Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Do Graduate Students Want?

Someone ---- was it COCAL? The Graduate Student Caucus? The NYU TAs? ---- once Photoshopped Goya's famous painting of Saturn devouring his children with the tagline, "How are you enjoying your 'apprenticeship?' "

(If someone has a link to that, I'd love to see it.)

Sorry to return to my usual bitterness but that's what passed through my mind as I was reading the IHE review of Frank Donoghue's The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. (perhaps more because of my great love of Goya and his dark vision of the world than of anything else.)

I haven't read the actual Donoghue book yet, but the interview goes over the familiar blah blah we all know of increasing costs and corporatization and reliance on adjuncts, with the often-repeated-elsewhere conclusion that tenure and tenured professors are dying out. The keynote is sounded at the end of the article, which I shall post here in all its depressing glory:

Q: What are key steps that could be taken to restore the tenure-track professoriate?

A: The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. Two factors seal its fate. First, the hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. Second, the demographics of American higher education don’t help us either. For 40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward vocationalism. This trend has been accompanied by an equally pronounced shift in enrollments from four-year schools (with English and History majors) to community colleges, where the humanities have never had a strong presence. Tenure-track professors don’t have a place in this new higher education universe. Much as it pains me to say it, I never considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last Professors.

I don't believe that tenured profs will die out completely ---- there's still room for those few endowed chairs at wealthy, private top universities, for example ---- but I could see the balance shifting as high as 90% -10. What would that system concretely look like? How would it feel on the ground? And is this really going to be a case of that metaphor where you boil a frog in water by gradually raising the temp a couple of degrees at a time?

I guess, since there isn't an obvious single thing we can point to and say "that's what we need to do to fix the problem!" it may come to the frog result regardless. Mass panic and becoming immobilized by shock and despair might have the same effect as the frog not noticing.

Imagine a world then --- a college --- where 90 percent of the faculty are adjuncts and 10 percent --- the distinguished senior professors --- have tenure. What would it look like? How would it run? Is there any way we ("we") could be ok with this, any way this could work or be set up so that the adjunct faculty were happy? What do the adjuncts want? What do grad students want?

Of course, anyone who recognizes my little play on Freud's "what do women want?" will remember that he felt they themselves were profoundly incapable of answering that question. This leads to the troubling conclusion that if women cannot answer that question, men must --- that "woman" becomes the object for men to study, the enigma men take pleasure in claiming they can never figure out. Hmm. I'm of two minds on this, as I am on just about everything.

To what extent do we ("we," again) know what we want? What do we really want?

If you were to ask me in spring what I wanted, I'd say, duh! A tenure-track job! Where "tenure-track" actually fulfills the same symbolic hole as "good union job" might in Midwest parlance. By which I mean I want a permanent job with a living wage, where I don't have to worry about getting sick while uninsured and where I don't have to sit on pins and needles wondering if they'd give me enough courses the following term to pay my bills.

But, ok, is that what I really want? Was grad school for me just a ten-year fuckaround like some of my friends traveled the world for a year before settling down to their high school classrooms and corporate cubicles? Ie, that was fun and now I just want some financial security?

The author I'm writing about right now is largely neglected; he could be seen as a fuckup, a failure. He worked long shit jobs for the chance to take some time off and write bizarre messes that nobody else liked and nobody bought and then had to go back to toil at the edge of poverty again. He died before he could make much of a name or have any time to himself to think or to enjoy much of anything. The women in his life thought his writing was shit and mercilessly nagged at him to quit writing and make some money: "how's he gonna eat?" This all probably had some effect on the weird, fucked-up female characters he writes and that I'm obsessing over.

I know criticism isn't supposed to be all about identifications but I see myself on both sides of this author's relationships. And so maybe I've been insisting on and demanding the wrong things here? Maybe I should be embracing the bohemian freedom and poverty, insisting on the time and the freedom and the formlessness, reveling in my position as a parasite, a bit of grit in the economic gears, rather than griping about Roth IRAs and job security? Maybe what I really want is the freedom and autonomy, particularly the academic freedom part of tenure, which I haven't really had much to say about (or think about) before. Because really, if the point of the tt is to have a living wage and steady paycheck, I don't see what the problem would be with turning all humanities-prof jobs into the same thing as high school teachers. (and really, I think the reason we have 90% of our research is because we like to do it rather than it contributes anything worthwhile to society --- it's a perk to sweeten our jobs not a burden of them.)

The only problem I have with this was that I set aside all these bohemian, free artistic desires when I decided not to become an artist myself. I thought about it seriously and decided that I'd never be really, really good and gave up on the Lifetime of Sacrificing in Poverty for the Cause of My Art. Grad school and "teaching" was supposed to be my backup job. If freedom and poverty's what I want I can live in my parents' garage or hitchhike across country writing the Great American Novel or just sit around being poor and lazy somewhere and not give even half a fuck for all that shit you gotta do on the job market. I mean, sure, I'd probably contract some horrible venereal disease while living in squalor and compiling my gigantic dictionary of prostitutes' slang, but hey, someday, years and years in the future, some cynical and disaffected grad student would write a dissertation chapter on my work.

Oh, wait.

So, yeah, I've just run circles around my usual theme and come up with the usual impasse, the usual answers, the usual lack of solutions. On the other hand, I haven't pawned all my clothes and my prostate isn't swollen to the size of an orange. Gotta look on the bright side sometimes.


servetus said...

What would a world look like with only 10% of the faculty in senior distinguished chairs?

Answer: The German university system. That's how it's worked for more than a century. The end result is that even the distinguished chairs lose their prestige and remuneration, which is what is happening now.

zunguzungu said...

I like the way you put it, aligning the tenure-track position with the "good union job." But it doesn't just have that meaning in Midwest parlance; it's the only bastion of job security and meaningful work that exists in this profession. I think a lot of damage has been done to “labor’s” position in these kinds of fights by our dogged unwillingness to express our desires in terms other than the continuation of the tenure system (why can’t we defend job security, academic freedom, and reasonable pay and benefits without seeming to be mindlessly defending a status quo straw man object? but anyway) But this is why I don't think “tenure” will simply go away in the apocalyptic way Donaghue imagines: without some kind of meaningful carrot, there simply will *be* no one willing to put their life on hold in hopes of getting it. There will be no adjuncts if there is no promise of some phantasmic security to haul them through graduate school, and so some kind of balance has to be struck. Maybe one that is more like the permanent crisis/Goya painting situation we’re in now than not, but honestly, it really can't get much worse. If it did, wouldn't the class of educated and exploited grad students will simply cease to exist? Grad programs will become vocational degrees themselves, for people looking for an MA to get more money teaching high school or, as it was in the good old days that Donaghue remembers so fondly, a degree with a trust fund as its main prerequisite. The UC system has actually indicated that this latter is a direction they're willing to embrace, so that seems not totally an unrealistic expectation.

The line that struck me was this one: “For 40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward vocationalism.” That’s a nice piece of nonsense. So students have been choosing to alter the entire structure of academia, for no better reason than, um… let me get back to you on that one. And with all the massive power that students have to alter institutional priorities. It reminds me a bit of Deresiewicz horrid column in the Nation a while back, which blamed all the ills of academia on the stupid argument that “the profession's intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers.” Both of these Professor D’s seem incapable of much more than cranky-old-man grousing, but it’s revealing that they both would rather make their *students* into the villains here.

Arbitrista said...

Well this is just...cheery.

I think at some point the process of adjunctification will make it simply irrational to get a PhD. Given the time and money it takes to get one, there's simply no point if there isn't tenure on the other end.

zunguzungu said...

I think it's pretty irrational now, though of course some have it better than others. But the fact that most people don't really enter the vise grip until they've already invested a significant handful of years in the enterprise means that it's easier to get in than get out, in a way.

Sisyphus said...

Yup, I agree with zunguzungu (Hello! by the way) --- if you count grad student TAs, we might be at 90/10 percentages right now. All those suckers don't have to finish --- just to be persuaded to "take a shot at it" long enough to get in a new crop. Individual TAs flow in and out, but structurally Universities can count on a large and pretty stable supply of teachers who work for almost nothing before they get wise.

Humanities grads aren't big on "rational" and "cost-benefit analysis" much anyway.

If you want to be really depressed, go to the "applying to grad school" thread on livejournal and watch the undergrads work themselves up into enthusiasm for taking on more risks and debt starting out than I have at the end of the game. I keep wanting to post on it or to comment over there more often, but it's just too depressing.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Totally off topic, but I friended you on LJ so you can follow the moving-and-new-job saga in more gory detail if you want to. Or not, if you don't want to.