Monthly Archives: August 2014

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…

It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, and as I sit here online I am having trouble settling the butterflies in my stomach. No fears, readers, I’m not ill. Rather, I’m pretty excited. For tomorrow is the first day of school.* Since childhood, I’ve been excited for the first day of school. I loved all of it: the new “school clothes,” all the equipment and books, spending time with friends, but also the chance to learn. I have always loved going to school and learning new things. And when I finally started college, I loved it all even more: choosing a major, selecting classes, discovering everything available to me.** I truly love learning, whether it’s opening a new book to discover what’s inside or starting on a new research project that will engage me for months, or longer.

My excitement for the first day of school has not diminished. I have a different role now, but I still enjoy being in the classroom. I no longer get new clothes for the first day, and I’ve known about the books for months (having ordered them from the bookstore the previous semester). But I still enjoy spending time with my friends. And while I do enjoy seeing the many colleagues I have not managed to spend time with over the summer, by “friends” I really mean my students, who are the without question the best part of teaching.

One of the great joys of teaching at a small university is that I get to work with students multiple times. Because I teach Introduction to Literature as often as possible, I teach many freshmen. A fair number of these students will again study with me (some because that’s how the scheduling works out, but others because they actively seek me out again). Most of my advisees began their studies in the major in my Introduction to Literature class, as has every student who has come to me for a letter of recommendation. And in my Modern American Poetry class this fall, 17 out of 25 students have worked with me before (11 of whom began their freshman year studies with my Introduction to Literature course). I’m happy to be working with these students again, and excited to meet the ones I haven’t met before.

There are many frustrating things about working at a small state university, most of which have to do with funding. But the one frustrating aspect of university development that bothers me most of all is the slow and steady devaluing of the students by the system. Let me be clear here: the vast majority of faculty and staff I have worked with (from my undergraduate studies to my own career) have been devoted professionals who truly wanted to do the best job they could by the students. However, there are systemic problems that need to be addressed. These problems need to become the subject of conversations on college campuses, in state legislatures, and in the homes of the students who are finding it increasingly difficult to get a college degree.

This article (which some of my friends have helpfully reposted today on Facebook) provides the 5 steps that have been taken to destroy public education. These steps are:

“Step I: Defund public higher education.
Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).
Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.
Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.
Step V: Destroy the students.”

The piece is interesting and worth reading. What I will add to this piece (making clear what the author suggests), is that the first 4 steps are also contributing to step 5. All 5 steps are destroying the students. And once you have destroyed the students, you no longer have any reason to work with them.

Step I: Defund public higher education

When we fund public higher education, we do so because we recognize that our citizens are worth investing in. Education is not the end; it’s the means to the end. The end, of course, is an educated citizenry that is equipped with the background knowledge, critical thinking skills, and ability to properly research and evaluate materials to contribute to society. These contributions will differ: some will become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and politicians; others will repair cars, work retail, build furniture, or farm. But we all benefit from a robust, well-rounded education. Society improves when we are all educated, when we can all understand the complex social and political issues we face, when we have a healthy appreciation for arts and culture and can express ourselves clearly to others. So when we defund public higher education, we do so because we believe that students are no longer worth investing in. Because we believe that people are no longer worth investing in.

Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s)

One of the ways we invest in our students is to invest in the faculty, those who do the primary work of the university: educating the students. While there are many aspects to university life that are valuable, there is a reason we call many of them “extracurricular”; the curriculum – the education – is the most important part of the college experience. And those who provide that education – those who work with students daily – need the support of the administration and the legislature. And what’s most frustrating about this is that everyone knows it. University administrators know that, in order to properly do their work, they need support: upper-level administrators have associate administrators, dedicated secretarial and office management staff, and expense accounts to complete their work. Faculty, on the other hand, are increasingly told to “do less with less,” as one former dean at my university put it when asked how we were to do our jobs under increasingly onerous budget cuts.

Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.

In my opinion, the single biggest problem with a managerial/administrative class for college and university administration is that this class is largely shielded from having to work directly with students. Yes, the ever-rising administrative salaries (especially when compared to the ever-decreasing faculty salaries) is dangerous and works counter to the needs of the students. However, I believe that one reason for this trend is that such administrators are separated from the students and the daily work of educating – or supporting the education of – the students. Administrators read reports, and deal with the student body as a whole; and this is not unimportant: we need big picture thinking if we are going to design curricula, work with the state legislature, and do community outreach. However, we cannot serve the big picture when we lose sight of the individuals. There needs to be a better balance. Just as faculty need to be involved in the decisions to change the general education program, or defund programs, or create new administrative offices (all of which have happened in the past few years at SUNY Potsdam), administrators need to know about the students who cannot afford books (because of financial aid problems), students who miss classes because they are juggling multiple part-time jobs, and any of the other various day-to-day difficulties faced by students. Shielding administrators from students is dangerous because it allows administrators to make decisions that run counter to the best interest of the students. No to repeat myself, but when you make decisions that run counter to the best interests of the students, you do so because you have decided to stop investing in those students.

Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.

There are ways to work productively with the corporate world, engaging in partnerships that benefit both the universities and the corporations, while remaining focused on the importance of investing in students. Of course, many – most, I would say – students go to college for the express purpose of finding work upon graduation. And as I alluded to above, a well-educated citizenry is important in part because that citizenry will engage their peers as (among other things) professionals. However, this does not mean that we can or should reduce students to cogs in the larger corporate machinery. As this article helpfully yet frustratingly points out, corporate involvement in public education often leads to thinking of students as a product, not an investment: “The business community is the consumer of the educational product. Students are the educational product. They are going through the education system so that they can be an attractive product for business to consume and hire as a workforce in the future.” As state legislatures strip funding from universities, universities seek other sources of funding, and when you want money, you look toward the corporate world. That’s where the money lives. And corporations are not investing in students; they are investing in their own future.

These various moves all stem from the same cause: a devaluation of the importance of the students. Colleges and universities exist to educate students. Colleges and universities do other work of social importance, certainly, but their primary purpose is to educate students. All decisions must be made with this goal in mind. Yes, sometimes tough choices must be made. But they must be made with the students in mind. Because students are the reason higher education exists.

So tomorrow morning I will be teaching again, working with new students as well as familiar ones. And I can’t wait, because the students are the single best part of the job. And that’s because they are the most important people at the university. We all need to remember that when we design curricula, create policy, and spend money. Because if we are not investing in the students, we are failing them.

*I’m so excited, I will refrain from using this post to complain about having to start the school year on Labor Day, a day that many state employees and members of labor unions – including state employees and members of labor unions at my institution – will have off. No worries, though, as I will address this later. Perhaps in my post next semester about how we also start the spring semester on a federal holiday: the one honoring Dr. King.

**By the time I graduated from Northeastern University with a BA in English, I was one course shy from 4 different minors. I finished with a minor in Linguistics, but was tempted to stay another semester to finnish my minors in Philosophy and Religion, Russian, and a music minor that now appears to have been split into two different minor programs.

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“I’ve been talking to the wall, and it’s been answering me.”

It’s been a while since my last post, and that was intentional. I wanted to take some time away, both from the blog and from thinking about academic politics. One thing I learned from my experiment in tallying work hours is that I need to do a better job of living a life outside of work. And so far this summer, I have spent some time living: I’m playing guitar regularly, reading for pleasure, and spending some time in Canada.* I’m also spending time with some of my favorite people.

But classes begin September 1**, so it’s time to start thinking about the academic year, and all that is associated with it. My classes are prepped and ready to go, and so I’d like to spend a little time talking about (surprise surprise) the academic labor market.

Last year, our department’s fiction writer accepted a job at another university. Although we will all miss her terribly, as she’s a wonderful person and an amazing colleague, we are also very happy and excited for her. This move triggered an immediate request for a replacement, in large part because my department offers a BFA in Creative Writing, and there is demand for a full-time fiction writer.*** Despite having already scheduled and budgeted for a tenure track fiction writer for next year, our department’s request was denied, for budgetary reasons.****

We then requested a temporary line, in the hopes that we could perhaps fill the position permanently in the future. Before I begin complaining, let me state that I know this is often how things are done. That’s not the point. The point is asking if this is how things should be done. Past practice is not a convincing reason, particularly given the horrific state of the academic labor market.

Our department then asked for a 1-year, non-renewable Visiting Assistant Professor. We were denied. And to tell the truth, I’m glad we were. I’ll explain why.

First off, I dislike the use of temporary faculty for permanent positions. This is a clear long-term need, based on student enrollment and program requirements. Simply put: we cannot run a BFA in Creative Writing without a fiction writer. And if the university won’t allow us to staff our programs with tenure track faculty, I have no interest in cobbling together temporary/adjunct labor in order to preserve a program. I’d rather lose a program than exploit people in order to keep it. I know that this will be an unpopular opinion in some circles, especially those that believe we should always take a “students-first” approach. While I recognize that there is a way of looking at this and coming to the conclusion that keeping a program alive (by any means necessary) is in the students’ best interests, I simply do not agree. The long-term interests of the students are best served by attending to the long-term interests of the faculty and the department. Students are not best-served by exploiting faculty.

Second, the position itself was simply awful. The details of the position would have been the following: full-time teaching load (three 4-credit classes in Creative Writing), service expectations, student advising, and research. In other words, this position would require the same work load required of tenure track faculty. This is how we get to call the position “Visiting Assistant Professor.” That said, the position would only pay $30,000 (with health benefits). By way of comparison, when I was hired as an Assistant Professor in 2006, my starting salary was $43,500. 8 years ago, I was offered in excess of $10,000 more than what a new VAP would be offered for a job in my department today. New tenure track faculty hired now would be offered more than $30,000. In other words, hiring a Visiting Assistant Professor would have allowed us to substantially under-pay someone doing the work of a tenure track Assistant Professor. This is, without a doubt, abuse. That said, it was an abuse that some of my colleagues gladly, willingly supported.

One of my colleagues went so far as to call this a “good opportunity.” Obviously, I have issues with this phrase, as I see it as code for “let’s screw someone and allow them to thank us for the privilege.” This would be, as my colleague explained, a “good opportunity” for someone to get a year’s worth of experience, which that person could use when re-entering the market next year. Horse shit. First of all, having served in multiple search committees (and having been interviewed for more than a dozen tenure track positions), I can promise you all that nobody gives a damn about service and advising experience. Nobody cares. Nobody. Not anybody. Lots of people will tell you they care – you know, it’s all about the students – but I will bet all the money I have in my pockets that no search committee ever uttered some version of “she’s an amazing researcher and outstanding teacher, but we simply cannot hire anyone with her dearth of student advising experience.”^ Second, how on earth is this hire supposed to get ready for the market in the coming year while – in addition to teaching a full load at a new university and dealing with that learning curve – advising students and serving on committees? If we really cared about this colleague’s chances on the market the following year, we would tell her to screw advising and service. I said as much at the meeting, that my first piece of advice would be to screw service and advising. If the position is non-renewable, I asked, what can happen? We already have no means of reprimanding faculty who advise students poorly (and tenured faculty cannot be reprimanded for not engaging in service); what on earth could we do to someone who already knows she won’t be re-hired?

At this point another colleague suggested that, maybe just maybe, this position could be renewed. We were not asking for a renewable position (hoping to hire for tenure track the following year), and administration was not offering one. Suggesting that such a position “might” be renewed is cruel, abusive, and clearly manipulative. And this is where I wanted to tear my hair out: if we so much as suggest that there may be a universe where this non-renewable position gets renewed, then whoever we hire is trapped into performing work that is over-valued on the home campus, and not at all valued on the job market. This person is then in a position where she must choose between doing work that might help her keep her current job, and doing work that might help her get another job. Because neither prospect is certain, the current job will always seem the better option: she will think, “I’m here, so I know this job exists; I’m doing it right now. If I work hard enough, if they like me enough, I can earn a permanent position.” And the department and university will absolutely abuse this impulse.^^ This is the cruelest thing tenured faculty can do: hire temporary employees and dangle imaginary permanent jobs in front of them.

Along the way, another colleague noted that this job would be appealing to a great many applicants, particularly those who are ABD or just finished.^^^ OK, I’ll agree, that this position is better than unemployment. But can’t we all agree that’s a shitty bar to aim for? Yes, someone can survive in Potsdam, NY on $30,000; many people survive on less. But faculty pay scales should be not be based on how low to pay someone to keep them out of poverty. Especially when tenure track faculty doing the exact same work are hired at a higher salary. Especially when this kind of thinking is never applied to upper administration. My campus just hired a new president, who will be given a starting salary of $215,000, in addition to a residence and expense accounts. Where were the budget woes when this was decided? Last year we hired an interim president, for a 1-year non-renewable position. He was paid $225,000. I’m curious, if we call Visiting Assistant Professors “Interim Assistant Professors,” can we pay them more than permanent faculty? I honestly don’t understand the backward thinking behind administrative salaries.^^^^

So at the end of the day, I did not support the plan to hire a Visiting Assistant Professor. But it didn’t matter, as the department was not given permission to hire for the position anyway. So come September 1, the BFA in Creative Writing at SUNY Potsdam will begin the academic year without a tenure track fiction writer, with only one tenure track faculty member with full-time teaching duties in Creative Writing, and with a growing need to offer creative writing workshops at one of the premiere arts campuses of the State University of New York.

*I got some work done, and am now waiting on a couple of presses. At some point in September, I will have to do the indexing for my Failed Frontiersmen book. Also, my co-editors and I should hear back from the press regarding our Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the Americas collection.

**Yes, I work at a state university and we begin work on Labor Day. In the past, we have started spring semesters on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Yes, both are federal holidays.

***We have a tenure track poet, as well as two tenured colleagues who can contribute to the BFA (but who also have duties to other department needs), and a few adjuncts who contribute to the BFA. But yes, as of right now, we only have one tenure-track faculty member devoted entirely to the BFA.

****In case you didn’t already know this, many universities see tenure track departures as a way to save money. Like I said, we had already included her salary in our expenses, and her courses were scheduled. Hiring a new tenure track faculty member would already save us money, as a new hire would be cheaper than someone who had been here for two years. But no, cut the line entirely.

^I’ve explicitly asked department chairs and deans at my own university about oversight for advising. I was told, in all cases, that there is no means of evaluating student advising and no reason to do so, and the university is not interested in taking action against faculty who are terrible advisors. That was…reassuring.

^^Don’t believe me? Find an adjunct, and ask him to do something for you, something clearly outside his job description. If he says no, tell him you heard a rumor that he’s being considered for a tenure track job, and that if he’s not interested, you can ask someone else. Watch him stand to attention like military personnel.

^^^I almost forgot. We were using the same hiring criteria for the 1-year non-renewable position as we were for the tenure track position: PhD in Creative Writing and a book. Fine requirements for a tenure track hire. Unnecessary for a 1-year non-renewable replacement. But we all know the nature of the market; we could require 2 books and still have plenty of applicants, given the state of the market. But anyway, keep in mind that the two positions – tenure track and 1-year non-renewable – required the exact same requirements and the exact same work load, and differed only in pay and the opportunity for future employment.

^^^^At this point you may point out that Hefner had more experience than Esterberg, and so can command more money. OK, but that thinking isn’t applied to faculty hires. And it sure as hell isn’t applied to adjunct hires. The award-winning adjunct who has been teaching writing in my department for 23 years makes exactly the same amount of money as the recently-hired adjunct who was hired with no teaching experience. Experience matters…just not in the classroom?


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