Sunny Day Stromateis

  • Sumedecina — a story told mostly by the graphic display of quantitative information — strikes me as an admirable idea unsatisfactorily executed. The graphics don’t carry enough of the narrative burden, so they become illustrations; b ut the illustrations don’t amplify much over what the captions say. I was rooting for this to be brilliant in both conception and realization, but the realization falls down a bit. (Hat tip, Eric Rice.)
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  • Thomas Benton strikes again with “The Big Lie.” I fully support the premise that the system that produces increasing numbers of doctoral graduates for diminishing numbers of full-time academic teaching/research positions has gotten out of hand (and it has spawned increasing numbers of journals and monographs to support the publication-needs of the growing population of scholars). I fully support the premise that (potential) doctoral students should be aware of the very serious economic problem this constitutes. At the same time, I’ve never been associated with a school where the (post-)grad program relied on its students as warm bodies to staff unpopular courses, so although I believe it happens, I don’t regard that as a sufficient explanation of the source of the problem. Moreover, here in the UK, the economics are very different, both for better and for worse. On one hand, postgrads from the EU don’t have the same crippling debt burden that their US colleagues usually have to shoulder; on the other haqnd, the economics of institutional funding mean that it’s in our interests (for survival, not just for prosperity) to draw students from outside the EU, who then pay a much higher rate — regardless of the prospects of their future employment. While I would think it admirable if schools cut down the flow of degree candidates to match more closely the vocational prospects for research scholars, that premise involves so many complications that I can’t imagine it ever taking shape voluntarily. The situation is all the more vexing as the economics of culture reward vulpine market manipulators (and governments have now funded that endeavor to the tune of many billions of dollars) but pinch pennies with regard to funding the robust educational culture that advances a whole people. Ugly, ugly situation; nothing even remotely like an easy answer.
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  • Derek and I are having fun parsing the cognitive topology of sainthood in the Carolingian period. What? You mean, not everyone finds that fascinating?
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  • Tatyana from Sharmanka spotted by blog post (with impressive rapidity!) and left a nice comment (with links to relevant Flickr collections). It reminds me of the good ol’ days when bloggers used to read one another’s posts and answer in comments or on their own blogs, when the power law distribution was less harsh and less dominated by mass-media-style sites.
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  • Did I mention that I’m very eager to see what’s inside Glitch?
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  • My friends from Seabury will be pleased to see this sign from the Glasgow Theology Dept.’s recreption area:
     
     In The Departmental Recreption Area
     
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  • The excellent webcomic Anders Loves Maria ended the other day, and I’m still feeling the reverberations of its very powerful conclusion. I can’t think of a comic that felt as much like a (non-graphic) novel to me for its sense of narrative and character. That’s why I linked to the very first episode: it makes no more sense to read Anders Loves Maria from some point in the middle than it makes to pick up, say, Great Expectations partway through. If you have patience with explicit sexual content, and a heart to look into the lives of some complicated, flawed characters, set aside some time and read it through.
     
  • Probably more to come as I discover tabs that I meant to blog about but haven’t yet.
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9 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I appreciated the Benton articles. I remember one commentator saying that most responders have been untenured struggling academics, and that major profs have shied away from responding.

    Here is the one thing that can be done: provide basic statistics. How much debt does the average student acquire? What did students pay on average over the course of the degree? What percentage of students finish? Exactly what percent of grads land a tenture track job fresh out of PhD? Please advocate for your school to provide this data. Include it in orientation and for applicants. Be honest. A PhD probably sounds a lot less inspiring when you realize that a substantial minority of your classmates won’t finish and a majority won’t find good jobs. Those that do will often be at very challenging schools.

    I would say that the one upside in theology faculties is that often the PhD augments a professional focus. If you can do it on the cheap, a PhD will make you more appealing to churches and non-profits. This is not true for the unfortunate comp lit and history folk.

  2. Whilst I hestitate to smash the rose-coloured glasses that may have been issued along with the visa, I feel compelled to point out that your comment, ‘I’ve never been associated with a school where the (post-)grad program relied on its students as warm bodies to staff unpopular courses’ depends a great deal on what you mean by ‘staff’. To my knowledge, postgrad students at Glasgow University don’t convene courses, but they, and unemployed Drs. (I say unemployed because GTAs at Glasgow aren’t issued contracts and are not considered employees of the University) do provide a great deal of very poorly paid teaching, marking and the associated administration. Whether or not those courses where a large portion of the teaching is undertaken by GTAs are popular or not, I couldn’t say.

    As to whether or not that’s a driver for the current state of play, I couldn’t really say, but I would suggest that it’s a contributing factor, along with the others you outline.

  3. Thanks, Jonathan and Elizabeth. I should clarify.
     
    I have worked, at Duke and Princeton Seminary, and here at Glasgow, at institutions where (post-)grad students provide a tremendous proportion of teaching assistance, so that the course convenor does less (or no) marking, advising, and so on. Absolutely true, and to the extent that those positions are exploitative (in very many cases, including (I am led to believe) here) I deplore them and try as best I can to work respectfully and cooperatively with student colleagues to minimize the scope of that exploitation. And I will always support efforts to establish a just economic system with regard to all educational workers (from teaching faculty to our (post-)graduate colleagues to our colleagues in adolescent and childhood education; my mind reels at the improvident, unappreciative cultures of disdain for teaching and learning that prevail in so many settings).
     
    Specifically, THB was decrying the systemic use of (post-)grad students as full-responsibility (and no privilege) teaching staff. One can rapidly see the connexion of this sort of exploitation with stuffing students into (post-)graduate programs without regard for their prospects; they’re necessary to bear the burden of the curriculum. Now, the same problem applies, in different ways and degrees, with (post-)grad students working on grading and tutorial work, but in the latter situation there’s an intelligible case to be made for an apprenticeship phase as convenors’ assistants. I know that my own transition from TA-ing to functioning as a full-time faculty member was bumpy, and would have been a lot smoother if I had more experience that bears directly on the range of work that higher education requires of full-time teaching staff.
     
    Now, even if someone is willing to concede the “apprenticeship” point, we know that some convenors will treat that relationship more as servitude than as collaboration. Again, inasmuch as we can cultivate a general sense that what we all are doing is worthy of respect and support, we will be able to articulate grounds for holding apprentice-exploiters accountable for that malpractice.
     

  4. Oh, I certainly concede the apprenticeship point – the experience is vital and many postgrads would value more of it. But I do think the line between assistance and full-responsibility is pretty fuzzy when one considers that a postgrad may be doing a large portion of the lectures for a course, or have unsupervised responsibility for developing and delivering a series of tutorials.

    I must confess I haven’t read the Benton article and was just reponding to your response which is sloppy of me.

    And as to your final point about respecting and supporting the work of all educators, three cheers for that!

  5. I think we’re pretty much on similar (if not precisely “the same”) pages, Elizabeth. Sadly, I hear no voices of power arguing in favor of investing more intensely in education than in, say, teetering financial or automotive industries.

  6. Alas, too true! When I think of what even a fraction of the ‘banking bailout’ would mean to the education sector it makes me cry.

  7. The paragraph from Benton I thought was important was this:
    “The main point of another column I wrote six years ago (“If You Must Go”) is that students considering graduate school should “do their homework.” But the problem is that there is still almost no way—apart from the rumor mill to which they do not really have access—for students to gather some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions). Programs often claim that graduates who are working as adjuncts or visiting faculty members are successfully placed in the profession. Most departments will never willingly provide that information because it is radically against their interest to do so.”

    I know of no school that provides this sort of information. I also found that the professional prep at schools is terrible. Most of what I learned about being an academic, including conference participation, publishing, tweeking a CV, etc., came from reading the Chronicle. (My advisor was helpful later on in the process, but institutionally there was nothing other than a two hour teaching prep session and CV-hosting on the school website to prepare me for the teaching career or to face the job search process.)

    I also liked that Benton is good at identifying the naivity of many faculty members. There’s a strange disappearing that happens to PhD students as they finish. Many of them evaporate, ashamed not to have found a job or continued their studies. I think as a professor there are several things worth hearing from Benton: (1) work to get your department to be honest about graduation/placement rates, (2) advocate for doctoral student workers, (3) don’t abandon your students post-graduation, and (4) work for bigger institutional, social reforms. Benton often talks about the phase when students are considering PhD. I wonder what you say to bright students who approach you about doctoral studies. How do you balance realism with encouragement for interest in a shared passion?

  8. While access to the information on past placement rates, attrition and the like has some utility, it is limited by the length of time required to complete a doctorate – averaging 9 years in some fields in the humanities, a few less in my field (sociology). The predictive power of information on graduate placement is pretty low in that time frame.

    At least in the U.S., the increase in the use of adjunct faculty – I’ve heard that 25-30% of courses nationwide are taught by adjuncts – is clearly related to the dismal job prospects for those completing graduate school. Our economic and social model for education has been skewed. As colleges compete for the dwindling number of young adults, they put money into lifestyle amenities (fancy dorms, fitness centers) leaving less of the tuition money available to pay for faculty. The gap is filled by inexpensive adjunct faculty, a system in which everyone loses out.

    In addition to providing information about the difficulty of landing an academic position (let alone one which provides time and resources for research), perhaps graduate programs could do much more to prepare students to use their advanced education in settings outside academe. When I was in graduate school, those were seen as second-class uses of one’s education. My friends who work in such positions are doing tremendously interesting work – and not cobbling together a minimal livelihood adjuncting at two or three colleges in an area.

  9. I’m convinced that the answer has to come from institutions, specifically Christian institutions, that are willing to do without adjunct or full-time faculty altogether. This will require courage and holiness for the members of those institutions. They’ll have to be communal and discerning. No exploitation of persons who have earned Ph.D.s seeking t-t employment. To employ adjuncts or full-time instructor Ph.D.s without caring for their welfare (actively helping them find employment) as they teach and care for hundreds of students over many years (until they burn out, and find themselves destroyed) is nothing less than physical and psychological torture.

    Read Benton again. People consider suicide, give up families, end up in emptiness. Christian institutions of higher education cannot condone this. No excuses.

    Administrators, deans and presidents who use struggling scholars/teachers by calculating their slavery (sic!) into budgets are nothing short of Satanic.

    And, please, no talk of “good faculty” caught in “evil institutions/systems.” For institutions dedicated to teaching Christian theology, these types of caveats are merely betrayals.

    Verbatim words said to this theology Ph.D. from the mouths of his colleagues:

    “I’m sorry you can’t get a job, but our 401Ks suffered heavy losses this year.”

    “I’m part of the system.”

    “Teaching theology is not about money, is it?”

    NO, it’s about Christ. Cura personalis. How do you not understand this?

    Finally, no abstract solutions about ‘more information,’ ‘education of grad students,’ ‘education bailouts,’ etc. get at the issue. How tiresome. I think we need to re-think what teaching/scholarship means in a Christian context (not a market-context).

    Thanks, AKMA, for this blog.

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