Monday, August 22, 2011

Higher Ed and Me

It was only a week ago that I cleaned out the last bit of my office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was an office my wife and I shared, one with a south-facing window we had for just one year, after two years of one adjacent to the men's room and another year of being in a small, dark shoebox. I stood there, looking out the window at a metal sculpture, a defoliated tree in winter, and felt the cold artificiality of everything I worked for and sacrificed slide off me. I seriously almost cried. But I tend to get sentimental. It was a nice office, after all. But there was obviously more at play.

After being at UNL for 8 years, 6 in the English department, my 1.5 year gig as a lecturer was over. I've never left a job in my life unwillingly, and I'm still getting over the unceremonious aspect of this. The department had twenty lecturers on its payroll last year, and this year has five, in part thanks to the university offering more credit to incoming freshman so the students don't have to take freshman composition (I've never had a freshman student who didn't sorely need that class). But I don't think the university will be saving much money.

You'll hear a lot of rumbling and grumbling in higher ed about not being able to find work--far too many applicants for far too many jobs. I was the student rep on a search committee 3 years ago and we saw some 200 apps for one job. That's average to light, I'd say (and has been going on well before the economy tanked).

I spent 9 years in grad school because I wanted to write, have the time to write, and make some money teaching to support my writing habit. I read a ton, and it was awesome. I discovered I loved teaching, and it was awesome. I had no allusions as to why I was in grad school (not for a job), though the bright-eyed 24 year old soon lost his academic naivete--grad school is solitary work, is not glamorous, and you must work hard to take what you want and need while the university takes from you all the while (and you hope to come out a little ahead, or to break even). I'm talking about being a TA and teaching for little pay. I still can't believe anyone let me teach honors freshman my first term at Ohio State after only a week of training. It was exhilarating, like a roller coaster, but I get sick on roller coasters--just as I did for days before that first class.

I moved from Ohio after 3 years of a masters and settled in Nebraska to do a PhD, on a wing and a prayer, because my department didn't have a job for me. I was lucky to find one in a student-centered marketing firm on campus, where I bided my time hoping to be an English TA the next year. When that didn't pan out, I bided my time a second year, then was offered a TA on an annually-renewing basis. Each year I had to reapply, and each year I thought they'd say no. I wasn't one of the lucky ones offered 5 year contracts, or those with 5 year contracts plus lucrative fellowships.

In 2009 I got my PhD, and it was fantastic, best day of my life. I worked with great faculty at UNL, and met some students who are now my friends--I believe, in the end, this is where I was supposed to be. The department hired me as a lecturer for the fall, but I deferred until spring so I could take some time off, recharge my batteries, work on a book (perhaps stupid in hindsight). My deferral likely gave another teacher a job. I was also offered the chance to chair the literary awards committee which allowed me--for the first time in 10 years of working in higher ed--to feel a part of the department. I got to know faculty. I got to know office staff. I worked with students in another way that was rewarding. I felt like I belonged like I never had before. And that was my problem as a part time employee.

In March of 2011 I received a letter, as did all lecturers, that the department would likely not be able to hire as many teachers for 2011-2012, and we should consider seeking other employment. In May all of us were let go--only a few PhDs who are out of funding, and new PhD graduates, received contracts (likely to bolster the statistic of recent grads who find academic employment).

So on the last day of the spring semester I let both of my classes ask me anything about teaching, college, how the department works, anything goes. I had nothing to lose. At first the questions were tepid: why'd you choose the books we read, how long have you been teaching, do you like teaching, do you have kids. Then someone asked me if I was a professor. He was upset to hear I wasn't, said he felt cheated (even though he told me privately after class he thought I was one of his better teachers). Then someone asked me how I much I got paid, to which she replied she made more working part time after school at Kinkos. The students loved this day, and I think I will do it again for every class I may ever teach in the future--they should know what they're paying for when they cash that Kinkos paycheck.

But man, I miss those students. Today as UNL begins fall classes, I told myself I wouldn't do this, but I am: simultaneoulsy dining on ashes and having faint hope, all the while, perhaps, hurting my chances of ever having a tenure track job by speaking like this in a public space (I can't tell you how much I'm holding back--but I suppose in the end it's not worth it).

This summer has taught me a lesson I was lucky to not have had to learn until now, when I turned 35 in July--life isn't fair. Deal with it. Buck up. So your hair is already mostly gray.... But higher ed is in a shambles. Here are some excerpts from an article entitled Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education, which is a spot-on piece:

"Sure, lots of people have it worse [discussing how years of grad school leave so many with no job they trained for]. But here’s another reason to care: it’s also a social tragedy, and not just because it represents a colossal waste of human capital. If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore. And then it won’t just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap....


And what exactly are you supposed to do at that point if you’ve spent your career becoming an expert in, say, Etruscan history? Academia exists in part to support research the private sector won’t pay for, knowledge that can’t be converted into a quick buck or even a slow one, but that adds value to society in other ways. Who’s going to pursue that kind of inquiry if they know there’s a good chance they’re going to get thrown out in the snow when they’re 50 (having only started to earn a salary when they were 30, to boot)? Doctors and lawyers can set up their own practice, but a professor can’t start his own university. This kind of thing is appalling enough when it happens to blue-collar workers. In an industry that requires a dozen years of postsecondary education just to gain an entry-level position, it is unthinkable....

Our system of public higher education is one of the great achievements of American civilization. In its breadth and excellence, it has no peer. It embodies some of our nation’s highest ideals: democracy, equality, opportunity, self-improvement, useful knowledge and collective public purpose. The same president who emancipated the slaves and funded the transcontinental railroad signed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which set the system on its feet. Public higher education is a bulwark against hereditary privilege and an engine of social mobility. It is altogether to the point that the strongest state systems are not to be found in the Northeast, the domain of the old WASP aristocracy and its elite private colleges and universities, but in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina and, above all, California....

Now the system is in danger of falling into ruin. Public higher education was essential to creating the mass middle class of the postwar decades—and with it, a new birth of political empowerment and human flourishing. The defunding of public higher education has been essential to its slow destruction. In Unmaking the Public University, Newfield argues that the process has been deliberate, a campaign by the economic elite against the class that threatened to supplant it as the leading power in society. Social mobility is now lower in the United States than it is in Northern Europe, Australia, Canada and even France and Spain, a fact that ought to be tattooed on the foreheads of every member of Congress, so directly does it strike at America’s identity as the land of opportunity....

But it was not only the postwar middle class that public higher education helped create; it was the postwar prosperity altogether. Knowledge, again, is our most important resource. States that balance their budgets on the backs of their public universities are not eating their seed corn; they’re trampling it into the mud. My state of Oregon, a chronic economic underperformer, has difficulty attracting investment, not because its corporate taxes are high—they’re among the lowest—but because its workforce is poorly educated. So it will be for the nation as a whole. Our college-completion rate has fallen from second to eighth. And we are not just defunding instruction; we are defunding research, the creation of knowledge itself. Stipends are so low at the University of California, Berkeley, the third-ranked research institution on the planet, that the school is having trouble attracting graduate students. In fact, the whole California system, the crown jewel of American public higher education, is being torn apart by budget cuts. This is not a problem; it is a calamity.... 

When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world....

Yet of course it is precisely China—and Singapore, another great democracy—that the Obama administration holds up as the model to emulate in our new Sputnik moment. It’s funny; after the original Sputnik, we didn’t decide to become more like the Soviet Union. But we don’t possess that kind of confidence anymore."

We have a crisis that goes far beyond higher ed. Having taught 35 college courses, roughly 4 per year, making after taxes around $13,000 a year, I can tell you that our students are becoming more one dimensional. They can't think outside the box--they have tunnel vision. They are less ambitious, risk less, take fewer chances and leaps of faith. Freshman, seniors, it doesn't matter. They've been taught one way to think, programmed to see college as a trade school, high school +. Are these our future leaders and innovators? I sit here with the freedom to think anyway I want (the benefit of a liberal arts education), seeing a situation from multiple angles, distressed that today I can't have the joy of forcing a student to see the same situation from another way, to be surprised, to be pushed, to think outside the lines, to color wherever on the page and do so confidently. And I may never again. I love teaching, even on days when I loathed the job--but it's not a job, it's an honor. Those conversations in my office, those breakthroughs of personal (not academic) profundity and power, those light bulbs coming on like nuclear blasts. It's a drug.

Last year I watched the wiki academic job list come in of who was hired and where. 95% of the winners (I mean hires) had 1, 2, 3 books published. They won Pulitzers, or so it seemed. They weren't young teachers getting their first jobs--they might as well have been full professors. So this fall I'm emailing past students, seeing if I can get anyone to pay me $10 to edit an essay or poem. I started a garden coaching business, with no takers yet. I self published a collection of essays a press almost took, hoping to sell enough copies to attract another press. I'll write a memoir this fall, partly for the joy and challenge of it, partly because it's now or never, and partly because I know I'll have no chance to teach again if I don't publish a book, or three, as quickly as possible. And even then it might not matter. That's life. Am I writing for a job, or to talk to other people? And at 35 I have to say I've felt sheltered from the world, especially after 9 years of grad school, and 2 as a grad student / TA + (lecturer). I'm not prepared to be an academic colleague. I'm not prepared to be a professor. I simply love teaching and writing and have a cv everyone tells me is impressive, full of publications, writing and teaching awards, and department service. But 200 other people have the same credentials. And that's just how it is in higher ed. In life. I guess.


16 comments:

A Van Vliet said...

Sadly but beautifully said, Ben. I wish I could express my heartfelt thoughts half as well as you, but I will simply thank you for doing what you do. It certainly matters, even when/if society no longer deems a well rounded education a necessity. I hope and pray things turn around before that happens.
Blessings and best of luck in all you do to educate, enlighten, and encourage those that have yet to cross paths with you.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Audrey--Hey, everything will be fine, I mean, that's not why I wrote this, not a whoa is me piece, an awareness piece I hope. At least I don't have kids and my car is paid for. I'm still very fortunate.

mr_subjunctive said...

Peter Thiel (PayPal founder) is on record as believing that the next economic bubble to burst is going to be higher education: everybody thinks it's worth more to have a lot of education than it in fact is, and consequently it's being priced ever higher.

That might or might not be particularly related to what you were saying above, but that's where my mind went when I read it, and it's interesting in its own right.

(Link to TechCrunch article about Thiel's ideas)

Benjamin Vogt said...

Yup Mr. S., that's one of the next bubble--along with credit cards I'd assume. There's been a lot of talk of having quasi tenure, where every 5 years you have to sorta re-apply or prove your worth. But that talk is only among folks like me. I think college is a necessity, like high school once was, and only a masters may increase some earning potential. I had a friend who was told NOT to put his grad degrees on his resume when applying for non-academic jobs. Love it. A PhD is simply self love. I'll go read that link.

Fargo Jones said...

This was a wonderful read and hit many of the feelings I have about higher ed. I linked to it on twitter.
I recently wrote my own take on the adjunct life from a bitter/humor viewpoint. http://mythsofthemidwest.blogspot.com/2011/08/life-of-adjunct-teacher.html?spref=tw

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

Serious condolences on this point Benjamin. Would offer advice, but I have none to give. I'm hitched to my husband's academic career and it has been a ride. The pressure is insane. Husband went gray in grad school from the pressure. We would joke that it was our "silver lining."

Callie said...

Very sad. My daughter is considering going overseas to collage because of the cost. I wonder if there are teaching jobs in other countries. I know people are going overseas... say to Australia to work. I wish you all the best. We need teachers like you!

Benjamin Vogt said...

FJ--I had a job like that 6 years ago at a summer camp / small college (referring to your post). I got paid $450 per month for one class, which means I'd have to teach 4 classes to = how much I'd make doing data entry full time.
Susan--I can't believe I'm almost gray. Maybe I don't want that pressure. I don't know. I want to write, I know that for sure, and I do like working with students--maybe I can teach 1-2 classes a year (once I'm famous and rich?).
Callie--I would not go into massive debt over college anymore, maybe not even slight debt at this point. That said, the line on the resume that says BA hides behind it many, many skills and experiences we expect of adults in our society, so I can't say don't go to college. As for me, the problem is there are too many "teachers like me." I'm trying many other things in life right now, and maybe one will pan out and be better than part time teaching. Who knows. I appreciate your thoughts and wish your family best trying to do college, afford it, etc.

Gaia Gardener: said...

I wish you the best of luck in your many ventures; I'm deeply saddened but not surprised by your experiences and the thoughts you've shared.

I was interested to note, in the article that you quoted, the comments about an all-out attack on public higher education. I've been feeling like that was occurring for some time now, but thought I was perhaps being paranoid. I guess that, if I am, I'm not alone in my "delusion".

I wish I knew how to counteract these trends, but most people I talk with are more concerned about sports being cut than about any dumbing down of academic standards or opportunities.

James Golden said...

I went to a small, southern, liberal arts college (sounds so old fashioned today) where I got a broad education that has enriched my life. I thought I'd be an English professor. But I've worked most of my life in high technology industries, where we try to find people who can write (to sell professional services). We've lost the idea of education as an important part of the life experience, as a way to alter perspectives and teach a way of living a richer life, and narrowed it to learning a few "skills." And in that process, we're not even successfully teaching the skills. I'm appalled by how few people we can find who can write a sentence, who even know what a sentence is. My heart goes out to you, another casualty of a system that has lost its way, of social and economic changes that seem beyond our control. But such difficulties always present challenges and new opportunities. You seem to be keeping that perspective. Good luck.

Benjamin Vogt said...

GG--Trying not to speak as an educator, but we all know education is simply advertised as a specific means to a specific end. And if the current government of legislature's idea of that isn't being met, slash and slash. As for sports, UNL just joined the Big 10 and are pretending like it's all bout greater academic sharing and opps for students and researchers. I'm sure it has nothing with doubling, or more, revenues from sports, esp football. I hate college football anymore--all these young men are praised, revered, glorified and they've done NOTHING in their lives to earn that respect, and don't have the maturity to deal with it. A coach should be a teacher, but the coach is often worse than the players. Everyday on the local news one of the top stories is "Huskers practice...." But back to education--this country is falling apart on so many fronts--education, energy, healthcare, infrastructure.... Sigh.

Benjamin Vogt said...

James--I like what you said very much: "We've lost the idea of education as an important part of the life experience, as a way to alter perspectives and teach a way of living a richer life, and narrowed it to learning a few "skills." Students will never value that--I never did--but it's what we should be teaching. Maybe we should go back to forcing Latin on everyone. Let's say I've taught 500 students, I'd guess 10-20 were capable writers coming into class. That's it. And now we are giving them a free pass to entice them to enroll at a university because hey, you don't REALLY need x, y, and z. You're all business majors anyway (and communications, which one would think should require some English competency), and will sit in a cubicle the rest of your life saying yes sir, never thinking for yourself but pretending you do by buying big screen TVs and going on vacation to Disney World. Oh. I am such a snark.

Stacy said...

Benjamin, I read this a few days ago and both wanted to and didn't want to comment. As an ex-academic who left the field for other reasons, my position was at one point kind of like yours but not quite. I will just say this: there are many powerful and wonderful things about academia that I miss, but the one endlessly beautiful thing I love about being on the outside now is that I encounter sane people every day. Lots of them. My current colleagues are all sane. Academia somehow makes sense when you're in the middle of it, but once you leave you wonder how you ever put up with its idiocies.

(Which doesn't mean there aren't plenty of idiocies elsewhere to go around, of course.)

All to say, if you want to teach, go for it. Stay in the game. But otherwise, walk away and don't look back.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Stacy--Thanks for that. I love working with students, I do thrive on that interaction and take much joy and pleasure from it. However, I dread, as in any job, the work one has to do, and the inevitable red tape and in-fighting that will occur in any larger body of people. I have yet to have a REAL academic teaching job, one with decent pay and benefits, so I can't hang up my hat yet. I'd prefer to make money off writing books and doing residencies and workshops, teaching maybe 1-3 classes a year instead of 4-6, but I have to get famous first, and somewhat more likable. :) I think this year off, though financially very hard, may be good for me. But I'll let you know next spring. Sane? That doesn't exist anywhere.

Les said...

I really can't contribute much to this conversation, it is not my world. However, I did want to thank you for letting your reading public know a bit more about you. I can also say your situation sounds like yet another chapter in the book of decline we are all experiencing. One day, may we all be able to tell our grandchildren how we survived The Great Recession.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Les--I did not want to give more insight into myself and my world, but it's hard when you know a potential academic employer might see it someday. But whatever. This Great Recession has less to do with uncontrollable factors than our country's ability to innovate and lead in new ways--which is just insane to say. It should be obvious that we can't keep trying to handle things the same old way, and I'm mostly talking about federal government. I'm only 35, but I'm ready to ditch / bail on our leaders in a heartbeat, even though my perspective is limited. This Great Recession is simply arrogance and stubborness, bordering on pure insanity. Amen.