box. But this ignores the degree to which academia was always set up to fail at the task of providing a compelling educational opportunity to the vast majority of students.
Let us not forget that the ancient and august university system is first and foremost a tool of the gentry. Its original purpose is to provide wealthy white men with a culturally designated body of knowledge that “educated gentlemen” should have. This body of knowledge has only partially shifted. Last semester I taught “Classics of Western Literature,” a course where the majority of your syllabus is pre-determined. As courses on “The Western Canon” went, it wasn’t that bad; there were two whole women on it. And I taught it fairly well, if I may say so myself, in part by being open about the nature of the course and treating its premises as up for debate. So we would often discuss the sensibility of teaching random excerpts from The Divine Comedy to a bunch of working and middle class teenagers.
But the fact remains that there just isn’t a compelling reason why a first generation college student working at Best Buy to afford tuition needs to read Horace’s odes. It’s not something every twenty-something should know. And the effect of it – particularly on a campus with a large working class and minority population – is to demand assimilation to the standards of an ossified upper class. In effect my job was to teach second generation immigrants from Brazil how to act like white men from the 1920s.
Actually, it’s worse than that. San Jose State University’s philosophy department recently penned a letter objecting to the adoption of a for-profit MOOC using a lecture from a Harvard professor. In it, they point out the staggering perversity of a majority-minority campus watching rich white Harvard students engage in dialogue with a professor while they have no access to said professor for questions. This in a course that is supposedly about social justice. The lesson isn’t how to act like an aristocrat – it’s realizing your place on the social ladder.
This is the sad and tragic fact of teaching. The bulk of the curriculum is obedience and the toleration of monotony – the primary skills needed for the bulk of jobs students at lower level state universities are ever going to have. The value of a college degree is proof that you have the personal responsibility necessary to navigate four years of courses. In the end little more than doing the assignments is necessary. Even the grade structure in American universities points towards this. When the line for failure is put at roughly 60% it means that any student who is actually completing the work is likely to pass a class so long as not everything they do is completely execrable. Failure is for people who don’t do the work. Students are simultaneously taught to chase the grade and that the grade is achievable through empty labor. The result is students who are extremely good at school, a process visibly distinct from intellectual thought. My students are better at passing reading quizzes without doing the reading than they are at actually reading and analyzing literature, and it’s difficult to blame them for their chosen skillsets.
And I just can’t participate in a system that gouges those students with crushing debt just to teach them the art of drudgery. Especially in an economy where jobs have become tight enough that the middle and working class is as dependent on networking and the game of “who you know” as the gentry used to be. It’s one thing to teach the curriculum of drudgery when the end degree is actually useful. That’s worth subverting. It’s quite another to do so for a functionally useless degree. Yes, I can teach something other than drudgery, and do, but it’s swimming upstream, pointlessly, and for shitty pay to boot.
I could comment on academic publishing and its hilarious insularity – on the fact that the least read and most mediocre blogposts I’ve ever written have had wildly more impact on the world than any academic article, and that the process of revising articles to fit the arbitrary standards of peer reviewers (the vast majority of peer reviews consisting of little more than a note saying “but you didn’t cite my favorite theorist!”) incentivises writing for as narrow an audience as possible. Seriously, academic publishing consists so heavily of writers who compose marginal works that nobody will read while consuming next to nothing anyone else is writing that it makes fanfiction look good. I could note how this furthers the art of drudgery, making professors who are actively uninterested in the question of what their students are interested in or find helpful. I could go on for ages.
But let’s instead note that for anyone seeking the actual ostensible purpose of a college degree – i.e. an education – that the Internet is, for the most part, far better. I’ve never seen a class on narrative structure more thorough and informative than TV Tropes. A few hours on Tumblr can teach feminism and various social justice topics covered more thoroughly than any intro class in the world. The digital divide exists, but Internet access is terribly affordable. For anyone who actually wants to learn there have never been more or cheaper opportunities to do so. And freed from the institutional structures of universities the dictatorship of the grade is finally removed. This sort of education isn’t about assimilation into a class structure, or, at least, the ways in which it is are limits it hasn’t run horribly up against yet.
And these opportunities have the delightful additional value of having to actually work for their audiences. We – because let’s face it, what I’m doing is as much freelance teaching as freelance writing – have to actually find topics people want to read about, and angles that people actually find interesting and edifying. We don’t get to just insist that everybody has to read The Aeneid without us having to make an argument for it that goes beyond “your grade depends on it.” There’s a democratization here; a requirement that we interest people without the benefits of a power relationship.
And it’s more satisfying than academia ever has been. I wanted to take one more swing at the job market because I had something to prove. Frankly, making it at the level where I could support myself, albeit meagerly, entirely on my writing income constitutes proving myself. I’m a working writer. I don’t feel like I have anything else to prove in terms of my skills at that point.
Yes, I’m lucky. I hit the jackpot on a different lottery – the “make it as a writer” one. I have a partner who makes good money such that the relatively low income of a self-published writer can supplement it into a solid middle class existence. I had the ability to devote the time to writing as a near full-time job for two years while I built up an audience. And now I can afford to walk away, which makes it easier to decide to. And much as I decry it, it’s not like I’m giving up my part-time adjuncting, in part because the $10k I make a year at it is rather nice, in part because it gets me out of the house (not to mention out of my own head), and in part because I do actually enjoy teaching as an activity and students as a population.
But academia in 2013 isn’t the career I went to school for. It’s not the career I fell in love with. And it’s not the career I want to be in. However many good people there are in it – and there are lots, including dear friends – it is a corrupt and abusive snake pit, and I don’t want to play anymore.
May 27, 2013 @ 11:30 pm
Everything you do, you do without choice, in the name of peace and sanity.
But not in the name of the Doctorate.
May 27, 2013 @ 11:32 pm
How much of this is specific to English/literature studies and how much is more generally applicable to university, even things like medicine, engineering, or teaching, where's there's actually an obvious job path to somewhere not in a university?
PS Your comment form doesn't work in Firefox
May 28, 2013 @ 12:03 am
You win, Dr. And for what it's worth, this has gone a long way towards validating my own life choices regarding academia, and I'm very grateful for the inside track view. So, you know, thanks for that.
Also, thanks for the inspiration. Writing rocks.
May 28, 2013 @ 12:10 am
"I’ve never seen a class on narrative structure more thorough and informative than TV Tropes"
Has it got better lately? Because the thing that's always infuriated me about TV Tropes is that while it could be that sort of resource, it isn't, because the majority of the people writing for it just don't have the knowledge base, and the minority that does is edited into incoherence. It's an interesting site, but I don't think I've ever actually learned anything from it, because there's very little analysis.
Having said that, I've probably learned more about narrative structure from this blog than I did from an English Literature degree. So I agree with the overall point, I just remain unimpressed by TV Tropes.
May 28, 2013 @ 12:36 am
When I was a student in the 1980s, a British university education was free, paid for by the state. In fact, it was more than free; I received a maintenance grant of several thousand pounds a year from my local authority (thank you, Torridge District Council). Even so, I thought I was badly off, as the Thatcher government had reduced student grants from the much higher level they had been in the 1970s. (I remember that at one point BBC Panorama came on campus to film a documentary about student hardship; the resulting programme was full of NUS leaders arguing for a restoration of grant levels. The idea of loans wasn't even mentioned.)
I still don't understand why the current loan system was introduced. British GDP today is more than twice what it was thirty years ago; if we could afford free university education for all then, surely we can doubly do so now?
The Cameron government recently raised university tuition fees to £9,000 a year. Would I still have gone to university, I ask myself, if it would have landed me with £27,000 of debt? (The price of a house in the 1980s). I'm not at all sure that the answer to that is "yes"…
February 18, 2021 @ 12:10 am
Was the free university education for all in those days, or more for those who could benefit from it?
February 18, 2021 @ 12:12 am
Oops, just saw this thread is eight years old. Not that anything has changed.
May 28, 2013 @ 2:08 am
Best of luck to you and congratulations on making a firm decision.
I agree, completely, on the power of the Internet to educate. It's also the reason I can make my (poor) living writing. I sell custom-written children's bedtime stories (several a month, currently), ghost write articles for several people (much rarer), and occasionally make pro and semi-pro fiction sales (depressingly rare). I live with my brother and cousin who both sell art commissions. We have very little extra money after land payment, groceries, electric and ISP, but we do what we love and answer to no boss nor time clock.
Without the 'net, this just wouldn't be possible for three high school dropouts from a historically poor family who live in the woods in North Mississippi.
May 28, 2013 @ 2:14 am
I enjoy TV Tropes, and think it's a great site. My only real 'problem' with it are those who think linking to various entries constitute some sort of formal ( and unimpeachable!) argument. That's not the sites fault of course.
May 28, 2013 @ 3:48 am
There are, as you rightly point out, many problems with academia as it currently stands. My biggest issue with the current state of affairs, though, differs somewhat from yours, I think: job training was, at best, only ever one of a number of goals academia was intended to address. The fact that it has become academia's overriding and, in some cases, only socially acceptable mission ("go to college or you won't get a good job") is the root of much of its current disease. Any coursework that can't convincingly be interpreted as useful in landing a job is either eliminated or deemphasized. And it's typically that kind of coursework that really focuses on critical thought and discussion over rote memorization or test-taking. Combined with the out-of-control financial situation (I just attended my 10th year undergraduate reunion, where I discovered than tuition has since increased from ~$20,000/year to ~$60,000/year), you have an explosive situation.
But, as much as I'd agree that there's something deeply wrong with modern academia, and can hardly fault you for your choice, I feel that there's still something it offers that a democratized, self-driven environment like the Internet cannot. And it comes down to your "work for your audience" point. Some of the best and most informative things I've ever learned, I only learned because I was, in effect, forced to do so. Given the choice between reading The Aeneid and, say, reading fanfiction online, I almost certainly would have chosen the latter. But, having done the former, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and learned far more than I would have otherwise. Democratization isn't a bad thing, but it isn't necessarily a good thing, either. Left to their own devices, much of the American public would choose to learn about creationism over evolution. And that's a problem, both for the individual, and for society. What people want to learn is not always the same as what people need to know.
May 28, 2013 @ 4:00 am
The current loan system was introduced because the student population was massively increased, and thus the government couldn't afford (which is another way of saying "wouldn't afford") to continue with paid fees and grants. The student population was massively increased because the government bought into this ludicrous notion that a university education is somehow necessary for more than the narrow range of options it was useful for when I had one (the same time as you). It reduced the workforce to a single-dimensional entity rather than the multi-dimensional one it used to be. Ironically, opening up access to university to disadvantaged classes (which we might consider a laudable goal) made a university education, as Doctor Sandifer so correctly points out, little more than preparation for a class-appropriate job, and thus entrenched social disadvantage.
Not that I necessarily rate him as a PM, but I always thought that it was important that John Major hadn't been to university. Why should it be necessary?
I write as a full-time instructor in a Japanese university (not tenured, though). I thought the Japanese system was bad, and I had previously thought my distance learning MA from CalState Dominguez Hills was shoddily run. I now realise it was par for the course, if not good, and that the US system is as broken as the Japanese and UK ones.
May 28, 2013 @ 4:52 am
Based on my own experience in geology (and watching other science graduate students and young professionals), there are many parallels. Although many science graduate programs offer research or teaching assistantships, not all do. Even among the programs with graduate funding, tuition waivers and basic cost of living are not always covered. Not to mention students having to learn 'the care and feeding of your advisor', which seems to be a prevalent theme across disciplines.
Among my academic friends, there is a growing chorus of 'academia cannot go on this way' and 'change is coming'. Some are jumping ship early, some are burying their heads in the sand, and others are actively lobbying for change. I'm rather looking forward to the re-invention or collapse of an out-dated system. Either way, it should be an interesting ride.
Thanks for a well thought and well phrased synopsis, Phil.
May 28, 2013 @ 4:55 am
Mengu, as a fresh phd graduate of a Biomedical sciences program, I can assure you that is it just as bad or worse in our field. NIH funding had been crippled and as a result, grad research has increased… Resulting in a flooded, depressed and terrified market. I too have quit my dreams of being a professor and felt lucky to get a job 7 months later working in customer support for a science company.
May 28, 2013 @ 5:15 am
An American physicist blogger who I follow relates similar tales for his field, and for STEM subjects generally. There is a difference, in that for science graduates it's more a case of abandoning research and going out into the job market, rather than abandoning research and going out into unemployment, but the basic issues of oversupply of PhDs and slow turnover of aging professors seem to be universal.
Having done my PhD and postdoctoral research in the UK, I'm a bit shocked at the idea of research students taking on debt to fund their position. For all the issues around undergraduate tuition fees (highlighted in comments below), research students in this country still have their tuition and living costs funded by grants, generally from the Research Councils but sometimes from other bodies (including internal University funding). A research student is doing real research work that contributes to the university's outputs, and should not expect to have to pay for the privilege on top.
May 28, 2013 @ 5:35 am
Sleepyscholar has said much of what I was going to say here. I'm not a fan of the current funding system, but when university attendance expands from ~5% of school-leavers to ~50%, this is going to have a big impact on how the tuition is funded. Also, GDP may have increased since the 80s, but so have the costs of salaries, buildings, books and equipment.
What we really need to do in the UK is expand vocational training and apprenticeships for school-leavers, rather than try to usher more and more of them toward university environments that are not right for them. The current government has made some modest moves in this direction, but I think we need a revolution on as large a scale as the expansion of higher education in the 90s in order to really make a substantial difference.
Still, if I were a school-leaver this year I would take on the debt involved in going to University. Statistically, it is a good investment in future earnings potential as well as enabling personal and intellectual development, and you're safe if the gamble doesn't pay off as you don't need to repay the loan if your earnings are below a certain amount. If only credit cards worked that way…
May 28, 2013 @ 5:49 am
I'm not sure I have ever read such a cogent explanation of the injustices and absurdities that make pursuing an academic career in the humanities so discouraging. The reality is that teaching high school is a better deal for most people with PhDs in humanities subject than trying to teach at the University level. The reasons for this probably have something to do with unions.
While I do not agree with the suggestion that The Aeneid and The Inferno should be replaced with artifacts of contemporary popular culture that more explicitly support a progressive liberal ideology, or that the internet is an adequate substitute for the classroom, your points about student debt are compelling. By charging astronomical amounts of money for university education, universities create economic expectations contrary to the ideal purpose of a university education.
Best of luck in whatever you decide to do next.
May 28, 2013 @ 6:08 am
But could the classroom ever be an adequate substitute for the internet?
May 28, 2013 @ 6:20 am
I regularly do a quick one-hour "How to Analyze Anime" presentation at conventions, at which I divide close reading into three phases (initial impressions and observations, pattern-forming, and interrogation of the text). TVTropes does an excellent job, overall, of the middle phase (and to a lesser extent the first), which is what it's for. The fact that it doesn't do the last phase is rather like complaining that Wikipedia doesn't do original research.
May 28, 2013 @ 6:22 am
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May 28, 2013 @ 6:29 am
An interesting post and echoing much of what we see in the UK today. I've been with a relatively minor UK University since 1997, but not as an academic. I'm part of the IT Support department, so as we underpin practically everything the uni does, and interact with both admin and academic staff…well to paraphrase Roy Batty, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."
Working inside the education system but outside academic, you do get a good view of what drives education, and in particular the hoops universities have to jump through in order to survive. Most of what the general public thinks unis are for is wrong, and the point of those 3 years of (now very expensive) education is not what you think. The huge increase in student numbers over the last 10 years has effectively devalued a degree to the point where a good apprenticeship in bricklaying is probably worth more. When I first started work in the mid 80s, we occasionally got Graduates appointed in the department, and they would come in at a high grade, with no expertise, simply because they had that rare thing – a degree. But now it would seem that everybody you bump into has a degree of some sort or another, not because degrees have become easier to achieve (though if I met up with you in the pub for an hour or so I could explain why that's not strictly true), but because there's now a degree for everything.
Actually there's a coda to that. Some degrees – important ones – have vanished. My current department inhabits an open-plan office that used to be the Mechanical Electrical Faculty…because our uni no longer offers any form of Engineering courses, although it does have one of the most successful Business Schools in the country. Go figure (as our transatlantic cousins would say).
May 28, 2013 @ 6:40 am
I completely agree on the need to emphasize the power and usefulness of trade and non-university education. I think it's particularly important to show that these aren't "second-best" options for students who do badly in school – they provide an education that helps someone contribute to society in a necessary way. We need to make clear that they can even be a legitimate option for smart kids who may not be suited for a traditional college experience. My husband is brilliant, but has ADD. He enjoyed college in some ways, but had difficulty keeping up with the writing. Now he's a professional cook with a culinary school degree, which serves him much better than his bachelors in political science ever will.
Personally, I have my masters and found both it and my undergraduate degree were very helpful for building critical thinking skills. However, they were both from some of the most prestigious places in the country and you shouldn't have to go to one of those places to get that type of education. It's also notable that I got my masters at Oxford, which at the height of the pound vs. dollar cost the same for a year of out-of-country tuition as the University of Washington did for out-of-state tuition, even though the Oxford program was one year and the University of Washington one was two.
May 28, 2013 @ 7:19 am
Thanks for your great article Phil. Very insightful.
Here in the UK most people who meet me, when the topic arises, that I am university educated – but I am not. At the end of school I was aiming for Art College and was given tons of support from my teachers. But despite years of applying got nowhere – my work (I have come to believe) did not fit with the kind of work that was being sought or that could attract funding post-training. i.e, my art was not work orientated.
Oddly, and against my better judgement (and taste) I ended up taking a four year college course in design, where in my late teens & early twenties, all of my cynicism and bitterness at not having 'made it' was directed towards the lecturers who I labelled (sometimes unfairly) as past it and out of touch with the creative world outside their classrooms. I think I actually actively tried to fail the course and most of my submissions either were twisted interpretations of the design briefs our outright mocking the college.
I loved the social life of college but grew to dislike the world of commercial design. Suffice to say, I passed.
From this point on in relation to my career path, I took what some friends and I have coined as the 'Hand-Made Path' – resolving only to follow my joy, my heart, my interests and skills. In short using life as the university.
With this in mind I went from here, in rough order, into working within Archaeology, teaching Tai Chi, using my design experience to edit and design alternative magazines, performing in an Improvisational theatre group, engaging in charity work, helping found & run an arts charity supporting Outsider Artists via exhibitions and a magazine, and participating in discussion groups and other forms of group-work/ teaching.
In recent years (missing out tons to be honest) I have taken work within Social care assisting those with learning disabilities, HIV/Aids, mental health issues and alcoholism. two further careers have grown out of my explorations (which still continue!) – first training and developing myself as a Professional Storyteller, and the second as a trained and practicing Forest Schools practitioner (not school, but using the outdoors as a place to develop skills and knowledge).
For me my whole journey has been about continuously about assisting my skills to grow in connection with my interests, especially those making a connection with my joy. It is hard work often and as I have found it really does take time. But I feel that the persistence indeed pays off. perseverance furthers.
Well done Philip.
May 28, 2013 @ 8:29 am
On the other, the fact of the matter is that most faculty are pretty decent folks.
With one notable exception, who only lasted a single semester before being dismissed, every faculty member I encountered at university was a lovely person, and I do not regret in the slightest the time I spent there or knowledge I acquired.
By contrast, the administration were quite clearly money-grubbing scam artists determined to squeeze every possible dime out of students and their parents, and engaged in some spectacularly unsavory (and occasionally outright criminal) behavior on the grounds that all schools did it.
May 28, 2013 @ 8:33 am
I don't agree with the idea that The Aeneid and The Inferno should be replaced. But I think the argument for their inclusion has to be more than "it's always been done this way" mixed with "I'm the teacher and your grade depends on it."
I mean, I'm no hater of the classics. I pay them more respect than I have to in most classes I teach. But I select for what I think can portray a clear narrative of history or provide some insight into the world my students live in. My issue is not with the contents of the western canon so much as the institution.
I mean, when we jump over to the British Comics Project on this blog, that project is going to have loads of classic literature covered in the course of its meandering through history. Off the top of my head I don't see how it can possibly be done without covering the Mabinogion, Paradise Lost, Arthur Machen, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Wordsworth, and most of Blake. And that's just what I can think of with two minutes pondering. The classics themselves are not my problem.
May 28, 2013 @ 8:44 am
Yeah, I found out just how rubbish the academic job market is. Just a shame I discovered that after I had done my PhD.
May 28, 2013 @ 8:50 am
Two decades ago, I could see the dynamics in higher ed that are so much more pronounced now — most notably, the fact that protections for the tenured were leaving the untenured even more exploitable, and that colleges were increasingly going to take advantage of this; but also institutions' tendency to plow their resources into administrative bureaucracies and unnecessary new buildings; and, more broadly, higher ed's role in propping up the country's class system. And I decided not to bother applying to grad school. Best career decision I ever made.
May 28, 2013 @ 9:25 am
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May 28, 2013 @ 9:28 am
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May 28, 2013 @ 9:29 am
I was absolutely in love with Academia in my first year. I thought I could spend years there. The next few disillusioned me very very quickly. After getting deleted by the university database and having to wait nearly 4 weeks to get it sorted out(and therefore missing out on any classes that could actually advance my degree) I headed into the job market (in student finance surprisingly). Which is all to say, that your story resonates with me.
Now I'm getting ready to head back and enter law school. Which either means I'm crazy or I've found a calling.
May 28, 2013 @ 9:48 am
Which is, as it happens, terribly silly. Academia is not a meritocracy. It’s a lottery, in which the grand prize – a tenure track position – is dangled over the heads of everybody so that we agree to work for the appalling wages that adjunct faculty get.
The term for this in economics is "glamor industry." It's how, among other things, acting, modeling, fiction writing, and drug dealing work.
Unrelated to the post topic, Philip, are you going to be at Connecticon this year? I ask because (1) It has a large Doctor Who contingent and it would be cool to see you speak, (2) It's in your general region, and (3) I really, really want to see you and Charles Dunbar argue about Joseph Campbell. I suspect I would learn a great deal from the ensuing firestorm on a massive point of contention between the two analysts of popular culture I respect most.
May 28, 2013 @ 9:52 am
No plans to be, and it's a bit too soon to add it to my calendar now (and I suspect the organizers would prefer not to have me pop up asking for panel slots six weeks before the con), but I'll look into it for next year. I'd like to try a few cons, actually, of various sizes. 🙂
May 28, 2013 @ 9:52 am
Which, actually, raises a point: I think the Internet is a great way to become a dilettante. I've managed to learn a little about a lot of different subjects. But I'm not sure that it's possible to achieve the depth of knowledge of a true expert through online learning. I mean, compare this blog to my own; it's pretty obvious that there's a vast gulf between someone with a doctorate doing this kind of work and somebody with a bachelor's and a lot of online reading.
May 28, 2013 @ 9:55 am
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May 28, 2013 @ 9:56 am
Ah well, didn't hurt to ask. I hope you do go next year–it's a blast, one of the better balances between informative/interesting panels and silly fannishness of the cons I go to. I know the people who run their panels, so if you do submit panels next year, let me know and I'll put in a word for you. (Anime Boston is even better, but that's specifically anime; no Doctor Who except for the occasional cosplayer.)
May 28, 2013 @ 9:57 am
By the Internet I also mean things like Wikisource, Project Gutenberg, and Amazon, all of which dwarf any public library in terms of their free holdings. And that's just the stuff that actually hits the intersection of free and legal. Sacrifice either and what you can find without touching a physical book is jaw-dropping.
May 28, 2013 @ 9:58 am
Once again, Blogger needs a Like button.
May 28, 2013 @ 10:23 am
Hmm. But the advantage of a public library or a university (at least in the ideal case) is the availability of a librarian or a professor who can guide you to the readings that will actually teach you about the topic you seek to become an expert on. I'm not sure it's possible to function without such a guide until you are already well on your way to becoming expert. Certainly I'm still in need of one–I'd never have heard of the books you recommended regarding implied author/reader if you hadn't recommended them, for instance.
Basically, as someone who is sort of, while busy doing other things, embarking on the project of trying to become a something like a media studies scholar without going to grad school, it seems to me like grad school is actually the much easier and more efficient, but vastly more expensive, way to do it, while the Internet is much, much, much harder and slower. (Not to mention lacking any real way to gauge whether you're doing it right.)
May 28, 2013 @ 10:54 am
Well, we try. 🙂
There's a great quote from Will Manley about libraries and librarians on this subject: "Idealistically, I thought that, after my year[s] of library training, I was launched on a career dedicated to the so-called university of the people. I quickly discovered that, to the patrons, the library was actually more of a trade school. While I was prepared to answer questions regarding the origins of abstract expressionism, what people wanted was a manual on how to fix a broken toilet."
I do get my fair share of literature and philosophy questions, usually from high school students, and I relish the opportunity to give a retired fellow a copy of 1984 to read for the first time, but working at a lumber yard and hardware store throughout grad school and the job search that came in the years after that has proven even more useful. Of course, getting an MLS is a lot more analogous to going to a trade school than going into academia…
May 28, 2013 @ 12:52 pm
I learned two vitally important things when I was studying for my BA at Oxford: (1) how to socialise, a skill I'd missed out on at school; and (2) that I didn't want to go any further in the education system. I then became a games programmer, a career so well tied to my Maths degree that in eight years I used precisely one thing from my course, which would have taken me a few hours to figure out otherwise. The bit of paper then helped to get me into my next job, but by the time something meaty from my course actually cropped up I'd completely forgotten it. So, y'know, that was well worth the taxpayers' money.
I got some other stuff out of it, too, including a best male friend, a best female friend who became my wife, and an appreciation of Star Fleet (the English dubbed version of X-Bomber).
Well done on making your decision! Best of luck.
May 28, 2013 @ 1:03 pm
As a "lottery winner," I'm hardly an unbiased participant in this conversation. I think most of what Philip says is fair, though of course the situation in specific is always far more complex than the situation in general. U Chicago, by the way, is a particularly bad example at the MA level as most programs have done away with its particular form of exploitation (in favor of funding and healthcare in exchange for cheap teaching labor and other work).
One of the big problems is that the trend-setting programs are typically at the most prestigious schools, which are insulated from all the actual pressures on the academy for change. That's shifting only slowly, and so long as institutions and administrators look to Carnegie rankings or US News rankings they'll be looking at "leaders" who aren't always good models for duplication, and end up doing all sorts of distorted things trying to mimic them.
Another big problem is that faculty by definition are the ones who were successful at working within the system. That makes us tailored to sustain it, not to challenge it. With success defined as "not failing," nobody takes chances or risks. And with the job market so dire and the financial and personal and professional consequences of not landing a tenure-track job so severe, nobody's likely to rock the boat until after being tenured. These days, that means 3-5 years on the job market followed by 6-7 as an untenured professor. That means 2003 PhDs might just now be in a position to start TRYING to change the ways in which their institutions work, in the face of institutional inertia at best, figuring it may take another decade to get into positions powerful enough to make a difference. The people already in those positions of influence were last undergraduates in the mid-80's to 90's. That rough estimate suggests that academia is just now tackling the challenges of the late Reagan era head-on.
Academia may be many things, but agile it ain't.
Sean's point is extremely important, though. That the internet as an institution offers a range of opportunities for learning and teaching which escape the limitations of academia neither proves it a better place for learning and teaching nor establishes that academia can't facilitate them, too. Internet interest silos mean the incurious need encounter no knowledge they don't already accept, regardless of its accuracy. And there's every indication that corruption will find a way into every system given time. The internet just hasn't had enough time yet.
At the core here, I think, is that we as human beings have deep-seated needs to believe in the fairness of existence. But it isn't. The "job lottery" is in no way restricted to academia, and even the merit-based blogosphere runs on chance and networking, too.
Changing the larger framework of the conversation, away from the "get mine" mentality and towards the responsibilities that those who have done well in the lottery have towards those who have not, matters not just in academia but in society more broadly. Doing that is a constant challenge, made harder by conditions which complicate sustaining yourself financially, emotionally, ethically.
The best we can do is to pick a place to stand where we think we can do the most good, and support those standing with us, both there and elsewhere.
May 28, 2013 @ 1:22 pm
I broke this into sentences when I posted it on Facebook and Google Plus:
"Students are simultaneously taught to chase the grade and that the grade is achievable through empty labor.
The result is students who are extremely good at school, a process visibly distinct from intellectual thought.
My students are better at passing reading quizzes without doing the reading than they are at actually reading and analyzing literature, and it’s difficult to blame them for their chosen skillsets."
I teach high school maths. And the number of times I get the question "When am I ever going to use this?" is depressing. Whatever happened to the joy of learning, of study, of stretching oneself? Or am I deluding myself?
I wanted to teach English — the state considers me qualified but I haven't had a chance — but I can see the same sort of a hunt for relevancy there.
Depressing. But thank you for your clear indictment of the system.
May 28, 2013 @ 1:34 pm
If you use only the set textbooks, you can get a good grade in your undergraduate degree without ever visiting the library. But your ideas will be limited, edited, and controlled. If you only use the textbook you will never come across the wrongly-shelved volume that would have changed your life.
A library is to the internet what a good textbook is to a library.
Since the title of "university" and the right to award a "degree" is tightly regulated by the state (in the UK, at any rate), perhaps we, the internet, need a new term for academic achievements – I suggest that we award our scholars not Degrees, but Digress. (I hereby acclaim Philip Sandifer as Digressor in Blue.)
May 28, 2013 @ 2:20 pm
It's a matter of age.
Whenever I taught undergraduates at the university where I was doing my PhD, I would get the same depressing refrain after pasing on some cool or insightful piece of knowledge: "Will this be in the exam?"
Later, I taught for the Open University for a few years. The students differed from undergraduates in many ways: a wider range of abilities, a much broader range of ages, and a great diversity of life experiences. But they had one thing in common: they had made a decision, in the middle of busy lives with jobs, families and other commitments, to study astrophysics because they thought it would be interesting. These students were a joy to teach, as they had a genuine enthusiasm and curiosity about the subject matter beyond the utilitarian considerations of passing exams.
So the joy of learning is still out there, but it's easier to find among people who have made a positive decision to study at a university rather than basically drifting into higher education as the conventional next step after high school.
May 28, 2013 @ 2:48 pm
Spot on. One of the effects of sending so many more people through the college system is to prolong the process of maturation which actually enables people to learn. Educational practices prior to college aren't exactly helping matters either, especially when school funding (and continued employment) relies upon students meeting metrics on mandated exams, not on the much-harder-to-assess degree to which students are being enriched by their experiences.
Being in the classroom because you want to be on your own behalf goes a long way, too. For teachers as well as students…
May 28, 2013 @ 3:05 pm
I teach high school maths. And the number of times I get the question "When am I ever going to use this?" is depressing. Whatever happened to the joy of learning, of study, of stretching oneself? Or am I deluding myself?
No, you're just someone who enjoys maths. Most people don't enjoy maths for the sake of enjoyment, it's just a tool to be used as a means to some other end. I was compelled to take trigonometry as part of getting a degree in Music Education and I still don't know why. I just remember not being able to understand the foreign grad student's accent and being terrified that I would fail an utterly pointless class in my last semester before student teaching. (Got a C and was happy for it.)
May 28, 2013 @ 4:58 pm
It always drove me up a wall when I was an undergraduate, that the universal attitude among my peers was that college was an entirely worthless experience where people who weren't talented enough to cut it in the "real world" taught worthless classes that didn't teach you anything, and no one wanted to be here or do this, but it was how you got your permission slip for white-collar employment, just paying your dues, like the telemarketing jobs they would all go on to get for a certain bank well-known for its reprehsensibility that my school had a close relationship with (which has since been eaten by an even bigger bank even better known for reprehensibility).
It didn't help that this is actually what the business department taught.
May 28, 2013 @ 5:21 pm
Sure, but the number of people who enjoy math is a lot lower than it could be, and a big part of the reason for that is that almost every person who learns math learns at least some percentage of it from a teacher who hates math. (Seriously; on average, teachers, outside of specialists math teachers, tend to hate math much more than the average person, and a person who is taught math by someone who hates math is more likely to learn to hate math themselves. For most people, their introduction to math was by someone who showed them first grade math all the while telling them that math was hard and unpleasant)
May 28, 2013 @ 6:49 pm
(…and of course, I look him up just now and it turns out he'd been dead six months, and I hadn't a clue. Damn.) 🙁
May 28, 2013 @ 6:57 pm
I used to hang out and edit TV Tropes a lot, but the problem is – well, there are several problems, but one big one is that the rules slowly became more arbitrary, more ad hoc, and more… seeming to be based on the personal bugbears of the guy running it? And all these things screw with it as a resource.
May 28, 2013 @ 9:31 pm
Glad you have something lined up. And thanks for being the best sort of teacher, in the academy and out here. Fuck privatization and the business university model. While the soapbox is out, if just for cartharsis' sake, fuck exploitation of grad students and lecturers in general, fuck the elitist simulacrum of democracy that is Student Government, fuck the debt industry. Viva the lecturers' unions, real student democracy, and people like you who call the administrative structure for what it is. Oh, and solidarity with Cooper.
They can take our prospects, they can train us for a tiny, monotonous job market, but they will never take our Doctor Who blogs, and I take actual comfort in that. I think I get used to bashing on the Internet as a site of political formation, but you're right, TV tropes and feminist blogs and so on are kicking ass. When you posted Ideology and ISAs on the Nintendo blog, it ended up being a significant part of my radicalization. So thanks for that.
May 28, 2013 @ 10:55 pm
May 28, 2013 @ 11:18 pm
One of the great things about my (extremely part time) job this year has been the fact that I've been taking the Year 6 Gifted and Talented maths students out of lessons where they were getting very bored and doing fun stuff with them. Seeing them eat up the material I was given, I quickly grew quite ambitious: we covered fractals, dimensions (including hypercubes), and different infinities (with enough number theory to lead up to that). It wasn't just me telling them stuff, either – they were working things out for themselves. Technically the job finished with SATs but I'm going to go back and do some more lessons voluntarily, including a little non-Euclidean geometry. Probably with balloons.
The sad part was how, even at this age, they got focused on exams in the spring half term. The school wasn't bothered about that – they were genuinely more concerned with keeping them interested – but there was pressure from the children to just concentrate on what would be in the paper. I compromised, covering all the material and making it as fun as possible, but insisted on keeping some of the more wacky stuff in as well.
Sadly, a couple of these students have already got it into their heads that they don't like maths. They liked my lessons because we were going out on a limb, but would still rather have been doing almost anything without a maths component, almost on principle.
May 29, 2013 @ 1:12 am
There is one possible good reason for requiring you to take trigonometry – though whether this was actually the thinking in the case of your course I don't know.
If you're going to study the science of music or sound at all, that's founded on the theory of the harmonic oscillator – and to understand that you do need some basic trigonometry. If there was an expectation that at least some of the students might go on to do that side of things, there would be some sense in making sure they all had enough trigonometry to be able to do it.
Of course, it may just have been some bit of arbitrary pointlessness.
May 29, 2013 @ 1:15 am
The biggest problem with it, of course, is that it horribly misuses the word 'trope'. It's a collection of elements commonly often to be found in fiction, but not every element is a trope. A trope (from tropos, turn) is something which stands for something else: a metaphor, a metonymy, a symbol, or suchlike.
The use of water as a rebirth metaphor is a common trope. The 'moment when a put-upon character stands up for themselves' is a common element of many fictional works, but is not a trope.
It should be called 'TV Elements' or something.
May 29, 2013 @ 8:31 am
More than a little bit jealous.
The excitement of watching people discover and dig….
May 29, 2013 @ 7:18 pm
According to Wikipedia, "Since the 1970s, the word has also come to mean a commonly recurring literary device, motif, or cliché." The M-W definition it sites to support that claim, however, doesn't say anything about the 1970s, and the OED draft entry lists a single entry from 1975, namely, the sentence "Barthelme is funning with the eternal trope of fatherhood." (Chicago Tribune.) So…there's a case to be made that their chosen definition has precedent.
May 29, 2013 @ 11:41 pm
If Wikipedia says it, it must be wrong.
June 2, 2013 @ 5:28 am
In analytic philosophy, a trope is a property particular. It's almost as though the word has several meanings!
June 2, 2013 @ 5:30 am
Though protections for the tenured are now quickly disappearing (though without any benefit to the untended).
December 14, 2013 @ 9:41 pm
FWIW, academia is still necessary in order to learn the lab sciences. You can't self-educate, because you don't have a lab. This is why it's so unfortunate that academia's being corporatized and going to hell….
June 13, 2015 @ 8:13 am
In terms of the con job of higher education, you may like to read this. It's Nick Mamatas's essay on being a Term Paper Artist.
Or you may have already read it.
June 13, 2015 @ 2:16 pm
One might ask how the situation got this bleak. Academia, after all, has been thrashed disproportionately in the Great Recession
Read Rothbard's America's Great Depression and you will get a taste of what is coming (short version, 30% closed without our current bubble). The interesting question is whether society will go all Henry VIIIth on the historic descendents of the monastaries.
July 13, 2015 @ 2:37 am
You article remind me of my college life, About time when I needed to combine work and study and stll dreamef of becoming one of the best students. But I couldn't, and stiil cant do my english essay topics by my own. And this failure ruined my college life 🙁 I want to thank you for sharing your story. It tought me something.